"Do you mind if we make a detour, Doctor?" Colonel Ironhorse's voice broke the long silence. Blackwood, for once driving the Bronco, cast a quick look of surprise at his friend slumped tiredly in the passenger seat.
"Not at all. Why?" he asked. Usually after the sort of alien activity they'd just dealt with Paul - along with the rest of them - was only too glad to get back home to the Cottage. Why he wanted to make a sudden detour off into the wilds of Washington State was a complete mystery to Blackwood.
For a moment Harrison thought he wasn't going to answer but then Ironhorse continued. "There's someone I have to - talk - to in Newton. It won't take long."
Harrison glanced at him again. The dark face was shuttered, refusing to show any emotion except weariness. The confrontation with the aliens had exhausted them all, the colonel especially as he had, as usual, been in the forefront of it all, but the weariness seemed to be sinking rapidly towards depression. And that was unlike the colonel.
"Okay." He picked up the phone and handed it to Ironhorse. "You'd better call Sergeant Derriman and let him know where we're going."
Ironhorse took it and called the truck following them. The call was taken by Corporal Mackay and Ironhorse felt his throat tighten. Richard Mackay was one of the very few people now who knew what Newton meant to him.
There was a brief silence and then the corporal spoke, his voice carefully neutral. "Okay, Colonel, we'll follow you in."
Paul's first instinct was to send his men straight home but something in the young man's voice reminded him forcibly that this visit had everything to do with him, too.
"Alright," he acknowledged briefly and, putting the phone back, turned to his own thoughts again.
Harrison watched him out of the corner of his eye, concerned by his uncharacteristic behaviour. Even before this latest mission Paul had been showing signs of depression. He had been moody and withdrawn, even more intolerant of the civilians' teasing than usual. It had hurt Harrison when he realised that Ironhorse was holding him all at arm's length. Hurt and confused. He had been certain that Paul returned his own feelings - they had grown close, the antagonism of the early days all but disappeared - but these last weeks Paul had been steadily shutting him out. Shutting them all out, in fact, except maybe Derriman, who had known him longer than any of them, and the newest addition to Omega squad, Corporal Rick Mackay.
Mackay intrigued Blackwood. He was a personable young man - fair-haired with a ready smile that seemed to conceal no secrets - and at nineteen had already reached the rank of corporal in the elite squad, although that posting was coming to an end, being only a temporary measure pending his posting abroad. Which in itself was curious as the Project was classified top secret and the only out that any of Ironhorse's men seemed to have was to die. His people were hand-picked and did not get transfers.
However, what really intrigued Harrison was the relationship between Paul and Mackay and, to a certain extent, Derriman. Ironhorse had been very close-mouthed about the younger man but Harrison was sure that there was more between them than just soldier and commander, despite outward appearances. He also suspected that Derriman knew exactly what it was but he was far too loyal to the colonel to let anything slip.
Harrison felt shut out and he hated it. When they got home, he was determined to see what he could do to change that.
They pulled into Newton around mid-afternoon. It was a small town, made drab by the dullness of the day, with little more than a church, a couple of bars and a handful shops. Harrison drew up outside the only hotel and looked across at Ironhorse Paul sat for a moment, still lost in thought, then clambered out of the truck. Harrison followed suit and walked around the truck to hover by the colonel's shoulder.
"Well?" Blackwood prompted. Ironhorse looked at him for the first time in an hour. His face was, if possible, even more unreadable than before but Harrison was still sure that something was upsetting him.
"This won't take more than thirty minutes, doctor." Ironhorse paused as the Omega van pulled up and Mackay jumped out. "Do you want to come?" For a moment Harrison thought the colonel was speaking to him but then Mackay shook his head.
"No, I came to terms with it a years ago."
"And I didn't?" Paul queried softly.
The younger man shrugged. "That's for you to say but I hardly knew him," he offered, almost excusingly, or so it seemed to Blackwood standing forgotten by both men. Ironhorse nodded, accepting the explanation and then turned to stride down the street.
Blackwood, drawn by both curiosity and concern for his friend, took a step after him but was brought up short by a hand on his arm.
"Let him go alone, Doctor."
Harrison shot a glare at Mackay. The young corporal tightened his grip for a moment, half expecting Blackwood to pull away but after watching Paul disappear around the side of the church, Harrison subsided.
He wanted to follow Ironhorse, to discover what was troubling him so, but equally, here was his chance to talk to Mackay. His curiosity, already rampant, had been heightened by the cryptic exchange between the two soldiers. He couldn't deny the small voice, either, that whispered of jealousy at the back of his mind. He turned to Mackay.
"Care to tell me what this is all about?"
"It's not my place to say, Doctor," Mackay answered stiffly.
"But you do know," Blackwood persisted.
"And?" When the soldier remained silent, Blackwood continued. "Look, Corporal, he's my friend and I care about him. If you know why he's hurting, please tell me so I can help."
Mackay met his eyes, saw the emotion behind the probing and relented a little. "Doctor, I do know what's bothering him but if you don't, I can't tell you. It's something he'll tell you himself if he wants you to know. All I can say is just be there for him when he needs you. Now, I suggest we go inside."
Ironhorse strode down the street, trying desperately not to limp. His back, jarred painfully by his fight with the aliens, was killing him but he could feel Blackwood's eyes on him and so forced himself to walk properly. He didn't think he could cope with Harrison just now. His hold over his emotions was perilous enough already. He knew that the doctor was worried about him and hurt by his distance but the strain of trying to cope with his own growing feelings for the other man on top of the secret war they were fighting was too much for him. He had needed to pull back, to try and put his life in perspective, to reconcile the future he saw in front of him with his past. He could feel the familiar misery surround him. He owed Harrison an apology but that, like the explanation, would have to wait until later.
He rounded the side of the small brick church and entered the cemetery behind, heading unerringly for one particular grave. It was tucked away to one side, almost hidden by the sprawling evergreen hedge. Every year it seemed to be a little more overgrown, a little more forlorn, now that there was no-one to care. Except him. He didn't really know why he still came except that it had become a ritual of sorts, an affirmation of his own survival. At first when the pain of loss was still raw, the annual pilgrimage had been a bittersweet comfort, a perverse reminder, if he needed one, that their life and love had been real. He came to talk, to share his thoughts and feelings because he had no-one else to share them with. Every year the memories and sadness crowded back, his visit bringing home to him the fact that, even though his lover was years dead, he was still alone.
Until now. When he had first been assigned as military liaison and security officer to the Blackwood Project – a top-secret government-backed Project dedicated to the total eradication of the aliens who had first invaded earth back in 1953 and who, through some perverse trick of fate, had been resurrected thirty-five years later to continue their quest to take over the planet – he had never expected anything other than to be the despised figure of government authority. But, somehow, the three civilians, after an initial period of mutual distrust had become friends and, in some strange way perhaps borne of the secrecy and danger they shared, they had become a family. It gave him a feeling of security he hadn't had in a long time.
Paul knelt beside the grave and lifted a hand to rub the encroaching moss away from the inscription and then let it drop to his side. He didn't need to see it to know what it said and, God willing, this would be his last visit. He knew, finally, that Richard had been right. He had never made his peace, never accepted the death and gotten on with living again, although he had fooled himself into thinking that he had. Meeting Harrison had proved that.
At first they had fought constantly but somewhere along the line things had changed between them and, although they still quarrelled frequently, the edge was gone, replaced by friendship and something more. For his part, Paul knew exactly what that something was. He had fallen in love with Harrison and suspected – no, knew – that the astrophysicist returned his feelings. He'd known it for weeks now but still he'd kept Harrison at arm's length, unsure that he was really willing to get involved again, fearing to lose another lover to war. He wasn't sure that he was willing to cope with that again, especially as no-one could ever know the truth behind the war they were fighting. To all intents and purposes, the Blackwood Project was a specialised anti-terrorist squad and only a handful of very senior Pentagon officials knew otherwise.
He sighed and settled more comfortably on the cold ground, a hand resting on the headstone.
"Well, love, I've got lots to tell you this time. I've finally met someone. His name's Harrison and I think you'd like him, Sam but I don't know what to do…"
Harrison came to his feet again and paced restlessly to the window of the hotel lobby, peering out to see if Paul was coming back yet. It had been well over half an hour since Ironhorse had left and Blackwood was seriously considering going after him, regardless of what Mackay might say. The possibility of aliens could not be discounted even here. He turned and almost fell over Derriman. The sergeant put a hand out to steady him.
"Don't worry, Doctor, the colonel can look after himself. He'll be back soon."
Harrison ran a distracted hand through his hair, unconvinced. What did Derriman care? No, that wasn't fair. Derriman had known the colonel a lot longer than he had, perhaps longer than anyone had. He sighed.
"I know, Sergeant but I'd be a lot happier if I just knew where he was."
Just then the door clattered open and the half dozen Omegans sprang to face it from where they had been sprawled around the hotel lounge.
"Easy. It's only me," the colonel warned as he pushed to door closed behind him.
"Paul! Thank God, I was getting worried." Harrison took a hasty step forward and then stopped short. Now was probably not a good time to hug the man, much as he wanted to. In fact, lately it had seemed as though there might never be a good time again.
Ironhorse met his eyes and his mouth tilted into a crooked smile as he read Harrison's intent. He turned to the Omegans.
"Okay, gentlemen, let's go home." They filed out, Mackay bringing up the rear. He paused as the doorway and looked back at the colonel standing beside Blackwood.
"Everything okay?" he checked.
Ironhorse nodded. "Everything's fine. We'll talk later."
Blackwood waited for the door to swing closed behind the young man before asking, "Is everything fine?" He didn't really need to hear Paul's answer, he could see that something had changed, and for the better. Ironhorse was looking more relaxed than Harrison could remember seeing him in weeks and the shuttered look in his eyes had gone, replaced by a warmth that made the scientist catch his breath.
Ironhorse shook his head and rested a hand on Harrison's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Later, Harrison, when we're home."
It was late by the time Ironhorse finally pulled up at the Cottage. Harrison, true to form, had decided he needed a nap half way home and was still soundly asleep, hat tilted down over his face. Watching Harrison had become one of Paul's favourite pleasures in life and he reckoned that he had a few more minutes before the scientist woke – over the years Blackwood had perfected the art of sleeping for exactly an hour and rarely deviated from that pattern – and Paul was determined to savour the sight while he could.
"Enjoying the view, Colonel?" Harrison asked suddenly, pushing up his hat and cocking a teasing eye at his friend. To his delight, Paul blushed and hastily looked away, fumbling for the door handle.
"'Bout time you woke up," he mumbled, avoiding both Harrison's eyes and the question.
"Paul…" Harrison reached out and caught hold of his hand. Ironhorse looked down at their hands and tightened his grip for a moment before looking at the scientist. "Don't shut me out," Harrison pleaded softly.
"I won't," Ironhorse promised. Their eyes held and Ironhorse caught his breath at the look Harrison was giving him. He wanted, more than anything, to answer the invitation he saw there but refused the impulse, pulling away instead, albeit reluctantly. He felt the other man stiffen and saw hurt flash across his face at what he thought was Paul's rejection. Damn, was Harrison really that uncertain of his feelings? Time to change that, once and for all.
He met Harrison's eyes in the near darkness of the truck, for once allowing his feelings to show openly on his face, allowing the older man to see just how much he cared.
"If we sit out here much longer Suzanne will come to investigate and I, for one, absolutely refuse to be found necking in a car like a teenager," he said deliberately.
Harrison relaxed as the intent of Paul's words reached him. "Oh, I don't know. It would be fun," he murmured, smiling as the images Paul's words created sent a surge of warmth through his body.
Whatever the colonel said they might yet have ended up doing just that if the night hadn't suddenly been flooded with light from the open front door. Ironhorse looked across and saw Suzanne. His raised eyebrow and impish smile were eloquent as he turned back to Harrison.
"Why do you have to be right so often?" Harrison complained ruefully, letting go of Paul's hand reluctantly and getting out of the truck. Ironhorse followed him towards the house, absently admiring the view.
"Where have you been? We expected you hours ago." Suzanne pounced on them the moment they set foot in the house.
"Sorry," Ironhorse said apologetically. "We stopped off in Newton."
"Aliens?" Suzanne, her irritation forgotten, was all business.
Ironhorse shook his head. "No. Personal."
"Oh?" Suzanne was surprised. Paul's personal life – what personal life? she asked herself ruefully – had never impinged on a mission before.
Harrison, in the middle of pulling off his outdoor clothes, paused, waiting expectantly for the colonel's explanation but Ironhorse ignored them both, heading instead for the lounge and the coffee pot.
"Well, the wanderers return!" Norton quipped from his place by the fire. "How was it?"
Harrison dropped onto the couch with a sigh. "We got them all – I hope – but it was messy for a while. Ah, thanks." He took the coffee mug Ironhorse held out to him with a smile. The colonel perched on the arm beside him, almost close enough to touch. Suzanne and Norton exchanged a long, significant look. Paul usually guarded his personal space jealously, pulling back from close contact, only allowing the occasional hug from Suzanne's daughter, Debi, a teenager who, having spent the last several years since the divorce without a father, had adopted the colonel as her new 'father', or a friendly pat on the back from Blackwood.
"Anything happening here?" Ironhorse asked, stretching and flexing his shoulders, surreptitiously trying to ease the ache in his back.
"No, everything's been quiet. Are you okay?" Suzanne asked with a frown.
"Yeah, fine," he lied automatically. No-one looked very convinced – he always insisted he was fine until he actually fell down. Harrison reached out a hand to rub at the tight muscles in his lower back. Ironhorse let out a sigh and then pushed Blackwood's hand away.
"Quit that, I'm okay."
Blackwood snorted. "Huh! What you need is patented Blackwood back rub."
"No way!" Ironhorse yelped, half serious. "The last time I let you loose on my back I could hardly move for days!"
Harrison felt his lips twitch as the colonel's unwitting choice of words – as least, he assumed they were unwitting but with Paul it wasn't always easy to tell when he was teasing – and patted the man's back.
"Don't worry, Colonel, I can think of better ways to keep you down than a back rub," Harrison told him, laughter dancing in his eyes. Paul turned scarlet as Norton choked on his coffee, and sank back into the couch with a muffled groan, glaring daggers at Blackwood.
Suzanne came to her feet, hiding her own smile. "Well, now that you guys are home, I guess I can go to bed. Norton?"
The black man swallowed the last of his coffee and wheeled Gertrude towards the door. "Absolutely. Gertrude, elevator!" he instructed his voice-activated wheelchair. "I don't think you're old enough for this conversation," he told her as they disappeared out of the door.
Paul got up and stretched properly, then dropped into his own chair.
"Nice of them to leave us alone," Harrison commented with a grin.
"Tactful," Ironhorse agreed. "Have we really been that obvious?"
Harrison nodded. "Must've been. At least, until these last couple of weeks," he added soberly.
Ironhorse sighed, his eyes gazing unwaveringly at the fire. "Yes. I promised I'd tell you about that."
"Me and Mackay," Harrison said acidly.
Ironhorse looked up with a smile, recognising the jealousy behind the tone. "Richard already knows. I've known him since he was a child." He broke off, unsure where to start. Sitting by Sam's grave, he had come to a decision about his life. He was ready now to put the past behind him and to move onto a new love, no matter what might happen in the future. He was willing, finally, to face the possibility of losing another lover than live any longer without that love. Besides, it could just as easily be he who died at alien hands as Harrison. More likely, perhaps. It was his job, after all, to put himself between the civilians and danger. The decision made, however, still didn't make it any easier to talk about Sam.
He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment to calm himself, and then let it out slowly, his gaze still firmly fixed on the flickering fire. "I own a house in Newton. It was our home away from the army," he said at last.
"Our?" Harrison prompted softly as Ironhorse paused. Now that Paul was finally willing to talk, he wasn't sure that he really wanted to hear but he knew from his own experiences that some things had to be talked out before they could be set aside.
"Me and Sam Mackay." Ironhorse looked up at his friend and, please God, soon to be lover and saw his words hit home. He waited tensely for Harrison to say something. His original security check on Blackwood had turned up a number of men in his background so he had always known that Harrison was bisexual but Paul suspected that Harrison had a rather blinkered view of his own past. Whatever Harrison had been expecting, he was sure it wasn't the existence of another man in his life.
"Mackay?" Blackwood picked up on the name.
"Richard is his son."
"And he knows about you and …?"
Ironhorse nodded as Blackwood trailed off. "Sam's parents used to bring him on visits occasionally when he was on leave. They got custody of the kid when his mother walked out."
Harrison shook his head, trying to take in what Paul was telling him. "Tell me about Sam," he asked quietly. "He was army, too?"
Ironhorse nodded. "Yeah, Special Forces, like me. We met about nine years ago, at the Pentagon of all places. I'd been temporarily seconded to General Wilson's staff and he was in Washington waiting for a new posting to come through. We got talking, went out for a few beers in the evening and ended up in bed together." He smiled at Harrison's surprise. "Not exactly the great romance of the century," he admitted. "A quick fuck in the back room of a bar and a 'I'll see you around' in the morning."
"Then…?" Harrison shook his head, trying to adjust the mental picture he had of Paul Ironhorse. He knew that the man wasn't as straight-arrow military as he liked to seem but he hadn't really expected this. Ironhorse had never really struck him as a man who went in for casual relationships.
"Except, both being stuck in DC, away from our units and active duty, we did see other around. And after a couple of months we both of us realised that there was a lot more to it than just sex. Life would certainly have been a lot simpler if that's all it had been."
"Do you have any idea just how difficult it is being gay in the military? The sneaking around to be together occasionally, the secrecy, the lies you have to tell just to survive. And not only to the brass but to your fellow officers and the men. I'd already had a few years to get used to it but Sam hadn't. He'd steered clear of men since enlisting and then there was his wife, as well. Jeez, what a mess. We came close to blowing it, more than once."
"Bad?" Harrison asked sympathetically.
Ironhorse shrugged. "It could have been a lot worse but the marriage was on the rocks already and she was more than pleased in screwing a big divorce settlement out of him in return for silence. Then the following year she re-married and dumped Richard with Sam's parents."
"So they knew, too."
"Yeah. They didn't exactly approve but so long as we didn't flaunt it on the rare occasions that we were home together, they lived with it. And, as I said, they didn't keep Richard away."
"What about your family?"
"I knew I was gay long before I joined the army. When they found out about Sam… Well, it was just one more wedge between us – I've seen them maybe a dozen times in the last twenty years. But despite all the pain and the hassle and the secrecy, what I had with him was worth it."
"So what happened between you?"
"He died," Ironhorse said baldly, falling silent.
"I'm sorry," Harrison finally said gently, as the silence stretched between them. "killed?"
Ironhorse nodded, staring into the fire. The bright flames etched his face with shadows, cruelly highlighting the grief still present. Harrison leaned forward and dropped a hand on Paul's knee, aching to hold his friend and banish the misery but he didn't quite dare, afraid of a rebuff.
Ironhorse laid a hand over his, gripping briefly and then sat back, giving Blackwood a smile, albeit a little strained. "He was killed in Beirut four years ago. I was in Europe at the time and I didn't hear the news until almost a month later." He came to his feet abruptly and stood looking down at the fire, trying to push the memories away. "In the five years we were together, we were apart more than we were together but…" He was aware of Harrison coming to stand behind him a moment before arms slid around his waist. He leaned back for a moment, basking in the warmth of Harrison's love, then turned and slid his own arms around his friend, holding on tightly. "But, ah hell, Harrison, I missed him. Missed him so much sometimes. And there wasn't anyone I could share that grief with. No-one I could tell."
"Paul…" Harrison murmured, returning the embrace. "I'm sorry. I'm sooo sorry."
"It's alright," Ironhorse reassured the other man. "It's been a while now. I've just been thinking about him a lot recently and it's brought the memories back." He freed himself from Harrison's arms and sat down again, this time sitting down on the couch beside Harrison, keeping hold of his hand. "I'm sorry about these last couple of weeks, being so cool. I've been trying to decide whether I really wanted to get involved with someone else again. Whether I could cope with it."
"And?" Harrison asked tensely, searching Paul's face intently for an answer.
"Harrison, I'm still in the army and even though General Wilson knows about me…"
"He knows?" Blackwood interrupted faintly, his mind latching onto minutia, trying to stave off what he was sure Ironhorse was going to say. That what he felt for Harrison just wasn't worth the risk.
Ironhorse smiled. "I've been under his command for a long time, Harrison. There's not much that he doesn't know."
"Oh." Harrison digested that in silence for a moment.
"Even though he knows and he'll keep on protecting me for as long as he can, if anyone finds out about us… My career is on the line."
"What are you saying, Paul? That you've changed your mind?" he asked tensely, feeling as though the bottom had dropped out of his world once more.
"No!" Ironhorse exclaimed forcefully. "Never that." He brought a hand up to touch Harrison's cheek. "What I am trying to say is that if the army takes official notice of us, they'll have me out of here so fast you won't even see the skidmarks. And I don't think I could bear to lose you. I love you, Harrison Blackwood."
"Paul…" Harrison's hand tightened on his, pulling him closer. Ironhorse resisted for a moment, laying his free hand in the middle of Harrison's chest to stop him, the expression on his face deadly serious.
"There's just one more thing, Harrison. I know this is probably not the best time to say it but I don't want anything to come between us."
"Go on," Harrison forced out, wary of whatever new revelation Paul would come out with now. What else was there?
Ironhorse read the expression on his face easily and smiled. "Don't worry, Harrison. I just wanted to tell you I've got a wife and three children down in Mexico but don't worry, they live with her brother." He watched the other man's jaw drop in shock and chuckled. "Gotcha!" he teased, laughter banishing the heavy emotions of the previous hour.
"Ironhorse!" Harrison glared at him as he realised that he'd been had and pulled the smaller man towards him, tilting his head up to meet his lips. That first kiss was soft, almost shy but then Paul pressed closer, deepening the contact. Harrison felt as though fire were flickering along his nerves, centring on his groin. God, he hadn't turned on this fact for years and just from a kiss! He pulled back reluctantly. If this carried on, they'd probably end up making love on the floor and wouldn't that be embarrassing if anyone walked in!
He met Paul's eyes, dark and hazy with passion and felt himself blush at the look he was getting. Ironhorse laughed deep in his throat and Harrison couldn't resist closing in for another kiss. His hands skimmed down Paul's back, pulling his hips closer, feeling his arousal pushing urgently against his own. Definitely time to adjourn elsewhere while they still could.
"Let's go to bed."
Paul took the hand Harrison held out to him, delighting in even that simple touch and let himself be lead up the stairs to the scientist's room. He pushed the door closed and leant back against it, watching as Harrison swept up the books and papers littering his bed and dumped them in one big pile on his desk, uncaring where they landed.
"God, do you have any idea how much I want you?" he murmured, half to himself, half to the man now approaching him.
Harrison's eyes swept down his body, noting the faint flush on his bronzed cheeks and the signs of arousal. "About as much as I want you," he returned. "Come here." He held out a hand, pulling Paul back into his arms for another long kiss.
Suddenly desperate to touch each other, hands rapidly stripped off clothes, dropping them wherever they lay, until they were both naked.
Ironhorse sank down beside his sated lover. Blackwood turned dazed eyes on him. Paul met his eyes and smiled, lacing his fingers through the other man's and bringing them to his mouth in a gentle kiss.
"What are you thinking?" Harrison asked softly, curious to know what was going on behind that sweet, crooked smile.
Paul rolled onto his side, half-propped on Blackwood's shoulder, hand idly drawing patterns on his chest. "That I'm happy. That this is gonna last. That I love you more than anyone else."
"Even Sam?" Harrison hadn't meant to ask that, afraid of the answer that Paul would give him but it had just slipped out.
"Harrison…" Ironhorse looked away for a moment and then turned back to his lover, waiting until the other man met his gaze before continuing, wanting Harrison to see truth in his eyes. "Harrison," he repeated. "I loved Sam. I won't pretend that I didn't and that some, small, deep part of my heart will always belong to him, just as part of you will always belong to Karen. But he's gone, they both are. And we're here. And I love you just as much as I ever loved him."
Harrison felt his eyes sting as the soft sincerity in Paul's voice. He had been afraid that Paul would think of him as second best, a substitute for Sam but he should have known better. As Paul had reminded him, he wasn't the only one to have loved and lost before. Harrison had loved Karen McKinley and would gladly have spent the rest of his life with her but she had been taken by the aliens, disappearing without trace. Loving her hadn't stopped him falling in love with Paul.
He raised a hand to stroke Ironhorse's cheek.
"You're right," he agreed. "And, just in case you don't already know it, I love you, Paul Ironhorse."