The minute Han stepped into the room he could smell it, and he knew why they’d taken the risk of coming to him, the favourite pilot of Jabba the Hutt himself.
The place smelled like death.
Han Solo had learned long ago that quick death is the same everywhere- the sharp smell of burning and plasma and then nothing. Slow death smells different on every planet.
On Corellia, slow death smelled like mould and wet rot and blood, with the smell of the shipyards bleeding into everything. Not that people who were going tended to last long on the streets if they were heading out. The gangs didn’t bother with people who slowed them down.
In the military slow death smelled sterile, like bacta and bandages, and the cleaner they use to keep the hallway floors so damn shiny.
On Tatooine it was the sickly sweet smell of infection, coated, as all things were on in this desert, with a liberal coating of sand and dust.
That was what the room smelled of. Even on Corellia, infection wasn’t usually something people feared. They were a hub for imperial supply routes, and bacta patches weren’t cheap, but they weren’t so dear that most people could beg, borrow, or steal enough to get their hands on ‘em when they were needed.
Tatooine is different. Which might as well be the motto of the place.
They’re out in the back of beyond, Hutt run, and even the rich locals, if they’re not in with the Hutts, are credit poor.
And these people, huddling in the dark of a room that’s barely more than a hollowed out cave in the sandstone. They’re not rich, even by Tatooine standards, they’re slaves, or former ones. Han’s a little fuzzy on the distinction. Out here those little steps and half-steps between rank are everything, but it’s not something outlander’s understand.
Not that he wants to.
But, he guesses he’s in the mud now, no use washing till he’s clear of the swamp.
There’s a bearded man kneeling over the cot, ancient and ageless in the way that everyone over thirty-five looks when they’re from Tatooine. He could be eighty, and spry, or he could be forty-five and broken down.
You can’t tell out here. The marker’s from the core just don’t apply.
Like the kid on the bed, the one the smell is coming from. He’s small and thin, in a way that elsewhere Han would assume meant poverty and the school of hard-knocks, except it’s Tatooine, so Han can tell by the sheen of his eyes, and the roundness of his cheeks, that even though he’s lips are dry and cracked this is someone who usually has plenty of water.
And among the locals, that’s how you tell rich from poor. The rich have water, and the poor get by.
Not that Han needs to decode this whole situation, once the bearded man rolls the kid over and the light hits his face.
Han hisses, because he recognises Luke Skywalker, and he’s never seen him look so bad. Though, an infected burn on your face can do that.
“Seven Hells.” He murmurs, shuffling forward. “What happened?”
The bearded man shakes his head, and to Han’s shock, pours what looks like clear, distilled water directly on the wound. It makes Luke shudder and moan but it washes away some of the puss and Han can get a better look.
What he sees is enough to make him turn tail and try to flee except his guide, a thin scrap of a man with dark brown skin and a determined glint in his eye, grabs him and holds on tight.
“That’s Huttese!” Han shouts. “I may like the kid, but if you think I’m crossing Jabba for him, you’ve got another thing coming!”
The bearded man gives Han a withering look, and then shoots one to the guide that clearly says “I told you so”.
“So much for the loyalty of thieves.” The bearded man says dryly. He glances at the guide who had ambushed Han in the hangar. “I thought I told you to get Chewbacca, Kitster.”
Kitster hisses “We don’t have time for the Wookie! Han can get what we need more easily, Ben.”
Ben rolls his eyes. “If he can be trusted, I’ve known his kind before. He won’t risk his own neck for a boy he barely knows.”
Han stares wide eyed as the old man gently brushes the hair back off of Luke’s forehead.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t known the kid had people looking out for him, like he said, Luke had water, and on Tatooine, that meant there was no way he was some street tough. But, it was still strange to see. Where Han comes from, kids who have people don’t haunt the streets near space-ports trying to make a buck.
But, this is Tatooine, things are different here.
Luke had been hanging around the space port at Mos Eisely for years, as long as Han had been coming to Tatooine, back when Han had just completed the Kessel run and was still embarrassingly green.
Luke had really been a kid then, tiny and wiry and constantly under foot trying to sell him and the other spacers travelling through whatever he had that day- fresh produce brought in from the Farms out in the Dune Sea, clean water, parts he’d scrounged, or the skins of creatures called womp rats which he swore would be worth something a little closer to Core.
He was a fixture around the shipyards, zipping around on his over-loaded swoopbike at first, and then on his speeder a few years later.
He’d been popular, partly because his prices were good and he seemed to be able to get his hands on just about anything if you gave him a couple days, and partly because...he was a good kid. Nice, always a smile and bit of chit-chat.
He always asked if anyone had news of a trader named Ami Korro who ran luxury goods from Zygerria to the Core through Tatooine and apparently had Rebel connections. No one Han ever knew had heard of her, apparently it didn’t matter too much to Luke, he knew she was dead he just wanted to find someone who could tell him how, and when and maybe most importantly why.
Han had told him when they first met that asking why wouldn’t get you anywhere with the galaxy the way it was. But, Luke had been somewhere between eight and fourteen (again, Tatooine made it hard to tell) and he was stubborn. So he kept asking, and every time it got a bit harder for Han to say, ‘I haven’t heard anything kid, sorry.”
So, Han had started asking at the spaceports he frequented. “You heard of a lady named Ami Korro?” Han didn’t stick his neck out, not since Qira taught him a sharp lesson, but, somehow there he was on Nal Hutta, Naboo, and Coruscant “You heard of a lady named Ami Korro?”
That was just Luke though, as far as Han could tell, It didn’t matter who you were, he just got to you. Hells, Han was pretty sure he’d once seen that sleemo Greebo tip the kid, and generously at that.
And, then somewhere in the mid-rim, over a game of Sabacc, someone had perked up at the name. “Ami Korro?” the pretty young twilek had asked. “Hadn’t you heard? She was picked up by Imperial intelligence, and killed herself before they could make her talk.”
That had not been the news he’d wanted to bring back to the kid. But, he owed it to him. Why? He couldn’t say, but he did. Han had never had a mother, but, he figures, if he’d had one, he’d want to know where she’d ended up, even if the news was bad.
The kid had been a bit bigger by then, still small, still definitely a kid, but old enough that on other spaceports he probably would have been expected to move up from his little errands to something that would make real money- guns, drugs...whatever. Han was glad Luke hadn’t been growing up on the muddy back-alleys of Corellia, that spark, that...whatever it is, that makes him see the best in people like Han, and people like Greedo...it wouldn’t have lasted long there.
Not that Tatooine is really better, the poverty here among the locals is aching, and unlike Corellia there’s no hope of a big score or a way out. The only way out is through the Empire or through the gangs, and everybody knows it.
But, still. Han was glad Luke didn’t have to grow up on the back streets of Corellia, even when he’d sat him down and tells told him about what had happened to his mother.
Luke’s eyes had filled with tears and he’d stuggled to hold them in, but a few had slipped out anyway. Han had taken it for a sign of just how devastating the news was to Luke. No child of the desert would ever willingly waste water on tears, not like the water-glutted outlanders who crowd the space ports.
Luke hadn’t been in the space-ports as much since then, but he was still a fixture, only he makes himself scarce enough that the regulars who are always coming and going start asking after him. “Have you seen Luke I need...”
He knows everyone and the locals can always seem to find him, though Han liked to believe he was the only spacer that’s worked out you can usually find Luke in the back room of Kitster’s Scrap-yard if he was in town, and if he’s not Kitster will know exactly where to find him.
Han’s probably not the only one who knows this, he knows that. But, even though he’s a scrawny teenager Luke has that way of making you feel like you’re worth a damn. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t occur to him that you wouldn’t be.
He probably even likes the Sand People, and has friends among them. Han wouldn’t be surprised. But, maybe that’s just Han making excuses for going soft.
Like most people in Tatooine’s space ports Luke was an outlaw, living between what was lawful and what was tolerated, with a code of his own that figures of authority didn’t exactly appreciate.
Except, this was Tatooine, and Luke was a local, so that was different here too, because Jabba was the authority, and no one ever accused the Hutts of an excess of kindness or virtue.
Which must be how Luke ended up here, in what’s basically a cave, with an burn so infected that his..friends?...fathers?...fellow compatriots in the noble fight to shake off the chains of their oppressors?
It doesn’t matter, does it? Chewie will never forgive Han if he lets Luke die.
“How is he still alive?” Han asks. “Jabba didn’t get to where he is today by letting people who cross him live.”
“Water pays for everything out here.” Ben says matter of factly, as though it should be obvious. As though people walk out of Jabba’s dungeons every day. “And his uncle is a moisture farmer, from one of the older families of homesteaders, but it took some time to get the point across.”
The thing is Han doesn’t know enough about life on Tatooine outside of the Cantinas, and the smugglers den to understand what the means, but he’s sharp enough not to let it show.
“You need bacta for his face.” Han states, because it’s obvious, and because it’s something he understands. Between the streets, the war and the life of crime he’s gotten good at patching up wounds in less than ideal locations. He knows what to do and he knows what he needs the only problem is...
...this is Tatooine. And things are different here.
Kitster still has Han by the arm and he shakes him. “They’ll know he’s too hurt to get across the dunes without treatment, and Jabba will guess who’s hiding him. They won’t sell to us, but you? You they won’t blink.”
“And I’m just supposed to do this out of the goodness of my heart?”
Ben looks disappointed, but Kitster just looks resigned. “We’ll pay, to cover the cost and your risks.”
“Credits?” Anywhere else it wouldn’t be a question, but this is Tatooine and they’re hiding in a cave, so it needs to be asked.
“We’ll get them.” A girl with a dirty face promised from where she sits vigil against the wall. “He’d do the same for any of us.”
There’s a murmur from the group, and Kitster meets Han’s eye. “Credits.” He confirms.
For the first time in a long time Han feels something like guilt, for who he’s become but he doesn’t argue or correct.
He didn’t get to be Jabba’s favourite smuggler by doing things for nothing.
It takes him less than an hour. He doesn’t even need to buy the bacta-patches. He finds an old stash of them on the Falcon, something he must have stocked up on years ago and forgotten about. He grabs the whole pile, stuffs them in a satchel that he finds under his bunk and which probably dates from back when the ship was Lando’s and heads back to the poor part of town.
They’re so grateful. He takes the credits though. It’s enough that every person in the neighbourhood must have chipped in most if not all of whatever they had squirreled away for a rainy day. He hadn’t realized bacta was quite so hard to get out here.
It makes Han’s eyes burn with shame and the back of his throat burn with bile but he takes the credits and he trudges back towards the centre of town.
It’s night by then so Chewbacca has emerged from the ship, and is standing in the street waiting for him.
“Where are you coming from?” Chewie asks, too worried to even sound annoyed, which makes Han feel like even more of a shit. “There’s nothing over there but the Slave Quarters.”
Han pauses. “What.”
“The Slave Quarters, some freedmen there too, I suppose. Jabba owns them all or almost all of them.”
Han doesn’t look at him. Luke is friends with everyone. That includes Chewbacca, and apparently, the slaves of Mos Eisely.
If Han were a different sort of man this would be the turning point. He’d cut ties with Jabba, and try and be a better sort of person.
After all, his best friend is a member of an enslaved species.
Instead he picks up the cargo, and if he gets off planet with slightly more efficiency than usual, well, chalk it up to Chewie’s good influence, and leave it at that.
Han runs into Luke the next time he stops by Tatooine which isn’t a surprise. At some point in the last few months Luke has acquired a long barrelled blaster like the Sand People use, and it never seems to leave his hand, propped on his shoulder like a warning. The wound on his face has also healed, ragged and pink and an uglier scar than anyone further out than the Mid-Rim would ever have.
Han’s got a knack for languages and now that the skin around it isn’t swollen and red it’s easy to read the Huttese Syllabic burned into the kid’s cheek- trouble. Not like it’s saying something everyone didn’t already know.
He cuts quite the figure, standing perched on his speeder, with the gun of a Tusken Raider, and the brand on his cheek. Even the fact that he’s a baby-faced sixteen-year old still small enough for Han to pick up and move without much trouble doesn’t really take away from the over-all effect. Han’s known plenty of sweet-faced kids who’d gut you for their cause, or just because they felt like it.
“What the hell happened to your face?” Han snarls, as he heads towards the Cantina. It seems pretty clear that the kid was waiting for him, but unwilling to get to close to any of Jabba’s buildings. He’d left enough bacta patches for Luke’s face to heal almost perfectly.
“You think I’d waste good bacta futzing over a scar?” Luke hops down from the speeder, long gun propped over his shoulders. It makes him look like he’s in the stocks, the way his hands hang down over it. He’s still short enough that the gun is too tall for him, but, Han would guess, nothing seems to slow this kid down. “I let them keep the rest.”
If Han were decent he’d have kept the money the old men had payed him and he’d give it back now. But, he didn’t keep it, and didn’t tell Chewie, so he offers the kid a job instead, to try and cover the gnawing guilt.
He figures it counts as a good deed since he doesn’t really need the help, and he figures the kid is probably eager to get off this dustball.
Luke just cocks his head and squints at him.
Han’s gotten used to that look from the locals. They don’t talk much to off-worlders, and as far as Han can tell they don’t trust anybody. “C’mon kid, I know you can into trouble with Jabba, this’ll get you out of the way of his warpath, and you can make good money. You’re too good for a place like this you must want off.”
Luke shrugs and leans against his gun. “I wish I could take you up on that offer, Han.” He glances at where you can see the twin suns making their way towards the horizon between the buildings and then he shakes his head. “But, I can’t trust that Jabba hasn’t asked you to throw me out the airlock, all hush hush like, the minute we leave atmo. I’m sure he’d pay well for that.”
“He’d pay a bounty hunter to do that.” Han protests. “He knows killing isn’t my skillset.”
Luke just raises one shoulder and smiles crookedly because of the way the scar pulls at his cheek. “But, if I went with you, who would free the slaves?”
Han rolls his eyes. Why does he always wind up with the most ridiculous people on any given planet? “I’m sure someone will come along at some point.”
Luke watches the sun inch between the buildings, casting long dark shadows across the street. He looks sad. “No one has yet, and I know better than anyone- once you leave Tatooine, no one comes back to stay.”
Han watches the suns set and sighs.
“At least let me buy you a drink, kid?”
Luke grins, and skips over because he’s a child and ridiculous. “Sure! Don’t let my uncles catch you though!”
“Oh yeah? What would they do?”
“Either lecture you to death, or hit you with a big stick or both. Depends on the uncle.”
Han laughs. “Oh, c’mon, don’t try and tell me there’s a drinking age on Tatooine.”
Luke ducks his head and smiles. “No.” He kicks at the dust of the street. “They just worry, as though Ben can’t out-drink any bounty hunter on this rock and still win a barfight.”
That’s impressive, even by Han’s standards. “Wow. This the same old guy with the brown cloak I met while you were-“ he gestures to Luke’s cheek.
“Yeah. Ben’s like that. Always shows up when the shit it’s the fan.”
“Well, if you see him coming, let me know so I can duck-“ Han jokes, moving to sling an arm over the kid’s shoulders, but the gun gets in the way and then he has to awkwardly step back, and- yeah, Luke’s laughing at him again. Stupid punk teenagers.
“Okay, but that’ll cost you.”
“Everything on Tatooine does.”
“You can even buy a soul out here, if yours is getting worn.”
“Not funny kid.”
“Eh. Kinda funny.”
Han doesn’t seen Luke again for a while. He’s busy and his business doesn’t take him to Tatooine for a few months, and then when he is there, Luke isn’t. Han assumes he’s gotten himself involved in something of the stupid and noble cause persuasion. That or he’s out in the desert on a run, and Han just missed him.
He finally sees him by chance, wearing the more ordinary loose white robes the locals favour instead of his working gear and practically hanging off the arm of some moustachioed boy on the other side of the hangar.
The mustache-kid gently shakes Luke off, and then boards his transport with a grin. The second the door closes Luke’s shoulder’s start to shake.
Han’s moving before he’s even thought about it, towing the kid out of the hangar and down the street to the dark anonymity of the cantina.
Luke let’s him, which is a bit of surprise. Han buys him a drink which Luke throws back like a pro instead of sipping with much making of faces which had been his previous drinking style.
“So who was that?”
Luke shrugs. “Friend from the Dune Sea, another kid from a moisture farm. His name’s Biggs.” Luke gets a dreamy far off look in his eyes that Han recognizes. Ah, young love, nothing like it.
“He takin’ a job or something?” Han asks. Luke shrugs.
“He’s joining the Academy. He wants to be a pilot.”
Han nods. “Academy’s not so bad, if you can stand straight and follow orders. Good way to learn a skill.”
Luke’s face crumbles a little bit. “Everyone of my friends from back home is leaving and I...”
Han thinks about the faces of those slaves he’s met. The ones who’d pooled their livesavings to buy bacta for Luke. “You have responsibilities here.”
Luke meets his eye and nods with big-eyed heartbreak.
Han clicks his tongue and thinks for a minute. “Tough break, kid. First love has a kick like a bantha and hurts like hell.”
Luke frowns. “What does that even mean?”
“It means, drink to forget kid.” Han explains pouring Luke another.
Luke stares miserably at his glass. “It’s just...it’s just I thought he understood. I thought...I thought he’d stay.”
Ah. Here’s the meat of the problem here. “For the cause or you?”
“I thought if he wouldn’t stay for them he’d stay for me.”
Han sighs and takes in the picture of complete misery that was Luke Skywalker in that moment.
“You know kid, you can’t save anyone if you run yourself down so hard that you can’t even get out of bed in the morning.”
Luke looks at him, big sad blue eyes. He’s soft and he’s kind and if he’s alone out here, without the friends he’s grown up with, just him and the bitter old men- he’ll end up beaten down and bitter before he’s old.
“I can’t just leave-“ Luke protests.
Han holds up a hand. “Hear me out. I can always use a few extra hands on the crew, and Jabba’s got some work lined up for me. That’s credits and lots of ‘em since you’d only be splitting with me and Chewie.” Han glances around the Cantina, like everywhere on Tatooine it’s run-down and coated in a layer of grime. “Your cause, whatever it is, and believe me I do not want to know, could use some capital, and supplies, if you can’t even buy bacta, and-“ Han holds up a finger to keep Luke from interrupting. “I’m in good with Jabba, you work for me Jabba might think you’re toeing the line stopping with all-“ Han waves his hand up and down “-this.”
For the first time since Han found him in the hangar, Luke smiles. “Don’t you mean all-“ He leans on one hand and taps his cheek with his fingers, right on the brand that reads ‘trouble’ “-this?”
Han bites back and chuckle and takes another drink. “Yeah, that too.”
Luke thinks about. He sighs, and is shoulders slump. He puts his head in his hands. “You’re right, Han. If I give up, I can’t help anyone, and if I stay here...I don’t know if I can be strong enough to keep fighting.”
Han forces a grin and puts his hand out. “Welcome aboard the Millenium Falcon, the fastest ship in the galaxy.”
Luke looks up, peaking between his bangs and gives Han a small watery smile. “It made the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.”
Han nods, ‘That it did.”
Luke reaches out and shakes his hand. “I guess I’ll crew with you. For a little while at least.”
Han slaps the table. “Great. Now, go tell your uncles so they don’t think I kidnapped you and send bounty hunters after me.”
Luke laughs, but he heads off to tell his family anyway, and Han notices that he didn’t disagree that that was exactly what would happen if someone tried to kidnap Luke Skywalker.
On Corellia no one cared what happened to hard scrabble kids just trying to get by, but this was Tatooine. Things were different here.
And for once, it was different for the better.