He just couldn't seem to get warm.
He had built the fire in the fireplace to a blazing inferno, and by now the room should be nearly stifling. But he just couldn't seem to shake the chill that had settled over him. Crossing his arms defensively over his chest, he huddled in the winged-back chair and tried to battle the shiver that started as a prickling behind his neck and rapidly traveled the length of his body.
He just couldn't seem to get warm.
Harrison Blackwood and Suzanne McCullough stood in the doorway of the living room and gazed silently at the solitary figure inside. Finally, Suzanne laid a light hand on his arm, and Blackwood turned away.
Once they were out of earshot, Suzanne sighed. "I wish I knew what to do for him."
Harrison nodded agreement, but his response came out sounding a little preoccupied. "He's taking this awfully hard, isn't he?"
The microbiologist shot him a sharp look. "Harrison, he just lost his entire squad, had to shoot down one of his own men, and came up against aliens from outer space. That's an awful lot for a man to deal with all at once--even a Paul Ironhorse."
Sometimes, Blackwood admitted to himself ruefully, he could be damned self-centered. He had been so caught up in the recent discovery of resurrected aliens and the formation of the Blackwood Project, that he hadn't taken the time to think about the effects on anyone else. His mouth tightened as he remembered their first encounter with the aliens--and the loss of all those good men. At the time, Ironhorse seemed to have accepted it stoically--after all, he certainly must have lost men before--but now he wasn't so sure.
"Maybe you should try to talk to him," he suggested.
McCullough looked skeptical. "He doesn't exactly impress me as the type who confides in near-strangers...especially if that near-stranger happens to be a woman."
"But you are a psychologist, Suzanne..."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yes. But I don't think he needs a psychologist right now," she said pointedly. "I think he needs a friend."
A friend? Him? The two of them had been at each other's throats since they had first encountered each other on the road to Jericho Valley. Blackwood disliked and distrusted everything military; and Paul Ironhorse was the most thoroughly military man he had ever met. Still...under all that by-the-book Army Special Forces armor was a man. A man, he realized belatedly, and with sobering clarity, who must be suffering the torments of hell right now because of what he would consider his failure.
Quite suddenly he remembered his flippant remark when Ironhorse tried to thank him for saving his life by dragging him out of danger with an ATV. Doesn't mean we have to be friends or anything. No, maybe not friends. But maybe all the man needed was some company right now.
"I'll see what I can do," he said finally, and walked purposefully into the living room.
His footsteps slowed as he approached the soldier, but even though Ironhorse must have heard him, he didn't look around. Silently, he walked over to the ottoman by the fireplace and eased down onto it. The first thing that registered was the heat; the room was so hot he knew he would be sweating soon. The second thing he noticed was that the normally ramrod-straight officer was hunched over, arms wrapped around his chest, his hands clenching the plaid material of his shirt sleeves.
Harrison felt a flash of compassion--and a twinge of guilt--at the same time. How had he missed the signs earlier? "Colonel?" he broached hesitantly.
"Doctor." Ironhorse's voice was calm, almost emotionless, an acknowledgement of his presence, nothing more. There was certainly no invitation for conversation or companionship.
Blackwood sat beside the roaring fire feeling beads of sweat form under his sweater, and considered his options. He could just sit here in silence like an idiot; get up and leave--also like an idiot; or try to get Ironhorse to open up. Which might also turn out to be the actions of an idiot.
"Colonel," he began tentatively, "about today--"
"You were right all along," Ironhorse interrupted, his voice hoarse but level. "You were right about the aliens, you were right about Hangar Fifteen, you were right about my men--" He broke off then, his jaw tightening in anger. Anger, Blackwood knew, that was all directed inward.
"That's not what I was going to say," he stated quietly.
For the first time, the black eyes flicked in his direction, then quickly darted away.
"In the first place, Colonel," he continued in a carefully measured voice, "I don't think anyone in your position would have believed me if I had tried to tell them about aliens from another planet. I don't think I would have believed me if I had been in your position."
"If you have a point to make, Doctor," Ironhorse began impatiently.
Blackwood swallowed his own flash of irritation, reminding himself that the soldier was reacting out of a dangerous mixture of guilt and anger. "The point is, Ironhorse, that any commander would have acted as you did. You had nothing to go on, no proof of anything out of the ordinary--you were just doing your job."
"So were my men," the officer retorted, in a voice so low he could have been speaking to himself. "But I'm still alive."
"A captain goes down with his ship, is that it, Colonel? So a good commander dies with his men? Is that the Army's philosophy?" It was a dangerous, maybe stupid, move to bait a man like Ironhorse, but he was reacting on instinct; and his instinct told him he had to cut through the man's defenses at any risk.
In the flickering firelight, Harrison saw a different kind of fire blaze in the dark eyes as Ironhorse's head snapped up. But the officer said nothing. Instead, he pushed himself abruptly to his feet and turned to leave. Blackwood was on his feet in an instant, catching the other man's arm.
Ironhorse rounded on him, furious. "Blackwood--" he hissed in warning.
Immediately, he released his grip on the man and took a step back, creating a more comfortable distance between them. "I'm sorry," he said seriously. "What I'm trying to tell you, in a very clumsy manner, I'm afraid, is that I understand what you're feeling."
The soldier's breath exploded in disgust. "Give me a break, Blackwood." Turning, he began to stride across the room, his back stiff and straight, shoulders squared and hands clenched into fists.
"Do you think your men were the first casualties of these aliens. Colonel?" he called out sharply. "Do you think you're the first person who ever suffered a loss because of them? Do you think you're alone in this war?"
The words brought the soldier up short. Blackwood stared at his back, wondering if they had any effect other than to feed his anger. Then, slowly, he saw some of the stiffness drain out of the lean body, and Ironhorse turned back. His face was a mask of non-expression, but there was a hint of something--understanding, compassion?--in his black eyes.
"Your parents." The officer nodded and took a deep breath. "Yes, I read your file. That must have been very difficult for you."
"It still is," he said quietly. "Sometimes."
The soldier stood there a while longer, and Blackwood saw his clenched fists slowly uncurl by his sides. Then, to his surprise, the officer walked back to his chair and silently re-seated himself. Unsure of his own next move, Harrison hesitated a moment, then turned and walked over to the wet bar. More to give them both time to regroup than any real desire for a drink, he poured two brandies, then walked back to the colonel and held out one to the other man.
Ironhorse looked up, his eyes widening slightly in surprise, then accepted the drink with a murmured, "Thank you."
Dropping back onto the ottoman, Harrison sipped his brandy and watched as the colonel absently fingered his own glass. He could almost sense the struggle inside the man, his reluctant need to talk. He wondered briefly if Ironhorse had ever felt the need to confide in another human being before, then quickly chastised himself for the thought. He didn't know anything about this man, nothing about his personal background or struggles--although, he admitted, any Native American who graduated from West Point and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in Special Forces had probably had his share of personal struggles.
"I've spent nearly half my life as a soldier."
Ironhorse's soft voice jarred Harrison out of his thoughts.
"I've fought in campaigns all over the world, seen things..." The officer's voice faded for a moment. "But I have never seen anything like...like what these creatures do..."
"I know, "he said, his tone gentle. "And unfortunately, Colonel, it's not something anyone would believe without actually seeing it for himself."
Again, those black eyes shot to his face. "If you're trying to let me off the hook. Doctor--"
"There is no 'hook'. Colonel," he interrupted. He gazed into his brandy, sighing. "My foster father, Clayton Forrester, spent nearly half his life trying to convince people that the aliens were still a threat after 1953. He spoke to the military, scientists, university professors...no one would listen, no one would believe him." Looking up, he found Ironhorse's eyes still on him. "All those years, and all those experts... and no one believed him."
"So, in other words, if no one believed your foster father--"
"--who was a well-known, respected scientist--"
"--then why should I have believed you?"
Ironhorse appeared to consider that for a moment. "It might have saved my men if I had," he said, his voice very quiet.
Harrison shook his head. "No, Colonel, nothing would have saved your men," he said firmly.
"Even if you had known what they were, we still need to learn how to fight them." He leaned forward suddenly, anger tingeing his tone. "Learn from it, Ironhorse," he said grimly. "Learn from it so we never have to suffer that kind of loss again. Help us find a way to fight these creatures. I'll do my part in this war--but we need you to do yours, too."
Slowly, he sat back again, wondering if he had succeeded in giving the soldier something else to focus on other than his lingering grief and his self-imposed feelings of guilt.
There was no change of expression on Ironhorse's face, but something flickered in the black eyes, and Blackwood noted the almost imperceptible straightening of his shoulders.
The officer nodded, his lean face tight with determination. "We'll lose no more battles out of ignorance. Doctor," he promised flatly. "If we both do our jobs, we don't lose any more battles at all."
There was a strong spirit in this man, Harrison realized, a resoluteness that he sensed could be as single-minded as his own. The thought that they might have something in common almost made him smile. What could a physicist with a life-long history of pacifism possibly have in common with a man who had made the military his life?
"I hope you're right. Colonel." Draining the last of his brandy, he got slowly to his feet. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he felt that he had accomplished something here tonight. The officer seemed a bit more relaxed, his face not so pinched with pain, his dark eyes a little less haunted. Maybe all the man had needed after all was just some company, just someone to listen to him. There were times, he thought, feeling his spirits inexplicably sink a little, when he could use that, too. "Good night."
Turning, he began walking across the room, suddenly wanting to be alone himself.
He stopped and turned to see the soldier pushing himself to his feet.
"Sometime I'd like to hear about your foster father, about his theories, and what he learned about these aliens."
For one moment he was stunned into silence by the request. Then, very gradually, he felt a smile pull at his lips. "I'd like that, Colonel. I'd like that very much." Before he could stop himself, he heard himself adding, "Thank you." Then he turned quickly before the soldier could see anything else on his face.
"Doesn't mean we have to be friends or anything."
The unexpectedly dry voice stopped him in his tracks and brought him around again. The dark-haired man's face was expressionless, but there was a hint of humor in his eyes that had been absent up to now. Almost reluctantly, he felt his lips curl in a rueful smile. "I'll bear that in mind," he replied in a matching tone.
One dark eyebrow arched in a peculiar gesture Harrison had noticed more than once. "Good night, Doctor."
Feeling many of his preconceptions about this man fly right out the window, Blackwood didn't bother to smother his twitching smile. "Good night. Colonel."
He had nearly reached the door before he heard the softly spoken, "And thank you."
He paused, but didn't turn around. "Anytime, Colonel. After all, we're in this together remember."
"That, Doctor, I am not likely to forget."
He still didn't turn around, but he had a feeling if he had, he would have seen one side of the soldier's mouth tilted ever-so-slightly in that unique and rare smile of his.
This session hadn't exactly turned out as he had expected. He frowned, faintly disturbed by the realization. When, for example, had this hard-assed, hard-headed soldier suddenly turned into a human being? And when, for heaven's sake, had he begun thinking of him in those terms?
Giving his head a shake at the incongruity of it all, he continued on his way, heading for his office. Maybe what he needed to get all his puzzling thoughts in order was a good, long session of standing on his head... That would do it, he decided, feeling somewhat cheered by the idea. Maybe then all this would start making a little more sense. Maybe then he would understand what had happened here tonight.