In Rey’s first clear memories, she is small, and she is scared—but she is not alone. She’s in an old converted storage room, too full of people, stretched out sleeping through the heat of the day on piles of cardboard or rags or the concrete floor. She is the only child here. The others are old—not old the way any adult is to a child, not even old like the weatherbeaten faces every day at the washstands, but old like papery dry skin and aching joints and slow enough that even slow, small Rey can keep up, when they go out to glean the last scraps of wire and plating off the nearby wrecks.
“Look for copper,” they tell her, old women with whispery voices that sound like wind off the dunes. “Plutt pays best for copper.”
She’s not sure when Anita found her. She just remembers that at some point, her bed got moved into the corner behind Anita’s and she started following her every day, and that things were better when Anita was around.
Anita was smart. She wasn’t any faster than anyone else, wasn’t any stronger, but she knew which way to go after a sandstorm to find something new. Understood ships well enough that she could take apart sections the others had missed, find hidden treasures in picked-over hulls. They were a good team, Anita and Rey. Rey was good at climbing, and got better fast because Anita’s tongue was blown-sand harsh if she thought Rey was holding back.
“You’re gonna have to figure it out sooner or later,” Anita said, when Rey was scared to climb up to the roof of a freighter to find the air ducts. “May as well be now.”
But when Rey brought back two working blowers Anita smiled so wide her teeth showed, crooked and sparse. “See there,” she said, and she was still trying to act tough but it was like clouds passed over the sun—still warm, but not scorching. “Knew you were quick.”
One morning, after a thunderstorm rumbled and hissed through the night, Anita shook Rey awake before dawn. “Come on,” she said, handed Rey a bag. “Bring your blanket.”
Rey rolled up the blanket, threaded it through the straps of the rucksack and hefted the bag onto her shoulders. It was heavy. Anita looked her up and down, nodded. “Let’s go.”
They weren’t the only ones out early, speeders were heading out in the grey light, other people walking out in all directions, looking for what new treasures might have been uncovered. They moved slowly, Rey with her short childish steps and Anita leaning on her stick, but they crested a ridge of dunes and saw that the picked-clean destroyer that had been there had shifted, new sections emerging from the sand.
Rey looked over and Anita grinned, sparse teeth in the sunrise. They hurried, and for the first time Rey had to slow down for Anita. Two men were up in what had once been the bridge, their tools clanging. “That’s where the good stuff is,” Anita said, her breath whistling as she gasped between words. “You gotta get up there, pull out some of the control panels.”
“I can’t!” Rey said, and Anita gave her a sharp look.
“Ain’t nothin’ you can’t do, Rey,” Rey’d been scuffing one food against the crusty just-dried sand, but at her name she looked up. Anita hardly ever used it. “Just things you don’t know how yet.” She waited until Rey nodded. “You go up there and you pay attention and you do what they do, and then you do it better.”
It was maybe the longest speech Anita had ever made in Rey’s hearing. Rey nodded again. “Okay,” she said, and started digging through her pack for tools.
Kylo Ren is rummaging through her head, her memories, and Rey’s whole self is caught up in a silent scream. Wordless and childish, and maybe that’s what brings Anita’s voice out of the shadows. "Pay attention…” it rings in her head and the idea of this, this man taking that and pulling it out of her mind into his own—no.
Rey has always known there are two kinds of anger, just the same as there’s two kinds of fire: the wildfire and the fire of the blacksmith’s forge. The difference, near as she can tell, is what the fire’s fed. There’s always a tongue of flame in her chest, quiet and waiting for her to use it. Right now it’s furious and terrified, wild and lashing, but what she needs is the forge. She takes shaking breaths, feeds the air to the flame, feeds it the fear and the disgust and the confusion and how dare he claim to know anything—
“Get out of my head,” she says, through gritted teeth, the flame roaring, red to orange to white, and if Kylo Ren had laughed at the wildfire, brushed it aside like no more than hot wind, well. Let him try to survive this.
It’s working—she doesn’t know what it is she’s feeling, but it changes, withdraws, and he looks at her with new interest.
He reaches again, pointed, grasping, searching, and she struggles, breath coming in short gasps. She’s trying so hard to close off her mind, to keep him out, that the flame stutters, gasping for air as she chokes out defiant words she knows she can’t back up.
Not the first time someone’s tried to take everything from her, and it won’t be the last.
It’s the dust that warns them someone is coming.
“Go.” Anita’s voice is sharp, and she stops, takes the heaviest knapsack away from Rey. “Get out.”
Rey runs as the speeder crests the dune, her lungs burning, is too far to see but not too far to hear the shouts and then the silence. She stops, once the noise fades, waits for Anita to come over the crest of the dune, prepares herself for empty hands and another month of empty stomachs, but Anita doesn’t come.
It’ll be dark soon, and Anita doesn’t come.
Rey feels cold, under the blazing sun. She makes herself walk back the way she came.
Anita is curled on the ground. She looks asleep.
Her chest doesn’t move. Her heart isn’t beating. Her arm flops like a broken control lever, hanging by the wires.
Rey can’t move. If she moves it’s real. If she moves time goes on and she has to decide what to do next.
But of course time hasn’t really stopped. She just doesn’t notice it passing until the wind blows cold and the stars come out and she’s shivering.
“Go,” the wind whispers around her. “Go.”
Rey gets to her feet and walks back to Niima outpost.
The next day she leaves the storage room for the picked-over AT-AT that’s just far enough away.
“You do it better,” Anita hisses in her memory. It’s not about closing off, Rey thinks, lightning coursing through the darkness that’s growing behind her eyes. It’s about pushing back. She reaches for the flame.
It’s sputtering, weak and choked, and Rey forces herself to breathe, the bellows of her lungs compressing, expanding. She looks up, meets Kylo Ren’s dark eyes, sees his fear.
It’s like jet fuel. She pushes, willing the fire to grow, all of the fear and the pain that’s hers and—suddenly—his, all of it stoking the blaze. “You—you’re afraid,” she says, through gritted teeth, effort and fury and no room for her fear. “That you will never be as strong as Darth Vader.”
The recoil as he yanks away leaves her breathless.
And then he leaves, and the flame is still roaring inside her. She breathes again, in and out, and what, truly, does she have to lose? She remembers the room, the Stormtrooper by the door, reaches wildly.
“You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.”
It doesn’t work, of course it doesn’t, but Rey is strangely calm. Inhale, exhale, feed the flame. She looks him in the eye, near as she can find behind his helmet.
“You will remove these restraints and leave this cell with the door open.”
And he does. As an afterthought, “And you’ll drop your weapon.” It clatters to the ground.
Rey stays perfectly still for the length of one long breath, lets the flames die down—banked, embers, waiting till she needs them. And then she runs.