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The Path of Snow

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For the longest time, Jethro Gibbs, former Marine Gunnery Sergeant with the United States Marine Corps knew what the worst day was that he had ever experienced. Without question, hands down, the worst day of his life had been the day that he was told that his wife Shannon and their only daughter Kelly were dead. And that the circumstances of their deaths had been so terrible. Shannon had witnessed something very, very wrong and was only trying to do the right thing, because that had been the kind of person she was. Shannon was someone who spoke up for what was right, and that was the kind of person they had wanted their daughter to be. Someone who was brave enough to do the right thing, even if that path wasn’t easy. But she, Kelly and the NCIS agent on protective duty for them had all died. All of them killed to ensure Shannon’s silence on the matter.

When he had been told of this devastating and life ending news, he had gone cold, even though they were in the desert in the summertime. Gibbs had wondered for a moment, if he had just died and gone with them, he’d been so cold. But unfortunately for him, he managed to live through the absolute worst day of his life, and for whatever reason he’s managed to live decades past that, even though there was a gaping hole where his heart used to be. He had died that day, he thought. He’d died with his girls, even though his body and his mind were still alive.

So that had been the absolute worst day of his life. Until now. Somehow he’d managed to have another absolute worst day of his life. Maybe it didn’t supersede Shannon and Kelly’s deaths, but it was definitely on par with it.

He was pacing in the hospital waiting room, his mind filled with the images of Tony, on the ground, his throat being torn out by one of their quarry’s attack dogs. Gibbs had tried to order it to stop – he was good with animals, but the dog viciously tore away, something that should have been in Tony’s neck pulling away in its teeth. And so much blood. There had been so, so much blood.

In the end, it had been McGee who had been forced to shoot the dog and pull it off. By then, Tony was unresponsive, his throat – what was left of it – torn open, the kind of sight that Gibbs thought should only ever be achieved by special effects in a movie. McGee had also been the one to yank his jacket and shirt off and shoving it into Tony’s ruined throat, trying to staunch the bleeding, and yelling for someone to call an ambulance.

In that moment, Gibbs knew that Tony was dead. Or as good as dead. And something inside him broke, something he didn’t even know existed. He went down on his knees and began growling orders at Tony – not to die, to stay with him. The kind of desperate words that Gibbs had once hurled into the void because he hadn’t been there to save his girls. But now, he had been right there in front of Tony and he hadn’t been able to save him either.

“I don’t know how to stop the bleeding and still allow him to breathe,” McGee was yelling. “Gibbs! Gibbs! Help me! I need some help with him!”

Finally, Gibbs was spurred into action. He checked and saw that only one of Tony’s jugular veins had been punctured. He pulled his own jacket off and added it to McGee’s, wanting to ensure that Tony didn’t bleed out right away. Then they awkwardly tried to position Tony’s head in a way that seemed to allow him to keep breathing – and that wet inhale and exhale, the overwhelming struggle the injured man had, just to breathe in and out, something that should never be so labored or so wet sounding – until the EMTs arrived.

Gibbs had ridden in the ambulance, giving charge of the crime scene to McGee. And now he was at the hospital, waiting and pacing because they had taken Tony directly into surgery. His jugular had been torn, but McGee’s quick thinking had saved Tony’s life. He’d taken the dog out, stopping it from further injuring Tony, and he’d done his best to stop the bleeding.

Gradually, the team trickled into the waiting room, one by one. Ducky, then Abby. McGee and Bishop came in together, giving Gibbs a quick summary of what they and Balboa’s team had found, and that they had enough to close the case.

McGee tried to apologize to him. “It was my fault, Boss,” he whispered. “The dog was coming for me, and I didn’t see it. But Tony did. He jumped in front of the dog. It should’ve been me… should’ve been me in there now…”

“It’s not your fault,” Gibbs told him. “It was Lance’s fault.” Lance was the drug dealer they had been after. Besides, it was Gibbs’ fault for just standing there like a lunk or just trying to verbally command the dog to stop while it was too busy tearing Tony’s throat out. McGee had been the one to stop it from becoming an absolute bloodbath.

McGee hung his head.

Gibbs patted McGee’s back as reassuringly as he could and jerked his head at the chairs, and McGee shuffled over and sat down with the rest of the team while they sat, awaiting the doctors. Abby, Bishop and McGee were huddled together, all of them looking worried. McGee, especially, looked defeated.

It was many hours later before the doctor finally came out. Tony was alive, having gone through extensive surgery, but he had lost a lot of blood and sustained a lot of damage to his trachea. He had been placed in an induced coma and would be in the ICU for the next few days. It had been touch and go on the table, and the doctor wasn’t entirely optimistic about Tony’s outlook.

Then followed the days where Gibbs and at least one other member of his team kept vigil at Tony’s bedside. They were encouraged to talk to him, so Ducky brought books to read out loud to him, McGee kept him up to date on the case and even brought cold cases to read out loud to Tony. Bishop would explain to him the reasons why Butterfingers were better than potato chips, unless it was sour cream n onion potato chips, for late night case work. Abby just chatted away about the nuns, and god knew what else – honestly, Gibbs tuned her out because she was just like Tony and could talk a person’s ear off without actually saying anything.

There were rough spots during those days, where they almost lost Tony. But in the end, he pulled through. Gibbs was amazed, given that he had seen what Tony’s throat looked like, torn open so jaggedly. He awoke from his coma, and slowly recovered, although it turned out, despite several different surgeries, his vocal cords had been too severely damaged and he lost the ability to make any noise, much less speak. He was lucky to be able to breathe, the doctors said, because sometimes with this kind of damage to the vocal cords, the trachea and his breathing passages could have collapsed as well.

Tony took it hard. He was the guy who could talk anybody into doing anything, he could wheedle and cajole, and coax or trick his way out of practically anything by just using his words. And now, he would never again be able to speak or even make a sound. Essentially, who he was as a person changed overnight. One moment Tony was a glib, fast talking, funny guy and the next he was a withdrawn husk, unable to speak.

Things went downhill from there. Despite what they tried to help him adjust to his new life, one that obviously no longer involved working as a field agent for NCIS, and no matter that the rest of his body slowly returned to good health, he sat in a chair by the window in the rehab facility, refusing to engage with the world.

Eventually, Gibbs and the team had to go back to work and their work was demanding and time consuming, so they were no longer keeping him company practically twenty four/seven. One day, after three days of non-stop work, Gibbs stopped at the facility to see Tony before he went home and found that Tony had checked himself out. Gibbs immediately sped off to Tony’s apartment and didn’t find him there. He called McGee and Abby to ping Tony’s phone, and they told him that it was in Tony’s apartment. Gibbs found it buried in Tony’s underwear drawer.

Tony wasn’t home. Tony wasn’t anywhere that they could find. Gibbs and his team searched for him, oh how hard they looked. They were the best at what they did, but apparently Tony was also the best at what he did. He’d somehow managed to disappear into thin air. Abby wasn’t able to find any sign of him after he got into a taxi. He’d gone to a part of DC that had few cameras and managed to keep out of sight of any of them, giving them the slip so thoroughly that even Abby could find no trace of him.

Gibbs didn’t know it at first, but that day that he’d dropped by the rehab center to see Tony would be the third most terrible day of his life. It was the day he knew that he’d lost Tony.

The search for Tony went on for months, and Gibbs was devoting his entire life outside of work into listening to the chatter out there and trying to figure out where Tony would have gone. He was coming to work more and more exhausted, and less and less motivated, until finally, Vance had to have a talk with him about his priorities and how he needed to let Tony go.

“You’re right,” Gibbs sighed. “I need to get my head on straight. I know what my priorities are.”

“Good. You should just go home and sleep for a day before you come back to work. You need some rest and you’ll come back refreshed.”

Gibbs smiled sadly at his old friend and shook his head. “You misunderstand me,” he pulled his service weapon out of its holster and handed it and his badge to the Director. “I have to find him. I’m no good to you here when all I can do is worry about Tony.”

“He’s a grown man.”

“He’s hurt. And depressed. And alone, Leon,” Gibbs shook his head.

“Doesn’t mean you should go haring off, looking for him.”

“He would do the same for me. He has, in fact.”

Vance couldn’t disagree with that.

So Gibbs left the agency and devoted his entire life to looking for Tony. He was packing his bags when Ducky came to see him. The elderly ME took a look at what Gibbs was doing and sighed.

“Don’t you think he will come home when he’s ready?” Ducky asked.

“Nope,” Gibbs shook his head, for he knew his answer to be true. Tony wasn’t planning on ever coming back. “He’s either chosen to kill himself and he’s dead somewhere, or he’s decided to leave and never come back. Never be reminded of everything he’s lost. Never have to have it rubbed in his face what he thinks is the fact that he isn’t the man he used to be.”

“But he isn’t the man he used to be,” Ducky said gently.

Gibbs made a rude noise. “Of course he is. Just because he can’t yabba yabba like he used to doesn’t mean he’s not the same Anthony DiNozzo. He isn’t just his ability to speak. He used to talk to me without words – whole sentences, Duck – all the time. Who he is inside is still the same.”

“He doesn’t think so.”

“Then I’ll tell him he’s wrong, and keep on telling him until he believes me.”

Ducky sighed and grimaced. “And what if he has, as you say, killed himself?”

“Then at least I’ll know what happened to him,” Gibbs couldn’t help the hot tears that welled in his eyes. “But I hope that he’ll hold on for a while, until I can get to him. Wherever he might be.”

Ducky stared at him until Gibbs turned away, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. “So it’s like that, is it?” his voice was incredibly gentle.

Gibbs nodded wordlessly, continuing to stuff his bag with different types of clothes. He didn’t plan on coming home any time soon, and he didn’t know where his travels would take him, so he was packing for all kinds of weather.

“And how long have you felt this way for Anthony?” Ducky prodded.

“How long have I known him?” Gibbs muttered.

“Oh, Jethro,” Ducky sounded sad now.

“I’m going to find him and I’m going to fucking tell him the truth, and make him believe me,” Gibbs said fiercely. “I won’t come home until I find him. And if he’s dead by the time I get to him, then I’ll bring him home and bury him here where his friends can visit him. I won’t let him be some anonymous John Doe in a potter’s field.”

Ducky gave him a long hug and patted his shoulders before he left. “Will you keep in touch and let me know of your progress?”

Gibbs nodded. That he could do.

And so Gibbs embarked on a journey that would take him over a year and a half, where he criss-crossed the country following any number of possible leads, some credible, some not. There were plenty of false leads, a couple of exhumations and fortunately negative DNA tests, and even a near miss where apparently Tony had blown through town not long before Gibbs got there. But for the last six months, Gibbs had not been able to pick up even a whiff of Tony. Hope, which had not been particularly strong to begin with, was starting to dwindle. Not that Gibbs would ever give up. There was nothing left for him now other than his quest to find Tony. He didn’t have a wife or a daughter, he was retired from the Marine Corps, he had quit NCIS. All he had now was this task to finish, to find Tony, dead or alive.

He had been wandering around aimlessly in New York for a while, spending time with people who once worked for Tony’s father, back when Tony had been a child. Hoping that he could perhaps pick up a lead from them, some hint of where Tony might have gone to hole up and lick his wounds, or in the worst case, some place where he would have gone to end his life. But none of them added anything to what Gibbs already knew of Tony. He had been a sweet child, quiet and shy, obedient and malleable. He had been Senior’s punching bag after his mother died, which made Gibbs seethe in fury. Tony had never spoken about this. The fact that Senior had beaten him and physically abused him had never really been in any of the stories that Tony used to tell about his childhood. Gibbs remembered the story about his drunk mother mistaking his sea monkeys for her drink and drinking them. He remembered Tony complaining about being the ‘poo boy’ for Senior’s Civil War reenactment weekends. He remembered Tony being left behind in Hawaii by accident when Senior forgot he’d brought his twelve year old son with him. He remembered Tony recounting how he’d been disowned by that age. But he did not recall any stories Tony had told that resulted in a broken arm, or black eyes, or broken ribs caused by said father.

What hurt Gibbs the most about this was that he didn’t know if Tony never told him about being abused because he didn’t think he would be believed, or that he didn’t think it was of import. Either way, it angered Gibbs and he knew that if he were to encounter Senior another time, there would not be an exchange of pleasantries. Gibbs was done trying to have Tony make peace with his father. Tony had every right to behave as he wished as pertained to the infernal man. Senior would be lucky to walk away with no injuries because Gibbs wasn’t above punching him in the face for his mistreatment of Tony.

Gibbs was driving down a quiet road in upstate New York, unsure of his next destination. Something in his gut was telling him west, so he got on the interstate and headed west. He didn’t know exactly where he was headed, but the East Coast was a bust and had been several times over. He was reasonably sure that Tony was not in California. Gibbs was considering the possibility that perhaps Tony might have gone all the way to Alaska, but that sounded more like something Gibbs would do to get away from people than what Tony would do. Whatever the case, Gibbs’ gut was still telling him to go west, so he kept driving, entering Ohio.

He had spent a few weeks in and around Columbus, tracking down Tony’s old professors and even some of his former classmates at Ohio State University. None of them had had recent contact with Tony, nor had they heard from him in a while. It had been a fruitless time there and even though Gibbs had felt that Tony was not in Columbus, he knew that he could not just leave that stone unturned. So he had done it. Turned Columbus over looking for him there, in vain.

It was late, and Gibbs was forced to slow down when it started to snow. The seasons were changing and it was getting colder. Gibbs’ knees protested the cold, and he wondered where Tony was and if he was keeping warm. His lungs had never been the same after his tangle with the pneumonic plague. And now that his vocal cords had been so horribly damaged and his breathing passages possibly compromised, it wouldn’t bode well for Tony if he were to catch a chest infection. A weakened set of lungs and compromised breathing passages seemed a recipe for disaster if he were to catch cold or get any kind of bronchial infection.

While he drove, Gibbs realized that he had missed his weekly check in with Ducky the previous day. He had just forgotten, so he put his phone on speaker and dialed his friend.

“Jethro, are you all right?” Ducky’s voice came on the line, sounding alert.

“I’m fine, sorry to call so late.”

“I am at work, with a guest in Autopsy tonight, Jethro,” Gibbs could hear the smile in Ducky’s gentle tone. “You are on speaker. And Mr Palmer is here, working with me.”

“Hello, Agent Gibbs!” Palmer chimed in.

“Palmer,” Gibbs greeted him. “I’m getting nowhere right now, Duck.” Gibbs could hear the weariness in his voice.

“Does that mean you are coming home?” Ducky asked.

“I can’t,” Gibbs shook his head. “You know why I can’t.”

“Perhaps you should come home and take a few weeks to rest and regroup?” Ducky suggested. “You could perhaps pick up some new leads, or think of a new way to approach this puzzle.”

“I told myself I wouldn’t set foot in my house until I found him.”

“Then set foot in mine,” Ducky’s solution seemed to simple and so very enticing.

Gibbs was tired. No, he was exhausted. He was ready to take a very long nap and stop being so fucking worried all the time. And that was the problem. Time was of the essence. Every time Gibbs tried to go to sleep, all he could think about was that tomorrow would be the day Tony decided life was no longer worth living and he would eat his gun, or slit his wrists, or whatever it was Tony might choose to do. He couldn’t just take a day off because what if that day was the day that he should have found Tony? And that one day’s rest that he took was the day that Tony killed himself? It was the nightmare he saw every night when he finally closed his eyes.

“I can’t, Duck,” Gibbs sighed. “Right now I’m headed west because that feels like the right direction.”

“This is a vast country, Jethro,” Ducky said tiredly.

“I am aware of that,” Gibbs sniped.

“No, no, Mr Palmer, I don’t believe that is what we should do…” Ducky was doing something in the background with Palmer.

“Well, if this is not what you want me to do, do you want me to just start over?” Palmer asked.

“No, that isn’t what I meant. I meant…”

Whatever else Ducky meant was lost to Gibbs because his mind started whirling, the way the snow was outside his window. What if enough time had passed now that he should perhaps begin back at the beginning, or near enough? No, not to scour CCTV footage for nonexistent sightings of Tony, but perhaps to look back at Tony’s life in DC. If he was still alive, would he think that some things were safe to use again?

Without warning, Gibbs hung up on Ducky, and dialed Abby right away. If Ducky was staying overnight to work on an autopsy, then chances were Abby would be awake too, processing evidence in her lab.

“Gibbs, Gibbs, Gibbs!” Abby’s husky voice greeted him cheerfully.

“You awake?”

“When am I not?” Gibbs could picture her dimpling at him, her green eyes twinkling merrily. “Is this a business call or pleasure? I’m at work – we caught a case.”

“Business,” Gibbs said curtly. “I assume you still have flags on all of Tony’s credit cards, bank accounts, and such?”

“Ye-e-e-s?” Abby sounded hesitant now.

“And all of his known aliases?”

“All of the ones I made for him for all of the ops that we ran, as well as a few that I know he made up for his own uses, yes,” Abby agreed.

“We’re missing something,” Gibbs mused. “I think enough time has passed that he would feel comfortable doing something familiar to him.”

“Nothing’s pinged,” Abby objected. “I promise you, none of his known identities have slipped my net.”

“Then he has some unknown identities,” Gibbs growled. “Check the financials for new aliases based on his family members.”

“DiNozzo? It’s a pretty distinctive name. I doubt Tony would go back to DiNozzo.”

“His mother’s maiden name. Paddington.”

“He had an uncle who died…”

“Clive,” Gibbs supplied. “And he had a cousin called Crispian.”

“Yeah the one who was collecting on that IOU to his uncle. What a fuck up,” Abby grumbled, but Gibbs could hear Abby typing on her keyboard. “What should I search for?”

Gibbs thought for a moment. What could Tony have gone back to that he felt would be safe? What could possibly be tracked back to him but only if they knew exactly what to look for? “Movies,” Gibbs exclaimed. “That thing you all watch movies on… an account, and you can watch movies online”

“What? Like, Netflix?” Abby suggested.

“Yes. That and other providers. Check to see if you can find different permutations of Paddington relations, and check to see if they watch a lot of movies and what kinds of movies they watched. You know Tony’s movie tastes better than the rest of us. You’d know what looks like him and what doesn’t if you saw it, right?”

“I mean, sure, the Tony that we used to know,” Abby sighed. “But the Tony that he is now?”

“He’s still our Tony,” Gibbs growled. “Just because he can’t speak, doesn’t mean he wouldn’t still watch movies.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Abby agreed. “I’ll run a search and let you know what I find.”

“Good,” Gibbs nodded. “Thanks, Abs. I know this isn’t an official case, and I’m not even NCIS anymore…”

“This is for our family,” Abby cut him off. “No thanks necessary.”

“Thank you.”

Gibbs ended the call and realized that the snowstorm was getting worse. He decided to pull off at the next motel and spend the night. He would be no good to Tony or anyone else if he ended up in a wreck, stuck in a ditch somewhere or worse.

He was awakened by his phone ringing a few hours later. “Gibbs,” he mumbled into the phone.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Abby’s excited voice came ringing through the receiver, making Gibbs pull the phone away from his ear for a moment. “I have some new options for you to check out!”

Gibbs sat up, immediately awake now. “What kind of leads?”

“OK, get this, so I ran a search on different permutations of Paddingtons – Clive Paddington, Tony Paddington, Anthony Paddington, Crispian Paddington, and even jumbled up the names, like Anthony Crispian, Clive Anthony, you get the gist.”

“Uh-huh?”

“I found two possible options,” Abby was breathless with excitement. “Oh my god, Gibbs. One of these guys might be Tony.”

“Explain.”

“OK, so I have this one guy, Clive Anthony, who lives in a small remote town in northern rural Georgia. The Appalachian Mountains type thing. And he has a Netflix account and a Hulu account that could have been our Tony’s watch list. Even down to some of the things that I know Tony loved but would never admit to it. His secret guilty pleasures,” Abby crowed.

Gibbs thought about it, but Georgia was east of him and his gut was still pointing west. Gibbs had lived this long because he listened to his gut, so while he thought perhaps that could be Tony, still he wanted to go west. “And the other?” he asked.

“This is my second choice. This guy’s name is Sean Paddington.”

“Sean?” Gibbs questioned it.

“You know how much Tony loved Sean Connery,” Abby explained. “But yeah, his Netflix watch list has a lot of things that Tony loved, and the newer stuff this guy watches also could be things that Tony might enjoy.”

“Why do you think the first guy, Clive Anthony is him but less so Sean Paddington?”

“There’s more of a paper trail for Sean Paddington,” Abby mused. “Sean Paddington has a credit card attached to the Netflix account that he uses for groceries and the like.”

“You think Tony would pay cash.”

“I do.”

“And Clive?”

“The credit card he uses is only for Netflix and Hulu and I can’t really find anything else on him.”

Gibbs thought about it for a minute. “What is Sean’s location?”

“For the last three months, his credit card bill has been going to a rural post office box in a town called Ismay, Montana,” Abby read out. “Ismay has a population of nineteen people.”

“Nineteen?” Gibbs needed to confirm it.

“Affirmative, nineteen as in one nine.”

“Jesus,” Gibbs shook his head. He’d thought that Stillwater was small and stifling. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to grow up in a town where there were eighteen other people, not counting him. “What about prior to three months ago?”

“No paper trail. But it could just be Sean is young and this is their first credit card.”

“Hmm,” Gibbs pursed his lips. He could see why Abby thought that the Georgia lead was better, but his gut wanted to go west and well, Montana was west, wasn’t it? And if Sean Paddington wasn’t Tony, then he could chase down Clive Anthony in Georgia.

“You want to go to Montana, don’t you?” Abby sighed.

“Mm-hmmm.”

“Ducky said your gut said to go west.”

“Yup.”

“Well, have a safe drive. It’s a long one.”

Gibbs bit his lip. He had been driving all over the country in his old pickup truck but he needed to get to Ismay as soon as possible. Something inside him told him that he was on the right track and he didn’t want to waste days just driving to get there. He wanted to get there right away, and get there without having driven for several days in bad winter weather. He wanted to be fresh when he got there so he’d be able to pick up the trail and find this guy, this possible Tony.

“Gonna fly,” he told Abby.

“Really?” she sounded surprised.

“This might be it,” he said simply.

“You want me to book it for you?” Abby asked.

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to. I want to find Tony, too, Bossman,” Abby’s breath hitched.

“I know,” Gibbs sighed. “I know, Abs. I really appreciate all your help all these months.”

“Where are you now?” Abby sniffled.

“Just outside Akron, Ohio.”

“OK, I can get you a flight out of Cleveland to Billings, Montana in about five hours. One hour layover in Denver. Arriving in Billings 1500 local time. I’ll make a car rental reservation at the Billings airport in your name.”

“Works for me,” Gibbs agreed. “Thanks, Abs.”

“You go bring him home, Gibbs.”

“That’s the plan.”

He hung up and headed into the shower. He knew he might be grasping at straws now, but right now, he had a lead and it was west and his gut was feeling good about it. He showered, dressed, packed up and headed to the Cleveland airport.