The students at the table opposite looked up, quills hovering over their pages dripping ink as they watched the woman collapse into the waiting arms of a young man.
Blonde ringlets scattered over James' shoulder as her head settled on his coat. He was on one knee, easing Helen out of the chair and fully into his arms so that he could lift her. Although Helen was a slender thing, her dress and adornments with their yards of fabric tested James' strength as he carried her through the library, curled over his shoulder.
Helen wandered in and out of consciousness, sometimes opening her eyes a crack to see the hallway flood past in a haze.
He did not delay, turning and making short work of the staircase leading to the top floor of the university. She mumbled something that he couldn't make out as he reached the end of the stairwell, reshuffling her in his arms as she began to slip.
James arrived in the narrow corridor, barely wide enough for him to carry Helen through. There was an arched window at the far end, dusty and scratched from centuries of neglect. Above him there was a square opening in the ceiling, blocked by a folded set of stairs. With Helen still in his arms, James wrestled with a hooked rod, stretching it up to the ceiling where its sharp end caught the hoop of metal. He yanked it down and the stairs unfolded, revealing the entrance to Tesla's attic.
"What in the..."
Watson heard a voice above startle.
"Mr Tesla, your assistance please," James called out, moving Helen to his shoulder so that he could climb the ladder, albeit awkwardly.
Tesla tripped and fell at the sound of his stairs unfurling. Someone heavy was climbing them, about to peak in through the hole in the floor. Nikola picked himself up and raced over, sticking his head through the attic where he found James heaving an unconscious Helen toward him.
"We cannot both come through. Can you reach her waist?"
Nikola was caught off guard by the intrusion, muttering and spluttering that he could. He reached down and took hold of Helen. Seated at the hole's edge, together Nikola and James managed to navigate her into the attic. She ended up in Nikola's lap, laid across him.
"Move your legs, Mr Tesla," James shoved the dangling legs to the side as he tackled the last few steps of the ladder. He was out of breath but far from broken. "Come on, we need to lay her down properly."
Nikola stared at Helen's limp body, struck dumb. He didn't notice the gentle rise and fall of her chest, or the pink flushing beneath her cheeks – all he saw was her still form, dead in his arms.
"It's Helen..." he whispered, not able to tear his eyes away.
"Well spotted. Now bring her over to the bed. Today, please!" James added sharply, when the young man refused to move.
Staggering to his feet, Nikola made his way to the bed, laying her onto the unmade mess of sheets. James knelt down beside Helen, taking hold of her wrist. Nikola sat on the floor next to James, leaning in toward Helen with a frightened look. He had never seen anyone faint before. Its similarity to death alarmed him.
"She will be fine," said James, moving to her forehead. She was hot, but not worryingly so. "Do not fuss," he waved Nikola's hands away from the sheets he was trying to clear. "She needs air, not panic."
"I have no idea," admitted James. "We were in the library talking and she collapsed. It is not an uncommon condition amongst women – there is probably nothing wrong except it being a particularly warm day."
Nikola shook his head. "She's not like that," he insisted.
"Well," said James, "she is today. Bring me some water."
That disgruntled Nikola. He was not used to being treated like a common servant but for Helen's sake, he obliged the brusque man. James took the glass from him and roused Helen with a splash of water. She sat up with a start, gasping for air.
"Steady on," James tried to calm her as she clung onto his arm with such force he thought it might break.
"Urg..." she coughed, rasping for air as if it wouldn't go in. James supported her back with his free arm, pushing her ever so slightly forwards.
"Nikola," he hissed in the young man's direction. "Take her other hand."
Nikola's eyes wandered to Helen's flailing hand. He reached out and she caught it.
Helen sipped the glass of water, wrapped in an unused blanket Nikola excavated from the cupboard. She had stopped shaking but still looked unwell. James was over by Nikola's experiment, kneeling down for a closer look at the unfinished motor. Ordinarily, Nikola would have shrieked and chased him off, afraid of intellectual theft but on this occasion all he did was give a disapproving glance in the other man's direction.
"Where were you?" he asked Helen, taking the glass from her as she finished. She didn't seem to understand the question so he asked it again.
"Oh," she had forgotten about John and their time spent in the garden. "I decided not to come. I was running late as it was and I didn't want to disturb the others." It was a bold lie, and Nikola wasn't fooled. He had lost count of the amount of times Helen had pulled him through the doors of late class with no regard toward the other students.
"This motor will never work," observed James from in front of the small, metal and wooden object. It looked nothing at all like his own project which, incidentally, had a habit of catching on fire.
"Yes it does," Nikola snapped over his shoulder. "It's finished – has been for some time now."
"A certainty, I assure you."
"Never." Nikola was on his feet, about to pace over to James and remove him from the presence of his precious motor. "That is the future," he declared. "Careful you don't tread on it."
"It is a school project," James corrected. "And just like the rest of us, the professor will grade it and send you on your way."
"Leave it, Nikola..." Helen had reached up and caught hold of Nikola's coat. "He is just playing with you. James – enough. Nikola is not one for your games."
Though neither Helen nor Nikola caught it, James had smiled, satisfied. He had proved something about Nikola that he had always suspected. The world was an experiment to James. He showed no distinction between places and people, if there was something worth learning, James would find a way to learn it regardless of the social consequences.
"And what about your little project?" Tesla tilted his head in a bird like manner. He asked Helen, not James.
He was interested now, thought Helen. Jealousy did that to Nikola.
"It's not your cup of tea, Nikola," she replied, letting go of him. "Wishy-washy voodoo, I believed you called the science once."
"Well, now I am interested," he was speaking to Helen, but glaring at James, following the man's every movement as he paced around his floor-bound lab. Nikola just knew that he was going to step on something important. Some people had no respect for other people's property or the delicacies of –
"I can hear you thinking, Nikola." Helen scorned. Sometimes Nikola's eyes betrayed his thoughts more loudly than his lips. "You know, if the two of you could get over whatever it was that set you against each other in the beginning, you'd be the best of friends."
"An event that will never come to pass," Nikola assured her. James agreed, accidentally crushing a small coil of wire with his boot.
"All right," Helen spilled out to avert disaster as James kicked the object aside, "we're investigating blood compatibility amongst species."
Nikola spun around, running a wandering finger through his moustache. "Why?" That sounded like a perfectly horrid thing to do.
"Why anything..." she retorted, getting a little snappy herself. He was always like this with anything she did, as if she didn't have as much right as him to possess curiosity. "The topic was raised in one our assignments and –"
"We did an assignment on blood?"
"No Nikola, you didn't, but the rest of us did. As I was saying, my father helped me a great deal with the research – it's a passion of his."
"Blood is a passion of your father's... now I really am worried."
Helen shook her head in frustration. "You can be cruel, when you want to."
"Remind me what he's doing here..." James stood in front of his dormitory door, unwilling to open it with Nikola so close by. It was night, ten minutes before their lecture but instead of assembling in the corridor they had decided to carry on with last night's experiment. Helen's idea, though she had hidden it well, prompting James into the suggesting through a series of calculated questions. He had forgotten though, how he had agreed to have Tesla present.
"He's going to have a look at your equipment – see if he can fix that electrical system so that we can carry on with the experiment. Remember? It didn't work last time."
Nikola grinned menacingly from behind Helen's shoulder. No doubt the medic had it all wired backwards. Nikola wasn't thrilled about spending more time in James' company but he was curious to take a look at what these little Frankensteins had been up to.
"Well, you are responsible for it at all times," James eyed Helen sternly, unlocking the door.
The professor was somewhat dismayed. He was used to empty seats. It didn't bother him that students dragged their bored bodies into his lecture at all hours, hobbling and grumbling as they took their seats. He accepted the empty front row as a compromise between knowledge and social standing. Their lack of interest in the natural world would evolve and one day they would all become decent scientists.
He sighed, turning to face what remained of his room. There were four seats in particular that he didn't like to see empty yet there they were, abandoned. It wasn't what they were missing that worried him, it was what they were up to. Even though they didn't know it yet, the professor could already see that the absent four possessed the streak of curiosity at the heart of brilliance – a dangerous thing to leave alone.
John Druitt had been racing to keep pace with the writing on the board when the professor threw a piece of chalk at him.
"Check your hearing," the professor said, before adding in his soft, wafting voice, "Would you mind finding the others?"
John frowned, "Find who?"
The professor flicked his eyes to the empty seats. "Off with you," he turned back to the board, picking a new piece of chalk.
John blinked dumbly, waiting in vain for further instruction. He closed his text book and packed away his things. Find all of them?
"You're late..." Nigel folded his newspaper, throwing it off to the side as the door to the dormitory opened. His eyes widened when a young woman followed James in who in turn was trailed by the horrible man from the pond.
"Urgh..." Nikola held his nose, "It smells ghastly in here."
"It passes," said Helen, stepping between the beds as she followed James toward the laboratory end of the room.
Nigel waited for them to settle in front of the desk at the far end.
"I'm not gonna name this one," said Nigel, pointing at the box of hay.
"Probably wise," replied James.
Nikola eyed the box, catching sight of a hint of pale pink flesh. "Why aren't we naming the pig?" he asked, but found no answer amongst the scientists.