He stayed pressed against the wall, assuming the others would correctly interpret his leave me the hell alone body language. He didn't want anything to interrupt this crucial period of suspended acceptance. He knew any moment the hum of activity would begin around him again, that all too soon people would start trying to 'help' him, get him (out of the way) to leave. But perhaps that wouldn't begin in earnest until he moved from this wall. And he wasn't moving. He heard Gibbs on his phone with the director, tone sorrowful but brisk. He heard Ziva's rapid patter outside, securing the scene. Then behind him, he heard one of the clerics begin a soft singsong, a mourning chant. It wasn't in a language he understood intellectually, but one that he did understand spiritually. He closed his eyes and brought his arms down to his sides, listening as the chanting came closer and the cleric came and stood beside him at the wall. The other one joined them on his other side, silently nodding in time to the rhythm.
His chest hurt. He could still hear things pinging to the floor, sliding and settling, in the next room. He wondered why he didn't feel sick. She was gone. Gone. Had she maybe really died when the rest of her team had? Had she remained behind, a ghost who was given the grace to remain long enough to accomplish her mission?
Thank God he'd turned down his own chance at having a team. Watching her walk around mortally injured had been too painful to want to watch, and he'd been forced into the front row seat, been the one expected to deflect her pain away from everyone else, to shield McGee who was working through his own sorrow. He incorrectly thought he was the only one who understood that Ziva and Gibb's efforts to boot her into working professional mode wouldn't work, that she had to figure out whether she was going to survive at all, first and foremost, and that the answer had come back no, once the cosmic magic eight ball had been shaken, whether that fit with everyone's preference or not. He mourned it, but he understood it, and he suspected he would go the same route himself if he ever lost his team because he didn't have that detach button either. He would never have Ziva's 'it is a good day to die' warrior attitude, he loved life and all of its layers and flavors too much, and so had Paula and it was why he'd understood why she was so rocked and the others hadn't.
He came back to himself with a little internal jolt and knew that his time to mourn here was over, that any moment someone would be along with a carefully gentle touch to his arm to tell him that a uniform would be taking him away from this now. Since this was not part of his plan, he needed to be proactive. He squared his shoulders and stood up straight. The soft chanting continued and he found it soothing, appropriate, the one thing he found a comfort in all of this.
He felt Gibb's eyes on him as he carefully crossed the small room. He felt the way people feel when they've had too much to drink and are trying to negotiate their way to the bathroom, and it feels like everyone's scrutinizing them, and they're trying to remember how they walk when they aren't drunk, hoping that's what they're doing now.
He picked up one of the abandoned chairs and carried it outside. Now Ziva was the one watching him. As he neared the entrance to the other place, he felt Ziva getting ready to stop him from going in there. He knew he surprised her when he stopped right outside the door and set the chair down.
He wasn't going to be dismissed from the scene like some rookie or hysteric, but he wasn't going to join the sketch and shoot, either. He would simply sit here, keeping guard at the door, making sure, goddamn it, that nobody going in or out would be smiling or chewing gum or anything but solemn and respectful as they picked up pieces of things that used to be Paula and put them in a bag to take to back to NCIS. And when they did that he would go with her there, too. He would escort her until he didn't think she needed him anymore.
His cheeks were damp and he felt a tear slip out of his eyes every now and then, but he didn't care. Folks could kiss his sincerely emotional Italian leather ass if they had a problem with it. He wasn't overcome with grief or anything like that, but as he sat there a memory of her smile or her fake fury when he'd gotten her good, or how grief stricken she had been since her team died would catch him and the sorrow would just momentarily overflow.
Gibbs finally was able to stop calling people and came out of the other side, looked him over, nodded in acceptance and approval, then briefly squeezed his shoulder before bracing to walk into the death room. Once he went in there the invisible seal was broken and the inevitable bustle began. Ziva followed him in there, but paused to press something into Tony's hand before she did. He eventually looked down to see her Star of David necklace. He squeezed his hand tight again and felt the fine tremors shaking through his fingers and forearms. He guessed Gibbs would be calling him into the elevator tomorrow or the next day to talk about seeing the psychologist. Fine with him. He'd take whatever help he could to get through this shit.
The Director arrived, solemn and sad. So did Ducky and Palmer, another NCIS team, and about a million LEOs, so many blue lights flashing and muted siren pops as they maneuvered through traffic that it made him a little dizzy.
He only stood up once, when Gibbs happened to be coming out to talk to someone. Tony had spotted a photographer working to get an angle, trying to get a shot into the room, and he was getting up to go over there and commit a career ending felony. Gibbs followed his gaze and stepped around in front of him both to halt him and to block his view. Gibbs was so close he could feel his strength, his unmovable force. He felt weak and shaky by involuntary comparison. Gibbs snapped his fingers at a cop and pointed, then called out for Jimmy Palmer. Tony sat back down as Jimmy returned; shaking out a length of cloth and pulling out the staple gun they carried around just for this purpose and quickly secured it over the entryway.
He didn't move again, but people came and went, voices muted. He started feeling nauseous, but Ducky, who always knew, somehow, pressed a candy bar and a bottle of water into his hand. He ate and drank, remembering how he'd been the one to take care of Paula as she sat there, much as he was now. He thought about the awkwardness of the moment when he'd told her it should have been him dead, their team instead of hers, and the instant deflation it had had on her ire. It was ever easier to rail against the fates in the abstract.
McGee showed up and stood outside waiting until Gibbs emerged. He didn't try to talk to Tony, which was fine, it wasn't necessary. He wished Abby would show up too, but then again, he didn't. He was in a fine balance right now and didn't want anything that might knock him off.
Time passed. McGee found something to do, but not inside the room. Tony thought about Paula. He thought about things they'd talked about doing and never would, and things they had. He thought about what she'd told him, and resolved to act on that as soon as Paula didn't need him anymore. Eventually Ducky and Palmer started making the more frequent trips to their truck that said they were wrapping things up.
When they wheeled out the first gurney, he knew from the way Ducky was guiding it that it was Paula. He got up as it passed him, unthinkingly shaking the legs of his pants out so they would hang right, and settled into step behind it. He watched Ducky load it, and then went and climbed into the passenger seat up front. He felt the second gurney arrive, and heard Ducky speak a few quiet words to Palmer, letting him know he needed to find another way back to NCIS.
Ducky climbed into the driver's seat and turned the key. Tony stared ahead. The silence was complete, other than the sound of engine and traffic. He heard music in his head, something slow and sad, old and powerful, that reminded him of church when he was a kid, those solemn masses where the longer lists of saints were invoked, called upon for their divine intervention.
The trip didn't seem to take very long at all. He supposed that was because he was not yet ready to have to leave her. But it was time, once he'd accompanied her into the autopsy bay. He'd lingered, mournfully silent, as Ducky wheeled her over to one of his tables, unable to break it off.
But then Ducky had come up to him, nearly snapping to attention as he drew to a halt in front of him. In a formal tone he'd never heard from before from Dr. Mallard, he said, "Thank you for your attendance, Anthony. You are hereby excused."
He drew in a long slow breath, rotated his neck a little bit, and nodded. He turned and left without a word.