Jyn is sagging against his side, sobbing for breath. His own voice is little more than a desperate gasp of shock. There’s nothing they can do, the play is made, and made well. There may be survivors among the enemy troops down there, but it’s hard to imagine many. Perhaps even the Sith will be dead, swept aside in the destruction, the single devastating blow of Saw’s endgame.
The white snow-cloud and the glowing cloud of steam rise into the night, mingling under the stars. There are no more flames in Red Crag, and no battle cries, only death as the thunder of the avalanche fades, moving far off and farther yet, and settling; and then silence.
Shock. Cold. The air is very still, up here, and the stars seem to hang around him, eyes in the icy sky. Heaven is watching, and as helpless as they.
Shock and cold, staring, biting cold.
They stand on the open mountainside, knee deep in snow.
Jyn whimpers. For a moment she tries to pull away from him, but she lurches and almost falls; he holds her back weakly and somehow she grabs onto his shirt and stays upright. “Come on,” he whispers “leave it. Leave it. Let’s go.”
It’s near midnight, and midwinter, and neither of them is clad for the outdoors. They have to get to shelter, before shock and exhaustion devour their remaining strength. The cold eats fast, fast as any wolf, and now as the energy of fighting and terror wears off it is an enemy far more immediate than whatever snow-swept Imperial remnants might survive down in the valley.
They stagger back from the edge, stumbling and holding one another up.
The path along the mountainside is deeply-buried in drifts and every step plunges them into the piled snow. The veil of stars pricks with light overhead and the snow is firm-packed, its surface dense with weeks of hard frost. With each stride his boots rest for a second and then crunch through again, down to the uncertain surface below. And apart from their sobbing breath and the broken rhythm of their feet, there’s not a sound. Only the deep, deep silence of night and winter.
It takes a long time to get themselves all the way to the cave. Jyn is staggering, he has to guide her through. When they finally stop, right at the back where the roof curves down, she straightens and looks around, and says “No,” in a voice that is thin with panic “No, not here, there’s no time, we have to keep going –“
She clutches at the front of her open jacket, at the rainbow of crystals tangled there. A faint flicker of light wells up between her fingers. He thinks of blood, sluggish in the cold; but the gleam is weak and sputters out and Jyn says “No,” again weakly and clearly.
Then slumps down, falling like the dead.
He’s still holding her and her sudden weight drags him down too, back to his knees on the stone floor.
“Jyn! Jyn, no, no –“ He clutches her to him, fumbles at her face with cold hands.
She’s breathing but her arms drop limply and her head lolls as he cradles her. Cassian sits back on his heels, stupid with fear, holding her inert body. He’s shaking with the cold, trying to impart his own body heat into her when he’s no longer sure he has any to begin with.
He knows he has to find some fire in himself; he’s the one whimpering now, wordless with shock, and rocking back and forth, hunching over her. The moonlight gilds the snow around the cave entrance, the dead-still air weighs down on him, Jyn lies fainted in his arms. His skin is sweaty goose-pimpled ice under the thin shirt.
He lowers her to the floor of the cave as gently as his shaking muscles will let him. Doesn’t want to let go, doesn’t want to risk her lying still in the cold; but he has to move, before neither of them can. He hauls himself across to the store of firewood, to find and drag a log back to where Jyn lies. And another. Each time, each movement, the effort burns and dull chilled muscles cry out with pain. But they have to have a fire, to have any hope of surviving a night on the mountain.
Build a fire, somehow raise a spark, God alone knows how without Jyn’s magic, but I have steel, there must be something I can use for a flint, we must have fire, we must have fire -
There’s no small stuff, no split wood or kindling. Slowly and clumsily he shaves shreds and splinters off a pine log with the edge of his sword.
Each time he looks up at Jyn she’s still lying there, sprawled on her side against the blank end wall. Her face is equally blank; lips pale, eyes closed, she looks ill, she looks like a dead woman or a dying one, and panic tugs at him whispering Jyn, Jyn... But she’s still breathing and so is he, and it is up to him to keep them so.
He scrapes the splintery kindling together with his bare hands and lurches to his feet again, driving himself to go back for a third log. The cold is making him steadily clumsier and long shivers run through him; even with the exertion of work, he’s chilling fast.
When he turns back with the third and last piece of wood, he knows already that he won’t be able to fetch another. What strength he has left as the bitter night sinks its fangs into him must be spent on finding something to strike a spark with.
The kyber stones around Jyn’s neck are still gleaming faintly with their own internal light.
The crystals, maybe –
Cassian crawls the painful two feet to her side and touches her still face; whispers her name. She doesn’t move. He bites his lip as he fumbles to raise her head and slip one of the cords off from around her neck. It’s entirely possible he may be about to set off a blast like the one Saw just threw down, he may be about to blow them both to ash; but he can see no other option. Without a proper fire they will both freeze to death. His shivering is decreasing now and he recalls suddenly that that’s a bad sign; a memory from some long-ago lesson, his mother in the Copper Mountains, the golden colour of her shawl, a teaching song, her hands clapping the rhythm… En un día frio, ¡baila!/¡Calentarte mi cariño!/ Otra día muy helado/ Descansarte, puerta cerrada/No dejes que el calor se vaya -
The singsong voice echoes at the back of his mind, round and round, the language of childhood, so long unused as to have been almost forgotten. Doesn’t bode well, for such memories to come back now. Only the dying look back with such clarity as this.
His hands are clumsy, fingers half asleep now, and the music distracts as much as it urges him on. He has to work very carefully, getting the sword-blade set just so, wedged between his knees, and the big violet-coloured shard of crystal in his other hand, angled just right, and please God, don’t let me stab myself now, please, God, please God…
He strikes kyber on steel, with as much force as he dares. And there are sparks.
It takes a good time to gather up the embers that fall on his bits of kindling, to blow on them, so, so carefully, and coax at last a single thread of flame. Holding his hands steady somehow, and his heart strong against the fear of losing this fire, having to start again, maybe failing this time, all while Jyn lies and fades on the cold stone floor, and his own strength fades too. He could freeze without even realising it, slowly battling on while the world goes dark. But he will not give up till the end wraps its hands round him finally.
He feeds more wood to the flames, muttering an old prayer, words he hasn’t thought of for so long but in such despair they come back just as Mama’s song did, and it doesn’t seem strange to be praying as his forebears once prayed, Diosa madre, luna de lunas, luz de luces, escúchame, diosa madre escúchame… And if this means death is approaching, so be it, he’ll die with Festian words on his tongue, and the knowledge that at the last the hopes of childhood are still alive in him.
His hands are screaming with cold now and breathing is painful, the air seems to be pouring cold inside him. But the tiny fire is growing. Its heat is perceptible. A shudder goes through Cassian’s body as the sensation of warmth stings and sings on his skin, and relief breaks inside him. He pulls the first of the logs up against his fire and watches till the flames have caught and taken. He’s overwhelmed and almost numb, but he knows they are safe, safe, we’re safe, we’re safe.
He tugs the other two logs to where he can easily reach them. Every tensed and aching muscle shakes, suddenly weak at the effort, and he sinks back, staring at the campfire. How much can it harm him just to rest a moment?
The floor of the cave is free from snow, but the rock is ice-cold nonetheless, and the cold still catches on the film of sweat on his skin, sucks on him, sinks its teeth in. Oh God, my God, o diosa madre, so cold, so, so cold and so tired.
He knows he ought to get nearer to the fire, but it seems unimaginably hard. He wraps his arms around himself, hunching and rocking slowly back and forth on the spot. Closes his eyes. Just to rest, just for a moment.
The flames are visible even through his eyelids, they’re yellow, they twist and hiss and he remembers dragons in childhood stories, and forge-fires in Feste, the flames always golden like this, with a hundred strong brave men like his Papa smelting copper, shouting instructions and encouragements to one another across the canyon from kiln to mill to homestead, and the mountains were shining around him and the road home was bright in the white snow –
It would be so easy to let go, to rest. Sleep.
But no, no, no, he can’t stop. No sleep, not yet, not now.
With a last driven effort he crawls back to Jyn. Lifts her a little, clumsily, under the arms, and pulls her as close to the fire as he can. Sinks down, drawing her to him and folding her arms in, tugging her legs round close, cradling her.
She doesn’t move but her breathing is steady. Is it just the firelight that makes her cheeks seem less pale?
He can’t allow himself to consider what it will mean if something in her is broken now. It has to be the shock. The cold. Has to be.
It’s no more than childishness to bend his head over hers and press a kiss to her brow. Her skin is chilled, cold to his lips, but there’s warmth under the chill. He heaves her up, holds her as close as he can. There’s a ghost of human breath on his skin. He sits hunched over it, that faint treasure of life, rocking her gently, letting the heat of the fire slowly seep in, closing his weary eyes again. Nothing he can do now but wait, pray, endure.
Finally Jyn stirs. Her breathing strengthens and suddenly she coughs and speaks, small as the first flames, a mere flicker of sound. “Cassian?”
Her eyes are very wide when he opens his and looks down at her; wide and staring up at him, bright with unshed tears.
She’s still here, still with him. It’s miracle enough and to spare for now, a blessing greater than any curse-breaking.
“Shh, shh, I’m here. You fainted. I’ve got you.” His lips don’t feel quite normal but he mumbles out more words. “We need to stay close to the fire.”
“Yes,” she whispers.
The golden firelight (home, home, the colour of home) is reflected on her face, shining in her eyes. Beyond her, the night, and the war that’s still out there, the war and the enemy, and death escaped by a hair and a flash of starfire.
Jyn huddles in close to his side and puts her arms round his waist; he keeps his own arms tight round her. She tucks her head under his chin. He leans down to press his cheek to her hair. They hold onto one another, as close as they can get, every possible place touching.
Time drifts, consciousness a wind-blown snowflake. If after everything they’ve been through they’re going to black out and die up here, at least it will be free, and together. Cassian sees the fires of home burning, homes that were and homes that might have been, Feste and Yavine, the cottage, Red Crag; now here and this hidden place, and home is just the two of them, hidden in the dark beneath the rock and snow.
The faint moonlight etches the outline of the cave-mouth, and beyond he can see stars high above. The moonlight is shifting. A thick-furred wolf can lie beside Jyn and help her keep warm, when a man in a thin shirt can only cling on and try not to move, try to preserve the body heat pressed between them. They just have to hang on till he transforms…
“I’m sorry,” Jyn murmurs into his chest “I can’t think of a spell to warm things up.”
“We’ve got a fire, we’ll be alright. Just rest, you’ve exhausted yourself.” But his mind goes back to the blinding flash and the wild whiteness bursting around them as the Crag was torn asunder. The view from outside, the veil of stars hanging over valley and the powder snow rising in a cloud like smoke. The power of magic, writ large on the landscape itself, in broken stone, fallen snow, and the blood of a thousand of the enemy.
Gerrera left it late, but he made a thorough job of things when he struck. It’s hard to imagine so much as a stone of Red Crag was left standing.
“Did you know what Saw was going to do?” Jyn asks sleepily.
He shakes his head. “Just knew he was planning something.”
“I thought maybe – when he spoke to you two –“
“He asked us to look after you and Maia. As if you need looking after…”
“God –“ Jyn says, and breaks off, her voice shaking; then more firmly “God grant him rest and light.”
There’s comfort in hearing the blessing of the dead; the first time he’s heard those traditional words since he knows-not how long past. Since Mama spoke them. Why is his childhood lighting every moment, why is the gold of life suddenly so strong in his memories now? La paz y la luz, y que la Fuerza le acompañe… “And may the Force be with him,” he responds.
“So. Well. I’m glad he was able to be himself again. Before the end.”
The fire whispers and flickers. So much like all the other fires. Like their last night here, a place and a time out of time, just like this night.
“Did the others get away?” Cassian asks. “I didn’t see what was happening behind me –“
“Yeah, what in the hells were you playing at?” she interrupts. “You let go of my hand!” She’s stiffened and she lifts her head, glaring at him in the firelight. One hand clutches his shirt again as though she means to shake him. Her voice strengthens with frustration. “You were almost left behind!”
Oh, my Jyn, my indomitable one…
He’s too tired to quarrel. “Don’t be angry with me.” Not asking but telling her plainly.
He eyes snap in the firelight, and soften again in sudden grief.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she says. “I told you that.”
“But someone had to buy us time. That man – the –“ his words go dry as the bones of the long-dead – “That - I thought, better me than you. He was the one who –“
It chokes him still, the lasting fear, long after the shock. Vader, again, Vader before him, the mask and the sword of fire, and the cold voice.
“The one who cursed you,” she finishes for him. Her eyes seeking something in his, questioning, unhappy. Their colour is hidden but the tiny flecks shine in the firelight, and fascinate him. They are bright like stars but held so close that he could touch them, he could breathe them in…
“Did he recognise you?” Jyn asks.
Did the enemy know him again, after this time? How is one to read such a being, someone who goes with their entire face invisible, not even an inch of skin showing under the helm and robe and the long mailed gloves that cover their arms? “I don’t know. He – he startled, a moment. I thought it was disbelief. Someone thinking themselves enough to stand up to him. But maybe he did.”
All the general had done was raise that terrifying blade; if he’d known Cassian at all, it was only to feel contempt.
“Ah, burn him, hellfire upon him, ugh…” Jyn shudders again in his arms. “He’ll’ve seen what Mai and I were doing, damn him. Wish I could be sure he’d died back there.”
So she isn’t sure either. From simple caution, or by sensing something? Either way her instinct chimes with his.
“Do you think Maia and the others got away?” he asks again. He wants so much to hope so; and
“Yes,” she says with a quiet certainty. “They made it out. The Onderon Valley’s miserable in winter but they’ll be alright.”
“And, God willing, it could be weeks before the Empire knows we weren’t all smashed to jelly in the avalanche. What Saw did was –“ he cannot even think of the right words. “It was a kind of victory, wasn’t it?”
“Was it?” Jyn’s voice is raw. “Even if it was, I - I don’t want to lose anyone else.” Her eyes are shining again and she tucks her head down, breathing raggedly, he feels her tears dampening his shirt. “God forgive my selfishness,” she adds in a whisper “but I cannot bear another death, I can’t bear it.”
“But - going like this - it’s what he would have wanted, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Force knows it is.”
But for all that, nothing will undo this loss and no words will heal it. “We’ll find the others,” Cassian says instead “Or they’ll find us. Somehow.” Focus on the future, look for the hopes we have. “We’ll start again. Start the fight anew. It isn’t over, Jyn. There’s still hope.”
“Is there?” Her voice is wan now, muffled in his shirt.
“You know that there is.” Only words, but he has to say them. Has to say something, to give her strength. “Think of your mother, everything she’s risked – she’s counting on us.”
“She’s counting on me…”
“The whole world could be counting on us,” Jyn murmurs “and we could still fail them, Cassian. This isn’t a folktale where the good people are bound to win.” She raises her head. Firelight gleams on the wet tracks running down her cheeks.
He has no reassurance to offer but the truth. “No. It’s a war. It always has been. It’s a rebellion.”
They look at one another, while the fire crackles, and the moon and the stars move above them.
“I know what I have to do,” Jyn says softly.
She turns her face into his shirt again. The tears go on for a few moments more, before she chokes them to silence angrily.