Helen vanished in the spring. It was strange, to think her gone, even a year later, Stephen found it hard to believe. The police had turned up nothing, baffled, confused. They'd accused Nick of killing her, thought he'd buried the body, Stephen laughed at that. Nick would have sooner cut his own heart out, than harm a hair on Helen's head.
"To Helen," Nick toasted, twin glasses clinking together in the late night silence of his office. Nick sipped at the liquid in the glass, feeling the burn of tears in his eyes.
"To Helen," Stephen replied softly, looking at his glass, without drinking from it. In truth, he didn't much care for Whiskey, but it was all Nick had to toast the woman they'd both loved.
Stephen wondered some days, if he should feel guilty, God knows he had reason too. This man sitting across from him, who credited him as a friend, who confided in him, whispers in the night, theories, some wild, some too close to truth. Nick wondered aloud some nights, wondering if Helen had been seeing someone else. Stephen never said she hadn't, but he did tell Nick, he didn't believe she'd run off with another man. Stephen would know, although he didn't tell Nick that, because he was the other man.
The next year, Nick and Stephen were in Scotland, muddy and soaked to the skin, hot tea in plastic mugs substituting the Whiskey. Nick smiled across the tent at him. "You're a mess."
"You don't look so hot yourself," Stephen said, chuckling. They didn't toast to Helen, not out loud, but somehow, it was unspoken.
The third year, Stephen sat by Nick's hospital bed, half awake and aching in places he hadn't known could ache until he'd spent seven hours sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair by Nick's bed. The older man was breathing softly, sleeping off the drugs and the worst of the pain from an appendectomy.
Stephen toasted the wall with a bottle of too warm water. "To Helen," he said quietly, because it's what Nick would do.
By the forth year, Helen was declared dead and whether it was coincidence or Nick being macabre Stephen wasn't sure, but they buried an empty coffin on the forth anniversary of her disappearance.
Nick's house was filled with people in black, lamenting how horrible it all was, trying to sympathise and pretend like they had any idea what Nick felt. Helen didn't have much in the way of family, but her brother was there with his wife and two kids. Nick watched them sadly and disappeared into the study.
Stephen waited, playing host in Nick's absence until everyone was gone before he followed Nick, a bottle of scotch in one hand.
Nick took the offered drink without looking up and as he whispered a quiet toast, Stephen pretended not to notice the tears.
Five years seemed like a bigger landmark than any other, more so even than a funeral with an empty casket and it seemed like they should do something. Not celebrate, but not mourn either. Stephen arranged a trip to South America that would leave them in the middle of the rain forest when the anniversary rolled around.
Nick seemed at ease, almost at peace, toasting his lost wife with a wry smile that she'd have loved this. Stephen had to agree, because Helen had always loved the rain forest.
They went to sleep that night laughing and if Stephen was surprised when Nick leaned over the next morning and kissed him, it was a good kind of surprise.
Nick reminded him of the sixth anniversary, not that Stephen had really forgotten, when he came home to find the other man sitting with a bottle of scotch and tear tracks down his face. In the year since their trip to the rain forests of South America, it had been easy to let the memories of Helen be just that, memories as they built a life together.
Stephen was almost afraid of what Nick would say if he asked, but Nick just wrapped himself in Stephen's embrace and cried quietly. It was the first time Nick really *said* that he loved him and if it should have felt like a betrayal to Helen, to a woman they'd both loved, it didn't.
Seven. It was hard to believe it had been seven years since Helen vanished. Stephen didn't know why, but Nick had planned a weekend away. Wales was beautiful and Nick seemed to have some plan Stephen didn't fully understand, but as they stood looking out the window of their hotel, each with a scotch glass in hand, it didn't seem to matter much.
"Stephen..." Nick said his name softly, as they finished their drinks and silent toasts. "I still miss her."
Stephen knew it was true, he still missed her too, always would.
"But I'm happy with you," Nick said.
Stephen smiled and took Nick's hand in his. "Me too," he murmured. Stephen didn't know what would have happened if Helen hadn't vanished, maybe Nick would have discovered their affair, maybe Stephen would have had the balls to end it, maybe, maybe, maybe, but they'd never know and it didn't matter. Stephen squeezed Nick's hand tighter.
Nick looked at Helen, so much about her had changed and so much still the same. He wondered what she thought of him, if she knew how much he had changed. He'd turned away from her while she dressed, unable to look at her, a woman he'd seen naked, made love too, dozens, hundreds of times, but she'd been his wife then, now she was a stranger.
Eight years. For eight years he'd believed her dead and how he'd mourned her, with tears and scotch and Stephen's steady presence. He looked at her now and his heart didn't race, didn't jump. He looked at her now and although he knew he'd never stop loving her, he found that he wasn't in love with her anymore.
Nick didn't believe Helen's return now was coincidence, that she wasn't up to something, because he'd loved her and still did, but Helen had never been innocent and he couldn't imagine surviving jumping through time for eight years by being nice. Nick knew at some point, they'd have to deal with it, with her, but when he came around, coughing up water to see Stephen's brilliant blue eyes filled with concern and edged with fear he knew he'd done the right thing in leaving her behind as she'd once left him.
Eight years was a long time and Nick was a different man now than he had been then. He held up his glass, clinking it against Stephen's, the scotch burning a trail down into his belly and this year, it wasn't to Helen they toasted, it was to themselves.