“Remember to smile.” The whisper so near to his audio receptor nearly startled the hockey leaguer, GZ’s grip tightening on the back of the couch where Ruri and Edmond sat.
He didn’t like interviews, GZ had found quickly enough after joining Silver Castle. He didn’t like interviews and he especially didn’t like ones where they were standing around in a spotlight while the reporters hurled questions at them from the darkness like an assault on their ears. And they asked such personal questions, about the team, about the individuals, about why, oh why, would Leaguers of so many different specialties come together to play like this? And the more nervous he became, the more his brow furrowed; and the more his brow furrowed the deeper his scowl became; and the deeper his scowl became and the more his brow furrowed, the more he seemed to glare in defiance at the media that huddled around them.
“They’re not going to touch you.” Ryuuken’s soft voice against his ear almost spooked him again. His spine stiffened and his fingers dug deeper into the couch’s limited stuffing until he could feel the plywood frame underneath. Out of view of the cameras focused so firmly on Windy, Ryuuken’s hand gently laid over GZ’s and gentle fingers nudged the soldier’s grip off the couch and into his hand instead.
“Windy will use up all the interview time if they let him,” Ryuuken murmured, his tone amused as his fingers wound between the hockey leaguer’s and his thumb rubbed soothingly over his knuckles. Friendly touches were something GZ was still attempting to grow accustomed to - Silver Castle was far more… physical with one another in small ways: pats on the shoulder, holding each other when afraid, friendly encouragement and playful touches outside of the field. GZ found himself at a loss with their easy comeraraderie, standing off on the sidelines with an equally standoffish Juurouta until Ryuuken, ever gentle and friendly in ways GZ would never have suspected of a karate leaguer with his strength, would come and join them so they weren’t alone but neither were they dragged into unfamiliar territory of the team dynamic.
“Don’t think about the reporters.” Ryuuken’s voice came again, a mere whisper to reassure the tense soldier. “Think of something that makes you happy, perhaps that will help you relax.” GZ glanced sidelong at the Karate leaguer, standing there holding his hand with a small, serene sort of smile, but before he could respond the mech’s name was being called by the interviewers. Ryuuken gave his fingers a reassuring squeeze before releasing his hand and turning his attention to the reporters.
When the interview wound down, GZ found himself reflecting on how exhausting it was to be there in the limelight. On the field it was different, on the field he was focused on the game and the strategy and busy reading his opponent’s moves. Standing spotlight, face to face with people asking question after question and expecting more than a grunt, and given that his usual manner of speaking was rather… blunt, he wasn’t as popular with interviewers as Windy or Magnum yet they continued to be enough of a presence to befuddle and confound him.
His batteries were full but he still felt fatigued, his processor lagging with a sort of mental exhaustion that made him feel so weary. So much so he didn’t notice Ryuuken on his peripheral right away, but the karate leager offered a soft cough from a few feet away to draw his attention. Still, he stiffened in surprise and twitched towards the bot to face him.
“Sorry, I wasn’t trying to startle you,” Ryuuken offered, closing the distance between them now that he was aware of his presence. GZ watched him with a frown, the same as he watched everyone with he supposed, but relaxed from his defensive stance and grunted questioningly at Ryuuken’s enigmatic smile. “I just came to check on you, to see how you’re feeling now that it’s over.”
“Fine,” GZ replied, gaze wandering away from curious brown eyes. “I’m fine.”
“Are you?” Ryuuken prompted, sidling closer to lay a hand on his shoulder. “You seem tired.”
GZ waved the hand away with a huff of his vents. “I’m fine. I always look like this.”
“Not always,” Ryuuken chuckled softly. “I saw you smile when you were looking after the children, so I know you’re capable of it.”
“That was relief that they weren’t dead after the avalanche, not enjoyment of their presence.”
Ryuuken’s smile only grew and the karate leaguer shook his head in amusement. “You try too hard to be a cantankerous old man, GZ.”
“I’m a soldier,” he snorted at the chuckling leaguer, “I’m supposed to look menacing, not cuddly.”
“And I’m a karate leaguer, I’m supposed to rip bots apart with my bare hands if I want to win,” Ryuuken countered, reaching out to gently poke GZ below his puck shooter.
“That’s what I don’t understand about you.” GZ twitched at the touch and swatted his hand away, not noticing the gleam that Ryuuken’s eyes took on. “You’re more designed for war than I am, and yet you’re so… cute. You’re so harmless and silly, and no one is afraid of you, but they run from me when I don’t mean to scare them. I don’t understand how you can smile so much, knowing what you’re built for.”
“Well…” Ryuuken tipped his head and considered, those doe-like eyes wandering away from the hockey leaguer briefly. “I suppose for that I have Edmond and Richard and Ruri to thank. When I was born at the factory, I was sent to them by mistake with the rest of Silver Castle - Silky and Jake and Bobby and Carl and the others. I didn’t know that I was a karate leaguer, and instead of sending me back for a replacement, they taught me to play soccer. I wasn’t very good at it,” he admitted with a sheepish chuckle, a hand rubbing the back of his neck. “I kept breaking things because I didn’t understand how strong I really was, or how to channel it properly. But they were patient with me, and they never treated me like an outcast, and I know some would say they should have been honest with me but had I known what I was when I was new, had I dwelled on what I was meant to do, then I would have missed how wonderful it was to have a family with them. I wouldn’t have noticed how much they loved me, and how I loved them - I may have been afraid of letting them get close to me, in case I hurt them. But no one was afraid of me, even Owner when she was so small would play with me and trust me not to hurt her.”
GZ looked more befuddled than before at Ryuuken’s wistful smile, his gaze distant with nostalgia. “I was given the chance to see the good in life, rather than being made to kill in order to have one at all. And what sort of life it would have been, where every match was drawing the line between life and death? I much prefer soccer, even though I’m not very good at it like Windy is.”
The hockey leaguer considered the mech’s words coupled with that silly, adoring grin he wore when he thought of his team. GZ huffed softly and looked away. “See? That’s exactly what I mean - you’re so cuddly and harmless. Who could be afraid of you?”
“You would not be so intimidating to people if you smiled more, you know,” Ryuuken chuckled, reaching out to poke him again.
GZ grunted at the touch and pushed his hand away. “My face is not meant for smiling.”
The comment seemed to catch the other leaguer by surprise, and Ryuuken burst out into soft, delighted laughter. “I think you’re very silly, GZ,” he chortled, sidling up behind the sulking hockey leaguer. Gentle fingers wiggled up GZ’s sides and under his arms, startling him out of his brooding hunch. Lightning zaps of sensation jolted up to his brain and back down his spine at the unfamiliar touches to surprisingly tender components. “Let me help you smile!”
GZ tried to twist away from the touch, but Ryuuken’s quick reflexes kept him corralled between his arms. Careful, gentle fingers wriggled between armor seams, into gaps meant for flexibility, and into the wiring of joints to get past the dense winter armor. GZ gasped and wriggled for freedom, biting his tongue and keeping his head turned down, eyes clenched shut. Alas, his feet weren’t meant for running, and his skis surely looked comical taking turns flailing for escape.
“Tickle tickle tickle,” Ryuuken taunted, twisting to pull GZ to the ground and pin him there, fingers running down blue sides and over the other leaguer’s quivering belly. A noise escaped GZ’s throat and both hands flew to cover his mouth to try to contain the bubbling of laughter welling up in his chest and to hide the smile his mouth tried to contort into.
“Stubborn bot,” the karate leaguer laughed, searching over the soldier’s torso for spots to exploit, ignoring the kicking of skis against his plating. “Tickle tickle tickle!”
A gruff chuckle escaped between GZ’s fingers and Ryuuken’s efforts doubled, quickly blooming that chuckle into a full blown guffaw. Effectively trapped on his back, pinned down by a bigger leaguer and weakened with mirth, GZ could only flop about and try to bat away the hands assaulting his sensors. Ryuuken, it seemed, was distressingly proficient at the art of tickling. At least as far as GZ was concerned, having never experienced being tickled before. It was strange, in and of itself, the way a simple brush of fingers over a sensor-rich component elicited such a response. There were similarities to the shock circuit that he could draw, but rather than pain the touches simply drew… laughter. Laughter he couldn’t hope to control. It spilled out of him in waves with each new spot the karate leaguer discovered: loud barks and guffaws as Ryuuken’s fingers raked over his belly, yelps and chortles when they snuck under his arms, and frantic giggles as he tried to get those gentle fingers out from under his chin and away from his neck. “Stop! Stop!”
Ryuuken eased off at the command, settling back on his heels and chuckling, fingers still poised to strike again. “I knew you could smile,” he teased.
“You know nothing of the sort.” GZ rumbled gruffly but yelped when Ryuuken’s fingers made a feignt towards his still vulnerable belly. He could have been angry, he supposed, to be overpowered and practically assaulted in a way as he had been, to be forced into such a submissive position - but Ryuuken’s soft, delighted giggles, he supposed, made it worth the indignity he suffered. GZ sat himself up with some effort, a little dizzied after the exertion, and heaved a huff from his vents.
Ryuuken sat next to him on his knees, smiling serenely in that calm way he seemed to have, and GZ found his lips quirking of their own accord in response.
Just a little, but they did so nonetheless.
“Brat,” he rumbled, a hand giving a gentle shove to Ryuuken’s shoulder. The karate leaguer didn’t even budge at the touch and GZ snorted softly in amusement. “You should be doing that to someone who needs it - like Magnum.”
“He’s on my list,” Ryuuken assured, and GZ let out a surprised bark of laughter that trailed quickly off into a hearty chuckle. “It’s taking some plotting to get him cornered, Windy is always nearby. Topjoy, Bull Armor, and I are working on it though.”
“You’re putting a lot of thought into this.” GZ sat a little straighter, leaning an arm to rest on his leg and gazing at Ryuuken curiously. “Why?”
The karate leaguer offered a small smile, different from the ones before. Tinged with sadness, sympathy, his head tipped to the side and he sighed quietly. “Magnum has been secretive with us always, but after the finals he has become more… sad and withdrawn. I only know the most minimal of details, but my hope is that if we can make him laugh then he will perhaps see that we are also his family and we care for him.”
GZ fell quiet for a moment or two, and heaved a hard sigh before staggering to his feet. “You really are too soft hearted for your own good, Ryuuken,” he rumbled, plopping a hand on top of the brown spikes of his head.
It was a strange team, but it was familiar in some ways: Magnum, the stoic, secretive leader; Windy his co-captain and PR; Topjoy the jester of a morale officer; Bull Armor the worrier nursing the aches Meckel hadn’t time for; Ryuuken the protective big brother. The three of them were no doubt a formidible team for making smiles, and GZ made a note to never stand in a room where the three of them were present together unless there were better targets like Ace himself. His pride couldn’t take being reduced to shrieking laughter by the three of them with an audience.
He had been lucky it was only Ryuuken alone that had come to check on him, he realized. And out here alone, rather than in view of everyone else. If he hadn’t been alone…
The thought made his fingers twitch against the brown spikes and Ryuuken made a soft questioning noise at the touch. The soldier couldn’t hope to knock the karate leaguer off his feet, even sitting as he was, so he plopped down beside him again and leaned over to flutter fingers against his sides in return.
Ryuuken’s eyes lit up in surprise at the unexpected revenge and he laughed softly, making no attempt to fight back or defend himself from the hockey leaguer, who took the other’s laughter as a strange encouragement to continue. It was soft and full of delight, a sound that warmed GZ’s face and limbs like no fire ever could and urged him to close what little distance remained between them. Suddenly, however, Ryuuken grasped his arms and pulled, sending GZ sprawling across his lap with a startled yelp. “I am ticklish,” Ryuuken chuckled lowly against his ear, soft and playful and sending shivers of anticipation and dread in equal measures up GZ’s spine, “but not right there, I’m afraid.”
Ryuuken’s playful smile was far too close to GZ’s befuddled, nervous face. Far too close. GZ found himself staring into gleaming brown eyes glowing with mischeif as gentle fingers slid with expert precision along a seam to make the soldier twitch. As GZ broke his gaze away, Ryuuken swooped in for a quick peck on his awkwardly grinning mouth. GZ's lips felt so cold against his somehow, but that may have merely been in comparison to the heat radiating from his reddening cheeks before Ryuuken’s fingers moved and the fits of helpless laughter overwhelmed the soldier once more.