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leading out into the expanding universe

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The night after the final, Keeley sleeps over at his place. She’s been doing that more and more lately - she has almost more drawers in his wardrobe than he does, at this point.

She’s obviously familiar with their contents - when Roy wakes up, he finds her curled up in one of his old training jerseys, intently reading his well-thumbed copy of A Wrinkle In Time.

She must have read the handwritten inscription on the title page, because when she catches his eye, she smiles.

“Y’know, Ted gave me a book too,” she said. “I wasn’t even working for Rebecca, yet - he only knew me as Jamie’s girlfriend. But he always saw me as more than that, even right from the start.”

“Oh yeah? Which book did you get?”

Charlotte’s Web.

Roy vaguely remembers reading that one to Phoebe. “That’s the one with the pig, yeah?”

She swats his shoulder. “Oh sure, the pig gets all the attention. But nobody would remember him if it wasn’t for the smart female spider spinning stories in the background to make sure everyone realised how amazing he was.”

“She’s pretty amazing herself,” Roy says, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead.

“I caught Ted in the locker room once,” she says, apropos of nothing. “That first week he started. He was hunched over, peering at pictures of me that Jamie had pinned up in his locker. At first I assumed he was having a right perv. It was only after he stood up that I realised he’d been putting tape over my bare chest. I mean, they’re great boobs. I’m not ashamed of them, or those photoshoots. But it was nice to know that he saw me as more than just my admittedly fantastic breasts.”

“Eleven out of ten,” Roy mumbles sleepily, reaching out a hand to draw her closer. “You and your rack. Now - can we please go back to sleep? Season’s over, I don’t need to get up at sparrow’s for training anymore.”

*

“But why would they request me?” asks Roy, for the third time in as many minutes.

Keeley throws her hands up in the air. “Fine! If you want to get all technical about it, technically they didn’t request you so much as I volunteered you.”

“Why?” he repeats blankly.

“Because it’s important. You’re getting a lot of publicity, ever since the game last week. Because I thought you’d do a good job of it.”

“Me?” he asks incredulously.

“You,” she echoes, jabbing his chest with her perfectly shaped acrylic nail that, it turns out, is even sharper than it looks. “And you would be good at it, too.

“Who’d want to listen to me?”

“They listen to you,” she says. She gestures at the framed photograph that Ted gave them each after the game. It was taken at one of the last training sessions - Roy’s standing in the middle of the team, wearing the captain’s armband. Roy suspects that Ted made each of the photo frames himself. His sister gave him one two years ago that looks almost identical. Phoebe made it out of coloured craft sticks when she was four.

“It’s just - you know. These awareness campaigns against domestic violence. Do you think they actually make any kind of difference at all?”

“Even if it might only make a difference for one person, wouldn’t that still be worth it?"

"I suppose, theoretically," says Roy. "But - "

"It's not theoretical," she flashes, and there's an undercurrent of steel in her voice. "Not to anyone in those situations. It's a real problem, Roy. I know men like that. I’ve dated men like that.”

His second year playing for Chelsea, Roy tore his ACL. One moment everything was fine, and the next moment the ground was gone from underneath him and he was left with a pain as sudden as it was devastating. He’d had to sit out the remainder of the season, crutches for six weeks and then countless physiotherapy sessions to regain full movement but all of that had been a dull ache compared to that first lightning strike of pain. A decade later, and it’s as though he’s suddenly transported back to that muddy field and can’t quite catch his breath as he looks at Keeley imploringly.

“Not Jamie,” she clarifies quickly. “He was a prick in lots of ways, but he never raised a hand to me.”

Roy thinks of other footballers that Keeley has dated over the years. Men he’s shaken hands with, shared a pint with, clapped on the back. He’s seen tempers flare in locker rooms, nights of hard drinking and the harder edges of men accustomed to getting everything they want, on the field and off it. He thinks of all the things that can happen behind closed doors.

Keeley pats his knee reassuringly. “I’m not a victim,” she says brightly. “I’m strong, yeah? Learnt to be. People try to push me around, I push back harder. I’m not afraid to walk out the door on any relationship I don’t want to be in. But not everyone can do that.” She continues, much quieter: “My mum couldn’t.”

Roy reaches out and clasps her hand. “I’ll do it,” he promises. “The campaign. I will, Keels.”

She immediately looks up, her eyes dancing. “Was it the line about my mum that got you? It was, wasn’t it. You are such a softie!”

“It is true, though,” Keeley says, after he’s kissed her thoroughly. “What I said about my mum, I mean.” She uses her next kiss almost as punctuation. “And about you being such a softie.”

*

The half-day of campaign filming goes about as well as can be expected. The art director tries to coax Roy into looking the precise degree of stern and serious - which makes Keeley laugh. “You spend half your career scowling, and now you’ve got stage fright?” she asks, in mock-exasperation. Three months ago, Roy would have mistaken it for genuine exasperation, but in those three months he’s been studying Keeley Jones with the same single-minded focus he used to devote to poring over game reels and perfecting plays. It’s won him a nation’s heart before, but he finds lately he cares more about one particular heart; finds that one whoop of delighted laughter from her means more than the echoes of applause in some distant stadium ever had.

Roy glowers obligingly, and hears the click-click-click of the camera. The clapperboard sounds and the director gestures for him to deliver his line.

“Real men respect women,” he intones into the barrel of the camera. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the glint of Keeley’s oversized hoop earrings as she nods her head and gestures an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Once the director has called the scene for the final time, Roy stands impatiently as his microphone is unclipped from where it’s been looped down the front of his shirt. The wardrobe assistant apologises as she lifts up most of his shirt to remove the tape that had secured it. 

“It’s nice to not be the one stripping off for a photoshoot, for once,” Keeley reflects. She looks him up and down, and then walks in a slow circle around him before pirouetting on one heel, and letting out a piercing wolf whistle.

“Oi. Are you objectifying me?”

“Nah,” Keeley beams. “I won’t even tell you that you’d look prettier if you smiled, either.” She pauses. “Although you would. But if you were smiling, nobody would recognise you. Nobody except me that is,” she says, as she steps closer and kisses his ear. “I’ve seen you smile plenty. Like when I…” she trails off suggestively, leaving him to fill in the blanks. The wardrobe assistant blushes and Keeley smirks. 

“Real men respect women,” he reminds her, half-teasing.

“They certainly do,” Keeley says. “And you, Roy Kent, might be just about the realest man I know. So how about we go home and you can show me just how much you respect me, huh?”

Once Roy has changed and the harried assistant has removed the makeup from his face, he gathers his things and is almost ready to walk out when in the distance he catches a glimpse of a familiar face being ushered onto the set he'd just vacated. 

“You didn’t tell me he’d be here, too,” Roy said.

“I mentioned the campaign, and he volunteered. Does it bother you, him being here?” Keeley asks, more curious than annoyed.

“No,” he replies honestly, because he finds it doesn’t, anymore. Instead, Roy gives Jamie a casual wave. It’s worth it for the momentarily stunned expression on Jamie’s face, before he belatedly holds up his own hand in a hesitant greeting. Roy ducks his head down into Keeley’s shoulder to hide his answering grin.

*

Everyone’s careful not to call it a retirement party. Everyone’s been tip-toing around the word, just like the other r-word, relegation, that’s been an ever-present shadow ever since the whistle blew on the final match. The official invites were carefully worded - by Higgins - to refer generically to 'celebrating AFC's achievements this season'. Roy himself doesn't know if he's retiring - but he might be, is the thing. 

He's got an appointment with a specialist next week for his knee, and he’ll know more then. It’s already feeling better - he barely needs the brace anymore, even though Keeley cajoled him to wear it tonight. (“You’re lucky I'd already picked out those wider legged trousers for you,” she’d winked. “Fashionable and functional. Like my dress - look, it has pockets," and then she had proceeded to spin around in a way that makes him dizzy). The specialist will be able to tell him whether his knee is better enough to clear him to play in the upcoming season. 

Whatever happens, Roy knows he's lucky. He’s had a good career. And maybe it’s better to leave on a high note, with his dignity still intact, rather than a slow slide into mediocrity refusing to accept the inevitable. He knows he's not as fast as he used to be - although weirdly, the rush he'd felt in that final game, right before his injury, had felt closer to the team - and the player he'd used to be - than he'd felt in years. 

He wishes he'd had a manager like Ted earlier in his career - feels oddly envious of the young players now who don't know how lucky they have it.

Keeley’s phone has been ringing constantly with an array of offers, and she’s been negotiating angles he hadn’t even thought of. He’s been getting offers to lead summer clinics, write an autobiography, even some guest commentator roles (and hadn’t that made Keeley laugh - absolutely nobody is going to pay you to be taciturn or mad all the time, she said, you do realise you’d have to narrate your thoughts constantly). Ted's even guaranteed a role for him at AFC Richmond next season regardless: the only question is whether he'll be wearing a player's jersey or a coach's jacket. 

No matter what the specialist's verdict is next week, he still has options; good ones.

Still. After next week, there’s every chance nothing will ever be quite the same.

Roy slips away from the crowd in the function room of the clubhouse and walks alone outside to the empty stadium. In the night, the red of the stadium seats is merely a deep shadowed blur.

With the stadium lights off, at this time of night, when he looks up, he can actually see pinpricks of stars filling the sky. He stares at them for a long moment, the noise of the party a faint murmur in the distance.

Roy looks out at the pitch, and thinks of all the times he’s strode out along this grass, and the handful of times he’s returned triumphant, hoisting a premiership trophy on his shoulders. He’s had the world at his feet for so many years, and he’s not sure he’s ready to walk away with the knowledge that this corner of the world will keep spinning without him - so many younger, faster players so quick to take his place. He knows it's true - after all, he used to be one of them himself. 

Oh my dears, I did so love being a star,” says Ted, emerging from the shadows and craning his head up to gaze at the sky.

Roy looks at him sharply. It sounds oddly familiar.

“Mrs Whatsit,” says Ted. “From A Wrinkle in Time?”

Roy grunts in acknowledgment. 

“You know,” continues Ted. “Funny thing about stars. Even after they burn out, their light is still visible to us on earth even years and years later. How’s that for a legacy - leaving a bright light for others to look up to.”

“S'pose there are worse ways to be remembered,” says Roy, and his voice is entirely level, but Ted must hear something in it, because he claps him on the shoulder - not once, but three times.

“You’re a good man, Roy Kent. Now - I believe there’s a party waiting for us, and I don't know about you, but I was promised cake.” Ted's hand remains on his shoulder, this time steering him back to the warm circle of light pouring from the clubhouse. The noise gets louder as they approach, a low murmur of conversation and the faint echo of music from Isaac's playlist. 

Roy hears a peal of laughter that he’s almost positive is Keeley’s, and a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth.

When he and Ted walk back into the clubhouse, the party is still in full swing. They cheer when he re-enters, with cries of "captain!" 

“Speech, speech, speech,” Sam begins the chant, and Colin and Isaac join him. Nate mouths along, casting his eye quickly at Roy for approval, and when Roy only nods resignedly, Nate increases his volume to a level that is almost audible.

Rebecca gestures Roy up to the centre of the room, but before Roy even opens his mouth to speak, someone else beats him to it.

“Football is life!” exclaims Dani Rojas.

“No, mate,” says Roy, clapping Dani on the shoulder. “Turns out it really is just a game, after all. The best game in the world - true. But still - only a game.” He pauses for a long moment, and then glares around the room. “You ever tell anybody I said that and I’ll deny it.”

He never knows whether anyone says anything in response, because Keeley - with her high ponytail and higher platform shoes - is already striding over to remind him of all that life actually is.

As she wraps her arms around him, he gently repositions her grip from the seat of his pants to his shoulders - a rearrangement so quick he’s almost certain she wouldn’t have felt the outline of the velvet jewellery box that is tucked securely in his back trouser pocket.

(When he’d showed Ted the ring a few days ago, Ted had immediately got misty-eyed and launched into a catalogue of all the reasons that Roy will be as legendary a husband as he has been a professional football player. “Save it for the best man speech,” Roy had said - which had started another round of tears. Roy’s eyes may not have been entirely dry either. The dust situation in the changerooms was getting worse - made you wonder if anyone ever cleaned them. Perhaps he’d add that to the suggestion box.)