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Roger Federer isn't shy about being the top detective in his precinct. After all, he's worked plenty hard for his trunkloads of medals and commendations and certificates. He's possibly the best investigator in the history of his unit, although he's ultimately inclined to agree with the curmudgeons who insist that such discussions are exercises in comparing apples to oranges: the tools at his disposal are far more sophisticated than the ones available during Inspector Laver's era, the databases far more comprehensive and up-to-date, and the support staff way more skilled. (Roger will be the first to admit that Sergeant Vavrinec's deskwork has been essential to his success as a sleuth.) On the other hand, it could be argued that Laver had had fewer criminals to hunt down; at the very least, Roger is pretty sure Laver got saddled with far less paperwork. Even with Vavrinec handling the hardcore pencil-pushing, he still has to wade through acres of regulations and documentation for each and every case before and after the actual part of solving it.

There are other distractions as well: There are the random drug tests, thanks to too many bad apples knocking around in the ranks over the years. There are the ramped-up odds of encountering out-from-nowhere freaks -- just the other day, one showed up during the middle of a stakeout and tried to cram a beret onto Roger's head. There is the constant, soul-wearing second-guessing by both the public and by so-called experts about the victims he couldn't save in time, the cases he failed to crack before they grew too cold, and even about the hundreds of cases he has solved -- whether he ought to be nailing the answers faster and more decisively, for instance, or if he's past his prime.

Past my prime at age 27? Roger wishes he could laugh or sneer at the notion, but there's a reason why the age cut-off for applicants to the department is 35: the body does start to break down, and chasing criminals on a regular basis tends to accelerate anything that's become a problem, be it a stiffening back or blurring eyes or tendonitis in the knees --

Roger frowns at the polished surface of his desk. It's a warm, reddish brown that's almost silken to the touch, but it somehow reminds him of powdered clay and Spanish curses. It reminds him of the twenty cases he's worked on with Rafael Nadal, eleven of those in one of the city's artsier neighborhoods, one where riverside boutiques sell expensive dishes and cups shaped out of the area's rich, red clay, and the residents tend to speak languages other than English when speaking to each other. Roger is not unwelcome in the district: over the years, he's mastered some of the local argot, and the artists appreciate how he doesn't regard them only as sources of clues or merely as prospective suspects. Every now and then he throws a pizza party for the teenagers working at the community center -- the ones putting in their time as b-ball referees and lifeguards and kiddie-tennis instructors. Everyone's well aware that he can easily afford such gestures -- cops at his level earn six-figure salaries -- but the fact remains that it's still an act of generosity, even though everyone is also well aware of the calculation underpinning it: to maintain his status as one of the best investigators in the city, Roger needs to continue solving cases on their turf, and it'll be easier if he's encouraged them to feel like helping him when the time comes.

Not that there's any guarantee of that, Roger grimly thinks to himself. He's still baffled at how viciously rude many of the artists were to Rafa during the other detective's most recent case. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it -- Rafa hadn't said anything stupid or ungracious about anyone, let alone the district or its people, nor had he recently arrested anyone from the area. And yet they'd openly jeered at him and cackled with ugly glee as he'd tried -- and failed -- to apprehend a third-rate slugger named Soderling, who wasn't even one of their own.

At the time, almost no one had discerned how much trouble Rafa's knees had been giving him, although a couple of colleagues had commented that he'd been looking more tired than usual. Roger couldn't help wondering if the collective subconscious of the locals had somehow smelled blood -- that they'd somehow picked up how exhausted and hurt Nadal had become. He'd heard of animals tearing apart members of their own pack who'd become too sick to hunt; he'd seen people abandon ailing relatives out of sheer emotional cowardice, unable to face the realities of illness or aging or sheer bad luck so close to home.

Whatever the cause, it was not a pretty situation, and Rafa's partner Toni hadn't helped matters by loudly complaining about it. Roger winces every time he replays Toni's words in his mind -- he totally understands the man's fury and disgust, but Rafa is still going to get assigned to cases in the district for the foreseeable future, and giving the residents actual reasons to resent him -- that makes zero sense to Roger. He doesn't doubt, though, that Rafa will continue himself throwing himself wholeheartedly into every case regardless, no matter how much support he is or isn't getting from the hoi polloi, and it's one of the reasons he likes the other investigator so much: they both truly love being good at being detectives. Roger knows of other officers who are in the business primarily because they get to wear badges, to carry guns, to tell other people what to do, or simply because they don't know how to do anything else. He himself had never seriously considered becoming anything other than a cop -- if he'd gotten hurt before qualifying for his pension, he might've looked into becoming a translator -- but he doesn't get simply phoning in the work, or quitting when it got hard. (He generally tries to stay above the fray, he really does, but he hadn't been able to resist snarking about Detective Djokovic's tendency to call in sick when the days got hot.) It's one of the best jobs on earth, as far as he's concerned, and he's determined to stay physically fit and mentally sharp enough to do it for as long as he could.

Even though the paperwork is enough to give indigestion to a cow. Roger sighs as he reviews the latest report from Detective Monfils. Monfils is an exuberant guy, and his account of his most recent collar is peppered both with exclamation points and interrobangs. By the seventh "?!", Roger can't take it anymore; he gets up, goes down the hall to the photocopier, and returns with two duplicates of the report that he proceeds to slice up line by line. He tapes an unedited strip from the first copy onto a blank sheet of paper; beneath it, he tapes the identical strip from the second copy, but with the superfluous exclamation point snipped off.

He repeats the process all the way down the report. He's not sure Monfils will get the point, so to speak, even with a side-by-side comparison handed to him, but Roger can't help it: he's at least got to try conveying to Monfils the value of precision. As a result, there's a heap of exclamation points on his desk when Rafa Nadal walks in.

Roger doesn't even have to say anything: in spite of his goofy, youthful demeanor, Rafa's an old pro at assessing a scene. It takes him maybe five seconds at the most to register Roger's sudden passion for copyediting. It takes him far longer to recover from the fit of laughter that overtakes him.

Roger glares at him, which causes Rafa to laugh even harder. Roger sweeps up the exclamation points with his left hand and flings them at the other detective, whose guffaws only deepen as the confetti clings to his hair and his skin.

Roger leans against the edge of his desk, trying to look stern. "Did you need something from me?"

Rafa doesn't quite have himself under control yet. "I --" (gasp) "I came by to --" (choke) "It wasn't --" (splutter) "Aah, _____!"

Roger can't quite make out the last exclamation, but it sounded Mallorquin and was almost certainly profane.

Rafa's doubled over, shaking, and if Roger hadn't known what triggered it, he'd be alarmed, because it doesn't look all that different from Rafa in pain. As soon as the thought strikes him, though, he can't let it go: he hurries forward and steers Rafa toward his desk chair, and his hands stay on Rafa even after the other man obligingly, helplessly collapses onto the seat. As Rafa eventually, finally quiets down to a few, manageable gurgles and giggles, Roger shifts from steadily pressing his palms against Rafa's shoulders to kneading them.

Rafa sighs happily as Roger's thumbs dig at an especially obstinate knot. "Once you turn in badge, you should become physiotherapist."

Roger snorts. "Surely I can get my hands on you again without a certificate."

Rafa grins. "Anytime you want. But easier if it's your job."

Roger snorts again. "My job is right here." His thumbs travel around Rafa's shoulderblades. "Speaking of which, I took care of Soderling."

"So I hear." Rafa grunts as Roger's hands glide down to his lower back. "I also hear he was easy for you." There's no bitterness in Rafa's voice, but Roger braces himself all the same. "You haven't had too much easy lately."

"No," Roger agrees. He slides his hands up to Rafa's bare neck. He considers how much he's ready to admit, and finally settles upon, "I never expected it to get easier as I got older. The nice thing, though, is that I've gotten smarter."

"I see that," Rafa concurs. "Not as proud."

"Huh?" Roger pauses, confused. "I'm plenty proud of what I've done."

"Not too proud, I mean," Rafa amends. "You used to say carotid hold was for wimps. Now you not shy about making suspect drop any way you can."

"Oh," Roger flushes. He did say some stupid things when he was younger. "Whatever it takes to close a case, you know?"

Rafa's right hand suddenly flashes up, catching hold of Roger's. Roger opens his mouth to react -- and then he closes it, suddenly unsure of the words on his tongue.

Instead, he flexes the hand Rafa has captured, twisting it so that their palms and fingertips meet up, for an instant. Rafa makes a pleased noise at the contact even as he pushes against it, lifting Roger's hand until the knuckles graze his lips.

Roger still can't speak. He knows that this has been a long time simmering between the two of them. It's his job to anticipate what people might do -- to identify how a ball's going to bounce before it's finished traveling through the air. He has a gift for it, and he's put in countless hours of practice and experience to put that gift to proper use: Roger has never been overtly religious, but he does believe it's a sin not to make the most out of one's blessings, in whatever form they may choose to appear.

Sometimes, though, he isn't 100% sure whether something is truly a blessing, or merely a temptation. As Rafa presses a hot, wet, open-mouthed kiss against the inside of his wrist, Roger clutches the back of the chair with his other hand. In a minute or two at the most, they will lock the office door -- he should have kicked it closed already, but getting Rafa to sit down had been the only conscious thought in his mind. He'll barely have time to draw breath before they'll be all over each other, desire and yearning tearing through their veins as they stroke and tug and propel each other towards a release that only they can provide to each other.

They have other partners with whom they're genuinely happy; their careers and lives will go on regardless of whether they're lucky enough to be thrown together for another case. But there's something about Rafa that speeds up Roger's pulse regardless of whether Rafa's strong fingers are actually curled around his wrist or not, and Rafa has made it abundantly clear that he's turned on by Roger's achievements. Their mutual attraction could easily devour them if they aren't careful, but time and time again they outrace it, calling upon both wit and stamina to outdo each other in the field: as far as they're concerned, their rivalry is mostly in other people's minds, but it does exist, and it's substantial enough to be a divide between them -- a net over which they volley everything they've got at each other, again and again, a neverending question over who's better at what they do, whose career will gleam more brightly in the archives and the record-books --

And Roger knows there won't ever be a conclusive answer to that question -- not as long as Rafa outsleuths him every two cases to one, especially in the arts district. It stings just enough to make him work that much harder, but so does the thought that someday, someone new will come along who will outshine them both. He doesn't want to make it too easy for them.

Rafa nips him none-too-gently on the wrist. "Your mind's wandering. I hear that's been happening a lot. Even when you were reeling in Soderling."

Roger tries to yank his hand away, but Rafa's grip is too strong. There's a taut silence between them before Rafa softly adds, "I won't let you get away with that. I deserve better than that from you."

"Everyone does," Roger automatically retorts.

"Si, but I can actually hold you to it."

After another long moment, Roger's own lips curve up. "Yes. And I want you to." He pulls Rafa close. And as the other man leans into him -- eighty-five kilos' worth of affection, passion, and challenge -- Roger begins to fingercomb the exclamation points out of Rafa's thick, dark hair.