It's funny, Novak catches himself thinking as he sits on the edge of the massage table with his head between his knees, how perspective alters the importance of the little things.
For one thing, he's never noticed how nice the floors in the massage rooms here are before. Someone must have the job of picking out the tiles and the colours, the patriotic blues and bleached-sky greys; it'll be someone's life's work to know just how slippery equals lawsuit and the ratio of cost-to-quality, whatever feng shui mantras decorators gush when tendering contracts. An endless succession of choices leading to the tiles that rolled unsteadily under his feet as he stumbled to the table, like walking on choppy water as careful hands supported him across the room to sit down. Judging by the gleam, by the faint smell of bleach and lemon, it's someone's mindless job to polish it every night too, in the quiet dark after the players have left in a drift of used towels and tumbleweeds of racquet wrappers, careless.
But Novak's never so much as looked down before, even mid-massage. He closes his eyes or chats sleepy nonsense to the physio, blithely accepting that the floor will be there when he needs it and taking the steadiness beneath his feet for granted. Concentrating on bigger things, the things that get his pictures up on the walls because he's the reason the tiles are there to begin with after all, above having to think about the minutiae when he's holding up the silverware to cheering crowds.
Now, fifteen minutes into keeping his wavering vision fixed on the chipped tile between his tennis shoes, listening to the screaming war going on at a more vertical level than he's currently capable of, he really appreciates that floor. It's an impassable horizon beneath his dangling feet; it'll catch him if he falls again. The jury of his thoughts is giving serious deliberation to simply lying down under the table until the rest of the world – the rest of his life – feels as solid as that floor and stops yelling verbal abuse like it’s going to fix anything.
'This is your fault!' Andy shouts, loud enough that the twenty-something thousand people up in the stands listening for the whisper of a rumour might actually hear him. It's certainly enough to reverberate off the walls and make Novak grimace miserably at his shoelaces. Andy on the warpath is equivalent to a charging elephant – it takes some momentum to get him going these days, but once he hits peak fury it’s just splinters and dust for whatever happens to be in his way.
'My fault?' Boris yells back, the wall of peroxide fury that Andy's trying to batter down with sheer volume. 'I coach, is what I am hired to do! What are you, other than distraction?! When win Wimbledon again instead of being handed it by other players losing, maybe then you get to give coaching tips eh?'
Oh fuck, there's going to be actual murder. Novak tries to sit up to call a ceasefire and immediately everything goes interestingly grey and sparkly across his vision and he puts his head back down in a hurry, wishing his voice was more than a slurred whimper in his throat. Breathing is easier now at least, chest loosened from the concrete block it felt like out on court but he's still numb and clammy all over, his sweat-soaked shirt drying unpleasantly against the curve of his back.
If he could talk, he could ask Andy to bring him a fresh shirt. Maybe a fresh hug, because the one out on court, Andy clinging to him with the strength of desperation, was the only thing that's felt good since Novak ran for the mishit forehand at a set and a break down and suddenly gravity decided to change the rules.
Andy's yelling again, words blending together beneath the ringing in Novak's ears; he doesn't sound in a particularly hugging sort of mood. The fact that those twenty-something thousand people were watching them with almost-twenty-thousand cameras for the last hug might not have helped, Novak reflects sadly. He hopes it's all on Twitter anyway, because despite being there, he was a little out of it – he'd like to see how the concern in Andy's voice as he helped Novak over to the chair, murmuring soft reassurance, looked written across the familiar lines of his face.
(Partly because he needs something good to remember from this summer, and partly because it’d be nice to prove he didn't hallucinate that entire aspect of this disaster. It’s entirely possible that an irate trainer dragged his unconscious ass off court by his foot; he’s still somewhat fuzzy on how they ended up in the massage room. He thinks he fell again maybe, slipping free of the supporting hands to the sharp ache of bruising on both knees and the afterimage of Andy's pale face over him, panic hollow behind his wide eyes.
Novak told him it was okay, he thinks, half-remembers the shape of the words on his lips. Hopes he did, and that the sound came out in English and shaped the right shade of affectionate. Andy doesn't deserve to look like that, ever, but Novak keeps failing at not making him miserable this summer – not to mention all the ones before it. Years of practise, everything between them and they’re still too-clumsy with each other; Novak’s starting to suspect he’s running out of ways to put the pieces back together without making more of a mess.)
Don't pass out again. Don't. Willpower's got him through a dozen Slams and all the records of Roger's he can crunch satisfyingly beneath his tired feet, but he's not sure it's a match for this. The table is rocking gently beneath him and he still can't quite feel his fingers gripping the edge, so he couldn't swear with confidence that he'll catch himself if he falls. Oh well. If the floor doesn't break him too badly, maybe he can write the designer a note of appreciation for their excellent taste in solid surfaces and make at least one person’s day, aside from the army of journalists no doubt seething around the press rooms right now waiting to hear the excuses for what just happened.
Not to mention that it might distract Andy and Boris before they get arrested for mutual physical assault.
Somehow over the verbal sparring match being conducted at several billion decibels, he catches a click. The door opening, he's pleased to let his brain identify; take that dizzy mental faculties! Only, triumph is shortly followed by concern because the door means someone new, means someone watching Andy back Boris up against the nearest wall all the better to scream at him with the Scottish burr in his voice gone rough enough to draw blood. Means someone who's going to see Novak tip off this table any second now to land in a humiliating Novak-puddle on the cold polished tiles. It's so great of the universe to prove him wrong when he thought his day couldn't get any worse.
Then the most beautiful sound he's ever heard cuts through the yelling. It's the dulcet tones of harmony, the Shakespearean sonnet to the tragedy that's been his day, the bugle of the reinforcing army – everything he never knew he needed until the last ten minutes of his life.
'If you both don't shut the hell up right now,' Judy Murray snaps in a voice cold enough to kick-start the next ice age, 'I will personally drag you to the nearest room with a lock, push you both in, and swallow the key.'
(The 'you fucking morons' is left an implied footnote but perfectly clear all the same. Novak resolves to kiss her when he can lift his head beyond a 90 degree angle to the floor.)
'Have either of you even checked on Novak to see if he's okay? Don't answer that,' she cuts off the strident protests Novak hears both Andy and Boris start over the ringing in his ears, 'I don’t need to hear the excuses. Just stop arguing, or go and have your fight out on court to give all those vultures a show.'
'He’s at least half fucking responsible-' Andy, perhaps assuming some immunity to retribution based on blood relationship (has he met his mother, Novak wonders) tries to protest. He makes a bare handful of syllables before there's a crack, whip-sharp, and he cuts off with a yelp.
When Judy moves into Novak's limited field of view - straight dark jeans, sensible white sneakers with red accents that he knows Andy bought for her as a surprise in Macy's three days ago - there's a damp towel, the kind the physios wrap ice in, hanging from her hand and ah, she snapped it at Andy to shut him up. Novak should tease him for that, literally whipped, but his brain's running too dizzy to produce the words even if his mouth would cooperate.
Besides, he's glad to see Judy; don’t mothers know what to do when their children screw up, patching over the bumps and bruises with innate matriarchal insight? Maybe she's come to tell him that this entire summer has been a bad dream.
Easing up to sit on the table, careful not to jar him, she settles the ice-cool towel over the back of his neck. It soothes at least half the miserably clammy shivers and Novak makes an incoherent sound of gratitude, leans into her support that's slim and immovable, coloured with the relief of an unexpected shelter in a hurricane.
'Novak,' she says, much softer than she'd snapped at her son and Boris. 'Do you know what's wrong?'
'He's probably fucking starving,' Andy snaps and overrides Boris' denial with sheer volume; 'don't you dare say that it's working after this, he's already had the worst summer and I've barely seen him eat a fucking lettuce leaf this week-!'
'He has strict diet, something you would do well to consider-' Boris starts, and Novak braces himself for the ear-shattering yell when he feels Judy take a sharp breath in beside him.
Instead her voice comes out tightly quiet, the tone of a parent who has had it. Up. To. Here.
'Out,’ she says. Adds, ‘now!' when both Andy and Boris start to argue, voices blending into shapeless noise over Novak's head before she cuts them off. 'The pair of you can make yourselves useful by finding Novak a snack, and looking for the trainer who last I heard was headed after us to the locker room so he's probably running around wondering where the hell you've hidden his tennis player in need of fixing. Run along now.'
'He didn’t make the locker room, he fell- Novak?' Andy starts. Even over Novak’s ringing ears he sound agonised, his voice tilting too-thin with effort now it’s no longer a shout.
'I've got him,' Judy says firmly. 'Take a minute - go find him some food and think about what you're going to tell the several hundred journalists bare-knuckle boxing each other for a seat at your press conference right now.'
A breath of pause – and then, defeated, Andy makes an incoherent rage-noise in what Novak thinks is Boris' general direction and stomps out, slamming the door back against the wall in a pointed gesture. Somewhere buried carefully deep in Novak’s chest where he’s still the lonely boy at tennis camp, where he packs away all the times everyone sneered at him for tanking matches and never being quite good enough, all the memories layered like tissue paper beneath titles and success and record-breaking enough that he can pretend he's forgotten, sadness flares sharp-edged. He’d have thought (hoped) Andy wouldn’t want to leave.
''Boris,' Judy says without even the flicker of affection she'd granted her son, her tone the same flat derision of Andy on his worst days, 'get out.'
In other, less humiliating circumstances, Novak would find it hilarious when Boris makes a rage noise almost an exact echo of Andy's. 'He hires me!’ he snarls and oh okay, Novak is nameless now apparently, reduced to just the justification to be making a scene. Maybe the real Novak got left behind somewhere, collapsed out on the court and abandoned to be swept away with the dust; it doesn’t seem impossible, not when he’s spent weeks feeling hollow and insubstantial, split down the middle. ‘You cannot tell me to leave!'
If Judy gets up to argue with Boris, Novak knows he really will fall off the table – and it’s not Boris’ fault, not really, but Novak’s not above paying back all the yelling. Without lifting his head, he clears his throat and says, raspy:
'Boris, what did I add in your last contract? Remember?'
Boris splutters. 'That- that was joke!'
'It really was not,' Novak says, pleased that his voice only wobbles slightly. 'Get out.'
Trailing a spate of German that Novak has neither the clarity nor the inclination to translate, Boris stomps out too. After a pause which suggests he retreated back specially, he slams the door.
'It is sad,' Novak says, when the wave of dizziness from his flinch has receded, 'that I am youngest person in the room and everyone has flounced like teenagers but me.'
Judy shifts, slides the towel away and briefly he's afraid he's offended her, that she's going to take away the rock-steady support anchoring him to the table, before she settles her hand on the curve of his back to start rubbing soothing circles.
'You know Andy just needs a moment to panic where we're not watching,' she says. 'He'll be back.' She works his back in silence for a minute, Novak feeling the tension ease from clenched muscles beneath her hands - she must've done this for Andy, before the right got ceded away, and he wonders if he’ll ever find words that are adequately grateful.
'What did you put in Boris' contract?' she finally asks, and Novak grins for the first time since the pre-match photos at the net, the shape of it sitting awkward on his face because all his muscles feel rubbery.
'I make agent write, "everything Judy Murray say you must accept as word of God". It was mostly to prove to Andy that I would,' he adds over her burst of laughter, 'but also it is good advice.'
She's easy with her amusement, generous with honesty in the way Andy's learned to check over the years; where he falls silent she's gone the opposite extreme, louder and vivid with charm to deflect offence. Novak loves her for it, the way he can trust her every word (even the ones that sting) and the dry laughter in her voice eases his tension faster than the massage.
'What will I do with such power? Although,' she muses, light, 'it's a shame it's Boris. Have you considered hiring Feliciano as a coach?'
Novak half-laughs down at his shoes. It comes out thin, wavering at the edges with strain but he can feel the table beneath his hands again, heartbeat ramping down. The floor tiles have stopped warping as he watches them. Maybe he's not going to fall after all.
'My life is not TV show,' he says, 'I cannot hire based on how pretty they will all look lined up in my box.'
'No, but think how distracting it would be for whoever you're playing,' she coaxes, and Novak laughs properly this time because she's chasing the tangent, teasing, letting him reorient himself instead of tripping him while he's vulnerable. It calms the last panicked tightness and his shoulders ease from his hunch until he comes upright, by inches, hands on his knees to brace himself but the room stays crisply focused as he blinks. His contacts itch from the salt, but the aching dizziness is fading.
Unfortunately, the space it leaves behind allows the shame to wriggle in. It must be written across his face, in the unhappy twist down of his mouth, because she tsks gently.
'None of that,' she says. 'The press will overreact enough for everyone you know. There's no reason to beat yourself up too.'
'Everyone was watching though,' he says miserably.
She pats his back before sliding off the table and the thump of panic – what did he say? - greys the edge of his vision again. Only, she's back in seconds offering a bottle of water damp from the fridge and he realises how dry his mouth is, his tongue rasping when he spoke, and murmurs wordless appreciation as he cracks the lid.
'Forget everyone,' she says, standing in front of him as he sips. 'They only need to know what you tell them, which doesn't have to be anything, okay? Although,' and she pauses, waiting for him to give her a guilty look, 'you need to know what happened so it doesn't happen again. Was Andy-'
'I've been eating!' he blurts, like a naughty child confronted with his own mother and winces as she hitches an eyebrow in the Murray No Nonsense Radar glare. 'I have! Perhaps not so properly because it has been busy week, and Andy, we have not been spending so much time together but Boris- Boris does not know why I struggle, just that there is something wrong and he keeps at me to try new things, like the new diet, and keeps pushing, is his way of helping but it is also entirely unhelpful so I can see why Andy would think that. But I eat for match, I warm-up, I just-'
He trails off because the unhappy edge in his voice is dipping too close to a complaint, towards excuses. Wants to tell her he keeps forgetting regular mealtimes because he hasn't been sleeping well since the French – that his agent's insistence that they been seen doing family outings to defuse the divorce rumours keeps being met with abrasive resistance from all corners, Jelena's exasperated silences pushing him out of his hotel suite to sponsor events he'd usually refuse until his bones ache with exhaustion and he can sleep. That his parents still won't answer his calls and that, when Novak stumbled out his too-empty bed at four a.m. that morning to use the bathroom, he'd accidentally rammed his foot into the door in the dark and the toenail that's been threateningly-bruised for a week finally came off. Hopping around to look for gauze, feeling like he'd kicked a wasps' nest because nails fucking hurt, he'd caught sight of himself pale and tear-stained in the mirror, hair mussed into spikes from his tossing and turning, and it seemed incomprehensible that he'd walk out on court to play Andy in a Slam final in just a few hours.
All of which he's too well-trained in handling the media to let spill out, even to Judy Murray, because excuses are just reasons to lose and instead he pastes on a smile that he knows is too strained to be believable.
'It's been a long week, a longer summer,' he says, hitching a shoulder dismissively under her steady look that isn't buying a word of it. 'I did not practise enough for match fitness no, and then I let those guys get to me. You hear them, shouting like assholes in the fourth row?'
Her mouth thins. 'I heard them. Boris went to get security to kick them out just before you tripped.'
'Oh,' Novak says, startled, because he'd been circling the panic attack by then, trying to breathe through it every time the drunk group of fans, blue and white warpaint smudged across the line of their faces in the corner of his eye, shouted go Andy! on his second serve. Looking up at his box to find Boris' chair unexpectedly empty had felt like a kick to the chest, shock all the worse for being unexpected.
He'd fallen on the next point, air gone thick in his mouth and racquet clattering away across the court, everything blanking out until Andy was there with his hands on Novak's face, saying something muffled by dizziness, Novak wondering hazily if the umpire was going to yell at him for being on the wrong side of the court.
'Well that is one thing I can learn for next time,' he says, aiming for bright and missing by a mile, 'no unexpected surprises in my box! Andy will be happy, perhaps I can blame Boris for losing after all.'
Which is when all the air leaves his chest in a rush again, the realisation heavy with misery that- it’s over. Must be surely, been off court far too long so-
'Did they call it?' he asks, looking at her with desperation and sees the answer cross her face before she can shape it, the wariness of telling him. To cover his disappointment he fumbles at the water bottle to take another drink, swallowing the urge to cry. 'Well,' he says when he thinks he can speak without it shaking, 'that is four Slams for Andy. I am sorry I could not give him the three sets but he earn it, it is only fair.'
'Novak-' she starts and whatever crosses his face at the kindness in her tone - whatever he can't hold back - makes her pause, to consider him with her head tilted thoughtfully. Assessing how much she can push before he falls apart again he assumes, but then she smiles, the tiniest rueful curl to her lips.
'You and Andy are so alike,' she murmurs.
Novak's about to argue - Andy's better than him anywhere off a tennis court, steadier and kinder than Novak knows himself to be - when she shakes her head to cut him off, moving back to lean against the table. A crowd goes clattering past the door, indistinct shapes through the frosted glass, but no one comes in and Novak breathes out tension as the noise fades. He's going to have to go out to face them all soon but he needs a minute- he needs to talk to Andy.
'What do you think I should do?' he asks Judy, impulsive, just a little desperate. He grips the water bottle until the plastic crackles, watching his knuckles go white with the effort and wishes the rest of his life was that easy to hang on to. Just to prove he can, he forces his fingers to unwind to set the bottle down, carefully, on the table. 'Everything was so good and then I- it is my fault.'
And that was too much, something he's not voiced to anyone since that panicked call to Andy after the celebrations at the French, still drunk enough that his fingers fumbled out the wrong numbers twice and the lights of Paris through the window spun in a dazzling, careless glitter. Didn't mean to give that much of himself away - although he's sure Andy's told her - and he has to breathe out hard before he compounds the error by babbling.
She doesn't reply for a long minute, shuffling beside him so their shoulders bump together but he's afraid to look up. Eventually she sighs.
'Novak, you know what I'll say.' She's not teasing now, voice gone soft and lilting more into the burr of accent so he has to concentrate. It reminds him of Andy, teasing him that he might speak English but he has a way to go to be fluent in Scottish. 'None of this is anyone's fault, it's just how people are.'
Then people are wrong, Novak wants to snap back, but if it were that simple he wouldn't have let three months of pretending like everything was fucking fine pile up on his shoulders until he had a panic attack in the middle of the US Open final. He wouldn't be sitting across endless hotel rooms from Jelena, both of them argued to a standstill and back where they started, staring at each other in silence because there was nothing left to say; neither of them can get what they want without ruining the other.
'Is still me who mess it up,' he says, quiet and directed at the non-judgemental floor tiles. 'I get drunk, I open my mouth. Bam, all we do ruined.'
'Not ruined,' she says. Too soft to be called an argument – more a statement of fact, crisp with certainty. 'Just different. You'll work it out.'
Without letting the silence drag into uncomfortable – because he doesn't know what to say to that, doesn't share her optimism – she nudges his shoulder again. 'You should come back to Scotland while you think about it you know. Andy's gran keeps asking when you'll visit, I think she misses you.'
Novak half-smiles, makes an attempt at teasing to deflect the invitation. 'That is because Shirley has good taste.'
'Actually,' Judy says dryly, 'I think it's because no one flirts with her like you,' and Novak's startled into an actual laugh, bubbling up in his chest warm and a little disconcerted because maybe that wasn't only Judy being nice; maybe her mother actually has asked when he'll visit, standing in her kitchen that smelled of biscuits and roast dinners with her hands on her hips and declaring Novak needed feeding up in the way of grandmothers everywhere.
'I flirt because she started it,' he says, and casts a look sideways through his lashes, mock-solemn. 'She is- I think this is right word, I learn from Kyrgios – a minx?'
'Novak !' Judy says, half-shocked behind the laughter, hitting his shoulder more for the show than the sting and he grins, pleased with himself. 'That's my mother.'
'Well of course,' Novak says in a reasonable tone, 'you had to inherit it from somewhere. Andy also, although he is stealth about it.'
'Unlike some people I could name,' Andy says from the doorway, dry enough to spark a fire, and Novak's head snaps up so fast that his neck twinges in protest.
Leaning against the door frame Andy looks rumpled and tired, still in his match outfit with his hair tugged into even more of a tangle than usual by restless hands. He's still flushed but his eyes are red, so it's probably more due to washing his face in a hurry before coming back than from wanting to shout some more. Novak catches him doing a quick sweep of the room before he shuffles in, as if to check Boris isn't lurking ready to leap out and bludgeon him with a tennis racquet.
He can't seem to look directly at Novak, darting a glance before it slides away under his lashes awkwardly towards the floor. Shyness turned to habit, his dislike of direct eye contact, but it’s usually reserved for journalists and nameless strangers, anywhere he has to watch what he says; Novak feels himself shrinking inward again, his shoulders shaping a defensive curl.
‘I’ll leave you two to talk,’ Judy says in a tone that implies she’s not above locking them in the room until they do. Sliding off the table, she waits until Novak glances at her to make sure he catches her smile, brightly considering.
‘Novak-’ she starts, and hesitates with the words caught between her teeth before she lets them slip out, worn quiet with weight. ‘I was talking to your mother last week. You should call her, she'll be worried.’
Before Novak can react – before he can think – she’s gone, with a pat to his knee and an elbow to Andy’s ribs as she walks past that makes him skitter away like a startled animal, and shutting the door behind her almost as pointedly as Boris. Shelving that last instruction for later – for when he’s had time to get properly nervous - Novak lets himself snort a laugh to break the tension.
'Do ever you think,’ he teases, ‘that your mother like me the most?’
‘Yes,’ Andy says and for a moment Novak worries that he’s being honest, until he catches the shadow of a smile, ‘but then I remember all the times she made me sit in the corner for using Serbian swear words as a teenager and realise she’s just trying to make you responsible enough to stop you teaching me any more.’
Novak grins at him, more confidently than he really feels. ‘Do not tell her she doesn’t need to try. Being favourite, it is nice, and my skill is no match to your terrible pronunciation.’ Watching Andy hover nervously, he sighs. ‘Fuck, will you sit? I am dizzy enough, no need to watch you circle.’
Andy comes over warily, eyeing the floor, the walls, the bottles of massage oil set out in a flock of gold along the counters, anything but Novak. When he slides up to perch on the table, he leaves a careful inch between them as if he’s afraid of crowding too close.
‘Here,’ he says, ‘I don’t know if you need them now – sorry, it was shitty of me to assume – but here.’ From behind his back he brings out a hand-sized Tupperware, scuffed white at the corners from long months of being stuffed into tennis bags. Novak recognises it as Andy's from practises and the locker room, and the peeling Incredible Hulk sticker stuck to the lid by Jamie the last time Andy forgot to shut his locker. It's usually full of fruit or snacks but never-
'Dates?' Novak says, curling his hands around the box as Andy sets it in his lap. 'You don't like dates.'
'I like them enough.'
Novak grants him a highly dubious look. 'You once tell me that they look like monkey testicles.'
'Well they do- look, would you just eat them?' Andy says, drawing back and gone awkward but Novak knows Andy, knows when it's worth pushing and keeps up his silent stare until Andy cracks.
‘Alright,’ he snaps, ‘quit doing that face. I was-’ he drops his voice to a mumble, staring down at their feet dangling side by side. Andy’s wedding ring is still threaded tightly into his shoelaces, catching the light in liquid-white glints. ‘I was worried – I know why you needed the space here, with everyone and their mum watching you and with the rumours about Jelena, but you’ve been walking around looking like someone dropped a house on you, like you might fall on your face any second and – and I’m allowed to be worried, Novak.’
In profile, it’s harder to read the cracks in Andy’s practised blank expression but the thin line of his mouth is familiar from a handful and a half of finals, emotion pulled in tight and swallowed before it can trip him up. He looks like he’s expecting another yelling match, as if Novak might be mad that Andy was anticipating him not being able to cope – in fairness, tennis drills home the lesson that showing weakness is failure, and it’s pretty common knowledge the last few years that Novak’s taken that to heart more than most.
But looking down at the box, at contingency plans made to catch him unasked, Novak goes warm all over. Thinks, cored breathless with affection, the little things.
Looks up and Andy's looking back at him, face drawn into sharp lines of anxiety. Without hesitation, Novak leans across the hands-breadth of space between them to press a kiss to Andy's mouth.
It’s sweet, awkwardly sideways at first because Novak’s still wary of tumbling off the table. But after a second Andy sighs out a choked little breath and turns, curving toward Novak with his hand tangling in t-shirt at the hollow of Novak’s back to keep him steady. The shape of Andy’s mouth against his feels like fresh clothes after a long match, like all the leftover knots of tension across his shoulders are unwinding at once and he smiles against the warmth of Andy’s lips, the rough stubble catching at the edges of the kiss.
'Thank you,' he says into it.
Andy mumbles a dismissal as he pulls back, awkward the way he is with any kind of praise and a flush sweeping high across his cheeks – which is much better than pale misery, in Novak’s opinion.
'They're just dates,’ Andy mutters, licking his lips. ‘In case you needed them. I thought you were going to collapse all week, and you said- I know we had to be careful so I couldn't follow you around to catch you. I didn't think you'd do it on court. You scared the everloving fuck out of me you know.'
Midway through prising the Tupperware open, the rush of guilt makes Novak freeze. 'Sorry,’ he says, voice gone small, ‘I will hope not to make it a repeat tactic in future.'
'No that wasn't what I meant, just- are you okay?' Andy asks and it's quietly despairing in a way that breaks Novak's heart. 'I don't even remember getting across the court to you, I didn’t care that everyone was watching, I saw you go down and I was just- there.' He hunches over with his elbows on his knees, hands over his face in the way he has of pretending crying doesn't count if no one sees him do it and Novak shoves the box of dates to the table beside them in favour of turning into Andy as close as he can, arms around him as he listens to the Scot’s ragged breathing.
'Andy, Andy,' he whispers, 'it's okay, it was just panic attack. Sorry I am an idiot, I should have confessed this before.'
Andy snorts damply against his hands. 'We don't have to swap terms and conditions for this, Novak.'
'We did though, didn't we?' Novak asks. 'We say the words, we sign the official paper. Full disclosure to us both, you have to put up with me even if I am an idiot.'
'That's one way of paraphrasing it,' Andy says dryly but he sounds steadier, not seconds from falling apart completely. Tucking his face into the curve between shoulder and neck, Novak breathes in the edge of sweat from their match, the familiar scent of Andy beneath it that he’s been missing every night since he got to New York, and wonders when sweet, tentative kisses in the showers at fifteen turned into something this complicated.
No that’s a lie; it’s always been complicated but they were experts at it, planned their lives out like a chess strategy. Ruining everything took Novak getting hammered after finally making the one record not even Roger reached, winning the French, holding all four Slams, running on the high of getting everything he ever wanted and, stumbling back to the hotel with his family in a cheerful dizzy whirl of alcohol and triumph, forgetting he wasn’t supposed to argue when his father made a disparaging remark about Andy.
At least Jelena, cold sober, had the sense to push them all into the suite so the blazing row that followed didn’t happen in the corridor of an exclusive French hotel; at least Novak’s team had mostly peeled off to their own rooms before, minimising the fallout. Boris – thankfully – already gone and only Marian left, breaking up the shouting with a quiet reminder that the walls were hardly soundproof and it wasn’t an argument to have after countless bolts of champagne.
Sleep on it, he’d advised everyone, and everyone had – except Novak who locked himself in the bathroom to call Andy, already on the Eurostar heading home because they’d discovered by trial and error that the best way to deal with finals was to spend the night alone, let the sting fade before they slipped into bed at the next hotel, the next country, trophies fading into insignificance when they got to curl into each other with the aching need of too long spent apart.
I’ll come back, Andy had said over the train hum in the background, voice a whisper to keep it from other passengers. There’s no more trains tonight but it’s just Paris, I’ll get a flight, I’ll drive, and Novak was still drunk enough to believe himself when he refused, said there was no point when he’d be coming to London tomorrow and anyway, maybe in the morning everyone would’ve calmed down.
In the morning, when he woke on the bathroom floor to a text message from Djordje saying their parents had left overnight, he seriously regretted his drunken bravado.
It got worse when he’d dragged both his shock and his crushing hangover out of the bedroom and Jelena was sitting in the lounge of his suite, in an immaculate dress to match her immaculately calm expression, picking at the pre-ordered celebration breakfast set out on the table.
‘Novak,’ she’d said, ‘I’m sorry, but before you talk to your parents we need to discuss the arrangement. Now they know, that changes things.’
‘Changes what?’ he’d asked, staring blankly through the haze of his hangover. ‘I won’t leave Andy, only they know and no one else. Still we have to pretend, nothing needs to change.’
She’d given him a steady look, nothing to betray her nerves except the way she fidgeted with the napkin beside her plate. ‘We need to discuss my exit strategy,’ she’d said and all the carefully laid pieces of Novak’s life, already teetering, came crashing down.
So – it’s undeniably his fault that Andy’s wiping unhappy tears away despite having just won his fourth Slam; it’s Novak’s fault alone that he traded Wimbledon and the precious, rare gleam of an Olympic medal for a summer of shouting behind closed doors and dissolving into tears in the darkness when he thought Andy was sleeping – only, inevitably, to be enfolded close into a hug, Andy murmuring soft reassurance against his wet cheeks and never complaining about the shadows of exhaustion they both wore in the mornings.
Novak disrupted all their careful subterfuge that they’ve been practising since they were teenagers by being stupid and, despite an entire summer of sleepless nights spent going over and over the problem, he can’t see how to fix it.
‘Andy,’ he whispers, utterly miserable, ‘I am sorry. You have just won US Open, don’t be sad. We can fix world’s problems tomorrow, eh?’
Exhaling a last, shaky breath into his hands, Andy scrubs them over his face and lets them drop. He turns and they’re so close, Novak doesn’t even have to lean forward to catch the kiss.
‘Stop apologising,’ Andy says into it, salt-wet lips warm on Novak’s. ‘You’ve apologised all summer but people being shit isn’t your fault. It isn’t worth collapsing in a Slam final for.’
Breaking away, Novak makes a supreme effort not to let the misery write itself across his expression. ‘Ah tonight, tonight was many things,’ he says with forced lightness, waving his hand expansively as if to blame New York in general, ‘I lose my nerve is all. Boris will shout at me until next time I remember to keep breathing, you know?’
His voice trips over the last word and he turns away to hide his smoothness crumpling into an unhappy grimace, fumbling at the box to pop the lid. Takes his time selecting a date because he knows if he looks at Andy right now, this moment, he’ll cry.
Andy sighs. ‘Novak.’
‘What?’ Novak asks without turning and if it’s thick, he’s blaming the mouthful of fruit and not misery. ‘We have to keep trying, Andy. We have to go to talk to journalists and say everything is fine, it is just one of those things. Maybe I come to Scotland this week yes, and we can talk about when to announce about Jelena before she lose patience and give your papers an exclusive. Maybe my mother is coming around to it and it will be easier, now.’
‘Yeah. Maybe,’ Andy says, and falls quiet for such a long minute that Novak thinks perhaps that’s it, discussion over. It’s the same one they’ve been having all summer after all, circling the problem without conclusion and Novak promising he’s fine, fine, because he’s put that shattered look on Andy’s face too many times on court. He’s afraid of what happens if they can’t sort this; it’s creeping over into tennis now and they’d promised it wouldn’t, back when they whispered plans to each other in dark hotel rooms of how to keep it hidden, how to ask Kim and Jelena such an impossible thing.
It – this, Andy - is everything Novak’s ever wanted and the whole summer it’s felt as if it’s slipping through his fingers.
When Andy takes his free hand, the one not date-sticky, for a mortified second Novak thinks he stumbled that last out loud. He doesn’t look as Andy carefully loosens his fingers, skating fingertip-calluses gently across the grazed skin; doesn’t look at a rustle of fabric and Andy shifting. When Andy presses something small and body-warm in the centre of his palm, Novak automatically closes his hand around it – and the implications of the shape, the smooth metal, for an instant has his chest tightening into concrete again because if it’s Andy ’s-
‘So I was thinking,’ Andy starts, quiet, and Novak can’t think, can’t breathe, has to know. He looks back – not at Andy but down, at their feet and Andy’s tennis shoes and the gleam of silver-platinum ring, polished and perfect, still sitting snugly in the double-knotted laces.
Closing his shaking hand tight around his own wedding ring, Novak breathes out, slowly.
‘Thinking you will break into my locker?’ he says. ‘You should be more careful. Maybe I keep trade secret in there. Maybe is where I keep my robot tennis double.’
‘What can I say,’ Andy says dryly, ‘some idiot keeps using my birthday as the combination.’
Novak clears his throat. ‘Ah, well. Is close to mine, is easy to remember that is all.’
‘Right.’ Andy goes quiet again but Novak’s not panicking this time – much, anyway – and watches the tension chase across Andy’s face with some trepidation. It’s not what he thought, so what can be that bad – it’s not as if they could do anything to make this worse.
Which is when he gets it, half-incredulous as Andy says, ‘I think it’s time.’
Novak looks from his face to the ring in his hand, gone numb with shock. He’d thought nothing worse but- ‘If you are going for dramatic solution,’ he says, voice wavering, ‘this may win the top prize.’
'Only if you want to, we don’t have to, or we can think about it,’ Andy says, in a rush as if he needs to fire the words out before Novak pulls away, 'but I was thinking – if we hide it now, after everything tonight – we were going to have to say something eventually you know, and why make excuses when it’s not working. Don’t say you’re fine,’ he adds when Novak opens his mouth. ‘You’re not, and it’s not getting any easier. I asked- I talked to Kim and she’s okay with it, and now your parents know, that’s that reason gone. And I miss you-’ His voice dips into the low wobble he gets when he’s overwhelmed and Novak reaches out, wedding ring still clenched in his hand, to wrap an arm and the rest of himself around Andy.
‘Only you,’ he says after a minute, resting his head on the curve of Andy’s shoulder, ‘would come up with tactic of “tell the world I am secretly gay married to Andy Murray to make my life less stressful.”’
Andy snorts a damp-sounding laugh. ‘We got married, Novak. It’s not illegal.’
And that’s deliberate; Novak hears the echo in it from a frost-sharp December morning, early enough that Scotland’s grey dawn was just blushing to pink at the edges of the horizon. There’d been no fancy cars, no fanfare to draw attention – Andy stayed at Cromlix the night before while Jamie drove Novak over in his practical two-litre Volkswagen that morning, waving cheerfully at the few of Dunblane’s early risers they passed who seemed to know what was going on by the strange osmosis of community gossip and gave thumbs up to Novak, pale and silent in the passenger seat. When they’d stepped into the tiny hotel chapel, Marian a quiet warmth at his right shoulder and Djordje grinning affectionately at his left, Novak had looked down the mostly-empty seats to a scrubbed-up-fancy Andy standing next to the registrar and wondered how on earth they thought they were going to keep this to themselves.
‘Breathe, Novak,’ Andy’d murmured when he reached the top of the aisle. He’d been smiling slightly for all that he was equally pale, grip a shade too tight when he reached out to take Novak’s hands. ‘We’re just getting married, it’s not illegal.’
‘Not anymore,’ the registrar said brightly only to falter as Andy gave her his dead-eyed-shark glare, Judy kicking him in the ankle with a hiss of ‘Behave!’ and suddenly Novak hadn’t been able to stop grinning because this was Andy and it was going to be fine.
Remembering it, that sense of certainty, Novak takes a deep breath against Andy’s sweat-damp sleeve. ‘Okay,’ he says. ‘ This is something we’re doing.’
‘We don’t have to,’ Andy offers quietly. ‘We can skip press if you want to think about it, I’ll make your excuses. If you’re not sure-’
Pulling back, Novak gives him a grin and uncurls his hand between them; the ring gleams in his palm, polished surface slightly misted from the warmth. ‘I’m sure,’ he says. ‘Now are you going to do your job, or should I audition replacements? Is whole tour full of handsome men and I am very flexible, I’m sure I will find-’
The kiss cuts him off, Andy sighing exasperated affection into the corner of his mouth and Novak laughs into the date-sticky sweetness of it, feeling Andy catch his hand up blind to slide the ring into place. In a minute Novak will do the same for Andy – no doubt cursing a blue streak at the overkill knots in his shoelaces first – and they’ll walk out to face a press room packed with the world’s journalists, wholly unaware that they’re about to get the scoop of the century dropped on their heads. Novak will have to call his mother and Andy should apologise to Boris before that nonsense turns into a lasting grudge and they’re probably going to get chased by photographers til Christmas.
It’s been the worst summer of his life but he’s starting to think the autumn is looking pretty interesting.
‘Come on then,’ he murmurs against Andy’s mouth, feeling it curve to a smile to match his, ‘Let’s go give them their explanation.’