There was a floating, euphoric feeling in Erich's chest as they all scrambled into the aircraft, an unfamiliar sense of optimism that sat strangely on his austere Prussian soul. He couldn't believe they were getting away with it. But that was what dealing with Bigglesworth was like; the man led a charmed life. At least now his uncanny luck, skill, or whatever it was had turned in Erich's direction rather than against it.
And even as this thought had a chance to take up residence in his mind, even as he helped Marie into the plane and then turned back to lend Biggles a hand, a stutter of machine-gun fire raked the grass and the side of the plane.
Biggles jerked and fell.
A spray of his blood painted the grass and the fusilage. Some of it might have struck Erich's hands and face.
For a single frozen instant, the world seemed to stop. Erich felt Marie's sharp jerk and split-second stillness beside him, as if she, too, had felt her world stumble and freeze.
Then they moved together, jumping down into the field even though it exposed them clearly to the enemy's line of fire. Biggles was in the grass, nearly invisible in the dark, with Hebblethwaite beside him. He was gasping out something typical about leaving him behind, which Erich and the others ignored. Marie got a double fistful of his shirt, Erich scooped an arm under him, and Hebblethwaite pushed from behind as they manhandled him into the Dove.
The entire lot of them sprawled on the floor of the Dove's cabin. Biggles' blood was hot and sticky on Erich's hands, but the stubborn fool was still conscious, gasping out instructions to Hebblethwaite as the machine lurched forward and started to move.
Then he went abruptly limp as he passed out. Erich hadn't even noticed that he was still holding onto him—he and Marie both were—until Biggles turned suddenly to deadweight, head lolling against the floor.
"What's going on back there?" Lissie shouted from the pilot's seat. The machine was picking up speed, lurching over bumps in the rough field. There were still people shooting at them, bullets singing outside the unsecured door, although they were far enough away by now that they were unlikely to be hit.
Hebblethwaite seemed to be in shock, so Erich fell back on battlefield tactics. "Get up there and copilot, damn it, you know the situation on the ground and he doesn't," he barked, giving Hebblethwaite a sharp shove until he lurched into motion. Erich needed both hands to secure the door, so he shoved Biggles onto Marie. Biggles's body rolled limply, and Erich couldn't even tell if he was breathing.
As he stood up to close the door—it was tight in the cabin; he had to brace himself against the ceiling and reach for the door one-handed, his bad leg trying to give way beneath him—he forced himself not to think about how quickly he'd seen men die in both wars. It was possible for a man to bleed out just that fast, talking one minute, stone dead the next.
He managed to secure the door just as they left the ground. The floor tilted steeply, and Erich half-sat, half-fell beside Biggles on the floor.
As the machine climbed, Marie clung to the back of the copilot's seat with one hand, feeling around in the seat-back pocket with the other. She had to try both seats before she found what she was looking for, a torch which she turned on Biggles.
Abruptly the blood and Biggles' chalky pallor sprang out in unwanted, vivid color. There was blood all over the floor, Erich's legs, Marie's skirt. The copper smell of it was strong, overwhelming even the aircraft's smells of petrol and exhaust.
"Where is he hit?" Marie asked. She bent over him, holding the light with a steady hand. Erich was, not for the first time, grateful for her steel-nerved calm.
"Shoulder, I think." He lifted Biggles with a hand planted between the man's shoulder blades—Biggles' head lolled limply back, his throat exposed and oddly vulnerable-looking—and used his knife to cut the sodden shirt off. He tore a sleeve from the shirtfront and jammed the wadded-up knot against Biggles' blood-covered shoulder. Marie seamlessly took over holding it, pressing down with all her weight while she clamped the torch under her arm so she could use both hands.
"There's no arterial involvement, thank goodness, to judge from the blood flow," she said, and Erich was reminded that she had worked as a nurse. "We'll need bandages; can you finish cutting that up?"
Erich sat back against the bulkhead and began methodically slicing and tearing the bloody shirt into strips. Hebblethwaite was up again, swaying with unconscious grace in the machine's movement as he leaned between the seats. "What can I do?" he asked.
"Is there water or alcohol on board?" Marie asked. "Something to clean the wound. I expect it'll be hours before we can land, and he wouldn't thank us for letting infection set. He could still lose the arm."
"There's both," Lissie said tersely over his shoulder, sparing a moment from his hyper-focus on the plane's controls. "Emergency supplies. Cargo net in the back."
Hebblethwaite nodded and scrambled past them to unhook the net from the bulkhead.
Erich thought it might be the first time in their acquaintance that he had seen Bertie Lissie fully focused and on. There was no affected dilettantism to him now, no "What ho, old bean"—just a fierce, focused calm that wouldn't have been out of place on the battlefield.
Which was what this was. If the stickiness of his hands and the too-familiar metallic stink of blood didn't take Erich straight back to the war, the abrupt, hard sideways jink of the Dove would have done. The floor tilted steeply to the side, and through the opposite window, Erich glimpsed a flash of yellow house lights in a dark sea of trees. He reached for Biggles with one hand and Marie with the other, steadying both of them as the machine yawed through a steep turn. There was a thump and yelp from Hebblethwaite in the back.
"We're taking anti-aircraft fire," Lissie called back, still with that startling businesslike, focused calm. "I'm making for Germany. Shortest distance between two points is a straight line after all, isn't it lads?"
The aircraft leveled out. In a single glimpse through the window, Erich saw a cliff face speed past and realized they were flying terribly low, then turned his attention to his own task. He had to trust that Lissie knew what he was about.
It was deeply strange to be included in Bigglesworth's chaotic, close-knit team, even to the point of accepting the help of the others and deferring to their authority in their particular areas of expertise. He was used to a top-down hierarchy, where there were two kinds of people: those who followed orders to the letter, and those who could not be trusted because their ambitions exceeded their station, so they would climb over whoever they must.
But Biggles's team, squad, gang, whatever ... wasn't like that. Lissie poured his entire soul into flying this craft not because he had been ordered to do it, but because his friend and chief was bleeding out in the back, and everyone he cared about would fall to a wilderness grave in the mountains if he failed. Hebblethwaite aspired to nothing more at the moment than doing his best in an assistive role for no glory or reward other than making sure that Bigglesworth made it to hospital in France.
"Where is my disinfectant?" Marie asked with a surge of the sharp authority that Erich remembered from their days as colleagues.
She'd always had too much integrity for the espionage game, Erich thought. Too much heart, as he had told Biggles. There was a sharp sideways twist to his chest, thinking back on the two of them in that restaurant, talking about Marie just a few weeks ago. He needed to believe that it wasn't the last time.
You've come too far and survived too many things to bleed out on the floor of this cursed aircraft after we got away, Bigglesworth.
Hebblethwaite dropped to his knees beside them. "I've water and brandy and, uh, this looks like a bottle of wine, I don't know where that came from. Which do you want?"
"Water first, please," Marie said. "Erich, do you have my bandages?"
Erich gave her a torn strip of Biggles' shirt, and at her instruction, pressed their sodden dressing to the back of Biggles' shoulder while she cleaned the wound with liberal amounts of water and judicious splashes of brandy. Hebblethwaite took over holding the light.
"Coming up on the German border," Lissie said over his shoulder. "I expect we'll take fire. Brace."
Erich planted a hand in the middle of Biggles's bare chest. The pilot's skin was cold to the touch. A surge of shockingly powerful emotion twisted under Erich's rib cage, protective and possessive at once, coalescing into a thought he could not quite give shape to, but it formed up anyway:
He is mine. I don't have much that is mine anymore, and I keep what I have. How dare they touch him, how DARE they.
The aircraft wobbled in the air, jolting them all. As they evened out again, Marie calmly resumed cleaning Biggles's shoulder with her wet rag and splashes of brandy from Hebblethwaite's flask.
"We're clear and it looks like smooth sailing for a while, at least if they don't decide to scramble interceptors to welcome us," Lissie called back. "Ginger, could you come up for a minute and get on the horn? We ought to let France know what they're in for, and I'd feel a good deal better if Marcel was standing by to meet us."
Erich took over holding the torch. It made an oddly calm little tableau here on the cabin floor, the engines droning under them and Marie steadily applying bandages to Biggles's seeping shoulder.
When she was done, she sat back and arranged her little package as a sort of pillow for him, holding it there while her other hand steadied herself against the floor.
"Erich," she said quietly. He looked up quickly from examining Biggles's pale face, as if the answer to the question most pressing on his mind—Will he be all right?—was written there. "You care for him a great deal—don't you?"
Erich dropped his gaze back to Biggles's slack features. Biggles's lips were slightly parted in a scruff of beard. He felt an unholy temptation to press a kiss there, if only in gratitude that the man still drew breath. "I should be an ungrateful wretch if I did not," he said. They spoke German, making it unlikely that the two up in the cockpit could understand them, but his voice was still pitched so low it risked being lost in the vibration of the Dove's engines. "He saved me from an unkind fate, at great risk to himself."
"Many people who have done the kinds of things we have done would not scruple to feel that kind of emotion."
"I don't do those things any longer. Not often. But you're right," he added wryly. "Perhaps I was too soft for the work, after all."
"You, soft? Never. I would rather say—principled," she said with a smile. "Prone to following your heart."
Erich snorted. "I thought the same of you."
"Perhaps a little. But not as you have," she said gently, looking down to Biggles again.
Erich realized that he was not entirely sure what this conversation was about. The two of them were used to having conversations with double or triple layers of meaning, a necessity in the spy game, but as tired as he was right now, he felt as if some of its depths were being lost to him.
“We don’t abandon our friends when they’re on a spot, as you should have noticed by now.”
Biggles's words, coming back to him from a few nights ago.
No, he thought. You do not.
And somehow, however it had happened, whether he wanted it or not, whether it was Biggles' influence or something that had been inside him all along, he seemed to have become that kind of person too.
He rested a hand on Biggles's wrist, where he could feel the slight thrum of the man's thready pulse. And he kept it there, fingertips resting lightly against the pulse point—just holding steady, all the way to France.