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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.

Chapter Text

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.