Being a military test pilot carried certain benefits and risks. Zan Fel generally felt the benefits far outshone anything else (you got to work with Zoids, after all), but there were days that made him doubt his choice of career. They were the ones that brought the war closer than he wanted, ones where Zoids and pilots returned in more pieces than they should.
Today was mixed.
No one had died, and the Zoids hadn't ended up strewn across the landscape, but the whole 'ambush in the valley' deal with bonus rockslide wasn't Zan's idea of a success. Not when he'd had to dig Tita's Liger out in the middle of an extremely persistent Helcat mob, and certainly not when she'd turned out to be shaken silly under the lot. The Helcats had piled on Albane shouting about surrender and money, proving themselves both bandits (why was it always bandits?) and very annoying, and Zan had ended up carrying Tita out himself while trying to work out why half-conscious people were so heavy and how the hell to fit two people in a Snipe Master's head in the midst of laser fire. A few swatted Helcats later, he and his captain limped their way to the nearest city with medical facilities.
He'd been told three times since that he shouldn't have gone dragging Tita around, but Zan wanted to see any of the medical staff say that with Helcats breathing down their neck and a Snipe Master chittering to grab the girl and run, dumbass. Besides, Tita was awake by the time they got there, and conscious enough to walk with a bit of help...help meaning her clinging unstably to his shoulder and stepping on his foot. Zan might have complained, but the way he saw it, anyone using Albane to lean on would end up with several stab wounds they hadn't had before.
She'd gibbered about how funny Helcats looked running upside-down much of the way there, and whenever he'd talked to her she'd told him things like the rocks that fell on her Zoid were the color of the quarry back home with more sparkle. Zan wondered if he'd been this ridiculous the times he'd gotten cracked in the head, but he decided none of them would ever have let him forget it. They still brought up the bar incident with the dancing and the lack of pants and the Liger-print boxers, which wasn't really fair.
Another scolding (at least this nurse called him a brave idiot), and Zan was left with the worst part of post-piloting-fail: the waiting. Some men hated impending lectures from command, hospitals were what got to him. They were full of injured people, death, and terrible food.
Pacing only worked so long, and Zan headed outside before somebody started nagging him about scuffing up the floors or how his boots squeaked or how he kept walking into people. The Zoids weren't so depressing, and with how his Snipe Master'd been hissing in distress on their arrival it was probably worried about Tita...he'd been worried too. He found it near the back of the local hangar, sandwiched between a couple Ligers with its skinny body almost hidden by their bulk. Thankfully, brilliant orange and white was the farthest thing from camouflage Zan had yet to discover. The Snipe started shifting almost imperceptibly back and forth on its locked talons as he got closer, grinding them against the concrete.
"She'll be okay. Concussion, they're just checking stuff."
The Snipe answered with a chirp and cocked its head to one side, now visibly wiggling its battered hips.
"Quit wobblin', you're meant to be parked!" Like he could talk about being restless, Zan thought, as it chirped again and gave a definite swish of tail. He sighed and snapped his fingers up at the Snipe's face. "Fine. Make yourself useful if you're not going to listen."
The Zoid settled quickly into a crouch, tucking limbs close and lowering its head to within arms' reach. He responded with a poke to the eye, and the Snipe popped its cockpit open and steadied enough to be climbable. Zan kept a ready supply of snacks under its seat, and if nothing else he could do something useful with them.
"Look, if you try it, they'll know. But who's gonna suspect anything odd about me carrying food around?"
Albane had that look on his face—the one that came with bemoaning the combined brilliance and utter lack of sense on part of his underlings, and usually preceded long-suffering but well-humored reprimand. Zan stayed perched in the next chair over, trying to look determined more than eager and bored. Smuggling candy past picky medics was much more interesting than sitting around, and it was nice. Didn't Albane remember eating at these places?
"Most guys would just bring flowers."
"Most guys would have gotten stomped by the Helcats. And I found chocolate, Tita likes chocolate!"
"Mmm. If you must, watch out for the one with the red hair." Albane leaned back, crossing his arms well clear of knives and closing his eyes. "And remember that I know nothing of this...plan."
It was his way of trying to be politely discouraging, and Zan ignored it completely. He saluted instead, hopping out of his chair with a willfully ignorant grin. "Thanks, Cap'n, I'll tell her you said hello."
He found Tita quickly enough. It only took prodding staff until he'd asked somebody that wasn't the janitor and promised to only annoy her for a bit. Five or ten minutes, tops. And yes, he'd give the mop back and stop waving it around. Zan set off down the hall, counting the number of doors and double-checking before he opened the second one (honestly, some people got so touchy about unexpected lost pilots). He leaned in enough to check that Tita was alone...which meant he wouldn't have to bribe anyone to keep quiet. Good.
"Gh, Zan? What're you sneaking around like that for?"
"I'm not sneaking! I came to say hi, from me and Albane."
Tita still seemed skeptical, and given his track record with hospitals, Zan couldn't blame her. So he grabbed the nearest chair—one of those cheap plastic ones molded so they fit nobody's ass, it always was—and dragged it across the floor in a series of squeaking jerks, rubber feet catching along the way. Undeterred by Tita wincing, he plunked down next to her and started fishing through his pockets. One of them crinkled suspiciously when prodded, another crunched, and a third held what he'd been after. She raised an eyebrow.
"Are you smuggling in food?"
Zan nodded and held out the chocolate. If he was going to get in trouble, it might as well be for something like this. "The rustley stuff's mine, it's chips. But this is for you."
"That's sweet," Tita said, looking impressed...and a bit nauseated. Better than angry. "But my head hurts too much to think about eating. You keep it."
"Aw, come on. I thought y'said it was good for headaches."
She rolled her eyes. "Not this kind."
Well, if she insisted. Zan shrugged in resignation, settling down in his perpetually uncomfortable seat. The bar's trip by his side had left it decidedly squishy, and he got two-thirds through peeling off foil and his fingers rather chocolate-covered by the time Tita gave in and held out a wobbly hand.
"Suppose a little can't make it any worse."
Zan broke off the half he'd already bitten (it was only polite, and it was rather nice chocolate) and handed her the rest. "Watch out, 's a bit melty."
She ate slowly, gingerly, and Zan watched the clock. As fun as cheating medical wrath was, he didn't want to bring any down on Tita, not with her all headache'd and disoriented. He wasn't sure whether he feared more for her or the medic involved, but it was enough worry he didn't notice Tita trying to get his attention until she threw the wadded-up foil at his head.
"You've got chocolate on your face," she said once he'd got the ball off the floor. "You're gonna get in trooouble."
Figures she'd find this funny. "So do you. I'll get someth—"
Zan froze. He'd heard footsteps, voices mentioning her name...they were nearby footsteps, the Zan you'd better do something it's gonna be that red-haired nurse sort. The lightning reflexes of a Zoid pilot were good at mapping out the situation, if overdramatic: incoming hostile, must hide evidence. Need temporary distraction. Zan's mind's solution was odd and what romance writers might consider contrived, but it made unusual sense when one considered he was also very fond of chocolate.
He sprang up, knocking over the chair as he leaned far enough over the bed to hide their hands, and kissed Tita.
More accurately: Tita figured out what he was doing about the same time he did, and made good on his fakeout before he could get across pretending to kiss her. She was hesitant for one shy, awkward moment, lips only brushing his and her eyes wide open. Before he could panic, she'd got her free hand to the back of his neck and was trailing fingers up into his hair, pulling him closer despite the angle. Things relaxed from there. So he hadn't meant for her to run with something so silly, hadn't expected...he wasn't protesting. In fact, Zan was doing a rather nice job of forgetting anything else, ignoring stammered interruptions from the doorway but staying aware of the whole chocolate issue for entirely different reasons.
"If you'd pay attention, I said your five minutes are up! And she's free to go."
"Mnnffl?" It was harder to talk than he expected, possibly because he was still nibbling on Tita's lower lip.
"Her head checks out, and I've cleared things with the doctor and your captain. You can leave, just check every couple hours, come back if anything gets worse, et cetera. Damned kid pilots..." Zan couldn't see much, but probably-red-hair was sounding increasingly annoyed. Tita shoved him far enough away he could answer, licking his nose along the way.
"Okay, m'am, I've hit my head before—hey!"
Tita mouthed something about chocolate before collapsing into a gigglefit, and he backed away cautiously only to trip on the chair.
It took them a while to get heading back, mostly because Tita was still unsteady on her feet and Zan was now nursing a bruised rear end. It didn't help she'd gone oddly quiet on him once the humor of his reverse-faceplant-flip over the chair wore off, and had gotten all flustered when he offered a hand. Zan figured it was best to shut up and let her walk. So he'd kissed her, yeah, but he hadn't been the one kissing back like that. He tried to wait, tried to look utterly unconcerned with how weird this was.
"If I'd known that would get your attention," she finally stammered, trying for a smile and looking more giddy, "I'd have tried something with chocolate sauce a long time ago."
Lesser men probably would have choked, Zan just fidgeted. "I'm torn between that being incredibly appealing and extremely sticky."
"Idiot! I didn't say to think about it!" She swung for him and missed, aim thrown by minor head injury and adrenaline. Undaunted, she grabbed hold of his wrist and went for his hair, ruffling it into increasingly chaotic fluff.
"Oi, I give! Quit killin' my pointy!" Zan yelped, and squirmed clear without counting on unbalancing Tita again. He ended up catching her, arms around her waist, and while they avoided elbow-and-doorframe collision, it did nothing for the weird level. Especially not when she shifted far closer than needed for support and rested her arms on his chest in that same nervous sort of way...that or she was thinking of strangling him because his hands had slipped. He hoped not. "Sorry, okay? I was just trying to keep you from getting yelled at."
"Funny way to do that." Her expression was strange, Zan thought, a slight embarrassed grin he wasn't used to seeing. What was appropriate to say upon discovering your best friend fancied you more in the 'I would like to stick my tongue down your throat' sort of way? He had no idea.
"Um. You're not gonna freak out on me once the painkillers wear off, are you?"
"No, promise," Tita said, shaking her head and regretting the motion. "I'd kiss you again but I think I'd be sick. Er, I mean—"
He scooted away along the door, edging alongside her instead to get an arm back around her shoulders. "Concussion stuff. You called me a 'reckless blade-waving idiot' and 'stupider than the dumbest rock in a bed of incredibly dense rocks' the last one I got, remember? I get it."
"Took you long enough," Tita mumbled, falling in stride as best she could while nuzzling into his collar.
By the time they reached Albane, Zan had got the potato chips open one-handed and was munching contentedly.