Tiger at the Gate
In retrospect, Flint thought, he really should have listened to Clutch.
Which, he had to admit, wasn't a thought that he'd imagined would ever cross his mind.
It had all just seemed so harmless at first, though. That little prank war that Scarlett and Jaye had going was so innocent—kind of cute, actually. And when Jaye asked him for his help getting some gum resin to stick together the quarrels in Scarlett's practice quiver, he'd barely even blinked.
Flint was honest enough to admit to himself that his gleeful agreement had a lot to do with Jaye being, well, Jaye, and just the way her eyes had twinkled when she'd asked… and maybe a little to do with Scarlett blowing him off the way she had, back when he'd first joined the team. Well, how exactly had he been supposed to know that she was taken? It wasn't as if she wore a ring on her finger, or fawned all over anyone—just the idea made him smirk, now that he knew her a little better.
Yes, Scarlett was smart. Yes, she was a good soldier. Yes, she was the kind of fiercely independent woman that he actually admired, generally speaking. But he hadn't known any of that at the time—really, all he'd known was that he'd joined a team with a smoking hot green-eyed redhead who spoke with a sweetheart Georgia lilt. And wore Spandex… by choice.
Flint liked long, brilliant hair, and green eyes. He definitely liked Spandex.
(Had he ever thought that there would be a day when he'd find his fingers itching to comb through short, tousled brown elflocks, and peel shapeless BDUs off smooth, olive-touched skin? A day when just the sight of a small, pert nose sun-sprinkled with a few small freckles, crinkling as she smiled her mischievous smile, made him catch his breath? A day when a pair of brown eyes looking at him narrowed with disappointment could actually make his heart skitter like a Kafka metaphor?)
(Nope. No, no, and no.)
Scarlett, in return, made it clear that she was Not Available. Loudly, and very, very clearly. Which was just totally unnecessary, but… fine. He'd backed off, hadn't he? It wasn't something he was ever going to lose sleep over. Sure, maybe he'd had just a little head-scratch and a little snicker over the fact that the guy who'd taken Scarlett off the dating pool turned out to be a tall, stalkerish-looking quiet guy in a trench coat and sunglasses, but he'd backed off.
Okay, no, quiet didn't even begin to describe it. Scarlett talked a fair bit, yes, but Flint didn't think he'd ever seen her man even make a noise! Not even a 'Hey,' or a 'You look beautiful' when they saw each other.
But Scarlett's boyfriend wasn't really around much—pretty much the only times he'd ever spotted the blond were when the guy picked up Scarlett at the entrance to the Motor Pool to escort her off-base. Flint actually felt a little sorry for the man—what with their schedules, Flint suspected that Scarlett spent a lot more time hanging around Snake-Eyes and the rest of the commando/intel forces than going anywhere with her guy.
Truthfully? No, he'd never been serious about Scarlett. Of course not, and it was a little insulting that she'd ever thought he was. She was enlisted, he was a Warrant Officer; his job mattered more to him than even the hottest female, and she was nice-looking, but not even the flashiest pair of green eyes were worth risking that. Mostly, he'd flirted with her because she was pretty, and she was there, and he'd always thought flirting with a pretty lady was fun.
But no guy liked to be blown off, and especially not when the blowing-off had involved things like totally unwarranted insults to his manhood, and her boot impacting against his shoulder—though the boot wasn't actually on her foot at the time, and he had to admit, knowing her the way he did now, that he was glad for that.
Flirting with Scarlett, it turned out, was not much fun. She really didn't have much of a sense of humor where it was concerned.
Then Flint discovered a slim, gloriously smart firecracker of a corporal with a mouth made for kisses and a right hook made to take down giants, and… well. He'd known it was lust just looking at her—which was funny, because slim and boyish, brunette and pixie-eyed, really wasn't his type—and love the first time he'd caught her reading Ezra Pound.
Which was pretty hilarious, because he hated Ezra Pound.
Dashiell Faireborn knew just how lucky he was to be a Joe, because… because he had this sinking feeling that if it had come to the choice between his career and his Lady Jaye…
Well, but it hadn't. Thank God, it hadn't. As long as they were quiet about it, and they kept their private time together off the base, anyway. Or… mostly off the base.
Yeah, he and Allison were happy together—very happy, actually. Even when they weren't happy. Even when they were fighting.
But he still had to admit that when Jaye asked if he would maybe help her out just a little in that so-called 'innocent' game she and Scarlett had going, just to give her a bit of an edge… Flint had been delighted to help. A little more delighted than he ordinarily would have been even from his fierce, independent Lady Jaye actually asking him for a hand.
So he helped her smear resin on Scarlett's crossbow bolts, and… well… Flint knew that he wasn't as good an actor as Jaye was. He'd never needed to be, dammit! And when Scarlett reached into her practice quiver for that first quarrel, and it'd stuck right onto her gloves… how, exactly, was he not supposed to laugh at that? Just the look on her face, and the way she'd tried so frantically to shake the thing off her hand…
Would he have done anything differently if he'd known beforehand that Jaye was going to challenge Scarlett to a speed-shooting competition—javelin against crossbow? Well… maybe. Okay, Flint was honest enough with himself to admit he felt a little badly about that.
And he hadn't known that there were terms to the challenge—a wager on the line, so to speak. But it was too late, now.
Not that he was really complaining. Flint wasn't that stupid.
Allison was in a really excellent mood. Allison had a full week without her assigned night duty patrol. Allison, apparently, felt he'd played a pretty critical part in the fact that she wasn't stuck at the monitors, and… damn, but his pretty actress had a definition of 'reward' that only an idiot would argue with!
Flint had to admit that of all the girls he'd dated, it was definitely the first time he'd spent the better part of a week—yes, a week, God, he loved it, but where did the girl get the energy!—being very much thanked for… well… not pretty trinkets, or charming words, or a run of poetry, but for… um… well…
'Sabotage' seemed like such a harsh word, seriously.
It was just a little harmless fun, wasn't it? And, to be frank, he thought that Scarlett should have known something was up: Flint admired Jaye's weapon of choice, with its combination of very traditional roots and very modern styling, but… even when they were hand-loading, Scarlett's crossbow still fired four quarrels to every one of Jaye's javelins.
And sure, that virus that had popped pornographic sites—gay pornographic sites!—up all over Allison's computer had been kind of funny—and Allison was still trying to clear the hard drive of the pictures that had autosaved into all her folders… but he couldn't let someone—even a fellow teammate—get away with messing with his woman, could he?
So when his next 'assignment' involved disconnecting Scarlett's car battery—while Scarlett was in a meeting with Jaye—Flint took it willingly. Even though he almost knocked himself out on the hood when he heard a "With all due respect, Flint… care to explain what the Hell you're doing?" from behind him.
Flint rubbed the back of his head and gave Clutch a sheepish smile. "Just a favor for Jaye. You know how it is."
He fully expected that Clutch, of all people, would be the one who'd wink and laugh and look the other way. It wasn't that he didn't think the mechanic was honorable, but… well… Lance would definitely get, Flint was sure, just the sort of thing that a man would do for his woman. And maybe, a little bit, for his pride.
He did not expect Clutch to actually pale, under his scruff and a thin layer of motor oil.
"Ah, fuck, man, don't get involved in their little thing!" Clutch was giving him a look that was halfway concern, but halfway… was that fear? "You do not want to be involved."
Flint finished disconnecting the battery and gently laid the hood on Scarlett's Honda back down. "Why not?"
"Have you got a death wish?" Clutch demanded. "You do not know who you're screwing with, man."
Flint laughed. "I'm not scared of Scarlett, Clutch. What's she going to do, pull my file?" And she wouldn't—he wasn't the only one with pride.
That was the prototypical hairy eyeball, right there. "You think I'm talking about Red? Then you do have a death wish," Clutch muttered, before he slung his kit over his shoulder, shaking his head as he walked away. "Nice knowin' you, man, seriously."
Flint got the first inkling that maybe this had been a really, really, really bad idea the first time he woke up, went to the bathroom, looked at his face in the mirror… or tried to look at his face in the mirror.
And he couldn't.
Because his bathroom mirror had been covered, every inch of it, in blood, still dripping thick and wet off the corners, down the wall, and pooling on the white porcelain of the sink.
(Contrary to what Duke said, he hadn't shrieked. It'd been… more of a roar. Come on, anyone would have been surprised at that! And so what if it'd actually been tomato paste thinned with oyster sauce, or something—it'd looked real! Conrad wouldn't have been so amused if it'd happened to him!)
Creepy. Very, very, very creepy.
Almost as creepy as waking up to heavy footsteps—and opening his eyes, jerking upright, to find himself staring at a big shadowy figure sitting up against the wall, details of a white face blurred, lit only by a of white candle.
He didn't think his service-issue had ever cleared its holster so fast—and it was only three shots in that he realized that the 'figure' was now fragmented into about a dozen crystalline reflections, and the candle was guttering with the force of the bullets splitting the air above it.
A mirror. A goddamned mirror, with a lit candle at his bedside table, angled just so, and he'd been shooting at his own damned reflection.
Duke was not amused, this time.
Dash was even less amused by the fact that Scarlett had gotten into his room, lit a candle, and hung a mirror on his wall, and how the Hell had she managed to do that? Sure, she could move quietly enough—almost quietly enough to keep up with the ninja, he'd seen her on the job—but no-one was that quiet!
Flint started inspecting his food very carefully, after that.
But then there was the coarse sand that appeared in Jaye's bed—and the coarse gravel that was suddenly in his, when they moved over to his room. The perfectly new, untouched tube of toothpaste, right out of the box, that turned out to be, at his best guess, denture paste. And the time that he and Jaye had headed out to the target range for practice… and both their guns fell apart in their hands the moment they pulled the triggers.
He wasn't even surprised anymore when he tried to use the electronic lock to open his car… and found that the batteries had gone missing from his car keys.
Even though they'd been in his pocket the entire day.
Damn it, he should have known that there was something going on when Scarlett had bumped into him in the mess hall that afternoon… but how had she gotten the keys back into his pocket?
She, Flint thought, grimly, was making this really, really personal, and damn it, when had she gotten so sneaky, anyway? It was more than a little annoying—not just because he and Jaye were losing against a single Counterintelligence specialist—but… where exactly had she learned all of these tricks? Yes, Scarlett had some training that none of the rest of them did—law school, CIA—but… she wasn't the only one with experience. Lawyers were slimy, but they just weren't physically sneaky, and CIA spooks weren't this smooth!
The last straw was his beret. The beret that he'd put down on the vaulting horse for just a second, just so he could wipe some sweat off his forehead, before slapping it back on. Just for a second. Literally.
The beret that he then couldn't get off.
The beret that he was still tugging at when she walked into the gym.
"I hope you're happy," Flint growled, letting his hand fall. Yes, his forehead was starting to itch—wasn't that always the case? Murphy hadn't just been an optimist, he'd been a sadist—but damned if he'd let Scarlett see him trying to get his hat unstuck from his head. "Look, pax, okay, Red? You win. How did you do it, anyway? Last I saw you, you were heading towards the filing rooms!"
Scarlett gave him a startled look, sideways, and stopped wrapping boxing strips around her hands. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, don't give me that," he snarled. "Look, Scarlett, I get that I shouldn't have gotten involved in this thing that you and Jaye have going, but—come on, enough is enough!"
But she still looked surprised, and puzzled, and Flint trailed off, frowning. Scarlett was a decent enough actress, but she wasn't a really good one.
"Um…" She cocked her head. "Flint… Jaye and I called it 'truce' after I filed down the treads on her army boots." The treads on Jaye's… oh, and she'd slipped and gone flying on the floor rug. But then, both he and Allison looked inside their boots before putting them on, nowadays—he remembered that flypaper incident pretty vividly—but neither of them had known to look at the bottom of her boots. Yet. "Or… well…" her brows furrowed together into a narrow-eyed frown. "No, it was after she tapped that little hole in the bottom of my coffee cup. That's right."
Flint had to admit, he was proud of that one: both Jaye and Scarlett had gotten suspicious enough that they checked almost everything before using it. So he'd gotten the idea to drill a little hole in the bottom of Scarlett's coffee mug, and seal it with a little ball of wax and just a touch of white paint.
The wax had melted through—very nicely—about halfway through breakfast.
But… that had been almost a week ago! Sometime between his bathroom door being locked from the inside—even though he was outside it—and every light bulb in his room being unscrewed and put in a neat pile at the foot of his bed. While he was asleep. After he'd gone a day only eating things that he'd either unwrapped or prepared with his own two damned hands.
"Then how the Hell did I manage to get my beret glued to my head?" Flint growled.
Flint was, in general, a man well aware of implications, interpretations. He had a very healthy respect for the English language, and all of its vagaries. He didn't always care to use them, necessarily—in his line of work, a good "MOVE, soldier!" worked as well as anything more erudite—but he did appreciate them.
In retrospect, there were probably a few ways he could have put it that didn't sound quite so… so…
Scarlett was lucky, Flint thought, as he looked down at where their beautiful redheaded Intelligence agent had curled up into a ball of out-and-out hysterics on the floor of the gym, howling so hard that she was hugging her knees and crying, that he really didn't hit women if he could help it.
"Oh, Flint—I guess… oh, God. I guess… the devil's in the… details?" Scarlett just answered, looking up at him, once she'd finished wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes. Or mostly finished. "Or maybe… well, I guess whoever made up that particular trope probably didn't know about ninja…"
That was it. She'd just gone plain old nuts, hadn't she? "The ninja's in the details? Or the devil's in the ninja? What do ninjas have to do with anything, and what the Hell does that even mean, Red?" Flint demanded, his hand going up to his beret so he could rake a hand through his hair in frustration, and—AGH!
"Both, and everything, and… um… behind, you, I guess," she chuckled, pushing herself back to her feet.
He didn't hear anything behind him. Actually, he barely felt the soft hint of air moving behind him—less breeze than the door made opening.
So when Scarlett nodded pointedly over his shoulder, and Flint turned suspiciously around, and found himself himself staring into a black balaclava and dark-tinted glasses six inches away—
Well, he might have made a bit of a fuss.
"Jesus!" he hissed—yanking his hand back after Snake-Eyes had neatly blocked the punch he'd automatically aimed at the man's face. "Don't you breathe, man?"
Snake-Eyes cocked his head.
Flint narrowed his eyes. He didn't know Snake well—he didn't think anybody knew Snake-Eyes well—but… was he… smirking?
"Huh. I guess Duke was right," Scarlett commented, musingly. "You do shriek."
Flint wasn't even going to dignify that with an answer. "Care to explain yourself, soldier?" he demanded, instead, lifting his chin to look into those glasses.
Snake-Eyes shrugged, and nodded, once, meaningfully—at Scarlett.
"What? Oh, don't you dare blame this on me." Scarlett, beside Flint, made a soft, growling noise and when he glanced at her—well, her hands had just gone up to her hips, and her lips were pursed in a definite frown. What was going on? "Didn't I tell you to stay out of it? And I do hope that's solvent-soluble glue, mister, or else you are in so much trouble…"
Flint's eyes narrowed.
Not Scarlett, then.
Which almost—almost—explained how the glue had gotten on it in the first place. Almost, because there was a grand total of nothing that surrounded the vaulting horse, so unless the man had simply appeared out from thin air…
He hadn't gotten good enough at sign language yet to understand exactly what Snake signed at their redhead—rapid-fire—but he was getting one thing very crystal clear: if Jaye had, in fact, realized that those little acts of domestic terrorism were being perpetuated by the damned ninja, not the redhead—and, given that he hadn't heard a word about this so-called 'truce,' he was suspecting she did… javelins or not, martial arts and Ranger training or not, he was going to turn that sassy little Massachusetts debutante over his knee!
"God, you're frustrating!" Scarlett growled at Snake, throwing up her hands. "No, you listen. No, I'll defend my own honor, thank you very much!"
Her… honor? Flint felt one of his eyebrows rise.
But when Snake-Eyes' hands flickered again… it wasn't Flint's imagination that Scarlett's green eyes softened, their shine gentler, like opals underwater. "Yes, I know you like doing it, but… okay. Okay. No, that's—well… as long as you know."
And it definitely wasn't his imagination that Snake-Eyes reached out and touched Scarlett's face with just the tips of his fingers—and shot Flint the nastiest look that he'd ever had shot at him, right through the goggles, before he walked away with that peculiar, gliding grace.
"Come on," Scarlett shook her head, sighing, her hands still on her hips as she stared after the ninja. "I've got some nail polish remover back in my quarters—that should do you."
"Is it working?" Flint finally asked, later, as Scarlett dabbed at his forehead with a bit of cotton wadding and some blue stuff that felt a lot like alcohol. Jaye, sitting cross-legged on Scarlett's bed, looked… well… he wouldn't call it apologetic.
Yeah, maybe his girlfriend was trying, but 'apologetic' didn't typically come with giggles, and yes, Flint was going to ignore her at least until she stopped snickering.
Scarlett gave her a scolding look. "It's coming off. That's something. This is exactly why I said not to get the guys involved! But no, you just had to win that badly, Allison—"
"Well…" but Allison actually did look a little sheepish, and less like she wanted to laugh. A very little. "I warned you I was competitive."
Which she was.
Scarlett yanked just a little too ungently. Ow. "Yes, and now look!"
Flint clapped a hand on his beret and glared at her. "What are you two going on about?"
"Nothing. I am sorry about this, Flint," Scarlett murmured, apologetically, her tugging taking off just a few less hair follicles. "Well… a little sorry, I guess… you were an asshole, poking your head in. But really, I didn't even know about it—I figured that some of you guys had started your own prank war."
"Yeah… I guess. Why are you sorry?" Flint sighed. "I mean… it really wasn't you?"
"Well…" Scarlett hesitated, then shook her head. "No. I only wish I were that good."
Yeah, so did Flint. Not that he was ever going to admit that.
Lady Jaye scratched the back of her head, once, and folded her hands around her knee, crossing her legs gently at the ankles. Flint's eyes narrowed—when Allison was sitting that properly, it was never a good sign… he suspected that the reason she'd even learned to sit like that was to get herself out of whatever trouble she'd cooked up as a child. "I guess… um… Dash, Snake-Eyes decided that if you were going to mess with Scarlett, he was going to mess with you."
"Hence why I'm sorry," Scarlett added, coaxing some hair out from under the brim. He had to admit, she was being gentler than he'd thought she'd be. "Snake has a hard time differentiating between 'messing with someone' and 'messing someone up.'"
"That doesn't even make sense." Flint frowned.
"Well, I just mean that he takes things a little too far sometimes—" Scarlett tugged, and he winced, but that little bit of the beret actually came unstuck from his forehead, and didn't take any hair with it that time… he hoped.
"No, trust me, that I get," he hoped his voice was properly dry, too. "But… seriously, Red, it's none of my business, but doesn't your boyfriend mind that you've got a ninja fighting your fights for you?" he asked, frowning. Strictly speaking, he was obviously in no position to be discussing anyone's frat reg violations—he wasn't even going near that particular can of annelids—but… "Or… I guess he doesn't know, does he?" Which was perfectly possible—he'd certainly never seen Snake-Eyes venturing outside the compound unless he was being unleashed upon Cobra.
"My… boyfriend?" Scarlett shook her head, smiling, and loading up the cotton ball again. He sighed and turned so she could get the next spot. "For one thing, I fight my own fights, thanks. And for another… I really don't know who you're talking about, Flint."
Flint snorted. "You know. Whenever you're all dressed up, there's a blond guy that always picks you up at the Motor Pool entrance." He nodded over at the small, framed picture on her desk—a blond man with his eyes in the shadow of a battered old hat, but his grin wide and white—Scarlett in civvies tucked against his bare chest. "Don't even pretend like it's a secret, Red, everyone knows about him."
"…uh… apparently not everyone," Jaye's voice sounded strangled by how hard she was trying not to laugh. Flint glared at his girlfriend. No… turning her over his knee was too good for her! "Dash, honey, um… you know that 'boyfriend' of Scarlett's?"
"Yeah?" he felt the last of the glue come unstuck, taking just a little skin with it, and winced—but he raised a hand to his—thankfully bare—forehead.
"We all know him. You know him. He normally runs around here in a black mask, dark glasses, and a commando outfit."
Flint blinked, once—then squeezed his eyes shut. "Allison?"
Her voice was small. "Yes, Dash?"
"When exactly were you going to provide me with this kind of crucial bit of Intel?"
In retrospect, he had to admit that it was kind of funny. And maybe a little scary. Just a little. He'd known he was tangling with a hard-hitter, yeah, but he hadn't known he was tangling with Snake-Eyes. He especially hadn't known that he was tangling with Snake-Eyes in his guise as the guy in Scarlett's life, not Snake-Eyes in his guise of the best damned Cobra-killer that Flint had ever met.
Jaye had her ankles crossed again. "Sweetheart, I really thought you knew. Like you said, um… everyone knows."
"Okay. Okay, I get that." He sighed, and shook his head, flaking a few bits of glue off his forehead. "Basically… you," he glanced at Allison, "got me involved. Not that it wasn't worth it or that I wouldn't have done it if I'd known, honey, but… then Scarlett got the ninja involved? That's… fair, I guess." Well, no, it wasn't actually any kind of fair—Flint didn't possess any false modesty, but he fully maintained he was a fair and honest judge of his own excellent capabilities, and he'd been feeling for the past few weeks like there was a poltergeist following him around the damned Pit.
"Actually, I really didn't," Scarlett shrugged. "Snakes… he, well… he has this thing."
That didn't sound good. "This… thing?"
"Well, I've been hit on by pretty much every guy here but Stalker and Hawk," Flint had to admit that it was sort of amusing and just a little creepy that she could say that so frankly, and with such a straight face. "And he hates that I never let him take care of it. That I never let him, well, defend my honor, I guess. He calls it 'boyfriend rights.'"
Okay, yeah, Flint actually got that, too. He got that very well. Apparently that bad habit was a Joe girl trait, because the last time he'd gone off on a guy hitting on Jaye, he'd slept alone for a week. It was just bizarre to think of Snake-Eyes having normal guy reactions, though. "So?"
"So… he might be holding a bit of a grudge." She flashed him an apologetic grin. "I might have told him that I thought you were cute. You know, back when you joined the team. This whole thing with you and Jaye both picking on me was kind of the last straw."
Flint stared at her. Sure, he liked the fact that she'd thought he was cute—who wouldn't? And the idea of the ninja defending Scarlett's honor was… okay, he'd admit it, it would have been very funny if it'd been happening to anyone else. But it wasn't. "That's a whole lot of 'mights,'" he muttered. "Call him off, will you?"
That was when Scarlett smiled at him. Slowly. Evilly.
And purred, in a deep, soft rumble that sang with Georgia peaches and afternoon thunderstorms, "Actually… I don't think I will."
Lady Jaye sat bolt-upright on the bed.
Flint stared. "Say… what, again?"
"You really should have known better than to up the stakes, Flint… you really, really should have," she drawled. Scarlett cocked her head and tossed him his beret. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a certain blond ninja to kiss silly."
The room was silent for a long, long time after she'd walked out, whistling Dixie softly underneath her breath.
Okay… so… the devil wasn't in the details. The devil was in the damned redhead.
Flint turned and stared at his beautiful, bright, rather embarrassed-looking girlfriend. "I don't think the ninja's the only one who holds a grudge, Allison," he growled. "You were planning to tell me this… when, exactly?"
"Ah…" she flashed him a quick, sheepish smile, "I think you just figured that one out all on your own?"
Flint groaned, and lowered his face into his hands.
He really, really, really should have listened to Clutch.
Start: August 14, 2009
End: August 15, 2009
The title for this comes from a Japanese saying, "A tiger at the gate and a wolf at the back door;" otherwise known as 'out of the frying pan, into the fire…'