Author's Note:

I'd like to thank Aspergian Mind for providing the original idea for this story.

Regarding what female Sangheili look like:

I started writing stories, with female characters, prior to the release of "The Duel". At the time I'd established that male and female Sangheili look much alike, save for the fact that the females tend to be smaller, leaner, with wider hips, and that the species distinguished one another's genders by scent more than sight.

I don't feel that "The Duel" entirely negates my theory – like humans, I'm sure there's a variance in appearance, from the very butch (Fil Storamy) to the very feminine (Han) and a whole range in between. And, of course, it would be more challenging for a Human being to tell a female Sangheili from a male, particularly if the lady was in armour…

Rules of Engagement

Chapter the Second

Major Evan Doucette had just recovered his equilibrium when Lak's statement knocked his world akilter once again.

He didn't know any female Sangheili. He'd never seen any female Sangheili, as far as he knew. How could he have already been introduced to his would-be bride?

Oh, God. As far as he knew.

The door slid open behind him. Lak smiled at someone standing in the corridor.

Evan wanted more time to come to terms with the bombshell Lak had dropped on him, but since he wasn't going to get it, he looked over his shoulder, half-expecting to see a lady Sangheili in a white veil.

Instead, he saw his chief of security, Relu 'Chavam, holding his plasma pike with its sharp, glistening head pointed towards the roof. Although his stance was "at ease," he seemed agitated. His eyes met Evan's and darted away.

"I have given Major Doucette the news," Lak said quietly.

Relu strode into the room. The glow of the overhead lights sent a soft gleam over the Security Chief's orange armour. Evan guessed that the short, smooth helmet and plated armour guards signified 'Chavam's former position as the Chavam Keep's Captain of the Guard, as opposed to the combat, assault, and flight armour worn by the military Sangheili. But, of course, he was only guessing.

Relu didn't talk much. The Captain was a consummate professional; Evan had no choice but to be impressed by his tactical cleverness, fighting ability, and attention to even the most minute detail. But Relu had apparently been shortchanged in the social skills department. He rarely spoke to Evan, and seemed uncomfortable talking to him—and he spoke even less to the other Sangheili. Relu was worlds apart from Evan's other bodyguard, Lor'n 'Malach, who loved to chat about everything. Lor'n happily listened to Evan for hours and who was overflowing with questions about Earth. The result was that Evan considered Lor'n a friend, whereas Relu was merely a respected associate.

Relu stepped forward into the room. "And?" The door closed behind him.

Lak winced; Evan was astonished to see the elderly Sangheili close his eyes as though in pain. "I am about to inform him as to the Council's choice for his wife."

"Which isn't going to mean anything to me as I've never even met a female Sangheili," Evan added sarcastically, because as his shock wore off he found himself beginning to feel more than a little angry at being railroaded into an alien marriage.

His Chief of Security blinked at him and said quietly, "Can you not tell?"

"He cannot smell the difference," Lak murmured. "Their noses are not as highly developed as ours."

Relu flared his short, stubby mandibles and quivered, giving off all the signs that Evan had come to learn meant agitated Sangheili. And Evan was beginning to feel more than a little agitated himself, as suspicion began to bubble up from his subconscious. He glared at Lak, silently demanding an answer to the question still forming in his mind.

"Home Guard ranks," Lak said softly, "are the providence of females."

Captain of the…

"Relu is a female?" he choked out, dumbly.

Lak nodded.

"I'm gonna marry Relu?!" Evan blurted.

The elderly male bowed his head. "If you will accept her."

The very idea rocked him. He had never thought of his chief bodyguard as marriage material. He had never thought of his chief bodyguard as more than a fellow soldier.

He had never thought of his chief bodyguard as a woman.

He whipped his head around to stare at the Sangheili in question. Relu had also stilled, and was now standing before him, head lowered, eyes shut, and a single shining drop of liquid on her left cheek…

Oh, God, don't tell me they can cry.

"Relu?" he said gently.

The Captain of the Guard opened one eye—the dry one.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know…" How did a person make an apology like this? "Didn't know you were a female."

Yep. Sorry I got your gender wrong sounded stupid no matter how you said it.

"Apology accepted," Relu murmured. She…and Evan had been calling Relu "he" all this time…she stood there as though before an executioner.

"You don't look happy about this," he guessed, and it gave him a strange empathy for her even as he felt relieved that she was not some kind of perverse alien predator, pursuing him.

"Are you declining the engagement?" she said, her words clipped.

Oh, and there was a loaded question. Did she want him to say yes? He sure as hell didn't want to marry her, but Lak had already made it clear what a Sangheili/Human marriage would mean. If not her, then who? He did not want to decline Relu only to have a less palatable option present itself.

"I am still deciding," he replied.

Her eyes opened. "I told Lak you called me a male to taunt me," she said sharply. "I was certain you would object to this arrangement. I was loath to believe you truly could not distinguish the genders."

Evan shook his head. "You are smaller than most of the warriors," he replied slowly, "and your armour's different, but…" His words trailed off and he shrugged helplessly. "I don't know anything about you…your people. I…." God, he felt like a colossal idiot. "I've been inadvertently insulting my future wife all this time." Suddenly angry, he glared at her. "You could have told me, you know."

Relu was silent.

"Our senses of smell aren't that good," Evan babbled. "You look…to me, aside from the armour and your height, you look the same as the males." He looked to Lak for help.

"A female's hips are broader and belly rounder," Lak said, "for carriage of the eggs." He lapped at the tips of his mandibles. "But yes, our females do not have the same obvious outward physical distinctions that your females possess, and I reminded Relu that you are not yet familiar enough with us to recognize the difference between male and female clothing."

Evan barely heard the end of the speech. His brain had just cut to an image of himself and his silent, standoffish Captain of the Guard naked in bed together, and he wasn't enjoying it half as much as the thought of himself in bed with that cute xenobiologist on his embassy staff, or for that matter, his IT chief and his chef's assistant weren't bad looking either…

Thinking about embassy roles brought another question to his mind. "But Relu's my chief bodyguard," Evan said weakly. "Is it all right for me to marry her?" Such a relationship would be completely forbidden between a Human ambassador and his Human security personnel.

"Of course," Lak replied, looking pleased with himself. "You will require constant protection. Who better to provide it than your wife, with whom you are to live regardless? Why choose a weak female—one more person for your staff to protect—when we could choose the captain of that staff? You will find that she is exceedingly efficient at ensuring your safety, even more so without the follies of a wife without combat training interfering with her decisions."

Evan's head reeled. One couldn't accuse the Sangheili of failing to be practical...

Relu was still watching him and it occurred to him that he had no idea whatsoever how she felt about this situation.

"Relu. Can I…" Evan racked his brain trying to think if there was some kind of Sangheili prohibition against what he would consider a date. Unable to think of anything, he went ahead and asked. "Before I make my decision, I need to speak with you. Can I take you out to dinner tonight?"

Relu blinked. "Out where? What is wrong with the mess hall?"

Evan suddenly felt like he was eleven years old and trying to ask a girl to dance with him at his first middle school dance. "Uh…somewhere private, where we can eat and talk without everyone watching us?"

She considered that, then nodded abruptly. "Agreed."

And they were left staring at one another.

Relu, surprisingly, broke the silence. "I take it to mean you are planning something in your private quarters."

He hadn't thought that far ahead, but truth be told, there weren't really that many other suitably private places on the ship, and if he was the one asking her, he ought to be the one doing the setup work. "Yes."

"Accepted. I will see you at the supper hour."

Evan hoped Relu wouldn't be so coldly businesslike during their meal. He couldn't imagine life married to such a hard and unemotional being. Weren't Sangheili females supposed to be soft, graceful and nurturing? Wasn't that the reason they weren't allowed to fight? Maybe some other candidate would be better than Relu 'Chavam after all.

"If you will excuse me," Relu said more quietly, "I have duties to perform. Your security staff candidates must be evaluated, and the most successful chosen, before we land on Sanghelios."

Evan nodded, and Relu exited the room.

Lak beamed. "This seems to be going well. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to assist you."

"Yeah," Evan growled. "You can give me some advance warning next time." He got up and stalked out.

How was he ever going to figure out what Relu was thinking? He still felt confused with Human females sometimes. Sangheili females were an utter enigma. He needed advice, and not from an elderly male like Lak.

Evan went in search of Lor'n.

*

"I need you to tell me about females," Evan said as he sat across from Lor'n 'Malach in the mess hall. Evan munched on potato chips from out of a sealed bag he'd brought with him from Earth. His stomach protested; the idea of marrying Relu was threatening to nauseate him, but he had to eat something. He couldn't let this marriage fiasco overwhelm him.

Lor'n chucked and winked his one remaining eye. "What do you want to know?" he asked, in a leering voice that made it sound like an innuendo, and set Evan laughing. Lor'n joined in, his bass chuckle providing counterpoint to Evan's tenor.

"I want to know about Relu," he clarified, and Lor'n's laughter suddenly died in his throat.

"Lak gave you the good news, I see," Lor'n said quietly.

"Yeah." Evan shot the Sangheili a suspicious look. "Is this the sort of thing everyone on the ship knows but me?"

"No. The official announcement will be made upon our arrival on Sanghelios. Lak…spoke to me, Evan. He asked me for guidance on how you would react."

Evan tried to tamp down the feeling of betrayal welling in him. "You could have given me a heads up."

"You are a warrior, as am I," Lor'n retorted. "Lak swore me to secrecy. Would you defy an order from your commanders, to give such a warning to me?"

The Sangheili had a point. Lord Hood had given Evan and his entire team orders to collect information on the Sangheili—information that Humanity could use if the alliance ever came apart. He could hardly blame Lor'n for doing the same. And yet…

"Surely you understand that I must be able to trust my own security team. This is not simply a matter of chain of command. When I am on your planet, my life is in your hands. I intent to speak to Lak and ensure that your loyalty is to me first, from the second we land on Sanghelios. I understand if your people are….learning about Humans…by which I mean gathering intelligence," he clarified. It was too hard to be subtle with aliens. "But not you, and not my other security team members. I feel I will have trouble enough sorting out my relationship with Relu. I do not need to have your loyalty in question as well."

Lor'n sat, unresisting. "It will be done."

Evan couldn't be too angry with him. Knowing in advance would have done very little to change the outcome so far. Except…

"You could have told me Relu was a female."

"I thought you were complimenting her."

"Excuse me?"

"By calling her a male? A rare compliment indeed for a Home Guard."

"I don't think she took it that way." He hesitated a moment, "I think she hates me, and she doesn't seem to like anyone else much better. Am I misreading that?"

Lor'n toyed with his claws. "Relu is a highly qualified security chief…"

Evan touched the Sangheili's wrist. Lor'n looked up, startled. "I'm not asking about her qualifications," Evan said firmly. "That isn't in doubt. I'm asking about her personality. She hasn't been easy to get to know."

Lor'n sighed. "She is a female in a position many consider better suited to a male. In my more generous moods, I choose to believe that she would rather be respected than liked. It is probably a wise decision on her part, but it demands a certain…distance…from the rest of us."

"So what you're telling me is that nobody on this ship knows her any better than I do."

"And there are many warriors who resent taking their orders from a female."

Evan took a deep breath. He knew the Sangheili society was sexist, but… "How does that work? The Home Guards?"

"All male Sangheili who can pass War College join our military. All male Sangheili who cannot join the serfs in the fields and factories."

Evan nodded his understanding.

"Since the formation of the Covenant, the Sangheili military has fought offworld, away from Sanghelios. But we are a people of ancient rivalries and deep-rooted feuds. The Covenant could not end the old animosity between the keeps. Our leaders wanted warriors to defend the keeps. The Prophets wanted every male they could get in the Covenant army. As a result, the more martial-minded of our females became our Home Guard, commanding a militia of females supplanted with injured ex-warriors who were still fit to fight."

"And she's accomplished."

"Very much so, for a female. And she is from an ancient family, with more than one Arbiter in their line."

Evan was still trying to decide whether Relu would be considered a "catch". She had the bloodline and the political prowess for it, but…. "Do you think she's pretty? Is she your type?"

Lor'n snorted. "Not in the least. Should I ever wish to marry, I will wed a slender, soft female, a gracious hostess, a charming entertainer, a doting mother. Someone who will soothe me after a day of labour, raise my children, and make me the envy of my family and friends." Lor'n folded his arms. "Unlike some injured warriors, I have a job working for you, and as a result, I need not accept wedding offers in order to sustain myself. I will wait for a woman who pleases me, or…" He grinned. "Or I can simply spend my days mating with whoever catches my fancy."

Great, Evan thought. He'd gotten an aristocratic, successful, dog woman.

Then again, just because Lor'n didn't go for her type didn't mean no one else would. "Does she have a boyfriend?"

"I do not know much about her friends."

"Wait. Let me put that in Sangheili language… Does she have a, er, bondmate? Or a consort?"

Lor'n snorted. "What male would want her?" He fidgeted once the words were out of his mouth, clearly uncomfortable. "If you were hoping to make our males jealous, I fear you will fail. Relu….to mate with one such as Relu, you might as well be mating with another male." Lor'n snorted. "Males will suffice when females are not available, but for a life partner I would really rather a female who looks and acts the part."

"I wonder if she's in love with anyone." For all he knew, Relu liked females.

Lor'n shrugged his ignorance.

He was beginning to realize that he knew next to nothing about her, including why she was marrying him. What if she thought Humans were sexually attractive? What if she were being forced into this just as he was? He couldn't imagine which option was worse. But he hated to imagine Relu having a lover, either male or female, who would grieve to discover that Relu had been promised to him by the Sangheili High Council.

"If you want to know how to court her, or how to please her, I can tell you these things," Lor'n said. "I only wish I could tell you that I envied you."

"Duty's a bitch," Evan muttered.

"Indeed." Lor'n reached out to Evan's bowl and snagged a potato chip. Evan watched in disgusted fascination as Lor'n's mandibles shattered the chip and a slurping inhalation sucked the fragments into the Sangheili's throat.

"I thought you only ate once a day."

"Ideally." The Sangheili looked guilty. "I like snacks."

Evan sighed. "So what should I feed Relu tonight?"

The Sangheili smiled. "I will help you get a bloody carcass."

"Hilarious, Lor'n. I'm trying to get her to not hate me, remember?"

Lor'n blinked. "A fresh kill is the traditional offering from a male to the female he desires."

"Oh."

"You put it in your mouth, like so…" Lor'n grabbed the bag of chips and shoved it in his mandibles to demonstrate. Evan decided that with half the bag covered in Sangheili drool, Lor'n could keep it.

His bodyguard took the bag out of his mouth to continue. "Then she eats from one end, you eat from the other and you meet in the middle."

"A bloody carcass."

Lor'n nodded.

"A raw, bloody carcass."

Lor'n nodded again.

"With bones in it."

Lor'n continued to watch him expectantly.

"Even if my teeth could handle bones, Lor'n, I'm not about to eat raw alien meat."

A disgusting thought crossed his mind and he forced it away.

Lor'n completely missed any possible reference to sexual acts, which Evan attributed to ignorance of slang as opposed to any kind of tact on the Sangheili's part. "Do you want to court her or not?" he demanded.

Evan sighed. "I hope a rare steak will do."

*

The steak was as rare as Evan could stand it, which meant it was still pink and sitting on his plate in a puddle of red juice. For a man who preferred his meat well-done, the idea of eating the thing was less than appealing, but if he insisted that Relu eat cooked food, he had to compromise somewhere.

There was a knock on the door.

"Come in," he said, his voice shaky with nerves. He picked up the steak in both hands, certain he was going to look ridiculous.

The door opened, revealing Relu, every inch the perfect soldier as she stood there with her energy pike. She stepped forward into the room. "You wished to see…."

Evan stuffed the steak into his mouth.

The pike fell from Relu's hands as the door closed behind her.

He spat out the steak and let it fall onto his plate with a splash. "I'm sorry, I…"

Relu stared at him, her eyes huge. "Are you courting me?"

"I'm trying to," Evan admitted. "I guess I'm not doing a very good job of it."

Relu bolted to the table, ignoring her fallen staff. "No…continue…please."

Evan picked up the steak. "Just be careful. You've got some pretty impressive teeth and my hide's not as thick as yours."

No sooner did he have it in his jaws than Relu began to flail the other end with her mandibles. The sight of all those flying fangs unnerved him, and if he were to bite through this steak, he would drop it, because he didn't have two jaws to grip it and another two to chew it with. He raised his hands, cautiously, in order to take a mouthful of meat.

Relu was still watching him intently despite the speed at which she devoured the steak. She placed her own hands over his and slowed her eating. Still, by the time Evan had managed a few more bites, Relu had devoured most of the rest of the meat.

"Do you want the rest?" he asked.

Her face actually purpled. "May I?" God, was that a Sangheili blush?

He didn't have the heart to tell her he still didn't like rare steak. He surrendered the meat, pulling his hands out from beneath hers. "Knock yourself out."

She tilted her head, peered at him.

"It's an expression that means to go ahead."

Relu squinted her eyes happily and wolfed down the rest of the meat. She swallowed one last gulp and sat back in her chair, still beaming. A thick thrumming sound filled the air…was she purring?

Evan was deeply torn. On one hand, he didn't want to be too nice to her—he didn't want to marry her, and that was a fact. On the other hand, it was hardly her fault that he did not find her appealing, and if she was as unwilling as he, then it was not fair for him to take out his frustrations on her.

Before he could know how to proceed, he had to know where she stood.

"I wanted to ask you what you thought about…" He licked his lips; his mouth was suddenly dry. "Our upcoming marriage."

She tilted her head, watching him through enigmatic amber eyes. He wondered if another Sangheili could read her body language. He was hopelessly lost.

"I want you to be honest with me. We need to know where the other stands so that we can make a good decision about what to do next. I don't want you to lie in an attempt to please me; both of our futures are at stake here. You're a soldier, like me—you surely understand the value of accurate intelligence information."

He watched her eyes grow huge. He wondered what he had said to provoke that reaction. She sat, silent, as though stunned.

There was no kind way to say it so he spit it out. "Are you being forced into this arrangement against your will?"

She leaned forward. "If you are asking are you my ideal mate, no, in all honesty, you are not, but if you are asking whether I was coerced, the answer is no." Her eyes stared into his. "I volunteered."