Before he had made more than five steps, he heard the stealthy tread of footsteps through the woods, dry leaves and old, splintered twigs crackling ever-so-quietly in their wake. Tracking a parallel course, he trailed the wraith for a few minutes, finally circling around to a position behind as it stopped to nudge at the body of the Unterscharfuhrer Ellison had killed with a dirty boot. The corpse rolled silently, head jiggling at an odd angle, then flopped back with the peculiar sound of dead meat.
With an uncaring snort, the figure moved on, to where the bodies of the parachute team were sprawled, bodies contorted in a stark reminder of the punishing hail of bullets that had riddled their bodies.
"Merde!" Jim jerked back at the sound of the other man's voice, dark and rich in timbre. He saw the man squat, pressing a hand to the necks of the two men in a futile gesture, then he straightened again, shoulders heavy, gun dangling carelessly in a defeated pose.
And then Jim made his move.
In three quick strides he was behind the stealthy figure, knife drawn and at the other man's throat. But his hand stayed before it made the final stream of blood stain the ground as he took in his captive. Took in the decidedly non-German cheapshit dimestore Sten in his hands. Took in the raggedness of the man's clothes. But most importantly took in the colour of his skin. It would be a cold day in hell before Hitler started allowing black men into his beloved Wehrmacht.
"Who are you?" he whispered into the nearest ear.
No reply, although he could feel the man's pulse thudding wildly through the veins in his neck, almost hear the frantic beat. Risking movement, Jim took the man's gun in his hands, shifting back and away before circling to meet his face.
The big man's dark eyes took in every movement, eyes scanning and cataloguing him, although his lips remained silent. Jim risked the first contact. "Adric."
The man's eyes widened and he finally spoke, his rich voice supplying the corresponding code-word. "Nyssa. "
With a short nod, Jim handed the man back his Sten. "The others are dead. " He stated the fact coldly, ignoring the faint stab of pain he felt at the words, the mourning of too many deaths, two more added to the hellish roll-call. Keating, a hoary old bastard with a penchant for cracking obscene French jokes at inappropriate times, and Serris...Christ, just the other day he was showing Jim the latest pictures of his baby girl Veronica...
"The rest of the patrol?" the other man's voice broke through to him.
"Dead. All of them. " No pride, just a cold statement of fact. His men died. The Germans were in his way. He killed them. End of story.
The man nodded, then scurried over, rifling through the dead's packs for food and medicines, ammunitions, and Jim cursed for not doing it himself. Ammunitions rarely lasted long in the resistance, even on the rare occasions when the dropoffs from the Allies were in the right place. Food was scavenged from wherever it could be found, same for medical supplies. He had to stop expecting new supplies from the quartermaster, courtesy of Uncle Sam. He was in a war zone now, and what he lived on was what he could get his hands on, nothing more.
Between the two of them, Jim and the other man - who's name he learned was Joel Taggert - had the bodies stripped of all useful supplies in less than an hour, bedecked with guns, packs stuffed with blankets, food, canteens, medical supplies and munitions. Stuffing a Luger in the waistband of his pants, Ellison followed the larger man as he slipped through the woods, creeping over roads and into the hills.
At a certain point, Joel stopped. Jim looked around. He could see nothing, hear nothing but the quiet of the night surrounding them.
Then Joel whistled and there were people.
They appeared around him like ghosts. Not surprising really, the very nature of their existence was to fight from the inside, erode the jackboot of occupied control. Men and women filtered out from the trees at Joel's soft call, of all ages and races. From a big burly black captain close to forty, to a slender dark-haired white girl.
Ellison took in the smallest man, the youngest of them all. Not physically - the growth of beard on his face was more than enough evidence of his manhood - but mentally, spiritually. Something about the way he moved, a certain look in his face spoke of an innocence taken, but not entirely lost. Jim felt that he could stand there forever, watching the casual grace of the young man as he shifted through the mass of people. Soft brown hair, long and unkempt after too long fighting hidden battles, powdered with dirt and dust, mortar from destroyed buildings. The oversized shirt, looking like it had been stolen from a dead nazi, dangling over pants cut too long and hacked off with a dull knife.
The simple leather band on one wrist caught his eye and he followed it, eyes tracking the movement as the attached hand pushed back a heavy mop of hair. For one moment, he was caught on the jagged scar marring the solid features on one side, then his eyes were torn away by their own volition, oddly hungry for more, skittering up and around to lock with the other man's incredible blue eyes.
A wealth of wisdom resided in those sombre depths, the portals to the soul. Sorrow too, and an unendurable weariness, tired of killing, tired of death, a spirit longing for peace and love, and an ending to all the madness going on around them.
Jim reached out and ran a hand down the side of the other man's face, reaching out as if to brush some dirt aside, hand movement changing mid-air, cupping the strong jaw in his hand, brushing the tips of his fingers across the softly bristled cheek. The young man leaned into the caress, ignoring the sharp intake of breath from the dark-haired woman behind him, turning his head to brush the full lips against Ellison's palm.
And it happened. A thrill, a tingle, completion, coming together, like the final lost piece of the jigsaw puzzle slotting into place, each knew they had suddenly found the other half.
But, like the fool Caroline had always claimed he was, Jim let his hand fall away from the soft skin and stepped back, passing the moment by, trying not to notice the sudden flash of - of what? Longing? Desire? Disappointment? Sorrow? - that crossed the smaller man's face.
Someone slapped Jim heartily on the back and he stumbled a little, gritting his teeth at the coarse laughter at his expense. He resisted the urge to pound the slapper into the dirt. James Ellison was no man's fool.
Remembering his briefing, he forced himself to unwind a little. These were people living on the edge, sometimes past it. They had a hard life, and they relished the few moments of living they did have. It was of no use holding a grudge against someone who might save your life the next minute, then be dead tomorrow.
He talked to each one, got to know their assumed identities, never the real ones, each face and name revealing a group of men and women intricately bound by fate into a single, solid unit.
The leader, Simon Banks, a big black man who moved like a dancer, a scholar in a previous life, a man of peace who had swapped his books for guns and bombs in the name of freedom.
Brian Rafe, SOE, sent behind the lines like Jim to meet up with the resistance, wreak sabotage and generally hinder the enemy wherever he could. Jim shook his hand firmly, one professional to another, equal ranks, equal purposes. Different countries, but working for the same purpose to protect the Allied Nations. Rafe's soft accent smacked of somewhere other than England, and it took Jim a while to place the South African tones. He wondered at the insanity of the war, that had this man in France, instead of fighting Rommel in the African campaign.
Megan Conner, an Australian nurse stationed in France, who decided to risk her life in the fight against the travesty staining Europe rather than return to her safe, peaceful home. Jim found her one of the more intriguing of the group, her hair tossed carelessly over her shoulder as she grinned broadly and jammed out a bruised hand for him to shake. A real woman, unlike the prissy facades all too common at home or England, her down to earth honesty was a welcome respite.
Henri Brown, musician in a jazz group, another who decided to stay and fight, rather than turn tail and run. Ironically becoming the only survivor, as the rest of his band were killed when their plane was shot down attempting to escape Vichy airspace.
Sam Keely, a woman who had fought through the death camps and massacres, clawed her way from one place to another, until there was nothing left but the desire to kill and kill until she was dead. A dangerous woman, Jim noted, one of the kind that could - and would - do anything. Because she had nothing left to lose. A lot like himself, in many respects. His eyes narrowed as he took in the possessive grip she had on the young man's - Blair's - arm, gun at the ready as if to face down any challenges to her property. Blair seemed to suffer through it out of weariness rather than any real sexual motivation.
And then Blair Sandburg himself.
Another escapee from the camps, he had trekked his way to where he had heard there were pockets of free people fighting back. That was all he said, but something in his eyes, in the eyes of the others, told Jim that there had to be more.
But he didn't get the chance to ask, as Joel dragged him around the camp, introducing him, making sure that everyone knew his face and name. For otherwise, to be an unknown person in a resistance camp, it would mean death. They couldn't afford anything otherwise. Serena Chang was in charge of the meal. A Gypsy who escaped the rounding up of her people, she had fought longer than all of them. Serena had been hiding in the mountains, terrified of capture while many of the others were still able to sleep in a warm bed and eat a full meal. Yet somehow in the face of all this she had retained her spirit, offering him a hot meal from the pot of scavenged goods, a place by the fire, fussing and clucking over him like an elderly grandmother instead of a hardened fighter.
An arm slammed in front of Jim before he could take the offered plate, dirt scrawled up over firm muscles like fine calligraphy. He followed the arm up to the flat brown eyes of the woman, Sam. "Why should we feed him?" she asked the group as a whole, jerking her head towards Ellison in a curt movement. "What proof do we have he's not a spy for the boch?"
Joel grinned easily, teeth flashing white against the growing shadows as he reached around the irate woman and snagged a plate of his own. "Six dead Germans in the forest by the drop site," he shrugged. "One man with a bloody knife. Proof for me." There were murmurs of assent, and Sam backed down, but the lingering look she gave the Leftenant as she returned to her haunt by Sandburg promised a later continuation.
Jim took a seat by the fire and took the offered food, a little amazed by how easily the others accepted him. He'd heard about it, but never experienced it. The Maquis took people in, made hard friendships, loved hard, and cried hard when fleeting acquaintances died. Then they started all over again.
As if by some unknown call, they all started to take seats around the fire, sitting on the soft moss or half-rotted tree trunks as they scooped up the thick soup and listened to his plans, the information he had risked his life for, the planned drops of weapons, key objectives, targets to aim for. He drew his maps in the dirt, discussing strategies, numbers, all the time, unable to take his eyes off the slight, long haired youth on the other side of the campfire, watching the luminous blue eyes above the hideous scar tracking his every move.
Banks finally told Jim Blair's full story that night, when all the others were asleep and only they two were still awake, keeping watch. The flickering shadows from the fire licked exotic patterns over his ebony skin as in a strange, disconnected voice - the only way one could tell such horrors and even hope to keep their sanity - he had told the story of a desperate young man taking the only avenue he could. Watching his family murdered around him, until only his mother survived, frail and sickly in one of the cattle cars.
Jim had listened, and felt like weeping for the first time since his soul died, feeling something new and tender grow to take it's place as he heard of the beautiful young man whoring himself, selling his body to the highest nazi bidder, using the position to protect what was left of his family, only to have even that small hope crumple into ashes as his mother sickened and died anyway.
Blair shifted uneasily in his sleep, and Simon eased the curly head into his lap, long fingers stroking soothing patterns along the fine cheekbones until he slipped into an easier sleep. The gesture of affection, such tenderness from such a large man should have stunned Ellison, but it didn't, the tableau touching him somewhere he never knew existed. The thought that this was what the nazis wanted to destroy, to burn, torture, maim and kill sent a cold anger through his soul and he clenched a rock in his hand, the exterior pain a sharp relief from the turmoil within as Simon continued the story.
Trapped, alone, Blair's own purpose for his position was spent, but the General was reluctant to part with his toy. The rapes, the 'sharing' the high ranking officer did with his honoured guests. And yet something within Blair had refused to die. He had plotted and planned, favourite pet of the General, waiting until the time was right, then had taken a knife, scarring his own face, marring his beauty, making himself unacceptable and useless in the all-judging eyes of his 'master. '
And so it was back to the cattle cars, back to the endless waiting, back to the sickness and starvation, but this time he went with an anger, a fire that he was determined to use to burn every nazi he could, to fight, claw, bite, scream, wreak his revenge on the people determined to wipe out his race.
Hiding his scar in the shadows of the car, the moon lighting the perfection of his face, that soft, deep, impassioned voice, honed after too long serving a German master encouraging the sole SS soldier without, bored and waiting with an eye for some action, to come inside, where he was immediately set upon by broken, desperate, needy victims determined to have this last shred of freedom offered.
Five thousand people deemed 'undesirable' escaped into a night sky thick with bullets from the waiting Germans.
Some of them even made it out alive.
Among the living were Sam, Simon and Blair.
The next day, Jim sought the smaller man out, finding him seated under a tree, pieces of a Sten scattered around him as he slowly cleaned out the chamber with a rag, an undefinably sad look on his face, as though performing a vile, but necessary duty.
Ellison took in the battered metal stock of the gun and the worn grip. The weapon had seen a lot of action. "Sandburg?"
He looked up, brushing an errant lock of hair out of his eyes. Some how those few thick strands had escaped the roughly knotted strip of cloth that served as a hairtie, and danced merrily around the elfin face in a slight breeze. Jim wanted to reach out and touch that coil, to see if it felt as soft as it looked, but took a seat instead, shifting a little as a stone dug into his thigh. "You're good at that," he indicated the weapon the other man was re-assembling as they spoke.
"I wish I wasn't." Blair slotted the loading spring back into the barrel and tested the recoil before screwing the entire assembly back into the end of the stock. His pained, barely whispered words cut the conversation to an abrupt end.
Jim tried again. "So where's the better half?" Blair blinked at him. "You know, the old ball and chain? Your wife?" He was getting nowhere, and the other man looked more and more bewildered, so he switched languages. "Ta femme?"
Blair shook his head, confused. "Sorry?" Realisation dawned and his eyes opened wide. "Oh. Sam?? You think Sam is -" he shook his head, chuckling as he attached the wide strip of the Sten shoulder holster to the weapon by two battered clips. "No, no. Sam is not my wife. She's...a friend. A good friend, we studied together. Before the war." He tested the loading spring on his Sten again, and the firing trigger before slotting a magazine into the sub-machine gun and slinging it over his shoulder. "We should get back," he flowed gracefully to his feet and extended a hand to where Ellison was still seated on the ground. "We'll be leaving for Grenoble soon, and then onto Vassieux."
Jim looked at the slender hand extended to him, dark with grease and dirt. Hard and callused, nothing like the soft smooth hands that his wife had...
Jim grabbed hold of the hand and scrambled to his feet. He looked down for a moment, into the smaller man's eyes, the emotions written so plainly there for all the world to see. Windows into the soul - truly for this man. This man that drew him in when he was alone, offering friendship.
With a start, Jim realised he was still holding the Maquisard's hand. Blair followed his gaze, and a little smile frittered at the edges of his mouth. Unhurriedly he reclaimed his hand, then the two men set off back to the camp in companionable silence, back to where the others were already preparing to leave.