azombiewrites: (War of the Worlds - Tv Series)
[personal profile] azombiewrites
Title: Dance on Through
Fandom: War of the Worlds (TV Series)
Genre: Hurt/comfort, Horror, Science Fiction.
Rating: PG
Main Characters: Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse, Debi McCullough, Dr. Suzanne McCullough, Dr. Harrison Blackwood and Norton Drake.
Disclaimers: Based on the characters created by Greg Strangis.
Challenge: Written for The [livejournal.com profile] spook_me Multi-Fandom Halloween Ficathon 2015.
Prompt: Boogeyman
Picture Prompts: #1 and #2
Author's Notes: Story title snagged from the song 'Dance on Through' by The Human Beinz.
Chapter Word Count: 6,502
Total Word Count: 30,738
Status: Complete

Summary: Responding to alien transmissions, the Blackwood Project find themselves embroiled in the legend of the Boogeyman. Children are disappearing, abducted during their thirteenth year. The local inhabitants are certain a boogeyman is behind their disappearance but Blackwood believes the aliens are involved. When Debi, in her thirteenth year, is threatened, Ironhorse risks his life to keep her safe.





Dance on Through
Chapter Two



Ironhorse woke up feeling as he did every other day . . .

Except he didn’t.

Not really.

The pounding headache a new addition.

The nausea an added distraction.

It wasn’t a hangover, he knew that; he’d stopped binge drinking when the nightmares ended, the alcohol no longer needed, the images of bodies torn apart becoming dull, no longer fresh, shut away at the back of his mind where he could no longer see them. If he didn’t keep them hidden, the everyday reminder would break him, his mind crumbling under the onslaught. It’s what every soldier did, the only way to stay in the job; outer exterior cold and heartless: the inner full of torment and emotion kept under tight control.

His back ached, pain concentrated through his shoulders. He could remember no cause or reason for what he was feeling, no memory of an encounter with the enemy . . .

Oh hell no.

A stench of death filled his sinuses . . . memory snapping back to the present.

Debi.

An impulsive reaction, Ironhorse sat up, adrenalin and fear creating movement before he could stop and think about what he was doing; regret fighting the vertigo tearing through his skull. Chest tight with anxiety, he reached out with his arms in search of support, anything to keep his balance. If he fell back down, he didn’t think he would get back up.

Hands grabbed at his shoulders keeping him still, balanced. Voices he recognized kept the panic at bay. Opening his eyes, Ironhorse searched his surroundings through blurred vision. Concussion, it had to be a damn concussion. How can he fight if he couldn’t even manage to stay upright? He blinked, hoping for an improvement. Better, not enough.

He was in a motel room, he could tell that much, a bed beneath him. How did he get here? How long had he laid unconscious with Debi’s life at risk . . . with his own life at risk? Had he heard correctly . . .

‘I came for you but you were protected.’

“Colonel?”

“Debi?”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Suzanne kept her hand on Ironhorse’s shoulder, her gaze steady, watching his every move, ready to catch him if he fell. “Debi’s here. She’s okay.”

Ironhorse looked at Suzanne. Through a thin veil of fog, he could see the fear, her eyes pinched, her lips pressed into a thin line. “You have to leave. Now. Take Debi and leave before it comes back. You have to go now!”

“What happened out there?” said Blackwood. He sat on the other side of the bed, Ironhorse caught between the two scientists. Squeezing Ironhorse’s right shoulder, he continued. “We heard the gunshots--”

“You left Debi alone?” said Ironhorse, turning his head. A slow deep breath, the nausea beginning to ease, his headache ignored, fear for Debi’s safety taking control. He’d never been so scared . . . Vietnam had been hell, fear a regular companion but this . . . It was Debi. His body betraying him, he wasn’t sure he could protect her, keep her safe from harm.

“No. Of course not.”

Back to Suzanne. His fingers found her forearm, pulling it from his shoulder. A tight, painful grip, he tried to push her away, off the bed. “You have to leave! Now!”

He knew she wouldn’t argue, her intention to leave revealed in the restaurant. His encouragement not needed. Eyes wide with fear, he knew he didn’t resemble his normally confident self, probably gave off a vibe of crazy.

“What happened?” said Blackwood, tone impatient.

Ironhorse snapped his head around, a confrontation required. “Are you not listening, Blackwood. You have to go. Take Debi and leave before it comes back.”

Blackwood frowned. “It? What are you talking about? Did you run into . . .” Gaze shifting away from Ironhorse, Blackwood looked toward a corner of the room.

Ironhorse followed his gaze, finding Harold standing next to Norton and Debi. The girl looked scared out of her mind. Norton looked as though he thought Ironhorse had lost another screw, mind now held together with duck tape and glue. Harold held a look of understanding. If the man believed in the existence of the Boogeyman then it didn’t fucking matter anymore . . .

“It wasn’t an alien.”

Gaze flickering back to Ironhorse, a warning given. “Colonel, there’s no such thing as aliens.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Blackwood. The man knows it’s a Boogeyman taking the kids. An alien isn’t going to fucking matter. Take Debi and leave!”

Taken back by the language, Blackwood looked down, hesitant before looking back at Ironhorse. “I’m not being an idiot, Colonel. I’m just trying to make you see sense. You hit your head. You’re not thinking straight. It has to be . . . aliens. An alien can look like a Boogeyman. You’ve mistaken an alien for something else.”

Harold stepped forward, hands together in front of his body, fingers tangled in an uncomfortable embrace. Gaze dancing between Ironhorse and Blackwood, he said, “Aliens? Aliens took our kids?”

“No,” said Ironhorse, flicking his gaze toward Harold. “The aliens have nothing to do with it.”

“Colonel--”

“I saw it,” said Ironhorse, looking back at Blackwood. “It had me up against a wall. It was as close as you are now. It wasn’t an alien. It wasn’t human . . . I was scared, Blackwood. For the first time since Vietnam, I was scared. I’m scared now. For Debi. It threatened her. It threatened . . . me. You have to leave.”

It was easy to see, Blackwood too involved in the project, didn’t believe him. “That’s an order, Mister!”

Blackwood sat back, his expression giving nothing away. “I don’t take orders from you, Colonel.”

Ironhorse looked down at the hand still on his shoulder, lifted his angry gaze back to Blackwood. Message delivered, Blackwood removed his hand.

“This is now a military operation, Blackwood,” said Ironhorse. “You’re no longer in charge. I am and I’m ordering you to take the others and leave.”

“You’re forgetting something, Colonel . . .”

So close to hitting the obstinate idiot.

“I’m not military and . . . I’m repeating myself . . . I don’t take orders from you.”

“Don’t make me shoot you.” It was an empty threat, brain too flustered to come up with something better. He wasn’t in control, not with Blackwood . . . never was, the man too stubborn for his own good.

“Guys,” said Norton, wheeling Gertrude closer to the bed, Debi sticking close to his side. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Blackwood stood up. “You’re absolutely right, Norton. Take Suzanne and Debi back home, I’ll stay here with the Colonel--”

“Blackwood!”

“I’m not leaving.”

“We are,” said Suzanne, moving closer to Ironhorse, her hip against his thigh. His hand still on her forearm, she placed her other hand over his, a soft grip, a contradiction to the tight embrace he still had on her arm. “You have to come with us, Colonel.”

Turning his head, the vertigo still threatening his balance, he said, “I can’t--”

“Colonel, you said it threatened you. You can’t stay here.”

“I have to stop it.”

“No. You don’t,” said Suzanne. “There are no children left. There’s nothing you can do.”

“It’ll move on,” said Ironhorse. “It’s been taking children for a long time. It’ll keep taking them.”

“How do you know?”

Ironhorse looked away, bit into his lip, the pain distracting. They didn’t have time for explanations. What the hell was he going to tell them . . . the Boogeyman had come to take him when he was twelve but something had stopped it . . . Ironhorse protected but he was protected no more. To make things even worse, he was Debi’s only real source of protection . . . a scared and concussed Special Forces soldier. They had to leave. Now. If it came back while he was in this condition, he wouldn’t be able to fight back . . . he wouldn’t be able to defend Debi.

“Paul, how do you know?”

“It said it came for me but I was protected.”

“You’re protected from it?” said Suzanne.

Words whispered. “Not now. When I was twelve.”

“You can’t stay here,” said Suzanne.

“Ironhorse,” said Blackwood. “If it isn’t an alien . . . you said it will move on. We can’t let it do that. We have to stop it. If we leave and it moves on to another town . . . what do you think will happen then?”

Back to idiot speak.

“I know. What do you think I’ve been trying to say. I’m staying. When it comes after me, I can try and stop it.”

“Try?” said Blackwood.

“I emptied an entire clip into that thing. All I managed to do was make it angry.”

Blackwood stared back at him.

“I’ll think of something else,” said Ironhorse.

Fabricated belief that honesty fixed all things. It didn’t, Ironhorse’s truth creating more damage. Debi began to cry. Norton placed his hand against her shoulders, fingers splayed as he began to rubs circles across her back, an attempt to calm the twelve-year-old. Emotions breaking her trance of fear, Suzanne stood up, stepped toward her daughter and took control of the situation.

“We’re leaving. Now.” Full of determination, Suzanne turned back to Ironhorse. “You’re coming with us and I won’t take no for an answer. If that thing does move on . . . what if it follows us, we . . . Debi will need you.”

Suzanne was making her own point. She made sense. If it didn’t stay, if it went after Debi . . . he had to stay with her, he had to protect her. He felt weak, didn’t feel well at all; pain, nausea and fear beginning to take a toll on his mind and body but he was determined to do what was needed. Blackwood, Suzanne and Norton could only do so much. Ironhorse had the experience, he knew how to fight . . . he knew what it took to kill.

“And if it doesn’t follow us?” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse knew Suzanne was right. “It will.”

“You’re not really in the best state to protect her,” said Blackwood.

“That won’t stop me,” said Ironhorse.

Blackwood raised his hand in a calming gesture and said, “I know, Colonel, but what will happen to Debi if you fall flat on your face if it comes for her.”

Ironhorse had enough, Blackwood pushing him too far, aware if he didn’t retaliate verbally, he would hit him. “You’re being an ass, Blackwood. I know what I’m doing. I know how far I can push myself. I’ve been doing this most of my life. Don’t treat me like I’m an amateur trying to prove a point.”

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Colonel,” said Suzanne.

He turned his head, a slow movement and when he looked into her eyes, she looked away. Only for a few seconds, returning her gaze, she looked him in the eye, a steady gaze.

“I know you will do everything you can to protect Debi.” She took a breath, gathered her thoughts. “This isn’t your fault. It was my idea to bring her. I should have listened to you--”

He shook his head . . . closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath. “It’s no one’s fault. We stumbled into a situation we didn’t foresee. If we had known--”

Suzanne nodded and sat back down on the bed, her expression telling Ironhorse things were about to become even more serious. She had something on her mind, something she wanted to tell him before . . . they didn’t have time. “Suzanne, there’s no need.”

“There is and I have to say it before . . . I may not get another chance.”

She was expecting death . . . his death.

“Suzanne--”

“Paul, please. Let me say this.”

Already embarrassed, he nodded.

“I know you have an opinion of us. Of how we treat you. It’s disrespectful. You’re so stubborn, so set in your ways . . . so damn military.”

Ironhorse raised an eyebrow. Except for the reference to the military, Suzanne was describing Blackwood.

She read his mind and Ironhorse didn’t like that, not at all. She shifted her gaze from one man to the other. “You’re as bad as each other. But if I know thing about you, Paul, it’s that I know what you’re willing to do for my daughter.”

Hesitation absent. “I would do it for all of you.”

“It’s your job, I know but it’s different with Debi . . . thank you.”

Enough embarrassment for the day. “Okay, people. It’s time to leave.”

He looked at Suzanne, raised his left eyebrow again, let her read his question. Understanding, she smiled back at him, stood up and gave him room to move. Pushing his body toward the edge of the bed, Ironhorse hesitated; a moment of doubt, unsure if he made it to his feet he would be able to stay there. Mentally, he shook it off, reassuring himself he could do this. If he wanted to, he could kick Blackwood’s ass. Smile on his face, Ironhorse dug deep, finding an inner strength that had saved him on more than one occasion.

Making it to his feet, he swayed dangerously, Suzanne reaching out to him. He shook his head. He had to do this on his own. Balance returning, headache pounding, the nausea not so bad, Ironhorse made a quick inventory. Battle knife still set between his shoulders . . . damn, that’s why his back hurt so much, surprised the weapon wasn’t broken, thankful for the thick, leather holster, the material protecting his flesh; it could have been so much worse than a case of what he was sure was deep bruising.

Removing the Beretta from its holster, he noticed the difference in weight, the clip empty. “Where’s my bag?”

“Here,” said Blackwood, moving away. He picked up Ironhorse’s duffel bag and stepped up to the end of the bed, dropping the bag down onto the mattress close to Ironhorse. “Are you sure about this? No one will blame you if you admit to having a concussion. Harold told us there’s an FBI agent in town. Maybe he could--”

Where the hell was the FBI agent? He should have come running at the sound of gunshots. Ironhorse looked at Harold. “Where is he?”

“The FBI agent? I don’t know. He didn’t come in for dinner. I’m sure he told me he’d be in town today. He might be fishing?”

“Fishing?”

“Sometimes he goes fishing.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve got other things on my mind,” said Harold, a defensive tone used.

“Ironhorse--”

“If he was here, what could he do? By the time you convince him of the existence of aliens and Boogeymen, it will be too late,” said Ironhorse.

Aware that Ironhorse hadn’t denied the accusation of a concussion, Blackwood stepped back, gaze refusing to deviate from Ironhorse. “You’re a stubborn bastard, Colonel.”

“You’re not too far off the mark there, Blackwood,” said Ironhorse as he reached down to his bag, missing the flicker of curiosity crossing Blackwood’s features. Unzipping the bag, Ironhorse removed a clip. Replacing the empty one, he chambered a round, removed the clip and added a sixteenth bullet, slammed the clip back in and set the gun back in its holster. Removing two extra clips from the bag, he placed them in the back pockets of his jeans, an extra weight he would have to compensate for, balance already broken. Taking out two more Beretta’s, Ironhorse handed them to Suzanne, nodding toward Norton; a gun for each of them. Suzanne took the guns, handing one back to Norton. He went back into the bag, fingers finding alternatives to the Berretta.

Ironhorse removed his jacket, buckled a weapons belt around and above his hips. He made adjustments, checking everything was in place. Beretta on his right side, tomahawk slightly behind him and to the left, a smaller knife against his left leg. He strapped the knife down, securing a thick strap around his thigh.

Harold stepped back. His face paling, he said, “Who are you?”

“He’s military,” said Blackwood.

“United States Army Special Forces,” said Suzanne. “He knows how to liberate the oppressed.”

Ironhorse’s head snapped up. A mistake. Too stunned to care, unaware Suzanne knew the United States Army motto.

Suzanne smiled. “Uncle Hank.”

Of course.

“Does he always come prepared?” said Harold. “I mean . . . is that legal?”

Debi took a gasping breath, her body turning to face the corner on the other side of the room. Ironhorse followed her gaze, his own breath catching . . . shadows were forming, dark shapes dancing, twisting, colliding, merging as one. A deathly stench brushed through the room . . . it was coming.

“Go!” said Ironhorse, his voice commanding, expecting everyone, including Blackwood, to obey. When Blackwood hesitated, his mouth open, ready to question his order, Ironhorse pushed the scientist toward the door. “Damn it, Blackwood. For once, do what I tell you.”

“There’s nothing there,” said Blackwood. “Is there?”

“Take Debi,” said Ironhorse, removing his Beretta. “Hold her close and don’t let her go. No matter what happens, Blackwood, don’t let go of her.”

Ironhorse turned his back on the retreating group, the sound of a door slamming turning him, spinning him back around. The door had closed, Harold making an exhausting attempt to open it. Debi screamed, a frightful sound, the girl was terrified, her pupils shrinking with fear and adrenaline. She could see it, knew what was coming.

It was too late, they’d taken too long to leave, a confrontation beginning.

Ironhorse took a long, slow, deep breath. Mind shifting into battle mode, body ready to fight . . . to defend, he turned and faced the oncoming threat.

It stepped out of the shadows, a languid movement, in no hurry. Left arm stretched outward, it raked long fingernails across the wall, grooves in the plasterboard created. It made a clicking sound, tongue flicking out between its blunted teeth. It stepped toward them, too close.

Bugs crawling on his skill, the sensation so real. Wondered if Debi felt it too. The commotion dug deep into his spine, a violent shiver as his body reacted to the feeling. It climbed its way up his backbone, biting at the base of his skull, hungry to go further . . . pain exploded in his skull. Growling deep in his throat, Ironhorse’s knees began to collapse . . . fought the inevitable with everything he had . . .

“Colonel?” said Blackwood.

“Get out!”

Ironhorse raised his Beretta, opened fire, emptying a second clip into the thing’s chest; knew it wouldn’t stop it. If he could buy enough time for the others . . .

“Go!”

Harold was struggling with the door, still trying to open it but it wouldn’t budge, held in a firm grip by something unnatural. “It won’t open!”

He couldn’t help, couldn’t turn his back on it. If he took his eyes off it . . .

Blackwood stood with his back to the wall, Debi tucked in behind him. Suzanne stood beside them, her body so close to her daughter’s, fingers gripping Debi’s left hand, the grip too tight, Debi wincing with the pain. In his wheelchair, Norton sat in front of them, four layers of defence. If Ironhorse went down, Norton would take over, then Blackwood and finally Suzanne. Ironhorse knew, when it came to Debi, they were ready to die for her, anything to keep her safe; no longer sure they could.

A heavy weight in his skull, words muted, difficult to understand through the pain as they invaded his thoughts, concentration too difficult; strategy beyond his reach. A thin layer of sweat broke out on his skin, the moisture cold against heated flesh. He felt ill to his stomach; the concussion responsible, or the thing standing before him, Ironhorse didn’t know. Fighting his own body and the uninvited presence in his skull, gaze held steady, unwilling to look away, Ironhorse released the empty clip, reached into his pocket for a replacement, slammed it home, chambering a round; surprised he managed to do it with trembling fingers.

Staring back at him, black eyes unflinching, it spoke, “Naughty boy.”

Voice full of gravel, a long time smoker, the sound rumbled through Ironhorse’s skull, a different kind of pain aggravating already fraying nerves. Ironhorse swallowed his fear, a tighter grip on the Beretta, waited for its next move. Sounds of a struggle behind him. Emotions wanted to turn his body, face the other way, find out what was taking them so long to open a damn door. Maybe if he just asked.

“What’s taking so damn long?”

“I told you,” said Harold. “It won’t open.”

If this was a ‘push not pull’ situation. Not the right time for fate to take on a bastard like personality.

The wait excruciating, they stared at each other, gazes frozen, the seconds passing slowly . . . so slow. It sniffed, eyes shifting, looking over Ironhorse’s shoulder, finding Debi. Thin lips stretched into an unyielding smile. It looked happy, satisfied.

Ironhorse could hear Debi. He could hear her fear, her breath short, static, her small lungs frantic . . . all for her. This is what he did. It wasn’t just a job, hadn’t been for a long time. This was who he was.

Ironhorse took the initiative, stepping forward . . .

“Ironhorse,” said Blackwood, urgent, scared. “No!”

Frowning, Ironhorse hesitated, knew with quick clarity it was the wrong thing to do. Blackwood was getting to him, reacting to the man’s voice when he should have ignored him; might have saved himself a lot of pain and trouble.

It raised its arms, fingers stretching, an ugly smile on its face as it moved forward . . . Ironhorse reminded of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. A sudden movement, so quick, getting too close before Ironhorse could do anything to stop it. It ignored the gun, pushing it away, not interested in something that couldn’t hurt it, Ironhorse unable to resist. It slid its long fingers around the back of Ironhorse’s neck, pulling him even closer, almost an embrace.

Ironhorse lowered his arm, weapon held against his thigh, no sense in pulling the trigger, it wouldn’t do anything good. Ignoring the fear gripping his chest, Ironhorse refused to look away. The thing so close, its breath threatening to take him down to the floor. His own fingers stretching, he reached for the knife clipped to his belt. Hilt of the knife beneath his fingertips . . .

It blew a breath into Ironhorse’s face, his mouth. Ironhorse gasped in pain, the air pulled from his lungs. Knees buckling, Ironhorse began a quick decent, his motion stopped when it lifted him into the air. Turning, it threw him into the corner, into the moving shadows. Expecting to hit the wall, Ironhorse tried to prepare himself for the impact, shocked when he fell through, thrown from one bad nightmare into another. The sound of gunfire followed him into hell. The screams that followed, a terrifying sound, Debi’s voice breaking, told Ironhorse he had failed.

He hit the ground, body tumbling, everything ripped away . . .

.
.
.

Sobbing.

His hand held.

No way to start a day.

Something sharp beneath him, painful, digging into his ribs.

Really. Not a good way to start the day.

A breath taken . . . Ironhorse gagged on the stench filling his throat and lungs. Saliva filled his mouth, the bile rising up into his throat. He swallowed, pushed it back down where it settled at the pit of his gut. Instinct tickled at the base of his skull; something was wrong, the situation life threatening. He tried to move, unable to get very far, body lethargic, heavy with exhaustion and pain. Damn, his head hurt. Brain a mess, Ironhorse fought his way through stumbling thoughts, lucidity coming slowly; too slow. Concentration painful, he struggled to remember, to understand, to gain an explanation for the odor, the smell of decay.

His hand released, small fingers began to brush through his hair, soft pats accompanying the movements; he felt like a pet. The touch moved, Ironhorse finding it difficult to follow . . . fingers against his neck, his back, his face, coming to a rest across his shoulder. Whoever it was, they began to shake him, the movement slight but enough to turn his stomach, his headache increasing. He voiced a protest, a soft humming groan the only thing escaping through closed, dry lips.

“Colonel?”

Debi?

Damn it. What the hell?

He couldn’t stay where he was, not in this position, not when something was seriously wrong. He just had no idea what it was, had no understanding as to ‘how’, ‘what’ or ‘why’, the only information he could obtain was that it involved Debi. A slow image began to form, pushing its way to the front of his mind, a painful reminder. Events over the last hours revealed, Ironhorse felt sick to his stomach, his gut turning, rolling.

Ironhorse tried to move, he really did. So difficult, body disobeying, taking on a trait reminding him of Blackwood. Undeserved anger flowed through him, muscles twitching with emotion. Using the anger, taking advantage, Ironhorse tried again, putting everything he had into the attempt. Hands against his shoulder helped, pushing him over, Ironhorse rolling onto his back, arms and legs slumping back to the ground, limbs still too heavy. Inside his skull, his brain started a slow, sickening spin, it felt as though the floor was moving, a lazy turn.

A shuddering breath, the stench strong, stomach making a weak protest. He tried to open his eyes, the eyelids sticking, dried moisture coating his eyelashes. He gave up, his world still in darkness, mind in turmoil, lungs tight with fear. A sudden weight on his chest . . . a warm breath against his neck. Instinct wanting to react, unsure of the source, Ironhorse could do nothing; if it was a threat . . . he didn’t have the strength to fight back, not yet.

“Please, don’t die.”

Her words, the fear and emotion in her voice, tore his eyes open. A flash of blonde hair. A soft, source of light. Fought hard to keep them open. Blinked, the effort too much, eyes closing. Ironhorse let out a sigh of frustration. This wasn’t working. He had to do something . . . do so much more than lie here waiting . . . waiting for it to come back. He knew it wasn’t close, leaving them alone, Debi not hysterical with fear.

A bite of pain through his chest; Ironhorse aware it would come back. Knew he would have to move, no time to wait. An order given, the fingers of his left hand curling, fingers of his right hand obstructed . . . something in the way. He couldn’t think about that now, he would find out soon enough, more important things to deal with.

“Where is it?” To his own ears, his voice sounded harsh, painful, the words no more than a whisper.

“I don’t know,” said Debi, her head resting against Ironhorse’s chest, her gaze watching him. “I can hear your heart.”

He smiled, couldn’t help himself. “I’m still here.”

“I thought you were dead, Colonel, and then you moved and then you didn’t. You were so still.”

“I’m okay,” said Ironhorse, reassurance needed, not so sure he was okay. “I just need a minute.”

“Okay.”

She was patient; more than he was . . . a drifting thought caught his attention. Angry he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Reminded of his role as her protector, Debi’s words bringing everything into focus, Ironhorse opened his eyes. Kept them open, not as difficult as it had been. In the ceiling above them, the source of light, a low wattage bulb shown down on them, a spot light. He shifted his gaze . . . beyond the light, darkness so thick . . . anything could be hiding . . .

Attempted to move, to take control of his body. Nothing but he could feel his strength returning, a slow incoming tide. He just needed more time. Chest tight with fear and worry, he looked down at the twelve-year-old. Her eyes wide, still so full of fear but there was a hint of anger, of rebellion. She made him proud.

Never thought there would be a child in his life, his career keeping him single; he’d sent too many letters to proud parents, spouses, sons and daughters. Aware he could and probably would die a violent death, he didn’t want a letter sent on his behalf . . . didn’t want to put anyone through that. He’d seen what the loss of a parent could do to a child, had seen what the loss of a child did to a parent. Ironhorse wasn’t Debi’s father . . . had only known her a few months but he’d grown fond of her . . . he didn’t . . . damn. Shook the thoughts from his mind. Now wasn’t the time to be morose.

“Debi, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re all right, though?”

“I’m scared.”

“Me too, Debi,” said Ironhorse. “Me too.”

“Can we go back now?”

“Can you see a door?”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“You don’t have too. Use your eyes, Debi. Look around. Tell me what you see.”

“Can’t you see?”

No anger felt, no frustration, only understanding. As much as she had matured in the last few months, as well as she were dealing with the situation, Debi was still a child; he had to be careful with her. He couldn’t give her orders, couldn’t make demands . . . she wasn’t Blackwood; Debi would do everything he asked of her, without question, without hesitation. Blackwood could learn a few things from this kid.

“Yes, I’m just not ready to get up yet.”

Debi sat up. “You’re hurt. Aren’t you?”

He didn’t want to tell her the truth. He didn’t want to lie. He couldn’t be the cause of increased anxiety. Knew he had to tell her something. “I don’t know. Something isn’t right.”

“But what if it comes back?”

She was scared, for herself . . . for him. He understood that.

“Debi. Do you trust me?”

She nodded, her bottom lip trembling.

“Then believe me when I tell you that I won’t let it hurt you. I’ll protect you. And I promise you, I’ll get you back to your mother.”

Unexpected, Ironhorse surprised when Debi dropped across his chest, wrapping her arms around his upper body as best she could. She hugged him tight. Responding, he lifted his left arm, the limb weak, wavering but he managed. Arm around her back, he returned the gesture, ending it quickly.

“Now look for a door, a way out.”

Nodding, Debi did as he asked. Hands against his chest, she pushed herself upright. She hesitated before standing up. Turning in a slow circle, she searched through the darkness . . .

Ironhorse closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, listening for any sound, anything that would tell him it was returning, anything that would tell him he’d run out of time. He had to move, no choice left, time was running out. His mind drifted . . . wandered off the main path in a different direction. He felt like he could sleep . . . needed to sleep, body relaxing, a calm feeling taking over . . .

Flinched when fingers wrapped around his hand . . . Debi. A sudden return to reality. What the hell was wrong with him? He felt angry, having to remind himself of his situation. Still with Debi. In hell still. Danger still present . . . lives still at risk, his body betraying him in a way that left him more afraid. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to protect Debi so strong, doubting himself for the first time in a long time.

“I can’t see anything,” said Debi. “It’s too dark.”

Ironhorse nodded.

“I could . . .” said Debi as she let go of his hand, standing back up and taking a step toward the darkness.

About to wander off, take a stroll toward danger, Debi acting so much like Blackwood. Body reacting before he could tell it too, Ironhorse’s left hand snapped outward, body turning toward Debi, fingers grasping her leg, ankle thin beneath his touch. He pulled her back, close to his side. “No. Stay with me. I don’t want you to leave my side.”

Debi sat back down, tears already forming.

“I’m sorry,” said Ironhorse, fingers still wrapped around her ankle. “I don’t want you wandering off. It’s not safe.” A silent curse. Of course, it wasn’t safe. Debi would know that. She only wanted to help.

“You’re angry with me.”

“No. I’m not angry with you, Debi. We have to be careful. Both of us.”

“Mom says you get angry with Harrison when he goes off on his own.”

A flush of anger. He would have to have a word with Suzanne about that.

“You’re not Harrison. You’re strong, brave, determined and I’m proud of you.”

She smiled at him, expression quickly changing. Too young for wrinkles to form, she frowned. “You don’t think Harrison’s brave?”

Ironhorse looked away. “Harrison can be an idiot . . .” Mouth snapping shut, he understood he’d already said too much. Looked back at Debi and tried to rectify any damage he might have just caused. “Harrison’s passionate about what he’s doing. We all are, it’s just . . . sometimes he forgets he has help. He tries to do things on his own. Puts himself in danger.” He’s stubborn, frustrating, irresponsible and ignorant of authority . . . “He’s a good man, don’t forget that.”

“Mom says you’re a good man. She said it’s hard to see through all the . . .” Her frown grew as she tried to remember, Ironhorse not sure he wanted to know. “Military maleness.”

Eyebrow raised. “She said that?”

Reacting much the same way he had, Debi backtracked. “She likes you.”

Okay, we’ll get back to this later.

“Help me up,” said Ironhorse.

“Are you okay, now?”

“I think so.”

He did think so. He felt better, stronger, no longer weak but he needed to test his strength, find out if he was ready for battle. Took a deep breath, let it out in a rush of air. He moved his hands, something heavy in the right. He lifted his head, a small space created. Vertigo took the room on another spin, slower than before, somehow worse, a nauseated feeling, head falling back down. Pain burst through the back of his skull. Ironhorse swore as he closed his eyes, clenched tight against the pain. Breath increased, quick and harsh as he tried to get through it. Tried to stay conscious.

“Colonel?” Her hand on his shoulder, shaking him, making it so much worse.

Not wanting to snap, to be too abrupt. He didn’t want to upset her, not again. Calm. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I shouldn’t have done that. I won’t do it again.”

Satisfied, Debi stopped shaking him.

He couldn’t wait. Hesitation telling Debi something he didn’t want her to know. Lifted his head, ignored the result. Looking down, he noticed he still held the Beretta in his right hand . . . the weight, the obstruction. Surprised and grateful. With two guns, he wondered, only for a moment if he should give one to Debi, decided against it, the young girl having no experience with weapons. If they made it out of this nightmare alive, he would make it his responsibility to teach her. After this, he didn’t think it would take much to convince Suzanne.

“Remind me, when we get out this, to teach you how to handle a gun,” said Ironhorse.

“For next time?”

“For when you start dating.”

Debi didn’t need to know there might be a next time. He would do everything he could to make sure there won’t be a next time, not for Debi.

“I won’t need a gun for dating,” said Debi. “Not when I have you.”

Life was full of surprises today, each one more shocking than the last. Tension broken, it was time to get down to business. When he began to move, Debi reached forward, taking his hand, pulling him toward her. Together, they managed to get him sitting up. Time needed no choice but to take it. He folded his legs together, supporting his position, his head slumping forward. Skull heavy, the pain a weight he was finding difficult to carry, he waited. Just a few minutes . . .

A noise to their right . . . a soft shuffle, feet scraping across the floor. The smell all wrong, Ironhorse knew it hadn’t come back. Debi was another matter, terrified, she screamed, the shrill sound shattering through Ironhorse’s nerves. Welcomed adrenaline surged through his system. Ironhorse pushed himself up onto unsteady legs, knees locking into place, keeping him upright. He pulled Debi back, pushed her behind him. Knowing she would stay put, Ironhorse tucked the gun into his belt and reached back with his right hand, slipping the battle knife from its resting place; a gun would do no good, a knife cutting into flesh, a throat slit . . . it might make a difference.

He waited, impatient to get it over with, knife held at the ready. The sound of footsteps came closer. Debi gripped his waist, a tight hold but he could feel her tremors, knew she was terrified . . . movement caught his eye . . .

A child, a young boy, skin and clothes filthy, walked with a steady gate into the light, heels of his battered shoes scratching against the floor. Teddy bear in his right hand, the stuffed animal swinging back and forth, the boy turned his head, looking at Ironhorse and Debi. His eyes black, sightless, he stretched his mouth open, wide, a small toothless cavern . . . a silent scream. The boy turned away and moved on, out of the light and back into the darkness.

Ironhorse swallowed, fear and emotion caught in his throat, a difficult thing to swallow. Awareness came quickly, clarity slapping him hard . . . he’d just seen Debi’s future . . . No. He won’t let that happen. Refusing to acknowledge the existence of the idea crossing his mind, Ironhorse turned to face Debi.

Taking her hand, he said, “It’s time to go home.”





Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three


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