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a hero's welcome

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Keeley rushes down to find him in the locker room after the final whistle. She follows the same route she’d taken when Roy had limped off the pitch, the mood markedly different this time. She can hear the ruckus before she even opens the door, the elation of finally having remembered how to win – not just win but dominate, obliterate, humiliate – clearly hitting all of the Richmond boys at once. She finds Roy in the middle of them all. Like a leader. Like a captain. Like their reluctant hero finally come home.

His all-black suit stands out amidst the sea of blue and red, an imposing shadow breaking through the colours. If there’s such a thing as the opposite of a rainbow, he’s it. 

He’s here, he’s there, he’s every-fucking-where. Roy Kent! Roy Kent! 

They’re chanting for him. The boys are pounding their fists against the walls, a percussive driving beat that she can feel vibrating through her body. They’re lairy, and jumping around like stag do lads two days into a bender, and right on the cusp of putting their hands straight through the wooden boards above their lockers.

Even Jamie’s in the mix. He’s a part of it with the rest of them, the pack of Greyhounds. When one round of the chant dies down, he starts the next as if he’d been singing from this songbook all along. She never thought she’d see the day. Only hoped, perhaps. 

Roy endures it with a grim smile on his face, but that look transforms into something softer the moment he notices her walk into the room. He seems to know instinctively to look over. As if the energy has shifted, the light has changed. Maybe it’s all the gold that catches his eye. She feels him completely hone in on her, his gaze closing the distance even before she does as she bashfully makes her way towards him, unable to hide the giddy joy in every bouncy step. 

“You’re full of surprises,” Keeley teases as she reaches him, biting on her bottom lip as she smiles up at him. In close-up, she can see the rosy tint at the top of his ears; she notices it sometimes when he’s embarrassed. (Usually about whatever filthy thing she just whispered to him, or earnest praise from someone he respects, or Phoebe spilling childhood secrets learned from her mother.)

Gruff as ever, he shrugs as he replies, “Gotta keep you on your toes.” 

Keeley can’t help her own blush at that. He’s got this way of dressing up his affection in that brooding, dark disguise so that it’s a secret just between them. But she can hear the fondness permeating every grumpy word he speaks to her; she can feel the warmth of his gaze upon her skin as he looks at her in that unguarded way that just about undoes her at a glance. Her head leaning to one side, the rush of love a little too much to gaze up directly, she tells him, “That’s funny, ‘cause you’ve been sweeping me off my feet since the first time you kissed me.” She almost laughs as she says it, shy about the shameless cliche of it all but unable to stop the words spilling out. Because they’re true, and Keeley’s never been one to hold back what she feels. 

“Yeah?” he asks genuinely, exposing his gooey centre for all to see as he lets his hidden smile broaden to something more earnest and open. He steps closer to her so that she’s really looking up at him: tall, dark, handsome, a certain twinkle in his eyes as they meet hers. 

“Yeah,” she says, basking in the warm glow of her dark, handsome man. “Coach Kent.”

He rolls his eyes but she doesn’t let up.

“Did they give you a whistle?” 

“No,” he says, before slowly leaning close to her ear and whispering, even lower than his normal register, “but I can get really fucking bossy in bed later, if you like.” The feeling of his warm breath hitting the shell of her ear, and those dirty thoughts he’s planting in her head while they’re standing in a room filled with people, stir that aching, liquid heat between her legs. 

She swallows, recovering herself. “Mmm–anything that’s gonna help my development, Coach,” Keeley teases him back, earning a suitably frustrated groan. 

Soon, she’s giggling and pulling him in and finally, finally, getting to kiss him in this stale, sweaty locker room in light of a win.

She thinks back to the away day in Liverpool last season, and that urge she’d had – the way it had taken her by surprise, suddenly. It had seemed so intense, out of nowhere, her budding crush blossoming into an impatient, urgent need to have him. He’d scored; maybe that was it, perhaps she was shallow like that. But his goal hadn’t been the moment. The moment had been when he’d seen her standing in the (notably pungent) locker room, his surprise mixed with the unmistakable glimpse of a smile, and she’d instantly known . The way they say sometimes you just know when you know. She’d known there was no way she’d let the night end without kissing him. He’d taken her by the hand – if only briefly – and not left her side and then, all of a sudden, they were standing outside her hotel room, hearts on fire. Today, tonight, she’s not waiting that long. She gets to kiss him anytime she wants. 

The cheers from everyone around them go up, but it only prompts Keeley to drag it out more. It’s Harry and Sally on New Year’s Eve. (If Harry and Sally were openly tonguing with their hands squeezing each other’s arses.) They’re lost in a rowdy crowd and yet somehow they’re the only two people on Earth. It had to be you, he’d crooned along with Frank on Sexy December 28th, but now she’s certain those words might finally be real and true; it had to be him. 

“If I’d known a bit of authority was what did it for you, I’d have got a fucking clipboard out,” he mutters dazedly as they come apart. Reeling, she hears a reverent, “Fucking hell,” escape his lips. 

“Moment of honesty?” She holds her hand up in some vague attempt at a scout’s salute.

Roy’s still shaking off that kiss but manages to say, “Go ahead.” 

You’re what does it for me.” She holds onto his eye contact like he might disappear if she looks away, not letting it drop until she watches her meaning sink in. “Yeah?” 

Roy nods, slowly. His hesitation betrays a touch of insecurity, or uncertainty. She isn’t sure. 

“I’m so proud of you, babe. It took balls to come back to the club. Massive, like, Zorb balls.” She gestures wide with her arms to emphasise the point.

“Quite a picture you’re painting,” he mumbles. “Medical nightmare.”

Keeley carries on, taking no notice of his asides: “And I know how much you were hurting the last time you were here.” She moves her hands to the lapels of his jacket, gently tugging on the hem of them before smoothing them over. “I know you wanted to play forever. This game is your life, Roy. But I happen to think… This place is your home. You might not be able to play anymore, but it’s still home. It’s still where you belong.”

She lets her words settle, the silence between them stretching out even with all the chaotic celebrating that surrounds them. As Isaac and Jan practice their newly-choreographed handshake, as Danny repeats his favourite mantra, as Jamie puts an arm around Sam, Keeley says: “These boys, they love you. They respect you. They listen to you. You were made for this, yeah?” And then she repeats herself in a language he can understand: “Fucking made for it.” 

“And what about the Sky shit?”

“Well, that was only step one of my master plan,” she explains nonchalantly. “This is the endgame, right here. I guess you didn’t need me to figure out the rest.” Trying not to look too pleased with herself (and almost certainly failing), she gives her most angelic smile. It’s an attempt at striking the balance between you’re welcome and sorry for interfering

“Keeley,” he practically growls, but the way he draws her closer gives away the warmth in his meaning. There’s unabashed admiration in the way he tells her, “You’re some kind of fucking twisted genius.”

She shifts up onto her tiptoes to press a quick, chaste kiss to his lips. “When they jot that down in the history books, let the record state that I’m also insanely hot, though, babe.” 

He concedes that point with the raise of his eyebrows before his gaze wanders across her face, as if wanting to take in every feature. His attention catches on a stray strand of hair that, despite the holding power of half a can of hairspray, has managed to work its way loose as she dashed down here. He tucks it behind her ear sweetly, careful and gentle with his touch. And when his eyes meet hers again as he says, “Can’t let that get lost in all the genius,” she feels her stomach swoop.

“Exactly.”

“Hey, Keeley!” Colin calls out to her, interrupting their private moment. “You’re all over the nightlife scene, right? Where are we going to celebrate the prodigal son’s return?” 

She quickly thinks through the best options in the general Richmond area, pubs and clubs owned by people she knows or places she’s been paid to appear. “Well, there’s–”

Roy cuts in: “No!”

“But–” Isaac starts to protest.

“No!” For a moment, it seems like Roy’s not going to add another word to explain himself. They all just stare at him in awkward silence. “We won one fucking match today,” he says eventually, and Keeley allows herself a small, private smile at the speed with which he’s started seeing himself as part of a ‘we’ again. “One,” Roy continues. “If you lot go out on the lash every time we fucking win one, it’s not gonna happen too often, is it? You think those wankers at Man City are getting pissed after every game?”

“No, Coach,” Colin mumbles.

“Right, then, how about we agree now: everyone’s off the booze until the next time we can call ourselves a Premiership team?” 

A few of them look to Ted, who’s lingering in the doorway between the locker room and his office. He smiles, a twinkle in his eye as he looks at Roy. “Not a bad idea, is it? Nothing like imagining the sweet taste of a Malibu Sunset to motivate us to glory.”

Roy screws his face up in disgust. “Sometimes I really lose all fucking respect for you.” 

“It touches my heart that you have any to lose, my friend,” Ted positively beams back at him. 

“I’m in,” announces a voice from the corner of the room. Sat on the bench beneath the number 9. Jamie, Keeley realises with a rush of pride. As Roy twists his head around as if to check his ears aren’t deceiving him, Jamie rises slowly from the bench and nods, his flair for drama not letting him down on this occasion. To Keeley, it feels like an olive branch, if only Roy will reach out to take it. 

He does. In his own way. He gives a single, decisive nod in return, then swings back around to look at the rest of the players in the room and says, louder, “Alright, and what about the rest of you pricks?” 

At that, the locker room erupts with murmurs of agreement before everyone rushes over to their old, new recruit, instinctively forming a circle. With Rebecca at her side now, Keeley watches from the outside as each of the players and coaches puts their arms in. 

“This is it,” Ted starts, with that air of purpose, the way he speaks when he’s just contending with a thought taking shape in his mind. “Look around you. Your teammates, your comrades.”

“Rom-comrades,” Isaac corrects him. 

“Right.” Ted shoots a finger gun in Isaac’s direction and nods, impressed. “This group is going to win together and lose together and tie together.” He pauses abruptly, a thought suddenly niggling at him. “Unless it goes to penalties for, what, special occasions?” Beard gives him a look as if to say, don’t worry about it right now. Ted refocuses on the task at hand. “We’re on this journey together. Every choice we all make has to be for each other,” Ted continues, building to a natural crescendo in the spirit of any traditional Lasso speech. “I want to make you proud. And I know every single one of you is gonna make me proud. So, what do you say, we got the rest of the season to shape our destiny: all in?”

“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” Beard chimes in solemnly, before Nate quietly adds, “Yeah, that, yeah, sure. Totally.”

Sam offers a cheerful and enthusiastic, “Of course!” before everyone else on the team takes their turns to co-sign. In the spirit of the captain before him, Isaac gives a hearty, aggressive, “Fuck yeah!” 

As they work their way around the group, the circle closes on Roy. A hush falls on the locker room, and he fixes them with a glare that’s a little terrifying, but Keeley’s already smiling (albeit nervously) as she anticipates his rallying words: “Let’s. Fucking. Go.” 

A great roar goes up, louder than any of the rest of it. Loud enough that the press will hear it, not that it matters – their stories were written the moment Roy walked out of Sky Sports only to turn up pitchside at Nelson Road. 

As everyone disbands, the players going off to shower and change, Roy slides his hand into Keeley’s and whispers, soft and suggestive, “Let’s fucking go.” 

As she lets him lead her out, she glances back over her shoulder at Rebecca, wearing that Cheshire cat grin she can’t seem to shake, and the boss sends her off with a wink.