Six Cats


It was a little past nightfall when the group of Lightning Saix strode into the lot near the bar that served as Zoid parking—you still found places like that in smaller towns like this. Land developers hadn't gotten their claws into them yet, and they didn't have money for a larger community hangar anyway.

There weren't many small towns left, either, but this was certainly one of them. Words like "quaint" and perhaps "cozy" applied...or "backwater", for the pessimists. What few Zoids were there were small things like Godos, Gator, or Iguan...outdated, but still quite serviceable outside of the popular sport battles of their era. No longer the mechanical equivalent of foot soldiers (or worse, cannon fodder), they served as transportation, training Zoids, and police vehicles. Here and there, you could spot an occasional Pteras or Redler. Had you gone to the local police station, you would have seen pair of old but well-maintained Command Wolves, painted bright gold and white and glaring down at any potential thieves.

Not that this town saw much crime—or much of anything. It happened to be a bit off the route towards an up-and-coming spot for Zoid battles, though, so lately it had been seeing the occasional team—the ones going off the beaten path. With their glistening new Zoids covered in all sorts of modern weapons, even inexperienced, low-class, or just plain unlucky teams made quite an impression on citizens, getting kids following them around in the street, gaping at them, yelling up to them...or throwing things and getting dragged off by their mothers, lest a particularly irritable pilot step on them.

It was this town's inexperience and fascination with tournament Zoids that had led Team Tigers to it earlier that day-they were flat broke, and hoping that if they made enough of a show they'd get offered rooms at the local hotel. It had worked, and after a bit of pyrotechnics and flashy-looking moves by their blinding yellow Saber Tigers, they'd retired to the local bar—free drinks, too.

The same reaction was what had Team Lightning creeping in under cover of darkness. Their Saix walked on quiet feet, still clattering unavoidably when they walked, but the advanced stabilizers removing a lot of the more noticeable bass thuds from their footfalls. Dark colors near-invisible in the night, the three Zoids stopped near three far more showy creatures. Even in low light, the Saber Tigers had a yellow-white glow to them, standing in a slightly lopsided row across from the Saix-which were all even. Precision was vital when you piloted a high-speed cat in breakneck maneuvers.

 

They were talking loudly, bickering and whining back and forth about how they'd lost their last battle...three figures in brown-and-purple fuzzy coats. Two were taller, two had fluffy hair to match their coats...although not the same two.

Jack recognized their voices and mildly unusual appearance, although one could have guessed by the Zoids outside. As lousy as they were in comparison to, say, class A teams, their somewhat flamboyant manner had earned Team Tigers a bit of a reputation of their own—and their losing streaks a bit of an obscure following among those who cheered for the underdogs. Sitting along one side of a table to right of the door, they soon noticed the new arrivals and immediately fell silent, as if in disbelief that someone else had showed up and crashed their pity party. One of them finally spoke up.

"Well, hey, what's a fancy team like you doing in a town like this?"

 

The shorter fluffy-haired guy was waving whatever he'd been drinking in the air, beckoning them over.

"Looking for a bit of peace and quiet. Seems like we won't be getting it." Chris pulled up a chair and sat down in front of him.

Might as well talk to them, she figured, if they were there...and it wasn't like there was anyone else around. They'd expected the place to be empty until they'd seen the other Zoids outside. Chris bet the guy she'd sat across from was their leader, which would make him...

"Kirkland." He was offering his hand, and Chris took it. His handshake was firm, his hand roughed by both fighting and camping outside when the Tigers couldn't get a place to stay. He finished his introductions as Kelly and Jack joined them.

"And this is Omari," he said, pointing to the man opposite Kelly, "and that's Lineback." The other taller man nodded to Jack.

Jack tilted his chair back, crossing his arms behind his head. He'd gotten in trouble doing that at school, although he'd never fallen...after a bit of practice. He'd broken a few chairs, so what? "I suppose some introductions on our end are in order. You know, another team using three of the same Zoid, not something you see all that often. Cats, too."

"No need. You guys are famous enough."

"Yeah, you're Chris, that's Jack, and that's Kelly..." Pointing in the wrong order, Lineback wondered if the other team had much of a sense of humor.

"Very funny." Well, Jack didn't. The other two were more unreadable, Chris rolling her eyes and Kelly just ignoring him. Lack of sense of humor or not, Jack put his feet up on the table and leaned his chair into a more impossible angle as the bartender asked them what they wanted. "Famous, eh? You wouldn't happen to remember our battle with Team Blitz?"

Jack was already after coffee, but Kelly declined. "He's still a bit bitter than no one does. No, no coffee for me yet, thanks."

"Oh, Team Blitz?" The bartender seemed interested, and Jack leaned back up a bit, the wooden chair creaking as he pulled it more even with the table. "Wasn't the championship fight amazing?"

"Just totally awesome." Jack picked up his coffee after Kelly slid it across the table to Chris, and then to him. Taking a sip, he sat it back down. Too hot. Too watery. Back to his contemplation of the ceiling fan.

Chris seemed unfazed by Jack's balancing act, Lineback thought. He probably did that often, the show-off. Kelly didn't care either. "We're famous, but no one remembers us fighting them. It doesn't make sense, if you think about it."

"We've got the reverse problem, almost," Kirkland said. He started to tilt his chair, and immediately went off balance. Slamming it back into place, he wondered if Jack's golf-club things were actually counterbalances. "Everybody knows about us, but it's always 'those weirdos with the neon-yellow Saber Tigers' or worse. How do you do that?"

"I can't explain it any more than I can explain piloting a Lightning Saix...beyond the technical details, it's just done." Jack waved a hand in the air, still maintaining equilibrium. He didn't even seem fazed by the chair's slippery-looking feet with fuzzy dots on, put there to keep people from scratching up the hardwood floors. It didn't seem to have worked, looking at them, but perhaps the dots were a recent addition. Omari tried the same thing Kirkland had, leading to him falling over backward with a resounding crash.

Kelly leaned around the table. "Are you all right? And he means more that it's like riding a bicycle—it...clicks, but there's no way to explain how."

"Ow."

"Does 'ow' constitute an 'I am not critically injured, thank you'?"

Omari rubbed the back of his head as he picked up his chair, shaking it to determine if it was broken or not. It wasn't. "Yes. We're actually holding a lottery, seeing who can get ten concussions first. I'll be ahead if that counts."

"...ten?" Chris said, raising an eyebrow.

"Yep." Kirkland sipped his beer absentmindedly, stopping to talk as he went. "I know, but you have to do something to make losing more interesting. It's either that or get some desk job. I'd probably live longer, but be bored out of my skull and go postal. Boom~!" He mimed shooting someone before downing the rest of the bottle and setting it back down. "However sane I am now."

Kelly shrugged. "They say if you have to ask if you're sane, you are."

 

The bartender interrupted them again, strolling up to their table with a notebook in hand. No electronic datapads for him—he was going to run this place the old-fashioned way, even if he'd caved to popular demand and put in a few viewscreens. They were for Zoid battle viewing only, he assured himself. "Now, are you two ladies sure you don't want anything?" He tapped his pen on his chin, looking a bit impatient.

Not wanting to offend, Kelly decided to ask for something. Something non-alcoholic...and the coffee didn't look that good. "Do you have water?"

"Water?" Looking rather annoyed, the bartender ended his statement by chomping on the tip of his pen. He probably would have ruined it if it weren't metal—as it was, it just clinked sharply between his teeth. "Yes, I suppose..."

Wrong thing to say. "Ginger ale, then? Mister...ah, what is your name?"

The bartender calmed down, sighing and pulling his coat straight—dark fabric, not fluffy or impractical, it was decorated with a few patches with Zoids on and nothing else. "My name is Bob. Running this place has been a family tradition for...oh, I don't know how long," he said, gesturing vaguely with the hand holding the pen. "But my name—it comes from my uncle, who was named after a relative of his, and so on...back to a man who was a concert pianist, of all things." Bob twirled the pen around in his fingers, stopping for a bit and then clearing his throat. His voice stayed gravely, like he'd been hanging around one too many smoking customers. "Say, you never said what you wanted. Not to be pushy, but if you're not going to buy anything..."

Chris shared her sister's philosophy, if not her taste in drinks. "Orange juice, if you've got any. Nothing in it, just ice."

Bob ran a hand through his greying hair before tucking the pen behind one ear. "Very well. I'm not sure how pianist changed into bartender...but you know how it is, with people not following in their parents' footsteps. Even if it is tradition." He left with a sigh, not saying any more. The one group was probably too young to understand, and the others...well, they weren't the parenting type. More early midlife crisis like his cousin. Last he'd heard of the man, he'd run off in a black and chrome blue Command Wolf and was cruising the roads somewhere. The Zoid version of a biker, like his lazy son...

 

Unable to hear Bob's internal monologue, the two teams tried to regain lost trains of thought.

"Ah...what were we talking about?" Lineback said, yawning.

"I don't know, but some advice would be nice, rather than some vague junk about piloting Zoids well just being 'done'." Omari glared at Jack, still a bit annoyed at the Saix pilot being responsible for him hitting his head.

"You need to be in touch with—one with—your Zoid to bring out its full potential. Don't scoff at me. I know you were."

Omari had snorted at the statement...the short, incredulous sort of sound one makes when drinking and unable to say something sarcastic. He was now trying to pretend he hadn't, hiding behind his beer and hunching over a bit. Lineback was a bit less secretive about his snickering. He had a harsh laugh to go with his voice, one that suited the Tigers' overall rough-around-the-edges image.

They'd let their guard down a bit, Jack could tell, although a less observant person might not. Whether they were baring their souls a bit in light of this strange kinship of cat Zoids or it was just the drinks...eh.

His coffee was getting cold. Jack chugged the rest of it as Kirkland told the other two to shut up and listen. Nice. He was respected enough to be worried about offending. With a refreshed sigh, he pushed back his headband with one finger and waved for more coffee with the other hand.

"I don't mean talking to them. I mean knowing every inch of what your Zoid can do—and what it cannot. Just how far you can push it—and how to get it there."

Omari swatted his beer from hand to hand as the three Tigers mulled over Jack's advice. The bottle scraped along the table, glass echoing on the polished wood.

"And watch each other's backs." Kelly leaned forward, Omari leaning with her. She reached out and flicked his beer off course, leaving him jumping to his left before it escaped to where Kirkland could steal it.

"Yeah, from what I've seen of your fighting, you don't have clear enough strategies," Chris added. "Well, you have them, but not what to do if they go wrong."

Kirkland had his head in his hands now, discouraged. "You mean like every single time? And I don't think that'd exactly help—look at our Zoids." He plunked his head down the rest of the way onto the table, hitting it with an audible clonk.

That probably had hurt.

Chris resisted the random compulsion to pat him on the head, maybe ruffle his hair...she doubted he'd appreciate the humor in how his hair and coat left him looking like a lost puppy combined with that expression.

Poor fuzzy bastard...

"All right. Enough of the angstin'." Kirkland lifted his head from the table, running a hand through his hair. Persistently spikey, it bounced back with a stubbornness that could almost rival Bit's hair, although Kirkland's had a slightly less wild native state.

"How about a game of cards, then?" Jack held up a deck—he always carried one. This happened to be the same one he used to test potential "clients" with, way back when. Ah, but he was getting sentimental.

"Sure, what d'ya play?" Lineback wondered if he'd regret saying that. The sharklike grins the entire other team was sporting was a good indication...although he'd have been equally worried if they had played stupid. People tried that on them sometimes, thinking that people bad with Zoid battling would be bad with cards. To tell the truth, he wasn't very good at card games...but when it came to poker, he could at least bluff, playing the dumb tough pilot act for all it was worth.

There was a dartboard over on the other side of the room, he'd noticed earlier. Darts, those were more his style. He was a decent shot, unless what he was shooting at was something like that cursed Liger Zero. His aim carried on into darts and pool, more things you wouldn't expect a tough pilot type to be good at.

Maybe he could beat these people at their own game. He certainly didn't expect his side would do well at cards, especially with Omari being a bit of a drooling idiot at the moment...not that he could blame him. This would be a friendly game, no money on the line, but he guessed Jack and the Taskers would take it just as seriously either way.

"Oh, whatever you want. Poker, maybe?" Kelly grinned at Omari as Jack shuffled cards. Lineback wondered if he'd mention strip poker, having thought of it himself and deemed it not a wise idea to mention. Omari didn't get a chance. He got as far as "str" before Kirkland stomped on his foot, doubtless agreeing with Lineback.

"Hey! What the hell?"

"I'll take that as one yes for poker, then..." Kelly said, ignoring Omari still muttering and making interesting sorts of faces.

 

No one had chips and the Tigers didn't have money, so the group decided to use pretzels instead. The bowl at the Tigers' table long gone, they borrowed them from the others. Bob didn't seem to care—he stayed sitting down behind his counter and half-watched the proceedings out of the corner of his eye. A few hands later, Lineback's prediction proved true: the Tigers were losing. Very badly. It didn't help that the pretzels were so tasty.

"Quit eating those, you idiots!"

Both Lineback and Omari jumped. "Oh, hell, not like it matters." Kirkland picked up one of the not-chips-but-pretzels himself.

"Another reason you guys probably lose..." Chris said, moving a couple cards in her hand around. She kept a perfectly straight face, the mark of a good poker player.

"What? I mean, it's not like you can eat a Saber Tiger."

"Heh...no, I mean—"

"Mmm, armor plating. Crunchy..." Lineback interrupted. Chris took one of the pretzels from the middle of the table and threw it at him. He tried to catch it, but missed, the pretzel landing on the table instead after hitting his shoulder.

"I mean, you don't stay focused."

Jack tossed out a few more pretzels, upping the bet. Lineback figured he had a good hand—and if he didn't, it wouldn't make any difference. "I fold. Scratch that, I'm out." He picked up what pretzels he had left and shoved them in his mouth, shoving his chair away from the table. "Mmph...I'm going to go try out that dartboard, if someone wants to join me."

Kirkland and Omari didn't move, too focused on the game and the players involved.

"Oh, come on, guys..."

Fine. He'd have to try something else. "Do any of you play darts?"

Jack didn't look up from his cards, but at least he responded: "Mn...not that often."

"Well, I may not have much money...but how about we add in a little wager?"

Jack tossed his cards face down on the table, settling his chair on the floor. He preferred games with chance mixed in with the skill, but who could say no to a challenge involving money? "I thought you were out of cash."

"I said 'too damn broke', not 'out of cash'. There's a difference."

"You're on."

Standing up too, Kelly stretched, rolling her shoulders. "I don't think I want to miss this...if you can handle them." She titled he head in the direction of the remaining Tigers.

"Sure thing." Chris started collecting the abandoned poker cards. She snatched Omari's as he turned around to argue with Kelly, and Kirkland just handed his over—seven, four, two...no wonder, with that hand...

"Hey, what do you mean by that!?" Omari said, getting more annoyed when Kelly didn't answer. He'd have followed her if not for loyalty, which demanded he stay with his leader rather than abandon him to get beaten at cards alone. They'd go down together, as usual...and hope Lineback had better luck with darts—not as usual.

 

Kirkland, meanwhile, was trying to think of a game where Chris wouldn't have an advantage. "Go Fish?"

"Go Fish." She said it as a statement, but a Go Fish, why on earth would you want to play Go Fish? sort of statement, all nice and sarcastic.

"Yes. Go Fish. Do you have a problem with it?" He crossed his arms, faking offense.

"I was going to suggest gin rummy, but Go Fish it is." Chris shuffled the cards, finishing by taking the whole lot and whacking the edge against the table with a crack. "You want to cut the cards?"

Both of them were more than willing to oblige.

Reclaiming the cards (cut twice), Chris ignored this and dealt with quick flicks of her wrist, the players' hands landing in neat stacks. "You go first, tiger."

Kirkland groaned—he was sick of cat jokes, and he couldn't think of a good reply involving cheetahs that wouldn't get him smacked upside the head. His hand proved to be a decent one when sorted, though—two pairs already. "Which one of us?"

"Does it matter?" Chris smirked from behind her cards.

 

"So, what kind of wager are we talking about?" Jack inspected the dartboard with a critical eye, taking in every inch of its green-and-black surface as if it would improve his chances. Knowing him, it probably would.

"Half of what I've got left in my wallet. Not quite sure what that is, lemme check..."

"I sure hate to take money from someone down on his luck." Jack's face was as unreadable as usual, leaving his sincerity in question. "So, how about you double it, and you get the money if you win...or in the event of a draw."

Now, was he bluffing about darts, or was he falling for the dumb pilot trick? That was the question, Lineback knew. Of course, with how little money he had..."Whatever. Let's go."

Kelly took money from both of them, putting it on the table before curling up in a chair. This would be interesting indeed. Jack hadn't played darts in a while—at least since he'd joined up with them. Unless he'd been sneaking off at night to practice...now, she might believe that if it were cards. They'd gotten a bit of a vicious rivalry going on in their team with those, half real and half in jest. At first she'd ganged up on Jack along with Chris, but then he'd figured out their various tricks for telling each other what cards they had, the tricky bastard. She was still better at counting cards, even if he wouldn't admit it.

 

Go Fish. He'd lost at Go Fish...by one book. Of course, if Omari hadn't taken the threes, he wouldn't have that problem—a fact Kirkland made clear by throwing his kings at Omari's head.

"Sorry, bro."

"Grreh..." Kirkland wasn't out of easier card games yet, though he suspected that even if he made the rules to something up on the spot, it wouldn't help. For one, Chris would catch it the minute he forgot them himself. She'd remembered who'd asked for what without fail in Go Fish, and he was willing to bet she'd been counting cards along with her sister earlier. "Crazy 8s, this time?"

"You people have strange tastes in card games."

Kirkland gave back his cards, Omari relinquishing the threes and kings too. "Yeah, we get that a lot. Deal."

 

"Luck...I'm tired of luck, you know." Lineback leaned over the back of the chair, standing with his arms folded on it as Jack took his own sweet time to throw.

"Indeed. You either have it—" Whatever conditions Jack was waiting for came, and he flung the dart, the board letting out a series of irritating queeps and blinking lights. Bullseye. The electronic board had been a gift, and Bob hadn't had the heart to take it down—nor could he figure out how to turn it off.

"—or you don't."

Lineback stood up wearily, leveling his own dart in his hand. It had to be balanced just right, if he wanted a chance. "Oh, we Tigers have luck all right. Plenty of it. It's just all bad!" Swish-thwok...and more beeping. Lineback opened his eyes, not realizing how tightly he'd scrunched them shut as he threw. Another bullseye. Dead center, too.

Kelly had been quiet most of the game, alternating between the darts and watching her sister trounce Omari and Kirkland. She finally spoke up. "Perhaps you should consider making your own luck."

"You can't 'make your own luck'...it's not luck, then." Jack disagreed, sitting back down and rejoining his coffee. A tie, and the money anted up was still in a pile on the table. He moved his foot over it—it wasn't going anywhere, no.

Lineback wasn't much one for philosophical discussions on luck—or anything. "Whatever. It doesn't change the fact that compared to you guys, we suck."

"Tyuuuh..." Jack started to yawn, but snapped his jaw shut and cut it short, shaking his head a bit. This chair was too comfortable—it wouldn't do to fall asleep here. "True."

"I seem to remember someone bragging that I'd get the money if he lost...or we tied. Gimme." Lineback motioned for the stack of bills, but Jack's foot stayed where it was.

"Do you really want to win that way?"

"Yes! I'll take what I can get! Now, hand it over! I'm up for another game, though."

Not one to lose money without finding a way to get it back, Jack rose from his seat. "Very well. You first, this time?"

 

Back at the table, the game had changed to cribbage—played with paper and pen, courtesy of Bob. They'd worked out how to play with three people and one pen. Omari was starting to consider going to watch the dart game instead, loyalty or no—not only was he far behind, he had a suspicion Chris was far more interested in talking to Kirkland than him. Unless he was being paranoid. But look, Kelly wasn't talking to anyone...

He picked up his hand for that round and stared. Five...five...jack...five. None of the fives matched the jack, either, which meant that if the cut was the remaining five...and it was! He had the ever-elusive 29-point hand, the holy grail of cribbage! And he counted second this time, after Chris. Oh, great.

"...and a pair is eight. Well, I win again."

"Waaaugh!" It was Omari's turn to bang his head on the table.

"You already hurt your head once." Chris poked him with the pen. "I'm not going to let you win because I feel sorry for you."

 

The night slowly wound down, becoming morning technically, although not in spirit. The sky was still dark, the twin moons above and feeble streetlights the only outside light. More games of darts were played, ending with Lineback the victor by the equivalent to fifty-six cents USD, much to his amazement. Omari and Kirkland were still losing sorely at cards, though, and the both teams agreed it was probably time to be heading their separate ways.

The Tigers left first, Jack still preoccupied with the dartboard.

Kelly sighed. "Come on, Jack, it doesn't really matter...does it?"

"No." Jack poked at another dart, though, tossing it idly at the board. He scowled—sure, now he got it right.

"I'm heading outside," Chris said, handing money to Bob before heading for the door. "I'll wait for you guys. Don't let Jack sulk too long."

"I am NOT sulking."

"Yes you are..." Chris laughed quietly as she left, not hearing Kelly's reply as the door closed and reduced it to mumbling. Squinting a bit in the dark, she headed for the row of Lightning Saix. She didn't get very far, the crackle-BOOM! of exploding Zoid bits snapping her out of her good mood. Instantly alert, she scanned the Saix for any sign of trouble. Nothing—the only change was hers looking down at her, wondering why she'd stopped.

"Stay." The Saix resumed its original pose with a murr, claws retracting.

Well, if it wasn't their Zoids, Chris thought, it had to be one of the Tigers'. She turned around in time to see the middle Saber Tiger, cockpit open, shaking its head to clear away smoke. That explained what, but not how...

 

"Gah!" Now she could see Kirkland around the Tiger's eyes, coughing and swatting at the controls. Any obscenities that followed were muffled by him having stuck his fingers in his mouth as he jumped down.

"Hey! What's going on over there?" Chris jogged part of the way over to Kirkland, who took his hand out of his mouth and wiped it on his coat. "Erm...are you okay? Your Zoid looks like it's on fire."

"Console shorted out on me. Happens when you've got a crap Zoid you can't afford to fix." He'd taken to rubbing his hand and wincing as it turned red. "I'm fine. And the Tiger's fine."

Chris rolled her eyes. "You know, for someone trying to keep up a tough guy image, you sure have an odd coat. I'll get something cold for that hand, if you want."

"How about a nice cold beer, then?" Kirkland sat down on the Tiger's claws, nursing his hand while trying to look like it didn't hurt. Funny how getting thrown around in a Zoid was fine—concussions, no problem. Of course, getting injured by an errant console was just the sort of luck he'd had the past year or so.

Crickets chirped, and the members of Team Tigers sat in silence for what felt like quite a while, Kirkland still alternating between holding his hand and waving it back and forth, as if the chilly desert air might help. It didn't—the thing still felt like it was on fire. Didn't look bad, but it sure stung. It was probably the same reason papercuts always hurt, he thought. Didn't hands have a lot more nerves and stuff?

"Hnh...what's wrong with our coats?" Omari's Tiger growled as he spoke, turning its saber-toothed face towards Kirkland's, which seemed to have moved to protect its pilot, looking down on him like a mother cat with a kitten between her paws. Kirkland thought of the Tiger as a "he", but it didn't matter anyway...most Zoids didn't carry a concept of gender and were fine being referred to either way.

"How should I know?" Kirkland hissed back through clenched teeth. Even his Zoid thought he couldn't take care of himself! He looked up, intending to say something more, but caught sight of a returning Chris.

She was carrying a beer—in a mug, but still. She offered it to Kirkland, barely keeping a straight face. "Here you go, as requested."

"Oh, sure, mock the injured guy." Kirkland took the beer anyway, putting his right hand on the mug—which was glass, and actually somewhat cold. "Now who's being stereotypical and junk?"

...snickers from the two other Tigers members above, and crossed arms and a raised eyebrow from Chris. "Pardon?"

Sipping the beer, Kirkland continued. "You know, the tough chicks in the skimpy clothes. They're always real bitc—"

"Hey, now." Omari was leaning out of his Tiger, having to tilt a bit sideways to get around the cockpit cover and the Zoid's eyes.

Chris was laughing, though. "You must be going for the 'men are slobs' cliché instead."

Kirkland, deciding the outside of the mug wasn't cold enough, had plunged his hand into it, and was now half-drinking, half-lapping-up the beer displaced in the process, spilling a good deal of it into the sand. "What? Are you happy, my hand hurts, all right?"

"Aww. You want me to kiss it and make it better now, I suppose?" Chris lunged for his hand, and Kirkland reflexively jumped back, his head narrowly avoiding smacking the Saber Tiger's leg.

"No! Hey, you're gonna make me spill the rest!" Kirkland held the mug to his left as Chris hopped onto the Tiger's foot to his right. "Er...wait, what am I saying? Yes!"

"With reflexes like that, you should look into piloting a Saix." Chris sat down on the Tiger's foot too, folding her legs and settling down to Kirkland's right. "But seriously, let me see that hand."

Kirkland didn't move. He wasn't sure if she was actually being nice, or if she was setting him up for another joke. Omari and Lineback watched and attempted to stay silent, finding the whole situation quite entertaining.

Grabbing Kirkland's hand anyway, Chris studied it for a few seconds. "Nothing serious. But I bet it stings like mad. Want me to get a bandage from the Saix, or are you still being too tough for such things?"

"I could have told you that, yes, yes, no."

That earned Kirkland another chuckle before Chris got back up, heading over to the other row of cat Zoids. Her Saix lowered its head, popping open the cockpit and turning on the interior lighting, which hummed quietly-in perfect working order, of course. Green eyes glowed as the cockpit shut again, illuminating the Zoid's silver and gunmetal face. It seemed to stare at the Saber Tigers, which stared right back, pointy teeth glistening in the moonlight.

"You should've taken the kiss."

Kirkland growled, having remembered too late that smacking a hand into one's forehead in frustration was not a good thing to do when said hand was already in pain. "No comments from the peanut gallery, there!"

"Omari's just jealous."

"Am not!"

Somewhere during all this, Kelly had made her way outside too. "What's going on? I heard explosions..."

"Yeah. My console." Kirkland held up his injured hand, giving a limp wave. Returning again, this time Chris had some fancy-looking bandage tape stuff. Kirkland eyed it suspiciously.

Kelly tried to sit down next to him too, despite the Tiger's foot not having much room left. "Now, let me see tha—"

"Waugh! Not you too!"

"For goodness' sake, hold still!"

"I can't hold still if you're squishing me! Ow!"

"Hey, watch that elbow!"

 

Jack watched the chaos with an amused look on his face, choosing not to participate in favor of smirking. His Lightning Saix cocked its head to one side, chirring in disbelief. The whole mess took about a minute to resolve, finally ending with:

"There. Finished." Chris released her grip on a rather flustered Kirkland's hand, now neatly bandaged. "Better?"

"...yes."

Jack cleared his throat. "Now, if we're finished being silly, we really need to get going. We have a schedule to keep. Been nice talking to you." He hopped into his Saix, which stood waiting for the two red-trimmed ones to its left.

"Bye, then." Kelly got off the Tiger's foot, nodding to Kirkland and waving briefly to Omari and Lineback in the Tigers above. Chris paused for a second, though.

"See you around?"

Kirkland would have replied, were it not for her leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. Quickly—not giving him any chance to react—and then she was walking away.

Not that a chance to do something would have helped. Kirkland didn't manage anything more coherent than "...buh?" until the three Saix were already standing up and walking away. He then blinked and shook his head, wondering what the hell that had meant.

 

"Aww, wasn't that cute?"

"Shut up, Omari." Trying to regain what could possibly be left of his dignity, Kirkland clambered back into the Tiger's cockpit. None of the lights went on other than the displays that hadn't shorted out, but Kirkland knew the controls without having to see.

"I bet she likes you."

The Saix were gone in silent flashes of gunmetal and red. The Saber Tigers remained, however, snarling back and forth as their owners argued.

"Hey, I said shut up!"

Omari didn't. "I bet you wouldn't be getting so upset if you weren't interested."

"What is this, kindergarten?" Missing its glowy eyes and not able to glare, Kirkland's Tiger settled for snapping its teeth as they started down the road. "Neener neener, Billy likes Suzie stuff?"

Lineback had been quiet until now. He moved his hand to the accelerator, figuring he'd need it shortly. "Certainly not. I mean, she's what, half your age? I didn't know you fancied younger women."

"THAT'S IT!" Kirkland's Tiger lunged forward, but Lineback's prediction had proved correct, and his Tiger put on enough speed to get out of the way. Omari followed him, figuring he was in trouble too, and the two junior team members were left running down the street with their leader in pursuit. Setting off an alarm or two and narrowly avoiding squishing cars, they clattered down the main street before slowing as they hit narrower roads.

 

The Tigers being quick to forgive each other's stupidity (albeit slow to admit they were wrong), the whole incident was pretty much forgotten by the time they reached the hotel. Perhaps too much of it was...

"Okay, guys, before we forget," Kirkland said, "What was all that advice they gave us?" He looked for the key to his room, finding it in one of many pockets. Plunking down in a lobby chair, he sighed. "Sure hope you remember more than I do. I'm beat."

The other two joined him, Lineback in one chair and Omari half-lying in the two next to it, feet up on the joined armrest.

"Nope. All I've got is I suck at card games, falling out of chairs hurts, the Taskers look even better in person, and something about teamwork or strategies or...something."

Lineback yawned again. "Same thing, no chair, add darts." He was mumbling, already half-asleep. Kirkland thought about waking him up, but didn't. These chairs were more comfortable than the ones at the bar...and more stable. It was certainly better than spending the night on a field with pointy rocks in, or huddled under a Saber Tiger in a rainstorm. Or that incident with the scorpion a couple years back—much, much better than that.

"Eh...maybe we'll remember tomorrow." Sleep was good for organizing thoughts, really...sleep was good.

"Or their luck'll rub off on us." Omari wasn't going to last long either, having already closed his eyes.

"We can only hope."

 

Somewhere outside town, three Lightning Saix ran on, headed for the next town over. They were behind schedule now—they had a tournament to get to soon, and no time to spare for a slower transport. Unlike true cheetahs, Saix could be distance runners if handled properly. Team Lightning's Saix were probably the three most expertly controlled of the creatures in the current tournament environment...if not ever. Settled smoothly into an easy bouncing lope, they skimmed the ground, leaving behind light footprints belying their size.

Delays were normally a problem, but crazy or not, the Tigers had been nice to talk to and get everyone to loosen up a bit. They'd been able to forget about the upcoming fights, and ramble about piloting Zoids...card games...darts...and other nonessential but entertaining things. Tiring, maybe, with how they'd be traveling on less sleep later, but refreshing. It had seemed to cheer the Tigers up too, or at least get them to forget their troubles for a while.

Perhaps it was a case of both teams being in the right place at the right time.

Perhaps it was luck.


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