Humans know nothing of love, of loyalty.
Chewbacca suspects it first in the long struggle of the Clone Wars as he watches a manufactured army burn. He searches their commanders’ eyes for remorse, pities the soldiers when there is none. He learns it for certain when the Galactic Empire enslaves his own people and forces them to grind their forests into the ground.
He doubts this hard-earned knowledge when he meets Han Solo.
“Come on,” says the scrawny human boy as he blasts the Imperial manacles and cocks his head in invitation, freeing Chewbacca from a life of slavery and behaving as if it’s not an act of any particular significance.
He argues against Chewbacca’s pledged life debt for a long time after they escape, but his protests end with a sigh.
“Chewbacca? That’s a mouthful. How do you feel about Chewie?”
It’s a surrender and they both know it.
The air is electric in the carbon freezing chamber, plumes of acrid smoke leaking from the vented floor and the ominous, blinking pit in its center. Leia is small and silent at Chewie’s side; Threepio is hanging half-assembled at his back.
Han looks as though he’s trying not to be afraid.
Lando murmurs that Han will be put into carbon freeze, worthless guilt compelling his answer to Han’s whispered question, but it isn’t until Vader gives the order that Chewie really comprehends what is about to happen. He grapples with the Stormtroopers, driven by desperation even more than the life debt he’d sworn.
Han yells at him to stop, to take care of Leia instead. He stills at last, bound by Han’s words as much as the stuncuffs the troopers are forcing him into. Being compelled not to fight, to transfer his protection and care to another, stings as much as the cold bite of the manacles he’d hoped never to wear again.
Leia all but clings to Chewie as Han is dragged onto the platform and lowered into the pit, obscured at last by a thick blast of fumes. Chewie wraps his arms around her. He has never seen her like this: tiny and fragile, filling rather than exceeding the confines of her skin.
Grief bleeds into relief when Han survives the process, but he is carted away by Boba Fett and they are much too late to save him when they escape.
He is mounted on the wall of Jabba the Hutt’s palace like a trophy when they find him six months later. Chewbacca keeps both of his promises when he leaves neither Han nor Leia; they enter the palace and rescue him together.
Chewbacca remembers the birth of his own child in years past, sees the same joy reflected in Han’s eyes when Ben is born. He is a strange child, silent and sharp, sensitive to the point of bad humor, but Han couldn’t be prouder. Chewbacca tolerates the boy’s tendency to climb him like a Wroshyr tree, and allows him to perch on his shoulders when they all fly together on the Falcon. He loves the boy, too.
Han frowns the first time Ben asks about Darth Vader.
The topic is quickly banned apart from Han’s grumbled complaints to Chewie and a few weak jokes about the worst father-in-law in the galaxy. Ben doesn’t laugh. He learns to hide his interest, but Chewbacca can see the intensity of his focus, can almost feel how keen he is on the subject.
Chewie remembers Vader from his capture at Cloud City, and wishes that Ben could have known the man he idolizes. He was, in his day, the second most powerful man in the galaxy, feared and hated and obeyed. But Chewbacca remembers the heaviness in his stride, the weighty sonority of his voice, the razor-sharp control of Darth Vader. He knows that control comes at the price of pain, that the greatest sonority is born of emptiness. Chewbacca knows a slave when he sees one, even in his memories. It takes one to know one, as the humans say. Ben aspires to nothing but pain and hopelessness and cannot see the fact.
When Han pilots the Falcon away from the Resistance base, gray and grim as he stares unseeing at the streaks of hyperspace, Chewie knows that leaving is a mistake. Han's avoidance is a tactic doomed to fail, and one that will fix nothing. But humans live short lives, and Han is still very young by Wookiee standards, not so very different from the boy who risked his life to save Chewie from slavers. He hasn't discovered yet that one cannot outrun the ties of blood, doesn't understand that running from pain doesn't ultimately prevent feeling it.
Chewie knows, but it isn't his place to say. Humans can’t always accept wisdom secondhand, he has learned. They require intimate acquaintance with pain before they absorb its varied lessons. His place is what it has always been: in the co-pilot's seat, listening when Han chooses to mention Leia or Luke.
The silence is more often broken by the odd conversation about making ends meet, grief giving way before the unstoppable force of the mundane.
“Just like old times,” Han says when they accept their first smuggling contract in decades. Chewie pretends not to see the way his eyes glisten before he can look away, but he doesn’t leave. He never leaves Han. (And only in the carbon freezing chamber has Han ever left him.)
Mostly they sit in heavy silence. The space between them is comfortable even though the rest of the galaxy has turned to ash. Han has always lived a life in the dust heaps, but he used to make his way through the ashes of other people’s tragedies. Despite his prowess as a starpilot, he has no idea how to navigate his own. And his ashes are piled so high; there was so very much to burn.
The quiet moments are part of the life debt just as much as the firefights. This, too, is loyalty.
Chewbacca knows that Han is making a mistake. The look in his eye is almost exactly the one he’d worn the first time they met, deep in the mossy tangle of Kashyyyk, decades ago now. The hard resolve slipping inevitably into empathy, warmth forcing its way through determined sarcasm — the look is strained by age, but not dulled. Han’s heart burns no less fiercely for the weight of his years.
“We’ll meet back here,” Han says, brows locked, all business. They part ways despite the whispered misgivings of Chewie’s heart.
He places the charges and listens for Han’s gait on the levels below, slower than in years past, and almost frail compared to the pounding march of passing Stormtroopers. Chewie’s fur still bristles at the all too familiar sound. Han’s steps are eventually too distant to be heard in the cavernous expanse of Starkiller Base; Chewie is glad to return to their rendezvous point, less glad when Han does not immediately appear.
He hears the shout below, recognizes the familiar tone even with the ragged edge. Han is crossing the bridge extending over the enormous pit below, stepping out over the yawning abyss to meet his son standing in its center. The shouts give way to quiet conversation that Chewie can’t hear.
Ben removes his helmet; from this distance, his tall, lanky build and shock of thick hair are very like Chewie’s early memories of Han. Up close, he knows, the differences would be more obvious than the similarities.
The confrontation is quiet and short and punctuated by the angry hum of a blood red lightsaber. It flickers like an insubstantial flame as it pierces Han’s body with the force of unforgiving steel; Chewbacca’s roar is ripped from him almost before he comprehends. Han falls into the pit, and this time he doesn’t rise back out of it.
And just like that, the life debt is broken.
The bonds fall away; Chewbacca feels heavier for their absence. Memories flash in front of his eyes like dangling shards of glass, coloring his view of the present moment without obscuring it. Han, so young and brash, sighing heavily before pointing the Falcon towards the Death Star and the Rebel pilots who needed assistance. Chewie, I’m gonna regret this.
Priming the Falcon for takeoff from Hoth, only to sprint back into the collapsing corridors of the base to make sure Leia was safe. Jabba’s gonna have my head...
Leading a team to the forest moon of Endor to ensure that the second Death Star would never be completed and there would never be another planet reduced to dust like Alderaan. Well, somebody’s gotta do it.
Approaching his son instead of walking away, reaching out to him in the end, even though they’d both done so much running. That irresistible human urge to run — the urge Han always mastered when all was said and done. Ben!
Han, like all humans, flinching from the weight of commitment and care. But unlike those others, always coming back in the end.
The memories are gone again in the space of an instant. Ben stands alone on the bridge, unmoved and unmoving. Chewbacca’s vision flickers and turns red; his bellowed grief is surely drawing the attention of every trooper within a mile radius, and he does not care.
You are not my family, he decides and roars all at once. And for the first time, he means it.
Ben understands him. There was a time, after all, when he could understand and speak Shyriiwook almost as easily as Basic. But the memories disappear with Han into the bottomless void below.
Chewbacca takes aim without thinking, without hesitation. When he pulls the trigger, it is without remorse.
It is the thought of Han's remorse that prevents him from shooting again when Ben jerks with the force of the bowcaster's blast, curling around the wound as his eyes skip past Chewie and stare with burning intensity at Rey and Finn on the level above, oblivious to the fact that only his father's love has spared him. Always blind to what truly matters.
Chewbacca remembers another young man with hard eyes, eyes that softened reluctantly but inevitably, and wonders how humans could manage to be so very different from their fathers.
Chewbacca spins to aim at the nearest Stormtrooper, blasting a smoking hole into his chest plate. He falls silently and dies in the service of one who never cared for him. His fellow troopers step over his body without a hint of hesitation, and Chewie decides that what he has always suspected about humans may be correct after all.
His thumb clamps viciously over the detonator in his hand as he steps into the freezing, sunless dark outside; the explosion at his back nearly burns him. He watches the spreading waves of destruction with a faint sense of victory, but it sours in his stomach, turning cold as the tears on his cheeks.
He hopes Ben has not survived the blast.
He trudges back to the Falcon, determination flaring to life in his hollow chest. He will retrieve Finn and Rey and leave this horrible planet — just as Han intended.
He coaxes the engines to life, but the familiar hum sounds wrong without Han’s muffled cursing. He can almost hear the echo of little Ben’s laughter in the cockpit, can almost feel the pressure of tiny arms clinging to his back. The pain is as molten and violent as the planet cracking and burning beneath him as his mind at last settles on an answer to the question he’d pondered for decades.
Humans know nothing of love, of loyalty. All except the human called Han Solo.