In the parking lot, Delphine watches the blood pour through the gaps in her fingertips, all over her white shirt, her black blazer, the grey cold concrete, and she can feel herself fading, her breath turning rasping, her sight slowly going hazy around the edges, and something catches in her chest.
She doesn’t want to die.
She wants to live, she wants to live, the panic climbs up her throat even as her muscles spasm uselessly around the ragged hole in her stomach. She is a doctor, and she knows the stages of death--tachycardia increasing, her blood pressure dropping, increased perspiration, the pain dropping off as shock settles in--but she is also afraid, some part of her still the fourteen year old girl in the bathtub, alone and watching the water turn red and realizing that this wasn’t what she wanted at all.
Her breath rattles, and she doesn’t know what she’s looking for but she keeps her eyes open, even as she slumps further down, even as the hand uselessly clutching at her stomach falls slack at her side.
She is so, so tired.
She doesn’t want to die.
But oh, she is tired.
She wheezes, wet and gurgling, and she feels the blood dripping down her lip, and she thinks of Cosima.
Cosima. Cosima, who she is doing this for, Cosima, who is safe, Cosima, who she cannot hurt anymore.
Delphine lets her eyes shut, doesn’t try to clear the blood from her throat, doesn’t strain for the sound of someone--anyone--coming by. Instead she clings to the closest thing she has to happiness left.
She clings to the image of Cosima, the two of them on the picnic they never had, red French wine and tasty foods and a field and sunshine. Cosima smiling and laughing, Cosima there, and Cosima loving her.
She feels herself dying.
She lets herself go.
The inside of a car, black leather and blood. Faceless doctors and white lights, hands pushing and pulling at her, a white haired woman with a sharp smile.
“Hush, Doctor Cormier. Rest now. When you wake up it will all be over.”
She blinks, and then there is something running down her throat and hands inside her stomach, beeping machines and the whoosh of a ventilator. A gloved hand grabs her jaw roughly, opens it, there’s the cold bite of rubbing alcohol and Delphine chokes, tries to move and can’t--she’s waking up, increase the sedation--tries to scream and can’t, there’s the bite of a needle and the warm rush of blood, and the cold, leeching fingers of sedative wrapping around her and pulling down, down, down.
And then there was nothing.
“Guess what my favorite enzyme is.”
Cosima giggles, draining the last few drops of her glass of wine before she leans into Delphine’s side, tilting her head up to look into Delphine’s face, the sunshine dappling on her skin. “My favorite enzyme. Go on, guess.”
“Hm,” Delphine says again, twisting her fingers around Cosima’s and holding their hands tight, tight, tight. “Is it...primase?”
“I give up,” Delphine says, taking a long sip from her own glass of wine. “Tell me?”
“Helicase,” Cosima says, grinning wide enough that her tongue sticks out as she falls back into Delphine’s lap. “‘Cuz I can use it to unzip your genes.”
“That is terrible,” Delphine laughs, shaking her head. “Horrible.”
“Yeah, but it worked, didn’t it?”
“Do my jeans look unzipped to you?” Delphine retorts, arching an eyebrow.
“No,” Cosima admits, wriggling in Delphine’s lap. “But I can fix that.”
A drop of red hits the grass. Another, then another, then another, and then the grass was slick and wet, the picnic basket is gone, the bottle of wine is gone, there is nothing in the world but Cosima and Delphine and red, red, red.
“You said you’d never leave me,” and Cosima’s voice is strangely loud, like the only sound in the world. “Delphine, you said you’d never leave me.”
“Don’t leave me.”
There are all the scents around her that are more familiar than any home ever was--antiseptic and alcohol, latex and cleaner. Pain hovers around her like an afterthought, just a bit too far away to actually feel. Slowly, slowly she opens her eyes.
There are birds in the walls--Darwin’s finches, over and over, eyes bright and black and gleaming and looking at her, all at her.
There is a woman sitting in front of the finches, poised and perfect and staring at her.
“Delphine,” she says, smiling around gravestone-perfect teeth. “How good to see you awake again, my dear.”
“W…” The syllable catches in her throat, medication making her mind hazy around a single clear thought.
I’m supposed to be dead.
“What is going on?” The woman fills in, still smiling. “Oh, come now, I’m sure you can piece that together for yourself. You were shot, and we rescued you.”
“You...shot me,” Delphine manages, her tongue feeling fat and clumsy, a sharp pain cutting through her cheek.
“And saved you, dear. That’s an important detail as well.”
“Wh…” She flinches as a flash of pain goes through her cheek again, starting to raise an unwieldy hand to her face. The woman tuts, taking Delphine’s wrist in a hand that looked bird-like and fragile and feels like a vise. “W…”
“Why? Oh, dear, you’re better than that. As if we would let such a valuable scientist escape us through means as easy as death.”
“You...wanted that,” Delphine sputters, and she knows it’s childish as soon as it leaves her mouth. The woman knows it too, her smile wider and making Delphine feel smaller. She’s missing something, something big, and she knows it, but she can’t--
“We got that,” the woman says. “According to the official report, and to all those Leda clones out there. Very tragic, a random shooting--the DYAD staff do seem to run into those quite often. And we got you,” she adds, running her fingers over the inside of Delphine’s wrist in a movement that’s something possessive, something victorious. “And you’re going to do great things for us.”
“I will never--”
“Of course you won’t,” she cooes, patting Delphine’s hand like she was copying something she’d seen in a movie. Delphine recoils, and the woman smiles again. “Hurting, darling? Let’s get you some more painkillers, hm?”
“No--” Delphine begins, but the woman is already standing, handling a syringe with graceful ease. The rush of heavy numbness is almost instant and Delphine hates it, fights it, and the woman just smiles and smiles. “Wh…”
“I’m Doctor Susan Duncan,” she says, and horror and impossibility slice through the drugs to Delphine’s core. “You rest now. We have so much work to do.”
The texture is familiar, the hallway is familiar, and she realizes an instant before she stumbles over the ragged toy dog on the ground.
Maison Cormier. The place she was born and the place she abandoned and the place she never, never returned to.
“Allo?” She knows this hall, knows that her bedroom is behind her, her brother’s just a few feet away, but she can’t see anything beyond the toy at her feet, can’t see anything in the impossible black before and behind her. “Marcel? Maman?” She swallows, trembling a bit. “Papa?”
The silence swallows up her words as soon as they leave her lips, the emptiness around her pressing down until she can barely breathe. Slowly, she bends, reaching out for the little stuffed dog.
Another hand grabs it first.
Delphine flinches back and a little girl steps forward, clutching Marcel’s dog to her chest. “Hello, Doctor Cormier.”
“Kira,” Delphine breathes, outstretched hand curling in on itself like a flower. “Kira, I--”
“KIRA!” The shout comes from behind, and then Sarah Manning comes running, shoving Delphine to the side and sweeping Kira into her arms in a single movement, her back to Delphine. “Kira, get away, it's not safe!”
“Sarah,” Delphine gasps, “Sarah, please--”
A drop of red hits the ground, and another until Sarah and Kira are soaked through with it, their very bones oozing, and there is the rattle of teeth falling to the ground and the drip of water and the sound of coughing loud as thunder, she can't see Cosima but she can see Cosima’s blood joining the pool on the floor, can feel it climbing up her legs and twisting over her like vines, and under it all the sound of gunshots and Nealon’s voice--wherever you think the science is at, you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong.
You're meant to be dead, you're meant to be dead, you're meant to be dead.
“You're meant to be dead.”
Everything goes still for a moment as Kira looks over her mother's shoulder, speaking in her high sweet voice.
“I know,” Delphine whispers. “I tried.”
“You're dead now,” Kira says. “And now there's birth.”
She lifts the toy dog in one hand and raises her other, plunging it into the belly of the toy, fabric ripping and stitches popping, stuffing falling to the ground in clumps. Delphine doesn’t breathe, a moment passes and then Kira stops, pulling more slowly, almost triumphantly.
She clings something in her tiny hand, fat and white but not the cotton fluff that filled the toy. It squirms. Pulses.
Kira holds it out to her like a gift.
“What are you doing?”
The nurse doesn't respond, doesn't even look at her as he tilts her head this way and that, runs a penlight over her eyes and nods before lifting the edge of her shirt--they've dressed her while she was sleeping, in rich silk pajamas, and Delphine wants to vomit--and peels the bandages up there as well.
A faint taste, like blood and fear, lingers on the back of her tongue along with a fading feeling of terror, of something important.
“How long have I been here?” she tries, annoyed at her voice’s rasping. A few short days ago she was the director of DYAD--has she fallen so quickly?
Of course, she reminds herself, did you ever rise at all? A girl playing dress up in suits and making believe she was powerful until it got her killed, and then she couldn’t even manage to die.
Who will protect Cosima now?
“How long have I been unconscious?” The nurse doesn’t respond, doesn’t even look at her as he cleans the stitches there, none too gently. “Who are you? Answer me!”
She spits the words, the tang of nightmares and metal still clanging on the back of her tongue. The nurse stills for a moment, Delphine’s chest heaving with just the effort of the shouting, and then--
The nurse turns her onto her side, still not even looking, as if she does not even exist, and Delphine, before she even realizes she is moving, reacts.
The nurse finally makes a noise, shouting out as Delphine’s arm manages to hit him, but she is injured and exhausted and drugged and he is large, grabbing her arms and pinning them down at her sides. Pain like a new bullet lances up and through her, but she kicks anyway, the image of Sarah Manning flashing across her mind in the instant before the nurse all but lies on top of her and she tries desperately to buck--
“What is going on here?”
Susan Duncan’s voice slices through the air like all the noise in the facility is parting for it. She walks up, unhurried even as her voice reeks with motherly concern. The nurse stills instantly, Delphine panting and trapped beneath him.
“Nurse Johnson, please. Delphine is a doctor, I’m sure she can understand how ill-advised moving is right now.” The nurse hesitates, but a raised eyebrow from Duncan and he is standing back and halfway to the door by the time Delphine manages to catch her breath, one hand splayed protectively over her stomach.
“Now, that’s better, isn’t it?” The door shuts behind the nurse and Duncan moves forward, looking at Delphine the way you look at animals in cages. Mildly curious. Waiting for their next move. Knowing that it is impossible for them to hurt you. “How are you feeling, Delphine?”
Delphine is still gasping on the bed, waves of exhaustion and agony still crashing over her after her brief show of fury. She knows that Duncan can see it--can see how pathetic the childish display was, and how very small and useless Delphine was left afterward--and she hates it with every fiber of being she can muster.
“I do hope you’re not planning another little outburst. You’re very lucky you didn’t pop any stitches,” Duncan admonishes as she strolls around the room. The eyes of the finches in the walls seem to follow her, black glass eyes always sliding past her to land on Delphine. Duncan’s hands linger too long to be causal on the IV bags, the syringes of painkillers laying neatly on the nightstand, on the drawers of the crash cart crouched in the corner of the room. Delphine knows too well the lethal power of all the life-saving equipment, and stays silent.
“I do expect better of you,” Duncan muses as she crosses back over to the bed. There is an ornate armchair next to the bed that Delphine hadn’t noticed, and Duncan adjusts it for a moment before perching there. “Hand picked by my daughter to head DYAD, after all.”
“DYAD was your pawn,” Delphine replies, refusing to feel any sense of pride about having run the institution. Instead there sits a deep pit of humiliation and shame. “As was I.”
“Well, of course.” Duncan waves it off airily, no shame to her, no shame to her. “But quite a capable pawn. Stirring up enough mischief that we had to come in and stop you--most DYAD directors never made it that far. Dear Aldous, for example, was sweet, but never quite got his head out of the clouds, bless. You, of course, knew him far better than I.” The jab at her relationship with Aldous--her ticket onto Project Leda, so long ago now when she was so much younger and saw the locked doors of DYAD as a treasure trove she was itching to claim--doesn’t even land. She has spent enough time stewing over that, and there are so many bigger things at stake than her own reputation and that of a dead man’s.
“Is this supposed to get me onto Neolution’s side?” she asks with all the scorn she can pull together. She doesn’t think about how powerless she is, how small she feels in front of this deceptively frail woman. “You think I can be shot by you, then patched up and with a few kind words I will gladly join you? Work against my--”
She falters, and curses herself for it before she even starts speaking.
“Your what? You don’t have a thing in the world, child, and you know it. A dead mother and brother, a family you walked away from years ago--you have no idea if your father is alive and you’ve never bothered to look.”
Something like horror sticks in her gut. “You--how can you--”
“You threw away every chance you had for one girl who has already replaced you, and you abandoned all those Leda clones the moment you walked into that parking garage and knew you’d never come out. You gave up, you left them, and you know I’m right.”
Delphine grits her teeth, forces her breath not to shudder. She will not show weakness in front of this woman. She will not be dissected by these people, not again.
“And what do you call what you did to your husband? Your daughter?”
Duncan gives her a long, pitying look, and Delphine rather feels like she is drowning. “There is still so much left for you to learn, my dear. You don’t understand the games you play.”
She stands, too easily, too gracefully for a woman so old, and pauses in the doorway.
“Oh, Delphine? There was a time when my daughter laid in a bed like that and begged you for mercy. There is time yet for you to return the favor.”
“Sorry about that,” she grins, spreading the blanket out on the sun-warmed grass with a flourish. “But, I mean, you knew I was late to everything when you met me.”
“You were slow getting ready for our first date,” Delphine remembers, her Maman’s good china clinking as she lays out the plates. “We went to dinner.”
“And we had…” Cosima rummages in the basket for a long moment, dragging it out until Delphine quirks an eyebrow. Cosima finally extracts two bottles of deep red wine from the basket, the cry of ‘ta-da’ silent but implied. “Red wine.”
“Merlot,” Delphine sighs fondly, watching Cosima squint in concentration as she pours instead of watching the wine itself. “2008, from Napa Valley.”
“Nothing compared to the actual French stuff,” Cosima acquiesces with a sigh. “But as a proud San Fran girl, I gotta say that the stuff is pretty damn good.”
“Americans,” Delphine sighs with a shake of her head, and Cosima just laughs again, tilting her head back in a way that is too joyful to be graceful but is all the more beautiful for it. “Someday, we will go to Bordeaux and you will taste a true good wine.”
“What about Champagne?” Cosima counters, feeling warm and ethereal as she teasingly brushes against Delphine’s shoulder. “A place with sparkling wines, and blue sky, and baguettes as far as the eye can see.”
“I will never understand this...baguette fascination,” Delphine sighs, and Cosima giggles something about ‘memes,’ amusing herself enough to snort into her glass of wine. “But I will take you anywhere in the world.”
“Yeah?” Cosima asks, grin so wide and so bright. “Australia.”
“Alaska. In the winter, with like, sled dogs. And a massive cooler of Eskimo Pies.”
“Eskimo,” Delphine huffs with a laugh. “All right.”
“The Mariana Trench,” Cosima challenges. “All the way to the bottom.”
“You invent the technology we need and I will go,” Delphine promises. “I would go anywhere for you, Cosima.”
“What about home?” Cosima asks softly, glancing down. “Would you come home?”
“You are my home.”
Cosima looks up at that, her expression not totally readable but with something strangely and impossibly sad there. She reaches out and feels real and solid for the first time as her fingers land on a specific part of Delphine’s jaw, pressing there insistently. Delphine covers the hand with one of her own, feeling like there was something important she needed to understand, just barely beyond her grasp.
“That sounds nice, Delphine,” Cosima says heavily even as she begins to fade around the edges. “That sounds really nice.”
It almost feels flattering that even shot, they consider her enough of a threat that they need to weaken her more.
The therapy is agonizing, some woman with a single silver eye that never looks Delphine in the face who forces her through exercises meant to strengthen and rebuild her ruined abdominal muscles but really just feel like reopening her wound, again and again. The first few sessions Delphine tries refusing, but they stubbornly send the woman back, time after time, and eventually Delphine gives in.
She wants to be able to run from here, to fight again, after all. She cannot escape from wherever this is if she is atrophied and bedridden.
Still, she cannot help but wonder why Duncan--and it must all be Susan Duncan, Delphine had seen the way the workers had leapt to follow her orders, could remember the massive presence that the tiny woman had commanded--would go to so much trouble for a DYAD employee she’d had shot. She couldn’t help but think about how much simpler it would be for all of them if she’d been left in that parking lot to bleed out.
It wasn’t as if Neolution was getting anything from keeping her alive.Delphine hadn’t been surprised when a man in a suit had set himself up next to her hospital bed and begun to question her about the original genome, about Kendall Malone, about Cosima--and she hated it, the way her name had fallen from his lips like Cosima was just another name, a test subject and nothing special when Cosima was the world--but when Delphine stayed silent and simply stared at him, he didn’t seem bothered--just continued with his questions like checking them off a list before leaving.
He still comes and it is still the same dance, Delphine silent and him unsmilling and unruffled. She doesn’t know how long it’s been--she has no windows, no clocks, just the room and the finches in the walls, watching her--but judging by the ebbing pain in her gut, a few weeks must have passed. There is no way Neolution can be letting her get away with this--she is not stupid, she knows that they want something from her, that they want much more than her silence, but she doesn’t know what.
She knows that she will never let them use her against Cosima.
The examinations are, she feels, a bit excessive. Always, there is an examination of the wounds on her front and back, measurements of reflexes and movements, a penlight flashing across her eyes--things she would almost expect from a neurological exam, not for a gunshot wound.
And always, a penlight run along the inside of her cheek, checking for God-knows-what.
“Your people didn’t shoot me in the mouth, you know,” she quips one day, channeling a bit of Cosima in an attempt to feel closer to her. “I remember. I was there.”
The doctor clicks the light off without any other reaction.
She assumes that the examinations are daily, tries to keep track of them, but under the constant glare of unchanging fluorescents and the same few rooms, the numbers slide out of her head like water. She flirts with the idea of marking the walls, like a convict in a novel, but the walls of her room are glass and stuffed with birds. She has nothing to mark with, anyway.
Duncan hadn’t appeared since that first night, but her presence lingers on every inch of the glass and chrome complex. Delphine can’t help but wonder if she’s been here, under her thumb, for weeks or for months.
She wonders, in her spare moments, what Cosima thinks happens to her. She wonder if Cosima knows that she would be there, at Cosima’s side, in an instant if she could, that if she could, if there had been any other way, she would never have left Cosima’s side at all.
She wonders if Cosima is even alive.
The interrogations continue, but they turn strange. The expressionless man asks her about strange things, like Aldous Leekie and the University of Minnesota and a woman called Krystal--things she remembers like a childhood dream, like she is looking at them from deep, deep underwater. He asks her about Alison Hendrix, about Helena and Sarah Manning and it takes her a long heartbeat to connect the names to the word “Leda” in her mind, to the image of women with faces like Cosima’s. When they are finally done, her head aches and she is exhausted. Once the man and his questions finally leave, she sags almost immediately, absent-mindedly rubbing at her cheek as she escapes into sleep.
When he comes back, he fires questions at her about Gracie Johanssen, Mark Rollins, Felix Dawkins, Helena, Alison Hendrix, Rachel Duncan, Kendall Malone, Sarah Manning. She knows she has to keep a blank face, to tell him nothing, but some of her confusion must show on her face. He doesn’t leave her be, like he normally would, but presses forward. He repeats the questions again and again, names that make her head pound with something like urgency and something like punishment.
He repeats and repeats, and she knows that for Cosima she cannot answer, but her head hurts and something whispers in her head to just obey, and her answer isn’t really an answer anyway, and he starts the questions over again--
“I don’t know!” she bursts, the man falling silent instantly. “I don’t know what you are trying to accomplish here. These…” She shakes her head, gesturing helplessly in front of her, and tells him honestly. “I don’t know who any of these people are.”
The man’s face splits, slow and triumphant, into a grin.
“How’s your head?”
“Better now,” Delphine lies, and Cosima chuckles, not fooled for a moment as she keeps massaging.
“You don’t need to lie to me, babe.”
“Don’t I?” Delphine asks, aiming for flippancy and getting pleading instead. Cosima stays silent at that, hands trailing down Delphine’s face.
“Gracie Johanssen. Mark Rollins. Felix Dawkins. Helena,” the woman massaging her head half sing-songs. “Alison Hendrix. Rachel Duncan. Kendall Malone. Sarah Manning.”
“Stop it,” Delphine moans, curling in on herself. “I don’t want to think about those names anymore.”
“Gracie Johanssen. Mark Rollins. Felix Dawkins.”
“Helena. Alison Hendrix. Rachel Duncan. Kendall Malone. Sarah Manning. Gracie--”
“I don’t know who those people are,” Delphine half-shouts as the woman continues. “I don’t remember--”
“Kendall Malone. Sarah Manning. Gracie Johanssen. Mark Rollins--”
The woman falls silent, Delphine’s head still in her lap, her hand cupping Delphine’s cheek. “Call me by my name and I’ll stop.”
“I--” Delphine freezes, one hand worrying at a stray thread on the bright picnic blanket. “I--”
“What’s my name?” the woman asks again, one of her hands tapping at a spot on Delphine’s jaw.
“Cosima,” Delphine gasps, and it all rushes in at once--enchantée, stealing wine, I thought I could trust you, I’m sick Delphine and coughs like darkness, seizures and bone marrow and a kidnapped little girl, a promise of someday a picnic and je t’aime and Frankfurt and the director of DYAD and I love you, I miss you, and what will happen to her-- “Cosima, ma cherie, of course you are Cosima.”
“Enchantée,” Cosima whispers, not quite meeting the cadence of a joke.
“How did I--how could I--”
“Shh,” Cosima cooes, her fingers still tapping at that particular spot on Delphine’s cheek. Not quite hurting, but insistent. “Do you remember when we met that first time?”
“In the hallway,” Delphine replies easily. “Your French was horrible.”
“Do you remember that night in the lab after everyone was gone, when we put all that shitty pop music on?”
“We danced until sunrise,” Delphine smiles, Cosima’s fingers still drumming against her cheek. “You said my accent made the worst pop bearable.”
“Do you remember when I made you watch ‘Alien,’” Cosima murmurs, “and the monster inside the scientist grew, and grew, and grew, and he didn’t know it was there until it destroyed him from the inside out?”
Delphine stills, even as Cosima’s fingers keep beating like a heartbeat. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. Like a pulse, like--
“I don’t like that movie,” Delphine says, pushing herself up and away. “Why would you--”
She crawls to the edge of the picnic blanket and snatches up a little toy dog from the grass and hugging it to her chest. A bit of stuffing escapes the deep gash going directly through the toy’s core.
“You liked that movie, remember?” Delphine refuses to look around, doesn’t want to look, but she can feel the woman’s eyes on her back, the woman crawling closer. “We watched it together and pointed out all the inaccuracies, and threw popcorn at the screen, and you really got into it and I teased you about it for ages because it was so adorable--”
“Stop,” Delphine gasps, but she can see the scenes that the woman is detailing, flashing across her eyes before vanishing, popcorn and limbs tangled up together and kisses and love and the dreadlocked woman behind her, and her head hurts, and her cheek twinges uncomfortably. “I don’t like it anymore.”
“Why not?” the woman presses, and there isn’t a good reason but she doesn’t like it but the scenes are full of gentleness and love and the dreadlocked woman but something inside her is screaming that the thoughts are bad, the memories are bad, the memories feel safe, the memories make something in her scream NO-- “Are you sure you don’t like it anymore? Are you sure you--”
Delphine jerks to her feet, and then she isn’t outside on a green field anymore, she is in the long dark hallway of a house that she knows has the name Cormier on a plaque out front, the toy dog in her arms and the dreadlocked woman somewhere behind her, somewhere Delphine can’t see but always, always there.
She steps forward, toward the door at the end of the hall, away from the woman, and something in her purrs well done.
She steps again, and again, the door looming and foreboding, the door a hairsbreadth away--
“Delphine,” the woman calls, and Delphine’s fingers stop above the door’s handle. “What’s my name?”
She jerks upright, an echo of pain coming from her abdomen, and she clutches her head in both hands like she could prevent it from shattering to pieces if she just held a little tighter.
A dull, throbbing ache starts up in her jaw.
Cosima. How could she have let Cosima slip her mind? How could she--?
The finches in the walls have black, black eyes, glittering and staring at her.
She has to get to Cosima. She has to find her, she has to keep her safe, she needs to, she--
She needs Cosima.
She lies back against the pillows, tries to ignore the deep panic settled in her gut. She needs--she--
Cosima. She needs Cosima. Thinking the name is like poking at a bruise, but she does it anyway, again and again, reopening the wound and keeping it bleeding so she can’t forget.
Cosima. Cosima. Cosima.
The doctor comes in, bored and expressionless as usual as he probes the places where she’d been wounded, runs through her reflexes, flashes his penlight in her eyes, then takes her jaw in his hand and opens her mouth, squinting inside.
Delphine snakes a hand out and steals his phone.
He seems to linger longer than usual, or maybe she is merely on edge more than usual, buzzing with terror because she was on the edge of forgetting Cosima, of losing herself, and she has no idea what they have done to her, what she has already lost.
She has a brief flash of a grey-haired man, bleeding and dying, telling her that wherever she thinks the science is, she’s wrong.
Nothing in her head makes sense, she tries to think, to remember, and is met with a jumble of images and words with nothing to connect them and a sharp pain in her skull. She can feel herself building up to a breakdown and she forces herself back down, remembers that the doctor in front of her is anything but a friend, remembers the thousands of glittering eyes in the walls.
She needs to find the woman with dreads. Everything else she would deal with later.
Cosima. She needs to find Cosima.
Finally, finally the doctor leaves, and the door is barely shut behind him when she pulls his phone out from where she stashed it beneath the sheets. It lights up as soon as she touches it, bright with artificial light like everything else in this place, and she nearly sobs when it asks her for a passcode. Heart pounding like a caged bird and her cheek throbbing to match, Delphine forces herself to still, forces her lungs to keep breathing as she waits for the screen to go dark again, before tilting the phone back and forth, looking for the smudges of oil on the screen that would show where its owner usually pressed.
When she lights the screen back up and sees the numbers that the smudges correspond to, she almost laughs.
1984, and then she’s in, and her fingers are trembling finely as she dials a number she has no idea how she remembers when so much has fallen out of her memory, when she goes searching in her mind and keeps finding holes, when she has no idea what they’ve done to her, what they’ve taken--
She does not scream, the phone dropping from suddenly nerveless fingers. It makes a muffled thud against the bedsheets, soft and final, as Delphine’s mind or what little she has left that is her own, goes blank with despair.
No signal, no link to the outside world, no way to reach anyone, no way out--
Out. She forces her mind into motion, even as it feels like fighting through thick, syrupy clouds, even as her jaw twitches and aches. If she was keeping a prisoner, she would put her in a basement, in a tomb, somewhere they would be completely cut off from the outside. But people would still need to tend to the prisoner, and they would need ways in and out.
They would have keys.
She slides the phone into a pocket in the silk pajamas she is wearing, the clothes feeling slimy instead of luxurious against her skin, and she stands slowly, casually. She knows there must be cameras in the room, cannot shake the feeling of finches watching her, but moving around the room cannot be too suspicious.
She must have strolled around the room before. She can’t quite remember, and it terrifies her.
The room is all light, wood panelling and bright shelves of birds, but it had still functioned as a hospital room and it was simple enough to find a set of syringes in the nightstand drawer. She runs her fingers along them, still trying to conceal from the most likely spots for cameras that she has the drawer open at all.
They are capped, unmarked, colorless, but it is easy enough to imagine what they must contain. Had Delphine been sicker, she would have guessed they were antibiotics, epinephrine, any sort of drug meant to bring someone back from the edge.
These, kept so close to where Delphine sleeps, within easy reach of any of her visitors, were meant to shove someone over that edge.
They would work well now.
Slowly, not even letting the fabric rustle, she slips a single syringe up her sleeve before carefully, carefully, sliding the drawer shut.
For a long, long moment she stands, stretching for the benefit of the cameras, and reopening the ragged wound of her mind for herself.
Cosima. Cosima. Cosima.
Her cheek aches insistently and she ignores it, climbing back into the bed.
The man they send to interrogate her enters.
It is easy, almost disappointingly so, in the end. She waits until he sits and then flings herself at him, syringe uncapped and outstretched. Her wounds have healed enough that she can ignore the pain in her stomach, but not enough that she should win this fight--he is trained and strong while she has been rotting in this sterile white tomb for God-knows how long, but she has surprise on her side and once, before all of this she was a doctor, and muscle memory is not so easily forgotten.
The needle lands squarely in his neck.
He kicks at her, shouts until she puts her hand over his mouth, tries to throw her off, struggles and struggles until he doesn’t.
When Delphine stands up, he looks so small.
Cosima. Cosima. Cosima.
She snatches his keycard off his belt and launches herself at the door, scrabbling at the knob. The keycard almost drops from her fingers and she almost screams, hyperaware of the cameras that must be watching, the small time she has ticking down, down, down.
The light on the lock flashes green and she runs, into a matrix of sandalwood halls and locked doors, slamming the keycard against every electronic lock, looking into every room and not even finding a window.
There is a moment when she is standing in the middle of the hallway and she forgets why she is there, why she isn’t back in her safe room, safe in the heart of Neolution.
She blinks and it passes, leaving her alone in the hall, feeling small and like she had already lost, was already dead but no one had bothered to tell her yet.
Like hell is empty, and all the devils are her.
She turns, and at the end of the hall there is a door with a window, a window, and she is running for it, clawing at the door like an animal before she remembers of course, she has a key, and the door swings open and there are stairs and she is climbing.
“Cosima. Cosima. Cosima.” She can feel the thoughts trying to slide out of her head. She whispers the name like a talisman, clings to it like a child clings to a stuffed toy with all the faith in the world that it will keep her safe from the monsters. Cosima. Cosima. Cosima.
She is climbing and climbing and climbing, waiting for the sirens, waiting for the cavalry, whispering the name of the woman with dreads, the one thing solid in her mind, and there is a door that she bursts through to find a hallway, and at the end of the hall there is light, there is hope, the phone is in her hand and there is light at the end of the hall and she runs and she runs and she runs--
And Susan Duncan steps out from around the corner.
“Delphine,” she says, and Delphine could rush at her, could shatter this brittle woman, but everything in her freezes, the keycard and phone clutched in suddenly-numb hands. “Hello dear.”
She jerks, a small aborted step forward, and Duncan sighs a little, shaking her head.
“You don’t want to fight me.”
The words are like a wave, washing away everything in their wake, and Delphine blinks, confusion sinking in. “I don’t want to fight you,” she echoes, and the words ring true in her ears.
“Give me the keycard,” Duncan orders, and the card is in Duncan’s hand before Delphine even registers the order. It’s like an instinct, a reflex--an order comes, and her body complies. “And the phone.”
There is a small part of her crying out, shouting no, but the phone drops into Duncan’s hand, and the part of her that is calling is muffled, too soft to hear clearly.
“I don’t want you pulling a stunt like this again, Delphine,” Duncan says, and she nods. Something is wrong, she thinks, the way that you see mirages in the desert from the corner of your eye, gone as soon as you get near. Something is terribly wrong.
“Who were you going to so much trouble to try and call?”
“I--” She blinks, and sees the hazy image of a beautiful woman, with dreadlocks and glasses and a sun-like smile; she blinks again and she is gone. “I don’t know.”
“Good,” Duncan says, almost fond. She reaches out and pats Delphine’s cheek, just above her jaw. Her eyes glitter as she smirks. “Good girl.”
It is pitch-black, like sunlight was only ever imaginary here, and damp like being underwater, like being between oceans. The walls around her are soft and mold around her like blankets in the little space she’s carved for herself. They move around her constantly, sometimes almost-but-not-quite still, sometimes almost violent. They surge and ebb around her and she stays constant, nestled warm and safe between.
Surge and ebb. Surge and ebb. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
She burrows deeper, latching tighter onto the walls around her, feeling them flinch and settle. Nothing can dislodge her now. She is safe. She is home.
The walls surge and ebb, and so does she. But where they stay the same, where they move to accommodate her, she grows, she strengthens, she wraps her tendrils tight and she doesn’t, doesn’t, doesn’t let go.
The walls pulse around her, and she pulses with them. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum.
Her cheek pulses.
They give her clothes--white pants, white blouse, white white lab coat--and tell her to put them on and she does. They tell her to follow and she does. They tell her to sit and work, and she does.
She thinks to ask one of the men what the work is on, and he pauses, blinks.
Project Leda, he says, and then Don’t worry about it.
And she doesn’t.
The work is good, natural, it falls out of her fingertips before it even enters her head. They ask her about epigenetic tumor control, respiratory illnesses, immunosuppressants and gene therapies and viral vectors, they tell her to do this research, answer this question, and she does, and it’s good.
They ask her about parasites and parasitoidy, have her work with some new worm, make it more effective at latching onto hosts, at secreting its poison at rates fast enough to poison the host but slow enough that the symptoms are near-invisible.
They ask her to make the parasite’s defense mechanism more effective, to help breed a worm that will kill the host near-instantly if the worm is disturbed, and she does.
They tell her not to worry about what the worms are for, and she doesn’t.
She doesn’t worry, doesn’t disobey, but she does get flashes, sometimes--they ask about host-parasite relationships and she hears a woman say Oh, cool, I’m in evo-devo, a tech trips and chips a tooth and she sees her own hands holding a child’s tooth like it’s made of gold, a tissue in a trash can with a hint of red, and she feels a horror and sadness and guilt too strong for the fact that one of the assistants must have had a nosebleed--but they are gone as soon as she sees them, always sliding away, away, away from her, always out of her reach.
Don’t worry about it, they say, and so she doesn’t.
Duncan comes to visit once, bone-white heels clicking a bone-like sound against the tile as Delphine freezes in her work and moves to stand.
“Keep working,” she says lightly, and Delphine sits down and pulls the slide back to her, already clicking through the latest page of test results.
Duncan doesn’t leave.
“How are you doing, Delphine?”
“I’m well, Doctor Duncan,” she says, hands still working.
“That’s very good to hear, my dear. You were quite unwell when you came to us, do you remember?”
Delphine hesitates, her mind reaching and finding nothing there, but there should be--shouldn’t there be--
“Don’t fret about it,” Duncan says, and Delphine relaxes instantly, hands falling out of the fists they’d clenched into. “You don’t need to think about that at all, dear.” Duncan reaches out and pats Delphine’s hand, her palms still stinging from where she’d dug her nails in. “I just wanted to check on you, and return a few of your things.”
Duncan bends over and places a bag on the lab bench, a black leather purse that looks all wrong in this white and light place. In her mind’s eye, Delphine sees a car park, grey concrete, red blood, and forgets it.
“Do you recognize it?”
“No,” Delphine admits. Something about the bag makes her recoil, makes feelings of desolation and fear and love and everything complicated and unpleasant rise inside her.
She turns away.
“That’s quite all right,” Duncan says, smiling with her graveyard-perfect teeth. “It is yours, so you may do what you like with it. Burn it, if you’d like. I just wanted to make sure you had all your things with you. Go on, check the contents. Is anything missing?”
Delphine opens the bag and finds it mostly empty. A hairbrush. A personnel file for a woman she doesn’t recognize. A pack of cigarettes, a slim silver lighter. An empty specimen jar.
If this was all she’d had when she’d been found--when the people here had saved her and healed her--what a sad person she must have been, out there.
She must be so much happier now.
The thought sits in her head, logical and heavy and cold and wrong, and Delphine blinks.
“I think--it must all be there.” She nods to herself, deciding that must be true. “I doubt I ever had much.”
“Very good.” Duncan smiles like a graveyard again. “That’s all I wanted to check, dear. I wanted to make sure you had everything in case you were ever thinking of leaving us.”
Delphine blinks. Leave here--leave this basement, the lab, leave Neolution entirely to go--where?
What exists outside of here?
Something inside her whispers, flickers of images and emotions like a candle flame--horror and guilt, betrayal and being betrayed, a feeling too big and beautiful and terrible to name, gold rings catching the light and gold laughter catching in a throat, and a woman, a woman with dreadlocks--
A voice in her head shrieks, and she forgets.
This place is safe and good and warm and good and where she belongs and where she must stay, and there is nothing beyond here, nothing worth thinking about, and they said don’t worry, they said don’t worry.
Something in her cheek pulses and jumps.
“Why would I ever leave here?”
She cannot see their faces, only a soft blurring in the shape of a visage, and a part of her whispers that she should be afraid. A larger part of her feels safe, at home, resting for the first time in a very long time.
She can see their hair. The woman has soft blonde curls, pulled into a low bun, a few locks escaping to frame where her face should be. The boy’s hair matches the woman’s in color and texture, though his curls are wilder, untamable and messy in that way children’s hair usually is. He is very small, pressed very close to Delphine, a raggedy toy dog clutched to his chest.
“Are you ready for your story?” the woman asks, a smile in her voice. The boy nods vigorously, and Delphine nods along with him, leaning forward a bit despite herself. This feels familiar, even if she cannot make out any details in this room, even if she has no idea where any of this came from; somewhere, her bones remember this. “Good. Tonight, the story is about a cricket and Paragordius tricuspidatus.”
The boy snuggles himself even closer to Delphine, somehow, his entire body rapt. Delphine wraps her arm around his shoulders and he almost feels real.
“Once upon a time, there was a little worm called Paragordius tricuspidatus, and once upon a time there was a little cricket. The little cricket was a good little cricket, even if her life was not always happy and even if her actions were not always good. The little cricket always did her best, and the little cricket followed her own rules as best she could, and protected the other crickets by bringing them food and hiding them from the animals who would gobble them up. The most important rule for the little cricket was to never, never, go to the water. Even though the water looked so clear and lovely, the little cricket knew that the water was deep and dark, and the little cricket could not swim. The little cricket knew that if she ever went into the water, she would drown, and then who would happen to all the other crickets then?”
“What about the little worm?” the boy next to her breathes, clinging to Delphine like a limpet.
“Paragordius tricuspidatus,” the woman says, “was a very nasty, cruel little worm. But he was very good at hiding himself away. So one day, when the little cricket went near the water to search for food--you see, she would creep as close as she could to the water, for that was where the best food was for the others, even though she knew that she would never, never, go into the water--Paragordius tricuspidatus hid itself away in a tasty morsel. So when the little cricket ate the food, the worm saw his chance and buried himself deep inside of her, and he was so small and buried himself so deep that the little cricket did not know he was there at all.”
Delphine’s cheek twinges uncomfortably and she frowns, taking her arm away from the boy so she could rub at it.
“But even though the little cricket didn’t know he was there, the worm was very clever. The worm whispered to the cricket, so soft she almost couldn’t hear it, but not so soft that she couldn’t listen. The worm whispered to the cricket kind things, little promises, all things to make the cricket feel safe and warm and whole, even as the worm ate.”
“What did the worm eat?” the boy whispers.
“Memories. Little bite by little bite, the worm ate up all the cricket’s tastiest memories--all the tastiest memories are the memories full of feelings. All the times the little cricket was very happy, or very sad, very guilty or very afraid, all those times when the little cricket felt love--all those memories were the yummiest to the worm, and it nibbled them all up, slow enough that the little cricket didn’t know the worm was eating, but quick enough that the worm could grow fat and strong. But soon, the worm had eaten all the lovely memories, and the worm wanted to go back into the water, where he was born.”
“But the worm was inside the cricket,” the boy frowns, intense concentration in his voice. “And the cricket would never ever go into the water. The cricket said she wouldn’t. The cricket promised all those other crickets that she would never, ever, ever go into the water!”
“The cricket did promise,” the woman agrees, “and the cricket meant her promise. The promise was a special promise, the kind that nobody breaks. But the worm had gobbled up so much of the cricket, all those memories and thoughts, all that love, that the cricket wasn’t really the cricket anymore. Just a cricket skin that the worm was living in. So now, when the worm whispered to the cricket to go into the water, the cricket listened.”
“But the cricket can’t swim.”
“No, she can’t,” the woman answers the boy, but her hands find Delphine’s and cling, painfully tight. Delphine’s cheek jumps and twitches. “So the cricket goes into the water and drowns, without even realizing she’d gone into the water at all. And the worm shatters the cricket into little pieces and swims away, fat and big and healthier than before.”
“But--” Delphine chokes on her words, clutches the boy as much as he is clutching her, but forces the question out anyway. “What will happen to the other crickets?”
“Monsters will eat some of them up,” the woman says, not unkindly exactly, but in the way of someone telling the truth. “And the others will wither up and blow away, like dust in sunbeams.”
“No,” Delphine says, soft and unbelieving, and then shouting. “No! That can’t--the others can’t--she can’t--” She sits up. Her head feels like it is shattering into little pieces, her cheek feels large and grotesque and not her own. “I don’t like that story, I don’t--I don’t like it at all!”
The room is gone, the boy is gone, the woman is gone. Delphine is crouched on a red and white gingham blanket, in a grassy field with nothing around. The sky is violently blue. The sunshine hurts where it touches her skin.
A new woman asked the question, a woman with black glasses and dark dreads. She looks seriously into Delphine’s eyes, and Delphine looks away.
“It--it’s a bad story. It shouldn’t happen.”
“I totally agree.” The woman with dreads sits next to Delphine, leaning back and looking up into the sky. “You’ve heard that story before, you know.”
“You have. Paragordius tricuspidatus. You found it in a book of host-parasite relationships in the school library when you were fifteen, next to Leucochloridium paradoxum and Schistocephalus solidus. It was the most fascinating thing, you thought. These worms that could control the minds of their hosts.”
Delphine’s cheek throbs, fast and hurting.
“I don’t like that idea.”
“Oh, you loved it. The one book you kept out past its due date. You really were a very good girl. Followed your own rules as best you could.”
“I don’t like it anymore,” Delphine snaps, her breathing quick and her heart racing, with no idea why.
“Why don’t you like it anymore?” the woman with dreads presses, and Delphine squeezes her eyes shut tight. “Why does that story scare you so much?”
“I--I don’t--I don’t want it to happen. It can’t happen,” she admits in a rush, the words making no sense but feeling so true. “I want to change it.”
She opens her eyes and the woman with dreads is suddenly there, her face directly in front of Delphine’s, her hand so warm and solid and real on Delphine’s aching cheek.
“Okay. Then will you change it for me, Delphine?”
The words are out of Delphine’s mouth the instant the woman with dreads asks. She has no need to mull them over, to hesitate. Her bones remember the house with the woman and the boy, the bedtime story routine, the feeling of holding the little boy close to her. Her heart knows this unfamiliar woman in front of her, knows the words that Delphine is saying are true.
“For you, anything.”
She can feel the dream slipping away with every heartbeat, can feel how very easy it would be to simply let it go. There is such a large part of her that wants nothing more than to let the dream go, to close her eyes and reopen them and find the dream gone like it had never existed, like the woman with dreads never existed at all.
But she is a scientist. Something in her whispers soothingly, tells her how easy, how good it would be to forget, but this is knowledge, this is data, and that is something she won’t let go of.
She cannot quite see the woman’s face, cannot pull the details from her mind, but she knows that the woman with dreads is something she can’t let go of.
The room feels small, pressing closer, the birds in the walls all with sparkling eyes and staring at her. She thinks of crickets and drowning, and dust in the sun.
Sunshine feels like a new thought, something foreign--and something in her recoils from the idea, burrows away, seeks the darkness and artificial light, and deep in the pit of Delphine’s stomach something feels so very off.
The thought takes an achingly long time to piece together, each part pulling away from her, shaky and small and ready to shudder apart in an instant, but for the smallest of moments it is there, it is fragile and it is painful but it is there and it is hers.
Something is terribly wrong.
She blinks and she is dressing, white pants, white blouse, white white lab coat, a technician knocks on the door and tells her to report to laboratory three, she blinks and she is there, they are handing her slides and she is running an analysis, and everything between those two points is white, white nothing.
She scrabbles at the blankness, slams herself into it over and over and it hurts, her head hurts and she drops a sample, the clatter against the ground sounding too loud, too sudden.
“I’m sorry,” she gasps, and one of the technicians smiles, all teeth, and hands it back to her.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, and she doesn’t. She can’t. She tries and tries until the throbbing in her head builds and builds into lightning, white-hot and blinding, and she blinks and it is gone.
She can’t remember what is gone.
She is sitting alone in the lab, the last few technicians turning off a few machines in a far corner before they leave for the day, and there is some faint feeling of wrongness deep within her. Slowly, slowly, like her mind is beyond her reach, like every part of it is shuddering away from her, she picks up shards of thoughts and pieces them together, and she can feel them cutting into her and her cheek is pulsing and she keeps going, keeps going, doesn’t let go of this.
It is finally whole and she grabs onto it with both hands, grabs tight and lightning lances through her entire body and she chokes, but she holds on, she holds on.
Something is terribly wrong.
“Everything okay, Doctor Cormier?”
She startles and the technician smiles, all thinned lips and dignity, and Delphine dredges up a smile to return, pasting it over her pounding head, her shaking hands--when did her hands start shaking?
“Fine, thank you. I--I think I need some rest, that’s all.”
The technician nods, a frown in her eyes even as she pats Delphine’s arm, her hand warm and smelling of antiseptic.
“Of course. I’ll give Doctor Cho a call as well--I’m sure she’ll want to check up on you. You’re very valuable here, you know.”
“Of course.” The technician smiles again. Her eyes, one dark, one silver, glitter in the white fluorescents. Something tells Delphine to trust her, to lean into her, to relax into this world of chrome and brightness. She is safe here. She is content here. There is nothing nothing nothing beyond here.
The jagged edges of her thought press into the gaping wounds in her mind.
Something is terribly wrong.
She keeps eye contact with the technician, smiling gratefully, and steals her keycard.
“Excuse me.” Delphine stands, walks smoothly to the door, her heels clicking like teeth against the tile. The white door of the lab closes easily behind her; no one comes out to stop her, no one stops to question her.
She wants to stagger to the side, to collapse to the ground, to shut her eyes and cover her ears against the buzzing in her head, the shouting in her mind that is almost all she can hear--this is safe, this is where you belong, this is where you will always be, your world starts here and ends here, this is where you need to be--the whispering in her mind that clings on, that hurts and hurts--something is terribly wrong something is terribly wrong something is terribly wrong. She wants to scream.
She keeps walking, her steps unfaltering. She smiles at the few people she passes in the hallway, everyone on their way out. She doesn’t dare blink.
She doesn’t worry--she doesn’t, she can’t, it falls away the moment she gets close, crumbling like dust under her fingers, and the pain in her head spikes to the point where she thinks she might be crumbling too--like she might just be a doll of dust and dreams down here, ready to blow away in an instant.
She tries to remember, she tries to come up with an idea of what she has forgotten, she tries to come up with an idea of who she is and she finds white nothing, again and again and again, like there isn’t anything to find, like they opened her up and painted everything over, plucked it away with surgical precision so there isn’t even a scar for her to claw open, like none of it had ever existed at all. Like she never existed at all.
The thought is like a scream, like a cry, like a lonely child calling out in the night and like a grown woman on her knees who’d lost everything.
There is so little in her head that it reverberates through her, over and over, thrumming in her ears, in her head, in her heart. Why? Why? Why?
She can ask that--ask it again and again, without the pain rising above the buzz arcing across her skin, without her hands trembling hard enough to break--why can’t I worry, why is so much of me nothingness, why have they done this to me?
Why do I want to fight it?
Dark dreads. Black glasses. A woman like sunshine with a bright, warm smile, like a balm even as the white-hot fire coursing through her builds and burns. Black glasses. Dark dreads. The question why? They hurt but they are hers, they are all she has, holding onto them feels like clutching white-hot coals to her chest but they are solid, they are there.
She doesn’t want to leave this place. She feels content here. She feels safe here. She can’t imagine anything beyond this place.
But she asks why?
She has ended up in her room, the finches are everywhere with their black eyes gleaming, their eyes watching, watching, watching.
The black leather purse that she thinks has always been there (why does she think that?) sits next to the bed, so very very out of place. She doesn’t want to touch it, feels repulsed at the sight of it--it doesn’t belong here, it is so very out of place here.
It contains all things she doesn’t recognize--an empty specimen jar, a personnel file for a woman she doesn’t know, a pack of cigarettes, a hairbrush, a slim, silver lighter. She runs her fingers over the items, over and over, asking why they were there, why someone had left them for her, why they were important enough to keep.
They had to be important. They had to be important to her, sitting here in her room, among the pale sandalwood furniture and white sheets and the finches. She doesn’t want them, she feels wrong for touching them, wrong for thinking about them, wrong.
She grabs the purse, leather black like the black glasses she keeps seeing, her hands clammy around the handles. The door to her room isn’t locked, opening easily under her trembling fingers, and why should it be locked?
Why should she want to escape?
Why does she want to?
The halls are lit up, pale wood and locked doors, and they swim around her as she moves forward, bending to close in on her and then being strangely far away when she reaches out a hand to steady herself. Pain slams into her head in the same rhythm as her heartbeat, pounding on her skull like something is trying to burst out of it. Her knuckles are white around the purse; her heels are white as she staggers forward, half-sagging against the door at the end of the hall as she presses the stolen keycard to it.
I don’t want you pulling a stunt like this again, Delphine, says a voice that isn’t hers, and Delphine gags. Turn back, turn back, turn back, joins the cacophony, whispers layered over and over and swirling around each other until they are loud enough to make her head burst, fading and growing and fading in waves, in a pattern she cannot trace.
Black glasses. Dark dreads. Why?
She pushes herself up the stairs. One by one by one, everything heavier with every step, everything pulling at her, screaming at her. You don’t belong out there, turn back, you’re happy here, turn back, not another stunt Delphine, turn back, turn back Delphine, stop Delphine, turn back, STOP--
She stumbles off the staircase, stumbles forward, presses the keycard to the very last door.
The light flashes green. The door opens.
“Hey--” A man in a crisp uniform startles, stares at her like he’s trying to place her. “Hey aren’t you--”
Delphine presses her hands to her ears. Black glasses. Dark dreads. Why why why?
She runs and she runs and she runs, out of her heels, over sharp things she doesn’t look down at, through the screaming-pulsing-burning in her skull.
She runs and she runs until she falls.
She goes sprawling in some dark, dirty alleyway, choking on her own efforts to pull in air, her vision going hazy from the sheer amount of agony that’s somehow been stuffed into her head. She pulls herself to her knees, wobbles, and vomits.
Spitting and using the wall so heavily for support that she’s practically sliding up it, Delphine slowly makes her way back to her feet. Swaying, she makes her way to the mouth of the alley, listening as best she can beyond the deafening discord in her head. She can’t see anyone following her for the moment. She doesn’t hear anyone shouting orders for her to come back, at least nobody besides the voices in her head.
Her mouth tastes horrible.
She fumbles in the purse, letting the wall take her weight again. The motions of lighting a cigarette, sliding the lighter into her pocket, and taking a long pull on it come to her naturally. Her hands remember. The smoke is bitter and acidic and hot, and she thinks if she can hold her breath a little longer, keep that taste, keep that smell, she can remember something hovering just around her, she can find something that is just, just beyond her--
Pain, sharp enough to cut through all the other pain, spikes in her cheek and startles her into a cough, the cigarette falling to the filthy ground. Reflexively, she presses a palm to where it hurts.
Something writhes beneath her skin.
She is stumbling, then falling back, both hands pressed to her cheek, her head hurting and hurting but her mind frozen and blank, and the thing in her face keeps moving in an angry frenzy, and something is in her face, something is in her face, and she wants to vomit again.
She wants it out.
The whispers in her head reach a fever pitch, and she suddenly wants to pull her hands away, to leave it be, to forget it is there at all, to let it stay safe and warm in the dark and the damp, and she retches again.
It is then that she notices the blood dripping down her face, her own fingernails slicing into her cheek.
No, the whispers scream, and then NO, and her hands are shaking and her teeth are chattering but that doesn’t stop her skin from peeling away when she pulls, gasping and shuddering and hurting but pulling and clawing and--
She touches it.
Warm, almost hot, wet and slick with blood, her blood, a firm exoskeleton underneath the gore, it cannot be more than a few inches long.
It pulses in time with her heart.
Or her heart pulses in time with it.
And then it bursts.
For a moment it is a blur of tendrils, impossibly long, whipping her across the eye, burrowing into her hair, wrapping around her shoulders and throat and hand, several fleeing back beneath her skin and forcing themselves across veins and muscles and tendons.
And then they begin to burrow.
They begin to squeeze.
They turn to razors, burning and constricting, and she would scream but she can’t, she still has a fistful of her own flesh in one hand and she pulls on it, tries to pull away but the tendrils won’t snap, and even as she catches a glimpse of the fat, pulsing thing buried deep in her skin, something in her whispers put me back, keep me safe.
She can’t breathe, she can’t think, the tendrils are still pulsing even as they cut, even as they smother, and she can’t breathe, she can’t breathe, she is going to die here, and a small strangled noise that tries to be a scream manages to escape.
Her free hand manages to find the lighter.
She cannot see the lighter, cannot even see the alley in front of her as her sight slowly greys and narrows, but her muscles remember.
She hears the click of the lighter opening, and she plunges it into her face.
The tendrils release, flailing, and she sucks in air desperately, violently, not daring to let go of the lighter or the thing while the thing still moves.
The smell hits her a moment later, acridic and faintly industrial and something else that along with the sound--bubbling, popping noises as the tendrils writhe and slowly grow limp--makes her think of fatty frying bacon. It stills at last, and she rips it out and away, throwing the lighter with it and watching it go up in flames on the alley floor, a worm that wasn’t just a worm, and she falls to her knees again.
The whispers in her head quiet to the echoes of screams.
“Fucking hell,” a voice, thick with a British accent and with horror, comes from the shadows of the alleyway. “Christ, lady, you need a hospital.”
Delphine jerks backwards, hitting her head hard on the wall hard enough for her vision to white out for a moment--he’s hunched over, a rotting jacket hanging off of malnourished shoulders, but all she hears is hospital and all she sees is white eyes white coats windowless rooms.
“No!” she shouts, weirdly loud in her ears, and the man freezes where he stands, holding his hands up in surrender.
“Okay, okay! Listen, I know a free clinic then, no questions, you’ve gotta go there at least. You’re hurt,” he adds when Delphine continues to stare.
“Oh,” she whispers. Her hand is still pressed to the side of her face, but now she notices the slick, hot feeling of blood on it, still streaming steadily from her face and down her arm, dripping to the ground. The smell of burning flesh still hangs heavy in the air, and her white coat is stained from the shoulder down in a deep red. “Oh.”
She slumps forward. She thinks he catches her.
She opens her eyes and sees fluorescent lights set in a white ceiling, the smell of antiseptic cloying in the air, and a man looming over her with a syringe, and falls back into despair so easily it’s as if she never had a chance at all.
“Oh, you’re awake,” the man says, thick Irish brogue folded around the words, and Delphine surges forward before she can think, grabs his wrist and grits her teeth and tries to force the needle away from her face, into his neck. He shouts, grabs her wrists, forces her back onto the bed before she can blink, holding her down like she is nothing at all.
“Hold still,” he growls, and her arms fall down, the syringe clatters to the ground, and she clenches her teeth to muffle a sob. The man sighs, swiping the fallen needle from the floor and tossing it into a biohazard bin before pulling out a fresh one and a medicine bottle of clear liquid. Delphine tracks the movements, blinking through furious tears, her fingers limp and unmoving at her side. The man sees her staring and sighs again.
“Look,” he says, holding the syringe in front of her face. “This is a painkiller. You want it. I need to cut the dead tissue and blisters off our face. It’s going to hurt.”
Delphine refuses to drop his gaze until finally he looks away first, jabbing the needle into Delphine’s face with surprisingly little unnecessary force. She stares at the ceiling instead, trying to wish herself anywhere else but having no idea where anywhere else would be.
“Let me know when that goes numb, and I’ll get started,” the man says gruffly, throwing away the syringe before pulling another tray of medical instruments toward him. His words hold still are still rattling in Delphine’s head, keeping her limp against the bed, but she shudders despite herself. The hard lines of the man next to her soften a fraction, and his voice is almost gentle when he speaks again.
“Who did this to you?”
Of all things, Delphine wants to laugh. Who did this to me? She doesn’t even know what’s been done to her, doesn’t have disjointed memories of monsters and demons she can point to, doesn’t know why.
Black glasses. Dark dreadlocks. A feeling that she is looking at from very far away, a feeling of warmth and safety and other things she cannot name and cannot have.
“Me,” she whispers hoarsely. Her lips are tingling and going numb. “I did this to myself.”
The man reaches forward with a tissue and dabs a tear off her face before it can fall into her open burn.
“What’s your name?”
“You have a last name?”
He waits, and when Delphine keeps mum, he almost smiles.
“Okay, Delphine. My name is Alastar. You’re in a free clinic, mostly for people who are in a bit of trouble. I get the feeling that you’re in a bit of trouble. You wanna tell me why you attacked your own face?”
Delphine wonders if she can get around answering his questions. Her fingers feel like they’re falling asleep, buzzing and tingling.
“I had to get it out,” she whispers, the words feeling glued in her throat. She tries to swallow. Her feet are tingling now, the sensation creeping up her legs, up her arms.
Her head hurts.
“Get what out, love?”
“My head hurts,” she tries to whisper, but it comes out as barely a breath. The man--Alastar--frowns, though his voice stays the same.
“What did you expect, trying to take your own face off?” Delphine doesn’t bother trying to correct him, just shuts her eyes as tightly as she can against the roaring ache behind her eyes. His voice isn’t exactly gentle, but there’s an extra edge to it that’s almost soft when Alastar continues. “What was in your face?”
Delphine looks slowly around the room--the free clinic, he’d called it, a place where people didn’t ask questions--and slowly tallies up all the things that seem wrong. White, cheaply-painted walls, instead of smooth pale wood. Dark spiderwebbing cracks. Dirt and grime in the corners of the linoleum floor, and though it’s covered in yellowing curtains, a window.
There’s a bit of sunlight creeping through, and for a moment she watches the dust dance.
“It took things,” she tries to explain, “Important things. There’s something--someone--” She cuts herself off with a frustrated sigh, her words bumping and slurring into each other. She finds herself taking breaths every few words, lips struggling to work. “I am more holes than mind,” she settles on at last. “And I am missing.”
“Okay.” Alastar sets aside his tools, runs a hand over his face. He has quite an impressive beard--deep brown with streaks of grey--but he choses to run his hand through his hair rather than stroke it as he thinks. “Okay. I need to make a call.”
He stands and walks a few paces, turns his back as he pulls out a small phone and dials, but the room is small, and his voice is naturally booming.
“It’s Alastar,” he says, “Listen, you know I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important, but you mentioned something about keeping an eye out for the weird? I’ve got a woman here, I was ready to send her up to the local psych ward but she seems your brand of crazy. She tried to claw off her own face.”
There’s a long pause, and Delphine realizes that maybe he’s going to send her back, maybe this is where she ends, once and for all. She imagines trying to run, but his order hold still still echoes in her head. She sucks in a long, low breath through her teeth.
“Blonde, tall-side. Definite French accent. Delphine, wouldn’t give me a last.”
Her hands start to shake, little dainty tremors, against the bed.
“I--hold on. Are you cold?” Alastar frowns, putting the phone on the tray next to the medical tools and leaning closer. Delphine can’t quite catch enough breath to answer him and tries to shake her head instead. There is saliva pooling in her mouth and she can’t swallow to clear it away. Alastar reaches into his pocket, flashes a penlight across her eyes, swears. “Delphine, did you hit your head?”
“N-No.” The noise she makes is more guttural groan than word, and it leaves her gasping. Alastar jams two fingers into the pulse point on her neck and scowls at whatever he finds, lowering his ear to her mouth to listen to her breathing. He grabs a stethoscope, listens again.
“I need you to try to breathe. Deep breath, Delphine,” he coaches, but she can’t breathe deeply, she can’t, she tries with one gasp chasing the heels of another one, and Alastar is shouting about her lips turning blue, and rushing off to grab equipment, and there is a small tinny voice coming from the abandoned phone calling for Alastar, demanding to know what is happening, and Alastar is shouting at her to breathe, stay with me, Delphine come on, come ON! and Delphine thinks of drowning and dust and her head hurts and she can’t breathe.
There are some species of parasitic worm that produce delayed-release toxins as a defense mechanism, she thinks, and her eyes roll back in her head.
“Delphine. Delphine, don’t do this.”
She is so, so tired.
“Delphine,” the woman repeats, holding onto her face tight tight tight, pressing their foreheads together so there is nothing in the world but the other woman--and that feels right, somehow, there being nothing in the world but this other woman. “Delphine, you can’t do this to me, not again.”
“Delphine,” the woman says, “Delphine, don’t leave me. I love you. I need you.”
She can feel herself slipping, she can feel how achingly easy it would be to just let go. Far, far away, she can almost hear shouting and calls for medical equipment, none of it as important as this woman in front of her, all of it drowned out by this woman’s words.
“Don’t be afraid.”
The woman with dreads strokes her thumb across Delphine’s cheek and there is something so familiar there, so gentle, that Delphine wants to cry.
Light pours in from around the woman--bright light, not a blinding sterile white but something much more like sunshine, like warmth and comfort, the color that a homecoming feels like.
“I’m waiting for you.”
There are people talking around her who she cannot open her eyes to see, a steady beeping but she doesn’t know where it’s coming from, there is something digging into her elbow that she cannot lift a hand to move, there is a tube going down her throat that she cannot choke on, there is panic seeping into her mind but her breath stays perfectly even, perfectly measured.
She tries to move a finger, twitch her foot, anything, but her body stays still as if she isn’t inhabiting it at all. She tries to blink, to whisper, to even just wiggle her nose.
She tries to scream.
“Thank you again, Alastar,” a woman is saying, her accent matching Alastar’s, and Delphine latches onto the sound--latches onto anything, anything to distract her from the dark, unmoving prison she’s become. “This can’t have been easy to do.”
“One good thing about the clinic is that nobody bats an eye if I go missing for an hour or eight,” Alastar replies, a bit of grudging humor in his grumble. “No one’ll report anythin’, you have my word on that.”
“Good. The last thing we need is another person getting pulled into this shitestorm.”
“This hospital safe?”
“As safe as anything can be.” There’s a pause, a shuffle of feet against floor, and then suddenly a hand against Delphine’s and she wants to flinch, then she wants to relax into the touch of the warm touch, weathered and calloused and the kindest thing she can ever remember feeling. “We’ll keep an eye on her. We owe her that much.”
“Jesus, Siobhan,” Alastar says, “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
“Nothing you need to get yourself involved in.”
There is a rusty chuckle that must be coming from Alastar, and the hand on Delphine’s squeezes once before it lets go, another set of footfalls indicating that the woman--Siobhan?--is crossing the room again, away from Delphine now.
There is a long silence and Delphine strains as much as she can while being unable to move, feeling like she’s clawing at the inside of her own skull instead of at her face this time, feeling like she’s suffocating even as her breaths stay so perfectly even. There is the sound of murmurs, of someone walking away, of something--a chair?--being pulled up and sat in and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, can’t even guess, she can’t put together a picture of the room, she can’t fight back she can’t even guess where she is she can’t fight back she can’t move she can’t fight back--
A pair of footsteps suddenly shatter the air, rushing closer and accompanied by shouting, overlapping voices, painfully loud against her headache.
“Let me through, damnit Felix, let me through--”
“She’s in bad shape, Cos, S said it was really bad--”
Faintly, Delphine can hear a chair scraping against the ground as someone stands, the addition of a third set of footsteps as someone else rushes to the doorway and Delphine doesn’t know what’s happening, doesn’t know what’s going on, and she tries so hard to run, to scream, to sob, anything.
Her breaths stay precise and even and perfect. The heart monitor registers no change.
“Cosima, love,” and it’s the voice labeled Siobhan, calm and measured when the voice that answers her is anything but.
“I need to see her, S, I--”
“She’s in really bad shape,” Siobhan repeats, and Delphine can hear the other woman’s gasping, desperate breathing. “If she makes it till morning, she’s got a good chance love, but--”
“She was dead.” The woman’s voice is desperate, breaking at the end, and it breaks something in Delphine to hear it. “I lost her and I mourned her, and then we found out she was alive, I’ve been searching for so long…”
“She’s...she’s not out of the woods yet,” and Siobhan’s voice is so painfully gentle that it stills Delphine’s frantic mind, just for a moment. “You could find her only to lose her again.”
“I’d rather do that,” the other woman says instantly. “I’m not going to just sit out here while she...I’d rather lose her again than never see her at all.”
There’s a silence, a shuffling, then--
Steps approach her, faltering, soft, and Delphine knows that if she could move she’d be on the far side of the room, out the window if there was one, curled in a ball with her hands over her face or with her teeth curled into a doomed animal’s snarl, terrified and fighting to the last.
She can’t even open her eyes.
The steps stop, then start again, coming closer and closer, and Delphine tries one last time to scream.
The air is still. Delphine’s thoughts still. The woman standing above her holds her breath.
A hand touches her face. Warm, smooth, soft, like sunshine, like home. The thumb strokes gently over her uninjured cheek.
“Oh my God, Delphine--”
One of Delphine’s hands is snatched up in another warm, gentle hand, the back of it covered in kisses, one after the other, until hot water starts to drip down and mingle with them.
“Hi, babe,” the woman whispers thickly, holding onto Delphine’s hand almost hard enough to hurt. “Delphine, I--oh God, I’m so sorry,” she half-sobs, her hand trailing up to stroke Delphine’s hair. “I’m so sorry, Delphine, I’m so sorry, I--” She chokes, sobs, presses another kiss to Delphine’s hand.
“I love you,” she says, and pauses, like she’s waiting for something. The heart monitor doesn’t so much as stutter.
“Okay,” the woman says, her hands still warm on Delphine’s, tears still obvious in her voice. “You take your time, Delphine, okay? I’m still going to be here when you wake up. I’m never leaving you again. I’m never gonna leave you.”
Delphine believes her. It makes no sense but she feels safe. It makes no sense but she feels home.
The woman keeps stroking Delphine’s hair, pressing kisses to Delphine’s hand, murmuring sweet and gentle things.
Delphine falls asleep.
“Oi, oi, easy love,” and hands are grabbing hers around the wrist, forcing them back down at her sides. “Delphine, Delphine, listen to me. Open your eyes and look at me, love, can you do that? Look at me, Delphine.”
She blinks and flinches, squinting against the light. A woman’s face moves into her line of sight--an older woman, with dark brown hair and a tired face pinched in concern--repeating those same words over and over.
“You need to leave the tube in, love, we’ll get it out of you but you need to calm down, okay? Look at me, love, can you relax for me?”
She sags against the pillow after a long moment, her muscles already aching and tired from the few minutes of fighting. The woman--Siobhan, she remembers hazily from before--holds onto her for an extra moment, testing her, before releasing Delphine’s wrists and leaning back.
“You gave us all quite a scare, Delphine,” she says, tucking a dislodged blanket around Delphine’s shoulders. “Alastar’s best guess is that you ended up with some sort of paralytic in your system--tetrodotoxin, I think, though the sciences are not my cup of tea. It was very lucky you found him, you know--he was the best combat medic money could buy, until circumstances forced him out of that and into my circle. He pumped your lungs by hand the entire flight over from Bristol.”
Siobhan says all this calmly, gently, smoothing the blanket down with a maternal familiarity that does nothing to convince Delphine that this is a place of anything other than deception and manipulation that’s waiting to eat her alive. Siobhan looks into Delphine’s eyes and sees something there, but despite all the anger Delphine tries to put there to cover up her fear, whatever the woman sees only makes her eyes crinkle in a compassionate smile.
“Cosima’s sleeping--the first time she has since we found you. She’s only a few rooms away. We’ll see what we can do about getting you off the ventilator, and then we’ll wake her, okay?”
The woman says this all as if it’s supposed to mean anything to Delphine.
“She’s going to be very happy to see you awake.”
“S, I’ve got--” A man with black hair, relatively thick eyeliner, and a British accent shoulders his way into the room, plastic bags swinging from his arms. “Oh. Hello Blondie. Welcome back to the land of the living.”
He seems more unsure than the woman does, dumping the bags in an empty chair and glancing at said woman before approaching the bed, full of false swagger.
“Of course you’d wake up right when Cos falls asleep. Bloody typical, the pair of you.”
Delphine doesn’t know how to read these two that seem so unlike anything she has context for, the woman explaining that she’s going to grab a nurse, the man clucking and muttering to himself as he sorts through the bag. She can’t predict them. She doesn’t understand them.
She’s terrified of them.
“Oi, oi!” The man snaps his fingers and Delphine freezes, her hands wrapped around the tube leading down her throat. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Running away. Fighting for a fighting chance.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
“Stop!” he shouts as she starts to pull, and she stops but she doesn’t let go, not when he runs over and grabs her wrists, not when he curses and climbs onto the bed to try and physically pull her hands off, hold her still.
“Stop fighting!” he shouts at last, and Delphine’s body goes slack, her eyes still burning into the man’s, and she is far gone and furious enough with herself to consider spitting in his face if she’d had the ability.
She has nothing but a body she doesn’t control, a voice blocked off by the tube in her throat, and a white flat space where her memories should be.
It isn’t as if she has anything left to lose.
Black glasses. Dark dreads.
The man squints at her, at her now-limp hands, with something like suspicion in his eyes. The door flies open as the dark-haired woman from before enters, followed by a woman in worn nurses scrubs.
“Felix?” The woman looks at their position, and the man scrambles away from where he’d been near-straddling her. “You want to explain?”
“She tried to pull the breathing tube out,” he clarifies quickly. “I was stopping her, that’s all.”
“Well, we appreciate the help, Doctor Cormier,” the nurse says with a wry grin, and Delphine shrinks back from yet another person who knows her, another person she doesn’t know at all. “But let us do the heavy lifting for the moment, hm?”
The nurse looks over the monitors with a nod, pulling out oxygen tubing and a cannula before snapping on a pair of gloves.
“Your oxygen stats are good, and whatever paralytics you were on seem to be wearing off, if you’re well enough to try extubation by yourself. We’ll keep you on the oxygen and monitors for the time being, but I think we can get that tube out.” The nurse takes Delphine’s jaw in a gloved hand in a way Delphine’s skin remembers, and she recoils into the pillows. “Cough when I tell you to.”
“Oh God,” the man says,“you’re not going to--” The nurse pulls and Delphine chokes, gagging and coughing heavily, and she hears the black-haired man retching in the corner.
“Breathe,” the nurse murmurs, and Delphine gasps, the cannula settling snugly under her nose. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“Easy, love,” Siobhan says, moving forward, and Delphine curls in and away as quickly as she can, one hand flying protectively to her wounded cheek and finding a mass of medical tape and gauze. Siobhan pulls back, that same not-quite-suspicious look that’d been in the man’s eyes filling hers. The man in question moves forward like he’s trying not to spook an animal, and half-crouches by the bed.
“Delphine,” he says slowly, hands spread out in front of him. “You are Delphine Cormier, right?”
She nods, a jerky, frightened movement.
“You understand why I had to ask,” he says with a bit of an ironic twist to his lips. Delphine stares blankly at him, and the humor disappears from his face. “Do you know who we are?”
Her eyes dart from Siobhan to the man and back, knowing that there was something, something she was missing.
“Should I?” she rasps, throat stinging with the words. Siobhan places a hand on the man’s shoulders, almost completely hidden horror in her expression.
“Felix, love,” she says, steady and calm, “Why don’t you go get Scott for us?”
Felix is gone for only a few moments before he returns with a man who looks nothing like a scientist--all oversized flannel and awkward grinning.
“Oh gosh, it’s--it’s really good to see you again, Delphine.” He pauses, shuffles a little, then smacks himself a little in the forehead and sticks his hand out. “Sorry. I’m--I’m Scott Smith. I used to work with you and...well. It’s good to, uh, meet you again?”
He looks so hopeful, eyes big and bright behind his glasses, that Delphine takes his hand for a moment, and he grins wide and eager.
“Okay, so,” he starts, pulling out an actual notepad and pen. “There was something in your face?”
She tells him only the barest details of what she knows, constantly watching the other figures in the room, feeling that these people are different than whoever had her before--but not that she could trust them. Knowing that there was something--something important--that everyone else in this room was thinking, and that nobody was mentioning.
“Right,” Scott says at long last, looking a little shaken but endeavoring bravely to keep his professional demeanor. “Well, there’s only so much I can say without having the actual worm-bot to examine--and no offense, but the fact that you burned your face means all evidence is gone there as well, though if you hadn’t, it probably would’ve killed you, so good--good job with that,” he says with a quick bob of his head. “My best guess is that the worm secreted some sort of drug or chemical that blocked your direct access to any long-term memories, as well as interfered with the formation process--obviously the memories are still there, since you’re, you know, functioning. Your removal of the bot triggered the defense mechanism, which released tetrodotoxin, hence the, uh, paralysis and coma.”
“You say ‘bot,’” Delphine croaks, her throat raw and aching after so long intubated followed by so much speaking, “Why?”
“Oh, uh, we had the chance to examine one of them--the worms are actually part-robot. I suppose ‘cyborg’ would be a more accurate term, but Co...I mean, I didn’t come up with the term.”
“‘We’?” Delphine asks sharply, glancing at the faces in the room. “You keep saying ‘we.’ Who is ‘we’?”
The silence stretches for a long moment.
“What about the other thing?” Felix interrupts, gesturing vaguely around Delphine. “Earlier, I told her to stop fighting me, and she just...stopped. Went limp. It was scary, honestly.”
“Heightened suggestibility?” Scott suggested, more to himself than anyone else. “I mean, truth serum and mind control was always considered to be more sci-fi than actual science, but we know about other compounds that result in suggestibility, and after everything else…” He trails off with a helpless little shrug. Both Felix and Siobhan look genuinely disturbed, the former pressing a hand to his mouth and turning away.
Delphine wonders how quickly she can make it to the door, if she can use the IV pole she’s attached to as a weapon, if she can take down the three people standing in front of her and how fast can she run. If they know, if they plan to use her--
“How long until it wears off?”
“Well, the worm is gone, so…” Scott trails off, shrugging. “A few days, a week, maybe? That’s assuming it was a toxin, not a permanent alteration of brain chemistry--”
“They can do that?” Felix bursts, looking like he might be sick again.
“Jesus,” Siobhan whispers, rubbing a hand over her face. “They’ve had her for months, Scott.”
“I know.” Scott fiddles with his glasses and keeps looking up at Delphine with a strange combination of delight and disappointment when he notices her looking. She doesn’t know what to make of that--doesn’t know what to make of any of the whispered conversations and unreadable glances around her--and looks toward the window instead. The bed is between everyone else and the window and she can see light seeping in through the thick curtains. Pulling the IV and running would give her a five-minute head start at least.
“We’re on the fifth floor,” Siobhan says smoothly, managing to make matter-of-fact sound threatening. “The paralytics haven’t entirely worn out of your system--you won’t be able to run far, especially not without extra oxygen. And it’s not exactly safe for you to be out on the streets.”
Delphine stares right back at this woman, juts up her chin in a defiant way that’s bad for self-preservation but she has nothing. Nothing to lose.
“You could just tell me not to run. To stay put. It would be as effective as tetrodotoxin.”
Siobhan stares at her, but it is Felix who responds, horror undercutting his gentle words.
“No, darling. We’d never do that to you.”
She doesn’t believe him.
“I’m going to get Cosima,” Scott says, faltering a little when everyone in the room turns to look at him. “It--it’s not like we can keep this from her, is it? She’s gonna wake up and come in here any minute. Someone has to tell her.”
“I’ll come,” Felix says, already turning toward the door. “This news is probably a two-person job.”
They both slip out of the room with anxious glances backward, like they’re waiting for her to say or do something but she doesn’t know what. The door shuts softly and Siobhan sinks into a chair at the foot of the bed, eyes calm, detached, trained on Delphine.
“Who is Cosima?”
Siobhan sighs, long and sad and tired.
“Oh, love,” she says, “We both ended up losing an awful lot more than we had to give to these girls, didn’t we?”
Delphine turns away, back to the window. Her hand trails up to and over the gauze and tape on her face, probes at the pain she knows has to be there, somewhere behind the drugs and chaos.
“And we’d do it all again for them, wouldn’t we?”
A thin slat of sunlight makes its way through a gap in the curtains and onto the bed. Delphine watches the dust in the air dance and fall away.
After several long moments someone knocks at the door, soft and hesitant. Out of the corner of her eye, Delphine sees Siobhan rise and walk over to the door, speaking in soft tones with whoever is there. She doesn’t bother turning, not when the door shuts, not when unfamiliar footsteps make their uncertain way toward her.
Black glasses. Dark dreads.
The woman fidgets with one of her beaded necklaces, looking uncomfortable and hopeful and not looking away, barely even blinking, even when her eyes fill with tears and she moves forward like she’s forgotten herself, like it’s against her will, like she has to come closer.
Delphine isn’t blinking. Isn’t breathing.
“Oh my God, it’s you--” The woman’s hand darts forward, stops inches from Delphine’s face. She jerks it back almost violently, clutches it to her chest with her other hand like she has to hold herself back.
Delphine hadn’t even flinched.
Delphine leans forward, her hands sure even as her mind struggles to catch up. Her fingers run smoothly over the black cat-eye frames, the dreadlocks pulled back into a high ponytail, the sharp edges and sunken cheeks of this woman’s face. Her eyes roam hungrily over every detail, not exactly searching, not quite trying to memorize, but recognizing.
She cannot pull up any memories of this woman, doesn’t know a thing about her, doesn’t know her name.
But she knows her.
“Delphine?” The question is quavering, not even a whisper.
“You’re the woman with dreads,” Delphine breathes back, not daring to take her hands away from the woman’s face, terrified of letting her slip through her fingers like everything else had. “I dreamed of you.”
The woman’s breath catches, shuddering and hopeful. They are close enough that Delphine can feel it, warm on her own cheek.
“I came back for you.”
The woman sobs, places her own hand on Delphine’s unbandaged cheek, pulls their heads together until their foreheads touch. Delphine closes her eyes, presses herself into the touch, tangles a hand in the dreadlocks, lets herself revel in the feeling of warmth, of right, of home.
“Well,” the woman says, her chuckle heavy with love and tears. “That’s a good place to start, isn’t it?”
“Oh come on, you fucking--oh, this is funny, is it?” Cosima asks with a huff, crossing her arms. Delphine shakes her head, one hand covering the wide grin on her face, and a gust of wind sends half the blanket slapping into Cosima’s side. “Shit!”
Delphine dissolves into giggles, both hands pressed to her mouth to try and muffle the sound for the sake of Cosima’s dignity--though considering the fact that Cosima was currently laying spread-eagled on the worn green blanket in an attempt to keep it on the grassy hillside meant that her dignity might have been beyond recovering.
“You could come over here and help.”
“I could,” Delphine agrees, adjusting her grip on the wicker basket she’s carrying, “But it is much more fun to watch.”
Cosima mutters under her breath, stretching to try and reach another corner that’s flapping a bit in the wind.
“Oi, Cos, what the hell are you doing?”
Sarah and Helena approach, a bit slowly due to the twin girls nestled in each crook of Helena’s elbow. The picnic basket Sarah’s carrying clashes with her black leather jacket and thick eyeshadow and she sets it down with a huff just as Kira comes running up from behind her, nearly tripping over Cosima in the process.
“What are you doing, Auntie Cosima?”
“I, monkey, am holding down the blanket so it doesn’t blow away.”
“Couldn’t Auntie Delphine help you with that?”
“She could, if she wasn’t being--”
“Oi oi, ladies,” Felix interrupts with expert timing, holding a bottle of red wine in each hand. “And Delphine.”
“Good afternoon…” Delphine trails off, scrunching her face in a confused expression. “Richard?”
“Please, the amnesia thing stopped getting sympathy from me months ago. I know you know my name.” Delphine just grins and Felix stops, frowning. “Wait, did you just call me a dick?”
“Is it my fault English people have such strange nicknaming conventions?”
“Whatever,” Felix sighed with an exaggerated roll of his eyes, shoving one bottle into Delphine’s free hand and uncorking the other. “What are we watching?”
“Cosima is trying to stop the picnic blanket from blowing away.”
“Mm.” Felix props up an elbow on Delphine’s shoulder while taking a swig directly from the bottle. “How entertaining.”
“I hate you both,” Cosima groans, and Kira giggles brightly.
Mrs. S appears at this moment, another basket in her arms along with a pack of beers. “Well, this looks like a promising start to a picnic.”
“Is anyone going to help me?” Cosima asks plaintively, and Delphine finally takes pity on her, setting her basket on one corner and going to sit on another to keep them in place. Kira bounces over to a third corner, letting Cosima finally sit up without risking the blanket escaping down the hill.
“Am I forgiven, cherie?”
“Maybe,” Cosima pouts, but does press a quick peck to Delphine’s lips before helping S pass around plates and silverware.
“Jesus,” Felix mutters from where he’s unpacking one of the baskets, “how much food do we need? You realize Alison and Donnie are gonna bring like, eighty tupperwares, full of goodies made to Pinterest perfection.”
“Helena’s here,” Sarah points out. “Helena, who is nursing twins.”
“Not to mention Tony, and Alison’s little ones--”
“I get it, we’re feeding an army here. I should’ve brought more wine.”
“What for? Alison and Helena don’t drink--”
Helena chooses that moment to sit down heavily next to Delphine, grunting a little as she tries to get comfortable. The twins are quiet in her arms, peeking out from soft pink blankets just far enough to look at the world with wide eyes. Helena holds them to her chest with an almost vicious tenderness, right on the edge of too tightly and too closely.
“Hello, Delphine.” There are a few crumbs clinging to Helena’s shirt, and Delphine strongly suspects she’s already managed to sneak her way into the picnic baskets, though she knows better than to ask. Helena doesn’t bother with trying to hide the evidence either, instead turning to face Delphine with a focus as sharp as a homemade knife in her eyes. “Today is a good day,” she says at last, with a nod of her head.
“Today is a good day,” Delphine echoes, confirming a fact. Over the long, painful weeks of trying to regain her memory--of trying to find herself, to cobble together some idea of who she was--somehow Helena had appeared, a solid presence with surprising gentleness and patience. She watched Delphine, the same as the others, but there wasn’t that mix of guilt and eagerness and disappointment in her eyes like the others had. She was simply there, accepting and waiting.
She was the only one of them able to meet Delphine’s eyes in those first days after they’d removed the bandages from her cheek.
I know something about having no self, Helena had whispered one night, not looking at Delphine even as her fingers played anxiously with one of Delphine’s curls. And about trying to find it.
And as easy and painful as that, they had become friends.
“Do you think sestra Alison will bring cake,” Helena asks, as the two of them watch the rest of the assembled family bicker and pass things around.
“I made Tart Tatin,” Delphine replies in a whisper.
“Is that like cake?”
“It is like pie, but better,” Delphine confides, and Helena’s eyes go wider than should be possible.
“Sorry we’re late!” Alison titters as she jogs over to the rest of them, Oscar and Gemma running ahead to play with Kira and Donnie trailing several feet behind with his arms overflowing with tupperwares. “Oh, Sarah, that blanket really doesn’t look sanitary--”
“We’re eating off plates, Alison, we’re not animals,” Sarah interrupts with a sigh, checking a message on her phone. “Tony’s gonna be a few minutes late, something about his motorcycle having issues. Art’s giving him a lift--”
“Felix, love, did you pack the wine glasses--”
“Where did all the cookies go? Helena did you already--”
A belch, and “Excuse me,” from Helena, entirely unrepentant.
Cosima bumps into Delphine’s side, jerking her out of her reverie and nearly sloshing the red wine they were drinking out of the bright pink children’s cups they’d borrowed from Alison.
“This is not the proper way to drink wine,” Delphine informs her, even as she takes a cup.
Cosima shrugs, taking a sip herself. “It’s shitty wine, and we’re a family of clones and misfits. Nobody’s really worried about decorum.”
Delphine hm’s in response, taking a cautious taste of the wine and wrinkling her nose almost immediately. “Still, this is wine. There are standards. Perhaps someday we will go to Bordeaux, and I will introduce you to real wine.”
“Yeah?” and there’s something so bright and beautiful in Cosima’s grin, that way they both always get when they talk about a future free of fear and hiding and with them together in it. “Sounds like a plan.”
Cosima sets her wine cup aside and cups Delphine’s cheeks--both cheeks, even the one that’s rough in spots and overly-smooth with scarring in others, the cheek that’s oversensitive in some areas and in other areas, where the flesh had blackened and bubbled and fallen away, where Delphine can still feel nothing at all--and pulls her in for a kiss. Not a deep, desperate kiss, full of pain and fear and longing--they’ve had enough of those for a lifetime. Not a kiss tinged with guilt and manipulation and things deliberately left unsaid--they’ve had enough of those too.
This kiss is sweet and short and simple. A promise of things to come. A promise that there will be time for things to come.
There are still gaps, vast white expanses in Delphine’s memory where she knows things should be. There are memories--moments--months of her life that have been taken from her in the cruelest way, that she will never, ever get back. There are still days she cannot bear to look in the mirror and see the story of her capture and escape scrawled across her face, nights full of horrors she can’t remember when she wakes.
But in this moment, full of shitty wine and the bright chatter of a family around her, squabbles and teasing and all, with her forehead resting against Cosima’s and their pinkies interlocked, with the clouds parting to let a little bit of sunlight escape--
In this golden moment she can believe anything.
She can believe that they’re all going to be okay.