Before this, he'd had no idea that grief could take a physical form – he'd assumed it was emotional impact, the weight of the unbearable loss flooding through every rational thought left. But this physical presentation; well, it is excruciating. He can't breathe, he can't speak, he can't even bring himself to cry. He feels as though he could vomit for a thousand years and still have bile in his gut. He feels – well, numb with pain. This thought makes him laugh, a low, hollow laugh. Multiple pairs of hands on his upper back, gentle and consoling he is sure, although when he doesn't respond to the touch and the hands are lifted away, each has left a raw imprint that sting as though he's been burned.
It occurs to him while he is suffering this, sitting in the gutter on the side of the road staring into the middle distance, that he has almost nothing left of her. Sure, he has her clothes at his apartment and her Cheerios in the kitchen and a yellow toothbrush which he had told her matched her eyes.
'Yellow?' she'd asked, amused, foam spilling out of her mouth, which made her look so cute.
'Well... no,' he'd been forced to admit. Then he flashed a 110 watt smile, and said 'It's the thought that counts, right?'
'Cheeky,' she'd said, grabbing him by the ears and kissing him flush on the mouth, making any tension on the surface between them a binding, instead of a boundary.
Sometimes, after a difficult case, he'd drive to her apartment, where she'd open the door and smile at him, which was enough to ebb out the tension and he'd walk away ten minutes, thirty minutes, 12 hours later and have forgotten why he was there in the first place. Now, watching her burnt corpse, bandaged in black plastic and carried by Jimmy Palmer, or Pimmy Jalmer, or whatever the hell Ducky's sidekick was called, he suddenly realised that he couldn't picture that smile.
And as that piece of information hits him, he realises how much he cared.
'I love you,' he'd said, breathlessly. She looked at him, eyes red from days of crying, and although they weren't physically touching, he felt her body relax. He grabbed her, fisted hsi hand in her hair and kissed her, pouring out the grief from losing Paula and into her. It was then he'd vowed to never let her go, even when her father was dead.
He feels a warm presence beside him, an antithesis to the cold, and it takes him a second to figure out that Ziva is seated beside him, holding his arm, her small fingers curled around his bicep and her head resting on his shoulder. He looks at her, registers that this position is unnaturally vulnerable for Ziva, and turns away again, so that he won't have to hear her lecture which he knows is coming.
In front of him, Gibbs and Probie pack up the truck, as Ducky drives away with her, cold and alone. At least someone will mourn her, he thinks. She deserves someone to mourn her, anyway; she taught him to love, with her brilliant green eyes and her inquisitive mind and her love for floral wallpaper. That one makes him laugh out loud.
'Something you'd like to share, Tony?'
He starts, and turns to look at Ziva, who still has her head perched on his shoulder, looking straight ahead, an impassive look in her eyes. She doesn't say it harshly; in fact, she sounds like she almost cares. Like she could, he retorts to himself. Cold hard spy-girl and all that.
She wasn't. She was kind and loving, looked for the best in him when all he could see was flaws.
Thinking of her again makes him wince in pain, an overwhelming surge of grief swimming in his heart. He pushes Ziva away, so forcefully that he actually knocks her to the ground. Admittedly, this isn't a very far distance, but when he turns to look at her there are tears in her eyes.
Ziva stands up slowly, levelling herself with him. Her eyes flick over him and she meets his gaze, cool like she's been trained, but there's something else in those tears and he stands for a moment intrigued. She opens her mouth to speak, but he beats her to it.
'Don't. Just don't.'
And with that, both of them turn on their heel and walk away.
He goes back to work just three days after she's gone, despite orders from both Gibbs and the Director to stay home for at least two weeks. Her body is flown to France after Ducky's done his prodding so there isn't even anything physical to mourn. So one morning he gets out of bed, drives himself to work, and throws himself into the case at hand so enthusiastically that Gibbs takes him aside after the case is closed and tells him to talk to someone. He laughs, tells Gibbs she was just an assignment, that he's ready to work, when what he really wants to say is that he's working just to have something to distract him.
Even the ever-happy Abby can't make him talk. She tries alcohol, bribery, black roses, smiling sweetly, and he just laughs and tells her she's as cute as ever. One day, after she's tried bribing him with case-cracking evidence, he suddenly stops laughing and snaps at her for being immature. He immediately feels bad when he sees her eyes well up, and even more so when she straight out punches him in the shoulder.
'TALK to someone Tony!' she yells, grabbing Bert and disappearing into her office.
He thinks she might be right.
McGee doesn't say anything, but gets bullied mercilessly by Tony for several weeks, to the point where Ziva steps in and, in one fluid motion, brings both to their knees. She looks at McGee, glares at Tony, and storms back behind her desk to resume her conversation with her contact in Tel Aviv. Gibbs walks in, notices both male agents wincing on the ground, and wisely doesn't say a thing. For the rest of the day, not a single person says anything.
He notices Ziva watching him from time to time, but does not make eye contact for more than a second. He wonders if she can see through his charade, and immediately ups his game. He will NOT think of her on company time.
Ziva cooks dinner for him one night, and he has never been more surprised when she turns up on his doorstep holding a casserole dish between two oven-mitted hands. Her eyes flick over him for the second time in a week and he looks down at himself, ragged, unshaved and with a beer in one hand. She sends him to the shower and he is surprised to find, standing in the spray, how raw his skin is. Physical presentation of grief, he thinks, as Ziva pounds on the door informing him that dinner is ready.
He pulls on an old t-shirt and boxers and is handed a fork and a bowl by Ziva, who is waiting outside the door. She doesn't say anything, but gestures to the TV, where Magnum PI is frozen on the opening credits. He sits down on the couch, which is miraculously tidy after Ziva's efforts, and presses play. Ziva sits next to him with her own bowl, feet curled under her like a cat.
The noodle casserole is surprisingly good, and he feels compelled to tell her how much he appreciates this, the food and the decontamination of his apartment, and, more than anything, her company, even if he won't admit the latter to himself, but finds that he is unable to find the right words. He looks at her, opens his mouth, closes it again. She smiles a small smile, and in that instant he knows she has understood.
Somebody has to.