Gabe wiped the sweat off his face as more fireworks exploded in the hot night sky and the sound of revelry filled the city streets. Everybody was in the streets, celebrating and waving flags. The soldiers were embraced by men and kissed by women. Even the police were caught up in the spirit of victory as they turned a blind eye to the prostitutes plying their trade. Gabe chuckled to himself at the sight of delirious joy. It was hard to imagine that the city was forlorn and sorrowful that morning or that it was a battlefield six months ago.
The waiter brought over a bottle of American whiskey and Gabe slipped him a fifty dollar bill. Gabe took a swig from the bottle itself and his mouth burned with the taste of Tennessee sour-mash. Of the few patrons in the restaurant, Gabe was the only one not standing in jubilation or toasting to the crowds outside. He simply sat with his boot resting on the chair opposite him and his equipment in a duffel bag by his side. He still kept his .45 secured in his holster, just to ward off any trouble or rowdy locals.
The restaurant was an old, pre-war style establishment that had once dreamed in white marble and Parisian design. The civil war had not touched it but it was clear that this once opulent eatery was a relic of a bygone era. The Romanesque statues had seen the fortune and splendor wither away across the span of generations while the once pristine tiled floor slowly chipped and faded. Even the waiter’s pressed white shirt and bow tie hung loose on the aging wearer. Gabe felt like his very presence was somehow accelerating the decay.
A handful of young soldiers stepped into the dining room and were greeted like heroes. Men raised glasses to them and the pretty redheaded hostess let them all kiss her on the cheek before showing them to a table.
They tried to look the part of relaxed warriors but it was clear these lads were shaking with enthusiasm and drunk off of the adoration of the city. They had rolled the sleeves of their uniforms up and left their shirts open, trying to look the part of grizzled veterans but the cleanliness of their clothes and boots betrayed them. The patrons didn’t notice and Gabe wasn’t about to spoil their night.
“Hey! I know you!” one of them shouted, pointing at Gabe. Out of reflex, he put his hand to his sidearm as the soldier who’d recognized him encouraged his mates to gather around. The enthusiasm in the soldier’s eyes made Gabe relax, but only a little.
“You bailed my unit out of the Hotel Atlantic. You’re a mercenary right?” the kid recalled, excited and nervous. Gabe nodded the affirmative, remembering the battle. The government troops had gotten a little too bold and walked right into a rebel counterattack. What started as temporary rally point turned into a two week siege.
“Why aren’t you celebrating? The war’s over, friend!” one of the soldiers said, throwing back his drink and cheering.
“Your war’s over.” Gabe corrected him.
“Our war. You shed blood with us: you’re one of us.” The soldier who’d recognized him said.
“This is your country, your home, your victory. Not mine.” Gabe said, his tone calm but firm. The soldiers enthusiastic faces dimmed slightly as they looked to their ringleader.
“You saved my life, fought for us and helped us save this country. This is your victory too.” The boy said, unable to comprehend how someone could pass up the opportunity to take part in this celebration. Gabe knew he’d never be able to make these boys understand, certainly not on a night like tonight.
“A sword knows nothing of victory or defeat. It only knows battle.” He said with a smile and patted the boy on the shoulder as he stood.
“Sir! These heroes look thirsty!” Gabe called to the waiter who quickly hurried over. Gabe slid two more fifty dollar bills into the waiter’s hand and then hoisted up his gear. As he made his way past the soldiers, he winked at the ringleader, who could only look on with confusion.
On the streets, the roar of the crowd was interrupted with the thunderous clamp and dazzling gold and red light of the fireworks. Save for his partially concealed pistol and his boots, Gabe looked like just another person. He maneuvered through the mobs, recognizing buildings and alleys where he’d previously fought and killed. Each boom and blast of a firework reminded him of the mortars and grenades that used to sound nightly.
When he finally made it past the crowds back to the small flat that he and a few of the other mercenaries had been using, he thought for a moment about the last two years he’d spent here. He’d fought across the country, killed more men than he could count and helped stop these people from killing each other, if only for a moment. He’d seen heroism and cowardice on both sides and witnessed the cruel arbitrary nature of war inflicted on people too poor or unfortunate to get out of the way.
Yet for all he’d seen, for all the battles he’d fought, only one word seemed to summate his feelings: dispassion. Time would march on and perhaps this was the bloody prologue to an era of prosperity and peace that would heal the wounds of civil war to the point where all his actions faded into obscurity. Or maybe all his effort had simply set the stage for bloodier conflict to come. Perhaps he’d even be called back, fighting for one side or the other.
He thought of the soldier in the restaurant he’d saved. The kid was a scared little fisherman’s son who’d never held a rifle before. When Gabe saw him inside the hotel, there was a foul-smelling brown stain on the back of his pants. But tonight, that kid was a hero to his country. Maybe tonight, that kid would meet a woman and he’d begin to start life as a family man. Or maybe he’d decide to work to build up the ruins of his homeland.
Or maybe he’d simply turn in his rifle and return to his fishing boat.
Gabe wiped the fresh sweat from his face and loaded his equipment onto his motorcycle. As the engine kicked to life, Gabe took in the neighborhood landmarks that he’d never bothered to remember. Out of habit, he checked his pistol again and pulled out a grease-stained map. The runway where the rest of his outfit was waiting was roughly twenty miles east of the city. From there, the plane would take him to wherever war required him to be. There was always another war. Always a fresh world to make changes that would ripple unseen.
He slowly set off down the road, feeling the indifference of the city to his presence surround him.