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in rising night

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“Be at peace.”

Her mother says it with a soft smile and a gentle tap to her nose. Hera giggles and tugs the blanket closer around her shoulders. It’s ragged and well-worn. She toys with the frayed string on one edge, picking at it until her mother takes her hand and squeezes it.

“None of that,” she says. “We only have so many blankets.”

The cave shudders. A thin cloud of dust drifts down and settles over them. Hera sneezes. It’s not the first time the shower’s happened this cycle. She’s been working on her numbers, and today she’s already counted sixteen bombs. She opens her mouth to say so and stops short. No, no she can’t: her mother’s face is too pinched for that.

She doesn’t like the bombs.

Hera rests a hand over hers. “Be at peace,” she says, careful to pitch her voice just the way she’s heard her mother do it. “We have hope.”

Her mother pats her cheek. “Of course we do, Hera,” she says. Her eyes are tired. “We always will.”

Hera only knows the time by the thin light filtering through the cracks in the cave’s ceiling. By the time they flicker and fade, she’s lost track of the explosions.

She doesn’t see the sky for a week.

She’s not supposed to be outside.

The sun sits low on the far horizon. Hera swings her legs over the edge of her perch and tells herself that the alcove into which she’s crammed herself will protect her from any showering slag. She’s only seen a few starfighters dart through the sky today, and a few isn’t very many at all. She strains against the glowing gold, shading her eyes with her hand and squinting at the clouds. No glinting wings. No bursting bombs.

Just that burning sea of blood red.

Her shoulders sag. Her mother will be looking for her soon. She has to go back before they discover she’s gone and then seal up the crack she’s been using to slip out. Stay safe. Stay inside. Stay hidden away, deep beneath. The light of the sun barely reaches her there.

She feels like she hasn’t seen the stars in years.

Hera’s just gathering her strength to stand when the sky breaks wide. There’s a horrible shriek. A fire rises, growing larger as it careens closer – closer – closer. Hera presses a hand to her mouth.

The Republic Y-wing slams into the earth and screeches to a halt. Flames burst from its hull. It creaks and groans as it settles.

In the terrible silence, she hears a piercing scream.

Hera scrambles down, sliding until she reaches level ground, and sprints toward the ship. Her father would send her away. Would tell her it’s too dangerous. Would tell her to be safe.

But he charges into fire every day.

The scream comes again, lower this time. The cockpit is cracked and caving; it pops open. The clone pilot fumbles with the straps across his chest, heaving, heaving. He gives a ragged cry. The straps come free.

The pilot falls. Hits the ground.

And lies still.

Hera drops to her knees beside him. The pilot must have had a helmet at some point, but it’s gone now: his face is streaked in sweat and blood. His eyes lock on hers for a moment. They’re so wide, wider than the broken sky.

“It’s okay,” Hera says, in her best Galactic Basic. She’s been practicing that too. “I’m going to help you.”

The pilot gurgles. She guesses it’s supposed to sound like a laugh. “N-no one can – help me now,” he says. His lower lip trembles. His eyes glisten, suddenly. A tear rolls down his cheek. He gasps a breath. Tries for a smile. It shakes too.

Hera sets her jaw. “I’m going to help you,” she repeats.

The pilot tries to smile again. His chest is moving so fast. His breath comes in desperate gasps.

“My name’s Hera,” Hera blurts. “What’s yours?”

His fingers drive into the dust. His body shudders. Hera pries his hand up without thinking and clasps it tightly. “Spectre,” he croaks, and squeezes her hand, once. His eyes gleam in the sun’s distant glow. “I’m – Spectre.”

“I’m going to help,” Hera says, and steels her tone. Strong, like her mother. Sure, like her father. “I’m going to – help you. Tell me how.”

Her throat is so tight it hurts.

“…stay,” Spectre whispers. “Please.”

Hera hesitates only a moment. Then, slowly, she frees one of her hands and presses it gently to his cheek. “Be at peace,” she says. “We always have hope.”

Spectre’s gaze locks with hers. It’s glassy and unfocused. Eternal, like the sky. For a moment, in the fading light, she thinks she can see the rising stars in his eyes.

He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t smile. He rasps a final breath. He shudders.

And he dies.

His grip falls away. Hera bites her lip until she tastes blood. “Be at peace,” she says again. Her voice cracks. Her eyes burn. “We have hope. We always have hope.”

She stays there for a long time, silent in the swelling night.

She doesn’t go back to the ship until the sun is high in the sky.

Even in the daylight, a shiver runs down her spine. The fires are gone. Her father’s troops have taken Spectre’s body away. The Y-wing is battered. A shell.

A ghost.

The ship hisses and smokes. Step by step, Hera picks her way toward it. She’s so focused on getting a better look at what’s left of the controls that she doesn’t notice the debris beneath her feet. Her boot hits something hollow with a dull clang.

She almost lets loose one of the swears she’s heard some of her father’s fighters use. Hera hisses a breath through her grit teeth instead. Once the pulsing pain passes, she kneels down beside the offending object.

It’s an astromech droid. Hera tilts her head at it. The body is battered and sparking; the dome is dented and half-caved. It must have been Spectre’s droid.

Spectre is gone. This droid is alone.

“It’s okay,” Hera says, and presses her hand to the astromech’s dome. “I’m going to help you.”