When she rolls over, the light hits her eyes—bright, and harsh, and quick—and Helena clenches them shut. Tight. Tight. Tight. She takes stock of herself. Hands: free. Legs: free. There is something digging into her back—a seatbelt. She can hear murmured voices from the front seat. Cosima. Delphine. Sister and Not Sister.
She twists around again, trying to angle her body in different ways so that the seatbelt clip won't pinch at her skin. She grows frustrated and yanks at it hard. All that manages to do is knock her down to the floor with a thud.
Cosima turns around then, looking down at Helena and grinning at her. Helena thinks her smile is almost as perfect as Sarah's—but not quite. But her hairs are better. They fall down in thick clumps, tickling Helena's face. “Hey sleepyhead,” she says softly. “We were gonna stop for food soon. You hungry?”
Yes. Always yes. Helena wrestles to upright herself, and plops down happily once she manages it. Delphine looks at her through the rear view mirror—sneaky quick—before turning her eyes back to the road. Helena sticks her tongue out at her anyway, then bops along to the radio. Cosima joins her from the front seat, matching smiles slipping onto their faces.
The slush, gray snow crunch, crunch, crunches under Helena's feet as they walk into the highway stop diner. The cold bites at her skin like wolves, snapping with each new breeze that passes. Helena doesn't make any move to stop her coat from flying open. Let the wolves snap. It wakes her up.
Cosima tugs along her oxygen tank with a bit of a struggle until Helena reaches over and grabs it from her. Helena is much stronger than Cosima, even if she were healthy. Even if her new gaunt body matches what Helena's always looks like, the muscles underneath Helena's skin are bigger. Stronger, used to lifting and pulling things, not hunched over a computer, using her brain. It is easy for her to pull the tank along. But she makes sure not to tug it too fast, allowing Cosima to set the pace. Cosima pauses and makes a sort of strange face at her. Helena thinks Cosima is going to pull the tank back, does not want her help. Helena did something wrong again. Shouldn't have touched it. Instead, Cosima lets out a sort of wheeze and then smiles at her softly. It looks more like Sarah's smile than it did before. Helena gives her a toothy grin back.
Once they get inside, they settle into a booth, and Delphine slips in beside Cosima. Helena spreads herself out on the red, plastic bench. She can see a small hole in the foam near the wall—a piece of spring wire is protruding from it. She digs her finger in it and bounces the spring. Once. Twice. Then she grabs some sugar packets and slips them into her pocket before the waitress comes over.
Delphine smiles at Helena and tells her to order whatever she wants. Helena would have done that anyway, but she doesn't say so.
Helena orders: one cup of coffee (four sugars, two creams) a large stack of chocolate chip pancakes, three strips of bacon, four sausage patties, scrambled eggs, a piece of toast with her choice of jelly and hash browns.
Delphine's eyebrows go up high to her forehead after Helena hands the waitress back the menu. But she smiles, pinched like. Helena sticks out her tongue at Delphine again, then goes back to digging at the hole with her fork.
Cosima orders: one cup of raspberry-flavored herbal tea, a bowl of fresh fruit, three strips of bacon, and some toast. (Helena offers to pick out her jelly for her.)
Delphine orders: one cup of black coffee, an egg sunny-side up, and toast. (Helena doesn't offer to pick out her jelly.)
She watches the two of them out of the corner of her eye. Sarah had explained that Delphine was important to Cosima, and that Helena had to be nice. But she is Not Sister like Felix is, so Helena isn't trying very hard.
The diner is warm, so Helena shrugs off her coat. She has on a t-shirt that belongs to Sarah and it smells like her. Pine, a hint of lemon, sweat, and black coffee. She doesn't know where her pants came from, but they are thick, and warm, and match the color of the mustard sitting on the table. Helena wants to grab the bottle, squeeze some of it out on her pants and paint to see if it really matches. But she catches sight of Delphine shifting around across the booth. So she remains still. Watches.
Delphine twines her fingers together with Cosima's underneath the table. Delphine's long smooth, pale ones and Cosima's, small and raw. Helena frowns, but goes back to digging at her hole until their food arrives.
She picks grape jelly for Cosima and takes the same for herself. Delphine takes strawberry.
Helena eats fast. Bite after bite, after bite, until all she has left are her hash browns. Cosima still isn't even halfway done. She takes small bites and chews on them for ages. Helena watches her jaw go up and down. Breathe. Choke. Chew. Wheeze. Readjust the tube in her nose. Chew.
Delphine watches Cosima anxiously. Helena can see her fingers itching to touch Cosima. Tap, tap, tapping them against her coffee cup instead. They dart out towards Cosima anyway, like they can't help it. Like how sometimes Helena's fingers burn with their want to touch Sarah. Seeing it makes a feeling Helena doesn't have a name for settle down in the pit of her belly. She pushes it down further with her hash browns.
Helena picks up a clump of snow and holds it in her hands as Delphine pumps gas into their rental car. The cold bites at her fingers as the snow melts, and the water droplets look like tears—like her palm is crying. Helena cups the snow till all she is left with is a tiny puddle and her fingers have gone quiet.
Cosima is asleep in the backseat—the traveling wears her out. Everything wears her out. Helena still doesn't know why they aren't taking an airplane to Sarah and Kira. It would get them there faster. But she doesn't bother asking. She doesn't mind the driving.
The gas pump clicks. The sound is loud and final in the still winter air. When Helena looks up, Delphine is watching her. The chill has tinted her cheeks pink and windblown her hair. It looks a little bit like Helena's; tangled and wild. Remembering Sarah's instructions to be nice, she tries out a smile. But from the look Delphine gives her back, it comes out wrong. Pinched and twisted. Too much teeth. Delphine smiles back at her anyway, and Helena can't understand why.
With Cosima spread out in the back seat, Helena is forced to take the front seat beside Delphine. They are both silent for the first few miles. Long, gray stretches of highway roll out endlessly in front of them. The sky is overcast and dull.
Helena decides that America is ugly.
“Do you like Christmas?” Delphine asks her, finally breaking the silence. Helena shoots a glance at her out of the corner of her eye. She looks nervous. Her hands clench at the steering wheel tightly; her knuckles going white. And she bites at her bottom lip unconsciously.
Helena shrugs one shoulder. Reaching out, she taps her fingers across the dashboard lazily. Slowly moving them towards Delphine. “Snow and shopping, what is there to like?” she asks.
“Well, there are presents,” Delphine says, considering it. “And, holiday food is usually very good. And... spending time with family.”
Helena twists her body so that she is facing Delphine. “Convents do not give children presents. Or holiday food,” she says evenly. “And children who live in convents do not have family.” Delphine winces away from her words. Like they sting. “Santa Claus does not come in Ukraine,” she adds, tilting her head she watches Delphine shift further away. Closer to the window. Good. She knows what Helena's fingers can do. Smart girl. “Does he come to France?” she asks, harsher than she intended. Or perhaps not.
“I'm sorry,” Delphine says softly. Helena does not know what she is sorry for, so she curls up into herself, uncomfortable in the front seat. But she has never needed (and rarely ever been granted) comfort in order to sleep, so she closes her eyes and drifts off. The last sound she hears before succumbing to her exhaustion is Delphine's low, melodic humming. A tune she does not know.
When she wakes, it's once again to murmured voices. She can feel that the car is stopped. When she looks to her left, she sees Cosima's fingers interlocked with Delphine's. Delphine is rubbing her thumb tenderly across the top of Cosima's hand—whispering to her in French. She waits, not wanting to interrupt them. But after a few moments, her stomach betrays her. Cosima turns and looks at her, a tired smile on her face.
“We got a room,” she says.
Helena nods and sits up. She follows them out of the car and into the motel room. The third one they've rented since starting all the way back in San Francisco. Helena doesn't know how to drive, and Cosima says she is terrible at it and would accidentally kill them all. Delphine orders them a pizza while Cosima settles herself down on the bed closest to the wall. Helena stands, hands clasped, and watches her. Her fingers itch to touch Cosima like they always itch to touch Sarah. But Sarah never wants to be touched, so instead, Helena holds her own hand.
Cosima pats at the side of the bed next to her, and Helena turns to look behind her. Delphine isn't there anymore. “You silly,” Cosima says with a laugh that sounds more like a cough. Helena slinks forward carefully. She does not let her body jostle the bed. Gentle and slow she reminds herself. Cosima is fragile. Once she has positioned herself beside Cosima, she waits, unsure of what she is supposed to do now. Cosima smiles at her, the exhaustion in her eyes too much for Helena to bear. She leans down and rests her head against Helena's shoulder. Helena goes stock still. “Are you excited for Christmas?” Cosima asks her with a soft yawn.
Helena starts to nod, but remembers that Cosima is leaning against her. Gentle, she thinks. Do not disturb. Instead she says, “Yes,” her voice coming out in a croak from misuse and sleep. She clears her throat. “Very much.”
“It'll be nice to have all of us be there,” Cosima says. Her eyes are closed and Helena is afraid that she is going to fall asleep before the pizza arrives. Her breathing slowly evens out until Helena is sure that she is asleep.
Delphine slips back into the room then, a pizza box in her hand. She sighs once she catches sight of the both of them. “I can wake her,” Helena offers quickly.
“No... well, no, go ahead. She needs to eat.”
Helena gently rubs at Cosima's temple until her eyelids flutter open. “Food,” is all she says, while gently pushing Cosima upright.
The three of them eat in silence. Helena is too absorbed in her food, and the others are too tired to make any attempt at conversation. Once she is finished, Helena climbs off of the bed close to the wall and flops down onto the other one. She doesn't bother to take off her coat before crawling deep under the covers. Helena can hear Delphine and Cosima shifting around for a few minutes. Then the room is pitched into blackness, and the only sound that Helena can hear is Delphine quietly murmuring in French until her voice drops off. And everything goes silent.
When Helena wakes, she cracks one eye open slowly. Cosima and Delphine are in the bed across from her, both half awake, languidly kissing each other. Cosima has the brightest smile Helena has ever seen on her face. And in between kisses, she keeps giggling. Helena decides that she will try much harder to be nicer to Delphine. If she can make her sister this happy, then there must be something good about her.
Helena stays still for a few minutes, allowing them what privacy to be together that she can. But when Cosima starts coughing violently, Helena sits up. Delphine has already grabbed Cosima's oxygen tank and is gently pushing the tube back in her nose. She urges Cosima to breathe and gently rubs at her arms. The concern on her face scares Helena a little, but she hides it. She forces her face carefully blank when Cosima looks over at her.
“You're up,” Cosima says with a smile. “Sleep... okay?” she asks Helena between coughs.
Helena nods, her whole body tense as she watches Cosima hack violently across from her. Delphine rubs small circles on her back as Helena clenches her own hands into tight fists, keeping herself rooted in place. The touching is foreign to her. She remembers that Cosima touched her right away. Putting her arms around her and calling her beautiful. Helena hadn't known what to do with that then. She still doesn't. She has never understood how people could touch each other so easily. Unless it was to hit. Smack. Bite. Tear apart. Never comfort. Never love.
That is what this is, Helena thinks as she watches the two of them together. Love.
When Delphine looks at Cosima, it's the same as what Helena feels when she looks at Sarah. Or Kira. She sits on the edge of the bed, frozen. Her jagged fingernails dig into the soft bit of her palm and she watches as the breath slowly returns to Cosima's body. Once she is able to take a shaky breath of her own, Cosima leans back into Delphine's arms and relaxes. Helena thinks she looks better simply because of the touching. She digs her fingernails further into her skin.
She waits. Her chest tight, hollow. Delphine's hand continues its slow, gentle motions across Cosima's back. Helena feels blood on her palm and quickly tucks her hands behind her back so they won't see. Finally, Cosima pats Delphine's arm in reassurance, and smiles weakly across the room at Helena.
“I'm okay,” she insists. Helena nods, but none of the tension leaves her body at Cosima's words. Delphine's eyes find Helena's, and she nods at her. Once. It's the thing that allows Helena to slump back down into the bed, some of her fear lessening.
Cosima rests back against Delphine, and Helena feels like she can't breathe. It's like the room is too full and there isn't any air left for her. She doesn't want to take any of it away from Cosima, so she jumps up and slips into the bathroom. She opens her fist. It's covered in red splotches. Like Santa Claus' suit. Rudolph's nose. The napkins Cosima coughs into when she thinks no one is looking.
Helena washes the red away.
They play music. Whenever the station they are on starts crackling with static, lyrics dropping in and out, straining to remain in range, they switch to a new one. Helena sings loudly and Cosima laughs, echoing her when she can. When Delphine croons—her voice much more melodic than either Helena or Cosima's—Cosima lights up. Helena watches the transformation in awe. She had thought that Cosima was awake before, but she had been wrong. Her chapped lips crack, smiling wider than they should. Cosima looks at Delphine like she is keeping her alive.
Helena feels a weight settle on top of her chest, but she doesn't have a name for it.
The car goes on for miles and miles and miles. Helena has always traveled, it seems. One place, then the next. But now—now she has a destination. People are waiting for her. That has never happened before.
Everything is the same with each stop. Bathroom, refill gas, get food. Then back in the car the endless gray pavement rolls on. Snow falls, they sing. Repeat.
Cosima sleeps. Helena stays awake now and watches, no matter how tired her eyes get. Delphine drives, constantly glancing over at Cosima whenever she falls asleep.
The two of them fall into a silent agreement to take turns. Helena doesn't know when it happens. Sometime after they left Illinois maybe, she hadn't been paying attention. They've gone through so many states in the last two days. Helena just knows it started out warm, then turned cold. The highway spills out in front of them, unchanging. The tires spin on top of the snow. Heavy and slow, like the whole world is tired. Hibernating. Do not disturb.
Delphine buys her something that's called a chocolate croissant. Helena eats it so fast she throws it right back up again. Bits of flakes and chocolate are added into the piss colored snow at the edge of the gas station. Delphine reaches out on instinct and tucks her hair out of the way. When Helena is finished, she moves to rub her back, but Helena yanks herself away.
“I'm sorry.” Delphine apologizes quickly, hands up in surrender. Her face flinches and Helena remembers how Cosima looks at her. Like love. Like family. (And Sarah made her promise.) So she tries to make herself look small and non-threatening.
“Thank you,” she says, looking down at the slick pavement. “For the...” she points at her vomit.
“Croissant.” Delphine supplies for her, a small sheepish smile on her face. Helena watches her shoulders relax. Her smile tentatively widens. “I could get you another,” she offers. “Perhaps try eating it in more than one bite this time?” From her smile, and the way her eyes dance, Helena knows that this is meant to be a joke. An offer of peace. Her hair whips around her face with the breeze and she waits, shivering, for Helena's response.
Cosima looks at Delphine like she is keeping her alive, so Helena nods. “Alright.”
Three chocolate croissants (two that she doesn't vomit back up) in Michigan.
Apples (two in San Francisco, one in Utah, five in Nebraska [or Kansas, she can't remember] one in Chicago, and two at the Canadian border).
Four soft spongy things called Twinkies in Wyoming.
One cup of coffee (four sugars, two creams) a large stack of chocolate chip pancakes, three strips of bacon, four sausage patties, scrambled eggs, a piece of toast with grape jelly, and hash browns in Iowa.
Three slices of cheese pizza in Illinois.
Bananas (two in Nevada, one in Wyoming, and one in Toronto).
Chips called Cool Ranch Doritos, and a Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds as they pass through Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
Red jello with extra sugar and one cup of coffee (four sugars, two creams) in Nevada.
A hamburger and french fries (two in Utah, one in Detroit).
One whole box of things called Ho-Ho's that turn her fingers brown in Detroit.
And six blueberry Nutri-Grain bars as they pull into Toronto.
They stop one final time to get gas before they cross the Canadian border. Cosima pulls Helena into the station with her while Delphine fills up the tank. Cosima pays for the gas and pulls three red hats down off the shelf with a grin. She sticks one on top of Helena's head and pulls another over her own thick hair. The fluffy, white ball at the end of the hat bops against Helena's head as she walks.
The two of them head into the bathroom together. Helena goes into one stall, Cosima in the other. Helena finishes first and is washing her hands when Cosima starts coughing. It's worse than in the motel room, Helena can tell immediately. Her own chest tightens with fear and she tries to push open the stall door.
“Cosima,” she begs frantically, “open it!” The only response she receives is more coughing, ragged, unsteady gasps for breath that fill up the entire room and make Helena's ears ring. She drops down to the sticky linoleum floor and crawls underneath the stall. Her head knocks against Cosima's knees and her hat falls off of her head. She ignores it and straightens up. Cosima is sitting on the toilet, her pants down around her ankles, gasping for breath. A shaky, panicked look is on her face. Her oxygen tank is by the sink; it was too clunky to bother trying to maneuver into the cramped bathroom stall. Helena jumps up, unlocks the door and grabs it. She shoves the mask against Cosima's mouth, and reaches out awkwardly, trying to mimic the movements on Cosima's back that she's seen Delphine make. Small circles. One, then another, then another. Breathe, Helena pleads silently. Please breathe.
It takes her a few minutes, but finally Cosima's breath evens out. She smiles up at Helena weakly and pushes the mask down off her face and passes it over. Helena takes it and turns around, giving Cosima some privacy but unwilling to move further away just yet.
Shakily, Cosima walks towards the sink, Helena's hat in her hands. “Dropped this,” she says, her voice hoarse as she reaches up and tugs it back onto Helena's head. She tries to smile reassuringly, but it comes out weak and unsteady. “I'm okay,” she insists instead. “Or... I will be.” Helena watches as Cosima turns on the sink and runs the tepid water over her hands. “I'm alright now in any case.” She turns the water off, drying her hands and smiling at Helena again, resting slightly on her oxygen tank. Her smile looks almost normal this time. “Thank you,” she whispers self-consciously.
Helena can only nod.
Delphine smiles at them as they walk up to her. “Santa hat for you,” Cosima says, throwing the last one to her. Her fit in the bathroom is seemingly forgotten. An unspoken agreement between the two of them forged as they stepped outside. Delphine tugs the hat on her head with one hand, clutching the gas pump with the other.
Cosima pulls Helena along, their arms looped together. Touching, Helena thinks. Love touching. Cosima drops to the ground and Helena panics. She scrambles and desperately moves to grab her, when Cosima lets out a laugh and starts moving her arms and legs around in the snow, grinning up at Helena. “Come on,” she says, “snow angels.”
Helena hesitates, then lays down in the snow beside her sister. They pump their arms back and forth until Helena lets out a real laugh. Delphine walks over, matching bright red hat on her head and pulls Cosima up from the ground. She smiles at Cosima warmly, rubbing her back as she turns around to examine her snow angel proudly. Delphine holds a hand out to Helena tentatively, and after a quick glance to Cosima, she allows Delphine to pull her up. Cosima bites at her lip and smiles, looping her arms together with them both.
When they finally pull off of the highway and into the city, it's dark out. Strings of lights are wrapped around the houses as they zip past them. Helena sees Santas and elves and reindeer. Red and green and yellow lights up the night as the snow slowly falls all around them.
Helena presses her face against the window and looks up, hypnotized by the snow. When the glass becomes too cold against her cheek, she sits up. Delphine has both her hands gripping the steering wheel. The snow is coming down thickly and the city traffic is congested.
Finally, the traffic lets up a bit and Helena starts bouncing in her seat. Sarah is so close she can almost taste her. Three days and over two-thousand miles of driving, driving, driving endlessly. And they are almost here. Finally. Helena wonders if Mrs S will have red, green, or white lights strung up around the front of the house. Or what decorations Kira will have put up on the tree. If there will be a star, or an angel at the top. Helena hopes it is an angel. And that Alison made lots and lots of food. She clasps her hands together in her lap to stop herself from bouncing so much.
As they get closer to Mrs S' home, she watches Cosima reach her hand up and rest it against Delphine's headrest. She begins twirling a strand of Delphine's thick curls between her fingers idly. Love touching, Helena thinks to herself with a small smile. She leans back and watches the glow from the Christmas lights shine on her sister's hands as they drive through the night.