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the wicks we burn

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Exhaustion claims her soon after Artoo is released from the workshop. He chirps at her, delighted at all the new badges of war he's gained and equally happy to see she'd made it out of the battle in one piece. She offers the astromech a smile before pointing him in the direction of Luke's new quarters.

(It hadn't been hard to find him some space.) 

There's already talks of a ceremony, of giving the Rebellion's newfound heroes medals they've yet to source. She suspects there were a handful of soldiers in the maintenance bay even now, smelting scrap metal into things of beauty. The Rebel Alliance didn't believe in medals, before, when scrap metal could define the line between life and death. But that was also before they'd fought the Empire face-to-face. Before they had people to call heroes.

Leia doesn't know how everyone's able to talk about heroics and ceremonies when they've lost so many. They had numbers and names for those who perished above Yavin: 20 X-wings and 7 Y-Wings, but the casualties of Scarif remain a mystery. 

Hardly anyone made it back alive. The Alliance had lost so many soldiers, so many pilots - an entire X-wing Squadron- that nobody knew the actual numbers. Survivors were dazed, happy to be alive or still nursing wounds.

Sighing into her hands, Leia pauses her aimless wandering to lean against a wall. Behind her eyelids streaks of red fly, reminders of all the crew she'd lost on the Tantive. She clamps her mind shut around a dark figure that materializes in her memory. His chilling grip on her hands, on her shoulders, holding her in place as her home is swallowed by bright green.

The memory feels like a distorted holovid, of something that happened to someone else. 

Not her, it can't be her. In a few hours Papa will arrive on base, bearing a broad grin and a warm hug. Mama's still waiting for her at home, at home, ready to chide her for running so swiftly into the arms of danger, ready to chastise Papa for sending her on such a dangerous mission. Her attendants are waiting to frown at the newfound scars on her arms. All her dresses and makeup and holobooks and the birds' nest above her balcony and her favourite hiding spot in Papa's office and the mountains she'd miserably failed at painting; everything she's ever called home, everything - 

When her hands move from her face, she's huddled on the floor.

With a haggard breath she rises, clutching onto the wall for support until she stops swaying. When falling is no longer a risk, she swipes at her face, surprised to find her cheeks free of tears.

A princess must keep moving.

She steps forward, in search of her next task. That was the problem, really. Leia had been taught many things, but no tutor, no holobook, no drawling lesson ever taught her how to mourn. Her Mama's advice, her Papa's counsel, absolutely nothing held the answer for her.

As a princess, she had everything. Now she has nothing but her life and the title.

And a home in the Rebellion, she reminds herself, where half the beings here had lost everything as well. Perhaps not as suddenly, perhaps not as great and swift of a fall as she had, but they knew how to mourn.

Leia would learn.

But for now, she doesn't, or at least, she thinks the best way to approach the problem is to ignore it - find another problem, find something she can solve or at least something she can think about without falling.

The exhilaration of victory had kept her mind off things, but as soon as the celebratory crowd dissipated and the briefings had been delivered, Leia had found herself in an empty room staring blankly at a list of the dead and missing.

She is no good to the dead.

She seeks out the living. Not the living still buzzing with adrenaline, not the living who'd insisted she talk to them.

No, the living still lingering on the edge of death, the living who don't have advice to offer or sympathies to recite. The lonely living, with nobody to talk to them save the harried medics and blunt meddroids.


She sits by every bed for a few minutes, long enough to learn their names, their rank, whether they'd been injured on Scarif or a near miss on Yavin. The latter are chattier, she finds, mostly nursing broken bones and waiting for bacta immersion, so she gives them a wide berth on her travels, only stopping to thank them for their service and accept their condolences.

This isn't official business. If it was, she'd have changed into something other than the dress she'd been wearing for the past... however long it had been since she'd left Alderaan. It felt like seconds and years at the same time. Hair is starting to fall out of her buns, but she doesn't have the heart to undo them, not when this hairstyle will be the last one she'd put together while looking into her reflection in her bedroom.

She closes her eyes and takes in a deep breath, clenching and unclenching her fists until her mind portrays a different scene.

Nobody knows who died on Scarif, but there were a few names she was sure of. Galen's daughter. The defector. 

There was a captain, she remembers, assigned to that operation. A captain she doesn't want to name in her mind, because the name that follows the title is one of the first she ever grew to love, among the Rebellion. 

And perhaps that is why she's here. Not out of some selfless desire to ease the pain of soldiers willing to die for her single command - for her single mistake - but out of a tiny flicker of hope that maybe, maybe, Cassian is alive. 

There is still a list of missing persons, after all. Names unclaimed by bodies in the medbay, names not recognized by the few survivors. Cassian lived by too many names for anyone except a handful to claim his -

There was a chance, a slight chance like a torpedo flying into the Death Star's exhaust port, that Cassian was still alive. And Leia held on to hope, because other than her life and her title, hope is all that she has left.

But at this point she's visited every room in the medbay, and doesn't have the strength to visit the mortuary. 

Leia's clearance is second only to Mothma and Cracken's, a shortcoming that spares her the gruesome details of Intelligence. She thinks that'll change soon, after all that she's seen these past couple days. So when she slips into a secluded room at the end of the corridor, none of the techs inside question her. The late hour and the endless workday behind them leave the techs too tired to do anything more than to throw a quick glance over their shoulders. 

She rests her head against the door. A column of muted blue light fills her vision, the room dark save for a few flickering indicators. Silhouettes shift around the column, slowly dispersing as the machine starts to beep. Steady, like a heartbeat.

There's a person in there, she realizes, just as she notices the dull hiss filling the air. Oxygen, she thinks, if that's a Human. She steps closer, pulled towards the bastion of light by curiosity, and a tiny bit of hope. 

The techs have disappeared, through a secondary door to the side, leaving only a droid to monitor readouts. She pays attention to none of this, only walking forward as if in a trance.

It's a Human, stripped to nothing but ballooning underclothes, most of their face covered in a mask, the rest obscured by bubbles. She's overcome with a sudden sense of embarrassment, shame even, and keeps her focus on unearthing the identity of the man hanging above her.

The bubbles flow intermittently, stopping as he inhales, and those short gasps of breath coax Leia's hope into an inferno.

He's alive. 

The fire and exhaustion and relief consume her, and this time when she falls it's into a chair. Someone must've thought their nameless patient would have a keeper - Leia doesn't delude herself into thinking she's the first to sit here and weep. Over Cassian, perhaps, because Draven didn't strike her as the crying type. 

The thought makes her smile, just a little, her first genuine smile since she'd parted ways with Luke and Han for the night. Her heart still aches, though, a terrible pain that sears through her. She's lost Papa, and Mama, and her entire planet and way of life, but the Force must've pitied her enough to give her Luke, and grudgingly, Han.

But most of all, she's gotten Cassian back. The only one who'd lost his father, his mother, his planet and way of life - and one who knew how to mourn.


 

The next time she visits him, she's had a shower. She's in new clothes, too, because underneath all the fatigues in her quarters on base there was a dress and a necklace. She'd held the two and cried over them like a princess who'd soiled her favourite gown. Because they were soiled in a way, soiled in the knowledge that she's only has two dresses in Alderaani white, now, and as a child she'd hated the very thought of wearing them.

(Her wardrobe is white until she leaves Hoth, and then the mourning period is over, the innocence she'd hoped to portray gone long before it.) 

She's had some sleep, too. Leia awoke with a sore neck, back, everything in the chair she'd dozed off in, a medic nervously shooing her off before the daycycle begun. In the haze she'd fallen right back asleep in her quarters, filled with fitful dreams of smiles she'll never see again and eyes she desperately wished would open.

Now she sits in another chair, stationed beside a solitary cot in the medbay, staring at those same closed eyes.

They've promoted him to Major, now, and Leia toys with the new rank badge in her hands. Cassian wouldn't accept a medal, and Leia wasn't foolish enough to offer it. They'd made a symbolic one, for all those who'd died on Scarif, and the pilots have made a habit of touching it for good luck before their reconnaissance flights.

(The celebrations are over, the battle won, but now the Alliance has a war on their hands.) 

She sets it on the table, where Cassian's regulation clothes are folded, and sighs.

 She's supposed to talk to him, she knows, because that's what everyone else is doing. The medics insist their words aren't falling on deaf ears, and even if Leia believed it she still doesn't know what to say.

She wants to ask him to come back, but it's so ridiculously selfish of her the words won't escape her mouth.

He'd almost died on that karking beach, she'd heard, until one of the couple pilots to escape scooped him onto his ship. There was nobody else with him.

Leia idly wonders where Erso may have been. If she'd gone down with teeth bared, been felled with a single shot. She didn't seem like the type, from what Leia had heard. It would've taken the Death Star to kill her. The pilots insisted they'd seen a girl on the tower, just a girl, and if that was true then the plans Leia had received were sent by Erso herself. If Galen had laid out the wick to the Death Star, it was Jyn and Rogue One who'd handed the Rebellion the match.

She shivers, wondering if they would've gotten along. Been friends, even, if they had the chance to meet.

(Someone called her Saw Gerrera's daughter, and it struck a chord within her, deep down somewhere in a past she's desperate to remember. Hold on to the bits of Papa and Mama and Alderaan that she can, and let the rest go, mysterious girl with it.) 

But she's stardust, now, and there's no point in wishing upon snuffed-out stars.

Her gaze returns to Cassian.  Only his face and shoulders are visible, peeking out from the casing holding his spine in place. He'd sustained severe damage to it, she'd been told, a heavy impact or fall, and they'd inserted cybernetics to save his legs. The medics had said lots of things, but nothing really stuck, her attention only occupied by the beep of his heart monitor.

She's never seen him this peaceful. He had to touch death to achieve this peace, a face free of worry lines, a body not tied to his absolute command. She's never seen him slouch, only seen him as an officer, Imperial or Alliance. 

Even as - her mind catches on the word lover, a word she has no right to - as a friend, or as aide to her father, even his friendliness was measured, carefully restrained. The only time she ever recalls his face broken into something soft was those few minutes on the Tantive. She can't even remember how the meeting she'd been dreading went. She only remembers how Cassian had looked at her, how his lips felt on hers - 

She's spent too long here already. There is still work to be done.


Leia spends her days helping the Alliance recuperate, sorting through their losses and gains and beginning the process of resettling on a new base. It's odd, how she's begun to think of the Massassi temples as a home away from home, even though they have few comforts to offer her other than a bed and familiar faces.

At least she could visit, someday, if she ever felt nostalgic for the humidity and buzz of bugs. 

(She will.) 

She spends her nights by Cassian's side, when the medics visit less frequently and the droids care less. She spends most of that time staring, thinking of all the things she want to say, scratching them out in her mind.

Nothing is enough. No words can soothe their wounds. They're both too smart for that, too caught up in their service. She may be a Princess and he from a forgotten Rim world, but they've both been twisted into weapons since childhood, learned to carve lies with their tongues and swallow truths with every breath.

Words are powerful, and thus, they become meaningless in her mouth. 

But not in his. 

Cassian talks in his sleep. 

Leia suspects it's the potent cocktail of medications. She's not privy to the trials of Intelligence agents, but she hopes they weed out the sleep-talkers in the earliest stages. They learn to fight off truth serums for hours, days, even, so sleep should be nothing harder.

Perhaps he thinks he's safe, but Leia's never heard Cassian use the word safe. Only safer. 

Perhaps he thinks he's dead.

She wouldn't be surprised.

He only mumbles names. She recognizes a handful. Erso's, most often. The defector - Rook, scattered once or twice. Mostly Erso and a identification number she suspects belongs to the droid that always lumbered behind him. She remembers him mentioning, just once, that he'd been working on reprogramming an Imperial droid. Something about it being useful for infiltrations.

She has a hunch the droid was more than that to him, based on what she'd found in the file she wasn't supposed to see. Artoo was enough proof, always trailing his new master's feet. Threepio was practically an annoying uncle, to her, if uncles were made of metal and anxiety.

He mumbles names, and most she doesn't recognize. She's tempted to run them all through the Alliance database, but something about the way they're murmured tells her to let them rest. She commits them to memory, though, just in case.

Some of them sound alien. Friends, allies. Targets, she thinks darkly, or those he'd betrayed to save. 

Others sound too close to home. Too similar to names she might encounter on Alderaan, names she could trick herself into believing were cousins, friends, classmates, crushes. They must be from his past, then, from before the Rebellion. A past she only knows is filled with snow - snow slowly turned grey and then shelled to oblivion. Collateral damage caused by changing labels - by the Republic, by the Separatists, by the Empire. 

She prays for those.

Leia never bothered to properly understand her mother's prayers, and now she fumbles around the words. There's only one that she knows, one that her mother used to recite every time they heard of a great loss. (Until every loss became a great one.)

The candle's flame flickers as she whispers the words over it.

May they rest in peace, their wishes fulfilled. May their people welcome them home.

Smoke curls into the air as Leia waits for the wick to burn out, like every life that's left them.

She starts to leave out the first part.

May their people welcome them home, she thinks, watching from Cassian's side as another hoverlift is pushed out of the medbay.


It's on her third visit that she finally talks to him. She can't even remember what she babbles about, probably the results of the scouts' missions because that's what he'd like to hear. Something for him to mull over, if he's listening.

After the words rush out of her she's so exhausted she might just fall asleep in her chair, which she does. 

She wakes to a sore neck and what she swears is a slight smile on his face.

It's that sight that breaks her. For Force's sake, did the universe only bring him back to her just for this? 

It's then that she asks him to come back.

She doesn't say the Rebellion needs him. Leia admits, finally, that she's furiously selfish, and has only slept a few hours since this all began. The night she found him, and the night she first spoke to him. She doesn't even say that the Rebellion needs her to be functioning.

This night, only they matter. Cassian matters to her, and she's the only one speaking, so thus, he matters. 

His hand twitches when she tells him this. She entertains the idea of grasping it, but doesn't.

The next day they remove the casing.


She holds his hand, this time, relying only on touch to speak. 

Leia swears he's sinking in and out of consciousness, by the way his hand tenses against hers. But his eyes remain shut, and for the next couple nights the only thing she whispers is come back, Cassian.

He must be fighting to reach her, reach her voice, because he's shifted into the less secluded sector of the medbay.

(They choose Hoth. It is, apparently, one of the coldest planets in the galaxy.)

Leia decides to make the most of her last days on Yavin until she's told Cassian is expected to wake soon. It's daytime, light filling Base One, but she's stopped caring. Cassian's one of a handful of rebels still in the medbay, the rest dead or as healed as they'll ever be.

There are creases between his eyebrows now, and the sight makes her grin, even if they've robbed her of his peace and youth. As much as she'd admired that Cassian, who actually looked to be the couple years her senior, this is the one she'd grown to love.

He looks like he's fighting, fighting to reach her, fighting to remain in blissful darkness.

The reality hits her like a blasterbolt.

If she'd been in his place, if she'd been given the choice to stay or go after Alderaan -

Leia isn't quite sure if she'd have fought to stay. With rational thought, with Cassian watching over her, knowing what she does now, knowing the fight that lies ahead, maybe she would've. But alone, in the dark, caught between light and life, with her family on one side and a seemingly endless war on the other, Leia would be frightened by the truth.

The other fact is, she's never seen Cassian bow out of a fight. If he sacrifices one thing it's to save many others. If he sacrificed himself on Scarif, trading life for peace, then he'll sacrifice himself again.  

She can't ask him to stay, not anymore. It's his choice, now, and all she can offer is a candle to lead him out of the dark. To find her or those he's lost, she doesn't know. She doesn't have to.

When Cassian squeezes her hand, as if he's saying goodbye, as if he's asking her to tether him to the land of the living, as if he's a child holding on to guidance, she murmurs:

"I know. Take your time." 

She kisses his forehead, and pulls away to wait.