The sun is going down in the west, for something like the three hundred and thirty eight-thousandth day of his life, and Joseph Jones has rarely felt the weight of it more.
His hands shake as he unscrews the cap on the hard plastic canteen and tosses back the last gulp of lukewarm water rattling in the bottom, his sunglasses slipping down the sweat on his nose. Joe growls under his breath and shoves them back, even though he’s not sure there’s anything beyond that he wants to see. The thick summer air reeks of death and decay, an aroma he’s gotten to know all too well over the years, and this –
Even for him, this one hurts.
He paces along the crumbling verge of the mass grave, trying not to look down. There’s nothing they can do for these men, and he needs to get back to the ones they can still help. They’ve been in the Balkans for about three years, mostly in Bosnia, though they were helping out refugees in the Croatian Homeland War as well. They endured the punishing siege of Sarajevo (indeed, as of this very moment, it’s still besieged – is this 1995 or 1099? Joe sometimes isn’t certain, because it is such a profoundly medieval form of warfare, happening on your television, explained to you by Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings) and now they’re in Srebrenica, a small and otherwise unremarkable hamlet in rural eastern Bosnia, close to the Serbian border. It is under the occupation of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), a Serbian paramilitary unit called the Scorpions, UN observers, and other tangled remnants of blasted-apart Yugoslavia, the one terribly tragic exception to the largely peaceful end of the Cold War and collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Even for immortals as seasoned in tragedy as they are, this has been haunting. Especially what lies in the dust below.
Joe keeps looking straight ahead as he walks, though his shoes squelch in dust watered with blood. He sees tanks, the burned-out shells of humble blocks of flats, incongruously ordinary schools and shops, UN forces in their blue helmets. Another pang of rage burns through him – they have been not just useless, but worse than useless, standing there and looking on as this happened, not raising a finger to help, out of some high-minded philosophy of “impartiality.” That, in fact, mirrors the West’s response to the Yugoslavian and especially Bosnian crisis in general, as they have been aware of this for four years and done almost nothing to stop the slaughter. In 1948, Winston Churchill proposed reestablishing European unity after the devastation of two world wars by pointing them against their old enemy, the Turk, and that has been horribly successful here. It’s been described as the last crusade (optimistic, Joe thinks, insofar as there will always be another one), as Serbian Orthodox ultra-nationalists launched an all-out attempt to eradicate the Bosniak Muslims, explicitly legitimating their genocidal activities with references to crusading mythology, events, and mindset. For example, the battle of Kosovo in 1389, one of the endless Ottoman invasions of the Balkans in which they crushed a Serb army, has been whipped up into evidently the worst insult any country has ever suffered anywhere. The Croatian Catholics are messily mixed up in it as well, the legacy of the region embodied in the very verb – balkanized – that means terribly and violently divided.
What’s worse, it feels like this is directly on him, his fault, personally. Joe can see the red thread that leads all the way back to him standing in the rain on the walls of Constantinople in 1204, battling the Fourth Crusaders. If he had fought just a little harder and defeated them, if Constantinople hadn’t fallen, if it hadn’t been so violently sacked, if it hadn’t fallen into decline and been captured by the Ottomans in 1453, leading to the Balkan invasions, leading to the conquest and partial Islamification of Bosnia, leading to the battle of Mohács in 1526, the destruction of Matthias Corvinus' library and the loss of Quynh in England, leading to the religious wars of the next centuries, leading to the fault lines in Yugoslavia – then, this twisted line of thinking runs, they would not be here in 1995, dealing with its terrible fruit. This is only the consequences of their – of his – ultimate failure.
No, no. Joe shakes his head. They all know that that way lies madness, and it’s certainly not a straight line from the events of 1204, 1453, and 1526 to this blood-soaked field with its bulldozed mass graves. If he takes on the responsibility for all of it, he’ll lose his mind, he’ll not be able to focus on what he can do here. There are Bosniak women and children still in harm’s way. VRS soldiers have been forcing their way onto buses meant to evacuate noncombatants and raping women in especially nightmarish ways. Joe needs to get back and pull himself together and try to – not forget this, he can’t. But put it out of his mind.
The quiet streets of Srebrenica are almost peaceful in the July evening light, as if they have not just witnessed the systematic round-up, torture, and execution of almost every single Bosniak Muslim man and boy in the region – a total that will ultimately come out to over 8,000 victims and be regarded as the worst holocaust on European soil since the Second World War. Joe is here, he is their brother in Allah, he’s still alive, he can fight for their families. His sunglasses slip again, this time not with sweat but tears. He stops for a long moment, bending over, hands on his knees, struggling to remember how to stand up. His chest feels raw and sore, head aching as if it too has taken one of the VRS’s bullets. (It did the other day, and he almost hopes one of the bastards sees him come at them again and wonders what the hell happened.) Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe, then get back to the others, then think what you can do next.
After a few minutes, he sees the building in which the team has set up camp. It’s missing its front door, unexploded shells lying in the street not far away, and Joe skirts them carefully as he goes inside. Even for him, being blown into a dozen pieces would not be a fun regeneration, and he has no wish to put it to the test. The interior stairs creak as he climbs them, this place filled with that beautiful golden light, as if he isn’t leaving bloody bootprints with every step. His hands are still shaking, and he clenches them. Reaches the door at the top and knocks – “Hey, guys, it’s me,” as if they don’t know, as if they would have allowed him to get this close if they didn’t – and lets himself in.
It’s a mess. They’ve been living in a succession of squats and bombed-out apartments across the country, and this one is an upgrade only insofar as it has (most of) four walls and a roof. There’s no running water; there’s a bucket out back if they get so rank that they need a bath. A blue plastic tarpaulin is strung up to divide it roughly into a living room and a bedroom piled with sleeping bags for the four of them, and it’s crammed with boxes of ammunition, transistor radios, old newspapers, fake UN badges, Joe and Nicky’s swords, grenade launchers, explosive bandoliers, guns, and etc., Andy’s axe, Booker’s rifle and, well, books (even here he’s managed to acquire a few), bottles of water and stacks of tinned provisions with labels in Serbian Cyrillic. The other three members of the Old Guard look up as Joe enters, and Andy says, “You find it?”
“Yeah.” Joe takes off his sweat-soaked baseball cap – hands still shaking just a little – and crashes down on one of the mismatched plastic chairs that serve as their dining area. “It’s a mess. There’s not much to – they did a number on ‘em.”
He can sense more than see Nicky’s sidelong look at him from the window where he is positioned with a sniper rifle, planted all day with glacial patience, so he can use this elevated perch to target anyone who comes out to go after civilians. Whichever of them are left. Nicky’s worried about him, they all are, and Joe tries to avoid his eyes. “I’m fine,” he says, a little too heartily. “We need to get our shit together and find the women and the kids.”
“There’s another bus of refugees a couple miles north of here,” Booker says, from where he’s crouched over the radio with headphones on and fiddling with the knobs. “Supposedly the Dutch UN guys are moving them out, but – ”
“But since the Dutch just sat around with their thumbs up their asses and watched all the men get massacred, that’s not very reassuring,” Andy finishes coolly. She strides over to the battered cooler and twists open a bottle of some local beer. “Joe, grab something to eat if you need it, we’ll move out at dusk and try to intercept the bus. I don’t know if there’s anywhere else we can really send them, but we’ll try to ensure their escort to safer territory.”
The last two words hang in the air like a mockery – safer territory – as if any such thing exists in Bosnia in 1995, especially for Muslims. Joe racks both hands through his unruly dark curls, sees Nicky looking at him again, gets up and grabs another of the beers. You shouldn’t drink alcohol in high heat (and you know, for him, not usually) but he wants to save the bottled water for the refugees and he is feeling the need for a little assistance in getting the heaps of dead men with holes in their heads out of his mind. All these centuries, he hasn’t always been able to pray five times a day and fast for Ramadan and other things that aren’t totally compatible with operating as a world-saving immortal mercenary, but he still tries. He doesn’t feel like he has to choose between being a Muslim and being a member of the Old Guard, even if he’s not as outwardly devout as he used to be. He just (oh, the irony) does not have the time.
Joe takes a few swallows of the beer, reminds himself to say a sujud sahwi when he does next get a chance to pray properly, and puts it down. Then he tears open a protein bar and wolfs it down, barely remembering to chew. “Okay,” he says, still too heartily. “I’m good.”
He knows that Andy and Booker are looking at him too, and tries to smile for their benefit. Frankly, if he had to say it: God, the twentieth century sucks. Fighting through World War I and World War II and everything else they’ve been involved in for these past ninety-five years has almost made Joe long for the comfort of medieval wars by comparison. There was nothing like the Great War and its poison gas and its endless fields of killing trenches, barbed wire and machine guns and so, so many young men dying for absolutely no good goddamn reason at all. The mechanized precision of the Nazi death camps and the arrogance of the United States and the Soviet Union in driving the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation by their dick-measuring superpower contest. Joe picked this new name – Joseph Jones, plain, unremarkable, anodyne – sometime in the late eighteenth century when their fields of operation were becoming increasingly Western and Anglophone, because Yusuf al-Kaysani always sounds too suspiciously ethnic. Of course some whitebread name is the default, doesn’t draw attention. He’s gotten used to thinking of himself as Joe, and most times he doesn’t mind it. But having just stared into the abyss here in Srebrenica, with the bitter knowledge of how little the West has cared to stop Muslims dying –
Joe gets to his feet, shirt still damp with sweat, and packs some provisions into his backpack, along with extra food, water, a first-aid kit, and anything else they’ll need if they catch up with a lot of terrified refugees. He adds the usual cargo of ammunition for his guns, and straps on his saif. That comforts him with its heavy, familiar weight on his hip, and he’s still liable to reach for it first in hand-to-hand combat. Andy and Booker are shrugging on their own assortment of weaponry, as Nicky gets up and puts the long gun on his back, pulls up his black hood and reaches for his broadsword. His new official name is equally boring, Nicholas Smith. They got a kick out of picking the most unremarkable and common last names that they could. For a while Nicky's name was more elegant – Nicholas Genovian – like some kind of playboy European prince living in dashing exile in Gilded Age New York (they’ve been there, it wasn’t bad, if you ignored all the robber barons and squalid tenements of dirt-poor immigrants). But it was too distinctive, might draw attention if it cropped up too often in official records, and they can't have that.
“Hey,” Nicky says in an undertone, catching Joe’s hand. “Are you okay?”
“I’m – ” He doesn’t want to lie to his lover, not when Nicky will know perfectly well that yes, it is a lie, and no, he isn’t okay. He draws a shaking breath. “Let’s just catch up to the bus, huh?”
Nicky pauses, then nods fractionally, squeezing Joe’s hand, though his gaze lingers as a promise that this conversation is not over. The team finishes arming up, descends the stairs out into the deepening evening – when it’s not being torn apart by violent ethnic and nationalist conflict, the former Yugoslavia is one of the most beautiful places on earth – and with Andy in the lead as usual, they head out. The bus shouldn’t be that far ahead.
About twenty minutes out of town, they hit a group of Scorpions also trying to catch up to the refugees and do their horrifying thing, and the team disposes of them in the course of a short and sharp engagement that leaves more bodies heaped in the bushes. Joe slashes the throat of a few of them so hard that their heads go spinning like bowling balls, and their blood falls on his face like hot rain. He’s running closer to the edge than he likes, but there for damn sure will be no mercy forthcoming from the other side, and after what he saw earlier today, he’s earned it. Once they’ve confirmed that that’s all, they keep moving, and in a few more minutes, sight the bus’s taillights. Andy runs ahead to get them to stop. The bus shudders to a halt, dust billowing from under its tires, and Joe can almost taste the fear of everyone on board.
Andy steps around to the driver’s side window and has a forceful discussion with him; out of all of them, her Bosnian is the best, though Joe can mostly follow it if he concentrates. Finally the doors swing open like palsied buzzard wings, and the four heavily armed immortal mercenaries tramp on board, sparking a gasp from the refugees. They are overwhelmingly women and girls; the only boys are under the age of five (and some of them of that age were killed anyway). They clutch pitiful plastic sacks of scanty possessions and stare at the team with sheer terror reflected in their eyes. What, those faces say. What new devilry is this?
After a long pause, Joe finds himself stepping forward, hand on his heart. “As-salaam alaykum,” he says, the one greeting that every Muslim, no matter where they’re from, will know. “Peace be with you,” he repeats in his workmanlike Bosnian, as he gets down on the dirty floor of the bus and performs a quick rakat to demonstrate that he is indeed a Muslim. There are wide eyes and trembling lips and slight sags of desperate relief, though they’re still evidently unsure if he’s a plant sent to lull them into trusting him – you can’t trust anyone, not a bit, no matter what. He straightens up and nods again. “Good evening, my sisters,” he goes on, into the hush. “My name is Yusuf. These are my friends, Andromache, Sebastien, and Nicolò. We are here to help you. Does anyone need bandages? Food? Water?”
Small shifts, glances exchanged. Nobody seems willing either to go first or to tell them to go away. Nobody asks about the fate of their menfolk left behind in Srebrenica; the gunshots have been echoing for days. Finally, an older woman in a patched paisley headscarf makes a timid move toward the skinny teenage girl on the seat next to her, who has blood running down her cheek from an ugly gash near her hairline. “Please. My granddaughter.”
As the woman of the group, Andy moves forward, kneels down next to the grandmother and the girl, takes out a first aid kit, and softly talks them into allowing her to help them. Booker strides to the front of the bus and orders the driver to keep going, don’t stop for anybody, and takes up a position by the door with his gun balanced on the dashboard. Joe and Nicky carefully make their way down the rows of seats, offering food and water for the nervous hands that reach out to take it. They flinch away from the presence of unfamiliar men, with good reason; they’ve all heard the horror stories of what happens on other buses when soldiers stop it in the middle of a warzone and force their way on board (and would have happened to this bus if the Old Guard hadn’t caught up to those Scorpions on their tail). “Peace be with you,” Nicky says encouragingly, over and over, since he is the one who looks the most like their tormentors. “Peace be with you. My name is Nicolò, but you can call me Nicky.”
The bus jolts and jostles over ruts and potholes, finally reaching the waiting UN convoy vehicles (Joe casts a look of disgust at them, but holds his tongue) and the team remains on board for most of the night, until the bus has finally reached safer (ha) territory. The team is thanked in a shy chorus by the women and girls, and as they start to leave, thus to begin what is certain to be a hellish trek back, one of the old women catches Joe’s hand. “Thank you,” she says, her voice quivering, close to tears. “Thank you. Allah and the Prophet, peace be upon him, must have sent you to us, Yusuf. We will never forget this, never.”
Joe tries to answer, but his throat is too thick. He appreciates her gratitude, even as he feels as if nobody it was offered to might really deserve it. He isn’t sure that he does, and part of him blasphemously wonders where Allah is while all of this keeps happening over and over. But he nods to her, helps her down from the bus, and makes sure that the rest of the passengers have joined the straggling lines waiting for a tent and food. Not that what awaits anyone in refugee camps is ever pleasant, but at least it’s better than the nightmare they left behind.
Having checked to be sure that there’s nothing more they can do here, and since they don’t want any of the VRS or Scorpions stumbling into their jackpot weapons cache back in the village, the team trucks out. It’s a long, hot, and dusty hike back to Srebrenica, though they hitch a ride on some motorbikes for the last few miles and arrive in the silent, baking remnants of the town square. The scent of rotting bodies is enough to make them gag and tie bandanas over their noses and mouths, though this doesn’t help much. Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Booker says quietly, “I’ll go see if I can find a backhoe and at least cover them up. Is there – is there a prayer I should say when I do it?”
“Yeah, there’s – ” Joe struggles to think how to explain the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah in abbreviated form. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that Booker has to use a literal backhoe to bury the dead, but it’s better than nothing. Fortunately, the Frenchman’s love for books (he was absolutely horrified when he found out about Matthias Corvinus’s library, even though he knew the point of the story was that they were too late to help Andy and Quynh in England) means that he has an almost-photographic memory, and he rarely needs to be told anything more than once. Once he’s confirmed that he’s got it, he touches Joe’s shoulder and heads off, and there’s nothing for the other three to do but stagger inside.
The apartment is hot, silent, and smells like the four largely unwashed warriors who have been crowded inside for weeks (they’re immortal, but they still sweat and fart and stink and shit like any other people, and it is… ripe), and Andy gags; as the only woman living with three men, it’s her opinion that she’s getting the worst of the roommate situation. They open the windows in hopes of a breeze, but with the penetrating stench of decay, that’s not very helpful either. Nicky resumes his post with the sniper rifle. Joe wonders if he should eat something else, but still can’t work up any appetite. Andy paces, back and forth and back and forth, until he wants to grab her and make her sit down. He can’t exactly go for a nice walk. He feels like a soda can shaken to the point of total explosion. Why did they do this? Why is he here, seeing yet again the very worst that humanity has to offer? How do you keep your faith? Has he even kept his?
Joe leans his heavy head against the wall, his eyes aching with unshed tears. He’s thought once or twice about convincing Nicky to retire and settle down somewhere – they have plenty of money, they don’t need to keep doing this work. They’ve been to endless, sprawling, smoggy modern Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets, under Nasser, and they’ve even been to beautiful 1920s Istanbul under Atatürk, much as it kicked them in the chest a little to do it. Neither of those places exactly felt like home anymore. But they could look anywhere across this world that is larger than even they knew back then. They could get another cat. They could even think about adopting a kid. Nicky’s said before that he would have liked to have a daughter, and he has so much love to give that Joe knows he’d be an amazing father. But is it really fair to a non-immortal to be raised by immortal parents? Having to explain that the two of them would never get older or change or age, watching the child grow up and wither and die, knowing that they would have to bury them? Having to leave every few years to do another job with Andy and Booker, ending up in another hellhole like this? Doesn’t leave a lot of room for reading bedtime stories or making cookies for the school bake sale. And Joe does still believe in what they’re doing here. He couldn’t sit on his ass in some nice air-conditioned apartment and know that there were more people he could have helped. It’s just… hard.
His temples are throbbing with a dehydration headache, so he finally gets up and finds one of the water bottles, even as he feels guilty for drinking it when someone else surely needs it more. He goes downstairs, gun in his waistband since it’s never safe to go out around here without a weapon – especially when you are very visibly a Muslim – and kneels by the bare spigot in the courtyard, filling the plastic bucket and dumping it over his head a few times. The water has a rusty color to it, or at least he hopes it’s rust and that the pipes aren’t literally running with blood. It’s far from the best wudu he has ever made in his life, but he finds himself sinking down to pray nonetheless. He’s angry, he can’t deny it, he’s furious at the Almighty for letting this happen, but he doesn’t know who else to turn to. The habit runs too deep.
Help these people, O Allah, Joe prays. Have mercy on them. Please.
He pauses, then adds, in a distinctly non-standard version of the rakat, You motherfucker.
When he’s done, he rocks back on his heels and stares bleakly at the sweaty horizon. Flies churn over an alley nearby, and he wonders if there’s a body someone missed that needs burying. He could wait until Booker gets back and ask him to do it, but the man is currently off burying several mass graves’ worth of bodies so Joe doesn’t have to, and it seems cheap. Joe gets to his feet, shrugs on his damp shirt, grabs the gun again, and advances warily across the square and into the narrow alley beyond.
It’s a body, all right, and it’s definitely dead. Joe doesn’t want to look too closely, but something about the boy’s face – because it is a boy, a teenager – suddenly and irresistibly reminds him of Ahmed ibn Ghassan all the way back in the First Crusade, in Jerusalem. Another young Muslim man lying dead in the middle of a war, not even allowed to rest with his father and brothers and uncles and cousins and nephews and friends and everyone he has ever known in the open graves on the outskirts of town. Joe hesitates, then gets a tarp from a nearby garage, wraps the body in it, and hauls it out along the silent road until he hears the drone of a backhoe. As Booker gets out of the driver’s cab, wary and expecting trouble, Joe says, “Wait a second.”
He lowers the last body down next to its fellows, which Booker has made some attempt to straighten, though there’s no way to make any of it look neat. They say the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah together; Booker only stumbles a few times, and Joe is comforted to know that he would indeed have done it right by himself. Then they start shifting the earth until the bodies have mostly been covered up. It doesn’t really reduce the stink, but it helps.
They stand there in solemn remembrance of the dead, the one duty the ever-living have to their mortal compatriots, until Booker claps a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Let’s get back to the others,” he says, speaking quietly even though there is nobody alive nearby to hear. “You – look, I know it’s a stupid question, you’re not all right. Just… let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”
“You’ve done enough for now,” Joe says. “Thank you.”
Booker nods, almost diffidently, and they make their way back down the road again. Some of the worst heat has receded as the sun slips behind the sere mountains, and once again the golden hour is coming on, bugs shirring in the bushes as they enter Srebrenica. They go up to the apartment; they need to get some sleep, there are more buses that they will need to guard, more people to help. Andy and Nicky have scraped together something vaguely constituting a stew, and they eat it in silence. The window remains cracked, the breeze freshening a little. Somewhere out in the darkness, some unseen voice is singing. Joe doesn’t need to understand all the Bosnian to know that it’s a lament.
After supper, Andy and Booker volunteer to sit up and sleep in the front room so one of them can keep watch on the streets. Joe and Nicky thank them, since they know that it is a rather obvious attempt to give them a fleeting scrap of privacy, and retreat behind the blue tarpaulin into the makeshift bedroom, the heaps of grimy sleeping bags. It’s almost pleasantly cool back here, shielded from the worst of the heat now that the sun has set, and they lie down together with pained grunts. Neither of them move or say anything or even stir for a very long moment. Then Nicky murmurs, “Come here, huh? Come here.”
Normally they like to sleep with Joe as the big spoon, but Nicky slides up behind him, hooking his hands under Joe’s armpits and pulling him back against his chest, tucking Joe’s head under his chin. He makes a soft rumble in his throat, a wordless hum of comfort. Joe can feel the tears stealing up again, as hard as he tries to bite them back. He shakes silently, as Nicky holds onto him harder. “I’m tired, Nicolò,” he chokes out at last, in the Italian that they have sometimes taken to speaking between themselves in private moments. “I’m so tired.”
“Shhh. I know, I know.” Nicky rocks him, both of them lost in a trance, as he presses silent kisses to Joe’s shoulder, kisses that hate that he can’t simply absorb all this pain into himself and make it disappear. “This is – this is one of the worst that we’ve ever had to do, I think. I hate that you had to see this. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.”
Joe doesn’t answer, eyes closed, hand clutching Nicky’s where it encircles his waist, the two of them curled together like a pair of shrimp. “I love you,” he says at last, which they say only because there is no other efficient way to convey the magnitude of what they mean to each other and always will. “If I had to be here, if I did have to see this, I couldn’t – I could not be in this world without you.”
“Nor could I.” Nicky answers softly, his mouth moving against the back of Joe’s neck. Both of them can sense their greatest fear hanging in the air: that one of them will have his time come before the other, turn mortal and die while the other remains offensively untouched, and that no matter all the bridges he flung himself off or trains he stepped in front of, there is nothing that he could do to reunite with the other. That he might live on alone for hundreds or even thousands of years – like Andy has done without Quynh, like both of them did without Lykon, that he might have to deal with an eternity of a new life that did not have the other in it, and which is so terrible to them as almost to be unspeakable. At least mortal lovers parted by death have the assurance of seeing each other again, or that if the choice to carry on becomes too terrible, they can make it end in soft sleep. Immortal lovers parted by death –
Joe cannot, does not, will not think of that, will not entertain it, cannot let it cross his mind. He presses against Nicky, desperate to chase the thought away, and Nicky rolls him over and covers his mouth in a hot, engulfing kiss. He remains there until Joe can be reassured of his presence and his solidness and his warm beating heart, that no matter what comes later, they are together, Joe’s fingers tangled in his shirt, Nicky’s weight atop him. Even here. Even now.
We were born into eternity together, Joe thinks. Me from his blade and him from mine. We will leave it together as well. Whenever the time comes, we will. But not tonight. Not tonight.
(That, if nothing else, will be his solace.)
The Old Guard arrives in Zagreb, the capital of the newly formed independent country of Croatia, at the beginning of December, not quite a month after the Homeland War has officially been brought to an end. The Bosnian War has also been ended by the landmark Dayton Agreement of November 1, 1995, and awaits formal signing in Paris in another ten days. Unlike Dubrovnik in the south, which took heavy shelling, Zagreb has mostly escaped major damage, though it was hit by a Serb rocket attack earlier in the year. It is a beautiful little jewel-box of a European city, with colored buildings and twisting side streets, the funicular railway between the Lower and Upper Towns, Zagreb Cathedral with its Gothic stone spires, St. Mark’s Church with the coat of arms of the city and the old Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia tiled on the roof, cafés and statues and shady trees and blue cable cars that clatter back and forth through downtown. This will be its first Christmas as its own country. The stores are largely empty and most people don’t stay out very long after dark, but there’s a palpable sense of hope and relief in the air. They’re starting again, even after all this. Starting new.
Andy, Booker, Joe, and Nicky settle into two rooms in a hotel overlooking Ban Jelačić Square, where there isn’t much hot water and all the décor dates from about 1978, but is an absolute palace compared to where they’ve been living in Bosnia. They’ve welcomed the news of the end of the war with as much relief as anyone – possibly more, given that they’ve been fighting in it almost the whole time. Sarajevo remains, still, under siege (it won’t be officially ended until February 29, 1996, which makes it the longest siege in the history of modern warfare) and there’s obviously a lot to do in building a whole new set of functioning countries out of Yugoslavia’s ashes. Everyone has finally exhausted themselves in violence and seems to be waking up dazed, confused, not quite sure where they are or what just happened, as if from a particularly terrible nightmare. It remains to be seen what will come next.
Nicky and Joe spend some time just wandering around the city, trying to reorient themselves in the here and now, to be back in the world instead of in the war. They make a point to do this after each of their missions, especially ones that were as draining as this one. They sit inside the old cafes that look like Viennese coffeehouses, drink coffee and eat pastry. They meet a tall young Croatian soldier named Flynn who doesn’t seem all that sure of what he’ll do with himself either, now that this war’s done. They walk to Novi Zagreb, the less-beautiful part of the city across the river with its grim grey Communist-era tower blocks, to see how things look over here. Snow drifts dreamily out of the gunmetal sky, and the temperature plunges. They run a few errands to track down heating oil and food for people who are scared to leave the house. For the most part, the queues for supplies are respectful, though they have to break up a few fistfights. Someone once gives the remotest hint of a dirty look to Joe, and Nicky glares at them so violently that they practically flee the city and change their name.
Nicky is – he doesn’t know, exactly. He can’t help but be devoutly glad that this one is over; that one was, as he said, a lot even for them. The last crusade. Is it, though? Is it really? Are people ever going to give up the addiction of it, the bloodlust, the thrill of being boundlessly in the right while the other is demonically wrong? Nicky remains an optimist by nature, even after everything they’ve been through down all the centuries. He still is. But this – he wishes he was more certain, but he’s not. It hangs out there, waiting.
(Indeed, the events of a sunny Tuesday in September, just six short years from now, will have something terrible to say about that, but at least they don’t know it at the time.)
They aren’t yet sure where to go next. This one took it out of them, and they need some more time to rest and recharge, to do something that isn’t just fighting. Andy will drift off by herself (Nicky worries about her, knows too well how he’d be faring without Joe, and Quynh has been gone for almost five hundred years – See you soon, Niki, if only he had known). Booker likewise tends to the solitary when the team isn’t together, and holidays are hard for him since everything that happened with his children. Nicky and Joe at least have the comfort of knowing that they can go anywhere, do anything, and be happy, and Nicky struggles with the guilt of being happy, of knowing that Booker and Andy love them and don’t resent their devotion and their life together just because they don’t (or no longer) have something comparable. Maybe they will go back to Istanbul, to see how it’s doing these days. Maybe they will wake up one morning on some little side street that almost looks as if it stepped out of their dreams. Maybe they will go to Malta, which has become a special place for them since the very first time they were there. After all, once again, they have nothing if not time.
They all crowd into Andy and Booker’s room on December 14 to watch the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, live on TV. They hear sporadic cheers and car horns in the street, though the Croatians have already gotten on with celebrating their own freedom and are rolling up their sleeves to tackle the next part, and the cost is too high for the celebrations to be too jubilant. Nobody sets off many fireworks. They don’t want them to sound like gunshots.
After that, the team decides to stay in Zagreb long enough to do Christmas together, though this means just that they can have an excuse to have a meal and a quiet party with their family. Joe likes Christmas well enough from all those years he had it with Nicky, and he doesn’t mind celebrating Jesus’s birthday (he is a highly honored prophet in Islam, which most people seem to forget). Andy was born a long, long time before Christmas was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, but a holiday is a holiday. They don’t want Booker to be alone for it, anyway, and the ancestrally Italian part of Nicky refuses to let anyone be alone on Christmas, period. So he appoints himself in charge of the cooking for the feast, which is hard to scrape together in a city still hit by shortages, but he does his best. They all do.
“To us,” Andy says, when they’re sitting together at a crammed table on the evening of Christmas Day, knees knocking because it’s too small, grateful to have heat that mostly works, a roof to keep off the snow, a warm meal, and their loved ones close at hand. “To the Old Guard.”
Everyone raises their glasses in answer, and Nicky says, “To our family.”
They murmur a heartfelt affirmation, and drink, and eat, and everyone playfully teases Nicky about the food. He can tell that they’re all making too much of an effort, that the shadow of Bosnia lies a little too heavily on their hearts, that there’s no point in pretending that they didn’t take an absolute beating on this one – mentally, emotionally, and physically. They sit in silence for a long time, thinking about everyone they did manage to help, everyone they couldn’t save, those graves in the hills of Srebrenica. It’s far from unqualifiedly merry, though Nicky has strong opinions about the modern version of Christmas anyway – who needs all that stuff? But the conversation revives, they eat pie and drink coffee, and Andy and Booker volunteer to do the cleanup since Joe and Nicky cooked. The snow comes down, and Zagreb glows. Not everywhere, not unqualifiedly, but in the windows out there in the darkness, the lights are on.
As Andy and Booker tidy up, Joe and Nicky retreat to their room and lie down together beneath the quilts. They don’t talk. Instead they just hold each other, as they usually do, as they can rarely relax and drift off if they aren’t, and in time, they sleep.
The last week of December and of 1995 passes in a quiet grey chill, snow glazing the eaves and rain washing it away, as Zagreb continues to adjust to this strange new idea of freedom. The coming year, 1996, will be the nine hundred and thirtieth year of Joe’s life, and the nine hundred and twenty-seventh of Nicky’s. For as long as they’ve lived, they haven’t even seen their first millennium yet; they’re absolute infants next to Andy, who has counted at least five. She’s making noises about dropping off the grid for a while, motorcycling through the mountains of South America or something similar, and they figure it’ll be another few years before they see her again. Booker wants to get some sleep. They can’t blame him.
They observe the new year – something of a tradition among the four of them, who have seen so very many – and have cake. When it strikes midnight, Nicky leans over to kiss Joe. “Happy new year, my love,” he says. “You look good for your age.”
Joe raises an eyebrow at him, but kisses him back, and Nicky puts an arm around his shoulders, as they rest their heads together and sit there, the four of them squashed on a slightly too-small couch. There are flight reservations to be made, as the airport slowly reopens to civilian traffic, or perhaps they will leave the old-fashioned way, walk or bicycle or take the train. But they’ll be back together before too long. They always are.
Finally, Joe and Nicky get up and go to bed, throwing an extra blanket on top because this is one of the nights that the heat refuses to work. It’s very late, but they don’t yet feel like sleeping. They snuggle close, and turn to each other and start to kiss, to touch, to come together in something that has never lost any of its pleasure and its thrill. They don’t remove much clothing, stoking their own warmth, and Nicky sighs and gasps and clutches his way into his release, head thrown back, eyelashes fluttering, as Joe moves just that bit faster and steals an extra kiss from his open mouth. Then he rolls off, grimaces as this motion allows cold air to sneak in under the covers, and tucks himself alongside. “Happy new year, Nicolò,” he whispers back, on this the first day of the next year, as he will on the next, and the next, and the next year after that, all those days, all those nights, all those soft evenings and bright mornings – and they will be that, so long as the two of them endure. “You look good too.”