Lt . Colonel Paul Ironhorse dropped his arsenal bag onto the floor next to his desk, then carefully eased his rapidly-stiffening body into the chair. Closing his eyes, he rested his elbows on the desk and gingerly massaged his aching temples. It felt like every bone and every muscle of his body had been jarred loose. A long, hot shower might help...but right now he was too tired to make the trip upstairs. Maybe if he just sat here for a while in the quiet...
He jumped as his office door crashed open, then glared at the lanky form that burst inside. Blackwood. He was the reason he was sitting here with bruises over ninety percent of his body. He was the reason his back probably wouldn't straighten out for the next two days. When was the man going to realize he was a scientist, for crying out loud, and scientists weren't supposed to be on the front lines! If Blackwood had stayed where he was supposed to today, he wouldn't have had to pull him out of the enemy's hands and ended up tumbling head-over-heels down a rocky embankment with an alien around his neck.
What had General Wilson been thinking when he assigned him to this Project? He had only been here a few weeks, but it was already obvious things weren't going to work out between him and the rest of the civilians here. They refused to take orders; they disregarded every security measure he tried to institute; and they resented him and what he represented.
Ignoring his protesting muscles, Ironhorse straightened his spine. Well, he'd had enough of it. Today was the last straw. If Blackwood wanted another shouting match, then by God, he'd be glad to--
"Colonel! Are you all right?"
Ironhorse blinked. That wasn't what he was expecting. Neither was that look of honest concern on the man's boyish face or the worry that manifested itself in the way he hovered over his desk. He remembered suddenly that he had been so furious after ending up at the bottom of a ravine with a dissolving alien, that he had deployed three of his men to 'escort' Blackwood back to the Cottage. He himself had come back later after securing the area. The physicist probably hadn't known if he was all right or not. That mightaccount for the man's concern, he admitted grudgingly. On the other hand, he might simply have been worried about how he was going to explain to General Wilson that he managed to knock off his head of security. That was more likely it.
"I'm fine. Doctor," he replied stiffly.
Intense blue eyes swept over him. "You don't look fine." Blackwood made a vague gesture toward the door. "I've got a first aid kit in my office--"
"Why would I need a first aid kit?" he asked, a little testily.
Blackwood's sandy eyebrows rose a fraction. "You're bleeding," he explained, tapping a place above his own right eye.
Unconsciously, he raised his hand, copying the gesture, and winced when his fingers touched the still-seeping cut on his forehead. He remembered the medic making some kind of noise about it, but he had waved him aside, intending to take care of it himself. "Oh."
"I'll get the kit-"
"I don't need--" But he was talking to the air; Blackwood was already gone. With a sigh of annoyance, he sank back into his chair. The last thing he needed was some fumble-fingered physicist sticking bandaids on him. He scowled at the thought, wondering what on earth had prompted this sudden show of concern. The man probably felt guilty about nearly getting him killed, he decided finally. He scowl deepened as Blackwood bounded back into the office, his entire body radiating helpful enthusiasm.
Within seconds, his tidy desk was covered with a disarray of gauze, bandages, and packets of antiseptic. He watched with trepidation as the physicist fumbled through the supplies, tearing open a packet holding a medicated pad.
"Doctor, I'm perfectly capable of--"
"I never said you weren't, Colonel," Blackwood said calmly, and proceeded to carefully clean the area around the cut. With surprisingly little fuss, he soon had the minor wound covered with gauze, and stood back to admire his handiwork. "There."
Ironhorse touched it gingerly; it seemed like an awful lot of gauze for such a little cut. "Thank you," he said doubtfully. Now please leave, he added silently. His head was starting to pound with annoying regularity, and he could almost feel the knee he had twisted beginning to swell. The one thing he didn't need right now to add to his misery was Harrison Blackwood.
Some of Blackwood's earlier good humor seemed to fade as he silently gathered up the medical supplies and dropped them haphazardly into the kit. "Colonel," he began in, what for him, was a formal tone, "I think we should talk--"
"Later, Blackwood," he interrupted, more brusquely than he had intended. "General Wilson expects his reports on time, and I've got one helluva report to give him this time." If he sounded irritated, it was because he was. It was his job to protect the members of this team, and now he had to report to his superior officer just how close the head of the team had come to death at the hands of the enemy. He wasn't looking forward to it.
Blackwood's serious blue-grey eyes rested on him for a moment, then he nodded slowly. "I guess you do." Without another word, he picked up the first aid kit and left, closing the door behind him.
Ironhorse stared at the closed door for a long moment, then gave his head a shake, regretting it instantly. The report would have to wait, he decided; if he didn't get into a hot shower soon to loosen up his muscles he was going to be too stiff to move in a few hours. With a groan, he pushed himself to his feet and maneuvered out from behind his desk. His left knee didn't appreciate that at all.
He was still standing there, trying to persuade his leg to cooperate when a soft knock on the door brought his head up. But before he could say anything--which probably would have been "Go away"--the door opened and Suzanne McCullough poked her head inside.
"Colonel--" Her hazel eyes widened in disbelief as she took in the sight. "Good grief! Harrison was right--you did fall off a cliff!"
Indignation accomplished what perseverance could not, and he immediately straightened. "I did not fall off a cliff," he stated with as much dignity as he could muster. What the hell had Blackwood been telling these people?
"Well, you could've fooled me." Stepping inside, the microbiologist walked closer, frowning. Too late, he remembered he was still covered in dirt from his tumble down the hillside, and his fatigues had been ripped from some stones that had gotten in his way. "Paul, did you have a medic look you over?"
"I assure you. Doctor, I don't need a medic--" He broke off as McCullough gently touched the edge of the gauze on his forehead.
"I see Harrison's handiwork here," she said dryly. Then she fixed him with a concerned gaze. "Seriously, Paul, are you sure--"
"Quite sure," he said briskly. "But thank you for your concern," he added as an afterthought. With a polite nod, he started to leave the room. His knee, however, decided to remain behind.
Suzanne saw the grimace flash across his face, and her eyes quickly darted to his leg. "Quite sure?" Without waiting for a reply, she firmly pushed him back until his rear his the top of the desk.
"Now see here--"
"Humor me. Colonel." Kneeling, she carefully wrapped her hands around his knee and pressed gently. His sharp hiss brought her head up. "Did you have this X-rayed?"
"No need," he said between gritted teeth. "I just twisted it."
"Hmm." She probed it a bit longer, then stood, apparently satisfied. "I'll make an ice pack for you; that'll take the swelling down. And you'd better stay off it for the rest of the night. The best thing would be to keep it elevated. Come on," she ordered, taking his arm. "The first thing you need to do is get cleaned up. I'll get the ice pack and some aspirin." Without giving him a chance to protest, she led him from the office and steered him firmly toward the elevator. "It goes up and down. Colonel," she told him sternly, and left him standing by the doors as she went off to the kitchen in search of ice.
He stared blankly after her. Was this the same woman who just yesterday had accused him of being a narrow-minded military jingoist with not one ounce of imagination in his body? What the hell was going on with everyone around here? First Blackwood, and now McCullough. He sneaked a glance out the window. Was there a full moon tonight?
Finally admitting that he would never understand these people--not that he really wanted to, of course--he stepped into the elevator for the ride upstairs.
A half hour later, after a long, hot shower, he was ensconced comfortably in his favorite chair by the fireplace in the living room. His throbbing leg was elevated on a stool with ice pack firmly in place, courtesy of Dr. McCullough. It must be her maternal instincts, he decided. Seeing someone-- especially a grown man--in pain, no matter how minor, did that to some women. It obviously did it to Dr. McCullough. How else to account for her sudden solicitousness? Dropping his head back against the chair, he closed his eyes. Might as well enjoy it while he could; tomorrow she'd probably go back to calling him narrow-minded, insensitive and pig-headed.
"Hey there. Big Guy."
He stifled a sigh as he heard Norton Drake enter the room in his motorized wheelchair, Gertrude. It wasn't that he didn't like Norton; he liked him as well as he liked any of the civilians around here. And, in fact, he was a bit in awe of the man's talent with a computer. But he had been at the receiving end of Norton's jokes--most of which he didn't understand--since their first day at the Cottage. And right now he wasn't in the mood for any fun at his expense.
"You look like a man who could use a good cup of coffee."
The unexpected seriousness of the man's tone caused him to open his eyes. The black man was by his side, steaming cup of coffee held out to him.
"Guaranteed to cure what ails you." A slow grin lit Drake's face. "And you look like you've got more than a few ailments. Colonel. Here. Thought you might like some. Brand new blend," he added when Ironhorse hesitated.
He studied the steaming cup for a moment. It looked safe enough. But with Norton you never knew. He accepted the cup warily. "Thank you, Mr. Drake." He took a cautious sip, and his eyebrows elevated. It was good. In fact, it was damn good.
Drake was grinning like a kid. He actually looked pleased. "The Doc told us what happened."
Ironhorse felt himself sag. Here it comes. The coffee was just the set-up. "I suppose he told you I fell off a cliff," he said irritably.
"No, actually. Colonel, he told us you saved his life."
Ironhorse's head snapped up to confront the serious dark eyes. But in an instant, they were twinkling again. "You want any more of that, you give a yell, okay? Suzanne'll have what's left of your skin if she sees you on that leg again tonight." With that, he deftly wheeled Gertrude around and left the room.
He sat there with the cup of coffee in his hand, staring after him. It had to be a full moon; that was the only explanation for it. Why else would any of them be concerned about him? Prisoners had no love for their jailers, and that's how they thought of him. Sighing, he turned back to the fire, sipping the coffee. They just didn't understand.
The fire had died down to embers and he had nearly nodded off when he sensed movement near him. Jerking awake, he was confronted by a pair of wide blue eyes. Debi. He felt himself relax a little. From their first night here at the Cottage when he had told her about his great-great grandfather, Debi had been his friend. She was bright and inquisitive--very much Suzanne's daughter--and actually sought him out for his company. He had been strangely touched by that.
"What are you doing up so late, young lady?" He tried to sound stem, but his smile probably ruined the effect.
Her blue eyes were serious. "I heard Harrison and Mom talking; they said you got hurt today. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Warmth flooded his chest. "I'm fine," he said gently. "See--just hurt my knee. But you're mom's taken care of all that."
As he watched, a relieved smile lit up her features. "Nobody ever tells me anything around here," she complained. "And when I heard them talking, I was afraid--" Leaning forward suddenly, she threw her arms around him in a quick hug and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad you're going to be okay. Colonel. And I'm glad you're here." Turning away, she trotted from the room. "Good night!"
He watched as her blonde hair bobbed out of sight around the comer, a lop-sided smile pulling at his lips. I'm glad you're here. "I'm afraid you're the only one, kid," he murmured ruefully.
So engrossed had he been in his thoughts that he never heard Harrison Blackwood enter the room. Steeling himself for the confrontation he knew was coming, he looked up at the physicist as he walked around to sit down on the ottoman opposite him.
"Colonel, I think we have a problem, and I think we need to talk about it."
They had a problem, all right, he agreed silently, but talking about it was probably a waste of time. Blackwood had no doubt already contacted General Wilson to complain, and his new orders were probably already being cut. That would be best all around. It was obvious they were never going to accept him as part of this team. But if the good doctor wanted to talk, maybe now was a good time to get everything off his chest. "How exactly do you define our problem, Doctor?" he asked formally.
Blue-grey eyes studied him for a moment. "I think our jobs conflict. Colonel. My job is to gel as close to the aliens as I can to learn as much about them as I can; your job seems to be to keep me as far away as possible from those aliens."
Well said. But it would probably soon be someone else's problem. He nodded, a humorless smile on his lips. "Doesn't seem to be anyway around it, does it?"
"I think there is." Blackwood spread his hands. "In a word: compromise."
"There is no compromise for security, Doctor," he said firmly. ;
"Just hear me out," the physicist said patiently. "I'd like to make a deal with you."
Suspicion flared and he narrowed his eyes. "What kind of a deal?"
It was obvious Blackwood had been giving this a great deal of thought. "I agree to abide by your restrictions in dealing with the aliens--but you have to understand that, in order for me to do my job, I have to be with you when there is a possibility of contact."
"That's the deal?" It sounded too reasonable for Blackwood. There had to be more.
"About the security at the Cottage--"
"The security at the Cottage is non-negotiable," he said flatly.
"Of course it is," the other man agreed. "But we have a suggestion."
"We?" It was a conspiracy. He should have known.
"The civilians, Colonel," Blackwood explained. "All we're asking, is before you institute any new security measure, or change the ones already in effect...tell us."
He blinked. "Tell you?"
"Just tell us." A faint smile touched the physicist's lips. "We're not soldiers. Colonel. We're not used to taking orders. But if you would just tell us what you're doing..." Blue eyes locked with his. "It might make us feel a little less like prisoners."
He turned his head slightly, gazing into the nearly dead embers in the fireplace. Tell them. Why hadn't he thought of that? Because he had been in the Army nearly half his life, and he wasn't used to discussing his orders before he issued them, he thought wryly. But these people weren't soldiers, and he wasn't their commanding officer.
"I think that can be arranged. Doctor," he agreed, with only a hint of dryness. He looked back to find the man watching him intently. "Is that it?"
"There's just one more thing."
Of course. Of course there had to be 'just one more thing.' This was Harrison Blackwood, after all. His sigh could be heard throughout the room. "And what is that?"
"You saved my life today, and nearly got yourself killed in the process."
He tried to cut him off. "I was just doing my job--"
"But that doesn't make me any less grateful -- or any less alive," the scientist said seriously. Suddenly, he leaned forward, eyes blazing with intensity. "You're a vital component of this war, Colonel. And a vital part of this team. All I'm asking is that you never forget that. After all..." He slapped Ironhorse lightly on his undamaged knee. "We don't want to lose you, you know." Sitting back. he studied the soldier a moment longer, as if trying to gauge his reaction, then stuck out his hand. "Do we have a deal?"
Where had these people come from tonight? he wondered, a little dazedly. Or had they been here all along and he just hadn't noticed? Maybe they deserved a second chance. Maybe he did, too. He gripped the offered hand firmly, his decision made. "We have a deal. Doctor."
A pleased grin lit Blackwood's face, making him look even more boyish. "A deal." He bounded to his feet, as if suddenly too filled with nervous energy to sit still. "I'll be in my office if you need anything," he called, walking to the door. "Remember--stay off that leg." Stopping in the doorway, he turned, eyes twinkling. "Doctor's orders." Then he was gone.
Ironhorse sank back into his chair with a long-suffering sigh. Doctor's orders. He had a feeling there were going to be a lot of those in his future.