She stacked her notebooks calmly, tying them together before slipping them inside her father's leather satchel. Nothing had changed. It was only a letter. A letter from the past which meant nothing. Helen Magnus repeated her thoughts, wanting more than anything to believe them.
The tears on her cheeks had gone cold. She wiped them off, unsure of how they had gotten there without her approval.
It was mid-morning and the city was thick with bodies trying to reach their respective destinations. The university was within walking distance, visible where it rose above the other buildings. She could see its two spires, reaching up toward the sky with their tops stained darker sandstone, almost like the smoky peaks of mountains.
The sight of its steadfast walls drew her in. She had never felt an attachment to the place that she'd had to fight to step into and even harder to stay, but all of a sudden there was no place that she'd rather be than inside its hostile walls.
Helen joined the crowd of students trailing in through the gates. Aside from the wives of professors taking a turn around the gardens, she was the only lady making her way toward the building. The men noticed this, turning their heads ever so slightly as she walked past them. Most averted their eyes, returning to their conversations, maybe even throwing in an aside about the outrage of allowing a woman to study. It was a select few that greeted her with a smile, tipping their hats.
The truth was, the university had never officially allowed her to study within its walls. She was neither enrolled, nor on any attendance lists. She was just a woman that happened to sit inside the lecture rooms, furiously taking notes and handing in assignments for the interest of the professors who read them, not out of duty but curiosity.
"Helen," a friendly voice approached. It belonged to Mr. Druitt, the mysterious student she had met several weeks ago, lurking in the hallway outside night class.
"Still lost?" she raised her eyebrow challengingly. They were both supposed to be in class already.
"Would your opinion of me lower if I confessed to it?" he smiled, a few strands of soft hair falling over his eyes. It made her return the smile with a slight flutter in her stomach.
"It would make me suspect of your directional skills," she confessed, climbing the steps in front of the main doors to meet him. John was hiding in the shade of the overhang, watching the crowds scurry by. It was a favourite past time of his.
"Truth hurts," he offered her his arm, which she took, wrapping her fingers gently around the stiff fabric of his coat.
Helen rolled her eyes, letting John escort her around the passageway which hugged the edge of the building protected by an overhang of ornately carved wood. "This is not the way to class," she noted, to his amusement.
"No it's not," he admitted. "But I could not resist taking the long way."
They did not say anything else, content to walk quietly in each others' company.
Nikola kept a vigil by his attic window, brushing the remainders of the glass from its frame. He didn't care that the shards tumbled over the roof tiles and onto the passersby below. She hadn't come to class and he could not understand why it bothered him so much.
He had been alone all of his life, ever since the horse had reared up and pounded his brother from this life. Every time he closed his eyes he heard those hooves and saw his frightened sibling scream, reaching towards him. That had been his life until Helen had appeared, slipping into the back row of night class.
Now, when he closed his eyes, sometimes he saw her smile.
Nikola's bony elbows dug into the corners of the window, propping his head up as he stared out at the city beyond the university's gates. A few pigeons played on the breeze, soaring high above, hunting scraps. He watched them wistfully.
One broke from the flock to cruise by his window, buffeting his face with the flap of its wings.
"Not now," he whispered to it, waving the attentions of the beautiful creature away.
They sat on the seat beneath one of the ancient plane trees. Its limbs spread out over the lawn, decorating it with shadows that shimmered in the breeze, rearranging themselves in an endless tessellation.
Helen's arm was still locked beneath John's, kept safe. He wanted to say, 'You're very beautiful...' but didn't dare. This woman's reputation preceded her by two city blocks and screams of genuine terror so he settled for, "It's a beautiful day."
She agreed, stretching her free arm along the edge of the bench. Neither of them cared about the class going on inside the building. It was a sacrifice worth enduring and it was completely unintentional.
"Oh my," Helen half-jumped at the chiming of the clock tower as it rang out over the university garden. "I should have been in the library hours ago." Poor Watson, he would be waiting for her. "I really must go," she said, freeing herself from John.
He stood with her, still smiling at the way she fussed.
"Would you like company on your long journey?"
"No, I don't think so," she replied quickly. "I find the walk reasonably short under normal circumstances. There has been enough diversion for one day."
"Harsh," John stepped back, allowing her passage.
She gave him a little wink, "The truth always is."
James Watson had forgotten all about Helen Magnus.
His nose inched further and further toward the bindings of his latest find – the published journal of Claude Bernard. It was in French, which suited James. Languages were like songs to him. He learnt their rhythm until their lyrics unfolded and he could hum along in tune.
'Medicine, like any other form of science, can be reduced to its mathematical base. Quantifiable principles, natural laws, predictable results – all of these should be applicable to the natural sciences as readily as to the mechanical world. It is only that the laws of natural things outweigh their counterparts in complexity that we are yet to discover their detail.'
Watson trailed his finger over the lines of text. He agreed. The world around him was full of detail, some of it too small for him to make out. There had to be laws to govern it otherwise the world he knew would fall to chaos.
'It is possible to observe the crossings of these two worlds. Inside the human body are systems not unlike machinery. Their processes are quantifiable – especially those of the heart and blood. Like a machine, the heart pumps the life source around the body in accordance with a set of laws detailed in the following. Vivisections reveal these internal movements of the body. Pealing back the layers of a living organism such as a frog allows us to study these mechanical phenomenons in great detail.'
Watson would copy these experiments, cruel as they were. He had to know about the world – every detail he could pry from its claws. His hunger for it would not rest. The secrets of life, more than anything, satisfied his ravenous curiosity and allowed him nights of peaceful sleep in a world he would one day be able to explain.
"Splendid, you are still here."
Helen dragged a heavy chair halfway across the floor in a loud screech. The librarian glared viciously at the blonde, but Helen Magnus wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention. She pulled her seat beside the window that James had chosen to occupy and collapsed into it, digging through her bag for a notepad.
The dreadful noise of old wood grinding against polished floors shattered the world he had retreated into. James looked up.
"I apologise for the – " she checked the clock hung above the desk where the librarian was stamping a pile of books with more force than was necessary. "It really is getting quite late," she realised.
"It depends upon the length of your day," replied James, returning his nose to the pages.
Helen was not used to being ignored, which was exactly what James did every time his head sagged toward the pages of a book. He had more interest in the writings of dead men than her bright eyes and curious mind. This realisation did not distress her, if anything, it intrigued her. Being taken for granted was refreshing.
Without a word, Helen produced a small, loosely bound book and balanced it atop her notepads. She made certain that its title was concealed as she began to read, giving her best impression of intrigue.
It took half an hour before James could bare the secret no more.
"I must know what you're reading," he said, attempting to lift the cover. Helen slid her hand over it, pinning it down.
"Nothing that would interest you," she replied, flicking the page over.
"You are a tease, Ms Magnus," James closed his own document, holding its cover up for her inspection. "I see that we will have to learn to share if we are to get on."
She did the same with hers, and the pair exchanged documents.
"How very generous of you, Mr Watson," she opened the new book dramatically. Her victorious smile shrivelled when she realised that the book was in French. Too embarrassed to confess, she suffered, skimming for equations and trying to make sense out of the few words she could understand.
"Are you unwell?" James touched her hand gently, catching Helen's attention. She looked pale, though her cheeks had flushed bright pink. The combination made her eyes more blue than any he had seen.
The world blurred a little and Helen realised that she was not well at all. Her head was light, tasting the edges of sleep while her limbs dragged, feeling heavy.
"I don't," she stammered, raising a hand to her head as her books slid down her dress to the floor. "I don't know..."
James lunged forward in time to catch the young woman as she tilted, falling from her chair.