It was the splash of red that drew his eye, so vibrant against the utilitarian backdrop of Mattri. The man wore the robes of a monk, the red sash of a guardian tied about his waist, and the grief sliced deep and clean, as if Baze was still that wounded man Eshe took in and stitched back together.
“You’re going to drown,” she had told him, the first words they had spoken in the days since she brought him aboard The Pride. “Perhaps you should try swimming.”
“And what do you know of loss?” he said.
Eshe was a Zabrak of no slight height or build with stark facial tattoos and horns curving up into a crown, and she stepped in close and said, “The Empire has taken from us all. At least your city still stands, which is more than some of us are left with. I like you, little brother, but if you speak that way to me again I will shove you out the nearest airlock. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes,” he said, ashamed. “My apologies.”
She patted his shoulder. “You can admit that you’re wrong. I like that in a man.”
“So do I,” he said, and she had laughed and put him to studying their star charts.
The monk stood in the lee of a stall, head bowed and hands wrapped around the long staff he carried. Like most people on Mattri, he wore a breathing mask, a precaution against the failing air scrubbers. Baze could just make out the movement of the monk’s lips, soundless over the crowd and the noise from the mines underneath. He knew those words, the rhythm of that chant, his brothers and sisters passing it between them until the frigid air of Jedha hummed from their voices. Even now, years and countless miles between here and home, Baze felt that reverberation down in his bones.
The Force, he thought sourly, had a nasty sense of humor. He had run from Jedha only for a piece of it to be planted in his path.
He looped his sash, the same the man wore so brazenly about his waist, over his mask and lower face. The past may be praying mere feet away, but Baze was older and stubborn and he had no intention of letting it sink its hooks back into his chest.
Eshe would have finished loading their cargo, all nicely hidden away, their pockets heavy with the first half of their payment. There was no need to linger any longer than was necessary, not with an Imperial presence overseeing the mines Mattri sat atop. It was time to move on.
He made it only a dozen paces along the crowded street before he became aware of the monk falling into step with him, matching his stride as if they had spent their childhoods walking alongside one another. Baze was mistaken; the Force’s humor was cruel.
“Did you lose your nerve?” the monk asked cheerfully.
“My nerve?” Baze said, which was a surprise as he meant to tell the man to leave.
“You were staring so hard I assumed you were working up the courage to come speak to me. I am quite intimidating, I know, but I can assure you I'm very open to being chatted up by handsome men.”
“I wasn’t—you’re blind,” said Baze, startled, taking in the pale blue sweep of the monk’s eyes.
The man opened in his mouth in exaggerated surprise. “Am I? And all this time I thought the universe was just poorly lit. Thank you, sir, for enlightening me.”
“That was a stupid thing to say,” Baze admitted, and the monk grinned wide, showing too much gum.
“It was.” He cocked his head to the side. “I was hoping to employ your assistance, actually. It’s very hard being blind, you know.”
“And yet you seemed to be managing quite well.”
“Well, I’ve have quite a lot of practice. A lifetime, to be precise.” His grin didn’t change, but Baze felt unease slide down his spine. “But in this instance I could use the help of a new friend carrying a repeater cannon. How many rounds does that hold?”
Baze knew better than to stop in the middle of the throughway, instead steering the monk to a side alley with a gentle hand on his elbow. “And how does a blind man know I'm carrying a weapon?”
“Your steps are weighted but smooth and quiet, although you lean more heavily on your left foot than right.” The monk’s blind gaze was fixed just to the right of his ear. “And you shine, my friend. I am not so blind as to miss that.”
Some of the grandmasters were said to see the way the Force moved in the world, twining around and through living things. Baze was not blessed with that skill, but he could feel himself balancing right on the cusp of change, and he was helpless but to see which way he would fall.
There was the stamp of stormtrooper boots, and Baze cursed himself a fool for his inattention.
“Don’t let him escape,” a trooper ordered.
“Run,” said the monk and took his arm.
“I'm not with you,” Baze snapped, ducking as blaster fire whined overhead.
“Tell that to them!” The mad monk was grinning as if this was all a grand game. The street erupted into chaos, but the monk slipped nimbly through the churning currents, Baze following in the cleared path, aware of the troopers at their backs.
“Why do they want you?” he asked, taking aim and firing. His first two rounds missed, but the other three hit their targets. That lot was taken care of, but more would be on the way. They weren’t far from the port, and if they were fast enough to reach Eshe they could escape before the entire outpost was put into lockdown.
“I may have stowed away on a prison ship and helped free those within,” said the monk. “And I may have been helping some Imperial officers defect.”
“Yes, that would do it,” Baze said to himself as they skidded around a blind turn into another squad of troopers.
“Put your weapons down,” the sergeant ordered.
Baze lowered his blaster and said, “Get behind me.”
“How many are there?”
“Five.” He gripped the monk’s arm. “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it.”
“All is as the Force wills it,” he said, and Baze flinched at the words.
That was all it took for the monk to slip from his grasp, and Baze was left to stare in wonder. It was a thing of beauty, the way the monk moved, as if the laws that governed the universe held no meaning for him. No movement was wasted, each hit blending into the next until he stood in a ring of bodies, triumphant and grinning.
“You missed one,” Baze said, and promptly shot the trooper reaching for a blaster behind the monk’s back.
“The Force saw fit to save me,” the monk pronounced.
“Oh, the Force is armed now? More are coming. We need to leave before we’re trapped. I have a ship.”
“I knew you were going to be a most helpful friend.”
Baze bit back his sharp retort, opting to grab the monk’s arm and tug him along. He was easy enough to lead, even slipping his arm through Baze’s as if they were a courting couple out for a stroll. Baze scowled, but if it meant he got no argument he would suffer through it.
Eshe was waiting for them at The Pride’s ramp, one hand on the blaster she kept strapped to her hip.
“What did you do?” she demanded.
“Wasn’t me,” said Baze, and shoved the monk at her. “We have a passenger.”
“You found one of your brothers?” she asked, ushering the monk into the ship.
The monk stumbled, nearly losing his footing, and Baze grabbed the back of his robes to steady him.
“You’re from Jedha,” he said quietly, something unnervingly close to awe slipping through his voice. “I thought I heard an accent, but I didn’t—”
“Be quiet,” Baze snapped and steered him to the navigator’s seat, shedding his pack as the monk slipped off his breathing mask. “We need to go.”
“I was waiting on you,” said Eshe as Baze took his customary place in the co-pilot’s chair, stowing his own mask overhead. “The old girl’s been prepped for the better part of an hour. You’re the one that picked a fight with Imperials.”
The Pride was an old spice smuggling freighter, but she was fast and true, and Baze had come to feel a reluctant affection for her even if she nearly shook apart at the bolts every time they entered hyperspace.
“That was me actually,” said the monk. “There were taking children.”
“He freed a prison transport,” Baze explained.
“I like this stray you found,” said Eshe, steering them towards the bay doors.
“I didn’t find him.”
“I found him,” the monk said helpfully as Eshe deftly maneuvered them into open space. “Do you know he was just going to walk by me without saying anything?”
“He does that,” Eshe said. “I had to basically lure him in with a trail of sweetmeat.”
“You like sweetmeat?” said the monk.
“No,” said Baze at the same time Eshe said, “Yes. Don’t make that face. You do.”
“Does he argue a lot?”
“Only when he likes someone. Engaging hyperdrive. Hold on.”
“You like me?” said the monk, surprised but pleased.
Before Baze could tell the monk he definitely did not, he was pressed back into the seat. This was his least favorite part, The Pride ominously rattling and groaning as the stars streaked past before the engine settled. He was always afraid that this time the ship would fail to hold together, all of them scattered out into the black. If he had a choice, he would prefer to die with the earth under his feet and an open sky overhead.
“I take it by that terrifying shuddering we made it?” said the monk.
“Don’t talk about my ship like that,” said Eshe. “And we’re clear. Who are you?”
“I haven’t introduced myself, have I? You must think me unbearably rude.”
“Not just rude,” said Baze, which just made the monk smile at him.
“I'm Chirrut Îmwe.”
Baze sucked in a sharp breath.
“You know him, little brother?” Eshe asked, gentle in her own way.
“I knew of him,” Baze corrected.
“Then you’re from the temple,” said Chirrut, and reached out to touch his arm. Baze let him. He knew other guardians survived, some fleeing as he had, unable to bear what had become of their home, but he never expected to find his brothers or sisters again. Their time, like the Force, had passed.
“I'm Eshe,” she said, concerned gaze trained on him. “This is Baze. Where are you headed?”
“Home,” said Chirrut, tightening his grip. “I’ve been away too long.”
“What home?” Baze said, and shrugged off Chirrut’s hand. “It’s gone. They burned it all.”
“No, not all of it,” Chirrut said quietly.
Baze’s path had not lain within the holy city. He was with those guardians that spent their time out in the provinces, traveling Jedha’s vast spaces to the smaller settlements. When the news reached them that the Empire had come, it took weeks to reach NiJedha. They arrived only to find the temple in ruin, stormtroopers burrowed in the kyber caverns beneath. The Imperials had no even bothered to remove the bodies of the slain.
They worked at night to give rites to the dead. The Order of the Whills had practiced sky burials, but even that was denied them, and so they chipped away at the frozen earth until their hands blistered and bled. The smell of death soaked into his robes, and so Baze burned them, the sash marking him as a guardian the only thing he kept.
“I see this is very emotional for both of you,” Eshe said, pressing her fingers to the back of his hand in an offer of comfort. “Please take it elsewhere.” At Baze’s glare, she added, “You picked a fight with Imperials and brought a fugitive on board. I have to plot a new course to keep us well away from any Imperial patrols, not to mention the trouble of changing our ID tags yet again. Let me work.”
“You’ll need my help,” he protested.
“You know I adore you, but when it comes to flying this old girl I’ve never needed your help. Besides, this will be good for you. Now get out.”
Arguing with Eshe was pointless, and so Baze said, “I’ll show you to the living quarters.” Chirrut followed silently, and Baze used the quiet to steady himself against the past.
The Pride was a small vessel, the back half consisting mainly of the engine and hyperdrive. The living quarters were tucked above the hold. There wasn’t much to it, just a small communal space, the refresher, and the compact kitchen that Baze had claimed as his the first time he saw Eshe attempt anything more complicated than boiling water for tea.
The bedroom was shared, two double racks shoved against each wall, although the top bunks mainly went unused. Occasionally they would ferry a resistance member from one planet to the other, but it was usually he and Eshe, doing what they could to fuck over the Empire as it had fucked over them.
“It’s a bit cramped,” said Baze, “but it suits our needs.”
Chirrut walked the perimeter of the room, staff tapping in front of him. “This is your side?”
“Yes.” He kept his bunk neat and orderly, a lifetime habit he couldn’t break despite Eshe’s encouragement. Her area was a mess of bits of The Pride’s machinery she was forever fiddling with, clothing haphazardly piled on any flat surface, and of course the two holos of her wife in prominent spots next to her bed.
Chirrut took a seat on Baze’s lower bunk and said, “You’re Baze Malbus. All the grandmasters spoke proudly of you, of the work you were doing out in the provinces.”
Baze shrugged, adding belatedly, “I liked traveling.”
“It’s easy to be a guardian in the temple with the kyber under your feet.” Chirrut tilted his head to the side, blind stare passing through Baze. “It’s harder when you’ve renounced your home and the proof of your faith.”
“You make the whole of Jedha your temple,” Baze answered. “And you carry kyber in your heart so you will never be without it.”
“The old masters were right. You are the most faithful of us all.”
“Was the most faithful, maybe.” He was too weary for anything but the truth. “I left that behind me.”
Chirrut nodded, thoughtful, and where Baze expected an argument, Chirrut asked, “Did you ever see the temple before it fell?
“Twice, acting as escort for pilgrims from the western province. It was beautiful.”
“I must have just missed you,” Chirrut said, wistful.
“I heard of you,” Baze said, cautiously taking a seat next to him on the bed.
“The guardians were as gossipy as zhen birds. What did you hear?”
“That you were argumentative, undisciplined, impulsive.” Chirrut’s laugh was delighted. “But they said you felt the Force as if it were the breath in your lungs. They were of the opinion that you would make abbot one day.”
“Ha! Wishful thinking on their part. I’ve never possessed the temperament for leadership.” He brushed fingertips over Baze’s arm until he reached the bare skin of his wrist. “They didn’t give us a chance to surrender. They invaded and those who didn’t fight died as hard as those who did. They didn’t even spare the initiates or the acolytes.”
“I know,” said Baze, remembering those small bodies he placed in grave after grave. Blaster bolts burned and ate through flesh, and what remained bore no resemblance to the children Baze once entertained with stories about his travels.
Chirrut’s fixed his blind eyes on him and said, “You came back.”
“Too late to do anything.” He twitched when Chirrut’s touch transferred from his wrist to his face, fingertips tracing gently over his cheek and skirting the edge of his eye. He jerked away. “What are you doing?”
“I missed you then,” Chirrut murmured. “I had helped those who lived out of the city. If I had waited, I would have found you.”
He stood. “As Eshe said, we’re going to Onderon. Once there you can find passage to Jedha, if you wish. You can have the bottom bunk. Don’t touch Eshe’s belongings.”
“Can I touch your belongings?” Chirrut asked, smile tired and sad.
“If you want,” said Baze, who carried nothing of worth anymore. “You should get some sleep.”
“May the Force bless you,” Chirrut said.
“No,” he said, pausing in the doorway, “not anymore it doesn’t.”
There was a monotonous rhythm to space travel, and he wasn’t surprised that Chirrut didn’t take easily to it. He trailed after them as they worked, and Eshe was more amused than anything, tolerating Chirrut peppering her with questions about the history of The Pride, what the different engine sounds meant, how many planets had she been to, how she and Baze met. One night when they broke out a particularly terrible bottle of Kel Dor brandy, she even let Chirrut feel the planes of her face and the points of her horns.
“Master Vasta was a Zabrak,” Chirrut said, fingers following the curve of one horn. “Zir horns were different. Smaller.”
“It’s fashionable to keep them short,” Eshe said. “Orana likes them longer.”
“Her wife,” said Baze.
Chirrut turned to him, grinning and flushed from the alcohol. “May I?” he asked, wriggling his fingers.
“No,” said Baze, and felt a flush start to creep up his neck.
“But I want to see how handsome you are for myself,” said Chirrut with something dangerously close to a pout.
“Everyone talked about how tall and strong and handsome you were.” He smirked and added, “Among your other endowments, of course.”
The flush reached his cheeks.
“You never told me you were a heartbreaker,” said Eshe. “Tell me, Chirrut, did he receive many marriage offers?”
“According to temple gossip, entire villages proposed when he and the other guardians came to stay.”
“That’s a lie,” he said. “It was just one proposal and only the once. And she was ten.”
“That is precious.” Eshe leaned across the table to pinch his cheek. “What did you say?”
“I said when she was of age and if she still found me a suitable husband then we would start courting properly.”
Chirrut propped his chin on one hand. “What was her name?”
“Tseng. Her parents were weavers. They made that sash you’re wearing.”
“It’s very fine work.” Chirrut smiled. “You like children.”
“I don’t dislike them,” he said.
Eshe snorted. “He adores them, and it’s mutual. Whenever we make landfall, every child in a fifty klick radius gravitates to him. At any given time he has about four attached to him at once. It’s really quite sweet.”
Baze glared at her, and Chirrut took that opportunity to lean forward, fingers skating over his mouth and chin before Baze slapped his hand away.
“Just as I thought,” said Chirrut. “You have the face of a friend.”
“You are a drunken fool,” he snapped.
“I'm not drunk yet,” Chirrut said meaningfully, and nudged his empty glass forward. Eshe refilled it.
“Don’t encourage this,” Baze said.
“Lighten up.” She topped up Baze’s glass. “We still have a few more days before we reach Tiragga’s moon for refueling. We need to pass the time somehow.”
Which was all well and good for them, but Baze was the one who brewed the tea and suffered through their hung over moaning the next morning.
“I’ll be in the cockpit,” Eshe groaned, grabbing the cup Baze passed her. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of the dumplings.
Chirrut stumbled out, the collar of his shirt dipping towards his shoulder, exposing the swoop of his collar bone. Since Chirrut had arrived with nothing but his robes, Baze had lent him some of his clothes, but as he was taller and broader across the chest, thin slices of skin were revealed every time Chirrut stretched. Baze had his suspicions that Chirrut was doing it on purpose.
“Here,” said Baze, and placed a plate in front of Chirrut. “Sweet ones are on the left. Meat on the right.”
Chirrut picked up one with the chopsticks that a young Twi’lek boy had carved for Baze. He even etched lotus flowers along the side.
“Oh,” said Chirrut softly with his mouth full because apparently the grandmasters were not able to teach him manners. “This is amazing.”
Baze shrugged, even though Chirrut couldn’t see. “I did most of the cooking during my travels,” he explained, watching as Chirrut shoved another dumpling into his mouth. “It’s easier with an actual kitchen than out in the wastelands.”
“I never liked camping.” Chirrut scooped up a bit of rice. “I was born blind, you know, and NiJedha is my home. I always know where I was by the feel of the street under my feet. It took me much longer to figure out where I was outside the walls. It helped when I got this.” He tapped the echo box strapped to his waist. “But I still prefer cities to nature.”
Baze plucked a dumpling away from Chirrut, smiling at Chirrut’s annoyed huff. “It takes some getting used to. It’s not as quiet as you’d think. The moon and stars were brighter than in the city, and even the sparseness of the land was beautiful in its own way.”
“You miss it,” said Chirrut.
“I do,” Baze admitted. He had spent his life in service to Jedha and had his heart broken for it.
“Will you come back with me?”
He placed the last of the dumplings on Chirrut’s plate, bringing the empty dish to their small washer. “No.”
He expected an argument, but Chirrut said, “I’ll miss your cooking when we part ways.”
“I’ll send some with you,” he said, and then busied himself with cleaning so as not to stare at the pleased grin that earned him.
In the afternoon, he went to take his turn at the helm, bringing another cup of tea with him. Eshe was reclining in the pilot seat, somehow managing to tuck her long legs under her, staring thoughtfully at the passing stars.
“Thank you,” she said as he passed the cup over. “How is our stray?”
“He’s down in the hold.”
Chirrut had claimed it as his own, using the space to work through the various zama-shiwo forms. Baze had watched the first day, noting the play of light over Chirrut’s muscles. Hand to hand was never Baze’s specialty, preferring the distance a blaster afforded him, but it was humbling to witness Chirrut’s mastery of the discipline.
Afterwards, when Chirrut folded to his knees and took up the familiar chant, words tripping almost frantically off his tongue, Baze had slipped away, guilt wrapped around his throat.
Eshe sipped the tea and said, “You should go with him.”
Baze knew those words were coming. Eshe was not as subtle as she believed, and she had been turning increasingly thoughtful looks on he and Chirrut both.
“Trying to get rid of me?” he asked.
“Don’t be stupid. You have a place with me as long as you want.”
“Then what is it?”
Eshe sighed and met his gaze. “I’ve been thinking about what we do, running medicine and weapons. It’s not enough.”
“You want to join the rebellion.”
“You’re so quiet in your anger that I forget how you’re always watching.” She set the cup aside. “Orana is meeting us at Onderon with coded messages for the rebels. Senator Chuchi has asked her to stay and help coordinate on that end. I’ll be going with her.”
The decision was a long time coming. As one of the senator’s aides, Orana had been ferrying information to the rebels for years, a precarious and unenviable position to be in. It would be safer for her away from Coruscant, and Baze knew how their separation ate at Eshe.
“I'm happy for you,” he said. “You two have been apart for too long.”
“You can come with us. Like I said, you always have a place with me, but I know you miss Jedha.”
“The Empire took my home,” he said.
“Yes, but you can take it back.” She unfolded, a complicated process, and ran a hand over his head. “Think about it. The decision doesn’t have to be made today.”
Baze handed over her cup. “Make sure you wash this.”
She tugged on his hair and took the cup with her. He turned the lights down low, letting the glow of the instrument panel illuminate the cockpit. The course Eshe chose kept them well away from Hutt space and the more populous hyperspace lanes, leaving them alone with unfamiliar stars.
Baze had known every constellation on Jedha and how to navigate by those alone. He knew that when the air grew heavy and still that the wet season was upon them, and he could tell when a storm was approaching by the change in the wind and the color of the sky. If Chirrut knew the holy city by the feel of its streets, then Baze knew the whole of Jedha itself by the feel of its red earth and the taste of its air.
Now as he sat in the light of strange and alien suns, for the first time Baze welcomed the longing for home that settled in his skin.
“May I join you?” Chirrut asked quietly.
“Yes. Don’t touch anything,” he added when Chirrut sat in the pilot’s chair.
“Don’t trust the blind man to fly the ship?”
“I don’t have a problem with it, but Eshe barely trusts me with making minor course adjustments, much less some stray fiddling with her carefully programmed settings.”
Chirrut smiled, and Baze allowed himself to admire the lovely curl to Chirrut’s mouth.
“I always did want to learn to fly,” Chirrut said, tucking his legs under him much like Eshe had. Baze was the only one not flexible enough to manage it. “But it turns out being able to see is quite important for that.”
“I would never have guessed,” he said dryly. “Eshe attempted to teach me, but I don’t have the skill for it.”
“I'm sure you make up for it in other ways.”
Baze took in the angles and planes of Chirrut’s face and asked, “You still believe, don’t you? In the Force.”
Chirrut folded his hands together in his lap, thumbs touching, the way all initiates were taught. “I do. I have to or otherwise what’s left for us?”
“I don’t. I can’t.” Chirrut’s expression was still and open, and Baze confessed, “I couldn’t stop the troopers. I wasn’t even there. I just buried the bodies.”
“No one could stop them,” said Chirrut. And then, so softly the words were almost lost completely, “I don’t know why I lived when so many didn’t. Some days I wish I hadn’t. If I don’t believe the Force still has a use for me then I’d—” he cut himself off, mouth trembling before firming. “The Force is with me, and I still serve it.”
“I do not envy you your faith,” Baze said, “but I am grateful to it for keeping you alive.”
“And I don’t envy your lack of it,” Chirrut replied, “but I too am grateful if it’s the reason we met.”
Baze reached across the space and touched his thumb to Chirrut’s chin, sliding up until he just brushed the edge of Chirrut’s bottom lip. He watched the movement of Chirrut’s throat as he swallowed, and exhaled slowly at the thought of leaning over and putting his mouth there. It had been so long since he desired anyone he forgot what it felt like, the sweet heat of it just under his skin. It was good.
“Baze?” Chirrut said, lip dragging along the pad of his thumb.
Baze took his hand back and said, “I was thinking of the smell after it rained. Do you remember it?”
“Yes,” said Chirrut. “It smelled of growing things.”
“I always loved the rain on Jedha.”
Chirrut said, “Will you come back with me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“This is selfishness on my part. I just want you to cook for me.”
“I figured. You’re not exactly subtle.”
Chirrut jabbed him with a sharp finger. “You’re a fine one to talk about subtlety.”
“Perhaps I like the anticipation,” said Baze, and tweaked Chirrut’s ear.
“I can play this game, too,” Chirrut said, touching the inside of Baze’s wrist. “And I play to win.”
Baze rolled his eyes, but he turned his hand over so that Chirrut could drag his fingertips over his palm, and Chirrut’s smile went sharp at Baze’s shiver.
“I see you never took the lessons of humility to heart,” he said.
“Not when it comes to things I want,” said Chirrut, and settled back into the seat, hands folded together again.
Baze mirrored him, thumbs touching, and said, “We have that in common.”
It quickly became apparent Chirrut was not hampered by an abundance of shame, or in fact possessed any at all. Where Baze was content to trail his hand down the length of Chirrut’s spine or brush his knuckles over whatever patch of skin was revealed by Chirrut’s gratuitous stretching, Chirrut waited until Baze was deep in discussion with Eshe over Imperial travel routes to grope at his inner thigh, sliding his hand dangerously far up his inseam until Baze was forced to grit his teeth and take steadying breaths before speaking.
When they passed each other, Chirrut’s normal grace seemed to abandon him, leaving him clutching Baze’s shoulders for balance. Baze took the opportunity to slide a hand around the small of Chirrut’s back, fingertips just edging up under the shirt to press against bare skin, relishing the soft sigh that earned him.
“I was unaware we were suffering from such turbulence,” Eshe said dryly when she came across them, brows raised in judgment.
“The old girl’s stabilizers aren’t what they used to be,” Baze replied, even as he felt a flush start to creep up.
Chirrut, the bastard, just grinned and said, “I keep tripping over things. One of the hazards of being blind, you know.”
Eshe snorted and said, “We reach Tiragga in another three days. Until then, I remind you we do share a room.”
“And I would like to remind you of the four days I spent sleeping in the hold when Orana needed a lift to the Mid Rim,” Baze said.
“The difference between that and this,” Eshe said, pointedly eyeing where Chirrut’s hand was snaking towards Baze’s hip, “is that I’m the captain and you’re the pathetic life form I took pity on.”
Baze sighed and gently extricated himself from Chirrut’s hold. He stepped aside and let Eshe pass.
“I feel like I should try harder,” said Chirrut thoughtfully.
“No,” said Baze, quietly despairing at the grin that earned him.
It only got worse when Chirrut discovered his ears. Different bits of The Pride tended to break with a depressing regularity, and this time it was navigation and the left engine. Eshe took the engine, which left Baze chest deep in the navigation panel for the better part of the day.
“Can I help?” Chirrut asked, having wandered in the first hour after Baze suspected Eshe kicked him out of the engine room. “Although I should add I am hopeless at anything more complicated than my echo box.”
“You can hand me that spanner,” said Baze. “It’s on your left.”
Chirrut did an admirable job of fetching what Baze needed, even if it took a couple of tries and a few testy remarks from both of them as they figured out a working system. It was another few hours before everything was running as well as could be expected on a ship that seemed to find new and novel ways to malfunction out of pure spite.
“I always thought smuggling would be more exciting,” said Chirrut as Baze stowed the tools in their proper place.
“If it’s exciting then you’re doing it wrong.” The hum under their feet changed, which meant Eshe got the engine back online. They wouldn’t be too far behind schedule. “What are you doing?”
Chirrut was trailing curious fingers along his shoulders and up towards his neck. “I was hoping you were appealingly grease stained.”
“This was electrical work. Why would I be covered in grease?”
“As a gift to me, obviously.” Chirrut made a surprised sound. “You put your hair up.”
“It was getting in the way.”
Chirrut’s touch turned exploratory, drifting up his neck and along the base of his skull before sliding forward towards his jaw. He paused when he came to Baze’s ears, and said quietly, “Oh.”
Baze forced himself not to flinch away. “My grandmother always assured me I would grow into them. I never did.”
Chirrut shuffled forward until their knees bumped. “They’re big.”
“I'm aware,” he snapped, hearing the echo of childhood taunts. As soon as he left the southern temple to begin his travels, Baze had let his hair grow from the customary cut. He kept it long ever since.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.” Chirrut’s expression was intent as he gently took Baze’s ears in his hands, unaccountably gentle. “They’re the perfect size to grab and—”
Baze swallowed as Chirrut cut himself off. The perfect size to grab and pull Baze right where he wanted him hung unsaid, and Baze found himself palming Chirrut’s thighs.
“And what?” he prompted, leaning forward as Chirrut’s mouth dropped open.
Chirrut’s fingers curled tightly around his ears, and any upper hand Baze had managed to grasp slipped away. He was Chirrut’s as surely as Eshe was Orana’s.
Chirrut was just dragging him forward when Eshe said, “Did you get navigation up? I want to see how much time that cost us.”
Baze jerked back, only to be brought up short by the grip Chirrut still had on him. Caught, he gave Eshe an apologetic and faintly horrified look.
“Out,” she said flatly, pointing towards the door. “Get out. You are not fucking in my cockpit.”
“In our defense,” Chirrut said, tweaking Baze’s earlobe before letting go, “it is aptly named for it.”
“You set yourself up for that,” Baze said, shoving Chirrut ahead of him while Eshe made a wordless noise of outrage and threw a spanner at their heads.
The next day featured an unbearably smug Chirrut who used every opportunity to make a grab for Baze’s ears. It would be almost sweet if it wasn’t so embarrassing, especially since Chirrut had never bothered to learn subtlety, squeezing into the fresher with Baze and practically nuzzling his left ear when he was ostensibly reaching for a towel.
“You have to stop,” Baze told him.
“Make me,” said Chirrut, waggling his eyebrows, looking so absurd that Baze laughed a little, which somehow just made Chirrut even more impossibly smug.
Baze had discovered the trick to diverting Chirrut from his chosen path, in this case teasing him, was to find something he wanted more and use that as leverage. The problem was that while Chirrut obviously liked Baze touching him, he didn’t like it more than he did Baze’s ears.
“You’re helping with dinner,” said Baze, and then when Chirrut made a face, “I’ll put my hair up.”
“What do you need?” said Chirrut.
Eshe had abandoned the kitchen to them, citing their terrible flirting as reason for her retreat. Baze couldn’t argue with that, although Chirrut tried with wide, guileless eyes that did nothing to hide his attempt at groping Baze’s ass.
Dinner wasn’t anything fancy, as they wouldn’t resupply until they reached Onderon, but Baze had experience with turning rations into something edible, and Eshe was good at making sure their spices were fully stocked. He set Chirrut to cooking rice while he went about preparing the batter to dip the fish into before frying.
It was familiar work, soothing, and Baze didn’t even mind when Chirrut leaned against his shoulder and said, “They put me on kitchen duty in the temple.”
“I suspect they regretted that,” Baze said.
“I was quite zealous in my use of fireweed as a seasoning.”
Baze laughed. “Did you do it on purpose?”
“No. Someone had forgotten to label the tins in a way I could read, but I was switched to tending the garden anyway.”
Baze looked at their storage bins guiltily. It never occurred to him that Chirrut wouldn’t be able to find what he needed.
“Here,” he said, taking Chirrut’s hand and guiding it on the first bin. “Rice, flour, grain.” He named each one as he placed Chirrut’s fingertips to it. “I’ll make tags later.”
“You don’t need to. I won’t be staying long.”
Another day to Tiragga, and then a week to Onderon, and from there Chirrut would find transport back to Jedha. He had nearly forgotten, caught up in their small cocoon of intimacy they had woven about themselves.
“That doesn’t mean you won’t need something before then,” he said. A bit of batter stuck to Chirrut’s hand.
“I’ll just make you get it for me.” Chirrut scratched at his neck, leaving behind a smear of flour and egg yolk.
“You got a bit on you,” said Baze, and unthinkingly reached over to wipe it away.
Chirrut froze, eyes going wide even as his cheeks flushed a dark red.
Baze took a moment to wipe his hand clean on the towel he had tucked into his pocket, staring at the long line of Chirrut’s neck. “All right?” he asked.
Chirrut swallowed, and said, “I'm sensitive there.”
Baze didn’t touch, his fingers hovering just above the skin as Chirrut’s breathing went shallow and fast. “May I?”
Chirrut nodded, inhaling sharply as Baze dragged his fingertips along the tendon. Shivering, his eyes went half lidded as he swayed into Baze. Baze skimmed back up, to the divot behind Chirrut’s ear, catching the small noise Chirrut couldn’t quite bite off. He felt lightheaded at the thought of the noises Chirrut would make if Baze put his mouth there, of how Chirrut would arch his neck in invitation as they fucked.
“The rice is going to burn,” Chirrut said, and Baze took a deep breath and a deliberate step back.
“You can have a seat,” he said. “I’ll finish it.”
But Chirrut would be gone in two weeks and Baze would be left with more regret over what he couldn’t have. It was easy then to catch Chirrut’s wrist and tug him close. He meant the kiss to be soft and quick, but Chirrut rocked up on his toes, hand going to the back of Baze’s neck to keep him caught. They lingered, kissing long and deep, and Baze couldn’t think of a single reason why they had taken to teasing one another when instead they could have spent the last several days just like this, pressed together and kissing until they were dizzy from it.
“The rice is definitely burning now,” said Chirrut, and laughed quietly as Baze swore and went to salvage what he could.
The second moon of Tiragga was dense and humid, and Baze regretted not grabbing a band for his hair before they touched down. They had placed The Pride a klick away from the settlement, and so it was only Irit waiting for them at the bottom of the ramp. She stood with arms crossed, looking as amused as any Kel Dor could behind the ornate breathing mask and protective eye gear, which was surprisingly quite a bit.
“I see you picked up another one,” Irit said, voice overlaid with a low mechanical hum.
“This one belongs to Baze,” Eshe answered. She and Irit touched foreheads and gripped forearms tightly. It had been some months since they last visited, and there was no guarantee that Irit and her people would still be there, like there was no guarantee that he and Eshe would continue to fly free.
“Actually, I belong to myself,” said Chirrut, “but I like his company anyway.”
“You’re not the only one,” said Irit. “The kids have been waiting impatiently since we received word of your arrival. Come, tell me what you’ve heard.”
Eshe and Irit took the lead, discussing the fuel The Pride needed as well as any new codes the Empire was using. Baze was content to follow Chirrut’s slower pace, their feet sinking into the moon’s rich loam.
Chirrut turned his face upwards, frowning. “The air is so heavy and wet here, but there’s no storm coming.”
“No,” said Baze. “If we’re lucky, there might be a cool breeze tonight, but it’s unlikely.”
“It’s very different from Jedha.”
Baze took in the green foliage and the soft earth under them and said, “It is. We’re in no danger of frostbite.”
“Did you ever meet Master Rhasa?” Chirrut asked.
“I never had the honor.”
“She was in charge of the temple’s gardens and greenhouses. She must have had a dozen black market contacts for fertilizer and imported soil. She managed to get that Gapanga tree to grow in the courtyard. No one could figure out how she did it.”
“Perhaps it was the will of the Force,” Baze said, ironic.
Chirrut smiled. “Or it was a combination of the bone meal fertilizer and the increasingly graphic threats she made to it every morning and night. It produced fruit all year round.” His smile dropped away. “She would have loved it here.”
Baze thought of Tairi, who, despite having spent the last twenty years on Jedha, still cursed the cold as if it were the first time he ever experienced it.
“Why couldn’t the Force have picked a warmer planet to grow kyber?” he would complain, huddled over their fire and glaring at anyone who tried to pry the teapot from his fingers. “They would sing just as clear on a beach rather than this frozen shit pile.”
“You know this is my home,” Baze would say.
“I think many of our brothers and sisters would have appreciated it,” Baze said.
They reached the settlement, and Baze was near run off his feet by the small bodies attaching themselves to his legs.
“Baze, Baze, Baze,” Nishi chanted, clinging to his left leg as her sister wrapped around his right. “We’ve missed you!”
“Hello, Nishi. Amala. I’ve missed you as well.” Behind them was a small Torguta child, chewing on the ear of a stuffed bantha. “And hello, Arjun. Have your montrals grown?”
Arjun nodded and then held up his arms. Baze obligingly scooped him up while Nishi and Amala expressed their disappointment.
“You’ll have your turn,” he said. “But perhaps Chirrut might carry you if you ask very nicely.”
“Can we?” Amala asked while Nishi took the expedient method of trying to scale Chirrut’s legs.
Baze took great pleasure in the panicked look Chirrut turned on him before tumbling under Nishi’s determined assault.
“He’ll be fine,” he told Arjun, who nodded and returned to solemnly chewing on his stuffed bantha’s ear.
Irit’s settlement was small, buildings designed to be broken down in a matter of hours and stowed away in the freighters hidden under camouflaged canopies. They were a way station for rebellion cells, providing fuel and supplies for passing crews as needed, but mainly they listened and recorded, intercepting Imperial messages and working on breaking their encryption. And then, when the Empire started to close in, they packed up and moved on.
“They’re tightening their control over the Mid Rim,” Irit said after dinner. The children were bribed to quietness with stalks cut from the native sugar cane. Chirrut, Baze was charmed to notice, was chewing on his own cutting.
“I thought Onderon was safe,” Eshe said.
“The king has been vocal in his loyalty to the Empire, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being watched.” She held out a data disk. “Current Imperial codes. It’ll get you through security and docked. There is another matter.”
“What is it?” Baze asked.
“Kids,” Irit said, “go get cleaned up for bed.”
When Nishi went to argue, Baze said, “I’ll be by to tell you a story later.”
Securing a promise that he would come find them, they obediently filed out, but not before Chirrut allowed his sugar cane to be stolen by Amala, who grinned and slipped away before Baze could take it from her. Chirrut smiled innocently when Baze elbowed him in the side.
“What is it?” Eshe asked. The other members of Irit’s cell had given them space.
“There are rumors of the Empire building a weapon.” Kel Dor were hard to read, but Baze thought there was sympathy there. “We think that’s why they’ve gone to Jedha.”
“For the kyber crystals,” said Chirrut, and Baze saw his hand curl into a fist where it rested on his thigh.
“It means they won’t be leaving,” said Baze. Mining kyber was a long, delicate process. It was unstable until refined, and even then it reacted with chemicals in unpredictable ways.
The Order of the Whills took no more than they needed, waiting decades for a particular crystal to mature and stabilize before coaxing it free. It was the work of more years to gently and carefully refine it for use. Baze never had an affinity for working with kyber, but he studied with Master Leith, who could tell when a crystal was ready by touch alone.
“The occupation is likely permanent,” Irit said.
Chirrut stood, staff clenched in one hand, the line of his spine as stark as a fissure in ice. Baze touched his wrist, and Chirrut said, “I need some air.”
“Will he be all right?” Eshe asked once he left, staff angrily tapping in front of him
“Our home is overrun with the murderers of our order,” said Baze. “He needs a moment.”
“Don’t we all,” Irit said, and poured them a drink.
Chirrut had still not returned when Baze went to see the kids. It was dark by then, but that made no difference to Chirrut, who had proven he could take care of himself. Baze had time to come to terms with what Jedha had become, but Chirrut must have been holding out hope, foolish as it was. Baze understood; no one wanted to lose their home.
The kids were waiting for him, washed and changed for sleep. He unlaced his boots and set them aside, already shedding the top part of his jumpsuit in deference of the heat. Nishi and Amala snuggled up on either side, and Arjun climbed into his lap.
“And what story would you like to hear tonight?” Baze asked.
“The one about the moons,” said Nishi.
So Baze told them of Jedha and her sisters and how they all went out into the universe to seek their fortune and the adventures that befell them there. And then because the story of Jedha was not complete without her beloved, he told them of how Jedha met Lady Winter, who so loved her that she wrapped Jedha in a shawl of snow and ice to protect her from all the evils in the universe. And Jedha, the oldest of her sisters, made of stone and iron, softened and remade herself into a home so that she and Winter would be together, always.
And finally, in a voice that only broke once, Baze told them how Jedha and Winter’s love was so fierce and absolute that it formed the kyber crystals, the living proof of their promise to never leave their beloved’s side.
There was no Jedha without Winter softening her harsh surface so that the first of what would become the Order of Whills could make a life there, and there was no Winter without Jedha giving a home to her winds and her ice and the unflinching, burning core of her. Jedha went before and Winter followed, and that was the proper order of life, from now until the end of all things.
The kids had fallen asleep before Baze reached the end, but he finished the story as he had been taught before gently tucking them into their shared bed and stepping into the hall to find Chirrut sitting just outside the door.
“It has been a very long time since I heard that one,” Chirrut said. “You tell it well.”
“One of the sisters I traveled with was fond of it. She would tell it every time we got caught in a blizzard.” He took the hand Chirrut held out and pulled him to his feet, watching the long lines of Chirrut’s body unfold. “How are you feeling?”
Chirrut swayed close. “I know the Empire has no plans of leaving Jedha, but to hear it put so plainly was—”
“You hoped,” Baze said, “and now you cannot do that anymore.”
Chirrut shook his head. “My hope has only changed. If they will not leave of their own volition then they must be driven out, one way or another.”
Baze wondered if this was what drew Jedha to Winter, that fierceness, how certain she was of her place in the grand scheme of things. Once, Baze thought he knew where he belonged, but the galaxy showed that there was no place for such sentimental foolishness. If there was any mercy left in the world, Chirrut would not suffer as he did.
“You would fight the whole Empire,” he said.
“Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
What he and Eshe did was for survival as much as it was fucking over the Empire. For every agent they rescued and every cargo they delivered, they took money from the rebels. Nothing was free.
“You think us noble,” Baze said. “We have to eat somehow.”
“Then you would go work for the Hutts. But instead you risk your life bringing the rebellion medicine and weapons.” Chirrut smiled and touched his cheek. “And when you’re not doing that you tell stories to children to help them sleep. I don’t believe you want to be left alone, no matter how you act.”
“You’re a blind fool,” he said without heat.
“That doesn’t make me wrong.” Chirrut stepped in close, head tilted up. “And I’m a blind fool you like.”
“You’re assuming much.” But he gave himself away with how he settled his hands proprietarily on Chirrut’s hips.
Chirrut gently drew his fingers along the rim of Baze’s ear. “You should take me to bed.”
Irit had arranged a room for them, and Baze led Chirrut to it. It had been years since Baze wore a monk’s robes, but he remembered how they came undone, and he worked patiently through fold and tie until they pooled at Chirrut’s feet.
“Oh,” said Baze, and placed careful hands along the steps of Chirrut’s ribs.
“Why are you wearing so many layers?” Chirrut said, impatient as he tugged and pulled until Baze was as naked as him. “I'm still not in bed, Baze.”
Baze guided him until Chirrut’s knees hit the edge of the mattress. “Should I throw you on it?”
“Can you?” Chirrut said, and then laughed as Baze did just that. “I'm impressed. I didn’t think you could.”
“I feel the need to remind you,” he said, settling himself between Chirrut’s spread thighs, “that while you were studying in the temple and tending its gardens, I was walking the length of Jedha several times over.”
“And it shows.” He ran one hand over Baze’s back while he drew his foot up along Baze’s calf. He pulled Baze into a kiss. “Now,” he said, reaching up to take Baze’s ears in his hands, “shall I show you what I learned while you were on your walkabout?”
“Please don’t put it like that,” Baze said, pained, and Chirrut laughed again even as he drew Baze to him.
After days of teasing, Baze expected the sex to be frantic and fast, but instead it was slow and thoughtful in the way they learned the lay of each other’s bodies, the tension unspooling between them. It was also full of laughter, which was only to be expected with Chirrut, but Baze was surprised to find that half that laughter belonged to him, drawn forth by Chirrut’s happy grin and clever mouth.
Baze got his mouth on Chirrut’s neck as they rocked together, grinning at the noises that drew, and Chirrut used his grip on his ears to drag him right where he wanted, leg hooked high on Baze’s hip and a hand tight in his hair.
Baze came first, urged on by Chirrut’s whisper of, “I want to feel it. I want to feel everything.” When he caught his breath, he reached between them and stroked Chirrut to orgasm, mouthing at his neck as he shuddered and came over Baze’s fist.
They lay together after, carelessly wiped clean and sweating in the heavy humidity. Chirrut shoved a leg between Baze’s thighs, and Baze responded by draping an arm over Chirrut’s ribs.
“We should do that again,” Chirrut said. “We’re quite good at it.”
“I'm sure we can be even better,” said Baze.
Chirrut smiled, shifting close to tuck his head under Baze’s chin. It had been a long time since Baze found anyone he wanted to fit himself to, and he allowed himself the simple pleasure of trailing his fingers over the slope of Chirrut’s shoulder and down the valley of his spine and the ridges of his vertebrae. It would be difficult to give this up.
“Baze,” Chirrut murmured, mouth pressed to the hollow of his throat.
“Yes?” He dug his thumb into the cut of Chirrut’s hip, thinking of how nicely Chirrut would bruise there.
Chirrut shifted back enough so they could kiss, slow and easy in the heat, and when they broke apart Baze was worried that Chirrut would again ask him to return to Jedha.
But instead Chirrut said, “Do you think Eshe would airlock us if we fucked in the cockpit?”
Baze rolled them so that Chirrut straddled his thighs and said, “I think it’s worth finding out.”
And in the heavy night air their laughter bled together, chased and caught, one following the other.
They left the second moon of Tiragga late the next morning. He and Chirrut spent the dawn hours in bed until Baze was near drunk from the endless drag of Chirrut’s skin against his own and Chirrut’s inner thighs were red from the scrape of Baze’s beard.
Eshe took one look at them and said, “The rule still stands. Not in our room or the cockpit.”
“We’ll have to get creative,” said Chirrut, and Baze slid his hand up Chirrut’s thigh, refusing to be embarrassed.
They spent the week’s trip to Onderon finding dark corners of The Pride to steal a moment of privacy. The nights they spent twined in the bunk, Chirrut squirming and wriggling enough that Baze hauled him close lest he tip over the edge. Given his happy sigh and the way Chirrut wormed his leg between Baze’s, Baze suspected that had been Chirrut’s plan all along. Sleep came easy with Chirrut pressed against him, and for a moment the past seemed far away.
But nothing could stay as it was, a lesson that was hard learned, and they came upon Onderon on the sixth day after leaving Irit’s people. Chirrut leaned against Baze’s chair, hand tight on his shoulder while Eshe transmitted the codes, waiting for permission to enter atmosphere and dock.
“If they don’t accept it?” Chirrut asked quietly.
“We jump to hyperspace and hope for the best,” Eshe answered, and then, “We got clearance. Chirrut, have a seat. We’re entering atmosphere.”
They docked in the ports of the capital city of Iziz’s poorer eastern section, far from the houses of parliament and the financial district. Any Imperial presence would be concentrated there, especially for Onderon’s independence celebration.
It was also, Baze reflected as he went through the familiar motions of bringing The Pride in for landing, the place Chirrut would find transportation to Jedha. They had a few contacts in Iziz, people who carried a healthy fear of Eshe and who Baze trusted to deliver Chirrut safely home.
“We’ll unload tonight,” Eshe said. She wiped their flight and fuel logs before loading the forged data. A clean log was just as damning as one that held their actual flight history.
“Are they meeting us here?” Baze asked as they lowered the ramp. It was local morning, and he squinted against the bright light. Onderon was a jungle planet, and the sun was stronger than what Baze was used to.
“Yes,” said Eshe, and was the first down the ramp.
“With all the tropical planets you’re taking me to,” said Chirrut, “you would think you were trying to make a point about Jedha.”
“Coincidence,” Baze answered, scanning the docks for Orana. “But you have to admit it’s nice not to worry about freezing to death.”
“I don’t have to admit anything,” Chirrut said, but Baze caught him loosening the drape of his robes, head tilted towards the sun. “Are you staring?”
“No,” said Baze, taking in the faint impression of his teeth at the base of Chirrut’s neck. The noise Chirrut had made when he bit down. Unbidden, he draped his arm around Chirrut’s shoulders, thumb just brushing against the mark. Chirrut’s expression didn’t change, but he jabbed sharp fingers into Baze’s side.
“Behave. I believe our contacts have arrived.”
Before Baze could comment on the irony of what Chirrut said, he heard a wordless shout and caught sight of Orana’s small from cutting through the crowd. Eshe sprinted the last few feet, grabbing her wife and near lifting her off her feet.
Where Eshe was tall and muscular, Orana was short and round, pale yellow markings winding up her cheeks to her eyes, hair falling from the customary buns to pool through Eshe’s fingers. Orana went up on her toes, arms looped around Eshe’s neck as Eshe held her close.
“Tell me,” said Chirrut, leaning into Baze’s side, “how long have they been married?”
“As long as I’ve known them,” Baze answered. “I think Eshe said seven years, maybe longer.”
They kissed, and Baze turned his attention to the woman who had followed slowly in Orana’s wake. She had dark skin and eyes, and she was dressed in Onderon’s bright colors. Her curls were held back by a red scarf, and she met Baze’s gaze and nodded, a gesture of ackonweldgement and respect. Baze returned the gesture, as was proper when addressing someone of high standing.
“She shines like you,” said Chirrut.
“Brighter, I expect.”
“No one is as bright as you,” Chirrut said, and then stepped forward when Orana and Eshe drew apart. “You must be Orana. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
At Orana’s confused look, Eshe said, “This is Chirrut. He’s from Jedha as well. Baze picked him up and they’ve been unbearable.”
“Oh,” Orana said, pleased. “It’s so good to meet you. I’ve been trying to set Baze up for ages.”
“Have you?” Chirrut asked, delighted.
“And who’s with you?” Baze said pointedly.
“Steela Gerrera,” the woman said, stepping forward. “And on behalf of my people, thank you for making this run.”
Baze knew a little of politics outside of Jedha, and he had heard of Steela Gerrera, who led an army to overthrow the false king and free her people from the Separatists. And when the Empire rose, it was Steela Gerrera who left her planet to fly to Kamino and save what clones she could, and who returned to Onderon only to be hunted and driven from her home. It was Steela Gerrera who sought to burn the Empire to the ground.
“It’s an honor,” Baze said, and dipped his head low in respect.
“Is it safe for you here?” Eshe asked.
“They wouldn’t dare arrest me today,” Steela said. “And our mutual friend isn’t far away, in case anything goes wrong. I have respects to pay.”
“In that case,” Eshe said, Orana tucked close to her side, “look after the boys, will you? I have to catch up with my wife.”
“It was nice meeting you,” Orana called as Eshe dragged her into the ship. The ramp closed behind them and Baze didn’t have to check the panel to know the privacy locks were set.
“I’ve never been to Onderon before,” Chirrut said.
“You’ve picked a good time for a visit,” Steela said, tucking Chirrut’s hand under her elbow. “The parade is about to start.”
Banners and sashes were draped from every building and hung from every window. It was a riot of colors and music, people dancing in the streets, triumphant and joyful. It reminded Baze of the summer solstice on Jedha, when everyone shed their winter clothes and stepped out into the sunlight, soaking in the warmth as Jedha began its short thaw.
“It’s the eleventh year since the civil war ended,” Steela said as they made their way to the town center. “We overthrew the traitor king and took our home back from the Separatists. We thought we had won our freedom, but it turns out it was just a fleeting victory.”
As they drew close to the city’s center, Baze caught sight of the Imperial flag flying high overhead. Steela’s mouth turned down, and Chirrut gripped her tightly and said, “Your people survive. The fight isn’t over yet.”
“I’ll see Onderon free again.” She glanced at Chirrut and then back to Baze, and said, “As you will see Jedha free one day.”
Chirrut’s staff paused mid-tap. “I don’t suppose you’re willing to give some pointers about fighting an occupied force?”
“I have a whole handbook on the subject,” she said.
Chirrut grinned. “I like you. You’re introducing me to such helpful friends, Baze. I did well in picking you up.”
“You didn’t pick me up,” Baze said.
“Yes, I did,” Chirrut told Steela.
She said, “You made a good choice.”
Steela deftly led them around the parade and through the markets. She drew respectful nods from almost everyone they met, and when a stormtrooper patrol passed her people would draw close, hiding her from view. If the Imperials tried to take her, the entire city would rise up and riot for their champion.
They drank chilled tea and ate seasoned meat and grilled vegetables. Steela bought them frozen fruit and bright ribbons that Chirrut wove into his hair while Baze silently suffered through it. When the speeches began, Steela took them down small alleys and out into crumbling courtyards, where they listened to songs and stories from those who were there the day the Separatists fled.
And Steela stood tall as in a long line her people gently touched her arms and her shoulders, young and old alike pressing their lips to her brow and her cheeks, bearing the terrible weight of their gratitude and their sorrow.
“It is a hard thing,” Chirrut said as Steela clasped an old soldier’s forearm, heads bent together, “to be responsible for a people.
The Whills had born the weight of Jedha itself, bowed low under the hope and fear and love placed in their care. Perhaps that was why they failed when they were needed the most. You couldn’t be everything for your beloved, not even if you carved yourself hollow to house them. It was too much to ask of one body.
“Is this what you want?” Baze asked.
Chirrut shook his head. “That weight is too great for one person to carry. Too great for even two, I suspect.”
Baze tried to picture Chirrut on Jedha, vibrant against the ice and the snow, unmoved against the harsh winds that blew from the south. Chirrut burned so hot for one who came from a moon that was so loved by Winter.
“But you’ll do it anyway,” he said.
And Chirrut said, “Can you do less in the face of such love?”
After the last of her people paid their respects, Steela returned to them and said, “I have one more thing to do, and then we’ll go to back to your ship.”
The sun was sinking low in the sky when they came upon one of Iziz’s great monuments. They slipped to the back where they were met by a guard, who said, “You have five minutes.”
“Thank you,” Steela said.
The monument was wide and empty but for two stone tombs that stood somber in the fading light.
“My brother Saw is on the left. Lux Bonteri is on the right. In the final battle for Onderon, Lux and I were thrown over a cliff edge. Our friend,” and she stressed the last word, a nod to the rumored Jedi who fought with them in the year before the Jedi were killed, “made a choice. Lux fell and my brother took a blaster to the chest.” Her eyes were dry and her voice steady as she said, “They died for Onderon and for me.”
“You have five minutes,” Baze gently reminded her.
They waited at the back as Steela placed a hand on each tomb, head bowed, her grief as familiar to Baze as his own. This is what love got you, he thought. You lived while others died and you tried to make sense of it all. Sometimes there was none to be made, and you either found a way to live with that or you didn’t.
“I know,” Chirrut said, taking his hand. “You think me foolish, but I know.”
“What returning home will cost me.” The curve of his mouth was sharp and rueful. “What Jedha will take from me. You don’t believe anymore, and I understand why you cannot.”
“And I understand why you do,” Baze said, because without his faith Baze knew Chirrut would walk into blaster fire and let it take him. And if Baze still had his then he would follow right after. “If we do this, if we go back and fight, it may break us.”
“It’ll break us if we don’t.”
Baze looked to Steela and the strong curve of her back, the weight she bore for Onderon. Loss had changed them all, but it had yet to break them.
He wasn’t broken, Baze thought, something like wonder unfurling in his chest, and it was time to stop acting as if he was.
“Chirrut, ask me again.”
Chirrut curled a hand around his neck, bringing their foreheads together. “Will you come home with me?”
“Yes,” said Baze, and for the first time in a great many years he looked to the future instead of grieving the past.
Eshe set them down outside the holy city, and said, “It’s a long walk. I can bring us in closer.”
“It would draw attention,” Chirrut answered. “This is safer for you.”
“He’s right,” said Baze, and touched her shoulder.
“I’ll help you with your things,” Orana said, and led Chirrut from the cockpit.
“I love her, but she’s not subtle,” Eshe said, moving from the pilot’s chair.
“She’s better than Chirrut.”
“She is at that.” Eshe cleared her throat. “I'm glad you found your path again, even if means we part ways.”
Baze had never been demonstrative, not even with his fellow guardians, but it was easy to reach out and clasp Eshe’s arm. “Thank you for saving me.”
“You saved yourself. I just gave you a place to sleep.”
“You did more than that. I was lost and you found me. And you gave me the kick in the ass I needed.”
“You needed more than one.” She drew him in, and Baze held her tight. “Fight well, little brother. Live even better.”
“We’ll meet again, sister,” he said, and pressed his lips to the skin under her left eye, followed by her right, and then to the point of her chin, the traditional parting among guardians.
Orana were waiting for them at the ramp, and she hugged him tight. He bent low so she could whisper in his ear, “Thank you for keeping her safe.”
“Take care of each other,” he said, and accepted her kiss to his cheek.
Chirrut passed over the pack, and Baze settled it on his shoulders, aware of the disc hidden within.
Two identical men had met them at Iziz’s port, and they efficiently and quickly unloaded The Pride. Steela had pressed a data disc into his hands and said, “Contacts you can reach out to if you run into trouble.”
“We have brothers near Jedha to help you fight the fuckers,” said one of the clones, a tattoo etched over half his face.
“Thank you,” Chirrut said. “May the Force be with you.”
“Now that is something I haven’t heard in a long time,” said the other clone. “Those Imp bastards won’t know what hit them.”
“They will if we do it right,” Baze said, and Chirrut’s smile went sharp and vicious.
“Ready?” Chirrut asked.
“Yes,” said Baze, and stepped once more onto Jedha’s red earth.
The holy city rose before them like the morning sun, but Baze didn’t need its walls to guide him. He would never be lost as long as Jedha stood beneath his feet. He had walked from one end of the moon to the other, and that made it his as surely as the first touch of Chirrut’s mouth on his own meant that he would belong to no other.
“Oh,” Chirrut said softly, face turned into the cold southern wind. “I’ve missed this.”
“So have I.” He nudged Chirrut’s shoulder and said, “We need to go if we’re to make it before nightfall.”
“So impatient. What happened to savoring the moment?”
“We savor it anymore and we’ll be dead from hypothermia.”
Chirrut laughed. “Then let us find somewhere warm.”
And as Winter followed Jedha, so too did Baze walk the path Chirrut set to lead them home.