Nicole quickly decided to go back to her job, a part-time photographer for the newpaper. The pay wasn't fantastic, but it was enough. Plus, it meant she could escape the silence that had pervaded her home and her husband.
The flat became his refuge as he refused to leave at all unless it was for his own job. He was barely 'there', functioning but nothing more. When Nicole explained her situation and her worries to Stephen, she was taken aback by his response.
"Look, Nicole, I know you love him...but you need to make a choice now. Him or me. This cannot go on. Look at what he's done to you and what he's doing now. Love, he's destroying you. I can't just sit back and let you carry on like this."
She shot to her feet, forgetting her lingering pain in her anger.
"Best friend my arse." Her voice came out cold but pained. It went through Stephen like a knife, but more so were the tears and whispered words that followed.
"You promised you would never make me choose."
With that, she left him with an aching chasm of guilt. Too late, he remembered the promise he had made to her when Matt had come into her life all those years ago.
"I'mma stand by you, Nicole. Even though I think you're the biggest idiot alive for staying loyal to him. I won't make you choose. I promise. I won't let him get between us."
Her softly spoken accusation echoed impossibly in his head, more than if she had shouted or screamed or ranted at him. In one sentence, she had conveyed all the hurt and all the betrayal he had dealt her.
In the days that followed, he attempted to talk to her again, but she eluded him, an ethereal shadow that remained always just a little out of his grasp. He watched from a distance as the bruises faded, though deep smudges of purple beneath her eyes betrayed the fact that she was still suffering. He heard no more screams from the flat, in fact, it was deathly silent.
Then, she vanished. Stephen returned from a night out and it was as though she had never exsisted. Worried, he showed up at her work, only to be told that she was at the hospital. He drove like a demon, cursing the whole way.
They let him see her, clearly unaware of who he was, though warning him that she would not be responsive and that a nurse would have to be on standby with them.
He caught a snap-shot image of her, covered in bruises again, before she errupted into life.
"Get him out!" She screamed, her voice cracking, as though it had not been used. "Get him out!" The nurse rushed to her side and she collapsed, sobbing into the trained sympathy of her shoulder. Stephen let himself out, feeling hollow. It was happening again and this time, he was on the outside.