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once upon a december

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December 2014, Scotland

 

In a secret kept from necessity (‘You travel so much, where’s your favourite place?’ ‘Well...’ No tournaments, no family there that the journalists know of; how would he explain?) Novak, for all the buttery sunshine of Monte Carlo and battered streets of Belgrade that fold around him like worn-in shoes – he likes Scotland.

He liked it long before he set foot on British soil, liked it for over half a lifetime, ever since Andy first showed him travel-crinkled-soft-edged photographs of his family, teenage-gruff and pretending it was no big deal. Novak’s first impression of Scotland was glimpsed out of focus and half out of frame in the background; rain-puddled tennis courts with chipped paint and the storybook walls of Edinburgh Castle, the weathered paths of Arthur's Seat beneath a rare blue arc of sky. Andy's tired, childish face staring out of faded photographs with a long-faded sunburn streaked down his nose.

The russet-green hills reminded Novak of the mountains of Serbia, grey towns hunkered in valleys and folds of the landscape away from the wind. Better yet, he's found since – in contrast to the bleak sweep of their surroundings – that the Scottish are friendly, cheerfully self-deprecating and forthright in a brisk way that Novak both appreciates and that makes him just a little envious (more and more, he finds having to hedge his every word exhausting).

It's a shame then, he reflects grouchily as he squelches up the stairs to the bedroom he's sharing with Andy, the grey, December rain battering at the windows, that Scotland doesn't seem to like him at all.

Already focused mostly on the promise of a hot shower, he pushes through the door without knocking. There's a blink of a moving glimpse, white and green and bare legs, before Andy dives behind the wardrobe door with a yell: ‘Novak!! Don't look!'

With reflexes honed over a decade of split-second shot-making decisions on a tennis court – and in about two minutes of growing up with two younger brothers – Novak whips obediently around to face the door. The sense of absurdity catches up a few seconds later.

'Andy,' he says – calmly, the reasonable tone he uses when attempting to make Boris see that Novak is right about a tactic or that 'accidentally' spilling itching powder near Roger's tennis bag isn't strictly cheating – ‘I have some news that may perhaps be shocking to you. I do not know if you have suspected, perhaps you were under impression I was too shy to look all those times before but – you may wish to sit for this part – I am sorry to confess that already I have seen you naked.'

Even from across the room tucked half inside the wardrobe, Andy’s groan is audible. ‘Novak, we spend our lives in locker rooms; guys ranked in the five hundreds have seen me naked. That’s not why – I thought you were going for a run with Jamie, what happened?’

‘Scotland happen,’ Novak says plaintively. ‘After five minutes, it rain. After six, it sleet. Jamie he laugh, but I know when I am under attack and I practice tactics by making sensible retreat until your weather stop being terrible.’

Andy doesn’t laugh but the lilt of it is in his voice all the same, curling through the accent that’s deepened in the week they’ve spent here. The more he talks to his family, the local fans, the more the Scottish burr sands down the sharp edges and corners of his voice until Novak keeps catching himself listening to the sound without a clue what’s been said (or pretending confusion just to hear Andy repeat it, as much for the shape, the delicious grate of it on Andy’s tongue, as it is to teach himself, carefully committing the rise and dip of each surprising Scottish colloquialism to memory).

Andy speaks deliberately now, raising his voice. ‘If you’re waiting on the sun in Scotland, you might be retreating for a while. But can you er, go be tactical somewhere else for five minutes?’

Well that’s instantly suspicious. Novak tilts his head, trying to see what’s going on behind him in the corner of his eye without being too obvious about it. All he gets is a flash of Andy’s glare ducking back behind the wardrobe door.

‘Why?’ he demands and connects the incriminating dots to make an entirely logical – he thinks – leap. ‘Are you hiding a stripper?’

Andy makes the hilarious strangled sound that means Novak’s shocked him into forgetting how to breathe for a second. ‘Fucking-no! Why would you even ask that?!’

With a shrug, Novak assumes his most innocent tone while sidling to one side, trying to catch sight of Andy’s reflection in the window. ‘Well, we are married in two days. Strippers are what happen before a wedding, yes, with the drinking and the party? I know we plan at last minute, not much time to find many naked men so I did not expect it, but I would not be complaining.’ He pauses; all he can see in the window is grey sleet, spattering ice against the glass. ‘Also if there is no stripper, I will be happy to accept you stripping for me. To avoid my disappointment at no stripper, you know.’

‘I am not hiding a stripper in a wardrobe in my mother’s house, Novak.’

Novak thinks about what he knows of Judy Murray, what he learned distantly when she was the brisk, somewhat intimidating mother of his best friend and since, over the years he's been dating her son, and says, thoughtful, 'Your mother, you know she not so young to be innocent and last month Lopez trip over into the net when she walk past. I am pretty sure she knows about strippers.'

'Oh god,' Andy says in a tone that pleads for a swift mercy killing, 'stop talking. There's no strippers alright?! I'm just trying on my clothes for the wedding and it's bad luck for you to see me, so go away for a minute. Please,' he adds, a little sheepish as if only just realising that Novak's a guest and Andy's kicking him out his own room.

'I thought it was only bad luck to see bride in her dress,' Novak says.

It’s just a throwaway observation, half-joking, but it leads to a truly appalling thought, so unexpected that he catches himself staring at the door to the hallway desperately tempted to make a run for it despite his soaked hoodie, the raindrops dripping down his back. Maybe he can steal some of Jamie’s clothes and by the time he’s dry, warm, this conversation will prove to be a cold-induced hallucination.

'Andy,' he says instead, voice pitching up too-high, 'I know I agree to marry you, and I promise I agree still even though I am no longer drunk, but please, please – tell me you are not wearing a dress.'

'No!' Andy snaps, which is reassuring. The tentative pause that follows definitely isn't. 'Well- not a dress.'

Novak swallows. He loves Andy, he reminds himself. He loves Andy more than tennis, enough to risk becoming every tabloid journalist's wet dream by getting secretly married – to another player, to a man – and if Andy wants to do that in a dress because of some yet-unconfessed fetish, then it's Novak's duty as his soon-to-be-husband to accept that.

He gets a mental picture of exactly what Djordje's reaction will be when they step into the chapel (namely, laughing until he collapses to lie on the floor and laugh even harder, rinse-repeat regularly for the rest of Novak's life) and breaks.

'Andy, we should maybe discuss-' he starts and turns-

-into immediate darkness as Andy's hand covers his eyes. He hadn’t even made a sound as he crossed the room. Novak makes a protesting noise and feels Andy's laugh as a hot drift of air against his mouth, pressing close and affectionate.

'No cheating,' Andy murmurs. ‘This wedding doesn’t need the bad luck, yeah?’

His warmth drifts over Novak’s rain-chilled skin, curled through the rich tang of aftershave and the orange juice they’d drunk at breakfast, crowded around the breakfast bar in Judy’s bright kitchen with Andy leaning into Novak half-asleep and clumsy because mornings disagree with him, Jamie rolling his eyes at them when they both refused coffee. So close, he’s a temptation Novak can’t resist, not safe behind closed doors where he doesn’t have to and he reaches out.

He finds what feels like a shirt half-buttoned – not a dress then, he’s not relieved, he’s not – fine cotton pushed carelessly aside to run freezing hands over Andy’s flat stomach, feeling the hitch of breath through his fingertips at the shock of contact.

‘You’re cold,’ Andy murmurs, almost contrite. ‘You- ah, ah,’ he gasps as Novak slides icy fingertips up to flick a nipple because Andy had almost laughed at him for running away from weather, ‘you grew up on a mountain covered in snow, how can Scotland be worse?’

‘Snow is not rain. Snow is sensible, good to build things. To ski and bury brothers in when they are annoying. It never try to drown me, or freeze me, or cover me in much mud,’ Novak says, conveniently forgetting the extensive parts of his childhood he’d spent courting frostbite by getting snow-soaked until his teeth chattered (he wasn’t always the brother doing the burying). ‘I do not think Scotland like me.’

Beneath his fingertips, Andy’s muscles tense. His hand over Novak’s eyes curls just a little tighter, cracks of light fluttering between his fingers but it stays put, so the only warning Novak gets is Andy pressing into his touch to lean forward, the kiss soft and warm with the impatient huff behind it.

‘Trust me,’ Andy says without pulling back even an inch, slightly muffled with his nose pressed to the back of his own hand and his lips brushing Novak’s ticklish soft. ‘Scotland likes you, Novak. Quite a lot.’

Oh. Warmed through unexpectedly, feeling a shiver of pleasure uncurl in his chest, Novak grins. ‘Really?’ he asks, drifting his hands down Andy’s back beneath the crisp cotton of his shirt, over the familiar curves and solid muscle, letting his nails bite just as he knows Andy likes, ‘how much? Because about a stripper-’

Which is when his fingers reach the dip of Andy’s hips and, instead of encountering underwear or better yet bare skin, they meet something unexpected.

‘What is this?’ he demands, exploring the soft folds of cloth by touch – it feels like fine wool, with the sharpness of not-yet-worn-in that means it’s new and far too loose beneath his palms to be trousers – ‘you say no dress Andy. Do you think you cannot tell me? The vows, they say no lies and two days before already I am led on, all is betrayal and I am most insulted that you think-’

‘Novak,’ Andy sighs.

‘-that I would not marry you if I knew because I will marry you no matter, in dress or Wimbledon outfit or Rafa’s terrible pirate pants as long as you are wearing them-’

Novak,’ Andy says, loud with exasperated affection this time. 'It's a kilt.'

'Oh!' Novak says. After a moment, still tentatively running his fingertips over the loose folds of wool, 'that is not just Scottish for dress, right?'

‘It-!’ The outrage lasts the bare second it must take Andy to notice Novak grinning, feeling it stretch into a laugh that makes the kiss lopsided as Andy leans back in, his hand still careful over Novak’s eyes.

‘It’s traditional, you lunatic. Why am I marrying you again?’ he murmurs into the kiss. The soft, wet flick of tongue behind it is so distracting, Novak takes his time with an answer.

‘Because,’ he says, eventually, breathless, ‘because- mm- you ask after World Tour Finals and there are no take-backs, no matter that I had drunk a lake of champagne. And you like me, you say so just now and I like you even-’ he tugs blindly at the kilt, flapping the soft fabric around Andy’s thighs, ‘-when you will not show me mysterious wedding clothes. What if I am disappointment in my suit? I should see, for comparison.’

Andy’s free hand catches up Novak’s from where he’s playing with the kilt, gripping just tight enough that Novak knows this isn’t a match he’ll win. Not that he minds all that much – not when Andy is all relaxed, easy amusement and solid familiarity against him, recognisable even in the dark and with the curve of his smile pressed to Novak’s.

It’s been rare, that smile, in the last, mostly-terrible year. Andy had been grim for months after the back surgery, worn-down by his innate grating determination running into physical brick walls and there’d been nothing Novak could do; they don’t let this interfere with tennis, ever, don’t even discuss tactics or training for the sake of their mutual sanity.

The best he’d been able to offer was mute, unwavering comfort for each successive disaster, after Ivan, after Wimbledon, after the World Tour Finals when he’d worried so much about winning after Andy lost – lost so badly – that Novak chose getting blinding drunk to avoid any discussion, knees drawn up to be a rest for his aching forehead as he slumped on the floor of Andy’s house in Surrey with the world spinning traitorously every time he opened his eyes.

When Andy slid from the couch to join him, curving needy and desperate into his personal space and whispered ‘Marry me’, through the fizzy haze of too much Moet it’d simply been a relief to be offered something Novak could do.

He’d expected the regret to arrive alongside the morning’s hangover. Was surprised when it didn’t - spent weeks glancing over his shoulder for it as he made excuses to his parents about ‘necessary training’ at New Year, when he found quiet moments to confess to Marian and Djordje and the understanding look his youngest brother gave him when Novak asked him not to tell anyone landed like a knife sharp-edged between his ribs. Woken more than a handful of times in the last month to Andy tense with insomnia beside him, rolling over to meet Novak’s sleepy query with invasive, anxious touches, each one a question: are you sure, are you sure.

Dress, kilt, or stark naked on a mountain in the middle of a Scottish winter, Novak’s sure. He’s not ruling out a fully-justified panic before he walks up the aisle but even then- even with all the complications – he wants this.

‘You’re going to look great,’ Andy says, the affection rough in his tone on an afterthought, ‘just don’t turn up in Rafa’s fucking pirate pants yeah?’

Novak winces. ‘As much as I would like to joke, I could not commit such crime against dignity. Also then there would be no wedding because your mother would have strangled me with them, it would be very sad.’

He falls quiet for a moment as Andy turns him around, hand still warm, the roughness of familiar calluses, over his eyes, and pushes him toward the door. Still without seeing the kilt, but thinking of the flash of green when he walked in, of tradition and weddings – now Novak half-remembers photographs from Jamie’s wedding, the one silver-framed on Andy’s mantelpiece in Surrey, stiff poses and the surprising burst of green and blues counter-weighted at either side of the picture beneath Andy and Jamie’s smiles.

He’d never really paid attention to it. With a decade spent circling each other as they both tripped into being increasingly-famous, he knows the fastest way to jolt Andy into panic is to point a camera at him and yell smile. The formality of the posed picture, the fixed edge of politeness to his expression, that’s never the real Andy. Not the one who leans into Novak sleepy and pliable in the mornings, the one who once stayed up until gone three a.m. the night before an exhibition to beat all Novak’s high scores on Mario Kart, and who cries at R.S.P.C.A commercials when he thinks no one’s looking. The one boxed up safe away from the world and set free only around his family, around Novak.

He looked happy though, Novak thinks, in the photograph. Happier than he’s looked all this last year.

‘Andy,’ he says as they reach the bedroom door, catching himself with a hand on the frame before he has time to reconsider, ‘if it is tradition – and as we are in Scotland, and I would not like to offend guests, cause scandal to get you kicked of your country and all – would you like me to wear a kilt also?’

Andy stumbles into his back, hand gone from Novak’s eyes as he steadies himself with both hands on Novak’s shoulders. Blinking into the sudden brightness, Novak listens to the hitch of breath, the extra handful of seconds Andy takes to reply, and carefully doesn’t give into the temptation to look.

‘I don’t think,’ Andy says, and there’s a genuine edge of wistfulness to it, ‘that we have time to order you one now. Anyway,’ and he leans in, the kiss startling and soft to the back of Novak’s neck, words breathed ticklish-light, ‘you’re not Scottish yet. Ask me again on our anniversary.’ Gently, he pushes Novak through the door – don’t look back – saying, ‘Go shower, I’ll change and bring you some dry clothes.’

It's not until Novak's in the bathroom, about to duck into the blissful heat of shower spray, that it strikes him what Andy said. For a minute he stands utterly poleaxed, mouthing the word to himself:

Yet. Not Scottish yet.

Well , he thinks, that’s new.

Not sure it’s a good-new; he’s turned down the British once before for Serbia’s grey towns and winding streets, craggy mountains and the cold bite of snow, everything that says home even if he doesn’t quite fit the mold of what they wanted from him. For a brief instant he’s startlingly, intensely homesick.

But– he remembers russet-green hills, and the surprising blue of the sky that he’s still hoping to see if it ever stops raining. Thinks of the tiny Scottish lady who runs the corner shop, who chides Andy with the affection of someone who’s known him for his entire life every time they drop in for milk or eggs, for skipping training or not feeding Novak up better, her accent sometimes incomprehensible to the point that Andy, blushing, has to translate. Judy’s amusement (and complete lack of surprise) when they told her, Andy stumbling over the words until Novak had to finish the confession for him, married sitting strange and unexpected on his tongue.

Thinks of the memory of Andy’s fingertips brushing his with an unexpected spark of heat as they sat on a dingy locker room bench half the world and an entire career away, passing dog-eared photographs between them. Andy's blush when Novak caught his eye, teenage and awkward and shy but there, describing his home half by mime because his accent was still thickly incomprehensible but neither of them admitting defeat.

Well, Novak thinks again, and smiles.

He's always liked Scotland.