The Maquis spun around, weapons at the ready as the pair rustled through the bushes, only to stop and stare, faces blanching.
"Oh Christ." Rafe dropped his gun, one hand reaching out to fall trembling back at his side. "Is he..." It was hard to believe a body so horribly broken could still draw breath.
"No." Jim's voice was terse. That was one thing he felt horribly guilty for being glad of. The nazis could bring a person to the edge of insanity and beyond, resources and knowledge at their command that were almost unthinkable to the civilised world. They could break, maim, torture until they had what they wanted, all without seriously endangering the life of their plaything. "He's alive."
As if to prove his point, Blair shifted and moaned in his arms, and James Ellison forgot anything else existed. Shoving past the shell-shocked men, he pawed through the paltry supplies they had brought, ripping the top off a canteen and lowering himself to the ground.
Carefully, slowly, each movement taking an eternity, he shifted Blair to lay sideways in his lap, propped against his chest and pressed the canteen to the dry lips.
Blair gulped greedily at the water, then pushed it away, doubling over and convulsing weakly as it came back up, crying in frustration. Tears tracking down his own face, Jim eased him back up and offered the water again. "Little sips, take little sips, " he murmured, voice a whisper. Blair complied, and this time the water stayed down.
Brown came forward, shrugging out of his ragged jacket, holding it forward and draping it over the injured man's shoulders. Blair jerked away, a cry escaping his lips before the fabric had time to do more than lightly brush his back, and Jim tore the material out of the musician's hands with a growl, throwing it away into the underbrush. "No one touches him, you hear?" he snarled. "No one comes near him!"
"Jim," once again, Rafe's calm tones broke through his anger. "Jim, we have to go." Ellison nodded once, jerkily, then gathered the smaller man up in his arms, slowly, gently, but Blair wailed against even that gentle touch, torn and abused nerve endings screeching to life, screams of agony pouring louder and louder out of an already hoarse, agonised throat.
Jim wanted to tighten his grip on the frail form but couldn't for fear of hurting him further. He wanted to ease him down onto a soft surface, take away the pain but he couldn't, there was no comfort in the cold woods, no drugs to soothe the pain, nothing but black smoky air and the crackle of feeding flames, so he wept with the smaller man, so proud of him when he stopped crying and held it in, held so much of it in, teeth biting clear through his lip without a whimper as Ellison stood, silent tears tracking endlessly down his bruised cheeks until he faded into merciful darkness.
Rafe and Brown had reclaimed the motorbike when the first explosions started, and Ellison settled himself in the sidecar with his precious burden, hardly realising when the motor was started, when they began to move away, his whole soul focused on Blair's unconscious form.
Blair faded in and out again before they arrived at La colle-sur-loup, each jolt and twist in the long, curling road proving too much. Jim picked the smaller man up in his arms, and hurried inside the house Megan had claimed for an aid station, feeling new blood seep through the sleeves of his shirt, hearing the soft breathing at his chest jiggle with every step he took. He barged through the door, thin wood no obstacle to a well-placed kick, too much hurry to turn the knob as he stormed through the rooms and laid Blair gently on his stomach onto a faded white sheet.
And then he stopped. Looked. And fell to his knees, sobbing, one hand reaching out to smooth the curls away from the battered face, except there were no more curls left to smooth, the chopped ends horribly blunt to his fingers, the pad at the end of each digit brushing over the abrupt ends, over and over, feeling more and more, until it was as if his entire world existed only of those oily, ragged hairs.
"Jim?" a soft, choked sob broke through to him as Megan entered the room, her eyes wide with horror, both for the form on the bed, and the screaming pain in the eyes of the man knelt beside it. "Oh god..."
Blair was still mercifully unconscious as they began cleaning his wounds, a catalogue of pain. Washing the blood from his back, inch by agonising inch to reveal the marks of torture. Some were thin lacerations, almost as if from the snap of a whip, others were red and pulpy, like some kind of ground beef after a vicious beating. Jim closed his eyes, cursing everything he knew, all the intelligence they had that painted so clearly in his mind what Blair had been through, day after day. In some places, the layers of skin were almost completely gone, whether flayed or cut, Jim didn't want to know. He murmured a prayer as every new mark was uncovered, every new pain, his mind roiling and twisting in on itself, gibbering a litany of damning curses and guilt. If he hadn't let go. If he'd kept Blair with him. If only he had gotten there sooner, sooner...
Megan's face was pale and distant as she worked, turning bowl after bowl of clean, fresh water pink, washing away the dirt and filth, hiding the reality behind clean bandages torn from a sheet. One wrist, then the other, moving down to seal the bloodied ankles, then back up to Sandburg's left hand, to the fingers splayed and bent like some dark comedian's idea of pretzels.
"They broke them. Snapped them like little twigs." The soft voice brought both their heads up. Blair was awake, bruised cheek pressed deep into the pillow. "Only the left hand." He turned his head slowly, shifting against the pillow and brought his right hand up to his nose, flexing it curiously. "They sounded so funny at first...like little biscuits being stepped on?"
"Oh god, Blair..." Jim choked out, guts churning and twisting at the images until he thought he was going to vomit. He stared at the nurse's gentle hands as they worked, wondering how she kept them from trembling under the force of the hideous words.
"After the first few, I didn't notice the sound any more." Blair rolled his head to face them again, detached from the agony of his injuries, as if relating an accident that occurred to a vague acquaintance. "They said I needed my right hand to sign a confession," he remarked absently, entranced by the way Megan's skilful fingers wound the bandages holding the splints in place. "When that didn't work, they burned me."
Stop it! Jim screamed in the silence of his mind. He wished he could jam his hands over his ears as the words went on and on in that soft, disconnected voice, wished he could run and hide, scream his rage at everything. But he couldn't.
So he sat there, stomach and fingers twisting and jumbling, a little more of his heart breaking at each monstrous syllable.
"It felt hot, like a fire...hurt, smelled like...bacon? I thought it was funny...not Kosher...I think I screamed, my throat hurt.." Megan soothed a cool cloth over his face and he blinked tiredly. "Then they took these.." Blair's brow furrowed and he mumbled a word in French. "Wires? These little wires, they sparked and spat..."
"GOD!" Jim couldn't stand it any more, he bolted to his feet and out the door, stomach rebelling against everything in it as the words followed him, resounding in his ears long after he should have been out of earshot.
"...they put them on my...my..." another mutter in French. "...testicules?"
With a choked mewl, Jim doubled over in a corner, heaving the contents of his stomach out, over and over, until there was nothing left to give. Scrunching his eyes against the images, he sank back against the wall and slid to the floor, head tilted back and tears burning acid trails from the corners of his eyes and down the sides of his face.
"...it hurt so much, it hurt, it hurts....why won't it stop...?"
Jim didn't know how long he stayed there. An eternity. An aeon, tears welling up, more and more, a never ending rain dripping from his cheeks to spatter the floor.
Megan stepped out and closed the door softly behind her. "He's asleep," she whispered, a torn look in her eyes. Then she fell down beside him, burying her face in her hands, and wept.
Jim reached out and pulled her to him, for her comfort or his own, he
didn't know as they clung to each other, trying desperately to wipe away
the hurt with simple human contact.