In some ways, Niima Outpost is constantly changing, traders blown in and out by the wind and whatever other forces send them to the sandy pit of the galaxy. It’s all more of the same though, strangers with the same desperate look branded across their faces in the same sun-faded rags trying to sell food or drink or scrap to people who have even less than they do. But the pool that’s appeared by Plutt’s stand is entirely new, formed hastily from the grit of the desert and filled with clear water that laps against the sides.
Rey’s dry throat aches at the sight of it, but she knows better than to get much closer. For Plutt to have something so tempting so close to where he does his business, it has to be a trap. She gets in line with the other scavengers, noticing some of them casting looks at the pool. A few are covetous, thirsty enough to be willing to take whatever risk waits for them. Others, those who have been here too long, don’t spare the new feature a second glance. They simply keep their eyes on the line, wordlessly presenting their offerings on their turn.
Rey looks over at the pool as she passes by it, her freshly cleaned scrap from the day in her arms. The water sits only a couple feet deep, shallow enough that she should be able to see the bottom clearly, but strange shadows lie there instead. Patches of light and dark ripple under the surface as she watches. She knows she shouldn’t look so long, but she can’t tear her eyes away.
As if sensing her gaze, the shapes twist and move under the surface, and then suddenly she finds herself staring into a pair of eyes. She gasps, her own eyes widening, and the other eyes grow larger too. She almost steps out of line to draw closer, but Plutt’s guttural voice snaps her out of her trance. She quickly approaches his counter, glancing briefly back over her shoulder and catching a glimpse of the form twisting around again in the pool with a small splash.
“Like my new pet, girl?” Plutt leers, scooping up her offerings.
She shrugs, doing her best to seem unconcerned. The quickest way to lose with Plutt is to seem too invested. “What is it?” she asks casually.
He grunts. “Something worth more than you, so you’ll keep your distance if you know what’s good for you.”
She nods, dipping her head to hide the scowl that flashes across her face. Plutt seems to take this as deference, which is one of the easiest paths to his slimy heart. “Trader that brought him in couldn’t wait to get him off his hands,” he continues, in the mood to brag now. “Got him for nothing, will be easy enough to find another idiot to pay more than I did. Seems the beast ended up being more trouble than he was worth after he took a hand off one of that redhead’s crew.” Plutt guffaws. “Like to see what he does to the first idiot to get too close to him here!”
Rey knows this last is meant for more than just her. She can feel the uneasy shifting of the other scavengers behind her and knows without looking the way they’ll be carefully avoiding so much as looking at the pool now, giving it the same kind of treatment warranted by one of the venomous beasts of the desert. She waits for Plutt to stop laughing and count out her portions. His bragging has put him in a good enough mood to give her a whole portion and a half, and she hurries away with her treasure as soon as he passes them over. She can’t help glancing at the pool with lowered eyes as she rushes to her speeder. She thinks she sees the eyes again, looking up at her from under a dark cloud.
Rey lies awake in bed that night, feeling almost full on a half portion. Her mind keeps wandering back to the creature at the outpost. It had looked large for its new home, from what she could see, and she tries to imagine what something that lives in water would look like. No, not a thing or an it - he, Plutt had called it. A he that had been sold to Plutt by some long-gone trader against his will and kept in a small pool of water in an endless desert. She thinks he could be even lonelier than she is.
The pool is still there when she returns to the outpost the next couple days, with its inhabitant lurking in its shallow depths. She feels like he watches her even when she’s not looking, eyes digging into her back. She never sees more of him than vague shapes and dark eyes, and it only makes her think about him more. Eventually, Rey’s curiosity outweighs her self-preservation.
She slips out of her AT-AT after dark and mounts her speeder. It races her across the desert back to the outpost, but she leaves it parked out on the edges. Plutt’s goons frequently prowl around looking for anyone stealing from him, and she knows the consequences of being caught. She keeps to the shadows as she sneaks to the pool and sighs in relief when she finds none of the guards lurking by the counter. She inches away from the wall towards the water, stopping short of it and kneeling to the ground. She’s close enough to reach the pool, but just barely. She wedges her toes under her, ready to spring up and away if she needs to.
She sits and watches, but nothing happens. Carefully, she leans forward, hands pressed to her thighs, craning to get a better look. Something stirs and then bursts out of the water in front of her. She yelps and falls back onto the sand. Frantically, she looks around as she sits up, but no one comes running. Maybe they assume the creature took care of her.
She looks back to the pool and nearly cries out again when she sees a face watching her over the edge. Brown eyes set in a pale face lock onto her, slightly obscured by the wet black hair that hangs around him. She gapes, mouth moving without speaking until she manages to make her voice work again.
“Hello?” she asks tentatively.
He cocks his head at her and makes a strange kind of humming noise in his throat. She barely breathes. “Hello,” he says. Pale arms join his head above the water, exposing a broad chest, and she’s surprised to find he looks much like her, except larger. She looks around him, curious to see how far that extends, but his lower half is obscured. “Have you come to steal my water?” He speaks with a strange sort of accent, as if the words don’t fit quite right in his mouth, but she can still understand him easily.
She shakes her head quickly. “No, I swear. I just wanted to find out what you were.”
He looks at her as if judging the truth of her words and seems to find them acceptable. A large shape lifts out of the water and holds itself up in the air, letting her take it in. It’s a wide fin, the same black as his hair, connecting to a thick tail that she can imagine going all the way up to his torso. He lets it rest over the other end of the pool, and she fully realizes how cramped he is in the space he’s been given.
“I don’t suppose you see many mermaids in the desert,” he muses, watching her reaction with amusement.
“No,” she says, still staring at his tail. He flicks it again and her eyes snap back to his.
“Who are you, scavenger?” With his arms resting on the edge of the pool and tail lounging over the other side, he could almost be mistaken for relaxed if not for the clear tension in his body and sharpness in his gaze.
“Rey…?” He drags out her name in a singsong voice, trilling up at the end as he looks at her expectantly.
“Just Rey,” she says firmly. She folds her legs under her and sits more comfortably. “Who are you?”
“Kylo Ren.” He gives his name as if he expects her to recognize it, but it doesn’t register as anything other than a pretty name.
“Where are you from?”
“Naboo.” This she does recognize, vaguely, from some of her stories.
“Are there more of you?”
“You mean mermaids?” She nods. “Enough.”
“And you all live in the water?”
He raises a brow. “Obviously.”
“Is there lots of water on Naboo?” she asks wistfully.
“We certainly don’t spend our time curled up in little puddles.” He flicks his tail sullenly, emphasizing how his large body stretches so much longer than the small pool, and casts a disdainful glance at the water that barely covers his midsection. She knows his annoyance isn’t with her though. He glances back at her. “Yes. Lots of it.”
She tries to picture what that would be like, a planet with enough water for a whole group of creatures like Kylo, deep and wide enough for them to swim around freely. It would be more water than she’s seen in her life. “Is it green?”
“The water?” he asks with a raised brow.
“No, the - “ she waves her hand, gesturing to the barren desert around them. “- everything.”
His eyes soften, and he looks at her thoughtfully. He watches her long enough to make her squirm. She knows she doesn’t have much experience with other planets, but she’s heard of green worlds, where water falls freely from the sky and lets things grow. She dreams of one, where water surrounds the land the same way the desert wraps around Kylo’s small pool.
“Yes,” he says finally. “There’s more plants than you can imagine, from flowers as small as your finger to trees nearly as big as this village.” She stares at him, enraptured at the thought. “My family lives in the lakes, and you can see green hills and flowers in all directions.”
“Your family?” she interrupts, sitting forward.
A flash of hurt passes over his face. “Yes,” he says quietly. She wants to prod at that and ask him more, but a sound from across the courtyard startles them both.
She’s on her feet with her staff in hand before she even realizes it. She can’t see anything moving, but she can’t help feeling that someone’s out there. When she looks back to the pool, Kylo has slipped beneath the water again. She shoulders her staff and decides to go back to her speeder. She needs some rest so she can feed herself tomorrow anyway.
She knows better than to go back the next night, but she finds herself creeping towards Kylo’s pool nevertheless. He peeks his head above the water and looks up at her as she approaches. “Here to continue your interrogation, scavenger?”
She sits, not letting herself be put off. “Yes.”
Kylo blinks at her, then pulls himself out of the water enough to rest on the edge. “Well. Ask away then.”
“How’d you get here?” It’s something she’s been pondering since last night, when he told her about his home. No one in their right mind would go through the effort of getting a creature like him to Jakku and then abandon him. There has to be a reason.
He scowls. “I was brought here as a punishment. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have.”
“Your family?” she asks anxiously.
His brows furrow and he sinks lower in the water. “Yes and no. They didn’t send me here, but - It’s complicated. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Who brought you here then?”
He flicks his tail in annoyance. “Why does it matter? He used me and then sold me for nothing to a place I can’t escape from.”
“Do you think he’ll come back for you?” she says, with an ache in her chest she doesn’t want to think about.
He snorts. “If he does, it’ll only be to make sure that I’m dead.”
She inhales sharply. “You’re not going to die,” she tells him fiercely. He looks at her sadly, in a way that makes her feel far younger than the many years she’s spent scavenging on her own.
“Look around you, Rey. Look at me. I was never meant to survive here.”
“No one was,” she snaps. “But we manage anyway.”
His lips twitch. “So you do,” he murmurs. He sighs, the tension between them easing. “I’d give anything to see the lakes again. Even a nice pond.”
Rey scootches closer and leans against the pool next to him. He looks at her in mild shock, and she realizes that he’s gotten used to people giving him a wide berth. She nearly sits up again, but he relaxes first, resting his arm so that it nearly touches hers.
“Tell me about them,” she demands, and he smiles.
He hums as he thinks, then starts, “It’s not just the plants. Sometimes in summer even the water seems almost green.” She listens in wonder as he vividly describes a world of life and color, where water is so plentiful that it spills over the land. It sounds like a fantasy, more story than reality, but she sees the wistfulness in Kylo’s eyes for something he had and lost, and it makes her ache for that world even more.
When the moon rises high above them, she reluctantly pulls away and stands. Kylo starts, then looks resigned.
“Will you come back?” he asks. He looks away, as if he doesn’t care, but she’s caught sight of the emotion in his face.
“I promise,” she tells him, and she knows exactly how much those words weigh. He nods.
“Thank you.” His voice is almost lost as she turns away, but she catches it and smiles.
Rey is more excited for nightfall than she’s been in her life. She tries to lay down and rest while she waits, but she’s too restless for sleep, and ends up practicing on her simulator instead. By the time it’s dark enough, she feels like she could run the whole way back to the outpost.
It’s hard to be careful when she’s so eager to see Kylo again, but the thought of the consequences for being found with Plutt’s newest prize sobers her. She can already see the top of Kylo’s head above the water as she approaches, and he pushes himself up to look at her as she sits. She takes her spot right against the pool, and he settles next to her.
“What do you want to hear tonight?”
She thinks. “Tell me more about the lakes.”
“I can do that.” He grins, a hint of a smirk at the edges of his lips. “Mermaids aren’t the only creatures living in the waters of Naboo…”
She relaxes into him more and more as his deep voice washes over her, occasionally startled into laughter by his dry sense of humor. When she has to leave to sleep, she barely manages to pull herself away.
Rey returns every night for a week. When Kylo runs out of places to describe, he tells her stories from his world, about queens and secrets and forbidden love. She listens raptly to every one. Talking with Kylo quickly becomes the highlight of her days; even when scavenging goes poorly or Plutt refuses to give her what she’s earned, she can come back to Kylo at night and hear about a smuggler who had everything go wrong or a cave Kylo uncovered in the depths of a lake across the galaxy. She lingers longer each night, reluctant to go even though she’ll regret it in the morning. Tonight, the moon has passed its peak as her fingers dance over the water and Kylo’s voice trails away at the end of his story.
“I wish I could take you there,” he says softly.
She sits up, heart aching. “I wish I could see it,” she replies. The more he tells her about his home, the harder it is to hold onto what she has here. He watches her with sad eyes as she stands and brushes herself off.
“Tomorrow?” he asks.
“Tomorrow,” she promises.
He’s already waiting for her when she arrives the next night, focusing on her with the kind of intensity she hasn’t seen from him since the first time they met.
“Tell me about Rey,” he says, before she can start to ask more questions of him.
She blinks. “What about me?”
He waves vaguely. “I’ve been telling you about myself. What about you?”
She looks at him askance. “You’ve been telling me about Naboo; I barely know anything about you. Besides, there’s nothing to tell.”
“Nothing?” he asks, almost teasingly.
“Nothing,” she tells him firmly. “What -”
“There can’t be nothing,” he interrupts. “How did you get here?”
She draws back. “My parents brought me,” she says shortly.
He seems to notice her discomfort, and his voice turns soft. “Where are they now?”
“They’re coming back. I just have to wait.” He looks at her pityingly, and anger darkens her cheeks. “They are!”
“How long?” he says evenly.
“How long do you have to wait?”
“Until they come for me.” She crosses her arms.
“How long has it been?”
She looks down, noting distantly how the moonlight reflects off the water. “Thirteen years.” He draws a sharp breath.
“Rey.” A pale hand floats into her field of view, hesitating before it reaches up for one of hers. Her gaze jerks up to meet his. “Let the past die. You don’t belong here any more than I do.”
Tears drip down her face and fall into the pool. She knows, somewhere buried, that he’s right, but the truth is far too painful to acknowledge. His hand wraps comfortingly around hers, cool and damp against her sun-warmed skin.
“I can’t - “ she chokes out.
He squeezes her hand, and his eyes burn as they meet hers. “You can. You have the Force, you could take any junker on this planet and fly away - “
She yanks her hand back. “The Force?”
His brow furrows. “Don’t you know? I can feel it in you.”
“That's not possible!”
“Of course it is,” he snaps. He grabs her hand again and traces the lines of her veins under her skin. “It's here, inside you. You can't deny it.”
Rey pulls her hand away and wipes the moisture he's left on her pants. She can't shake the buzzing feeling that's set in where he touched though. “How would you know?” she snaps.
He smirks at her, then slides back from the wall enough that he can hold a hand over the water in front of him. He curves it, like he's scooping the air, and some of the water pulls away from the surface and comes to rest in a small sphere over his palm. “How do you think?”
She gapes. “What -?” There are stories about the Force, legends of those who wield it, but they'd always sounded more fairy tale than history. Kylo tilts his hand back and forth, and the sphere rolls in the air over it. He crooks his fingers and the water flies up in the air and down again. She gasps. He smiles and holds it out to her.
“Here. You can touch.” She hesitates, then reaches out a finger.
It sinks into the sphere, just as if she'd dipped it in the surface of his pool. It's slightly warmer than the air and she sees sand and grit floating in it.
“Take it,” he urges. Her eyes fly up to look at him in shock. His expression is entirely serious and eager in the way he strains towards her. “Hold out your hands.”
She does so, dubiously. Slowly, he spreads his around hers, ball held between them. His hands come up under hers, nearly touching, and the ball floats over her palms. “Oh,” she says softly, entranced with the way it spins in her cupped hands.
“Now take it,” he instructs. Her heart leaps, but she does her best to stay still. “Reach out and feel it. Hold it, like I am.”
She takes a deep breath and does as he says, closing her eyes. It feels silly at first, like when she used to hold rocks and fly them around her AT-AT, pretending they were ships. But she pushes past that, lets herself relax into it, and she finds exactly what he was talking about. The desert stretches itself before her, vibrant and alive, but everything in her pulls to the creature in front of her and the way his energy flows between them.
She feels more than hears Kylo gasp. “Yes, just like that. You're so strong, Rey. Take the water from me; hold it on your own.”
She skims along Kylo's presence in the Force, and he shivers against her. She learns the way he uses his power to keep the water together and then carefully reaches over him, enveloping his grasp with hers. “Yes,” he murmurs, and she doesn't know whether he says it aloud or in the strange space between them. He slowly withdraws back to himself, leaving her with the sphere in her hold.
Her eyes stay closed a moment longer, then fly open. She quickly looks down and sees the water bobbing happily in her hands, held aloft by her efforts. She looks up at Kylo with a wild grin. “I did it!”
He smiles back, and the force of it takes her breath away. Her concentration breaks and the water spills over her hands, but she barely notices. “You did. I told you that you had it.”
Her heart swells with pride, but then a thought occurs to her that makes it drop in her chest like a stone. “Have I always had it?” she asks, thinking she knows the answer. “Could I have… used it?” Had she had something that could have kept her from starving at her fingertips and never known?
Kylo frowns, considering. “Sometimes, the Force doesn't reveal itself in a person until it's been awakened. Plenty of people live and die thinking they're simply lucky, never realizing they have something more. I recognized your power because I've been trained in it, but it's likely no one else would have.”
Rey nods. More thoughts than she knows what to do with run through her head, but she does her best to put them aside for when she lays in bed later. One untangles itself from the others, forming itself into a question. “If you've been trained in the Force, how did they capture you? Couldn't you escape?”
A flash of pain crosses Kylo's face, and her heart aches in sympathy. “The Force isn't all-powerful,” he says, and Rey nods like she understands. In the stories she'd heard, Force users were only a step down from Ri’ia and the other gods of the desert, but stories were never the whole truth. “The… man who captured me overpowered me. And even when I killed several of the men restraining me, it wasn't enough.”
“If you can do that, why don’t you just leave?”
He laughs hollowly. “And go where?” He gestures around them at the unending sand. “It’d be a toss up what would kill me first, the desert or the junk boss’ men.”
She takes his point, but it's a blow to what she'd thought of the Force. “You said I could take a ship, couldn't you? Can you fly one?”
He scowls. “Ships aren't exactly made with mermaids in mind.”
“You need a pilot,” she says slowly, coming to a realization.
His eyes widen as he understands her thoughts. “Rey, no, you can't. You should get out of here, but I'd only slow you down. Leave me and save yourself, please.”
She shakes her head. “The only way I'm leaving is with you. I should - “ She thinks of why she's stayed on Jakku so long and her words fail her. She swallows and tries again. “You deserve to see your home again. That's worth leaving for.”
He looks at her with exasperation and then sighs. “This is the only way to get you to leave, isn't it?”
“Yes,” she says firmly.
He sighs again. “Fine. Rey, will you do me the honor of being my pilot, if it means you'll get yourself off this junkyard?”
She smiles, heart pounding. “I will. And you have to show me the lakes and all of the flowers.”
His fingers wrap around hers. “I promise.”
They spend the rest of the night plotting, and by the time she leaves, they have a plan. She barely has time to sleep once she gets back to her AT-AT, and her excitement keeps her awake anyway. She wakes up the next morning feeling like she only just closed her eyes, but with energy still burning through her.
Instead of going straight to the outpost at the end of the day, she returns home. With shaking hands, she gathers the necessities from her meager belongings, including her small cache of portions. She hesitates for a moment over her doll before shoving it in the pack as well. She wraps it all tightly together and secures it to her back. She casts a last glance behind her as she leaves. One way or another, she won't be coming back.
Her speeder takes her back to the outpost, and she dismounts with the couple pieces of scrap she managed to gather during the day. It's nowhere near enough to earn her a portion, and she hopes anyone who notices her nervousness will take it as worry over that instead.
It's late in the afternoon when she gets in line at Plutt’s stand, and the crowds have started to thin, though some scavengers who traded their finds earlier still hang around, ready to drink their sorrows and portions away. Rey's heart beats in her chest loud enough that she thinks everyone around her can hear it as she steps closer to Kylo's pool. The line moves again, and she stops in front of Kylo.
His dark hair breaches the water as he looks up at her. She gives a slight nod, then looks back to the stand. The Force flows around her, and she feels Kylo reaching out through it.
Follow my lead. His voice echoes in her head.
He stretches towards Plutt, where Rey had told him to go. He pulls against the walls of the stand and she copies him, building their strength together. A sharp crack echoes through the outpost and everyone turns to look, including Plutt.
“What-?” he growls, but that's all he manages before the side of his stand bursts open, and portions and credits come flying out to land scattered across the sand.
There's a moment where nothing happens, all of them frozen. And then it explodes. Scavengers rush forward, eager to take their part from the stash. Plutt bellows for his guards, who come running out. The scavengers scatter in all directions, treasures clutched to them. The guards split up and chase them, and the entire outpost descends into chaos.
In the midst of all this, it's almost easy for Kylo to raise himself from his pool, water gathered around him in a protective bubble. He and Rey become part of the crowd fleeing from the stand, but they have direction.
“This way,” Rey yells to him. He follows her as best he can.
She runs to a ship she's had her eye on at the edge of the outpost, only to see that another scavenger has beat her there and is fighting with a couple of the guards beneath it. She adjusts her course for the ship next to it, an ancient freighter that should still start, even if Plutt’s done his best to hobble it.
“That one?” Kylo says with disdain next to her. “How did it -?”
“It’ll work!” she insists. She can feel his doubts, along with some other more tangled emotions, but he keeps pace with her. He holds a hand out to lower the ship’s ramp, and a blaster shot blazes over Rey’s shoulder as they near it. “Quick, inside!”
She clambers up the ramp behind him, and he slams it shut. They dash for the control room just as the ship rocks with another volley of shots hitting the hull. It takes her only seconds to recognize the controls from her simulations, and they almost fall into her hands. Kylo watches her nervously, gaze darting around the cockpit and then outside.
“Yes!” The ship shudders to life, and she eases it off the ground. Kylo’s hands clutch the co-pilot’s seat. Rey sends the ship hurtling over Niima outpost and out into the desert. It won’t be long before Plutt’s guards get at least one of the other ships after them, and she quickly sends the freighter towards the sky.
She doesn’t relax until the blackness of space surrounds them. Even then, she only allows herself a moment’s rest before getting the ship ready for the hyperspace jump to Naboo. She looks back at Jakku, a small orange island in a sea of endless void. This far out, no one else is following them yet. She looks over at Kylo, half-nestled in his liquid bubble next to her. He watches the planet recede with amazement.
“I never thought this would work,” he breathes.
She grins. “Believe it. We’re getting you home.” She reaches for the hyperdrive and sends them speeding across space in a starry blur.