The Cleanrot Knights had never lost a game.
Some teams had given them trouble. Some had employed any tactic necessary to get in their heads or rattle them. Many had tried to topple the knights who stood valiant, proud, strong in arms and shoulder to shoulder against them. None had ever succeeded. All titans fell before them, all legends turned to ash, and all for their indomitable, unbeaten captain and quarterback.
There was no player like their quarterback. Nobody had the will, the determination, the sharp strategic mind. No other could make a call as she could, knowing how to call the play and just where to land her feet to best accommodate her team, able to spot their missteps in the line and move herself to make up for it. She had the speed, the poise, the agility, the strength, and what she had above all others was determination, a golden will which drove her once to disobey their coach, to win them a championship title.
On her shoulders they had carried her, their victorious leader, and through it she had only thanked them, as one woman alone could not a battle win.
Malenia was a scarlet goliath and had never known defeat.
The other players looked up to her, aspiring to be like her, to one day take her place when she graduated, to don that coveted number and command half as much respect as the last quarterback to wear it.
One had no interest, having been at Malenia’s side since she had started playing football, and having never once thought - even in the most indulgent fantasy - of living up to her. She did not have to grasp at that coveted jersey and letterman jacket with envious hands. She did not debase herself trying to ingratiate herself to her.
She had no need to, not when she was already her equal. Not on the field. Not in the locker room. Not in any way that anyone else saw.
That did not matter, as the rush of the crowd swelled over them. Nobody else mattered when Malenia turned to her, standing tall, proud, unaffected by the noise and cheers, and nodded her head at her. A nod which meant more than anyone watching knew, if any of them could tear their eyes from the celebrating team, to watch for one moment the quarterback and her left tackle.
Finlay was her knight of knights, there to protect her blind side, to keep her safe and assure her success. She stood stalwart and proud beside her as ever, and beneath her helmet and mouthguard, she wore a smile when Malenia clapped her padded shoulder.
When the others had dispersed to the locker rooms, Malenia and Finlay remained behind. Just out of sight, just to the side of the bleachers, they stood for a single moment. Against her mouth guard, Finlay ground her teeth, seeing Malenia’s long since discarded. Both their helmets still on, they could have been any two players, and away from the coach and crowds, they only had to be themselves.
Hand on the back of Finlay’s helmet, Malenia kept her there. It was a silent gesture; most of Malenia’s gestures were. She spoke with a voice like heavy thunder on the field. Her commands were certain, her words firm, no room for doubt, from herself or her team. In quiet moments, she barely spoke at all.
A gentle finger reached under the guard of her helmet, touching under Finlay’s chin. Knowing what she wanted, Finlay spit her mouth guard out, and in giving over to her, let her head be pulled.
Their helmets rested together, and for a moment, they were alone.
The cheering of the crowd faded to a dull throbbing at the sides of their heads. The rush of their win pulsed heavy in their veins, as if it was they alone who had won. Finlay knew, in that part of her which was selfish, that it had been them and no other. The quarterback and her left tackle, the lady and her knight, Malenia and Finlay, it was them against the world, as it had always been.
She did not need to speak to know what would happen next, but all the same she asked, “The showers?”
“Not yet,” Malenia murmured. A surprise to Finlay, who had long grown accustomed to their post-game ritual. She was held in place by her helmet, the hand still at its back pressing harder to keep them together.
A rare show of vulnerability and need. One Finlay would indulge in as she said, “You were amazing tonight.”
“Only for you.”
“No, it was all you, I was sloppy, I could have been a stronger defense for you, I nearly missed one guy and-”
“Finlay.” It stopped her dead, lips parted but falling silent in her rambling. Malenia looked at her, eyes sparkling under the floodlights as she said, “I played for you.”
“For the team,” Finlay corrected on a hopeless breath.
Malenia grabbed her own helmet by the guard, pulling it off to reveal herself to her in a way few were rarely permitted. Her sweat slicked crimson hair clung to her skin, and her eyes conveyed all as she said, “For you.”
With rushed hands and a furious desperation, Finlay ripped her own helmet from her head and tossed it gracelessly to the side.
Few would have dared to grab the quarterback, for passion or fury. Most would have met swift rejection or retaliation from that immovable and statuesque young woman. Those of greater worth would have been brushed aside, those that were something and someone, yet Finlay was nobody. A number in a row, a helmet, an obstacle, she was nothing to many if not most, if not all.
If she was anything to anyone, she was something to Malenia, and for that, she was everything as she grabbed her face and kissed her with wild abandon.
Malenia held to her, fingers tangled in her sweaty hair, and in a single motion, one hand on the back of her head and the one which still held her helmet reaching down as she bent, she lifted Finlay into her arms. Not to carry her above the crowds, not to crown her victorious, not even to lay upon her that thick and sweet praise which fell easy from Malenia’s tongue even when prone to silence. She held her up, her own neck craning, her own face lifting, as Finlay held both her cheeks and kissed her. She held her to stop her ever letting go. She held her to let her be taller - for once. She held her to show her she meant it and was as lost in the moment as she.
She held her, in truth, just to hold her, and to know in her arms was all that drove her heart racing.
In that moment, they did not care who saw them. Their usual careful care and worry was thrown aside in place of the momentary rush. Malenia held her, adjusting her in her arms, and walked her blind and still kissing towards the building. Finlay knew from Malenia’s kiss alone that they would not be showering there with the team. They would go in, take off their gear, skirt around any straggling teammates, lay horizontal on the bench if everyone was gone, before stumbling their way to Malenia’s car. If they made it back to the dorms before removing their clothes would be another question entirely.
They did not make it to the door before Malenia’s need stopped them. She slammed Finlay against the wall just before it, pinning her there and pulling back, ravenous, to stare up at her.
“Malenia,” Finlay rasped, hands pulling at her jersey as they had so many times before.
“Tell me we can shower in the dorms.”
Finlay closed her eyes, the plea not a first. Her fingers bunched at the material, knuckles brushing the plastic padding beneath, whispering, “We should shower with the team.”
“I do not want them seeing you,” Malenia said in that husky and desperate growl.
“Possessive?” Finlay teased. Her hair was tugged in reprimand, and she grinned.
“I want you alone, in our dorm, we can skip the shower.”
“Tell me we’ll make it there without stopping for a quickie in your car.”
“Tease me again and I will have you here.” A threat and a promise.
“If you tell me our night won’t start and end on your backseat, we can go straight to bed.”
“I promise,” Malenia whispered, her will giving over as she held her there.
Finlay looked down at her, feeling Malenia slowly lowering her, until her feet touched the ground and she had to tilt her head to see her. She held herself as if she were the tallest woman alive and said, “We can skip the shower.”
The look she got was one of true gratitude, as if in her hands she had held Malenia’s very life and with those words had granted her salvation.
In Malenia’s hand, she held Finlay’s, and with a burst of that impossible speed she was carrying her under the fast risen moon and slow sinking sun, Finlay’s feet leaving the ground more often than they found it. Like they were barreling down the field, Malenia with the ball, head tucked and shoulder forward, and Finlay charging behind her, ready to drag any who dared challenge Malenia to their knees. Like first year tryouts, like laps around the field, like freshman year of high school laid out on their backs under late August sun waiting for their first game.
Finlay ran fast enough to catch up to her, running side by side for the parking lot.
When they got to her car and all Finlay’s momentum was gathered and held and propelled by practiced hands against the side of it, she felt herself laughing on stolen breath. Her arms fell easily around Malenia.
Nose against her cheek and repelling the hungry lips, Finlay reminded, “You promised.”
“Then get in the car.”
“You have to get off me so I can.”
“You tackle larger players every game,” Malenia teased, a dangerous implication waiting on her lips.
Laughing, Finlay pushed with all her might against her, a final play to prove she was serious, even as she felt a hand pushing beneath her jersey and padding. It rubbed against her sweaty abs, silently begging. Refusing to give in, Finlay shoved her playfully off, stumbling as she looked at her in the sunset evening.
She glowed radiant and gold, her smile earnest and helmet still dangling from her fingers. The scarlet goliath of the Cleanrot Knights, the captain and quarterback, the golden throw that had won them a national title two years in a row.
Malenia, framed in perfect light, her sweaty red hair tousled and her jersey falling off one padded shoulder. The gangly girl of all limbs who had always held herself with strength and grace. The only girl who had ever looked twice at Finlay. The one who had reached down to pick her up when she had been blocked into the dirt during their very first practice.
Catching herself, Finlay smiled and grabbed the door handle, opening it with a hard pull. Her eyes never broke from Malenia, following her as she walked around the car, over the roof as she opened her own door, until they both slid in, knowing where the night would take them, as they always had.
Just Malenia and Finlay, head first, shoulders forward, them against the world.