Baze checks the clock again. It’s almost four in the afternoon, and the studio is cool and quiet, grown slow in the latter hours of a weekday. The only other person here is Bodhi—Baze can hear him rattling around in the back, cleaning the equipment from his last job. Another satisfied customer, another tally mark in Bodhi’s favor. Baze admits, in the privacy of his own head, that he was a little reluctant to promote him to full-time artist, but Bodhi hasn’t let him down yet. Even if he is occasionally… overzealous.
He flips to the latest page in his appointment book, leaning his hip against the counter with a frown. Chirrut Îmwe. It’s Bodhi he has to blame for today’s consultation. If the boy had just asked before putting this Îmwe character down for a deposit… He sighs and shuts the book. He can’t pin this entirely on Bodhi. He’s a talented tattoo artist, but when Jyn can’t man the front desk, Bodhi steps in, and he doesn’t know all the protocol yet for vetting potential clients. A shame, because Baze hates to scare away customers, but zama-shiwo isn’t for the faint of heart.
What Baze should have done is call the client back and clear everything up, but Bodhi had looked so crestfallen at the prospect that Baze relented. Which leaves him now at the counter of his humble tattoo parlor in Lower South Jedha, waiting for the man written into his appointment book to make an appearance.
Just as the minute hand is starting to drift past four o’clock, the bell at the front door chimes brightly and someone steps through. Some of Baze’s apprehension fades just looking at him. He isn’t young, like he’d feared, nor does he look particularly touristy or rebellious—alternative, as Jyn would say. He looks to be around Baze’s age, in fact, and Jedhan through and through, wearing a faded black tunic in the local style over his jeans, his dark hair kept short and his skin as warm and golden as the salt sands that ebb and swell to the north of the city.
More pressingly, he’s brought a dog in with him. What on earth were you thinking, Bodhi? Baze clears his throat. “Welcome to InkJedha,” he says, keeping an eye on the German Shepherd standing at attention beside its master. The only thing preventing him from telling the fellow off is the working harness the dog wears. And then when Baze chances another look up, he sees that the man’s eyes aren’t brown or a deep gold, or even grey like Jyn’s—they’re a cloudy blue, blotted with cataracts or perhaps some other injury, and crinkling into a slow smile.
“Oh, hello there. Goodness, you’re quiet—I wasn’t sure if anyone was home.” He releases the dog’s harness and says, quietly, “Stay, Echo.” The dog sits just to the side of the door, leaving its owner to make his way forward, a cane sweeping the floor in front of him with swift, precise motions. He stops when it hits the counter and extends his hand in Baze’s general direction. “Chirrut Îmwe. I believe I spoke on the phone with your receptionist—Bodhi, wasn’t it?”
“Baze Malbus, and yes, you did. Though I tend to call him ‘trouble’ more often than anything else.”
Chirrut laughs, and the ears on his dog prick forward and back alertly, belying its placid expression. “I see. May I surmise that this is a bad time? I’m certainly happy to reschedule.”
“Not at all—timing isn’t the issue.” He clears his throat and gives the spiel he’d already prepared in his head. “Zama-shiwo is a very old and very difficult kind of tattoo, and generally when people call to inquire I like to personally go over the procedure and the risks involved.”
He’s not done, but Chirrut is already waving him off. “I understand your concern, Mr. Malbus, but I assure you I’m quite familiar with the art—as familiar as one can be without practicing it, at least. I teach at Jedha University, you see. History department. I wrote my thesis for my PhD on the Temple of the Whills.”
Baze lifts his eyebrows, reluctantly impressed. Hardly anyone has even heard of the Whills anymore these days, let alone their ruined temple. “Then you probably know even more than I do. Here, let’s sit in my office and we can talk details. Um. Feel free to bring…”
“Ah yes. Echo, my seeing eye dog. I assure you she won’t be in the way.” He snaps his fingers and the dog stands up again, pacing over to stand at his side. She leans against his leg just slightly as if to let him know she’s there, and Chirrut scoops up her harness. “Lead on.”
Baze’s “office” is more of a studio space, but it also boasts a chair and all the equipment for clients who prefer privacy, and a comfortable sitting area in the corner for consultations. A skylight lets in plenty of natural light, and there’s a burgeoning firestick plant on the desk that Jyn gave him for his birthday last year. He sits in the chair he thinks of as his, an old velvet-upholstered armchair that’s been patched and repatched many times over the years, and glances at the dog. Feeling foolish, he points to the other chair and says, “There’s a seat just ahead of you and to the right a bit.”
Between the dog and the cane, Chirrut finds his seat easily and sits, crossing one leg over the other. Echo lays down primly beside the chair only when he commands, and he props his cane across his lap, one ear tilted in Baze’s direction. “I like this room,” he announces before Baze can say anything. He lifts his face slightly to the warm evening glow pouring down from overhead, as if he can feel the light on his skin. “It’s very peaceful. Do you have a plant in here?”
“Ah, yes, actually. How did you know?”
“I can smell the dirt under all the antiseptic.” He nods approvingly. “You run a very tight ship, Mr. Malbus, I’m glad to see my recommendation was well-founded.”
“Just Baze, please. And may I ask who recommended you?”
“A mutual acquaintance, Maz Kanata? I was lamenting the lack of zama-shiwo in the city and she passed your name along.”
Baze isn’t surprised. Maz has recommended plenty of people to his shop over the years, although very few for zama-shiwo. She has her own piece, small but intricate on the backs of her hands, but she knows how to read people even better than Baze does and knows when someone will be able to handle the process, and when they won’t. If she thinks Chirrut is up for it, then he trusts her judgement. He makes a mental note to call her up later, and begins the way he always does:
“So, why zama-shiwo? Why not a regular tattoo?”
Chirrut smiles. “How kind of you to ask, and not assume. I have two reasons: first, my studies have made me very interested in the practice and in preserving what is left of it. Preserving history is what I do. And second, well.” He spreads his hands. “I’m blind. Normal tattoos can sometimes raise the skin for a short while, but it doesn’t last, unless the artist is really bad at their job.” He smirks. “I’ve been assured that you are not. Zama-shiwo, done in the traditional way, is the intentional, precise scarification of the flesh to create designs that can be felt as well as seen. I’m not really the type to beautify myself for others’ benefit, so why would I get a tattoo that I couldn’t see?”
“Fair enough,” Baze says, belatedly jotting down a few notes. There’s something about the way Chirrut speaks that draws him in—the movement of his hands, the animation in his face. Despite the lack of eye contact, Baze finds it hard to break away. “I apologize in advance—I always ask the same questions at every consultation like this. What do you know about zama-shiwo, apart from what you’ve already told me?”
Chirrut smirks a little wider and settles back in his chair for the long haul.
The next hour is one of the most interesting consults that Baze has had in a long time. Chirrut, as promised, is well-read and appreciative of the zama-shiwo art. He describes its history to Baze, some of which he knows from books and what he learned from his own mentor, but the new perspective is enlightening and sets Baze’s fingers itching to begin.
It’s going to be a big project. Chirrut is very emphatic about the design: an archaic starbird shape drawn in raised dots and lines across his back and shoulders like unfurled wings. It’s an old symbol of rebellion and the search for truth, two things he holds close to his heart.
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for rebellious,” Baze says, remembering his first, shallow impression of Chirrut standing in his doorway.
Predictably, Chirrut laughs. “Give it time. The truth will come to you.”
Baze sees him out afterward and spends the rest of the night at the drawing table. Bodhi ducks out around seven, locking the door behind him, and if there’s a hint of smugness on his face, Baze pretends not to see it.
Under normal circumstances, Baze would spend a few weeks working on sketches, remaining in close contact with the client to be sure that they were receiving a design as close to their vision as possible. These are not normal circumstances. To that end, he enlists Jyn in helping him devise a way for Chirrut to “see” the evolving design with his hands.
“I knew tech school would come in handy one day,” she says triumphantly, just a few hours before his next meeting with Chirrut. A thick sheet of paper is spread out over his desk, cut to mimic the torso of a man. Using some hijacked equipment from her trade school, Jyn was able to feed Baze’s design into a computer and run the paper through a special printer that punched a relief of the design into the thick fibers. Running his fingers carefully over the paper, Baze nods in satisfaction.
“It’s not exactly like the real thing, but it’s damn close. Good work, Jyn.”
She practically glows with pride, and Baze squeezes her shoulder once before rolling up the sheet for storage. There’s definitely something to be said for community service. A few months ago he doesn’t think she would have agreed to even take a look, and here she is dipping her toes into the business like it’s her day job. Well--it sort of is her day job, but only part time, and only so that Baze can keep a closer eye on her when she’s not at home.
“Who’s the client?” she asks, packing up her equipment. He’s pretty sure she borrowed it with permission, but he’s decided not to ask. “I don’t remember any blind people coming in these last few days.”
“You were in class, so Bodhi took the call. Chirrut Îmwe, he’s a professor at Jedha University.”
The black equipment case closes with a sharp snap and Jyn stands up straight, mouth gone thin and white. “Right. Well, I gotta split, this needs to be returned before seven. I’ll see you later.”
Baze opens his mouth to tell her she’s got hours ‘til seven, and why the hell is she being so conscientious now? But she’s out the door before he can formulate the words. Shaking his head, he lays a protective sheet over the paper and grabs his phone to check his calendar. One more client between now and four thirty, and then Chirrut will be here.
When the man himself enters his shop later that day, Baze’s excitement has turned to nerves. This whole scenario is highly unusual. What if he doesn’t like the design and Baze has to start over? What if the touch-print doesn’t work for him and he decides Baze’s hefty estimate for the project isn’t worth it?
He thinks he’s doing pretty well at keeping professional, even with the giant dog staring at him with her judgemental amber eyes, but Chirrut notices anyway. “You’re thinking very loudly,” he tells him, and Baze laughs rustily.
“You should have told me you read minds, Master Îmwe. Save me the trouble of getting this touch-printed.”
Chirrut’s mouth drops open and Baze feels some of his apprehension fade. “Did you really?” Chirrut asks, sounding touched.
“Of course. How else was I supposed to get your approval for the design? Here. If you don’t mind?”
Chirrut reaches out his hand in reply. His skin is warm and smooth when Baze takes it, but the palm is calloused, more the hands of a working man than a scholar. Baze wonders at this, and places his hand palm down on the paper.
Chirrut inhales and goes still. He leans his cane against the worktable and spreads out both hands, seeming to drink in the shapes lifted on the paper. It’s intricate, as he had requested—Baze estimates at least six months before its completion to allow ample healing time between sessions—and Chirrut takes his time, feeling out each dot and wrinkle with a patient touch. It takes effort, but Baze holds back from explaining his thought process, spellbound by the intensity of Chirrut’s focus.
At last Chirrut leans back and sighs, as if satiated by a long drink of water. “Baze, this is… everything I had hoped for and more. Tell me, do you believe in the Force?”
The question seems to come from nowhere, and he isn’t sure how to answer. “I… suppose so. I can’t say I’m a very religious man.” Jedha as a rule isn’t a very religious city, anymore, but he feels a strange sliver of guilt to admit it. “Why do you ask?”
Chirrut’s mouth does something complicated, like he’s holding back from saying what he really thinks. Then it smooths again, and he says, easily, “Just curious. It’s a very out-of-date way of thinking, I know. I wouldn’t be offended if you’d laughed in my face at such a question. The truth is, my particular branch of study is rife with it, and though I know many of the old ways are lost, I… well. Zama-shiwo is a lost art, and yet here you are. It’s very serendipitous, isn’t it?”
“Do you… practice?” Baze asks hesitantly, still wrong-footed.
“I would not know how—we have so few sacred texts left.” His voice is unspeakably sad, and Baze feels his heart ache in reply for something he can’t name. “But I do what I can to… pay my respects, I suppose.”
“How so?” he prompts when Chirrut seems reluctant to continue.
“Meditation, mostly. This.” His fingers graze the paper again, and it draws a fleeting smile to his face. “And martial arts, to hone my physical and mental focus. Did you know,” he pipes suddenly, “that zama-shiwo was once connected to that practice? Or so I believe. The monks who worshipped the Whills had a specific hierarchy, and all my research seems to indicate that the advancement of their physical prowess was marked outwardly, by the zama-shiwo rituals.” He subsides for a moment, face closing off a little. To Baze, it feels as if a cloud has passed over the sun. “Forgive me, this is hardly the place for my rambling. I know I can be difficult to shut up when I get going, and you must have other work to do.”
Shaken from the comfortable position of listening to Chirrut’s melodic voice, Baze shakes his head. “No! I mean, you don’t have to stop, this is fascinating.”
Chirrut gifts him a small smile, a private humor that curls in the corners of his mouth. “You are very kind. Are you quite certain you have the time to listen to me jabber?”
“It’s my shop, isn’t it? If I say I have time, I have time.”
As if to mock his certainty, there comes a tap on the half-open door and Bodhi pokes his head inside. “Baze? Sorry to interrupt, but someone’s here for touch-ups…?”
Baze shuts his eyes to the sound of Chirrut’s laughter. “I’m sorry, I…”
“There is nothing to be sorry for, my friend. The conversation will keep.” Chirrut reclaims his cane and Echo’s harness and makes for the door, but pulls up short when Baze touches his elbow.
“I don’t want to assume anything, or impose, but tomorrow is my off day. If you wanted, maybe we could continue this discussion over coffee?”
Chirrut has been perfectly polite and effusive up ’til now, but at this he positively glows. Grinning so wide his gums show, he adjusts the angle of his stance to take Baze’s hand in his. “You have my number, yes? Text me tomorrow and I’ll let you know when I’m free. I have a few things to take care of at the office in the morning, but no classes.”
“Good,” Baze says, somewhat stupidly. Wait. Did I just ask him out? Did I just pull a client?
“Good,” Chirrut echoes. He’s still grinning. He gives one more nod and a squeeze of his hand, and departs.
Bodhi, left standing in the empty doorway, gives him a look—part disconcertion, part glee—and Baze scowls hard and flaps his hands. “Go on then, prep the third station. I’ll be right out. And don’t tell Jyn.”
Bodhi obeys, outright smirking now, and Baze fishes for his phone and his appointment book. Chirrut’s name is pencilled in in Bodhi's tight scrawl, and below that his number. Still riding the high of disbelief at his own bravado, he puts in the number listed and types, Hello, Chirrut. It’s Baze. He isn’t sure what else to say—he’d asked to text tomorrow, so there’s no point in predicting his availability, but he wants Chirrut to have his number just in case.
A moment later, his fears are allayed with an incoming text. Hello Baze. Thank you for your excellent work and your conversation. I look forward to its continuation.
Baze snorts, smiling in spite of himself. “He’s a professor, all right,” he mutters to himself, then puts his phone away to see to his client. No need to give Bodhi (and by extension, Jyn) any more ammunition with which to tease him.