He wakes up, coughing and gasping, gravel digging into his back. He remembers being drunk. He remembers dying from a gunshot to the face.
It wasn’t the first time, not by a long stretch, but ça fait un mal de chien every single time.
He blinks his eyes open and looks up at a human face, just a couple years younger than himself, a handsome face with a classic Roman nose and big eyes.
“How are you feeling?” the man says, and Sébastien spits out a piece of gravel and frowns.
“Did you just shoot me?” he asks indignantly, and the man smiles.
Another face crowds into his field of vision, darker and full-bearded this one.
He recognizes them both. He has seen them in his dreams.
“He’s awake?” a female voice asks, and a woman steps next to them into his sight. Dangling from her fingers is his own open bottle of wine.
“I think I found him,” the first man says, and the second man nods and laughs.
“They are quite the sight, aren’t they?” Adrienne says, sitting down next to him on the log by the fire, offering him the eau de vie once more.
“What are you talking about?” he says, feeling caught out. The bottle is half-empty already, and he does his part by taking a long drink so he doesn’t have to look at her for a while.
“Those two,” she says, pointing her chin at Nicolas and Joseph, who are huddled together with their backs against the wide trunk of an ancient olive tree. “You were staring.”
“I wasn’t,” he lies and takes another swig of the liquor. Adrienne raises her eyebrows at him, and he grimaces back.
Yes, he has been staring. In fact, has surreptitiously been sneaking glances at them ever since they sat down around the fire to eat.
Right now they are leaning into each other, shoulder against shoulder, and Joseph is feeding Nicolas pieces of rabbit leg from a metal plate he is balancing on his knee. There is nothing particularly scandalous about what they are doing, and yet Sébastien feels like he is watching an intimate moment that isn’t meant for eyes other than their own.
Adrienne steals the bottle from underneath his fingers, forcing him to look at her again.
“You seem shocked,” she says plainly, curiosity in her voice. “Why? It is not a crime in France, is it, for two men to enjoy each other’s company?”
“Yes, in private,” Sébastien says, just a little defensively.
“This isn’t private?” she asks, pointedly looking into the darkness, at the olive tree plantation surrounding them, at the steep, jagged rocks of the mountain face looming behind.
He shrugs, evasively. “I’m not from Paris, you know,” he says. “People aren’t quite so modern in the countryside.”
“But you have been a soldier,” she retorts. “Surely this isn’t the first time you come across people like them.”
“Of course not,” he says indignantly. Growing up, of course he knew boys who liked to fool around in the hay, and once in the army, he quickly lost count of the times he came across two fellow soldiers lending each other a hand. And sometimes more than just a palm, although once the winter started and frostbite threatened, the men became far less inclined to wave their cocks around. But …
“But not like this,” he shakes his head. “Men in the army are … relieving tension. Those two, though,” he says, carefully glancing back at their companions who have now moved on to sharing a cup of wine.
“They are …”
“… in love?” Adrienne smirks.
“Are they?” he asks, breathless for reasons he doesn’t quite comprehend.
“Only for the past seven-hundred years,” she says simply, and that is so unimaginable a thought that he has to look at them again.
He watches Joseph set down his cup to wrap his coat around Nicolas’ shoulders, then wrap his arm around the coat. He watches Nicolas curl up into the warmth and the embrace, then reach for the wine cup once again.
“So Nicolas is the … wife?” he asks, a little doubtfully, trying to make sense of what he sees.
Adrienne laughs silently, her entire body shaking with it. When she looks at him, her eyes are gleaming.
“I think that very much depends on your definition of wife,” she says dryly, and he knows that she is mocking him, though he doesn’t fully understand why.
He does not get the chance to ask, however, because at that moment Nicolas looks up and straight back at them across the flames.
“Don’t think we can’t see you talking about us,” he says, but he doesn’t sound particularly put out.
Adrienne grins, seemingly equally unperturbed that they have been caught.
“We were merely commiserating,” she says lightly. “Watching you two is bound to make a person feel like they are missing out.”
Joseph raises his brows. “No one is stopping you,” he says, and throws a meaningful glance at Adrienne’s bedroll before he turns his attention back to Nicolas.
Sébastien feels his face heat up.
“Is he serious?” he asks, carefully glancing at Adrienne from the side.
Adrienne ducks her head, not looking like she is truly embarrassed but perhaps like she thinks she should be. “I have a bit of a reputation, I’m afraid.”
“For what,” he asks. “Seducing new recruits?”
“Some of them,” she says seriously, far away for a moment and lost in thought. “Not those two,” she continues with a grin, pointing the liquor bottle at her friends. “As you can see, there’s not much room between them.”
Then she turns towards him, giving him a long, speculative look. “Would it help you feel better?” she asks finally.
He thinks about it for a moment, lets himself imagine it. There is no doubt that Adrienne is gorgeous, and he knows many men who would sell their souls for a night with a woman like her. Then he thinks of the next morning. He thinks of his wife. He thinks of the centuries that lie ahead.
“No,” he says, almost regretfully. “I don’t think it would.”
Her lips curl up in an expression of amused respect.
“You learn fast,” she says dryly, and offers him the bottle again.
Time goes on, and Sébastien goes along with it.
He adjusts, and he doesn’t, depending on the day.
He becomes Booker. He becomes part of the team. He starts forging their papers and becomes irreplaceable.
He fights with Adrienne. He butts heads with Joseph.
One time only, he tries to pick a fight with Nicolas, and somehow finds himself facing off with Joseph instead, pistols drawn and pointed at each other’s heads.
He is in a bad mood after getting his leg ripped to shreds by shrapnel earlier in the day, and he can still feel the aftershocks of the impact like a bizarre kind of phantom pain, although his foot has long healed, once more healthy and whole.
They are in Sulawesi, fighting in the Bone rebellion against the Dutch. It’s a messy, hopeless endeavor that makes Booker’s skin itch with frustration, and it seems like a cruel joke of fate that after freezing to death in the eternal Russian winter, he might now die here from dengue fever or the heat.
“You and your goddamn bleeding heart,” he growls, advancing on Nicolas, stopping short of shoving his hand into Nicolas’ chest. “One day you are going to get us killed.”
“We are immortal,” Nicolas says mildly, not pushing back and not retreating, just staying exactly where he is. “We don’t get killed.”
“You were risking the mission,” Booker snaps, not interested in a philosophical dispute. “You hesitated. You almost let them get away.”
“There were children,” Nicolas says, as if it’s self-evident, as if there is nothing to understand. “Mothers. Animals. I wasn’t just going to burn them down.”
Booker remembers hollow-eyed children, and crying women, and horses freezing to death where they stood.
“Children,” he spits. “Animals. You think that means a goddamn thing when you are at war?”
“I’ve been to war,” Nicolas says, raising an eyebrow. “A few times more often than you have.”
“Stop belittling me,” Booker snarls and reaches for his pistol, a desperate, foolish move, but in this very moment he is determined to get a reaction out of the man if it’s the last thing he will do.
Yet by the time he pulls his weapon from the holster, Joseph has already drawn his, and there they are, pointing their pistols at each other, as if this morning they hadn’t been friends, companions, brothers-in-arms.
“If you touch him,” Joseph says coldly, “I will blow your brains out. And before you even get to catch a breath, I will shoot you all over again.”
“Or maybe I’ll shoot you first,” Booker retorts, and Joseph growls, and they continue to circle each other like two tigers staking their claim.
Nicolas lets them have their moment before he steps in between them, raising his hands.
“That’s enough,” he says firmly, “arrêtez-vous.”
Even now he’s calm, serene, and Booker feels his anger surge all over again, frustrated at the impenetrable façade of mild benevolence he projects, as if all of Booker’s rage just rolls off of him like water off a duck’s back.
But Nicolas places a hand on Joseph’s arm, and Joseph is already lowering his gun, and first fateful meetings and immortality notwithstanding, Booker is not really enough of a cunt to shoot his unarmed friend in the head, and so he reluctantly lowers his weapon as well.
Nicolas nods at him briefly, a quick acknowledgment, a thank you perhaps, then wraps his arm around Joseph and leads him away, and Booker is left to stare after them, standing by himself in the middle of the hut.
At the narrow table, feet propped up on a folding chair, Adrienne has been watching the argument like a stage play, simultaneously detached and vaguely intrigued.
“Sit down,” she now says, not unkindly, and moves her feet off the second chair. Booker sits next to her at the table, feeling the anger slowly seep out of him, bit by bit.
She slides her flask across the surface, and he catches it gratefully, the rum a welcome sharpness on his tongue.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says lightly. “We’ve all fought like this before. Always takes a century or so to properly sand down the edges when a new one comes around.”
She shrugs. “Only those two lucky bastards, they got to get all of that out of their system the very day they met.”
For a few minutes, they drink in silence, until Booker feels brave enough to ask.
“Joseph,” he says, a little gruffly. “Is he always protective like this?”
She weighs her head. “More often than not.”
Booker shifts in his seat, not entirely satisfied with the reply.
“He doesn’t trust Nicolas to stand his ground?”
“Who says that he was only protecting Nicolas?” she asks with a twinkle in her eye, and Booker doesn’t dare to tell her that he has no idea what that is supposed to mean.
He does find out, not long thereafter. In Bengal, they get caught. It is not Nicolas’ fault, nor anyone else’s fault for that matter: it’s sheer bad luck that they are picked up by private soldiers of the British East India Company, deemed unkillable, and then quickly handed over (in exchange for a considerable bribe, no doubt) to a wealthy Indigo planter with a penchant for exotic luxury items and a reputation for boundless cruelty.
The man’s personal guards come for them in the evening, as the mansion above them fills with footsteps, laughter, and cheers.
“His lordship is entertaining tonight,” one of them says smugly, as he is letting his cold eyes wander over them. “He sent us to bring in the … entertainment now.”
Booker strains against his shackles, although he already knows that it is in vain. The chain linking his handcuffs is solid, as is the longer chain that connects his cuffs to the iron bar on the wall.
“Leave her alone,” he snaps, confused by the strange echo following his words, until he realizes that it’s because Joseph and Nicolas said the same thing at the same time.
Adrienne snorts and rolls her eyes, a demonstration of mild annoyance at their unnecessary chivalry.
Unnecessary in more ways than once, it turns out, because the guards are not there to take Adrienne. They take Joseph.
It takes four of them to hold him down as they detach his chain from the metal bar and drag him towards the door, arms pulled painfully over his head.
It takes another two to keep Nicolas away from him, despite the chains shackling him to the wall. Even as they are leaving the room, he desperately lashes out with his leg, making the last guard trip and take a tumble into his friend.
“Son of a bitch,” he swears, kicking Nicolas backwards before he slams the door shut behind them.
Nicolas doesn’t even seem to notice the heavy boot connecting with his ribs. “Yusuf,” he shouts at the locked door, angrily pulling on his chains.
“Nicolo,” Adrienne says, her face an emotionless mask, chiseled in stone. “Devi calmarti. Take a deep breath.”
“Cazzo,” Nicolas swears, then deflates, sagging against the wall in defeat. “I’m listening,” he says roughly, although it doesn’t look like he really is.
“We’ll get him back,” Adrienne says. “You know that. Just try to stay calm.”
Yet staying calm turns out to be difficult for all of them, because as clearly as they can hear the voices and the laughter of the party guests above them, as loudly they can hear Joseph scream. Booker isn’t entirely sure what is worse – the sound of Joseph’s voice, distorted beyond recognition by fury and pain, or Nicolas’ face as he listens, frozen in a grimace displaying emotions Booker cannot even begin to understand.
It is at least an hour until the door finally opens, but they don’t bring Joseph back to them.
“Where is he?” Nicolas hisses furiously, and the same guard who kicked him earlier leans down to him, putting his nose far too close to Nicolas’ face.
“I’m just here to get the lady,” he grins. “Your friend is still a little preoccupied. Can you hear him screaming?” he asks cruelly. “They have started to stick knives into him. After they got bored sticking other things into him. If you understand what I mean.”
It’s the last thing he says. There is no warning – the smirk is still on his face, then all of a sudden Nicolas’ chain is wrapped around his neck, and with an audible crunch, his head flips sideways, like a broken marionette with cut strings.
Booker winces with detached sympathy. He remembers the feeling of having his neck broken by the force of gravity and a sturdy rope.
“Yes,” Nicolas says calmly, unceremoniously letting the guard’s head slide out of his hold and the body onto the floor. “I understand what you mean.”
His voice is almost mild, his face eerily blank. Booker finds himself reminded of the day he tried so hard to get a rise out of him, and feels a shiver run down his spine.
With his feet, Nicolas pushes the dead body around until he can reach the keys on the guard’s belt, and he is already loose and halfway to the door when it occurs to Booker that he should react.
“Hey,” he protests, raising his shackled wrists. “What about us?”
Nicolas pauses in his tracks, then throws the key at Adrienne, who manages to catch it out of the air.
“Take your time,” he says grimly, and then he’s gone.
Booker shakes his head. “Doesn’t he need our help?” he asks as Adrienne is working on freeing his wrists.
“Probably not,” she says dryly, and drops his cuffs. As if on cue, Joseph’s screams cut off abruptly, and Booker sighs, feeling some of the tension seep out of his neck.
“But we should hurry anyway,” she says, offering a hand to pull him to his feet, and just as Booker is about to ask her what she means, the screaming starts again. Only this time, the voice is not Joseph’s.
By the time they reach the upstairs salon, a trail of dead guards in their wake, the yelling has stopped once again, giving way to an ominous quiet. Booker pauses at the door, trying to get a sense of what’s waiting for them inside, but Adrienne shoulders past him, jerking her head at him to come with her.
“Quoi ce bordel,” Booker mutters when he steps into the room. “What the hell.”
He’s been to war. He’s been to a slaughterhouse. He’s never seen anything like this before. The room is covered in blood, there are bodies scattered across the floor, and Nicolas is in the very center of it, hacking away at something that must have been a person once, but at this point it’s a little difficult to tell.
Adrienne doesn’t even bat an eye at the sight. She neatly sidesteps puddles of blood as she walks to the billiard table, where Joseph is sitting on the green felt with his arms curled tightly around his knees. He has had time to heal so he would look mostly unscathed, if not for the fact that he is naked and that tracks of dried blood are smeared across his arms and his back.
Adrienne holds out her hand without looking, and Booker quickly slips out of his shirt. She wraps it around Joseph’s shoulders, gives him a long look and pauses, then uses her own sleeve to wipe the stickiness off his face.
Nicolas has finally given up on the body, but he doesn’t seem ready to stop quite yet. He paces, still gripping the dagger, and Booker walks over to him, raising a hand to touch his arm.
“I wouldn’t …” Adrienne starts to say, a heartbeat too late, but she can’t finish her sentence before Booker finds himself staring at the tip of Nicolas’ blade.
“It’s just me,” Booker says, as calmly as he can manage, his hands raised, palms facing out.
Nicolas blinks at him, then drops the knife. He runs a hand over his face to wipe the blood from his eyes and looks around, as if he is seeing the room for the first time.
“They are dead,” he says, sounding exhausted and almost surprised.
Booker laughs helplessly. “Yes,” he says slowly. “I’d say so.”
Nicolas shakes his head, still in a daze, then he stalks over to the billiard table, steps around Adrienne, and puts his hands on Joseph’s face.
Joseph leans up to meet him for a kiss without hesitation, and Booker stares at the display in front of him. Joseph is still naked underneath Booker’s loose linen shirt, and Nicolas is dripping blood all over him as they are devouring each other’s mouths as if their lives depended on it.
It’s grotesque. It’s obscene. It’s beautiful. It’s too much.
Booker swallows and averts his gaze, feeling hot and overwhelmed. His eyes fall onto the bar cart underneath the window that appears to have escaped the carnage, and he crosses the room and reaches for the next best bottle, which to his satisfaction turns out to be very expensive gin.
He selects two tumblers and fills them both to the rim, half tonic and half gin. By the time he carries the glasses to the window, Adrienne is already waiting for him.
He hands her one of the drinks, and together they stare out of the window into the nightly garden, their backs firmly turned to whatever is happening inside.
He takes a sip of his too-strong drink, savors the bitterness on his tongue, and lets the faint buzz of alcohol and Adrienne’s presence calm him down.
“Not the wife, then,” he finally says, and Adrienne laughs hard enough to almost drop her glass.
“I think,” she says conspiratorially, and slings her free arm around his waist, “I think that depends entirely on your definition of wife.”
He wakes up in the middle of the night, from a dream that was too jumbled to be a nightmare, but leaves him unsettled and disoriented nonetheless.
Instinctively, his hand casts around for his wife’s shoulder, before he realizes why she isn’t next to him in bed. He swallows the nausea that he knows is not physical, and grounds himself by setting his bare feet against the cool stone floor. Still in his undergarments, he makes his way to the kitchen, lights the small kerosene lamp and pours himself water from the heavy stoneware jug.
They’ve slowly been making their way back to Europe, their souls exhausted from colonial oppression, their bodies exhausted from debilitating humidity. Right now they are on the Croatian coast, laying low in a tiny house outside a small fishing village, waiting for their contact to deliver the boat that will carry them across the Adriatic Sea to Italy next week.
It’s a time to rest, a time to recover, and yet Booker cannot seem to shake a sense of unease, of melancholy, as he feels suspended between the weight of what’s behind and the dread of what lies ahead.
He presses his forehead against the window, staring idly out into the night, when he catches a glimpse of movement behind the young cypresses between the house and the cliff leading down to the coast. He doesn’t stop to pick up a weapon, leaving the lamp burning as a distraction as he slides quietly out the door.
He hides behind the trees and bushes, making his way down towards the cliff, his mind going in circles, his body ready for a fight.
But when he steps past the last of the cypresses, his step falters, and he inhales a harsh breath.
Nicolas’ face is the first thing he sees, eyes turned up towards the skies, then his bare throat, stretched long, his naked torso, curved like a bow.
Underneath him Joseph, on his back, his palms wide against Nicolas’ hips, holding him steady as Nicolas rides him, urging him on in gentle words Booker does not understand.
But he doesn’t need to know Joseph’s language to realize what it is he sees, and he feels foolish for everything he has ever thought about them, because none of his feeble attempts at comprehension could capture the seamless unity, the synchronicity, the balance of their bodies and souls as they now appear to him. In the light of the full moon, they don’t even look fully like humans – they are an illusion, a vision, a legend, like ancient creatures from a myth.
His fingers are in his drawers, sliding against his half-hard cock by the time his mind catches up with him. Shame and humiliation pulsate hot underneath his skin when he realizes what he’s doing, and he hastily pulls back his hand. He turns away, feeling wetness in the corners of his eyes cloud his vision as he flees, stumbling back to the house, his heart pounding against his ribs, the sense of loss and grief threatening to suffocate him.
In the kitchen, Adrienne is awake, and waiting for him. She has thrown her army coat on over the men’s undergarments she wears to sleep, holding a cigarette in her right hand and a mug in the left.
When she sees him, she wordlessly points towards the table, where another mug is already set out for him. Blindly, he reaches out and brings it to his lips, then coughs and struggles for air when he realizes that she did not put water into the cup.
He clears his throat and takes another sip, more slowly this time. The slivovitz is like fire in his throat, cauterizing the worst of the shame and the pain. He walks across the room and leans against the wall next to her, their bare elbows lightly touching as he holds out his hand for her cigarette.
They drink and smoke in silence, passing the cigarette between them as the clouds of smoke curl around them in a comforting acrid haze.
“How do you deal with it,” he finally asks, when he trusts his voice not to waver too much. “How can you stand it, the loneliness?”
She turns her face and offers a faint smile, sad, bitter, pitying, gentle all at once.
“I drink,” she says, her voice clear and dry. She raises her glass, clinking it against his in a kind of secret, companionable toast.
“And now that you are here,” she says, as her eyes brighten, “I don’t even have to do it alone.”