Confidential
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“Do you have any idea how little I want to be here?” Gibbs growled. It was early on a Saturday morning, and he was in a closed big-name bookstore in a strip mall in New Jersey. He would much rather be at home, though his Saturday mornings weren’t exactly exciting. He’d usually get up at oh six hundred, go for a run or a swim, and then settle in to work on his boat, or at his computer to write. When it got a bit later in the day, he’d work in his yard, or help one of the neighbors out with theirs. His weekends were fairly routine, but he liked it that way. With all of the tension at work, he relished his time off, the quiet times when nobody was talking"or fighting"and when he could recharge and let his mind settle.

But this weekend was completely different, completely foreign to him, not relaxing in the least. He wasn’t here as Gibbs or Jethro, or even as a special agent, he was here as Jay Marrick, best-selling science fiction author.

Best-selling author! It’d been a hell of a ride. He still couldn’t quite believe that pecking away one night had led to all of this. Best-seller lists, multiple printings, electronic sales, fan mail. And now signing his book in public for the first time, his very first appearance as an author.

And it was only because of Ray that he was doing this signing anyway. The publisher had been pushing for a book signing somewhere, had asked for Gibbs to book into a science fiction convention one weekend as a guest of honor, whatever that meant. But he couldn’t justify that time off work. And he wasn’t interested. He had heard of things that happened at those conventions, and couldn’t forget that Star Trek costumed man during the investigation a couple of years ago. Or McGee and his blue elf…whatever that had been. There was no way he was going to dress like one of those people and parade around for a weekend. That was more McGee’s style.

Ray and the publisher had negotiated and compromised and scheduled three book signings. One was today in Jersey and the other was in New York City tomorrow. The last one would be in Baltimore next week, which was a bit close to home for Gibbs, but he’d been very careful to monitor all discussions from the team and nobody had mentioned it.

In the months since DiNozzo, McGee, and Abby had read the galleys of the books, Jay Marrick had been an occasional topic of conversation for the three. Tony sometimes fell back on casting the main characters from the book with popular actors. Usually Brad Pitt"the actor and not the doctor" or Hugh Jackman was cast as Gary Tyler. Gibbs had to look up the names to see pictures, but neither was Gary in his head.

McGee had given great quotes for the books, alongside some other authors in science fiction and thrillers, some Gibbs read, some he’d only heard of. McGee had even written a fan letter to him before the first book was released. He’d been a huge fan"Gibbs supposed McGee probably still was"but when a new version of his favorite game was released, all entertainment discussion had turned to that instead. Elf Lord had transitioned into his element, talking about the game and levels and sorcerers endlessly, and Gibbs had breathed a sigh of relief. It was stressful enough that the team had stumbled upon Jay Marrick. Gibbs hoped that they would never discover Jay was him. While he respected the fact that the team liked his writing, it was a hobby Gibbs hoped was never discovered by those he worked with. They’d look at him differently and he wouldn’t be as effective as a leader.

“You doing okay?” Ray asked. Gibbs had served with Ray Munroe in the Corps and they’d stayed in regular contact throughout the years. He didn’t trust anyone else running his writing career, and the only reason he was doing these signings was to get the publisher off Ray’s back. Ray was more than an agent; he was a friend. Had been for many years.

“Not a firing squad, is it?” Gibbs asked, forcing a smile. He hated stuff like this, but for two hours he’d have to endure. Ray had promised coffee, had chosen the excerpt Gibbs would read for the book reading portion of the event, and would moderate the question and answer session.

“Not a firing squad, Jethro,” Ray said, motioning him to stand up for inspection. Gibbs had no idea what authors wore to book signings, and he’d opted for a basic blue button down and chinos. He wasn’t a clothes guy like DiNozzo or even McGee or Ducky, but this was one outfit that usually looked pretty good on him.

“Do I pass muster, Captain?” Gibbs gave Ray a grin, resisting the urge to salute. They hadn’t served together for a lot of years, but old habits died hard.

“You look fine, Jethro. Wish the hair was a little better styled, but you’re fine.”

“What’s wrong with my hair?” Gibbs growled, clenching his fist so that he wouldn’t be tempted to smooth it down. “High and tight was always good for us, Ray.” Ray had let his hair grow a little longer since becoming a literary agent, and it now brushed his collar. It was steel gray and styled more than Gibbs had ever done. “Not all of us can become soft with those designer clothes and fifty-dollar haircuts.”

“Hundred actually,” Ray shot back with a grin. “But I get it done once a year and then my barber follows the lines the rest of the time.”

Gibbs shook his head, chuckling. “You got soft in your old age, Ray. My hair is fine.”

“Well, your barber should be shot,” Ray retorted good-naturedly. “Want anything beyond a coffee right now? Bagel? Donut? Muffin? Full breakfast? Though knowing you, I bet you ate at the hotel this morning.”

Gibbs shrugged. He’d driven up after work last night and had indeed eaten breakfast after he’d gotten up at oh six hundred. At least that part of the routine hadn’t changed.

“Not hungry, just a coffee, extra strong.” Gibbs pulled in a deep breath and looked around the storage room that they’d put him in as a place to relax before the signing, comforted by the familiar scent of books. It was small and cramped, but it was packed to the rafters with books, and he was perfectly comfortable waiting in here. His eyes fell on a pile of his books sitting on a shelf and he pulled one down, stroking its cover. “Still can’t believe it,” he said softly, almost to himself.

“Part of me doesn’t either, Jethro. I never knew you as a writer. Never thought you had the imagination, not to mention the time to devote to writing.”

“Everyone has dreams,” Gibbs replied, shrugging. “Everyone imagines what ifs, even though they don’t want to.”

“Still too hard to imagine any what ifs?” Ray asked quietly, unable to fully hide his wince. Ray was married to his high-school sweetheart and they had two kids in college and a spacious brownstone in Brooklyn. It was a very different life than Gibbs’ boat, his bourbon, his basement, his job and team.

Gibbs shrugged. He didn’t want to discuss the past right now. He and Ray had tightened their friendship in the time they’d been working together as author and agent, but there had been a lot of years when they hadn’t shared their deepest and darkest secrets and Gibbs didn’t think he could start now. At one point, Gibbs had been closer to Pat and Lynn Kiley, and Colonel Ryan. Then again, that hadn’t served Will Ryan or Pat Kiley well at all.

Gibbs visited Colonel Ryan every month or so. He was doing pretty well, medication and therapy working ideally for him. He had more lucid moments than not and hadn’t see the image of dead Marine Dave Cameron in years and years. Col. Ryan was undergoing a lot of counseling sessions, occupational therapy, and lived in a facility for veterans. Gibbs had casually dropped off a copy of each of his books to Colonel Ryan, slipping them into a bag along with a bunch of other novels. A part of him hoped his former commanding officer had read them. Ryan had always been a science fiction fan and those sorts of books had been passed around in Kuwait. They’d all read them and had discussed them on hot nights where the sand and heat made it impossible to sleep for long stretches.

Pat and Lynn Kiley weren’t doing as well. The trial had been sensational, the reporters forcing the family to go to ground. They’d been convicted, as expected, and were living out their days in a white-collar prison. Gibbs didn’t want any contact with them and he supposed they felt the same way. Unlike Col. Ryan, Pat had traded on Gibbs’ friendship, and what he and Lynn had done disgusted him.

“Penny for your thoughts, Jethro,” Ray said softly. Gibbs came back to himself with a start. He couldn’t help smiling, but imagined his expression was more sad than happy.

“Just thinking…not all of us turned out okay, Ray. Or even came out alive.”

“Not all of us did,” Ray agreed with a nod, his own expression turning somber.

Gibbs knew that his old friend would understand that he was talking about the men they’d served with, the ones who had gone before them, the ones who’d been damaged that they hadn’t been able to save before crisis point. Those losses weighed hard on Gibbs and he knew Ray felt the same way.

“But Jethro, this day isn’t about any of that. Jay Marrick, best-selling author, is making his debut. Let Gibbs be with his thoughts while Jay celebrates his accomplishments.”

“Kicking and screaming,” Gibbs replied, his smile turning a bit smirky.

“And you have a lot to be proud of. You books are doing incredibly well. In Complete Darkness and Searching for Light have both hit multiple best-seller lists. You know this…” Ray’s expression turned stern and serious. “You are still reading all my emails, aren’t you?”

Gibbs sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yes, even the one about the pygmy goat that adopted a puppy. I read ‘em all, Ray, even the crap ones.”

“And we’ve got great orders for A Gleam in the Shadows. It’ll at least hit regional and genre best-seller lists when it releases. The cover quotes have started trickling in. Here, have a look.” He handed Gibbs a folder, and Gibbs opened it up.

Gibbs glanced at the sheet of paper, eyes widening only fractionally when he realized that some of the major names had raved about his work, people he’d been reading and admiring for many years. The publisher claimed this was his “breakout” book and several best-selling authors insisted they were fans, writing gushing words praising both his storytelling and technical chops. Gibbs still wasn’t convinced that this was the case, but having heard McGee raving about his book, he was more open to considering that this wasn’t just a political move and that people actually liked what he wrote.

“You have some fans, Jethro. Some pretty big names are hounding the publisher and me for advance copies.”

“Guess I do,” he shot back, still not quite believing it. He could feel his smile widening, even though he was trying to be casual about his writing success.

“I have one VIP outside who wants to see you before the signing. You mind meeting someone privately first? He’s been very patient.”

“That’s fine.” When they’d arrived, they’d been greeted by some of the store employees eager to meet him, shake his hand, get their books signed. It had been surreal and strange, but Gibbs had adjusted, coming out of his shell and putting on the Jay Marrick persona. It wasn’t all that different from working an undercover identity in the end and he’d prepared himself in the same way. For today, Gibbs would take a back seat and Jay would come out to play.

Jay Marrick was a lot of thing Gibbs wasn’t. He was confident in his abilities as a writer, was a little restrained, but loved meeting people, and he was a great speaker. This was far beyond Gibbs’ normal personality and not anything he embraced with ease. Anyone who knew him knew he wasn’t a words guy, but for today he’d adapt. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t taken on many different undercover identities in his life. Jay was just one he’d use over and over again.

“Okay. I’m going to send him in. I’ll be back with your coffee in a few minutes, Jethro.” Ray smiled. “Better stop saying that, huh, Jay.”

Gibbs nodded, feeling a bit keyed up now that the event was looming. When the door opened again after a few moments, and a very familiar face appeared, Gibbs felt a moment of sheer joy. “Dad! What are you doing here? How did you"” Gibbs stopped himself, shocked even though he probably shouldn’t have been.

His father was alone, wearing his Sunday best"hell, more than that. The blue suit looked new, and his father stood tall, though he held his cane loosely. He looked spit polished and shined, his bearing proud, his smile wider than Gibbs could recall seeing in years.

Jackson Gibbs moved forward, a big grin on his face. “Normal people say hi first, Leroy,” he retorted good-naturedly, his eyes twinkling.

“Hi, Dad,” Gibbs said, knowing he was wearing a goofy little grin. The team finding out would have been threatening, but his father was almost expected and, if anyone had to find out, this was his best choice. He leaned in, giving his father a brief, though heartfelt, hug, and motioned him in to the room. His father waited until the door was closed before he spoke.

“Hi, Leroy. Though I guess I better call ya Jay for today, huh? Best-selling author. Anyone but me ever expect that from ya, boy?”

Gibbs blinked a few times, shrugging slightly and motioning that his father should continue talking.

Jack hooked his cane on one of the metal shelves and sat on a stool, looking up at Gibbs. “I knew you were reading those books. Careful as ya were, I always knew. Wondered why you didn’t get any out of the library, and then I went in one day. They didn’t have any of those science fiction books we liked, did they? It was all Shakespeare and Dickens, only classics. They didn’t have the good stuff we liked, did they?”

“No.”

His father chuckled and Gibbs let his grin fade into a genuine smile. “Library isn’t any better these days Leroy. Jay. Glad I get my books wholesale. Got a bigger reading habit than a budget.”

The curiosity got the better of Gibbs sooner than he’d expected. “How’d ya know, Dad? There are other Marricks in the world beside our family.”

“Wasn’t that, Leroy. Wasn’t that name that grabbed me. When I used to tell you stories when you were a kid, the hero’s name was always…”

“Gary Tyler,” Gibbs finished, blinking rapidly. Now that his father mentioned it, everything clicked into place for Gibbs and he nodded, remembering nights curled against his father, looking up in awe as Jack spun tales of adventure and mystery. “How did I forget that?”

“You were a little kid, and my Gary Tyler wasn’t a space pilot.”

“He was an explorer.” Gibbs remembered the stories clearly now. His father would tell him about exotic locations, jungles, ice-covered mountains, fantastic discoveries.

“And after I read the first book, I made some calls and emails. They put me in touch with Ray there. Then when I saw you were having a signing, I wanted to come out here. Support ya. Your team, they don’t know, do they?”

“No, and I’m keeping it that way.”

“They’d be just as proud of ya, Leroy.”

“Maybe,” Gibbs said. “But I don’t want this at work, Dad. You keep this confidential. Understand?” Gibbs arched a brow, pinning his father with a long look.

His father gave him a look of his own, one that made Gibbs internally wince for only a second. When his father’s expression softened, a proud smile on his face, Gibbs relaxed. “My lips are sealed. You gonna get out there and meet your public, Jay? I’m proud of ya, son. My boy, the author. Couldn’t be prouder.”

“Thanks, Dad.”