Helen lifted her face to the sky, allowing the sun of the unexpectedly bright winter day to warm her face. Shifting on the park bench, she allowed the blinding light to fall behind the head of the great cross before her lending it a halo, an inviting and awe filling monument in the bustle of this busy city.
The park in which she sat was small, not really a park at all, but a tapered lawn nestled between two heavily utilised roads, carrying students, academics, and travellers alike, along long established pathways to the city. Where once the streets of her memory were filled with carriages and horses, the inventions of modernity now flew by. The sounds of the cars passing, of bicycles skating between the surfaces of road, pavement and slippery cobblestone, even the odd siren, they all fell away as she closed her eyes and allowed the sun to colour the faces flowing through her mind's eye.
Helen was not naive, she knew that even her long life had little resonance in a city of such history and enduring importance. And yet, there was something about Oxford that spoke to her like no other city in the world. It was here that she experienced her first tastes of the world - of learning, of love, of all life had to offer. She had lived all over the globe, but there was something of Oxford with her always, something carried in her heart of hearts that called her back again and again.
Her days in Oxford remained some of her best in her life. The most challenging, the most confusing, the most daring - but undeniably the most rewarding. Just being within the city limits, however changed they had become, was enough to resurrect memories, sharp and specific, that so often went without thought.
Nigel's self-deprecating smile as he slipped fresh madeleines onto her saucer, having sweet talked his way into the college kitchens to indulge in the hobby, nay gift, that he so fiercely kept hidden from the others.
James' quiet intensity as they worked, side by side, long into the night, exchanging ideas, equations, and close quarter elbows with an intimacy that was simultaneously less and more than it should have been.
Trading barbs and flirtations with Nikola, words and insinuations that should have rankled her sense of propriety, but instead only aroused her wit and carefree joy in a way like nothing else ever did.
Beneath it all was John. Long walks and sudden sighs. The catching of eyes and breaths. The everlasting flutter of her heart echoing through the hallowed halls of learning. For her, Oxford would always hold John as he was, at his best. It was the one place her heart called moratorium on all that had been, and, dare she say it, all that may be. Oxford was where her heart was allowed to remember its love.
She saw him approaching long before he actually reached her, his swaggering attitude doing far more to set him apart than even his three piece suit. His clothing was stylish, to be sure, but he himself was possessive of an old fashioned air that he could never quite shake and so had learned to wear in his favour. With a flick of his coat, the manoeuvring of non-existent tales, Nikola sat on the bench beside her, sitting as always a few solid centimetres closer than polite society dictated, but crucial hairs breadths off the point of receiving a violent reception from a woman with a far meaner right hook than his own.
He gave no greeting, and she offered none of her own, so they sat companionably, Nikola joining her in her gaze at the towering cross casting its shadow at their feet. He dipped his head in a way that offered both disdain and respect, a manoeuvre that only he was capable of, and gave off a murmur, more to himself than to Helen, a string of names that she did not recognise but understood all the same. Friends. Acquaintances. Even rivals. All names, Oxonians or no, that had fallen in The War To End All Wars. She offered up a few names of her own that had fallen in the war that followed. They were fallen comrades, all - was that not the very reason she had chosen this place herself? To lament her fallen companions? To remember the years that had befallen them all?
Nikola gave her a knowing look. Under all his sarcasm and arrogance he knew her well - perhaps better than anyone; the two of them stubborn anachronisms that time had yet to succeed in eliminating. He had known she would be here, after all, letting Oxford's start of term rush past her, students male and female alike, flowing around her, an eager river burbling around a rock, silent and long established. It was not the first time he had found her in Oxford at the start of the academic year, watching the painfully young faces carry books and bags into through the gates of their respective colleges. Watching and imagining that she could see her friends, even herself, hidden in the excitement and apprehension of the faces around them.
He gave her another glance from the corner of his eye, watching as the names and faces floated unspoken behind her eyes. He missed them too, just as much as she did though his bravado prevented him from admitting as much. Fishing in his inner jacket pocket his fingers gained purchase on their prize and emerged with a silver flask. Holding it out to her he nodded – to the cross, to the town, to themselves. "To missing friends," he said simply.
Idly she noticed that it was engraved with an ornate 'J'. She knew without looking that the other side held birthday wishes for James, knew because she herself had had it made for his 80th birthday. She wondered when it had fallen into Nikola's possession – he had always possessed sticky fingers. She looked at him disapprovingly though her fingers reached for the flask all the same. "It's barely ten, Nikola, we should be setting an example for impressionable minds."
He merely smirked. "Helen, no one is paying us any attention. Besides, I rather think we've made enough of an impression on dear Oxford, have we not?"
She didn't answer, but uncapped the flask and drew it to her lips, only to double take and look at him and the flask in surprise. "Nikola. This is tea."
He snagged the flash and partook of it himself. "Really Helen," he admonished, his voice playfully formal. "It's but ten in the morning, what do you take me for?"
Helen laughed, settling back into the bench, allowing their arms to align and merge in a shared warmth.
"Thank you," she said.
He didn't ask for what, just crossed his leg at the knee and watched the students pass, wondering if they themselves had ever been that young.