They were holding their own. Delicately, teetering on the edge of destruction and defeat maybe, but they were holding their own, the blast from guns on both sides taking chunks out of the buildings like bizarre trophies, spent shells and red blood spilling onto the dusty ground in equal measures.
Inch by agonising inch they were pressing the Germans back, knowing it was only a stopgap, knowing it was only a matter of time before their pitiful stores of ammunition and firepower ran out, until their ragged motley band of freedom fighters fell before professionally trained soldiers and the massacre began.
Blair fought with the rest of them, revulsion pressed so far down it was unnoticed, choking on the dust grenades threw up as they blew craters in the roads, wiping his eyes furiously and praying for one more second of life, just one more, then another, then another.
And then Jim was slipping and sliding into place beside him, his large hands wrapping around the Sten and pulling it from Blair's grasp, taking over his role. Any other man would have been killed. The fact that it was Jim doing the taking was the only reason he still breathed. "MERDE ALORS! Dammit, I am NOT a child!" Blair fumed, slamming the palms of both hands against the tank, hissing a little as the still-hot metal scorched his skin.
"I never said you were." Jim ejected the spent clip from the gun and jammed a replacement in with the heel of his hand, all in one, practised movement.
"THEN STOP TREATING ME LIKE ONE!" Blair snarled, ducking as a grenade landed off to their right, showering them with pebbles. With a growl, the Maquisard twisted to his feet in a graceful motion, pulling the pin and lobbing a grenade of his own in a high arc, over the tank, over their own men, to land somewhere behind the German lines. "What is next? You make me wear a dress??" he was so incensed that he was starting to lose his normally smooth grip on English. "Cut off my balls?? Dress me in silk stockings, high heels and parade me down the Champs Elysees as ta femme??"
Jim stared, open mouthed, body automatically twisting, shooting, ducking, dodging, while his brain tried to comprehend what the hell he was hearing. "I- I just want to protect you..." he stammered helplessly.
Rafe used the distraction from Blair's grenade to streak across the ground, sliding behind the scorched pile of stones blasted from nearby buildings, and slot in next to Sam. "How's things up here?" he breezed, unslinging his gun from his shoulder and spilling grenades onto the ground between them "Nice view? Don't think much of the neighbours though..."
"Fuck off, Limey. " Sam ground out, the gas from her Sten sending her hair up in a brown wave as she fanned the weapon from side to side.
"No date then, huh?" Rafe quipped, pulling the pin from a grenade and tossing it out into the mass of blue-grey uniforms approaching, all the time keeping one eye on Samantha. Joking and laughing aside, he didn't trust the flat-eyed maniac any further than he could throw her. To her, he was just a tool. Something to be kept as long as it was useful, then thrown away when it wasn't. Nothing more. While he checked his gun and returned a short burst of fire over the barricade, the movements now so familiar he could do them in his sleep, he wondered at what had turned her so hard. From what Blair had told him she was brilliant, beautiful, before the war a high student at the academy of science.
Now she was a dirty, straggly, half -starved alley cat, snarling and spitting at>anything that came too close. Another casualty of the war.
Rafe saw his death staring at his face as another grenade looped towards them and flung his body over to protect the much smaller woman. "Look out!"
With a snarl she shoved him off. "Emerdeuse publique!" she screamed. "Son of a who-"
She was cut off sharply and finally as the grenade exploded.
"Protect me? The great Goddess save me from fools and idiots who want to protect me!" Blair muttered, ducking as another Mills landed too close, throwing more dirt high in the air. A high-pitched scream broke the air in front of them, a woman's voice, short and brutally silenced and Blair lunged forward, anger forgotten, his own safety forgotten, everything forgotten as he dodged and skittered forward to the bolt-hole Sam and Rafe had occupied.
"BLAIR!" He ignored the bellow from behind him, landing flat on his stomach as more guns rang out, eeling his way through the rubble and towards the ominous wisp of smoke and crumpled bodies within.
Sam was dead. Bloodily and messily dead, sun-darkened skin split open like ripe fruit, red blood sucked greedily into the dry clay beneath her, brown eyes forever staring sightlessly at the sky.
Blair didn't mourn. He didn't have time to mourn. Later, if he survived, he would cry for her, weep tears for the destruction of what was once a gentle life and soul, hope that somehow she found the peace in death that was so cruelly torn from her in life. But later. Now he had things to do, an automaton, body on autopilot while his soul grieved somewhere in a hidden place. Slapping a hand to the Englishman's neck, he found a steady pulse thrumming under his hand. Alive.
Reaching down, he hooked his hands under Rafe's shoulders, dragging him back toward the safety of the burned-out tank, cringing and sobbing against every explosion that rang around them, but never once considering leaving the other man behind. He could hear Jim behind him yelling, shouting, the words jumbled in the chatter of machine gun fire and the dull ~crump~ of grenades, and pulled harder, grimacing against the other man's blood slicking his palms, desperate to get the British officer to safety, to get back to Jim's side and pick up a weapon, any weapon, even if it meant killing, something, anything to protect his friend.
There was a single, sharp retort, and Blair shook his hair out of his eyes, so close to safety now, thinking it was odd that one sound should break so sharply over the cacophony of battle.
Then the pain ripped through his shoulder, exploded out his back, setting every nerve on fire as the bullet tore its way through his flesh, and Blair barely had enough strength to drape his body protectively over Rafe's before falling into the blackness.
It was a raw, primal knell, starting low in his lungs and ripping its way out of his mouth, louder and louder, cutting through the din of battle. For a brief, disbelieving moment everything around him froze, startled at the bellow of rage shearing the air. Then Jim was exploding into action, the only moving figure in the frozen tableau, whirling, standing, his Sten held rock-steady in his hands as he howled, a furious animal sound, spraying the bullets back and forth, moving forward, that awful sound going on and on, pouring from his very soul as he stood protectively over his fallen comrade.
"Mon Dieu" Taggert whispered in awe, " Il est fou! Crazy! Dead!"
And he should have been. James Ellison should not have lasted longer than thirty seconds, a prime target standing there, his gun firing and firing until it clattered onto an empty chamber. But he didn't. Because somewhere there was a God, a God who looked out for children and fools and absolute fucking psychos, and at that moment Jim certainly fit into the last category, throwing the empty, useless gun aside and running screaming at the Germans, intent on tearing them apart with his bare hands and teeth.
"Merde!" Simon was up and running too, feet burning a parallel course, intent on bringing the smaller man down before they lost a trained fighter they damn well needed in a hot-blooded act of passion.
Behind him, Joel cursed, long and hard, then got to his own feet. And then, as if it was some sort of signal, Brown followed, and Chang, then the others, like a group of French lemmings, screaming, shooting, throwing mud, anything that came to hand as they swarmed forward. No more than three hundred men and women, against nearly a thousand nazis, not subtracting the dead, dying and wounded.
And it was too much.
Incredibly, impossibly, wondrously too much. The Germans broke ranks and ran. Ran before the screaming howling horde of bean sidhe, ran before the grenades exploding around them, showering them with dirt and stones, ran before the handfuls of mud that spattered their precious uniforms.
And the Maquis stopped. Stared disbelievingly, then broke into whoops and cheers. The men and women resigned a few short seconds ago to dying in battle had been given another chance.
Ellison was silent, staring, so still he may as well have been stone. Simon and Brown moved around him, ignoring the shell-shock, concentrating on the two wounded men still under the Leftenant's protective stance.
With the musician's help, Banks gently lifted the unconscious Sandburg to lie against him, pressing the palms of both hands against the entry and exit wounds to staunch the flow of blood. The bullet had gone straight through the right side of Blair's chest, near the shoulder, the resulting blood thick and red, hot against Simon's callused palms. The Maquisard Captain pressed an ear to the other man's lips, hearing the shallow, even breathing and thanked whatever deity had spared the younger man a wounded lung.
Brown was checking over Rafe, brushing aside a lock of wavy hair to reveal the livid bruise smeared across the Englishman's temple, slowly fading down to mesh with the bloody marks peppering the handsome face. Fragments from the grenade. Ironically, Sam had saved his life by taking the brunt of the explosion.
A few dark spots spattered the ground beside him and Brown looked up in alarm. "Jesus. Ellison!"
It seemed that God had deserted them, after all.