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The Signal

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The first time was an accident.

When Roy and Keeley walked into the restaurant, of course they have no idea that it was the same place Jamie had chosen for his date. It wasn’t like they were invested in how his date went. Why would they be? Go on. Fucking say why Roy should care. That’s right—he shouldn’t, and he didn’t. The love life of one Jamie Tartt was none of Roy Kent’s fucking business, and that was exactly how it was going to stay.

Sort of.

Because see, after the photoshoot, after Keeley’s confession of what Jamie had said to her at the funeral, Roy’s default had been anger. Actually, his default had been total fucking fury—but that was the caveman part of him that only knew how to communicate in grunts. Nate might have called that his superpower, but Nate was a slimy little piece of shit and Roy no longer cared what he thought. (And no, Ted, he wasn’t going to be fucking budging on that position, and no lectures about teamwork or copies of The Secret Garden snuck onto his desk was going to convince him that looking past bad behavior, understanding someone’s insecurities, and planting fucking rosebushes together was enough to redeem someone. Even if the new rosebushes outside the stadium looked quite lovely.) His superpower wasn’t anger. It was strength. Strength that refused to give way, no matter who tried to push him down. Strength that held nothing back—not even his last breath—when it came to running toward his chosen target. Strength that let him fight with everything he had for what mattered to him.

And nothing in the whole bloody world mattered to him more than Keeley. He was hers, as long as she wanted him and not one goddamn minute less. If his anger tried to get in the way of that, he would bitchslap that anger right in the face until it backed the fuck down. Jamie Tartt being in love with her was not going to be thing that broke them. Not unless she wanted it to be.

And it turned out—thank God, thank fucking God—she didn’t.

So then it became a question of what they were going to do next. Because hurting Jamie wasn’t something Keeley wanted. And when coerced into complete honesty (because Keeley has this look, and damn it to hell if Roy wasn’t utterly helpless in the face of it), he’d admit that hurting Jamie wasn’t something he wanted, either. Because, fuck it all, Jamie had been doing so well. On the pitch, yeah, he was a stunning sight to behold—Roy could barely pull his eyes away to follow the ball—but also in the locker room. In training. In his off hours, bonding with the team, becoming someone the others look to, look up to. In the way he looked at Roy when…

But didn’t mean anything. Of bloody course it didn’t mean anything. Because Roy was his coach, and the fact that Jamie was always eager for his advice just means that Jamie had finally learned the good sense to listen when people were trying to fucking help him. Jamie responded beautifully to any bit of direction now, and the little rush that Roy felt at it was absolutely and unquestionably just relief that the little prick had stopped making trouble. And no, he didn’t think that Jamie was especially responsive to direction from him. Nor did he think that Jamie lit up particularly brightly at the little bits of praise Roy sometimes threw his way. And when Jamie scored a goal, after following Roy’s direction, and turned to look his way—a whole stadium screaming his name, his teammates rushing in to jump on him and yet his eyes staying fixed on Roy until Roy gave him a smile, like that was the only affirmation he needed—it didn’t do a thing to Roy’s heartrate, so shut the fuck up with that bullshit.

So yeah, anyway, Roy didn’t want Jamie to get hurt. Which meant that he and Keeley spent fucking hours hashing things out, post photoshoot, and only the first hour or so of that was Roy spilling his guts out over the floor and revealing his fears that he was too old, too broken, too…himself for Keeley to choose to stay when she was presented with other options. Options that were getting better—more capable, more kind, more fucking gorgeous—every goddamn day while Roy felt like he was only getting worse. Keeley’s reassurances didn’t magically wipe away all of his fears…but he was hers as long as she wanted him, so if she wasn’t asking to walk away then he sure as fuck wasn’t going to insist that she think twice about that.

The rest of the night was spent talking about Jamie. Because actually, a relationship with the right person could be fucking fantastic for him. He needed the security that came from a stable relationship—needed to know he was loved, even after a match went to shit; needed someone to keep him from spiralling when he got stuck in his head thanks to his fuckwit dad; needed someone to keep pushing him to be good, even when it was hard, because he responded so goddamn beautifully to positive reinforcement from someone he trusted.

Obviously, that someone couldn’t be Keeley, but surely there was someone out there. The right someone: not one of those twats from the fanboards who just wanted him because of how good he looked in his kit—or out of it. Not someone who’d chase him for being rich, or successful, or famous. Someone who’d appreciate how genuinely special he was beyond all of that. The more they talked, the more Roy and Keeley realized how much they wanted that for Jamie. Wanted him to finally be happy and settled and loved the way they knew he deserved. (The way he didn’t seem to realize he deserved, and wasn’t that just about the most heartbreaking thing Roy had ever heard—and that included the moment in The Iron Giant when Giant said he was Superman and flew off to… And no, he’s not crying. You’re crying. Shut the fuck up.)

Was Bantr the place to find someone like that? Fuck if Roy knew. But Keeley seemed to think it was a workable option, and Roy believed her because he believed everything she told him. She understood people on a level he would never be able to match, and she was the most honest and open human being who ever drew breath, so when she gave advice, anyone with sense should fucking listen. And Jamie, because he wasn’t an idiot—anymore—did exactly that.

Jamie let Keeley walk him through setting up his profile, and he worked hard on his replies to every single message he received. He even came to Roy for advice on some of them, which they both knew was a total front. Roy was incapable of being suave—online, in person, using hand puppets, whatever. He could probably figure out a way to be curt and abrasive through fucking smoke signals if he put his mind to it. Roy was not the one to come to when you wanted help being charming. (As if Jamie needed any help with that.) No, Roy was the one Jamie came to so he could show that he was doing his best to move on. That he wasn’t going to chase after Keeley or make trouble for their relationship. Jamie came to Roy to show that he was putting in the effort, because he always came to Roy with that, wide eyes staring up at him like a puppy that just wanted Roy to tell him he was a good boy. (Not that Roy thought of it that way. He didn’t. At all. Ever. Fuck right the fuck off with that.)

So yeah, Jamie had his first date. And yeah, Roy and Keeley might have been a little…invested in how it went. But they didn’t come to that restaurant expecting to run into them. It was a complete coincidence. (Keeley might have helped him make his reservation.) They had no idea he was going to be there. (Keeley might have mentioned the reservation to Roy.) They couldn’t have been more surprised. (They might have arranged their whole evening around the timing so they could get there exactly twenty minutes after Jamie.)

And it still might have been nothing, just one of those funny fucking happenstances where some people who knew each other happened to eat in the same fucking restaurant, because it was a free fucking world and why the fuck not? But Jamie saw them when they came in, and his face lit up as he waved them over, and what were they supposed to do with that? Of course they went over. Roy had fucking manners, you know.

Jamie stood up to greet them and introduce them to his date, a pretty brunette named Laila with long curls and sleek curves who looked like she’d been poured into a purple dress. Roy took all that in in a glance before his gaze shifted to linger on Jamie. Trousers tailored so closely that they bordered on obscene outlined every hard-earned muscle. A silky-looking shirt draped over him like an open invitation to reach out and touch. Hair neatly styled, a clean shave, and good cologne—not too much, just enough to tantalize because Keeley had trained him well—completed the package. Jamie had gone all out for this. Roy just hoped that his date appreciated all he’d done to look so fucking edible.

Because Roy wanted this to go well, of course. He was really fucking rooting for this to go well. Because Jamie deserved to be happy, and it was better for all of them if Jamie got over Keeley, and Roy’s only interest in all of this was that he was Jamie’s fucking coach, which meant all that shit that Ted went on about when he said coaches were meant to help players be the best versions of themselves. That was all that Roy wanted for Jamie.

As his coach, of course.

“Join us, yeah?” Jamie offered, gesturing for a waiter to bring over a few more chairs.

Roy looked at Keeley, expecting her to be polite and say no. (No one would expect him find a polite way to say anything, so when the moment seemed to call for it, he just kept his mouth shut and looked to her.) “Oh yeah,” she said, to his surprise. “That would be excellent, wouldn’t it, babe?”

Would it? Fine then, if she said so. Roy just grunted in reply, taking the seat the waiter had brought around.

“Laila, tell me about yourself,” Keeley said next, and Roy tuned out the reply. He already knew what she’d say—they both did; they’d seen the Bantr messages—so there was no need for him to pay attention. Instead, he kept his eyes on Jamie, trying to gauge how the date had been going so far. Seemed like it had been off to a good start. Jamie looked relaxed, leaning in toward Laila across the table, hint of a smile playing over his lips.

“…and that’s how I got into dog training,” Laila concluded.

“Well, that’s just fantastic,” Keeley enthused, looking like she wanted to bounce in her seat in her unmistakable eagerness to like and approve of Laila. “Jamie loves dogs, don’t you? You’re always going over to Barkingham Palace.”

Which was nothing more than the truth. After Rebecca had become the shelter’s primary benefactor, Keeley had lined up some photo ops of the lads over at the shelter, playing with the dogs, and once Jamie had joined back up with the team, he’d taken to it like a duck to water. There was one particular shot of a roly-poly Samoyed puppy—looking like a fucking throw pillow with legs and an ecstatically wagging tail—licking Jamie’s face all over while he laughed and cuddled it close that looked…

Well, it must look good, because when Keeley threw it up on the team’s Instagram page, it got an insane number of likes, so it’s not like Roy’s alone in thinking it’s a good picture. Artistically, and all.

“Oh yeah,” Laila said, “your team’s been spending a lot of time there, haven’t they? Well, I suppose you needed the good press after that teammate of yours got that poor greyhound killed.”

And with that, everyone at the table stiffened. Except Laila, who didn’t seem to realize the huge fucking mistake she’d just made.

Keeley, of course, tried to smooth things over. “W-well, we all felt really bad about poor Earl. Especially Dani—broke his heart, really.”

Roy and Jamie exchanged a look over the table as they both grimaced. Neither one had been around to witness firsthand what Dani had gone through, but they’d both heard plenty about it, and just thinking about it felt like pressing on a bruise. Dani was happiness. Dani was exuberance. Dani was human fucking caffeine, with boundless energy and enthusiasm (as long as you kept him away from dress shoes). The thought of him joyless and bedraggled, huddled and crying in the showers, was enough to make even the strongest of them flinch.

“Hardly seems like an even trade, considering he broke Earl’s neck,” Laila replied, frowning. “And then that gaffer of yours—what was his deal? Talking with the press after and telling a story about some dog he used to take care of back in America. What on earth did that have to do with Earl? I know he’s some kind of backwoods hick, but is he really so stupid that he doesn’t understand basic questions?”

She chuckled, as if she was proud of herself for that little joke, and poured herself some more wine from the bottle on the table. Even though Roy and Keeley had only been twenty minutes behind them, it occurred to Roy that she might already be a few drinks in because no one who was sober could have missed the way the rest of the table went fucking still at her words, at her sheer fucking audacity, saying such a thing in front of three people who’d follow Ted Lasso into a fucking war. Roy couldn’t even grunt, he was so taken aback.

And then she made it worse.

“Is the owner shagging him, do you think? I’ve got a mate who swears that’s the only possible explanation. Wouldn’t surprise me, of course. Always thought she was a slag.”

Keeley jolted like she’d been stabbed with a hot poker. At a single glance, Roy could see that she was so furious her body could no longer contain it and tears had started to fill her eyes.

And that was precisely fucking it.

Laila was still talking, but no one at the table was listening anymore. Keeley was frozen in shock and fury, Jamie looked pale and sick, and Roy…

Roy grabbed Jamie’s forearm and when Jamie looked over—Roy gave him a signal. The signal.

Jamie’s eyes went wide. And then he started to smirk.

After that, of course, he opened his mouth, and it all went gloriously to hell.

Twenty minutes later, they’d been thrown out of the restaurant (the waitstaff likely wouldn’t have minded if Laila had stopped after throwing the glass of wine in Jamie’s face, but when she’d gone on to overturn a few tables as well, the management decided that enough was enough) but Roy had never in his life felt better about not having eaten a meal. As they stumbled out onto the sidewalk, Keeley was giggling so hard, she couldn’t stand on her own, tottering on her heels between Roy and Jamie. And Jamie hadn’t looked so pleased with himself since that beaut of a goal against Tottenham. Roy himself was feeling giddy and expansive (and kind of like he wanted to taste Keeley’s giggles and lick that smirk off of Jamie’s face) but he faked a scowl (knowing neither one would be fooled by it) as he barked out, “Oi then, you two—into the car before you get arrested for making a public fucking disturbance.”

With hands on both of their shoulders (secretly relishing the contrasting feel of Keeley’s warm, bare skin, and Jamie’s shirt that really was as soft as it looked) he guided the pair of them to the car and loaded them in the backseat.

“Drop me off at mine then, yeah?” Jamie said when he’d mostly gotten his laughter under control.

“Fuck that,” Roy replied. “You’re coming back with us. Still need dinner, don’t you? I’m fucking starving. Thai, babe?” he asked, making quick eye contact with Keeley in the rearview mirror.

“Oh shit, yes, that sounds perfect,” she exclaimed. “Jamie-love, we found the sickest place—wait till you try their chicken curry. We’ll get a bunch delivered, and then we’ll drink all the beer in the fridge, watch crap TV, and make a drinking game of all the different ways you called Laila a bitch.”

Somewhere in that exchange, Jamie’s eyes had gone wide, the laughter dropping out of them. They caught on Roy’s in the rearview and locked in a stare. (Good thing they were at a red light because Roy wouldn’t have been able to look away. Not from this.) “Y-yeah?” Jamie said, sounding painfully unsure. “I can…I can come home with you, then?”

“That’s what I said, wasn’t it?” Roy shot back. “You’re with us tonight.” The naked hope in Jamie’s eyes at that was so powerful that Roy finally looked away (and noticed the light had changed. Huh. Probably why the car behind him kept honking. He shoved his right hand out the window and gave them a signal of their own to let them know what he thought of that.) “Need to get your ears checked, Tartt?” he said, trying to paper over the moment before he could dig too deep into how it made him feel. “Thought I was the old man.”

“That’s cause you are,” Jamie shot back. “Never actually said that was a bad thing,” he added, almost under his breath.

It ended up being a pretty stellar night, even though they all fell asleep on the couch and woke up with massive hangovers and wicked cricks in their necks.

So yeah, that first time Roy and Keeley crashed Jamie’s date was an accident. (Kind of.) But after that shitshow of a Bantr match, it had seemed like the best possible idea for all of Jamie’s first dates after that to be doubles, so Keeley and Roy could be there for moral support, and to check the suitability of the match…and to give Jamie The Signal when the situation called for it.

Funny how the situation always seemed to call for it. And funny how every night ended up with Jamie coming home with them, curled up between them on the couch for takeout and beers and silly games that had them shaking with laughter—weak with it, leaning on each other, pressing close while their hearts raced. (From the laughter. Obviously.) Funny how Jamie started keeping clothes there, started coming over when there weren’t any dates at all.

Funny how he stayed.