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you and me (we are one and the same)

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you and me (we are one and the same)


 

 

2010, Surrey, England

 

On the frosty February evening when Andy Murray opens his door to find Novak dripping blood all over his front step, the first thing that trips out his mouth is: “Oh fucking hell Novak, you have the worst sense of timing.”

After a pause he adds “Ever.” Sometimes (most times), Novak demands extra emphasis.

In response, Novak flashes him a smile with lips that look like they've recently been split, pink, raw skin beneath the dark crust of dried blood. Blood on his teeth too, down his chin, soaking the front of his white t-shirt beneath his tattered jacket and Andy has to tighten his grip on the door until his hand hurts to keep himself from reaching out.

It's fine he tells himself, fierce with anger that he's letting himself worry when he should know better, does know better, you've seen him worse.

Except, that's a lie because Novak looks like something off fucking Casualty and for all that he's trying to grin, he's standing with an awkward hunch to his shoulders that makes Andy's back ache in sympathy. Makes his chest ache too with something entirely different, that he thought he'd got past when it came to Novak.

He won't let himself admit that that's a lie, too.

“Andy.” Novak's rasp sounds like someone's ripped his throat out recently, which would at least explain the wreck of his t-shirt. “I am sorry to show up so uninvited but I had no one else to ask. Please.” His grin wavers at the edges, just for a second; any other time, Andy would've suspected it was a good act – Novak the consummate actor, except Andy's been able to see through the cracks since they were twelve - but he can see the exhaustion in the deep furrows around Novak's eyes. There's the fading remnants of a bruise beneath the left one that must've really hurt.

So instead of slamming the door like he should, he steps back with a sigh and a wave of his hand behind him, tacit permission that he knows he'll regret. He can hardly leave Novak bleeding all over his driveway though. “Upstairs,” he says warningly, not flinching as he meets Novak's eyes that catch the electric light from the hall in a catlike-shine. “My mum and Kim are in the lounge, and that's one conversation I don't want to have tonight.”

Novak lifts an eyebrow, something faintly sardonic crossing his expression. “Kim?”

“Oh for fuckssake, don't start,” Andy snaps, sharper than he intended and wishes he could take it back when Novak's smile twists down at the corners. “Look I mean- would you hurry up? Before someone sees you pulling your Dracula act on my driveway.”

The Serb just looks at him, expressionless now, but if anything he hunches in on himself a little more, unmoving. Andy wonders how soon before his mum comes to see what's keeping him, if that's what Novak wants and panic razor-edges his voice when he snaps, “Come on Novak-”

Novak's eyes flicker shut and for the briefest moment, he looks so unhappy that Andy has his mouth open on a knee-jerk apology, words lost in the sudden tightness in his throat. Sure, Novak hadn't called after Australia to say thank you; sure, Andy'd spent the week after that night in the locker room struggling with the conviction that the next time his mobile rang, it'd be Marian with the worst news imaginable but that was hardly Novak's fault. He'd had no reason to think that Andy needed to be kept in the loop anymore, been given every indication to the contrary.

“You have to invite me.” Novak says, shaping the words carefully around the ruin of his mouth. “I have never been here.”

“Oh.” Andy swallows, waits until he thinks he can speak without his voice shaking. “Sorry. Novak Djokovic,” and his voice cracks anyway on the k, syllables unfamiliar after so long, “I invite you into my house. On the condition that you promise not to scare the shit out of my mum,” he adds to break the tension and Novak's grinning again as he slips inside, limping slightly as he brushes past Andy on the way towards the stairs.

“Only if she will promise not to scare the shit out of me either.”

“Oh shut up.” Andy's startled by the sudden flush of warmth when Novak grins back over his shoulder, surprised into a half-smile in return that feels unfamiliar on his face after the last few miserable weeks. He waits just long enough to see the Serb start stiffly up the stairs before he takes a breath and goes to make some excuse to his mum and fuck it, Kim.

Sometimes, he has to wonder if Novak plans to fuck up his life or if it's a natural talent.

It takes fifteen minutes and twice that number of apologies to get Kim out the door, towing a reluctant border terrier and a vague air of bewilderment behind her. Unfortunately his mother is anything but vague in her annoyance; the instant the front door closes behind Kim (shit, he hopes Novak had the sense not to trail blood too obviously over the paving) she's already mid-diatribe on sons who lead their ex-girlfriends on with talk of reconciliation dinners and then kick them out the house with nothing like a reason, and she's detailing all the ways she isn't going to fix this for him when his evasive shuffling backwards between yes Mum, okay's reaches the hall and he's out.

One last yell of “Don't you dare go slithering off Andrew Murray. I want an explanation!” catches him as he puts a foot on the first stair. 

“Night, Mum!” he calls back, because he's had years of handling Judy when she's on the warpath and he knows she's the type to plan strategy rather than chase a losing argument. He'll get it in the neck from her in the morning but he'll have tonight to deal with the Djokovic-shaped inconvenience hiding in his room before the inevitably awkward explanations (lies) over breakfast. 

Novak should be gone by then. Fuck, he hopes Novak's gone by then; it's difficult enough to bullshit his mum with the best of excuses, never mind trying to explain blowing off informal relationship counselling with his on-again-off-again girlfriend for the sake of a childhood crush. 

Who shouldn't even be in the country, especially not bleeding all over Andy's bedroom and he's going to be having words with Novak about this weird stalking thing that was supposed to stop

Actually he reflects as he climbs the stairs as quietly as he can, socks sinking into the plush carpet he's barely worn in, I never did tell her about the crush thing and that'd make explaining easier – Novak turned up, had to help, he's a friend, it was an emergency, all perfectly plausible lies. Except like he knows all his mother’s ways and means to win arguments, he knows all the ways she never misses anything; he'd had the usual thirteen-year old subtlety level of a rampaging elephant and there's no way she didn't notice the way he and Novak used to do everything but make out in public. 

Starting every other sentence with “Novak says...” for six months when he was twelve probably didn't help either. God, he'd give a lot to get a do-over on the stupider parts of his childhood. 

Like, the one time he'd walked into the seemingly-empty locker room at some scratty nothing of a junior tournament and, when he'd heard the soft sobbing coming from the niche between two lockers, instead of leaving well enough alone he'd peered warily in to ask if he could help. Meaning, offer awkward words of comfort, which fast turned into offer a beating pulse to a starving baby vampire.

Novak asked, he always asks, but it was Andy's own stubborn idiocy that kept him from running at the first flash of teeth. 

Sometimes, in the dark when he can't sleep, he wonders where he'd be right now if he had. How many Slams he might have, how fast he might’ve risen up the rankings without the tiredness and ever-present worry, distracted by constantly looking over his shoulder in case the wrong person saw the distinctive teeth marks at his wrist. 

If anyone now would remember the name of a hazel-eyed Serb boy who looked too pale, too thin, and flinched from stray sunbeams. 

Long time since they were both that young though, and all he's got at twenty-two is an ex-girlfriend and an (ex-) best friend who looks like someone, or more likely several someones, tested how many times they could hit him with a baseball bat. At least I’m beating Federer out in the drama stakes he thinks, but it sucks as an attempt to cheer himself up and he curses as he trips on the top stair in the semi-darkness, hand slammed against the wall for balance with thud that his mother probably heard in the guest room across the house, never mind Novak in just the next room. Shit

Dumb to try sneaking up on him anyway. He's never managed it in over a decade but there's a knot of worry in his chest over the thought that Novak might be gone before Andy so much as gets to his room. Maybe a t-shirt missing from his drawer in return for a bloody rag in the bin, or nothing there at all except a feeling like a now-familiar prickle up Andy's spine when he touches an impression he's never quite sure he'd made in the duvet of a hotel bed, or found the t-shirt he sleeps in folded neatly instead of tossed carelessly on the pillow. 

He'd asked Novak to leave him alone and the Serb had, in every way that Andy could see; the rest could be simple paranoia. He won’t let himself think, except in flashes of self-doubt when he meets Novak’s tight smile across the net, that maybe he's desperate enough to look for signs that aren't there. 

Besides, he knows better. Novak never gives up something that he's set his heart on having. 

There's a crack of light under his bedroom door when he turns the corner though, and he lets himself hope that it's a sign that Novak's still there without letting himself acknowledge that he wants it, so badly that he has to brace a hand on the wall for balance just outside. The paint is oddly damp beneath his hand and when he lifts it to see, his fingertips are smeared dark in the dim light. Novak must've paused beside the door, maybe stumbled, which is enough to make Andy go tense, blood-stained hand trembling as he stares. Even battered, even ripped apart, Novak doesn't stumble these days without a reason. 

The anxiety in his chest clenches to something not-quite-panic and he's pushing into his bedroom as fast as he can get the door wide, eyes searching across the familiar bed, wardrobe, chair, to find any sign of Novak and his breath hitches when on first glance, it looks empty. Only the sound of trickling water has him looking at the en-suite door, standing slightly ajar with a bloody t-shirt discarded in a heap on the cream carpet next to a pair of muddy trainers and he walks towards the bathroom with legs that don't feel quite steady.

He tells himself it's not relief, but for all that he can lie to his mum well enough that she at least plays along, it's a lot harder to believe his own bullshit. You're pathetic, Murray he tells himself and opens the door.

Novak is standing shirtless in front of the sink, a deep, white square that came with the suite Andy picked at random from a catalogue. Full of water that’s already stained dull crimson, dark tidemarks splashed across the gleaming ceramic and rust-coloured drops running down Novak’s wrist as he rinses a washcloth in it, formerly-white cotton now an off-shade of brown.

I'll need a new one, Andy catches himself thinking inanely as he stares at the red trickling between Novak's tanned fingers. He isn't sure if he means the washcloth or the sink.

“Sorry for mess,” Novak says without turning around. With the rusty cloth he starts wiping smears of blood from his chest and each swipe reveals fresh pink scars laced across the tan, some raw at the edges and others already faded to aged white, as if he’d been used as a living canvas for a knife. His face in the bathroom mirror is already clean, teeth gleaming when he flashes a smile at Andy's reflection. Maybe Andy'll need a new toothbrush too. “I clean before I go.”

“It's fine,” Andy says though the thought of cleaning Novak's blood up himself, chasing every damning smear before the housekeeper can find them, makes his stomach roll. That is- assuming it is Novak's blood. “What happened?”

“Fucking... babies, I guess you say.” Novak's mouth curls briefly into a moue of disdain. “New made. All excitable, think they know everything. They learn their lesson.”

Andy watches him wipe at the trickles of reddened water for a minute, eyes following the dip of cloth and fingers below the waistband of ruined jeans before he realises what he's doing, drags his gaze up and finds Novak watching him back in the mirror (another thing everyone got wrong, Novak laughing when a fourteen-year old Andy spent a month attempting to catch him out as invisible in a handheld mirror stolen from his mum’s handbag). There’s nothing like a smile on his face, just wide guileless eyes behind their frame of dark lashes, and for a second Andy can't make himself look away.

“Arsehole,” he says finally, raspy through a dry mouth and screws his eyes shut to block out the hypnotic pull. The darkness isn't comforting at all. “You know that's cheating.”

There's a splash, as if Novak's dropped the cloth into the sink. A moment of silence, nothing like the sound of bare feet crossing toward him but awareness of proximity prickles over Andy's bare arms where they're folded against his chest, hairs rising with the ghost-sensation of touch and he knows that, if he opens his eyes, he'll see Novak right there.

“I do not cheat with you Andy,” Novak says, the words worn soft with repetition. He must be half an inch away, Andy's entire body aching towards the cool, solid presence of him but he keeps his back pressed to the doorframe hard enough to bruise. “Ever.”

He's too close, breath brushing over Andy's cheek, trace of body-heat shivering like a caress across his folded arms. The memory of the time he asked why real vampires weren't cold is still vivid, years later; sprawled together in a tangle of legs and kisses across rumpled hotel sheets, Novak's lips had grazed the words from Andy’s mouth with the bare hint of teeth behind it, a promise but never a threat.

“You give us warmth,” he'd whispered, sounding too lazily amused for Andy to know if it was true.

He'd thought it might be; Novak never flinched from telling him bloody truths about being a vampire. He’s just never been able to work out if they were supposed to be warnings, or temptations.

Voice rough with the effort of trying to melt backwards through the wall, he says “This feels like cheating to me.”

“That's because you British are pessimists. Perhaps I am only happy to see you.” Novak's voice hums with something that could be a laugh if Andy opened his eyes to see the curve of his smile. The heat of it brushes the corner of his mouth and nerves scream to life all over his skin as if he's been electrified, aching to reach out with knowing Novak is a bare flinch of movement away, is right there for him to touch and this will only end one way, it always does, so why is he resisting? It hasn't worked since they were twelve years old.

He thinks of the sink full of blood across the room, of Novak's hazel eyes dull and bloodshot as he lay dying on the floor of an Australian locker room less than a month ago, and for all that it still takes him digging his nails into his arms hard enough to hurt, he doesn't move.

“I'll go find something for you to wear.” The words come out slow with reluctance and he hates himself a little, for not being able to lie when it really matters. “Clean up when you're done alright? I'd rather the housekeeper didn't report me to The Sun for ritual human sacrifice in my bathroom.”

There's no breeze of movement against his goosebumped-skin, no sound of footsteps, but the soft “Of course, Andy,” comes from back across the room and when, startled, Andy opens his eyes, Novak's back by the sink with the washcloth in his hand. His smile when he meets Andy's eyes in the mirror is carefully neutral, nothing more, and all Andy can do is flee back into the bedroom with the tatters of his dignity before he breaks under its weight.

Yanking open the wardrobe, he pulls out the first t-shirt and jeans he finds – they've shared clothes enough for him to know they're the same size, to know all the ways they fit together like two broken halves of a whole – and tosses them toward the bed without looking. Soft splashes come from the en-suite but not a sound from Novak, not the tuneless pop lyrics he sings to himself when he's bored or any muted sounds of pain either. Vampires heal fast from physical injuries - Andy's seen Novak's skin knit together beneath his own fingers, scars blooming and fading like flowers in the space of minutes. Even having his throat ripped out shouldn't slow him down for long.

If Andy leaves now, goes back downstairs to calm his mum down and maybe call Kim to apologise, experience has taught him that Novak will be gone by the time he gets back. Even vampires – even Novak - can take a hint.

But beneath the urge to retreat from this awkward thing between them, that he'd thought he'd finally extricated himself from, there's the nagging thought; Novak left him alone when Andy asked. For him to show up asking for help now, risking the front door when he's proven perfectly capable of sneaking in through the window time and again, it must've been bad.

He stays, knuckles white where he grips the door to hold himself still. Only the prickling sensation of being watched minutes later has him turning, slow, keeping his distance as much as he can without falling back into his own wardrobe. Tempting as it is there'd be no point hiding in it, not when he spent six months losing at hide-and-seek with Novak in juniors before he figured out vampires could track humans by scent alone. They are prey, after all.

Except, across the room Novak is leaning against the wall and he doesn't look much up to hunting anything right now. He's smiling, the same old mocking up-curve of his mouth that Andy knows by touch and taste, but in the lamplight his face is waxy-pale now the blood's gone and the fresh scar where his lips were split stands out in angry red, slashing through his smirk. He's still shirtless, bloody jeans on but unbuttoned, hanging off hips that are all sharp angles beneath too-fragile skin that, now it’s clean, is a tangled network of scars and still-healing cuts that look like- jesus, like they came from bites.

All the air leaves Andy's chest in a hiss because, shit.

“I am fine,” Novak says immediately, as if he isn't obviously being held upright by the wall alone, as if he doesn't look like he just got served up as dinner for a pack of wolves. His voice still rasps a little. “Andy, it is okay. I need just a moment and I will leave, it is not so bad as it looks.”

It takes a second for Andy to find his voice, a second more to breathe through the rising edge of panic he'd tried so hard to leave behind in Australia. “It looks pretty bad,” he says and has to pause to swallow when his tone pitches too far into shrill. “What the hell happened?”

Novak attempts a shrug that ends in a wince. “I tell you, baby vampires. I am faster, smarter yes, but I was a little surprised there were fifteen is all.”

Before Andy can demand an explanation – because fifteen, whatand whyand what – the Serb's pushing off the wall with deliberate casualness that's almost convincing, taking a step towards the clothes on the bed. Only years of fluency in reading Novak Djokovic facial expressions lets Andy catch the effort it takes, written in the tightening lines around Novak's eyes, and he's lunging forward without conscious decision even before Novak staggers. Off-balance he catches Novak halfway to the floor and they both go down with a thud, Novak sprawled on top with his elbow bruising Andy's ribs.

For a moment they lie tangled together, Andy too winded to speak while he tries to convince his racing heartbeat to slow. Novak's a cool, heavy weight in his arms, the Serb's face hidden in the curve of Andy's shoulder but he's breathing in shallow pants, the hot slide of his tongue brushing Andy's skin when he wets his lips.

“Sorry,” he says after another second of quiet, the words sounding forced out between his teeth. “Perhaps I am not so fine.”

“You think?” Andy bites out. Fury is rising beneath his worry, at Novak for getting in this state, at himself for ceding every careful inch of distance he's built over months in the space of a second, but he tells himself to be angry after, when Novak isn't almost shaking against him with the simple effort of breathing. There's a simple fix and then he can spend the rest of the night yelling at Novak. It won't make him feel better – it never has before – but maybe next time Novak will reconsider, or at least pause, before taking on fifteen-to-one odds.

Except he won't, because Andy knows better than anyone Novak Djokovic's deluded opinion of his own invincibility and he resents the tiny frisson of excitement in his gut at the thought of what he's going to have to do, again when he swore he wouldn't, and he doesn't even make it through helping Novak to his feet before the anger comes bursting out with “Are you trying to get yourself killed, Novak? I mean- fifteen, what did you think was going to happen, they'd just roll over and let you win because you're Novak-fucking-Djokovic, the king of bloody stupid vampire idiots? Did you even have a plan b like oh say, running away? I know you know all about that.”

He feels terrible the instant it's out, Novak flinching in his grip as if he's been punched. He has a hand fisted in Andy's shirt, the other curled cool and clammy around his shoulders to hold himself up, but everything in his body language cants away in a visible yearning to retreat that Andy could comment on if he was a much shittier person, if the guilt wasn't eating at him like acid for every second of Novak's mute refusal to argue the point. One of the things he forgot, in the distance they (he) built to keep themselves from self-destructing, is that Novak gets worryingly docile when he's truly sick, all his fire fading into exhausted pliability.

He'd forgotten, too, how he'd fought with all his bitter teenage determination to stop anyone taking advantage of it – how he'd lashed out with skinny fists if anyone so much as dared to throw insults at Novak when he couldn't fight back. It hadn't made them a lot of friends – except a thirteen-year old Rafa, who just glanced between pale, infuriated Andy and the pale, swaying Novak, and said “He yours, si,” and accepted it as fact in the space of a breath.

“I didn't mean that,” he mutters, getting an arm around Novak's waist to keep him upright as he half-carries the Serb to the bed. Novak's skin is cool against his palm, silky ridges of fading scars marring the softness and he focuses on them as a reminder of why they're here, on the metal-tang of blood beneath the smell of toothpaste and vanilla soap, because it's hardly the time to be aware of the fact that he has an armful of half-naked Novak clinging to him for the first time in over a year. Especially when misery is written in every line of Novak's hunch as he eases onto the bed, head hanging heavy on his shoulders. “Sorry,” Andy adds, feeling the inadequacy of it as a comfort, lacking anything better to offer when Novak won’t so much as look at him, “I mean- fifteen vampires, fuck. You could be dead, and what the hell would I do then?”

As an attempt at lightening the tension it falls flat, too thin with truth and Andy grimaces as he sits down. Leaves a careful inch of space between them but he lets his hand linger on the dip of the Serb's back to brace him up because Novak still hasn't lifted his head, shoulders curved into a hunch that’s nothing like Novak’s usual open swagger. “Hey," Andy tries again, desperate for a smile, for anything, "You okay? Because if you actually died I'd have to adopt Pierre and no offense, but I don't think I could take myself seriously if I owned a dog with more ridiculous hair than me.”

Finally Novak makes a sound, involuntary choke of laughter muffled into his chest. Encouraged, Andy lets his hand drift up to rub circles over the bumps of Novak's spine, feeling the shiver against his palm and not knowing which of them it belongs to, if it's shared, but he feels the shift of muscle as Novak takes a deep breath – waits, because he expects a question but not the one he gets.

“What would you do?” With his head tucked down, the way the words snag in Novak's throat is almost inaudible and Andy frowns, considering and discarding what he's supposed to be answering before Novak clarifies, muffled by the bow of his head; “In Australia, if I had actually- without me, you would be better I think.”

Andy’s exhale comes out on a shocked little sound, thumped from his chest at hearing his own hidden thought voiced so unexpectedly. ‘That isn’t- I don’t believe that, Novak. And what happened to not cheating?”

“I don’t need to cheat,” Novak says and the exhaustion is thick along the edges of his tone now he isn’t pretending to be anything other than battered, rounding off all the corners of his accent, ‘when someone thinks something so loudly.”

“When-” Ragged and not the question he wants to ask anyway, Andy cutting himself off with his own teeth sharp on his lip. He knows when; it’s flickered through his mind every time he thought Novak was too far away to hear, every time he lost a match because the air he swung his racquet through felt as thick as tar, every time he watched Novak falter out on a sun-flooded court and knew he’d be the one kissing burnt skin later, pressing his wrist up to cool lips with a whispered come on, it’ll help.

Every time he’d remembered that tatty locker room that smelled of teenage boys and old socks, nothing particularly special about it except for the twelve-year old boy glaring out at him from the shadows, tears dripping from his eyelashes and chewing nervously at his lower lip with delicate, improbable fangs.

“If you could be arsed to cheat properly,” he says, voice rough in all the places it should be soft because that’s never been the way he comforted Novak, “you’d know that every time I thought that, I regretted it. I asked you to leave me alone because I couldn’t keep living in your pocket if I ever want to beat you in a fucking tennis match, Novak. Not- Australia was one of the worst nights of my life, alright? Is that what you want to hear?”

Finally Novak looks up, gaze slanted sideways through dark lashes as if his head is too heavy to lift all the way. There’s nothing like amusement in his expression now, discomfort wiping out the lightness that usually gleams behind his every word. He looks almost feral in the soft glow from the bedside lamp, fangs half-extended and a dark, wild light in his eyes; it’s only after the instinctive flare of concern dies down that Andy realises, anyone else would probably have the sense to be afraid.

He’s made a point not to be afraid of Novak since they were twelve. It’s probably too late to break the habit.

“I was- somewhat distracted, in Australia, but Marian told me that you tried to help,” Novak says, voice gone out of shape around the fangs. “That was stupid. I mean, thank you,” he adds when Andy goes tense with anger, “but you got involved, I told you-

“He fucking poisoned you!”

Andy doesn’t intend to shout but anger rips the words out too loud, echoing back from the walls and fuck, he hopes his mum doesn’t come to check that out. Breathes out hard to wrest back control, Novak still watching him with the wide-eyed wariness of a cornered animal and it’s too close to the panic Andy glimpsed on the other side of the world, the image that’s haunted him of Novak gasping for air on the locker room floor before Marian firmly shut the door in Andy’s face.

“He poisoned you,” he repeats, this time with the outrage barely compressed down to quiet, “and I was watching it in my hotel room and you- god, you looked like you were about to drop down dead, Novak, and Jo was celebrating as if it was just tennis, as if he didn’t care.”

Something soft flickers behind Novak’s frown, as if he’d like to roll his eyes at Andy being ridiculous. “He didn’t. Vampire hunters think of it as- a favour, I told you this. It is hard to be concerned about killing something already undead.”

“You’re not undead, we banned that word remember,” Andy says automatically, well-worn protest tripping off his tongue without having to think. “And he was concerned enough to stage it so he won the match. He tried to murder you so he could win a tennis match for fuckssake. I wish I’d done more than punch him.”

If anything, Novak’s expression darkens further and his mouth twists down at the corner, fangs indenting sharp enough to raise a bead of crimson on his bottom lip. “You should not have done even that.”

“Why?” Andy demands and god, he’d thought the endless silent weeks after Australia were bad but Novak telling him he- what, shouldn’t care? Is a little like being stabbed, sharp pain clenching beneath his ribs. “I asked you to keep your distance for tennis, Novak. Not so I could watch asshole vampire hunters put garlic in your water bottle as light entertainment!”

The sigh Novak breathes out is a defeat as much as exhaustion, slumping into Andy as if to fend off the imminent overreaction. “Not because of that. Because-”

He hesitates, and shivers; Andy feels it everywhere they press together with a sudden shock of anxiety, washing like ice down his spine.

“Novak,” he says, soft as the pieces start to slot into the bigger picture, “why are you here?”

“It’s fine,” Novak says immediately, pressing harder into their half-hug as if the bruise his shoulder is digging into Andy’s ribs is any kind of comfort. “Honour says they can only try once per insult, and you only punch Jo once, right? Thank god you are British and have all that chivalry nonsense or maybe you kick him while he’s down. Good thing you are not Safin, eh? Or we would all be, how you say? In the shit.”

Babbling in the airy way Novak has when he’s deflecting, pretending to believe his own bullshit. Andy’s mouth is so dry with dread, he hears his tongue rasp against his teeth as he swallows.

“Novak,” he says and it comes out muted, almost inaudible to anything other than vampire hearing, “where were those fifteen baby vampires?”

The hum of uncertainty from Novak is anything but reassuring. “Well, that depends.”

On what?”

Novak takes a sharp breath, bracing himself. “On how attached you were to your back garden?”

“Jesus fuck,” Andy says, and falls back onto the bed so he can cover his face with both hands, because it’s too much in that instant to look at Novak. Novak who just killed fifteen vampires lurking outside Andy’s house, his house which tonight had also contained Kim and his mum, oh god.

It would’ve been his fault.

“Tell me something,” he says into his muffling hands, still hearing the odd hollowness of fury in his voice, “if I kill Jo next time I see him, does that count as an insult?"

The mattress shifts as Novak lies down next to him, a stifled hiss of pain that probably means he’s hit the limit of his reserves on healing any further. “Yes, although it would be misdirecting your effort. Jo would not do this, not to a human and a high profile player. I, I do not count and it helped him at the time but you would be noticed. He is not so stupid.”

Letting his hands drop, Andy turns just his head to frown at Novak who’s not lying down so much as sprawled beside him, arms curled out gracelessly across Andy’s dark grey sheets. The contrast emphasises the bruised shadows beneath his eyes, the hollow relief of his cheekbones, and painful affection catches in Andy’s throat. Staying angry with Novak for not calling after Australia, for taking him too literally when Andy asked for space, feels all but impossible right now; all he wants to do is get between Novak and the world that made him look like that, falling back into the pattern they’d followed since they were juniors, careful distance of the last year dissipating like a fever dream.

“If I can’t blame Jo, who?” he asks, because his mum. Even if one-on-one he’d bet on Judy versus a vampire any day, he’d still like to find whoever tried this and beat into them all the ways it’s not okay.

Novak’s shrug is a bare twitch of his shoulder, lashes flickering as he blinks too slow. Exhausted. “I think most likely he reported you as a vampire sympathiser, to be watched, and the elders of his hunting family chose you as my weakness. It is old way, locking a group of sympathisers with a new-made and releasing them near whoever gave the insult. My mother- she knew of it, and when she got word I came. It was because of me,” he adds, soft as a bitter smile curves around his fangs, “my fault you gave the insult. I intended to help and leave; you were not supposed to know I was here.”

Half-suppressed misery constricts in Andy’s chest, like he might be crushed into the mattress by the weight of his next question. “And if there’d been sixteen vampires? Twenty?”

“Mmm,” Novak murmurs, eyes half-lidded and all his wildness eased away by exhaustion, curling an arm beneath his head as a pillow with a small sound of effort. “Then my mother would know I was gone, and send others, Marko, Djordje, to watch your house. We look after family.”

Opening his mouth to snap something furious at Novak’s lack of survival instinct, Andy finds his voice trapped behind the lump in his throat, lips moving soundlessly over words that would be a waste of breath, anyway. It’s been like this since that first dingy locker room, Novak fixing on desires like a magpie hoarding glitter and everything else falling away in the pursuit. Loving tennis enough to decide he’d be the first vampire in history to overcome the sunlight allergy, Andy remembering pained faces a younger Novak made in practices and the tense expectation of the first stumble, the instant red, raw sunburn flared out over his hard-won tan and Andy would leap the net to catch him before he hit the clay. Deciding the way to throw off the hunters was to wear a cross and testing himself, smoke rising from his shaking hands as they sat cross-legged on the bed in another faceless hotel room, Andy’s grip white-knuckled on the stopwatch to keep himself from reaching out.

And Andy, clear in the wide-eyed wonder with which a twelve-year old Novak looked at him when, instead of running, Andy knelt beside the lockers and asked will it hurt? Later, much later, Andy would recognise it for what it was, Novak mesmerised by something in an instant that became enduring, imprinting on Andy with the unshakeable conviction that this, here, was what he wanted.

Sometimes, in the fragile quiet of his room at three a.m. or the insomniac drag of red-eye flights when the idea he might be something special, something worth wanting, seems almost possible, Andy lets himself wonder if Novak wanted tennis so much because having tennis meant having Andy, too.

Forcing his voice out through the tightness, he rasps, “Am I- she’d still do that? After I asked you to leave me alone?”

Novak’s eyes slit open, dark lashes a stark frame against his pale skin. “Well,” he says with heaviness that’s guilt as much as tiredness, curve of his mouth suddenly pulling in, “that part, she may not know so much.”

“You lied to your mother?” Andy asks. Startled into dry amusement because Novak, lethal, suave, first-vampire-in-history-to-beat-the-sun-that-one-vampire-scientist-wrote-a-book-about Novak, can’t lie for shit to his parents.

Of course, neither can Andy and his mother can’t actually read minds.

“No. Yes. I did not mention it and I- I made Marian promise.” A frown furrows Novak’s forehead and concern flares up again when Andy notices the waxy cast to his skin, takes in the boneless slump of him against the sheets as if most of him is already relaxing into sleep, shit. In worrying about how close he came to losing Novak, he’d been failing to notice he still could.

“Novak,” he says, pitching it too loud on purpose and Novak groans a protest, lips curling back to show his teeth in an instinctive threat. Pushing upright in alarm Andy pokes him hard in the ribs, noting for the first time that Novak’s not wearing the cross he hardly ever takes off, so proud of himself for proving he could. “Novak. What’s wrong?”

And okay, that slips out with a sharp edge of panic but he hasn’t seen Novak this worn down since- well, Australia, but before that it’d been years. Long enough that he’d felt safe asking for distance, sure in Novak’s hard-won capability to survive without Andy on hand to watch every move, and uncomfortably aware there may be something to Marian’s quiet reproach every time he caught them with Novak’s mouth on Andy’s skin, if you keep using him as a snack bar Nole, he will never win matches.

“Australia,” Novak mumbles and Andy’s panicked thought that he may be hallucinating already gets disproven, thank fuck, when he adds, “this is- leftover. I heal too much, too fast, so soon after garlic and holy water. It- will take a while, a few feeds. Don’t worry.”

Don’t-” Only registered the pained flicker over Novak’s expression cuts off Andy’s anger, simmering white-hot until he realises he’s gripping the sheets hard enough that his knuckles crack when he forces his fingers open. The memory of their one experiment with building Novak’s immunity to holy water in juniors is seared into his bulky mental file of stupid mistakes I let Novak talk me into, the utter panic of watching water bubble like acid over skin that healed far too slowly, almost human and Novak’s pained gasp every time he knocked that hand for days after.

He hadn’t known Jo used holy water, too. If he had, he might not’ve stopped at the one punch.

It solidifies a decision that he was kidding himself was still up for debate, his own words almost like a mockery in his memory as he drags Novak upright, letting him fall into Andy like a dead-weight. I can’t keep offering myself up as a sacrifice to your ambition, Novak, he’d said, the hurt that knocked Novak back a step so clear it was almost too oppressive to withstand, air gone thick around the words in Andy’s mouth. We can’t do this anymore. It’s not fair.

Maybe it still isn’t, but neither is the way Novak’s breathing’s gone shallow and the cool, clammy press of his skin where he’s pressed into the curve of Andy’s shoulder, Andy’s face tucked against the softness of his hair. He must not have washed it because, beneath Novak’s familiar smell of salt and fine cotton and the overpriced cologne he’s favoured ever since they started winning enough to afford it, there’s the sour tang of blood.

Although, Andy realises with memory worn thin by the last year but still there when he reaches for it, all the times they’ve done this, the blood’s familiar too.

“Novak,” he says, curling a hand around Novak’s shoulders to press them together, the Serb’s breathing a damp warmth on the thin skin over his pulse. They haven’t done it this way for years, Andy preferring easier-to-hide teeth marks at his wrists, but he doesn’t think he can hold Novak up any other way. “It’s okay, come on. You need it.”

Bumps his chin when Novak shakes his head, finding a querulous sound from somewhere in his haze of sleep and starvation, all his resources burned up and his skin cooling by the second. With an exasperated growl, Andy tightens his grip so pain pinpricks along his skin, two sharp points scraping the surface. “Please Novak,” he says and it slides out coaxing, cracking on the final syllable because he’s never been an expert on gentle. “I want you to. I promise.”

“You said,” Novak whispers without lifting his head so his teeth press to Andy’s throat on every word, fragile and yet his tone still leaning into petulance, “you said never.”

Clumsy, trying to remember how easy this used to be, Andy runs his free hand tentatively down Novak’s back, soothing strokes over bare skin. “I say a lot of things. Some of them are pretty stupid.”

As permission goes it’s nebulous at best, but Novak’s always been able to hear the things Andy doesn’t know how to say and his sharp inhale is warning enough; closing his eyes, Andy feels the soft, slick trace of tongue and then pain lights up every nerve as Novak bites.

It hurts, like it hurts every fucking time as the sharp points slide in and it’s been long enough that he forgets to swallow the instinctive gasp, back arching as the sensation shivers all the way to his toes. Like this, tangled together, Novak’s hesitation is readable only in the way his lips tremble against Andy’s throat, and the half-stifled sound he hums into the bite. Asking.

“It’s okay,” Andy says, breathless. He feels hot and cold together, chills chasing the flare of pain that jolts him when Novak sucks at the torn skin without pulling back. There’s blood trickling down, ticklish over his throat as it pools wetly in the hollow of his collarbone and god, he’s dizzy already. “Come on Novak, it’s rude to play with your food.”

That gets him a grin, Novak’s mouth curving against his throat even when there’s no strength in the way he leans into Andy, in the loose curl of his fingers over Andy’s thigh, cool even through the layer of denim. Andy dressed carefully for tonight, best jeans and a shirt that Kim always liked, crisp white cotton and collar a stiff reminder not to hunch his shoulders as they sat in polite conversation over dinner.

He’ll probably have to burn it in the morning. Soaked crimson to the shoulder and what would he say to the dry cleaners? Sorry, I cut myself shaving. With a machete.

Reaching up with the hand not buried in Novak’s hair, he thumbs open a few more buttons until he can pull the ruined material down, baring his shoulder. About to murmur encouragement but Novak gets the message, shifts just enough to get the leverage and then he’s biting in earnest, mouth pressed down tight to catch the flood of warmth Andy feels, rushing out.

He’d hadn’t known he’d missed this until he had it again, the dizzy tilt of gravity as he goes lightheaded, the softness of Novak’s hair under his fingers. Even knowing he’ll ache tomorrow as if his bones are hollowed out and fragile, too off-balance for practice; even with consequences, he doesn’t regret offering it up in trade for Novak being here.

“I’d miss you,” he lets himself say, voice grating out raw with honesty. Answering the question he’d sidestepped earlier because it’s the least he can offer now and feeling Novak go still, listening without lifting his head. “If- if you’d died, in Australia. Or when we were juniors. I might second-guess my tennis but- it doesn’t mean I’d do a single thing different.”

When Novak moves it’s fast, grip abruptly tight at Andy’s hips as he straddles his thighs and he’s warm, oh, Andy feeling the world go unsteady at the sudden press of flushed, bare skin through his ruined shirt. Teeth back in his throat and Novak’s hips rocking just enough for pleasure to chase the sting from the bite, slow grind together through rough denim. No purpose in it – they found out fast, horny teenagers fumbling in cheap hotel rooms at junior tournaments, that Andy can’t get hard unless they fuck first – but he welcomes the sensation all the same, groaning as Novak rips the last few shirt buttons away to get hot-now hands on Andy’s ribs, thumbing a nipple, nails sharp along the line of his ribs.

He could’ve lost this tonight, a month ago, lost Novak and he forces fingers gone clumsy to curl over Novak’s wrist and hang on. If he’d been watching, if he hadn’t stepped back, maybe he could’ve stopped what happened in Australia. Everyone in the locker room had seen the sudden coolness between him and Novak, even if the grapevine hadn’t been able to dig up the reasons why; Rafa actually cornered Andy at the World Tour Finals to ask, stumbling over concern, what Novak had done.

No one seemed to think Andy was responsible. It’s about time, he thinks as the world goes hazy and soft-edged, letting Novak push him back down to the blood-splashed sheets, he made it clear again that Novak is off-limits.

“Andy,” Novak whispers against the ragged bite, thread of surprise in his tone – of course he’d heard that, too close like this to avoid the thoughts slipping through. “Are you- I can leave. If you stay away, no one will come after you again.” Anyone who didn’t know him like Andy, every line and inflection catalogued over the years, might’ve missed the reluctance, the possessive tightness of his grip that’ll leave bruises, marks that Novak will kiss over with the scrape of teeth if he’s still here in the morning.

When, when he’s still here in the morning because Andy shifts just enough to slide his thigh between Novak’s and pressing up, grinding into Novak’s hardness through their jeans with his gasp like an emphasis as he whispers-

“Stay.” Just that, and it’s enough.

“Yes.” Novak hisses as he rocks his hips, steady, “Yes, yes Andy,” and there’s sharp spark of pain when his fangs catch torn skin, blood slicking the brush of his lips over Andy’s throat. He bites down again with a shudder as he comes with a small sound, choked off as Andy grits out a moan, breath gone uneven with Novak shaking and beautiful against him, his.

After a long minute of breathing through the aftershocks Novak lifts his head until their mouths meet, Andy’s eyes flickering shut against the dizziness dragging him under as he kisses back, tongue sliding wet and copper-harsh over the curve of Novak’s teeth.

Blood oath, Andy thinks through the blur of blood loss and dizziness, remembering enough of the vampire habits he’s picked up over the years to know it’s the best promise Novak can offer, all but unbreakable. Promising he’ll stay, that this is it. The final ache of misery from Australia, and the last year, calms beneath the kiss, soothed away by the warm, living slide of Novak’s mouth and Andy drifts down to unconsciousness with the tang of blood over his tongue and the surety of safety in having Novak close by. Taking with him into the dark the certainty that he won’t, can’t, believe that he can’t let himself have this and tennis too.

After all he has the proof, finally warm beneath his hands, that the impossible just takes practice.