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Accidental Chemistry

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If she squints until the city lights blur, Maria can almost imagine she's on the Quai Saint-Bernard looking down past the docks to the Seine, her lab only a brief bicycle ride away. When she opens her eyes, and it's a river with a strange name, running through this painfully new American city.

She should go back in. He daughters are fielding the press and well wishers, and it isn't fair of her to have slipped out to the hotel's balcony to stare at the river and dream. Maria has spent her life bringing reality into focus, not indulging in fancy. Another month, and she'll be home, precious radium in hand, her lab funded for years to come. All she has to do is keep smiling

"Profesor Skłodowska-Curie?"

Maria straightens, adjusts her shawl against the chill air off the river, and turns to the voice–a young woman's voice, speaking city Polish. All of her emigrant countrymen have rejoiced to see her, to touch her sleeve if they can; they think she's the mother of mercy here to cure all their ailments, like Missy and the rest of the American press have told them. Maria never knows how to tell them that X-Ray machines and cancer treatments are but happy by-products of her studies, that the science she does is its own end.

The young woman is very pretty–blonde and broad faced, powder not covering her freckles. She has one of those short, swishy dresses that Eve's taken to wearing, this one in blue with no sleeves and no wrap. "Aren't you cold, my dear?" Maria asks.

The young woman smiles, and her cheeks dimple. "This is warm," she says. "I grew up in Starling City. It was foggy all summer." Maria has never seen the Pacific, out past all those days on the train, the great rift in the earth that her daughters had loved so much, and mountains beyond that. Americans travel so easily. "My name is Sara Lance," the young woman tells her, bold as anything.

"Are you with the Radium Fund?" Maria knows the question makes her sound mercenary, but she's tired.

"No, Ma'am," Miss Lance replies. She steps closer, the beaded fringe of her dress rustling against her naked calves. Part of her chignon has come down, and a lock of hair curls across her cheek. "I'm here about the mesothorium Dr. Kirkland gave you."

Maria doesn't know what to make of that, or of the increasingly bizarre story of undiscovered isotopes, malevolent influences, and a deranged researcher. It all sounds like one of Eve's novels, perhaps something by M. Verne, yet Miss Lance speaks with such conviction, that by the time she promises to prove it, Maria finds she half believes her already.

The radium President Harding had presented Maria is in the hotel safe, but she keeps the lead box containing tiny vial of radium isotope in her room. Contrary to all common sense she finds herself leading Miss Lance there.

The boy in the elevator asks for Maria's signature, and looks so sad when she demurs that she writes her name in his little book.

Once in the hallway, Miss Lance says, "You don't seem to get much of a break."

"I am unused to being treated like an aristocrat," Maria admits. Or an actress, and she wants nothing more than to be back at the Institute, she doesn't say.

"It's hard to know who to be when everyone expects something of you, especially when you want something else." Miss Lance speaks as though from experience, and Maria again wonders who she really is, not some West Coast society Miss, surely.

They go into her rooms, and Maria fetches the box. The lights are low and when she opens it, Maria gasps. The vial glows dully, but not with the comforting green of her radium–which has kept her company on so many long nights–but an orange-red, like an ember. She turns on the light, and the grains in the vial appear as they had before. Her heart tugs her towards a lab–any lab, her own dear Institute or the lavishly equipped American palaces she's toured–but if Miss Lance's story is true, then this thing is not safe. "What is this?"

"It's not from around here," Miss Lance tells her. She has a metal canister in her clutch, and slides another vial out, dropping it into the box without touching it, then scooping Maria's out of the box with the rim of the canister. "If I told you any more, you'd figure out the rest." She laughs, and the sound warms Maria's heart. "Anyone ever tell you that you're too smart?"

Maria thinks of Dr. Törnebladh, who presented her first Nobel, quoting the Bible–It is not good that man should be alone, I will make a helpmeet for him. "It has come up."

Miss Lance grins and slips the canister back into her clutch. "Guess you didn't listen to them, huh."

"Not generally, Miss Lance."

"This is fifty milligrams of mesothorium, as you were promised. I wish it could be more," Miss Lance says, tapping the new vial with a fingernail. She has slender hands, but her nails are trimmed short and unpainted, and Maria can see callouses across her palms and scrapes along her knuckles. "Better not to mention the other."

Maria's heart aches to know what it is–this glowing red element, or is it a compound? "I would not turn away from knowledge because it could cause me harm," she tells Miss Lance.

"I know you wouldn't," she replies, and she boldly reaches out to touch Maria's cheek; her hands are cool, but Maria tips her head until Sara's whole palm caresses her, as she hasn't been touched since she came to this country. "There never was anyone braver."

Maria has seen too many children dying of battle wounds to think much of talk of courage, but she says, "Thank you, my dear," and kisses Sara, first her left cheek and then her right. It is a common thing, at home, between friends and family, but somehow Maria is not surprised when Sara catches her face and kisses her lightly on the lips. That, too, makes her heart glow.

"Thank you," Sara says, echoing her. "I wish I could stay longer." She knows what it is to live with expectations contrary to her heart, Sara had said.

Yet she does go, in a swish of beads and tumbling hair, the mystery element tight in her clutch, and Maria finds that for the first time in months she regrets having time to herself.