Hero Worship

by Nix
(crimsonquills AT gmail DOT com)

Author's Notes: Many thanks to James for the alpha-read and Canthlian for the beta read! I had this idea for the games challenge, but didn't have a chance to write it. Then the challenge ended. I was very pleased when I realized that it actually fit the "Youth" challenge, too.

DEDICATION: For Aurelia Priscus, who is at least half responsible for this bunny's existence.

Tony kept half an eye on the elevators while he worked. Gibbs had not been happy when the Director had informed him that a Deputy U.S. Marshal would be joining their investigation, but former Lieutenant Commander Friedman was a fugitive, which technically made it USMS jurisdiction. Morrow had known Gibbs well enough to occasionally let him bend those rules; Director Shepard wasn't so flexible. Tony still couldn't believe she'd actually dared to tell Gibbs he was lucky to be staying on the investigation at all, never mind leading it.

Predictably, Gibbs had been in a toweringly bad mood when he returned from her office, and it was only going to get worse when the unsuspecting Deputy Marshal arrived. Eyeing the elevators might only buy Tony a second or two of warning, but every moment he had to prepare himself for the inevitable confrontation would be invaluable.

The indicator above the elevator doors lit. Tony's gaze sharpened. A man stepped off the elevator. Tony's eyes involuntarily went wide and he dropped them to his desk, looking up quickly to focus on his computer screen, since there was nothing on the desk to absorb his attention.

What the hell was he doing here?

Please, God, don't let him be the Marshal, Tony prayed silently. Please, if You have any mercy at all, don't let him be--

"Excuse me," said a smooth tenor voice. "I'm looking for Special Agent Gibbs."

It was all Tony could do not to wince. Of course he was the Marshal. No one and nothing had ever had that much pity for Anthony DiNozzo. He looked up slowly, letting the Marshal get a good look at him for the first time. "Hi, Sean," Tony said, smiling weakly.

Sean wasn't nearly so restrained in his greeting. "Tony! Tony DiNozzo. Damn. Fancy seeing you here. This is just about the last place I'd expected to run into one of my old gaming buddies."

If Tony hadn't caught sight of Gibbs closing in on them out of the corner of his eye he would have thumped his head against his desk. He just had to say it, didn't he? Sean never had been known for his discretion. Although, if Tony were being honest with himself, there was no way for Sean to know that there was anything to be discreet about. It wasn't his fault Tony's reputation was about to be shattered like glass.

"DiNozzo!" Gibbs barked. "You going to introduce your...friend?" He didn't look down at Tony, instead facing off with the Deputy U.S. Marshal and pinning him with a glare.

Oh, God. Tony was screwed. He was so completely screwed. He stood up. "Boss, this is Sean McMurphy. He and I were, um, buddies in college." Tony dared to turn a little away from Gibbs. "Sean, this is Special Agent Gibbs."

Sean didn't attempt to offer Gibbs his hand. It was a smart move; in his current mood, it was a given that Gibbs wasn't likely to shake it, and standing there with his hand out would just make Sean look like a dick. "Special Agent Gibbs," Sean acknowledged, nodding. "Thanks for bring the U.S. Marshals Service in on this. I know the Navy prefers to take care of their own."

Gibbs grunted. "It wasn't my choice, Deputy Marshal McMurphy, but as long you're here, you might as well make yourself useful." He cast a sour glance at Tony. "DiNozzo can bring you up to speed, given that you're so friendly already." Gibbs turned and stalked back to his own desk.

The look Sean cast Tony clearly said, Is he always like that? Tony didn't dare give a response; Gibbs had eyes in the back of his head. Instead, he followed orders, filling Sean in on the situation. Unfortunately, there wasn't much information to impart. Their utter lack of leads in the pursuit of Friedman had Gibbs guzzling coffee at a rate that was alarming to those who knew him.

Tony finished his rundown, Sean made a couple of phone calls to put some of his resources in motion, and then silence descended on the squad room once more. Observing Ziva and McGee in his peripheral vision, Tony could tell they were doing the same thing he was--watching their inboxes and hoping for a break. Tony was tempted to play Solitaire, but Gibbs would tear him a new one if he caught on, and he always caught on eventually.

The silence was broken by an abrupt clatter. Tony looked up just in time to catch Gibbs giving his monitor a good thump. He glared at it for a moment before standing up sharply, his chair skidding out behind him and colliding with a filing cabinet with a dull, metallic noise.

"I'm going for coffee," Gibbs declared, rounding his desk. He didn't take the elevator, Tony noticed, instead shoving the stairwell door open so hard it clattered loudly against the wall. After a cautious moment, Tony breathed a sigh of relief.

"Rough case?" Sean asked from where he sat perched on the edge of Tony's desk.

Tony shook his head, because it wasn't, really. "Gibbs just hates it when we're stuck. It feels like we're wasting time, to him."

Sean shrugged. "Nothing you can do while you wait for your contacts to come through."

"Gibbs takes a more pro-active approach," Tony said wryly.

"How'd you end up here, anyway?" Sean asked, lifting his chin a little to indicate Tony and, presumably, his current career. "Thursday nights around the coffee table, high on too much caffeine and junk food, all you ever used to talk about was Rickard and playing basketball."

At the next desk, McGee perked up. "Rickard?" he called over to Sean.

Tony began praying for the phone to ring, or for Gibbs to suddenly realize he'd forgotten his wallet, or for his e-mail to chime...

"Tony's D&D character," Sean explained. Then he caught himself and elaborated. "That's Dungeons and Dragons. It's an RPG--a role playing game--that used pencil and paper and dice. Still does, really."

McGee left his desk and came to stand over Tony's. "I know what D&D is," he said, shooting Sean a mildly exasperated look. "I just didn't realize Tony did."

...or for an earthquake, or a terrorist alert, or a fire. Anything.

"I blew out my knee," Tony interjected desperately. "About a year after graduation. Completely destroyed my chances at going pro."

"Well I don't know what this 'role playing game' is," Ziva said, ignoring Tony. She leaned back in her chair. "What is involved?"

"Basically, a bunch of people get together and make up characters according to a complicated set of rules," McGee explained briskly. "You assign skills to your character--things like strength, intelligence, sneakiness--based on a limited number of points and a bunch of dice rolls. Then you put those characters into a pre-designed world and you all go on a mission together. The GM, or Game Master, controls the mission. The other players try to get through it by using the skills they've given their characters and rolling dice to see if their actions succeed or fail."

"A quick and dirty explanation, but yeah, that's basically it," Sean agreed.

"And you wouldn't expect Tony to know about this because...?" Ziva prompted.

McGee looked at Tony as he answered. "It's kind of a geek thing to do. Tony's always played up how much of a jock he was. That and the frat."

"You were a part of a frat?" Sean asked, startled. Ziva raised an inquiring eyebrow and Sean looked over at her. "Frat guys and gaming guys are kind of on opposite ends of the 'cool' spectrum," he said.

"Alpha Chi Delta," Tony admitted.

Sean shook his head. "Every Thursday night for four years and I never guessed." He looked over at McGee. "You know he never missed a game? Dragged himself in hacking like death warmed over and guzzling Pepto Bismal to keep the nausea down, but he wouldn't miss a chance to play Rickard."

"You mentioned Rickard before," McGee said, giving Sean his full attention now. Collecting blackmail material, Tony was sure. He resisted the urge to put his head down on his desk. Take it like a man, DiNozzo.

"Rickard was the only character Tony ever played in our games," Sean explained, grinning suddenly. "I mean, don't get me wrong, he had a binder with something like six other characters in it, but it was Rickard that he loved. He'd already played him in a couple of other games before he joined the Thursday night crew, but the character was new enough that the DM--that's Dungeon Master, like a GM, but for D&D specifically--let Tony argue him into using the character in our game."

"It was reasonable," Tony muttered. "I hadn't even leveled once, yet."

"So Rickard was what?" McGee shot Tony a speculative look. "A Thief? Kender maybe?"

"Sean, do we really have to get into this?" Tony entreated.

"Oh, come on, Tony," Sean said, rolling his eyes. "You can't tell me that you aren't proud of what you did with that character. By the time I had to drop out of the Thursday night games he was level, what, 10? 11?"

Tony fought down a blush, but he could feel his ears heating up a little, giving him away. "I passed 12 by the time the Thursday night crew disbanded altogether." Tony couldn't help the edge of pride that crept into his voice. Rickard had been a kick ass character.

Taking this as permission to go on, Sean turned back to McGee. "Rickard was a Neutral Good Barbarian."

McGee's eyebrows went up. "I thought Tony would be more the Chaotic Neutral type," he said skeptically.

Sean shook his head. "Nah. I mean, you'd never think that if you saw him playing. Rickard was the kind of character who really believed in the greater good. He wasn't lawful--he'd do whatever was necessary to uphold good--but he definitely felt there was a right way for things to be. Tony played him as a bit of a surly bastard, but you always knew he'd have your back in a fight. One minute he'd be smirking over some screw up we'd made and the next he'd be giving us first aid. Rickard took care of his own."

This description was sounding alarmingly familiar. Tony clicked the 'Get Mail' icon on his screen, but once again his e-mail, like his phone and the fax machine, failed to oblige him with a distraction. He could only hope that McGee and Ziva didn't pick up on the similarities, but...well, Gibbs would never have chosen them for his team if they'd been that dull.

"Rickard got our party out of more scrapes than I can remember," Sean said, shaking his head. "I mean, we all contributed, but every party ends up with a leader of some sort and Rickard was it, for us. He was the type to lead from the front, you know?"

Ziva sniffed. "I'm having a hard time ascribing such qualities to Tony," she said. Tony stuck his tongue out at her. She just raised an eyebrow. "And he illustrates my point."

"Oh, RPGs aren't about being yourself," Sean corrected quickly. "I mean, what teenager is happy with everything exactly the way it is? Your character was more about what you wanted to be. What you admired." Sean's eyes suddenly took on a twinkle. "Sometimes what you were attracted to. More than a few guys would play these busty warrior babes."

"Now that seems in character for Tony," McGee said dryly.

Sean laughed. "Oh, he had at least one character like that in his binder," he said, giving Tony a light punch on the shoulder. "I saw your sheets for Kendra of the Plains."

"Oh God," Tony moaned, finally giving into the urge to cover his face with his hands. "Don't remind me."

"But Kendra wasn't the one he was falling all over himself for. That was Rickard, all the way. Practically his only weakness, aside from big chunks of his personality, was the fact that Tony never could get him to play nice with the magic-users." Sean shook his head. "I mean, barbarians are crippled in that aspect already, but when magic was involved, you could always bet Tony would manage a shitty dice roll."

"Magic?" Ziva prompted.

"D&D is set in a more or less medieval world," Sean said. "But things can get pretty boring if you're limited to reality in a world like that, so magic pretty much takes the place of technology."

Ziva and McGee exchanged a glance.

"And Rickard never did play nice with...magic," Ziva said.

Sean nodded. "At best, he was damned uncomfortable with it."

"I always got around it, didn't I?" Tony attempted to move the conversation along.

"Get around it? After awhile I swear he just threw in the towel and decided to be proud of it. That character was the ideal, as far as Tony was considered." Sean suddenly shot Tony a curious look. "What ever happened to him, anyway? I know he was still around when I had to leave the game. He ever get killed off?"

"Hell, no!" Tony said automatically. McGee smirked. Tony made a face at him and turned deliberately towards Sean. "After the Thursday night crew broke up for good, no one would let me play Rickard in any of their games. He was just too far advanced in the levels. I had to put him away."

"Geez, that must have killed you," Sean said sympathetically. "I mean, you really loved that character."

Tony shrugged casually. He wasn't about to admit that he still had the character sheets for Rickard tucked away somewhere. "I--"

"DiNozzo! McGee! David!"

Tony jumped in his chair and McGee backed abruptly away from his desk, revealing Gibbs standing at the opening of their little aisle of desks, a coffee cup in either hand. He was scowling. Of course. Even Ziva, Tony noticed, had come to attention in her chair.

"What's going on here?" Gibbs demanded.

"Deputy Marshal McMurphy was just outing Tony," McGee said, still smirking.

For a moment they all froze.

McGee paled a moment later, realizing just how his statement had sounded. "Uh, as a D&D player, Boss. Dungeons and Dragons, that is. It's an RPG, uh, a role playing game--"

"I know what an RPG is, McGee," Gibbs growled. "Since that case on the USS Enterprise, I even know what an MMORPG is. What I don't know is what the hell it has to do with this case."

"Nothing, Boss," McGee all but squeaked and retreated to his own desk.

"You!" Gibbs stabbed his finger at Sean and then at the empty desk at the end of the aisle. "There!"

Sean didn't exactly jump to obey, but he ended up where directed quickly enough. Gibbs favored him with a slightly longer glare. Then he turned back to Tony and set one of the two coffee cups down on his desk. Tony blinked. Gibbs never brought him coffee. He brought McGee coffee sometimes, but not--

A sharp smack upside the head returned Tony to reality. "Hey!" Tony protested, reaching up to rub his head. "What was that for?"

"Letting them get distracted," Gibbs said brusquely, picking up the cup and striding over to his own desk.

Tony couldn't decide whether to be pleased or upset by that. On the one hand, it meant it was his responsibility to keep people on task while Gibbs was gone, which was tantamount to saying he was in charge. On the other hand, it meant he'd fucked that responsibility up.

Shaking his head, Tony minimized his e-mail program and tried staring at Friedman's file instead. Something would break, eventually. It had to; Gibbs wouldn't tolerate sitting around like this for much longer.