"Next whistle starts the jam!"
As Jamie Fraser pushed open the door, the noise nearly knocked him off his feet. Shouted conversations and booming music melded together in the echoing warehouse to create a cacophony of excitement that, for all its frenetic bluster, failed to infect his own mood. At the shriek of a whistle, the crowd began to cheer. Jamie belatedly covered his ears, sighing.
He was late. Apparently.
With a grimace, he pushed forward and began to mill through the crowd, eyes raking over the festivities. The sea of people blocked the track from view, but he heard the commentator giving a blow-by-blow of the action over the loudspeaker. He paid it no mind.
A discontented sigh rattled in his chest. The day had been long, and Jamie had little desire to spend his evening hours amidst strangers watching a sport he'd never even heard of.
I suppose there are worse ways to be the clock, he thought to himself, attempting to curb his annoyance at both his uncles. The one who'd landed them all in hot water to begin with, and the one who'd demanded Jamie's presence here tonight to assess possible avenues of damage control.
A pair of women walked by holding plastic cups filled with foamy beer.
Well, if I have to be here, may as well be buzzed.
Tension pulled at his shoulders, and he rolled them up and back to release it as he set out in search of the drinks table. Edging through eager fans, Jamie reached the line and winced as a set of four rapid-fire whistle blasts echoed through the space to cheers and howls. Craning his head toward the track -- oval-shaped with a handful of zebra-striped officials camped out in the middle and around the perimeter -- he watched an exchange of skaters as some exited the track and a new group hurried on, huddling into position.
"Just the one, then?"
The voice jerked him back to the queue. An English accent in Edinburgh. Strange. Perhaps not as strange as in decades and centuries past, but still rare enough so as to warrant a quick flick of an eyebrow as he approached the table.
Taking a look at the voice's owner, though, Jamie found that his response evaporated from his lips. Tall, fair, dark curls pulled into two braids over each shoulder. The slender nose and full, rosy lips turned up in a polite smirk. But her eyes...ah, Dhia, the exact shade of his favorite whisky, bold and alluring with hints of darker gold throwing the light. Heavy glitter eye makeup only made them seem to glow brighter. Even in the scant seconds he gazed into them, Jamie dreaded the moment he'd have to turn away. Their color would be burned in his brain for the rest of the night, he was sure.
"Aye." A flush heated his ears. His noticing the warmth creeping up his neck and face only made them burn hotter. She wore a blue jersey, her pale, toned arms bare as she poured him a plastic cup of beer from a cooler.
"Six pounds," she said, handing it over.
"A bit pricey, is it no'?" he asked before thinking as he pulled out his billfold. If his face burned any hotter, he'd be steaming. But the Sassenach chuckled and nodded.
Christ, her cheeks turned such a lovely shade of pink when she smiled.
"Indeed it is," she smirked at him. "But it's for a good cause. All the proceeds from concessions this season go to our charity partner, the Children's Medical Fund of Scotland. You could even leave a little something extra, if you feel so inclined," she added, gesturing to a pitcher filled with banknotes further along the table.
Jamie nodded before succumbing to the first real smile he'd felt on his face all evening -- all day, in fact -- as he handed over the money. "Well, thank ye, then," he said. As he walked away, he found himself already missing that golden hue. Before departing, he added an extra bill to the pitcher.
Bodies pressed together around the oval-shaped track, packed so tightly he had to elbow his way through to find a spot to stand. As he claimed a free spot against the wall, he kept the Sassenach still in view, and the noise seemed to fade away.
Jamie was stupefied. Which, in turn, made him feel ridiculous. He hadn't been struck dumb just by a lass's presence since his school days; he was far too old for it to be happening now.
Of course, the years of his self-imposed bachelorhood likely didn't help matters.
He watched as her curly head reared back in laughter at whatever her teammate beside her said. Far away and out-volumed as she was, no hint of her laugh met his ears, but he imagined what it sounded like. And that she was laughing beside him. At something he'd said.
Jerking back, Jamie cast his eyes around as though caught, like his thoughts had been on display.
Focus, lad, he chided himself. Yer here for a reason.
Shaking his head to dispel images of the curly-haired Sassenach, Jamie began to focus on the game, taking mental note of the environment. The crowd was diverse but largely skewed thirties and younger. And a lot of women, though Colum had explained as much (and not much else) when commanding Jamie to scope out the Edinburgh roller derby scene. For what he wagered was a somewhat below-the-radar sport, it certainly had its share of devotees.
Craning his head, he turned toward the track. He'd only seen two or three rounds -- or jams, as one of the officials kept announcing before blasting the whistle each time -- when the clock ran out and the game was apparently finished.
"Aaaaaand that's the final whistle, folks!" came the voice over the loudspeaker before announcing scores and player statistics.
Confused, Jamie checked his watch. He'd thought the game wasn't even supposed to start for another 15 minutes. Leaning over to a short blonde woman in a black t-shirt a few feet away, he asked, "I thought it wasn't startin' till nine?"
The woman looked up at him with wide blue eyes, her lips turning up at the corners as she stood a little taller, arms pulled behind her as she minutely arched her back. "Oh, aye," she replied. "That was just the newbie bout."
She nodded. "Players who've just started out or havena yet passed all the skills tests needed to join the main team," she explained in a breathy tone. "Sort of like a scrimmage?" Her pitch rose at the end as if it were a question, even though, between them, he was the clueless one.
"Oh, aye," Jamie responded, nodding once with a taut smile. "Thank ye."
The blonde bobbed her head in a rapid nod. "O' course. If ye have any other questions, don't be shy."
Before Jamie could smile politely and ignore the lass, the MC named the skater Holly Go Fightly as the MVP jammer. Groaning, he turned back to the blonde.
"What's wi' the names, then?" Jamie asked as the MVP herself skated to the center of the track. He tried not to lean in too close, hoping to convey that he was lost and looking for signposts only. Nothing more.
She didn't seem to get the memo.
"Oh, that's part of the tradition!" she fawned, stepping close enough that her arm nearly brushed his. Not bothering to hide his annoyance, Jamie took a step away, but she continued. "Ye pick a 'derby name,' ken. Usually a pun or play on words. Somethin' that sounds tough. 'Tis like your alter ego when yer playin'."
One slow nod in understanding, a slight raise of his cup in thanks, and Jamie turned his attention back to the empty track.
"Never been before, then?" she asked as she closed the distance again, clearly eager to continue chatting. Jamie, however, was in no mood. With a single nod, he lifted his plastic cup to his lips and took a long sip, ignoring the blonde at his elbow in favor of the warm, mediocre brew. Luckily, she didn't try to engage in further conversation but stood awkwardly at his side, rocking on the balls of her feet. When the announcer came over the loudspeaker to announce that all referees and NSOs (whatever that was) needed to meet in the center of the track, the blonde cast him a last hopeful glance before walking that way.
More minutes passed, and Jamie watched as the crowd milled about, refilling snacks and drinks between games. Fresh skaters took their places on the team benches along the outside of the track. Looking that way, his heart leapt to see two curly pigtails in a blue jersey gliding past. Jamie ran his fingers through his own russet curls, this time not fighting the airy feeling in his center as he watched her set down her water bottle then take to the track to warm up with her teammates.
For ten minutes, the players skated laps, stretched, and performed basic drills before the official commencement time. And never once did his eyes stray from the Sassenach.
"Good evenin', ladies and gents," the smooth baritone finally called in excitement over the speakers. "'Tis nearly time to begin the main event tonight, but first you gotta meet the teams, starting with our visitors tonight, the Inverness Wreckers!" A dozen or so green-clad players in roller skates took to the track in a large group, waving and smiling to the crowd. They bent over double, skating close together in a slow group as the loudspeaker announced each player's number and derby name, at which point the mentioned player would straighten and raise their hands into the air with a brief wave before bending down again.
Jamie nodded as the last player, Fleetwood Smack, straightened and waved to the crowd. The green team then skated and lined up on the far edge of the track as the announcer prepared for the next team.
"All right, Edinburgh, put yer hands together now for your home team, the Reekie Rollllleeeeers!"
Just as the previous team had, the new group in deep blue jerseys glided onto the track then bent double for each player to be introduced. Jamie watched and listened more carefully this time.
She was the sixth player called.
"And give it up for Number 743, Sass N Whack!" She stood tall then, arms raised and face beaming. The curly bobs brushed her shoulders beneath her helmet, and he could see the bright blue of her mouth guard as she smiled toward the crowd.
Surprised, Jamie found himself cackling as she bent back down for the next player to enjoy their moment in the spotlight.
So she had a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. And wasn't afraid to take the piss out of herself. He liked that.
As the final players enjoyed their introductions, he kept his eyes trained on Sass N Whack and suddenly wished he knew her real name.
Then it was game time. Smaller groups from each team met together on one of the long straightaways just before him. The game mechanics weren't too difficult to pick up after a few rounds: A player with a star on their helmet (the Jammer) would fight their way through the rest of the players (the Pack) and lap them all to score points for up to two minutes at a time (a Jam). The skaters in the pack had to both block the opposing jammer on each pass and help their own jammer through to score.
The crowd whooped and hollered at each block, hip-check, and jump. Jamie, though, watched with a detached interest. Truly the only time he felt half as invested as the rest of the vocal crowd was when a certain brown-haired Edinburgh player took to the track. His heart would flutter and he'd stand up straighter to see, flushing each time he did.
She was good; even he could tell that. Confident and sure on her feet. Most often, she came out as a part of the pack (a Blocker, according to the announcer). And more than once as the opposing jammer (the scorer, he reminded himself) made a break to escape the pack, she'd sprint after them, thrusting a shoulder or hip out to knock them out of bounds. The crowd would cheer, and Sass grin before rejoining the pack, ready to do it again.
Jamie found himself watching her skates more than anything else. Her feet moved with speed and agility, just as often sprinting on the circular toe stops as swiveling on her wheels to spin in place or skirt by other players in the space of only inches. And all the while, even as she pushed and huffed with exertion, the brightness shining from those whisky eyes drove him mad.
"And with only seventy-six seconds left in the game, this could well be our last jam. The score sits at Wreckers 167, and Rollers 158!" the MC shouted out over the loudspeakers. "Make sure you pay attention to our jammers, Number 98, Block Ness Monster for the Wreckers. And Sass N Whack, Number 743, lining up for the Reekie Rollers."
Novice roller derby spectator though he was, he knew immediately why she'd been sent out for possibly the final points of the game. She hadn't jammed often, obviously preferring the challenge of playing offense against the other team. But the handful of times she'd donned the star on her helmet, she'd proven difficult to stop, slithering by opponents or using surprising strength to muscle her way through clusters of blockers each time.
With such a close margin, the entire game rode on her shoulders.
"Next whistle starts the jam!" yelled an official in the center of the track, eyes trained on a stopwatch on his hand. Jamie saw Sass bent over, bouncing slightly in the knees in anticipation. Five seconds later, the official blew the whistle and chopped his arm through the air before stepping off the track.
Without hesitation, Sass sprinted on her toe stops for three steps using her shoulder to push up and forward to break apart a pair of green blockers. A fellow blue player came to offer assistance, and Sass N Whack made her way through. The final green blocker ahead of the pack kept her gaze over her shoulder, ready to head the Sassenach off. Sass feinted toward the inner line before juking at the last second to surf around the green player on the outside, taking off at a sprint to outdistance the blocker.
"And Sass N Whack is our lead jammer!" came the booming voice to various cheers. Lead jammer, Jamie had learned, meant that she could end the jam whenever she pleased, which, if she did so after the game clock ran out (in another sixty-one seconds), could end the game itself.
The green jammer struggled to escape the pack, remaining behind long after Sass had begun lapping for points. Over the next minute or so, Sass managed to gain eight points to the opposing team's four, bringing the score up to 171 to 166. With under a minute left, the green Jammer earned a penalty and skated to the penalty box.
"Power jaaaaam!" the announcer roared to the crowd's pleasure. "With Block Ness sittin' out her thirty-second penalty, Sass N Whack has control o' the track and the clock!"
Sass curved around the oval, eyes calculating as she approached the pack again.
With the other jammer temporarily out of commission, Sass's team focused solely on offense to get her through the opposing blockers. She dodged and rolled her way past three of them until there was just one left. With nowhere else to go, Sass made a beeline down the straightaway for the inside boundary just at the point where the track curved. A green blocker shot her way, ready to cut her off.
Jamie swore the next few seconds happened in slow motion. As the green blocker camped on the inside corner to block the way, Sass leaned further into her squat, pushing off in a flying leap at the last moment. Her legs pinwheeled beneath her as she cleared the blocker's legs. Face screwed up in determination, she landed inside the boundary line on her left skate, then her right on the other side of the blocker. She wobbled for a second then steadied herself with a visible sigh of relief. Eyes on her assigned referee, breathing heavy, Sass immediately tapped both hands repeatedly to her hipbones until four sharp whistle blasts ripped through the air in quick succession. The game ended with only nine seconds left on the jam clock.
"And Sass N Whack nails that apex jump and ends the jam!" The audience roared, and Jamie sat with wide eyes in absolute awe. "And that's the game, fans! Wi' a final score Wreckers 171 and Rollers 170, the Inverness Wreckers take the night!"
Even though her incredible last-minute aeronautics failed to secure them the win, Jamie could see that the curly-haired player was absolutely radiant. She rolled over to her teammates, and they all embraced with joviality. After a brief awards ceremony where each team elected the MVP Blocker and Jammer from the opposite team (and Jamie unabashedly swelling with pride when Sass was named MVP Blocker for the Rollers), spectators began to disband. Some waited around for players while others made straight for the exits, Jamie among the latter group until the loudspeaker voice made one last announcement for the evening.
"Be sure to join us at our after party down the road at Leoch Tavern startin' at 10:30 to share a drink wi' yer favorite players. Bring yer ticket stub for five pounds off any draft beer."
He'd been ready to bail and head for home, perhaps search and see if the team had a website where he may learn the brown-haired Sassenach's name. But at this, Jamie's heart leapt.
Would she be there?
"Aye," he breathed to himself, checking his watch as he headed toward the door. "I'm in."