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The Path of Snow

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His flights went smoothly and then it was another eight hour drive from Billings to Ismay, which, as it turned out, was halfway up the Rocky Mountains. Luckily Abby had reserved an SUV with a four wheel drive, because the roads were snowy and curvy, narrowing more and more the closer Gibbs got to Ismay. Finally he got to Ismay and went straight to the post office which also doubled as the general store. It was, after all, where Sean Paddington’s mail went. Gibbs went up to the woman sitting behind the little counter. She was just sitting there looking at him with curiosity, reading glasses hanging on a chain off her neck.

“Ma’am,” Gibbs tipped his hat politely. Out of habit he was still wearing his NCIS ballcap. “I’m a retired NCIS agent and I’ve been trying to locate an old friend of mine. I wonder if you’ve seen him?” Gibbs pulled out a photograph of Tony, one of his favorites of Tony, openly smiling at the camera. It had been taken at an NCIS Christmas party a few years ago and they had just closed a case so their reward had been permission to drink at the Christmas party. Everyone had been happy then. It felt like a million years ago to Gibbs.

“Ain’t no one ever comes here,” the woman told him bluntly, not looking at the photo Gibbs had put on the counter.

This woman wasn’t going to rat anyone out, Gibbs could tell. “If you could look at this picture?” he asked.

The woman resolutely refused to look. “He’s about six foot one, brown hair, green eyes, real nice smile if you can get him to smile. He doesn’t speak,” Gibbs tried describing him.

“He owe you money or something?”

“No,” Gibbs couldn’t hide the sadness. “No. He was in an accident and… he walked away. I quit my job to go looking for him.”

“Shoot, he’s got to owe you money.”

“He’s like family to me,” Gibbs told her. “If it’s him, he might be going by Sean Paddington?”

The woman stared at him in stony silence.

“Look,” Gibbs handed her one of his old business cards. “This is who I am. You can call the 800 number for NCIS and ask to speak to the Director, and he’ll vouch for me.”

The woman sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why are you really looking for this man?” she tapped Tony’s picture.

“He was my partner for fourteen years,” Gibbs explained. “He was injured, badly, in the line of duty. I don’t think he ever recovered. He just walked out of his life and disappeared into thin air. I just need to know he’s OK. That’s all.”

The woman met his gaze and stared at him, and Gibbs could feel her taking his measure. “He’s that important to you?”

Gibbs nodded.

“You a Marine?”

“Used to be,” Gibbs cocked his head.

“You have that look. My son was a Marine.”

Was a Marine. “Oh…” Gibbs nodded sadly.

“Iraq,” she shrugged, and Gibbs knew that that was where her son had died.

“I did two tours during the first Gulf War,” Gibbs volunteered.

She nodded slowly. “Sean, your friend, had that air about him. Like you. Like my son. Made me think he knew something about them. Was he one, too?”

“Nah, although he might’ve gone undercover as one a couple times,” Gibbs shook his head, smiling. “But the Corps and the Navy are our jurisdiction. Or were. Since neither he nor I are technically NCIS anymore.”

They stared at each other for a while. “So you know where I can find him then?” Gibbs asked, his heart beating so loudly that he could barely hear himself speak.

She made a noise that Gibbs couldn’t interpret one way or another.

“I just need to know he’s OK,” Gibbs repeated, staring intently at the woman.

She gave him a long look. “He’s here. Sean,” she finally confirmed it.

“Did he show up three months ago?”

“Thereabouts.”

“Is he OK?” Gibbs couldn’t help asking. “He’s healthy?”

She shrugged.

“Are you sure it’s him?” Gibbs shoved the picture closer.

The woman pulled her reading glasses on and looked at the picture. “Looks younger there,” she said. “Ain’t never seen him smile. But yeah, I think so.”

“Can you tell me his address? I tracked him to the post office box here.”

The woman sighed, staring at him again. “How long have you been looking for him?”

“He walked out of the rehab center while I was at work twenty months ago,” Gibbs pursed his lips.

“He just up and walked away?”

Gibbs nodded.

“You have ways to find someone. I watch TV.”

“He was the best of us,” Gibbs shrugged. “He knew how to beat the system.”

“Well… he lives up in the mountains now. He rented my old hunting cabin for a year.”

“The address?” Gibbs pulled out his notebook.

“That’s not going to help you,” she shrugged. “Only one cabin up that road. But he’s cut off from town for the rest of the winter, probably.”

“It’s only November!” Gibbs objected.

“It gets cold and snowy up here. He came down last week before this last snowfall, loaded up for the winter. Roads will be impassable past a certain point now.”

“Fuck,” Gibbs growled. “Well, you got any snow boots I can buy?”

“You gonna hike up the mountain?”

“I’ll hike up from wherever my car stops working,” Gibbs said grimly.

The woman sighed. “Fine.”

The woman, Gladys, and he pored over a map and Gibbs marked the roads and mapped several different trails up to the cabin, depending on where the roads would be blocked by snow. He bought snow gear, heating gear for his hands and feet, and he also bought a bunch more groceries and supplies, filling his car with as much stuff as he could. If he were to get stuck up in the mountains with Tony, or whoever this Sean might be, he didn’t want to be a burden on their carefully calculated supplies. He spent the night in Glady’s spare room and Gladys fed him a hot and filling breakfast early the next morning.

“Good luck,” she told him.

“Thanks,” Gibbs couldn’t help smiling at her.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“Me too,” Gibbs agreed.

Then he drove. Snow started falling again as he drove, always going further and further up. Pine trees covered in snow was pretty much all he saw. After several hours, even with snow tires, there was no way the SUV would be able to plow through the deep snow that now covered every surface, including the road. Gladys’s cabin was the only one up here, and since the other nineteen people living in the area were nowhere near here, there was no need to plough these roads. Gibbs got out of the car, shouldered his backpack, and ensured he had water. He pulled the map out of his pocket and began hiking through the trees.

It was beautiful and cold. Extremely cold. Luckily the hiking kept Gibbs warm. He could see why Tony would have decided to stay here. It was quiet, it was peaceful. It was beautiful. There would be nobody to speak to, so Tony’s inability to speak wouldn’t matter. Gibbs kept on hiking, stopping to eat beef jerky and trail mix, and he wished desperately that he had coffee. He did have coffee with him, but it would require him to stop, make a fire, and brew it first. He didn’t want to waste any more time, so he sucked it up, drank his water, and kept on hiking.

It was pitch dark in the forest, and Gibbs needed to use his flashlight until the moon rose, giving the entire landscape an eerie beauty. He kept on going, until finally, he thought he saw a light through the trees. One that wasn’t the moon. He smelled traces of wood smoke in the breeze, and smiled. He was getting close now.

Finally, he trudged through the deep snow, up onto the snow covered porch, before he knocked loudly on the door.

He waited for a moment before he banged on the door again. He was almost certain that this would be Tony, but he could be wrong. He couldn’t be sure until he saw whoever this Sean Paddington really was.

A minute later, he heard footsteps coming up behind the door, and he waited with bated breath until the door opened. And finally, he saw him. Tony stood in the doorway, framed by the soft glow of the light from inside the cabin.

“DiNozzo,” Gibbs greeted him with a smile.

Tony’s mouth dropped open and he gaped at him.

“You gonna invite me in? It’s cold enough to freeze my balls off out here,” Gibbs shrugged.

Gibbs, he could see Tony’s lips forming his name, but of course, no sound came out of his ruined vocal cords.

“Hi, Tony,” Gibbs smiled at him.

Tony was still gaping.

“Mind if I come in and get warm?”

Tony nodded and stepped aside, opening the door wider.

Gibbs stamped his feet and tried to brush as much snow off of himself before he took a step into the heavenly warm cabin. It took a minute for him to discard his boots and get out of all of his wet outer layers, Tony taking all his wet clothes and neatly hanging them by the fire.

Finally Gibbs could take a look around the place. It was cozy and tiny, but it had a real feeling of home to it. The kitchen was tiny but looked well used, with a small refrigerator and a two burner range. The bed was by the fireplace, along with a love seat and a small table. A battered old acoustic guitar leaned against the wall. A laptop sat on the table, a movie paused. Everything looked cheerful and homey.

Gibbs smiled to himself at the movie on the laptop, because that was how he had found Tony. Or rather, Sean Paddington. Tony stood by the loveseat still staring at him.

“You’re a hard man to find,” Gibbs told him.

Tony made a face.

“Yeah, yeah,” Gibbs grinned, understanding what Tony was wordlessly saying. He padded barefoot over to him, warming up as he got closer to the fire. “You didn’t want to be found. I know. But here I am. I found you.”

He was standing right across from Tony and he saw that Tony wore a huge, cable knit, turtleneck sweater and he couldn’t even see Tony’s throat. He ran his eyes up and down Tony’s body, happy to see that he was alive, but unhappy to see how skinny Tony had gotten. Without asking for permission, he wrapped his arms around the man and pulled him into a tight hug. “Fuck, Tony, I thought you were dead,” he whispered. “I’m so happy you’re alive.”

Tony was stiff in his arms for a long moment before he sighed and melted into the embrace, hesitantly putting his arms around Gibbs and patting him gently. Gibbs blew out a long breath, his gut quieting down for the first time since Tony had been injured.

“Thank you for being here,” Gibbs whispered, tucking his face into Tony’s neck. “Thank you.”

He could feel Tony nodding his head.

When they pulled apart, Tony gestured towards his laptop.

“Do I want to watch a movie with you?” Gibbs asked.

Tony nodded.

“Yeah,” Gibbs smiled. “I’d really like that.”

Tony motioned to his mouth, making like he was eating, and raised his eyebrow in question.

“I could eat,” Gibbs nodded.

Tony fixed him a quick meal of beans and toast, brewed him coffee, and then they sat on the loveseat together. Tony started the movie over, and Gibbs didn’t even know what it was, he didn’t pay a lick of attention to it. He was just happy that he’d found Tony, happily basking in being in his presence. He’d despaired of ever finding him, of ever having another night of watching a movie he didn’t have any interest in for no other reason than to just be with him. It was a good feeling.

He was starting to nod off when the movie ended. Tony pointed him to the tiny closet-sized bathroom with a chemical toilet and a small shower cubicle and Gibbs got ready for bed. When he came out, Tony took his turn in the bathroom. Gibbs rummaged through his backpack and pulled out long underwear and thermal undershirt, and Tony dressed in much the same way. Tony turned the lights off, put logs in the fire and gestured towards the bed.

“I could sleep on the couch?” Gibbs offered.

No extra blankets, Tony mouthed. Too cold on the couch overnight.

“You OK with sharing?”

Tony rolled his eyes. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d had to share a bed. They’d had to do it often enough when they were in motels on a case. Gibbs nodded. But he insisted that Tony take the side closer to the fire, not wanting Tony to catch cold.

“We should really talk, Tony,” Gibbs tried, when they were under the blankets, warm and toasty.

Tony shook his head, pursing his lips. In the firelight, limned in the soft glow, Gibbs could see his dimples, deep creases in his gaunt cheeks. His ruined throat, the raised scars still red and angry despite it happening so long ago. He cupped Tony’s face, looking into his eyes.

“We’ll have to talk eventually,” Gibbs said gently, and he deeply appreciated the irony in the fact that he was the one asking for a conversation when he was famous for being taciturn.

Tony shrugged. Not tonight dear, he mouthed. I have a headache.

Gibbs chuckled softly at that. “Everyone misses you,” Gibbs tried again.

Tony shook his head vehemently.

“OK, Tony, OK,” Gibbs soothed him, unable to stop himself from running his fingers through Tony’s hair. “No talking tonight.”

Tony deliberately closed his eyes and turned towards the fire, turning away from Gibbs. Gibbs sighed before he relaxed into the pillows. He turned towards Tony and the fireplace, keeping his hands to himself with difficulty.

“I missed you,” he whispered. “I really did.”

Tony took a deep breath and let it out slowly, but he didn’t turn around.

“I’m glad I found you,” Gibbs continued. “Good night, Tony.”

The next day, Tony showed him around the little cabin, and the amenities outside. It was surreal, being with Tony again. But even though Tony refused again to have the talk that they needed to have, he didn’t send Gibbs away either. Several days into Gibbs’ stay, finally, late in the evening after the sun had gone down, Tony allowed Gibbs to speak. They were walking outside. Apparently Tony enjoyed trudging through snow when nobody was there to see him.

Gibbs told him how they had looked for him, and how eventually, Gibbs had quit NCIS so he could search for Tony full time. Tony looked shocked at the lengths to which Gibbs went to look for him, eyes wide and hands covering his mouth when Gibbs told him about the exhumations that he had done on several John Does, and how thankful he’d been when the DNA tests came back negative. And finally, how Abby had tracked him by his new alias and his Netflix account. Gibbs told him about the other guy in Georgia, the one Abby had thought was more likely to be him, and Tony had actually laughed at that.

Then Tony asked about how everyone was doing, and so Gibbs took the time to tell him. Although he stressed that he hadn’t seen anyone in person since he left DC to devote his time to searching for Tony. That he had only been speaking to them on the phone. The telling of everything took hours. Gibbs felt like he had never spoken as much as he had today in his life, but it all needed to be said. It was quite dark by the time he was finished, but the moonlight gave everything a silvery tinge. The snow was bright, almost as if it was daylight, and the snowy pines were dark and mysterious. Tony was beautiful, standing there in the moonlight, fresh snowflakes covering his hair, fluffy bits of snow melting when they landed on his face. Gibbs still couldn’t believe that he had finally found him.

At the end of it all, when Gibbs had run out of words and Tony out of questions about everyone else, Tony looked at him, head cocked to the side, expression solemn.

Why? He mouthed one final question.

“Why did I come looking for you?” Gibbs asked.

Tony nodded his response.

It was odd. Even though Tony didn’t speak anymore, Gibbs understood him perfectly, even if he wasn’t mouthing words at him.

Gibbs took a deep breath. It was now or never. He glanced around, feeling the peace of the snowy woods, not another creature to be seen or heard. “Because I love you,” he said hoarsely.

Tony cocked his head, his expression one of disbelief.

“I know I haven’t ever given you any reason to think that…” Gibbs sighed.

Tony waved his hands, shaking his head. You love me? He mouthed.

Gibbs nodded.

Like you love Abby? His lips formed the words and Gibbs was never more thankful that he was a good lip reader.

“No. Not like I love Abby,” Gibbs murmured, moving closer to Tony, tentatively taking his hand in his and raising it to his heart. “I love you, Anthony DiNozzo, more than I have the words to explain. I’ve been in love with you almost since the moment we met.”

What? Tony’s eyes were wide.

“I knew that I couldn’t live without you, so I came looking for you,” Gibbs shrugged, giving him a small smile. He raised Tony’s gloved hand up to his lips, kissing the back of it softly. “I’ve got no reason to stay in DC if you’re not there.” He kept his head down, his lips pressed against Tony’s hand.

Gibbs felt the fingers of Tony’s other hand under his chin, gently pushing his chin up. Right. Tony needed for him to be able to see his lips.

I know you’re not drunk. Are you high? Tony asked him.

Gibbs laughed at that, noticing that Tony hadn’t pulled his hand away from him yet. “No. Don’t be a fucking idiot, DiNozzo.”

Tony rolled his eyes. Altitude sickness? He mouthed. We’re pretty high up.

Gibbs laughed some more. “Sound mind and sound body, stone sober. You can ask Ducky how I feel if you want to. We talked before I left DC. He didn’t understand why I had to do this, abandon everything to go looking for you.”

Ducky knows? Tony asked.

“That I love you? Yeah. He knows.”

But… Tony started to say more, but he ended up just staring at Gibbs.

“Look,” Gibbs was serious now. “I’m not expecting you to feel anything for me. I’m a bastard, and I’ve always been hard on you. Never really showed you how I feel about you. I was fucked up in the head, not really done grieving my wife and my daughter. I always thought you’d be there and I’d have time. That I’d always have more time with you once I’d gotten myself… together somehow. But obviously, I took you for granted. I took everything for granted. After you left, all I could see were all the opportunities, all the chances I wasted, because I was too intent on holding on to the past. So now, I wanted for you to know that I love you, no matter what’s happened to you, no matter that you didn’t feel like you could stay in DC with us, no matter what, I’ll always love you. I’m not asking for anything in return, I just needed to know that you’re OK and that you know how I feel about you. I’m done with thinking I have more time. Because the only time we have is now, and so here I am.”

Tony’s mouth was open in a silent ‘o’. I’m not the same guy you used to know, he finally mouthed.

“Why?”

Tony made a noise of exasperation and gestured to his throat.

“So? Just because you can’t speak doesn’t mean anything’s really changed.”

Tony growled and made a noise of frustration.

“Have you felt like, in any of the last few days, have you felt like there was anything missing here? Like maybe, I had trouble understanding you, or you understanding me?” Gibbs demanded.

Tony threw up his hand and made a very Italian and very rude gesture, making Gibbs laugh again.

“Look, we’ve always been able to understand each other, with or without words,” Gibbs told him. “Right? Even from the beginning. I barely even had to give you orders at times, you just always knew what I was thinking, and vice versa. Even if I might have tried to hide that from you.”

Tony shook his head from side to side and made a grudgingly conciliatory face.

“See? I got that right there. You don’t want to agree with me but sadly for you, you do.”

Tony rolled his eyes.

“So we’ve always been able to communicate, with or without words. I can lip read. I can teach you ASL. You can fucking text me if you want,” Gibbs pulled out his smart phone, the one that he had bought right before leaving DC, needing to have a multipurpose, lightweight tool, and waving it in front of Tony’s face.

Really? Tony looked at the phone in shock.

“I needed it to help me find you,” Gibbs shrugged. “It’s efficient, I’ll give it that. Even though there are times I want to throw it in a snow bank and demand McGee overnight me a flip phone. But it’s handy.”

Tony threw his head back and wheezed softly, what should have been a belly laugh, but his poor ruined throat couldn’t translate his emotions into that sound of joy anymore. And right there, under the light of the moon, snowflakes on his long lashes and in his hair, his eyes laughing again, Gibbs pulled him close and kissed him. Tony stiffened momentarily before he started kissing Gibbs back, and Gibbs angled their heads, his mouth slanting over Tony’s devouring him, tongue begging for admission, and when Tony parted his lips, opened his mouth, Gibbs moaned as he tasted Tony and deepened the kiss, pulling him even closer.

When they finally pulled apart, both of them panting for breath, Gibbs smiled, “I guess you’re OK with me loving you?”

I’ve always loved you, Tony mouthed. I didn’t want you to see me as a shell of myself. I didn’t think you’d ever want me, especially now. Who would want me the way I am now? Useless. Weak.

“You could never be anything but my Tony,” Gibbs whispered. “Never useless or weak. You’ll always be that young cop who chased me down, tackled me and handcuffed me. No matter what, you’re always beautiful to me, and I’ll take you any way that I can.”

Tony shrugged, the color high in his cheeks. He looked bashful, which Gibbs thought made him even more adorable.

“So, can we go inside now? Seriously, my balls are going to freeze right off,” Gibbs said, and again, Tony made that wheezing sound, laughing at him. Their fingers linked, they walked back towards the cabin, through the pine trees all lit up by the moon.

I don’t know if you’ll be able to get back to town, Tony shrugged, looking around them. Snow had been falling steadily in the last few days. Gibbs knew that his car was probably stuck where he’d left it until the spring thaw.

“Are you OK with me staying with you?”

Until spring? Tony asked.

“For as long as you’ll have me,” the words escaped Gibbs mouth before he could stop it.

Tony stared at him, wide eyed with shock.

“I quit my job for you,” Gibbs shrugged. “I’ll stay with you for as long as you want me to.”

Tony shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. You’re going to have to hunt or something, he mouthed. I don’t have a lot of extra supplies laid in for the winter.

“My car is filled to the brim with more supplies. I’ll hike back down a few times and bring stuff up.”

Confident, were you? Tony rolled his eyes at him.

“Hopeful,” Gibbs corrected him. “And practical. Even it if wasn’t you up here, Gladys said I would probably get stuck up here for the winter so I thought I might as well make sure I have enough supplies so I wouldn’t overburden poor Sean.”

Tony smiled at him, conceding the point.

“Also, I don’t have a signal up here and if I don’t check in with Ducky in a couple of days, he might send a search party.”

Tony scrunched up his nose.

“Yeah, I know you’re not ready for people. I’ll see if I can get cell reception on the way to the car.”

Email him, Tony mouthed. I have wifi.

“If I can’t call him I will,” Gibbs agreed. “So? It’s OK with you if I stay?”

Tony gave him a small smile and nodded.

“I should tell you that I was a little extra hopeful,” Gibbs sucked in a breath, feeling guilty.

Tony gave him a questioning look.

“I bought out Gladys’s store of condoms and lube. They’re in the car.”

Tony stared at him for another long moment before he wheezed with laughter again, pulling Gibbs close, and kissing him. Did you bring any in your backpack? He asked, still chuckling soundlessly.

“Would you lose all respect for me if I said yes?” Gibbs asked.

Tony’s wheezing laughter made Gibbs laugh and pull him close to kiss him again.

Let’s get back before your balls freeze off, Tony mouthed at him, pulling him along. I have better things I can do to them then let them freeze.

“Your wish is my command,” Gibbs grinned. “But before that,” he pulled his hand free and began signing ‘I love you’ while saying the words out loud.

Tony slowly repeated the signs back to him with a smile, I love you too, Gibbs read his lips easily.

Hand in hand, they crunched through the snow, towards the cabin. For the first time in years, Gibbs felt his heart lighten with every step. He’d confessed his love for Tony, told him the absolute truth, and Tony had accepted him with open arms. Here, witnessed only by the trees and the snow and the moon, in the peace of the woods, he felt like he’d finally come home. They’d have the entire winter together to re-familiarize themselves with each other. He wanted to hear what Tony had done in the long months that he had been in hiding. What he might have learned about himself. He wanted to learn what the rest of Tony’s body tasted like, and what noises he might yet be able to coax out of Tony’s ruined throat when he took him apart, and what Tony might teach him about his own body.

For once in his life, he didn’t want to dwell on the worst days of his life, but instead, look forward to making every day forward as good a day as he could. Happiness, now within his grasp again, was not something he was going to push aside. He was going to grab it and hold it close to him, hold tight to it, and he was going to do the same to Tony for as long as he could.