I London, 1887
They were all very drunk, if not precisely or entirely on alcohol. It had been a day of challenges that met both with failure and frustration, but ended in success, and all of the Five were celebrating that happy result. As usual, Helen's parlour was their gathering place, with its comfortable furnishings and cheerful fire. Now they were settled in for the evening, dined, wined and expansive with accomplishment.
Nikola watched Helen from his preferred lounging spot on the hearth-rug in front of the fire with his usual expression of appreciation, but with an unusually apparent underlay of puzzlement and wistfulness. James understood the feelings. Helen was absently twining a lock of John's hair through her fingers as he leaned against her knee. They were talking about that day's experiments, but the picture they made was a pattern-card for (apparently chaste) affectionate lovers. Which was not inappropriate; they were engaged to be married. Not that that had stopped any of them from inappropriate feelings or suggestions, or even, occasionally, actions. They were, after all, The Five, and the usual rules did not apply.
Somehow, the subject turned to kisses. Nigel averred, and John agreed that Helen was the most suitable object for the reception of same. To which her response was an immediate "Now gentlemen, if I am to be involved in any kissing, I will choose where, when and with whom." She was smiling, but James — and the rest of them — knew she was perfectly serious.
"Well, if I can't kiss Helen, why don't I kiss James?" Nikola responded, with a teasing sparkle in his eye and an unexpectedly serious note in his voice. Startled, James straightened from his relaxed posture on the settee, but he did not say anything. Nikola uncoiled from the rug and stood over him, eyes bright. "Unless you object?"
James seemed to be having some trouble finding words, but it was fairly apparent that 'no' was not one of them. Helen, John, even Nigel were watching to see what he would do. Throwing caution and self-consciousness both to the wind, James raised his chin and met Nikola's eyes. There was a question in them, a vulnerability very rarely exposed. Not just a tease, then, but something actually wished for. James felt a warmth bloom under his breastbone. "I've no objection at all," he said, tugging Nikola down to join him on the sofa.
It was quite a satisfactory kiss, inspiring similar behaviour on the part of the others. Much later, all of them somewhat rumpled and thoroughly happy, someone was heard to remark, "Nikola wins this one, I think."
Nikola replied, "I think we all win."
II London, 1920
"I don't like the way his heart is racing, Nikola. His color isn't good either." Helen watched James, dozing between them, his breath shallow and not entirely even. "It has to be soon. Are you sure the device will work?"
Nikola reached across James to lay a finger on Helen's lips. "Yes, I'm sure. Nigel is sure, even James is sure, or we would still be working on it instead of here."
"'Defying mortality with the most ancient act of life there is.'" Helen quoted Nikola's words back to him, spoken earlier that evening, after they had all decided that the life-support device would in fact support James' life. "I know. I just worry."
"One more test in the morning, and then we can work out the timing for the surgeries. Soon, I promise." Nikola settled himself down at James' back and pulled the covers up, holding then open until Helen lay back down too. "It will be all right."
Two days later, the most complicated of the operations to bring the life-prolonging device (as James insisted on calling it) to full function was successfully accomplished.
III England, 1945
The Great War had been devastating for England, for Europe, and had changed many things, but the world was still recognizable as the one that the Five had grown up in. The second war, World War II, marked an end to the last vestiges of the old in actions and attitudes unimaginable when they were young. Even though Nikola considered America as much his home as any other, he would always be a Serb, and what the Third Reich was doing to his people — to anyone Other — was unspeakable. Worse than the terror of the ancient vampires. It absolutely had to be stopped. For the sake of everyone.
Forced to stay behind in England when Nigel, James and Helen had gone to make the way safe for the invasion of Normandy, Nikola had paced and plotted and generally been on edge the entire time they were gone. Yes, they had the Autotype, but that only meant intermittent contact, not constant. Not that that had stopped him from thinking up several new things to try once he had a properly equipped lab that was not under a multi-national government microscope, and Nikola had taken some bitter satisfaction in catching that spying lieutenant. He had promised himself that as soon as they were back, liberties would be taken.
James and Helen did return, if a little the worse for wear. Putting John in the mix always did have unexpected results. Fortunately those results had not been fatal, though it had been far too near a thing. A bullet to the leg was never good, and who knew what lasting effect Korba's hands would have on the delicate machinery that kept James alive? Helen would have taken care of the bullet wound, but Nikola would not be satisfied the device was working properly until he went over it personally.
Nigel had met a girl, the leader of the local Resistance, during the course of the adventure, and according to Helen the attraction was mutual. He was staying on the continent to help with the mopping up of the last details, now that France was liberated. That was all well and good.
Two days leave reluctantly given, on the strict promise that Nikola, Helen and James all three stay at the London house to be found if needed, Nikola whisked them away from the depressing halls of their dreary government building. If he had his way, not only would they not be leaving the Sanctuary, they wouldn't be leaving the comfort of either James' or Helen's rooms, either singularly or together.
As it happened, all they did was sleep, but they did choose to sleep together.
IV Bhalassam, 2008
A vampire had heightened senses too; James was not the only one who could estimate the future by calculating the present. Nikola could see that James was running on will-power and determination, hear the machine failing to keep up, the flesh on the verge of failure. Clara and Will didn't know what they were seeing and had no context against which to judge James' failing health. Nikola had helped build that chest-plate. He knew every tick and hum and oiled whir. It hardly mattered that it had been some years since last Nikola heard that particular symphony, or tasted the willing lips kept warm by the machine's efforts and James' formidable will and intellect. It was not just the machine that was straining to keep up. Oh, no mental diminution, but James' mind had always been stronger than his body. It seemed very unlikely that there would be any opportunity for a round of drinks and discussion of the results of the expedition this time, all of them comfortably ensconced in Helen's sitting room.
Nikola almost regretted that he had turned the lights on in the caverns. The pools of bright illumination only made the sharp planes and hollows of James' face more stark, the lines harder to ignore. But the object they were after was too important to be bumbling about in the dark for, and Nikola still couldn't ignore a chance to show off, just a little.
James was letting John support him. John, poor sod, didn't seem to have figured out why James needed the support, and was merely grateful to give it. Helen … Helen was Not Thinking About James, or What Might be Coming Next (Nikola could practically see the capital letters hovering over her head), focussing entirely on the task at hand. Possibly, too focussed. But she couldn't not know. Not when Nikola had picked up on the problem within moments of meeting up with them.
There wasn't much time. But when James' attention had been caught by some fascinating detail, and he let the others go on a few steps ahead, Nikola took the moment offered. He'd been watching for just such a thing, and when James wobbled, and reached out to lean against the wall to try and catch his breath, Nikola was at his side with vampire swiftness.
It was a mark of how fragile he was that James let Nikola hold him up. Neither spoke for a long moment. Nikola could read in James' face that everything he had been mulling over and considering was true. James no doubt could see Nikola's heart on his sleeve. Nikola did not truly love very many people, but James was one of them, and Helen another. It didn't matter that he had never said so, in so many words. James knew.
Trying for lightness, Nikola said, "I've never regretted kissing you that evening."
"Neither have I," James said quietly, raising his hand to brush Nikola's cheek. The dim light of the caverns trembled on the bronze of James' rings. "I have never regretted you, or Helen, or any of it."
A torch beam flashed in their direction, and Helen's voice carried to their ears. "There you are. I was almost thinking you had managed to get lost." Her breath caught a little, seeing them.
"I was noticing this carving, which is older than the rest of the stonework here." James said, straightening but not pulling away from Nikola. "But you are right, it can have nothing to do with our purpose here."
Helen looked searchingly in both their faces, hands reaching for theirs of their own volition. The brief contact raced through them, and for a moment they were as connected as they had ever been. Then they stepped apart, and went back to the task at hand.
V Old City, 2011
After the adventure with Virtual Worth, Nikola watched as Helen once again picked herself up and set about carrying on. Watching her, Nikola was irresistibly reminded of all those wartime posters. That memory led Nikola to think of James, and how he might have handled the situation. Declan was a splendid fellow, doing a fine job of running the UK Sanctuary and carrying on admirably as James' heir, but he didn't have the history the Five had together. Declan wasn't someone who was likely to distract Helen Magnus with a kiss, even if he had distracted James that way. (Or as distracted as James ever got. Declan had been good for James. Though, admittedly, the picture in his imagination of Declan and Helen was quite attractive. Perhaps he'd suggest it to them at some point. That could be fun.) But competent and clever as the man was, the dynamic between Nikola, Helen and Declan was not at all the same as it had been between the Five. The fact was, Nikola missed James. Missed the connection the three of them had together.
"You know, Helen," Nikola said to himself, making quite sure Helen couldn't actually hear him, "I am certain that with this technology, something might be done about James' absence. Bhalassam was in range of the Praxian systems…."
Worth had been convinced that his virtual consciousness would thrive out in the solid world. That a taken-over body would serve him as well as his old one had. It was an interesting idea. And even if the transition from virtual to solid was not as simple as that, there was that very fully realized virtual world. In the mind, would not virtual kisses still be kisses? And other things as real as one wished? And was it not possible that things that were awkward with three physical bodies might be less awkward virtually?
Something to think about, yes indeed.