It’s the smell that makes him freeze. Oh, sure, they’ve been drunk in the locker room more times than he can count. Happy drunk, gutted drunk, finally-got-the-ghost-out-of-the-treatment-room drunk. They’re footballers, getting pissed is as much part of the game as anything that happens on the pitch. But the smell of his dad’s drinking is different. The locker room doesn’t smell like football anymore.
It smells like home.
And Jamie knows that if he doesn’t do everything he can to hold himself together, he's gonna fucking lose it.
He stands as tall as he can and as still as he can—be a fucking rock, Tartt, be a fucking mountain—but his dad is still inches from his face, spouting some bullshit about how Richmond barely deserves to be called a football club, and the smell is intolerable. How is it even possible his dad still smells like the same piss-poor scotch he used to drink straight from the bottle in the old house? They can’t possibly sell that at Wembley.
Jamie's right here. He’s in the locker room at Wembley fucking Stadium, the whole team staring straight at him, in his Richmond kit. He’s Jamie Tartt and he’s twenty-two years old, and he’s not scared. He isn’t.
And then his dad punches him in the stomach, light enough that it looks like teasing but hard enough that he feels the threat, and he’s not Jamie Tartt of AFC Richmond anymore.
He’s Jamie Tartt of Higher Blackley, and he’s fifteen years old, and his dad is sneering at him as he overbalances from a punch and falls to the carpet. His dad towers over him, and those fucking ratty trainers connect with his ribs, again and again until he hardly knows who he is at all anymore. Back then, he begged for it to stop. Swore he’d play better, fight harder, be better, until his dad left for the pub and the house was blissfully quiet again.
He’d sworn he’d become the fucking greatest footballer of all time. He’d leave Higher Blackley, and packed stadiums would know his name and love him, and girls would be begging for a night with him, and pundits would look at each other and say "Another brilliant game from Jamie Tartt."
Well, he’s done that. He’s done all that and it’s still fucking happening, and nothing at all is different.
He feels them watching. Sam, wide-eyed and uncomprehending. Nate, embarrassed for him, like this is the kind of dirty laundry you shouldn't show in public. Roy. Christ, Roy must be fucking loving this. Head Prick in Charge Jamie Tartt finally brought low, put back in his place. He looks at Roy’s familiar scowl from the corner of his eye, and somehow he pulls a bit of courage from it. Roy fucking Kent would never let anyone talk to him like this. No one would have the balls to try it.
Jamie’s not Roy Kent, but he’s been trying to be since he was a kid, and he pulls it together enough to say what he does next, though it’s so quiet even he can barely hear it.
“Don’t speak to me like that.”
It only makes it worse, which he should have known. He should have fucking known. Now his dad’s nose is almost touching his, and he feels himself going cross-eyed trying to keep the threat in focus. They’re all around him still, the whole team, looking at their knees or unlacing their boots or shifting uncomfortably on the bench, and no one says a word.
Not a single fucking word.
He’s never felt this alone, not even as a kid.
Face burning, he turns to go. This is an option he’s never had before. He can leave. He can run away like the fucking coward he is and hide in the back of the team bus until it leaves the parking lot, and no one will meet his eyes on the whole fucking trip back to London. It’s humiliating, and it’s pathetic, but at least it’s not this. Nothing could be worse than this.
Except it is, because his dad grabs him by the arm and jerks him back, his grip hard enough to bruise.
“Don’t turn your back on me, you fucking pussy,” he snarls, and shoves Jamie back toward the lockers.
And something fucking snaps.
He doesn’t know if it’s his own brain or Roy Kent looming behind him like a pissed-off statue that makes him do it, but self-preservation flies out the window, and he punches his dad in the face with every bit of strength he’s got.
Everything goes white in his brain, in that moment.
He hears the dead silence in the locker room, feels the eyes on him sharpen and dig deeper. Hears his dad cry out in pain and hit the tile. He doesn’t feel any of it. He hardly knows who he is.
Jamie has never fought back before. He’s always stood there and taken it, always known he deserved every bit of scorn his dad had to throw at him. He’s always known better than to fight back.
And now he’s gone and fucked up, and his dad is getting to his feet, and he knows the look in those eyes. He feels the last of his borrowed courage drain away, and he takes a step back, his still-curled fist falling to his side. His mouth half-opens, though he doesn’t know what in fuck he’s supposed to say. There’s no talking his way out of this. There’s murder in his dad’s eyes, and it’s just the two of them, and whatever black eyes and broken ribs Jamie's remembering now will be nothing compared to what he knows is coming next, he's a fucking dead man and he knows it—
Except he isn’t.
Coach Beard steps between Jamie and his dad. Jamie hadn’t thought anyone could stop his dad when he set his mind on something, but Beard is like a boulder, stoic and unmoveable.
“Time to go,” he says, and hauls Jamie’s dad back, across the locker room, through the doors, and, still shouting, out.
Jamie stands still, alone. Feeling like a man facing a firing squad who just learned the guns weren’t loaded. The shimmering whiteness still fills every corner of his brain. None of it feels real.
Still no one says anything.
Roy steps forward, with death in his eyes.
He strides steadily closer—too close, too fucking close—and Jamie feels him bearing down with that furious set to his jaw, and he absolutely knows what’s coming. He flinches, hunches his shoulders to ward off a blow.
And then Roy hugs him.
His arms are strong but not cruel, and that’s enough to startle Jamie out of his fog. When was the last time he’s been held like this? When was the last time he’s felt strength like this, used to defend and not to attack? He can’t remember. He can’t remember, and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s still standing there, fucking useless, a tangle of tension and terror and fast-fading adrenaline, and Roy just stands there and holds him. Asking for nothing. Expecting nothing.
He is safe.
The word washes out the rest of the fight-or-flight coursing through his body. There’s nothing left but exhaustion and emptiness, and the fifteen-year-old kid in Jamie Tartt, who buries his head in Roy Kent’s shoulder and cries.
The rest of the team doesn’t matter. They aren’t in the locker room at Wembley, and twenty-five pairs of eyes aren’t staring at him like he’s some kind of emotionally broken zoo animal. It’s just him and Roy, and a safe place to cry, and he cries, almost enough for a full decade of wanting to.
Roy doesn’t do any of the things Jamie’s terrified he’ll do. He doesn’t tell him it’s all over now, that it’ll all be okay. He doesn’t tell him to pull it together, that only little kids and fuckups would be caught dead crying like this. He doesn’t say anything at all. He just holds Jamie, those big hands spread wide across his back like a keeper blocking a shot, and they ride the wave of it together.
It lasts for what feels like forever, but finally, it ends. Jamie lets his arms fall to his sides, and Roy gently lets him go. It’s so tender, this soft ceding of control, this letting Jamie decide what his body needs, that it almost starts him off crying again, but thank fuck there’s nothing left in him to cry.
He sinks down onto the bench, letting his head hang, and takes a rattling breath. Roy sits beside him, a couple feet between them, as if Jamie hadn’t just spent the last god knew how long fucking sobbing into his jacket. The locker room is empty otherwise. Nate must have shepherded the rest of the team onto the bus at some point. He can’t decide which is worse: if the bus has left without him, or if they’ve waited and he’ll have to climb those stairs and see all of AFC Richmond staring silently at him again with his puffy red eyes, his emotional support Roy Kent following behind.
“Sorry,” he says thickly, running the back of his hand across his eyes.
Roy growls, and Jamie flinches again. His whole body is one exposed nerve, and every threatening noise is enough to set him off. It used to be like this all the time, back before he’d made himself as loud and brash as he could, like a hiker trying to scare off a bear. He closes his eyes and prays that he doesn’t start crying again.
Roy must have noticed, because when he speaks, it’s as softly as Jamie’s ever heard him talk. It’s still not nice, exactly, more like a pissed-off guard dog with the volume turned low, but Jamie feels the kind intent, and his shoulders relax an inch.
“Don’t you apologize for that cunt,” Roy said. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
“Yes, you fucking should’ve,” Roy interrupts. Jamie looks up from his knees. Roy’s looking dead at him, and Jamie’s certain he’s never heard Roy Kent this earnest. “Because if you didn’t do it, I was about to. No one gets to treat you like that, Tartt. You don’t deserve that.”
His eyes burn again, and he clears his throat, though what the fuck he’s trying to preserve his pride for at this stage, who knows. “That’s not what I was gonna say.”
Roy doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t need to: Jamie sees the moment when he understands. Roy leans forward, and Jamie still has to fight the urge to draw back, but the worst of his jumpiness is fading, replaced by a deep bone-tiredness.
“Fuck, Jamie,” Roy says, shaking his head. “You’re a human being, aren’t you? A fucking annoying human being, but still.”
Jamie manages a half-laugh but lets Roy continue.
“You’ve got feelings. You’d be a fucking monster if you didn’t. People feel things. They cry.”
Roy raises his eyebrows. “Mate, really?”
Jamie feels Roy’s transparent attempt to draw him out of the shell he’s retreating into, and on another day he’d have been pissed off, but today he lets Roy’s voice pull him back into himself. “You wanna tell me Roy fucking Kent—”
“Did you even see my farewell speech, you fuck?”
Jamie’s laugh is genuine this time, and even Roy gives him half a smile.
“Did the bus leave?” Jamie asks.
Roy glances toward the door, as if just noticing that the team had emptied out. “Fuck. Yeah, ‘spose.”
Jamie closes his eyes. “Jamie fucking Tartt, taking a fucking Uber home from Wembley.”
“Don’t be a prick,” Roy says gruffly, standing up from the bench. “I drove. Get in the fucking car.”
Jamie stares. “Really?”
“Don’t make a thing of it, Tartt. We’re not gonna sing songs and make friendship bracelets on the way back.”
Jamie shakes his head, wipes his eyes again, and sighs. “Promise no songs.”
Together, they leave Wembley and make their way to the parking lot, where Roy’s car is waiting. Jamie slouches into the passenger seat as Roy maneuvers out of the lot and back toward London. He doesn’t mean to, but it’s been a fucking day, and before they’ve made it onto the A404, Jamie has leaned his head against the window and fallen fast asleep.
He wakes to Roy gently shaking his shoulder. Sitting up sharply, he sees his building out the car window, and he sighs.
“Right then,” he says. “Thanks.”
He climbs out of the car, retrieves his kit bag from the boot, and walks to the door of his building, fumbling for the keys.
“Oy, Tartt!” Roy calls after him.
He turns. Roy has rolled down the window and is leaning out of the car. His face is as serious as ever, but his black eyes are smiling.
“You’re Richmond till you die,” he says. “No one gets to fuck with you but us, understand?”
Jamie grins and flips Roy the bird.
When he closes the door to his flat behind him, it doesn’t feel as empty as it used to.