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US Open, September, 2015

"Lionel Roux?"

Stan crosses his legs in his chair as he makes a sarcastic noise in the back of his throat. "You barely get along with Lio on Davis Cup weekends. Year round would be a disaster."

"Mm, probably," Gaël agrees. He's lying on the couch in his hotel suite, and he shifts so that the ice pack is better placed on his lower back. "Franco Davin?"

"Rumor has it he's talking to Grigor."

Gaël sighs, deep enough that the ice pack slides off his back.

Stan frowns, reaching over to resituate the pack. "Jimmy Connors?"

"He lasted one match with Maria," Gaël argues. "How long do you think he'll last with me?"

"Fair point." Stan settles further into his chair. "John McEnroe?"

Gaël snorts.

"Patrick McEnroe?"

"How about we stay out of the McEnroe family, eh?"

Stan draws his knees to his chest and folds his arms over them. He bites back, "How about you offer some suggestions? This is your coach."

"Maybe I don't need a coach. It's been working out fine."

Stan scoffs. "You lost in the first round."

"I fell."

"Sure."

Gaël turns his head so he can squint at Stan without standing up and aggravating his injuries. "I fell," he repeats, insistently.

Stan sighs. "I know, I know. The press, what they're saying – they're assholes, right?"

"Right."

Stan shakes his head. "Let's go at this another way. If you could have any coach you wanted, who would it be?"

Gaël says, without thinking about it, "Mikael Tillstrom."

Stan lets his legs drop to the ground, sitting up. "I can help-"

"I already asked him." Gaël closes his eyes, burying his face back in the cushions as he cuts Stan off. "He said no. I don't want to make a fool of myself again."

"You won't." Stan sits on the edge of his chair, leaning closer. Gaël can feel Stan's body heat without opening his eyes. "No, listen, I have sway now."

Gaël snorts.

Stan ignores him. "He and Magnus have a school together. Let me talk to Magnus. If he thinks it's a bad idea, I'll drop it. Let me try, yeah?"

Gaël waves his hand. His back hurts. His wrist hurts. And he doesn’t really care what madness Stan wants to orchestrate in the free time he has between actually winning matches in New York.

***

"Hey. Gaël? Hi."

"It's me," Gaël says, distracted. He's playing footie-tennis with his brother at his home court in Switzerland. It's a little windy, and he presses the phone closer to his ear. "It's hard to hear you."

"Yeah, I have practice in a few. It's loud in here."

Gaël feels a quick pinch as he thinks about Team Switzerland in the locker room around Stan.

"But I couldn't wait to call you."

"Ahh, I knew you missed my ugly mug when I'm not around," Gaël teases.

"Right," Stan scoffs, "that's it, for sure."

Daryl dribbles the tennis ball and kicks it over the net. Gaël lunges for it, getting it back over the net but dropping his phone.

"Gaël? Monf? Hello?" Stan's voice is small and tinnie from where it lies on the ground.

Gaël picks it up, frowning at the large crack now spidering across his screen. "Sorry, sorry, I dropped you."

"Why I ever do anything nice for you, I don't know."

"You don't do nice things for me."

"I dare you to say that again after I tell you to get on a plane to Sweden."

"Sweden?" Gaël frowns, then pauses. Daryl sends the ball sailing back over the net, and Gaël lets it bounce on the hard court. "Did you-? Did he-?"

"Yep," Stan says, sounding smug and self-satisfied. "Tillstrom's willing to meet with you."

Gaël forces down the excitement that's thrumming, warm and electric, through his body. "If I ask, he'll say yes?"

"He wants to meet you first, but, yeah, it's basically a done deal. Just be yourself."

Gaël snorts.

"Okay, so, maybe don't be exactly yourself."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Who just found you a coach?"

"I found a coach," Gaël argues. "You just- pushed him forward a little."

"I'm hanging up on you now."

He hangs up before Gaël can thank him properly.

***

Sweden is cold in September, the wind blowing through Gaël's light coat and the snow- Gaël stops and shakes his head. He refuses to acknowledge snow in September.

"I'm not an easy guy to coach," he says, instead, because he figures it's better to just get that out on the table.

Mikael shrugs, slipping his hands into his pockets. "If we're going to work together, you'll need a better coat."

"I have a better coat," Gaël mumbles, before he can remind himself that this is a coach he's trying to impress. "Just didn't think I'd need it in September."

"Your mistake," Mikael shrugs, not the least bit worried that his possible future charge might be giving himself a crippling case of pneumonia.

Gaël wants to ask if they can have this conversation inside the Good to Great academy. It really is an impressive facility, with heating and warm coffee and indoor courts and everything.

He stops himself, though. Being himself has never worked particularly well with his past coaches, and he actually wants this one to work out.

"You'll be happy for the cold when I'm done with you," Mikael adds, reaching for his racquet and jogging through the flurries to the other side of the net.

***

Gaël is warm and tired and aching by the time Mikael drops his racquet and leans against the net. "I don't mind working with difficult guys."

Gaël rests his racquet on his foot as he reaches for a water bottle.

"I've got a thick skin and a lot of patience."

"I'll see if I can test that." Gaël means it as more of a warning than a quip.

Mikael takes it. "But there's two things I need from you in return."

Gaël's heard all this before. I'll work with you, as long as you do exactly as I say or this will only work if you never question me or you could win Slams, if you only stopped having fun and learned to focus.

As if Gaël doesn't know all this.

As if the reason Gaël hasn't won a Slam is that he doesn't want to win a Slam.

"First, I need to know all your secrets."

That's a new one. Gaël raises an eyebrow and bounces the ball between the toes of his shoes.

Mikael raises his palms. "Not the small stuff. I don't care if you don't brush your teeth before bed or wear the same underwear as long as you're winning."

"Superstitions aren't my thing," Gaël promises. "Talk to Nadal. Or Stan. Those checkered shorts." He shivers.

Mikael laughs.

Mikael thinks he's funny and Gaël lets himself start believing that this could actually happen.

"Point taken." Mikael tilts his head, like he's trying to read Gaël by just looking at him intensely enough. "But, if there's anything big, anything at all, I promise I can handle it, as long as I know now."

"I'm an open book," Gaël promises even as his stomach churns.

"Good." Mikael closes his hands and grabs onto the net as he leans against it. "Because if I find out through social media or a pap photo, I'm out of here. I won't wait for explanations. I won't wait for apologies."

Gaël swallows hard as he nods. Be yourself, Stan had told him. Gaël just wishes Stan had been a bit more specific about which self he should be.

"And the second thing," Mikael continues, talking right over Gaël's silence. "If this partnership is going to work, I need you to commit 100%."

Yeah, Gaël definitely wishes he could beat Stan at a little one-on-one right now for putting thoughts in his head.

Mikael holds up his hands again. "Not give up 100% of who you are, I'd never ask that. You can't win if you're not playing your tennis."

Gaël blinks. Maybe Stan will survive that one-on-one after all.

"But in order to be the best player you can be, I expect your full dedication for the next few years. If you're not ready for that, than we should quit before we begin."

Gaël doesn't want that. He doesn't want to go back to touring coach-less. He doesn't want to keep losing early in tournaments. He doesn't want to lose a coach who wants – no, expects – Gaël to be himself, and wants to coach him anyway.

Gaël steps forward, holding out his hand. "I'm in."

Mikael doesn't take it, but he gives Gaël a small, soothing smile. "Not yet. I want you to really think about what I'm asking of you. I'm giving you five days. Get your shit in order. And then, and only if you've taken care of all your distractions – mental and physical, I want you back here first thing Monday morning."

"I'll be here," Gaël promises.

"We'll see."

It's a challenge. It's a question. It's a whole field of doubt, and Gaël closes his eyes, his whole body shivering with the cold.

***

Gaël never unpacked his bags for his short trip to Sweden, so all he needs is a quick shower and a call to the cab company for a ride back to the airport.

He stands in line at the ticket booth, flicking his fingers against his Passport.

His phone beeps. Stan. Howd it go w Tillstrom??????

Gaël types back its not gonna work out as he thinks it was fun while it lasted.

He turns off his phone and shoves it in the side pocket of his duffle. He doesn't want Stan's questions or his concerned face. He doesn't want to see Magnus in the background, his eyebrows furrowed as he asks, "why couldn't you give Mikael what he asked for?" in his broken English. He doesn't want Stan to dig too far into that question. He doesn't want to see their disappointment, that look he's gotten every year he's been on tour. The look that means, you had so much potential, why did you waste it? Stan's never given him that look before, and he can't bare to see it now.

Not that his mum and dad and Daryl won't give him the very same look when he arrives back in Switzerland with his tail between his legs.

"Next in line, please."

Gaël shakes his head, stepping forward to purchase the next flight to Geneva.

The agent takes his passport. "Where would you like to go, Mr. Monfils?"

Gaël opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. "I'd like the next flight to Tokyo."

***

Magnus meets him in Tokyo with a resigned frown and a sign that says "Gaël Monfils" in blocky, uneven lettering.

"I was going to get a taxi," he says, dumbly.

Magnus shrugs. "Mikael called ahead."

"Oh."

"Yeah," Magnus sighs. "Oh."

Gaël shakes his head to clear the scratchy, heavy feeling he always has when he traverses the Pacific so that he can make sense of this all.

Get your shit in order, Mikael had ordered.

Gaël hadn't known he would come to Tokyo until he was at the airport.

Mikael had known the moment he said it. Mikael had probably known before Gaël had even arrived in Sweden.

"I know that look," Magnus claps him on the shoulder. "I've known Mikael a lot longer than you have, and I learned long ago to just do what he says. Works out better for everyone."

Magnus leads him to their waiting car, but stops him before he can get in. His hand is strong on Gaël's elbow. "Stan's here to win. Whatever you and Mikael have planned, it's fine, as long as you don't fuck with that."

Gaël is way too tired to deal with any of this.

"Wouldn't dream of it," he quips, instead.

***

"Magnus said you were here." Stan's mouth is stuffed full of strawberries when Gaël joins him for breakfast after a night of fortifying sleep. "I didn't believe him."

"Should trust your coach," Gaël shakes his head with mock chastisement.

"That's rich, coming from you." Stan leans forward. "Did things go so badly with Tillstrom that you hopped on the first flight to bother me?"

"I hear sake is the best for drowning your sorrows."

"Ahh, so it's the country, not the company."

"For sure."

There's a bit of strawberry juice on the edge of Stan's mouth, and if Gaël leaned forward, just an inch or three, he could wipe it off.

Gaël throws his napkin towards Stan's face. "You eat like a pig."

Stan makes a 'who, me?' gesture but wipes his mouth.

***

"If you're going to be here, at least make yourself useful," Magnus grumbles that afternoon as he pushes a racquet into Gaël's chest.

Stan runs him around the court for a 45-minute warm-up, then takes three sets to beat a wild card in the second round.

"I'm tired," he grumbles, as he collapses onto the couch in his suite.

"Mmm," Gaël agrees. "All that embarrassment must be exhausting."

Stan throws a pillow that bounces of Gaël's shoulder. "I won. I don't see you winning any matches around here."

Gaël slips the pillow under his ass as he settles on the floor by Stan's knees. "I'll kick your ass at FIFA, though."

"We'll see about that." Stan accepts the controller and starts up the game. "Loser has to wake Magnus in the morning?"

Gaël raises an eyebrow at the loud snuffles and snores filtering under Magnus' closed door.

"Incentive," Stan explains. "FIFA is serious business. I don't want you slacking off."

"Sure, if incentive is what you need," Gaël agrees, as he chooses his team.

And proceeds to whoop Stan's ass.

"This is bullshit," Stan exclaims an hour or so and a number of lost matches later, dropping his controller in defeat.

Gaël drops his head to the couch, turning so he can look up at Stan. "Forfeit?"

Stan glares at him, turning so he can lie on his back, Gaël's head now resting on Stan's thigh. He crosses his arms over his chest, his shirt pulling up, and there's a pale sliver of skin visible above the jut of his hipbones. Gaël wants to reach up, feel the heat of Stan's body under his hands, the fragility of his hips and the strength of his thighs.

Gaël turns his head, adjusting on his knees, poised to do something, anything to make this ache stop.

Stan laughs, reaching for his controller. "You didn't really think I'd surrender that easy?"

No, Gaël thinks with an internal sigh, no I didn't.

***

Gaël doesn't remember ever feeling like this before.

Sure, there's always been a heavy, deep knot in the pit of his stomach whenever he's been around Stan. He always figured it was a natural by-product of competing against his best friend on a regular basis – of losing to his best friend on the regular.

Now, though, all he can think about is touching Stan, leaning forward to kiss him, pulling him close, letting their legs twist together, all strength and brilliance and-

Gaël has it bad.

Fuck Mikael for making him realize that.

Fuck Mikael for not having to deal with the fallout.

Because Gaël only sees this ending in two possible ways. Either Stan meets him halfway, eager and willing, whispering things like "finally" against Gaël's mouth as Gaël ribs him about being the world's longest cock tease.

Or Stan pushes him away, mouth twisted in anger and betrayal.

Gaël doesn’t know how to hope for the first, without risking the second.

But now that Mikael has put the thought in his head, he doesn't know how he doesn’t at least try.

***

Stan beats Krajicek in the quarterfinals in a much more respectable straight-sets.

"We should celebrate," Magnus suggests in the locker room after the match, with a squeeze to Gaël's shoulder that Gaël's pretty sure means I'm going to move this along if you won't.

Stan groans and lowers himself into an ice bath.

"A low key celebration," Magnus amends.

"I think Magnus wants to get you laid." Stan presses his shoulder to Gaël's as they walk the short distance from the hotel to the restaurant.

Gaël digs his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Maybe he wants to get you laid."

Maybe they're one and the same, Gaël wants to say.

"Nah, he knows better than to meddle."

"Does he?"

Stan pauses, and Gaël almost stumbles over him. "I don't know." He looks back at Magnus, who's walking behind them, his phone pressed to his ear.

Magnus closes his phone and catches up with them. "Just Mikael, calling to check in on your progress," he raises a pointed eyebrow at Gaël.

Stan frowns. "You said it wasn't going to work out."

Gaël shrugs. "There's a test. I'm pretty sure I'm failing."

Magnus grumbles, "you could say that again," and holds the door open.

***

Stan yawns loudly when they get back to the hotel, but when Gaël turns to leave, Stan stops him. "I'm pretty sure I'm missing something here."

Gaël shrugs, feeling his arm move under Stan's hand. He bites his lip. "It's not a big deal."

"I think it is, though." Stan pulls his hand away to cross his arms over his chest. "You didn't tell me you still have a chance with Tillstrom."

"Yeah, it's, ahh," Gaël licks his lips, tries not to stare at Stan's face so close to his, eyes tired and serious and a little bit hurt, "it's a long shot."

"Is that why you're here? What does he want, a rare Japanese dragon egg or something?"

"Something like that."

"Well," Stan shrugs, looking away, "whatever it is, you know I'll help you. I like near-impossible rare Japanese egg quests."

"They're you're specialty," Gaël agrees.

"Don't question the master."

"Never." Gaël's voice is lower than it should be. He doesn't like seeing Stan like this, feeling left out, confused. He should tell him. He should step forward, he should-

Stan yawns. "Okay, well, the quest doesn't have to happen tonight, does it?"

Gaël steps back. "Nah, quest doesn’t have to happen tonight. Sleep well."

"You too." Stan turns to open his door. "Breakfast?"

"Breakfast," Gaël promises.

***

On Saturday, Stan beats Muller in a two-set semifinal.

Gaël has twenty-four hours before he has to get back on a plane to Sweden.

***

The final is scheduled for early afternoon.

Gaël's booked on the first flight out after the match ends.

Stan is ready, warmed-up and bouncing on his feet in the locker room as he waits for the call to court.

Gaël isn't nearly as ready.

"Hey," Stan says, finally, reaching out to still Gaël's twisting fingers. "You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah." Gaël swallows. "Fine. Nervous, for you."

Stan frowns. "I'm not even nervous for me."

The door opens, and the tournament director slips his head around the door. "Just a couple more minutes."

Stan nods. The door closes.

The clock in Gaël's head clicks closer to the deadline.

"Honestly," Stan continues, as if they were never interrupted, "you've been weird all week. Is this about the quest?"

Gaël forces his hands into his pockets, shrugging his shoulders against his ears. "I didn't find my rare Japanese dragon egg."

"There's still some time left."

"Maybe." Gaël shakes his head, trying to clear his ears of the ticking of the clock as it winds down. "You should focus on your own quest, eh?"

The door opens again. "Two minutes."

Stan nods, turning to pull his bag onto his shoulders. Gaël watches the way his muscles move under his shirt, ready to play, ready to fight.

When he turns back to Gaël, his fingers are strong and steady on Gaël's arm. "There's nothing you can't tell me."

Gaël shakes his head.

Stan's fingers tighten on his arm.

Gaël closes his eyes, and steps forward.

Stan's mouth is warm under his, open in shock, and it takes him a long moment to kiss back. But when he does, he surges forward, grasping at Gaël's hips, pulling him forward, as close as they can get. Gaël groans, sliding his hands under Stan's shirt, desperate to touch his skin.

There's a knock on the door.

Stan steps back, his eyes wild, his lips red and swollen. "I can't believe you did that. Now. When I have a match." Stan shakes his head. "A final."

The door opens before Gaël can apologize.

***

Gaël watches from the hallway.

It doesn't take long.

Stan is transferring all his frustration into his backhand, and Paire never stood a chance.

Stan wins in two unchallenged sets, without a single smile. Not even when he's holding the trophy for the fans and the press, not even during his short, clipped acceptance speech.

It's not nearly enough time for Gaël to prepare himself for what comes next. Then Stan's in front of him, wrapping his fingers in Gaël's t-shirt and pulling him into the locker room.

The trophy drops, forgotten, onto a side table as Stan pushes him up against the closed door.

"Fuck," he breathes. "Fuck, do you have any idea?"

"I'm the worst," Gaël agrees, light, easy, in the face of Stan's force.

Stan growls, pushing against his shoulders and lifting his knee to press between Gaël's, pinning him to the wall. "It's been years – a decade, maybe – and you decide to act on this right before I go on court? That's not fair."

"Wasn't a picnic for me either."

Stan pushes forward on his knee, pressing his shorts into Gaël's thigh. He's hot from the Tokyo heat, sweaty from the match, thick and hard through his jockstrap. "Do you feel that? Do you know what it's like to play a match when all you can think about is how much I'd like to fuck you?"

Gaël groans, shifting so that he can press his own erection to Stan's bent knee. "I have some experience with that, yeah."

"I could just-" Stan shakes his head, his eyes bright and wild, and then he drops his mouth.

This kiss is nothing like the one they shared earlier. This kiss is all teeth and tongue, Stan asking for submission and Gaël granting it.

He closes his eyes, letting his head drop back as Stan's hands slip under his waistband, pulling, tugging, demanding everything Gaël's been ready to give him for years.

It doesn't take long, with Stan's mouth hot and heavy against his skin, his hands on Gaël's body, and Gaël's coming in Stan's fist, Stan surging up to swallow his cries before the entire ATP can hear him.

"Jesus," Gaël murmurs, as he sinks to his knees, catching his breathe in harsh, ravaged gasps.

Stan's standing above him, his bent elbows catching his weight against the wall. He's still heavy in his shorts, the waist bang dipping below his hipbones and Gaël reaches up to pull them halfway down his thighs. Stan is strong, his leg muscles bunching under Gaël's hands, and Gaël takes his time, relishing the feel of Stan over him, around him, under his control.

"Can you-?" Stan bites his lip, his hips thrusting forward of their own accord.

Gaël takes pity on him, reaching up to pull Stan's dick out of his jockstrap. It leaps when Gaël wraps his palm around it, leaking precome against Gaël's fingers.

Stan sets the rhythm, dropping his forehead to rest against the wall for leverage as he moves his hips in Gaël's grip. He's vocal, more so than Gaël ever imagined when he'd imagined this, late at night, in the solitude of his own hotel room. Grunts and moans as Gaël twists his hand, and Gaël tries it again.

Stan throws his head back, his back arching, pushing himself closer. "I'm gonna-"

Gaël leans forward, wrapping his lips around the head and Stan cries out his name as he comes.

"Well," Gaël says, once he's recovered and pushed himself up to stand next to Stan against the door. "That wasn't quiet."

Stan laughs, shaking his head. "Tillstrom really sent you to fuck me?"

"'To get my shit in order,'" Gaël says, in air quotes.

"I was the shit you had to order?" Stan turns his head.

Gaël closes the space between them for a quick kiss. "Always have been."

Stan hums. "I can live with that."