They treated her like a curious pet for the first few weeks. Something to be petted and fed scraps from the table, taken on walks through the warfront. (She made a good distraction; not even stormtroopers thought to question a woman and her child on their way to market, even when it was to meet with a weapons supplier.) Jerhon tried to brush her hair once—though Jyn had bitten his hand the minute he reached for one of her long plaits.
He’d overreacted, in her opinion; screeching curses and demanding to know if humans were poisonous. “She’s a fighter, Jerhon,” Saw had laughed, and Jyn had smiled, just a little. “Don’t blame a manka cat for turning on you after you poke it with a stick.”
Afterwards, Saw made her a cup of l’allach to wash the salty taste of trandoshan blood out of her mouth. “My mother did my hair like this,” Jyn said quietly, when he placed the cup in front of her.
“I know, little cat,” Saw had said, and he had rested his huge hand on the top of her head. He kept it there, heavy and warm and solid, even when she started to cry.
After the first few weeks, they put a blaster in her hands, and that was the end of that.
She was the only one allowed to help Saw into his armor every morning. (She’d begged, and he’d agreed, smiling indulgently.) He was patient as her clumsy child’s hands struggled with the straps and catches—“Slow down, little cat,” he would say, his voice low and raspy, and Jyn would go hot, embarrassed. “I’m in no hurry. Take your good time.”
Jyn slept beside him for years, curved into the bulwark his body made against the darkness.
They didn’t call themselves the Partisans. They didn’t call themselves anything, really—Saw Gerrera’s people, maybe, when they had to pick a designation, differentiate themselves from the resistance movements they were supporting. It was everyone else who called them names, ‘Partisans’ being among the nicer of them. (Jyn had always liked ‘rebs’. She heard it in cantinas, once she was old enough to get into cantinas—a toast, to the rebs! slurred by Imperial officers who were still breaking in their boots, young and shockingly blind when it came to Jyn picking their pockets.
Of course by that point, she wasn’t a reb anymore, so what did it matter?)
If she had been older—though there’s an upper limit to how old Jyn Erso will get, the end of her life’s thread scorched with green fire—if she had been older, she would have pushed for something better than ‘partisan’.
It wasn’t earthen enough, there wasn’t enough blood, not for Saw Gererra and his warrior band. ‘Partisan’ sounded like one of the grand old Republican parties, like the Trade Federation—not a handful of hungry hard-scrabble fighters, who could teach you how to short-circuit trooper speeders and rig transceivers out of spare wire; who had no qualms about torching distribution centers or firebombing Imperial officers’ quarters.
‘Partisans’ wouldn’t have sewn an infra-mapping chip into the lining of a little girl’s robe, and taught her how to cry on cue. They wouldn’t have sent her into a training base, thick with stormtroopers, to wander around sobbing for her father, taking advantage of soft-hearted Imps to fully map the facility.
(Jyn can’t imagine the vaunted Alliance doing that, at least until she meets Cassian. It stings, somehow, inexplicably. She’d thought that she was special.)
None of Saw’s people were ever going home again. She wasn’t even sure which worlds some of them called home, if they had planets to return to. (There were some questions you couldn’t ask.) None of them could afford politics, at least not in the way the Alliance could—Jyn had lost count of how many times she’d watched Saw through grimy cantina viewports, speaking to a handful of sentients around a table, all of them nodding, serious.
The words she read off his lips weren’t ‘freedom’, or ‘democracy’.
She wasn’t old enough to question it, though. She was sixteen when Saw put a knife in her right hand and a blaster in her left, and looked at her for a long moment, like he was memorizing her face. But she had trusted him, and thought nothing of it, because—well, every time they parted was treated like the last. (A self-fulfilling prophecy: at some point, it would be.)
But she woke up alone the next morning. She wasn’t Saw Gerrera’s people anymore.
Sometimes, when she’s lying in her bunk in the prison camp, she shuts her eyes, pretends she’s back on—but that part doesn’t matter. Some backwater planet, a nameless moon. One of the wild places they’d stop for cover, under purple-green trees. Their bed rolls in a circle around the fire; Saw wheezing with laughter as Shyentha acted out a holodrama she’d seen five years before, forgetting what came next. Jerhon shouting out absurd suggestions, which got progressively filthier until Jyn was blushing and Cerarr told him to shut off. One of them would insult the other’s blood, and they would play-fight over it, laughing as they wrestled by the fireside.
Falling asleep to Darent and Arddan’s voices, lifted in the half-song of prayer. Jyn never found out which religion. (There were things you couldn’t ask a soldier, even when you bled for them.)
Sometimes when she dreams, the flames are a pyre, but the scene does not change. “Dying is no sorrowful thing, little cat,” Saw had said, each time he found Jyn crouched by the ashes, her knees pulled to her chest and weeping. “They were warriors. They fought, and we honor them by seizing all the gladness we can in their place. It’s the living, Jyn. It’s about the living.”
“I don’t know what my father saw in you,” Jyn says sullenly, turning away. (She is fourteen. Everything out of her mouth is sullen.)
Saw snorts. “What makes you think it was your father?”
She should have asked—
The first time she killed a man, she was eleven.
It was some moon whose true name she still can’t pronounce—you really needed two mouths and an extra aperture in your vocal folds. But the Empire named it Imperial Moon 213-X, and so the Partisans had taken to calling it Ex, because that was as good as anything else. Saw had told her to go and amuse herself while he talked to the local resistance movement, and so she had, and—
It’s not a good story, in truth. A slaver in the marketplace who saw her as a perfect target, grabbing her by the braids and dragging her into an alley. Her scalp ached even as she dug into her pocket, and it kept aching—when she brought the knife up into the vulnerable underside of his jaw. She doesn’t remember how many times, when her stabs turned sloppy, and she managed to get his jugular. He never let go of her braid, even when he collapsed to the ground, his eyes unseeing. The weight of him brought her to her knees.
It was very quiet, in the aftermath, just a distant repetitive crackle, like a rush of static from a broken transceiver.
After a moment, she realized that was her, breathing.
“You changed your hair,” Saw said later that night, eyeing her from his seat at the table. He gestured, and she stepped closer, letting him inspect the hacked-off shortness, the messy ends. After a moment, he reached out and cupped her face in his hands. (He had just lost all the skin on his left side, due to a badly-timed blasting, and she remembers, he smelled of bacta and the particular metallic of meddroid’s touch.)
Jyn had shaken herself free, and met his gaze as coolly as she could. “Braids are for children,” she said.
She had Saw’s lectures all but memorized, at this point; enough to tune them out and glower at him silently as she watched his mouth move. But she must have slipped up that time, rolled her eyes, because Saw had drawn himself up to his full height and spat, “By the Force, Steela, I cannot believe—”
“Who’s Steela?” Jyn interrupted with a grin.
She’d never seen Saw blanch before, but all the blood rushed from his face, leaving him grey, his eyes white around his dark irises. “What?” he whispered, and Jyn’s smirk dropped away, her bravado gone cold at the expression on Saw’s face.
“What did you say?” Saw repeated, more insistently. “Jyn, tell me—”
“You—you called me ‘Steela’.”
Saw had shut his eyes for a moment, his mouth a stiff, unforgiving line. When he opened them again, Jyn thought he might cry. The thought frightened her. “No one you need to concern yourself with,” he said, very gently.
For the next few days, he couldn’t quite look at her, and Jyn had been—well. She hadn’t asked.
The first time she killed sentients on purpose, she was thirteen and Saw had crowed like a proud father, kissed her hair. The Partisans all chipped in to buy a dozen honey-cakes and she ate half of them herself, shoving them into her mouth like she was starving, trying to block out Saw’s voice, the glowing pride of all the others, with her own chewing and smacking.
When she stood, the whole world lurched, and Jyn barely had time to double over before she was sick on her own boots.
She still can’t eat anything too sweet without feeling it again, honey-full and nauseous, the smell of blaster-charred flesh in her nose. (She’s never told that story to anyone. She would have told it to Cassian, but there wasn’t really any time, was there?)
Jyn had stayed in the safehouse on Salient for three standard months after Saw left her there, trying every secure frequency she could remember, and then just scrolling through comm channels. Pleading with ghosts and static.
Finally, she’d gathered her things together, tucking the knife into her boot and the blaster under her coat. It was cold that morning, and no one thought twice about the plume of smoke, rising up over the city.
She was already three systems over by the time they managed to put out the fire.
She forgives him. She doesn’t forgive him. She’s never entirely sure.
“I had another nightmare,” Jyn whispers, as Saw’s hand comes to rest, heavy, on the crown of her head. He’s half-asleep, she knows; his eyes still shut, but he smiles a little into the dark.
She nods, because he can feel it with his hand there.
“Don’t be afraid,” Saw says, and his voice is deep, low, the sound Jyn imagines rocks make when they talk to one another. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“Promise?” Jyn whispers.
“I swear on the Force,” Saw says. “Always.”