She is wild when they find her on the dunes of Jakku, a tiny hurricane bringing a fellow scavenger thrice her size and age to a crouch with ferocious blows from the staff clutched in her fists. The man had assumed that the child who'd just unearthed an XX-9 turbolaser battery would be easy pickings, but she towers over him now, beating him senseless.
A hand drops on her shoulder. Thinking that the would-be thief brought his friends, Rey twists her neck and bites— hard—
There's a strangled yelp of surprise and pain as the hand is wrenched away. Teeth ringing, mouth tasting of salt and bare skin, Rey steps back and slants her staff in high guard, eyes narrowed at this new threat.
The boy is somewhere in his mid-teens, tall and pale, wearing a long-sleeved tunic and loose-fitting trousers of a dull wet-sandstone hue. A metal rod gleams from the leather belt cinched to his slim waist. He scowls at her as he rubs his injured hand.
"Ben," a laughter-tinged voice calls out, "sneaking up on people while they're still in attack mode will hardly get you into their good graces."
A man is approaching, dressed like his companion except for the color, a deep midnight black that drapes him from neck to toe. Another metal rod hangs at at his side. He navigates the uneven sands with ease, and Rey thinks she sees something of the desert-dweller in him.
"I apologize for my nephew," he says, grinning at her. "I devote so much time to his training that I forget to hone his social skills."
"Master," the boy— Ben?— sulks, his voice cracked with adolescence and petulance.
The scavenger crumpled behind Rey chooses that exact moment to spring, reaching for her with a guttural snarl. Lightning-quick, Ben extends his hand, fingers splayed out, Rey's teeth-marks still ridged into the web between his thumb and forefinger. The scavenger is lifted several inches into the air, completely paralyzed, the veins on his forehead bulging in panic.
Rey feels it, then— a hum, something vast and weighty that touches off inner cords within her.
"Slowly, now," the man in black murmurs to his nephew, all trace of jest vanishing. "Release him. Don't get carried away."
A strange expression flares on Ben's narrow features. It looks like— curiosity?— hunger?— and he flicks his wrist, his hand slashing across some unseen throat. The scavenger's eyes roll into the back of his head, and he falls to the ground in a slump of limbs.
"Ben," sighs the boy's uncle, lips pursed, gaze hooded.
The boy's face clears, as if he's coming out of a trance. He stares at the limp scavenger, defiant and unflinching.
"What— what was that?" Rey demands, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. "Is he dead? Did you— how—?"
"He is merely unconscious." It's the man who replies, his tone calm and reassuring. "The Jedi do not kill in cold blood."
This is how Rey meets Luke Skywalker and his apprentice, Ben Solo.
Her head spins with questions as she leads them into the home she has fashioned from a defunct AT-AT. The walker's collapsed interior is spacious enough for a girl of six, even with all the junk she has lying around, but, add a grown man and a teenager who is already taller than his uncle, and it seems ludicrously cramped.
The visitors sit down, shoulders hunched, long legs pulled in, and she scoots further away to observe them with eyes more intrigued than wary. She has heard of the Jedi, of course— there are a few wizened scavengers who still remember the Old Republic, and many traders come to Jakku bearing rumors of the Order being started up again by none other than the fabled hero of the Rebellion. But she never imagined that she would see him in the flesh, and she can't figure out why he would want to— as he so amiably put it— "have a chat" with her.
Luke doesn't seem to be in any hurry to explain. His placid gaze surveys the AT-AT with interest, while, beside him, his nephew is restless, fidgeting and shifting position every so often. In the gloom, Ben's features are softer, less sulky, but Rey can't shake the memory of how his brown eyes had glinted beneath the sunlight, first when he froze her assailant, and then when he'd relinquished whatever hold he'd had on him, leaving the scavenger groaning weakly as they walked away.
"That flight helmet," Luke says, gesturing to one of Rey's most prized possessions. "I used to wear something like that. I was an X-wing pilot, just like—" He squints at the name, emblazoned in Aurebesh.
"Raeh," she supplies. "Captain Dosmit Raeh."
"Of the Tierfon Yellow Aces." He nods, satisfied. "I know her. You'll be happy to hear that she was airlifted out after the Battle of Jakku. She's a colonel with the New Republic fleet now."
Rey is suddenly, burningly curious. She had found this helmet in the Graveyard a year ago, nestled amidst the wreckage of Imperial-class destroyers and Mon Calamari cruisers. Since then, she's often crafted elaborate daydreams of Captain Raeh— what she'd looked like, where she'd come from, what had made her decide to be a starpilot. Throughout days of harsh routine beneath the desert sun and nights of hunger pangs and relentless cold, Raeh had been her salvation, a welcome escape from reality.
She leans forward, ready to ply Luke with more inquiries about her beloved mystery figure, but, while she'd hesitated, he had already turned to his nephew. "What do you think? There is potential..."
"She bit me, Master," is Ben's stiff response. "Any opinion I give would be biased."
"Fair enough," Luke chuckles. His attention swivels back to Rey. "Tell me, Rey— how did you become so proficient with your staff?"
Her brow creases. She's never thought about that, honestly. "I... sort of just picked up the technique here and there. From observing others."
"No one taught you?"
"I learned on my own," she mumbles. Ben is watching her intently from the shadows; she feels self-conscious, crude. "There's no one out here who will fight for me. I have to do it myself."
She realizes too late how pathetic that must sound, but Luke doesn't show even the slightest hint of pitying her, and, for that, she is grateful. "What about languages?" he persists. "Any good with those?"
"I've communicated fine with everyone passing through Niima Outpost so far," she replies, a little more warily. "I mean, if you know Basic, Bocce, and Huttese, you're pretty much all set, aren't you?" This is an evasion— she has managed small talk in Kaleesh, Snivvian, and, once, the mellifluous tongue of an enigmatic group of coldly beautiful pirates from the Hapes Cluster. She can understand Binary and Shyriiwook as well. For her, language is like breathing, but she's experienced enough suspicious frowns to know that this is an uncommon talent— quite possibly even freakish.
Ben speaks up. "Revan once tore the Black Rakatan language out of the tribal leader's head." There's a lively current to his voice that wasn't there before.
"We should not look to those such as Revan for guidance on how to use the Force," Luke admonishes.
"The Force—" Rey knows the old stories. She remembers what she had felt on the dunes, the net that the dark-haired boy had cast, that had brushed against her, however briefly. "That's what you used to knock that man out."
"It's what you use, Rey," Luke says quickly, "to fight, to assimilate language. The Force is the energy that courses through all living things, binding the galaxy together. An old mentor once told me that it is what makes us luminous. Certain individuals are more attuned to it than others. I am. And so is Ben." His gaze turns piercing. "And so are you."
"I don't understand." But part of her already does. Part of her already knows why these offworlders have sought her out. Her fists clench.
"There is an academy on Yavin 4— a Praxeum," Luke continues. "It is a place where Force-sensitive individuals come together to hone their powers, to train to become Jedi. Sometimes, Ben and I travel the galaxy looking for new recruits. This time, our steps took us to the Western Reaches. This time, we found you."
A thick coil of emotion wound up tight in Rey's chest begins to unspool. A warm burst of happiness, a shivering thrill of excitement, a sweet and glorious hope— here is something better, something far greater than she can ever know bartering scrap for rations and marking off the days and avoiding the Sinking Fields and making up stories in her head—
"No," she whispers. "I can't."
The AT-AT seems eerily silent with Luke and Ben gone. It's also smaller, somehow— as if Rey's world had been amplified for a moment by endless possibilities, only to shrink down to size once more.
Surrounded by her various knickknacks, by the flight helmet she salvaged and the pilot doll she made and the flowers in their sandy little pot that she tends, she hugs her knees to her chest and convinces herself that she's made the right choice. Her family will come back one day. She has to wait for them. She can't go zooming off to Yavin 4 to become a Jedi Knight...
Hot tears burn her eyes. She blinks, and the salty liquid drips down her cheeks, into her mouth. The wet jolt of it startles her into a good and proper cry. Such weakness is anathema to these wastelands, but Rey is six years old and alone and she figures that she's earned it.
The metallic daylight pouring into the walker is suddenly blocked out. Her head snaps up, and it's Ben, slouched in the tilted entrance, looking as if he can't decide whether to offer words of comfort or to flee.
Her cheeks flush with embarrassment at having been caught wailing like the foolish child that she still is, but it's too late to stop. "You shouldn't have come," she gasps out, in the midst of her ragged sobs. "I was fine here. It's not the best life, but I was fine— but now— now I'll always wonder—"
"So stop wondering," he says brusquely, "and come with me. With us."
"I already told you—"
"That you have to stay for your family, yes." He hesitates. "Whoever you're waiting for, if they come back, do you think they'll be proud that you turned down a chance for greatness?"
"I don't want to be great!" She hates him for the word if, for the ugliness of it. "I just want—"
"To spend the rest of your life crawling around in this junkyard? To grow old scrubbing dirt off trinkets, only for wastes of space like Plutt to cheat you of what minuscule value they have?"
"Quit interrupting me," she hisses. But her annoyance with him has eclipsed the waves of her sorrow, and she doesn't feel like crying anymore. If anything, she feels like hitting him over the head with the nearest power wrench.
It's an improvement, of sorts.
Ben waits until she's wiped her face dry and composed herself before he switches tactics. "Rey." It's the first time he says her name, scratchy and awkward and quiet. "Master Luke told you to search your heart. You already know the truth— whoever left you here will not return."
"The Force can't tell the future!" she hisses, with rather more confidence than warranted. She doesn't know anything about it, after all. What if it can? Wouldn't you like to find out? whispers a traitorous inner voice.
"The Force can help you make a future, a future for yourself, one that's not determined by who stays and who leaves. That's a lot better than divination, wouldn't you agree?"
"My family will come back," she insists, because that's all she has left to pit against the heady pull of his words, all his arguments crumbling in the face of something that is a fact— it has to be. "They will. I have to be here when they do. That is my choice. Luke respected that, and so should you."
Ben's mouth tightens in a determined line. He squeezes forward, the tips of his unruly black hair almost brushing the ceiling. He is an odd boy, she thinks, so gangly and ill at ease.
And annoyingly stubborn.
"I'll tell you a story." He sits down, leaning the base of his spine against a box of tools. "When I was ten years old, I nearly unscrewed the head off of my mother's protocol droid. He was following me around, nagging me about something. I had just fought with my fa—" He catches himself, amends, "I was having a bad day, and I just wanted to be left alone. I looked at the droid, and all I could think of at that moment was how irritating he was, how it would serve him right to be blasted into shiny little pieces, and I—" A shudder runs through him. His eyes flash, that strangely hungry, haunted gleam. "There was so much power. It was like being drunk. Luckily, my parents stopped me just in time. As this was the latest in a series of... incidents, they decided to send me to my uncle's academy. So I could better understand what I was capable of. So I could learn restraint."
"Like the way you restrained yourself with that scavenger back there?" Rey asks, a bit nastily. She has a soft spot for droids.
He shrugs. "I slip up sometimes. That's why I continue training. That's why you need to train, Rey— a child growing up alone, with a talent like ours— it can be a terrible thing."
"I'm not going to go around ripping people's heads off, if that's what you mean," she sniffs.
"It was a droid," he corrects, testily.
"Look, why does this matter so much to you? I mean— we didn't exactly meet on the best of terms—"
"No, we didn't." He glances at his hand, and she has to suppress a smile. "But you are strong with the Force. Master Luke said so himself, and his word is not to be taken lightly. I would not like it if you were to throw away your gift." Before she can respond, he plunges forward, fierce and earnest and maybe just the slightest bit desperate. "Listen to me. I was the one who sensed you out there. Master Luke and I were exploring Pilgrim's Road, and I strayed from the path because I felt you. It was like you were calling to me. How can I ignore that?"
That makes you the first, she thinks, with a stab of wistfulness, sharp and surprising. The first person who ever came when I called.
"I guess I feel responsible for you, in a way," he continues. He's apparently decided that, if logic won't sway her, perhaps honesty might. "If you come to the academy, I'll help you with the exercises. I'll teach you what I've learned. You won't be alone."
"Really?" The word escapes before she can stop it.
He nods. "There are dozens of other kids there. Some older students, too. And the first batch of apprentices— the ones who are now full-fledged Jedi Knights— they drop in from time to time. It can be a busy place." He frowns a little, muttering, "Too busy, if you ask me. After a week there, you'll be begging to be left alone."
Rey longs to shut her eyes, to surround herself with the warm and happy dream. People her age, people like her. Mentors who would guide her steps. Not having to watch her back or wear her fingers to the bone just to survive. She wants it so badly that her throat aches.
What would Dosmit Raeh do? she wonders, glancing at the flight helmet and the doll slumped beside it. You probably don't get to be a captain by shying away from advancement opportunities.
It occurs to her then that, if she left Jakku, she might actually get the chance to meet Raeh. There's an entire galaxy out there, full of new worlds and walking legends. It can all be hers.
"My family sent me away because they recognized that I was meant for greater things," Ben tells her. His expression is solemn, laden with promise. "If whoever left you here really loves you, they'd want you to go."
She replants the flowers in the shade of the AT-AT. Then she goes back inside to gather her meager belongings. She takes the helmet, the doll, the staff, and not much else.
Finally, she walks over to the slate where she keeps a tally of days. "I'm sorry," she murmurs, to the person who might be pointed to this walker in the future by the other scavengers that she's known. "Find me someday. Please."
In the empty space beneath the count, she scratches out, in Aurebesh, Yavin 4.
Having decided to give her some privacy while she says farewell to her home, Ben Solo is waiting for her in the distance, casting a long, thin shadow on the smooth golden sand. His profile is angled at her as he stares at some indeterminable point in the burning horizon.
Rey hesitates. With the sun slanted against him like this, he looks vaguely unmade— an aloof silhouette instead of the boy who had begged her to come with him only minutes ago. What if this is all a trick? Some elaborate scam being run on naive orphans by criminals posing as Jedi?
But she already knows the answer. She knows it in her heart, with that same unerring instinct that has led her to valuable salvage and guided her weapon's strikes and slid her effortlessly into various offworld languages.
This is real.
Belatedly noticing her presence, Ben turns to face her, shading his eyes against the sun, his lips curved in what for him probably counts as a smile. Rey starts walking towards him, feeling lighter and lighter with every step.