Shades of Yesterday
"Interesting post, colonel?"
"Huh?" Ironhorse looked up with a start as Harrison sat down at the kitchen table.
"You've been sitting staring at that letter for the last five minutes," Blackwood told him. "Is everything okay?"
Paul refolded the crumpled paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket before running an uncharacteristically weary hand over his face. Harrison watched him with growing concern. The colonel looked tired to death. Not physically, although the shadows around his eyes indicated more than a little lost sleep. That wasn't what worried Harrison, after all he had seen Paul in worse condition before now. What worried him was the weariness of spirit he could sense almost as a physical presence and the barely concealed pain in the dark eyes. Something was bothering Ironhorse badly and Blackwood didn't have the first idea what, except that it had something to do with The Letter. It had arrived two days ago and ever since then Paul had become steadily more and more withdrawn from them all.
"It's from my brother. His annual invitation to go visit." Ironhorse spoke abruptly, not looking at Harrison.
Blackwood blinked in surprise. He hadn't known that Paul even had a brother. "And?" he prompted, still completely mystified.
"It means going to Washington state. I'll be out of reach if anything happens."
"Hey, if that's all that's stopping you from going, don't worry. Derriman is perfectly capable of looking after us."
Ironhorse shrugged and reached for the coffee pot, still avoiding the doctor's eyes. Harrison leant forward and trapped the hand beneath his own.
"But that's not all, is it, Paul ? What's really wrong?" he asked softly, willing the other man to just tell him for once.
Paul raised his eyes to Harrison's and almost flinched away from the compassion and caring he saw there. His gaze dropped to the warm hand still resting on his.
"You've never mentioned your brother before," Harrison probed. "Don't you get on?"
Ironhorse took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He needed to talk to someone, to put the past behind him once and for all, and, god knows, it concerned Harrison enough or at least it would if everything worked out as he hoped. He pulled his hand away and filled his mug, giving himself a few extra moments to gather his courage. After this, nothing would ever be the same between them again no matter what Harrison's reaction. But that was a risk he was finally willing to take. Life was just too short now for anything else.
"Joe's my twin and for a long time he was the most important person in my world. Still is important. That's one of the things about twins, especially if they are identical like we are. No matter how rarely we see each other, there's still a tie between us that's too strong for anything to break." Paul stopped and took a swallow of coffee.
"So why don't you want to see him?" Harrison asked. Paul obviously wasn't going to tell his story without constant prompting.
"It's not him. I want to see him. Hell, it's been so long since I even heard his voice that I don't think I'd recognise him if I didn't see him in the mirror every morning," Paul added almost lightly and then sobered immediately. "It's going to that house and seeing his family there. It brings back too many memories..."
"Then why not meet elsewhere?" Harrison suggested reasonably as Paul trailed off, knowing even as he spoke that the problem wasn't that simple.
"Because I need to face up to the house and the memories. Hell, I think it's time I did but after so long..." Ironhorse faltered again and rubbed at tired eyes.
Blackwood ached to touch him, to banish the pain and confusion with a hug but he knew better than to try. Ironhorse guarded his personal space jealously.
"Good morning, guys!" Harrison looked up in irritation as Suzanne bounced into the room, shattering the mood. She stopped short seeing Blackwood's glare and shot an assessing look at the colonel. "Sorry, did I interrupt something?" she asked in concern. Harrison wasn't the only one to worry about their military guardian and she was afraid that her interruption would give Paul the excuse he needed to back away as he usually did.
Both she and Harrison were surprised therefore when Ironhorse got up and said, "Shall we take this to my office, doctor?" before rapidly heading out. Blackwood shared a look with Suzanne before striding out after him.
He found Ironhorse standing by his bookcase holding an open photograph album. "Colonel?"
Paul handed him the open book. "That's Joe and his family."
Harrison took a quick look and then dropped into a chair for a better one. It was a formal pose of a couple with half a dozen children mostly in their teens taken on the steps of their house. A typical scene found in every family album except that the person Joe Ironhorse had his arm around was male.
Harrison looked up to find Paul watching him expressionlessly.
"Your brother's gay?" he asked, not really needing confirmation in the face of the picture.
Paul nodded. "Does it bother you?"
"Should it?" Harrison countered, believing that he finally knew what was troubling Paul . "Question is, does it bother you?"
"That he's gay? No. But seeing them together, there, bothers me. It brings back too many memories."
Blackwood laid the album aside and leant forward in his chair surprised again as Ironhorse sank into his own seat. "Paul, what is it you're trying to say?"
"Did you mean it when you said 'should it'?" he asked abruptly.
Blackwood frowned. "Paul , I'm into alternate lifestyles, remember? I don't really care who a man goes to bed with so long as he cares. I have always believed that where love is concerned, gender doesn't matter."
Ironhorse let out a breath and leant back in his chair, almost relaxing for the first time. "I said that Joe was the most important person in my life for a long time. That changed my last year at West Point when a new instructor was assigned. Captain Robert Howe. He was Special Forces and had just come back from a tour in Nam. I think we fell for each other the first day we met." Paul stopped and looked at Harrison, waiting for the condemnation he felt sure would be there despite everything the other man had said. It was one thing to condone homosexuality in general but it was different to discover that a friend, someone you thought you knew, was gay.
"You're gay, too," Harrison said softly. He read the look on Paul 's face. "I won't deny that I'm surprised but I won't judge you for it. I'm not that much of a hypocrite I hope. At least you were in love with him."
Paul frowned, staring at Blackwood intently. Hope surged through him but he quelled it ruthlessly, afraid that Harrison didn't really mean to imply what he just had. "Are you trying to tell me..."
"That I am, too? No, not really. I've been around and certainly enjoyed myself but there was always something missing in the relationship. I never really cared about any of them." Harrison shrugged, embarrassed not so much by the fact but by the admission that none of the relationships bad been more than just physical.
Paul felt the irrational and unvoiced hope in him die and, along with it, the need to tell Harrison about Robin. What was the point? Blackwood had unwittingly given him his answer but he supposed that he owed some kind of explanation to the man. Besides which, Harrison could read him far too easily and if he stopped now, Blackwood would put two and two together and come up with four. And Paul didn't think he could bear Harrison's pity if he knew that Ironhorse had fallen for him just as hard as he had for Robin.
"We were together for almost three years, first at the Point and then later in Nam, though it was harder there. He'd been promoted major by then so even though we were in the same unit we saw less of each other."
"How did you get away with it? I thought the army was strict about that," Harrison asked curiously.
"They are," Paul admitted. "And to be honest, I've no idea how we managed it. We were always discrete but rumours spread even about the most innocent of friendships at the Point. And when it involves an instructor and a cadet there's always talk of favouritism and prejudice. I lived that down but I never expected to be assigned to his unit."
"Perhaps they were hoping you'd solve the problem by getting yourselves killed," Harrison said cynically.
Paul gave a crack of laughter. "Maybe," he conceded. "Or maybe his father pulled strings." At Harrison's enquiring glance he added, "Robert Howe Senior was a bigshot at the Pentagon, a genuine second world war hero."
"And he didn't mind?" Blackwood was both curious and incredulous. His opinion of the military in general was not high and he found it hard to believe that a high ranking officer, especially one who worked for the Pentagon, could condone, or even live down, his son's homosexuality.
"I don't think he was thrilled by the idea," Ironhorse admitted. "And I know Robin's mother certainly hated it and me but he accepted it. The most important thing to him was that Robin follow him into the service and if I came with the package... I think, finally, that he might even have approved of me. Robin had a wild streak but being with me seemed to calm him down. Perhaps he felt responsible. Anyway, his father gave us Cancrizan..."
"Your brother's house?" Blackwood guessed, suddenly realising what Paul meant by facing his memories. "That's why you don't want to visit. Because it used to be your home."
Paul nodded again. "We spent a lot of time up there, first on leave from the Point and then from the war. Afterwards I couldn't bear to be there alone so I gave it to Joe. But it's been almost fifteen years since Robin died and I think it's time to move on at last."
"How did he die?" Harrison asked gently, hating the pain he saw on Paul 's face, the pain for a love long dead. In some ways he envied Robin for the depth of love that much pain indicated. "Was it the war?"
Ironhorse laughed softly, bitterly. "That I could have accepted perhaps. Dealt with it like all the others. But no, we survived two tours and then he was killed in an accident, a stupid, pointless fucking training accident."
It was the first time that Harrison could recall hearing him swear so bitterly. "How?"
"He was training kids how to rappel out of a chopper when it got caught by a strong side wind. Rotor blades hit the trees and it went straight down." Paul stared blankly into space, his mind replaying the horror of that day. "The bird I was in was standing further off and the worst part of it was having to just sit there and watch it happen without being able to do a damn thing. He didn't stand a chance. None of them did." His voice wavered and Harrison could only watch in mute sympathy as Paul fought for control. "There was nothing we could do," he repeated dully. "Except watch them burn." Ironhorse got up abruptly and went to stare out of the window blindly. "I think I went a little crazy for a while after that," he added matter-of-factly. "They put me in a VA hospital. Stressed out, they said."
"Oh Paul ." Harrison got up and moved over to stand behind his friend, dropping a hand on a too tense shoulder and aching once again to just put his arms around this man and hold him until the pain was gone but, if possible, Paul stiffened even more, rebuffing the hand and the caring behind it. Blackwood stepped back, hurt by the rejection but not really surprised by it. Had he really thought that just because Paul had given him a glimpse into his past that he would let the scientist get any closer than before? But, damn it, he did care for Paul , cared more than he had a right to, especially now that he knew the colonel still mourned for his lover. It tore him apart to see Ironhorse hurting so much and he would gladly have offered everything he had to make the pain go away but Paul couldn't, or wouldn't, accept it.
"That's where I met Mickey," Ironhorse continued tonelessly.
"My brother's partner. Mickey was a shrink at the hospital. We became friends and somehow it drifted into something more. I didn't love him. After Robin I didn't really give a damn about anyone but he was there when I needed someone. Without him I think I would have blown my brains out."
Harrison accepted the statement without surprise. Despair was an old acquaintance of his. Besides, Paul had surprised him so often in the past year that he was prepared to take almost anything at face value now. "What happened?" It was all he seemed able to say.
Ironhorse shrugged, his voice brisk and expressionless again. "I got my head screwed back on straight and when they let my out, I took Mickey to meet Joe. They hit it off and we parted company. I went back to the army and gave them the house. Joe's a social worker and they run the place as a shelter for troubled gay kids." Paul turned his back to the window and leant of the sill, waiting for Harrison's reaction. Blackwood's face was gentle, compassion shining out of those incredible blue eyes but there was also a hint of something else too. Sorrow. For him? Paul wasn't sure. He wasn't as good at reading people's emotions as Harrison was.
"Did you mind?" Blackwood probed, wondering at the abrupt dismissal of the subject of Mickey.
Paul looked away, almost shamefaced. "I was glad," he finally admitted. "Mick was there for me but I had nothing to give him. He wasn't Robin and there wasn't enough of me left for anyone else then. It couldn't have worked out between us and I really didn't want it to. I still feel guilty about using him sometimes even now but we came to an understanding a long time ago and we are friends, of a sort."
"So now you're ready to face up to the memories?"
"I think so. I still miss Robin and I'll probably always love him but I can let go of him now. I don't need him to be there anymore." Ironhorse stopped abruptly, realising what he had almost said and that he had left himself open to Blackwood's boundless curiosity.
"Now, colonel? What's changed?" Harrison pounced on the opening, desperately wanting Paul to say what he needed to hear, what he had been hearing in his dreams night after night these last few months.
"What's changed?" Ironhorse echoed, ironic laughter threading through his voice. "My whole life's changed! I'm fighting a war I don't know how to win. People are dying all around me. I don't have time for the past anymore. It's a luxury I can't afford. Besides," he added with a valiant attempt at a lop-sided smile, "I've got you lot to worry about now."
The attempt at misdirection fell flat under Harrison's disbelief. Paul pushed away from the window and came to stand over Blackwood as he perched on the corner of the big wooden desk. "What do you want me to say, Harrison? I've given you my life history, what else is there?" He took refuge in anger but was all too aware that Harrison wouldn't let it go. He wanted Ironhorse to admit that he cared about the Project members. Hell, Paul would gladly have admitted just how much he did care if he thought that Blackwood returned the feeling. But he didn't. By his own admission Harrison hadn't found any relationship with a man satisfying. The friendship they had now was enough. It had to be. Already their relationship had been changed by the knowledge that he was gay. He couldn't afford to let that go any further, much as he wished it otherwise. The change between them would affect the rest of the team, it couldn't not do so. And if there was nothing to be gained for either of them, better that the change be minimised for all their sakes.
He sighed. The only way he could see out of this was to give Harrison an almost truth. "Okay, so I care about you. You've become family to me. Hell, more than that." He was conscious of Blackwood watching him closely and it flustered him a little.
Harrison studied Paul, an arrested look coming into his eyes as a sudden thought hit him and illumination struck. He had been startled and a little worried by Ironhorse's abrupt willingness to talk about his personal life. Most of what Harrison knew about him had come from other sources, from General Wilson, from Derriman, from those few friends of Paul's whom the soldier had shared with him. Almost nothing, until today, had come from the man himself. There had to be a reason and Harrison was abruptly certain what it was. He had no basis for the certainty except sheer gut feeling but that was good enough. The same instinct had told him right at the beginning that the struggle to get past the colonel's firmly erected barriers to the caring man underneath would be worthwhile. It had rarely failed him before.
Harrison smiled suddenly and, dropping his hands on the colonel's shoulders, pulled the younger man closer. "Anything else, Paul ?" he murmured, his smile widening as he felt the colonel pull in a sharp breath, colour beginning to creep up his face. He felt certain he knew what Ironhorse was trying to avoid saying now. He wasn't sure he quite believed it, it seemed incredible, but he was prepared to take the risk of acting on it.
"Paul , just say it. It really isn't that difficult. Hell, I'll even say it first," he offered. "I love you, Paul Ironhorse." He met Paul 's eyes and read the swift flash of astonishment followed by joy as Harrison pulled his face down for a kiss. That first touch was fleeting, an almost chaste exchange of love and wonder but then their lips met again and wonder gave way to rising passion.
Paul pulled away for a moment, feeling dazed, and raised a hand to cup Harrison's face tenderly. "The feeling's mutual, Harrison," he told him softly and then shook his head ruefully, a breath of wondrous laughter escaping him even as he leant back into the other's tightening embrace. "Never thought I'd fall in love again. Least of all with a crazy civilian scientist," he added teasingly.
"Crazy?" Harrison countered indignantly but the effect was spoiled as the bubbling happiness inside him welled over into a sparkling smile. "Only about you, lover," he retorted and silenced any verbal response Paul might have made with the next in a lifetime of kisses.