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He could hear the two men arguing as soon as they got out of the Bronco.

From his position by the window in Colonel Ironhorse's office, he couldn't hear the words, but their voices were loud and angry and punctuated by the sharp slamming of car doors.

Ironhorse led the way to the Cottage in a stiff-legged gait that telegraphed his displeasure and had Harrison Blackwood jogging around the car to catch up. But catch up he did, his arms waving in animated gestures as he continued to try and gain the attention of the man who was now steadfastly ignoring him. Bringing up the rear at a slower pace, and looking for all the world like she had a migraine, was Suzanne McCullough.

His slight smile of amusement turned into a frown as the soldier neared the house and he got his first good look at him. It was obvious from his mud-covered fatigues and the pristine white bandage encircling his right hand that he had been involved in another encounter with the enemy. It was also obvious from the man's haggard appearance and the careful way he was moving that he was not only in pain but nearing exhaustion as well. Mr. Drake said they had left around midnight last night, and it was nearly seven now. His frown deepened as his concern mixed with rising irritation. Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse hadn't been medically discharged for regular duty yet, and he damn well knew it. He had been confined to light duty until further notice--and that meant no recons, no field maneuvers, and certainly no all-night missions like the one he had obviously been on.

The words became plainer as the front door opened.

"Colonel, you've been a soldier for most of your life--you should understand about following orders--"

"Following orders?!" Ironhorse's voice rose in disbelief. " You're talking to me about following orders?"

Good point.

"Did you follow orders when I told you to stay in the car?"

"That's beside the point--"

"No, that is the point. Doctor," the soldier bit out. "As long as you continue to disregard every single security measure that I have established to guarantee your safety, then, by god, mister, I'm not lettin' you out of my sight!"

Boot heels clicked angrily on the floor, then came to an abrupt halt.

"Oh, no you don't! You're not going to turn this thing around! Whether or not I go on a mission is not the issue here. The issue is your health and the doctor's orders--"

"Blackwood, I'm warning you." Ironhorse sounded like he was talking through clenched teeth. "If I hear one more word out of you about following orders--"

Time to put a stop to all this. The Colonel seemed to be on the verge of inflicting bodily harm. He stepped out into the hallway. Suzanne happened to be facing him, and her eyes went wide. Blackwood and the Colonel saw her at the same time, and Ironhorse's threat died on his lips.

"Uncle Hank!"

The two men both snapped around, but it took Ironhorse a full five seconds to regain his composure and bring himself smartly to attention. The hand swathed in white gauze wavered a bit as he raised it in a salute.

"General Wilson. Sir."

His face neutral, he returned the salute. Now that he was face-to-face with the man, he was torn between yanking him off this assignment so fast his head would spin, or sitting him down and trying to talk some sense into him. To Paul Ironhorse duty had always come before his own personal welfare; and he had no doubt that the officer was in the field today because he thought it was his duty. It was one of the many things he admired about this man. But he could not--he would not--allow him to get himself, or a member of this team, killed because he was too stubborn to accept the fact that in his condition he was more of a hindrance than a help. "At ease, Colonel."

The soldier's body relaxed a fraction, but not enough to be at ease.

"Uncle Hank, we weren't expecting you." Suzanne tried to sound cheerful, but the effect fell flat.

"Obviously," he returned sternly, his eyes still on the soldier. Ironhorse met his gaze squarely. He would offer no excuses; he never did. Blackwood looked like he wanted to say something, but Wilson cut a warning glance in his direction, and the physicist's face fell. There was no point in saying anything; Ironhorse hadn't been cleared for duty and everyone standing there knew it.

"Colonel, I need to speak with you. Shall we say..." Wilson looked at his watch. "Oh-nine- hundred in your office?" That was pushing it a bit; he was supposed to be out of here by nine-thirty, but he wanted to give Ironhorse some time to get his legs back under him. If the man had any sense at all, he'd use that time to get some rest.

"Yes, Sir." Ironhorse saluted again. Then, his face set and stony, he performed a perfect about- face and went upstairs. That left the three of them in uncomfortable silence.

"Suzanne, Doctor, I need to speak with you. In your office, Doctor, if you please."

His niece and Blackwood exchanged uneasy glances before the physicist led the way to his office. Once they were inside and the door shut behind them, Wilson turned to face them; but before he could say anything, Blackwood spoke up.

"General, I think I should explain something."

He held up a hand. "Doctor, I don't think the Colonel would appreciate your interference."

"Maybe not," Blackwood retorted with a slight smile, "but that's never stopped me before. Look, General, the Colonel only went on that mission because I insisted on going."

"I'm sure that was a large part of it," he agreed, "but it wasn't the only reason."

The younger man nodded, his face serious. "When his men go out, he goes out. That's a given, General."

"Except when he's under orders not to," he replied flatly. "The subject is closed for discussion, Doctor. I'll take it up with the Colonel myself. That's not what I want to talk to you about."

Blackwood looked irritated at being cut off so abruptly, and he began to pace around the office, hands in his pockets. Suzanne, as usual, tried to smooth things over. "It's good to see you no matter why you're here, Uncle Hank." She and the physicist exchanged quick, worried looks. "Mm...why are you here?"

"Surprise inspection, Doctors," he replied crisply. "I find that is sometimes a better indication of how a unit is functioning than all the reports you can write." He paused to level a thoughtful gaze at each of them. "And if that little display a few minutes ago is any indication..."      ,

Blackwood spoke up quickly. "General, if you'll just allow me to explain--"

"I usually find that actions speak louder than words. Doctor; and your actions--and the Colonel's--spoke quite loudly."

The physicist's blue eyes narrowed slightly as he studied him. "Why don't you tell us the real reason you're here today,General?"

The man was sharp, all right. But Wilson conceded that his natural distrust of the military might have at least partly prompted that question. He laid a few more of his cards on the table. "I've read the medical reports on Colonel Ironhorse, and I've talked to his doctors. But now I want to hear it from you two, in person--how do you see his condition?"

He looked at Blackwood first, who walked slowly over to his desk and leaned against it, his arms folded. There was a slight frown on his face as if he was trying to decide what he wanted to say or maybe how he wanted to say it.

"If you've read the medical reports," he began slowly, "then you know we still haven't fully analyzed that alien substance that accidentally came in contact with his skin last week.

Wilson remembered the situation well enough. Ironhorse had led his men on a raid on a warehouse, a suspected alien stronghold. Unknown to them, it had also turned out to be a storage facility for some sort of alien chemical or drug. In the resulting battle, some of the barrels had been destroyed and Ironhorse had been splashed with some of the gelatinous matter.

"We know what the results were," Blackwood was saying, "but we still don't know everything that was in it or how it works. All we really know is that within a half hour of contact, he was completely paralyzed. After that, he slipped into a coma. He was comatose for two days--during which time we still didn't learn how to counter the effects."

Suddenly, the physicist pushed himself away from his desk and walked over to the window, staring out the frosted glass. "His physical condition deteriorated rapidly in those two days. We couldn't find any cause for it, and we couldn't stop it." His voice dropped so that Wilson had to strain to hear him. "We couldn't do a damn thing," he said bitterly. "Nothing we tried worked." He ran a hand recklessly through the unruly curls on his head. "I thought we'd lost him." Then he seemed to shake himself out of his thoughts. "Then...he just woke up. Maybe whatever it was just ran its course in his system. We just don't know. But once he woke up, the process seemed to stop, and he's been regaining his strength ever since."

Turning away from the window, his face was grim. "He may not be fit for active duty just yet, General, but he was fit enough to save my life out there today. Remember to put that in your report."

"Harrison." Suzanne threw him a warning look, but he just turned his back and stared at the glass again.

"Thank you, Doctor," he said politely. "Now, Suzanne, about his mental state--"

"All right, that's it!" Blackwood snapped around angrily. "Just what's going on here. General? If you're thinking of pulling the Colonel off this project, I warn you right now, I'm not going to just stand by and let you--"

"It occurs to me. Dr. Blackwood, that only a few weeks ago, the very thought of removing Colonel Ironhorse would have had you turning handsprings."

That hit a little too close to the truth for the physicist, and he struck a slightly defensive stance. "That was a few weeks ago," he said flatly. "This is now. We've both come a long way since then. I think I can speak for Suzanne and Norton, too, when I say if you try to take him now, you won't get him without one hell of a fight."

Although his face gave nothing away, Wilson felt a mixture of amusement and surprise at the physicist's ready defense of his military liaison. Paul had found himself quite a friend in Harrison Blackwood. And who would have thought it? The spaced-out, crackpot scientist and the hard-line career soldier. "I see," was all he said, wondering how far Blackwood would take this.

His eyes glinting with anger, the physicist walked toward him and didn't stop until they were toe-to-toe. "I know how the Army thinks. General."

Now that was a frightening concept.

"You think all your soldiers are interchangeable. You think you can just replace one with another and no one will know the difference." The younger man drew himself up to his full six foot two. "Well, let me tell you something. General Wilson--it doesn't work that way. Not here. You may have a ready supply of trained and able lieutenant Colonels out there; but you will never find another man with the integrity, courage and experience of Paul Ironhorse. We're fighting a war for the freedom and preservation of this entire planet, and we can't win it without him." Pausing only an instant, he concluded in a level voice, "And there is no one else I would trust with the security of this mission or the safety of the personnel."

Integrity, courage, and trust. Wilson almost shook his head in disbelief. Not words he would have ever thought to hear Harrison Blackwood attribute to a member of the military. Curiouser and curiouser.

"Are you through. Doctor?" he asked politely.

Blackwood's face darkened. "No," he said bluntly. "I'm not. I just want you to know, General, if you've come here today hoping to manufacture some sort of reason to replace Ironhorse on this project, then I'll do whatever it takes to stop you." He paused just long enough to make his next words significant. "And if that means going over your head, then I'll go over your head."

Since the only person "over his head" was the President of the United States, that was quite a statement to make. But knowing the good doctor, Wilson knew he was quite serious.

"Now excuse me," the physicist said shortly, "I have to see Norton about those transmissions we intercepted last night." Turning on his heel, he stalked out of the room and closed the door loudly behind him.

Suzanne bit her lip. "Uncle Hank, he didn't mean that--"

"Oh, yes he did," he said, a satisfied smile playing at his lips. "He meant every word." He had often witnessed that kind of loyalty in Ironhorse's troops; the man had that rare ability to inspire a fierce allegiance in his men. But loyalty like this from a civilian was rare, indeed. And from this particular civilian, it was nothing short of amazing.

"Uncle Hank?"

Jolted out of his thoughts, he turned to find his niece studying him, a thoughtful look on her beautiful face. "You're right--he meant every word of it. But that doesn't bother you, does it?"

She was sharp, too. But, then, she was his niece. "Do you agree with Blackwood, Suzanne?" he asked, smoothly ignoring the question. "About Ironhorse, I mean. That I'd never be able to find anyone to replace him here?"

"I don't like everything Paul does, or the way he does it," Suzanne said slowly. "But everything that man does is for our safety." A brief, rueful smile touched her lips. "It took us a long time to realize that...but we realize it now." Then her smile faded and her tone turned serious. "There is no one in this world I would sooner trust with my life--or with Debi's. And considering what kind of war we're fighting here, I think that pretty much says it all."

He nodded. Trust again. First Drake, then Blackwood, and now his own niece. So say they all. There was only one voice left to be heard. He wondered if it would be unanimous.

"My dear, do you think you could get Mrs. Pennyworth to bring some coffee to the Colonel's office?" he asked suddenly. "I think I'll wait for him there."

There was a little frown on Suzanne's face that plainly said she knew there was more to all this than he was telling her, but she nodded and left the room without pressing the issue.

Wilson stood for a few moments longer, staring out the window. This was turning out to be quite an enlightening surprise inspection.

 

At precisely oh-nine-hundred. Colonel Ironhorse stepped into his office and shut the door behind him. He had showered and changed into a fresh set of fatigues, but if he had gotten any rest, it didn't show. Wilson returned his salute, then nodded toward the coffee tray Mrs. Pennyworth had provided. "At ease, Paul. Coffee? I must say I envy you," he smiled. "This isn't the kind of coffee we soldiers usually have an opportunity to enjoy."

"Yes, Sir." Relaxing only slightly, Ironhorse joined Wilson at the cart, automatically reaching out to grasp the handle of the coffee pot. He froze, however, as soon as he extended his right hand with its telltale white wrapping.

If the Colonel hadn't looked so stricken, Wilson would have grinned. Instead, he reached out and poured the coffee himself. "Better let me do that," he said dryly.

"Thank you. Sir," Ironhorse mumbled, accepting the cup with his left hand.

Wilson waited until Ironhorse was behind his desk and they were both seated before he spoke again. "I don't expect to see you on any more missions until you're cleared for duty, Colonel," he said sternly. "Understood?"

Ironhorse was practically sitting at attention behind his desk. "Understood, Sir."

Wilson nodded. "All right, then." He took a sip of coffee, savoring the flavor, then let his eyes rest on the soldier's face. "How are you feeling, Paul?" he asked with genuine concern.

"I'm fine, Sir," Ironhorse replied automatically.

He had to fight down the flicker of impatience he felt. The man would insist he was "fine" even if he was sitting there in a full body cast. Well, he had known Paul Ironhorse long enough not to expect anything else and well enough to realize that was all he was going to get by way of an answer. So he let it pass.

"That little... exchange between you and Blackwood earlier," he said, keeping his eyes on Ironhorse's face, "is that typical between the two of you?"

If he hadn't been watching him so closely, Wilson would have missed the dismay that flashed in the black eyes. The Colonel, he noted somewhat sympathetically, was not having a good morning. First, his commanding officer caught him red-handed, as it were, coming off a mission he wasn't even supposed to be on; and then walked right into the middle of a shouting match between him and his civilian project leader. Not the kind of impression you wanted to make on yourC.O.

But the Colonel took it stoically. "Dr. Blackwood and I," he answered, with more than a trace of resignation, "seem to be at cross-purposes sometimes. He insists on getting as close to the aliens as possible; I insist that he doesn't."

"In other words, he doesn't follow orders."

One dark eyebrow arched. "He is a civilian, Sir."

And that pretty much explained it. "Does that bother you?"

A slight, crooked smile relieved the soldier's tired features. "Let's just say, I'm not used to having my orders ignored. It has taken some...adjustment."

"What about Dr. Blackwood? Has he done any 'adjusting'?"

Ironhorse seemed to consider that before answering. "To be fair, Sir, I think we both have. I think we both realize that if we have to work together--"

"What if you didn't have to work together?" Wilson interrupted, taking another sip of coffee, but keeping his eyes on the other man.

The Cherokee officer's face went blank. "Sir?" Then, his body stiffened as the ramifications of that question sank in. "Are you telling me that I'm being transferred off this project, General?" Uncharacteristically, he gave Wilson no chance to respond. "If my performance has been unsatisfactory, or if I--"

"Your performance. Colonel, has been exemplary," Wilson assured him hastily. "As always. And I still feel that you're the best possible man for this assignment." Seeing the soldier's tense body relax a fraction, he continued, a bit more carefully. "I was just wondering how you felt about continuing with this assignment, given it's unique...challenges." He leaned forward slightly in his chair. "No bullshit, Paul," he said sternly. "I want to know how you feel about it."

The soldier met his gaze squarely. "I like to finish what I start, Sir," he said in a level voice. "And I'd like to see this assignment through to the end."

Nothing less than he expected from Colonel Ironhorse. "I've read your reports," he noted, sitting back. "Doesn't it ever bother you that sometimes your only back-up in the field is an untrained civilian who won't even carry a gun?"

Something like a wince crossed Ironhorse's features. This was obviously a sore subject with him. "Dr. Blackwood," he acknowledged with painful honesty, "refuses to carry a weapon. It's a personal belief. Sir, and I haven't been able to change his mind, even when I point out it's for his own protection." He paused for a moment, his tone turning somber. "I'm not concerned for my own safety when I'm in the field with Harrison," he continued, using Blackwood's given name for the first time during the discussion. "On the contrary, I know he would place his own life in jeopardy to save me--or anyone else--without giving it a second thought."

Wilson chewed on that for a few moments, marveling at the insights he had gained this morning. His surprise inspection had yielded some surprises indeed. "Then you trust him... realizing your life may very well depend on this man at some point?"

Both black eyebrows rose. "Why, yes, Sir." He seemed surprised at the question; but there was no hesitation in his reply. Then he leaned forward slightly, arms leaning on the desk, his tone deadly serious. "Blackwood had his faults, General, but he is completely dedicated to this war. And everything he does--whether I agree with it or not--he does to further our cause and defeat the enemy." His opaque eyes met Wilson's. "We can't win this war without him, Sir. His knowledge, his experience, his intuition about the aliens--" He smiled briefly, "--which usually turns out to be right--are all irreplaceable. He's our best and strongest weapon in this war, and he must be protected at all costs."

It took a great deal to win Paul Ironhorse's respect--Wilson knew that from long experience--but Harrison Blackwood had somehow managed to do just that. "I take it, Colonel," he said with just a hint of dryness in his tone, "that you want the job."

For the first time that morning, Wilson saw a spark of humor in the dark eyes. "If you don't have any other takers, General."

As if anyone else would want this job, Wilson mused, or could handle it. Even if there were 'other takers,' he knew for a fact they wouldn't get past the front gate--or Harrison Blackwood. "No, Colonel," he retorted, allowing himself a smile. "No other takers. The job is yours."

The man actually smiled at the news. "Thank you, Sir."

Wilson shook his head, sobering. "Don't thank me, Paul. I don't think I'm doing you any favors. If I could--" He was interrupted by the intercom at Ironhorse's elbow buzzing to life.

"Excuse me, Sir."

Wilson listened to the brief one-sided conversation, guessing from Ironhorse's responses that alien activity was once again afoot.

Hanging up the phone, Ironhorse got to his feet. "I'm sorry, Sir, I'm needed downstairs. Mr. Drake has picked up more alien transmissions."

Wilson climbed to his feet as well. "I won't keep you, Paul. I need to be leaving, but I want to see Debi before I go." He glanced pointedly at the man's bandaged right hand. "Remember what I said, Colonel."

Ironhorse drew himself to attention and snapped off a crisp salute. "Yes, Sir."

Wilson returned the salute, knowing that Ironhorse had every intention of obeying orders; but also knowing that those intentions would quickly go by the wayside if he thought any member of his team was in danger. Well, he really couldn't fault him for that. After all that was part of what made him the fine officer he was.

After Ironhorse had left to join the others in the downstairs lab, Wilson helped himself to one more cup of Mrs. Pennyworth's coffee, then went off in search of Debi.

"Well, young lady, that was certainly quite a display of horsemanship." He had finally tracked Debi down at the stables where she had been riding around the fenced corral.

His young niece beamed up at him. "The Colonel's been teaching me."

"Has he now?" Wilson smothered his smile. Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse giving riding lessons to an exuberant eleven-year-old. Now that was something he'd like to see. "Well, if you keep up all this practice--" He broke off as they neared the Cottage and he once again heard angry voices raised to near-shouts. A few moments later, he located the source of the disturbance: Ironhorse and Blackwood were standing by the Bronco in each other's faces... again.

"That's just Harrison and the Colonel," Debi reported matter-of-factly, as they both stopped. "They do that all the time."

"Do they now?" he asked, wondering just how much she overheard around here, and making a mental note to discuss that with Suzanne.

Her blonde head bobbed. "Yeah, but it's okay. They're not really mad."

"They certainly sound mad," he noted mildly. They looked angry, too. At least the Colonel did;

Blackwood simply looked exasperated.

"No." Debi shook her head decisively. "The Colonel only yells when he's worried--and he worries a lot about Harrison."

Wilson studied the young girl's open features, feeling his eyebrows elevate in surprise. "Is that so?" he queried, wondering when she had begun analyzing the adults in her life. "Then why does Dr. Blackwood yell?"

The girl threw him a mischievous grin, her blue eyes twinkling. "I think he yells to make the Colonel listen."

He couldn't help it; he grinned back. "And does he?"

Debi returned her attention to the two men arguing over by the vehicle. "He pretends he doesn't," she said thoughtfully, "but the Colonel hears everything."

Wilson wondered wryly what Ironhorse would say to being psychoanalyzed by an eleven-year- old. And on-the-money, too.

The argument stopped abruptly when the Colonel got into the passenger side of the Bronco and slammed the door resoundingly. That left Harrison Blackwood standing in the driveway for all of five seconds before he, too, climbed into the car and slammed the door. Moments later, the engine roared to life and the Bronco took off, sending gravel flying as it sped toward the gate. So much for following orders, Wilson mused.

"Harrison worries, too." Wilson noted with some consternation that Debi sounded more like her mother at this point than an eleven-year-old. "Mom said when the Colonel was sick last week, Harrison stayed at the hospital and wouldn't leave until he was better." The youngster turned her face up so she was gazing at him, wide eyes serious. "The Colonel was real sick, wasn't he?" she asked in a thin voice. "Nobody ever tells me anything around here. But I could tell."

Wilson put his arm around her slim shoulders and pulled her closer. "Yes, Sweetheart," he said gently, "the Colonel was very sick. But he's fine now," he added with a reassuring squeeze.

Debi slid an arm around his waist as they started again for the Cottage. "Do you have to go so soon. Uncle Hank?"

"I'm afraid so, Debi. I've got to get back to Washington."

"Will you be back soon?"

Wilson felt a small smile tug at his lips. "No, not real soon, I'm afraid. I've seen everything I need to see for now." He had come out here with one purpose in mind: to find out for himself whether the Blackwood Team had any chance of functioning as a unified force--and prepared to make the appropriate changes if they weren't. The war they were fighting demanded nothing less; and he knew that they didn't stand a chance of saving this planet if these four people were pulling in four different directions.

But they had become unified beyond his hopes. In fact, they had become more than just unified... although he didn't think any of them quite realized that yet.

His smile widening, he took Debi's hand and headed for his car. But it would sure be interesting to be around when they all figured it out.

end