Jim wandered nearly two miles, the falling darkness enveloping him. He went nowhere in particular, wishing he could lose himself, but unable to, his mind turning traitor and meticulously recording every twist and turn that took him away from the town.
Jim stopped in no particular place and leaned his shoulder against a tree. He was stupid. He'd done it again. Allowed himself a glimpse of what he really was, allowed himself to be, only to have it burned to ashes, withered to dust. The old protection began to slip into place, categorising, pigeonholing, something he could hide behind. James Joseph Ellison. Fighter Pilot. OSS. Man, husband, all the roles he played in life. Underneath it all was him Jim, a man who was desperately afraid of living and dying alone.
He turned his back to the tree and slid down it, feeling the bark through his shirt. Funny, he'd come here, to France with the express purpose of finding a quick, speedy death, too cowardly to take his own life, somehow feeling that he owed it to everyone that courted the mask that he die gloriously, his memory hallowed and dignified. A war hero.
But now, he didn't want to die. He didn't want to be that man. He wanted to live forever. He wanted to be Jim. He wanted to be with the man who had shown him something he'd thought he'd been living, only now exposed as a shallow lie.
Reality. Not the hollow masks people always wore in public, fixed so firmly in place that they couldn't be removed, even in private. The anger Blair had shown him was pure. Real. His friendship was real. Everything about him was real. Blair wasn't a Maquisard, a resistance fighter, an anthropology professor, Jewish or even French. He was just Blair Sandburg. He just was.
And Jim felt jealous.
And at the same time, not jealous. Sharing his life with Blair, thrown together, a friendship formed by chance, the smaller man had given to him a joining, a merging, somehow they were combining into the same thoughts, the same feelings, a protective shell that could withstand the insanity around them. Was it breaching, even now?
He had never felt this way about anyone before. Not the eighteen year old girl he had divested of her virginity, not the woman he had taken for a wife, not anyone. And he wanted it back. Because Blair let him be Jim not a puppet to be toyed with, not the whipped, almost emasculated puppy Carol had treated him as, but Jim.
It was beyond friendship. Beyond sexual, beyond pathetic barriers of flesh and blood, slicing through them with the ease of a knife to strike right past the bone and into his soul.
And nothing was worth losing that. Not the war, not his wife, not the flat headed maniac with a burr up her ass. Straightening his shoulders in resolve, Jim began the long trek back to St. Nizier.
Captain Banks approached the two men huddled in the dark grass. "Rafe? Blair?" he looked around for Ellison, and a horrid thought struck him at the sight of the dapples of blood on the grass, the unnatural paleness of Sandburg's face. "What happened?"
Blair looked up from where his fingers were endlessly twisting and turning in his lap, thin form shivering. Wiping the heels of his hands bruisingly across his cheeks, he got to his feet. "Jim.." He trailed off, looking down, then raised his head, proud somehow behind the tears coursing down his face. "I hurt Jim. I t-told him...I...I hurt him.."
Simon's face blanched pure white. "Give me your gun. And knife, if you have one. Anything you can use to -"
"No," it was a whisper as Blair shook his head, but he handed over his Sten. "I don't deserve to...I should live. A thousand years, forever. I should live knowing what I just did to Jim."
"Captain, what are you doing?" Rafe stood up beside the younger man, expression puzzled. Then it cleared as realisation hit. "You can't be serious. Blair would never -"
"Blair is a lost and lonely man," Banks said softly as the Maquisard wandered off to sit cross-legged beneath a tree. "He has seen his entire family die in front of him. He's been forced to kill, and now he thinks he has driven away the only person I have ever seen get close to him." Simon slung the Sten over his shoulder, and put a hand on Rafe's shoulder. The SOE operative was looking after the smaller man with a sorrowful look on his face. "Leave him alone, Rafe," he said softly. "It's what he does. It helps him to stay sane."
Blair closed his eyes, taking deep breaths. He had to find his center, the way he had been taught by the wizened little Tibetan monk so long ago in another life. One filled with sunshine and happiness. He was a child of learning, his parents had let him experience all he wanted. Anything he wanted to know had been in the palm of his hand, and yet he knew so little of what was important.
A stone dug painfully into his leg, but he accepted it, relished it, the pain was his penance. He was a fool. Cretin. So much had been taken away from him by war and death. Friends, family. Lovers. And it still wasn't enough. Living was a crime, living as he was, so filthy and soiled by what he had endured. How could Jim accept him? Love him for who he was? He had chased away the older man before he too left. Preventing the hurt. Somehow relishing the pain. For so long pain had been the only thing he had felt himself capable of feeling, the only way he knew he was still alive, not a mindless automaton. A brief sensation, fluttered away on the wind. But this time it hadn't worked. The hurt was there, inside, festering, growing greater and greater each moment they were separated. He didn't want the hurt, he wanted the love, he wanted to touch, to feel, to know again. He felt hot tears pouring down his face. "Jim, he whispered. "I'm sorry. Veuillez me pardonner. S'il vous plait. "
His resolve was forgotten, his soul torn open, apart, scattered into a million pieces with a familiar face etched upon each fragment. If Jim was gone, then he would die. He didn’t want to do this alone any more. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Would rather die than scurry back to his hole, out of the light, cold and alone without a smiling face or a casual touch of friendship that spoke so much more than any pathetic words ever could.
An eternity later he opened his eyes. The center was nowhere because his center was Jim. Torn away by stupid words and cruel assumptions. With a heavy heart, he made his way back into the town, waiting to see if he would live or die.
Stopping in the town center, Blair's eyes lit up as he recognised the weary, dusty figure trudging up the road. He took one step forward, then another, a hesitant smile frittering on the edges of his mouth.
He stopped just short of the older man, head bowed, hanging there, frozen in time, awaiting the verdict. Would Jim want him as a friend, even now? Could he after those hateful words? Or would he see Blair as just one more betrayal in a lifetime of hurt? His heart and life hung in the balance, awaiting the verdict that would light his world or destroy his soul.
Jim stood there for a long moment, just watching him. Blair could feel the other man's gaze as it swept the whole length of his body. Feel the pain. Know, without seeing, the anguish that would be there in those sky blue depths.
After an eternity of silence, he felt one large, rough hand encase his own and squeeze gently.
And the world fell away.
There was nothing else, no-one else as they entered their little house together, hands joined and the door shutting softly behind them.
Blair stood there, head bowed, the old ways he had fought for so long burning to the fore again. You made a mistake. Did something wrong. Now is the time to pay He shivered a little at the remembered words, the screamed orders, swallowing up his mind and fuelling the long-buried screams scrabbling at the back of his throat, the motion turning into a shudder and a shocked grasp as Jim gently grasped his shoulder. The thoughts and memories carried him spinning into darkness and when he awoke, light teased the edges of his vision.
"Hey, there." Jim was watching him, a concerned little smile on his face. The Leftenant’s hair dripped little droplets on his shoulders, the scrap of towel in his hand, barefoot and shirtless, dressed only in his pants and evidently fresh from the bath. "You had me worried for a while there." He shifted back from his seat on the edge of the bed as Blair sat up, keeping his distance. The younger man looked…lost. So alone and forsaken that Jim’s heart nearly broke. Jesus Christ, what had happened to him? Blair was just a kid, too young to be bombing and shooting, living in shadows and darkness. "How do you -" He froze suddenly, then scrambled off the bed, grabbing his remaining clothes. "Shit."
"Jim?" Blair's eyes widened in panic. What was it? What had he done now? Had he spoken in his sleep? He knew he did that sometimes, the sorrowful looks and disgusted glances as he relived his life through dark dreams. He had ruined it again, his sullied filthy past marring what he had held as pure. "Jim -"
"Get dressed." Jim yanked on his boots.
"Jim, please, I -"
"Get dressed, dammit!" Jim hauled him to his feet and sent him spinning to the pile of clothing draped over a battered old chair. "They're coming."
"Germans?" Blair shrugged on his shirt. Again he could hear nothing. But Jim had been right before...
"Get a weapon." Jim jerked the door open and rushed out, half-dressed. "A Sten. Vickers. Anything." There was naked fear in his face. "We're going to need it."
Jim grabbed hold of the nearest person as he exited the house. Megan blinked, then her eyes began a frank appraisal. "I have to say Jim," she drawled, "this look is a lot -"
"Get Banks," he ordered, cutting across her speech. "We're hip-deep in shit." He barely blinked as he made his way across the dirt to the armoury. Decorated Officer and Gentleman James J Ellison had just run up to a woman, half-naked and sworn at her. Broken several deeply ingrained cultural taboos. 'Big-time boo-boo' as Jack used to say. But, judging from her own stream of invective, Megan could teach him a thing or two in the latter department.
"...bugger bugger bugger...fucking bloody bugger shit shit....SIMON!!"
Jim looked around the village. So many people here, innocents, a little girl playing with a doll in the middle of a street no longer used because there was no petrol, the faint cluck as an elderly woman chased a chicken. All of them, innocents. And they would be caught in the middle. Because there wasn't enough time to get them clear, not enough time for anything because now he could hear the rumble of the tank approaching, the excited babble of the German soldiers, not worrying about silence, because all the stealth training in the world wasn't worth shit with ten tons of armour on wheels preceding you.
They only had a short amount of time to prepare, and then the Germans were there.