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"I never had a birthday party.  Not like that."

 

          The serenity he usually found in an early morning run was shattered by an alien sound, loud and jarring in the birdsong.  It was the sound of a body falling… branches breaking… then the thump of a landing on soft leaves and other ground debris, accompanied by a painful exclamation of "Shit!"  That was followed by a quieter monologue of impressive language on the ancestry and deviant sexual preferences ascribed to one… Harrison Blackwood.

          Intrigued, Ironhorse slowed his pace to a walk and padded quietly in the direction of the monologue.  There was a lot to be said for what you could learn in the U.S. Army, but clearly Dr. Suzanne McCullough's grounding in the biological sciences and psychology had given her a head start where creative cussing was concerned.  Ironhorse was profoundly impressed with the scope and clinical detail of the practices she was ascribing to the erstwhile head of their Project.

          Suzanne herself was sitting in the middle of a tangle of branches, one hand clutching an ankle, while the other punctuated her speech and plucked leaves out of her hair and clothing.

          "Is everything all right here?" Ironhorse called over innocently, announcing his presence over a particularly vituperative passage concerning genetically-induced physiological shortcomings and relatively short attention spans.  He'd never heard that particular lack of control described in quite that way before.

          The descriptive monologue cut off in mid-flow as Suzanne's mouth snapped shut with an audible click of teeth coming together.  She growled.

          Taking that as a good sign, Ironhorse approached, coming into the clearing created by her fall.

          The tangled remains of a kite tail wrapped around one hand told the tale of what had happened.  Ironhorse glanced up and saw the cause of her fall.  Some thirty feet above their heads a red-and-blue kite fluttered feebly in the breeze, its remaining tail and string caught in the upper branches of an oak tree, effectively trapping it there.

          "It's a little early to be out flying a kite," Ironhorse commented gently, coming closer to inspect Suzanne.

          There were a large number of green branches beneath her that had broken her fall, indicative of the way she had come down.  In fact, he could trace the path of broken branches as he looked up once more.  At least she had fallen feet-first rather than head-first.  Her tracksuit was torn in a couple of places, but she didn't appear to be seriously injured.  Cuts and bruises and a wrenched or sprained ankle, judging from the way she was holding it.  It could have been a lot worse.

          "I wasn't flying the kite," she informed him frostily, enunciating each word carefully.  "Harrison unwrapped Debi's birthday present – to give it a test run sometime last night!"  She sniffed loudly, pulling more leaves out of her tracksuit.  "He test ran it into the damn tree!" she snarled, levering herself to her feet.

          Ironhorse came forward, offering a supporting arm as she stood and getting a better look at the already-swelling ankle as she held it up off the ground, trying to balance on her remaining foot.  That would need an X-ray.  He'd have to drive her to the hospital and get it checked out, just in case.

          "I am going to conduct a scientific experiment to see how much of his skin I can lift off with a hot iron before he dies of shock," she promised quietly.  "Then I am going to pickle his brain and preserve it for posterity as an example of homo-non-sapiens is!  You do not fly kites at two a.m. in the morning!"

          "Hey, you'll get no argument from me," Ironhorse agreed solemnly.  "But why were you up the tree?  Why didn't Harrison get it down?  He put it up there, after all."

          "Because—"  She pivoted out of his arms on one foot, balancing precariously as she used her hands to emphasize her words, "—our glorious leader is afraid of heights!  He left me a note.  'Sorry about the kite, I'll get Debi another one.  Tell her happy birthday from me!'  I found it when I woke up, and, by then, Harrison was long gone!"

          "That sounds like Blackwood," Ironhorse agreed.  He glanced up at the forlorn kite and shook his head.  "You want me to get it down?" he asked.

          A large chunk of Suzanne's anger evaporated.  "Could you?  I don't want Debi to see it."  She added, "It's a difficult climb, believe me, I know!"

          "Watch me," Ironhorse told her with a quick smile.

          He helped her hop back a few paces to a fallen log and balanced her while she sat down.  With that done, he walked back to the tree and stared up at his target.  The oak was an old one, stag-headed, and the kite was tangled almost at the very top of one of the antlers.

          The first twenty feet or so were an easy climb.  Suzanne's descent had blazed an easy trail of ready foot and hand holds.  But above that point, there was more deadwood – brittle and dangerous, splintered, untrustworthy and difficult to spot – mixed in with the living branches.

          Ironhorse could see how Suzanne had fallen, and why.

          Climbing a little further, he could see that the antler the kite was wrapped around was almost entirely deadwood.  Paul moved cautiously, inching his way along the dead tree limb, listening for the minutest sound indicating that the stressed wood was starting to give.

          He paused, the kite tail just above him, caught on a splintered spur.  Very, very carefully, he reached up and released it, tugging gently on the tail to try and bring the kite itself into his hand.  It inched free slowly, the string trailing along behind, winding loose from the branches above.

          There was one bright ribbon bow left between him and the kite when he heard the telltale sound of wood beginning to cleave.  He made a desperate grab for the kite, caught it, and started sliding as quickly as he dared back down the limb, the branch bending precariously as he made for safer territory.

          Almost, but not quite in time.

          The branch splintered away, and Ironhorse started to drop.  Reaching out desperately, he sought some handhold as he oriented himself to fall feet-first – just in case.

          A branch came to hand.

          Ironhorse caught it, and found himself swung by his own momentum into a cleft in the main trunk.  His lower torso connected with the tree – hard.

          No language could adequately express the revenge that Paul Ironhorse wanted to extract from Harrison Blackwood at that particular moment.  Which was just as well, since the colonel was quite incapable of speech – or even movement – for several long and painful seconds following his abrupt halt.

          "Paul!  Paul?  Are you all right?"

          He couldn't answer.  He couldn't even see, his eyes watering profusely.

          "Paul?  Talk to me!"

          Breathe.  Take another breath…  Hold it…

          "It's…  It's okay, Suzanne.  I'm okay."

          His voice didn't sound right in his own ears.  Another breath… another…  Don't think about the pain.  First things first.  Get out of the goddamned tree… carefully.

          Moving his damaged anatomy very, very carefully, Ironhorse disentangled himself from the tree fork and descended to the ground with all the cautious agility and speed of a three-toed sloth.

          It wasn't until both feet were safely – and widely – planted on the ground that he remembered the kite, still clutched and crumpled, in one hand.

          He smiled painfully at Suzanne, eyes still watering, and held up his prize.  "Got it," he said weakly.

          Suzanne nodded.  "You certainly did," she agreed.  "Paul?"  She pushed up to her feet, and using a long branch as a walking stick, hobbled across to him.  Looking him up and down, she clinically inspected his ripped sweat suit and unusual stance.

          "We… need… to go to the hospital," she announced solemnly.

          He really didn't want to talk, and the plain fact of the matter was, she was right, so he nodded instead.

"Coleman can drive us," she added sagely, as she offered a steadying hand to Paul and they made their slow, painful way back to the Cottage.

 

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

 

          Suzanne tallied the damage.  One sprained ankle, one very painful tetanus injection, numerous cuts, scrapes and contusions – the worst of which were now dressed and taped – and one completely totaled tracksuit.  And poor Paul…  Plus Debi's birthday – ruined.

          The high cost of Harrison Blackwood's nighttime escapade was reviewed while the local hospital doctor attended to Paul.

          Sergeant Coleman sat with her, simmering quietly to herself.  Suzanne had already explained the reason for the accidents, and Norah had added a number of promising suggestions to the long list of torments the microbiologist was devising for a certain astrophysicist.

          "Dr. McCullough?"  A white-garbed man asked as he came out to see her.

          Suzanne got to her feet, leaning heavily on the newly-issued set of crutches, Coleman in tow.

          "How is he?" she asked.

          The doctor smiled easily.  "Nothing particularly serious," he answered.  "Several splinters had to be removed and there's some pretty severe bruising, but give him a week or two and he'll be fine.  No permanent damage, although it probably feels like there is at the moment."  He glanced back the way he had come, then added confidentially, "I have to tell you, your companion is not the most cooperative of patients."

          "He's probably… in a lot of pain," Suzanne demurred.

          "Quite," the doctor agreed.  "Well, we'll be keeping him overnight, just to give him time for some of the swelling and bruising to go down, and to be perfectly honest, he's not in any condition to do any walking, or even sitting down, just yet.  I've told him the same thing, but he's insisting that he wants to leave – now.  Getting rather vociferous about it, too.  It seems that there's someone he wants to, uh, 'skin alive with a blow torch, then polish his skull for a paperweight,' the rest is unintelligible – sounds like Japanese or something."  The doctor looked distinctly worried.

          "Cherokee.  And the victim would be Harrison," Suzanne agreed serenely, nodding her head in understanding.  "Would you like me to have a word with him?"

          "Please," the doctor agreed, leading her and Coleman to the private cubicle.  "After all, he does need to stay, just to be sure, and we can't have our patients going out and committing homicide.  It just makes more work for us."

          "Of course," Suzanne agreed dutifully.  "That would never do."  As an afterthought she added, "Besides, a blowtorch would be too quick.  Dilute hydrochloric acid in an atomiser would be better…"

The doctor swallowed hard and tried to smile, but it was a tentative effort at best.

 

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

 

          As it turned out, Debi's birthday was far from ruined.  As Coleman drove her charge up to the Cottage, Debi came running across the lawn, trailing an impressive green dragon behind her.

          The kite darted and swooped after her, a tail of glittering gold and silver ribbons drifting along in its wake.  It was far more impressive than the now-wrecked standard red-and-blue version lying abandoned in the back seat of the car.

          "Mom!  Mom!  It's so cool!  Harrison said it was okay to open it.  Thank you!  It's awesome!"  She managed her speech, and a huge hug for her mother while retaining control of the kite.  "Harrison said I had to wait until you and the colonel got back before I could open the rest of my presents—"  She stopped mid-sentence, her gaze sweeping over the area.  "Where's the Colonel?"

          The wind failed, and the kite sank to the ground.  Debi waited expectantly.

          "We had a little accident, Chicken.  The Colonel's still at the hospital," Suzanne explained, extricating herself from her daughter's embrace.  Somehow Debi had managed to locate and squeeze almost every bruise she'd acquired that morning.

          The girl's expression turned worried as she noticed her mother's disheveled state for the first time.  "What happened?" she asked, wide-eyed.

          "Nothing important," Suzanne was quick to reassure her.  "We just… fell out of a tree.  The Colonel will be home tomorrow, but it's okay for you to open all your presents today.  I know he wouldn't want you to wait your birthday on him."

          "Great!"  The kite now forgotten, Debi dashed into the house, past a sheepish Harrison Blackwood, who stepped forward hesitantly.

          "She loved the kite," he said brightly, hopefully.

          Coleman slammed the car door, directed one lethal-intensity glare in his direction, then stalked off toward the coach house, muttering under her breath.

          For a moment Suzanne studied Harrison in much the same way as she regarded decomposing alien corpses, then reached wordlessly into the car for her crutches.

          At the sight of them, Blackwood's head slumped another inch closer to this shoulders, his hands hiding themselves at the bottom of his jean pockets.  "How's Paul?" he tried again, this time quietly, more seriously.

          "They're keeping him for twenty-four hours so they can monitor any swelling the bruising might trigger.  No broken bones," she responded coldly, and made to step around him.

          Harrison rested a hand on her arm to halt her.  "Look," he said earnestly, "I'm sorry.  It was a stupid thing to do.  I admit it.  But at least I didn't spoil Debi's birthday.  She's had a great time this morning.  Just ask her."

Suzanne shrugged his hand off and took another step.  Again he blocked her path.

          "Suzanne, I apologize," he said, blue eyes wide and sincere.  "I'm deeply sorry that you and Paul were hurt, but it's not my fault that the two of you decided to go climb a tree.  There was no need.  I was dealing with it.  Your twisted ankle and Paul's landing on his tail are not my fault!"

          "It wasn't his tail he landed on," she retorted frostily through clenched teeth.  She prodded him out of the way with a crutch.

          Blackwood took on the appearance of a kicked dog.  "Oh," he said weakly, sympathy evident in his sudden bucket-lap stance.

          Suzanne wasn't interested.  She pushed the door open with her crutch and headed after her daughter.

 

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

 

          All in all, it was a good birthday – lots of presents and lots of food.  Mrs. Pennyworth even baked a special chocolate fudge cake – Debi's favorite – and with Ironhorse missing, there was more to go round.  Harrison even donated his slice to Debi's prodigious appetite, excusing himself from the festivities and Suzanne's frosty glare, claiming that he had work to do in his study.

          The day concluded with all of Debi's new acquisitions being bundled into her bedroom, and Debi herself being put to bed with an upset stomach – from indulging in too much cake and soda pop.  As Suzanne tucked her in, Debi declared solemnly that this was her best birthday ever – even if the colonel hadn't been there to join in.  Besides, she'd get to do it all over again tomorrow when she showed him all her presents.

          Suzanne promised that she'd be able to show off her new things to Paul the next day, then went back downstairs to help Mrs. Pennyworth clean up the devastation.  She passed Harrison on the stairs.  He paused to let her maneuver.

          "Am I forgiven yet?" he asked piteously, still keeping up his kicked-dog impression and trying to throw in a hint of penitent martyr for good measure.

          Suzanne didn't pause or miss a step.  "Drop dead, Harrison."

 

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

 

          Coleman drove Ironhorse back to the Cottage early the next morning.  Harrison waited on the porch.

          The colonel moved with great care as he slid out of the car, Coleman hurrying round to help him stand.  He accepted her arm without argument, leaning heavily against her as he straightened up.

          Blackwood hurried forward to help, but stopped abruptly as Ironhorse turned to look at him.

          "That will be all, Sergeant," he dismissed Coleman calmly, all the while keeping Harrison transfixed with his glare.  Once the noncom was out of earshot, Ironhorse moved forward, stalking – carefully – over to Blackwood like a wolf approaching a fear-frozen rabbit.

          Paul's face was pale, and completely impassive.  He broke the spell, looking Blackwood over, then glancing away.  "My office, Doctor, one hour," he said calmly, and headed for the house, leaving Blackwood fervently wishing himself somewhere – anywhere – else.

 

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

 

          Harrison watched the minutes tick inexorably by.  Somehow, both Suzanne and Norton knew about the appointment, and it was Drake who finally prodded him out of the basement lab at two minutes to.

          Suzanne just happened to be loitering by Ironhorse's office door as Blackwood approached.  She stared at him coldly as he knocked and entered, feeling like a schoolboy who'd been sent to see the principal.

          Ironhorse was polishing his battle baton as Blackwood entered.  The soldier said nothing as the scientist approached, eyed the waiting empty chair, and decided to remain standing.

          No words were spoken.  Ironhorse continued polishing the knife.

          The silence stretched…

          And stretched…

          Finally, Blackwood could take it no more.  "Are you going to use that thing, yell at me, or what?"

          Ironhorse looked up from his task.  "You're not worth the effort, Harrison," he replied calmly.  "And presently, I'm not up to either task."

          "Yeah, I heard," Blackwood was instantly contrite.  "I am sorry, Paul.  I never meant for anyone to get hurt.  It was a dumb thing to do.  I admit it.  What more can I say?"

          "You could try apologizing to Suzanne, although I doubt she's in any mood to hear it."

          Blackwood eased himself into the chair, miserable.  "I think the only way she's going to accept my apology is if it comes with a large chunk of my anatomy on a platter.  She's really pissed, Paul."

          "You stole her daughter's kite.  You stole a gift she intended for Debi's birthday, and then you wrecked it and took off.  What did you think she was going to do, just smile and forgive you?"

          Blackwood slumped farther down in the chair, the bright blue gaze fixing on one of the numerous medals displayed on Ironhorse's shelf.  "I didn't think she was going to go climb that tree," he said tiredly.  "I was going to get another kite.  I had it under control.  It never occurred to me—"

          "You didn't think, Harrison.  Period," Ironhorse cut him off mid-angst.  "You didn't think, and we have two casualties as a result."

"So how do I apologize?" Blackwood asked quietly, leaning forward, his hands coming together between his knees.  "What do you and Suzanne want me to do?"

          Ironhorse laid the knife down and leaned forward in his chair as far as his injury allowed.  He speared Blackwood with a cold obsidian gaze.  "I want you to learn from the experience, Harrison…  I want you to think about consequences.  I want you to learn from your mistakes and don't repeat them."

          Blackwood swallowed and nodded.  "I understand," he said quietly.

          "You're not the center of the universe, mister!" Ironhorse retorted angrily.

          Harrison flinched under the accusation, eyes down.

"There are other people who matter in this world apart from you, Blackwood," Ironhorse continued remorselessly.  "Debi for one; Suzanne for another.  You risked Suzanne's life yesterday; you risked Debi's happiness.  You risked the security of this mission.  Just because you wanted to play with someone else's toys.  It was selfish.  It was thoughtless, and it was stupid.  And you're always doing it!  You expect the world to revolve around Harrison Blackwood.  Whatever you want, you get, and damn the consequences.  Well, this time people got hurt.  Next time, people could die.  Think about that, Harrison.  Think about it long and hard."

          The words stopped.

          Ironhorse leaned back in his chair and stared at Blackwood's bowed head for a moment before reaching once more for the battle baton.  He went back to polishing the hilt.  "Dismissed," he said quietly.

          Harrison stood and walked out in silence, his gaze never once rising from the floor.

 

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

 

          Harrison kept a low profile for the following week, barely leaving his study to do more than check in with Norton for any updates on alien transmissions.

          He kept his distance from both Ironhorse and Suzanne.  Ironhorse called the behavior "characteristic."  Suzanne described it as "sulking."

          Debi watched and wondered what new game the grown-ups were playing.  She didn't understand it, and there really wasn't anyone she could ask about it, so she stayed out of everyone's way while she tried to figure it out for herself.

          Harrison had lots of real neat books in his office; maybe she'd find something in one of them to explain it.  He'd never notice if she borrowed one or two…

          While Debi immersed herself in illicit books, the atmosphere in the Cottage turned a little more chill.  The alien transmission, when it came, was almost a welcome diversion.

 

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

 

          Buzzers sounded in various offices, calling the team together in the lab, where they peered over Norton's shoulder at the data appearing on the monitor.

          Harrison hung back, a yard separating him from Ironhorse and Suzanne, where they crowded over Norton's shoulder.

          "It's the PIT," Norton said quietly, as the location was established.  "Harrison, this transmission is coming from the PIT!  It looks like it's repetitive, like someone turned on abeacon."

          "I'm on it," Ironhorse answered, reaching for the phone.  "I'll be there with a team inside forty minutes."  Then he was talking to Derriman over the phone, giving instructions for mobilizing Omega.

          "What could they want at the Institute?" Suzanne wondered aloud.

          "Everything.  Anything," Blackwood answered coldly.  "The foremost collection of intellectuals and researchers on the West Coast, numerous research projects, prototypes, medical and genetic chemical trials—"

          "Computers, super-computers," Norton added.  "And then there's the new wing.  Nuclear research—"

          "Oh."  Suzanne sat down, glancing across at Harrison and recognizing the genuine pain and anxiety in his eyes.  It came to her suddenly that he had friends there.  People he'd known all his life.

          Ironhorse finished speaking to Derriman and turned to leave.  "Keep me informed of any further transmissions, or any movement, Mr. Drake," he threw over his shoulder as he turned for the elevator.  "If you can determine what area of the campus that transmission is coming from it would be a help."

          Suzanne took a step toward the elevator.  It was clear that he intended to leave the rest of them there.  She was still limping, but Harrison…

          Suzanne saw Blackwood open his mouth to protest the not-so-subtle dismissal, then close it again firmly.  She also saw the pain the decision caused him, and the questioning look that Norton leveled on the uncharacteristic silence.

          The doors whisked open and Ironhorse stepped in.

 

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

 

          Debi waited for her mother to leave the basement, then crept quietly down the stairs.  Norton was working at the Cray.

          Stepping into the room, she made her way over to join the hacker, remaining on the far side of the monitor so she couldn't see what was on the screen.

          "Norton?"

          Drake's head snapped up.  "Yeah, Deb, I'm kinda busy—"

          "I'm scared," she interrupted.

          Norton glanced once at the monitor.  The transmission wasn't changing, just repeating the same patterns over and over, and the Cray was slowly narrowing the range to pinpoint the location…

          "Why?" he asked softly.

"Everyone's been acting weird.  Harrison looks real upset, my mom's mad at him, and the Colonel's… he can't go riding with me."

          Norton smiled, glancing away.  He'd heard the kite story from Suzanne and Harrison, and as far as he was concerned they were both over-reacting.  "Yeah, I know what you mean."  He motioned Debi closer and she sidled up next to the Cray.

          "Are the Colonel and Harrison still friends?  Is it my mom's fault?"

          Norton chuckled softly.  "Yes, they're still friends, and no, it's not your mother's fault.  Harrison did something…  Harrison, and they're still a little mad at him, that's all.  It'll all blow over."

          She didn't look convinced.

          "Remember that time Harrison tried to trick you with the microphone behind the Colonel's ghost shirt?"

          She nodded.

          "Well, it's kind of like that.  Your mom and the Colonel haven't forgiven him yet.  They will.  It'll be fine."

          Debi chewed her bottom lip.  "Okay," she said, although the doubts lingered.

 

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

 

          Suzanne checked her watch.  Paul and the Omegans would be in the air by now, high-tech Special Forces helicopters carrying them down the coast to the New Pacific Institute.  He'd promised to check in as soon as they landed, which she guessed would be in another twenty minutes or so.

          Pausing outside Harrison's closed study door, she listened to the restless pacing.  Her teeth ground slightly.  Why hadn't he gone like he always did?  Sure Paul complained, but at least with Harrison along there would be someone there to keep an eye on Paul.  He wasn't fully recovered, despite his assurances to the contrary.

          Taking a sharp breath, Suzanne held it, then pushed the office door open, announcing, "Harrison, we have to talk."

          Blackwood's frenetic pacing stalled in the middle of the room.  "Did something happen, is Paul all right?"

          There was real fear in the man's eyes, and she felt the hard wall of her anger weaken.  "No," Suzanne shook her head.  "They aren't there yet."

          "Oh," he mumbled and picked up the pacing again.

          "Harrison," she repeated, stepping into his path and bringing him up short.  "We need to talk."

          A sharp turn on his heel and the Project head paced to his desk and leaned back against it, his fingers curling tightly under the edge.  "What can I help you with, Suzanne?"

          She didn't miss the strained tone, or the averted gaze.  "Harrison, this is getting out of hand."  She took a deep breath and took the two steps necessary to bring her almost toe to toe with the astrophysicist.  "I just wanted to say that I'm sorry if I over-reacted, but you have to agree, you gave me a damned good reason."

          Blackwood's chin dropped slightly, and he still refused to look at her.  "I guess I did…"  He trained off, then the curly-head bobbed up and the troubled blue gaze locked on her.  He continued more earnestly.  "But I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt."

          Suzanne sighed.  "I know that, but it doesn't change the fact that you… you—"

          "Acted like a thoughtless, selfish moron?"

          She blinked twice in surprise, then nodded slowly.  "Something like that, yes."

          Harrison leaned back a little more, his arms folding over his chest and small pain-filled smile flickering across his lips.  "That's the way Paul described it… more or less."  He tugged off his glasses and slid them into his shirt pocket, then rubbed the bridge of his nose.

          Suzanne stepped back, then worked her way around Blackwood's desk and dropped into his chair.  She sighed.  "I don't think it would have bothered me so much if it hadn't been Debi's kite.  My gift.  We've taken so much away from her already…"

          Harrison slid onto the desktop and turned slightly so he could see her.  "I know.  I shouldn't have done it, but I was handling the situation."

          "What if Debi had seen that kite?  I didn't want to ruin her surprise."

          "I didn't.  And tell me the truth, Suzanne.  What's the chance that Debi would have seen it?"

          Suzanne sat back.  He had a point…  "I don't know."

          "Why did you go up after it?  I left you a note.  I told you I was going to go get another one."

          She thought a moment, then a wry smile crossed her lips.  "I guess when you get right down to it, it had nothing to do with me trusting you."  She glanced up and met the probing, hopeful gaze.  "I was mad, and climbing that tree was a way to get some control back.  I felt like you'd taken that away."

          Harrison nodded slowly, surprised and pleased with her honesty.  He turned and stood, then made his way to the chair and crouched down so he was on Suzanne's eyelevel.  He opened his mouth to speak, but wasn't sure he could say the words that needed to be said.

          "What, Harrison?" she prompted softly.

          He let his eyes drop closed as he started.  "Sometimes…  Sometimes I feel a little…"  The blue eyes opened.  "…out of control here, don't you?"

          She nodded, feeling the tears sting her eyes.  She'd been terribly unfair.

          "In some ways I envy Debi…"  He trailed off, then frowned.  He met her eyes.  "It was wrong, but I'd probably do it again, Suzanne.  It's who I am."  He gave her a self-effacing grin.  "But I'll try to fight the impulse."

The confession melted the last remains of her anger.  He was right.  A part of Harrison Blackwood, the small frightened five-year-old part, needed that control as much as she did, and an inviting toy was just too much of a temptation.  She met his gaze and smiled back.

          "No, you won't," she said without any sting.

          Harrison stood, and paced to the window.  Leaning against it, he looked out over the Cottage grounds.  "Paul said I expect the world to bend to my desires…"

          "Sometimes it seems like you do."

          He nodded, but didn't look back at her.  "Sometimes, but I never wanted you or Paul to get hurt.  I thought you'd trust me.  I didn't think about the consequences if you didn't…"

          She waited to see if he would continue, and when he didn't, prompted, "And?"

          "And he was right."

          "Harrison," she said seriously, "we do trust you, it's just that sometimes that trust gets… confused with things that you do."

          "I put your lives in danger."

          "No, you're right.  You told me you were handling it, and you were.  It was my decision to climb that tree, and if I'd stayed on the ground Paul never would've gone up there."

          "It's still my fault."

          "Harrison, we were all wrong to some degree."  She moved to the opposite side of the window and leaned against it so she could look at him.  "My reaction was just as irrational as yours.  We were both trying to grab on to some sliver of a normal life.  A birthday, flying a kite…"

          He met her eyes, and she was hit with the realization that none of them had experienced what could be called a "normal" childhood – Norton, Paul, Harrison, losing his parents, living with Clayton… the monsters under Harrison's bed were real.  It wasn't normal.  None of them, except her, and what was she really trying to do?  Give Debi what she'd had?  The piano lesson, ballet, the prom?  It was impossible…

          "But we can't," she continued softly.  "We don't live in a normal world anymore.  Some of us never have…"

          "I don't want to make any more mistakes that might get you or Norton or Paul hurt, or worse."

          "Is that why you didn't go with him?"

          Harrison nodded.  "I'm scared, Suzanne.  What if he's more right than I want to believe?  What if I do something… impulsive, and it gets someone killed?"

          She stood and stood next to Harrison, a hand resting on his shoulder.  "We all make mistakes, Harrison, but you can't hide here.  That's not good for you, or our fight against the aliens.  Maybe you need to act a little less impulsively, but—"

          "But I don't know if I can."  He looked down at her, his hands coming up to cover hers and squeeze.  "I can't think in a straight jacket."  He looked back out the window.  "I should have gone with him."

"It's not too late."

          He looked down at her again, the spark springing back in he blue eyes.  "You're right!"

          He stalked from the room, pulling Suzanne along with him, stopping at the elevator in deference to her still sore ankle.  They rode down to the basement and Suzanne flashed Norton a quick thumbs up behind the astrophysicist's back while he stalked for the phone.  Picking it up, he punched the intercom for the coach house.

          "Derriman," came the senior noncom's soft Kentucky drawl.

          "Sergeant, I want to go to the New Pacific Institute.  Now."

          "Dr. Blackwood," the sergeant replied.  "The Colonel and the squad should be landing in ten minutes.  I—"

          "That's an order, Sergeant."

          There was a slight pause.  "Yes, sir.  I'll have one of the support units bring a chopper up to pick you up.  It'll be a little faster that way.  Be ready in ten."

          "Thank you, Sergeant."

 

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

 

          Airborne, Harrison settled back into his seat and tried to fight off the growing sense of dread clawing its way up out of his gut.  Listening to the radio chatter of the others just before they landed, he stifled the desire to tell the pilot to hurry.

          Ironhorse's voice echoed over the headset.  "Norton, have you narrowed down the location of those transmissions?"

          "The northwest quadrant of the campus is the best I can do, Colonel," the hacker replied.

          The northwest?  Harrison's fingers drummed on his thighs.  Why did that sound so ominous…  Yes!

          He leaned forward.  "How do I talk to them?" he yelled to Derriman, who was seated across from him.

          "Just press the key on your throat mike," the sergeant replied.

          "Paul?"

          "Yes, Harrison?" Ironhorse replied.

          "Listen, the old physics complex used to be in the northwest corner of the campus.  They've built the new gym over most of it.  Some of the Ezekiel Project studies were conducted there.  Maybe it—"

          "Understood.  We'll land near the gym and go from there."

 

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

 

          The first thing Ironhorse noticed as he jumped from the rear of the chopper were the chain link fences and the construction.  The gym was getting an addition, from the looks of it.

          He motioned for the Omegans to fan out.  He silently thanked Grandfather that it was a Saturday, and the campus appeared empty.  At least they wouldn't have to worry about students…

          "Damn it," he breathed when he saw the five young people exit the building, drawn by the sound of the choppers.  They were dressed in gis.  Some weekend martial arts class, the colonel reasoned, touching his throat mike.  "Stavrakos, get those students out of there."

          "Yes, sir," was the immediate reply.

          Ironhorse took a deep breath, and ignoring the icy sweat that had broken out across his back, ran for the side entrance.

 

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

 

          Harrison listened to the voices over the radio link as they moved through the gym, room by room.  There were some students there… but so far no sign of the aliens.

          What could possibly be left?  The government had come in after Clayton's death and taken most of his research away.  He'd moved the rest of the records to the new physics complex himself.  There wasn't anything there the aliens could want.

          "I have three students in the gymnastics room," Ironhorse's voice said over the headset as Derriman called, "We're landing, Doctor."

          "I'll move them out.  Stein, sweep this room," Ironhorse continued as the chopper's skids pressed into the thick grass.

          "With me, Doctor," Derriman said, standing and heading out.  Harrison tugged the headset free and scrambled out after the non-com.  Reaching Derriman's side, he said, "I know where the gymnastics room is.  Let's meet up with Paul."

          Derriman nodded.  "Just stay close and duck if I say so," the sergeant acknowledged.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse entered the room, his weapon carefully held so it did not point at the three young women dressed in gis.

          "Ladies, if you'd come with me," he said, then heard the soft whistle as the radiation detector sounded.

          The Koch & Heckler sprang up.  The three women bolted in different directions.  There was no fear in their eyes, and Ironhorse pulled the trigger.  Two of the students exploded, alien and human tissue spraying across the exercise mats.  They fell, the remainder of their bodies bubbling away.

          Ironhorse charged after the third, who dived for cover behind several balance beams lined up in one corner of the room.

          "I have contact," Ironhorse said into his comm.-link.  "Three females in gis.  Two down, one loose.  Five seven, one-hundred-forty, brown and brown.  I am in pursuit."

 

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

 

          Harrison heard the news and swore silently.  Where were the rest of Omega?

          "Spotted possible target," came Coleman's crisp voice.

          "Intercept," Ironhorse replied.

          Harrison stuck to Derriman's left hip like a Siamese twin, directing the sergeant toward the gymnastics room.  He'd taken yoga in that room a million years ago…

          "There," he said, pointing.

          Hearing the pound of footsteps, they paused, catching sight of Coleman crossing the hall further down.

          "Let's go," Derriman said.

 

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

 

          Ironhorse followed the fleeing alien into the women's showers, announcing his location as the door clicked shut behind him.

          Moving up the row of lockers, he kept the weapon ready to fire.  Nothing.

          A muffled rattle and Ironhorse paused, his eyes scanning the row and ceiling above.  His jaws tightened.  The alien was in the lockers somewhere.  He kicked at the closest, the sharp clang spooking the alien.  It bolted from the locker just in front of the colonel and flung itself at the soldier.

          The Kock & Heckler was firing even as the alien collided with Ironhorse, the alien-possessed women's chest exploding as she collided with the colonel, her knee slamming up into his groin.

          The protective cup was not enough to counter the alien-enhanced strength of the creature in its death throes.  The protective plastic wedged into the still tender flesh and Ironhorse watched as the locker erupted into a barrage of yellow and white strobes.  He sank to his knees, unable to react as his eyes filled and he gasped for a breath.

          He heard the burst of bullets, muffled as if fired at the far end of a tunnel, then fell to the side and curled into an almost perfect fetal position.

 

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

 

          "Whoa, Doc," Derriman said, grabbing hold of the scientist's jacket.  "You stay behind me."

          Blackwood pressed his lips together and nodded.  The sergeant pushed the door open, a sound like a locker falling greeting them.  Derriman moved forward, Harrison on his heels.

          Rounding a row of the metal lockers, the two men watched the alien lunge at Ironhorse and saw the colonel fire, shedding the alien's chest.  But it still came.

          Harrison yelled as the creature's knee slammed into the colonel's groin and he fell.  Derriman's weapon fired, disintegrating the woman's face.  The creature fell, the tissue already starting to melt.

          They ran for Ironhorse.

          "Paul?" Blackwood said, noting where the colonel's hands were positioned.  He felt a sympathetic twang.  "Paul?"

          Derriman cursed the nearly dissolved alien and spoke into the comm.-link.  "Goodson.  Locker room.  On the double.  Continue the sweep, report to me here."

"Roger," Coleman's voice replied.

          The locker room door burst open and Goodson charged in, his field kit and weapon both ready.

 

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

 

          The doctor glanced down at his latest admit and shook his head.  So, the man was a Lieutenant Colonel…

          "Colonel, I'd think a man of your experience would know better," he said, lifting the sheet to survey the damage.  A nurse appeared with a syringe and the doctor nodded for her to administer it.  "Hmm, doesn't look serious, re-bruised the original injury…  Painful, I'm sure."

          "Good guess," Ironhorse hissed through clinched teeth.

          The nurse gave the soldier a sympathetic smile and disappeared.

          "The medication should kick in any minute.  Looks like you'll be staying with us for another night.  You're not planning to make a habit of this, are you?"

          "Over my dead body," was the half-slurred reply.  The colonel blinked, but the room remained fuzzy.

          "Nurse," the doctor called, "let's get some icepack on him, and I'll want the urologist on call to have a look."

          "Yes, Doctor," the nurse replied.  It was the last thing Ironhorse heard for several hours.

 

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

 

          The colonel grunted softly, and forced his eyes open.  They were sticky and his mouth tasted like week-old cottage cheese – compliments of the painkiller.  He tried to swallow, but choked.

          A hand slipped under his shoulders, lifting him forward while a glass touched his lips.  Paul drank, recognizing the helping hand.  After several swallows he leaned back.

          "Blackwood," he acknowledged, his eyes dropping closed.

          "Welcome back," the scientist replied.

          Ironhorse listened as Harrison pulled a chair over and sat down next to the hospital bed.  "How long was I out?"

          "Twelve hours.  The doctor said you'll be fine.  Nothing strenuous for a few days, of course."

          Ironhorse grunted.  "The transmissions?"

          "We found the source," Harrison said reluctantly.

          "Source?"

          "It seems that Clayton had squirreled away an alien artifact.  The new reconstruction unearthed it, and… turned it on somehow."

          Ironhorse's eyes opened.  "What is it?"

          Harrison shook his head and shrugged.  "It's looks much like the black polygons we've discovered, but this is… different –larger and with inlays.  It looks like we weren't the only ones to hear the message, either."

          Ironhorse's voice was cold.  "The aliens.  They heard the transmission and sent someone to check it out."

"That would be my guess," Harrison said, leaning back.  "I have a feeling this isn't over, but there's nothing more we can do right now.  The doctor said you can go home tomorrow.  Suzanne's on her way."

          "She talking to you yet?"

          Harrison offered up a small smile.  "Some."

          "Harrison, why'd you do it?"

          Blackwood smiled.  There.  At last.  Someone finally asked.  "It's… complicated."

          "I have the time," Ironhorse said ruefully.  "Besides, it'll take my mind off… other things."

          Harrison chuckled softly, but his expression turned serious.  "It's…"  He shook his head and started over.  "After my nap I was walking to the living room, and I remembered that I'd left my journal in the dining room when I was helping Suzanne put up the streamers for Debi's party."  He scooted down in his chair, extended his legs, and crossed them at the ankles.  "When I got in there, with all the decorations and the presents… it finally struck me…  I never had a birthday party.  Not like that."

          He looked up, meeting Ironhorse's even gaze and wondered if Paul had ever had one either.

          "Oh, Sylvia tried, but it was never like that.  I guess it was curiosity.  I was looking at Debi's presents, wondering what was in them.  I picked up the box with the kite.  Suzanne can really wrap a beautiful present, by the way."

          "Blackwood."

          A short grin.  "Sorry.  It was so light.  I shook it.  I heard a snap.  I thought I had broken whatever it was, so I opened it to check."

          "And?"

          "I had.  I took the kite into my office and did what I could, but I didn't know if it would hold without something more… obvious.  I knew Suzanne would have my— well, you know...  So I took it out to see if the fix would hold…"  He trailed off, his cheeks reddening slightly.  "I didn't expect the wind to be that tricky, and it was dark, and…"

          "The patch failed and the kite crashed into the tree."

          Harrison nodded.  "I would've climbed up and taken it down, but you know I don't like heights.  Besides I wanted to get into town and get a replacement before Debi was up.  I left Suzanne a note…  I never expected her to try and get it down herself."

          "Harrison," Ironhorse sighed.  It all made too much sense.  Maybe he'd been just a little hard on the man, although he'd be dammed if he took a single word back.  He was also right.  Just not about this situation.  "Why didn't you wake me up?  I could have—"

          "Not my style, Colonel.  Besides, I had the situation under control.  I notified Alverez that I was going into town, he sent Stein and Goodson with me, we found the dragon kite at a shop over by the vegetarian deli.  I had it wrapped at the Mail Boxes Etc shop, and we got it back on the table a full hour before Debi got up.  She was more upset that you and Suzanne weren't there for her party."

          The two men sat in silence for a time, then Harrison leaned forward and patted the colonel's leg.  "But I have thought about what you said, and I agree with you… to a point."

          The two black eyebrows rose.  "You do?"

          "Uh-hmm," Harrison said with a nod.  "I've started looking at consequences, Colonel, really looking."

 

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

 

Coda: Shotgun Wedding

 

          "I'm fourteen now, so I'm a real teenager, right, Colonel?  Almost grown up, so you don't have to talk down to me anymore, right?"

          Debi closed the door to his office and climbed into the chair on the opposite side of his desk, looking very earnest.  All her actions said that she wanted this to be a private conversation – just between the two of them.

          "I wasn't aware that I'd ever intentionally spoken down to you, Debi."  Ironhorse didn't like the sound of this.  What was wrong?

          Debi moved her chair closer to the edge of the desk, sitting very straight, and doing her best to project an appearance of calm maturity.  He could see that whatever it was, the subject of their discussion was obviously important to her.

          "Mom told me all about, you know, birds an' bees, a couple of years ago, so I'm not ignorant or anything," she stated, eyes firmly on the table in front of her.  "And Harrison's got some books about it in his study that I've read," she confessed.  She was blushing slightly.

          Ironhorse felt his own color rise in sympathy.  Blackwood's rather eclectic library needed to be sorted and certain books removed from easy reach or overly curious eyes.  He nodded.

          "Does Harrison know about this?" he prodded her conscience a little bit.

          Debi blushed even more.  "No.  But that's not what I want to ask you, Colonel.  I mean, I think I have a right to know, even if it's, well, I mean, I don't mind or anything, and it's perfectly natural…"  She trailed off into embarrassed silence.

          "We're talking about sex," he said quietly.  "Is that it, Debi?"

          She nodded, too embarrassed to risk an answer.

          He sat back in his chair, feeling a little out of his depth.  "Uh, shouldn't you be having this conversation with your mother?"

          Debi shook her head fiercely.  "Oh, no, I couldn't ask her!  I mean, I know grown-ups are supposed to do it all the time and everything, and in lots of different ways, but I didn't think you were supposed to get hurt!  Harrison's books had an awful lot of pictures and everything, but this wasn't in the books, so I thought…"

That damned bookcase was going to get a very careful inspection when he was done here, Ironhorse thought fiercely.  Then another, more worrying idea occurred to him.  He looked down at Debi, red-faced with embarrassment, eyes downcast, clearly frightened.

          He leaned over the desk, resting a hand gently on the top of her head.  "Debi," he said very gently, "has someone, suggested something, or done something, to you?  Is that what we're talking about?"

          The head flew up; the embarrassment turned to indignation. "Me?" she exclaimed.  "Colonel!  I'm only fourteen, but I'm not that dumb!"

          She was standing up now, leaning over the desk, looking down at him; a perfect twin for her mother in actions.

          Ironhorse backed down immediately.  "Then what are we talking about?"

          Debi sat back down, straightening her skirt, and looking very, very much older than her fourteen years.  Her embarrassment was gone now.  She was clearly in control of the situation.

"We're talking about my birthday," she answered succinctly.  "We're talking about how you and my mom ended up in a hospital after falling out of a tree."

          She leaned forward, looking every inch the angry parent.  "Just what were you and my mom doing up in that tree, Colonel Ironhorse?" she demanded.