Jim lathered the last of the soap between his palms and gently reached down, awkwardly rubbing it into the sodden locks waiting. Blair purred wantonly under the massage, tilting his head back into the strong fingers, exposing the graceful curve of his neck.
Jim carefully soaped the curls in his hands, working the suds through, but more and more he found his gaze drawn to that delicate curve of skin. He watched the smaller man's adam's apple bob, entranced by the way it dipped and swirled, an ever-so-faint vibration to the left where his pulse beat strong and steady. He was slowly drawn in by that steady beat, losing himself in the sensations of the silk against his hands, the warm over his body, the thrumming of that heart and the gradual drop of the water forming up the end of the tub, each drop growing from the faucet, becoming fat and finally detaching to land with a little plop.
"Jim?" He came back to himself with a start. The water around them was cooling now, Blair's blue eyes looking up at him concernedly past a few stray soap bubbles. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," he shook off the faint uneasy feeling gripping the edges of his mind, a little shocked by how much time had passed without his knowledge. Reaching out, he picked up a cracked old jug, filling it with water from the tub and poured it over it over Blair's hair, rinsing all traces of the soap away, careful not to get it into the smaller man's eyes.
The water chilled and cooled, and the two men reluctantly left it, towelling themselves dry and revelling in the feeling of being clean before heading outside to the work to be done
As soon as they appeared, Banks put them to work. A sizeable stock of weapons and ammunitions had been gathered in Grenoble, and all the Reseaux were taking it, piece by piece to the stronghold in Vassieux.
Mills bombs, rifles, Brens, all the weapons they had airdropped from the Allies or simply stolen were slung into packs. The ammunitions were carefully packed into old army lockers. Jim and Blair worked seriously, both well aware that a moment of stupidity could send them to Vassieux a hell of a lot faster than they expected.
Crates packed and packs slung, the group set off.
Blair amused himself by attempting various ways of making Jim laugh as they moved along, swinging the locker between them a little like a swing. Stolidly endured the facial expressions, the coarse jokes and noises before losing it at the impersonation of Captain Banks. He felt young and giddy, like a teenager on a spring day. He was nearly twenty years past that age bracket, but it really didn't matter. It was so hard to believe that they were at war. The sun was out, there was no sound of gunfire or death, just the occasional chirping of birds and the companionable chatter between the members of the Reseau. It seemed like any other day, the mountain paths gently sloping upwards no problem whatsoever.
Until they found the first body.
The Maquis separated, packs abandoned in unison and Stens slung down into readiness, melting silently into the rocks and trees, the need for survival giving them a synergy and preciseness that would have made any trained drill Sergeant bite his baton in two and sob with pure joy.
Henri and Sam continued on ahead, scouting the area before giving the all-clear. The others glided back out of cover, and continued ahead.
A battle had been fought over the musty patch of dirt road, craters gouging through the surface, rock fragments tossed aside like abandoned toys. It looked like a nazi patrol had caught a Maquis party. Both sides had sustained heavy casualties. It was hard to tell who won.
The party moved through the strewn bodies, the battlefield eerily silent, broken only by the sounds of their own feet, the cry of a lone bird and the buzz of flies drawn to the resultant smorgasbord.
Simon flipped over a corpse with his boot. The staring eyes of a young woman met him. Most of her chest was gone. He dragged a hand over his face. "Ok people, let's do it."
Still moving in that eerie silence, afraid somehow to break it, the Maquis methodically began stripping the corpses of what they could use. The nazi corpses were stripped with brutal efficiency, but the Maquis were left, only their weapons reclaimed by their fellow fighters. There was no time to bury the bodies, but ragged clothing was draped reverently over contorted faces, prayers hastily murmured over the fallen comrades.
Jim watched his friend, wanting to protect the smaller man from all this carnage. Blair moved almost mechanically, eyes slightly shuttered and glazed, as his mind took refuge somewhere else from the task he was performing. Weapons in one pile. Ammunition in another. A third for items they would take only if they could - canteens, field rations, blankets and the like. Blair sized up the boots on a corpse, and if it wasn't for the incredibly sad look on his face, he may as well have been a carefree young man shopping for shoes. Sickened by the sight, but even more sickened by the fact that he approved the action, Jim stood up.
And heard the voice.
"Bitte..." The pleading whisper drifted through the air. Jim jerked his head around, searching for the source, one part of his mind wondering why no-one else appeared to hear it.
He honed in on the sound, aware of Blair beside him. Rolling aside a battered corpse, he found a wounded soldier, no older than eighteen, dirt and blood streaking his Teutonic features and smearing back into his dark hair, eyes staring fixedly up into the sky as his cracked lips moved again.
Beside him, Blair exploded into action, shrugging out of his pack and dumping it on the ground, pulling out his canteen. Going to his knees beside the supine figure, he gently lifted the wounded man's head and shoulders, pressing the water to the dry lips.
The soldier took one hesitant sip, then another, then the glazed eyes focused on his rescuers.
"Gott!" With a strangled exclamation he tried to shy away, but Blair held him firmly, yet gently.
"Es ist in ordnung, est ist ok. Shh, shh, Wir nicht verletzen Sie." Blair tore a strip off his shirt and ran some water over it, gently wiping the other man's face clear of the grime. "Wo sind Sie hurt?"
The soldier watched him warily, like a predator about to strike. He shifted a little, then blanched in pain, falling back into Blair's supportive embrace. "Mein Bein"
"Shh," Blair ran the water soaked cloth over the fevered forehead, then offered a little more water. "Jim, he says his leg is hurt," he said softly. "Can you please look?"
Jim hesitated, then nodded, kneeling beside the pair. He studiously avoided the panicked eyes resting on him, gently examining the unnatural angle of the soldier's lower left leg.
The leg was in the early stages of gangrene, the subtle smell of putrefaction tainting the air. The flesh around the wound was swollen tight against the uniform pants, and Jim gently inserted two fingers into the bullet hole, tearing them open further. The soldier jerked a little in Blair's arms, then relaxed when he finally realised the two meant him no harm, tensing again as sensitive fingers gently probed his leg.
Jim gritted his teeth in sympathy as the injury was revealed. The bullet had shattered the bone just below the kneecap, the wound red and angry, with scarlet streaks radiating outwards over hot skin. The boy would never be able to walk without support, and once he got back to his own people and proper medical help, he would never walk on two legs again.
Jim rummaged in his pack and pulled out his tin of sulphur powder, knowing he had little to spare but using it anyway, hoping it would somehow help against the infection as he tore strips from his shirt to wind around the wound. If the soldier was lucky, he would only lose his leg from the knee down.
The others had gathered around them during the examination, and Jim could feel the prickles on his back from their stares, the muttered curses. He wondered at the incongruous tableau they presented. He had come here expressly for the purpose of killing Germans, yet here he was, trying desperately to save the life of one. Why?
He saw Blair whisper soothingly, gently cleaning the dirt and mud away from the soldier's battered face and throat and knew. If Blair of all people, after all he had been through could forgive, then so could Jim. He gently wound another strip of shirt around the injured leg, holding two rough splints in place, firm enough to give the young man a fighting chance on his feet after they had gone.
Blair was also aware of the scrutiny, the murmurs but ignored them. He flashed the older man a grateful smile when he saw the splints, and offered more water to the soldier, who drank thirstily. A little too fast, he coughed and choked, some of it coming back up. Blair wiped it away without fuss, uttering more soothing reassurances, smiling down at the confused blue eyes, so much like his own. Shame washed through his being, agony tearing at his soul. They had done this, the Maquis. They had left this boy to die alone and in pain, and he wondered how many times he had done the same. How many times had he thought he had killed and walked away, leaving a single soul to die in torment, surrounded by the corpses of his colleagues?
He couldn't think about it, didn't want to think about it, concentrated instead on saving this one life, as if it could somehow ease his own guilt.
He felt Jim shift away, then another shadow was cast across them.
"Blair." Sandburg tried to ignore the sombre tones of his Captain, coaxing the young soldier into drinking a little more water, just a little more, cleaning the rest of his wounds and easing him into a more comfortable position on the hard clay ground.
"Blair." This time he did look up, already shaking his head at the words he knew were to come. "We can't leave a trail," Simon said softly, heart breaking at the determination and sorrow on the younger man's face. "If he gets back to his unit, any unit, before we get there, we are dead. One life for all of ours, it isn't worth it. We have to -"
"WRONG," Blair snarled, and everyone recoiled at the venom in his tone. "We DON'T have to. We don't have to become them. We don't have to kill and destroy because it's more convenient than helping and healing." He turned back to his charge, offering a little more water to the parched lips.
"Sandburg." At the commanding tone, Blair whipped his head around and pierced Simon with a gaze so angry, so vicious, so sorrowful and pleading that the other man took a step back before the sheer force of it. Blair pressed his canteen into one dirty hand, avoiding the wounded man's face, knowing, just knowing that somehow the man knew what they were talking about, knew that it was his life they were bandying about and arguing like some obscure point of law.
And he couldn't face that.
Stepping back, Blair made a show of adjusting his pack, keeping his hands far from the gun over his shoulder. "You want it done, you do it, Banks," he said coldly. "I may kill, but I will not murder. " And he walked off, Ellison, then Rafe, then Taggert, then the others following him, streaming away one by one until only Sam and Simon were left.
Simon stared after the young man for a moment, then swung his Sten off his shoulder and pointed the gun downwards. He stared for a long moment into the terrified features below him, the blue eyes locked onto the barrel, cringing, waiting for oblivion. Ever so slightly the muzzle began to waver, then Simon swung the gun back over his shoulder.
Sandburg was right. He couldn't do it, not here, not like this. It was wrong. Killing this child would make him cross the fine line between resistance fighter and murderer. He smiled reassuringly at the wounded young man and continued onwards, catching up with the others.
Sam was the last. She stopped by the German soldier and looked dispassionately down at him as he tried to smile. Then she raised her gun.
Blair flinched and leaned a little closer into the strong body walking at his side as the chatter of a Sten shattered the still morning air. Jim brought an arm around his friend's shoulders in offered comfort. His ears caught a fragment of a whispered prayer, and it made him love the younger man all the more.