Writing this week's tag and receiving all your kind reviews reenergized my muses for the long weekend. Rather than direct that towards TTTB, which I have woefully neglected, I returned to "A Desperate Man" and an idea that was rolling around in my head since the first viewing. I really, really wish we could have seen just one of those offscreen Tony/Ray conversations...

Disclaimer: In case you haven't noticed, I have an unhealthy love for ellipsis and run-on sentences...Oh and I still don't own NCIS...

If you love someone, set them free. If they come back they're yours; if they don't they never were.

~ Richard Bach

Tony squinted wearily at the vending machine before punching a few buttons and smacking the top left corner. The machine complied as it always did, spitting out two candy bars for the price of one, and Tony pondered idly if he'd offer the spare up to McGee or Ziva. The former hadn't had sex in almost a year and the latter...well, she had been in a foul mood all day thanks to one CIRay.

He dropped into a chair in the empty break room and scrubbed a hand over his face. This day had been long, the case exhausting in its own right, and whatever energy he had left was being channeled to suppress the corner of his brain that insisted on comparing Detective Burris' life to his own. There were similarities there, more than he wanted to admit, but it was all too much and came too close on the heels of his uncomfortable discussions with EJ last week. If he could just take these five minutes to get his head on straight...

His phone rang suddenly, shrill and startling in the otherwise silent space. He glanced at the caller ID out of habit but already knew who it was; Cruz had already left him two voicemails. Tony sighed and stuck the candy wrapper between his teeth, tearing it open and spatting out the piece of foil. He almost hit ignore, but Ray would probably just keep calling, and he'd rather not have this conversation within throwing distance of Ziva.

"DiNozzo," he answered, stressing the exhaustion in his voice. Ray dove in without preamble.

"How is Ziva doing? Has she said anything about me?"

Tony grimaced at the painfully sophomoric question. "No, but I can pass her a note before study hall! Seriously, what in the hell'd you do to piss her off so bad?"

Ray's response was defensive. "I screwed up and wasn't somewhere when I said I'd be. But it was unavoidable...a part of the job...you'd think she'd understand how that goes."

"Of course she does. We work for Gibbs, remember? But if you gave her a head's up and apologized, she shouldn't be this pissed off." Several seconds of silence greeted him and Tony scowled. Yeah, that's what I thought. "Cruz, are you really interested in fixing this or not? Cause I'm not gonna sit here and listen to someone who gets his jollies jerking around my partner."

"I was going to propose to her."

The words were spoken quietly but they were simple enough; there was no hidden meaning, no double entendre, not even a botched cliche a la Ziva. But somehow those seven words, spoken in that order, made absolutely no sense coming out of Ray's mouth. Not after he had disappeared for seven months, left her waiting and wondering, only to return and fuck it all up again in a matter of days.

Apparently an inappropriate amount of time had passed since Ray's proclamation, because he prodded Tony with a curious, "DiNozzo?"

Even then, Tony could only manage a slightly strangled, "What? When?"

"The night I messed up, I was going to propose to Ziva. I am proposing to Ziva. I have the ring, I have the speech, I just need her to talk to me."

Tony knew Ray wanted help with the last part, but he still needed answers on the bigger picture. "Wait, you were so busy with work, you missed your own proposal?"

He heard Ray sigh. "It was unavoidable. I had it all planned out perfectly with the restaurant too: candlelight, soft music, and two flutes of Tattinger with the ring in hers."

Tony couldn't suppress a short bark of laughter as he began pulverizing the corner of his candy bar. "Have you seen the way Ziva drinks champagne? Even money says she would've swallowed the rock."

Ray was defensive again. "I doubt it. It was the perfect set up."

"She's not exactly big on PDA and public scenes either." Tony meant it to sound neutral, but even he could hear the challenge in his words.

"But she is big on romantic gestures," Ray said smugly.

He fought the urge to start a pissing match on the subject of 'who knows Ziva better.' Even if he would win. Instead, he rewound over the rest of Ray's statement and felt his brow furrow.

"Do you seriously have a speech?"

He could almost hear the shrug over the phone, and Ray suddenly sounded self-conscious. "Well, just that I will promise to love her and to be a good husband...that I want to build a home and life and family with her."

Tony waited for more but none came. "Is that the Cliff Notes version? 'Cause it doesn't sound like much for a prepared soliloquy."

"Okay, what would you say?" Ray retorted. It was more of a rhetorical challenge than a question, and if Tony would have taken time to think about it, he would have found the query more than a little disturbing. The problem was, Tony's weary brain didn't have to think about it. The answer came easily to his lips - too easily - and he heard the words as if a stranger were speaking.

"I'd promise to never walk away, no matter how bad the fight or how scared shitless either of us gets. That I'd love her even when she drives me nuts and screws up the simplest of sayings, because that's also part of what makes her so goddamn adorable. That even though we both come from crap families, the image of a ninja baby with her eyes makes me smile. And that I will always follow her to the ends of the earth because as long as we're together, I'll be home…"

Tony's voice trailed off, an awkward silence settling hard and fast between them that he found no words to fill. The vivid picture he'd just painted of an intangible life flickered and dissolved before his eyes, and he was suddenly sitting in an empty break room once more, toying with the remnants of a smashed candy bar.

"Sounds like you've given some thought to that answer," Ray said finally after several uncomfortable seconds, his voice dripping with undisguised suspicion.

Tony probably should have allowed him that one, but he wasn't in much of a giving mood at the moment. After all, it felt like he was already giving him the girl.

"Sounds like you need to give it a little more," Tony said quietly.

"Do I need to worry about you DiNozzo?"

Tony leaned back in the hard chair and allowed his eyes to wander across the dark room. His gaze settled on the vending machine, and he was suddenly reminded of a conversation from a lifetime ago. A younger Ziva, her voice soft and hesitant as she asked him if he believed in soulmates. He had responded with sarcasm, because it was his default setting but also because it was Ziva asking. No one would have dared to call Officer David a hopeless romantic, and yet he would never forget her disappointment in his flippant remark, nor the look on her face as she watched a broken-hearted Sayda drive away from Thomas.

Four years later, and he still didn't have a good answer on soulmates. Experience told him that it was a Hallmark idea; that real love was exceedingly rare and messy and painful. And regardless of what he told Rachel or EJ to the contrary, he recognized that he used the exact same adjectives to describe his relationship with Ziva.

But he was still a long way away from sorting those feelings out, and he was apparently out of time. Because despite Ray Cruz's many, many faults...the secrets, the lies, the tendency to disappear...Ziva had chosen to forgive him, to love him. And the only thing Tony knew with absolute certainty was that he wanted her to be happy.

Again, Tony had spent so much time lost in thought that he'd almost forgotten the other man's question.

Do I need to worry about you?

He took a deep breath and gave the only answer he could "Worry about Ziva, Ray. Worry about finding the right place and the right way to ask her what you need to ask her. If you're what she wants, what will make her happy, I'll never say a damned thing against you."

"So will you talk to her for me?"

He wasn't expecting a thanks exactly, but that Ray's only response was to ask for a favor set Tony's teeth on edge.

"I'll see what I can do." He mumbled. He was grateful when the boss' call interrupted a few seconds later, Gibbs telling him to take another look at the crime scene.

Tony threw away the crumbs of his destroyed candy bar, no longer hungry. Ziva got the spare in the end, but he lobbed a Nutter Butter at a dozing McGee as they left. Tim woke with a start but muttered a grateful thanks at their retreating backs.

"You okay?" Ziva asked quietly as they waited for the elevator. He could feel her eyes on him and knew she was seeing past his defenses, just like she always did.

He wanted to say no. He wanted to say that he was exhausted, terrified of the introspection this case was prompting, terrified of dying alone. In that moment, he wanted to admit that he loved her, and wanted to be sure of the words...sure of her response...sure that they wouldn't blow eachother's lives apart one day.

Only he wasn't.

So he shot her a weary smile that cost more than he could've imagined and muttered some cheeky response that he forgot as soon as he said it. Because right now Gibbs needed him to inspect the crime scene, and Ray needed him to plead his case, and Ziva needed him to listen as she spilled her secrets onto a gravelly rooftop. Tony just needed this eternal, godforsaken day to finally end.

It looked like he'd have to live with three outta four.

I love getting inside Tony's head, and seeing "Secrets" actually made it easier to go back and explain why he was being supportive of Ray with Ziva. I'm marking this as complete for now, but I'd put decent money on a second chapter in the future...even if it's just one more short convo b/w Tony and Ray after the reveal because that could be rather fantastic to write... In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

PS - The study hall line comes from one of my favorite movies of all time. Extra virtual brownies if you know the one! :)