9

Title: "Seventy Times Seven"

Author: Darkover

Characters: Colonel Ironhorse, Suzanne McCullough, Debi

Rating: K

Disclaimer: I do not own "War of the Worlds," the television series. I do not own any of the characters. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I am not making any money off of this, so please do not sue.

Spoilers: none

Summary: Ironhorse enlightens Debi with a story from his past. This is a sequel of sorts to "My Life for My Sheep," but this can also be read as a stand-alone.

Ironhorse was passing the quarters shared by Suzanne and her daughter when he heard the crying.

He hesitated momentarily, concerned but wondering if he should become involved. It was not that he did not care about the people of the Blackwood Project—in fact, he had come to care about their welfare far more than he sometimes felt it was professional to do so—but there was little enough privacy in this place. Still, the door to the quarters of Suzanne and her daughter was ajar, so he knocked.

"C-come in," a slightly muffled female voice said.

Ironhorse entered the room, and the first thing he noticed was Suzanne's tear-streaked face. Privately, he was surprised; he had expected to find Debi crying, not her mother. "What's wrong, Suzanne?"

"Oh, Paul." She wiped her face with a tissue. "I thought you might be Debi coming back. I'm sorry if I disturbed you."

"The only thing that disturbs me, Suzanne, is the sight of a lady in distress," the Colonel said gallantly. "What seems to be the problem?"

Suzanne blew her nose softly, then crumpled the tissue in her hand. "I'm a scientist. I shouldn't be so emotional."

"I'm the one who's supposed to be macho," Ironhorse reminded her, and was gratified when she gave him a slightly watery smile.

"It—it's Debi. She was so angry at me. We had quite an argument."

"Debi?" Ironhorse echoed, amazed.

"Yes." Suzanne took a deep breath. "Finding out about the aliens was something she was going to have to know sooner or later, I realize that. I had hoped it would be later, but the camping trip—well, she knows exactly what we're up against now."

"Suzanne, that was my fault, not yours. Surely Debi realizes that—"

"Oh, no, Paul!" she hastened to assure him. "Debi doesn't blame you for what happened, and neither do I. My God, you saved her life! I couldn't be more grateful!"

"Then what—?"

"She's angry because I never told her about the aliens. She felt she had a right to know, especially about something so dangerous, and that I treat her like a dumb kid." Suzanne took a deep, sobbing breath. "And she says that she'll never trust me again."

Ironhorse stood up. "I'll talk to her, Suzanne. We haven't had our riding lesson for today anyway. Where did she go?"

About an hour later, the Colonel and Debi, both on horseback, had ridden some distance from the Cottage. Ironhorse insisted that they dismount near a stream and let the horses drink for a bit before heading back. Debi was reluctant—she loved the riding lessons she received from him, and would willingly have ridden for the rest of the afternoon—but part of their agreement was that she acquiesce to his orders. They dismounted, and after letting the horses drink, the Colonel and the young girl settled themselves under a couple of shade trees.

Debi looked around. "It's nice out here. I wish we could stay like this all the time."

"Yes." Ironhorse glanced skyward. "It will be time for dinner by the time we get back, though, and Mrs. Pennyworth doesn't like it when people are late. Also, your mother might get worried."

Debi's lip curled in a way that was quite unlike her. "Why? Because she's afraid the aliens might get me?"

"Probably," Ironhorse said levelly. "Your mother may seem overprotective, Debi, but that is because she loves you so much."

"I don't think so." Debi folded her arms. "If you love people, you don't lie to them."

"How has your mother lied to you?"

"She didn't tell me about the aliens. I didn't even know they existed, until they tried to kill you and me! She should have told me!"

"What happened on the camping trip would have happened whether you knew about the aliens or not, Debi," Ironhorse said gently. He was beginning to suspect that the girl was even more upset by what she had seen and experienced than she was letting on.

"It's not just that. She didn't even trust me enough to tell me the truth, so how can I trust her?" Debi shook her blonde head in exasperation. "You just don't understand."

She looked at the Colonel challengingly. Adults all stuck together, in Debi's experience, except for her parents' quarrels. She fully expected Ironhorse to tell her either that she shouldn't talk about her mother like that, or that it was wrong for her to feel as she did.

Instead, the Colonel went still and silent. He continued that way for so long she began to get a little anxious. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. "Debi, I'm going to tell you something I've never told anyone else before. Can I trust you with that?"

Surprised, she nodded.

"I attended West Point; I believe you know that. When I graduated, I was commissioned as a first lieutenant, and sent to my first tour of duty in Vietnam. My first combat zone." He seemed to hesitate for a moment.

She waited.

He took a deep breath. "A lot of things happened there, but what I want to tell you about is this. I was wounded. Nothing too bad, but I caught some shrapnel in the face, and I had to undergo a couple of operations before the doctors were able to get me back to normal."

Debi's eyes widened. She had always thought of the Colonel as being indestructible.

"While I was at West Point, I had a girlfriend. Her name was Rose. I loved her," he said simply. "I thought she loved me, too. When graduation approached, and I knew I would have to leave, I asked her to write to me. She promised that she would. And she did, at least until after I wrote home that I'd been in my first battle, and how I was wounded."

"She stopped writing then?"

Ironhorse nodded. "I couldn't understand why. At first, I wrote letter after letter to her, asking her what was wrong, or if she had met someone else. There was never any reply. I finally decided that either she disapproved of my fighting in Vietnam—it was a war that was unpopular with a lot of people at home—or, because my face was damaged, I wasn't good-looking enough for her any more."

Tears welled up in the young girl's eyes, and she put a hand on his arm. "Oh, Colonel…"

Ironhorse shook his head. "Debi, I'm not telling you this story to make you feel sorry for me. After my first tour of duty, I was given leave to go home for a time. When I returned, I found out the real reason why Rose had stopped writing to me. She had been killed in an accident at about the same time I was wounded."

Debi gasped.

Ironhorse continued. "My mother had known about it, had known I was still writing to Rose, but she deliberately chose not to tell me. I was furious. She apologized over and over, told me that the only reason she kept the news from me was because I had already been hurt so much, she hadn't wanted to add to my pain. She didn't understand that keeping me in ignorance hurt even more."

Debi nodded vigorously.

"It took me a long time to forgive her for that," Ironhorse concluded, his voice low. "But I did forgive her, and not just because she was my mother. I forgave her because I realized that even if she hadn't told me what I felt I had a right to know, she did it because she was trying to protect me. She did it because she loved me."

Debi slipped her arms around Ironhorse, and leaned forward to rest her head on his chest. "I'm so sorry that happened to you, Colonel," she said softly. "I wish you hadn't been hurt so bad."

The Colonel put an arm around her, pulling her even closer. "That doesn't matter, Debi. I just wanted you to understand that bad things happen sometimes, and people handle them as best they can. Your mother may have been right, or she may have been wrong, but like my mother, she was just trying to protect her child."

After a moment, he felt her head move against his chest in a nod.

For some time, they both remained where they were; neither of them was in any hurry to end the moment. Finally, Debi said; "I guess we better head back."

Together, they stood up, the Colonel helping the young girl to her feet. For a moment longer they stood facing each other. Debi still had tears in her eyes. Ironhorse gently smoothed her hair, his hand gently cupping her face. Then they turned away from each other, mounted their horses, and returned to the Cottage.

It didn't seem to take very long before they were back. As they approached the stables, they saw Suzanne, standing there gazing outward as if hoping to catch some sign of them. She appeared simultaneously anxious and rather forlorn. Catching sight of her mother, tears once again welled up in Debi's eyes.

She turned to look pleadingly at Ironhorse. "Colonel, I know it's my job to stable my own horse and give her a rubdown, but just this one time, would you mind…?"

"Of course I don't mind, Debi," he assured her. "Go ahead."

She dismounted quickly and ran to Suzanne, who greeted the young girl with outstretched arms. Watching mother and daughter as they embraced, Ironhorse allowed himself a smile of relief. As Suzanne and Debi walked toward the Cottage, their arms still around each other, a part of Ironhorse realized that he felt better, too, more at ease. Before now, he would not have believed it, but by telling her about a painful part of his past, Debi might have helped him every bit as much as he had helped her.