Leaning against a tree, grateful for the support as he gasped for breath, head down, Jim took stock of who was left. Himself, Megan, Brown and Rafe. A even more pitiful handful than had been in the cave. Somehow they had lost the others, splitting into disparate groups, vanishing into the darkness. Triage tactics. That way, if any of them were caught it would be a small handful, not the entire group. But they were divided now, split, he had no idea where the others were. Blair was all right though, he knew, deep in his heart. Blair was all right. He had to be.
Across the clearing, Megan collapsed, legs splayed like some broken marionette, hands coming up to clutch at her face. "Oh my god," she moaned, sobbing. "Serena...oh my god.."
Jim crawled over to her, forcing tired and stiff muscles to work, wrapping her in his arms and holding her, keeping the darkness at bay, for a little while. "Shh, shh," he soothed softly, his own tears running unnoticed down his face as Megan burrowed into his body. "Let it out Megan, let it out, shh, shh..." He wept with her, wept for the loss of a friend, but a part of his brain kept yammering at him for wasting time, he had to get up, they had to keep moving.
Where was Blair?
Blair ran. His jacket flopped loose around him, hanging from his arms and he flung it off as they pelted across a dirt road, leaving it there, unnoticed and unmissed as they headed into the little clearing across the road. He stumbled to a stop against a tree, finally releasing his death grip on Alec's arms, resting his forearm against the bark and his forehead against his arm, panting, dragging in lungful after lungful of air that burned his throat and tasted like honey.
Turning, he rested his back against the tree, sliding down it, unmindful of the bark that shredded his shirt, eyes closing and opening in time to his pants, like an automaton. There were only four of them now; Simon Joel, Alec and himself. The boy was crumpled on the ground, nerves pushed too far and on the edge of snapping, tears spreading helplessly down his terrified face. Jim. Where was Jim?
He shoved himself to his feet, whole body shaking violently with fatigue, taking a few hesitant steps forward, only to stop as the roar of a truck cut the still night air. Simon and Joel ducked behind large boulders standing in the grass like Sentinels, melting away like wraiths. Alec stared at the approaching lights, frightened beyond all thought, trapped in a paralysis born of total, soul-destroying horror.
"Alec!" Blair lunched forward and snatched the boy up, stuffing him into a tiny crevice between the rocks. "Alec, hide. Stay here. Don't come out until we say so," and then he was running again, scampering up into the leafy protection of a nearby tree.
The truck drove up the road at the end of the clearing, slowing and stopping and Blair cursed as he saw his jacket caught in the twin beams of the headlights. How could he have been so stupid?
A door opened, then polished black boot pounded the road. SS. He felt a moan of terror rising up from deep within and crushed it mercilessly.
The soldier picked up his jacket carefully, then examined it, jogging back to the truck and talking excitedly to the others in German. Blair closed his eyes and murmured a prayer. Go, please.
Hope flared and died as more doors opened, more soldiers climbing from the truck. Three of them, plus an officer. All fresh and well fed and armed. Their only chance was to wait, hide, their dreams of fighting back for the freedom of France falling before the practicality of continued existence. What was the use of fighting if it left you dead?
The nazis spread out, weapons at the ready and his heart stopped in pure fear as the officer stopped below him, under the tree. He didn't dare move, for fear the rustling of the leaves gave him away. If the man looked up...
A single drop of sweat trailed down his face, dropping off the end of his nose to land on top of the stiff black cap and his heart stopped, eyes wide as he watched the man reach one hand up, turning his face...
A soldier crossed near the crevice where Alec was hiding and the boy's already strained and frayed nerves snapped. As soon as the soldier's back was turned he bolted out, running blindly, straight into the arms of the officer.
With an incredibly evil purr, the man tilted the wide-eyed, terrified face upwards. Alec looked up into an oddly tender smile and flat eyes that promised death and a thin scream broke from his throat as he came face to face with the evil that had done nothing but murder over nearly five years.
"No! PLEASE!" The cry snapped Blair's control, and all he saw was a frightened boy, in a forest, in a ghetto, in a death camp, crying out in a terrified plea against something he didn't understand. The faces were different, but the words were always the same. The words that woke him screaming at night. "PLEASE!"
Not this time. Not now. Not ever again.
With a despairing scream, Blair launched himself from the safety of the tree, landing on the SS officer holding the boy and clinging to his back as they fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. Alec wiggled and squirmed away, running into the trees around them. Simon and Joel came out of hiding, guns blazing the night.
Blair was oblivious to it, the rattle forming a hellish accompaniment as he slammed the officer's head into the ground again and again, punching, kicking, snarling like an animal. If he had a knife, he would have used it to slit the other man's throat like a pig. "Not this time, you bastard," he snarled. "NOT THIS TIME!"
"SANDBUR-" Simon's shout was cut off as a bullet ripped through his leg, sending him spinning and crumbling to the ground. He saw Joel fall silently, hands limply dropping the gun, illuminated by the flash as his finger tightened briefly on the trigger before relaxing. Then he was clawing his way back up the rock he had used as shelter, sweat-soaked hands slipping on the stone, nails breaking away as he dug clawed fingers into the jagged surface.
He saw two of Hitler's brave, strong, elite soldiers off the SS drag a lone, half-starved anthropologist off the officer, holding him in place while a third punched him viciously in the gut, the motion highlighted by the glaring headlights of the truck.
Blair doubled over with the force of the blow, then his head raised again, pure murder in his eyes as he lashed out savagely with both feet, slamming them into the soldier. The man fell backwards under the impact of the blow, and Blair turned in the grip of the other two, biting the hands that held him, kicking, using every inch of his body as a weapon.
The soldier on the ground clambered back to his feet and delivered a crushing blow to the fine-boned face, smashing lips against teeth, a fine spray of blood flowing outwards from the motion.
Stunned, Blair hung limp for a moment in the soldier's grasp as the third checked the officer on the ground. Straightening up from the crumpled body, his face hardened in fury as Simon reached with agonised slowness for his gun, delivering another vicious blow to the Maquisard's stomach
Simon forced his fingers to reach further, slipping a little, losing his grasp as his arm crept along the ground. His hand encountered still warm flesh, slightly clammy from the cool night air. Too big for an animal, it had to be Joel. Fumbling up the still body, he whispered an urgent entreaty, calling for the older man to get up, get moving. Then his questing hand brushed against the right side of Taggert's head, damp and spattered with what felt like squishy mud. The bloody mess where the left side used to be.
Swallowing his sorrow down as far as it went, he forced his hand to crawl across the still body, finally grasping Joel's weapon.
The pain from the blow seemed to have revived Blair's battered spirit and he raised his head, spitting on the hated uniform, fighting the hands that held him. But the struggles were weaker now, little more than a token protest that had no real hope for escape as he was dragged toward the waiting truck.
Grasping the gun in both hands, Simon raised it, resting it on the edge of the rock so that his aim wouldn't be spoiled by the tears sheeting down his face, the trembling in his body as he focused on the struggling figure between the black uniforms. With a dead soul, he thumbed back the hammer, finger twitching on the trigger. It was up to him. He was the only one who could save Blair. Give him a quick, merciful death with a single shot, instead of a messy, screaming, painful one in an interrogation room.
One shot. That was all he had left.
He focused with startling clarity on the smaller man, and somehow Blair knew, he stopped fighting, standing still in the middle of the clearing, a perfect shot for a man used to shooting moving targets.
Simon waited, drawing a bead, waiting until the shot felt right, knowing he couldn't miss. It was the least he could do for a friend.
Closing his eyes and murmuring a prayer, Simon pulled the trigger.