A/N: I'm sick for the first time in a year and a half. This is apparently how my brain spends its downtime.
The Ship of Theseus
"What am I?" she says, for the first time.
He doesn't answer. He doesn't know. He runs away.
Starbuck waits to die; but that gets boring. So she moves through the world, instead, feet on the ground and head in the sky, the skies, the clouded vastness of an alien planet. She likes the balance of oxygen, and the quick draw of breath. She likes that the gravity is slightly less than on Caprica, and she can move faster, run longer; or is that's she's left the weight of things behind? Sometimes she thinks maybe she's died and she just doesn't know it yet. Maybe she's died and she hasn't been able to stop moving: inertia, momentum, something to do with physics maybe. Sometimes she passes a pool of still water and feels compelled to check that her reflection is the same. It always is. Until it isn't.
Once, the pool reflects his face, just behind her and to the side, watching with a quiet resignation. None of the fervor and passion that she's used to seeing when he looks at her; the resignation is almost worse.
"Did I ask you to come back?" she says, voice low, bitter.
"Not in so many words," says Leoben, and his voice carries the tone of one who knows, and he probably believes that, in this and any other conversation between the two of them, he is the one telling the truth. She hates the surety of him. It's time for a test.
"What am I?" she asks him, not for the first time, and the words pin him, keep him from running away. This time.
His smile is there, but thin, and she can see through it.
"Something else," he says.
She cuts her finger off in the third month on Earth, a messy slice, knife backwards to her hand; she knows better, should have known better, will know better. Leoben has come back around. Every month or so he makes what he probably terms pilgrimages, though where he's pilgrimaging to, and why, she doesn't know. He doesn't tell her that sort of thing. He'll tell her what she's been up to while he was away, without ever asking, but it's almost as though he ceases to exist when he's away from her. She likes the idea without knowing why. Maybe it's about control.
He's there, though, and as she stands in shock, the still small voice in her head whirling with curses and a white blank page, he takes her bloody hand with one of his; bends, meanwhile, to pick the digit up. It looks like a small bit of blasphemy in his palm. The creation of the gods; nothing, now. Useless. She watches, mouth open, scarcely breathing, as he examines it calmly.
"It's badly torn," he says. "It's going to be hard to reattach."
She's already suffering a surfeit of visions, striding through life, Starbuck the nine-fingered. She can live with it. She'll be jaunty. She's lived through worse. He puts his hand, covered in her blood, on her forehead like a benediction.
"Don't," he says, softly.
He takes her into the house, installs her on the couch with her hand packed in ice. She dozes, dazed, out of it, while he washes himself up and returns, wiping his hands on a towel. His eyes are emphatic on hers.
"I've given you painkillers. They'll hold you for a few hours, till I get back."
"No big deal," she says, trying to shrug. It doesn't seem like it, either, but he shakes his head.
"If nothing else, I can make you whole," he says; which baffles her. When have you ever tried to keep me whole? she wants to say, but the painkillers have kicked in, and speech is beyond her. The door seems to be closing behind him, at any rate; he's gone. He's back. He's gone again. She sleeps, maybe. She wakes up. She sleeps again, and in her sleep she taps a rhythm, a five-fingered rhythm, something you can dance to. She wakes up once more, and she taps it again, experimentally.
He's wiping his hands with the towel again, and this time it's wringing wet. Her finger is in its place; only it's not her finger. She can only tell the difference by looking closely, but it most definitely is not hers. It moves though, when she tells it to, and her body seems to have adopted it quite rapidly. It feels alien, still, alien and awkward, and she swallows hard.
"I can make you whole," says Leoben, from behind her, and she debates whether or not he wants a thank you; whether or not he deserves one.
In her dreams, he's holding both of her hands. She isn't present.
"I can make you, whole," says Leoben, as though he'll start from nothing, and end up with most of it left; from nowhere he produces scissors, and he starts to cut from cloth.
Autumn spins into winter, and she spends long hours out of doors, learning what snow is. What it is, why it is, where it comes from. He chastises her gently when she comes in, breath steaming, stamping her feet.
"You only have one life to live, Kara."
"That's all I need," says Starbuck, and her teeth chatter.
He's built a fire in the fireplace. He keeps it going at all hours— how, exactly, she doesn't know, since she rarely sees him feeding it— and she comes back to it, and comes back to it, and returns each time expecting him. Each time, it seems a little less odd to find him standing, waiting, smiling, the way he always smiles when he sees her.
She spends too long out of doors, one day, and the winter witch comes on suddenly: cloud settling down, blanketing everything, snow everywhere so thick she can hardly breathe. She's lost immediately, and though she turns in the direction she thinks will lead her to the house, common sense tells her only a few steps later that she should hold still. Hold still, and he'll find her. He'll find her— if his circuits don't freeze, she grumbles to herself, holding on to the heat of her annoyance, petulant and ridiculous as it is.
He does find her; she isn't aware of it, other than a vague and misty sensation of being lifted in strong arms. When she wakes, the first sensation is of a tingling warmth in her feet, welcome as the sun. When she wakes, the first sight is of Leoben, quietly tucking away what looks like a surgical needle, and some clear thread.
She wiggles her toes, and stretches in the reflecting warmth of the fire. He turns to her, seats himself on the couch at her side.
"I found you," he says. "You were gone— you were gone a long time. You had some frostbite."
"Mm," says Starbuck, blinking the muzzedness of sleep away. "You found me."
"I did," allows Leoben, quietly.
"Took you long enough," says Starbuck. "The snow's gorgeous. I was distracted. Turned out alright in the end, I guess."
He puts a hand on her ankle, fingers gripping lightly, and she feels something throb through her, something intimate and unnamed, like fear but not quite; familiar, like the calmness that had settled over her, out there in the blank whiteness, as she waited. Everything was inevitable. All of this had happened—
None of this had happened before, she corrected herself, vehemently. But that didn't mean it wouldn't happen again.
Leoben's fingers, deft and clever, slid around her instep and trailed up her toes. She shivered; she hadn't been ticklish since she was a child.
His eyes glinted in the firelight: ice-blue, with long black lashes that struck her as unexpectedly delicate. Pretty, really. Eyes in the light; fingers on her ankle, binding wounds, tying knots.
She moved her feet away from him. She didn't say anything else.
She's angry, one morning, and when he rises to leave the breakfast table she stands swiftly over him and pushes him abruptly back down into his chair.
His eyes are innocent, looking up at her.
"You know what," she says fiercely, to the unspoken question. "I am sick of dreaming about you every night."
He gets to his feet with a deliberate slowness that echoes along her bones. Stands too close to her. Far too close. He jerks his head slightly, back and to the side, that birdlike action of his that always put her on edge.
"So stop dreaming," he says.
It's really the most simple solution. Elegant, almost.
Springtime comes and she settles into a routine. The village and the farms around it have no tools: she has to make them herself. Well, she doesn't have to, but she has to all the same. She's gone all day. They don't talk about it.
There's an accident. She can't remember much about it, but she nearly lost an eye. Nearly. Nearly, he tells her after she awakes, over and over, smiling but his lips tremble, nearly, it was a close thing, Kara. A close thing.
There's an aching pull, something almost like a tear but not quite, when she closes her eyes, as though the lid doesn't align quite right on the left.
"Hazel eyes are common, aren't they," she remarks one day, glancing at herself in the small mirror in the bathroom. Apropos of nothing.
He just looks at her. Doesn't answer.
He asks her, finally, repairing the damage done by an inexpert blade— she's been training a few in the nearest village in the art of tool carving, as Carving— for Tools, because Kara has little patience with her students— to be careful.
"What?" she says, shifting on the bench, pushing her knees forward into his. It's a challenge. So again, he reminds her.
"Only one life, Kara Thrace. Fate's been lenient with you. That doesn't mean she'll always be looking the other way."
She curses at him under her breath. She hasn't stopped asking him— what am I?— and he still hasn't found the right answer. He ought to know better than to bring it up, but here he is cleaning her up, on his knees in front of her, looking upwards at her, and his hands are on hers like he owns this.
"One too many," she breathes.
"And not enough," he finishes, and his luminous eyes flicker downwards for a moment. He sighs. "I want it to last as long as possible."
"So you can keep me here with you? Keep you from getting lonely?"
The next words out of his mouth will be a profession of love. She waits for it. She curls her lip in anticipation of it, practicing scorn. He disappoints her.
"If you're going to keep risking yourself for no reason, do it while you're at home. I don't want you dying out there alone."
She's too surprised to take issue with home. "Everybody dies alone," she says.
His smile is an aborted thing, moving only half his mouth, the left half, more mobile than the right, before he speaks. "Not everyone," he says. "Not me. I died beside you, Kara Thrace. Almost every time."
She shrugs this off. "Anyway. Not like you ever cared this much before."
"I always cared," he says, smoothing the edges of the bandage down, "exactly this much."
She takes up running, rising early in the morning to get out before the heat, to lose herself in motion and movement and heart, heart, pounding. He lets her go, the first day, then she finds that he's behind her, for a few days after that, tracking her by the sound of panting breath— he ought to be used to that by now— and then after a week's gone by, he's running beside her, matching her, stride for stride, breath for breath. She lets him— it's okay, really, nothing wrong with having a running partner to keep you on your toes— till a few days later she realizes he's steadily pulling away from her, stride-stride to each stride, legs a little longer and frak him, because that's really not fair, he's a machine.
So she lunges forward, an extra burst of speed that her lungs pay dividends for, and reaches out to grasp the short sleeve of his t-shirt. Yanks. He stumbles, spins half towards her awkwardly, going down sideways, and she's two steps up and one step past, but he's caught at her, too, and the both of them hit the path together and roll. They come to a stop at last and Kara is giggling helplessly, still angry but laughing anyway, because she hadn't ever thought that his hair could defy gravity any more than usual but with the tumble and the mess, she's proven wrong— and there's four legs and four arms between them, she realizes, but she really has no idea whose is whose.
Leoben lays his head back against the grass and sighs into the sky, as if she's a child and he really shouldn't be expected to put up with this sort of thing.
"You cheater," she grumbles, in between snorts of laughter that she seems unable to stop, and she starts to clamber on top of him. "You frakkin' toaster. Zero to sixty in two seconds, huh?"
He puts his hands, quite calmly, on her hips, and holds her still. His eyes are still on the sky.
Starbuck grins down at him, and watches his breathing slow. His eyes are wide, his throat moves as he swallows, there's a bead of sweat trickling down his temple, and she wipes it away. Leans down in the same movement to track the path, tongue first, then mouth soft on the side of his forehead, moving downwards, and her knees tighten around his sides. She tilts her head, so close to him her hair is on his shoulder. Reluctantly, his eyes leave the sky. Find hers.
"Zero to eighty-five," he says. "One second."
"Let's have a race," says Starbuck, still with that grin, "the lying-down kind. See who comes first."
Later, she reviews the timeline, the build-up, the way he played it— played it, exactly— and realizes that the whole thing was Leoben's idea of a joke.
It was kind of funny.
"What am I?" she asks him one morning, over coffee. He's looking disgustingly pleased with himself. Is it what they did the night before? Is it the new shirt he's wearing, which he seems to have made from someone's rejected curtains? Who knows.
"Other than your nightly lay," she says, in case he was going to offer that as an answer. Leoben's mouth draws downward; he doesn't like her flippant attitude towards them. They are more important than that, he tells her. She thinks that if they don't stop taking themselves so seriously— every night is not an act of God, Leoben, for frak's sake— then he can build himself a dog house and live in it.
He swallows his coffee. Sets the cup down.
"An angel," he says.
"Frak that. Been there, did that, bought the clip-on wings." She settles herself back in her chair, chewing on the wooden handle of her spoon, and watches him with an eyebrow raised: a challenge. "No good card games."
"You can't change your nature, Kara."
"Can't I?" she demands. "You've changed yours, haven't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"What's the first article of faith?" She leans forward, searches his eyes. He drops his gaze away from hers, finds some interesting patters in the grain of the table. It catches the light; seems to glow. "You know," she goes on, steadily, "what I'm talking about. The point of being a Cylon is that you get to download, resurrect, and keep going without having to start from scratch. You can't do that any more. You keep telling me I have one life to live. So what makes you any different?"
"The fact that I don't keep risking myself unnecessarily," he tells the table. She scoffs at him.
"Life's a risk," she says. "I do what I have to."
"Alright, then," he says, looking up, "you're not an angel, and I'm not a Cylon. What are we? We're patterns. Swimming in the stream. We're a man and a woman. Joined together in the sight of God."
She quirks her eyebrows at him. "You sure about that? I'm already married, remember."
"Death cures everything," he says. "Including marriage."
"I didn't know marriage was a disease."
"Polygamy is a sin," he says. "It's being untrue." He pauses for a moment, then smiles like a puppet, forced against his will. "It's also the least of your worries, Kara."
She could ask him again, ask him then— what am I?— and she knows what he would never say. He would never say, Untrue.
Start over, he might say. Begin again.
Winter again. She chops wood, he carries. He chops wood, she carries.
They wake, they watch for the sun; if it doesn't come, they aren't disappointed. When it does come, sickly and wan in a pale blue sky, there's a great hurry and a to-do and a general rush out of doors to stand in it. She packs a snowball and throws it at him. He dodges most of the time— I know you too well, Kara Thrace, and she agrees, Yeah, you do— but can sense when her aggression needs an outlet and stands staring into the pale sky, back to her, innocent and unsuspecting as a deer. A clear target.
He knows her far, far too well.
They spend the day, and the day's well spent. They come inside, steaming and stamping and unpacking themselves from layers, unwrapping themselves, unwrapping each other, and half the time they end up eating late dinners because the journey from outside has ended in the bedroom. The other half of the time, they don't make it that far. There's a rug on the floor in front of the fireplace.
One blanket over them. The heat of his body is astonishing, and she dreams of him stirring the dying fire with the poker and breathing it back to life with only the heat of his breath.
She wonders what she'll lose next. As long as it isn't him, she won't worry.
She leads him down the beginnings of a path, one summer. His hand in hers.
"What is it?"
"I thought of something. You know how you said the rain and snow we had this winter would probably cause an erosion problem? Well, it caused something else."
The snow on the mountains is melting. The river is swollen. Leoben stands with his arms folded, looking like he's marking time. He looks aloof. The water always puts him out of himself, takes him away from her. She sets to stripping him down, layered shirts first, then starts on his black jeans, which are getting threadbare and worn. He watches her curiously. She gets him down to his boxers, then shimmies her own shirt over her head quickly; her trousers follow.
She turns to him with a wide smile, and gives him a bow and an outstretched hand.
"There," she says, with satisfaction, as though she's created this herself. "Now we can both swim in the stream."
Leoben's surprised laughter lasts until she pushes him in.
She runs too fast; she breaks something. Something is broken for her. Who does the fault belong to, she wants to ask the world, or at least ask Leoben; apart from the fact that Leoben is made of apologia; he wants to take the blame for everything. The blame, or the credit. The blame, and the credit. He wants to be the answer, whatever it is.
He sets the bone. He sends her to sleep. She decides to stop asking questions.
She asks one anyway, because she's never been very good at following orders.
"Where do you go, when you're not with me?"
He takes a moment to answer.
"I'm nowhere, when I'm not with you," he says; which isn't strictly true, she suspects, but it's the answer she wanted anyway, so she accepts it as her due. He owes her that lie. What doesn't he owe her, after everything?
Sometimes she catches him watching her, and the iceglint is back in his eyes, something feral; she has a hard time remembering that he's a machine.
Sometimes he doesn't ask permission before he starts to take her clothes off, or carries her to the bed, or yanks his shirt over his head in the middle of the garden, or comes to her all muddy and leaves handprints on her skin.
Sometimes he kisses her like he's breathing her back to life, like he could swallow her whole and carry her around inside him for forever, or as long as he's alive; whichever lasts the longest.
Time, and when she stops running one morning— her legs are much, much stronger than they used to be— there's first a stitch, then a jab in her side. A knifetwist of pain, electric shocks to the heart. She stumbles, but he's there to catch her. She can't see through the red mist, but she knows the feel of him.
He helps her to the side of the well-worn path, the path that they've put there, his feet and hers, and sits on a stump, taking her upon his lap. She buries her head between his shoulder and the column of his throat, and takes deep ragged breaths. There's wordless murmuring above her, in her ear, in her hair; there's the motion of his Adam's apple against her cheek, and the frantic birdlike beating of his heart.
"Am I dying?"
"Of course you are," he says, soothingly, smoothing his hand over hers. "There was never any question about that. That isn't the point."
He's right; he's right. She knows it. That's never been the point. What's so bad about dying?
"You're living, too," he assures her, in case she's forgotten. He takes her hand in both of his, looks down at their fingers, quiescent together. Looks back up. "Your heart, Kara," he says, as though asking for it.
"It's giving out. You need a new one." He reaches to her head, smooths his hand down her hair. It's grown out over the last few years, and he likes to twist his fingers into it. A nest, of sorts, she thinks, for the bird he is sometimes— and thinks of flying— and thinks of falling— and believes, believes that everything is the same, and this has happened before, and this—
In the dreamsleep there is a curious numbing pain, and fingers clawing at her chest. She thinks of painting, thinks of blood, thinks of painting with blood. Leoben's painting with something acrid and yellowbrown, like bile, and he makes a square with his forefinger around her left breast, and she turns her head away.
"All the same," says Leoben, like marveling.
"What is?" She's not having this conversation. This is all in her head. So much involving Leoben is.
His eyes flicker up to hers, though. "You are. Humans. You ask us why we make numbered models, why a Two is a Two, as though all of you are so diverse, as though we have a monopoly on synchronisation. But look at you. Heart on the left. Every heart, on the left."
He finds a door inside her, and opens it.
In the dreamsleep, she finds enough of herself to grasp for his hand as he's sewing her up. He stills immediately, holding the surgical needle in his right hand, holding her mismatched fingers in his left. His eyes find hers; what there is of hers, because she's having a hard time holding her lids open.
"How did this happen?" she murmurs, or tries to murmur; the words don't escape her lips fully, and she swallows most of the sentence. But Leoben understands, probably he saw her question in a dream at some point, and patiently he gives her a long, involved explanation that answers everything and nothing, because it is full of words and she doesn't understand a bit of it. Except. Except. Except that he says something, something vague and unexpanded-upon, about resurrection. And except that he has the look of someone who has explained this many, many times; every time he bent over a tank of milky white liquid, telling a brother or a sister to breathe through the pain, welcoming them to their new life with a smile, with cold eyes suddenly gone warm. It has the taste of familiarity.
Falling asleep, losing the tag-ends of herself that she's gathered together, she can only think the question, not vocalize it: Who has he brought back?
But he answers her anyway. The eyes answer her, their coldness bleeding through with warmth as he watches her slip back into oblivion, sink into depths where he doesn't follow.
"You," he says to Kara Thrace, and it is and it isn't an answer.
She wakes, and there's a star outside, a giant star, burning immortally, giving light to the earth.
Leoben's looking out the window. He turns to see her eyes open, and smiles.
"Nice day," he says. "Thought it was going to storm last night, but clouds cleared early this morning."
Starbuck rubs at her eyes, sniffling. "That probably means something deep and mysterious, since you're the one saying it."
"Nah," he says, and chuckles, almost sheepish. "Just talking about the weather, Kara."
"Even so," says Starbuck. Because when has talking about the weather ever been just talking about the weather, with him? She scolds him and curses him in her head. He helps her to the window, regardless.
Some time in the night, she wakes to find him watching her, eyes luminous, looming over her. She waits for him to fall, to fall on her, to land, to roll over her completely in a wave as encompassing as any in the vast oceans. She expects to drown in him, some day.
He holds himself poised on his side, wavering only a little. His voice shakes when he speaks.
"Kara," he says. "Kara Thrace."
If it's an answer, it doesn't sound like one.
She watches herself in the still quiet pool, and wonders if he knows it, if he did it on purpose: made her, remade her. She wonders whose hand he takes, when he laces his fingers through hers. She wonders who his running partner is, when they go out in the pre-dawn mornings. She wonders whose heart is thumping purposeful and steady in her chest. Made. Remade. Remade in his image.
She watches herself in his eyes— he never gets tired of watching her, so it's convenience of a sort, this convergence of interests— and wonders if he recognizes her, or if it's mere habit. Wonders, if she could spin and detangle time and put herself, caneless and standing tall and true, in the place of her younger self— that first time they met, in the interrogation room, he the prisoner, she the captor, and water, and blood like water— would he recognize her, all the same?
Sometimes, she says, "I have doubts."
Sometimes he doesn't answer. But then again, sometimes he does. He never says, "So do I," and that's an answer enough in itself. He smooths her hair and kisses her forehead, sometimes, and that's an answer too.
Sometimes he doesn't look at her, but quietly asks, "About what?"
"About me," she'll reply, on those few occasions when they get this far. She'll wait for him to look up. He will; he always does, he always has. "I'm not the same, am I? As I would have been, if I hadn't stayed here."
And, invariably, he draws away from her. A few times, he looks pained, and he asks her a question in turn. Is it so wrong, for him to want to fix her when she's broken? Is it wrong, for him to want the woman he loves to stay with him as long as he can manage it? Is it wrong, when she's wandered, to nudge her back onto life's path?
All she wants is the reassurance: he would miss her, if she weren't there. She knows it, but it's nice to have him say it, all the same.
Once, he replies with words she knows, words that have worn their path on her tongue, in her mind. Whoever she is, whatever she is, she knows this.
"The first article of faith," he says, and she closes her eyes and recites it in her head. Whose faith? Theirs. Faith in what? Them.
This is not all that we are.
But it is enough.
"What am I?" she asks, for the last time.
His smile is immediate. He doesn't answer. He might not know.