No sound came through the comlink or the massive vault door. A muscle jumped in Cassian’s jaw as he struggled to control himself. He was fraying, emotions standing out stark and human in his eyes as he shook his head and Jyn didn’t know if saying anything would help. They were on their own; the droid was gone. They were locked in and the cold walls were closing in around her.
Cassian took a deep breath, straightened, and switched the frequency on the comlink.
“Bodhi – Bodhi, are you there? Did you call the fleet?” He paced impatiently in the middle of tunnel. His hair was already curling around the tight Imperial collar in the humidity.
Bodhi’s voice, when it finally came in, was heavy with pain or fatigue. “I can’t get to the shuttle.” Blasterfire screamed in the background and the line went dead other than heavy breathing and a grunt of pain. When the pilot came back on he sounded terrified. “I can’t plug in!”
“You have to!” Cassian snapped. “They have to hit that gate! If the shield’s open, we can send the plans.”
He shut the comlink off without waiting for a reply and strode back to the console to peer up into the towering shaft. Climb, K-2 had said. If they could get to something they could climb.
Jyn drew her blaster. “Stand back.” Cassian jerked away from the window.
The thick glass of the main trapezoidal panel shattered at her first shot. Blackened pieces tinkled over the console and the floor and down, down, down the shaft until they were too far away to hear. Cold wind blasted into the control center and stole her breath momentarily.
Jyn holstered the blaster and began peeling off the bulky signalman’s suit. There was no way she could do this wearing double layers, cold or no. Beside her, Cassian shrugged out of the formfitting Imperial jacket, his light shirt startling after the drab gray. When she began to work the heavy body armor plates and flares off he took hold of the shoulder webbing and lifted them free without a word, shimmying his blaster belt down around his hips while she struggled out of her own jacket and readjusted her clothes. She wasn’t brave enough to thank him.
Cassian was already leaning out over the stomach-turning drop. “We’ll have to go one at a time.” She came up beside him to scan the structure of the tower, evaluating the handholds offered by the endless ranks of cartridge slots.
“I’ll go first.”
He opened his mouth as if to argue, but she had already thought it through. “If it won’t hold me it’ll never hold you,” she insisted. Cassian’s lips tightened beneath his mustache as he followed her reasoning. He had to weigh at least five kilograms more than she did. He nodded curtly. Unsaid went the matter that if the cartridge bank collapsed under her and she hurtled to her death, he would have to find another way up to the tape.
They climbed onto the console. Jyn’s shoulders and upper arm muscles chose to remind her of the forgotten climb on Eadu as she eased out into thin air but she ignored the stiffness and kept both hands hooked over the console while she placed her feet, taking a good look below while being careful of the broken glass pricking her wrists. Cassian hovered compulsively but she was unspeakably glad because he was reliable and would put objectives first. Right now, that was what she needed. The glass was recessed into the side of the shaft, leaving a ledge wide enough for a good foothold at the floor level of the control center. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the drop below hadn’t been inescapably unsurvivable. The wind whipped her hair into her face.
She took one moment to look back up at Cassian before she committed. His eyes were dark in the artificial light, wide and vulnerable and worried as he knelt above her on the console. He nodded once, reassuring.
Jyn turned away from him and visually chose her landing site. She crouched on the ledge, shifted her grip, and paused for one steadying moment.
Then she flung herself out over the chasm without a backward glance.
The jump lasted a gasping eternity and still passed too quickly. She slammed into the plastoid banks with her hands and forearms and knees and shins, jamming the fingers of her left hand and wrenching her sore shoulders. The boxy sections sagged a sickening centimeter under her weight but then held fast, butting into their neighbors below until the stack was tight. She panted, precarious and trembling, and clung for a few precious seconds to get her breath back and to master her quivering muscles.
Without looking to see what Cassian was doing, she began to climb.
Cassian hated events he could not control almost as much as he hated the Empire. Gravity was one of them. He didn’t realize he wasn’t breathing until Jyn was securely anchored to the data bank and it showed no signs of giving way, and then it came as a rushed exhale that felt like a blow. Not yet. He was too used to K-2’s predictions of failure to realistically expect that both of them would make it out of this morgue for Imperial projects alive.
The shiny uniform boots didn’t have much of a tread but the soles were nonskid regardless, giving him stable footing as he turned around on his knees and slid down over the console on his stomach. The narrow toes pinched a bit but that was probably an advantage considering how the servers were packed together. Every ten rows or so there was a slightly wider opening where the sections were framed off; Jyn had landed at one and based on her success he would try for one too.
Cassian waited, hanging onto the console with his left arm, until Jyn had climbed her own length above where he would most likely land. If the cartridges broke loose under a second impact, he could not risk compromising her position.
Any second now…
He sucked in a breath as he leaped, saw the white and gray bank flash upwards as he sailed in a terrifying downward arc, and slapped his hands and feet into crevices as he crash-landed, more than half expecting to plummet uncontrollably into the darkness.
The data bank held.
He did not waste time on relief but glanced downward to find his second foothold and climbed after Jyn. He chose the column to her left both to reduce the strain on the individual levels and to leave a clear path on the chance that she could fall.
It’s high. It’s very high.
Shut up, Kay.
Orson Krennic was beyond disgusted with Scarif. Personnel, organization, response time… A brief reconnaissance view of the Citadel map on a data screen had revealed an access door into the vault above the level of the control room, meaning that he would most likely not have much impact on the Rebels themselves but that the towers of servers would be in full view.
If – and it was a very probable if – it was the same group of Rebels who had been dogging his heels for the last twenty hours, they were here for much the same purpose. Galen Erso was interfering with him even from beyond the grave.
Not even a grave, technically.
He would melt every file into uselessness before he let them get their hands on any of the Death Star data, and once the stormtroopers managed to cut through the vault door the invaders would be trapped in a dead end.
He was not in a merciful mood.
Jyn climbed as if her muscles were sore. Cassian gained on her more quickly than he had expected, holding himself in reserve. She was fit but the only rest she’d had, he realized, was in the few hours before the Senators’ meeting back on Yavin IV, and he doubted she had managed to sleep much. That was probably his fault. He matched her pace, lingering a few rows lower to keep an eye on her. The ridged banks of plastoid were not terribly difficult to climb in themselves and they were making steady progress.
Don’t rush, Jyn. You’re doing fine.
One of them had to survive at all costs.
Jyn came level with the retrieval arm first and reached over into his bank for the waiting cartridge.
“I’ve got it!” she called down to him excitedly.
He craned his neck to watch her rattle the thick tape in its socket while the machine clung to their prize like a dead miser in rigor mortis. It refused to budge and he tensed worriedly, ready to climb higher, as Jyn fought with it, her feet braced against the cartridges by his head.
Without warning the tape yanked free.
“Careful!” Cassian yelled, lunging for her foot. He missed and her leg kicked wildly over the dizzying drop, the file flailing in her hand. Something fell and he grabbed for it as it whistled past even though it was impossibly out of reach before swinging back toward the file, ready to snatch it from her hand if she needed to let go to save herself.
Impossibly, slowly, she pulled in her knees and elbows and kept her grip on the tower.
By the time he was able to reach her calf her toes were back in their crevice.
He could only see part of her face. The tendons leading to her ankle were shaking under his hand but she was stable and they had it, they had beaten the machine and the stormtroopers. His pulse was going double-automatic. Panting in triumph, Jyn raised the big plastoid tape and hooked it securely to the utility latch on the back of her belt. The metal discs on the underside of the tape caught the dull light as she turned to get both hands back on the cartridges. Stardust.
Cassian climbed up to the level of her waist, unwilling to let her out of his reach again. They had clambered over the hydraulic arm without too much trouble and were settling into the climb once more when a blast door hissed open in the side of the shaft only five meters away.
Cassian was firing before she managed to start moving, crimson blaster bolts flashing wildly across the gap and sparks exploding in acrid smoke. The door was directly behind her, making the file and her back perfect targets and she couldn’t see anything. She scuttled sideways in panic toward the left bank and Cassian, who was hanging back. There was room to go over his head. She had just straddled the corner when a bolt of plasma sparked into the cartridges next to her right hand, spattering boiling plastoid over her fingers.
She cried out in pain and lost her grip, her right arm and leg flailing this time, still trying desperately to get away. The precious file smacked against her backside. She had a momentary full view of the central man in the doorway.
A man in the white uniform of a director of Imperial projects.
She was genuinely panicking now, hyperventilating as she scrabbled behind her for a grip and missed while the man in white raised his blaster along with the shiny black death troopers flanking him. Her fingers finally found a crevice that she could cling to backwards. The darkness of the shaft erupted in a firefight around her as she hung spread-eagled with her back to the cartridges.
She was fairly certain she was going to die.
Cassian was doing his level best to keep the three figures in the doorway pinned down. He made himself small in the angle of the tower, hiding behind the scant angle of the columns. Above his head, Jyn had swung back around to face the tower and was making good progress toward the corner beyond his that would take her out of the line of fire. He had to lessen the odds. At least there were only three. For now.
The death trooper on the right went down with a garbled computerized yell, buying her a few fractions of a second.
He flinched back the other way as the officer opened fire, flattening his back against the cartridges as he dangled with one hand. He dug his heel in for balance. It wasn’t a good foothold, his left hand was getting sweaty – he leaned out and fired again, sending the second trooper screaming into the cavernous shaft while the officer dodged. He had only caught snatches of his face. In his peripheral vision he was aware that Jyn was safe, huddled high above his head behind a horizontal support beam in a series that anchored the data towers to each other. Don’t stop!
He tucked his head in behind his arm as the Imperial put in a calculated shot at him so close he heard the ozone sizzle. A beam two down from where Jyn rested dug into his shoulders, blocking his path. The man in the doorway had the advantage, able to stand as far to the side as he needed to make himself a difficult target, while he had to bring his shoulder around just to have a decent shot.
For one moment, he allowed himself to look fully at the woman above him.
“Keep going!” he shouted hoarsely. “Keep going!” She couldn’t wait for him. He didn’t have room to follow. Imperial reinforcements could arrive any minute.
He watched to be sure Jyn obeyed, climbing unhindered in the safe zone beyond the beams, before he wrenched his eyes away from her. Hurry. Time was all he could give her but he would.
He set his jaw and brought his blaster up to finish the man in white.
Krennic occasionally found being left-handed to have surprising advantages. Normally, his natural preference was something of an inconvenience, since regulations required that all officers wear their weapons on their right sides, door controls were always reversed, code cylinders were always worn in the wrong pocket, and the like. But as of this moment, with both of his guards down and a determined Rebel with unnerving aim taking pot shots at him, he had discovered that by standing far to the right of the doorway, the only thing the Rebel could aim at was his hand, while every time the man reached out to fire, he was presented with a whole strip of tan for a target.
The barrage of blasterbolts below had accelerated to a nerve-wracking cadence. Jyn tried not to wince as she climbed, forced herself not to look down, to focus on the top lip of the data tower high above. It was getting closer, ever so maddeningly slowly.
Cassian’s sharp cry of pain from below nearly made her lose her grip.
Jyn’s heart lodged in her throat as she turned in time to see his light-colored shirt slip free from the data bank. He was falling alive and she flinched as his body snapped backward over a heavy steel girder, driving the wind out of him with a muffled grunt. His body made a sickening flip in the air.
Momentum swung his legs under him and three meters below drove him into the next beam on his stomach. He made no sound this time, trying to save himself with a feeble effort that built a great silent No!!!!!!! inside her chest. One hand hung from the beam for a heartbreaking second before he fell unimpeded.
The boneless clung of his body hitting a maintenance platform far below was one of the most awful sounds she had ever heard.
Her chin knotted up and tears stung her eyes but she couldn’t cry. She didn’t have time to mourn him. He lay sprawled on his side without moving, his profile pale and faint in the dimness, his blaster still clutched in one lifeless hand.
She turned back to the data tower and did as she had been told.
There was a gap between the top of the three data towers and the roof tall enough to stand in. Each column was capped by a sturdy section of plating and the support structures merged into branching girders stretching up through the ceiling. In the center, a circular vent pulsed open, then shut, swirling metal teeth meeting in the center as it sucked warm air out of the vault. She could see blue sky through it.
She waited and counted, then climbed in a rush, forcing her agonizing muscles to pull her up the narrowing shaft. She dangled just below the teeth, waiting, waiting –
The plates opened with a rasp and she curled herself small to clamber through it, snatching her feet into the space above.
The vent snapped shut beneath her, cheated.
With a narrow ledge to stand on, she rested among the pipes and wiring. Humid daylight made the space stuffy and hot. She had to walk to the end of the narrow compartment and to examine the final grating between her and the underside of the massive satellite dish.
She had a moment of panic.
If the grating was embedded in the permacrete she was irrevocably trapped. She clambered up on a pipe and peered under the edges of the grating, looking for bolts or some other fastening that she could use her blaster to disintegrate. She put a tentative hand up and pushed. The grate clanked.
Jyn braced her other foot against the opposite wall and heaved with all her strength. The grate was hot from the sun and heavy enough to smother the world but the end of it moved ever so slightly. She could move it. She would. She cried out in defiance as her muscles protested louder than steel screeching against cast stone. She didn’t have to lift it far – just enough to clear the lip – the grating was five centimeters deep and each bar was a centimeter wide but it budged, it wobbled, and finally it slipped to the side and nearly dumped the other end in on her head. She almost tumbled back down into the compartment but she caught herself, barely, and shoved it until the platform took its weight and she could wriggle up through the opening.
She sprawled on her elbows on permacrete in the open air.
She was the only human being in sight.
Jyn crawled out of the hole and stood on unsteady legs, her hand on her blaster, and nearly fell right down again as vertigo swayed her vision. Blue sky met the sea in a circle that stretched to the ends of the earth. She was so high up she could see its curve.
Engines thundered through the sky and she stumbled forward to peer out from under the lip of the massive dish overhead, craning her neck at the puffy white clouds. An X-wing blasted past with a TIE fighter hot on its tail and as she stared she saw other one-man fighters, other explosions, as red and green particle bolts left smoking streaks through the atmosphere. Exultation bubbled wildly in her chest.
The Rebel Alliance had listened. Bodhi – or maybe it had been K-2 – had spoken of the fleet and she had forgotten, locked away in the silence of the tower, that others were out there fighting too.
She spotted a control panel directly below the antenna, only meters from the grate she had pushed aside, and hobbled to it. Her legs were stiff and jittery from the strain of climbing and her fingers were numb. The layout was unfamiliar but there were slots above for various sizes of data cartridges and a glowing orange screen. Levers and toggles fanned across the panel below.
Half disbelieving, unwilling to let the precious file out of her hands, she unclipped it from her belt and cautiously slid it into the machine. It fed automatically, and she snatched her fingers back as a grille slid down over the opening. It had to work now. The screen flashed with technical jargon but indicated that the tape had been properly received. She reached for the largest lever and pulled.
It stuck. “Reset antenna alignment.” The lever held fast as she jiggled it in frustration. No. She couldn’t fail now. Couldn’t!
“Reset antenna alignment.” The electronic voice was mildly peeved, authoritative. It was far too prim for her nerves. She calmed down enough to glare at the screen and the image it blinked at her. It appeared to indicate another control console with a smaller antenna, located…where?
She looked to either side and finally saw the narrow railed catwalk extending out into thin air. At its end was a console that matched the one on the screen.
Fine. We’ll reset the antenna alignment.
She crossed the platform and drew her blaster. It would do her absolutely no good against a pilot if one of them happened to notice her, but it helped. Just a little. The floor of the catwalk was another grating, nauseatingly see-through, but if she focused on the antenna setup and kept her free hand on the railing she would be fine. Walk. Don’t look down. Or out. Keep walking. Yes.
The catwalk was solid plating at the end and she had to go around to the far side of the spire to access the controls. Just turn your back on a full-fledged air battle and hope no one notices that there’s a Rebel standing out here WAY past the edge of the platform…
This screen showed the main dish. “Reset antenna alignment,” the mechanical voice repeated needlessly. Oh, shut up. She sorted through the levers and found one that gave. Motors ground heavily, startling her, and the enormous dish tilted on its axis, blotting out the sky until its central spike pointed straight up. Metal joints groaned to rest.
Well, that’s nice to know. She didn’t notice the pulse of the cannons at first. She stepped away from the console and started back along the catwalk. The distinctive whining squeal of a TIE’s engines suddenly registered and she looked up to see an Imperial diving, green death spewing in a great arc that was swinging perilously close to –
Jyn ran. Ran and still she wasn’t going to make it. The catwalk shuddered, tortured metal screaming to pieces behind her, and then it dropped away.
Jyn scrabbled, flailed, and closed her hands around smooth metal as shrapnel and ash whipped past her. Something numbingly hard swept her ankle out from under her. Smoke blinded her and she screamed silently as her body swung out into space and her handhold plunged, then dropped again and held. She gaped down for one paralyzing moment and jerked her eyes back toward the remains of the catwalk dangling a meter away.
Sobbing breathlessly in terror and frighteningly aware of every soreness and tiredness in her body, she kicked for it and managed to get one foot over a mangled girder. Then her knee.
Still the catwalk held.
She was too afraid to let go of her handhold but there was no other way. Her abdominal muscles seized as she released the remains of the railing and yanked her body in toward the section of grating as gravity clawed at her from behind. The metal was too hot to touch in places but she was desperate and she found a hold, forcing herself up before her strength gave out entirely.
At least the grating had holes in it. At least the listing catwalk still kept its precarious grip on the tower. At least the TIE was gone, believing she had fallen over the side. She put her fingers through the holes in the grate and hauled herself up onto the tilted walkway.
The catwalk waved slightly in the wind, its formerly straight length now leading up to the platform at a yawing angle.
She had to send the file.
The console still glowed like a beacon through a canyon, intact through the smoke that rose from where the TIE’s cannons had strafed the edge of the main platform. Jyn stood on her stiff ankle, clutched the rail, and started up the catwalk as fast as she could.
She was only two meters from the platform when a man in a white Imperial uniform burst through the smoke with a blaster in his hand.
She grabbed for a blaster she didn’t have, realized it had fallen when she had tumbled off the catwalk. She had nothing.
No. It couldn’t be. They were so close –
The Imperial slowed to a stop between her and the console, his blaster trained squarely on her chest. She was almost surprised that he looked like a normal human being. Gray haired. Clean-cut. His breathing was haggard, and not merely from the smoke or from running across the platform.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
It was certainly not a question she had been expecting. He was clearly baffled, frustrated even, curiosity overlaying the grim ferocity in his familiar face. The strangest thing was that she couldn’t actually remember his name. She had to have known it at some point.
It wasn’t as if she was going to ask.
“You know who I am,” she said instead. It was enough that he was the man from her nightmares in the flesh. Two starfighters exploded behind her like thunderous applause. “I’m Jyn Erso. Daughter of Galen and Lyra.” The man in white gaped faintly to match the mouth of his blaster. Now he remembered her.
She raised her chin proudly.
“Oh I have, have I?” Gray eyes rolled derisively at her over the blaster barrel. Up close, she remembered the palpable ego that had not made it into her nightmares. He was still the same monster under the admiral’s bars and the faint age lines. Vicious and vindictive. She wanted to rush him, knock him down and kick and strangle and beat his head against the permacrete.
“My father’s revenge.” She resisted the urge to sneer. She’d never make it in time. Not with the way his finger twitched on the trigger but he would know just how much they had taken from him before this ended and maybe, just maybe, she could manage to distract him. Triumph crept into her tired voice. “He built a flaw in the Death Star. He put a fuse in the middle of your machine and I’ve just told the entire galaxy how to light it.” Let him think he was too late and he might falter. Her voice barely shook.
“The shield is up,” he drawled condescendingly, lips curling in a feral smile as he called her bluff. “Your signal will never reach the rebel base. All your ships in here will be destroyed I lose nothing,” the word stretched between his teeth with cruel relish, “but time.”
If she was quick enough, he might catch her in the side and she could crawl to the console. Transmit with her last breath and laugh at him. He straightened his firing arm.
“You, on the other hand, die with the Rebellion.”
Jyn ducked at the buoyant scream of plasma, expecting pain.
Instead, the man in white staggered.
She stared, bracing to duck again, but he was no longer paying her any attention. He clutched the right side of his chest like an afterthought, swayed, and then crumpled to the deck without so much as a look at her.
Jyn wildly scanned the deserted platform and the billowing curtains of gray smoke. There had to be another enemy, something impossibly worse than her father’s nemesis that had come to end her once and for all –
Someone groaned softly as the smoke shifted, and Jyn nearly, nearly died as Cassian Andor staggered into the massive support pillar beside the transmission console and propped his blaster on shaking arms to cover the remains of her nightmare.
He looked terrible. His face was scraped and bloody, his left leg wouldn’t take his weight, there was something wrong with his breathing and his eyes were wavering in and out of focus, but he was alive. Very much alive. He looked up at her as if he wasn’t sure he could believe his eyes.
Jyn smiled at him without even wondering if it was the right thing to do.
It had been a hasty shot mid-step – mid-fall, really – and Cassian couldn’t tell if Krennic was still breathing or if he was imagining movement where there was none. He propped his useless elbow against his side to keep his shaking hands steady on his blaster and shifted to put his aching back against the round pillar, taking some of the weight off his unsteady legs. A massive bruise was forming just where his spine curved out above his lower back but it wasn’t as bad as the grating bones in his hip. Moving – moving was very bad. Jyn flew up the remains of the obliterated walkway to a console he hadn’t even seen and hunched over it with single-minded concentration.
The file, he’d already forgotten the file.
A lever slid and clicked into place, the rising hum of the computer coming to life over the static in his ears. It was unnaturally quiet up here at the top with just the two of them and no enemies to face.
“Transmitting,” the pleasant mechanical voice announced. “Transmitting.”
He risked a glance at Jyn and met the incredulous smile spreading over her dirty face. She looked like the last survivor of a war and yet her simple joy pulled him like a child’s and he couldn’t resist it any more than he could resist the warmth of a sun. Stardust.
She glanced up at the screen one last time. He could not see the bars loading but her expression said complete and there was nothing more they had come to do.
Then she came to him, her hands gentle on his arm and her smile slipping as she saw him up close, and black spots danced before his eyes.
Cassian let the blaster sag and allowed his focus to waver from Krennic’s boots. Jyn. Her touch was enough to overbalance him . She too glanced at Krennic, lying unmoving less than three meters away, and he tried to make a face that was reassuring.
Her fury caught him off guard.
“Hey! Leave it!” Cassian gasped in shock as she lunged away. “Leave it!” One wrist was all he could catch. She jerked his bad shoulder, sending icy tingles through his elbow, and his back bucked dangerously off the pillar. He latched onto her shoulders and pinned her arm behind him, holding her with his weight as pain shut his body down on him. Jyn’s desperate loathing quivered in his grip. “That’s it!” he choked in her ear, pleading; “that’s it.” He was losing his balance again, starting to slide to the right, and she felt it. She turned reluctantly from the downed Imperial, unwilling to face him but no longer struggling. He wrapped his other arm around her as best he could.
“Let’s go,” he whispered.
Jyn couldn’t quite look at him. Cassian had never held her before. Not like this. His warm breath brushed her ear, hoarse and exhausted, and his skin quivered under his shirt through her glove where it pressed against his back. He was in pain. Cataclysmic pain. His arm was heavy over her shoulders.
His touch begged her.
She tried to let it go. The hatred. The primordial need to rend and tear. She took a deep breath. The man who had murdered her mother and destroyed her father and destroyed her entire life was dead. There was no point. Cassian’s face had gone gray as she’d fought with him and it made her feel guilty. Mean. She didn’t know what to say.
He propped himself up and eased her away from the white cape on the platform. Vaguely, she recognized the outline of a lift door. That was how he must have made it up here.
They stepped away from the pillar and then she found out he could not maintain a gait that was even credibly close to walking and she reached tentatively up to take his wrist, to hold him up as he stumbled awkwardly against her side, still confused and uncertain and almost ashamed that she had given in and not certain what he thought of her. More and more amazed that he had made it at all.
“Do you think,” he asked, “anybody’s listening?” Jyn managed to glance up at his battered face as he leaned companionably into her shoulder. He had tilted his head far to the side to look down at her as he belatedly holstered his blaster, and the corners of his mouth lifted in the ghost of an unexpectedly boyish grin. As if it could actually be mildly funny that they might have gone to all this trouble for nothing.
He must have been a little imp as a child of less than six.
“I do,” she admitted. It was a strange conviction, but she was surprisingly convinced. Happy, even, with the surly heaviness gone from her chest. There was no condemnation in his eyes. “Someone’s out there.”
Cassian’s smile widened and he settled a bit lower over her shoulders, dropping his head to concentrate on the effort of walking. Hobbling, really, if it could even be called that. She braced determinedly from beneath, counterbalancing each stagger as he hitched precariously forward. Her ankle hurt but she would manage. Two steps. Three. She wrapped her right arm around his waist and he clutched her hand like a crutch.
“Sorry,” he panted, his head nearly knocking hers as he dragged to a halt. “Other side.”
He balanced on one shaky leg while she disentangled herself and ducked under his other arm. He pressed his left arm over his stomach and leaned into her again. She did not hesitate this time to take his wrist. His blaster dug into her thigh between them but he could hop forward on his right foot and they made better progress. The left leg almost pretended to follow along, only the toe of his stolen boot touching the ground.
They barely made it to the lift. Cassian doubled over precariously when she stepped to the side to slap her hand against the controls, his arm clenched against his midriff. He could barely stand and she had to make him walk and it was torture to see him in this much pain.
“Come on,” she breathed as she eased him over the threshold. He let go of her to reach for the wall and she hastily pressed the buttons to close the doors and send them downward. By the time she turned back to him he had positioned himself and was leaning back with his eyes half closed, breathing heavily through his nose. His arm had slipped and for the first time she saw what he had been hiding.
He was gutshot a handsbreadth above the belt.
He must have heard her move because his eyes flickered open and he looked down at her. Her chin quivered. He was – he was –
Cassian stared at her, wonder growing in his eyes.
This was trust, he realized numbly, as her forearm crept behind his neck and brushed through his hair. To not flinch because she was not pulling him close to hurt him, to scratch poison through his skin, to stab something sharp up under his ribs, to grab his blaster and shoot him. To sink into her touch like a plant starving for moisture after a drought that had lasted a lifetime, and not to be afraid.
He had never allowed himself to be human, to mourn and grieve and grow and dream and know other people as people rather than as things to be manipulated or feared. He had shut himself away and barricaded the door and programmed K-2 to watch his back.
Her thumb smoothed over his shirt just below his collarbone, her fingers lightly curling against the long shoulder muscle as she carefully brushed her palm across his chest. Cassian could not tear his eyes away, could not move. She could never know how much she was giving him, how the concern brimming in her eyes brought him anguish and solace and an aching relief that threatened to drop him in a heap. She would not leave him behind and he wanted to beg her to because he had watched her almost die beyond his reach four times today and he could not survive it actually happening.
Her hand crept closer to his neck and he trembled, drooping over her tiny frame.
If she touched his face he would break.
He could not give her forever. He could not give her beyond the doors of the lift. He could not…
He watched her eyes hesitate from inches away, felt her barriers close in as powerfully as his own and sagged into her embrace. He could not take more and she could not give it . They had reached far into the void but they were both afraid to damage this newness that had come from destruction and despair and the old armor protected the fears ingrown deep below the surface.
Trust could only bring them here but it was enough.
Enough to live for, and he was dying.
He wished he could tell her that it would be okay, that everything would be all right, but he would not lie to her, ever again. He wished he could tell her he was sorry.
The lift went dark as it entered the broadening lower levels of the Citadel.
“Attention. This is a Code 9 emergency. Code 9 emergency. All personnel are to evacuate the base immediately. All personnel are to report to their assigned evacuation transport stations.”
Jyn’s eyes grew enormous in the faint artificial lights that had kicked on. Her hand tightened in his shirt and she glanced to either side as if expecting stormtroopers to come blasting through the walls.
“Repeating: All personnel are to evacuate the base immediately. This is a Code 9 emergency.”
Cassian swung his head as if he would see it blotting out the sky but the tunnel had made the viewports useless. Jyn’s warmth slipped away from him and she fumbled distractedly through her pockets, searching automatically for something that had never been there, and finally turned frightened eyes up to him. He wished he could pretend he didn’t have what she was looking for.
Jyn’s voice was fragile. “We should at least try.”
Silently, he handed her the comlink. She switched it on and kept her voice low, even though no Imperials would overhear her.
“Bodhi?” she tried tentatively. “Melshi? Do you copy? Anybody? We’re – we’re…”
Mild static was the only response.
Cassian gently pried the comlink from her fingers. He might as well have tucked it into a niche in the support structure of the elevator and left it there, but he slipped it back into his pocket.
Jyn put her back against the wall and turned her shoulder into his with a shaky inhale, needing no words as he tucked one arm around her. It was no more than they had expected from the beginning, but it was still hard.
It might yet be harder.
As the turbolift sighed to a stop Cassian took a deep breath and held Jyn tight. As the doors opened, he looked one more time into her eyes. Her face was already burned indelibly into his memory but he wanted it to be the last thing he remembered, the very last. It seemed too much to expect that they would make it outside.
Together, they walked out of the lift.
Jyn was not fully prepared to find the main level of the Citadel deserted. She nearly shot a harmless MSE-6 maintenance droid when it scuttled past their feet, but it was not programmed to recognize friend from foe and raced away on its now-unnecessary business while she warily lowered Cassian’s blaster. He kept craning to keep watch even as he hung around her neck, frighteningly determined to throw his body in front of her at the first glimpse of white, tan, or black. His every impossible step broke her heart into sharp, tiny pieces and ground them together like glass.
They headed for the closest repulsor rail system to the lift since it didn’t matter anymore which landing pad they went to. Cassian’s legs barely carried him even that distance and soon they were stumbling together, both arms around each other and the unforgiving mirror-polished floor never far away. His chest heaved exhaustedly against her ribs and more than once she wondered if they should have just stayed hidden in a closet somewhere halfway down and not moved until eternity, but he pressed doggedly on.
Jyn wanted so badly to get out from under the Imperial shadow.
They had to wait while Railcar 11 recalled but no one saw them resting in the recessed doorway catching their breath. The Citadel was as silent as a mausoleum.
Then they were outside and the car was humming along its groove while palm fronds waved past the viewports. They could see little and hear nothing from outside, no rumble of engines, no canon or blaster fire; there was no tremor of earthquake. Yet. Jyn kept Cassian’s arm draped over her shoulders and her other arm around his waist. When he looked down at her his eyes were dark and warm and he understood, and she was grateful. She still marveled that he was here at all, his pulse steady in his wrist under her fingers and his ribs solid against her side.
They limped out into the wreckage of a battle and past bodies that they knew. They did not stop to look at them, but it was hard not to recognize jackets and helmets and grimy pale faces in the sand. She thought she saw Melshi. Sergeant Tonc’s back. Over the trees, they could see oily black smoke still rising heavily from LP-9.
Jyn did not ask for the comlink back.
The wind blew their hair across their faces and they turned into it, away from the abandoned remains of the Imperial installations, and as they passed through the sparse fringe of palms ringing the pavement they saw the satellite dish at the top of Scarif Citadel blown to cinders far away and knew that it was not far enough.
There was no ship to save them this time.
Beside her, Cassian’s mouth was a quiet line of resignation. His arm pressed closer over her shoulder. Together, they staggered to the soft sand above the tideline. The going was hard and after only a few steps Cassian began to sink through her arms. She eased him down to his knees and knelt beside him as he caught himself on his hands, doubling over his stomach. Her hands trailed free of him as she stared, distracted by the rising wash of golden destruction forming a few kilometers away from what was left of the main base, and the gentle waves began to quicken. They could not see the Death Star.
It was the limit; there was nowhere else to go.
It was as good a place as any to die.