Owen Lars had always liked the Sand Fair.
It was supposed to be for people to come and trade - that's why they had it - but only adults cared about that, and as far as Owen knew, they didn't care about it all that much. His father and a few other moisture farmers had set up an Anchorhead district booth, where they were mostly selling underground irrigation systems, but they put in their time there in a surly way.
Last year, Dad had tried to slip his duty as much as possible, but this year, he just shrugged when Damira Darklighter said, "Oh, come on Cliegg... you can stay here one more hour while I go off to the fabric booth!"
Dad had just said, "Suit yourself. Buy something nice. I'll take your shift."
Owen was disappointed, though he struck off on his own without complaining as soon as the call was made. Dad had promised to go through the holo-maze with him, and maybe the proj room, where they could have their faces grafted onto aliens and strongmen. But Dad had forgotten, as he seemed to be forgetting a lot this year. It had been the only thing Owen was really looking forward to.
And he hadn't been looking forward to it all that much.
It just didn't seem important this year. Nothing seemed important this year. How could the maze be any fun without Mom giving up halfway through and halloo-ing to the mazekeeper, who would play along and tease them by shifting the walls around until all three of the Larses were laughing like mad? Who would be there in the proj room to say, "Ooo... what a scary Gamorrean is coming this way!"? Who would scold him when he ran out of money and trading bits, then slip just a little bit more into his belt pouch when he wasn't looking?
Last year's fair had been in nearby Mos Eisley and Mom had been hugely pregnant, but she'd braved the heat and played as she always played. She'd only skipped the fast rides, though she'd clapped and whistled when Owen rode them.
Then the baby came, and the sickness came with her. The baby - Jalda, her name was Jalda, even if she didn't have it long - never really took hold in the world. She was small and sickly when she was born, and small and sickly when she died three weeks later. Owen had been holding her at the time, and he hadn't even realized she was dead when her eyes slipped shut. She'd just become quiet and still, and he had held her closer. He hadn't wanted to be a big brother in the first place - he'd been an only child for thirteen years, and he'd liked it just fine - but holding her at peace, he'd felt like one, and wanted to take care of her. Her body had still been warm, for so long...
Mom had known, though. She'd made her way out of the room where she'd been mostly bedridden since the birth, seen Jalda lying perfectly still in Owen's arms, and silently embraced both of them. She'd dressed neatly and carefully, and stood with Owen and Dad while Jalda was committed to the sands, then she had crawled back into bed. The childbed fever had raged for another week, and then she was gone too, buried in sand, her face turned away from the sun.
The Sand Fair wasn't ever going to be the same again.
It was a stupid and little thing to worry about, but Owen couldn't help it. It made him mad. It wasn't fair that she should be gone, and that they couldn't have all made the trip to Mos Espa together, laughing their way over the Wastes, singing silly songs, and settling into the traders' camp with all the joking that had always been there before. It wasn't fair that Dad only grunted a few orders the whole time they were setting up, or that all the fun of the thing seemed to be sapped out of it.
Owen passed by the midway food sellers, the game-hawkers, the unofficial wrestling matches in the makeshift streets. Same old Sand Fair. He stood outside the proj room for a long time, listening to people laughing inside and weighing the full bag of money that he had brought along. He could afford to do this, and the rides, and the trading booths. He'd been working this year, and Dad had given him a salary, just like anyone else. And he hadn't felt much like spending it since Mom died. He could go in and spend all day in the proj room, if the humor struck him.
But the humor didn't strike him.
He shrugged his overcoat higher - the back of his neck was starting to burn - and headed back toward the traders' camp. It was on the other side of Mos Espa, and Owen decided to cut through the city rather than go back around the arc of the Fair's midway. He didn't know the town, but he had a good sense of direction. Dad always said he could find his way home with a nav-piece even if he set him down on the other edge of the Outer Rim. And anyone who tried to steal from him would find out that country kids weren't people to mess with. Owen had wrestled four different species last year, some of them adults, and he'd won every time.
He saw the woman and the Toydarian before he heard them, the two of them under the shade of a booth crammed with metal parts, but he knew without needing to hear that they were arguing, and whatever the subject was, it was more important to the woman. She was wringing her hands nervously and biting her lower lip. The Toydarian shrugged casually and waved his arm at an incomplete droid sitting deactivated beside him.
Owen was never sure what made him decide to come closer. It wasn't that the woman looked like Mom - she didn't. Mom had been a strawberry blonde with large blue eyes, who always looked like she was about to burst out laughing. This woman was brunette, with quiet features that fell just short of pretty. She had been used badly by the desert, and obviously hadn't had any of the potions and notions that the ladies used to help their skin.
But as soon as he heard her voice, he found his feet pointing toward the stall, and his legs pulling him forward.
"...Watto, please," she was saying when he heard her voice for the first time. "Please, not Threepio. He was Ani's. He built it! Please don't sell him. I promised!"
The Toydarian waggled his long nose. "I don't care if the Boonta Fairy put it together. It comes from my shop, it belongs to me. And I can make some good money on it. I owe people."
"Watto, please. I'll beg if you wish me to beg. But don't sell Threepio. I promised Ani."
"It wasn't yours to promise!" The Toydarian - Watto - reached over to the droid and flipped a switch in its neck. "Go on, stand up, you! You're gonna... Hey... what've we got here?" His demeanor changed entirely, his voice filling with good humor and fake generosity. His eyes scanned over Owen, who was now standing only a meter or so away, not sure exactly when he'd gotten so close.
The woman arranged her face into something more placid, and cast her eyes downward.
The droid stood up and looked around its environment, then nodded to Owen. "I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations..."
"Great, i'nt he?" Watto asked. "He's for sale. Good workmanship."
"My son built him," the woman said quietly.
"So he did, so he did," Watto mused. "Best mechanic I ever saw, that boy. Never saw a human so good at it. You'd never think he was even younger than you are." He patted the droid's arm. "This one's never gonna break down on you."
Watto kept speaking, giving his sales pitch on the droid. Owen didn't listen. What use would a protocol droid be in Anchorhead? Instead, he watched the woman. Her eyes never came up. Her fists were clenched against her skirt and her breathing was shallow and unnaturally even.
She didn't remind Owen of his mother.
She reminded him of himself, trying not to cry in front of Dad or anyone else, trying to never let the bad things win. It was the way of the desert, and it was the only way that had ever made sense to Owen Lars.
He suddenly hated Watto, with a bright white hate. Selling the droid was nothing but plain mean-spirited greed. Making this lady break a promise. Making her look at the ground.
He snapped his head up. "How much did you say?"
"Aha!" Watto crooned. "Down to business! Now, there are lots of things that might go into it..."
Owen felt his money bag and offered Watto half of what was in it, seething at the thought of those filthy hands on honest farm money. City folks always thought country people were stupid - particularly country kids - but Owen had been bargaining with jawas for half of his fourteen years, and he knew how the game was going to be played. He wasn't wrong.
"That's a little low, I think," Watto said. "Just look at what this droid can do. He can talk to anything. Any species, droids, engines, you name it. I'd have to go for twice that."
Owen didn't dare look too closely at the woman again. If he did, he'd really lose his temper and just haul off and smack the Toydarian halfway across town. "I don't know," he said. "No coverings. Could be full of sand by now. Not going to do anyone any good if it fries out in an hour."
"It's not going to fry out," Watto grumbled, but knocked fifteen percent off his original price on his next offer. Owen went up the same amount in his counter-offer.
Finally, as he'd expected, Watto offered a price in the middle, about three quarters of what Owen had in his money bag.
"Done," Owen said. "Now, give me the control."
Watto had the restrainer in his hand, and he waved it back and forth. "Money first, control after."
Owen nodded and counted out the agreed-upon amount. He resisted the urge to fling it into the dust just to watch Watto scrape it up. Watto handed him the control.
Owen examined it. "So the droid is mine to do whatever I want with?"
"It sure is. A good bargain you got on it..."
But Owen wasn't listening. He stepped closer to the woman. "Ma'am?"
She didn't look up. "What is it?"
"This droid's no use to me out in the fields. Would you mind holding onto it? I'll come check in on it next time I'm in Mos Espa." She didn't move, though Owen could see her taking furtive glances at Threepio, almost daring to hope. He took her hand and pressed the restrainer into it. "Would you mind keeping him for me?"
"Hey!" Watto cried. "You can't do that! She's mine! I own what she owns!"
Owen glared at him. "Droid's mine to do what I want with. I want to leave it with her to look after for me. And it better be there when I come back next year."
Watto grumbled to himself and counted the money. "All right. 'S your money."
"Yeah," Owen said, "it is." He looked to the woman again as Watto flew inside the small shop the booth had been set up in front of. "Are you going to be all right?"
She nodded. "Thank you," she said. "I... thank you."
"What's your name?"
Owen smiled. It was a good, solid name. He liked it. "I'm Owen Lars. And don't worry, I won't really come checking on the droid. I got no use for it where I am."
"Oh, but I was looking forward to having a visitor." She took See-Threepio by the elbow and smiled at him fondly, kind humor coming into her face. "Threepio, wouldn't we love to have Owen come visit?"
"It's okay, ma'am, you don't have to-"
"There you are."
Owen jumped, and looked guiltily over his shoulder. "Dad. Um... I was just..."
He came up the dusty street, frowning deeply. "Been looking all over for you. I told you to stay on the midway."
"He was helping me," Shmi Skywalker said. "You have a kind and generous son, sir."
Dad noticed her for the first time. There was nothing momentous about it. In later years, when they were both gone and Owen's young charge pestered him to tell the story, he was always disappointed - no matter how many times he heard it - to learn that there wasn't an orchestra suddenly playing in the town square, or some kind of chorus of voices coming down from the heavens. It was just one person meeting another, and neither of them had any idea that they'd be married within the year. "He's a good boy," Dad said. "That's why I keep him around."
Shmi turned to Owen. "I will pay you back," she said. "Watto allows me to make some money. It may take some time, but I will-"
"Don't worry about it," Owen said, uncomfortable with the idea of having her tell Dad what he did.
Too late. Dad's eyes had narrowed. "What's this about, Owen?"
Shmi's eyes met Owen's, and something passed between them. He felt her giving him the decision of what to tell. "I, uh... well, this Watto... he was going to sell Shmi's droid. This is Shmi, Dad. Shmi Skywalker."
"Cliegg Lars. How do?"
"I'm well, thank you, and yourself?"
Owen let their brief exchange hang, then sighed. Dad was going to call him a wastrel and a fool, but he may as well get it over with. Too much was out to keep any of it in now. "Anyway, I bought the droid to give it back to her. Her son made it."
He waited for the insult with his eyes cast down, but it didn't come. He glanced up. Dad was looking at him thoughtfully. "You did a good thing, Owen," he said. "I'm proud of you. Your mom would be proud of you too, I'd wager. She'd have done the same." Owen couldn't think of any answer to this. Praise from Dad was rare, and he didn't want to spoil it by talking. Dad looked back at Shmi. "Don't you worry about paying him back. It's good for him to do this, too."
"But I can't accept..."
"Sure you can, and you will."
Shmi looked like she was going to argue, but stopped herself. "Thank you. I... May I at least offer you both dinner? I haven't anything grand, but there is enough of it, and it will save you from midway cooking. Half of that is spoiled." She wrinkled her nose and her eyes sparkled.
To Owen's surprise, Dad said, "We'd be much obliged, ma'am."
"Good. Watto will leave in an hour or so to go gamble on the race. Meet me back here."
She smiled and offered a clumsy curtsy, then ducked into the shadows of the shop. See-Threepio glanced at Owen, then at the shop, then back at Owen. "Go on in," Owen said, waving a hand toward the shop. "You're all hers."
Threepio clattered his way inside.
"Anything you want to do for an hour?" Dad asked. "I know I said we could do the maze, but-"
"It's okay. Let's just walk around."
Dad nodded. He put a hand on Owen's shoulder and steered him back toward the main street. "I'm proud of you, son," he said. "It was a damned fine thing to do, and for a stranger no less. She remind you a little of your mom?"
Owen shrugged. He didn't want Dad to think less of him, didn't want him to know that he'd helped Shmi because she reminded him of himself. So he didn't answer.
"Reminds me a little of her, I think. Something in the eyes, just before she went in. Caught me off guard for a minute."
They spent the next hour poking around Mos Espa's grungy shops and listening to the gossip about the pod race that would be held at sunset, finally settling down on a bench to talk and listen to the passersby.
People were excited and eager for the upcoming race. Owen couldn't care less about it. He knew a few names - everyone on Tatooine knew one or two - but he didn't keep up with the sport. He held with Dad on the subject: it was a fool thing to do in the daylight; doing it in the dark crossed the line from foolish to downright stupid. Any sport with a body count that was actually expected had stopped being a game.
Dad checked his chrono every few minutes, and looked impatiently at the suns. When most of the hour had passed, he got up from the bench where they'd been talking in a lackadaisical way about the money from this year's harvest. "I think it's time to head back."
"It's not quite an hour."
"We're also a few blocks away."
Owen frowned as he got up. It wasn't like Dad to be nervous about being late. In Anchorhead, no one gave specific times for anything anyway.
They made their way back to Watto's booth in much less time than it would have taken before. The streets of Mos Espa were beginning to empty as citizens made their way to the arena outside town, at the very end of the midway. The stands would be crowded tonight, but the city would be nice and quiet for awhile.
Shmi was locking up the merchandise when they got there, and she gave them a wave. Dad went to her without saying anything and collapsed the canvas cover for nighttime storage.
"Thank you again," Shmi said, smiling brightly. "Gallantry is a rare sight in Mos Espa, and now I've seen it twice in a day."
Dad shrugged and rolled up the cloth efficiently. He handed it to Threepio. "Can you put this where it belongs?"
"Yes, Master Cliegg!" Threepio said, sounding like it was the most delightful idea in the galaxy. He took the cover inside.
"Your boss is gone?" Dad asked.
Shmi nodded. "Oh, yes. He actually left early, to get his bets in and get a good seat."
"Gambles a lot, does he?"
"Doesn't win much, though, does he?" Owen asked.
She laughed. "He wins sometimes, but not much lately." The laugh faded. "He lost a lot of money the day he lost my son, Ani. And without Ani to do the repairs here, he doesn't make enough at the shop to make it up, so he gambles more every time. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. But he hasn't got back what he had before, so he's not happy."
"Damn fool way to do things," Dad said.
Shmi shook her head fondly. "Watto is, at his worst, a careless fool."
Owen didn't know what to make of that - he'd practically seen her forced to beg the filthy bug. "He seemed worse earlier."
"He would have felt very bad later. It wouldn't have changed things, but he would have felt guilt."
Dad snorted. "Did he feel guilty about betting your son?" She winced as though slapped, and Dad went pale under his tan. "I'm sorry, ma'am, that was out of line."
"No... no, it's all right. Watto... he took the bet on Ani, but he didn't place it. And the man who made the bet did it for Ani's good. He was a Jedi master. He wasn't looking for a new slave - he wanted to set Ani free. He won. My Ani is free. He's just... not here with me. I miss him." Her smile came back - a sad, horrible, wonderful smile. Owen was pretty sure that was the one Dad got lost in. He was definitely sure it was the one he fell into. It wasn't what Dad felt. It was just... just the way she was missing something, and he was missing something, and there was a place that they each fit the other's empty space a little bit.
Dinner was plain but solid, and despite a sudden burst of worry from Shmi, there was enough. "I seem not to be eating everything Watto buys," she'd said. "Thank the Maker, it's mainly dry goods." She pulled a few bags from the cupboard. "Watto cut the rations in half when Ani left, but he forgot that a growing boy eats more than his mother. I didn't remind him. I can save a bit every week now." She winked.
They ate together around her table. Owen found himself wondering if he was sitting in Ani's spot, but he didn't ask. He guessed he was, since it was where Shmi's arms tended to go first when she was serving.
After dinner, Shmi stood up. "May I have a moment?" she asked. "There is something... Well, please make yourselves at home. I'll be back very shortly. It doesn't take long."
She slipped out a door onto what seemed to be a small balcony. Owen watched her long enough to see her clasp her hands to her heart and look up at the sky. Thinking about her son, probably. Missing him.
There was something sad about it, and something wonderful, and something... hungry. Owen wanted to go out there and let her talk all she wanted about her son, and maybe he could talk about Mom, and maybe-
Dad tapped him on the shoulder and turned him around. "Don't you go watching what you weren't invited to watch. The lady can have some privacy to do what she needs to do."
"Yeah, okay. Sorry, Dad."
"Let's get the table cleared while she's doing whatever it is she has to do."
Owen nodded, and they worked together to first clear the table, then wash the dishes and set them to dry. They were just finishing when Shmi came back in. "My goodness!" she said. "I don't invite guests over to do my housecleaning for me, but thank you!"
Dad shrugged. "Wouldn't be so much of it if it weren't for us. Seemed like the least we could do." There was a long moment of silence, then Dad took a deep breath. "Look, I... We've liked meeting you, but we've got a campsite over in the midway, we can leave you to your privacy..."
"Must you go already?" Shmi asked, then blushed. "I mean, of course, if you want to leave."
"I don't," Owen said, surprising himself. He didn't want to leave, but it was really up to Dad.
Dad gave him an unreadable look then said, "Well, ma'am, if it's really no trouble to you... I don't much want to leave yet, either."
Shmi gestured back to the table. "Please, sit down. I have some juice. No wine - Watto drinks enough for three people - but the juice is sweet and cool. It will help take some of the dust from the day."
They took their seats again, and Shmi brought three glasses of an orange-colored fruit juice that Owen didn't recognize. "Pallies," Shmi said. "Ani's favorite." She looked away self-consciously. "I seem to talk about him a lot. I didn't realize it. You must be tired of it."
"No, ma'am," Dad said. "I talk about my boy when he's not around, too. But don't tell him I said so." He winked.
Shmi sat down and nodded. She looked curiously at them, started to open her mouth, then closed it again.
Owen wasn't sure what that was about, but Dad's face said he knew. He looked at his hands and said, "My wife passed on almost a year ago. Childbed fever."
A wave of guilt hit Owen. He hadn't thought about Mom since he'd gotten here. He was just treating another lady - a lady he'd only met that afternoon - like she was the only woman in the galaxy. He bit his lip.
"I'm so sorry," Shmi said. "It must be hard for you both."
"We loved her." Owen forced himself to look back up. Shmi was looking at him in a sympathetic way. "We miss her."
"That's about the size of it," Dad agreed. His voice was tight. "Guess we don't talk about it much, but I guess we don't need to. We're in the same place."
Silence spun out awkwardly in the small kitchen, broken only by the far-off roar of the podracing crowd. It erupted into a sudden intense cheer.
Shmi grimaced. "The racers must have made it around the first circuit. I wonder how many crashed."
"Are they crazy?" Dad asked, clearly grateful for the change of subject. "Racing those things at night?"
"It's insane at the best of times." She sighed. "Ani loved it."
"Did he have a favorite?" Owen asked, figuring maybe it would be one of the few he knew, and that would be something to talk about at least, other than his mother.
Shmi was shaking her head. "Oh, no. He wasn't a spectator."
"He raced?" Dad looked toward the window, where the cheer was fading, then back at Shmi, incredulous. "You let him race?"
"It wasn't my choice," she said. Her voice was even. "Watto noticed he could fly when he was small. He had him trained and started him racing. I hated it. I hated every minute of it. But we belonged to Watto, and what Watto wanted Ani to do, he did. I can only thank the Maker that it was merely podracing." Owen couldn't think of much that would be worse than letting him in a race where people got killed, but he didn't say anything. Shmi took a shaky breath. "It was the only time Ani sided with Watto, though. He loved to race. It made him happy somehow. He won the Boonta Eve Classic five years ago. That was the race Watto lost him in."
"To a Jedi master," Dad mused. "Doesn't sound like anything I ever heard about the Jedi."
"Qui-Gon Jinn was an extraordinary man."
"Was he..." Dad stopped, blushing, and looked away.
Shmi only gave him a weary smile. When she spoke, she sounded tired, like it was an answer she'd given too many times to hear it herself anymore. "He was not Ani's father. There was no father."
There seemed to be no answer to that. Owen guessed that, being a slave, maybe she didn't want to talk about where she got her son from. "How come he wanted to free him, then? I mean, other than it being the right thing to do?"
"To train him," she said, with a strange mix of pride and sadness. "He is to be a Jedi knight."
"I'll be damned," Dad said. "I heard they train them up from babies, but-"
"Oh, it was a special arrangement. Qui-Gon wasn't sure it would be done, but Ani..." She laughed nervously. "It seems Ani decided to fight in the battle of Naboo. It swayed the Council."
"I heard about that fight..."
Shmi adopted an exaggerated preening pose. "I'll have you know that the queen of Naboo has eaten at this very table." She laughed. "Not that we knew it at the time. She was only a pretty girl, and Ani adored her." She stood and started clearing empty glasses. "I found most of this out later. Qui-Gon Jinn was killed in the battle. I saw it on the holonet news. And I saw my Ani dressed as a Jedi. I wrote to him. I saved for a month to pay for the transmittal, but I only got a letter back from his new Jedi master. He is meant to begin a new life. He is to... let go of the old one."
"You're kidding!" Dad's eyebrows came together in what Owen knew as his "Damn galaxy is going to rot!" look.
"No." She put the glasses in the sink, but neither turned the water on nor came back to the table. "It was a kind letter, for all that. Master Kenobi told me that Ani is learning quickly, and all the doubts about his age have passed. And he told me how he was getting along, what he enjoyed. Even what he didn't enjoy. The things he assumed I would want to know. He seems to be a loving guardian of sorts. He was Qui-Gon's student."
"Ani has troubled dreams. Master Kenobi believes that they are caused by trying to hold on to two lives. It sets him apart. And he should not be apart from his new life. His free life. My future is here. Ani's is not. I didn't write again. I wonder sometimes if I should, but-"
"Doesn't sound like it would get through," Dad grunted. "Lousy thing."
"It's the way things are."
Another cheer floated over from the arena.
"Second circuit," Shmi said. She came back to the table and sat down. "I hope Watto wins his bet. It will make life more enjoyable if he does. I'm also never certain these days whether or not he has bet my bond. He says he won't do that, but who knows once he starts gambling, what he will risk. And there are many worse masters out there than Watto."
Owen tried to imagine what it was like to wonder if your life was the stake in someone's bet. He didn't much like the idea. He didn't know anything about slavery - the farmers in Anchorhead didn't practice it, and the only raiders were Tuskens. They didn't take prisoners to make slaves of them. It was treating people like droids.
Like droids. An idea came to him. "How much do you cost?" he asked, then blushed. The question hadn't come out exactly like he'd meant it.
"Owen," Dad said harshly.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean. Never mind."
Shmi looked at him, and her eyes were soft. She understood what he was thinking, but her face told him that it was far beyond his means. "Considerably more than a droid," she said quietly. "But, as I understand it, less than a podracer. Watto would get as much as he could. Slaves are a status symbol here." She forced a change in her facial expression, pulling her mouth into a playful grin and tipping her head to look like she was avidly interested in something. When she spoke again her tone insisted on a change of subject. "So tell me, what is life like on the moisture farms? I have traveled from city to city, but I've never been around the farms."
"It's not very exciting," Owen said. "I like it, though. It's nice out there at night. My mother used to like to watch the suns setting over the Wastes. You can see most of the way to Mos Eisley."
Dad picked it up. He wasn't much for fancy descriptions, but he seemed to want to talk to Shmi, and he told her about the day to day struggle with the sand and the vaporators, and about how Mom had always made jokes about it and made it homey.
"You must be lonely now," Shmi said.
"Yeah. We are, I think. Am I right, Owen?"
Owen shrugged. It was a weird thing for Dad to say. He usually wouldn't admit to something like that.
At some point during the conversation, another cheer had gone up, longer than the others, but no one had commented on it. Now, into the quiet, a crowd suddenly started pouring back into the streets. There was a great deal of celebration, with whistling and singing and fireworks. There was some shouting, too.
Shmi excused herself, then went to the balcony and called down. "Who won tonight?"
"Longshot!" a voice answered. "Quadrinaros came through!"
Pause. "Thank you!" Shmi said. She came back in, fingers rubbing at a spot on her forehead. "Watto bet a long shot, but not that one."
"What's going to-"
The door blew open and Watto flew in, looking disturbed. "Eh, Shmi... The boy build anything else around here?" he asked without preliminaries.
"No. Just Threepio."
"He hid that for awhile." Watto didn't acknowledge the Larses. He flew into a side room. "I think I'll just check around in here."
"How deep are you in?" Shmi asked him.
Owen stood up and went over to stand beside her. From here, he could see a room that was clearly a boy's domain. Watto was pulling things from the shelves, grimacing, tossing them aside.
"Watto?" Shmi prodded.
"Seven thousand, give or take." He examined an engine that had been sitting on the dresser, and cast it aside in a surly way. "Mostly give. I had a podracer last month I could've used for it, but that pilot I hired crashed it just before the race then ran off without paying me for it. I thought Quadrinaros was a goner after that last round. Shouldn't have won it. Must've cheated."
"They all cheat," Shmi said. "I seem to remember you telling Ani he ought to."
Watto turned and glared at her. "Whose side're you on, anyway?"
"I'll give you twelve thousand."
Dad came to the door of Ani's room. "I'm told that a slave is about the cost of a podracer, and you said a podracer would pay your debt. So I'll give you seven thousand for Shmi - that ought to take care of tonight - and five thousand for all her things. That ought to set you up for doing better business if you can keep from gambling it away."
Owen hadn't thought that Shmi's face was capable of the expression of complete surprise, but that's what came over it. The tightness fell away and her eyes opened wide. "Cliegg... you don't need to..."
"I'll decide what I need to do and don't need to do."
"Twelve thousand, eh?" Watto mused. "I could get more..."
"If you could have gotten more you would have by now. If you want to pay off whoever you owe, take it. If you want some Hutt's bounty hunter to come and rip off your wings, leave it."
"I don't know," Watto said. "I don't sell my slaves for men to use badly."
Dad reached into the room and grabbed Watto by the back of his neck. The Toydarian flapped his wings frantically. "You want to watch what you say."
"What do you want her for, if not that?"
"My wife died. I could use an extra pair of hands on the farm, and my boy could use someone to help look after him."
"Really, Cliegg, you don't have to-"
Dad looked at Shmi. "I know it's kind of quick. Do you mind coming out to the Wastes? Or would you rather stay here and worry about this bug betting your bond to a Hutt?"
Shmi's jaw tightened, and she looked anxiously around. Finally, she lowered her eyes and said softly, almost like she was ashamed or something, "I want to go."
"Good," Dad said. "Then we go." He shook Watto. "Do you accept my offer, or are we going to wait for the collectors to get here?"
"I accept, I accept!" Watto pulled away, rubbing his neck. "I got the control for her tracker here someplace..."
While he dug through his various belt packs, Dad pulled out the ledger where he kept the budget. Owen knew perfectly well that twelve thousand was going to wipe out the advantage of the good harvest, and that they'd have to hope nothing serious broke down for a couple of years. But they had it.
Dad punched a few keys to free up the account, then waited for Watto to hand him the small, key-like control for what he'd called a "tracker." Owen had only the vaguest idea what that was. "Give me the control," Dad said. "Then hand me your account key and I'll transfer the money."
Something broke outside, and Watto jerked a bit in the air. "Okay, okay." He handed Dad the control, then promptly produced his own account key.
Dad made the transfer. "Never thought I'd end up in the slaving business," he muttered. "Now get out. We'll pack up and be gone in the morning."
Watto looked at Shmi. "Guess that's all there is, then, eh?"
She put a gentle hand on one dirty blue shoulder. "You haven't been a bad master, Watto. And I'm sure Ani would thank you for teaching him to fly, though I can't thank you for it myself. I appreciate your kindness in... using me well."
Owen was flabbergasted. After everything...
Watto sniffed uncomfortably. "Yeah, well... you've been a good slave. Sorry to see you go. And all that." He flew out the still-open door.
"Why were you so nice to him?" Owen asked. "He was awful to you!"
"But he could have been worse, and wasn't." Shmi looked at Cliegg. "I don't know how to thank you. I will serve you well. I don't take my bond lightly, and-"
Dad grunted. He was staring at the control. "How do you turn this damned thing off?"
"I have no idea. That wasn't something Watto cared to teach me."
"Well, I guess it can't be that hard to figure out."
"I'll begin packing."
"Do you have anywhere to go?" Owen asked. "I mean, I guess Watto owns the place you live..."
"I thought I was going to the farm," Shmi said, looking confused. "Unless I am unwelcome?"
Dad smiled at her. "You're not unwelcome. I guess my boy was just saying what I was thinking, which is that you're not obliged. I told the truth. We could use the help. And the company. But don't worry. I'm not the 'badly using' type."
"I wasn't worried."
She looked down. "May I have this evening? I want to... to say goodbye to this life. And perhaps write a new letter. Ani won't know where to find me..."
"Of course. It's a stretch to get to Anchorhead tonight, anyway - better to leave tomorrow."
Shmi looked around her small, neat quarters. "There are so many things," she said. "I don't want to bury you in all of this. Ani... I should get rid of some..."
"We got plenty of space," Dad said firmly. "You get his stuff together, and we'll set up a place for it."
"Thank you." She bowed slightly. "I... you are good men. Both of you."
"We try to be." Dad nodded his head in an uncomfortable version of a bow. "Now, we'll let you be. We'll come back in the morning and head straight out. I think they can man the booth without me for the rest of the week."
She nodded. Owen could see tears in the corners of her eyes. She didn't say anything more, just slipped back into Ani's room.
Dad put a hand on Owen's shoulder and led him outside.
"What's she crying about?" Owen asked. "She's a slave here. Why-?"
"A life is a life," Dad said. "It's never easy to let go of it, even when it's bad."
"How come you bought her, really?"
"Aside from it being the right thing to do?"
Dad thought about it for a long time. After awhile, he said, "I don't know. But I'll be glad to have her with us."
"Would you have bought her if Mom was with us?"
"Nope," he said immediately.
Owen stopped walking and looked up in surprise. "You wouldn't?"
Dad grinned. "Wouldn't have had to. Your mom would've bought her and put her on a transport to Coruscant to see her son by now. Guess I'm not quite that generous. But I think your mom would be glad of this."
Owen thought about it long and hard - he would have a moment's doubt in two months, when Dad gruffly told him that he thought he might well marry Shmi, but it was only a moment - then nodded.
They went off together into the night, leaving Shmi to her silent goodbyes. There only a few more hours of night, and they all had some thoughts to think before the new day began.
Original cover by FernWithy. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.