When Helen was eight years old, her father took her to the Royal College of Physicians. She clasped his hand tightly, her shoes clacking on the stately, marble floors of the hallway. There were no other children there, but Helen was used to this by now. Her father often took her places there were no other children.
He told her she was clever and that was why the other girls her age did not want to play with her. She didn't mind, mostly. They only wanted to play at dolls or dressing up or having tea, imitating their mothers when Helen had no one to imitate.
Sometimes, though, she wished she could be friends just to know what it was like.
She was used to it, and her father was used to it, but Helen could see in the faces of some of the others in the College that it was not right for her to be there. Little girls did not belong among doctors. If her father noticed the strange, disapproving looks some of the other physicians were giving him, he hid it well.
Just when she was about to disentangle her hand from his, kiss his cheek, and tell him she would find her way home while he finished his business, Helen saw her.
Elizabeth Blackwell was a name that Helen had grown up hearing along with Queen Victoria and Isaac Newton, and here she was.
If Helen was garnering strange looks for being a young child in the realm of adults, Dr. Blackwell was receiving no less for being a woman in the realm of men, but the woman took as little notice of it as did Helen's father.
Gregory greeted her by name, the only one in the building to do so, Helen imagined, and he introduced the infamous doctor to his daughter.
Helen had always imagined Dr. Blackwell to be like the statue of Boudica by Westminster Bridge: huge, wild, and untouchable.
But the woman before her was no such thing. She was only a woman. From within the voluminous folds of her skirt she produced a sweet, which she handed to Helen as many other women had done in her life. Helen's blond curls bobbed as she dipped into a curtsey and mumbled a polite, “Thank you.”
Her ears buzzed so with excitement that she could not hear what her father said to Dr. Blackwell, but after the woman went on her way, and Gregory tugged at Helen's hand to get her moving again, Helen had no more thoughts of going home early.
If Dr. Blackwell could stand the indignant stares of the other fellows of the College, so could she.
Most of the girls Helen's age were obsessed with Mr. Dickens' latest work or Mrs. Browning's newest collection of love poems, spending their days learning household management from their mothers or stitching cushions for charity, Helen wanted nothing more than to follow in her father's footsteps. She had no interest in collecting suitors or attracting young men of wealth and privilege and (almost without exception) very little in the way of intelligence.
What she was interested in, however, was mathematics.
It had become clear very early in her education that the teachers someone of her father's status was meant to hire to educate his daughter simply could not keep with with either her genius or her precociousness. In the end he had to take on most of her education himself, occasionally employing friends of his to help when he was busy with other matters or felt unfit to the task.
Maths was Helen's passion. And while Gregory both shared that passion and believed it would cool over time as she grew (She was, after all, not yet fifteen.), he also believed that it should be fostered by someone more capable than himself.
On her fifteenth birthday, a day when the girls who passed for friends of hers would be celebrating in the garden with music and cakes and lemonade, Helen stepped into her father's study to discover Bartholomew Price sitting in his chair.
Though he gave her a smile that indicated he was merely there to humor Gregory's eccentricities and did not expect her to be able to present any sort of challenge as a student, Helen still felt the thrill of excitement at the prospect of learning under his expert hand.
Years later, when she attempted to gain admittance to Oxford in a degree course and Uncle Bart argued her case to the Hebdomadal Council, she decided she must have changed his mind somewhere along the way.
More and more as she got older, it became clear that whatever they had done with the Source blood at Oxford was having a profound effect on her physiology. On the one hand, it was comforting. For years she had thought that the experiment was a dud, that she had missed out on something the others had benefited from. She had received no physical or mental gifts that were immediately obvious.
But now she was approaching her fiftieth birthday and she looked not a day over thirty-five.
She'd be lying if she were to say that didn't appeal to her vanity, and there were certainly benefits to it.
One of those benefits was standing in front of her now, introducing himself as H.G. Wells and encouraging her to call him Bertie.
He was a friend of Watson's, and James had already warned her that not only was he married, but he had a roving eye and a penchant for beautiful, young women.
“Then, I should be fine on both counts, James,” she'd responded, laughing, brushing aside the warning. Mr. Wells would hardly be the first charming, young man she'd faced at a social engagement. Never mind that she found his stories enchanting and had always wanted to meet him, wondering if he mustn't know some Abnormals to have created such realistic flights of imagination.
Standing in front of him, accepting his compliments as he engaged her in conversation far more intelligent than she was used to finding at such parties, Helen realized that his stories were not the only things she found enchanting, and though she reminded herself again and again that he was married, that even contemplating such a thing was inappropriate, he made her feel things she'd not felt since her engagement to John. And it was a new century with new customs and new mores.
It was, perhaps, time for a new Helen as well.
There were, Helen had discovered, two ways to judge a man: on his person and on his genius. And it was often the case that a man who scored well on one trait would score quite poorly on another. She had also discovered that she was more than capable of forming friendships with those who were geniuses and arrogant pricks.
She was a little concerned that at least one of those arrogant pricks would never forgive her for what she was about to do, but what Tesla didn't know wouldn't hurt her.
Besides, if Nikola was too busy to help her with her project, she could hardly be blamed for finding someone who would.
After the meeting, after Edison finished his work for her, she was more than a little tempted to phone Nikola to thank him for preparing her to deal with that level of genius and that level of arrogance in one person.
She refrained, of course. Some friendships were worth more than personal satisfaction.
Between her father's work and her own, Helen had met nearly all of the greatest minds of all the generations she'd lived through. She'd worked with some, formed friendships with others, and argued animatedly with nearly all of them.
It was rare, anymore, that a mind truly impressed her, inspired feelings of amazement rather than just respect.
It was rarer still for someone with such an amazing mind to make her smile with more than just their genius or make her think with more than just their science.
“You remind me,” Albert said, sitting across from her at dinner, looking like nothing so much as someone's grandfather, “of my first wife, Helen. Such a mind, she had. Beautiful and brilliant. Sadly, things did not work out for us, but such is the way of things, yes? Even love cannot conquer all, whatever the poets would have us believe.”
“You've given up on love, then, Dr. Einstein?”
“Not at all. We do not love because we think it will end happily. We love because we must, because even the imperfections of the beloved render them beautiful.”
She could think of nothing to add to that, so she simply raised her glass, smiled at him and said, “To love, then. Beautiful and imperfect.”