"Harrison, will you please turn that god-awful noise down!" Ironhorse pleaded, raising an aching head from where it lay pillowed on his arms.
"Late night, colonel?" Harrison teased, reaching out to turn his music down slightly. Paul didn't dignify that with words but just aimed another red-eyed glare at his nemesis. "Where were you til four AM? Being a naughty..."
"Blackwood!" The growl cut Harrison off in mid tease. The doctor took another closer look at his friend. Whatever the colonel had been doing last night, he certainly looked like hell this morning and definitely not up to his teasing. Before he had a chance to apologise the elevator doors opened and Norton rolled in. He took one look at Ironhorse and his face split into a wide smile. Blackwood wasn't the only one who enjoyed needling their colonel.
"Rough night, colonel?" he asked, unprepared for the reaction he got.
Ironhorse surged to his feet, his face turning alarmingly pale, and glared murderously at both his companions. "What I do in my own time is nothing to do with either of you, so just get off my back," he bit out before storming out of the room.
Harrison and Norton were left staring open-mouthed behind his back.
"What did I say?" Norton complained. Blackwood shook his head in bewilderment.
"I don't know. He was fine yesterday when Wilson was here but he went into town after that and didn't get in til gone four this morning and he'd been drinking," Blackwood pondered, feeling the first glimmers of disquiet. He had assumed that Paul had had an assignation in town with a lady - he was very reticent about sharing such news with the rest of them - but the more he thought about it, the less likely it now seemed. Alien activity had been brisk over the last few weeks, hardly leaving time for romancing and his reaction to the teasing seemed to indicate that something really was wrong.
"I suppose I better go talk to him," Harrison concluded, getting to his feet, ready to beard the colonel in his den.
"Rather you than me," Suzanne said, coming down the last few stairs into the lab. "I only said good morning and he almost took my head off. What did you say to him?"
"Nothing." Harrison and Norton protested in unison. Suzanne looked at them disbelievingly. "Well, nothing unusual," Harrison qualified hastily. The look didn't fade. "I only asked what he was doing out so late last night and he stamped out."
"Are you sure that's all?" the micro-biologist asked, painfully familiar with Blackwood's sometimes thoughtless teasing.
"My word, Suzanne," Harrison protested.
Norton nodded, backing the astrophysicist up. "He just flared up for no reason."
"Is he alright?" Suzanne asked, quick concern sparking her voice.
"That's just what I was about to find out," Blackwood said, making determinedly for the elevator.
He stuck his head into the living room, hoping that perhaps Paul would be there but, not really surprisingly, he wasn't. Harrison sighed and straightened his shoulders with a jerk. He'd have to face the colonel on his own territory. Resolutely, he knocked on the office door.
"Colonel, you in there?" He waited for a moment and then knocked again. "Paul, I'm coming in," he warned, pushing the door open. Ironhorse was standing in his customary position by the window, hands clasped tightly behind his back, staring out. Harrison moved up behind him, dropping a hand on his shoulder.
"What happened yesterday, Paul?" He felt the body tense under his hand.
"That's really none of your business, doctor."
"Maybe not but..."
"Well, well, Harrison Blackwood actually admitting that something's none of his business," Ironhorse growled.
Blackwood refused to let the sarcasm bother him. "Paul, you're my friend and I don't like seeing my friends troubled. Besides," he added, trying to lighten the mood by throwing the colonel's own words on another occasion back at him, "the Project needs everyone at peak efficiency." He felt a little of the tension beneath his hand fade as Ironhorse turned to look up at him.
"Harrison, really, nothing is wrong. I just had some news yesterday and drank a bit too much. It doesn't affect the Project at all," Paul assured him.
Looking down into the dark shuttered eyes, Harrison was forced to accept his words but the uneasy feeling didn't go away.
"Well, if you need to talk..." he offered.
"I know. Thanks."
Harrison found that his worry was justified over the next few weeks. The colonel, far from recovering, seemed to sink further and further into himself. Blackwood suspected that Paul hadn't been sleeping too well - the continuing shadows around his eyes proved that - but as yet hadn't been able to pin the colonel down to talk about it. Ironhorse hated having to talk and avoided Blackwood whenever he saw the doctor in his 'tell all' mood. Harrison just hoped that Paul would be able to work out whatever it was that was bothering him - if the aliens gave them time. Alien activity had quietened down again but that was how it always went, bursts of frantic activity followed by a lull sometimes weeks long.
Ironhorse paused in the doorway to Harrison's office, unsure now that he was actually there that he really wanted to talk to the doctor. He supposed that Suzanne was really the person he should talk to but Harrison was the Project leader, not to mention his closest friend. This was not something he wanted Harrison to learn from anyone else and Paul was afraid that if he delayed much longer, time, and General Wilson, would take the choice from him. He didn't want to tell Harrison, afraid of the inevitable change the knowledge would bring, but he had to. He deserved that much from Paul.
He knocked resolutely on the frame of Harrison's open door. Blackwood looked up from the pile of printouts strewn haphazardly over his desk.
"Why, colonel," he smiled, "What can I do for you?"
Ironhorse hovered just inside the door. "I'm not disturbing anything, am I? If you're busy this can wait," he added, almost hopefully.
"No, no I was just going over some old notes to see if I could find anything new in them."
"And have you?" Ironhorse asked with interest, leaning over Harrison's shoulder to look.
"Not really. Anyway," Blackwood continued, tossing his glasses onto the desk and leaning back to look up at his friend, "what was it you wanted to talk about, Paul?" Harrison studied the soldier carefully, noting that even though the dark eyes were still shadowed, there was a new look in them, a look of resolution as though Paul had finally made up his mind about something. Or come to terms with it.
Paul turned away, not sure quite how to broach the matter and sank down into a chair, giving himself a few more moments to gather himself.
"When General Wilson was here I asked him to assign another officer to the Project."
"Excuse me?" Harrison queried, unable to believe what he was hearing. Had it been any less serious, Paul might have laughed. It wasn't often he could dumbfound the eccentric scientist.
"Not to replace me," he added. "At least, not yet but I need to know that there is someone ready and capable of taking over from me when necessary."
"No-one could ever take over from you, Paul," Harrison protested, not wanting to even consider the implications of what Ironhorse was saying.
Ironhorse shook his head in exasperation. "You know what I mean, doctor."
"If you're killed," Harrison acknowledged tonelessly. "Why now, though? We've been fighting this war for over two years and you've never mentioned this before."
"I never really thought about it before. No-one likes to admit that they aren't immortal but we've been fighting the aliens far longer than I thought we'd have to and sooner or later I'm going to go down. Harrison," he continued forcefully, coming to his feet to pace restlessly about the room. "We're doing the best we can already and we're barely holding the aliens in check. You won't be able to afford the time to train a new man from scratch when I'm gone. That's why I asked for.... Why I asked General Wilson to assign you someone else."
Harrison studied the colonel intently as he came to rest leaning on the desk, trying to see him as a stranger would and was shocked by what he saw. Paul, always slender, was bordering on skinny now, his black hair beginning to show the grey. The dark eyes were smudged with more than weariness, too. Taking in the changes he hadn't really noticed before, Harrison was abruptly certain that this conversation sprang from more than a few sleepless nights and worry over something that might never happen.
"When, Paul? You sound mighty certain about that," he quipped, trying to force a lightness he didn't feel.
Ironhorse turned away from him and went to lean on the window ledge, staring out over the gardens to the lake. The bright autumn sun was warm on his face but it didn't touch the cold lump lodged inside him. He could feel Harrison's eyes on his back and knew that he had to tell him now but the words stuck in his throat. Just how did you tell your best friend, a man you cared about more than anyone else, that your days were numbered? Bluntly he supposed and with no prevarication.
"I have cancer." Ironhorse felt the shock emanating from Harrison.
"Operable?" Blackwood forced the word out, afraid to hear the answer he knew was coming.
"No." It was said quietly and with absolute certainty. Harrison felt his throat constrict and a spreading cold in the pit of his stomach. Paul turned just far enough to look at his friend. Blackwood met the dark eyes painfully.
Ironhorse took a deep breath and then wished he hadn't as pain clawed through his body. Harrison saw the pain flash across his face and flinched.
"I'll see the summer," Paul told him gently when he could catch his breath. "I'm living on borrowed time. Harrison," he said, putting a comforting hand on the scientist's shoulder, seeing the misery etched in every line of his body. Harrison's hand came up to grip his tightly, almost desperately.
"How can you be so calm about it?" Harrison burst out, leaning back to look up at Paul standing behind him, not relinquishing the hold he had on his hand.
"Believe me, Harrison, I'm not calm. Every time I think about it, I start shaking inside but there's nothing anyone can do about it. It's too late."
"Surely the doctors can do something? If they can't operate, what about chemotherapy or drugs? There must be something to slow it down," Harrison said desperately. "Perhaps Suzanne..."
"Harrison!" Ironhorse interrupted him sharply, forcing Blackwood to listen to him. "There is nothing that can be done," he said bluntly. "Don't you think I didn't try everything?" he asked plaintively.
"There is no but," Paul interrupted harshly again. "I'm going to die, Harrison and there is nothing you or I or anyone can do about it." Harrison had to understand that. Paul needed him, as he had never needed anyone before, to be strong for him.
"How long have you known?" Harrison's voice was choked but Paul could tell that he had finally got through to him.
"For definite, a couple of months."
"Wilson brought you the confirmation, didn't he? Last time he was here," Blackwood exclaimed, suddenly putting things together.
Paul nodded. "Yeah. At first the doctors thought it was just exhaustion and the stress of fighting the aliens but after I failed my medical, they did some more tests. I already knew something was wrong though. I saw both my mother's parents die of cancer."
Harrison released Paul's hand and wiped at his eyes, ashamed, in the face of Paul's calm, of the tears that kept filling them. Ironhorse retreated to the window again and, after a moment spent pulling himself together, Harrison followed him.
"So, who is this officer?" Blackwood asked, more to fill the silence than from any genuine interest. If they couldn't have Paul, he didn't really give a damn who they got.
"I don't know. General Wilson hasn't decided yet."
"Oh?" Harrison was faintly surprised, remembering Paul's earlier slip. "I thought you had someone in mind."
Paul nodded, his gaze suddenly miles away. "I did. He refused."
"Refused?" Harrison was taking refuge in the details. "I didn't think you soldiers were allowed to refuse an assignment."
"He isn't regular army. He served with me in Delta Squad but the last I heard he was freelancing for the army. General Wilson traced him but he refused to even talk to me." Ironhorse tried to keep his voice calm but Harrison could hear the pain underlying the words.
"Was he a friend?" Harrison asked quietly.
Ironhorse nodded. "Yeah, we were close. Fought like hell all the time but that didn't matter. Until we had one fight too many." Paul found himself telling Harrison more than he had meant to but he couldn't seem to help himself. "I wanted to try put things right between us before..." Paul bit his lip as his voice quivered. He could feel the shakes coming back. "I wanted..." he tried again.
"Paul," Harrison said helplessly as Ironhorse's voice broke. Ironhorse was unraveling right before his eyes and Harrison cursed the absent soldier. This, it seemed, was the last straw for Paul. Harrison wished he could do something, say something, to make things better but he didn't know what to do. The thought of losing Paul petrified him. He had lost so many people in his life but he still didn't know how to cope with it.
Paul looked up and met his eyes. "I'm scared, Harrison," he admitted shakily. "Dying is always a possibility in my work but not like this. Not just sitting here waiting for it to happen. Not alone."
"Oh, Paul," Harrison reached out and pulled the shaking man into his arms, hugging him close against his own body. "I won't leave you, pal," he vowed fiercely through his own tears. "I'll be here right to the end. You won't be alone."
Paul leant into the embrace, hiding his face in Harrison's shoulder, desperately needing the reassurance of somebody's arms around him. And to know that someone cared. That he wasn't alone anymore. "Do something for me, Harrison," he asked softly.
"Anything," Blackwood promised huskily.
"Let me teach you how to shoot."
Ironhorse felt the warning shiver tingle down his spine and knew, even before he turned, exactly who it was with Harrison. He took a deep breath, steeling his face to a mask of impassivity and then turned to face the dark haired man standing behind Blackwood.
"Colonel, I've got someone I want you to meet." Harrison stepped aside, gesturing his companion forward.
"Kincaid," Ironhorse acknowledged tonelessly.
"Hello, colonel." The reply was equally short but then their eyes met and Paul knew that Kincaid's attitude was as much a lie as his own. It was over half a decade since they'd last met but the feelings between them ran just as strongly as ever.
Ironhorse pulled his eyes away. "How the hell did you get in here?" he demanded more harshly, perhaps, than he intended, afraid of his own reaction to a man he had never thought to see again. The younger man hadn't changed much. A little older, a little harder but the dark hair was still cropped short and the compact body, bundled under layers of clothing, seemed just as lithe and slim as ever, muscles rippling easily under tanned skin. Laughter lines still lurked around the warm brown eyes and mobile mouth but Ironhorse could see a new maturity there, a maturity painfully won.
Kincaid moved forward, his face breaking into that beautiful, insolent smile that had always infuriated and intrigued Ironhorse so much.
"The security's loose. Very loose," he taunted, almost daring the colonel to defend himself.
"Colonel?" Harrison queried, feeling the sudden tension in the room. "You guys know each other?" he added, well aware that the question was superfluous.
Ironhorse glanced briefly at the scientist and then looked back at Kincaid. "Yeah, I know him. I kicked him out of my unit."
"Oh." Harrison was left floundering, aware of the silent communication between the two soldiers but shut out by both of them. "Well, I need to talk to all of you. Shall we go up to the lab?" Blackwood knew he was babbling nervously, trying to break the tension between the others.
Paul forced himself to look away from Kincaid again, trying desperately to stem the flood of memories and emotions that seeing the man brought back. Feelings he didn't have any right to. Not anymore.
"Okay, doctor. Let's go talk to the others."
Kincaid prowled around the lab restlessly as Harrison told his team mates what had happened at the bar. Ironhorse had introduced Suzanne and Norton to him brusquely and then retreated to sit on the corner of the desk. Not that he had needed the introductions though. He'd heard all about Blackwood and his people from General Wilson and what the general hadn't told him, Kincaid had made a point of finding out since he'd first heard about the Project.
Suzanne McCullough, micro-biologist extraordinary - dedicated mother and scientist; Norton Drake, laid back computer expert, one of the best and sneakiest in his field; Harrison Blackwood, brilliant astrophysicist and prime mover in the war against the aliens but his passion and idealism were fading, slowly being crushed under the pressure. They all were, even Paul Ironhorse, who knew better than any of them just what that kind of responsibility meant.
Colonel Paul Ironhorse. Yeah, this was getting to him though he hid it better than the others. Kincaid couldn't ever remember seeing him so tired, so dispirited before and he'd seen the colonel in some pretty desperate situations. It reminded him of the time...
He cut the thought off abruptly. That was all in the past. Better to leave it that way, he told himself firmly and tried to believe it.
"If Kincaid hadn't come along..."
Kincaid came back from his thoughts abruptly as he heard Harrison mention his name.
"...I'd be dead."
He sauntered towards the scientist, pulling off his jacket and summoning a pale imitation of his usual smile.
"Wasn't an accident, Harrison. I've been watching you for weeks," he told them. He saw Ironhorse come to his feet sharply and swung round to face him, standing so close they almost touched.
"Tell me, how did you get involved in this?" the colonel demanded softly.
"After I left the service..." There, that was a tactful way of saying it. Better than saying after you threw me out "...Wilson kept in touch with me. He brought me and Max in for special jobs..."
"Don't tell me your damn brother's here!" Ironhorse interrupted.
Kincaid took a shaky breath and sank down on the desk top. "He's dead," he told Paul quietly.
There was a moment of shocked silence.
"Yeah!" Kincaid cut the colonel off. The wound was still too fresh, too new. He knew what Paul wanted to say but he was afraid of the sympathy, of the tears that threatened to blind him. "Wilson had something for us," he continued harshly. "Routine assignment. You know. Go in, nail the bad guys, get out. They were waiting for us." Kincaid looked up at Harrison, willing him to understand as Paul obviously did. "It was a set up. We took a couple of them out. They got Max." He said it dispassionately. "After I saw what they were, it kinda changed the way I look at things."
He looked at Ironhorse, about to say something more but then Norton's alien alarm started to beep. They all turned to watch as Norton began to tap at the keyboard.
"Hey, I think I located them!"
"Good work, Norton." The colonel moved to peer over his shoulder at the screen. "Where are they?"
"Give me a minute. I'm working on it," Norton protested, still punching commands into the Cray to narrow the focus of the search.
"Okay, call me when you know. I'll be in my office with Kincaid." He met the younger man's startled gaze over Norton's head. "We need to talk, John," Ironhorse told him softly, leading the way out of the room.
"Well, colonel? What was it we 'needed' to talk about?" Kincaid, following the colonel into his office, was deliberately aggressive. Ironhorse's use of his given name had stirred up a whole host of memories that he had thought buried deep years ago. Memories of nights of spent in each other's arms. Of passion and love and, ultimately, bitter hurt.
Ironhorse ignored him, going instead to gaze out of the big window. It was a grim view these days with a strange kind of winter permanently prevailing. Everything around him seemed to be dying. The trees were bare though by rights the new leaves should have been shooting. Even the pond was empty, the swans haven simply taken wing one day a few weeks back and not returned. And now, it seemed, even the aliens were dying. Or being killed off. Somehow, amongst all these endings, it was fitting that Kincaid should finally be there, a spectre of his own past.
"I am sorry about Max." Ironhorse turned his back to the window and all the visible reminders of death, what little light there was casting his face into shadow.
"Are you?" Kincaid asked sharply, still on the defensive.
"Yes, I am," Paul told him sincerely. "He and I might not have always seen eye to eye but he was a good man. I know what it's like to lose someone that close to you."
Kincaid looked away, disturbed by the empathy in Ironhorse's voice. "Yeah, I guess you do," he murmured, coming to sit on the edge of the desk facing the colonel. "Wilson said you asked for me. Did you really?" Kincaid changed tack suddenly.
"Yes, I did," Paul admitted. "Months ago. He told me you refused the assignment. Why?" Ironhorse tried to keep his voice neutral, to pretend that the answer didn't matter to him, even though it did. Desperately.
"Why?" Kincaid echoed disbelievingly. "Did you really think I'd come? After what happened?"
"I hoped you would, for curiosity's sake if nothing else. I didn't really suppose you'd come for me," Paul added bitterly. Even knowing that the fault was his and that John had every right to be angry still, he had been hurt when Kincaid had refused the assignment. Refused even to speak to him.
"Yeah, well, I'm here now. What do you want of me, Paul?" Kincaid didn't realise that he had called the colonel by name until Ironhorse took a step towards him and dropped a hand on his shoulder, effectively trapping him as he would have moved away.
"Your help," Ironhorse said simply. "I lost my sergeant a few months ago. I need a good man at my back."
"Me? A good man?" Kincaid pushed the hand away and came to his feet. "Boy, have you changed your tune!"
Ironhorse pulled his chair out and sank down tiredly. Kincaid was angry and confused but Paul couldn't summon the energy to fight with him. He would need that later when they came to the heart of the matter.
"Things change, John, you know that. People change, too. I certainly have," he admitted. "I've been fighting the aliens for more than two years now. The first time I saw them I lost an entire squad because I tried to fight them by the book. Well, I know better now but we're still only barely holding our own. You're a maverick, Kincaid but that's exactly what this Project needs."
"But why me? There are plenty of mavericks in the army." Kincaid came back to the desk, leaning over it, forcing the colonel to meet his eyes. There was something Ironhorse wasn't saying. Something important and Kincaid was determined to find out what.
"Yes, there are but I know you, Kincaid. And whatever you might think of me now, I know I can trust you to look after Blackwood. Besides which, I wanted to see you again. To try and explain." Paul took a deep breath. He had thought about this for a long time but now that Kincaid was there he didn't know what to say. It had all been much simpler in his mind. "I know that it's probably way past the time when anything I've got to say means anything to you," he began awkwardly, "but, for what it's worth, I'm sorry. I never wanted you to get hurt..."
"You're sorry?" Kincaid interrupted heatedly. "Damn right it's late! What's to explain? I was young and green and stupid enough to think that whatever you could give me would be enough just because I was so very much in love with you. I don't need explanations, Paul. I know damn well why you walked out on me. Because I didn't measure up to your precious Guy." Kincaid glared at Ironhorse, too caught up in his own painful memories to see how much his words hurt the older man. "I would have done anything for you then, colonel, but you threw it all in my face."
"I know. That's why I'm sorry. I didn't realise it at the time. I was too busy protecting myself to see what it was doing to you. After Guy died, I didn't ever want to care about someone that much again. You meant a hell of a lot to me, John. Too damn much." Ironhorse paused, waiting for Kincaid to say something but the younger man was silent, caught up in his own thoughts. "I don't know what else to say except that I'm sorry. I loved you but I couldn't handle that. The problem wasn't you or Guy. It was me."
It was Kincaid's turn to stare out of the window, speaking to his reflection and the anonymous dark outside.
"I always felt as though I was competing with him and losing , too."
"No," Paul broke in sharply. "Forget that. I might have screwed everything else up but I never did that."
They were both silent for long minutes, mulling over what had been said by both of them. And also what hadn't been said. Finally Kincaid turned back to face his former lover.
"Okay, you're sorry. It's done. Over with a long time ago. Why bring it up now?" Kincaid wanted to leave the past where it belonged, buried where it couldn't hurt him anymore.
"I've already told you. I need you here," Ironhorse told him, relieved that Kincaid seemed to have accepted what he had said. "I wanted a fresh start. To clear the slate between us. There's too much at stake for us to be fighting each other too."
Kincaid laughed harshly. "And what the hell makes you think we could work together, especially without fighting?"
Ironhorse shared his harsh amusement for a moment, remembering all the fights they had way back when they'd been together. Both strong willed men, John had delighted in winding Ironhorse up and riding out the consequences.
There had been some good times back then. Times Paul had bitterly missed in the years since although he'd been loathe to admit it even to himself. It was only since Harrison and the other Project members had barged their way into his life and turned everything he thought he knew about himself upside down that he realised just how empty those last few years had been without Kincaid. Now, facing impending death and the end of the world at alien hands, it was too late to do anything about it except mend a few fences and try to part as friends. Not that he was sure they had ever been friends, not as he and Harrison were friends. Somehow they had jumped that stage, going from comrades straight to being lovers. Paul had loved Kincaid but he really knew very little about the man behind the devil-may-care facade. And Kincaid certainly knew precious little about him. As soon as the younger man had started to break down the barriers surrounding Ironhorse's innermost feelings, Paul had pushed him away, not willing to risk being hurt again. It had been instinctive but it had also doomed their relationship right from the start.
He only wished there was more time. Time for him to really put things right. Time, perhaps, for them to try again because, try as he might, he couldn't deny the attraction he still felt for Kincaid and was pretty certain that the other man still felt it, too. But time was the one thing he didn't have.
"We won't be working together for very long," Ironhorse told him quietly.
"Why not?" Kincaid was confused again.
Ironhorse came to his feet again and went back to the window, unwilling to face Kincaid when he told him the reason why. He'd been thinking about it a lot recently, preparing himself to face Suzanne and Norton but he still hadn't come up with an easy way of saying it, not to a friend or a lover. He supposed there was only way really and that was to just say it. As he had to Harrison.
"Aren't we all?" Kincaid's flip answer was pure gut reaction, an instinctive denial of the sudden stab of fear he felt at Ironhorse's flat statement.
"Don't joke, Kincaid," Ironhorse snapped. "Not about this."
"I know. I'm sorry. You just caught me... I'm sorry," Kincaid finished abruptly, trying desperately to get his mind working again. "How?"
Ironhorse leant on the wall by the window, half turned away from the younger man, what little light there was cruelly highlighting the gauntness of his face and Kincaid realised that what he had taken just for exhaustion was really something far more serious.
"I have cancer. It was diagnosed months ago but there was nothing they could do about it. It was too far spread to operate."
"What about chemotherapy?" Kincaid asked, his voice strained.
Ironhorse shook his head. "The doctors wanted to try but it would have meant leaving the Project and there was no-one I could trust these people to."
Paul swore to himself as he saw Kincaid flinch at the words. He hadn't meant them to sound like an accusation, at least not consciously but they had obviously hit home anyway.
"That's why you asked Wilson for me, isn't it? If I'd come..."
"No," Ironhorse contradicted flatly. "It was nothing to do with you, John. They couldn't even be sure it would work. Being in contact with alien radiation is probably what caused it in the first place. It was too late already and even if you had come then, I would have found another excuse not to go through with it." At Kincaid's startled look he continued, "I'm a soldier, fighting a war I sometimes think we can't possibly win, for the sake of all humanity. How could I abandon that just on the off chance that I might live a little longer? And, if I'm really honest, I didn't want to leave here. These people are my family and if I've got to die, I'd rather do it here with them."
Kincaid nodded. The logical, thinking part of him knew that Paul was telling the truth and that no matter what he himself had done nothing would have changed but he couldn't silence the little voice in his heart that said he could have made a difference if only he'd been there.
"Do they know?"
Paul sighed. "Harrison does but I made him promise not to tell the others."
"Are you - together?" Kincaid asked diffidently, the thought sending a curious pang through him, a feeling he didn't dare examine.
Paul shook his head. "I've never told him. About Guy or you. We're friends, nothing more," he told Kincaid but even as he said it, he knew that wasn't all he and Harrison were and never had been. Right from the start there had been more between them than mere friendship but it had never been sexual, not as it had been with the others in his past. "I just couldn't lie to him about it. He's lost so many people close to him - his parents were killed in the invasion of '53 and Doctor Forrester died and Sylvia...Well, Sylvia's in Whitewood. I wanted him to be prepared," Paul explained. "But that's neither here nor there. Will you stay, John? Please."
Kincaid settled more comfortably on the desk, propping a foot on the colonel's abandoned chair and considered Ironhorse's request. A part of him wanted to accept but another part gibbered in terror, insisting that if he stayed be was bound to get hurt again. Because he knew that if he did, sooner or later he and Paul would end up together again and that could only lead to heartache on his part. After he and Ironhorse had parted, Kincaid had refused to let anyone get close to him, except his brother, not trusting anyone enough not to leave him, too. Max had always stuck by him even when he disapproved vehemently of John's relationship with Ironhorse but ultimately even he had betrayed Kincaid. Just as Paul would. Just as everyone did. By dying. Kincaid wasn't sure he could face being left alone again.
And that wasn't the only reason for not staying. He'd run alone for too long now to be comfortable as part of a group, especially such a tight knit group as this one. He wasn't sure he wanted the responsibility of their lives. After all, he hadn't even managed to keep Max alive and Max had been a better soldier than he would ever be.
But, despite all the cold, logical reasons for not staying, Kincaid knew that he would simply because, having seen Ironhorse again, he couldn't deny that he still cared about the man. He knew it was stupid but he was willing to accept the hurt if only he could recapture some of the joy of that earlier time. Max's death had served to prove one thing - that life was short and precarious and that, facing the aliens, he could die at any moment. He didn't want to die alone, forgotten and unmourned.
Paul felt a hand touch his arm and turned away from the window to meet Kincaid's look. The younger man smiled at him sweetly, his hand sliding up to cup Ironhorse's cheek.
"I'll stay," he offered and leant forward to meet Ironhorse's kiss halfway. The past wasn't forgotten and the future looked bleak but for a while at least they would have each other to hold onto.
Kincaid stared out over the lake sightlessly, the pale summer sun, appearing fitfully from behind the clouds, casting weak shadows all around him. He didn't really know why he'd come but ever since the aliens had finally been defeated a few weeks ago, he had felt - and fought - the urge to return to the Cottage. Or at least what remained of it. Somehow the stark horror of what had happened there was more terrible now than it had been even at the time. Then, he had been in shock, they all had, and, in the months that followed, they had been too busy just trying to survive to dwell on the events of that night. For Kincaid, more than any of the others, it had been one long nightmare, a day when shock had piled upon shock.
Kincaid shook his head, trying to deny the vivid memories that this place conjured up and the pain they brought with them but he knew that they had to be faced, just as he had faced the spectre of Max. Only this time there would be no miraculous resurrection. Paul Ironhorse was undoubtedly dead. Kincaid had watched him blow his brains out. No-one survived that.
He shuddered as his mind replayed those last few terrible hours...
Kincaid perched on the corner of Ironhorse's desk and watched Paul as he made the phone call to General Wilson's office. Harrison and Suzanne hovered behind the colonel but he ignored them, preferring to keep his eyes on Paul. He had spent a long time being angry with the older man but this afternoon they had finally begun to put the ghosts between them to rest. Their reunion had been cut short but not before they had finally admitted to themselves and each other just how much they both still needed the other. Kincaid cursed the interruption, wanting to spend as much time alone with Ironhorse as he could, but he knew that for Paul the war against the aliens and the safety of the Project members would always come first, no matter what his own feelings were. It had been the same in Delta Squad and Kincaid had learnt to accept it.
Kincaid returned his attention to the present as the colonel put the phone down.
"General Wilson is not on vacation. It's just an official cover," Ironhorse explained wearily. "He disappeared three weeks ago." He looked up at Kincaid, knowing that he would understand.
"That's when I saw him last," Kincaid admitted, meeting Paul's eyes.
"He left for home and never go there," Paul explained, glancing up as Harrison moved restlessly behind him. "We just have to hope for the best," he added, though both he and Kincaid knew that the chances of the general being alive were pretty remote. "For now I'm assuming command. We're on our own, people. We trust no-one. I'm going down there to do a recon," Paul told Kincaid, his brisk tone not fully concealing the weariness he felt.
Kincaid started to stand, wishing he could just put his arms around the older man and hug the weariness away but he knew he couldn't, not with Suzanne and Harrison there. However, he could take some of the pressure off by going with him now and watching his back.
"Kincaid." The colonel's voice stopped him. "This one is for me and my men."
Kincaid met Ironhorse's look and read the plea in his eyes. Paul knew the mission was dangerous and that, given the state of his health, there was a good chance he might not come back from this one. Kincaid knew that it was time to start honouring the promise he had given Ironhorse only an hour earlier.
"Okay, colonel, this one's all yours. Just watch your back though."
Letting Paul go without him was one of the hardest things Kincaid had ever had to do and he had regretted it ever since. If he had known then what Ironhorse would face, there was no way he would ever have let him go alone but by the time he had made up his mind to follow the colonel, regardless of his orders, it was too late for Paul,. The aliens had already cloned him. And although a healthy man might perhaps have survived the process, neither Kincaid nor Harrison could fool themselves into believing that Ironhorse would recover. Paul himself had known it all too well.
Kincaid shivered again as his mind replayed those final moments in the Cottage. The discovery that Norton was dead, killed as he tried to stop the clone. The realisation that there was no way he could stop the bomb from exploding and destroying everything. And the final confrontation between the clone and Ironhorse. As long as he lived, Kincaid didn't think he would ever forget that scene. The clone holding Debi hostage, he and Harrison and Suzanne standing helpless as the seconds ticked away.
And then a voice, barely recognisable, from behind...
Kincaid spun round as Paul spoke and was shocked by what he saw. In the dark of the warehouse he hadn't seen just how badly hurt Ironhorse really was but here, under the lights, Paul looked grey and old, totally drained of life, only his stubborn will and the wall holding him on his feet.
"Good work, brother. Now we can die together. There's symmetry to that. We are the same, after all." The clone had Ironhorse's voice but there was none of the life or vibrancy that marked Paul's. Even without knowing, Kincaid didn't think he would ever have mistaken the clone for the real thing. There was so much more to Paul Ironhorse.
"Not the same but linked. Linked," Paul's voice faded away for a moment and when he spoke again his voice was stronger. "It was good working with you," he told them. "Debi, close your eyes."
The girl obeyed him but Kincaid's attention snapped back to Paul as he pushed himself upright.
"Colonel," Harrison protested sharply. Kincaid couldn't say anything, frozen in the sudden knowledge of what Ironhorse meant to do. He forced himself to watch as Paul jammed the muzzle of his gun, the gun that he had asked Kincaid for earlier, under his chin and pulled the trigger.
The clone, linked as Paul had known he was, died the same moment as Ironhorse.
There was no time to mourn then. With only a few seconds left on the bomb's timer, Kincaid had pushed a stunned Harrison out of the Cottage after Debi and Suzanne, pausing only briefly for one last look at the sprawled body of Ironhorse. It was a sight he didn't think he would ever wipe from his mind.
Going back to the Cottage the next morning, Kincaid had hovered in the background as Harrison and Suzanne and Debi made their farewells amidst the smoking ruin that had been their home for the past two years. For them it was a double tragedy, losing both Ironhorse and Norton and Kincaid felt that he had no right to intrude upon their grief. He had barely known Drake but he knew that Ironhorse had considered him part of his family, just as he had the three surviving members of the Project.
"We remember our friends, Colonel Paul Ironhorse and Norton Drake." Harrison's voice caught for a second as he battled back tears. "They gave their lives for us."
Kincaid waited until the three had moved away before coming forward to offer his own goodbyes. He crouched at the edge of the rubble, absently picking up small pieces of fallen masonry and tossing them aside, as he tried to find the words to say what was in his heart. But he couldn't find them. Not here, not yet. Not with Harrison standing so close, his grief palpable. And not while the wound was so raw.
So much had changed in the last day and Kincaid knew that he could never be the same man again. He had lost something very precious last night but, in dying, Ironhorse had also given him something. Something he could cling onto when life got too rough.
"You gave me a job to do, colonel," he said finally. "I'm not going to let you down," he vowed and, standing, saluted his commander one last time before heading out after his new charges.
As the vivid images faded, Kincaid became aware of a presence behind him. He wiped a hand over his face, brushing away the tears he hadn't been aware of shedding, and looked up to find Blackwood lurking at his shoulder.
"Harrison," he greeted neutrally.
Blackwood, taking it for an invitation, folded up on the ground beside him. When Kincaid had disappeared without a word to any of them yesterday, Harrison had known that he would find the younger man at the Cottage. Ever since the aliens had been defeated, Kincaid had become steadily more withdrawn, pulling back from all of them. Harrison was perturbed to see it but he understood the reason and, to some extent, he found himself sharing the feeling. A feeling of emptiness, of ending. For a long time, and especially since the second wave had arrived and their world fell apart, their whole lives had been taken up with staying alive and defeating the aliens. They had all had a purpose, something to give their lives meaning. Now that purpose was gone, over, finished with and the future was looking very empty and bleak, especially for Kincaid. For Harrison and Suzanne it wasn't so bad. As scientists, they had all the remaining alien technology to discover and explore and it would keep them busy for a long time to come. They had each other, too, and Debi. But Kincaid? What could the future hold for one ex-mercenary? He had no family, unless you counted the three of them, and Harrison wasn't sure that Kincaid did. Sure, he had worked with them, protected them, even cared about them but family? No, Kincaid's family had died along with Max. And Paul Ironhorse.
Ironhorse. Harrison still couldn't think of him without getting choked up. There were times when he turned round, expecting Paul to be at his back, to share some discovery or just a smile, and then he would remember that Paul was gone, dead by his own hand, his life given for theirs.
"Did you know he was dying?" Harrison asked abruptly, slanting a glance at the other man. He knew that Paul and John had made some kind of peace that last afternoon but, thinking about Paul as he had lately, he was suddenly curious to know just how close the two men had been. Ironhorse had never mentioned Kincaid but then, Harrison really knew very little of his life before the Project. And Kincaid had certainly said very little about Paul, dodging any conversations where his name cropped up. Harrison was left with the nagging feeling that he had missed something, that there had been far more between the two men than mere enmity, something far more complicated and personal.
"Yeah, he told me," Kincaid answered quietly. "I never thought I'd lose him so soon but, in a way, I'm glad for how it happened."
"Glad?" Harrison exclaimed incredulously. "The aliens killed him!"
"No," Kincaid contradicted flatly. "They gave him the chance to die for a reason, for a cause he believed in, for people he loved. You might have known him better than I did but I understood the part of him that was a soldier. He lived his whole life fighting against wrong and, in dying, he was still fighting. He died with more dignity, more purpose, than the cancer would have allowed him," he finished passionately.
Harrison was silent for a few moments, thinking about what Kincaid had said. "You're right," he finally admitted. His grief and anger at the aliens for taking Paul away from him before his time had blinded him to the truth. Ironhorse had chosen to trade his life for their safety a long time before the night he died. He had made that decision when he realised he had cancer and had refused to leave the Project for the treatment that might have saved his life.
"You're right," Harrison repeated softly. "It's just that I lost a friend, a very dear friend."
"I know, Harrison." Kincaid's voice was equally soft. "So did I. We were friends. I hoped..." his voice tailed away. "I'll never know. That I regret more than anything," he murmured more to himself than to Blackwood.
"You loved him," Harrison corrected certainly, reading the truth on the mercenary's tear-streaked face.
Kincaid froze for a moment. "Yes, I did," he finally admitted huskily. "I think I still do."
Harrison heard the loss and pain in Kincaid's voice. "Want to talk about it?" he asked compassionately.
Kincaid shook his head. "What's to talk about? He's dead."
"Then tell me about him. I really know nothing about his past, what he used to be like before the aliens."
"He told me that you were the best friend he ever had. I almost hated you for that," Kincaid told him. At Harrison's shocked look, he explained. "I wanted hearts and flowers and romance and commitment from him, what we had was passion. I was too young, too green, to realise that he wasn't willing to give me anything else."
"But..." Harrison started, surprised and shocked by the picture Kincaid was painting of Ironhorse.
"Don't get me wrong, Harrison. What we had was good but it wasn't enough to keep us together. When I got accepted for officer training, it just seemed easier, less painful, to let it go. I figured I'd get over him."
"But you didn't." It wasn't a question.
Kincaid shrugged. "I thought I had, then six, seven years ago I was assigned to his unit in Beirut and it all started again. I'd been around by then and he'd mellowed a bit. I knew that Paul had been in love before and that he'd died. It was why it didn't work the first time, it was too soon after. I thought it could be different this time."
"And was it?" Harrison asked, somehow unsurprised by the existence of such a tragedy in his friend's life. Harrison had always known that Paul had been hurt badly by something or someone. Nobody could have the kind of walls he had had and not have been but until now he hadn't known just what that pain was. It was one of the few secrets Harrison had never wormed out of him.
Kincaid gave a crack of laughter. "Yes. We fought more. He even said he loved me but it still wasn't enough." He stopped again, lost in the memories. Harrison waited, almost afraid to break the silence, to probe too deeply. "I wasn't prepared to play second fiddle to a ghost anymore," he continued finally. "Things got messy between us and all of a sudden I got bumped out of the unit. I thought it was his way of getting rid of me."
"But?" Harrison asked, knowing that there was more.
"But now I'm not so sure," Kincaid admitted. "It isn't Ironhorse's style, not in such an underhand way. He was probably glad of it but I think it was Wilson who actually pulled the strings. hell, he recruited me for his own little squad soon enough."
"Now," Kincaid sighed, dropping his head momentarily, scrubbing almost angrily at his eyes. "Now, I think it could have worked. I know that we both wanted it to. I've finally learnt what it's like to lose someone you love and Paul... I think Paul had let go of Guy at last. Thanks to you."
"To me?" Harrison repeated blankly.
For the first time since he'd started, Kincaid smiled. "Don't look so surprised, Harrison. Why'd you think I said I almost hated you? Someone got him to open up, start feeling again. It sure as hell wasn't Suzanne, though Debi might have had something to do with it. You knew him better than I ever did. He loved you," he ended softly.
Harrison shook his head, blinking back tears of his own. He had meant to comfort the younger man but instead found himself drawing strength from Kincaid's words. "He loved us both, in different ways," Harrison told him in turn. "We were family, brothers. You... It really hurt him when you refused to talk to him.. He didn't tell me anything but I held him while he cried." Harrison paused, studying the haunted look on the other man's face. "I would never have been your rival, much as we loved each other," he said after a moment and watched grief and pain war with acceptance on the expressive face.
Acceptance finally won.
"It's crazy, Harrison. I saw him for one afternoon in six years and still I miss him. Why?" Kincaid asked plaintively, his voice cracking.
Harrison didn't answer. He couldn't because there was no answer. Kincaid already knew that love couldn't be quantified or pigeonholed. It just was. There was no rhyme nor reason behind it. They would both miss Paul for a long time.
They sat silent, side by side, drawn together by memories of Ironhorse, as they never had been by the aliens. Here, in the place where Paul had lived and died and now lay buried, they both had to begin to lay the past to rest before it destroyed them. Paul had given his life to ensure their future. It was up to them to start living it.
Harrison rested a hand on Kincaid's shoulder.