"Did Mirka send you?" said Roger when he opened the door. He wasn't particularly surprised.
"Sí," said Rafa. "Then she say Roger, he run away, and I send me too."
"I didn't run away," said Roger, folding his arms.
Rafa grinned. "I can come in?" he said, glancing over Roger's shoulder.
"What if I say no?" said Roger.
"You not saying no," said Rafa confidently, and pushed past Roger without another word.
"Nice place," said Rafa, looking around with approval. "Mirka say cabin in Canada, I think, Dios mío, Roger finally go crazy, move to terrible house in middle of nowhere."
Roger folded his arms again. "You were waiting for me to go crazy?" he said.
Rafa smirked, then shrugged. "So calm, all time," he said. "Always smile, always nice. Not normal. Some time have to be, ah, how you say. Explode?"
"You think I'm not normal?" said Roger, trying very hard to be stern.
"Ay de mí," muttered Rafa. "Yes, I think this, whole time."
Roger rolled his eyes. "Anyway," he said, "I'm not calm always."
"Is true," said Rafa thoughtfully. "Lots of cry, lots of laugh, mess up speech, mess up videos."
"Oh, fuck off," said Roger.
Rafa burst out laughing.
"I can't believe you came all the way here," said Roger, smiling and dropping onto the couch.
Rafa sat down beside him.
"I come to see you okay," he said, more gentle and more serious. "I see okay. If you want, I go."
Roger thought about it. He came here to be alone, to take some time to think and relax and start moving on-- lots of hikes, that sort of thing. Until this moment he would have assumed he'd tell Rafa to go-- nicely, of course-- but now, it felt like enough that he'd asked.
The thing was, Rafa was worn so well into his life, like a groove in an old mattress. Roger couldn't ever remember a time he didn't want Rafa's company, hadn't been glad for it, even after losing to him in a Slam final. That said just about all that was needed, honestly.
Rafa was one of his best friends. He was so easy to be around, so funny and fun and earnest, so genuinely good, generous and caring. He liked Roger, always had, and Roger liked him.
Maybe most importantly right now, too, he understood. He got this, better than anyone.
"No," said Roger. "No, stay. If you want to."
"I want," said Rafa simply, and that was that.
"Why here?" said Rafa as he stood by the window, tilting his head at the Athabasca River outside.
Roger shrugged. "It's nice."
"You say everywhere is nice," said Rafa.
"I don't think everywhere is nice," said Roger.
Rafa narrowed his eyes. "You say Mallorca is nice."
Roger smiled fondly. "Mallorca is beautiful," he said.
"Okay," said Rafa, smiling back. And, after a pause, "You come here before?"
"No," said Roger.
"Ah." Rafa nodded.
"You are sure?" said Rafa quietly. He was stacking their plates from dinner into the dishwasher, having gently but firmly shoved Roger onto one of the kitchen bar stools, despite his protests.
Roger thought about it, which was stupid, because he'd done nothing but think about it for the last year at least. He shook his head. "I don't think I'll ever be sure," he said. "Not even when I'm eighty. But also very sure, you know?"
Rafa blinked at him. "Sí," he said slowly.
Roger laughed. "You will," he said.
Rafa watched him silently, leaning on the counter.
"Just." Roger sighed. "It's still hard, you know? I don't feel bad. Like I can play. I want to play."
"You can always play," said Rafa. "Even when you eighty, sí, still greatest of all time."
Roger smiled at him. "When I'm eighty," he said, "I'll challenge you to a match, and then we'll see."
"Will be very boring match," said Rafa.
"I don't think so," said Roger. "Very long match, maybe. We'll be out there for days. But not boring. It'll be all over the TV. We'll have to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon to fit all the crowds."
"Okay," said Rafa after a moment. He held out a hand. "Is deal."
Roger laughed and shook his hand. "Deal," he said.
The holiday cabin Roger had hired indefinitely for himself was very nice, very comfortable, but still only had one bedroom. He hadn't been anticipating the need for anything more.
"I take couch," said Rafa when they were both yawning too much to ignore further. "Your holiday."
Roger made a pained face. "You're the guest," he said. "I'll take the couch."
"We both guest," Rafa pointed out, putting his hands on his hips.
"Well, technically." Roger waved a hand. "You know. I got here first."
"Sí," said Rafa, nodding. "So you keep bed."
"That's not how it works," said Roger. "I hired the place, so it's mine until I leave, so that means you're the guest. Plus, if it's my holiday, I can sleep on the couch if I want."
"Not want," said Rafa. "Think have to."
"Who says I don't want to?"
Rafa groaned. "Okay, is stupid, no more fight." He held out a fist. "Can't challenge tennis match, so we go like this."
"Paper scissors rock?" Roger grinned. "Okay, you're on."
They played best of three, at Rafa's insistence after he lost the first game, but Roger still won.
"Ha," said Roger, grinning triumphantly as Rafa pouted. "I should be professional."
"Sí, new hobby," said Rafa huffily.
"If you stop complaining, you can have the couch tomorrow night," said Roger.
"No complain," said Rafa, narrowing his eyes.
"Sure, if you say so," said Roger, going to hunt up some blankets for the couch.
Rafa stomped pointedly into the bedroom.
Roger was woken abruptly in the morning by Rafa dropping his entire not-inconsiderable weight onto his legs. He groaned, pulling the blanket up over his head.
"Go away," he said, muffled. "I'm retired now, I get to sleep in."
"Is ten o'clock," said Rafa, sounding scandalised.
"I don't care," said Roger. "I can sleep until lunchtime if I want to."
"Couch is for sitting," said Rafa cheerfully. "I'm sitting. You want sleep, move to bed."
Roger inched the blanket down to narrow his eyes at him. "Not gonna work," he said.
Rafa grinned and shrugged. "Worth try."
Roger wrenched one of his legs out from under Rafa just so he could kick him.
"Hey!" said Rafa. "I'm guest, you saying so. Be nice."
"Stop trying to be sneaky," said Roger, sitting up. "You can't have it both ways."
"Can have every way," said Rafa nonsensically. "What we gonna do today?"
"I don't know," said Roger, scrubbing a hand through his hair.
"No plan?" said Rafa, raising his eyebrows. "You always having plan."
"Not anymore," said Roger, shrugging.
Rafa's face softened a little, and he shuffled along the couch to press himself against Roger's side. "Is okay," he said. "Sometimes no plan best plan. Gonna have fun!"
"Oh yeah?" said Roger, feeling the corners of his mouth tug upwards involuntarily.
"Sí." Rafa nodded, looking determined. "Lots to do here, no?"
"I guess," said Roger. "There's a book around here somewhere."
"I find," said Rafa. "You have car?"
"Yeah, I hired one," said Roger.
"Okay," said Rafa, and promptly buried himself in the resort guide.
Roger huffed, amused, and headed into the kitchen to start on some breakfast.
Rafa looked at Roger thoughtfully as he finished the last of his eggs.
"What?" said Roger, swallowing.
"I'm thinking," said Rafa. "You come here, is big place, lots of people, things to do. But you hire most private house, we eat here inside instead of go to restaurants."
"Yeah," said Roger slowly.
"So we do something with no people, sí?"
"I mean," said Roger, "If you want-- "
"You want," said Rafa firmly. "I decide. Hire snowshoes, go for walk."
"Okay," said Roger, biting back a smile blooming with affection. "That sounds nice."
Rafa nodded. "Then tomorrow, we go ski. More people, but we wear so many clothes, nobody know who we are. Even if see face, look too stupid to be famous, no?" He grinned.
"Probably," agreed Roger, laughing. "But-- are you even allowed to ski?"
Rafa ducked his head. "You tell on me?" he said. "Call Uncle Toni?"
"No," said Roger, horrified. "I know Uncle Toni. He'll think it's my fault. Yell at me."
"Yell at both," said Rafa. "Is okay, I'm careful."
"You'd better be," said Roger. "I'm not taking you to the hospital on my holiday."
Rafa scoffed. "Of course you take," he said. "But is no need!" he added hastily at Roger's look.
Roger laughed, throwing a napkin at him. "Okay," he said. "Sounds good."
Rafa disappeared to get the snowshoes after they'd cleared up from breakfast. He was back half an hour later, dumping the shoes inside the door and brandishing some papers in Roger's face.
"What's this?" said Roger, tugging his sweater into place.
"I get map, reading things," said Rafa proudly. "Tells us about animals!"
"Cool," said Roger, taking the brochures from Rafa with interest. "We're walking to the Lake?"
"Sí, through forest, they say," said Rafa. "Lots of trail, we pick quiet one, is nice."
"Hey," said Roger suddenly, reaching out to curl a hand around Rafa's elbow. He was just-- just so enthusiastic, flushed and excited for something Roger had come here to do by himself, not wanting to drag anyone else into it, and it was really nice. He was so nice, so good. "Thanks, you know? For-- I don't know, everything. Coming here. Doing this with me. I appreciate it."
Rafa's face went soft, and he stepped close to give Roger a quick, warm hug. "Is no problem," he said, muffled into Roger's sweater. "I'm happy for stay. You, me, always good. Gonna have fun."
"Yeah," said Roger, smiling at him when he stepped back. "Yeah, we are."
He hadn't exactly anticipated fun when he came here, but now that Rafa had come along too, there wasn't really any other option. It was a pretty great surprise, honestly.
They spent the day outside, taking the long circuit of the lake through the woods and occasionally dipping in close to the shore, when the trail led them there. Rafa exclaimed over the animals they encountered with delight, staring with wide-eyed, childish glee at the caribou while Roger snapped photos from over his shoulder. "Is reindeer," he whispered to Roger, pressing their shoulders together. "Like Christmas!" They lingered for a long time, watching them silently through the trees until they wandered off of their own volition. Even the birds had a kind of magical quality to them, the few that they saw, in the bare trees and the strange echoing pervasiveness of winter.
Roger kept the brochure in his gloved hand almost the entire way, reading off tidbits about glacial lakes and the nearby mountains, trying to spot the things he learned about. Rafa listened intently and pointed to things with questions, like he just expected Roger would know the answers. Sometimes he did, if it was in the brochure, and sometimes he didn't, which made Rafa shake his head with mock-disappointment, but as they stood overlooking the lake from a high point on the trail, the dark, half-frozen water framed by snow-streaked mountains and the picturesque taper of pine trees along the shore, he stared for a very long time, silent, and then said, "Pick good place."
His voice was hushed, awed, and Roger leaned towards him instinctively.
Rafa turned his head to look at him. "Beautiful," he added.
"It really is," agreed Roger.
"Glad you come here," said Rafa. "Glad I follow."
Roger smiled at him. "Me too," he said. He bit back another thank you, because Rafa said he was glad to be here, happy to stay, but he thought about it nonetheless, how lucky he was.
"We start walk back now?" Rafa asked after another long silence.
"Yeah," said Roger. "Should probably get back before dark."
"Probably?" said Rafa, raising an eyebrow.
"Definitely," Roger corrected, laughing.
It was late afternoon by the time they finally approached the cabin. Roger felt good, a little breathless and flushed from exertion, tired in a satisfied way. Nice aches in his limbs.
"Is starving," groaned Rafa as he kicked off his shoes and collapsed onto the couch.
Roger couldn't argue with that. He'd thought ahead enough to bring snacks on the walk, but they hadn't done much for a day of exercise and professional tennis player appetites.
"I don't want to cook," he said plaintively, snatching up the resort guide as he joined Rafa on the couch.
"No cook," agreed Rafa. "They do room service?"
Roger hummed, scanning the pages. "Yes!" he said triumphantly as he found the menu.
"Good," said Rafa, standing. "I go shower, you order. Remember what I like?"
"Of course," said Roger, affronted.
Rafa flashed him a bright grin as he disappeared.
They ate dinner on the couch and watched a terrible action movie that made Rafa giggle and Roger sleepy, and then Rafa kicked Roger unceremoniously towards the bedroom.
"I sleep on couch tonight," he said, unfolding Roger's blankets from the previous night.
"Fine," said Roger, sighing. He was too tired to argue, and Rafa was a stubborn little shit. "But we're swapping back tomorrow. Don't argue with me." Rafa rolled his eyes theatrically, and Roger grinned, reaching out impulsively to ruffle his hair. "Goodnight, Rafa."
"Buenas noches, Roger," said Rafa, smiling at him, warm and sleepy-soft and familiarly creased.
"Ski is twenty minute drive," Rafa informed him when Roger stumbled, bleary-eyed and tousle-haired, from the bedroom. He was already dressed and watching TV.
"Huh?" said Roger intelligently, yawning.
"We drive to ski," said Rafa, tugging on Roger's t-shirt until he sat down on the couch.
"Okay," said Roger. "Do we have enough warm clothes?"
"Lots warm clothes," said Rafa. "Maybe not ski clothes. You have?"
"No," said Roger. "We can buy some, I guess."
"We buy, or go ski in pyjamas," said Rafa. "You choose." He smiled impishly.
"I'll make you ski in pyjamas," muttered Roger.
Rafa snorted, swaying to the side so he could bump their shoulders together.
"I buy," he said. "Present for retire. Maybe now you ski for real, I see you at Winter Olympics."
Roger hummed. "That's one thing I haven't done, I guess," he said, smiling.
"Is sad, no tennis for winter," said Rafa. "Could play in snow!"
"How would the ball bounce in the snow?" said Roger, frowning.
"Stop making problems, we find way," said Rafa. "Maybe tennis in snow with no bounce, like other pretend tennis sport, with tiny rackets. But better, because tennis, and snow, and us."
"Badminton?" said Roger. "Hmm. I guess would probably be more interesting than badminton. Or we could just play on ice, with skates. I'd pay to see that."
Rafa's eyes went wide and distant, clearly picturing it. He grinned slowly, delighted.
"Oh, God," said Roger.
"Brilliant!" cried Rafa loudly. "Roger, so smart! Tennis on ice skates, is perfect."
"More like most dangerous sport in the world," said Roger.
"Sí!" said Rafa, like this was a good thing. "Look, we invent new sport! Gonna be famous."
"We're already famous," Roger pointed out.
"More famous," amended Rafa.
"Not sure that's possible," said Roger, laughing, "But okay."
"I drive," said Rafa, snatching the keys from Roger's hand the second they crossed over the threshold of the warm cabin into the sharp chill of the winter morning.
"God help us," said Roger good-naturedly.
Rafa glared at him and climbed haughtily into the driver's seat.
Roger was still laughing when he joined him on the passenger side.
"Good I'm here, you terrible, Roger, look," said Rafa, gesturing to the fuel gauge, which was dipping towards empty. "There is petrol stop on way?"
"I think so," said Roger. "Guess we'll find out, huh?"
"If we die, gonna be your fault," said Rafa, starting the car. "Run out petrol, freeze to death."
"It's a twenty minute drive, you said so," said Roger. "Someone will find us."
"Hmm," was all Rafa said, but there were dimples creasing his cheeks.
There was a fuel stop, as it turned out, and Roger set off to pay while Rafa finished filling up-- or he would have, if Rafa hadn't tackled him into the side of the car before he'd taken two steps.
"What the hell, Rafa," Roger coughed out, winded.
"I pay," said Rafa, stepping back but tugging Roger along by the wrist, forcibly curling his hand around the fuel pump. "You finish this, I go now."
"Rafa," said Roger, exasperated, "I hired the car, I pay for petrol."
"No," said Rafa. "I drive, I pay. You can buy me lunch later."
"You're very high maintenance, you know that?" said Roger.
He hadn't meant it to be that funny, but Rafa laughed for a good minute, all wide dorky abandonment and crinkled eyes, and Roger heard him mumbling something about, "El cabello," and, "Todos los zapatos," as he headed into the store to pay.
The slopes were stunning, smooth and pristine white, and not even very crowded, considering it was basically the height of the season. Roger vaguely remembered reading something about Marmot Basin being one of the least crowded ski sites for its size in North America, and was glad for it. Not that he minded meeting people, meeting fans, but right now he wasn't sure he could handle it, handle the questions. He liked this bubble of quiet, just him and Rafa. It was peaceful.
Rafa watched him take in the endless peaks and valleys, the gentle bowls and sharp, steep chutes spread out like a beautiful puzzle, and said, "I go buy ski clothes. You wait, sí?"
"You sure?" said Roger, glancing at him.
Rafa just nudged his shoulder wordlessly and headed into the shop.
They headed for one of the novice slopes when they were all set up. Rafa campaigned pretty heatedly for an intermediate run, but Roger shut him down fast enough with the threat of Uncle Toni, plus a few graphic descriptions of horrific injuries he was actually pretty proud of.
"You have terrible, scary mind," said Rafa, wrinkling his nose.
"Just trying to keep you alive," said Roger, unrepentant. "Maybe later we can take a lift up higher and look at the view."
"More fun to ski the view," said Rafa.
"That doesn't even make sense," said Roger.
"Your face don't make sense," said Rafa, sticking his tongue out.
"You're the most terrible person I've ever met," said Roger, "And you're not even a little bit funny."
Rafa snorted. "More funny than you, always," he said easily. "I ski first?"
"Sure," said Roger. They were at the top of the slope, now, just the two of them here so far. He could see people a little further off, their voices carrying across the snow. He was happy to wait.
"Okay," said Rafa. "I see you at bottom."
"Try not to break anything," said Roger helpfully. "Or, you know. Die."
Rafa just grinned at him, as bright and brilliant as the snow, and took off.
"Was very fun," said Rafa as Roger drove them back. "Maybe not as fun as ice tennis."
"You're actually going to make that happen now, aren't you," said Roger with resignation.
"Of course!" scoffed Rafa. "Best idea! Crazy not to."
"No, just crazy," said Roger.
"Pfft," said Rafa. "I organise. For charity, so you can't say no. I know you."
Damn him, he really did. Still, "They can't possibly let you do that," said Roger. "There's not enough money in the world to pay for that insurance, even if there's a company crazy enough to insure you in the first place."
"I'm very good convince, no?" said Rafa, smiling. It was admittedly very charming.
"As long as you tell them it was your idea," said Roger, sighing.
"I not steal ideas," said Rafa. "Your idea. I tell everyone, more people come."
"I don't think you'll have trouble getting crowds," said Roger. "You and me playing tennis on ice."
"Is true," said Rafa, beaming. "You and me and tennis, nothing is better."
Roger ducked his head and squinted his eyes at the road so his smile wouldn't be quite so obvious. It was very crazy, how nice it was that Rafa wanted to do this stupid thing with Roger, some offhand thing that Roger mentioned and Rafa found funny, how he'd make it happen with as much determination as he used to win the Championship at Wimbledon.
How Roger knew with so much certainty that Rafa really would do it, and that he would, too, and happily, just because Rafa wanted him to, just because he'd asked.
Well, he supposed. Rafa was right. There wasn't much better than the two of them and tennis.
"Right," said Roger once he'd peeled off the slightly damp layers of winter clothing and slipped into a new sweater. The cabin was warming up fast, close and cozy. "Hot chocolate?"
"Sí," said Rafa. "Please." He too was stripping off his clothes, and when Roger turned around from rummaging through the half-stocked cupboards, cocoa powder and spices in hand, Rafa was down to a thin white t-shirt and boxer briefs, hands on his hips and lips pursed thoughtfully.
"Okay there?" said Roger, amused.
"Trying to decide-- sí, need to shower," said Rafa.
"Go on then," said Roger. "Don't mind me, I'll just be out here making your hot chocolate while you get to be warm and clean and change your sweaty ski clothes and-- "
"So sad," said Rafa, gathering up his clothes and heading towards the bathroom. "No time to decide shower when change clothes first and find hot chocolate things."
"I'm making a point!" said Roger to the saucepan, grinning.
"Stupid point," said Rafa before the bathroom door clicked shut.
Roger snorted and got the milk out of the fridge.
"Is nice," said Rafa, sipping his hot chocolate thoughtfully. "But not enough marshmallow."
Roger made a face. "Good hot chocolate doesn't need marshmallows," he said. "I mean, this isn't great chocolate, the cocoa powder is not best quality, so maybe it would help, who knows, but-- "
"Is Swiss thing?" Rafa cut across, smirking. "Big chocolate opinion?"
"Of course," said Roger. "Have to make Switzerland proud, no?"
Rafa shook his head at him, mouth going soft, curved gently upwards, and said quietly, "Roger. Already have."
Roger's throat was so tight, for a moment, he couldn't even swallow his stupid hot chocolate.
One of the things Roger liked most about Rafa was that he could say things like, "Remember Madrid?" or "Remember the time in Cincinnati?" and Roger knew he wasn't talking about the matches they'd played there. It was nice. He'd maybe taken it a little for granted before he stopped playing, he thought, but now he had time to think about it properly, and also no tennis, it was almost a relief to just know that Rafa was Rafa, Rafa was more than just the game.
It was like a little coal, glowing bright and hot at the heart of their friendship, the tennis, the place where it started, that set the rest of it on fire, buried now beneath years of shared triumphs and losses and jokes and conversations, years of life. Roger liked that it was there, liked that he could poke the coal occasionally, think back on the times they'd played and know it was special, know it was beautiful, maybe the most beautiful thing, the two of them on court, woven together equally by skill and friendship, hopelessly intertwined. Maybe not for the people who watched, but for Roger this was the most important thing, the reason their matches stood out more than others: because it was Rafa and that made it more than a sum of inch-perfect shots and pinpoint passes.
He made Roger play his best tennis, but he also made Roger laugh, made him worry, made him listen with interest and share stories that meant something, and that was-- special. Rare.
Tennis meant a lot to Roger, obviously, more than pretty much anything except the people in his life he cared about. To have Rafa exemplify both of those things so thoroughly was exceptional.
Sometimes he wondered whether they could have had one without the other-- such a good friendship without the tennis, or such good tennis without the friendship-- but he figured that was a pretty redundant question, in the end. This was who they were, and it was impossible to separate.
"Remember that time in Halle?" said Rafa as they laced up their rented skates for a turn on Lake Mildred. They'd come out early, once again, relying on the predictable slowness of vacationers to rise, and true to form, the Lake was only sparsely dotted with smooth-gliding figures.
Roger let go of his laces. "We said we'd never talk about that," he said.
Rafa grinned mischievously.
"Rafa," said Roger.
"I'm not talking about it!" said Rafa, holding his hands up in surrender.
"Tie up your shoes," said Roger. "If you don't do them properly you'll fall over and die, and then Uncle Toni will kill me, and then we'll all be dead and that's definitely not fun."
Rafa snorted but went back to tying his skates. "You worry too much," he said.
"I don't," said Roger. "Besides, sometimes there's good reason to worry, no?"
"You said we don't talk about Halle," said Rafa.
"We're not," said Roger.
"Okay," said Rafa, failing utterly at holding in his laughter.
Roger cuffed him around the back of the head and then ducked out of reach before he could retaliate, stepping gingerly onto the ice. He'd skated a lot, of course, growing up in Switzerland, but not in a long time. Still, like most sports, it was all muscle memory, and Roger's muscles were good at that sort of thing. After a few hesitant moments he was moving surely, skating a smooth circle before he came to a stop a few feet from Rafa, standing right on the edge of the ice.
"Well?" he said. "Are you coming?"
Rafa shot him a look. "Concentrating," he said. "Never skate lots."
"How are you going to play ice tennis?" said Roger, grinning.
"I learn," said Rafa, shrugging, and well. Roger believed him. If Rafa said he was going to do something, it was stupid to doubt that he would, from winning Grand Slams to ice skating.
"You never went skating when you were a kid?" said Roger anyway. It was still fun to tease.
"I come from Mallorca, not stupid snow country," said Rafa. "Is better things to do than skate."
"Stupid, huh?" said Roger. "Okay, well, I'm just gonna go over there-- " He waved vaguely towards the far side of the lake, "-- And skate, and you can stay here and concentrate."
He started to push off, but Rafa sighed and said, "Roger."
"Yes?" said Roger, turning back with his eyebrows raised.
Rafa rolled his eyes and held out his hands.
Rafa learned fast, of course. After maybe ten minutes of Roger tugging him along and giving him tips he was skating alone, and another ten minutes after that he'd graduated from slow, deliberate movements drenched in concentration to lighter, easy glides, directing them around the Lake.
Roger followed him easily, and they spent well over an hour like that, switching between impromptu races that made Roger cringe over injury scenarios even as he did his best to win, and lazy, meandering trails laced with laughs and conversation. Eventually Rafa led them back to the bench where they'd left their stuff, collapsing pink-cheeked and breathless, reaching for his water.
"That was fun," said Roger, draining half his own water bottle.
"Lots fun," agreed Rafa, shooting Roger a wide, happy smile. He looked very young, like this, so loose-limbed and carefree. It made Roger feel warm and satisfied, glad for him.
"Hey," said Roger. "Do you remember when you won your first Roland Garros?"
"Of course," said Rafa quietly. "Always."
Roger nodded. He understood completely; Wimbledon 2003 was the same for him.
"I watched it," he said.
"Sí?" Rafa looked surprised.
"Of course." Roger laughed. "You think I wouldn't?"
"Don't know," said Rafa, shrugging. "Was long time ago, no? Not so good friends then."
"Yeah." Roger smiled. "But you looked-- I knew I wanted to be friends, you know?"
He wasn't quite sure how to say it without sounding too weird: the way Rafa had looked then, hugging the trophy to his chest so tight and childish and happy, dazed and dizzy with it, and smiled and smiled and smiled. The way you could tell just by watching him how it was more than a victory, that it went all the way down to his heart, to his bones. That this was him, that Rafa then looked like how tennis felt, for Roger, and also like so much more than just tennis, all at once. Like all kinds of promise, and now, in hindsight, exactly like what their futures had panned out to be. It was one of those images he kept in his mind always, would actually maybe have the real picture framed if that wasn't a hell of a lot weirder even than saying it out loud.
Rafa didn't say anything, but he pressed their shoulders together and didn't move away.
Roger figured he probably understood.
They ventured into one of the less crowded resort restaurants for lunch. Roger was on edge until he realised they were all but invisible due to the high volume of holidaying families with parents too caught up trying to keep their children amused, and couples caught entirely in each other's orbit.
Rafa knocked his ankle under the table, grinning, and Roger rolled his eyes as he smiled back.
Later Rafa commandeered the car again to drive them a little ways up the Athabasca River to the Falls, which Roger had read about in one of the brochures and thought was worth seeing.
"They're not very high," he said to Rafa as they drove, scanning the information again, "But so much water it's nice to see even in winter, they say. Lots of walking trails."
They spent a while walking the trails, looking for the best view, and came to a halt on a platform looking at the Falls front-on. It was breathtaking. Roger had been to a lot of nice places in his life, seen a lot of beautiful things, but he was finding he liked it here a lot, something appealing that wasn't quite like anywhere else. He'd grown up in similarly snow-drenched wintertimes, but it wasn't like this in Switzerland, or anywhere else he'd been, either. There was something utterly wild about the beauty here, rugged and untamed. The crashing water cut over the jagged outcrops with relentless force, wearing the stone into sharp, punishing shapes. Above it the water spiralled in blues and frothy whites towards the edge, and beyond that the pine trees rose like rows of needles set against the backdrop of hulking mountains, pointing towards the sky.
"Nice river," said Rafa, leaning over the platform like he wanted to catch the spray from the Falls on his face. "Our river, no?" He turned his head just enough that Roger could catch his smile.
"Yeah," said Roger, laughing quietly. "Our river, definitely."
"We light fire tonight," said Rafa when they were back in the cabin, changed into comfortable clothes and perusing the room service menu.
"Okay," said Roger absently, glancing at the fireplace. "I think they left wood outside."
"Good," said Rafa. "Outside wood for outside fire."
"Wait, what?" Roger jerked his head up. "You want to light a fire outside?"
"Best place for fire, no?" said Rafa, smirking.
"We have a fireplace inside," said Roger, waving at it. "It's probably illegal to light a fire outside."
"Is not illegal," said Rafa, scoffing. "I look, have special thing for light fire, how you call-- "
"A fire pit?"
"Sí. You no check when you come here?"
"Why would I look for a fire pit?" said Roger. "I have a fireplace. Inside. Where it's warm."
"Fire is warm," said Rafa dismissively.
"Well, I still think you're going to burn down the forest," said Roger.
"No burning forest," said Rafa, affronted.
Roger ignored him and said, "That's going to make a great headline. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal burn down forest in Canada. We'll go to jail. Lucky I'm retired already."
Rafa rolled his eyes. "Too much snow for burn down forest. Have to dig to make fire."
Roger just hummed doubtfully, trying valiantly to bite back a smile.
Rafa, knowing him like he did, figured it out anyway, and elbowed him sharply.
"We order food, we eat, then we light outside fire," he said firmly.
"Fine," said Roger, put-upon.
Rafa hit him with a cushion.
It was rather lovely, in the end, the little fire they got going in the pit behind the cabin, nestled above the river. In the darkness it was a barely discernable shape twisting snake-like through the earth below them, shadows of mountains just a shade darker than the star-spattered sky. The light from the fire barely stretched far enough to illuminate them, even huddled so close, and it was a nice way to look at Rafa, Roger thought, his skin even more golden in the flickering glow of flames, the collision of shadow and light settled over his face, sketching out its curves and angles.
It was late, and Roger wasn't sure how long they'd been sitting there when Rafa said, "Is Christmas soon," softly, shifting slightly. "You gonna go home?"
"I don't know," said Roger. "I don't-- I might stay here. It's nice, you know?"
"Sí," said Rafa. "Very nice." He paused, then added, "Maybe I stay here, too, before go train."
Roger glanced over at him.
Rafa was already looking back, something almost shy in his expression, and more, too, something-- "Why do you still look at me like that?" said Roger abruptly, because just-- in that moment, thinking about Rafa going back to tennis and Roger staying behind for the first time, trying to find somewhere he fit just as well as on the court and knowing he never would-- in that moment, he couldn't handle it, couldn't handle the way Rafa still looked at him with so much awe, like he was something so special, so deserving of wonder. They'd been friends for years and years now, they'd seen each other at their best and worst; all the shine and mystery had long since been stripped of any impressions Rafa may have had about him.
Rafa blinked. "Like what?" he said.
Roger made a frustrated noise, waving a hand. "Like I-- like you, I don't know, like you look up to me. I mean, I get it, when we first met, you know? I'm not trying to be superior, but it makes sense, I was already number one, won a few Slams before you got your first, and everyone was talking about me, so I see why you would look at me like that. But now-- now you beat me more times than I beat you, beat me in Slam finals, and we've been friends for so long. I'm not special anymore. Not that interesting. I don't know why you look at me like that."
Rafa just stared at him for a very long moment, brow furrowed. "Is serious?" he said eventually, looking incredulous. "Think you are not special? Roger." He shook his head. "Still best player I ever see. Still like-- like magic, like no one else. Still greatest of all time. I can watch you play all day, every day, never boring, always special. Most special. Still win more Slams than me. Still do more things than me. Still play more beautiful than me. Always gonna look at you like this." He paused for a moment, flushing and looking away when Roger couldn't stop staring at him. "Friends make more special, not less," he added eventually, quiet. "Now I know Roger, he not just greatest tennis player all time. Maybe greatest person all time. Perfect." He bit his lip and shrugged. "For me, you know? Is why I still look at you like this. I think from start this is true, and maybe not knowing then, but now I know for sure. Not gonna change."
Roger kept staring at him, because he couldn't seem to look away, suddenly, from his soft, beautiful profile, the curls escaping from behind his ear, nudging his sharp cheekbones, his pink-tinged golden skin, the smile-lines around his eyes and mouth.
His chest felt tight, because he realised that maybe he got it, now, maybe he knew that look, was affected by it so keenly because in a lot of ways it was just a reflection of how he looked at Rafa.
Rafa had always been more, after all, had always made him happy and breathless and better, the best he could be. Had always been the brightest thing in Roger's periphery. It may not have started out for him like it did for Rafa, with bright-eyed awe and a lick of hero-worship, something that was there to think about before he actually had it, but it still turned into one of the things he cherished most, this mix of challenge and admiration, easy affection and pure contentedness.
He saw Rafa in this moment and realised he'd always felt his own kind of wonder, looking at him, because Rafa was like no one he'd ever met or would meet, all the things Roger already knew but never knew, not like he did right now, in the light of the fire they'd lit together here on the edge of the Canadian wilderness: beautiful, funny, generous, earnest, and so sweet, so good it took Roger's breath away. Rafa had been one of his best friends for a very long time, but the realisation that he'd been more than that for probably almost as long squeezed tight around Roger's heart, made him feel dizzy and stupid and utterly overwhelmed.
"Rafa," he said eventually, softly, hands clenching in his lap. "Do you love me?"
Rafa breathed out and ducked his head. "Sí," he said. "Yes." He looked up, finally meeting Roger's eyes, and quirked a self-deprecating little smile. "Is very obvious now, no?"
For a moment Roger couldn't move-- not because he didn't want to, but because he felt so much he genuinely had no clue how to coordinate his limbs at the same time-- but then he lifted a hand, slow like he was moving through honey, and touched Rafa's cheek, pushed the curls away from his face with the tips of his fingers. "I didn't know," he said. "I didn't know you loved me, and I-- I had no idea I loved you too." He shook his head, huffing a laugh. "I feel pretty stupid right now."
Rafa made a choked noise. "You love me?" he coughed out, eyes wide.
"Yeah," said Roger, marvelling at how easy it was. "It's pretty obvious too, now that I think about it."
Rafa just blinked at him, opening and closing his mouth. "Roger," he said eventually, curling one hand tight around Roger's wrist, keeping his hand pressed to Rafa's cheek, and shoving him hard in the chest with the other. "You supposed to be smart! Figure out sooner!"
"Hey!" said Roger, startled into a stupid smile, rolling his eyes fondly. "You already knew, why didn't you say anything? Maybe then I would have figured it out."
Rafa shook his head. "Too serious," he said. "Best friends, care too much. Can't lose."
"Rafa," said Roger quietly.
Rafa made a noise, just a tiny, cut-off hitch in the back of his throat, and leaned in to press his mouth to Roger's, soft and damp and gentle, just a light pressure, holding there.
Roger realised, with Rafa's lips slotted against his, waiting for Roger to kiss him back, that maybe there was somewhere he fit just as well as on the court: with Rafa.
Maybe he'd had that all along.
He kissed Rafa back, opened his mouth and tangled his hands in Rafa's hair and kissed him, hard and wanting, with all the fierce determination he had in him. It was a lot, he knew, and he'd only ever seen it matched in Rafa-- Rafa, whose mouth was hot and slick, who made the sweetest noises when he was being kissed, who climbed onto Roger's lap and pressed himself close and dared Roger to go one better, just like always. Roger bit a smile into his mouth and slid his hands under Rafa's shirt, sliding his open palms over Rafa's warm, smooth skin.
Rafa said, "Sí," and, "Good," and, "More," arching closer, and Roger thought, this was a challenge he was definitely up to. His favourite kind, the kind Rafa brought to him, and it was going to be great.
Just like always.