It’s quiet in the locker room; even the exterior sounds don’t seem to breach the solemn silence. If Roger tries hard enough, he can hear the constant stream of rushed voices in the bustling halls outside, and it’s a little bit ironic that they’re the restless ones and not himself or the other three people in there with him, whom he keeps watching from a certain distance, his shoulder leaning on a locker, his arms crossed tightly on his chest. Roger can’t decide whether he can’t wait to get this over and done with, or if he’s silently praying that the time to do it never comes. He also doesn’t know if any of the people he’s watching share his conundrum at all.
Of the three, Rafa’s face is particularly unreadable.
He’s sitting on one of the benches with his right leg outstretched in front of him, while Maymo and Tomeu, both squatting on either side of his leg, work on strapping it up just below the knee. Rafa is looking at their general direction but Roger doesn’t think his mind is focused on what he’s seeing. He looks spaced out; the repetitive movement of his friends’ hands probably helping that.
Roger has zoned out a few times as well, all of them in search of any scenario where Rafa doesn’t hurt, physically and emotionally, after playing this match. It doesn’t exist, or maybe he isn’t enlightened enough to think of it. It’s not the first time he will play an injured Rafa, but Roger has felt increasingly worse about it over the years, and now it’s a thought he can barely stand. There’s absolutely no satisfaction to be gained from this situation. Roger knows, from the other matches they’ve played this year, that his own chances are good regardless of Rafa’s fitness, but he wants Rafa to know that he too would have great chances even on a hard, fast court, if his body weren’t hampering him right now. Roger wants to play the Rafa that will chase his every shot, return his every would-be winner, the Rafa that will rile him up and bring him down with his darned athleticism and power, just like Roger’s been watching him do to the other guys he’s played for the last two weeks.
But it won’t be the case today, and Roger hates it.
Tomeu gets up first when they’re finished bandaging Rafa’s knee. Maymo props himself up just enough to take the spot next to Rafa on the bench, but Rafa stands up as well, expression unchanged. He shifts his weight between both legs and leans a bit harder on the right one, testing it for pain. Whether he feels anything, he doesn’t let on. Then he starts pacing and hopping about for a little while, with the three pairs of eyes intently gauging him for any sign of discomfort, which again Rafa refuses to show.
He speaks to his teammates in what Roger is pretty sure is Mallorquín – he thinks he can differentiate it from regular Spanish by now – and sounds nothing but determined. It’s not one bit surprising, yet Roger finds himself marveling at his unwavering attitude. Then again, this is the guy who has once played three Roland Garros matches with a completely numb wrist, and would probably have done so the whole tournament if he had it his way. As far as Roger can tell, this knee thing right now isn’t nearly as serious, and this is only one match, but Roger would have absolutely not blamed him if he decided not to risk aggravating the condition. They had talked about it last night, and while Roger would never advise him against playing this final because it’s not his place to do that, he did try to make sure Rafa considered all the options instead of just being his stubbornly ethical self. To what avail, he honestly doesn’t know. Rafa’s here, either way.
He only realizes he’s spacing out again when the three Spaniards stop talking, the sudden silence pulling his attention back to what’s happening around him. Rafa casts a guarded glance his way and Roger feels unwelcome in the room, as though he’s intruding, but it’s his right to be there as much as it’s Rafa’s. He stares right back, unhesitant, but feeling the tension grow between them.
Rafa says something to his teammates and in a matter of seconds they’re out of the room.
“Why you not warming up?” Rafa queries him accusingly, and Roger has to stop himself from answering crossly and initiating a spat. He knows there’s a lot going through Rafa’s head right now.
“We have plenty of time to warm up out there,” he says, not moving from his spot.
Rafa scoffs, and if his expression was blank before now it is completely taken over by contempt and bitterness.
“You know you gonna win so it doesn’t matter, no?”
“Unless a miracle happens, yeah I know I’m gonna win,” Roger says matter-of-factly, not to be cheeky or anything but just because it’s the truth. Rafa and he both have no tolerance for bullshit, much less so between themselves. If Rafa is this upset though, Roger is glad he’s finally showing it even if it’s through senseless digs such as this.
“Look, Rafa, you can tell I’m worried, right? You can tell I’m not happy? Don’t treat me like this is my fault.”
“I not saying is your fault, Roger.” Rafa snaps, his voice increasing both in volume and pitch. It goes back down quickly though. “Is not your fault so I will play you, no? Don’t need to standing there looking so sorry for me like I gonna break.”
“I’m not feeling sorry for you. I told you, I’m worried,” Roger tries to keep his tone warm and friendly and hopes to god Rafa doesn’t feel patronized instead. “You would be for me too, wouldn’t you?”
“But would not be seeing you at that moment, looking at you all the time like I sorry for you. I prepare for match, play match if you decide to play, and talk to you after. Then I tell you I’m worried for you. Then I make you feel better. Not before match.”
Roger finally pushes himself off the locker he’s been leaning on and lets his arms fall to his sides.
“I didn’t mean to upset you with my presence, Raf, I just wanted to show you my support. I just want you to know that even though it’s me you’ll be playing in a few minutes, I’m here for you right now. I’ll always be.”
Rafa sighs, closing his eyes. His stance becomes a little less defensive too, as his shoulders sag.
When he opens his eyes again there’s only sadness in them.
“Is nothing you can do for me right now, Roger.”
The change in his demeanor encourages Roger to close the gap between them, placing his hands on Rafa’s biceps and squeezing gently.
“Rafa, look. You are one of the people I admire the most in my life, and it’s because you are like this. You don’t back down from anything even when it would be better for you. I admire you so much because I’m not like that. You’re so strong even when your body isn’t. I could stay here with you all night telling you how much I respect and admire you for everything you do. You’re amazing.”
Rafa listens, his features softening with every word Roger says, and in the end he looks so vulnerable that Roger would do anything to just take him out of there and into one of their rooms, to love and worship him until no bad feeling is left standing, until Rafa knows his worth again.
“What I supposed to do? Is final, people want us play, no? People pay a lot of money to see us play. Well, you more than me.” He chuckles despite himself, and Roger can’t help mirroring it.
“You and me, Rafa,” Roger moves one of his hands up and cups his neck, thumb gently stroking his stubbly jawline. “Us. It’s all about us.”
Rafa smiles and briefly closes his eyes again, enjoying Roger’s touch.
“I play the best I can,” he promises; himself, Roger, even the crowd that has come to the stadium to watch them.
Roger wraps his arms around Rafa’s shoulders and kisses his neck.
“I know, baby. Thank you.”
Rafa doesn’t come even close to his best out there, though, and the match becomes possibly the most miserable Roger’s ever played, against him anyway. Still, he plays it the way Rafa deserves just for showing up; unrelenting, with surgical precision, punishing him for his every error which are way, way too many. It’s not difficult for Roger to detach his emotions from his game, otherwise he’d never have been able to take on Rafa on an equal footing, but this might as well be the first time he’s fazed by the sight of his helpless lover on the other side of the net, defeated not by Roger but by himself much before they set foot on that stadium today.
This is something he’s got to do, however, so like an executioner he makes it his goal to end it as quickly and least painfully as possible for his victim. Roger manages to do at least one of those things when the match ends after just one hour and thirteen minutes, according to the clock at the back of the court. It could have been quicker yet but Rafa wouldn’t surrender so easily, no matter how feeble his attempts at keeping up with him might have been due to his knee condition. His face is somewhat unreadable again when they shake hands, but Roger can tell he isn’t resentful of the way Roger played or the result. He really did his best, even though it was not enough, and Roger knows that’s what counts for Rafa.
Their moods definitely improve during the trophy ceremony, mostly thanks to the Chinese host’s request that they declare their love for the city in the local language. Roger’s heart swells with fondness as he watches Rafa repeat the Chinese words the host tells him, immediately becoming bashful and turning to Roger for support. Roger wants to scoop him up in a big hug and kiss him silly but, unable to do that for obvious reasons, resorts to simply leaning close and laughing it off with him, even teasing him a bit just to elicit more of that gorgeous smile that he venerates like he does its owner.
He tries, in his speech, to let Rafa and the whole world know just how much he appreciates the opportunity to play him again. He can’t hint at the injury, but he wants Rafa to know that his efforts to finish that match today were not in vain even though he lost. He’s brave in a way more than half the tour isn’t and it will always be a privilege to share the court with him, no matter when or where. Roger thanks Rafa’s team too, after all they also put up with him and his protectiveness, the way he frets over Rafa’s health as though none of them know what they’re doing. Roger has no qualms acknowledging he can be annoying when he’s worried, but at the same time he thinks he’s earned the right to care for Rafa that way and he’s not about to relinquish it. Besides, it’s not like Rafa doesn’t call him out when he’s being overbearing, just like he did earlier in the locker room - although Roger’s pretty sure he did nothing wrong then.
And finally, when it’s his turn to butcher the Chinese words the host so animatedly asks him to repeat, Roger laughs and touches Rafa and feels his radiant energy there again, and it’s decidedly the only thing he wants to feel that night. He needs Rafa to be happy. He needs to make Rafa happy if nothing else is, and he will, should Rafa let him, as soon as they’re done with their commitments for the night.
At least for a couple of hours before they have to part ways again, he will.
Rafa opens the door quickly after he knocks. Despite that, he looks unsure of whether he wants Roger to be there, and the way he walks back into the room leaving the door for Roger to close doesn’t bode particularly well.
And he’s limping.
Roger closes the door quietly and follows Rafa wherever he went off to, finding him coming back from the suite to the living area with two bags that he places on the floor behind a couch.
“Are you leaving now?” He asks Rafa, who has already disappeared into the suite again. His pulse escalates at the thought of not having time to spend with him.
“No.” Rafa says as he brings back another pair of sports bags to put with the others. “My flight is around 4.”
That’s still very early in Roger’s opinion, but it will allow them a couple of hours to be together, if Rafa even wants that.
“Is it okay if I stay with you until you have to go?” He asks to Rafa’s back as he makes another trip to the bedroom.
There’s no response, only the sound of a zipper being pulled, most likely around a suitcase, and then a thump that he assumes is produced when its little wheels hit the ground. Sure enough, Rafa reappears dragging it behind him and steers it to line up with the other bags.
Roger wonders for a moment if Rafa heard his question, but Rafa stops right in front of him and does indeed look like he’s going to answer now.
“Is still nothing you can do for me, Roger.”
Only the lamps are on in this and the other areas of the luxury hotel room, which has the exact same layout as Roger’s. They cover the place in a faint yellow light that barely reaches their faces, and Roger finds himself trying to decide whether it softens Rafa’s features or brings out the sharp angles of his face even more. It’s riveting all the same.
Wordlessly, he takes a step closer, eyes trained on Rafa’s. He lifts a hand and gingerly touches Rafa’s face, thumb brushing against his lips and parting them. Rafa doesn’t protest, doesn’t recoil when Roger leans in, doesn’t breathe when Roger kisses the very corner of his mouth. Roger lingers there, feeling the somehow welcome stillness of Rafa’s body, and then kisses a hot trail to the lobe of his ear. Rafa finally reacts, grabbing a fistful of Roger’s shirt at the waist with both hands and cocking his head, biting back a moan.
“Let me try, baby,” Roger says in a low, throaty voice directly into Rafa’s ear, and while Rafa doesn’t vocalize his permission, he also doesn’t attempt to stop Roger from catching his face and bringing their mouths together. What he does is cling harder to Roger’s shirt, bodies finally touching, fully turning his head toward him to deepen the kiss. Roger takes advantage of the move and slides the hand previously on Rafa’s face to the back of his head, tugging lightly at the short hair.
Having him on the receiving end of anything he does, be it a groundstroke during a match or a kiss in a hotel room, awakens something inside Roger that he was never able to explain. It scares him to an extent, probably because it never gets any weaker even after all these years. The fact that Rafa responds the way he does, on and off the court, contributes a lot to that.
He tastes every corner of Rafa’s mouth like it’s the first time, and Rafa lets escape the lightest of whimpers, spurring Roger on further. It’s a wonder, then, that Roger remembers to be mindful of Rafa’s hurt knee. He reluctantly parts the kiss, watching Rafa’s eyes flutter open and silently question the interruption. Roger smiles fondly, stroking his hair in the same manner.
“I’ll give you more of these once I get you to your bed.”
And that’s definitely not a bluff. He takes Rafa by the hand and brings him into the suite, guiding him towards the edge of the tall bed where he sits with Roger positioned between his legs. Rafa places his hands on Roger’s hips and looks up, eyes so dark and full of anticipation that it makes it difficult for him to take this slowly.
“I love you, Rafa. I only want to be the cause of happiness for you,” he says while stroking his cheek tenderly again. Rafa’s brows draw together, his expression becoming pained, and he grabs Roger’s hand and kisses it without ever breaking the eye contact.
“I want happiness with you, always only happiness, but is not possible. Is our life, no? Always this, I lose or you lose, and we never happy,” he says with marked frustration.
“Rafa, it doesn’t matter,” Roger insists, probably sounding a bit frantic. “At the end of the day I know you love me and you know I love you, don’t you?”
Rafa lowers his eyes for the first time.
“Is easy for you now say it doesn’t matter. Is not you losing every time.”
Roger purses his lips. He had it coming.
Instead of trying to make Rafa look at him again, though, Roger drops to his knees, and the gesture clearly throws Rafa off guard judging by the way his expression loosens up somewhat.
“But it was me once. Remember?” He asks as softly as possible, careful not to come off accusatory, hands resting on either side of Rafa’s hips on the bed. “Rafa, look, if there’s anyone who knows how you feel right now it’s me. I want to help you not think about it. I want to show you that what we have between us is so much greater than whatever happens on court.”
Rafa lets out an exasperated laugh, shrugging and looking away again.
“You don’t have to. I know. And I think I still allowed to be sad when I lose, when I get injured and cannot play my best against you, no? Don’t mean I stop loving you, is impossible.”
Roger chuckles and shakes his head. Rafa manages to be gracious and loving even while schooling him on how to let him get over these tough losses on his own terms. And he’s right, of course he is.
“I get so desperate when I see you sad,” Roger admits with a sheepish smile, gazing down.
It’s Rafa’s turn to comb his fingers through Roger’s hair soothingly when he hears that.
“Desperate for what?”
There’s a not-so-subtle change in his tone that doesn’t go unnoticed by Roger. His desire flares up again as he meets Rafa’s stare.
“Make you feel good.”
The mood starts shifting back to what it was before Roger killed it, and with it the longing also returns to Rafa’s eyes.
“Show me how, Rogi.”
He doesn’t need to be told twice before surging up to kiss Rafa again.
Saying goodbye to Rafa has gotten exponentially more difficult over the years as well. Although, if asked, Roger would say that it was mainly after Prague that it’d gotten this unbearable, a kind of anxiety he quickly learned to dread.
Roger has his clothes back on, drying his face with a towel after washing it in the ensuite; he’s got plenty of time to take a proper shower later before his flight back home. Rafa, however, will do it as soon as he leaves, but neither of them want that to happen. Donning just a bathrobe, he comes into the ensuite and embraces Roger from behind, pressing his cheek against his broad back. This really is too hard, and he can’t even cheer himself or Rafa up with the prospect of seeing each other next week again in Basel, because there’s no way Rafa’s knee will recover in such short time span.
On a second thought, he can totally see Rafa insisting on playing there against everybody’s advice, including Roger’s own.
“Baby, please promise me you’ll allow your knee to fully recover before playing again. You lost against me today because of it, I don’t want it to make you to lose against anybody else.”
“I lose against you because you playing too good,” Rafa drawls in an amused tone, as he refuses to move his cheek from where it’s resting against Roger’s back. “Stop playing too good.”
Roger chuckles and shakes his head.
“Seriously, baby. I would love to see you in Basel next week, and you’re still free to sneak in a visit if you want, but not to play. Promise me?”
Rafa only tightens his hold around Roger’s slim waist.
“If my doctor says I’m good then I go.”
“He won’t say that, believe me.”
“You not my doctor, Roger.” He finally moves his head to glare playfully at him through the mirror, propping his chin on Roger’s shoulder. “You don’t know what he gonna say.”
“I’ll get his number with Toni. He will totally agree with me.” Roger smiles mischievously at him, prompting Rafa to bite him in the neck as some sort of warning. Roger wouldn’t mind fishing for more of those, except they’d absolutely end up in bed again.
“Why you think I will play if I cannot play?”
Roger instantly rolls his eyes and chortles, while Rafa tries and fails to stifle his own laughter.
“Ohh let me see. Maybe because that’s you?”
Relaxing his grip around Roger just a tiny bit, Rafa allows him to turn around and face him, their faces full of momentary glee.
“Okay, okay. I come to Basel to watch your matches, no? And when you win I jump on you all the way from your player box. You catch me, no?” He can barely finish without breaking into giggles, and Roger just wants to smother him with kisses because no one else is this adorable, save for his children.
“Yeah, well, I’ll probably have a bad knee or two after, but I’ll catch you,” Roger nods confidently, more than willing to play along with that absurd scenario. “I’ll always catch you. And one day I’ll never let you go.”
Rafa nods at him too, his expression losing some of that playfulness as they stare deep into each other’s eyes. He raises one hand to touch Roger’s face, and as he does Roger places a kiss into his palm, then on his lips.
He has a feeling Rafa doesn’t want to comment on the promise he’s just made. Roger understands; they’ve always treaded that path with caution, aware that it’s always too soon to tell what they will or will not be able to do regarding their relationship in the future, until they’re actually retired from tennis. But he definitely thinks it’s safer to say that now than it was a few years ago, and with every new meeting with Rafa it becomes even safer, because his love grows even bigger and stronger. Right now, holding him so close, Roger is sure that Rafa is the easiest part of his future to predict.
For the time being though, he needs to detach himself from his body before they become permanently glued to each other. He lets his arms fall to his sides and Rafa begrudgingly steps back.
Limping, he walks Roger to the door.
“If I not see you in Basel, I… see you in Paris, maybe?” He asks almost pleadingly.
“I hope so, Raf.”
Rafa bites his lower lip and nods. They both know they can’t kiss again or else they’re just not going anywhere ever. It’s what always makes their goodbyes awkward and so, so painful.
“Take care, alright? And call me. I’ll miss you,” Roger says, opening the door to distract himself from the burning in his throat and the panic in his heart. It’s wild, the way his whole body protests getting away from Rafa. Rafa’s silent nod, again, is proof that he can hardly contain himself either.
And just like that Roger leaves, taking a deep breath in the hallway with the door to Rafa’s room already closed behind him. Of all the inevitable endings this day could’ve had, this is one he’s willing to accept.
Not much longer, he thinks, walking toward the elevator. But today it’ll do.