The first time Roger had anything to do with Sergiy Stakhovsky was when he lost to him in the second round at Wimbledon, so it was understandable that after that his name would be somewhat of an irritant. What Roger didn’t know then but had learned since was that Stakhovsky could be vastly more irritating than that. Mirka made no bones about calling him sexist--and much stronger words than that, if the kids were out of earshot--and when Roger read his inane statements about not letting his daughters (as yet imaginary) play tennis due to the apparently vast numbers of lesbians on the women’s tour, Roger was extra proud that his own (real) daughters were photographed with tennis rackets in hand. When Stakhovsky tweeted his opinions that male tennis players should be paid more than women, Roger clearly stated his support for equal pay. He would have anyway, but any time he could loudly and publicly disagree with Stakhovsky’s thick-headed pronouncements he was happy to do so. It wasn’t that Roger spent too much time thinking about him, as a rule, but when he did it was the way he thought of a recurring blister. Annoying, and liable to crop up periodically, but ultimately, if he ignored him, he’d eventually go away.
So when he finds that Stakhovsky is at the players’ event in Rome, he doesn’t expect to cross paths with him, and if he does, a curt nod of the head is all Roger expects to have to endure before continuing on. It’s not like they have a stop-and-chat relationship.
However, it seems that that’s not going to be enough for Stakhovsky. Everywhere Roger goes, every cluster of murmuring conversation he joins, whether by the bar or out by the hotel pool or in the lobby, he hears Stakhovsky somewhere close by making some loud proclamation or other. His voice seems to cut through the crowds as he makes snide comments about Andy Murray to anyone who will listen. He isn’t quite insulting Amélie Mauresmo, but Roger can hear his nasty attitude bubbling under every word. Out by the pool, while Roger is having a normal, pleasant conversation with the tournament director and Cedric Mourier, suddenly Stakhovsky is nearby, leaning towards Janko Tipsarevic and making some comment about Richard Gasquet, then suddenly veering into more offensive rubbish about Serena Williams. Roger throws him a nasty look before he and Cedric drift inside, and Roger figures that a second glass of champagne isn’t going to do any damage. He takes one from the tray of a passing waiter and wanders out through the bar to a small private patio at the back, where lanterns hang from stone walls and trailing pink blossoms wind their way up trellises, their scent falling delicately among the candlelit tables. He takes a deep breath in the blue evening air.
“Roger,” he hears from somewhere close by, and this time the voice is far more welcome.
“Rafa,” he says, turning towards him. Rafa’s looking good. Deeply tanned, wearing a white shirt open at the collar and a pair of jeans. “I was wondering where you were hiding. I was beginning to think you hadn’t come.” Even though Roger has always thought Rafa looked good, since he changed to Tommy Hilfiger, Roger finds himself noticing more. The shape of his thighs, his slim waist. Hard not to notice, really.
Rafa takes a hold of his hand and clasps it, their familiar greeting. “Quieter out here, no?” says Rafa, and Roger can tell by the way he squints a little and curls his lip that he’s not the only one escaping certain people this evening. Rafa is holding a champagne glass, too, relatively fresh and sparkling, and Roger briefly wonders if he’s also been driven past his usual limits of one carefully nursed drink.
“Yeah,” is all Roger says in reply, and he shares a look with Rafa that says, I know what you mean. And Rafa’s not the only one who’s escaped out here. Clustered round a couple of tables are a few of the Spaniards--Fernando Verdasco, and Marc and Feliciano Lopez--as well as Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, and Grigor Dimitrov. At another table are Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis. “Shit,” says Roger. “We’re all out here for the same reason?”
“Yup,” says Andy, without any attempt to hide his loathing.
And that’s when that voice comes again. “Ahh, here is where we all are, is it?” says Stakhovsky. Roger closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Rafa is gritting his teeth. Stakhovsky’s voice has an edge to it; there’s a suggestion of a little too much liquor.
Roger turns. “Just looking for a little quiet, Sergiy,” he says. “You know?”
If Stakhovsky gets the hint, he pretends not to. “Yes, yes, Roger, I understand,” he says. He steps close and slaps his hand on Roger’s shoulder, matily. Roger tries to stop himself from curling away from him, but it’s too late, and Stakhovsky notices him flinch. “Oh, now. Come on. What’s the problem? Just a few fellow players enjoying a drink together, no?” He looks around. “Come on, guys. We’re all friends here.”
Andy grins like a shark. “Stacky, my man,” he says. “Seems like you’re partying harder than the rest of us.”
Stakhovsky smiles too, as fake as it is wide. “Andy, my friend,” he says. “Will I call a waiter? So you can all join me?”
“No need, mate,” says Andy. “I think we’re good.”
“Don’t let us stop you going back to the bar, no?” says Feliciano.
“No, no,” says Stakhovsky. He’s determined to be as unpleasant as possible. “I’m one of you, yes? I’ll stay here with my good friends.” He opens his arms expansively to take them all in. The silence is suddenly deadly, and Roger feels his hackles rising.
“I don’t think anyone here is a particularly good friend of yours, Sergiy,” he says, quietly. Rafa’s standing right beside him in silent agreement.
“Oh, I see,” says Stakhovsky, a flash of anger flickering across his face, then disappearing again, replaced by fake cameraderie. “I say a few things on Twitter, is that it? To this guy.” He points at Andy. “And suddenly you’re all talking what is politically correct. Ha. As if you don’t really agree with me. You just play the press, yes?” He regards them all silently, his eyes landing on Andy again. “Well, except you. Always women around you. Probably have you brainwashed.”
Andy stands up suddenly, his chair scraping back against the flagstones. “It’s time to shut it, Stakhovsky,” he says, all pretense at friendliness gone.
“Oh, what, I’m too sexist, is that it? I don’t see you saying that to this guy,” he says, pointing at Kyrgios. “Also sexist, right? They say in the press a while back? But you’re all happy to forget.”
Nick raises an eyebrow. “That’s sorted out,” he says, quietly. “Anyway, at least I’m not a homophobic cunt like you.”
Until now, Rafa’s just been standing at Roger’s side, but now Roger feels him freeze. Stakhovsky is laughing unpleasantly.
“What do you care?” he says. “Not like there are gay guys, right? Come on. Just the ladies’ side. This guy knows.” Again another dig at Andy.
“That’s enough, Sergiy,” says Roger.
“Seriously?” says Stakhovsky. “Throwing your weight around, is that it? Not number one any more, Roger.” Then his face changes curiously, as if he’s just thought of something. “Of course, your wife, yes? Used to be a player. Maybe she knows all about it too?”
For a moment, Roger sees red. Anyone--anyone--bringing Mirka into a fight fills him with rage. He’d once yelled at Stan for nearly half an hour for even daring to talk to her during a match. For a moment he’s almost tempted to lash him with the truth: yes, she does know all about it. Yes, still. What’s the fucking problem?
But then Rafa lays his hand on his shoulder and he feels the rage drain out of him. A squeeze of his fingers and he feels calm again. He looks at Stakhovsky’s face, into his dead-fish eyes, and considers his sad little mind. Suddenly he pities him. Instead of lashing out, Roger laughs.
“Oh my god, Sergiy,” he says. “No gay men in the ATP? Are you stupid?” He feels Rafa’s hand sliding down his back, pressing against him.
But it’s Feliciano Lopez who speaks up. “Seriously,” he says, laughing. “You think we’re all straight as an arrow here, yes?” He shakes his head, mockingly rueing Stakhovsky’s naivety. “No, no, no, Sergiy.”
Stakhovsky’s eyes narrow with suspicion.
“Look at this guy,” continues Feli, putting his arm around Milos. “Gay.”
Milos spreads his hands. “Yep,” he says, and then he turns and plants a kiss squarely on Feli’s mouth.
Feli bursts out laughing, right against him, and that sets everyone else off. The tension dissipates and Stakhovsky is left standing there, the wind knocked out of him, watching Feli and Milos half in disbelief, half in disgust.
“This guy too,” says Nick, pointing at Kokkinakis, before taking a fistful of his shirt and laying a sloppy kiss on his lips.
“What the fuck?” is all Stakhovsky can say, looking around. It’s obvious he knows they’re mocking him, but he’s still at sea.
Rafa’s hand has closed into a fist against Roger’s back, his fingers caught in the fabric of Roger’s jacket, as if he’s holding on. Roger turns to look at him, one eyebrow raised. Rafa frowns at him a little, and Roger quirks a smile. After a couple of seconds just staring at him, Rafa smiles back, eyes dark and full of mischief.
“You know they’re not serious,” says Roger to Sergiy. He takes Rafa’s champagne glass and puts it down on one of the tables, alongside his own. “They’re just joking with you. This,” he says, turning to face Rafa and looking him in the eyes. He puts one hand on Rafa’s chest, one last raise of his eyebrows, asking the question. Rafa nods minutely. Roger smiles. “This is serious.”
With that, he leans in and kisses Rafa.
He intended it to be a press of lips, just something that might convince Stakhovsky there’s something between them, at least for a while, but as soon as his mouth touches Rafa’s, all his plans evaporate. All he’s left with is the sensation of Rafa kissing him, gently at first, and then mouthing a little, till they are kissing full and open-mouthed, eyes closed, revelling in the feeling of it. Rafa’s arms are around his waist, holding him close against his body, and his own hands are clasped around Rafa’s broad back. He can feel Rafa’s stubble against his cheek and hear his breathing loud against him, uneven, caught in his chest. They’re both a little lost by the time the world outside begins to creep back into Roger’s awareness: the sound of cheering, of Andy Murray laughing, of Grigor Dimitrov quietly saying “Wow”, and then…
Then it’s broken when Stakhovsky again says, “What the fuck?”
The kiss comes to an end, and he presses his forehead to Rafa’s for a moment, their eyes locked, just a reassurance, a check that everything’s okay. Rafa looks as cloudy as he himself feels, a little dazed, his eyes gleaming in the low light, and then he breaks into a smile.
“See?” says Roger, turning, letting his hand slide down Rafa’s arm and entwining their fingers together. “Like I said, serious.”
Stakhovsky is clearly gobsmacked, and to be honest, looking round, Roger thinks maybe he’s not the only one. Maybe it went a little further than he intended. But he’s in it now, and he has no intention of backing down. He squeezes Rafa’s hand in his own and Rafa leans against him, resting his jaw against Roger’s shoulder. Roger kisses him on the cheek, and Rafa smiles, dimples creasing just where Roger kissed him.
“Wait,” says Stakhovsky. “You guys are…?”
“For years now,” says Roger. “You didn’t know?” Stakhovsky’s still frowning, like he’s waiting for the punchline. “All these guys knew, right?”
“Yep,” says Andy.
“For ages,” agrees Feli.
“Hard to miss,” says Thanasi Kokkinakis.
“This is bullshit,” Stakhovsky says, vehemently.
“You just need to open your eyes,” says Andy. He’s sitting down again, taking a leisurely sip of beer. “You’ve seen the photos just like we have. These two at the net, holding each other tenderly.” He’s joking around now, his arm around Grigor beside him, pressing his temple to Grigor’s and laughing.
“Wimbledon 2007,” says Feliciano. “I thought for sure they were getting married.”
“Roland Garros final, the last one they played,” adds Fernando Verdasco. “Remember that one? I thought they already were married.”
Roger sneaks a sidelong look at Rafa, who catches his eye. They both frown a little, bemused, but they don’t let go of each other’s hands. Rafa shrugs, and then he says, “Australia. 2009. Was obvious, no?” It’s only when he’s finished saying it that he stops looking at Roger and turns to Stakhovsky.
By now Stakhovsky is looking less skeptical, more reluctantly convinced. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess that was pretty obvious. Sure I thought of it then.”
“Right?” says Roger. “I’m sure you did. You’re a smart guy, Sergiy. Hardly going to miss something like that.”
“And, you know,” says Rafa, “if two guys at the top are gay, anyone can be gay, no?” He says it in such a friendly, well-meaning way, like he’s just trying to help Stakhovsky out. Roger ducks his head to laugh. That’s what starts the other guys off again.
Stakhovsky looks around, then back to Roger and Rafa, staring at their hands still tightly clasped together, and then he curls his lip. “You know what,” he says. “Fuck you guys. I don’t care what you do.” And he turns on his heel and leaves the courtyard. Roger watches him go inside, heading straight for the bar.
“My god,” says Andy, putting his face in his hands. “That guy is a fucking piece of work.”
Fernando says something in Spanish, and Feliciano agrees. “Hijo de puta,” he adds.
“What a dick,” says Milos.
“I can’t stand him,” says Roger, passing Rafa’s champagne glass back to him and taking up his own.
“Yeah, well, you got him good,” says Nick, leaning back in his chair. He’s looking a little puzzled but Roger ignores him, instead clinking his glass against Rafa’s.
“Yes, we did,” he says, before they both take a sip.
“You know he’s gone now, though, right?” says Nick.
Roger nods, and waits for Nick to make whatever point it is he’s driving at.
“So, like, you can stop holding hands?”
He’d stopped even noticing. Confusion sluices through him for a moment, if anything tightening his grip on Rafa’s hand, before they look at each other a little awkwardly and let go.
“Jesus,” says Nick, as they step away from each other. “You nearly got me there, too.”
Roger can’t explain the lurching sense of loss he’s experiencing, so he just forces a laugh as he and Rafa sit down. Feliciano’s making kissy faces at Milos, who’s laughing at him, and Andy is taking another mouthful of beer. Roger feels suddenly hot, raw, as if something has been exposed that shouldn’t have been. He glances at Rafa beside him, and Rafa smiles a small, rueful smile, like they’re sharing a joke, before saying something across the table to Marc Lopez. Marc smiles and says something back, but Roger doesn’t catch it, and the noise in his mind takes some time to die down.
The party doesn’t go very late, with everyone slated for practice at some point during the next day, gearing up for the last clay event before Roland Garros. Most of the players are staying in a hotel elsewhere, but a few of them--Roger, Rafa, Andy, and Novak, whenever he arrives--are staying at this one. Andy has already said goodnight when Roger and Rafa shake the tournament director’s hand and head for the elevators. Just as they step inside, Stakhovsky emerges from the men’s washroom nearby. When he sees them, Rafa flashes him a grin and slings his arm around Roger’s shoulders, pulling him close. Roger’s looking into his eyes, watching him, feeling him draw closer as if for a kiss, when the doors close and the elevator starts to move. Rafa draws back with a laugh, though he leaves his arm where it is.
“He completely believe us,” says Rafa.
“Very convincing,” agrees Roger. He thinks maybe he’s trembling. The elevator is lit in a diffuse golden light, shining from its fixtures and tinted mirrors. Rafa, too, is golden in this light. Golden and easy with dark, gleaming eyes, and Roger knows what he feels like, now. Knows how his mouth feels and how his body feels pressed against his own.
Rafa tightens his arm a little, as if shaking Roger out of some reverie. “You okay, Rogi?” he says. The elevator doors slide open on his floor. He puts out a hand to keep them open while he stays staring at Roger’s face.
“I…” says Roger, but he doesn’t know what he wants to say. He feels lost again, like he did when they kissed in the courtyard. He is drowning in memories: Rafa so close to him, over and over again. All this time. At the net, on practice courts, chance meetings in clubs and venues. The sense of closeness he’s always had with Rafa. The feeling that it was just the two of them, and then everybody else. The feeling that wherever he goes, wherever in the world he is, part of his mind is always taken up with Rafa. Then one stupid joke, one simple, stupid moment, and he is overwhelmed. Like he’s turned a key in a lock that maybe should never have been opened, but now it has, and he doesn’t know how to close it again.
“Roger?” says Rafa.
This time there are no thoughts in Roger’s mind, just his hands on Rafa’s chest, his body leaning into him, his back against the open elevator door, when Roger kisses him. And after a moment, Rafa melts into it, melts into him. His heart soars, his body thrums. He’s finally saying everything he didn’t even know he wanted to say. It’s not until the doors shift behind Rafa, trying to close, that they break apart, just inches, breath hot and irregular between them.
“Come on,” says Rafa, taking his hand. He leads Roger down the corridor, slipping his keycard from his back pocket, and brings Roger into his suite. There they take it up again, against the wall. Roger doesn’t know how long it lasts. He’s just lost in it, lost in the feeling of it, lost in Rafa. It’s Rafa who breaks them apart again, his hands on Roger’s face.
“You… this, Roger. What is this?”
“Oh god, Raf,” says Roger, pushing against Rafa as if he’s trying to meld their bodies together. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I just… that kiss.” He tries to organise his thoughts into some semblance of meaning. “I didn’t know… but now, I just want more. I want…” He gasps, breathless, holding Rafa’s hips, sliding his hands around his back, untucking his shirt and finding the dip of his spine. “I want you.”
Rafa breathes out a laugh. “I want you too, no?” He shifts his legs, pressing against Roger’s thigh. “Always I want you, Rogi.”
Roger can feel it, how much. It’s nothing he’s ever felt before--when he and Mirka had invited anyone else to their bed, it had always been other women, Mirka’s preference--but suddenly he finds he wants it. He wants to touch Rafa’s body. His mouth waters. “I want to have sex with you, Rafa,” he says, grinding his hips into Rafa’s.
Rafa drops his head back against the wall. “Rogi,” he says, his throat bobbing as he swallows. “You sure?”
“Oh god, yeah, Raf,” he says, licking along Rafa’s throat, kissing under his jaw. “I’m sure.”
Rafa groans and manhandles him towards the bed like a thirsty man promised water at last.
It’s more than Roger could ever have imagined. Better. Rafa heavy on top of him, his mouth hot and wet on his dick, and then spread out gloriously underneath him. Legs spread, his thick, meaty thighs around his waist, allowing Roger inside him. Groaning obscenely, slack-jawed and hungry, taking it, taking him, balls deep, so hot. Then Roger is coming, coming so hard inside him, watching Rafa feel it, feel his heat inside him, and coming too, fist on his own dick, coming in stripes across his own chest. “Fuck, fuck, Rogi,” he gasps, and Roger collapses against him, their bodies covered in come and sweat, tangled in Rafa’s sheets.
“Oh fuck, Rafa,” he says, after they’ve cleaned up and climbed back into bed together. Wrapped in each other, unwilling to let go of each other for even a second.
“Rogi,” says Rafa, his voice lazy and deep. “So long I want you to do that. I want you to fuck me.”
“Shit,” says Roger, curling against him, wrapping himself around Rafa’s delicious body. “I wish I’d realised this sooner.”
“Maybe today we say the truth to Sergiy, no?”
Roger laughs. “Oh, god. Can you imagine what he’d think if he knew? That it was him that brought us together like this?” He can feel Rafa’s laugh in his chest. He presses a kiss there, and another, then his jaw and his mouth. “Oh, Raf. I want to do this again. A lot. You want to do this again, right?”
Rafa runs his hand up Roger’s back, into his hair, cradling his head in his strong hand. “Sí, Rogi, oh yes,” he says. “I wanna do this again.”