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A Turn of the Wheel

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"That was the first phase of the treatment, Doctor."

 

I. Spring

 

          Harrison Blackwood smiled as he put the final touches on the large bouquet of flowers he'd collected from the Cottage grounds.  He'd forgotten how much he liked spring.  Pausing, a shadow passed over the man's handsome face.  It was easy to forget beauty when you were fighting a war, even a covert one.  I won't let this destroy me, he promised himself.  I can't.  And with Paul there… I don't think it can.

          He added the last two daisies, and stepped back to inspect the colorful spectacle he'd created.  It was slightly wild and rebellious, crowding the large vase and threatening to spill out across the highly polished surface of the oak desk.  Blackwood grinned.  It was perfect.

          Dropping into the leather chair near the window, he steepled his fingers and waited.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse entered the Cottage preoccupied.  He'd been called away from the safe house and told to report to the Base Commander's office at Ft. Streeter.  When he'd arrived, the General had invited him to sit and then proceeded to waste two hours of the colonel's time with small talk.  Granted, Ft. Streeter housed half of the Colonel's elite Omega Squad unit, but there really wasn't a point to the visit that the man could fathom.  He sighed.  Leave it to the brass to feel the need to 'chat.'  He had better things to do!

          Heading directly for his office, the Colonel froze as soon as he stepped into the room, stunned to find a huge vase full of wildflowers sitting in the center of his desk.

          A voice drifted up from behind the colorful barrier.  "Welcome back.  Have a nice talk with General Borgsen?"

          The colonel moved into the room, closing the door behind him.  "Harrison, what the hell is this?"

          The soldier circled the desk, watching the arrangement as if it was about to attack.

          Blackwood chuckled.  "Wonderful, aren't they?"  The astrophysicist stood.  "It's spring, Paul.  Enjoy it a little.  Relax.  The aliens have been quiet."

          Ironhorse's head came up, his black eyes searching Blackwood's blue.  "Doctor, is there something wrong?"

          Harrison laughed.  "No.  Paul, I just picked these for you, to… brighten up your day, as the old saying goes."

          Ironhorse looked back at the flowers.  It did look like the scientist's work, disorganized, but still aesthetic somehow.  He felt his cheeks darken.  "Uh, thank you, Harrison," he said.  "No one's ever given me flowers before."

          "What?" the man asked, stepping closer.  "That's terrible, Paul.  Flowers are balm for a tired soul."

          "That sounds like something Sylvia would say," Ironhorse muttered.

          Harrison smiled.  "It was."

          The right side of Ironhorse's mouth tilted into a crooked smile.  "I like it."

          "I'm glad."  Blackwood let his hand rise and rest on the man's shoulder.  He squeezed.  "Thank you."

          "For what, Doctor?"

          "For being another kind of balm for a tired soul…"  Harrison let his voice fall off to a whisper.  "And God knows sometimes I'm so tired."

          Ironhorse turned slightly and drew the taller man into a tight hug.  "I know it's hard, Harrison, but you just have to keep going.  We will win this thing."

          Blackwood let his hands rub up and down the back of the cammo battle dress uniform.  "I know.  It just scares me when I forget what the flowers look like in the spring."

          Ironhorse let one hand stray into the curly, light-brown hair.  "You feel too much, Harrison.  You have to learn to bend with it."

          Blackwood broke the contact, pulling back to stare at the arrangement.  "You realize I've destroyed the very beauty I wanted to preserve.  Those flowers are all going to die now."

          The colonel's hand rose to squeeze the scientist's shoulder.  "Beauty is transient.  We catch what glimpses we can and try to remember.  The flowers will die, Harrison, but not the joy they brought me."

          Blackwood turned to look at his lover.  "Do you always know what to say?"

          "No, but I do know you, Doctor."

          Blackwood smiled.  "Then how about applying some of that other balm?"

          Ironhorse drew the man into a gentle embrace, tightening his hold as their kiss deepened.  When they stepped back, he smiled up at Blackwood.  "That was the first phase of the treatment, Doctor."

          "Oh?" he grinned.  "Well, I can't wait to see what else you have in mind."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

II. Summer

 

          An unusually hot August sun had turned the cool, green landscape of the Cottage grounds dry and brown.  Harrison Blackwood paused under the broad leaves of a maple to survey the change, a frown marring his handsome features.  He wasn't fond of overly hot weather, and he especially hated having to exercise in it, but they were at war and he needed to stay in shape.  He steadfastly ignored the fact that he'd been injured less than a month earlier.  The doctor had cleared him to return to his routine exercise patterns, and Blackwood was determined to make the most of the lack of alien activity they were experiencing.

          Tugging his already sweat-dampened t-shirt up, Harrison wiped his face, but the moisture hiding in the curly light brown hair immediately slid down to replace what was removed.  After a final attack with the cotton garment, the astrophysicist continued his jog, heading for the Cottage property that ran along the Pacific coastline.  Maybe a morning ocean breeze would help cool him off.

          Reaching the shoreline, Blackwood stopped a second time, making sure he was in the shade of a large fig tree growing just beyond the sand.  The deep blue of the ocean broke easily on the shore and a few gulls paraded along the wet sand, looking for any morsels the retreating waves might deposit for their breakfast.  A light breeze picked up, and Blackwood smiled.

          Bending over slightly, the scientist rested his hands on his knees, catching his breath while he watched the rhythm of nature.  Lost in thought, he didn't hear the approaching soldier until Ironhorse halted his own jog.  "What's the matter, Doctor?  Too hot for you?"

          Harrison started slightly, but turned to the colonel with a sheepish grin.  "No, Paul, it's not too hot for me, just too hot for jogging."

          The right side of Ironhorse's mouth tilted into a crooked grin.  "Sounds like a civilian."

          "I am a civilian," Blackwood reminded the man, not missing the humor bouncing in the black eyes.  "And I suppose you're almost finished with your twenty mile marathon?"

          "Six miles, Doctor."

          "My mistake," Blackwood smiled.

          "What are you doing down here anyway?"

          Harrison looked back out at the Pacific.  "Looking for a breeze, Colonel.  But now that I'm here, I think a swim might be in order.  Care to join me?"

          Twin black eyebrows climbed suspiciously.  "A swim?"

          "Yes, Paul, you know, when you enter the water, kick your feet and move your arms to stay afloat?"

          "Very funny," the colonel replied.  "But, no, I wouldn't mind joining you."  Harrison's grin reminded Ironhorse of a young boy's.  How could the man still have pockets of such unadulterated innocence?

          Blackwood stripped off his T-shirt, casually tossing it over a low tree limb, then leaned over to unlace his shoes.  "What are you waiting for?" he asked Ironhorse when the man hesitated.  "It's not like I haven't seen—"

          "It's not that, Harrison," the colonel said, still gazing at the man.  "I was just adm— never mind."

          Blackwood's eyebrows wagged several times.  "Sounds interesting, if you ask me."

          Ignoring the man, the Cherokee soldier removed his shoes, tank top, and ever-present beeper.

          Following Blackwood toward the small waves, Ironhorse watched the well-built man stride confidently into deeper water.  The tide was coming in, the soldier noted, and filed away the information.

          Blackwood was tanner than he remembered…  He must be lying out while recuperating from that cracked rib, Ironhorse reasoned.  The scientist's long legs puckered with gooseflesh, the water still cool despite the recent warm weather, and the colonel found himself staring.  It had been weeks since he and Blackwood had found the time and energy to continue their growing relationship.  Now, the longing he'd placed on hold began to trickle back.  Ironhorse cleared his throat and dove into the water.

          When he surfaced, several yards out from Blackwood, the astrophysicist laughed and shook his head.  "You're a better man than I am, Colonel.  I have to work up to it."

          "That drives me crazy.  It's easier if you just get wet all at once."

          "Says you."

          Ironhorse shook his head, then struck out for a short swim up the shoreline and back.  By the time he returned, Blackwood had managed to wet everything except his head.  "Aren't you going to swim?  This was your idea, you know."

          With a sheepish tone, Harrison conceded, "It's colder than I thought it'd be."  Mischief sparkled in the blue depths.  "What I need is something to warm me up."

          "Oh?"

          "Something like a good wave-action fight," Blackwood explained, demonstrating at the same time, and dousing the colonel in the progress.

          "Hey!" Ironhorse yelled, quickly submerging and resurfacing out of range.

          Harrison laughed.  "What's the matter, Paul?  Can't you take a little water fight with a civilian?"

          "Doctor, this is not the kind of fighting I was trained to do."

          "Spoilsport."

          "You better take a few laps before you turn into a popsicle."

          Blackwood shook his head and struck out parallel to the beach, Ironhorse following alongside.  When he grew tired, the scientist stopped and rolled over to float on his back, staring up at the clear blue sky, the surf rocking him gently.  Spreading his arms out, he brushed Ironhorse's torso and heard a soft, half-stifled moan.  The sound ignited Blackwood's desire and he stopped, allowing his feet to sink back to the sandy bottom.

          Ironhorse was also floating nearby, eyes closed.  Moving slowly, Blackwood edged closer, finally reaching out and letting his hand trace along the red-bronze collar bones.  The black eyes opened as the soldier sucked in a breath.  Harrison's hand moved down the man's chest, then slipped over his side so he could draw the other closer.

          Paul stood, nearly chest to chest with Harrison.  The scientist's hands rose to rest lightly on Paul's shoulders and Blackwood smiled down at the disarray of black hair that clung to his companion's forehead.  Leaning closer, he kissed the tangle, continuing across the eyes that closed until he reached the lips.

          Ironhorse's hands came up to rub along Harrison's goose bump covered sides.  "Doctor, what are you doing?" he whispered when Blackwood allowed him to surface for a breath.

          Harrison's fingers drifted off Ironhorse's shoulders to brush across the man's already hard nipples.  The soldier's eyes closed again momentarily, but opened when he felt Harrison move closer, the man's bare chest pressing lightly against his.  "Call it… catching up," Blackwood replied softly, maneuvering to kiss the soldier a second time.

          The rising tide lifted the pair off the sandy bottom, carrying them toward the beach.  Blackwood, however, refused to let go.  Sensing the danger before it occurred, Ironhorse wrapped his arms tighter around the scientist's back just as a larger incoming wave broke over then.  When they bobbed up, both men were chuckling.

          "If you think this is going to end up as a replay of the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, you're very much mistaken, Doctor," Ironhorse warned good-naturedly.

          "No, you don't look a thing like the leading lady, Colonel, but," Blackwood said, reaching out to splash lightly.  "But I do have other plans."

          "Oh?"  Dark eyebrows rose.

          "Follow me."

          "Are you sure you're up to this, Harrison?"

          After a momentary pause and a slight blush, the scientist turned and started for the shore, saying, "Oh, I think so."

          Ironhorse cleared his throat and said softly, "Glad to hear it."

          The pair exited the surf just in time to rescue Blackwood's T-shirt from being swept away, the wind having lifted it and the colonel's from the branch where they'd been hung.  Padding over to the grass under the scattered trees, Blackwood dropped down and stretched out on his back.  "Ah, now that sun feels good."

          The soldier watched his friend, admiring the view Blackwood presented.  He was just about to lean over and claim a kiss of his own when the beeper he'd tucked inside his shoe sounded, followed by Norton's announcement, "We got transmissions, folks, circle up in the war room."

          The two men groaned, Blackwood opening his eyes to catch the now impossible intention fleeing from Ironhorse's face.

          "Duty calls?" Harrison asked, rolling up to his elbow and pausing before scrambling up and pulling on his shirt and shoes.

          "Later, Doctor.  This isn't finished."

          "I should hope not," Blackwood commented with a suggestive tilt to his eyebrows.  "We really should talk to the aliens about their timing, though."

          Together the pair headed back to the Cottage at a brisk run.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

III. Fall

 

          The cold November morning grayed Harrison's mood to match the sky beyond his window.  With a disgusted scowl at the cluttered top of his desk, the astrophysicist pushed himself up and paced to the empty blackboard.  Picking up a piece of chalk, and spinning it between thumb and forefinger, Blackwood stared at the expanse of green.  Unable to think of anything worth committing to a formal rendering on the board he returned the chalk to the thin tray and paced back to the window.

          Looking out across the Cottage grounds, he took comfort from the familiar patterns of trees and grassy hills, and while most of the trees had dropped their leaves several months earlier, there were enough pines to preserve the green of their northern California home.  Listening, Blackwood could make out the distant clap of the tide as it broke on their rocky shore.  Recent storms had pushed the waves to impressive heights.

          He smiled sadly.  Yesterday he had stood there, watching the eight foot swells assaulting the beach.  Nearby, Suzanne, Norton and Debi laughed.  A hand had settled comfortably on his back, and looking sideways he smiled at Ironhorse.  Blackwood was again struck with the hidden depths residing in his friend and lover.  Time after time new layers of the man burst out of the shadows to amaze the scientist.

          "The storm's passed," Paul Ironhorse finally said softly, his voice almost wistful.

          "Oh, is that an Indian secret?" Harrison teased.  "Can you see that in the waves?"

          "No, Doctor, the weather report."

          The soldier's hand moved up to rest on the scientist's shoulder.  Ironhorse squeezed lightly.  The comfortable familiarity made Blackwood smile, but looking over at the others, he caught Debi watching them.  Blackwood's face flushed.

          "What?" Ironhorse asked, feeling the muscles under his hand tense.

          "Nothing," Harrison replied, looking back out at the waves.

          The colonel frowned slightly and glanced over to see what had caught the man's attention.  Debi smiled and waved.  He returned the gesture.  "Harrison?"

          "It's nothing," Blackwood reassured.  "It's getting cold out here.  Maybe we should head back."

          The colonel shrugged and started to pull Blackwood into an embrace that would say what he could do to warm the astrophysicist up, but Harrison pulled away and headed back to the Cottage, a curious and hurt Ironhorse watching him go.

          Later, the colonel had located Blackwood in his office and kindly demanded an explanation.  After nearly an hour, the scientist admitted that he'd been noticing Debi watching them more closely than normal.  It made him uncomfortable.  What was she thinking?  What should they do?

          Ironhorse was confused.  Had the girl said something to Blackwood?

          "No," Harrison explained, "but she's watching us like a hawk.  Maybe we should be more careful about how we act around her.  Maybe we should stop touching, and—"

          Ironhorse's eyebrows rose.  "Doctor, we don't touch in inappropriate ways.  In fact, we don't touch much more now than we ever did."

          "Still—"

          "Harrison, are you ashamed of the relationship we have?"

          "What?  No.  Of course not.  It's just that this is a non-traditional relationship."

          "You sound like a clinical textbook, Doctor.  This whole damned situation is non-traditional."

          They argued for nearly another hour, Blackwood insisting that they had a responsibility to Debi, Ironhorse insisting that part of that responsibility included honesty and tolerance.  Finally, the soldier had stalked out of the office, suggesting that if Harrison felt that strongly about the situation, maybe he should examine his own feelings more closely, not Debi's.  The door shook in its frame, and Blackwood sat, doing just that.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Now it was morning again, the sound of Gertrude buzzing in the basement telling him Norton was already at work on the Cray.  Mrs. P had passed by a few moments earlier, probably on her way to fix coffee, and upstairs Suzanne had just turned on the shower.  It was a typical morning.

          Debi's footsteps echoed down the stairs, coming to a stop behind his closed door.  A soft knock followed.

          "Come in," he called, feeling the tired muscles across his shoulders gather into knots at the base of his neck.

          "Hi, Harrison, is Colonel Ironhorse in here?" the girl asked, just peeking around the corner of the door.

          "No, sweetheart."

          She pushed the door open further and stepped inside.  "He promised to take me riding before breakfast this morning."

          Harrison's forehead wrinkled.  "Aren't you going to be late for school?"

          Debi leveled one of her 'adults… sigh…' expressions on the scientist.  "It's vacation.  There's no school until Monday."  When the man still didn't seem to catch on she groaned.  "It's Thanksgiving."

          "Oh!" he replied.  No wonder everyone was up so early.

          "Harrison, can I ask you a question?"

          The astrophysicist felt his stomach transform into a brick.  "Sure, Deb."

          She thought for a moment, choosing her words with care.  "Do you and the Colonel love each other like my mom and dad did before they got a divorce?"

          Harrison sat down.  It was an honest question, and it deserved an honest answer.  He swallowed.  "Yes, Deb.  We do."

          Suzanne had once said she would explain about birds and birds when Debi was old enough to ask, and he wondered if the time wasn't now.  Maybe he should ask the microbiologist to come in and—

          "Do you want to get married?"

          "Huh," Blackwood stammered, "the laws don't recognize marriages between two people of the same sex, Debi."

          "Why?"

          "Well, there are a lot of reasons for that, but—"

          "It sounds stupid to me.  What difference does it make?  Mom says that when two people love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together, they get married."

          Blackwood smiled.  "They generally do, when it's a man and a woman, but—"

          "You mean you don't want to be with the Colonel for always?"

          Harrison looked away, a bright blush coloring his cheeks.  When he glanced back it was to find Ironhorse standing in the doorway, his eyebrows clearly inquiring, 'Yes, Doctor, is that the case?'

          Blackwood focused on the girl and took a deep breath.  "Well, yes, Deb, but that doesn't have anything to do with the laws concerning marriage."

          "There are laws?"

          "Sure, you know, like on TV when people have to go to the courthouse to get a license?"

          "Oh," she said, thinking for a moment while Ironhorse grinned behind her.  "So you and the colonel would get a license, but the laws won't let you?"

          "Huh, something like that, Deb."

          "Okay," she said, satisfied for the moment.

          "There you are, young lady," the soldier said, rescuing Blackwood from any further interrogation.  Debi turned.  "Are you ready for that ride?"

          "You bet!"

          "We'd better go then, or we'll be late for breakfast."  Debi skittered out of the office and through the front door. "Doctor, I'd like a word with you later."

          Unable to come up with a good excuse, Blackwood nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Debi and the colonel rode along side by side, the horses' breaths, along with their riders', turning white in the cold morning air.  "Can I ask you something?" Debi queried, breaking the stillness.

          "You may."

          "Why can't men get married?"

          He stifled a smile.  "You mean to other men?"  She nodded.  "Well, Debi, that's not true for all societies, but in ours it's held by many people that to allow men to marry other men would be immoral."

          "Immoral?"

          "Against the natural order of things; against Christian doctrine."

          "Did the Indians feel that way, too?"

          "Some of the tribes did, but not all of them.  There were some who felt that the greatest love was that between two warriors.  Other tribes permitted men to marry men if that was their choice.  They accepted love between people regardless of their sex."

          "Cool."

          Ironhorse smiled.  If everyone was as open as the young women, injustice in the world would be cut in half – at least.

          "So you and Harrison love each other like my mom and dad did a long time ago."

          "Very close, Debi.  You see, there are different kinds of love – the love that a parent has for a child, love between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, and between partners of the same sex.  Each kind of love is a little different, not better or worse, just different.  And they have different expressions."

          "Like Mom taking care of me?"

          "Yes, and your mom and dad creating you."

          "Mom told me about sex," the teenager informed him seriously.

          "I thought so," the colonel said.  This was not the sort of talk he'd ever imagined he'd be having.

          After a moment of silence, she asked shyly.  "Do you and Harrison do that?"

          He paused, unsure how to answer her question, and not altogether positive he ought to.  Perhaps it would be better to refer Debi to her mother.  Had Suzanne told her about that?  Would she want to tell her?  Still, he had always been honest with Debi, and she was a bright, loving child…  "Yes, Deb.  We do."

          "Mom told me about that, too."

          Ironhorse allowed his eyes to fix on the sky.  Thank you, Grandfather, he thought.  And thank Suzanne for anticipating the girl's curiosity.

          "But you won't have children," she added.

          "No."

          The sad tone of the comment made Debi look closely at the soldier.  "We're a family, aren't we?"

          "Of course we are," he told her seriously.

          "And when the war with the aliens is over, we'll still be a family, right?  Mom says we will… forever."

          "She's right.  Even when this is over and we can go back to normal lives, we'll stay a family, Debi."

          "Okay," she said, smiling.  "Want to race back to the pond?"

          "Excellent idea," Ironhorse said, holding his gelding back to give the girl a head start.  Who could possibly predict the questions and mind of a thirteen-year-old?

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          That evening Debi helped carry in the various dishes that made up their Thanksgiving dinner.  Suzanne arranged them on the table, with plenty of helpful suggestions from Norton, while Blackwood poured the wine for everyone, and sparkling cider for Debi.  Ironhorse was suspiciously absent.

          "Harrison, where's Paul?" Suzanne asked.

          "I don't know.  I saw him head out for a jog about an hour after breakfast, but that's the last I saw of him."

          "He made it down to the gym around lunch time," Norton supplied.  "He mentioned something about seeing the Omegans this afternoon."

          "I saw him after that," Suzanne said.  "But not recently."

          Mrs. Pennyworth entered the dining room carrying a large plate full of carved turkey.

          "Mrs. P," Blackwood said, relieving her of the burden and setting it in the center of the table.  "Have you seen our colonel?"

          She smiled and nodded at the plate.  "I cornered him and had him carve the turkey," she said.

          "Why doesn't that surprise me?" the microbiologist asked.

          Norton grinned.  "But did he use the tomahawk or the battle baton?"

          "Neither, Mr. Drake.  I used my Swiss Army knife."

          The group chuckled.  "It's about time," Harrison admonished.  "You don't want all this to get cold, do you?"

          "This is not my holiday, Doctor," the Cherokee soldier said with mock severity.

          The group paused in their activity and stared.  They hadn't thought about that.  Drake finally broke the momentary silence.  "Mine either, big guy.  But I love the eats!"

          Ironhorse allowed the carefully controlled crooked smile to ease onto his face.  "Me, too, Norton."

          They relaxed, Blackwood rubbing his hands together and staring at the pine nut stuffing and other specialty vegetarian dishes scattered amongst the more traditional meal.  "Then what are we waiting for?"

          They took their seats, and Mrs. Pennyworth cleared her throat, halting the astrophysicist's reach for the mashed potatoes.  "If there are no objections, I'd like to say grace."

          "Of course not, Mrs. Pennyworth.  I'm sorry," Blackwood said.

          The older woman bowed her head.  "Dear Lord, we gather on this, your day of thanksgiving, to express our gratitude for all of your bountiful gifts…  For family, and good friends, and the strength and courage to persevere in our fight…  Keep all of us safe and strong until we achieve victory."

          "Amen," the others chorused in heartfelt agreement.

          "Pass the bird," Drake said.

          Debi obliged, saying, "When I was in school, we had to all say one thing we were thankful for before we could eat our class cake.  It was—"

          "That's not a bad idea," Blackwood interrupted.  "We can all benefit by taking a moment or two to stop and remember all we have."

          "Then you can start," Suzanne told the scientist.

          "Okay.  I'm thankful for my adoptive father taking care of me, and entrusting his work to me.  Your turn, Suzanne."

          She resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at the man.  Then she saw Debi grinning.  "I'm thankful for the beautiful, bright, sweet, young lady who's my daughter…  Most of the time."

          "Ah, Mom," the girl said, blushing.

          "Norton," Suzanne said, passing the invisible baton.

          "O-kay," he said, dishing out a heap of mashed potatoes.  "I'm thankful for high tech and low counters.  How about you, Mrs. P?"

          "Oh, that's easy.  I'm just thankful to feel active and useful again.  Colonel?"

          Ironhorse paused for a moment, choosing his words with care.  When he spoke, it was with his eyes fixed on one of the candles burning at the center of the table.  "I am thankful for all the people here…  Debi?"

          The young woman looked serious, then smiled.  "I'm thankful that even though they can't get married, which is stupid, we know Colonel Ironhorse and Harrison love each other, and we're their family."

          Blackwood and Ironhorse looked at each other from across the table, both men coloring a brilliant shade of red.

          "Beets, Colonel?" Norton asked with a wide grin.  "Harrison?"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Harrison knocked lightly on the colonel's bedroom door.  A soft, "Come in," sounded back, and entering, the scientist grinned as Ironhorse walked out of his bath, nude.  With a towel he scrubbed the dampness out of his short black hair.

          "You'd better be careful, Paul.  One of these days it might not be me," Blackwood teased.

          Ironhorse looked puzzled, then smiled indulgently.  "Doctor, don't you think I can hear the difference in the footsteps and the knock?"

          The reality of who Ironhorse was, and what he'd spent his life doing pulled the grin off Blackwood's face.  His gaze darted over the man's well-conditioned physique, an occasional faded scar reminding Harrison that life was really more tenuous than he'd like to admit.  Stepping up to the soldier, he rested his hands on the man's bare shoulders.  "I wanted to talk to you, but you're making it a little hard to concentrate."

          Ironhorse smiled and, stepping away, shrugged on a seldom-used short brown robe.  "What's wrong, Harrison?" he asked, leaning back against the wide window seat.

          "I spent last night taking your advice – thinking about our relationship."

          "And?"

          Was there a hint of fear in that question?  Blackwood continued.  "And I realized that I was worried about what Debi, or anyone else might be thinking, more than I was thinking about us."

          "You were right about this not being a traditional situation.  If—"

          "I realized I was wrong, Paul."

          The black eyebrows arched.  It wasn't often that Harrison Blackwood admitted he was wrong.

          "What's important is us.  What we have.  What you mean to me, and what I hope I mean to you."

          "You know you do," Ironhorse said softly.

          Moving to join his lover, Blackwood reached out and rested a hand on the man's shoulder, his fingers rubbing softly across the soft flannel material.  "I know. Damned if I know why, but I do know."  Letting his hand drop down to slip under the robe, Harrison pressed his hand against the soldier's chest.  "I think I liked it better the other way…" he whispered, pushing the robe back off the man's shoulders.  Ironhorse made no move to stop or help.

          Harrison saw his lover was already half erect.  The sight generated an excited pulse in his own groin, and after a moment to simply appreciate the beauty of the man before, he drew Ironhorse to him, hugging him tightly, his lips pressing against friendly resistance.

          They battled momentarily, the soldier losing when Blackwood opted for a sneak attack to the bare ribs.  Ironhorse drew back, a mischievous smile on his face.  "You might have won the first skirmish, Doctor, but the battle isn't over yet.  I'd say it's past time you got into uniform."

          Blackwood looked affronted.  "Uniform?"

          "Your birthday suit.  Strip, mister," the colonel commanded in a low growl.

          "Yes, sir," Blackwood replied.

          "Thanks given."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

IV.  Winter

 

          For the umpteenth time in several hours Harrison Blackwood cursed himself for his stupidity and his selfishness.  Staring at his watch he let his gaze circle the dial with the second hand, once, twice, three times…  Stop!

          If anything had happened to Paul…  No.  Stop thinking like that!  Think positively, he commanded himself.

          But where was he?  Why hadn't he called?  Why did he let him go out alone?  That's not positive!

          Blackwood shoved the nearly overwhelming fear away and paced through the cabin before coming to rest by the large front window.  He peered into the lightly falling snow.  Nothing.

          He spun and stormed back to the blazing fireplace and snatched the mobile phone off the mantle.  He punched out the number to Ironhorse's mobile phone and waited while it rang, and rang, and rang, and—

          He stabbed the release button and tried the Cottage.

          Norton Drake's ever upbeat voice answered.  "Yeah, Doc, what's up?  I wasn't expecting to hear from you so soon."

          "I know," Blackwood said, the worry in his voice undisguised.  "Has Ironhorse called you?"

          "No, not a peep.  Something wrong?"

          "I don't know, Norton," Blackwood explained, walking over to flop down on the well-worn couch.  "Paul left the cabin about three hours ago to pick up some supplies.  He's not back yet.  I'm getting worried."

          "Do you want me to alert Omega Squad?" Norton asked slowly, trying to gauge the situation.  It sounded like Blackwood was worried.

          Harrison thought a moment.  He and Ironhorse had come up to Clayton Forrester's old cabin for a couple of days of R&R communing with Mother Earth, but the weather hadn't been cooperative, snowing on and off for the last twelve hours.  And there could be any number of logical, normal reasons why the colonel was late getting back from the small town of Dixon about twenty miles away.

          And plenty of bad ones as well, he fretted, but shook his head and said, "No, not yet, Norton.  If he's not back in another hour, then we'll alert the Squad and start a search."

          "Right," Norton concurred.  "I'll try reaching him, too.  If you do get hold of him, or he shows up, call me so I can stop worrying, will ya?"

          "You never worry," Blackwood countered.

          "That's what you think, Doc," was the teasing but heartfelt reply.  "I just do it so well you don't notice."

          "I'll call, Norton," the astrophysicist reassured.  "And thanks.  I'm probably just over-reacting."

          "Good luck."

          Blackwood broke the connection and returned the phone to the mantle, then added another log to the dying fire, silently commanding the soldier to return as he did.  Ironhorse hadn't wanted to come up to the cabin.  They'd had activity less than two weeks ago, but Blackwood had pressed.  They hadn't had any time alone since Ironhorse's brush with death on Anacapa Island, and Blackwood wanted some time along with the man.  Reluctantly Ironhorse had agreed.

          And what if Ironhorse was right?  What if something was going on?  What if the aliens were up to something?  What if they had found them?  What if—

          Damn it, where was the man?

          With less than a month before Christmas if anything happened to him…

          Blackwood stalked back across the cabin to the window.  This wasn't getting him anywhere.  He was just making himself frantic.  Ironhorse was a trained soldier.  He could take care of himself.  Nothing was going to happen.  There was a perfectly logical reason—

          The sound of tires crunching the newly fallen snow jarred Blackwood out of the depression and sent him hurrying to the door.

          He watched as Ironhorse exited the Bronco, jogging around to the back and pulling out two bags of groceries.  Blackwood held the door open to admit the soldier, only then realizing that he should have the Geiger counter handy, just in case.

          "Sorry it took so long," Ironhorse said as he entered.  "The road was a mess. The snow plows hadn't cleared both lanes and there were a couple of accidents.  Nothing serious, but it made the drive slow."  He headed for the kitchen, depositing the bags on the counter.  "And I found something special at the store I wanted to pick up, too—"  He stopped short on his way back to the door, realizing that Blackwood wasn't holding the Geiger counter.  "Why didn't you check me out?"

          Blackwood paused, marveling at the speed at which he'd experienced the relief, anger and return to calm.  He leveled the man with a sheepish expression.  "I forgot.  I was worried and when you got here—"

          Ironhorse sighed.  Civilians.  They'd never get the hang of security procedures.  "Well, do it now, mister."

          "Yes, sir," Blackwood replied, his humor returning.  He gave the soldier a sloppy salute before walking over to the coffee table to scoop up the device and point it at the colonel.  He flipped it on.  Green.  "You're clean."

          "Naturally," Ironhorse muttered under his breath as he headed back outside to the Bronco.

          "I'm going to call Norton," Blackwood called after him.  "I checked in to see if you'd called the Cottage."

          "Good idea," Ironhorse called back.  "Wouldn't want them worrying over nothing."  He pulled out the last sack of groceries, then wrestled with a small wooden crate.

          "Norton?"

          "Yeah, Doc.  The soldier-mon home?"

          "Yes.  He finally got back."

          "Hope he had a good excuse."

          "I don't know, but I think he's getting it now," Blackwood said, his attention on the crate that Ironhorse had balanced the bag on and was carrying in.  "I'll call you later."

          "Right.  Have fun."

          Blackwood blushed.  "Thinks, I think."  Returning the phone to the mantle, Harrison took a seat on the raised hearth and waited until Ironhorse dropped off the bag of groceries, then carried the crate over to the fire to join him.

          "What is it?" he asked the soldier.

          Ironhorse opened the lid to reveal a puppy stretched out, sleeping.  The animal's large front paws twitched.

          "A puppy?"

          "For Debi," the colonel explained.

          "I see," Blackwood said, fighting back a smile.  So much for the big tough soldier…  "Did you happen to notice the size of its feet?  It's going to be huge."

          "Absolutely, if his parents are any indication.  I'd guess around one hundred pounds."

          "Parents?"

          Ironhorse nodded, reaching out to rub along the puppy's back.  "They had them at the store with the litter.  The father is Pyrenees and German Sheppard and the mother was Rottweiler and Golden Retriever."

          Blackwood looked down at the fuzzy orange ball of fur with black points and a white chest, then reached out and lifted one of the long floppy ears and let it fall back into place.  The puppy's nose twitched, but he remained asleep.  "I see.  Not much of a guard dog, is he?"

          "Think Debi will like him?" the colonel asked, ignoring the comment, the tone drawing a smile from the scientist.

          He reached out and squeezed Ironhorse's shoulder.  "She'll love him."  He smiled.  "You're something else, my friend."

          Ironhorse blushed.  "I thought it would help her put the memories of Guido to rest."

          "No need to explain to me, Paul."

          The two men stood, leaving the puppy to his nap.  Ironhorse made himself comfortable on the couch while Blackwood poured them both coffee and carried it back to join his companion.  "You did have me worried," he said in as chastising as tone as he could manage.

          Ironhorse accepted the steaming cup.  "Sorry about that.  I tried to call, but the battery must be low, or the hills and the snow were blocking the transmission.  Like I said, there were a couple of accidents and the snow plow was slow, and—"

          "I'm just glad you're back," Blackwood said.  He set the cup down on the small coffee table and leaned back.  "I hope you bought some dog food.  We still have two more days."

          "Puppy food, Doctor.  It's already in the kitchen."

          A loud crack echoed through the cabin and the lights flickered off.  "Great," the colonel breathed, already moving toward the door.  "Sounds like we just lost power."

          Beyond the frosted glass Ironhorse could see the transformer hanging at an odd angle away from the pole.  "Looks like a short.  The ice might have been too heavy…  You really know when to head to the mountains, Blackwood.  Call Norton, he can call it in to the power company."

          While Harrison let Drake know about their sudden lack of electricity, Ironhorse added more wood to the fire, casting a brighter light into the rapidly darkening room.  Harrison returned the phone to its usual resting place and captured Ironhorse in a hug as he stood.

          "What are you doing, Doctor?"

          "R and R, remember?"

          There was a throaty chuckle.  "I see…"  The puppy whined softly as he rolled over and stretched back out along the box.  "But what about our visitor?"

          "Let him watch," Blackwood suggested, leaning to nibble softly at Ironhorse's neck.  "Maybe he'll learn something."

          Ironhorse's arms came up to encircle his lover, pulling him into a tight embrace.  They wrestled playfully to the floor.

          In a few moments the two men had managed to scatter clothing over the furniture and floor and lay stretched out side by side in front of the fire.  Inquisitive brown eyes peered at them from over the top of the crate.  Yap!

          "You can wait," Ironhorse told the puppy.  A soft whine answered him.

          "Absolutely," Harrison concurred, his lips coming down to capture the colonel's.

          Ironhorse retaliated, his hands sliding up Blackwood's bare chest, and teasing at the already hard nipples.  He chuckled as Harrison pressed against his hip.

          A soft moan and a playful bark echoed in the room, followed by the sounds of frantic scratching in the wooden crate.  Grrrr…

          "What were you saying about a watch dog?" the colonel whispered.

          "Let 'im watch…" Harrison said, burying his face in the colonel's neck and starting a steady assault down the curve to the waiting collar bones and beyond.

          Ironhorse sucked in a sharp breath, causing the puppy to freeze and cock his head as Blackwood shifted to a more frontal attack on Ironhorse, who moaned.

          The puppy paused a moment and echoed the wavering sound.  Both men burst into laughter.  The puppy barked.

          "Well, don't stop!" Ironhorse complained.

          "Me?" Blackwood countered.  "I didn't bring a voyeur home with me!"  Ironhorse growled and sat up, grabbing Blackwood's shoulders and pushing him over onto his back.

          The puppy, taking the playful assault as an invitation to join the romp, lunged for the side of the crate, his front paws landing on the lip of the wooden box and pushing it over.

          Ironhorse, too intent on his final victory over the squirming scientist, missed the spill of orange fur that tumbled from the crate and went sliding across the hardwood floor.  The puppy's claws sought traction, tapping across the polished wood until they snagged the edge of the carpet where Blackwood and Ironhorse were tangled.  They were playing.  Puppy loved to play…

          Three bounding jumps and the small package of fur landed on the back of Ironhorse's thigh, a cold wet nose finding a particularly vulnerable target.  "Ahhhh!" the colonel bellowed, his head coming up and his eyes round.

          "What?!" Blackwood gasped, his own pleasure now wavering between completion and foundering.

          Ironhorse's hands whipped backwards, trying to grab a handful of fur as it scampered down his leg, sharp nails leaving small punctures in their wake.  "Nnuuaahhh…"

          "What?!" Harrison wheezed, as Ironhorse's full weight pressed him into the carpet.

          "Watch out!"

          Blackwood's eyes suddenly popped like he'd been caught by a flashbulb.  "That's cold!" he yelled.

          "You're tellin' me?" Ironhorse asked, managing to climb out of the tangle of Blackwood's arms and legs and corner the small beast as it continued to lunge at the scientist's exposed butt.

          "Colonel, save me!"

          "Oh, please!"

          They laughed as the soldier made several attempts at scooping the puppy up – all of them failing miserably until he squatted down and tapped the floor invitingly.  The puppy ran into his hands, wagging its long tail and panting happily.  He whined, wanting to play some more.  "Trouble, she should name you Trouble," the colonel said, standing, cradling the ball of fur as it licked up his arm.

          "Now, now, Colonel, he was your idea."

          "If I recall, Doctor, you suggested that he watch.  Something about learning something?"

          Blackwood grinned.  "Oh, I'd say he learned plenty.  He certainly knew where to—"

          "Thank you, Blackwood!"

          The astrophysicist wagged his eyebrows, watching at the large brown eyes droop closed.  "I think he's sleepy.  Battery must need a recharge."

          Ironhorse lifted the furry mass by the scruff of the neck and stared into the slitted eyes.  "I think you're right."

          "Put him to bed, Colonel," Blackwood said.  "We have something to finish."

          Ironhorse smiled.  They did indeed.

The End