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Rewind, Repair, Replay

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Hope is the Food of Love-sick minds,
     On that alone 'twill Feast,
The nobler part which Loves refines,
     No other can digest.
- Aphra Ben, "A Song"

Finally, I plead guilty
Of adoring you;
If you wish to punish me
That punishment will be my reward.
- Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, "My Divine Lysi"

The afternoon leading into the night that Cosima kissed Delphine saw yet another hypothesis about her affliction hit a dead end. That same morning Cosima had been laid breathless by an attack that had dragged her under helpless for minutes that had stretched like hours. Just a week before that Delphine had let slip an allusion to the other aspect of her relationship with Leekie and sent Cosima into a tailspin of wild imaginings that made Delphine’s presence near intolerable for days. So that when Cosima pressed her lips to Delphine’s, it was urgent and artless and all force, and when she clawed at Delphine’s clothes, her hands jerked and fumbled and cracked seams with sharp pops, and when she toppled Delphine onto her bed, she wasted no time to savor any views, but crawled atop her needy and wanting and in search of control.

She was not gentle.

Neither were Delphine's cries.

Afterward Cosima drew away, sat up, and turned her back on Delphine. She went in search of her clothes, but what found her was warmth, Delphine sidling up behind her, hands perched on her shoulders, then sliding down her arms, anchoring her. She felt Delphine press her face into her neck, a kiss upon her nape.

“Don’t be sorry,” Delphine whispered.

At her words a sob shuddered through Cosima, spilling past her lips and into tears, torn from her heart in jagged little pieces of shame and anger and fear.

"Sh," Delphine crooned softly as she tightened her hold and swayed them to a gentle rhythm. “Sh.”

*

“It’s okay,” Delphine said after the umpteenth time she caught Cosima--mouth pinched, eyes squinting--sneaking a furtive glance at her, this time while they washed dishes after a light lunch. “I told you not to feel sorry. I understand.”

Cosima’s lips parted with a sharp inhalation. Her eyes darted away slitted with consternation, lips twisted in irritation, doubt, anger. “It’s not okay. It wasn’t right. Being--like that with you. It wasn’t--it’s not healthy.”

“Healthy?” Delphine echoed, curling her tongue around the syllables like it was an English word she hadn’t heard before. A smile slowly conquered her lips, humorless at the onset, but deepening into amusement as she said, “Well, you know, studies show that falling in love--” Cosima gave a start, fumbled the slippery teacup in her hands, and caught it a bare centimeter above the bottom of the sink. “--exhibits brain activity similar to that generated by cocaine use. And no one would say cocaine is healthy.”

Silence rushed into the space between them. Delphine blithely rinsed and stacked dishes. Cosima clutched the teacup in one hand, the sponge in the other, and stared into the foamy water. “That’s completely unrelated and beside the point.”

Delphine hummed. “Says the woman who smokes pot.”

Cosima whirled on her. “It’s a totally different substance!”

“But it does indicate a propensity for addiction,” Delphine remarked offhandedly.

“Addic--are you saying I--I wouldn’t--” Cosima stopped to untangle her tongue. She spoke more calmly and softly. “I don’t want to ever like . . . using you like that.”

Delphine snagged a rag, a dish that would not fit into the tiny drying rack, pivoted to face Cosima and leaned a hip against the counter. “For sex?”

Cosima gaped. “No! I mean, that’s not what I meant--”

“So using me for sex would be okay?”

“No!” Cosima’s brow furrowed as her mind caught up to Delphine’s words. Her cheeks colored. “. . . No.” Cosima glared. “You know what I mean.”

Delphine repressed her grin for only a second. “I’m afraid I am having a hard time following. English, you know, is not my first language.”

“Shut up,” Cosima admonished, but without heat. “Your English is practically perfect and you’re not following the conversation, you’re leading it, you asshole.”

Cosima’s tone blunted the curse almost into a term of endearment. Delphine’s grin widened. But fear and uncertainty dwelt in Cosima’s gaze. Delphine’s expression relented, broke, smoothed into lines of tenderness. Setting the dish aside, she reached out and laid a hand upon Cosima’s breast. With her own hands still dangling over the edge of the sink, Cosima regarded Delphine with growing confusion.

“You have a good heart, Cosima,” Delphine said, sounding almost sad. “I know you’re sorry and that’s how I can tell you not to be sorry. I know you don’t want to hurt me.”

Cosima swallowed. Delphine lifted her hand and brushed the back of her knuckles along Cosima’s jaw. Her hazel eyes tracked the movement before returning to hold Cosima’s.

“And I don’t want to hurt you, either,” Delphine continued, voice low, hand withdrawing to the countertop, “or to see you hurting.”

Cosima blinked to clear the rush of moisture to her eyes. They stood looking into each other’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Cosima said, huskily.

“I know.” A small soft fragile smile trailed Delphine's words, but fled in the next breath. “I’m sorry, too.”

Cosima’s jaw trembled. She clenched it, hard, to still it. Still it shook, as did her voice, as she said, “I know.”

*

“Why did you bring up the--the cocaine thing?” Cosima asked much later, when the deep of twilight pressed in at the windows and the lamps pushed back with a sleepy warmth that seeped into the edges of Cosima’s consciousness.

“You mean how love manifests in the brain?” Delphine corrected her absently from where she had her nose buried in a stack of printouts.

The capped end of the highlighter in Cosima’s hand traced a slow circle in the air. “Yeah.”

Delphine’s eyes remained on the papers in front of her, but her focus withdrew. “Oh, I don’t know. I guess your words made me think about how . . . love can be a powerful motivator. One that drives people to act in ways they don’t understand.”

“You mean like how I treated you?”

Delphine shook her head and underlined a passage. “No, Cosima. I wasn’t referring to you or your actions.”

The follow-up question leapt, teetering, to the tip of Cosima’s tongue, only to draw back. She and Delphine had not yet come to the place where it could be asked.

*

Intimacy didn’t come easily. It never had, really, between that first hesitant unreciprocated overture, then Delphine’s gamble of desperation and discovery (and deceit), followed by the public lingering, unexpected, breath-stealing kiss the next day, and now, most recently, that night, which hadn’t been intimate but something else entirely, another bittersweet first in a list of bittersweet firsts.

Maybe that was why the gentle parting good night kiss--invited by the questing upward tilt of Cosima’s chin, the half-step that closed the distance between them, the tips of Cosima’s fingers dipping into the crook of Delphine’s elbow, answered by the sweep of Delphine’s touch upon her cheek, the taller woman leaning down to meet her, and the tenderest fleeting brush of their lips, in inquiry, in consolation, in benediction--felt like a respite.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

*

Transitions weren’t their thing either. Their entire acquaintance consisted of moving between the spaces of clear-cut definitions, straddling the dynamics of one type of relationship and teasing at hints of another, overstepping bounds only to leap back and retract and then retract again. They’d never fallen into sync. It wasn’t that they were friends one day and lovers the next, but that they were friends, then lovers, then two near virtual strangers who wanted to be allies but who had known, briefly, sporadically, what it was like to be lovers, to lust and touch and trust--and betray, betray, betray.

So it didn’t surprise Cosima that now when she opened her door to admit Delphine, a slight pause interjected, a breath where they gazed at each other with expressions uncertain, until Cosima pushed the door wider and retreated a step back, giving Delphine a wide berth to enter.

Thus it took a while for the day to arrive when, in that waiting silence in the threshold of her door, Cosima reached out and wrapped her fingers around Delphine’s cool hand to guide her,
ensnared, inside. A little while longer for Cosima to transform that motion, to pull Delphine not into the room, but into her, to stand, awkwardly at first, close enough to detect the heat radiating from the other’s body. Just a little while longer for Delphine to embrace Cosima upon sight--and kiss her, one, two, upon each cheek in greeting. And no warning at all the day Cosima turned her face to capture the corner of Delphine’s lips with the press of her own.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Bonjour.”

*

The X-ray hung like a static cling decal to the window above the sink. Delphine, letting herself through the unlocked door at Cosima’s shouted permission, didn’t notice it at first as she smiled at Cosima hovering by the kettle on the portable electric stove top and her subsequent rush to doft bags, coat, and shoes.

It was as she glided to Cosima’s side to greet her that the shadow fell across her field of vision and slowed her steps.

"Is that--?" Delphine started.

"Not me," Cosima clarified quickly. "One of my--one of the others."

Delphine held her breath and drifted closer. She made out immediately that it was a chest X-ray. Splotches of inky darkness proliferated, splattered, throughout the center of mass--portentous omens spilled into lungs genetically identical to Cosima’s. Delphine’s hand rose, unconsciously, to touch the film, but she stopped just short and wrapped her arms tightly around her middle.

"How long?" Delphine asked quietly, eyes fixed on the image.

"For her to get like that? I don't know. She was sick for a while, months at least, but I didn't get a chance to speak with her before--before something else got her." At the startled look Delphine turned on her, Cosima explained, "She's dead. She died just before I met you. But not from--whatever affected her lungs. And who knows what else."

Biting her lip, Delphine returned to studying the X-ray, but soon her focus meandered inward. "You knew. That you were in real danger."

"I still am," Cosima pointed out matter-of-factly.

Delphine shifted to face her. "Not from me."

Cosima regarded her with eyes weary around the edges, strained by the effort of considering too many things lately. Delphine endured her scrutiny with equanimity, unmoving and unwavering, until Cosima looked away with the slightest twitch of her shoulders.

"There are many forms of danger,” Cosima declared breezily.

Delphine’s lips parted. The kettle squealed. Cosima deftly hefted it off the coils.

“Tea?”

*

There was just something right about the lay of Delphine's hair, the way gravity drew it across the profile of Delphine's face as she bent over the task of zipping her boots, how the lamplight settled in the strands and picked out from behind the curtain of soft waves snatches of pale skin, hints of the curve of Delphine’s jaw, the tip of her nose, possibly the pink of her lips, that compelled Cosima to stretch out a hand, tuck her fingers beneath Delphine's chin, and draw her head up and around to reveal startled features.

Cosima kissed her.

Delphine yearned against her, lips and hands and body eager, urging into Cosima as she unfolded from her crouch and straightened up, bringing them both to their feet. Barefoot, Cosima leaned up into Delphine, coaxing her down with a hand at her cheek, the other curled into the lapel of Delphine’s coat. Beneath Cosima’s skin every synapse fired and buzzed, from her toes to her tongue, now gently questing against Delphine’s, welcoming and surrendering and so, so practiced.

It could have been so easy, to start again, right here, with patience and indulgence, to pluck slowly at buttons and zippers and clasps, to leave the lights on, to pause to look and laugh and smile, to guide and follow and give and receive. Cosima could feel it in the unhurried exploration of Delphine’s fingers, the languid choreography of her lips and tongue, the complaisant but inviting press of the length of her against Cosima’s body: the yes, the please, the come, the finally.

So easy.

Cosima pulled away. Her hand slid from Delphine’s cheek along the elegant line of her throat and came to rest, not quite pushing, but unmistakably restraining, on the jut of her collarbone.

“What?” Delphine whispered between starved breaths.

Cosima watched her fingertips rise and fall to the rhythm of Delphine catching her breath. Cosima closed her eyes and forced air into her traitorous lungs.

“Leekie.”

Delphine inhaled sharply. “Ah.”

The tension shifted from electric to barbed, but the promise of what had nearly come to pass lingered, holding them in place for a moment longer. Delphine moved first. She carefully extricated herself and took a step back. Cosima’s hand trailed after its perch before Cosima consciously drew it back and let it fall to her waist.

Delphine ran her hands down the front of her coat to smooth it out. “That did not stop you. Before.”

Cosima ducked her head and focused on her hands, turning one over the other, fingers trekking restless patterns across knuckles and palms. “I was thinking about it.”

“Ah,” Delphine intoned. “That makes sense.”

Warmth surged up Cosima’s neck and spilled into her ears and cheeks. It did make sense. Just as it made awful sense that Delphine had perceived her meaning so immediately. Cosima kept her head lowered as the silence stretched and grew. Delphine broke it.

“What do you expect me to say, Cosima?”

Cosima glanced up. Her fingers continued to pick and rub at one another. “I don’t know. I mean, I guess I--I want to know--I mean were you . . . involved with him?”

“Yes,” Delphine answered without hesitation. Her gaze flattened but did not veer or retreat.

“Even while he was--while he was here?”

“Yes.”

“Like, literally, a few days before we--”

“Yes.”

Cosima exhaled in a rush that left her lightheaded for a tilting second. “Did you--are you--is it over?”

At that Delphine bowed her head, hair spilling forward, and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, hands settling on her hips. She breathed deep and even. When she raised her head, she looked tired. “I’m not sure there’s anything to be . . . over.”

Cosima crossed her arms tightly. “What do you mean?”

“Leekie doesn’t . . . care for me." She swept a hand through the air. "Like that.” Delphine pitched her tone carefully, each word modulated with deliberate uniformity, devoid of inflections of sadness or anger or pain. “My--my leaving him would hurt his pride, not his,” Delphine placed one hand, fisted, over her heart, “feelings.”

“Does he--” Cosima’s voice faltered and failed. She had to clear her throat. “Does he know about us?”

“He probably suspects.”

The revelations passed through Cosima more readily with each blunt assault. “So you haven’t, like, broken up.”

Delphine didn’t reply but gazed at her with the steadiness that had begun, over the weeks, to quietly unnerve Cosima in its refusal to waver. Cosima whipped around with a shake of her head.

“Jesus.” She repeated it, with more heat, just to fill the void. “Jesus.

She stalked to the far wall and then whirled back on Delphine. “Did you love him?”

She'd wanted to shout it, hurl it across the room. The words strangled, struggled out of her throat, textured and cracking.

“I admired him,” Delphine said quietly. Every inch between them yawned with the breadth of a chasm, yet somehow Delphine’s expression waited, expectant somehow, in the silence that deepened and poked and prodded the mess of emotions inside Cosima into a frantic hum.

Exhaustion flooded Cosima’s limbs. Movement, even speech, seemed like too much effort.

Delphine took a small step toward her.

“I admired him,” she repeated. “I knew of him and his work long before I met him, and when I did he was smart, inspiring, visionary, innovative. He’s very charming, you know. And he noticed me.” She took another step. “I was nobody and he noticed me. Offered me a position.” Closer. “It was--” Delphine braced herself against the corner of Cosima’s desk with one hand and shook her head, rueful. “You want--explanations, excuses. But he noticed me and I was flattered. And naive.” Delphine licked her lips. “You meet someone who understands your work and shares your passions and you think--you think you have a connection. That you can understand one another.” Cosima stiffened. Delphine leaned back on her heels. “But a man like Leekie is concerned only with his passions.”

Cosima’s teeth ached and her jaw budged with rigid reluctance. “Is this the part where you tell me that meeting me made you realize Leekie was an asshole?”

Delphine shook her head. “No. It--it didn’t take me until meeting you to see that there was no love lost between me and Aldous.”

Cosima frowned. “Then why are you--why did you stay with him?”

In the space of an eyeblink, Delphine’s expression cracked in sorrow, resignation, regret, before self-deprecation swept them away. The blonde shrugged half-heartedly. “Never get involved with your boss.”

“Never--did he blackmail you or something?”

Delphine let out a humorless laugh. “No. Nothing like that. Though I suppose he could, now, if he were inclined. But not without implicating himself.”

Confusion proved Cosima lagging half a step behind.

“I’m a knowing participant in this experiment, just as he is,” Delphine said frankly.

“Oh.” Cosima’s eyes widened. “Shit. I didn’t even--you’re right.”

Delphine shrugged and said, with that quiet assertion that maybe just touched upon submission, “I made my choices, Cosima. I choose now to be with you.”

Half of the room separated them. Across the emptiness they measured the weight of one another’s gazes until Cosima ran a hand over her dreads and hung her head. Raising it again, she ambled, with heavy strides, to stand directly before Delphine, who watched her approach with staid anticipation. Cosima looked away from it, unsure how to react or respond, and sought Delphine’s hands. She reached for them, haltingly, hesitating before she slipped her fingers beneath Delphine’s. Both froze at the contact. But there was no shock, no jolt, no surprise but for the perennial discovery of the fit of Delphine’s hands in hers, snug and natural, the polish on Delphine’s fingers splashes of color against Cosima’s palms. She ran her thumbs across the back of Delphine’s knuckles.

“I’m not lying,” Delphine whispered. “You know that, right?”

Cosima laughed a little, despite herself. “Delphine, you basically just told me you have terrible judgment.” Cosima craned her neck back to meet Delphine’s intent eyes. “If you’re lying, you’re either awful or brilliant.”

Delphine took a breath to speak but Cosima cut her off with a squeeze of her hands. “But if we’re being honest, you probably could have made yourself look better.” Her brows dipped. “Though do you think maybe you should be worried about the choosing me thing? Considering your brilliant track record making decisions.”

Delphine’s mouth opened indignantly, despite or because of the teasing note in Cosima’s tone. Before she could eke out a word, Cosima tightened her grip on Delphine’s hands and tugged. Delphine pitched forward off balance and Cosima leaned up, turning her face to the left, the first kiss glancing off Delphine’s cheek, the second finding more purchase on the other. Delphine returned the gesture unthinkingly and drew back with an air of bewilderment.

“Good night, Delphine,” Cosima said with somber finality. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yes, tomorrow. Certainly,” Delphine agreed, eyes subdued in the glow of the lamps. “Good night.”

Taking her by one hand, Cosima walked Delphine to the door, ran her thumb once more over the soft knuckles, and helped Delphine gather her things. Through the dwindling crack of the closing door, which framed them each to the other lone and diminishing, they exchanged one last look and murmured “good night.”

*

“Hey, Delphine, come look at this.”

Delphine slipped behind the desk chair and braced her hands atop the back rest. Cosima caught Delphine’s scent as she leaned over to find a viewing angle with reduced glare, felt the bump of the chain of Delphine’s necklace against the side of her head, sensed the heat from where Delphine’s fingers slipped, gripping, between her shoulder and the upholstery.

Mindful not to touch her. Chary as they had been for days.

A moment’s consideration found Cosima’s hand reaching behind her, hooking beneath the fingers that yielded hesitantly, then entrustingly, and guiding them to her shoulder, where she lay her hand atop Delphine’s and let it rest.

A minute passed wherein neither paid the screen any attention and whereupon a weight settled upon Cosima’s other shoulder.

Delphine’s fingers squeezed.

Cosima smiled and proceeded to show Delphine what she’d found.

*

“If you got sick, what would you tell your parents?”

Delphine’s fingers stilled upon the keys of her laptop and momentarily forgot the search term they’d been inputting. Eyes on the blinking cursor, Delphine drew in her lips and very casually shrugged. “Oh, probably that the Cormier luck had struck again.”

“What?”

Gratified by the note of confusion, Delphine turned to survey Cosima’s scrunched features. “My family has a history of--unfortunate? Ironic? I think that is the word, ironic.”

Cosima’s eyebrows dug deeper trenches above her narrowed eyes.

“My family has a history of ironic deaths,” Delphine supplied. “Like, for example, my uncle was a, a--” Delphine’s tongue tsk’ed against the back of her front teeth as she groped for the word, knuckle pressing against her lips. “--jet pilot? He was in the military, the air force.” Her features took on a tint of sorrow. “He died in a plane crash. A commercial flight. One of those little planes. He wasn’t even flying; he was just a passenger. On vacation, I think. I don’t really remember, it happened when I was young and my father doesn’t talk about it.

“But I also had a cousin who was a--what is the English word--a lifeguard, I think? The people who save swimmers from drowning.” Cosima nodded in affirmation. “He drowned. He was only a few years ahead of me. No one really knows what happened.” Delphine trailed off. A breath later she offered a feeble smile.

“So, that’s to say, if I got sick . . . You know, my parents did tell me not to become an immunologist because I would probably get sick. They didn’t want me to--tempt fate? Is that what you say?”

“Wow,” Cosima said at last. “That’s trippy. Sorry, I mean, that’s sad, I’m sorry to hear about--the deaths in your family.” Delphine gave a slight shake of her head and fluttered a hand as Cosima belatedly added, “And, uh, yeah, we would call that ‘tempting fate.’”

Sitting cross-legged on her bed, Cosima dropped her eyes to the pattern of her comforter and fell into wordless contemplation. Her lips squirmed, restless and pressed tightly together, until she blurted, “I don’t know if I should tell my parents. About being sick.” Her eyes darted up to gauge Delphine’s reaction. “Or what I should tell them if I do. Or if it’ll even matter, because what if--what if something else kills me first?” Her hands conducted agitated aerial acrobatics to punctuate her points. ”Then I’d’ve gotten them worried for nothing--or about the wrong thing. Unless I tell them the whole truth, but that would probably totally freak them out--unless they know, you know, and I can’t even--I can’t start to, like, even process that.

“But if I tell them I’m sick, then they’ll probably want me to come home and how do I tell them that no, I can’t? Like if I try to use school as an excuse, they’ll probably tell me to take time off and focus on my health first. Then even if I tell them no, they’ll want to come out here and, like, just be close or stay with me or something and I can’t--I can’t get them involved in this. I can’t--”

The last word stuck in her throat and Delphine worried that an oncoming fit had cut off Cosima’s ability to speak. But Cosima only turned her head and covered her mouth with a hand, the line of her jaw tightening. Delphine rose discreetly from the desk chair and padded to the bed, where she sank down beside Cosima on her far side. Cosima gave no sign to acknowledge her presence. Delphine rested her hands in her lap, gauging, and then reached up and settled her palm against the nape of Cosima’s neck. When Cosima didn’t react, Delphine stroked and caressed the back of her neck, brushing through the little hairs where her dreads started. After a minute, Cosima exhaled heavily and turned to her, a watery sheen to her eyes.

“I want to tell them, Delphine,” she said. It came out with the uncertain guilt of a confession wrung from a small child. “I want them to know. That something might happen. And that if something does happen, that they’ll have answers, you know? But . . . I don’t want to scare them either. And I don’t want to lie to them.” A gurgling laugh bubbled out of Cosima. “I can’t even talk to Sarah or Alison about it. Like, Sarah told everyone in her family and now they’re all mixed up in this mess and in danger. Alison can’t even conceptualize telling anyone she’s a--a clone. If you asked her to just imagine telling her family, her head would probably explode.”

Something about that last scenario made Cosima pause and then smile, just a little. Delphine didn’t know Alison Hendrix, but she smiled to see Cosima smile. It faded too soon.

“I don’t know what to do,” Cosima finished timidly. Delphine fought the tug attempting to drag the corners of her lips down and wrapped her arms around Cosima. She pulled Cosima close and guided her head down upon her shoulder. Cosima turned her face into Delphine’s collar. They settled with their backs against the headboard, Delphine pinning Cosima close with one arm, her other hand claimed by Cosima’s, their fingers idly touching and entwining.

“What do you tell your parents?” Cosima murmured.

Delphine smiled wryly, though Cosima couldn’t see. “I tell them that I’m doing very important groundbreaking work and that I can’t talk about it.”

Cosima’s breath was warm against Delphine’s neck. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“Do they worry about you?”

“I think so.”

“Do they call you a lot?”

“Probably as often as your parents call you.”

“That’s a lot,” Cosima deadpanned.

“Okay,” Delphine conceded. “Maybe not as often. The time difference can be inconvenient, but it’s not too bad.”

“What’s the difference?”

“They’re seven hours ahead.”

Cosima nodded against her, sending a tickle along Delphine’s nerves. “We’re two hours ahead of San Fran.” Cosima worried the polish on Delphine’s nails with the pads of her fingertips. “Do you miss your parents?”

Delphine sighed. “Sometimes. Sometimes very much.”

Cosima nodded again. “Would you like to meet my parents?”

Delphine laughed and pulled back to get a look at Cosima, who tilted her head back and lifted an eyebrow at her. “What?”

“They’re closer than yours. The flight’s cheaper from here to San Fran.”

“Yes, but--” Cosima pursed her lips in question at Delphine’s pause. “I’m not sure I could look them in the eyes.”

Cosima shifted to sit up a little straighter. “Why not? Because you’re--because you slept with me?”

Faint color blossomed in Delphine’s cheeks but she shook her head slightly. "Maybe a little because of that. But I mean more because of--everything--you know.”

Melancholy tinged Cosima’s expression. “Yeah. Yeah, I know.” She resettled against Delphine, who clasped her close more tightly. They listened to each other breathe. Then Cosima said, more into Delphine’s body than to Delphine herself, “I’m not sure I can look them in the eye either.” Cosima nudged Delphine’s neck with her nose. “If something happens to me, can you tell them? The whole story. Eventually. When it’s safe for them to know.”

Delphine stared at Cosima’s knees, just barely curled upon Delphine’s thigh one atop the other. She skirted, perhaps, being quiet for too long when she said, “If I can.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

*

The tissue boxes appeared to breed overnight. The cheerfully pastel packages littered every tabletop surface, one sentry on each nightstand, delegated to a corner of Cosima’s desk, the centerpiece of the dining table, even within arm’s reach of the common room sink, tucked behind the counter next to a plant on the windowsill. The boxes themselves almost resembled planters, pots that sprouted broad-petaled geysers of white.

The muted bright colors clashed with the decor.

Delphine took in the sight of them quietly. She’d noticed without comment Cosima’s disappearances into the bathroom, had heard through the closed door the hacking, wheezing coughs and the running of the tap, had taken to averting her gaze at the rattle of the doorknob, not to avoid Cosima’s eyes, but because Cosima avoided hers as she dabbed at the corner of her mouth or swiped a hand across her lips.

They tended not to speak following these episodes.

Delphine listened in these silences to the rhythm of Cosima's breathing. Sometimes it labored uneven and short for minutes, interrupted now and again by grunts and growls of Cosima clearing her throat. Other times it flowed perfectly normal, smooth and unhampered, undetectable from across the room though every fiber of Delphine’s senses strained to discern the slightest respiration.

The various silences held Delphine suspended, between knowing Cosima was deteriorating and not knowing how fast.

Once Delphine slid open the wastebin panel in the kitchen counter to the sight of a discarded towel, mottled red. Her hand pulled up short, plate teetering in her grip, before burying the evidence beneath the remains of lunch. She didn’t mention it.

Delphine never mentioned it.

Not a word when a fit caught Cosima at the dining table, abrupt and irrepressible, a napkin hastily snatched up and mashed against the lower half of her face. The fit passed with the speed of its onset, a heave and counter-heave of Cosima’s lungs, and in the wake of the tense minute their eyes had met above the napkin clenched in Cosima’s hand, fingers curling to crumple whatever mess within her fist, her next few breaths filtered through the papery fibers as if it could muffle the jagged edges of each inhalation. Cosima’s eyes shimmered watery with the exertion, unreadable.

Delphine listened to the sound of Cosima breathing and said nothing. Beneath Cosima’s scrutiny, she schooled the muscles of her face, the rebellious line of her mouth and the furrow of her brow, into a resemblance of neutrality. But no hesitation marred the hand that reached out and settled on Cosima’s shoulder, that stroked along her bicep to her elbow and back up again, down and up, steady and staunch.

Cosima didn’t pull away, didn’t quite lean into her touch, but nodded, curt, from behind her hand once her breaths evened out and quieted. It was Delphine who eventually gave way, who retreated into her seat when Cosima got to her feet and threw the napkin away.

The value pack of tissues appeared a few days later.

The afternoon Cosima’s shoulders shuddered without warning, Cosima’s hand slapped over her mouth and Delphine’s hand dove for the nearest box. The blonde tore a tissue free and held it out to Cosima, who took it with barely a glance, fingers groping and grasping over Delphine’s in her blind haste, and turned away to cough into it.

Delphine’s hand followed the arc of the motion, gravitating toward Cosima’s back, before Delphine called it up short, dropping it to her side before Cosima turned around.

“Thanks,” Cosima said as she lowered the tissue.

Delphine attempted a small smile. “You’re welcome.”

Cosima nodded. Taking a breath, she nodded again and leaned her forehead against Delphine’s shoulder.

Delphine wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and rocked her close.

*

The swat that lifted the hair off her shoulders made Delphine start. She twisted around in her chair to find Cosima standing behind her, nonchalant. Delphine had neither heard nor sensed her approach.

“Yes?” Delphine asked hesitantly. In a second her eyes assessed Cosima from head to toe but the brunette wasn’t wan, or holding herself in a way that conveyed discomfort, or even especially fidgety or slumped. She looked fine.

Cosima shrugged. “Nothing.” She swiped again at Delphine’s hair, fingers flicking the strands framing Delphine’s face. Delphine suppressed the instinct to flinch and pull back and regarded Cosima with a furrowed brow of skepticism.

“Do you . . . want something?” Delphine asked carefully.

“Nope.” Cosima smiled, close-lipped.

“Do you want to show me something?”

“Nope.” Cosima’s eyes were bright behind her glasses, not glassy with fever, but with keen attention trained on Delphine.

Delphine licked her lips. “Do you want to take a break?”

That prompted a pause. “Well, I am taking a break,” Cosima admitted, the fingertips of both hands tapping against one another. “But you don’t have to.”

“Okay,” Delphine said slowly, “I’m going to finish reading this then.”

“Sure,” Cosima agreed. She didn’t budge, though Delphine tarried a few extra beats before turning back around in her seat. Her eyes found the screen again but her focus wandered and wouldn’t process the text. Her awareness hung on Cosima’s presence at her back, unmoving.

When Cosima brushed back her hair, tucking it behind her ear, Delphine held her breath. When, after a few seconds, Cosima set her fingers against her hairline and combed them across her scalp, parting the strands of her hair, Delphine held still. She felt, from the tug and the pull, Cosima curl a lock around a finger and drag it out along its length, at which point the lock released Cosima as much as Cosima allowed gravity to reassert its claim.

“What are you doing?” Delphine murmured.

A pointed stillness radiated from behind her.

“Do you want me to stop?”

Delphine considered the faint tingle elicited by the caress of Cosima’s fingers.

“No. It’s okay.”

Delphine could almost hear Cosima smile. With dexterous agility, fingers fluffed and teased the mass of Delphine’s hair. Tangles knotted and unknotted under their ministration. The natural part of Delphine’s hair protested and resisted Cosima’s experimental tampering. Wavy strands yielded the truth of their length to exploratory extensions. All the while each pass exerted gentle points of pressure across Delphine’s skull that lulled her into half-lidded drowsiness, all reading forgotten.

There was no differentiating when Cosima placed both palms flat atop her head and slid them back, thumbs gathering the top layer of Delphine’s hair into a queue, up into which she swept the hair off Delphine’s neck. With a delicate twist and a firm one-handed grip, Cosima popped into Delphine’s field of vision and snapped the blonde out of her reverie.

Cosima ignored Delphine’s startled expression, intently surveyed her work, and grinned.

“Did I mention I really liked your hair up?”

*

“Okay, why are you looking at me like that?” Cosima asked.

“Like what?” Delphine retorted.

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking.”

Delphine hid a smile behind her hand. “Are you sure I was looking at you?”

Cosima tilted her head and arched a dubious eyebrow. Delphine’s smile widened. She gestured with the hand that had been obscuring the bottom of her face.

“It’s just. Your hair.”

Cosima gingerly patted the top of her dreads. “What about my hair?”

“I was trying to imagine you without the, um, the--?”

“Dreads,” Cosima supplied.

Delphine nodded and tapped a finger against her chin. “But I realized I didn’t have to.”

Comprehension lit Cosima’s eyes. “I’d look like Sarah.” Her lips contorted in consternation. “Actually, Sarah looks like Beth, so I guess I’d look like Beth.”

“Or Alison, with bangs,” Delphine added.

Cosima’s mouth opened to add another name, another variation of hairstyle, but the singularity of their conversation intruded on the moment. Cosima’s lips sealed and Delphine pressed her fingers to her mouth. They fell into a contemplative silence, neither of them mentioning the folder filled with copies of birth certificates and photo identification, but both considering the contents.

Katja. Danielle. Aryanna. Janika.

At last Cosima asked, “Have you tried different hair colors?”

Delphine shook her head. “Not really.”

“What about straightening your hair?”

Delphine nodded. “I have.”

Cosima perked up. “Pics?”

Delphine smiled. “Somewhere.” At the fall of Cosima’s expression, Delphine laughed. “Why? You don’t like my hair the way it is?”

“I like it, I’m just curious,” Cosima said, a touch defensively. She paused, added, “Your hair’s pretty awesome. Like really awesome.” A breath later, she walked it back. “Hold up, you were the one picturing me with a different hairstyle!”

Delphine grinned and snickered. Cosima glowered.

“So not fair,” Cosima complained with a shake of her head.

“Do you think,” Delphine sputtered, “Sarah would wear glasses if I asked her?”

Cosima grabbed a pillow and chucked it at her.

It proved, unfortunately, rather harmless and ineffective at shutting up Delphine.

*

A nap landed Delphine back in bed with Cosima.

Delphine had already been perched on Cosima’s bed, having commandeered its generous surface area to accommodate an array of papers, bound texts, pads of post-it notes and strips, index cards, and her laptop, when Cosima shuffled up to the side of the bed, leaned over Delphine, boxed the preoccupied blonde between her arms, and all but tackled the immunologist to the mattress. Delphine squawked as she toppled over, born down and buried under Cosima’s boneless weight.

“Cosima, what--”

“Take a nap with me,” Cosima murmured half into the bedspread and half into Delphine’s hair.

“The books--the papers--”

“Leave ‘em.”

“My laptop--”

Cosima lifted her head, craned her neck to locate the offending electronic device by Delphine’s hip, and stretched across Delphine’s prone torso to close it shut. She wriggled back to splay out on her stomach half-atop Delphine. “Leave it.”

“We could knock it off the bed.”

“We won’t move.”

Delphine’s eyes narrowed at the impassive ceiling. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because I have you pinned down.” The arm flung heavy and warm across Delphine’s middle feebly rose and flopped back down. Delphine’s abs flexed and tensed to absorb the assault, one hand coming up to grasp loosely at Cosima’s forearm in protest.

A self-deprecating smile wrested control of Delphine’s lips. Relaxing, she twisted and turned her head but managed to get only a glimpse of the top of Cosima’s head where it rested upon her shoulder. The plastic frame of Cosima’s glasses pressed into her collarbone. “We could clear the bed and get under the covers.”

“Too much work.”

“We don’t even fit on the bed like this,” Delphine pointed out. They were sprawled across the width of the bed, not even along its full extent, having landed only as far as the middle in their haphazard sprawl. Her legs--Delphine raised her head a bit to survey--and Cosima’s dangled over the edge.

“I’m comfy,” Cosima asserted.

“You’re still wearing your glasses,” Delphine remarked.

A heavy, blustery sigh exploded out of Cosima. “Fine. Jeez!”

With surprising vigor, Cosima rolled off of Delphine and pushed herself up into a sitting position. Free, Delphine twisted up lightning-quick onto one elbow and swept her other hand across the blanket of papers. She gathered as many into a pile as she could, shoving some into open books to mark her place. The haste of her hands made a mockery of organization and care in a way that set off a twinge of distaste in Delphine's gut. As if sensing her discomfort, or sharing her feelings of apprehension, Cosima observed wryly. Delphine made a mental note to enlist Cosima to help her sort out her papers later as she hauled herself to the far edge of the bed and deposited the chaos and her laptop onto the floor.

Cosima raised an eyebrow at her when Delphine turned onto her side, propped her head up on a hand, and looked at her expectantly.

“Isn’t that better?” Delphine asked pointedly.

Cosima cocked her head at an angle and put on a show of not hearing the question. With exaggerated movements, she slipped off her glasses, folded them up, and placed them delicately upon the nightstand. Squinting, she crawled on hands and knees across the bed to stretch out beside Delphine.

Delphine gazed down at Cosima and frowned. “We’re still lying the wrong way.”

“There’s no wrong way to lie on a bed,” Cosima scoffed.

“But the pillows.”

In answer, Cosima took hold of the arm holding up Delphine’s head, gave it a few tugs until Delphine surrendered it, and straightened it out atop the mattress, drawing Delphine down along with it. Giving Delphine’s arm a fond pat, Cosima flipped onto her other side, scooted backwards until she was nestled close to Delphine, and settled her head atop Delphine’s bicep.

Delphine kept quiet for a breath, then pointed out, “Now you have a pillow, but I do not.”

“Grab one. There’s a whole bunch behind you.”

Muttering “so cheeky” under her breath, Delphine stretched back with her free arm and filched a pillow from the assortment stacked against the headboard. With no help from Cosima, who perhaps lifted her head once to give Delphine some wiggle room, she managed to maneuver the pillow comfortably beneath her head employing a fair amount of yanking and experimental head-placement trials. The cessation of her struggles cued Cosima to resettle and adjust to the changes in their respective angles, which Delphine endured with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. But Cosima burrowed closer, curling up on her side, and whatever Delphine might have said melted away.

Almost as an afterthought, the brunette groped behind her blindly and trailed her fingertips down Delphine’s forearm, raising little goosebumps. Unaware or unmindful or mercilessly cognizant, Cosima claimed Delphine’s hand and pulled the blonde’s arm across her middle, entwining their fingers and tucking their hands tight against her body.

It wasn’t clear who was holding whom.

Delphine lay with eyes open, looking over the top of Cosima’s head, contemplating nothing, feeling everywhere she and Cosima touched, heat trapped between their bodies, and for just a second Delphine was all tension, all of it flooding into her arm, muscles straining and pulling taut, clasping Cosima close, closer.

Cosima’s fingers flexed and squeezed around hers.

Delphine broke out into a smile and released her breath in a short muted gasp.

“What?” Cosima whispered, hushed.

Delphine filled her lungs slowly, taking in the nearness of Cosima’s presence, the immediacy of her in everything surrounding them. “I’m not used to . . . this.”

“Taking a nap with someone?”

Delphine’s small laugh shuddered through them both. “No. Lying like this. Holding someone.”

“You mean being the big spoon.”

“The what?”

“Big spoon,” Cosima repeated. “The big spoon holds the little spoon.”

“That’s--” Delphine’s mind constructed the image. “That makes sense.”

“Mmhm.” Cosima adjusted the lie of her head on Delphine’s arm. “Though, fair warning, your arm’s gonna fall asleep in about ten minutes.”

“My arm will fall asleep?”

“Go numb with the loss of blood circulation and nerve communication, followed by that really uncomfortable tingly feeling.”

Delphine made a face. “That will be unpleasant. How am I supposed to sleep?”

“Sometimes we have to make sacrifices,” Cosima said. Unthinkingly Delphine poked Cosima in the middle. The brunette jerked in her grasp, breath hitching in indignant surprise. “Hey!” An elbow dug into Delphine’s ribs.

Delphine’s fingers twitched. Curiosity prodded her to find out if Cosima were ticklish. But her better judgment cautioned that a truce was in order--and that Cosima was probably stronger than she looked.

They fell back into a tranquil peace. Placatingly, Cosima’s thumb began to stroke lightly along Delphine’s.

“If you’re not used to doing the holding,” Cosima ventured softly, “does that mean you’re used to being held?”

“I’m not sure I would say ‘used to,’” Delphine replied in a low, measured tone. “That is to say, yes, my--I was the one being held in this type of arrangement. But many times--it wasn’t usually the case that--” Delphine shook her head. “Sometimes. If I asked, yes.”

The strokes of Cosima’s thumb slowed, stilled. “Are you holding me because I . . . asked you to?”

The rise and fall of Cosima’s breaths beneath Delphine’s arm marked time. Delphine closed her eyes and briefly pressed her nose to the back of Cosima’s head, matching Cosima breath for breath, second for second, sharing her space, sharing her time.

“I want to hold you all the time.”

Cosima’s fingers clenched hard on hers. Delphine drew herself up around Cosima, clutching fast.

Cosima nodded and they said no more.

*

Delphine took her cigarette breaks outside. Though Cosima told her repeatedly that it was fine if she smoked inside, that the windows did open, that the plants probably wouldn’t mind all that much, that there was an ashtray or two that she could use. Though heading out into a Minnesota winter required pulling on shoes and shrugging into a coat, sometimes winding on a scarf and, once, the only time Cosima ever saw Delphine wear it, tugging on a beanie. Though it was a trip down the stairs to the ground floor and a haul coming back up, twice inconvenient the day Delphine returned immediately and sheepishly asked to borrow Cosima’s lighter.

Delphine smoked outside. For five minutes. For forty-five. For interminable periods of time marked by the numbers turning over slothful in the corner of Cosima’s screen. For eyeblinks between pages 115 and 128. She came back through the unlocked door wreathed in a cloud of nicotine. Cheeks pink from the cold. Lips chapped. Ears red. Fingers stiff and clumsy. Slow to throw the bolt on the door, to unravel from head to toe, layers sloughing off one by one.

It wasn’t anything, really. Not even disturbances or interruptions. Almost, after the first few times, routine.

It wasn’t as if the apartment felt lonely during Delphine’s absences.

*

Delphine lost track of time. It happened sometimes, cigarette forgotten between her fingers, the end burning slow and steadily, ash lengthening, crumbling, breaking under the burden of its own weight. And sometimes Delphine just watched it, burning, burning, dwindling up the stick, destroying itself from the inside out, driven relentlessly toward the filter, toward its end.

She wasted a whole cigarette observing like that once. Stubbed the remnants into the pavement. Lit up another. Inhaled hard and long.

Minnesota was cold in the winter. Colder in the shade of the building in the late afternoon or in the frigidity of night or in the wind that made her eyes water and her ears sting. Every breath felt sharp in her lungs, puffed away from her in clouds of condensation, of smoke.

It hurt, a little bit.

Delphine concentrated on that, on the sensations, on the routine of bringing the filter up to her lips, inhaling, breathing out. She thought about these things and not the mountain of research and avenues of possibilities and unanswered questions waiting for her upstairs, the long hours that yielded relatively so little, the limited and bleak courses of action, the days ticking on and ticking down, the woman curled up in her chair, on the bed, sprawled out on the floor, at the center of it all.

Burning from the inside out.

*

Delphine had been gone over an hour. Cosima didn’t know what she’d expected to find when she opened the front door, but it wasn’t the empty stoop, her heart plummeting, the nervous jump of her pulse. It certainly wasn’t the sight of the huddled form sitting perched on the edge of the sidewalk when she turned the corner, dark-clad back curved and hunched against the cold, knees pulled up and boots planted on the blacktop of the street, an almost shadow topped by the bright shock of golden hair. From somewhere unseen, from the vicinity of arms maybe hugging knocking knees close, or maybe folded atop them, tendrils of smoke twisted up and away in curling wisps.

Delphine sat unmoving. Head turned down the street, directed into the distance, at the yellowing, reddening, purpling sky, at the sun dipping behind the roofs of buildings, taking with it light and heat, ushering in its wake the shadows of dusk.

It was then that, very slowly, Delphine raised the cigarette up to her mouth and set the tip blazing red like a beacon. That Cosima drifted to Delphine’s side, towering over her, hands buried deep in her pockets, saying, “Hey.”

Delphine tilted her head back. “Cosima.”

Cosima squatted down beside Delphine. In the gloom, the lights in windows spilling feebly into the deepening night, the streetlights slow to activate, they peered at each other. Delphine frowned. “Your coat isn’t buttoned. You’ll catch cold.”

Cosima looked down at herself. In a second the cigarette was ground into the street and Delphine’s fingers struggled with the large buttons. Cosima held still while Delphine grappled with each one, hands lingering upon the top button, and then brushing across Cosima’s shoulders, down her arms, gripping her by the triceps. She avoided Cosima’s eyes, focusing somewhere upon the expanse of Cosima’s red coat, around the collar pulled up high, over the lapel stretched taut and buttoned fast.

“We should go inside,” Delphine said quietly.

“Yeah,” agreed Cosima.

*

Cosima never took her hands out of her pockets and she didn’t quite offer, but she didn’t pull away when Delphine slipped an arm through hers, didn’t comment when, for a second, Delphine leaned into her, heavy and warm.

Once inside they took the stairs slowly, Delphine hanging on with every step.

*

“I’m going to go--” Delphine pantomimed smoking a cigarette.

“Oh, hey, wait up,” Cosima called and sprang out of her seat. Delphine, shoes buckled and arms slipped through the sleeves of her coat, hesitated. Cosima hurried over and swept up Delphine’s scarf, stretching up onto the tips of her toes to loop it carefully around the blonde’s neck. Delphine lifted an eyebrow. Cosima turned away and went digging in a pocket of her red coat. She pulled out a pair of wool gloves and held them out to Delphine.

Cosima looked up into Delphine’s face. “Stay warm out there, okay?”

Delphine gazed at the gloves. After a moment, she took them from Cosima and ducked her head to hide a smile. “I won’t be gone long.”

When she raised her eyes, Cosima’s smile greeted her. “See you soon.”

*

The distinctive ring of the pink cell phone snapped up both their heads. Their eyes found each other from across the room where each sat at the center of a fort of research materials. The second ring held them immobile. The third goaded them into action. Cosima palmed the phone, mouth opening to struggle with words--Delphine could read it in Cosima’s sharp intake of breath, the slight narrowing of her eyes, the uncertain lay of her tongue at the bottom of her mouth. But Delphine cut off any excuses or requests with a wave of her hand and a beeline for the door, her shoes, her coat, the cigarettes in the pocket. By the time Cosima accepted the call and raised the phone to her ear, Delphine was stepping out, coat folded over an arm, and closing the door behind her.

“Hello?” Cosima rasped. That was all Delphine heard.

Fifteen minutes proved ample time. To give Cosima. To gather herself.

Delphine knocked before entering. “Come in!” came the muffled response through the sturdy door. Delphine turned the handle cautiously and all but tiptoed inside. Seated at her desk, Cosima glanced over her shoulder and sent Delphine a small smile that the blonde returned. It wasn’t a strained smile or an uncertain one or even a happy one, but an expression that said “You’re here. Welcome back.”

As Cosima returned her attention to her laptop, Delphine slipped off her coat and draped it over the chair by the door with conscientious care. “Was that Sarah?”

There was the slightest hesitation. “Yeah.”

Delphine took a measured breath before asking, “How is she doing?”

“She’s--okay.”

Turning around, Delphine sank down onto the chair and sandwiched her folded hands between her thighs. “And what did you tell her about how you’re doing?”

Cosima, elbows on the desktop, back resolutely to Delphine, didn’t move. “I told her that I’m okay.”

Delphine nodded and studied her hands. “Does Sarah trust you?”

“What?” Cosima twisted in her seat.

Delphine raised her eyes to meet Cosima’s. “Does Sarah trust you?”

Cosima’s head jerked to the side, once, eyes slitted, processing Delphine’s question. “Why would you ask that?”

“She--and her brother--seem like . . . cautious people.”

Cosima leaned into an armrest. Her jaw worked soundlessly. “They don’t trust you.”

“Of course not,” Delphine said quietly. “They have no reason to.”

They each braced for what Cosima would say next, but the silence unfurled long and unbroken. At last Cosima sat up straighter with a shake of her head. “Sarah keeps me updated and I keep her updated. You could say she has a--a right to this information. We all do. And what she does with it is her decision. It’s only fair. Each of us chips in whatever way she can. It’s how it’s been.”

Delphine nodded slowly. Seeing the blonde’s noncommittal expression, Cosima snapped, “What?”

Delphine sent her hair bouncing with a shake of her head. “Nothing.”

Cosima moistened her lips. “Look, I see what you’re trying to say,” Cosima said in a low tone. “That maybe Sarah doesn’t trust me in the same way she doesn’t trust you, because I’m a scientist and the people behind this are all scientists. But I don’t care. Or maybe I do care, but so what? It’s irrelevant to the fact that given the nature of our circumstances we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not, and we’ll be able to accomplish more by working together and pooling our resources than acting independently. Sarah didn’t have to stick around to help us--Alison and me--but she did. So. Yeah.”

Delphine listened impassively. When Cosima finished, they sat looking at one another. Occasionally Cosima’s eyes darted away, agitated, and back again, waiting. Delphine smiled.

“What?” Cosima asked, the word landing heavy and tired.

“Nothing. You,” Delphine amended quickly, managing to put a furrow of confusion between Cosima’s eyes where irritation was manifesting. “That answer was very . . . you.”

Cosima’s features drooped into the suggestion of a frown but Delphine didn’t elaborate, didn’t look away, didn’t forfeit the trace of a smile. After a moment, Cosima swept a hand across her mouth and averted her eyes, only to peek at Delphine through her lashes and the top of her lenses. “You didn’t ask if I trust Sarah.”

Delphine pushed herself to her feet, eyebrows quirking. “You didn’t ask what reasons you have to trust me.”

Delphine met Cosima’s gaze squarely, eyes soft, and then navigated around the desk toward the dining table where her books and papers awaited, Cosima watching her every step.

In respective silences, they returned to work.

*

“You could stay the night.”

Delphine paused in the middle of packing papers and laptop into her bag and turned to Cosima. “Excuse me?”

“It’s late,” Cosima said, spreading her hands. “And it’s cold. And you--you’re probably tired.”

Delphine straightened up slowly. Her eyes involuntarily glanced at the bed. Cosima followed her gaze and cracked a grin.

“Yeah, on the bed. With me. It’s not like we haven’t taken naps together.”

Hands anchoring upon her hips, Delphine laughed and briefly bowed her head to obscure the faint flush that warmed her cheeks. “I, uh, don’t have any bedclothes or, um, uh . . .”

“I can lend you something to wear.” Cosima’s words must have wrought a subtle transformation upon Delphine’s features that prompted the brunette to add, “I’m not forcing you to stay, Delphine. I’m just offering.”

Delphine let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding. She nodded once, then again, then in little bobs that drove toward an answer. “Thank you. But I think I can make it home tonight.”

Cosima’s eyes passed lightly over Delphine’s face. “Okay.”

*

It was an accident. Temples pounding, light aggravating, a wait of ten or fifteen minutes for the ibuprofen to work its magic, and the bed so downy beneath her, Delphine had laid her head down and closed her eyes.

She woke up in darkness. Blessedly clearheaded. Lying on her side. Atop the covers. In jeans and socks and sweater and her necklace caught in her hair. Disoriented, shaking off dream impressions scattering like so much sand in the wind, vision confounded by the unfamiliar shapes and silhouettes in the dimness, warmth pressed up against her back and a weight slung across her waist.

An arm.

Delphine gave a strangled gasp and twisted half-around. Cosima moaned in unintelligible protest, head very nearly crushed beneath Delphine’s shoulder, and nuzzled her face into Delphine’s back, hold momentarily tightening. Delphine heard her exhale heavily, pressing hard against her spine, forehead jutting into the space between her shoulder blades, then relent, muscles relaxing and limbs growing heavy, breaths evening out.

Delphine, wide awake, held very still. A ball of tightness lodged itself in her chest in the vicinity of her heart and bubbled and frothed and clawed up her esophagus and lingered at the back of her throat so that she choked and gasped and released a shuddery breath that would have been a laugh if she could have laughed aloud.

Her head flopped down atop the pillow.

Merde.

*

Delphine slipped her hand over Cosima’s. Threaded her fingers between the unresisting ones. Stroked her thumb across the soft skin along the edge of Cosima’s hand. Recalled the times Cosima had done the same to her. The restlessness of Cosima’s touch. The restlessness of Cosima in general.

The room was still and them within it.

Delphine listened to Cosima breathing, comfortingly clear and unlabored, and to the little noises of Cosima’s apartment, the heater humming low in its efforts to beat back winter’s encroachment, the shuddering of the windows under bursts of blustery assault, the unexpected creaks of the building framework bending and flexing around them, the rustling susurrus of the comforter beneath any slight shift, a ticking close by that she realized was her watch, announcing every second, marking off time.

The gentle monotony drew Delphine’s eyelids shut. As her consciousness began to drift, Delphine squeezed Cosima’s hand and, lulled, surrendered the tension in her body to the quiet, to the stillness, to the warmth of Cosima nearby.

*

Cosima was not a morning person. Stretching her limbs into awareness, blinking like an owl and squinting in her nearsightedness, she managed, very blearily, to rumble out, “Good morning.”

In the midst of rubbing her eyes, Delphine laughed herself into wakefulness.

*

It turned out that Delphine spending the night wasn’t quite as simple as their taking a nap. There were rituals to be carried out before turning in for sleep, clothes to be changed (Cosima’s oversized T-shirt didn’t appear quite as oversized on Delphine’s lankier frame and the flannel pajama pants ended up more like flannel capris), teeth to be brushed (Cosima fished out a spare toothbrush from a ten pack that Delphine turned in her hands and then later left, uncertainly, atop the sink), faces to be washed (Delphine gave Cosima’s clean, scrubbed face a long considering inspection, expression not quite so unreadable that Cosima couldn’t see hints of wonder and speculation), and (Delphine hanging back, hesitant, waiting) sides of the bed to be determined.

When at last they slipped beneath the covers and turned off the lights and quietly bid each other good night, the center of the bed stretched out, a gulf, to separate them.

Cosima lay on her side, an arm tucked under her pillow, straining to make out Delphine’s reclining silhouette, the curve of her forehead to the tip of her nose to the point of her chin dipping into the line of her neck that disappeared into the fluffiness of the comforter.

Cosima squinted.

“Come here,” she said softly.

Delphine opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. Then she complied.

*

Cosima turned within the circle of Delphine’s arms so that they lay facing one another. Delphine, who had shifted to accommodate her, peered into her face inquisitively.

“Okay,” Cosima said.

“Okay what?” Delphine whispered, eyebrows pulling together.

Cosima reached up and laid her hand upon Delphine’s cheek. What feeble moonlight struggled through the curtain picked out the whites of Delphine’s eyes, the irises, pupils dilated in the low light, dancing in an earnest perusal of Cosima’s face.

Cosima pressed her lips to Delphine’s, near chaste at first, and then deeper, deepening, as Delphine responded, lips parting, pursuing, tongue inquiring--yes? yes?--in a gentle tease against Cosima’s.

Cosima pulled away, leaned her forehead against Delphine’s, and licked her lips. “Okay.”

*

Cosima took her time. When her hand finally slipped beneath the waistbands of borrowed pajamas and lace panties, Delphine drew a sharp breath that brought out in stark relief the fine muscles of her neck. And in that moment Cosima stopped and smiled, at the sight of Delphine unraveling beneath her touch, at the minute bucking jerk of Delphine’s hips, at the heat and the slickness that met her fingers.

She paused long enough that Delphine touched her face and asked, “What?”

Cosima shook her and grinned. “Nothing.” She dipped down and captured Delphine’s mouth, fingers pressing, crooking, and murmured against the bruised fullness of Delphine’s lips parting in a swallowed cry.

“Nothing.”

*

Teeth scraping against Cosima’s neck and sinking briefly, pointedly, into the meat of the brunette’s bare shoulder, Delphine whispered, “You don’t have to be so gentle.”

“Oh fuck, you’re sexy,” Cosima groaned.

Delphine laughed.

*

Cosima lay nestled against Delphine’s side, head on the blonde’s shoulder, an arm slung across her middle, while Delphine's arm kept her pinned close, the blonde’s fingers resting lightly atop her forearm.

They lay held and holding all at once.

And perhaps it occurred to Cosima how similar this was to another time, and perhaps she lay listening for a sniffle or a telltale hitch of Delphine’s breathing, or perhaps she waited for Delphine to lift her free hand to her face, impossible to be discreet even in the dark.

But when Cosima finally raised her head all she discovered was Delphine, eyes closed, fast asleep.

*

Cosima woke nose-to-nose to a pair of peering hazel eyes. If Cosima were more alert in the mornings, she might have drawn back, but she was too groggy to be startled.

She blinked.

Delphine smiled. “Good morning.”

Cosima blinked again, and again, before her lips stretched into a sleepy, almost disbelieving, grin. “Good morning.”

Chapter Text

They lay in the hazy light of the winter sun filtering through the gauzy curtains. Cosima’s eyes drooped shut. “Ten more minutes.”

Delphine’s mouth slanted into a crooked, knowing smile. “Okay. Sleep. I’ll--I’ll go shower.”

She made to roll out of bed, but Cosima’s hand shot out and clamped over Delphine’s wrist, pulling her up short. Cosima regarded her with one open eye. “Ten more minutes then we’ll take a shower.”

Delphine’s heart quickened, leapt, stomach tightening. Cosima’s grip on her wrist slackened, but her thumb stroked over the point of her pulse, as if seeking out Delphine’s racing heartbeat. Delphine licked her lips. “We’ll be getting a late start today.”

“Then we might as well call it a wash and do nothing.” Cosima closed her eye and turned to bury her face in her pillow, which swallowed her words. “Good thing it’s Saturday, huh?"

*

They did nothing but linger long past ten minutes in bed, detained by the restlessness of Cosima’s hands and the thoroughness of her curiosity even first thing in the morning. Their stay in bed threatened to stretch out indefinitely until Delphine whispered of that shower (“Would it really be practical to get clean now?” reasoned Cosima), sustenance (“We can whip something up or order in,” Cosima hedged), and, when all seemed lost, intimated she was going to smoke a cigarette (“Outside? You don’t smoke in bed? Not even after sex? Really?”).

And though she’d put up protest, it was Cosima who ran the water to warmth and pulled Delphine into the tub after her to sluice away sweat and stickiness and the stiffness in strained muscles. Who brushed the dampening locks off of Delphine’s cheeks and drew her down for a languid kiss. Who, while Delphine raised upturned face to meet the pitter-pattering spray, put her hand to the middle of Delphine’s back and drew senseless patterns, concentrating on the feel of slickened skin beneath her fingertips, the dips and the contours, cataloging the shape and size of each beauty mark clustered tight in an undisclosed constellation, imagining she discerned there designs that no one before had yet seen.

*

They breakfasted at lunch time on artery-clogging, gut-sinking diner fare, with a whole pot of coffee left on their table beside fried eggs and buttered white toast and syrup-drenched pancakes and crispy hash browns.

(“Why are they called ‘hash browns’?” “I can’t tell you the actual reason, but I’m guessing it has to do with the way the potatoes are prepared, like, cut up, shredded, and diced--you know, hashed--and then browned to crispy goodness. Thus: hash browns.” “You don’t eat this often, do you?” “Not as often as I want to.” “But it’s so . . .” “Delicious?” “That . . . wasn’t the word I was looking for.”)

Cosima shoveled bites into her mouth at a rate that should have made conversation difficult but did nothing to deter her defense of American food to Delphine’s mutterings about serving sizes, preparation, seasoning, and condiments. (“Ketchup? On that?” “Yup. You know what else goes really well with ketchup? French fries.” “You are such a brat. Why do the Americans call them that?” “No idea. We can look it up later. Maybe while eating French fries.” “Brat.”) Delphine poked at her dishes with a fork, caught between smiles and grimaces, as Cosima packed away more calories in one sitting than she’d need in a day. Even considering the morning they’d passed.

They walked out of the diner arm-in-arm, a receipt of the bill already making its way to the bottom of Cosima’s purse, which the brunette had swiped and paid when Delphine made the critical mistake of going off to smoke a cigarette. Their steps plodded leaden and ponderous. Frowning just a bit, Delphine said, “Maybe we should not eat at diners too often.”

Cosima snickered. “Are you proposing that, like, our first ground rule?”

“Ground rule?”

“Yeah, you know, like--rules that determine what’s okay and what’s not okay. Like, in a relationship.”

Delphine squinted into the distance, though nothing much registered near or far. “It would be good to take steps to prevent you or me having a heart attack. So, yes, I think this is a good ground rule.”

A smile tugged at Cosima’s lips but she said, defensively, “But I like diner food.”

“I did not say we should never eat it, but that we should not eat it often.”

Cosima nodded slowly. “So instead of you indulging my every desire, you’d rather that I give up my desires for you.”

Delphine rolled her eyes. “If you’re going to say it like that, then I could argue that you would be fulfilling my desires by agreeing to this little one thing. But that’s not the point because we can still eat at diners, just not often.”

The pace of Cosima’s steps diminished. Glancing over at her, Delphine found Cosima staring resolutely ahead. “Compromise, huh?” she said, tone shifted, the banter gone.

Delphine licked her lips. “Yes. Compromise.”

Their boots tapped out an asynchronous rhythm until their strides matched up, finding a tempo more harmonious. Cosima took a deep breath and adjusted her hands in her pocket, drawing Delphine closer in the process. “Okay. Ground rule number one: We won’t eat at diners too often.”

*

They arrived at the cinema ten minutes late. (“See, we’re not that late. Though I need to point out, for the record, that I didn’t do anything to make us late.” “How can you say that? You were the one who insisted that we see this showing even though we knew we couldn’t make it on time.” “Because it was the earliest one we could catch! The next one is two hours later. And what I meant was, I didn’t do anything to make us late. You didn’t have to wait for me and it wasn’t like I lost track of time. We’re late because it was impossible to not be late.” “I--I honestly don’t know how to respond to that.” “Just accept it because I’m right.” “No no no no. Give me time.”) They shuffled into the theater after a minimum of fuss--including a momentary stall when Cosima sent the concession stand a longing look as they passed (“You’re still hungry?” “There’s always room for popcorn. Or chocolate. Or both.” “Please, no.” “Yeah, not today. Next time we’ll stop by a drugstore first or something.” “What?” “You’ll see.”)--to find the lights dimmed, previews rolling, and the seats nigh empty.

Even so, Cosima dragged Delphine up to the last row and settled them in the center, right below the projector. They doffed their heavy coats and, after a second’s silent communication, spread them across their laps like blankets. An experimental tug revealed that the armrest between them could be raised.

Cosima grinned.

Without hesitating, Cosima slipped her hand into Delphine’s and leaned into her, resting her head on Delphine’s shoulder and their joined hands upon her lap. But it wasn’t until the lights dimmed entirely and plunged the room into darkness that Delphine shifted so that they fit against each other more comfortably and briefly pressed her cheek to the crown of Cosima’s head.

*

They stepped into the park with the inevitability of night fast approaching. The sun hung feebly and fading in the sky, its slanting light picking out troughs and crests across the surface of the wind-disturbed lake, but Cosima’s footsteps guided them down a grass-lined path, her bare hand clasped in Delphine’s. A gust nearly made Delphine gasp; it seemed to slip down her collar and through her coat’s seams and seeped chillingly into her bones. Cosima’s hand squeezed tight around hers, to brace herself against the same assault or to bolster Delphine’s constitution, the blonde couldn’t have said, just as she couldn’t have said what drew Cosima deeper and onward.

Yet they walked on, up to the water’s edge, where Cosima stopped and gazed out across the water. Delphine stood meekly beside her, shoulders hunched to preserve every shred of body heat, casting her eyes after Cosima’s but finding nothing of particular interest.

But Cosima wasn’t really looking either.

Delphine saw it in her face, in the pull of her mouth, the unfocused fixedness of her stare, in the way she raised her free hand, pressed her fingers to her sternum, and rubbed--forcefully, agitatedly, insistently--to and fro, back and forth across the red expanse of her coat. Delphine’s heart sank.

“It’s cold out here,” Delphine chattered, her words puffing out around her. “Perhaps we should head back to your apartment?”

Cosima’s lips thinned into a stern line, eyes narrowing. “Just--just another minute.” And for one second, her expression slipped. Her lips trembled and her eyebrows furrowed and her jaw clenched and Delphine couldn’t name what she saw, if it was sorrow or anger, regret or defiance, past-tracking or forward-looking, before Cosima mastered her features with a heavy sigh and a shake of her head. “Let’s wait until the sun sets, okay?”

They waited until the sun set, beautiful and radiant in its surrendering throes. Then Cosima slipped their joined hands into her pocket, bowed her head, and turned back the way they’d come.

*

They lay side by side in bed, studying each other, all the day’s nothings winding down complete.

“Back to the grind tomorrow,” Cosima murmured, joking but not, and there in the darkened bedroom Delphine allowed herself to touch Cosima’s pale face, as she had wanted to earlier, to acknowledge all that roiled beneath the surface, to offer comfort, to give in the hope of being received.

Cosima closed her eyes and covered Delphine’s hand with her own. Affirming its place. Holding them in the moment. Clinging to tarry in the here and the now.


“How do you have so many plants?”

“How?” Cosima echoed as she poured out a libation from her drinking glass to the plant near the kitchen sink. “Not why?”

"Yes, how," Delphine said slowly though what her mind remarked on was not the number of plants--which were many, one installed on nearly every windowsill, one that kept any occupant at the desk company from its perch on the adjacent stand, and a rather tall one that, Delphine realized, moved about the apartment under Cosima’s direction, presumably in search of sun or shade or some combination of both--but on the flora’s vibrant health.

Aloud Delphine wouldn’t have said that Cosima forgot things. But Cosima forgot things. The time, mostly. She didn’t suffer from absent-mindedness, but a singularity of focus that adhered to no schedule but that of her attention span. Her mind made a habit of pursuing one topic and its hundred detours and derivatives. Often to the exclusion of all else. Like regular meals. Appointments. Reservations. Deadlines. Reasonable sleep hours.

But evidently not watering the plants.

“Well,” Cosima said, probing at the soil of the thirsty plant with her fingers, “it’s not so hard when you think about it. You can buy potted plants at any retail or home improvement store with a gardening section. Alternatively, you can buy a pot, soil, and seeds, put them all together, add water, and grow a plant from scratch. Or you could cultivate a few cuttings from your dad’s garden and bring them along with you.”

Delphine, who had rolled her eyes at the beginning of Cosima’s lecture, cocked her head in contemplation at that last bit. She licked her lips. “You brought these plants with you? From San Francisco?”

Cosima looked up from inspecting the pot in the next window. “Some of them, yeah.”

Delphine squinted at her. Cosima smiled and rubbed a leaf gently between her fingers. Delphine’s lips parted, but no suitable remark lent shape to her surprise.

“They’re like a piece of home,” Cosime elaborated with a shrug. “Gardening is my dad’s hobby and my parents keep a ton of houseplants. My dad primarily takes care of them, but when I was old enough he gave me a few plants to look after. It kind of ended up being a twofer lesson in botany and responsibility.” Cosima laughed a little. “Of course, I killed one or two--too much water, too little water, too much direct sunlight, not enough, that sort of thing. But I learned.” She smoothed out a leaf. “And I took them with me when I left. No place really feels like home without some greenery.”

Delphine leaned back in her seat, covered her mouth with a hand, and surveyed the plants within her line of sight. Healthy, pruned, strategically placed. “You care for them.”

Cosima laughed and grinned. “Well, yeah. It’s not like they can take care of themselves in here.”

But that’s not what Delphine had meant and the weight of the thought in her mind kept a smile from her face.

In her silence, Cosima’s eyes passed over Delphine’s features and grew softer and somber. The brunette dropped her gaze back to the plant, lips pressed together. She shrugged. “They don’t really demand much. Just a little--nurture.”

Delphine heard the emphasis on the last word, caught the smirk-twist of Cosima’s mouth, and, following her line of thinking, joined the other woman in her amusement. She smiled now and let it escape from behind her hand. Cosima glanced over, spied it, and reflected her mirth twofold.

“You know,” Cosima said, patting the plant upon a branch like it was a pet, “you could say I’ve been raising a few of my own clones.”

Delphine groaned but recovered with a shake of her head. Still. She tapped a finger on the table top. “And how would you say the cuttings you took fared under your brand of nurture? As compared to your father’s.”

“I don’t think they have too much to complain about,” Cosima said flippantly.

“That’s because they can’t speak,” Delphine fired back.

Cosima’s jaw dropped. Her affront translated into a glare and a tsk, tongue peeking out between her teeth as it snapped off of them. Delphine raised her eyebrows innocently. Cosima turned away and ignored her. Yet as Delphine watched her, running a finger along the lip of the pot, then skimmingly, almost caressingly, across the stubbly leaves, Cosima’s expression slackened and settled, and her gaze drifted off and away, returned, and rested heavily upon the plant.

When she spoke, her eyes remained fixedly lowered.

“Do you think you could--I mean, would you--maybe--take care of them. If I couldn’t.”

Gravity clutched hard at the corners of Delphine’s mouth. She resisted its force and swallowed. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with plants.”

Cosima held still. Then she smiled. “Well, that makes two of us.” She turned her head and met Delphine’s puzzled expression. “I was serious when I said these guys don’t demand much. I’ll show you. You’ll see.”

In the grip of Cosima’s quiet regard, part earnest, part resigned, wavering between the suggestion of a smile and the threat of guarded blankness, Delphine could only manage, “Okay.”


“You know when my birthday is.”

The accusatory lilt that carried the words across the room lodged in Delphine’s ear and restrained the reflex to turn toward Cosima’s voice. She frowned and peered over her shoulder cautiously. Wetting her lips, Delphine temporized. “That sounded like it derived from a different thought.”

Cosima shrugged. “That doesn’t matter.” A scowl twisted Cosima’s mouth. “You do know when my birthday is, right?”

Delphine considered pleading ignorance but thought better of it. “Yes.”

Cosima crossed her arms and sat upon her bed in a confrontational huff. Delphine turned slowly to more fully face her, unsure what would follow.

“When’s your birthday?” Cosima demanded.

In an instant Delphine weighed the situation and hedged her bets. “It’s still a ways off.”

“You’re not going to tell me?” Cosima said, disbelief unstringing her voice, eyes wide.

“Well,” Delphine said carefully, “I had to work to learn yours.”

Cosima laughed, not in mirth, but with incredulity, underpinned with something that sounded hesitant and wondering. “Seriously? What, you want me to--” She shook her head. “--steal your passport?”

Delphine smiled. “That would be one way to find the answer.”

Cosima’s eyebrows drew together. “Wait. What name is on your passport? Cormier?”

“That is my name, yes,” Delphine said slowly.

“You’re saying,” Cosima said, enunciating pointedly, “that if I’d jacked your passport before I learned about all of--” Her hands circled in the air and encompassed the room, the two of them, the larger picture of their lives. “--this--because, I don’t know, I’m nosy--then I’d’ve seen that your name wasn’t what you told me your name was?”

Delphine sighed. “At this point, does that really surprise you?”

“When it comes to you?” Cosima countered. “Everything’s a surprise.”

*

The trouble made itself known to Delphine’s ears first, in sputters that wriggled through the barest crack of the door as it yawned open. She saw it next in Cosima’s pinched eyes, the wad of tissues pressed to her mouth, the ballooning of her cheeks each time Cosima tried close-lipped to contain a cough. Cosima didn’t even attempt to greet her, but stepped out of the way and motioned Delphine inside. Concern (not panic, Delphine assured herself, not something even close to panic) sank Delphine’s stomach and sent tightness spidering throughout her chest. She hurried across the threshold and reached for Cosima just as the faint scent reached her.

Delphine stopped in her tracks and stared at Cosima.

“Cosima,” Delphine all but sighed. “Really?”

Cosima shook her head, suppressing another spluttering bout, and waved her free hand. Not in denial. As a dismissal.

Delphine’s hands perched upon her hips.

“Don’t,” Cosima managed, lowering the tissue for just a second, and then gestured helplessly at the open door. Delphine remained still and staring for another heartbeat until Cosima spun and stumbled for the bathroom. Delphine took an unthinking step after her, hesitated, and turned back to the door, closing and locking it. From behind her unrestrained coughs shuddered through the air. Shaking her head, jaw settled in a taut line, Delphine tossed down her bags and tore off articles of outerwear, graceless and jerky, heedless of the fragility of even her laptop. She heard the coughing stop but didn’t register that Cosima had reappeared, leaning against the frame of the bathroom door, watching her.

She tugged off her boots with unwarranted viciousness and straightened up to meet Cosima’s observing eyes. Cosima raised a forestalling hand.

“Don’t yell at me,” Cosima rasped. “Because, one, I didn’t get far before--” She covered a cough with the tissue. “--this. And, two--” Her lungs gave another heave. “--there’s nothing you can say that will make me feel any shittier than I do right now.”

Delphine stared at Cosima, wordless, piercing. Cosima held her gaze, flinching only when another cough threatened. At last Delphine sighed and said, wearily, pleadingly, “Why?”

“Why?” Cosima gasped laughingly, which brought on another fit. As it died down she tossed her head from side to side and inhaled deeply, holding the breath until she released it in a long, uninterrupted gust. She took a few more calming breaths and finished, “Why not?” Cosima didn’t spare a second for Delphine to formulate an admonishment. She pointed at Delphine and said, flatly, “Don’t answer that. Don’t. Not when an hour from now you’re going to step outside to smoke a cigarette.” Cosima wiped her mouth. “Really, you should be amazed that it took me this long.”

A multitude of responses--fueled by a gamut of frustration, fear, uncertainty, helplessness, exasperation, exhaustion, disbelief, anxiety--passed through Delphine’s mind. The urge to cry, laugh, scream, or walk right out lodged tight and expansive in her chest. But she only hung her head, pushed back her hair, and raised her eyes to the figure in the doorframe, who, small to begin with, hunched into herself with every quaking cough.

“How do you feel?” Delphine asked softly.

“Like shit,” Cosima growled. She pressed a hand to her chest. “I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t--this. It’s like I’ve got an itch in my lungs that I can’t scratch. There was this kind of burning sensation--” Delphine stepped forward in alarm. “--that went away. But now I can’t--” Cosima cleared her throat and clamped her lips together tightly. They both waited. Cosima took an experimental breath. Nothing erupted forth. “I can’t stop coughing. I was going to take some cough medicine before you arrived.”

“Cough medicine?” Delphine inquired with concern. “Let me see it.”

Cosima leaned back into the bathroom, snatched a bottle off the sink, and held it out to Delphine. She pressed the back of her free hand to her mouth as Delphine grasped the bottle, holding it suspended in the space between them before taking it from Cosima. Bottle in hand, Delphine reached out with her other and seized Cosima’s now-empty one. She squeezed it. After a second, Cosima clutched her hand in return, then turned away to cough. Delphine winced.

The blonde forced herself to look away and busy her hands. She turned the bottle over, noting that the plastic seal was broken but the contents appeared full, and scanned the label. She took a moment to marvel over the medication’s name: Adult Robitussin Lingering Cold Long-Acting Cough Liquid. Huffing, Cosima said, “It’s just a cough suppressant. Dextromethorphan only.”

Delphine nodded. “That’s good. I’m not sure how an expectorant would affect--you. Did you just buy this?”

Hesitation preceded a shake of Cosima’s head. “I’ve had it. I picked it up shortly after we returned.”

Delphine ran her finger along the line of the liquid’s height in the bottle. “But you haven’t yet taken any?”

“No. I’ve been sleeping through the night okay and my cough hasn’t been that bad during the day.”

Both true, Delphine knew. But she nodded anyway. “It’s probably best not to use any cough medicine in general. Not with the amount of buildup in your lungs.”

Cosima made a face. “I know. I--” She sputtered and released a guttural sound like a growl. Frowning to disguise a spike of fear that lanced down her spine, Delphine plucked the measuring cup off the top of the bottle and twisted the cap open. She made to pour out the correct dosage when her hand was suddenly empty and the bottle was at Cosima’s lips. Delphine gaped. Cosima’s throat worked as the liquid poured down her esophagus.

“Cosima!” Delphine exclaimed, reaching for the bottle, but Cosima pivoted away and held Delphine at arm’s length. With a sigh Cosima lowered the bottle, licked her lips, and dabbed at the corner of her mouth with the tissue still clutched in her other hand. “Chill out, Delphine.”

Delphine’s jaw worked soundlessly. She grasped for English. Her thoughts fumbled. For a moment, she contemplated shaking Cosima. But her hand gravitated to her own temple, pressing lightly at the pulsing point to halt the tremor in her fingers. “No. No. No. Cosima, you have to--you have to be careful with medication. Now more than ever. You don’t know how it may affect your body now, or there could be side effects that could--could--merde, what is the English--worsen--worsen your symptoms. With DXM, you could--”

“Get high?” Cosima finished drolly. Delphine stared at her blankly. Cosima cracked a smile. “It’ll be fine. No worries. And, no, I hadn’t planned to get high off of cough syrup--and I won’t.” She shook her head. “God, you sounded just like--” Cosima stopped, abruptly, smile fading. Something unreadable floated to the surface of her expression, but as Delphine tried to puzzle it out a cough erased it a heartbeat later. When the fit subsided, Cosima shoved the uncapped bottle at Delphine with a groan of disgust.

“Fuck,” Cosima cursed vehemently. “Next time I’ll bake brownies.”

*

An hour’s passing brought Cosima respiratory reprieve--and the brunette slumped languid upon the perch of her hand, eyes glazed and pointed unfocused at her laptop, eyelids drooping. Delphine, who’d watched Cosima’s coughs dwindle with the ebb of her energy, put her highlighter down and accepted the dismal progress she’d made in her reading. With a soundless sigh, Delphine got to her feet and crossed to Cosima’s side. Her presence went unnoticed until she laid a hand on the brunette’s shoulder, prompting a sluggish turn of Cosima’s head.

“Let’s rest,” Delphine suggested quietly.

“Rest?”

Delphine indicated the bed with a jerk of her chin.

“Nap time?” Cosima hazarded, tone and texture muddled.

Delphine nodded. “Nap time. Come.” She hooked a hand beneath Cosima’s arm and raised the smaller woman out of the computer chair. On her feet, Cosima leaned into Delphine and mumbled into the blonde’s shoulder, loosing a jumble of syllables that might have included the word “non-drowsy.” The muscles around Delphine’s lips twitched. Warmth flared like a sunburst from her heart, but heavy, serrated.

Delphine didn’t dwell on it.

Instead she circled an arm around Cosima’s waist and guided the brunette--canting and swaying into Delphine’s body with each step--to her side of the bed. Cosima tumbled onto the mattress with the aplomb of a felled tree. She landed in a contorted heap that laid her partially on her stomach, curled somewhat on her side, and all too lazy to move. Out of the corner of her eye Cosima peeked up at Delphine and smirked.

Delphine shook her head. “Hand me your glasses,” she said softly. No response. Delphine repeated the request until Cosima handed up the frames like a sacrificial offering. With likewise due reverence Delphine eased them out of Cosima’s grip, folded them, and placed them gently upon the nightstand.

Cosima patted the bed. “Nap time.”

Delphine eyed Cosima speculatively, thought of pot and cough syrup and brownies. She kept the brunette in her sights as she prowled around the end of the bed, hand trailing from bed post to bed post, her fingertips upon the comforter circumscribing the edge of the mattress, marking the way to the other side--her side. Cosima’s eyes tracked her in turn, narrowed and struggling to focus, but undeniably fixed on Delphine as the blonde sank down onto the covers. Delphine swung one leg up and then the other, and Cosima, boneless an eyeblink before, wriggled her way across the bed to sidle into Delphine’s space.

Delphine smiled. Despite herself. Despite the prickles of irritation and uncertainty and helplessness that surfaced and chafed unbidden and unpredictable, irrational and paranoid, justified and sensible. She covered the shifts in her mood as she covered Cosima’s cheek with a hand to welcome her intrusion into her space, stroking and smoothing away the tautness in Cosima’s jaw, the tension of the thoughts buzzing always in her cranium, drawing comfort for herself in the flutter of Cosima’s eyelids, the pressure against her hand as Cosima turned into the curve of her palm, the almost-purr that issued low and deep from Cosima’s throat, the touch that answered hers, fingertips settling upon her clavicle.

Impulsively Delphine brushed her lips across Cosima’s forehead. As she pulled away, Cosima craned her head back and scored a glancing peck on her chin. The clumsy effort evinced a dissatisfied growl from the brunette. Delphine smiled, kissed the tip of Cosima’s nose in consolation. Taking her turn, Cosima laid claim to Delphine’s lips, the contact brief, almost chaste, as if considering. The fleeting exchange sent Delphine’s blood stirring in anticipation, a response that even now felt overwhelming, startling, so that when Cosima pulled away and tucked her chin in close, Delphine didn’t follow in pursuit. She lay letting her pulse abate, for the goose bumps that had tingled across her arms to subside.

They settled down. Silence held them adrift. Cosima’s eyes remained open. Delphine shifted and looked into the brunette’s face, wishing she could have pressed an ear to Cosima’s chest, to her back, to listen and assess. “How do you feel?”

“Okay,” replied Cosima in a tone equally as soft, voice husky.

Delphine’s lips parted with the intention of asking Cosima if she were sleepy, but what spilled out was, “Do you want me to stop smoking?”

Cosima frowned, displaying the bewilderment that Delphine felt, but replied without hesitation. “You should quit smoking if you want to quit smoking.”

“But does it bother you that I smoke while you--while you can’t?”

Cosima’s fingers tapped upon Delphine’s collarbone. “No? To smoke or not to smoke is totally your choice. No judgment.”

“I know. I meant--”

“It doesn’t bother me, Delphine. It wouldn’t bother me for that reason.”

Delphine’s features scrunched in consideration. “For what reasons, then?”

Cosima closed her eyes and shook her head. Delphine relented.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Cosima let out a snort-laugh and lightly butted her head against Delphine’s sternum. “Stop saying that.”

Delphine grinned, though Cosima didn’t see it, knowing the brunette could just as well hear it. “Sorry. I’ll stop saying sorry.”

“Asshole,” Cosima muttered. She continued, fingers curling slightly into Delphine, voice dropping lower, tone a contrast. “You’re such an asshole.”

Delphine lay still and quiet. Gripped by the severity of the words. As Cosima’s eyes blinked open and fixated upon where they touched, beneath the brunette’s fingers, upon Delphine’s collarbone. As each of their passing breaths--seamless, deep, rhythmic--lent the unanswered accusation increasing weight.

“I’ll never meet someone like you again,” Cosima whispered. Delphine’s breath hitched. “Probably. I mean someone who will just know. Know me. What I am. What I’m a part of. What’s happening. What’s happened. Without--without explanations or, or awkward conversations about crazy science experiments and conspiracies and--and clones.” She inhaled and exhaled sharply. “Who could learn all that--and look at me the way you do?”

Her words threw up a dam in Delphine, behind which surged and built and swirled everything--everything--that had brought them here, brought her here, a researcher turned deceiver turned turncoat turned collaborator turned lover turned not-quite-confidant, not-quite-partner, not-quite-trusted, not-quite-believable, not-quite-sure--not quite, not quite. But most of all that she was just a woman, just one woman, who had stumbled upon something bigger than herself, who had been given something greater than she could have imagined, who’d lucked out in a spot of unluckiness.

Delphine caressed Cosima’s cheek, lifted her chin, and kissed her, every muscle shaking, restrained. She drew away breathless, heart straining painful in her chest, and rested her forehead against Cosima’s, eyes shut against the pressure of the stemmed tide beating and roaring behind them, in her thoughts, a crowding at the back of her mouth, insistent.

Delphine swallowed.

“Anyone,” she whispered in a voice that broke. She blinked hard against the liquid sheen across her vision and stroked Cosima’s chin. “Anyone privileged to experience the way you look at me.”


"Honestly, Cosima, how can you focus surrounded by this mess?"

The scratching of Cosima’s pen stilled. Lifting the point from the page, she swerved in the desk chair, sat back, and smiled, laughter in her eyes. "You sound like my dad."

By the bed, Delphine’s hands paused in the middle of folding a dress. "Your father? Not your mother?"

"My mom? Are you kidding me? Whose example do you think I followed? No, it was my dad who was always on my case." Cosima pitched her voice deep, gravelly, and menacing. "'Cosima, clean your room.'” She grinned. “Then there would be this long pause before he’d go, 'Please.'"

Delphine, sucking at her lips to suppress the twitches stretching them wider, scooped up a belt fallen amongst the pillows. "And would you clean your room?"

"Yeah. But it never stayed clean for long." Cosima eyed Delphine. "As you've taken to pointing out about my place. Even though it really isn't that messy. It's clean. I just have a habit of throwing my stuff around. And not picking them up right away. Like, it may take me a while to get around to it, but I tidy up. Eventually."

Delphine's expression conveyed a sentiment far from impressed. Cosima saw it, propped her elbows upon the armrests, and grasped her pen like a bridge between her hands. "You disagree? Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that I'm lying."

"You're not," Delphine admitted in a measured tone, not quite looking at Cosima. "Technically. But that doesn't change the fact that we're sitting in a, in a, an explosion of your things."

Cosima stared at her, the pen she had been fiddling with dropping from the limp fingers of her left hand to hang vertical pinched between the fingertips of her right. "Okay, that was kinda freaky. I'm pretty sure my dad said almost the exact same thing to me once."

Delphine's lips quirked. “So he’s the sensible one in your family.”

Cosima rolled her eyes and wielded the pen at Delphine like a pointer. "You realize that it's not all my stuff. Those are your bracelets on the nightstand, and your socks by the foot of the bed, and your sweater hanging on the bedpost, and your flash drive right here on the desk. It must have fallen out of your bag because I didn’t see it on the floor this morning and stepped on it. It hurt."

One by one, their eyes tracked around the room to fall upon each enumerated item. There were objects Cosima hadn't mentioned. Delphine's scarf tangled in a heap among Cosima's collection. The pair of gloves Delphine had been convinced she'd lost until the outstretched woolen fingers begged rescue from the crack of the armchair. The bottle of nail polish and a razor that claimed a home upon a shelf in the medicine cabinet. Bottles of shampoo and conditioner and body wash delegated to a corner ledge all their own in the tub. A hair tie that traveled from surface top to surface top, room to room, sparingly used but constantly misplaced. Transplanted possessions making shared spaces of formerly sole territory.

In their searching silence Delphine added no further commentary but let her attention drift back to her task, taking up the last piece of clothing flung upon the bed and folding it. She laid it and then her hand atop the stack she’d piled and said, in a markedly upbeat tone, "So today I sound like your father. Whom did I sound like the other day?"

"The other day?" Cosima repeated quizzically, jolted out of the savory enjoyment of her small victory.

Delphine nodded. “The day you disregarded the prescribed dose for cough syrup.”

The timeframe leapt to mind immediately, but Delphine’s reference remained out of reach. Cosima’s eyes narrowed as if the tunneling of her vision could bring the memory into clarity. Delphine watched her and supplied, “I--lectured you and you said I sounded like--well, you didn’t say.”

“Oh.” Cosima sat up straighter and shifted in her seat. Tossing the pen down, she reached out and shifted various knickknacks around her desk. “That. It was nothing, really. You just sorta--reminded me of someone I dated before.”

Delphine’s mouth shaped an unvocalized “ah.” Her head teetered up and down in slow, rhythmic bobs as she reached for the pile of clothes. “It seems this person and I share similar concerns about your behavior?”

“That can happen when two people date the same person,” Cosima said drily.

The neat pile of clothing, in the middle of being lifted, lowered back to the bedspread. Delphine’s gaze fixed on the pattern of the sheets, exposed in the unmade bed. “Are we--” Her eyes flicked up. “Are you and I dating?”

Cosima’s gut grew heavy with knots. A rush of iciness through her veins rendered her limbs leaden and stiff. Delphine glanced into her face indirectly, but Cosima caught the surreptitious study and swallowed. She pressed her lips together so that they formed a harsh line across the lower half of her face.

Speaking was an effort to push through the flutter in her stomach.

“I’m not sure what else to call it,” she offered in a voice grown textured. “I mean there’s--’friends with benefits.’ Or ‘fuck buddies’ if you want to be really classy.” She swiped her fingers across her mouth. “I'm not sure that's fair though, considering--considering how much we've--I mean, that you’ve done--that you do for me. Like, it feels fair to say that--is it fair to say?--that there's more of an attachment--between us.”

Delphine smoothed and patted the shirt at the top of the pile, features and posture distinctly neutral, eyes intent on Cosima’s face. Heat flushed hot across Cosima’s chest, up her neck, suffused her cheeks and warmed the tips of her ears. It was a relief when Delphine averted her gaze, spotted a piece of lint on the comforter, pincered it between her fingers, and flicked it carelessly onto the floor.

"The sex is compelling,” Delphine said evenly, raising her head. “I mean that you of all people should know the allure and imperative of--” Her fine eyebrows rose to punctuate the point. “--of sex. It has played such an integral part in evolution that nature goes to great lengths to accommodate it, to--to cater to its fulfilment. To drive us to seek it.”

Cosima's jaw flexed and worked. An odd sensation surged up within her, an impulse to laugh that bubbled up from fonts of incredulity and disquiet. But what came out was a huff like a repressed snort. "Yeah, but, a reproductive imperative is not the same as . . ." Her hands churned the air in conjuration. Delphine lifted a goading eyebrow. Cosima met her expectant eyes. "As a hit of cocaine to the brain."

Delphine sucked in a breath and held it. Exhaling, she nodded and slipped into a slow smile, like a fencer conceding a well-executed feint. With a minute jerk of her head, Delphine riposted airily, "The release of endorphins during orgasm is nothing to treat lightly either."

Cosima leaned back in her chair and spread her hands. "No argument here."

Delphine licked her lips and braced a hand atop the bedpost. “So . . . it could be about the sex.”

Cosima laced her fingers together and refused to look away. “Is it?”

Tenderness softened the planes of Delphine’s features. Her eyes shone clear and steady, lit with forbearance that Cosima knew overlay steely conviction. Low and precise, her voice recast Cosima’s words into the forms of her clipped accent and gave them back repurposed. “Is it?”

Cosima’s heart leapt but she didn’t flinch. “Would it bother you if I called you my girlfriend?”

A spasm worked Delphine’s mouth into an uncertain fleeting twist. “Would it bother you if I called you mine?”

The question hit Cosima right in the throat, a lump of nervousness and uncertainty that stoppered any prompt answer she’d imagined giving. She thought not of the mix of expansive warmth and pulse-prodding trepidation that filled her chest, or the lightheadedness that for a second completely emptied her mind, or how this woman had become more and more often the last thought before she fell asleep and the first one upon waking, but of Sarah, of Alison, of Kira gone missing, of Beth and Paul, of Aldous Leekie and DYAD, of a woman called Mrs. S, of connections and betrayals.

And all the while Delphine’s eyes played over her face, tinged with sadness, all too understanding.

“You know my answers,” Delphine said, softly, but with enough volume to carry across the room, enough weight to bear compassion, enough projection to span their distance. “They’ll be the same when you find yours. And when you do, you’ll be ready to hear mine.” She smiled. “Ma chérie.


In the hazy reluctant period after silencing the alarm, Cosima turned over in bed and lay nose-to-nose with Delphine. The blonde smiled at her sleepily, less alert, in danger of drifting back into slumber, swaddled in the assumption that Cosima had hit snooze--which she had, by reflex. Cosima laid her fingertips upon Delphine's cheek.

"I think you should spend the whole day away," she said. Delphine blinked rapidly into wakefulness. "Go to the lab, hog a station, run tests, bother people with questions--get some research done. Then when you're finished, I think you should swing by your place, put on something nice, and come over and pick me up. We'll go out to dinner." Cosima squinted, lips pursing. "Someplace nice. Someplace new. Where neither of us has been. Where we won't mention anything about illnesses or DYAD or clones." She drew her fingers down along the line of Delphine’s jaw and lingered upon the jut of her chin. “We’ll have a date date.”

The last word doubled spilled from Cosima’s lips and settled on Delphine's, briefly molding them into its shape. A wrinkle appeared between eyes still cobwebbed with threads of sleep. Cosima resisted the urge to trace it, smooth it away.

The beginnings of a series of words contorted Delphine’s mouth, fading one into the next unvocalized, until at last she said, “Where will we go?”

Cosima withdrew her hand and rolled her head upon the pillow in a headshake. “I hadn’t thought that far.”

Delphine rubbed at an eye and then stretched, arms thrust over her head, back arched. Limbs flopping back to the bed, she said, "Should that be one of my research assignments?"

"You want to choose where we go?" The lilt of Cosima’s voice rose steeply enough at the end that Delphine quirked an eyebrow at her.

"What, you think that because I’m a foreigner that I cannot find a nice restaurant in this American city?"

Cosima’s brow crinkled and she leaned back slightly, mouth pulling up at the corner in a dubious smile. "Nothing I said remotely insinuated that."

“Not with your words, perhaps,” Delphine drawled. “I'll make reservations for seven?"

Cosima, mouth already open, hesitated and shifted gears. "Uh, sure," she replied slowly, navigating around the abrupt U-turn in the conversation, mindful that Delphine had cut off the pass for a rebuttal.

"Any preferences?” Delphine added without surrendering a beat. “Is there something you would like to eat? Things you refuse to eat?"

"No, I'm pretty easy."

Delphine nodded with academic gravity. "Mmm, yes."

"Hey!" Cosima protested, propping herself up on an elbow.

Delphine eyebrows lifted. For an incredulous second, squinting down at Delphine unkempt yet self-satisfied, Cosima wondered how she’d lost control of the conversation she’d planned and started.

Delphine smiled, eyes soft in the shuttered winter morning light, traces of teasing receding, and cast Cosima’s predicament into an outlook less surprised.

“The alarm will go off again soon,” Delphine murmured. “Would you like to shower first or shall I?"

Laughter jolted Cosima. “Jeez, Delphine, I told you to spend the day away, but I didn’t mean starting right now.”

Delphine reached up and pressed her fingertips to Cosima’s lips. “Ah.” She smiled. “Good.”

*

Cosima importuned her to stay away, but then interjected herself into Delphine’s day. Delphine’s cell phone dinged--and then buzzed when Delphine turned off the ringer--with a string of incoming messages, updates on the accomplishment of tidying the apartment or the annoyance of doing laundry, intermittent restaurant suggestions, inquiries of whether Delphine would like anything from the store, commentary on the weather, the likelihood of snow, the differences between Minneapolis and San Francisco, a longing for the seasons to turn, for spring to come.

Delphine learned to miss Cosima in ways she hadn’t yet known. In the intervals between replies that came in near-instantaneous bursts or drew out into long stretches of bated breaths and glances at her cell phone’s screen. In how her imagination painted pictures of Cosima performing the tasks she related in her messages, images composited from the substance of memories, filling Delphine with an ache for Cosima’s presence, the sight of her, the sound of her, the assurance of her proximity.

It was not the first day Delphine had “spent away” from Cosima, but it was the first where her exile had come imposed. The injunction dragged upon the hours passing laden and listless in a cloud of solitude, a murkiness punctuated by buzzing reverberations from her lab coat pocket, which pierced Delphine’s concentration like hails beckoning her home.

*

From the moment the door yielded the minutest crack, Cosima’s eyes roamed over Delphine, from the calculated sweep of her hair, across her light application of makeup, at the glimpse of her outfit through her open coat, to the heels upon her feet. Cosima’s smile stretched into a grin beneath eyes shining bright behind her lenses, so that even before Delphine leaned in to greet her with a kiss and Cosima subtly, discreetly sampled Delphine’s perfume, out of Cosima’s mouth tumbled: “Very nice.”

“Yes, it is,” Delphine murmured in agreement, stepping back and assessing Cosima in turn, not bothering to disguise the wonder underpinning her tone. “I’m early and you’re ready.”

“Ha ha,” Cosima deadpanned, gaze flicking across Delphine’s glossy lips, “very funny. Is this how you want to start the evening?”

Those lips rounded into a thoughtful moue. “What do you mean?” Delphine smiled. “It seems a perfect start to me.”

*

The restaurant was located Downtown. (“Okay, I’ll admit that when I left the choice of the restaurant up to you, I didn’t expect you to go for sushi.” “There’s a steakhouse as well, if you prefer. I wasn’t sure.” “No no, I like sushi, I’m just . . . surprised.” “Is that because I’m French? Two comments on my foreignness in one day, Cosima?” “Two? There wasn’t even a first time!”) When they arrived their table wasn’t immediately ready. (“Did I hear the hostess say that our reservation was for seven-thirty?” “Mm.” “You sneaky asshole, you made reservations for seven-thirty but told me seven.” “Well, I assumed . . . .”) As they waited to be seated, Cosima perused the hip and swanky atmosphere, the staff, and their fellow patrons. Delphine watched Cosima, noting how the brunette’s eyes lingered on details--of the decor, of the people, men and women alike--and how the low light winked off the accessories at her throat and wrists and fingers, even the ring at her nostril, as she shifted and adjusted the lay of her dress or the sit of her glasses. (“It’s busy. Good thing you made reservations.”) Once settled, they debated over the wine menu (“No sake?” “It doesn’t look like it. Would you have liked some?” “Sure, we could have shared a bottle.” “Another time, somewhere else then.”) and agreed on an appetizer and the sushi and sashimi for two (“You like sashimi too?” “Why do you sound so surprised?”).

Then there was no waiter and no menus, just the two of them, empty plates, glasses of wine and water, and a blanket of silence across the expanse of table between them while the room hummed around them with the blend of countless voices.

They did not quite look at each other. When one glanced at the other, she found her companion busy examining the swirl of rich wine in a glass or plucking at the chain of a bracelet or adjusting the lay of the napkin across her lap, back and forth, until their eyes chanced glances that crossed and caused their gazes to meet.

Each froze, caught.

Cosima smiled first.

They laughed together and, when their giggles quieted, began to talk. They touched, briefly, upon the day spent separate. (“I’m afraid I didn’t get much research done.” “Yeah, neither did I, but I think you knew that.”). Compared the differences between French and American universities. (“Was that really your transcript?” “Probably?” “Probably?” “Honestly I didn’t look at it too closely.” “You’re kidding.” “No, at the time--are we allowed to talk about this now?” “. . . Fine. But those really were killer grades.” “Then it probably was my transcript, or a close approximation.” “Ah. I see.” “What is that--that tone? You don’t think I’m capable of making ‘killer grades’?” “I don’t doubt that your grades were awesome, it’s just . . .” “What?” “Modesty. Or the possible lack thereof.” “Modesty? But there is nothing modest about the truth.”) Assessed and savored each dish. (“You’re really good with chopsticks.” “Why do you keep sounding so surprised?”) Veered too close to taboo topics. (“Oh no. No. We can’t get into bioethics tonight. Because if we do, you know what we’re going to have to talk about.” “No?” “The c-word.” “Ah. Sorry. I forgot.”) And meandered down any detour in between. (“I miss the ocean. I didn’t really think about it before but once I got away from it--yeah, I miss it.” “Ah. I miss the green of the countryside.” “Yeah? Maybe one day I’ll take you to the West Coast to look at the Pacific Ocean and one day you can show me the green of the French countryside. Deal?” “. . . Deal.”)

At one point Cosima peered at Delphine consideringly, eyes hooded, the lip of her wine glass pressed to her mouth but untipped and its contents untasted.

“What?” Delphine asked.

Cosima shook her head. “Nothing.” She sipped.

Delphine raised an eyebrow.

“Nothing,” Cosima repeated, replacing the glass gingerly upon the tabletop. “Do we want dessert?”

*

With the car thrown into park and the engine still running to provide heat, Cosima glanced over at Delphine and grinned. “You want to come up for coffee?”

Lips parting, a bubble of laughter within her chest prodding and tickling and threatening to escape, Delphine stared expressionlessly at Cosima by the glow of dashboard lights. Cosima looked back at her expectantly, all sincerity but for the twinkle in her eyes that belied the pretense, until Delphine’s mouth eased into a pliant smile.

“Yes. I’d love to.”

*

There was no coffee, but Cosima closing the door behind them and, with surreptitious care, sliding Delphine’s coat from her shoulders--an unexpected gesture that for a moment tangled Delphine in the sleeves. Freed, the garment wound up tossed onto the armchair, followed shortly by Cosima’s, the careless nonchalance unnoted as Cosima slipped her hands into Delphine’s.

Cosima did not have to tug for Delphine to inch close. She had to do no more than tilt her head back to impel Delphine to seek her, to lean down in search, to receive the indulgent welcome in the softness and warmth of Cosima’s lips moving leisurely against hers, setting the pace, sustaining it unhurried.

So that when Cosima drew away it wasn’t abrupt, and when Cosima checked Delphine’s blind pursuit it was with a gentle butt of forehead against forehead, and when their heart rates calmed it was to the rhythm of their breaths mingling in the scant space between them, quieting into a stillness that enveloped hushed and patient.

*

“Sorry. I needed a moment.”

A nod would have normally provided answer, but with Delphine’s forehead pressed to Cosima’s, there was instead a slight shift to accommodate a nuzzle.

“You looked really beautiful tonight. I didn’t want to forget to tell you that.”

A substantial silence followed.

“Thank you. You looked--you look beautiful too.”

A chuckle rumbled low and curt. “Is this the first time we’ve exchanged frank compliments?” Fingers swept across Delphine’s cheek, but it was from Cosima’s expression that the mirth faded as if brushed away. “Do you ever feel like--sometimes we’re moving at the speed of light and other times we’re not moving at all?”

The lids of Delphine’s eyes slid shut, fluttered open. “Yes. When I’m not worried that we aren’t moving fast enough.”

At their heavily outlined corners Cosima’s eyes crinkled as she drew back slightly. “I didn’t mean like in the sense of . . . making crazy science.”

“I know.” Delphine’s gaze traveled over Cosima’s face, the hint of a smile upon her lips, but the glimmer of a frown in her eyes. “Neither did I.”

*

Cosima responded more to touch and sound than sight, perhaps as a consequence of the doffing of her glasses. Her mouth, hands, fingers, teeth tended to linger, eyes only occasionally glancing up into Delphine’s face, so that Delphine had learned to stop swallowing her sighs and gasps, to cover and direct Cosima’s hands with her own, demanding pressure, requesting attention, to gently, insistently, press upon Cosima’s shoulders, her head, steering her lower, wanting her everywhere but needing her there.

And still Delphine trembled with anticipation in Cosima’s pause, a moment’s consideration, a second’s tease, the quick flash of a smile that made Delphine’s gut clench tight--and then half-choked on the sigh that clawed out of her like a keen when Cosima at last descended and obliged.

*

And if in her turn Delphine’s gaze lingered upon every mark and contour and her fingers trailed along the length of every limb, if she beheld the play of muscles and sinews, the shape and the form lent to Cosima by nature, wondering and a little awed, extrapolating and threading connections, Cosima never commented, never admonished, but looked at Delphine in the pauses of her movements, in the lulls between her touch, as if to say, I know. I know.

It’s okay.

Chapter Text

“You knew I was attracted to women, right?”

Delphine’s fingers stilled in their aimless exploration of Cosima’s hip. “No. I didn’t.”

Into the blurry dimness of her bedroom, Cosima squinted and, with as much politeness as she could muster, began noiselessly to giggle.

For quite some time.

“Please,” Delphine pleaded, lifting her head from the pillow of Cosima’s quaking frame to look into her face, “stop. It’s not funny.”

“Okay, okay.” Cosima smothered her giggles and schooled her expression. A moment later she was grinning.

“Cosima,” Delphine chided.

“What?” Cosima played innocent. “Oh, come on, are you telling me that ending up in bed with me was not your endgame?”

“It wasn’t!” Delphine exclaimed, adamant, earnest, sounding close to tears--or an act of murder.

“Okay,” Cosima relented. Her tone softened, sobered to match Delphine’s gravity. “I believe you. But . . . it was someone’s endgame.”

Delphine’s gaze sharpened. Straining through the darkness, her eyes swept over the brunette’s features, but her ears had detected no resentment beneath the words and nothing in Cosima’s expression held vindictiveness. “You think so?”

Cosima shrugged. “Well . . . you gotta admit, it looks like someone knew my tastes.”

*

"Cosima," Delphine called as she shuffled and riffled through the stacks on the desktop, "I placed a book on the desk the other day, have you seen it?"

"Uh," Cosima replied eloquently, drawing Delphine's attention to where she sat at the dining table. With widening eyes the brunette glanced at the mountain of texts piled in the corner, the one that always appeared to Delphine as if it had suffered a landslide under its own unbalanced weight. Dismay pricked at Delphine.

“If it’s not on the desk,” Cosima began cautiously, “it might be over there. Probably near the top?”

Delphine’s hands stilled and surrendered the materials she had been clutching. She sank back into the desk chair, swiveled to confront the corner clutter, swiped her fingers over her lips. She didn’t quite frown.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” she said from behind her fingers. “Did you check out half of the library?”

“Hey!” Cosima protested. “A lot of those are mine. Half. At least. Estimating.”

Delphine pressed her fingertips against her lips to contain a smile. “And how many of the other half are past due?”

“Ha ha, very funny,” Cosima deadpanned. “I’ll have you know that none of them are overdue. I respect the rules of library lending, thank you very much. I know how annoying it is to not be able to get your hands on a book or for someone to never return a book you put on hold. And it’s not like I’m holding onto these books for no reason. I need them.” Cosima paused. “Needed.” Her eyes narrowed, mouth dipping at the corners. “Need.” Her expression darkened, grew shuttered, but her shoulders lifted in the slightest of shrugs. “You know how it is.”

Delphine observed the play of Cosima’s features, the thinning of her lips, the shifting of her jaw, the furrow that deepened between eyes unfocused. Her own lips parting as her tongue passed over them, Delphine waved a hand carelessly. “Nevermind. I don’t need the book now. I’ll look for it later. Maybe, though . . . we could go looking for something else?”

Cosima’s gaze snapped onto Delphine. She quirked an eyebrow in question.

Delphine smiled. “Ice cream. What was it that you mentioned that one time? I think it was called a . . . blizzard?”

Cosima stared at her, face blank, the stillness of her features framing eyes bright and unsettled that conducted a restless study of Delphine’s face. Delphine felt seen and unseen, as if Cosima were at once memorizing her face and peeling back its layers, past the dermis, to the musculature, down to her very bones--only to peer through even their density, in search of something beyond, beyond Delphine, beyond the moment, toward a line of thought that Delphine couldn’t follow. Then Cosima blinked and between one breath and the next the tension in the line of her lips eased into a smile.

“Blizzards, huh?” Cosima said. “You better prepare yourself.”

*

“Show me what you’ve got, Dr. Cormier.”

Beneath Cosima’s hand upon her shoulder, Delphine gave a slight start. The pitch of their perch made Cosima’s fingers curl and grip.

“Something wrong?” the brunette asked, leaning over to look at Delphine’s face.

“No. Nothing,” Delphine replied, a touch too hastily. Cosima’s thumb stroked along the slope of her shoulder, passing over knots of tension, caressing and kneading by turns until Delphine’s breath flowed out of her, shoulders slumping. “No one has called me that in some time.”

Cosima’s touch stilled. She was quiet for a few ticks of Delphine’s watch. “You are Dr. Cormier, right?”

The question plucked a sad and amused little smirk-smile from Delphine’s lips. “Yes. Though not for so long that it sounds familiar.”

Delphine glanced up at Cosima and saw her nodding slowly, eyes and mouth pinched at the corners. She was gone again, into her head, focus withdrawn and turned inward. Delphine reached up and covered Cosima’s hand to draw her back. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

Cosima shook her head, line of sight finding the floor. “Nothing.”

Delphine waited. Cosima’s jaw spasm and Delphine felt the tension taut in her gut.

“I really wanted--” Cosima cut herself off with a sharp inhalation that she pushed out hard through her nose. “I was so intent on getting my PhD. I worked hard to get into this program and now--” Her words trailed off, lips still parted until she pressed them together and swallowed, shaking her head.

Delphine studied Cosima, the crinkles at the corners of her eyes, a dimple in her cheek, a twitch along her jaw--cracks in her composure where settled the sediments of anger, disappointment, sorrow, frustration, and resentment. Delphine lightly grasped onto the hand atop her shoulder and said softly, “There will be time to get your doctorate.”

“Will there be?” Cosima countered, She turned her head to look at Delphine, head still slightly bowed so that she peered at Delphine from an oblique angle. “It’s not just--it’s not just about me being sick and maybe running out of time. Shit, it’s not even about--about the credentials or the title. It’s--” Cosima straightened up, slipping her fingers out of Delphine’s hold. She spread her hands and stared intently into the empty space cupped between them. “It’s this. It’s me. It’s everything. A year ago I had a plan. Months ago I thought--I thought I could blow up something completely new. I thought I knew what I was doing, where I was going. But now.”

A shake of her head sent her dreadlocks dangling.

“If I start studying me--and the others, the other clones, all of us--it’s going to be--it’s going to take a lifetime.” Her eyes whipped around to capture Delphine’s. ”I’m not saying I don’t want to study us, I do. I want to know about our biology and what it means for us and what it means for science and humanity and the advances we can make in--in what we know and understand in so many fields of study. When I realized this was real, that me and the others were really clones, I couldn’t even--fully comprehend all the ways the study of us could contribute to science.”

Her eyes shone brightly. Delphine’s heart skipped a beat in sudden recognition--at seeing the memory of her own rushing excitement in Cosima’s, the inkling of the possibilities and opportunities presented in a successful human cloning project. But just as that excitement had faltered and stumbled within Delphine the deeper she’d been led, with the more she’d seen, Cosima now frowned, the brightness of her gaze dimming, banked, shrouded.

“But will it matter?” Cosima pressed. “Can we--can I tell anyone about what I find, about what it means, about what I am? Can I write about it? Can I submit my papers for peer review and publish them? Do I even have a right to, if I could? I mean, this isn’t just about me. What about the others, however many there may be? Is it even just about us? Or has so much been--been invested in this, this project that, that--” Her voice grew soft. “That sacrifices are expected." Her lips twisted into a sick smirk. “Just look at me. I’m the perfect dissertation topic and I can’t even use me. I can't ask the questions I need to ask without--without giving something up.”

Cosima’s focus sharpened and for the first time in her tirade Delphine knew that Cosima was seeing and speaking to her, Delphine, Dr. Cormier. The employee of DYAD. The scientist by her side. “It never was about us.”

"It could be," Delphine said, earnest, passionate, sensing an onrush of vacuous silence and throwing words into its advance. "It can be." She reached up, pushing herself up out of the chair, and cupped Cosima's cheek. "Isn't that what we're doing? Searching for answers for--for you?"

Beneath Delphine's touch Cosima didn't pull away, but her eyes looked up at Delphine flatly, expectantly, knowingly. She caressed the back of Delphine's hand with her knuckles, then hung her fingers lightly from Delphine's wrist, and the gentleness of her touch honed the admonition in her gaze into a fine edge all the more acute.

Cosima did not so much pull away Delphine's hand as direct its fall.

They studied each other. Pressure pressed at the back of Delphine’s eyes, along the circumference within her skull, attempting to expand at the rate her chest constricted, tight. She blinked rapidly.

"You had something to show me?" Cosima asked, voice hushed and raspy.

Delphine nodded feebly. There was no more now for her to say.

*

The sight of ear buds nestled far too snugly in Cosima's ears, volume high enough to let spill a subaudible buzz of excess sound, signaled to Delphine that Cosima was lost to the physical world. Within the bubble of an endless playlist, Cosima studied for hours undistracted, eyes tracking from laptop screen to open textbook to scribbled notes, lips sometimes moving soundlessly beneath the play of her eyes and eyebrows narrowing and focusing and parsing.

Delphine could see in those moments when Cosima drowned out the world how days and weeks and months of grinding out a dissertation would unfold. The hours spent in her own head absorbing and distilling information, breaking down wholesale ideas and analyses into tidbits serviceable as building blocks of something new: bridges connecting the familiar in unfamiliar ways, pathways forging into the depths of the unexplored. How nights would bleed into mornings along the successive strings of sentences yielding onto the page from her tip-tapping fingertips, “progress” that would be revised and rethought and sometimes scrapped altogether in a more lucid state. The way her topic would come to dominate every waking thought, even the spurts of dreaming snagged from the jaws of stress and exhaustion, would color and dictate her every interaction and conversation. But in a way--Delphine could imagine, could predict--that would be captivating. It would be knowledge that Cosima needed to share, to explicate, to simplify and complicate, hands punctuating points and theoretical knots, all of her frenzied with eagerness to impart understanding.

All Cosima needed was time.

*

Her cami snagged on her dreadlocks. Arms crossed and tangled over her head, Cosima grunted, wriggled, and tugged until it slipped free, almost unbalancing her with the sudden lack of resistance. Tossing it aside, she turned a grin on Delphine--who gazed at her with a quiet, closed air. Cosima’s grin faded.

“What?” she asked.

Delphine’s eyes flicked up to Cosima’s, then lowered. After a moment, she reached up and laid her fingers upon the cascading bones of Cosima’s ribcage.

“You’ve lost weight,” Delphine whispered.

Cosima looked down at herself, at where Delphine’s fingers rested upon the jut of her ribs, and then up at Delphine. “Okay, from now on we turn off the lights.”

*

“I’ve been thinking,” Delphine said softly.

Her tone niggled into Cosima’s ear and sent tension shooting down the brunette’s spine. “About what?”

Delphine didn’t look at Cosima directly but snuck glances at her face. “I know a doctor. In Europe. A PhD/MD. I think--I think we should consider consulting with him.”

Cosima sat back in her chair and took in the sight of Delphine. “What makes him different from any of the doctors I’ve spoken to or any other doctor or specialist here in America?”

“He--” Delphine licked her lips. “His research is funded by DYAD.”

Cosima’s breath sank to the bottom of her lungs and caught there. Delphine leaned forward in her seat, palms pressed together, a picture of supplication or prayer.

“He is well respected for his medical skill and his research.”

Cosima’s head shook back and forth, back and forth, a hand held up to cut off the tap of Delphine’s words. “No.”

“He may already be familiar with your--affliction,” Delphine pressed.

“Because he works for DYAD!” Cosima exploded, arm slicing through the air in a wide arc. “Jesus, Delphine, listen to what you’re saying!”

Delphine’s gaze implored Cosima searchingly. “He has connections. He has resources. It’s even possible that he can get you on a transplant list now should it happen that--”

“Oh my God, Delphine. Stop. No.

Should it happen that,” Delphine continued, voice raised, insistent, “your condition worsens faster than we can stop the deterioration of your lungs.”

Cosima sprang to her feet, head shaking again, blocking out the sight of Delphine with a raised hand. Delphine leapt up to pursue her, dogging the brunette’s steps across the room, reaching out for her but not touching, hand hovering above Cosima’s shoulder until Delphine snatched it back. “Cosima, listen to me. Please. I know how you feel.”

“No, you don’t,” Cosima said lowly, not trusting herself to look at Delphine, “or you wouldn’t have brought this up.”

Delphine wet her lips again. “This is too big for just the two of us--and the doctors you have visited practically in secret, considering you never tell me that you’re going and never share with me what you’re told. I wasn’t even sure you had seen more than one doctor until--until now. We--” She gathered a breath. “You need help. More help. Better help.”

Cosima whirled around, hands splayed. “So you propose that we turn to some doctor in Europe? Who has ties to DYAD. If that’s the case, why don’t I just go to Leekie?”

Delphine crossed her arms and said, very quietly, “You could.”

Cosima stared at her.

“You never gave Leekie an answer regarding his offer,” Delphine continued. “You asked for time to think about it, yes? You told him you needed time to consider if you wanted to continue your studies. That if you accepted employment, you would need to arrange matters with your university. You could go to him--you could go to DYAD--now, on your terms, aware of the circumstances.”

Cosima barely blinked. “You’re serious.”

Delphine squared her jaw. “You haven’t thought about it?”

“How long have you been thinking about it?” Cosima retorted. “No, wait, don’t answer that.” She spun on her heel. “Of course you’ve been thinking about it. That was your job, right? Why they sent you to me.”

“Cosima--”

Cosima ignored Delphine and spread her hands, tilting her head back. “‘Preach to Cosima about the truths of Neolutionism! Convince her to join DYAD!’”

“It’s not like that!” Delphine objected.

Cosima spun around. “It was. Right?”

Cosima tossed the words at Delphine with the design of an armed warhead, eyes stony, gauging. Delphine’s breaths came faster and heavier, squeezed out of her more forcefully with each iteration, until with shaking hands she covered her face and filled her lungs to fullness, long and slow. She dropped her hands as she exhaled, feeling the breath tremble through her on its way out. “This is not--this is about your health. Your life.”

“That’s right,” Cosima snapped lowly. “My health, my body, my life. Not yours, not theirs.”

Delphine shook her head helplessly, sinuses flooding, voice growing watery. “What will that matter if you don’t have a life to live?”

“What kind of life would I be living if I don’t get to make my own decisions? Leekie promised me freedom, but we both know that’s a lie. Then you go behind my back deciding--”

“I didn’t decide anything! I was trying to show you there are options--”

“That involve me going to the people who want to use me--”

“Because those are the people who have the resources to help you!”

“You don’t know that!” Cosima roared.

“I know that we are getting nowhere and that every day we lose is a day less that you have!”

In the ringing echoes of Delphine’s shout, Cosima stared at the blonde, mouth agape. In low but quavering tones, she asked, “Were you planning to take some kind of action behind my back if I said no?”

Delphine clutched at her head, fingers curled into wavy locks of hair. “No. No!” She thrust her hands out beseechingly, eyes bright in plea, words pulling out of her thready and broken and cracking. “I wanted to know what you want to do! That’s why I brought it up!” She turned away, pressed a shaking hand to her forehead, and blinked repeatedly, hard and fast. “Putain!

A blanket of silence descended, smothering. The French scientist shook her head before spinning back around to meet Cosima’s gaze. “Is this how it is? It this how it will be?”

Cosima hugged her middle, unresponsive, hunched and bowed slightly, body angled away from Delphine.

“What will it take, Cosima?” Delphine asked, voice crackling with repressed emotion. “What will it take for you to believe that I’m on your side?”

Cosima’s jaw tautened and flexed. Her chest rose and fell in full measured breaths, the only movement afforded by her body, until she gave a minute shake of her head. “I think you should go.”

Delphine exhaled hard. “Cosima--”

“Leave,” Cosima cut her off. “Now. Please. Before we say anything else we might regret.”

Disbelief gripped Delphine. She simply stared. Cosima didn’t budge, the mask of her face set into hard planes. This wasn’t like the time before. There was, frighteningly, nothing reckless in Cosima’s dry eyes, nothing wavering in the terse line of her mouth, nothing restless in her stillness. And in Delphine stirred words, an ocean of words, the very expanse she’d struggled to span all this time. Yet all that swirled to the surface were garbled arrangements that lined up demanding, accusing, tired and weary.

Delphine looked away. Her gaze swept around the room. She saw her strewn books and laptop and notes, these possessions of hers directed toward the existence of the other woman in the room, and then moved deliberately to put on her boots.

She grabbed her cell phone, purse, and coat and left everything else behind.

*

The shudder of the door shutting behind her reverberated up Delphine’s arm. The sensation lodged in her chest, buzzed in her abdomen, a quaking that waxed and waned. For a moment she simply stood in the hall, hand on the doorknob, looking at and hearing--nothing. Nothing from the other side of the door, nothing within the hall, nothing but the heavy, pulsating beat of her heart quailing behind her ribs and echoing in the blankness between her ears.

Delphine breathed.

With a start her eyes darted around the dimly lit hallway as if seeing it for the first time. Maybe she was. Coming, going, there had only ever been one thing--one person--occupying her mind. Now, as she tried to sequester her thoughts on that subject as surely as the door barred her out, Delphine lurched down the hall, one boot placing itself mechanically in front of the other. But motion set the reel of the argument rolling in her mind. The scenes played out with the sluggishness of her movements, the exact words she and Cosima had exchanged already dulled, muddled, distorted, tangled in a knot of emotions.

Delphine stopped at the top of the stairs and trembled.

It was a long way down.

Her feet descended the first steps haltingly, carried by a determination not to think, not to feel. Halfway down the staircase the futility of accomplishing either quickened her breaths. But by the time she alighted upon the landing, Delphine had seized onto the option that would keep implosion at bay.

Anger.

Delphine grasped at it, stoked its feeble flame, fed it the fuel of Cosima’s immediate leap into wariness, her wounded disbelief, the skepticism of her expression, her tone. The anger churned Delphine’s lethargic blood to a sizzle that poured into her extremities, warming, invigorating, stretching and animating her strides as she shouldered through the front door. Her pulse leapt, enlivened, pounded through her skull, a percussive beat that drove Delphine’s thoughts racing and circling and tripping over each other at a frenetic pace.

The soles of her boots thundered against the sidewalk. Delphine stalked past her car, barely noting it, breaths clouding in short spurts, eyes sweeping frantic but unperceptive over the buildings, lawns, cars, the fairly untrafficked street, lips moving soundlessly.

She was right, Delphine told herself. She was right. For countless whizzing blocks Delphine was right. About the available options. About lost and dwindling time. About her intentions, her convictions, her commitment, the desire she felt to aid Cosima.

She was right.

And she was also right, Delphine realized between stepping off one sidewalk and stepping onto the next, to have hesitated to bring up the subject, to have dreaded Cosima’s reception, to have stood her ground against Cosima’s clouded reluctance, to have recognized it for what it was:

Distrust.

Delphine’s strides shortened, slowed, halted.

Delphine blinked and found herself in the middle of a street she did not recognize, assaulted by the sudden awareness of her surroundings--the slant of the sun from the west, the susurrus of the wind in the branches, the bite of the cold passing stingingly through her nasal cavity--rushing into the abrupt silence of her thoughts.

Everything looked foreign.

The anomaly here was Delphine.

Her cell phone trilled a notification.

Delphine’s heart fluttered.

Her hands scrabbled at her coat pocket to fish her phone out, nearly fumbled it in her haste to check the message. Her fingers moved stiffly, jabbing clumsily at buttons that seemed too small, willing the screen to light up faster.

Delphine scanned the name of the sender.

Her heart sank.

Unthinkingly she shoved the mobile device back in her pocket. In a stricken moment she bowed her head, turned in a tight circle, ran a hand through her hair, drifted a step this way and that. Stopped. Rubbed at her eyes, at her forehead. Stared down at the sidewalk, at the particles that caught the sun and threw back a glint.

With care, with resignation, Delphine drew the phone back out and unlocked it. The same name greeted her. There was a rolling, a pitching sensation in her chest, a yawning that opened up within Delphine. Her knees shook, trembled, and Delphine sat down upon the nearest patch of grass and put her head in her hands.

She understood then that the flutter she had felt had been hope. That she had been living on it for weeks. That reality--not Cosima--had come calling. That it bore the name of Aldous Leekie.

Delphine closed her eyes.

She did not cry.

*

How is Cosima?

*

Cosima’s apartment had never felt big for one person--not with all her books and knickknacks to cram into nooks and crannies, her clothes to toss onto available surfaces, the plants keeping sentry at the windows--but it hadn’t felt small, either, for two people.

The door closed and Cosima inhaled, lungs expanding, stretching, accommodating what felt like too much air from too vast a space. She held the breath until a phantom tickle teased a cough that didn't emerge, the imaginary sensation settling beside the jagged-edged hole in her chest, a ball of pressure that pushed and strained outward from a center of vacuousness.

It felt like a need to cry.

But no tears filled her eyes.

Cosima wrapped her arms around herself tightly and gazed slowly about her apartment. She had nowhere and no reason to flee, no pressing task at which to throw herself, no sense of urgency. Her eyes fell upon the stacks of her own notes, Delphine’s laptop, mountains of literature they’d compiled together, and fancied flinging all of it from the desk, the table, her bed, across the room. But it was an idle thought, devoid of any passionate motivation, conjured and contemplated because such actions seemed appropriate, typical responses.

Like crying.

Aimlessly she drifted around the rooms. She felt calm, detached. As she passed objects and surfaces, she passed her fingers lightly over them, to feel them, to anchor herself to a present with their textures and temperatures, these dimensions that offered contrast to the fog of numbness in her head. She wound up beside the bed, to where Delphine would have lain down for the night, fingers skimming the length of the bedspread that the blonde would have occupied. And it hit her:

Cosima hadn’t expected to feel like this.

She stilled and held the thought in her mind.

She hadn’t expected to feel like this. But she had been expecting this--or something like this--to pass. Had steeled herself against it. Had blinded herself to its inevitability. Had, maybe, orchestrated it to happen exactly as it had.

Acts of self-preservation.

Cosima pressed a hand to her chest and rubbed, at the sensation of a hole that lurked just behind her ribcage, at the dark patches she imagined spreading through her lungs, at the words she’d said to Delphine, at the things they’d never said.

She blinked.

Twin trails of wetness tracked soundless down her cheeks.

*

The flat provided by DYAD had never felt like a home, though it was tastefully furnished and decorated and housed those possessions Delphine had deemed important or sentimental enough to transplant overseas with her. It felt even less familiar entering it now, after a day spent deferring her return to it. Delphine had haunted a cafe, the university library, the lab, a late-night diner where she’d poked at a long, solitary dinner, filling the minutes, accomplishing little, if anything at all, simply waiting, expecting a summons that never came.

At the flick of the lightswitch the uninhabited stuffiness of the apartment greeted her. The sight of it bowed Delphine’s shoulders. Coming here felt like a concession she had been forced to make--or had resigned herself to accept.

She had, several times throughout the day, considered impressing herself upon Cosima, breaking the silence between them with a message, a question, a request, or showing up at her door, a pretense at the ready to gain her access.

(Stopping by to retrieve her things. Her dignity. Her integrity.)

And yet.

Delphine sighed.

A long, hot shower brought no reprieve. But it did provide yet more time to debate her course of action all over again.

She had run after Cosima once.

(But maybe--maybe--this time Delphine sought a sign. Of what Cosima wanted. Of what Cosima expected. Whether it involved Delphine. Whether Cosima desired what Delphine desired.)

Delphine could wait. She had become practiced at waiting. Hadn’t she been waiting, with bated breath, from the moment Leekie had uttered the words “human clones” and not laughed?

She had not even known then for what--for whom--she had been waiting.

Now she knew all too well.

Delphine pressed her forehead to the tiles and closed her eyes.

Ten minutes later she stepped out of the shower and was greeted by the blinking indicator light of her cell phone.

*

We need to talk. Will you come over tomorrow?

*

The quiet that followed Delphine’s knock--knuckle pressed first to the grain, drawing back, falling thrice, tap tap tap--stretched long. Then came the click and thump of the bolt, hurled fast, and the turning of the knob, twisted slow. The door lurched, its arc forcing Delphine back a step, as within its radius materialized Cosima, fingertips urging the door wider.

In a second two sets of gazes flitted from hair to heels, gauging and cataloging conservative outfit choices, the conscientious brushes of makeup, the smudges beneath eyes faint but bruised, the amount of tension around the other’s mouth, the degree of stiffness in posture, the extent of stillness in expression.

“Hey,” Cosima said, subdued, weight falling upon her bare heels as she leaned back.

“Hey,” Delphine returned, a smidgen warmer, the echo questing and falling into the space between them. She shifted her balance from one foot to the other.

They stood with a measured distance reminiscent of the tentative early days when they’d been Delphine Beraud and Cosima Niehaus, ordinary fellow PhD students attending the University of Minnesota, strangers feeling their way through each other’s personalities toward becoming friends, toward something more.

Except they had never really been those people. Not to themselves. Not to each other.

Bowing her head, Cosima turned away and, with a glance back, trailed into the apartment. "Come in."

Delphine hesitated. Cosima wandered deeper into the apartment regardless.

A fortifying breath drew Delphine up to her full height. Conscientiously she crossed the threshold, but her footfalls still announced her intrusion off the hardwood floor and left her feeling vaguely as if she were inviting herself in. Yet just the day before she had shuffled inside just like this without prompting, without discomfort. By privilege, Delphine acknowledged, that indiscernibly had stopped feeling that way. She’d forgotten that it hadn’t always been the natural matter of course. Now she closed the door behind herself and took a moment to survey the flat.

It had been tidied, the bed made, not a stitch of clothing in sight, even the dish rack emptied, the desk put in order--with Delphine's laptop, books, and papers neatly stacked in its center. From by the dining table where she hovered around one of the chairs, Cosima watched Delphine noting the state of her things.

Their eyes met. Cosima gestured wordlessly at the wooden chair adjacent to her.

Delphine didn’t immediately join Cosima. She plunked her purse onto the armchair, unwound her scarf, shrugged out of her coat, and draped both beside her bag, as she would have done any other day. Cosima’s vigilant eyes kept surveillance, registering each rite in the customary ritual, tracking Delphine as she crossed the room divested and sank into her designated seat. When she was settled, Cosima followed suit.

They sat. In silence.

Proximity constricted the tension that permeated the room, confined it to the scant few feet separating them. After a minute Cosima would no longer quite look at Delphine. She sat perched upon the tip of her chair, elbows resting on the tabletop, suspended over the edge of the table like a precarious overhang. The ambiance slipped into Cosima’s limbs, escaping through the light bounce of her fingertips against one another, the nearly imperceptible jitter of her knee, easing only slightly when she pressed her palms together and began to torque her hands at the wrists, up and down, languid.

Her movements prompted Delphine to interlace her own fingers and place her hands folded upon her lap. In the drawn out quiet she examined Cosima’s face, the twitches in her jaw and the minute spasms around her eyes, until, feeling the weight of the stillness, she dropped her attention to Cosima’s hands. But an altogether different object caught her notice. A box occupied the table. Delphine spared it a glance, then looked again, closer, a flicker of recognition provoking a keener inspection of the label.

Truffles.

Cosima peeked into Delphine's face and traced her line of sight. Smiled. Looked away. Frowned.

"I want to trust you," Cosima declared into Delphine's moment of distraction.

Delphine started, eyes darting to Cosima’s face. Her composure faltered. She'd expected--not that. Anger. Hurt. Stubbornness. A long detour before coming to the point.

Not this quiescence. Not this weariness. Not the way that Cosima looked at her sideways by glances, assessing her response, waiting, but, Delphine sensed, prepared to recoil, to retreat.

Delphine swallowed to wet her throat, paused a moment to consider her reply. It came forth gentled, pitched to filter any insinuation. “But you can’t?”

Cosima’s jaw locked, brow jutting, hooded. Delphine’s fingers twitched in her lap. She clenched her hands together to still them and nodded slowly. "Will you tell me, at least, whether it was the suggestion to go to DYAD that upset you or that the suggestion came from me?"

Stiffness jolted Cosima’s spine straight and set her gaze blazing resolutely over the peak of her fingertips into nothing, wrapped in reticence. Tics in her jaw counted off beats of silence until Delphine thought she would crack a tooth. But what burst out of Cosima--abrupt, short, hissed through her teeth--was a sound like a laugh. "Eugh, that pisses me off." Cosima shook her head and regarded Delphine fully, the animation behind her eyes more frank than angry. "Am I so easy to read?"

"No," Delphine said quietly. "When we first met, I used to wonder what you were thinking. What you thought of me. What you knew, what you didn't know. I still wonder."

Cosima's eyes intently scanned Delphine's. The blonde gazed back steadily.

"Here's something I don't know,” Cosima responded, voice growing taut with restraint. “Why doesn't the thought of going to DYAD seem to scare you? How can you suggest it like it wouldn't be dangerous for you?" Insecurity kindled in her shadowed eyes, a benefit of the doubt that tempered her tone. "Would it be dangerous for you?"

Their gazes locked. Until Delphine looked down at her hands, took a deep breath, and blew it out slowly. Her eyes shone bright when she brought them back to bear on Cosima. "Please listen."

The intensity of Cosima's scrutiny didn't abate. They exchanged breaths in silence until a slight dip of Cosima’s chin implied a nod. The brunette’s throat bobbed in a swallow. "I'm listening."

Her consent cast Delphine scurrying back to the refuge of studying her hands, curled loosely one within the other upon her lap. She indulged a second’s contemplation, then spread her fingers and rubbed her palms together.

"I don’t know,” she said. “If it would be dangerous for me. Probably it would be.” Delphine raised her eyes and laughed a little, sadly. “But it’s always been dangerous. Just knowing that such an experiment is being conducted secretly would have put me at risk. Being involved with it--” Delphine shook her head. “A project like this cannot afford liabilities. If they wanted to remove me, they probably would have done so already. They know--” The admission fumbled in her mouth. Cosima watched her, unwavering. Delphine sucked in her lips, nodded to herself. “They know where I am. They constructed a life for me here. Provided an apartment, living expenses, a visa. There’s nothing to stop them from taking it away, from making it--making me disappear."

Cosima’s eyes narrowed. “You mean like kill you?”

Delphine’s jaw worked soundlessly. “I--I’m not sure.”

“Seriously,” Cosima deadpanned, but with an undertone of skepticism and genuine curiosity.

Delphine shook her head. “I don’t know, Cosima. I mean, objectively, they have the money, the resources, and the reach. You’ve seen this yourself.”

“But do they have the ruthlessness?”

Delphine turned away, eyes bounding around the room to rest unseeing on random objects. Her attempt at evasion ended with a sigh. She passed her hands across her face, steepled her hands against her mouth, and looked at Cosima helplessly. “Do you remember the time you wondered if sacrifices were . . . expected for a project like this?” Her hands fell back into her lap. “I think they are willing to make sacrifices.”

“Make or offer up?” Cosima scoffed. Delphine’s eyebrows bent toward each other, the distinction lost upon her. Her confusion set Cosima’s head shaking delicately in dismissal, but something untethered and adrift crouched in her eyes, that drew Delphine yearning toward her. But then Cosima exploded in her own sigh and slumped over the table, head flopping into a hand, fingers clutching and massaging at her forehead. Brown eyes fixated on a spot upon the tabletop, gazing through it far away.

“How do you know?” she asked softly. “What makes you think that they’ve decided not to make you disappear?”

Delphine hesitated. Her lack of verbal response attracted Cosima’s attention, which converged more fully upon the blonde’s form when she rose to her feet. The brunette lifted her head to follow her movements as Delphine strode to the armchair and extracted her cellphone from her purse. Pinching it gingerly in one hand, Delphine, back to Cosima, tapped the device against her open palm. Grip tightening, she stood up tall and returned to Cosima’s side. With practiced familiarity, she unlocked the phone, scrolled through her messages, and held the phone out to Cosima.

The brunette stared hard up at her, unmoving for long enough that Delphine thought the phone would relock itself. But just as the backlight winked out, Cosima reached up. Her fingers were soft on Delphine’s as she slid the phone out of the blonde’s grasp.

They may have also trembled.

Wordlessly Cosima held the phone in one hand, resting it upon her lap, and peered down at the screen. Delphine knew what she saw. She knew it did not take an entire minute to read the exchange. She knew what it looked like.

Delphine resumed her seat, knees pressed close together, and leaned back, waiting.

“This was yesterday,” Cosima remarked. Her voice droned in a monotone.

“Yes,” Delphine said, hushed.

“This wasn’t the first time.” A statement.

“It wasn’t,” Delphine confirmed. “He--Since our return to Minneapolis, I’ve received messages like this periodically.”

“Just like this?”

How is Cosima?

Delphine nodded. “More or less.”

Cosima placed the phone on the table and turned to Delphine with a severity of concentration that seemed to be willing honesty into Delphine. Delphine didn’t flinch. “You don’t talk to him?”

“No. I have not seen or talked to Leekie since--since I told him you knew the truth about my identity.”

“But you reply to him.”

Delphine nodded. “Just like that.”

She’s fine.

“Why do you think he keeps messaging you?”

Delphine sighed. She had wondered the same. “I don’t know. I have theories.”

Cosima prompted her with a lift of her eyebrows.

Delphine rolled her lips inward to moisten them, the dash of her mouth a thin line across her face. “I think it’s a way of letting me know that he knows where I am, that I’m with you. Possibly telling me that he knows I am . . . collaborating with you. He wants me to know that he knows.” She skimmed her fingertips across her lips. “I think he may know you’re sick.”

“How?” Cosima demanded. “Do you think he’s having us watched?”

The suggestion made Delphine start. “I--I don’t know. I hadn’t . . . considered it.”

Cosima’s eyes probed Delphine’s features, weighing, measuring. “Then how would he know I’m sick?”

“My guess? Signs of the disease may have shown up in your medical tests even from months ago. If they’ve learned what to look for, they may have recognized indications of its onset.”

“Medical tests from months ago?” Cosima echoed flatly. “Not from tests performed some time in the past few weeks?”

Delphine fixed Cosima with a level stare through the pang that lanced through her chest. A deep breath, then another loosened the tightness that bound her lungs and quelled the impulse to protest. Sorrow curled in her gaze.

“Be honest, Cosima,” Delphine managed with even diction. “Do you really suspect that I’ve let them into your home? That I gave them access to you?”

Cosima didn’t balk. But it was also she who looked away, to Delphine’s phone, which she picked up and waved halfheartedly. “You didn’t tell me about this.”

“Could I have told you?” Delphine asked plainly.

“I don’t know.” The admission fell bluntly from Cosima’s mouth, pulling at the corners, dragging her lips down not so much into a frown as into a mask of weariness. She dropped the phone back onto the table and let her head loll listlessly into the palm of her emptied hand.

Delphine’s hands itched. She felt Cosima’s exhaustion, her own. “Neither of us has been completely forthcoming.”

Cosima didn’t respond for a time. Then with a sharp intake of breath she spun out of her chair, springing to her feet with unexpected energy. She paced away from Delphine, toward the kitchenette, progressing no farther than the sink, where she turned a succession of tight circles. One arm snaked around her middle, feeble and slender protection, while the other came to rest with elbow upon the back of her hand clutching hard at the curve of her waist. Her free fingers drummed against her lips.

She slowed to a gradual standstill facing Delphine. Their eyes met.

“Here’s the deal.” Cosima’s voice rolled out roughened. “If this were just about me, I wouldn’t care. You could be lying to me, you could be selling me out, this could be all part of an elaborate plan to gain my trust--and I’d be willing to take that risk. But I can’t--I can’t--put the others in danger.

“And the fact is that this isn’t just about me. This isn’t just about--us.

“I have to be able to trust you.”

“And you can’t?” Delphine asked again. “You can’t trust me enough to use me for my knowledge? To tell me things that may be relevant to helping you? I understand why you would hesitate to discuss Sarah’s or Alison’s well-being with me, but even your own visits to doctors?”

Cosima gestured to the phone on the table. “You’re still in communication with Leekie.”

“And now you know because I told you,” Delphine retorted. “I’ve shown you our correspondence.”

“Only the one from yesterday. And how convenient that he just so happened to contact you the same day we had an argument.”

“Cosima, please.” Delphine said it without argument, without force, but with the fatigue that had set its hooks in her and pinned her down from the moment she’d all but collapsed upon a cold Minneapolis lawn. “Do you think I maintain contact with Leekie out of concern for myself? No. I do it because I’m afraid for you. So that maybe he will think to leave you alone because I’m at your side and I tell him that you’re still considering his offer. So that maybe he will feel reassured if he believes that I might still persuade you to join DYAD. So that your options can be open, that if you want to go to DYAD, you can. And if that is ultimately what you decide to do--then I couldn’t risk burning my bridges with Leekie. Because if you go, I want to be by your side.”

Cosima stared at her wide-eyed and speechless. Then she hugged herself and took a wobbly breath. “Don’t say shit like that.”

“Why?

“Because it’s scary.”

“Is it?” Delphine whispered. She blinked against the tears standing in her eyes.

A battle of emotions warred across Cosima’s face. But she didn’t move. "I hear you say those things and I don’t know if--if you'll do something without telling me. If you'll act on some misguided belief that you know what's in my best interests. And I'm not sure if can live with being responsible for putting the others in danger, directly or indirectly. I keep thinking about Sarah and Kira and I--” Cosima shook her head. “I don't want to fuck up again."

Delphine gazed at Cosima long and silently, across the space from where she sat to where Cosima stood. “Je t’aime.

Cosima froze, expression blanking, breath interrupted.

“I love you," Delphine repeated. Cosima turned away, exhaling hard. Delphine peered into her profile and continued softly, unhurried. "I love you and you have been extracting promise after promise from me and--I don’t want to have to keep them. I want you to be the one to sit down with your parents and explain to them everything that has happened. I want to see you taking care of your plants years from now. I want you to be the person who has the answers for Alison and Sarah concerning matters of your health. I want to see you publish your ideas and to read the papers written by Dr. Cosima Niehaus.

“I want you to live, Cosima. Do you understand?”

Cosima covered her eyes with a hand, squeezing her eyelids tightly shut behind her lenses. But there was no hiding the quiver of her mouth. “How can you say that like you’re so fucking sure? How can you say that you love me?”

Delphine shook her head. “What else should I call what I feel? Would calling it something different change what it feels like when--when I think about you being gone? Or when I think about you hating me. How I miss you when I’m not with you. How much I think about you when we’re apart. I’m sure because--” Delphine slouched in the chair. “Because one of us has to be. One of us has to believe that this is possible, that we are possible, that--that what is between us is real.”

Cosima turned her back on Delphine. Unobserved, Delphine ran a hand through her hair to tamp down the tremors of raw disclosure, of the chord of mingled anxiety and uncertainty that vibrated through the center of her being, from her throat to the very pit of her stomach.

That momentarily stilled, anticipating, bracing, at the sound of Cosima’s voice.

“I’m scared,” Cosima uttered, to the far wall, refusing to face Delphine, but speaking loud enough for her to hear, granting the blonde only the sight of her sloped back to focus on. “I’m scared of--” Cosima thumped her chest, “this, of not knowing what's making me sick or how sick I really am. I’m scared of Leekie and DYAD and what they might do with me--or do to me. I’m scared of--of you.” She took a shaky breath. “I’m scared of fucking up.”

Delphine listened quiet and still until Cosima paused. In the brief break where Cosima’s labored breaths filled the air, Delphine got to her feet and approached the smaller woman--who had grown smaller, Delphine thought sadly, as she sidled up behind Cosima. She stood close but not touching, hands longing but not daring.

Cosima turned her head slightly, acknowledging Delphine’s presence.

"I'm scared that,” resumed Cosima, addressing her more directly, “that maybe I've already trusted you too much. I'm scared that you're right and that DYAD is where the answers are. Shit, I get scared when you are right and it feels like you can see right through me and read my thoughts. Because you were right: I've considered going to DYAD, working for them, using them to help myself and the others. But when you said it, I got scared.” Cosima pivoted to look Delphine in the face. "Because how can I know, how can I know, that I can trust you?"

Delphine considered the question for a long, aching interval.

“You can’t know,” she said, nauseated and eviscerated by the concession. But she had only honesty left to offer. Losing ground against a frown, Delphine raised a hand and placed the point of her index finger to the center of Cosima’s forehead. Cosima held her breath. “Not with this. There is too much up here that will tell you that you can’t trust me. I know. I have thought about them too.” She lifted her finger and, with Cosima closely watching her movements, brought it lower, resting it above Cosima’s heart. “So you have to trust me with this. What does it tell you?”

Cosima took a ragged breath, expression on the precipice of crumpling. She shook her head. “That I’m scared.”

Sympathy relaxed Delphine’s features. Tenderness brought a faint smile to her lips. Her hand gravitated to Cosima’s cheek, cupped it. “So am I.”

Cosima’s bright eyes looked up at her, searchingly, frantically.

Please,” Cosima whispered, a plea, a request for something tangible, concrete--a promise, a vow, a contract struck in words--that would enshrine security for all their tomorrows--and fail. Because Delphine didn’t know what the future would bring, what she might or might not do, what she might or might not sacrifice, what prices there would be to pay, or who would pay those prices.

Open, exposed, Delphine gazed down at Cosima.

In this moment she knew only one thing without a doubt.

“I love you.”

When the first tear fell, Delphine wiped it away from Cosima’s pale cheek. And when Cosima’s shoulders quavered, Delphine slipped her arms around the other woman’s smaller frame. And when Cosima stepped into her body and buried her sobs against her collarbone, Delphine clutched her tight and rocked her, wordlessly and without expectation.

For as long as Cosima needed. For as long as she allowed.

*

“I want so badly to trust you.”

“Then trust me.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Then how about this: I’m your experiment now. The hypothesis is that I am someone you can trust. Will you test it?”

“Didn’t I already run this experiment?”

“Perhaps. But the variables have changed and new information has appeared.”

“So you’re saying that third time’s the charm?”

“Third time?”

“Yeah, third time.”

“What were the results of the second time, then?”

“Inconclusive.”

“So now you start again?”

“Now we start again.”

“. . . Okay.”

“Okay.”

“I love you.”

“I know.”

“Good.”

“. . . Thank you.”