His heart twisted painfully as he heard the tears in her voice. She'd been calling every night for weeks now.
"Can...can I come over? Please." Her voice broke a little on the last word.
"Nicole, you don't need to ask, you know this. Get your ass over here."
He knew that whatever had happened this time, the right corner of her mouth would have flicked up at that. A couple of minutes later, there was a hesitant knock at his door. The first thing he did was to pull Nicole into a tight hug.
Nicole drew away, her face hidden by a curtain of hair as she ducked her head.
"Thank you." She mumbled as he handed her a 'real' drink.
"Nicole, what's he done now?"
She flinched a little at that. 'He' being the rampant drunkard she'd been not-so-blissfully married to.
"The usual. We'll need another tv again." Still Nicole hid her face from Stephen. They lived in the same appartment block, partly just by coincidence, but partly because it was close to the bars; it suited both Stephen's bachelor lifestyle and Matt's spiralling drinking habit.
He sighed. "Nicole, thats the third time he's done this-you can't afford to keep picking up after his tantrums."
The only response he got to that was a slight shrug of the shoulders. It was when she visibly repressed a hiss of pain that Stephen became truly alarmed.
"Nicole. Look at me." His voice came out sharper than normal.
There was a long, frozen moment of silence before she shook her head a little.
"Nicole.." though his voice had softened a little, Stephen grew steadily more alarmed as she remained sitting in profile to him, her hair concealing her face as he faced her on the sofa. "Please, big sis."
She flinched slightly as though his endearment for her was painful to bear. It was then he saw the tears falling silently into her lap. Unable to sit by anymore, he pulled back her hair and let out an expleative so foul that they both blushed.
"I'm gonna kill him." Stephen's tone was utterly dead as he saw the bruises, already a deep purple-black, extending like a mask across both eyes, cheeks and her nose. her lip was split badly and there was a deep gash on the side of her head. As he pulled her close for a hug, she cried out in pain.
Without even asking, he pulled up her shirt, revealing even deeper bruises along her ribs and across her stomach. As he exposed her injuries, she began to sob quietly.
"He's drunk.. I've never seen him so mad.. Some guy set him off and I tried to calm him down.. I've never seen him like this." She was visibly shaking in the half-light. Carefully, Stephen put his arms around her as she leaned her head on him, clinging tight.
"You need to get those looked at." He said eventually. "And you need to tell someone."
"No!" She cried, pulling away, wincing in pain. "No."
"No." She looked him dead in the eyes. "I'll go to the doctor's, but if they ask, I got mugged."
"Nicole, he can't get away with this."
"I'm not the only one of us with bruises. I did martial arts remember?"
"That's not the point!" Stephen exclaimed, frustrated. "He can't do this to you! This. Is. Wrong."
She shook her head mutely, not looking at him. "No."
Though softly spoken, he could hear the determination in that word. Though she wasn't looking at him, her blue eyes shone with the fire he knew she had inside her. Stephen let out a frustrated sigh, running a hand through his hair distractedly. He'd stood up without realising.
"Fine." He did his best to keep his voice level but somehow knew that a time would come when he would regret agreeing to this. "But we're going to the hospital. Now."
After a moment she nodded, meeting his eyes with gratitude in hers.
He grabbed the car keys from the table, rushing her there. The entire journey, she looked silently out of the window, her eyes darkened with thought. And the enitre time, he stole worried glances at her. It was like something had broken inside his best friend and now he couldn't reach her.
Almost as bad as that were the do-you-think-we're-idiots? and what-the-fuck-did-you-do-to-her? looks that were aimed at them as they walked into Accident and Emergancy. The excuse of a mugging seemed to satisfy the doctors, though they seemed confused by her refusal to press charges or talk to the police. In fact, she barely spoke at all, replying in soft tones, in the minimum of words. Nothing extra. No emotion.
Stephen watched helplessly as they took her away for scans and to get 'cleaned up'. It was hours before they released her back to him 'at her insistance'. Apparently, she spoke a little once they said they wanted to keep her here.
"Nicole, you can't go back tonight." Stephen tried to talk some sense into her on the way home, but he still found himself walking her to the front door of Flat 8 on the third floor.
"Night, Stephen." She replied in her gentle voice. "Thank you." There was an unfeigned warmth and genuine gratitude in her voice as she attempted a smile. He smiled back unconvincingly, shaking his head at her closed door when she had gone.
"You're worth more than this Nicole."
On the other side of the door, she heard Stephen's murmured comment, before the sounds of his footsteps receeding. Her heart hammered in her chest and she almost ran after him, before she dug deep for some courage. She took a deep breath, but the courage failed her and she slumped against the back of the door again, crying in quick, breathless sobs. An observer would have said it sounded like a scared child, trapped in a nightmare, but getting used to punishment.
Taking a shaky, deep breath, she finally collected herself, unnerved by the silence in the apartment. She pulled off all the trappings that the hospital had given her, terrified that her husband would do worse if he knew that she'd told. She moved into the wreckage of the living room cautiously, where hours before, she'd fled, battered and in tears, from the husband she'd just knocked cold. Who'd attacked her in a murderous, drunken, misplaced rage.
He was just coming round when she slipped into the room, unable to meet his eye for fear of what she might see.