Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse came awake in an instant but he didn't move, didn't give any indication that he was conscious. Instead he concentrated on his surroundings, trying to gauge where he was and the situation.
He was being gently rocked from side to side and he surmised that he was in a vehicle of some kind. His head was resting upon something soft... and it breathed. That caused him a moment of confusion, as none of his battle trained men could be considered soft. He groaned before he was able to stop himself and then tensed slightly, waiting to see the reaction to his slip.
"I think he's waking up, Harrison," a feminine voice stated, and from the movement of the body beneath his head, he guessed he was laying upon the woman's lap.
"Colonel... Paul, can you hear me?" Ironhorse considered ignoring the voice, but reality informed him that they were aware that he was awake, and they seemed friendly. Now was the time to gather as much information as possible, before they stopped being so sociable.
He groaned again, making an act of it. Slowly he opened his eyes and blinked at the people who surrounded him. He was in the back of a van, resting upon the lap of a woman, with a bespectacled man leaning over him, a very concerned expression plastered on his face.
"Harrison?" he asked, surprised that he knew the man, as the name floated from out of nowhere.
"Paul," Harrison sighed in relief. "You really had us worried there for a while," he hurried on, as if the name had released the tension that had been building within him for the last few hours.
"Had you worried?" Ironhorse repeated, slowly struggling to sit up, valiantly ignoring the spinning interior of the van. The woman tried to prevent him, but he gently pushed her restraining hand aside and allowed Harrison to assist him in sitting up, leaning weakly against the side of the van.
"When that alien jumped you, I thought you were a goner - only Derriman's quick thinking...." Seeing the look this earned him, he explained, "Blew its head wide open... one shot."
"Harrison," the woman said, not liking the vivid description, especially from the normally peace-loving astrophysicist, but she knew it was only a sign of his concern for the lieutenant colonel.
"Aliens?" Ironhorse questioned. "Derriman blew a Mexican's brains out?" he asked, horrified at the image. He knew that there was a growing problem with illegal aliens, but hadn't the government drafted in the army to deal with the situation? And, if that was the case, why was he working with civilians?
"Paul, do you feel all right?" Harrison asked, his fear flooding back in full force at the other's words.
"I think he got hit harder than we first thought," the woman said, her genuine concern also showing clearly in her eyes. "It might be better not to say any more until after we get back to the Cottage and he can be checked out properly." She gave him another measuring look, before continuing, "Dr Markham wasn't due back at Fort Streeter until this afternoon, if we're lucky he'll still be there."
"Debi?" Ironhorse asked, as a name slipped into his mind when he looked at the pretty woman.
"No... that's my daughter.... " She paused, not sure if she should give him her name or not.
"Suzanne?" Ironhorse asked again, a hopeful expression filling his features.
"Yes," she agreed, for some reason extremely pleased that he had remembered her name.
"Colonel," Harrison began, "what's the last thing you remember?"
"Remember?" Ironhorse repeated, then wished that he could stop doing that. Still, he pushed that problem aside as he concentrated on the question that had been asked of him. A frown crossed his handsome face as he thought. "I was on a mission with Delta Squad...." He totally missed the shocked expression that turned to fear as it passed between Suzanne and Harrison at his words.
The rest of the journey continued in a tense silence. Ironhorse watched the two people before him, trying vainly to grasp at the whisper of memories that danced like shadows across his mind's eye. He knew that a person was missing, but was unable to recall their name, age or even sex. He raised a shaking hand and probed at the swelling over his left ear.
"You'd better leave that alone until we can get it looked at properly," Harrison advised, and Ironhorse got the distinct impression that the man was fighting the urge to slap his hand away from the wound.
He nodded, instantly regretting the action as the van tilted sickeningly and he gasped as he toppled from his resting position. "Paul..." "Colonel..." he heard in twin tones as they both made a grab for him. He held out a hand, warding them off. They accepted the warning, and while they did not actually touch him, they moved closer, effectively shutting off the chance of him slipping to the side again without landing on one of them. He gritted his teeth and spent the rest of the journey concentrating on staying upright.
* * *
By the time they reached the Cottage, Ironhorse was nearly exhausted by the effort of sitting upright and he gratefully accepted the help of the army personnel who appeared at the door of the van as it opened. He was still wary of the civilians, and they seemed to accept his attitude and allow him the leeway he needed to orient himself.
"Is Dr Markham still here?" Harrison asked as he followed the injured man from the van.
"He's waiting in the main house, sir," one of the Omegans answered, not looking at the man as he spoke, but following the slow moving lieutenant colonel. Ironhorse commanded the respect of all his personnel, and it showed in their concern for him now.
"I think we should have diverted to a hospital," Suzanne stated as she came up to stand beside Blackwood.
"The Cottage was closer, and Dr Markham is the best in his field."
"He more than likely needs X-rays and a full check over... we can't give him that here."
Blackwood turned to look at the pretty woman before he answered, with more joviality than he actually felt, "We've an X-ray machine in the basement that we can use if we have to - or Dr Markham can have him transported to Fort Streeter if he feels the need."
Suzanne knew better than to argue with Harrison; he had set his mind on bringing the colonel home, and nothing was going to prevent him from that aim. She felt that the wound itself was not too serious... it was the loss of memory that caused the cold hand of fear to climb up her back.
"Come on, let's get in... it's turning into a rotten night," Blackwood said, placing a gentle hand at the base of her back and guiding her towards the welcoming light of the front entrance to the Cottage.
The building was a hive of activity. As they entered they were hailed by Norton as he slipped quietly up beside them. "Was that the big guy I just saw being helped into his quarters?"
"An alien nearly had him," Blackwood supplied, unable to hide the tremor of horror that coloured his tone.
"Heard it was a bad one," Norton said, turning his wheelchair to face the colonel's office. "Derriman looked pretty shook up, and I know that usually means big trouble."
"He saved Paul's life," Suzanne advised, suddenly feeling the weight of the night tumble down upon her. "God... I hate this," she snapped, before pushing Blackwood's comforting hand aside. "I'm going to sit with my daughter, call me if Dr Markham needs any help with Paul."
"What if we need to use the X-ray machine?" Blackwood asked as she headed towards the stairs.
She paused and, without looking at either man, she answered, "I'll be with Debi."
Both men watched as she climbed wearily up the stairs. As she disappeared from view, Norton turned back to Harrison, a question in his eyes.
Blackwood shrugged, saying, "It was a hard night, Norton. When that alien grabbed Paul...." He stopped, reliving the moment.
"It's at times like this that you realise just how important Ironhorse has become to the group, isn't it?" Drake said, seeing the story of the attack in the other man's face.
"He didn't really know us in the van, Norton," Harrison commented as he moved towards Ironhorse's office. "He knew our names, but..." he paused, not sure how to explain the recent events, "he thought that we meant illegal aliens when we mentioned the aliens."
"Illegal Aliens?" Norton questioned, not sure what Harrison was getting at.
"As in Mexicans," Blackwood supplied, seeing the confusion turn to pure shock.
"Mexicans!" the wheelchair-bound man gasped, turning to look at the closed door. "This could be funny if it wasn't so damned serious, Harrison."
"I know," the other man stated, moving towards the colonel's quarters. He knocked on the door and entered without waiting for permission.
Ironhorse was sitting over by his desk, Dr Peter Markham standing over him, gently probing the swelling above his left ear. Both men looked up at the astrophysicist's entrance. Ironhorse scowled in annoyance, but Peter Markham welcomed him with a smile.
"How is the colonel, Peter?" Blackwood asked, moving further into the room so that Norton could enter as well.
"This is not a public viewing, gentlemen," snapped Ironhorse, then winced as Peter touched a very tender spot.
"Sorry," the doctor apologised before he continued with his probing, answering Harrison's question as he worked. "Nasty cut, but I think it looks worse than it actually is... these type of wounds always bleed badly."
"And the memory loss?"
The gentle fingers paused in their probing as Markham casually asked, "Memory loss?" It was obvious that Ironhorse had forgotten to mention this aspect of his injury.
"It was only temporary," Ironhorse stated firmly, but not quite carrying total conviction as he began looking decidedly uneasy at the turn of conversation.
"Paul didn't know us when he first awoke in the van," Blackwood advised the doctor. "He was quite disoriented at first."
"Well," Peter Markham said, dropping his hands and looking at the man seated before him, "that gives it a different complexion. It might be best to have that X-ray, Colonel... just in case."
"But I told you, I feel fine now," Ironhorse almost shouted as he came off the seat, only to stop and sway dangerously. It was only Markham's supporting hands that prevented him from falling flat on his face.
"Yeah, right," Markham said, helping the man ease back down into the seat. "Will Suzanne do the honours?" he asked, meaning the taking of the X-ray.
"Yes... she's with Debi. I'll go get her," Norton said, spinning his wheels and heading out of the room even as he spoke. "Meet you down in the lab."
"This is a waste of time, people," Ironhorse stated from behind gritted teeth.
"You thought we were killing Mexicans, Colonel..." Harrison slipped in quietly but determinedly. "I don't think that puts this under the heading of time wasting."
"I was disoriented when I first awoke, but I'm fine now." The stubborn streak was back in full force; Blackwood could almost see the backbone straightening with barely contained anger.
Used to dealing with Ironhorse in that type of mood, Harrison merely said, "Humour us poor civilians, Colonel," before he added to Markham, "Need any help getting Paul to the basement?"
Before Peter could comment, Ironhorse struggled to his feet again, seething as he answered, "I can make it there myself."
"Fine," Blackwood said, a slight smile crossing his handsome face as he asked in a sweet tone, "Can you remember the way or shall I show you?"
"You know, Blackwood, the thought of forgetting you permanently is getting more tempting by the minute," snapped the colonel as he brushed past the other man, still unsteady on his feet but determined not to show any weakness.
"You could go a little easier on him, you know," Markham said, following Blackwood from the room as the astrophysicist moved after the colonel.
"He would think I had been taken over by aliens if I did that, Peter," Harrison said, speeding up as the man before him faltered. "Here, let me help you there, Paul."
It was a sign of just how bad the injured man must be feeling when he didn't protest the offered help, but instead leant gratefully against the strong support as they waited for the elevator. Because he had his eyes closed concentrating on keeping his spinning senses steady, he missed the frown of worry that filtered across Blackwood's face.
* * *
Suzanne came out of the small room they used as the X-ray processing lab and found Blackwood, Norton and Markham waiting for her. "Where's Paul?" she asked as she handed over the X-rays.
"We took him to his room to lay down," Markham explained, holding the darkened photos up towards the light. "He was starting to look a little owlish." He paused, then held up the second X-ray, his lips curling back as he studied the pictures. Finally he dropped his arm, saying, "Well, there's no visible damage. Slight concussion..." he paused again, thinking back, "which would tie in with his telling me about the headaches, sickness, etc."
"Should he be sleeping in he's got concussion?" Norton asked.
"I don't think it's that bad a concussion, but I have asked Derriman to sit with him for a while until I got a look at these." He held up the X-rays again as he spoke. "But, barring any complication, I would say that Paul's going to sleep the night through, suffer a mother of all headaches, and be back in the saddle by the end of the week... Monday, at the latest."
"And the memory loss?" Blackwood questioned, giving the other two of his team a quick glance to see that they were hanging on the doctor's answer just as much as he was.
"Well, I did speak to him about it, but he's very tight-lipped and I don't really want to pressure him just yet. Anyway, it could just be what Ironhorse said; momentary disorientation upon waking up."
"Or he could just be covering up the fact that he barely remembers us and he's gathering intelligence... winging it until he either remembers or feels he has enough to bluff it," Harrison snapped, annoyed that Ironhorse could be needing their help and Dr Markham didn't seem too bothered by the problem.
Peter gave Harrison a steady look before he answered, "One: if Ironhorse is winging it, then neither you nor I are going to catch him out. Two: he might just need time, and if he feels more relaxed about doing it this way, then it's the best way for him to remember. And three: if I make an issue out of this, then General Wilson will have him out of here so fast that it'll look like he got a lift on a rocket. Understand?"
Blackwood almost rocked backwards under the onslaught and took a steadying breath before he nodded slowly and agreed, "Well, put like that, I guess you're right."
"It doesn't happen often," Markham smiled broadly, once more the relaxed doctor, "but when I am,it's usually spot on."
"But someone should sit with him for tonight," Suzanne confirmed, wanting to loosen the tension between the two men.
"Might be an idea," Peter agreed. "Concussions are funny things; nine times out of ten, you walk away with no more than a headache... but it's that one in ten that knocks the wind out of your sails."
"I'll sit with him," Harrison offered quickly, then - seeing the look this earned him - he explained, "Norton, you're chasing up the last communication with the aliens, and Suzanne, you picked up quite a pile of goo that you said you wanted to look at."
"Well, gee, Harrison," Norton put in, "I was hoping to get some sleep myself tonight - after all, it's only..." he glanced at his watch, "four twenty-eight in the morning."
"And there is that, too," Blackwood shot back. "I caught up on my hour's sleep in the van on the way back, so why don't the rest of you go grab some shut-eye and I'll call you if the colonel goes weird on me."
"Gauging from your own projection of weirdness, you might not recognise Paul as acting weird," Suzanne said about a yawn that snuck up on her.
"Go to bed, people," Blackwood ordered firmly. And, after reassuring them all again that he would contact them if Paul showed any sign of deteriorating, they trouped obediently off in the direction of slumber-land.
* * *
At first Derriman was unwilling to leave his commander, but even he realised that he was tired beyond being helpful and accepted Blackwood's word that he would be contacted if needed.
After the sergeant had left, Harrison checked on the sleeping man then settled himself down in the chair across from the bed. Opening a book he had brought, he began to read. Slowly the minutes began to tick by.
Soon Ironhorse became restless, tossing his head from side to side, muttering under his breath as he tried to fight some unseen danger. Blackwood laid the book down and moved closer to the bed, unsure if it would be wise to wake the other man, or let him work his way through the nightmare.
Suddenly Ironhorse reared up from the bed, eyes wide, hands outstretched as he made a grab for his phantom attacker. "Gordie!" The cry vibrated about the room until the man slumped down upon the bed, his energy spent.
"Colonel..." Blackwood asked, moving directly into the man's line of vision, "are you all right?"
Paul didn't answer right away, the memory of his dead friend still too close to the surface to allow his expression to be witnessed by the other man. He took a few deep, shuddering breaths as he fought to contain the feeling of loss that swept over him as he remembered the abandoned holiday site and the loss of his Delta Squad, of which Staff Sergeant Gordon T. Reynolds had been his sergeant.
"Paul, you either answer me or I'm calling Dr Markham in here... right now." It was said too seriously for it to be taken any other way.
"I'm fine," he gasped, head still tilted down. "It was nothing," he continued, his voice gaining strength as he began to rebuild the walls that he hid behind.
"Nothing?" Harrison repeated. "You call that nothing?" He waved his hand, indicating the crumpled bed and the tossed-aside blankets that gave evidence of Ironhorse's restless state.
"It was just a dream," Ironhorse stated wearily. "Just a dream," he added, as if to reassure himself.
"It must have been a hell of a doozey to have a Special Forces trained officer flying off the bed at almost warp speed," Blackwood advised calmly, then added, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"To you?" The way it was said made Harrison want to cringe. The tone was so like the one the colonel had used when they had first been forced together. "No," Ironhorse went on, his words spoken with bitter irony, "I don't think it would help to talk to you about it."
"You know, I'm a pretty good listener."
"Good," Paul shot back, settling himself back upon the bed with a smug expression. Then, pulling the blankets up to cover his chest, he continued, "Then maybe the next time I tell you to remain in the van... you'll listen and do as you're told."
"My... you really must be feeling better if you're starting to take swipes at me." Blackwood hadn't intended it to sound so bitchy, and winced as he heard the words. Paul just looked away, his features set in stone. "It was about your Delta Squad and Sergeant Reynolds, wasn't it?" Harrison ventured as he edged backwards and sat down upon the seat, knowing that he was putting Paul at a disadvantage by standing over him.
"What the hell would you know about it?" came the bitter words, the eyes still averted.
"You think you're the only person who's lost people to these aliens?" Blackwood was amazed at how calm he sounded, while his stomach was threatening to rebel at any moment as his own nightmare rose its ugly head.
"I don't want to talk about it," the injured man gritted out.
"It won't go away until you do," Harrison said with conviction. "I know that from experience."
Ironhorse glanced at the man seated beside him and was surprised to see a reflection of his own pain. "I'm sorry, Harrison," he stammered, realising that he was doing the man an injustice to suppose that he didn't know what it felt like. "I didn't mean to...." He faltered, not sure what to say.
Blackwood brushed his apology aside, answering instead, "It really will help if you talk about it." Ironhorse made to shake his head, but stopped as pain flared. "Here," Blackwood said, coming off his chair and heading towards the sideboard. "Peter left these for you; he said you'd have the mother of all headaches and that these should help you sleep." Taking a couple of the tablets that Dr Markham had left, he handed them to Paul along with a glass of water and watched as the man gratefully swallowed the pills. Then, moving back to his seat, he asked, "Do you dream of Reynolds very often?"
Ironhorse carefully, cautiously shook his head once. "No... at first I used to relive the attack over and over again, but it faded after a while." He paused as he remembered the men of his Delta Squad: all had been hand-picked and proud to be counted among his unit. "They were the best; we'd been together for quite a while... before I...."
"You didn't know what you were going up against," Harrison offered gently.
"You tried to warn me... but I just pushed your warnings aside.... I knew best..." the bitter tone was back, "and look what it got me."
"You had no reason to believe me," Harrison commented; it was his turn to look away. "I could have explained myself at our first meeting. Instead I blew it, choosing to run from the evidence... and you... rather than talk to the army about it."
"I don't think I would have believed you any more then than I did later," Paul confessed. "I mean, it was a bit wild... all that talk about aliens and a war that nobody could remember."
"Had you known Reynolds for long?" Blackwood asked, wanting to get Paul way from the guilt he was obviously suffering over the loss of his unit.
"About fourteen years, on and off."
"That long?" Blackwood asked in some surprise; for some reason he never thought about friendship lasting that long in the army. He had always assumed that people getting posted all over the world would put a tremendous strain on any relationship.
"We met in Nam."
"Oh." Harrison didn't know what to say to that. It was spoken as if it answered all questions.
"Did you know he was due to get married...?" Paul continued, his tone choked as he remembered the expression upon Reynold's fiancee's face when he had gone to visit her. She had accused him of killing her man, and it was an accusation that he had found hard to deny. "Asked me to be best man...."
"Paul," Harrison gasped, wanting to reach out and take some of the pain from his friend but knowing that it would be rejected, so instead he stayed where he was, offering, "I'm so sorry."
"Sorry?" Paul asked in some confusion "You tried to save them, Harrison. It was me who sent them down there to die... who practically gave them to the aliens gift-wrapped... to use... not you."
"You did what you had to do to destroy a group of terrorists who had infiltrated an army installation, Paul.... You did what you had been trained to do, and they did what they had been trained to do."
"Yeah... die for their country."
It was spoken with such defeat that it angered Blackwood beyond reason as he shot back, "No... to obey orders. To serve and protect their country. If you hadn't ordered them down there, then someone else would have. And every alien that we destroy... every device that they build and we disable... is a sign that they didn't die in vain."
"I don't..." Paul began, but Harrison interrupted him, stating firmly, trying to reason with his injured friend, "It brought us together - you, me, Suzanne and Norton - and we're going to annihilate their threat to the Earth."
"And what if we don't, Harrison," Paul asked, his tone deadly serious. "What if all we're doing is chasing our tails. Every time we stop them, they just seem to come up with bigger and nastier ways to hurt us."
Blackwood glared at Ironhorse for daring to believe that they might not win the war. "We don't have a choice, Colonel," he stated firmly, arrogantly.
Paul leant back weakly against the pillow, his face losing what little colour it had gained as he offered weakly, "I wish I could be that sure." Then he added, "Sometimes this war reminds me of Nam... we didn't know who the enemy was back then either, only in this case it's not a jungle that we die in, it's concrete buildings, rural towns, factories and schools."
"And just like Nam, you're not going to come home to a hero's welcome either," Blackwood said quietly, gleaning for the first time the traces behind the dream.
"Reynolds... the others," Paul said, his voice choked again, "they deserve better than to be just forgotten.... Do you think that in twenty years time they will erect a wall and put on it the names of all those people who've died in this war, Harrison?"
It wasn't really a question, but Blackwood felt the need to answer. "I don't know, Paul... but if they do, I hope to God that your name's not on it, nor Suzanne's or Norton's...." He stopped as emotions welled in his own heart. "Because I don't think I could continue if I lost any one of you."
Ironhorse laughed, but it came out a bitter, twisted sound as he shot back, "And I hope to God that my name is on it..." Seeing the utter horror that flared on his friend's face, he continued, "because if my death stops just one alien from killing another human being, then it would be worth it."
Ironhorse spoke with such conviction that it caused Blackwood to brush at a trickle of water that splashed upon his cheek, as he forced out, "Do you think Gordie would have felt the same way?"
Harrison thought that Paul was not going to answer, but finally, slowly he agreed. "Yes... yes, I think he would have.... He was a good man who truly believed that American integrity and peace was worth the price." He paused, taking a shaking breath before he confessed, "They all did, we all do... I guess, deep down, that's why we joined the army."
"Is that why you joined the army?" Harrison asked before he could stop himself; he was intensely curious as to the other man's reasons. The army could not have been an easy life for a young Native American.
Paul sighed, rubbing at his eyes. He was too tired for this. His head ached, the throbbing pain causing him to squint in the effort to relieve the agony, and with the flood of returning memory came the realisation that he had changed. He could no longer look at the people he protected and react with the cool detachment that he had prided himself on in Nam - Blackwood and the others had seen to that - and he knew that, deep down, it had in fact made him a better soldier. With a sigh he slipped further down in the bed, considering Harrison's question. The tablets were starting to take effect, and Harrison could see that his friend was fighting to keep sleep away.
"Yeah," Ironhorse finally confessed in a slurred tone, a slight smile lighting his features. "God, I love this country, Harrison," he declared as sleep finally overtook him.
Standing, Blackwood moved quietly over to check on the sleeping man, who was totally relaxed and breathing evenly. He started when he realised that there was a lone track of a passing tear upon the other man's face. But the relaxed features also held the shadow of a smile, and Blackwood realised that Paul had, in his own way, fought and beaten the demons which haunted his dreams.
Moving back to the seat, he picked up the book again and began to read where he'd left off, but the words weren't really registering as he replayed their conversation over in his head. He was aware that Ironhorse had regained his memory and would awaken nearly back to his original self - beaten, bruised and maybe even stronger, more determined to rid the world of the aliens who attacked it. Yet, he wondered if he would ever look at Paul in quite the same light. His opinion of army types was very well-documented, and in reality had not changed much; he only saw Ironhorse differently because he had got to know him - and yet he had never wondered at the man behind the uniform, nor the reason why he chose to wear such a heavy mantle. Maybe, Harrison thought, I've put a few demons and misconceptions to rest myself during that talk.
Gently closing the book, he let it lay upon his lap as he watched the gentle rise and fall of his friend's breathing. He let his mind drift back over their first meeting and subsequent events that had brought them together. His own whispered memories played like ghostly children within his mind's eye. He paused; he had considered Ironhorse a friend for many months now, but tonight was the first time he had ever really considered him family.
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