|The Rules of Engagement
Author: judevanderhall PM
She's a bleeding heart liberal. He's a jaded Marine. She's the best friend. He's the older brother. She's middle class. He's loaded. And they're sharing the same address. Painfully cliché? You have no idea. SKoW Winner and Runner-up, Round 8.Rated: Fiction T - English - Chapters: 21 - Words: 78,321 - Reviews: 776 - Favs: 1,626 - Follows: 341 - Updated: 05-29-09 - Published: 01-18-09 - Status: Complete - id: 2623913
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
- ONE -
Ant leant on the apartment door and pushed it open with her back. Her hands were full with bags of groceries, mail in her mouth, and keys hung precariously off her pointer finger. She shook her head in a vain attempt to get her bangs from out of her eyes. She shuffled in awkwardly, puffing, and she swore she could feel sweat forming on her brow. She was able to lean slightly over to throw her keys on the table beside the door, and with a flourish she spat out the mail on the table as well. Satisfied, she continued to lean back on the door and shuffled herself inside until her body was completely in the apartment.
She yelped in surprise and dropped one of the brown paper bags, and a landslide of oranges tumbled out. She was not expecting anyone to be home, least of all a man. She looked up to see the source of the voice: a man (a shirtless man) leaning casually on the hallway archway with a carton of milk in one hand. Her carton of milk! She hid her momentary shock at the stranger and asked, "Who in the hell are you and why are you in my apartment?" Sneakily she allowed herself one discreet peek at his lean torso, to satisfy the red blooded female in her.
His mouth hung in to an easy smile, amused. "Last I checked this was my apartment," he told her as he walked towards her.
She furrowed her brows, "Wait, you're Dorian?" He nodded and set the carton of milk between his bicep and ribs, before relieving her of the grocery bags. Up close she noticed the numbers tattoed on his inner forearm and wondered what they meant.
"Didn't Perry tell you I was coming?"
She nodded slowly and tried not to stare at his shoulder blades moving underneath his skin as he walked towards the kitchen. She traced her eyes over his back where there was more bright ink, spreading up over a quarter of his skin and stopping at the right side of his torso; it was something, she hated to admit, she wanted to study up close. She shook her head, regaining focus.
"She did tell me but I thought you weren't coming in for a few more days." He dropped the bags on the kitchen counter and leant on it, crossing his arms, silently assessing her. "And Perry's still at work."
His jaw tightened slightly and he took a drink of milk from the carton. He seemed to be rolling his tongue inside his mouth, still watching her. Ant was getting annoyed and was about to voice this when he finally spoke, "I think you can close the door now." She hadn't even realised she was still leaning on it.
Hiding her embarassment by ostensibly fixing her clothes she stepped off the door and allowed it to shut behind her. She knew she looked like a mess; her hair was, no doubt, in its 5 o'clock slump, and her clothes were wrinkled with wear. She looked up at him and met his firm stare, "Well, thank you for helping me with the groceries."
He shrugged and pushed himself off the counter, "No problem. I didn't catch your name."
"Oh, I'm Ant."
"Nice to meet you," he told her, though the words seemed to ring hollow; and before she could offer him her hand to shake he had begun to walk to the hallway towards his room.
"How long were you standing there for?"
He turned over his shoulder with a smirk, "Long enough." Then he took a swig of the milk. Her milk. She didn't know why his answer annoyed her, but it did.
"And that's my milk," irritatation inched in to her voice.
He looked down at the carton in his hand and shrugged, undeterred, and he disappeared in to the hallway, out of her sight, to be followed with a door slam.
Well, this'll be interesting, she thought.
- o -
"And then he just kept drinking my milk," Ant finished in a hush, looking over her shoulder to make sure that a certain Dorian Bell wasn't listening. "I know he's your brother and everything, but he's a cocky motherfucker, and he doesn't even need to say anything."
Perry regarded her friend squarely as they ate pasta. She quirked her right brow upwards. "I know, doesn't matter. He really is a bit of an arrogant son of a bitch, but it's his Marine instinct, you know."
Ant shrugged -- truth be told, she wasn't displeased to see him because she enjoyed change, and someone interrupting a well established living arrangement was a big change. What displeased her, really, was that he was a Marine. She hated the military and all that it stood for, as much influenced by her political beliefs as by her family history. But he was Perry's older brother and so she had to maintain a modicum of respect towards him; not to mention he was the part owner of the apartment she was currently living in. Although, she knew that Perry's and Dorian's parents had technically bought it for them.
"But he seems pleasant enough, I guess. I mean, we spoke for all of 5 minutes, if that." Perry nodded, chewing, as she watched Ant. "And what's the deal with not wearing a shirt?" She wanted to add that it was distracting, but thought better of it.
Perry resisted the urge to smirk and so said instead, "What did I say? He's an arrogant son of a bitch."
Ant was about to expound some more on why his shirtlessness grated on her nerves when the object of their conversation alerted them to his presence by clearing his throat. The two girls turned around, hoping he hadn't been listening to what they were saying.
"I'm glad you think that way of me little sister." But apparently he had.
Perry jumped from her seat and ran to her brother to hug him. She hadn't seen him in close to two and a half years, and he had been napping when she arrived that evening. A genuine smile graced his handsome features as he hugged the girl tightly. Ant stayed seated and watched the two siblings reunite, embarassed that he had heard her griping about him. It was one thing to have your sister calling you an arrogant SOB, and quite another for a stranger -- who had known you for all of five minutes -- to refer to you as a cocky motherfucker.
"I told you never to use that Recon crap to eavesdrop on me," Perry admonished him and hit his arm. "Not cool," she said looking up at him from the death grip that was his arms.
He only grinned and released her from his embrace. They walked to the table where Ant sat self-conscious, willing a hole to rip open from under her so that she may be sucked in to it and avoid the awkwardness she knew would follow. She didn't miss the way his eyes flicked over to her briefly as he sat down, before they settled warmly on his sister. Ant stood by her words, but she didn't mean for him to hear them.
"Dorian, I've missed you so much! Tell me about your last tour."
His lips twitched in to a wry smile. "You want me to talk about how many people I blew up?"
Ant nearly choked on her beer, unimpressed with what he just said. Perry rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."
He shrugged, "There's not much to tell." But Perry's facial expression prodded him expectantly. Dorian's mouth set in to a grim line before he said, "Fish Lips died."
Perry's smile faded as she reached over to take her brother's hand. "Oh Dorian, I'm sorry."
Ant cleared her throat. They had forgotten she was there and they both turned to see her standing up. "I, um, I'm going to take a post-meal smoke. I'll just be on the balcony."
Then she walked to the sliding door a few steps from where they were eating and exited outside.
"I don't think she likes me very much," Dorian told his sister, still looking at Ant through the glass.
Perry shook her head, "She's a tough nut to crack and idealistic to a fault." She paused before adding as an afterthought, "She's a lot like you actually."
He turned back to his sister wondering what she was driving at, but she always had a good poker face and he let it slide. "Right."
"So, Fish Lips," she began gently.
He sighed and nodded. "Yeah, it was not pretty."
"It doesn't matter," he shook his head, "I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay." Perry knew better than to force his brother to vent when he didn't want to, and so changed the subject, "Do you want some coffee?"
He turned to her with an affectionate smile. "Coffee would be nice, thanks."
Perry squeezed his hand a final time and stood up. "Dorian, you know I'm here for you, whenever you're ready," she told him.
"I know, and thanks." Dorian watched his sister walk to the kitchen and looked down at his hands on the table. "Do you want me to clean up?" He called out.
"No, leave it there."
"Ok." But he started clearing the table anyway; there had only been two of them eating and Ant was otherwise distracted with her cancer stick. He had to be one of the few Marines who didn't smoke and had no desire too, either -- at least habitually. He did enjoy the odd cigarette or two during down time on duty. He walked to the kitchen and wondered about his sister's friend. She had only entered in to his sister's life in the last couple of years during the time he had been absent, but they were close. So close in fact that when their last tenant left she had given the room to Ant and foregone the bond.
When he had woken up from his nap he had heard rumbles of their hushed conversation through the walls, and he had stealthily exited his room and stood in the darkness of the hallway to eavesdrop. He had caught enough of the conversation to know that she wasn't overly fond of him -- probably because he drank her milk without asking. Then she threw in the part about his not wearing a shirt. Her little tirade amused him. He had been called worse, and by his own men too.
"I told you that you didn't need to clear the table."
He shrugged and placed the plates in the sink. "Well I did anyway. Do you want me to wash them?"
She began shooing him away, "Go sit, you're tired, seriously. I'm waiting for the coffee to brew so I'll do them."
"What can I do?"
"Stop babying me, I feel so helpless."
She began pushing him out of the kitchen, "Just go."
"Actually," Perry's head popped around the corner of the kitchen archway just as Dorian was near the sofa, "can you ask Ant if she wants coffee."
He nodded, happy to be given something to do, "Sure."
Perry grinned and her head popped out of sight. Dorian walked to the sliding door of the balcony. Ant was leant over the railing smoking, oblivious to him watching her. She was hot, he'd give her that, but she stunk of bleeding-heart liberal. Her reaction to his joke about blowing people up seemed to have confirmed something about him in her mind. Not to mention, Perry's emails to him had given him insight in to his new flatmate prior to meeting her. He tapped on the glass lightly, which seemed to have startled her judging by the way her shoulders jerked. She turned around as he slid the door open.
"Perry wants to know if you'd like a cup of coffee."
He responded with a brief nod before he slid the door close and walked away. Ant looked after him, then she flicked her cigarette away. She stayed there a moment longer before she followed suit. Inside, music -- The Best of Al Green, her favouite -- was playing, and Perry and Dorian were sitting on the couch chatting casually. She felt like an outsider interrupting their family reunion. She decided she would just get her coffee and give them their privacy by retreating to her room. But his damn super military hearing must have heard her coming because he turned to face her, which in turn prompted Perry to as well.
"Hey, Ant, come sit down and chill with us."
So much for making a quick entrance and exit. "I'm on my way," she smiled.
She sat down on the armchair adjacent to the couch Perry and her brother were occupying, and picked up the cup and saucer which had been laid out for her on the coffee table. Sitting side by side it was easy to see that they were the product of the same genetic stock; both had the same sandy blonde hair and Nordic features; but it was their eyes that they shared -- a sparkling navy blue.
"So, Ant, what do you think? Do you think that Dorian should leave the service?"
Dorian rolled his eyes, "You say this to me all the time."
Perry ignored him and kept looking at her friend, "Well?"
"Um, I don't think I have much authority to speak on the issue." Non-committal and non-judgmental, that was good Ant.
"That's not true," Dorian challenged her.
She hadn't expected him to respond as he did -- or at all -- and so she was caught off guard. "Well," her mouth opened and closed a few times before she could articulate her thoughts, "if you feel that you're ready to leave, then you should leave."
"But what if I don't want to leave?"
"Then don't leave."
"But Perry wants me to leave."
"Then maybe you should consider her feelings on the issue," Ant countered.
Perry watched them with a secretive smile and seemed to have faded in the couch as her brother continued, "So on what do you think I should base my decision on? What I want or what she wants?"
"Well, she's family, and you work in a pretty hostile environment --"
He snorted, "That's an understatement."
Annoyed he had interrupted her she finished firmly, "-- I think taking in to consideration the wishes of loved ones, should factor in to it, yes. It's quite selfish."
"You're a writer, aren't you?"
She furrowed her brows, wondering where he was going with this, and how he knew this, "Yes, but I don't see how --"
"If you were given the assignment to cover part of the war in Iraq right now, would you?"
"In a heartbeat."
"Without due consideration to how much your loved ones may feel about you working in an environment where you're untrained to deal with being in the line of fire?"
Ant didn't know how to answer, and said feebly, "That's different."
"How is it any different? It's still selfish. We are motivated by a selfish impetus, because ultimately we do what we want."
"So we should always do what we want?"
He shrugged and took a drink of the coffee, "Within reason."
"Well, what's within reason, then? Hypothetically I cover a war and come back, and then that's that. You keep tempting fate by continually going back."
"How do you know what I'm doing isn't my fate and I'm just fulfilling it?"
She was stunned at how quick his answers were. She saw the logic that underlined what he was saying, but she hated that she was losing. There was a pause and only Al Green's soulful crooning filled the silence as they held each other's stare.
"Well, that's getting a little too philosphical for my little head to understand," Perry said with a nervous laugh. Ant and Dorian broke their standoff to look at her as she continued speaking, "Re-enlist if you want to. I know that's what you love. And I know you'll do it anyway 'cause you're pigheaded." He smiled. "But I worry about you."
Dorian nodded, understanding her apprehensions. "And I'm as careful as I can be."
The phone rang and Ant jumped at the opportunity to answer it. She hated being the third wheel, and the quick exchange of words with Dorian had jarred her. She hadn't expected him to be so well-spoken. She had always imagined Jarheads to be crass, inarticulate buffoons intent on killing people. She hoped the call would be for her, but unfortunately it was Harry, Perry's boyfriend. Handing the phone over to Perry she then sat back down and tried not to make eye contact with the Marine. They sat in silence as Perry spoke on the phone. It was probably some of the most awkward few minutes of her life. She could hear the other girl attempting to close the conversation citing her brother's recent arrival. When Perry finally came back Ant simultaneously stood up.
"I think I'm going to go to bed now."
Perry furrowed her brows, "But it's only 10:30, on a Friday."
Ant shrugged, "I know, but I had a long day at work. I'm pretty tired."
Perry looked unconvinced but nodded anyway, "Ok then, good night."
Ant smiled, "Good night." Then she turned to Dorian. "Good night, it was nice meeting you. I hope we get to know each other better." She wasn't fooling anybody. Her voice was so cool that Dorian felt the frost in her voice.
"I have a feeling we'll get to know each other very well," he told her from the couch, voice clean and even.
"See you guys tomorrow." Then she walked towards her bedroom. She heard their whispers as she walked away and so childlishly stood in the hallway, out of their sight, to listen to what they were saying.
"I told you to behave." Ant's lips hooked into a smile. It was typical of Perry to be so anti-confrontation. That girl didn't know how to handle tension. It was probably why she was so like-able because she was always appeasing everybody -- so mindful of avoiding offence, intended or otherwise.
"I know, but she's too easy."
Ant's smile fell. So he was just playing with her. She walked quietly to her room and got ready for bed. She had resolved to play whatever game he seemed to be intent on playing with her. His behaviour when she arrived home that afternoon was probably his way of sussing out his enemy. Now that he had engaged her in to some friendly fire he better knew his opponent. Well, Mr. Dorian Bell, game on.
- o -