The first soft flecks of rain hit Nikola's cheeks, lingering for a moment on his pale skin before sliding along the contours of his face. They dripped onto the window sill as Helen paced slowly along the opposite wall, carefully unfurling the scrap of paper with Nikola's poetry. She placed it on the floor beside his bed before making her way to the window.
"Leave..." he said coldly, staring out at the city. It was growing dark now. The thick clouds quickened the hours, sending Oxford into premature night. For once, he didn't want the storm. His experiment was not ready, left as an unfinished heap of metal on the roof.
She was going to tell him that the others were sorry but there was little point – it was not true and he would certainly not believe it.
"I know that you need help," she said instead, "and I already promised."
Sometimes he hated her memory.
"It's too late," he said, staring at the swirling clouds. "The rain is here and next – the lightning." If it attracted a stray shard of electricity before he could fix it, then there'd be a great smouldering mess on the roof to contend with.
"When did a little rain hurt anybody..." she smiled, crossing the room.
To his confusion, Helen nudged him away from the window and quickly climbed out of it, ignoring Nikola's protests.
"Helen!" he said, in distress, as she clung to the wooden joins and searched for three stones protruding from the building's façade. She had seen him use them a dozen times to climb the short distance to the roof. The light drizzle was cold and made the rocks slippery but her grip was firm and in a flash, Nikola was left with an empty window. "Mad, mad woman," he muttered, stepping onto the sill in pursuit, forgetting his anger.
"Hypothetically," said Nigel, pulling another blanket around his back. Their room was always cold despite the dozen or so lamps they kept lit. "If this sample of blood really is what Helen says, how are we going to test it?"
James tapped the nib of his quill on the edge of the ink bottle. He was seated at a desk shoved unkindly against one of the walls near their beds, scratching out a late assignment.
"Really, Nigel," he said, with a measured voice, "I didn't think that I would need to remind you of Doctor Magnus's reputation."
"I don't follow," replied Nigel, even though he did. Tales of Helen's father were colourful and abundant, but he was interested to know James's take.
That was enough to distract James. He set the feather down and turned up the lamp next to him so that its flame flickered brightly.
"Doctor Magnus," he began, with a theatrical air, "was head of the medical board here – until four years ago. He drove several colleagues to resign their post and a further to be transferred. Word was that his experiments made the money men squeamish – not an easy thing to accomplish. Officially, he retired into obscurity but a man of his standing and position should have been enjoying his glory years. No one in the industry would touch him after that. Most think that he lost his mind, myself included."
"You're a harsh judge of character. Still, I'm curious – hypothetically of course... Is it possible that there could be a shred of truth? Doctor Magnus may have been insane but Helen –"
James shrugged. "If this blood of hers is real, we would have to test it on a living thing."
"Good luck getting that idea past John, he has a tight grip over Helen these days and Nikola will probably hurl again."
"I thought that rats might be an acceptable halfway point to all parties."
"Inject a rat with 'vampire' blood. Now there's a notion for your fiction books."
"You are enjoying this..." James couldn't help but smile. Nigel rarely found pleasure in life, so to see his lip curl in wicked plotting was a welcome change. "I guess we shall find out."
It was higher up that she had expected. The university's roof sloped sharply and Helen found that she had to slip her hands between the terracotta tiles to steady herself against the wind as she worked her way toward a contraption of wire mounted on a relatively flat rise ahead.
Nikola had been right about the storm. From up here, she could clearly see it brewing over the city – churning into a dark mass of vapour. Every now and then it rumbled.
"Careful," Nikola muttered behind her, scampering across the roof. He had done this a thousand times and navigated the slippery tiles easily.
"They just let you leave all of this up here?" she said, pointing at his experiment. Helen regretted letting go of the roof, stumbling before Nikola caught her hand and led her to the relative safety of the platform.
"Strictly? No..." he admitted. "But I think that one of the professors is curious so they let it go."
"Our professor? Maybe he just wants a decent excuse to have you expelled," she lifted an eyebrow curiously, as she stepped onto the platform with the experiment.
"I am undecided," Nikola grinned. He handed her several wires and balanced a long antenna on her lap while he dug through his experiment, connecting bits of it. "You're no help at all," he said to her, when he tried to retrieve the antenna. Helen had the wires twisted around it in infinite loops which he struggled to undo.
Nikola worked frantically, with the rain getting heavier. She hadn't meant to, but Helen found the sight of Nikola in a full suit, perched on the roof like a curious bird – dripping wet and tangled up in cords to be highly amusing, especially when he overbalanced. She stifled a giggle, dodging his glare as cold wind made the rain more unpleasant.
Soaked through, they finished setting the experiment. Helen and Nikola took a step back, staring for a moment at the fragile thing reaching up toward the crazy expanse of sky. It was hard not to feel the enormity of the world behind the city – to see civilisation as a small scramble on the landscape sheltering under a sky to which humanity could lay no claim.
"I see why," she started, "you spend your time up here."
James jolted, smearing ink over his page as the thunder continued to roll on outside their window.
"That was close," he said. The walls of the building were vibrating softly, rippling with the thunder. "I don't think that James is going to get his meeting outside tomorrow."
"Must be a beautiful show," Nigel pointed to the only window in their dormitory which remained blocked by cloth and wood. "A shame – I think I may go and watch the storm for a while."
James shrugged, attempting to salvage the page. "As you please," he said. "Would you mind," he nodded at the pile of paper beside Nigel's bed, "if I skimmed through your notes?"
Three rivers of light appeared from the cloud above and snaked their way in jagged steps toward the ground. Their light cut through the heavy rain as they intertwined, crossed each other and flashed several times in silence.
Nigel watched the shards of light, waiting for the inevitable lashing of air which always coupled the beauty. He held onto his notes tightly, not daring to leave them unattended in James's company.
After the light, Helen could barely make out the dark lines of the roof. She blinked the rain from her eyes and turned to Nikola.
"Can you hear that?" he said, staring out into nowhere. Helen frowned, all she could hear was the rain lashing at their faces and the occasional gasp of thunder as the lightening approached. "That sound..." Nikola seemed lost to the world as he raised a hand up to the storm, moving it through the rain. He could hear hooves pounding into the wet earth – a distant cry as a horse rose up on a child.
"Nikola!" screamed Helen, as he tilted dangerously forward.
Nikola snapped out of the memory as another flash of light strangled the darkness from the sky.
"We should go," he said, fearing that he had waited too long. The storm was here and they were still balanced precariously on the roof next to a lightning conductor.
Nigel was on the ground floor, pacing along the protected walkway of the eastern wing of the building. He thought he heard a woman's voice cry over the thunder of the storm. Frowning, he edged toward one of the archways, leaning into the rain enough to see the opposing rooftop.
He saw two shadows make their way across it. They looked so fragile, scampering in the face of such a storm.
Helen and Nikola, it could be no-one else. Nigel shook his head as they neared the edge of the roof. Then, from nowhere, a stream of light ripped through the air and blinded him. Thunder, so heavy that Nigel felt his soul take shelter as it beat against his body. He dropped to the ground in a scatter of paper, holding his ears as the ground shook.
The tiles on the roof shattered beneath them. Helen fell first, grasping desperately as she began to slide toward the edge. The world was engulfed in brightness until she could not see. The air splitting beside her was so violent that the end of all things may have only been a step behind. She couldn't hear Nikola, falling behind her, his hands forgetting the roof and reaching only for her.
Suddenly there was nothing beneath her. The light vanished leaving only the violent reverberations and the sound of tiles plunging four stories to the ground, exploding on the pavement below.
Her body jerked as Nikola caught her arm. The sudden weight pulled him over the edge with her until he wedged his hand between the guttering and brought them to a stop. They hung there in the rain, swinging gently.
Out of a daze, Helen realised that she would soon hit the ground far below them. Nikola had caught onto her sleeve and fabric was stretching, beginning to rip away from its seams.
There was nothing Nikola could do except grimace through the pain as the sharp gutter edge cut into him.
The rain beat down harder as another wave of thunder brushed over them.
Helen tried to reach the wall with her other hand, but she was too far out to do anything but graze the cold rocks with her fingertips.
Now the gutter protested, snapping two of its bolts sending Helen and Nikola two feet closer to the ground. Nikola hung on, but Helen's sleeve ripped open. She reached up with her other hand just before Nikola lost his grip.
There was blood trickling down Nikola's wrist. Even with two hands, Helen could not hold on. Another gust of wind would be enough to knock her free.
"Nikola!" she shouted over the noise.
Nikola swallowed, feeling her slip further. "Helen..." he whispered, as she fell from his hold.