James' favourite time of day came well into the night. The collage was quiet, its students long since ensconced within the walls of the library or their own warm bedsit. The frenetic buzz of enthusiastic academia had subsided to the gentle warmth of dedicated learning.
James would walk the corridors, bypassing the empty lecture halls, delving deeper into the college's private offices and labs. Entire worlds would disappear behind him without his meeting another person. Those who did co inhabit these hours with him met his eyes with a companionable nod, each secure in the knowledge that their work was important, that they had the universe at their fingertips.
The quietness extended to his own lab, the large space the five of them had fought for and won by virtue of their shared stubbornness. By day it was alive with the energy and personalities of his companions; it vibrated with the constant antagonism that was Nikola, was given weight by John's eternal gravity, and was punctuated by Nigel's good natured jibes. But through all this, it was he and Helen who made up the backbone of their work, and it was this quiet, unassuming partnership that continued into the night. It was here and now, standing side by side, working wordlessly for hours on feet that had long forgotten their tiredness, that James believed in their work the most. He felt closer to success, closer to her. It was now that he loved her more than ever.
Watching the look of complete concentration on her face, he felt his smile blossom and grow as she peered harder at the board. She always did this, moving closer and closer to the equations as she got further engrossed in their workings. As it was she was standing with mere centimetres between the end of her nose and the numbers scrawled in Nigel's uneven hand. It would be only seconds, he knew, before –
– her sneeze erupted, disrupting the air around her and causing the chalk dust to fly up and settle in a sheer layer over her skin, the fine white particles clinging to her lashes. He suppressed a laugh at the look of shock on her face. A night did not go by where this exact thing did not happen, and yet she was always surprised by the sudden presence of the chalk now filling the lace of her collar.
She gave him a sheepish look as she wiped the residue from her face. She was a rare sight at times like this, one that James took a great deal of delight in being privy too. Helen had long abandoned her linen outer coat, choosing instead the freedom afforded by her lighter blouse. Her boots had been discarded soon after (neatly placed under her stool, he noted), her stockinged feet carrying her smoothly from board to teapot. And her hair – those beautiful lustrous curls that so entranced him – was bouncing down around her chin, the remainder of her carefully pinned bun woven through with all manner of writing implements, held there for easy access and then swiftly forgotten.
Best of all, to James' way of thinking was the diminishing of barriers that had become the norm for them. As the hours flew by, so too did her occasionally rigid ideals of propriety. This time was their time, and there was nothing undiscussed between them. The latest scientific theories, their fellows at Oxford, Nikola's antics... her mother's passing, his father's temper... John.
It was a fine line he walked, James knew. One from which it was so easy to fall, to fall and break into a hundred pieces that he knew he would never be able to pull back together. And yet he didn't care. The pain he gathered from hours of being on the sideline, days, weeks, years of not being the one to whom she turned, the one with whom she left – all of this was gone, washed away in the few hours he would spend alone each night, basking in her words, her smile, their shared companionship.
And if the next day he could be seen standing at their board, his hand hovering aimlessly over their work as he watched her, longed for her, then it didn't really matter. It never really did. She never noticed.