He stood behind, watching her for several minutes. James couldn't explain it or even reason why, but there was something distinctly sinister about Helen's silhouette against the arching window that made him hesitate.
"Oh," Helen was startled when she found James leaning on a doorway. "I worried that you wouldn't come."
"I am a man of my word," he said, offering her his arm in a gentlemanly manner.
He led her up the double marble staircase and around to the main student living quarters. Helen had never been allowed here partly because she was a young lady in Victorian England but largely because she still lived at home with an overprotective father.
"There is nothing to concern yourself with," James assured her. "The dormitories are as dull as any level."
She rolled her eyes, far from threatened as he pulled up at his room. He knocked first, but as he expected, Nigel was downstairs, nodding off happily in the lecture.
John was surprised by the entrance of Nikola Tesla, gracing the lecture with his presence halfway through. What surprised him more was the absence of Helen.
"Damages to the structure of the university tower have been deducted from your account," the lecturer informed Tesla as he took his seat. "And the engineering lab would like their coil of copper wire returned as soon as you've untangled it from the roof."
Nikola ignored the professor, instead flipping open a journal. Much to the astonishment of the room, he diligently began copying the contents of the board in a tidy font.
John found his eyes glancing at the door throughout the lecture but Helen never showed. There was another conspicuous gap in the bench belonging to an ever observant, rarely spoken James Watson. John narrowed his eyes, no-one had dared to take up Watson's seat. It couldn't be a coincidence.
Helen held a handkerchief over her mouth and nose as she stepped into James's room.
There was a bitter smell on the air that slipped down her throat, sticking halfway down where it became pure vile. She gagged, bending over in shock as she simultaneously struggled for breath and tried to avoid it.
"You get used to it," said James, closing the door behind them. He slipped a hand around Helen's waist and lifted her back to her feet, holding her until she regained composure. "Please, this way."
The room was a long rectangle, more like a tunnel reaching for the small window at its far end than a proper dormitory. Someone had jammed a cloth in the window's frame, sealing out all light and air – or maybe, Helen reconsidered, sealing the terrible stench inside.
Two beds, one immaculate and the other a mess of blankets and notes, were pushed as far as possible toward the door in such a way that she had hit her leg on one as she followed James deeper into the room. A line of oil lamps burnt along the right hand wall, sitting along a narrow shelf. Each one had a bulb of oil beneath them, glowing in the firelight. She could smell the citronella now. Helen followed a black trail of smoke with her eyes and saw that along the ceiling were a series of black circles to match each lamp.
Four desks hugged the back and side walls in a U shape. A single line of glasswear spanned them. Beakers, tubes, flasks, burners, heat mats, distillers, stirring devices and scaffolding were joined in a fragile arrangement. Liquids of different colours bubbled, cooled or trickled in their respective containers.
Rats. Filthy, wild, black street rats scurried about in cages stored beneath the desks. She could hear their claws on the soiled newspapers and their teeth testing the strength of the wire. Beside them was a roughly made wooden box open at the top. Helen approached it cautiously, half kneeling on the dusty ground. It was full of hay which, to her great worry, was moving.
"Our lucky winner for today," said James, sliding the crate out into the open. Something small and pink was moseying about inside, trying to forage for a stray piece of carrot. "Hold this please."
James handed Helen a slender knife so sharp that it cut through the air as she took it from him. He pushed her back gently as he reached into the box, his hands disappearing into the dried the grass.
"Come on," he muttered, as the animal slipped out of his grip with a high pitched squeal, thrashing its chubby legs. Watson expertly wrestled it onto the nearest table, holding it down with one hand whilst waving Helen over with the other. He clicked his fingers at her, not lifting his eyes from the piglet.
Helen realised that he was after the knife, so she placed it in his outstretched hand, turning her head sharply when he cut down into the creature.
Paler than usual, Helen moved quietly through the empty corridors of the university. It was almost eleven and far too late to return home. Her father wouldn't be pleased but he expected it – Helen was often absent on Thursdays after late class. Usually Nikola would drag her back to the attic to bear witness to his latest show. He wasn't one to enjoy the company of people, but he still needed someone to share the world which he discovered with – someone other than the snowy pigeon that haunted his window sill.
Her stomach was still turning, but she could not deny the excitement she had felt as the first real science began to unfold. This was it, she was doing something of worth, Discovering, investigating and it thrilled her in a terrifying sense.
Helen found a small notebook at the foot of Tesla's attic but no Tesla. That was odd. She had never known him to be anywhere but here outside of class – or perhaps the roof though he always left the stairs down in case she dropped by. Not that he'd ever admit to it.
"You're drenched!" Helen exclaimed in a whisper, as a decidedly drenched Nikola traipsed down the corridor toward her half an hour later, seemingly caught up in his own mind. He didn't notice her concerned frown until Helen put a hand to his head to check his temperature. He was freezing.
"Did you know that the university has a pool?" he said, louder than was acceptable for the hour.
"No I didn't," she eyed him with great concern. "Don't tell me you went swimming in the middle of the night! Of all the things to do..."
He fished around with a hook for the latch to the attic. Finally he caught the ring and pulled hard, bringing the ladder-like stairs folding from the ceiling in a loud groan. Without a word, he scaled the stairs leaving a trail of water behind him. Helen hitched up her lace skirt and followed him, carrying the book under her arm.
"This yours?" she held the leather bound item aloft as soon as she reached the attic. Nikola was busy lighting oil lamps – most of which were scattered over the floor. The book looked like a possession of Tesla's – immaculate and generally unused, but the handwriting was conspicuously tidy. Out of curiosity, she gave some of the pages a quick read and found that they were lecture notes. Very un-Tesla indeed.
He continued to ignore her, strolling straight over to a tangle of wires she presumed to be his latest experiment, dripping all the way as a stream trickled from his woollen trench coat. Helen shook her head, put the book on the floor along with her bag, and came up behind him. Before he had the chance to protest, Helen had slipped the coat off of his shoulders and hung it by the window to dry. He was left in a white collared and cuffed shirt which stuck to his wet skin. Semi transparent, hints of muscle and skin were visible as he crouched down. His silk tie – blood red with gold oriental patterns, was still snuggling around his neck – all be it a little damp.
Helen's own clothes hung around her ankles as her full length embroidered skirt caught a gust of cold wind sneaking in through the now glassless window. Taking a bundle of pins from her bag, she tacked her ringlets out of the way and changed into a spare pair of rubber boots that Nikola left in the corner. It was a necessary precaution when in Nikola's presence to insulate one's self form the ground should he take a fancy to a passing electric current. It wasn't particularly ladylike, but then Helen had never been a typical lady.
Nikola began handing her things as soon as she sat down on the floor as if she were an extension of him. He didn't ask her where she had been for half the night, but she felt the need to explain herself.
"I've got a little project of my own," she began, though he didn't stop to listen. "Of a different kind to yours. More in biological sciences – Watson is –"
"Not worth your time," he interrupted, "and not as clever as he lets on."
"Yes, I am aware that the two of you disapprove of one another. Do you want to hear my story or not?" she reached out and touched his hand, trying to get his attention. A light jolt of electricity jumped through her skin, dissipating down her wrist.
"Sorry..." he muttered, moving his hands away from her. "It does that. When you're on the floor the boots don't –" He had a habit of not finishing sentences.
"I'm going to go," she said quietly, putting the experiment gently on the floor. "You're busy and you don't need me disturbing you with senseless chatter. Goodnight Nikola."
Nikola felt the layers of her dress ruffle past him, dancing over his skin. The flames of his lanterns dimmed as she walked by them, striding through the room. He stared down at coil of wire in his hands, closed his eyes, and then put it down.
"Stay," he whispered, just loud enough for her to hear. "Please."
Helen stopped, halfway through changing her shoes. "You don't need me," she said. "And you never wanted me here in the first place. I should have left a long time ago."
Nikola got to his feet. In the moon and lamp light, still drenched, he looked strangely off guard. He was more alive when he had a brilliant idea, she could see it in his eyes – that glint of something she wanted so desperately to see. A truth on the horizon, revealed in an instant. It was what she searched for, why she wanted to be a scientist and what excited her about Nikola.
"I need you to hold this..." he pointed at an object on the ground but kept his eyes on her. The truth was that Nikola didn't require anyone to help him, but he needed her. Ever since she had found him at the beginning of the year, staring out from his attic window, he had needed her. "Your experiment, tell me about it," he offered.
Helen eyed him for quite some time before finally rolling her eyes, deciding to stay.
"Later," she said, returning to his side. They sat down together, their eyes occasionally flicking to each other but never at the same time.
"Don't leave me," he said softly, not daring to look at her in case she disapproved.
Helen didn't leave. She stayed there all night by his side as he created a motor with a new kind of electricity, one more powerful than any the world had seen. By the time he was finished, Helen was asleep on the floor beside to him, resting her head in her hands which still clutched onto the useless piece of wire he had given her to hold. He smiled – something he would not let her see him do.
Finished, he picked up her up gently and carried her to the small bed in the corner of the attic, laying her on it. He found a warm blanket and placed it over her, then blew out all the lamps, and reclined against the floorboards for the few hours remaining before day broke.
Helen returned home before breakfast, depositing various items in the foyer before staggering upstairs to change. Her father, Dr. Gregory Magnus, was waiting for her at the breakfast table, reading through the newspaper. He didn't say anything, but Helen could feel his disapproval glaring at her through the print.
"I have to leave in an hour," he announced, as Helen sipped a cold cup of tea. "Will you be back this evening?"
"Will you?" Like father like daughter. Gregory was often missing, out on expeditions or simply gone without explanation.
Gregory sighed, folding his paper. "You're too much like me," he muttered.