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The calm before the literal and figurative storm

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After (after the match, after the brutal loss, after the locker rooms, after James Tartt and Jamie’s breakdown and Roy being so uncharacteristically soft), they wordlessly clambered onto the bus and slid into their respective seating, refusing to meet the gaze’s of their teammates out of what they were willing to call respect. Jamie had a row all to himself, and he leant his head against the window with his belongings resting on the seat beside him. His phone buzzed relentlessly and his father’s ID flashed on the screen, but he ignored it, and he turned the music up louder in his earphones and shut his eyes, letting the vibrations and the rocking of the bus lull him to sleep.

Nobody knew what to say (what could you say, after what they just heard, after what they just saw, after what he had just endured?) so nobody said a word, and eventually, Jamie was snoring softly with his mouth slightly open and his body limp against the window. Still, nobody spoke, and the bus was deathly silent other than the rumbling of the bus on the road and the incessant buzzing of Jamie’s phone.

Unsurprisingly, it was Jan who spoke. “So,” he said. “That was pretty fucked, right?”

Ted held up a finger. “Before you continue, I want you to think about how Jamie will react if he finds out that you were talking about this very important and private issue behind his back.”

“If you don’t tell him, he’ll never know,” Colin said with a shrug. He sat next to Sam two rows behind Jamie- Colin almost sat beside him but thought better of it, and instead slid in beside Sam and looking at the ugly patterned seats so he didn’t have to see the vulnerable look on Jamie’s face. “What a monster of a man.”

“He was wearing Manchester colours,” Sam sounded reasonably angry about this. “He came to watch his son play and couldn’t even support his team.”

“Higgins told me that Jamie asked him for tickets to give to his dad,” Beard said. The coaches were in the middle of their own conversation at the front of the bus, hushed and murmured, heads-bowed between the aisle, and he tossed this comment over his shoulder for the all to hear, not stopping them from talking, proving his own tidbit of information. 

The bus erupted in an uproar, but when Jamie stirred, (his face still looked so sad, even in sleep, twisted and pinched and torn) it took them all their might to shut up, but they did it quick smart. "So, he asked for tickets, and didn't even come to support his son?" Jan sounded as disbelieved as they all felt.

"Why the hell would Jamie get him tickets?" Isaac scowled. "He had to have known what was going to happen."

“Sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do for family, no matter how much you wish you didn’t,” Colin said. He stared at the ugly pattern on the seats until it felt like he was growing cross-eyed, and when he finally blinked, his eyes stung. 

“It’s no surprise now why he’s such a prick,” Jan said, ignoring the harsh looks from Thierry and Moe. He shrugged. “What? His dad’s a bastard. It’s no surprise, really.”

Richard scowled and crossed his arms, taking up the whole row and sitting partially on Moe to do so. “I’ve never seen that man before today,” he gestured vaguely. “How come he’s never been to one of the games at Richmond, eh?”

(They all knew why, but it was easier to question than it was to put a name to it)

Sam looked a little bit sick as he twisted the cover of the well-loved and slightly tarnished book between his hands. “He was always so mad whenever I spoke about my father, and I always just thought that was Jamie being Jamie, but…” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. He didn’t really have to. “I guess now we know different.”

“It makes sense. Now we know why he is the way he is,” Jan said. He shrugged at the sharp looks from his teammates. “What? We’re all thinking it.”

Frustrated and agitated and on-edge, Isaac stood from his seat and began pacing up and down the length of the bus, not stopping as he passed Jamie but making sure his presence wasn’t known all the same. Roy sent him a look over his shoulder but ultimately said nothing, too busy glowering out the window as Ted and Beard murmured quietly over the aisle. Nate was busy on his phone, not paying much attention. “What are we going to do?” He crossed his arms across his chest. “How do we fix this?”

“Nothing to do, nothing to fix,” Roy twisted in his seat to meet everyone's eye one by one, and his expression brokered no argument, no dispute. “Unless one of you fuckers know how to jump back in time to when Jamie was a fucking kid, then there’s nothing you can do.”

“I didn’t think you were the kind of person to entertain the possibility of time travel, Roy,” Ted said amicably. 

“It’s been one of Phoebe’s special interests lately,” Roy waved him off. “She’s been borrowing plenty of books from the library and I'm the fucker who has to read to her.”

“Where’s his mother?” Richard wondered aloud, not really expecting an answer. “I’ve never seen her at any games either. Surely she must know what a dirtbag Tartt senior is.”

“Jamie said that his parents split up when he was a baby,” Colin recalled the bonfire, the sacrifice of personal items, the ultimate sacrifice years and years before. “I don’t think she’s around.”

Jan gestured vaguely. “See? Like I said.”

"Is he even able to go home tonight?" Thierry asked. "His dad won't come looking for him?"

"That's just something we're going to have to deal with if it comes to it," Beard said.

The bus fell into a tense silence. Nobody quite knew what to do (nobody knew what to say, how to help, though they know they couldn't do either) and though their tempers were high, their energy levels were low, both emotionally and physically, and the fight slowly began to seep out from their toes though it never truly left them.

Outside, the sky was grey, and heavy storm clouds followed their bus all the way home. Fat, heavy raindrops pelted on the windows, making the outside world look like a very dreary painting. It almost felt like Richmond was trapped within their own little bubble, stewing in their embarrassing defeat and their foul mood and their over-whelming despair as the rumbling of the bus on the uneven roads and the drumming of the rain on the roof and windows drowned out any sound from the streets outside.

Jamie slept on, drool wet on his chin and music playing too-loud in his ears, and still, his phone vibrated incessantly with his father's ID on the screen, to the point where they expected it to jump right off the seat. (A part of the team hoped that he would never wake up, would stay in whatever dream-world had its claws in him and not the world where he had a dead-beat drunk for a dad.)

“So,” Dani asked when the bus pulled up at the familiar grounds of Richmond stadium. “Do we just… forget? Pretend like that never happened?”

“A loss is a loss, Dani, no matter who it’s to,” Ted said as he stretched. “We’ll just come back ten times better and beat them next time.”

“I’m not talking about the game,” Dani said. He wasn’t smiling. It was serious. “I mean the locker rooms, Jamie’s father… we can’t just forget?”

“Surely we can’t be expected to,” Thierry said, exchanging a look with Moe and Richard.

“Of course not,” Sam stood. “There’s just no need to mention it again. It’s in the past- what’s done is done. The less he has to remember it the better.”

“Good,” Jan said as he followed the flow of the players off the bus. “I don’t think I could forget.”

Isaac moved to allow the team to pass, and when he was the final player remaining, he paused by Jamie’s row with the intention of waking him up. His attention was pulled by the phone at his side, still with “Dad” flashing on the screen, and in a fit of uncharacteristic fury, he reached down and fiddled with the unfamiliar phone until it was on silent. The caller ID still displayed, but at least the fucking buzzing had stopped. 

When he glanced back up, Roy was watching him with an unreadable expression, and Isaac didn’t even know he was still on the bus. “I couldn’t stand the noise,” he said simply when Roy raised an eyebrow in question. 

“The damn thing was driving me fucking crazy the whole drive here,” Roy nodded. He made no move to stand, but he jerked his head towards the front of the bus. “You go on. We’ll be there in a minute.”

Nodding, Isaac spared one last glance at Jamie, hunched over himself and curled up against the window (he didn’t want to leave) and reluctantly moved down the aisle, touching each seat as he did (he didn’t want to leave) and with a final accepting, understanding look from Roy, he exited the bus and marched towards the clubrooms (he didn’t want to leave, none of them wanted to leave, they would have camped out in the bus all night if they could have). Roy eventually moved to wake Jamie with a gentle shake on the shoulder and Jamie woke with a start, rubbing a hand across his face and squinting at the bright lights of the bus, and Isacc had no choice but to join the others inside and wait (and oh how he hated waiting).

Days later, the burn of the loss to Man City (and the subsequent embarrassment at the hands of his father, but that’s another, unfortunate story) had died down to a hot, burning ember in the pit of his gut that burned brighter and brighter every time he thought about it, which was a lot more often than he was willing to admit. He found himself, apparently under his own volition despite not remembering moving at all, at the pitch at Richmond, despite the stench of ozone from the approaching storm, alone. 

He juggled the ball from foot to foot until his legs burned, he weaved the ball between his legs until his ankles ached, he spun in intricate circles until he got dizzy and practised and trained until his lungs burned and his side stung and he felt his blood pumping in his forehead, but he just couldn’t stop. He couldn’t. Surely if he had practised more, worked harder, been better, they would have won that fucking game against Man City, wouldn’t have been the laughing stock of all of England.

(Deep down, he knows that he wasn’t the problem- that the team wasn’t the problem- but it hurts too much to admit it).

The ball bounced off the crossbar, not for the first time, and the sound grated on his ears as he collected the ball and again began to weave it between his legs. The storm had arrived now, and the rain shocked his fevered skin as it landed on him, but he barely took any notice of it. He just grit his teeth and bared it (he tended to be doing a lot of that, lately) and concentrated as much as he was able on the task at hand.

From far away, lightning crackled and thunder boomed, but Jamie could hardly discern the sound of the storm from his own heartbeat. It hardly mattered. There was work to be done, more important things to focus on.

He took no notice of the hand on his arm and yanked from its grasp, barely discerning the shout of, “Jamie, what the hell are you doing out here in the rain?”

Again, the ball bounced off the crossbar. Again, he weaved it between his feet. Again, thunder rumbled and heavy rain pounded down upon him. That ember burned into a blaze that blistered and burned against his insides and sizzled in the pouring rain. It wouldn’t die down matter how much he willed it (not that he was trying overly hard) but if he was being truthful to himself, he didn’t really mind it as much (he deserved to be angry, just this once).

Somebody tried to snatch the ball from him, trying to give him some competition, and Jamie spun around him so fast that his feet slipped in the mud, but the outraged voice barely met his ears over the rain and his heartbeat and his panting. 

He possessed the ball once again, and again, off the crossbar, again, between his legs, again, juggling on either foot, again he chased it and kept it close and repeated it again and again and again until his eyes went blurry and every part of his body ached something fierce. 

Before he could make another move, two arms wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his sides, strong as cable and immovable as stone, and he was brought to his knees.  “Stop, bruv,” Isaac shouted into his ear over the rain. “Stop,”

“Let me go,” Jamie tried to yank himself away, but Isaac only tightened his hold, and Dani’s hand connected with his shoulder, keeping him there. “Get off,”

Blinking the rain and sweat out of his eyes, Jamie glanced up to see Colin and Sam standing above him, arguing about something and gesturing around at the pitch. Jamie tried to wiggle out from Isaac’s grasp again, but he merely held him tighter, and Dani’s fingers were digging into his shoulder so hard it almost hurt. 

He wasn’t sure how long they sat out there for, Isaac wrapped around him and pinning his arms to his chest and Dani with a comforting, grounding hand on his shoulder, but it was long enough for his heartbeat to stop hammering against his chest and his breathing to even out. He was suddenly aware of his soaking clothes, and he was chilled to the bone (surely Isaac felt him shivering against him).

Sam tapped Isaac on the back and Isaac loosened his hold enough for Colin to help Jamie up, and (almost in a daze) he let them drag him off of the pitch and out of rain and back into the clubrooms, where he was doubly surprised to see most of the team waiting for him under the shelter. “What the fuck are you doing here?” 

“Looking for you,” Sam shoved at his shoulder and the force nearly knocked Jamie over. “We’ve been trying to ring you.”

“Oh,” Jamie hadn’t expected that. There was only one person who ever rang him, and that was the last person he wanted to hear from at the moment (he’d had enough of his dad for a lifetime). “My bad. I left my stuff inside.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Colin tried to twist the rainwater out of his shirt. “It’s fucking raining.”

“I was practising,” Jamie shrugged.

Nobody seemed convinced. “In the rain?” Jan asked sceptically.

Jamie glared at him. “Obviously it wasn't raining when I started.”

“And you didn’t think to stop when it started raining?”

“Alright, I’m not in the mood to argue with you right now,” Jamie turned away from him and Jan threw his hands up in the air in defeat. “How did you know I’d be here?”

Moe gestured vaguely at the pitch. “We looked everywhere else. This was the last place we hadn’t looked yet.”

“You really didn’t hear us calling you?” Theirry asked. “We’ve been here for ages.”

“No, I didn’t,” Jamie turned away. “What were you looking for me for?”

Dani and Isaac looked at him glumly, and neither answered (Dani was never glum and Isaac never looked at him like that, but he couldn’t blame them- he probably looked like a mess). Thankfully, Richard filled in the silence. “We’re going out tonight, get a few drinks, hang out. It was Roy's idea. 'Team bonding' or something. Which you would know if you looked at your phone but- we can’t go out until you dry off.”

“You look like a wet rat,” Jan nodded. “And you’ve got mud up to your elbows.”

Jamie glanced down- he did, in fact, have splatters of mud all over him. “You don’t have to insult you all the time,”

“I’m sorry,” Jan didn’t sound very sorry at all. “You look great.”

Rolling his eyes, Colin grabbed Jamie by the front of his shirt. “Come on. There are towels inside.”

“But the mud,” Jamie tried to protest but it was a hard thing to accomplish when he had a bunch of people literally dragging him inside the building. “Will-”

“We’ll clean it before we leave,” Sam said absently as he held the door open for the flow of people. “But we’ve got to make sure you don’t smell like a wet dog so we can go and celebrate.”

“I do not smell like a wet dog,” Jamie protested as he was herded inside.

“Yes, you do,” Jan said as he followed Richard and Moe inside. Isaac and Dani took up the rear, still with pinched expressions and unhappy eyes, and Theirry shut the door behind them. 

The rain from outside was drowned out by the familiar and comforting sound of the team's chatter as they went about their business and searched through the clubrooms for some towels. Colin was going through his bag in search of a spare change of clothes, but he wouldn’t find any. Sam was chiding him lightly for risking getting sick like that. Richard was singing some French tune, loud and obnoxious, and managed to get a smile out of Dani. 

Slowly, Jamie started to feel the angry fire burning away in his belly once again dull to a glowing ember, an unforgettable fury that simmered down into something manageable, and he allowed himself to put the embarrassment and fierceness of the team's loss to Man City behind him and let himself get swept up in the joy and companionship of his team, even if the last thing he wanted was to be surrounded by so many jolly people when he was in such a foul mood.

(He wanted to throw himself in bed and never wake up. He wanted to lock the doors and bar any and all entrants. He wanted to run away, to hide away, to forget and be forgotten.) (He knew by now that Richmond would never let that happen, despite how much he might have wanted them to.) (He would never admit it, but he was a little bit- or a lot- grateful for it. For them.)