“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”
― Marc Riboud
Tony sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. The view was spectacular, he concluded, staring out of the window at the glowing Hollywood sign. Sometimes, it really paid to have enough money to splurge on the little luxuries, like a comfortable bed in one of the best L.A. hotels. At least he wasn’t at the mercy of dubious hospitality of the L.A. office. His back wouldn’t recover after spending a night on the lumpy mattress he saw fleetingly in the dark little room, no larger than a closet, laughingly called the guest room. Especially considering he was flying early in the morning.
The thoughts were circling in Tony’s head wildly, his instincts were still on high alert, as something niggled in his mind. The perpetrator was arrested and the case closed with only somewhat reluctant cooperation of the L.A. office and minimal casualties of his patience. A strange restless was getting to him. The twinkling lights of L.A. night-life were beckoning him to abandon his lonely room and lose himself in the anonymity of the large city. His flight to DC was scheduled for the next morning, so he had enough time to find someone willing to share a few fun hours before he was forced to leave.
Back to DC. Back to his tedious coworkers. And Gibbs. Mustn’t forget Gibbs. Since his little vacation in Mexico, the older agent was earning his second-b-is-for-bastard daily, if not hourly. At least he headed his instincts when they warned him away of pursuing a relationship with the older man, although he was hot like burning.
Gibbs’s anger and distrust, conspiring junior agents and Madam Director’s increasing pressure to take on – what Tony was positive – was an unsanctioned operation – it was getting too much to endure. Slowly, but surely, he was getting fed up with the crap heaped on him from everyone. What was much worse, he was steadily losing his passion to see justice done with each broken rule and each perpetrator released because of it and Gibbs’s bullheadedness of not accepting any responsibility for the failures. All in all, Tony recognized the worrying signs of his oncoming burn-out. Not that he had any way to prevent it with how the things stood in the office currently.
Just one evening for me. Is it so much to ask? Just one evening to relax and unwind. No ringing phone with some Gibbs-related catastrophe, no wailing Abby and certainly no snide junior agents. Nothing. Just me and the few hours of casual sex. Yes, that’s what I need right now.
The decision made, Tony got to work. A quick shower followed by a brief argument with a mirror and he was prepared to go out. If his fellow agents could see him now they wouldn’t recognize him. He exchanged the fitted suit for tight jeans and the tighter henley. The hair artfully mussed and a leather jacket completed his looks. Tony scooped the keys and his wallet and stuffed them in the pocket. He swept the hotel room one last time with his gaze before he resolutely opened his door and swaggered out. And promptly he bumped into another person.
“Excuse me. I wasn’t paying atten…” Tony looked up and down the delectable figure of the man he bumped into before his eyes were arrested by the familiar blue orbs and he sucked in a breath in surprise. “Nick?” He asked hesitantly. A sharp something… Something like a deep regret throbbed inside him, constricting his lungs, leaving him light-headed in the wake of an unexpected encounter. The long-forgotten deeply buried feelings welled up inside him and Tony found himself entirely wrong-footed by a rather sudden stab of attraction. There was a time, more than a decade ago when a young upcoming photographer was his entire world.
“Tony.” The other man uttered his name, quavering voice laced with feigned indifference, as he backpedalled, clutching his suitcase for dear life. Not that he was fooling anyone by his attitude. Certainly not a trained investigator with keen observation skills and years-long experience in reading people.
Tony winced at the tone he detected in Nick’s voice and deflated. He knew he was to blame for the uncertainty and the almost-fear in the photographer’s voice. All of his nonchalance and suaveness disappeared and he felt again like a twenty-something young adult on the verge of making the biggest mistake of his life. Clearing his throat loudly, Tony shattered the spell freezing them in the hallway staring at each other in mute astonishment. “Good evening, Nick. Long time no see. How are you?” Tony almost cringed at the trite words coming out of his mouth.
The photographer managed to locate his tongue and said frostily. “I’m fine. More than fine. Thanks for asking. It was interesting to see you again, Mr. Dinozzo. Have a good evening.” He shouldered past Tony to his room, hoping to put a barrier between himself and the man that smashed his heart into little pieces. The time and the distance managed to heal some of the damage but… It was unfortunate that the old saying was right – you never forget your first love.
Tony, seeing through Nick’s intentions, pushed the maelstrom of confusion and tangled feelings aside, gulped down a lump in his throat and wiped his suddenly clammy hands on his jeans, before throwing the caution in the wind with a split decision to forgo clubbing in favour of pursuing Nick’s company. “Are you free for dinner? We haven’t seen each other in years. I would like to catch up. If you are up to it?”
“Not interested.” With trembling hands, Nick finally opened the door to his salvation hastily, almost falling inside in his attempt to retreat from the temptation. Tony was still devastatingly handsome. Perhaps a bit more hardened and tired than the earnest young athlete he fell in love so long ago. His heart twinged, as a spark of helpless attraction flared inside him. He thought he put it behind him. Apparently not.
“Please, Nick,” Tony begged, a forehead resting against closed doors. He refused to entertain the thought he could be rejected. Not when he noticed Nick’s appreciative once-over. Not when the air cracked with mutual attraction for a brief moment when their eyes met and recognition grew in them.
“I’m all kinds of fool. I’m going to regret it.” The photographer swore, kicking his suitcase aside and relented. His feelings were all over the place. But maybe a dinner with Tony would clear some things up. If not, he could always return to his room and forget his all too attractive ex-lover. Cautiously, Nick opened the door and peered out.
Tony stepped aside to make room for Nick, not quite believing his good luck. He tried not to show it but he was pleased Nick decided to take him up on the offer.
“Just dinner?” Nick raised an eyebrow in askance, waving negligently at Tony’s attire. “When you look like this?”
Tony looked down at his clubbing clothes and shrugged, not willing to go to change and let the opportunity to spend some time with his once-lover slip through his fingers. “Just dinner.”
The meal tasted like ashes in Tony’s mouth. His earlier confidence evaporated as the evening continued stiltedly with Nick’s standoffish decision to stay on safe and banal topics. No talking about the reasons why they choose to have dinner, and certainly no talking about their shared past. The evening wasn’t progressing in the direction he wished. Not that he was quite sure what he had hoped for.
“Why did you ask me for dinner again?” Nick sat back, staring at his companion. The man he remembered was boldly going after what he wanted. He remembered the single-minded seduction campaign certain young athlete led to winning a date with him. And the rest was history. He missed that confidence and eloquence, and he was getting bored. While he had something pretty to look at, it wasn’t enough. As he got older his standards went higher and current Tony wasn’t meeting them. The photographer was prepared to call it quits and leave.
“Why did you say yes?” Tony retorted quickly, thanking silently for an opening. He was at the wit’s end how to approach more serious topics.
“You were always a pretty bastard, Tony. That didn‘t change in the intervening years.” was a swift non-answer. “You caught me in a weak moment,” Nick revealed softly, staring out of the window at the busy street.
“I think you are more attractive now than you were then.” Tony sighed partly unhappy at the unsettling thought. He missed out on the years that turned Nick in the man he saw before him. “I regret how things ended then.”
“Do we really have to rehash it again? Didn’t we already say everything that had to be said years ago?” Nick said sharply, preparing to leave the other man at the table. He didn’t sign up for this. He had hoped for some closure but Tony was annoyingly close-mouthed. It was quite out-of-character from his once lover. Tony wasn’t like this when they were together. Nick sighed and stood up. He was done with wasting time.
“I… Things were complicated then.” Tony admitted, while he toyed with his wine glass absently, his gaze averted. That stopped Nick in his tracks and he plopped back on his seat.
“You were saying?” Nick encouraged the other man to speak. He wanted to know why Tony broke up with him out of blue, without any prior warning. He thought they were happy, planning their life together. And then bam… One day they were together, and on the next day, they were broken up.
Tony laughed ruefully. That wasn’t his proudest moment. “It boiled down to peer pressure. I was scouted by professional teams and it was made pretty clear to me that I had to choose. I handled it badly.” Tony paused, taking a sip from his glass. “I was immature and too caught up in my own importance to consider what I was doing to you… to us… was wrong. That I wasn’t required to put my life on hold while I was playing professionally. We broke up and then I took the devastating injury to my knee that ended my professional career before it could take off. By then it was too late to make amends. You were already gone, taking photos on the other side of the world that would earn you your first Pulitzer.”
Nick was appalled by the revelation. His hands itched to take his camera, to rage against the prejudice, to do something about it. He did nothing of the sort and sat back, taking care to think about the implications of Tony’s confession. “And you thought it was a good idea to go out with me when your workplace is probably toxic cesspool of homophobic assholes waiting for a chance to take someone as successful as you few pegs down.”
Tony cocked his head, pleased for a moment with Nick’s concern about his well-being. “Worried about me? You don’t have to be. I’ve been building a certain type of reputation within ranks.”
“Well… I’m quite a womanizer according to the prevalent opinion.”
Nick smirked. “And just how many of your conquests were men?”
“About the third,” Tony admitted unashamedly. He was old enough to know his mind. And while he didn’t care what anyone thought about his preferences, he also didn’t relish in making the things harder for himself in the office than they already were.
Thinking hard, weighing the various choices, Nick decided to throw caution to the wind. He took out a folded piece of paper and wrote something on it and put it into Tony’s hand and stood up. “Call me sometime.”
Carefully, Tony unfolded the paper to reveal a gorgeous photo of L.A. and the iconic Hollywood sign. Clearly, one of Nick’s works. It was one of his endearing quirks – to carry around a photo of a city he was currently residing. It was nice to know some things remained the same. Clutching the picture in his hands, Tony felt a warmth spreading inside him, chasing away the loneliness for the first time in months. If he remembered correctly, gifting photos was Nick’s prefered way of communication. The picture in his hand was a clear sign the photographer was receptive of renewing their acquaintance. On the back of the picture was a note from Nick and his phone number.
You have exactly one chance to prove to me you’ve changed, Dinozzo. Just… Don’t screw up again.
Smiling, Tony looked up to see the retreating back of his ex-and-hopefully-soon-to-be-again lover. He was feeling pretty good about his decision to reconnect with the photographer. The attraction was still there. It was a great starting point, but it wasn’t enough. They matured and changed a lot in the years they didn’t see each other. And maybe that was a good thing. They owed themselves to take a chance to find out how much and maybe to fall in love again.