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It was, at best, a feeble attempt on Allison's part to draw attention away — from the agents in the room, from the weight of the previous night, from the horrendous and unwelcome additions to Neil's patchwork body. Dan waits for a denial, because surely 

There isn't one. 

There isn't one, and Nicky, desperately trying to pick up where Allison left off after the relevant parties leave the room, forces incredulous (if not slightly unhinged) laughter through his teeth. 

"It's gotta be hate sex. Right? It's gotta be," he huffs. 

No one's really listening, but Dan — fifty percent of Dan's entire job description is to pay attention. And she's beginning to think she hasn't been doing such a great job of it.

Hate sex. It fits, she thinks, with her perception of Andrew. But then she considers the bus, considers watching Coach and Matt and Renee pry Andrew's unforgiving fingers from Kevin's throat as Abby broke every speed limit to get them here, to Baltimore, to Neil, and she isn't so sure. If she knows anything about Andrew, it's that promises are sacred to him, are as absolute as blood pacts, and the entire team had just witnessed him break the one he had been guarding most fiercely for the past year. 

Because he was angry. Apathetic, uncaring, always-in-control Andrew Minyard, who didn't let even his own trauma and abuse faze him, was angry

Nobody, least of all people like Andrew, reacts like that to losing a mere fuck buddy. And yet, the alternative is — frankly, ridiculous.

Isn't it?

 


 

There isn't much of an opportunity to ponder over their teammates' love lives after that, in spite of Allison and Nicky's best efforts. Dan doesn't think she's ever been so exhausted yet energized all at once in her life. She looks at her Foxes, her team, her family, and can't help but wholeheartedly believe that Neil Josten is the greatest fucking thing that's ever happened to them. 

The season marches relentlessly on, and after media vultures and deals with all-powerful mafia families and new tattoos, they finally — finally — stand on top. 

A psychopath's racquet held above his head, poised to fall on one of their own, threatens to derail that, but their faithful goalkeeper — and wasn't that a wonderful, spectacular surprise; Andrew Joseph Minyard, actually giving half a damn about stickball — never passes a chance to ruin a motherfucker's day. 

Dan isn't the sadistic type, but she'll make an exception for Riko fucking Moriyama. 

After making sure Neil is okay, she has half a mind to stop Andrew from actually killing the fucker. It turns out she doesn't have to, because all he does is stand there, looking bored out of his mind as always, like an avenging guardian angel with — well, with a really, really big stick. 

(A really big stick that bookended one of the greatest days of her life by delivering karmic justice to the piece of shit screaming on the court. Some delirious part of her overworked brain wants to immortalize it right beside the trophy they're about to receive.)

The police and paramedics put something of a damper on the team's joy, but it's slowly coaxed back to life as they make their way back to the hotel where their friends and family wait. They decide to stay an extra day, because why not, and because copious amounts of booze await them as soon as they hit the ground. 

Just as the party starts to wind down, someone — Dan is so drunk it could even be her, who the hell knows — blurts out, "How did you know Riko fuckface was gonna do that?"

Andrew, who stayed against almost everyone's expectations, turns his head a fraction away from where Neil is dozing on his shoulder. For a second it looks like he's going to ignore the question like he ignores most questions directed at him, but then he replies, "It looked like this one —" he shrugs the shoulder Neil is resting on; Neil startles awake and probably only stops himself from diving headfirst from the couch to the floor because of natural reflexes — "was about to say something stupid."

Someone snorts, and someone else laughs, and soon enough there's enough noise to almost drown out Neil's indignant, "Hey."

It's as Dan is on the verge of sleep, draped snugly over Matt in their room, that she realizes Andrew hadn't left Neil's side all night. 

 


 

Somewhere along the way, the majority of the team comes to accept it as something they're probably never going to understand. It doesn't stop the more curious ones from poking and prodding every now and again, but it isn't until the freshmen find out — almost three whole months, Jesus — that it all starts up again. 

Anyone who has the balls to ask always goes to Neil, and Neil — clever little bastard — seems to take great satisfaction in seeing just how quickly he can manage to derail the conversation. On the days when he doesn't feel like talking he'll sentence you to an eternity of laps just because he can; on the days when he's feeling extra sadistic he'll just tell you to fuck right off.

(Nobody ever asks Andrew. Duh.)

One Saturday a team-bonding movie night turns into a No-Freshmen-Allowed-Because-Honestly-Sometimes-Fuck-Those-Little-Dipshits movie night turns into a drink-yourself-into-oblivion-via-dumb-games night. Andrew steals a bottle as soon as Allison whips them out and escapes to his room or the roof or where the fuck ever because he probably has honest-to-god the foresight of a prophet. Or something.

A game like Truth or Dare between people like the Foxes after so much alcohol can only end in disaster. Smart bastard dipped out as soon as he saw it coming. 

Neil drinking is still only an every-once-in-a-while type of occurrence, but their victory over Texas last night must have mollified him somewhat. Dan doesn't quite realize he's hammered, though, until he answers her giggly "truth or dare, Neeeeiiil?" with "mmmmmtruth" from his place horizontal on the couch. 

He won't lie about his past anymore, but it isn't often that he offers something out of his own volition. 

Before Dan can even open her mouth, Allison jumps in. 

"Why Andrew?" she slurs. 

Aaron groans and swipes the last bottle from the centre of their circle, narrowly avoiding emptying it on his face as Nicky elbows and shushes him. Renee's quiet "Allison" goes ignored. Kevin, somehow not yet facedown on the floor, palms his face and leers at Aaron like he's considering fighting him to the death for the last drop of vodka. 

And Neil — Neil must be truly plastered, because he turns his face into the cushions and sighs like he's trying to express his answer through his breath alone and 

"He makes me sane," he mutters, nearly inaudible. The room is suddenly deathly silent. "He makes me safe."

There's a moment where no one moves, other than Aaron slowly moving the bottle away from his mouth. 

Matt is the first to break. "Yeah?" he asks, and if you point out the fact that he's crying right now he'll definitely deny it.

On any other day, Neil would say "Yeah," and that would be it, but he seems to take Matt's prompt as encouragement. "He doesn't —" he hiccups — "He's never. Flinched. When I tell him — about my past. When he sees my scars. When I have nightmares, or. Or panic attacks.

"There's no horror, or — pity. And I've never — never had that. Before. Understanding."

He breathes, deeply, and he turns his head up, just a little, and Dan almost wants to look away from him, because this can't be okay, they shouldn't be listening to something so —

"He never. Tiptoes around me, but he never demands anything that I — that I can't give him." He sighs again, brings his hands and knees up to his chin, and curls further into the couch in a way that makes Dan want to give him all her blankets and cradle him to her. Or call Andrew back in here so he can do it, and that — isn't that a thought. "And he's — so smart, and so talented, and so much stronger than — anyone I've ever met, and..."

And then he's asleep.

Someone sniffles. Or everyone sniffles. Dan doesn't know. Is that snot dripping down her face?

Renee is the only one who looks unaffected, smiling fondly at Neil.

"You look unsurprised," Dan mutters at her. 

The other girl only sips her lemonade. "I am."

 


 

And of course, Neil is right. Dan's just never thought of it that way before. Andrew has never flinched — not against men twice his size, not even against a giant crime syndicate who could easily wipe him from the face of the earth if they really wanted to. Not because he's unafraid. Because he's known worse.

Because he's only ever known violence, and so he reacts with violence. 

(But not always, she tells herself. That's important.)

And that — that breaks her heart. Andrew isn't her friend, but he is her family, and the idea that he'd been broken beyond repair years before they met, that she'll never get to meet the Andrew Joseph Minyard that could have been, somehow leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. Dan isn't sadistic by nature, no, but if she had ever got to meet Drake Spear — 

— well.

Sometimes she thinks Neil truly is a godsend, because the boy doesn't go around fixing people's tragic backstories out of the pure goodness of his heart but he sure has a way of bowling people over and making them fix themselves. She'd worried — all of them had — over how two people consisting of so many jagged edges could possibly fit together without hurting each other. And they had, at first, but. 

Dan watches the way one of Andrew's hands — the ones that held Allison down by her neck in the parking lot, that wrung the breath from Kevin's throat on the bus, that softly peeled away bandages and left them fluttering to a hotel floor in Baltimore — land quietly on the back of Neil's neck the night of Truth or Dare to wake him up. She watches them tug him up firmly by the elbow and waist, up off the couch and out through the door. 

She watches him wrench a microphone out of Matt's face as her boyfriend falters in the face of a question about his sobriety. She watches him drag a man out the back door of Eden's Twilight after the fucker tried to slip something in Allison's drink, throw him against a wall, and press knives against his sternum. She watches him drop his racquet in the middle of a game, watches him smash a fist into the other team's striker's mouth for hurling nonstop homophobic slurs at Nicky. 

(Watched him not raise a single finger against the guy who, in a repeat of their match against the Ravens last year, shoved him back into the goal in a clear attempt to take him out of the game. Watched him get up and not spare the guy a single glance even though Neil was on the verge of breaking the asshole's leg. Watched him say, "Not worth it," to Aaron during the half-time break.)

Dan watches and watches and watches, and sees his jagged edges softening for Neil, and very very slowly, for the rest of them, too. 

 


 

It's the semifinals, and they're up against the Ravens. 

(Ugh.)

Their last match against them in November was one of the ugliest they'd ever played, despite the changes in coach and captain. In the first half one of them had called Neil Nathaniel and took advantage of Neil's split-second hesitation to throw him into the glass. It wasn't physically debilitating but it was clear even from Dan's position halfway across the court that Neil couldn't breathe

She'd run over, punched the dick in the face and gotten herself yellow carded, because Andrew had been on the bench and it was taking Wymack and Abby and the freshmen every ounce of strength to keep him from charging in and committing homicide. 

They'd won by a narrow margin, because Neil is a trooper, and apparently Andrew functions best on pure spite. It isn't until two weeks before semifinals that she truly learns the full extent of it. 

"He wants to play both halves," Wymack tells her. "Renee will sub."

Dan blinks. "He hasn't done that since Renee sprained her ankle in October. Is he going to be alright?"

"It's Andrew," Wymack grunts. "He'll find a way."

She isn't surprised when Neil and Kevin are absolutely delighted when the starting lineup is announced later that week. 

The thing is, ninety percent of the time Andrew truly gives no shits. Kevin, bless his obnoxious little heart, tries his best every week to galvanize him into magically caring about the sport, but mostly to no avail. Neil occasionally gives it a go and always succeeds; no one knows how and no one wants to ask. So the freshmen, never having had the opportunity to see Andrew play a full game and excel at it, are distinctly and hilariously unimpressed by Andrew where exy is concerned, even though they rarely score on him in practice. 

Until, that is, the buzzer sounds the end of the first half, and Andrew has only allowed four goals compared to the Raven goalkeeper's six. 

Until Wymack teases, "So what's it going to be for the second half, hm? Three? Two?" and Andrew replies without hesitation, "Zero."

Until Andrew says blandly into the ensuing silence, "I said I would humiliate them. I keep my promises."

Until the game ends ten-to-four, Foxes. 

As if that isn't enough, the freshmen's faces when Kevin smiles — genuinely smiles — and says triumphantly to Andrew, "I told you. When we first met. That if only you gave even a modicum of effort you could be the best in the world," and Andrew replies in an utterly flat tone, "Someday, Kevin, you're going to have to finally hop off my ass," marks the night as one of the best in Dan's life.

(Perhaps even better is the fact that Neil couldn't look happier or prouder or smugger — is that a word — if he tried, but, well. That's not anything new. Put Andrew and exy in the same room and Neil could probably live in it for the rest of his life.)

 


 

It's by complete chance, during her last week in the Tower, that she sees a ratty old copy of The Golden Compass tossed haphazardly behind the couch in Andrew, Neil, and Kevin's room. Neil had told her once that Andrew likes to read. 

She and Andrew are lounging on the beanbag chairs while Neil and Matt are busy in the kitchen fixing up a late brunch — so, really, lunch — when she says to Andrew, "Wolf."

He blinks slowly away from the television, quietly playing some infomercial about kitchen knives, toward her. Dan inwardly cheers. With Andrew, that's essentially the equivalent of him devoting to her his full attention. 

(She thinks. Maybe. She's no Neil.)

She nudges the book towards him with her foot. "You'd have a wolf." Glistening silver coat, beautiful golden eyes, as big as he is small. 

He quirks an eyebrow at her. She grins.

Ferocious, loyal.

Protector.