Part I: A Strange Bird
For as long as she could remember, Rey had been hungry.
There were memories there, buried deep down in her subconscious; memories buried so far back and under so much sand they were basically impressions of the wind and nothing more. Ghosts of the desert, those warm winds were, telling her that things hadn’t always been this way; starving for both affection and food.
Unfortunately, her good memories were so small and tenuous they were almost negligible. Most times, she ignored them. Life was easier when you thought you’d never lived a life to begin with. It made the hunger easier to deal with, too.
“You’re odd,” the woman who sat outside Unkar’s shop used to say. Dasha Venn, she was called, and her face had more lines than a piece of broken Hyperdrive code. One time when Rey was ten, she also told her “your shadow is ancient. Too long, child. Tch, too angry.”
“Everyone has a shadow,” Rey replied. Dasha’s job was to polish T16 air filters because she was too bent in the knees to scavenge directly. Rey wasn’t sure how a shadow could be so long you’d never find the end of it, but in the corner of her eye she could see it. In the back of her mind, she could hear it whispering.
Dasha laughed when she said this, putting down an air filter to pick up another. “A shadow?” she harrumphed. “Tch, not like yours.”
Rey didn’t respond to this.
After all, what could she say?
It was true, that all scavengers had shadows. They were desert ghosts made thin with hunger, and Rey was a strange one, with grasping hands and sharp little teeth. Hunger was expected when you'd been abandoned as a child out on the wastes of Jakku, but hunger for her had become a state of being by the time she was ten. A cyclical mindset, where you lived your life from one moment to the next.
Bakku ja thu, they said in the local tongue—a scavenger’s mindset. Rey had come to terms with being a vulture, but sometimes she felt too hungry. She was a strange egg in a strange nest, stealing food meant for other birds.
Cluck, cluck, cluck, her mother went.
Rey hadn’t found her yet. But she hunted. She thirsted.
Did anyone know what it was like, to wait forever? To scratch out small white marks on a wall? Back then—when she wasn’t lying awake, imagining the ocean—Rey saw a boy in her nightmares, and he was screaming. Before she met BB-8 she lingered on the edge of the Western Reaches for years and centuries. She clung to half-remembered promises, and she mourned.
Rey didn’t want other people to know that she heard the whispers, but sometimes she couldn’t hide her oddness. Loss was like a set of teeth, chewing loudly. Loss was her own teeth, sharp in her mouth behind lips that were bleeding. It was hard to muffle the gnawing, and she knew that Dasha suspected something was wrong.
“Parasite,” the older woman spat when she turned thirteen; Rey had been eyeing her food a little too greedily. Even though Rey knew Dasha’s words were true, the name still burned.
Another memory returned more frequently to her these days, and it didn’t feature the old lady who loved to judge her.
In that memory, Rey was nineteen and she’d gone to Niima first thing in the morning. The junkyards had been busy. Several mid-sized freighters had landed in the settlement to unload supplies and pick up spare parts.
After much skittering and careful watching, Rey had finally possessed the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to see those ships loiter. She liked machines, and taking them apart to see how they worked.
“Looking for another nest?” Dasha asked when Rey wandered past Unkar’s shop.
Rey’s shadow was long as she crossed the sands. She ran her tongue along her teeth, but they were flat.
“No,” she said, avoiding the old woman's gaze.
Nothing change on Jakku beyond these ships, except the monotony grew more monotonous and the sands shifted deeper. Unkar Plutt grew stingier. When Unkar grew stingier he used to hit her. It was unfortunate, these injuries, but misfortune peppered a lot of Rey's life, like a series of yellowed bruises. The only fortunate memory she had was of being very little. Of standing barefoot on the sand, with someone else at her side.
In this memory inside another memory, that someone standing beside her had slid their hands beneath her armpits. They'd picked her up, and she could hear the thud of their heart. Up, up, up a sand dune they walked, into the shadows of a star destroyer so they could sit in the wreckage.
Rey wrapped her arms around their neck, and she told them she loved them; that she missed them terribly. No one played with her while they were away, and she didn’t want to go back to that white room with no stars.
The stranger stayed very quiet while she said this, letting her play with the silver bands around his wrists. They looked like manacles. He sat there with her in his lap, his heavy heady resting atop hers and his dark hair tickling her cheek. He seemed so tired.
Papa? she asked him one time, but the stranger laughed, and even then she knew that name was not right. This person in her memories was too small to be her Papa, and too young. When she thought about her father, her real father, she remembered sadness and a ship. She remembered screaming and Unkar’s hand on her arm.
She remember Unkar’s fist.
Will you come back? she’d asked the stranger.
Sometimes this stranger was not a man, but a boy; taller than her, but still sad and quiet. The boy’s hair was too long, hiding his eyes. Rey wished that could remember his name or his face.
Yes, he said at last. There was a big ship nearby, idling in the background. Rey knew it would take him away, but all ships came back.
So she waited. And waited.
If you waited long enough, it would dull your teeth.
As Rey walked through Niima, many years later, she remembered that ship, but she didn’t look for it among the freighters. There was the clang and whirr of hovering transports sliding down loading ramps; the clatter of spare parts hanging from nets, but no star destroyers in sight.
Droids blipped as they skittered in between luggabeasts like steelpeckers. The junk dealers were so busy that they hadn’t told her to scatter. The intense heat of the nearby star wasn’t so bad when you walked beneath the faded brown tarps, and on that day it had been so long since anyone had said something nice to her that she’d been starved for attention. It made her a bit reckless.
Not far from where she was walking, there came the nasally, baritone snort of a trader’s happabore. At a nearby stall, one of the merchants was cooking their midday meal. Over and over, they tossed their food in an arc. The bowl they were using to fry their long white paka worms was burnt black around the edges. Rey’s stomach rumbled.
She covered her nose with her scarf and looked away.
Rey never stole unless she had to, because she knew what it was like to have so little. It was a bad couple days before that, however, and the parts she’d brought back had been no good. Unkar had not given her much.
Rey knew why Unkar considered them nothing, because he considered her nothing, but Rey also knew that she was not supposed to be this thin. That her tiny-ness was not supposed to look this noticeable.
Remember how much it would hurt if someone stole from you, she told herself, but the smell was getting to her. Still shielding her eyes from the sight, her right hand clenched around her staff, Rey swallowed deep and kept moving. Her booted feet slipped through the course, warm sand.
She hoped the docked ships would distract her thoughts.
Ah, there. Up ahead. In her memory of this incident that did not feature Dasha, Rey spied a light freighter: a smuggler’s, it looked like, long and rectangular with a wide nose and a low hull made for hauling ore and spice. Smoke rose out of its secondary ventilation chambers, and the main docking bay was opened, the ramp leading up to it sticking out like a tongue. Gammorean smugglers gathered around the smoke, grunting to one another as they pointed at the mess. A repair droid bleeped piteously, trying to zoom in close to get a better look, but it was unsuccessful. The way the smugglers ignored it sort of reminded Rey of herself. She was good with ships; she’d grown up salivating over stories of the Millennium Falcon. Mechanics came naturally to her, and she’d always had dreams about escaping through the hum of a Hyperdrive. She would have followed through with it long ago if it hadn’t been for her parents.
Unfortunately, Rey was also a scavenger. Scavengers weren’t supposed to be around ships—not working ones, at least. Unkar never let her interfere with outsiders.
Even still, the ship was just sitting there. Unkar was nowhere to be seen.
After a few more minutes of “nowhere,” Rey relaxed a bit. Her curiosity piqued, and she took a step.
From the color of the smoke and the sparks flying out of a side panel, she assumed it was the auxiliary drive that was broken. Maybe the main drive hadn’t been giving the smugglers enough juice, and they’d switched to a back-up mid-flight. She took another cautious step forward to check.
As she neared, the fat-bellied freighter turned hulking, a good eighty meters from bow to stern and at least twenty meters high along the front. The ship was big enough that it probably required a tug while breaching atmo. The words Bmola Mazen —“Space Queen” in Huttese—were written along the side of it. All in all, the freighter looked like a normal transport, or as normal as a smugglers’ usually appeared.
The repair droid bleeped a second time, trying to swerve in again to fix a busted component. When the smugglers pushed it aside , the machine immediately wailed in despair. One of the Gaommoreans turned around and roared at it.
Even though she didn’t mean to, Rey flinched.
“Where’s the mechanic?!” the Gammorean spat.
Rey bit down on her lip to keep herself from pointing out that they were shooing away the droid that was supposed to help. She knew how to fix the freighter, too—she knew, just by looking at her—but Rey didn’t want any trouble, so she kept her thoughts to herself.
When she was less than fifteen paces away from the shadow of the freighter, she heard another voice. It didn’t come from a Gammorean.
“Is something wrong with my ship?” someone asked in Galactic Basic.
When Rey turned around, a Twi’lek stood there.
The Twi’lek was female, tan like the sand with red speckles running down either side of her neck. Her lekku were weighed down by a large, fancy-looking silver headdress. A metallic chain hung from her nose to her lip.
Strange, Rey remembered thinking. She is strange, like me. Nails that were long and black poked out from the hem of the Twi’lek’s sleeves, her crimson-colored robes pooling around her in waves. Briefly, Rey thought that maybe the Twi’lek’s strangeness had something to do with her eyes. They’d been cold and distant, when she first saw her. A pale shade of grey that was almost colorless.
“Well?” the Twi’lek pressed.
Ah, Rey decided. She was beautiful. She took a step back and waved a hand in front of face, to make herself look smaller. She blushed and laughed.
“Oh, no!” She wasn’t supposed to be there: if Unkar saw her talking with the Twi’lek, he would’ve beaten her. “No. I mean, yes—the auxiliary drive is broken, but I’m not the one to fix it. I was just curious to see how they would go about it. I didn’t mean to get underfoot.”
“Did someone tell you it’s the drive?” the Twi’lek asked.
“No,” Rey said again with a shrug. “I just scavenge ships.”
The Twi’lek tilted her head, a curious expression on her face. She took a small step forward.
“Can you fix it?” she pressed. Her Galactic Basic was smooth, and oddly without accent. A gust of wind whistled through the junkyards, rustling her robes. When the crimson fabric lifted upwards, Rey spied a hint of metal at her hip; a cylindrical tube attached to a belt. There was a tug at the base of her skull when she saw that tube, and the pressure that always came when she recalled a memory.
What was that thing?
“Sure,” Rey said at last, a little uneasily. Unkar wasn’t there, and it wasn’t like the Twi’lek was being serious. “I’d need to rip out the secondary cables, then reroute the power flow back to the main. Maybe install a new tertiary coil, if necessary.”
It took her a moment to catch on.
“Ten ration packs,” Rey blurted out. Maybe she’d been wrong about the Twi’lek joking, but she was a scavenger. Even the threat of Unkar beating her wouldn’t take that fact away.
The Twi’lek scoffed.
“Only ten?” she said. She turned towards her damaged ship, her robes trailing in the yellow sand. “Really, if you’re going to give it away for free, just say so.”
“Will you pay me more?” Rey asked, walking after her. The stranger probably could afford to pay that pay much. All the silver on her head must have cost a fortune.
“Fix my ship, and we’ll see.”
Rey didn’t ask her any questions after that, skipping alongside the stranger with excitement: the promise of food could do that to her. Pulling her belt an extra notch tighter, she crawled into the engine and set to work.
The auxiliary drive was more broken than expected, and she ended up using the repair droid to assist her. She replaced the easier-to-salvage parts with scavenged ones, and ripped out others. While she worked, the Twi’lek stood there, watching her from the entrance. Her eyes were definitely eerie, but her jewellery bothered Rey more. She thought it was very bold, to wear so much of it in such a place.
After some time, the Twi’lek spoke up.
“You’re a bit thin, child.”
Rey’s shoulders tensed, because the meaning of her words was obvious. She decided that the stranger was some sort of lady. A really fancy lady, from the Core Planets where there was lots of food. Maybe she didn’t understand how these things worked.
Rey kept her face carefully blank and fiddled with the compressor latch on a cable.
“The Junkboss is feeding me fine,” she said. The Twi’lek would leave, but Unkar would not. If the lady complained he would hurt her.
“Hnh,” the Twi’lek replied.
After Rey got the drive working again, the lady handed over sixteen ration packs instead of ten. Rey’s heart did a little flutter-thing where it trembled with excitement. Her hands buzzed with warmth, and the hairs on her arms stood up.
“Thank you!” she gushed. She didn’t even care that the Twi’lek was watching her like a ripper-raptor, her eyes bright with a hunger all her own.
Washing off her hands with a bit of sand, Rey sat back down in the shadow of the freighter, using a hubcap and a bit of water as a bowl. She gobbled down three full ration packs right then and there, but by that time the repair droid had taken a liking to her.
As she ate, it buzzed around her in excited circles, blipping loudly. Rey scratched it behind its antenna before she returned to her food.
She felt happier than she had been in weeks. Thought happier. Being around other people was lovely.
“What’s your name?” the Twi’lek asked, stepping closer.
“Rey,” Rey replied, blissfully unconcerned. “And yours?”
“Sinyat’ar,” the Twi’lek said, sitting down across from her on an empty crate. Her heavy headdress shimmered under the harsh Jakku light. “How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” Rey told her at once. She took another bite of her rations.
The Twi’lek tched her tongue. Then she reached out with one of her long-nailed hands, wiping away crumbs from the corner of Rey's mouth.
Rey went very, very still.
“Nineteen,” Sinyat’ar said in her smooth, strange voice. “Only nineteen.” Her expression was bored, but Rey remembered another time, long before this, where another woman used a wet cloth to clean her face. In her memories she liked to pretend that this woman was her mother. “Well, it lines up, I guess. Is anyone taking care of you, besides the Junkboss?”
Rey shook her head, then blushed when the Twi’lek’s tan-colored lips pinched into a thin, unhappy line. Sinyat’ar tch’d her again, then scrubbed a bit of engine grease off her cheek, too.
“You should not eat so fast,” she chided, her black nails clicking together in agitation. She smoothed back Rey's hair. “You are too thin, and your body will not be used to it.”
“Have to,” Rey mumbled, deciding that she didn’t mind Sinyat’ar touching her. She gobbled down another ration pack now that the Twi’lek’s hands were busy. “Don’t know when I’ll get to eat again.”
Rey didn’t tell Sinyat’ar that if Unkar caught her eating rations that weren’t his, he’d accuse her of stealing. Maybe Sinyat’ar disapproved of how messy she was being. Maybe she thought Rey was a pest, just like Dasha, but Rey didn’t care. What passing strangers thought meant little before BB-8, and up until Finn and the Millennium Falcon she’d be convinced that being unimportant would be a constant. Just another fact of life.
The fancy Twi’lek sighed. Then—instead of cleaning off her face—she moved her hand down and placed her palm flat against the center of Rey’s chest. She kept it there.
Again, Rey stopped chewing. After she got over the weirdness of it, she returned to her meal, but slower. She basked in the warmth of another’s touch.
There was a thrumming in the air; a dense, almost electric presence that pulsed beneath her skin from Sinyat'ar's fingertips. Rey’s face scrunched up as the buzzing got worse, and she must have looked weird, because for a brief second the Twi’lek’s expression became anxious.
“Oh dear,” she murmured, drawing her hand back to hide it in her sleeves. “The link was damaged. I didn’t realize they’d took things so far. You poor thing.”
“What link?” The only links Rey knew about at the time were compressor latches.
“Nothing,” Sinyat’ar said, standing up and gathering her long, loose clothing around her. The red fabric was so fine and thin, like sand cricket wings. Another gust of wind rustled past, twining her robes further around her feet; they were clad in black slippers. “I must check on something. Will you wait for me in Niima while I do?”
“Sure,” Rey said, swallowing another bite. She knew all about waiting.
Sinyat’ar nodded. Then like the mother Rey had never had but always wanted, she started cleaning her up.
The Twi’lek put her rations in her knapsack, and attached her staff to a loop alongside it. She pulled Rey to her feet and dusted her off, head to hips, and used the edge of her sleeve to wipe her face, yet again, like she was five.
“If you meet him again, and I’m not there,” she said matter-of-factly, “remember to breathe.”
Rey just stood there, one hand holding her half-eaten ration pack and the other hanging limply. No one had ever been this gentle with her. Not since the stranger in the desert.
“Okay,” she said; Sinyat’ar’s hands had claws on them, but they felt so nice and they didn’t hurt her. Then—because making her happy made Rey feel happy—she said “Is there anything else that you want me to do?”
Sinyat’ar shook her head no. She stepped away from her, all-too-casually, and started walking.
Rey knew the Twi'lek was going to return, but it still felt like something important was being ripped away. Sinyat'ar's warmth and sharp-nailed hands gone were an instant. Rey was so hungry, and the lady had stopped feeding her. Why had she stop feeding her? Rey was starving.
“Hey!” she demanded, trailing after her. “Hey! Why am I supposed to remember to breathe?!”
She reached for the Twi’lek’s sleeve, but before she could grab it the lady turned around, like wind over the sand dunes, and evaded her.
“Will you really come back?” Rey mumbled, red in the cheeks and embarrassed for being so needy. Her fingers finally landed on Sinyat’ar’s arm; she twisted them in the length of her clothes.
Sinyat’ar’s smile turned into a real one, then, dark and full of teeth. The light hit her grey eyes a certain way, turning them red. The Twi’lek reached out and patted Rey’s cheek.
Her thumb moved across the bone beneath her eye.
“Of course,” she crooned. The Twi’lek leaned forward and kissed that same cheek. “As I said, I just have to confirm something. You be a good girl and stay put while I’m gone, alright? It would be terrible to lose you again.”
“What do you mean again?” Did the Twi’lek know her? Was that why she was being so nice? People didn’t “confirm” anything on Jakku, unless they were into old, imperial star destroyers and the ghosts of an empire.
Sinyat’ar didn’t answer that question, but she gave Rey another kiss in the same spot. Rey told herself that it would be too greedy to ask for a hug.
“Thank you for fixing my ship, Sweetling,” the lady said. “I’ll see you soon.”
Absently, Rey thought she would make a good mother. A dangerous one, hoarding her children in a high nest like an angry bird.
Half an hour later—after Rey remembered to move again—she shoved the rest of her half-eaten ration pack into her bag. She scavenged along the edges of Niima for errant parts, until she could no longer stand the heat.
Feeling dizzy and unusually achy, she returned to her walker. She found herself tearing up without meaning too, and she rubbed her eyes until they burned.
You were fed, she kept telling herself as she laid down to sleep. Someone said hello. They gave you a kiss. Don’t be greedy.
But no one ever touched her like that. No kisses, not ever. She wanted more of it.
Later—much later—Rey woke up even groggier with an awful headache. She scratched out another white mark on her wall.
The Twi’lek didn’t come back right away. She didn’t come back a few weeks later, or even a few months after that. Eventually, Rey decided Sinyat’ar wasn’t returning, but she could still feel her lips on her cheek and it burned her. She didn’t want to recall what she could not have.
Bak ma ja thu: this junk was no good.
By the time BB-8 rolled around, her memories of Sinyat’ar were getting hazy. She didn’t think about the Twi’lek’s words as she saved Finn and the droid.
Later, Rey forgot about that red glint in Sinyat’ar’s eyes and her very sharp teeth. She forgot about the silver cylinder on her hip as she escaped the First Order, and what it implied.
Rey misplaced the sense of unease that tingled along her skin with the clicking of nails when she met Han Solo, his hand drumming against the dashboard. Eventually, she ate, but she forgot to do it not-too-quickly. It was only when the vision came to her at Maz Kanata’s den that she began to recall everything the Twi’lek said, the disparate parts trickling back through her skull.
Not long after that, she made the first of many mistakes.
Her first big mistake was leaving Jakku, much as she hated it. Rey decided that she’d made the mistake of leaving the Millennium Falcon, to go into Maz's den. After that, she’d made the monumental error of running into those woods, all scared and alone.
When she was scared and alone, she also stared at that Sith-in-Training just a little too long. A little too longingly.
Rey looked into dark brown eyes and thought they were hungry, too.
She hadn’t let go.
When Rey woke up in a metal cot, some time after Crait, the first thing she first heard the hum of a generator. There was a grey ceiling over her head, and a warmth in the air, but there was no Finn or Leia or Sinyat’ar to feed her in this brand new place that she did not recognize. No Dasha Venn, to tell her to keep to her own.
“Ben?” she croaked out, blinking away sleep. The last thing she remembered was looking down at that so-called-Sith from the ramp of the Falcon; the Resistance feeling from Crait. Then, just in case he didn’t want her to use his old name:
If there was anyone who would answer, it would be him, across the stars and darkness. Beep, beep, beep, her monitor went, and her heart thudded, like a piston.
“Ben!” she called.
He didn’t answer.