F'thev returns to the Graveyard after the storm season passes. There's no reason for him to stay at Niima Station when the place is impassable; Unkar Plutt is a vicious thug, and F'thev knows, sure as sunrise, that if he spends longer than a day in his company, the man will die the agonizing death of all petty tyrants: bludgeoned the death by his pathetic, beknighted serfs. And then Zuvio will arrest F'thev for inciting a riot, and frankly, prison on Jakku is more trouble than it's worth.
Everything on Jakku is more trouble than it's worth. It's just more so during the storm season. He spends nearly the whole damn season at the bar in Cratertown, playing sabacc, and it's the closest he gets to feeling normal the whole year. That's the point when F'thev wonders why in the seven hells he stays here when he hates it so much: the sand, the horrible sun, the terrible rotgut, the awful uncivilized people, the sand... but then the storm season passes, and the scavenging season begins, and F'thev returns to his self-appointed task with barely a shrug.
It's no different this year. Even as the Graveyard's dead ships shrink and disappear year after year, F'thev's harvest never grows any smaller. The dead soldiers of the Battle of Jakku still remain unburied and unshriven, and someone must find them and lay them to rest.
The storm uncovers quadrant L7 this year, which is a pleasant surprise: seven years ago, a monster tornado off the wastes had finally pushed the wreck of the Subjugator over, and the resultant sand wave had buried the quadrant under a solid meter of sand. He had noted the quadrant as the final resting place of the Tierfon Yellow Aces, years ago, and most of them had been cleared out by Starfighter Command. But one pilot had yet to return home, and F'thev had yet to find her. Perhaps this time, he would be able to discover Dosmit Ræh's lost X-wing and recover her body for her family. It would be a nice start to the year.
The first week wasn't totally fruitless: He found the bodies of 37 stormtroopers, abandoned to die at the end of the battle, old bones spilling out of the newly-cleared hangar bay of the Subjugator. Truvo's team had obviously already been there - there were empty, gaping holes where TIE fighter maintenance and repair equipment should be held, and the bones had obviously been moved recently. Not for the first time, F'thev wishes a very strong curse on the Trandoshan's head. The bastard never bothered to be respectful of the dead; not that it was much of a surprise. If scavengers had any respect for the dead, they wouldn't be scavengers.
In the end, F'thev recovers 40 dogtags for the 37 skulls. It doesn't sit right, though, leaving the other three behind, so another expedition into the broken bowels of the Subjugator garners another set of desiccated bodies, still in their armor - they'd been thrown through a bulkhead in the crash, and then buried in sand immediately after death. A more respectful end than their comrades - those bodies had been stripped of their flesh by ripper-raptors, probably within the first year of the crash.
A third expedition only earns F'thev a sprained right wrist, earned when one of the damn doors shut unexpectedly and he had to leap through in a split second. He'd fumbled the landing, and found himself swearing a blue streak as his arm shrieked from under his body. Not for the first time, F'thev thinks about how he is getting too damn old for this; not for the first time, he ignores the sensible part of his mind..
A fourth expedition deeper into the ship would be useless. F'thev knew the last stormtrooper was there, along with at least a few other dead Imperials raging in the heart of the ship,, but he didn't currently have the wherewithal to make another trip into the wreckage alone. Better to focus on the downed starfighters, see if there was a new one uncovered by the winds.
He took another four days to remap the quadrant while his wrist healed, looking for any starfighters not previously noted. Nothing new, however. He pulls the metal-detecting gear out on the fifth day and starts crisscrossing the blank expanses between ships, but still nothing. By the seventh day, F'thev gives up. Ræh's body would remain buried in the sand another year; for now, the stormtroopers he'd found need to be put to rest.
It is a simple matter to bundle each set of bones together in unbleached cotton cloth, and wrap the bodies until they looked like a mummy. Actually transporting them to the Ravines, where F'thev had created a makeshift ossuary, isn’t quite as easy. In the end, it took four trips in the rusty landspeeder he bought upon his arrival to Jakku. The damn thing is one bad short away from an electrical fire, but F'thev doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of buying a new one, so the old one stays. Not the most respectable hearse, perhaps, but better than letting the bones remain where they were, scattered in a bowels of a ship abandoned by its captain.
By the time F'thev finishes carrying the last bundle down to the cave that was his current ossuary, it is the night of the tenth day, and desert nights are cold. He shivers a little, climbing up the makeshift staircase nomads had cut into the hills long ago, and pulls his cloak a little tighter around him.
Near the top of the staircase, Rey is waiting for him.
Of course he knew who Rey was. Everyone on Jakku knew who Rey was; Beata's little escape artist, under the protection of both the Constable and the Stationmaster, and the youngest, fiercest scavenger on the planet. The establishment and continual existence of Tuanal Village was more controversial...but only by a hair. An eight-year old girl living on her own in the badlands, without even the dubious protection of a brother or sister or even a household droid? Yeah, you can bet that was a perennial topic of conversation at watering holes across the planet.
F'thev did not want to get involved. Bad enough he was on first name terms with a growing amount of natives; start talking to Rey, and he could already tell that he'd never get away from the girl. Get involved with Rey, and you got involved with a whole host of interested civic figures, and that was the last thing he needed. So when he saw the girl, he just pulls his hood further over his head and walks faster. Maybe if he was lucky, she was just going down to the bottom of canyon for to collect lichen for the rotgut crew at the outpost.
But it was not to be, of course. Just as he was about to pass her on the stairs, the girl takes a step sideways and plants herself in his path on the staircase, quarterstaff at the ready. For a moment, all was still, girl and man looking each other straight in the eyes. F'thev realizess with a sinking feeling that like it or not, he was going to get involved, and felt the fur across his shoulder ripple agitatedly.
"What the hell do you want?" he snarls at her, irritated beyond all belief.
Rey doesn’t flinch at his growl, and didn't look away from his eyes. Kid had guts, that's for damn sure - but then again, that had never been in doubt, not once in the years Rey had lived on Jakku.
"You're the Gravedigger, right?" she asks, voice hoarse. "I've found a body for you to look at."
The landspeeder ride that follows is one of the more surreal ones of his life: a drive through the badlands, only a scavenged floodlight lighting the way, a little human girl guiding him through parts of Jakku he'd never dared visit. Rey doesn’t talk much - she mostly just guides him by using hands to point one way or another, some arcane memory guiding her through an area that has never yet been mapped. When she does speak, it’s a hazard warning - sand pit ahead, or a nest of gnaw-jaws to the side.
It was sort of peaceful, honestly.
40 klicks outside the Graveyard, deeper into the wastes than he's ever been, and F’thev can hear a sound like someone whispering, right on the edge of his hearing. His ears twitch faintly. Over the next rise, the final destination abruptly becomes clear; the half-buried fuselage of an X-wing, cockpit oriented towards the earth.
"The storms uncovered it this year, but no one except me ever comes out this far," Rey murmurs, shifting side to side in her seat. "There was some good stuff there, but the pilot is still strapped in. I didn't want to just dump her out, and the other scavengers say..."
The girl hesitates, clearly uncomfortable, and F'thev barks out a short laugh. "They say I'm the crazy Bothan who lives alone and buries people for a living, right?"
The girl is rigid beside him, but she nods her head after a minute.
"In this case, they're right," he says in a conversational tone. "You did the right thing, finding me."
In the darkness, the fuselage looks eerie; it's almost unrecognizable as an X-wing after so many years buried beneath the sand. F'thev turns the floodlight towards it and turns it on full, and then approaches the cockpit. Inside, the mortal remains of Dosmit Ræh are still strapped into her seat, her body still dressed in the orange jumpsuit of Starfighter command. The whispering never gets any louder; a good sign. It's clear that she was able to come to terms with her death before it happened.
It's the work of half an hour to pop the cockpit seal, half corroded as it is. Once that's done, there's nothing left to do but to gently cut Ræh loose from her bonds and lower her to the desert ground. Rey stands next to him as he gently pulls Ræh's helmet off, but looks away once her dessicated face is visible. F'thev pays no mind to the girl's squeamishness as he gently feels around the Captain's neck, finding the dogtags with long practice. They were debossed the standard way for Rebellion pilots in that era: name, serial number and branch ID, species, and blood type. F'thev can feel Rey peering at them closely from over his shoulder.
"Are you going to take her to the ravines like you do the others?" she asks.
F'thev shakes his head. "No, I only do that for Imperials. They're not very fond of people like me, you see, so it's too much trouble to even return their dog tags. But I have friends in the Republic military; they'll be sure to collect her body and bring her home."
He turns towards the speeder, where his supply of funerary cloth is waiting. "Go ahead and start pulling what you can salvage out; I'll take you back to Niima Station at dawn," he says over his shoulder.
Rey works fast. She's pulled out both the transceiver package and the local comm from the cockpit console by time false dawn arrives, and is furiously working on the targeting computer. F'thev finished wrapping Ræh's body hours ago, and has already strapped it into the backseat of his speeder, but when Rey stops and looks at him at dawn, he just waves her on as he sips from his water bottle. He's not wedded to his dawn deadline; as long as they get to Niima Station before the planet's sole hyper-comm satellite's orbit passes out of range, he doesn't care when they set out.
Within an hour, she's packed her salvaged prizes into the back of his landspeeder. Once Rey straps herself into the front, F'thev starts the engine and back towards the Graveyard. It's a little easier in the light; Rey doesn't need to offer as much guidance, which gives F'thev time to ask the question that's been irritating him since he finished prepping Ræh's body.
"How'd you find that X-wing? I know you're a good scavenger, but that's pretty far out in the Badlands for you to forage," he demanded. "There isn't even rock lichen to gather out that way."
Rey doesn't say anything for long moments, but if there's anything his time on Jakku has taught F'thev, it's the importance of patience. After all, a ship can be buried or unburied in the space of single storm, but years can intervene between the two events. He's gotten pretty good at waiting during the pause.
Finally, Rey cracks: "It sounds crazy."
"You're talking to literally the only Bothan crazy enough to live in the Western Expanse," F'thev snorts. "I doubt there's anything crazier than that."
Rey still looks a little skeptical, so F'thev grumbles and throws the girl a bone. "Who am I going to tell? I'm a hermit."
The expression on her face unjustifiably intensifies. "I'm a hermit compared to other Bothans," F'thev amends. "You wouldn't be looking at me like that if you knew what other Bothans are like."
Rey still looks skeptical, but apparently the lure of talking to someone who listens to her is enough to tip the scales in her mind.
"The whole thing started after the storms passed, about a week ago," she states, and F’thev nods encouragingly.
"I kept hearing someone whispering. I thought maybe I was imagining it at first - you know how stir-crazy people get at the end of the season - but it never went away," she revealed. "So two days ago, I decided to find out where the sound was coming from. I thought maybe it was some kind of old public comm system that had been uncovered, and maybe I could salvage it. It took me he better part of a day, but I found the X-wing," she pauses there, and it's obvious by the way her eyes keep flickering to him that she's worried about how he'll take the end of the story.
"...but the whispering never stopped."
F'thev sighs, and it is a heavy sigh. "You're not crazy," he tells her. "That's just how ghosts sound, to those who can hear them. You still hear her whispering now?"
Rey nods, hesitating.
"It just means she wants to be laid to rest. That's why I'm sending her body home," he explains. "It's not that strange, but I wouldn't talk about it in public if I were you; gives you a reputation as a wild-eyed cultists like those retrogrades at Tuanal Village."
"But you hear it, too, right?" Rey questions, a little disbelieving.
F'thev grunts an affirmative before turning his attention back to the wheel. Rey's a smart kid; she turns her attention back to giving him directions, and doesn't speak of the whispering the whole rest of the drive.
Once they hit the border of the graveyard, Rey gets off and unpacks her stuff. She's probably going to return her salvage to her hidey-hole and cover the tracks to her new find. F'thev doesn't bother to say anything to her as he pulls her stuff off his speeder and makes a rudimentary sled. He's not sure how she's going to make her way to the station unseen, but she must have a way, to have survived so long without her finds being poached. It's none of his business, anyway.
Before she takes off, he checks his speeder and he sees something the girl has left behind: Ræh's helmet. He scoops it up and tosses it at the girl's back, quick as can be, but somehow, Rey turns around and catches it without even a pause. Really, a strange kid. Well, it's not like F'thev is one to talk.
"Keep it," he called, nodding to the helmet. "Captain Ræh hasn't needed it for a long time. And next time you hear whispers, tell me before you go looking for them; sometimes ghosts aren't as friendly as this one."
Rey nods at him firmly, before tossing the helmet on her sled and turning back towards wherever she's going. After a moment, F'thev turns back to the speeder controls, and makes for Niima Station. The last of the Tierfon Yellow Aces is finally starting her long-delayed journey home.