Joe hadn’t so much as uttered Booker’s name since they’d left him on the banks of the Thames almost a month ago.
He’d been carrying on as normal as any of them could – laughing and joking during their meetings with Copley, making sure Nile was integrating and acclimating to her new life, keeping up appearances to an almost admirable degree but something hung over every moment like a heavy, dark thunder cloud, darkening the horizon of an otherwise perfect summer day.
When Andy or Nile spoke of him, it was in hushed tones when Joe and Nicky had gone to bed, or when he’d left them to go jogging or to run an errand. As gallantly as Joe had appeared to be taking things, his wilful refusal to acknowledge the absence was raising so many red flags that even Nicky was finding it difficult to ignore or excuse them, especially when the rest of them were finding their own ways to mourn the loss.
The two women couldn’t be sure if Joe was merely pretending he’d stepped out for the day or whether he was denying his existence completely. All they knew was not to mention him. Not for a while. Not yet.
“What is it, my love?”
Nicky had heard the distinctive, almost aggressive smashing of glass from the other room and immediately come running into the kitchen before Andy or Nile could even rise from their seats.
“The damn thing fell on the floor,” Joe grumbled, his shoulders tense, jaw set as it had been for days, stubbornly turned away from the Italian.
Nicky surveyed the broken glass with some scepticism. If it had fallen, it was with some force and quite some distance from where Joe was stood, drying the rest of the dishes.
He said nothing. He merely picked up an old newspaper from the counter, collected what glass he could, bundled it up and put it in the trash.
“Accidents happen, tesoro,” Nicky said softly, as he swept up the rest of the shards.
Joe remained silent, staring at the half-empty bottle of red on the dining table as though it had grossly offended his sainted aunt while he towelled off their dinner plates. When he turned to pack the shelves, Nicky quickly and quietly swiped the bottle and removed it, cautious that there might another ‘accident’.
It was a Syrah from the northern Rhône. Booker’s favourite.
Nile thought Joe’s protection of her was been sweet at first. He checked in with her regularly, made sure she was taking care of herself. It was like having an older brother.
It quickly became less like being cared for and more like being coddled.
“I was a corporal in the United States Marines,” Nile said to Andy, taking her to one side a few weeks later. “I appreciate Joe looking out for me but can you tell him I can look after myself?”
Her face had been the picture of concern and Andy knew the last thing Nile wanted was Joe thinking she wasn’t grateful. She nodded, assuring the new recruit that she’d speak to him, making a note to have Nicky join her. He’d noticed Joe’s helicopter mentorship too and knew exactly why he was so invested. He just needed to face up to it.
They waited until Nile had gone to bed and quietly raised her concerns as well as their own. It was almost an intervention.
Joe’s face had fallen at their words and his heart ached with their worry.
“I just want her to know we’re here for her,” he said, his voice small, straining with held-back emotion. “Maybe if we’d done more for Booker, maybe if we’d kept a closer eye on him, things wouldn’t have gone the way they did.”
Neither Andy or Nicky said a word. All they could do was watch, impotently frozen to the spot with helplessness as Joe shook his head, brushed by them and walked into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
It was finding one of Booker’s shirts that finally broke him.
The problem with moving to a different safe house every few months was rediscovering things you thought you’d lost and long since replaced. It was usually left to Joe to go through drawers and cupboards and throw out things they no longer needed. Opening dressers of their digs in Norway, absent-mindedly tossing things into a black garbage bag, it was the familiarity of the nondescript khaki-beige button down that gave him pause.
He held the shirt up, clocked the blood-stained gash on the left side and was reminded of a bar fight nearly five years prior when Booker had caught the business end of a knife. The wound had healed easily, of course, but Joe remembered vividly the worry that had consumed him as he’d helped the Frenchman wipe away the blood, kissing his mark-less body better regardless.
Joe sat on the floor, holding the shirt in his hands as though it were some precious shroud. Unthinkingly, he brought it to his face and breathed it in, searching through the must of neglect for the comforting smell of Booker’s earthy, wood-y scent. When he found it, when the sought-for reminder filled his head, the tears began to fall and Joe found they were hard to stop.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was supposed to be here.
Almost three months had passed when Nicky rolled over in bed and stirred awake enough to see Joe’s eyes open and staring into the middle-distance of the ceiling. He’d barely been sleeping at all these past few weeks. Nicky had tried to talk to him about it, his own concern growing with each sleepless night that went by but Joe had been steadfastly silent.
Enough was enough.
“Yusuf, habibi, what keeps you from sleep?”
Nicky’s whisper was more than enough to rouse Joe’s attention. He turned to look at the part of his heart he could never cut off and could see the patient, expectant look even through the gloom of the late watches. He didn’t know how to say it. He didn’t even know if he should say anything at all. It had been eating at him, threatening to overwhelm him for long enough. He had to put a voice to it.
“I still love him, Nicolo. I still love Booker.” Joe said simply, the pain and the heartbreak in his voice clear as a bell. “I miss him so much.”
Nicky’s smile was watery as he wrapped his arms around Joe, holding him tightly.
“As do I, Yusuf,” he replied, gently kissing Joe’s temple. “I miss him every day. There’s no shame in admitting it.”
Joe relaxed into Nicky’s embrace, nuzzling into the warmth of his body, feeling his tension lessen. His shame wasn’t necessarily in missing Booker. His shame was in choosing to fight and reason it away.
It was in fighting the loss and taking too long to accept it.