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The Work of Her Hands

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She was still in the Captain's quarters, nestled against John's body. She might have been dozing. It must have been a long time. She could not warm him, couldn't keep him warm. She had cried herself out, but she couldn't leave. Not right to leave. She was here with him. Still here.

When she thought at all, she went back over what had gone wrong. Should have killed Furlow. That was the thing. The device was fine. Jack had it contained. Should have taken her out. He wouldn't –

Someone at the door. Someone – the others? She looked around, unsure what to do. How long...? She hadn't heard them. She swung to her feet, and cleared her throat, testing her voice. "Yes?"

The door opened. Stark. Holding towels and a basin. She looked at them, not comprehending. Then it made sense. Of course. She should wash his body. She nodded. Stark stepped in the door. She folded Crais' blanket and laid it aside.

As Stark filled the basin, she sat to unfasten John's boots. Her hands knew the motions. The rest of her was blank, detached. They worked in silence to strip off his leathers, his clothes. She'd taken them off him yesterday. Dropped on the floor in their hurry, still lying there when he'd grabbed them last. When he saw the wormhole. Off and on, so casually, quickly. Never long 'til she had him naked again.

Stark pulled the sheet up to the waist, and paused. He dipped a cloth, wrung it, gave it to her. Warm. Wet. She reached for John's hand, and froze without touching it. Help me, she thought. Those ruined hands. Hands she didn't recognize. So changed. Bruised and swollen, cracked and burned. The bump of bone at the wrist was gone, flesh inflated around it. A pain in her chest. Did you want to leave? Weren't you happy here?

Stark broke her trance, reaching over the body to touch her arm. "I can ease your pain," he said eagerly, raising his mask.

Her fierce "NO!" startled them both as she knocked back his hand. She stood up, trembling, too angry to move. When she spoke, her voice was low and controlled. "Don't touch me. Don't –" It shouldn't be taken.

Stark shrank away."Forgive me," he stammered. "Of course – I only – How can I help?"

She bent to retrieve the shirt from the floor. "You could take this and clean it." She thrust it at him. "And go to my quarters. There are other pants, with his things –" He couldn't stand still, always vibrating, twitching. 'AstroBoy.' Made her tired to see him. "And, Stark – get the blanket. The red one." Red. Blood of heroes. He looked at Crais' blanket, folded beside her. She frowned at his slowness. "Our blanket. The one from my bed." Finally he removed himself.

Alone with the body, it was easier to breathe. He could fly with those hands. You can do this for him. She sank to the bed. She dipped the cloth and sat clutching it, looking. His face was calm. She had seen him so haunted. No sign of that now.

Focus. The cloth. Wring the cloth. Hands first. Do that. Get past that. Right. Arm. Shoulder. She was touching him carefully, lightly, not wanting to hurt him. Burnt skin, so fragile – She shook her head sharply. Didn't matter, now. She knew that. Knew it. She took a breath and touched him more firmly, a deliberate stroke. This can't hurt. He's done with pain. That very still face, only half-familiar, the lines were all off. Skin stretched tight over swollen flesh. The lips were discolored and cracked. But his eyelashes still curled thickly where they rested against his cheek. Those hadn't changed. She would never see eyes that blue again. But you will.

NO. Stunned, like a blow to her skull.

You will. Exactly that blue. She shivered, recoiled. Hear that voice, that laugh. She was blinded by tears. Fist to her mouth. The other. Not him. Not ever again. She found herself choking, biting her fist.

'Hey – easy, babe. It's only a feeling.'

You always say that, she thought. She tried to breathe. She tried. Always more tears, when she dropped the control.

'You don't need to fight it, just let it roll through you'.

Frell, let it come. She could move again soon. She wet the cloth, and blotted her eyes while she shook. Wet it again and inhaled the moisture. Wiped his scalp, his forehead. The scar. The other one's blood had saved him, for her. All of them, tangled together. Too much to think of. She'd been gutted with a jagged blade. Scraped down to raw meat.

The work. Do the work. His ears, his neck. For a moment, she thought he might turn toward her touch. His lips should be moving. She touched his mouth. No movement. None. Her hands felt like they belonged to someone else. She caught herself, stunned – He can't feel what I'm doing. That thought was so strange. He felt so much. Now she had no power to reach him. Right. Shoulders, chest. Muscled curves that used to fit her so well. Move the sheet. His torso had swollen. The hollows above his hips were gone. When she saw his belly, his cock, she flinched. All those wonderful spots, so eager for touch. Just flesh. Empty flesh. No animation, no hope of response. Response was everything. Her eyes closed for a moment, fragments of memory flying everywhere. Breathe. She dipped the cloth, laid it wet to cover his genitals, patted him through it. Not a flicker of motion. He's not asleep. She rocked back and forth as she sponged at his skin, wiped the cloth around his thighs. 'Clean skin feels so good.' She dipped the cloth and wrung it out. No point wiping the tears away.

Roll him over. Just weight, inert. Dead weight. Seen plenty of death. Civilians, enemies, comrades, friends. But this was so... new. She almost laughed. One more thing that she'd known all her life – do it with him, and it's utterly new. That she could say that – it was enough to make her smile, even now. He would have laughed, too. Wouldn't have missed that reaction. He might laugh softly, stroking her hair. Or full out, delighted, 'You got that, baby?' She rested her head on his back, so cool on her cheek.

But he was just here. We woke up together.

How could a person grow a new need? Oxygen, water, food cubes, John. Did the others still matter? Don't know. I'm in free-fall, now. Her motions repeated, mechanical, rigid.

Right. Been doing that spot long enough.

Wipe down that line, from shoulder to waist. Those muscular legs. Those long bones he folded so small, when he curled in the bed. His feet were dusty. Sand had worked through his socks. All that frelling sand. Wet the cloth. Wrap each foot and squeeze. He liked when she did that. Touch that had no purpose but pleasure. Her senses expanding, nerves hooking up. Everything coming on line. Delight. All hers. All his. You changed me, you bastard. Beyond any hope of repair.

She was nothing now but a husk, a shell. What a strange relief, to be this empty. Just that vast hollow space in her chest, where this man used to fit. No center left. After just one particular death.

She rolled him onto his back again. Pulled up the sheet. Touched her comm. "Stark. You could help me, now."

She emptied the basin, wrung out the cloths. D'Argo should be here. Zhaan should be here.They would know blessings. They would have words. All she had were her hands.

She gathered his boots, his leathers. The other one would need them back. She owed him that. She could do that much. I can't – She stopped herself.

I don't have any more. There was nothing else left. Just John's clothes. Winona. She could get those to him. They didn't belong to her.

Stark knocked and entered, more cautious this time. He'd brought what she needed. The shirt and the pants, clean but worn. Too worn for the other to want. They worked together to dress him again. Shifted his body to strip the bed, replaced the sheet with the blanket, its texture so familiar beneath her hand. No need to inhale. She knew how well it held their scents. She settled him flat on the blanket, carefully straightened his limbs. Stark gathered the linen. She pulled out her knife, and he flinched in alarm.

She reached up to slice a long strand from her hair. Wrapped it over John's fingers, around and around. Folded his thumb to hold it. Brought his other hand over to clasp it securely. Stark watched her closely.

"His people do that," she said. Something of me to go with him. Stark nodded, but held his peace.

She wrapped the blanket, made a tight bundle. Left his face exposed, the flaps lying ready. Her hands were the last to touch his skin. The way he would want it.

"Stark," she said, and her voice was loud in her ears. "I need to know – " She was fighting a fog, she was slogging her way through heavy mud. "You know when I died, and Zhaan..." He shrank back, righteous, appalled, and she shook her head in frustration. "No. Not that." Her fingertips brushed John's scar, back and forth. "If I'm going to let this... body go..." The words were so hard to find. "I need be sure that he's... gone." She looked up, braced, on full alert. "Could you tell me that?"

Stark's face had softened. He nodded. She stepped aside and he sat on the bed. He was silent a moment, then took off his mask. He cradled the face in his hands and bent to touch brows for a long, open moment. She could not look away from that golden light. At last he sat up and refitted his mask. He rested his palm on the bundle, over the chest, as he turned his face toward hers. She leaned forward, eagerly, wondering, wanting –

His voice was neutral, soft. An echo of Zhaan, a touch of his old, quiet way. "Like a great, empty house. Open space. Like its master has left it, clean and... bare." He spread his hands wide and let them drop, empty. "He is not there."

She had thought she was numb. But those words were a blow, her body recoiled. Tears burned her eyes. She blinked and held herself still.

There was nothing more for her to do. No dreams to guard him against, tonight. No reason to stay. Let the others have their time. To look at a living face would exhaust her. She needed to sit somewhere quiet and dark. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but our quarters.

Clutching his boots and his leathers, she walked toward the door. Something made her look back. The Banik stood next to the body, as quietly as he had stood a few arns before. When John was choking. "Stark," she said. "You... helped him. More –" Her voice cracked. She swallowed. "More than once. Thank you for that," she said firmly.

He inclined his head and asked, almost shyly, "Can I do anything?" She shook her head. "Are you sure? How long since you ate?"

She shrugged. "I am not hungry." She tried to think. She was dull with exhaustion, but sleep would be wrong. When I wake up tomorrow, he'll still be dead. And the day after that. Yes, she needed to sit. Somewhere quiet and dark. She thought about places where no one would go.

"Can you rest now?"

His voice made her jump.

She wiped her eyes and stood erect. "I can do what comes next." She turned and walked out of the room.