Baze was all the way across the city from the temple, farther than he’d ever ventured on his own before, his heart hammering against his ribs at the thrill of being alone, finding his way without the help of an adult or even an older acolyte.
His task was to find someone “less fortunate and help them”. Baze considered these instructions vexingly imprecise. How was he to know who was less fortunate? How did he measure such a thing? Was it judged by the clothes they wore, or the last time they’d bathed? He wrinkled his nose and dodged around a pair of slow moving Duloks. If he went by durations between baths, most of the population of Jedha was less fortunate than him.
He couldn’t exactly approach someone and ask when they’d last eaten, or what their financial state was.
Perhaps he could find a beggar. And do what, exactly? Baze had no money, no food except the steamed bun he’d been given for lunch. He didn’t know how he was supposed to help anyone.
“You’ll know when it’s time,” Elder Athbor had intoned, tucking all four arms into his sleeves with a serene smile.
Baze scowled so hard a pair of urchins stopped dead with a squeak and ducked into an alley to avoid him.
Oops. Baze put his head in the alley but the street rats had already disappeared out the other side. A thud and the grunt of displaced air caught his ear and Baze straightened and stepped into the alley proper.
He grimaced as his sandal found something wet and slimy and the sound of another punch echoed down the narrow walkway.
Baze followed the noise along the alley and out the other side, to another street and the dull sound of a foot connecting with ribs. He picked up speed and rounded a corner, arms flailing to keep his balance, to discover four boys a few years older than him, surrounding a bundle of dirty rags.
The oldest boy whirled. Big for his age, with arms too long for his torso and small, mean eyes that narrowed at the sight of Baze, standing alone in the alleyway.
“What afeck wanna ye?” he snarled.
Baze advanced, despite the fear that thrilled through his veins. Four against one—not good odds, even if he was top of his class.
“Are you hurting someone?” he asked, distantly proud of how steady his voice was.
“Feck off,” the leader spat. “None affaira ye’s.”
“You made it my affair when you chose to hurt someone who couldn’t defend themselves,” Baze said, lifting his chin. “Pick on someone who can fight back, why don’t you?” He settled into the fourth stance from the second zama-shiwo form, hands up in loose fists, weight centered over his back leg.
The bundle of rags stirred, then a skinny arm shot out and caught one of the attackers by the ankle. He went down with a startled yelp as the other three charged Baze.
Things got very confusing after that. The leader lunged first as Baze dodged sideways, stepping into a fist thrown by another attacker. It connected with his ribs and Baze doubled over with a wheeze, just avoiding the foot that whistled past his ear.
He ducked and feinted and parried, occasionally landing a blow of his own but knowing in his heart that he was outmatched, even with his training. His attackers were older and bigger and fought dirty, clawed fingers reaching for Baze’s eyes and knees aimed at his groin.
He got in a lucky punch and felled one, stretching him headlong in the dirt. The next tripped over him and Baze faced the last, the leader, with blood in his mouth and trickling down his forehead from a cut near his hairline.
The older boy spat blood, lips drawn back off yellow teeth streaked with red, and kicked the one who had tripped. “Get ye up,” he growled.
The other scrambled to his feet and faced Baze, who swallowed hard. The mouth of the alley was behind him—if he made a run for it, he’d probably escape. But that meant leaving the victim to the tender mercies of—his thought was cut off by a filthy bundle of rags flying through the air and landing on the leader’s back.
Skinny arms snaked around his neck and sharp teeth closed on an ear as the leader stumbled forward under the weight, howling with rage.
Before Baze could move, a foot flashed out, catching the other attacker in the side of the head and dropping him where he stood.
Baze stared as the leader swung his arms, roaring in outrage and pain, unable to dislodge his attacker, who had an arm firmly across his windpipe and was steadfastly choking him into submission.
The bigger boy went to his knees, still fumbling weakly at the creature on his back, and from there forward onto his face.
The boy let go and bounced to his feet. “They won’t be out long, let’s go.” He grabbed Baze’s hand and dragged him out of the alley.
On the street, they broke into a run, dodging pedestrians with slippery grace as the unnamed boy led Baze through the maze of twisting paths that made up the heart of the Jedhan slums.
They crossed the slums and came out in one of the nicer neighborhoods, with houses that clustered close to the skirts of the temple. The boy was still holding Baze’s wrist, towing him along without looking back.
He only let go when they reached what looked like a dead-end, a stone wall looming eight feet above them.
“Toss me,” he said, making a gesture with his hands.
Baze stared at him, and the boy rolled his eyes.
“Toss. Me,” he repeated, and pulled Baze’s hands together until he got the idea and made a stirrup for the boy’s foot. A filthy sandal landed in his palms and Baze heaved, tossing the small, wiry body up.
He twisted in midair, catching the top of the wall and landing on his stomach. Then he slid across the stones until he could loop his ankle around the branch of the tree growing on the other side of the wall.
He leaned down, anchored by his grip on the branch, and reached for Baze’s hand.
Baze swallowed hard and took his hand, bending his knees and launching himself upward as the boy pulled.
There was a confusing scramble of limbs and half-choked laughter as they struggled to right themselves, lost their balance, and fell off the other side into a garden.
Flat on their backs in the soft dirt, the two howled with mirth, clutching at their ribs.
Finally, the mysterious boy turned his head, grinning. There was a smear of dirt above one high cheekbone, a bruise already darkening his jawline, and his eyes were brown, sparkling with delight.
“I’m Chirrut Îmwe,” he said. He held out a hand across his chest and Baze accepted it, still half-breathless with laughter.
Chirrut sat up, dusting off his filthy tunic. “Aren’t you glad I was there to rescue you?”
“You—what?” Baze demanded, scrambling upright. “I rescued you!”
“By being outnumbered and nearly beaten to death, yes,” Chirrut agreed. “I had it all in hand.”
“You were about to get your ass handed to you!” Baze protested, but a laugh was swelling behind his teeth at the sheer irreverent humor that gleamed in Chirrut’s eyes.
“All part of the plan,” Chirrut said. He stood and held out a hand. “I know a place where the owner will let us dig through the garbage after the dinner rush, come on.”
Baze balked. “I have a better idea.”
“Baze.” The whisper was faint but Baze would know that voice anywhere.
He groaned and rolled onto his side, pulling the pillow up to cover his head.
A hand tugged at the hem of his shirt. “Baze, come on, I know you’re not asleep.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Baze moaned, muffled under the pillow.
Chirrut laughed almost soundlessly and draped himself across Baze’s determinedly asleep form, sharp chin digging into Baze’s shoulder.
“Come on,” he coaxed in a whisper. “Please, Baze? I want to show you something.”
He was heavy, the spare, wiry street-rat transformed over the past four years into sleek muscle that seemed unperturbed by the growing pains Baze suffered. Chirrut stayed neat and graceful, secure in his body even as Baze shot ganglingly upward, all elbows and knees and barked shins, fifteen years old and embarrassed by himself in every way.
Baze could hate him for that, he thought sometimes, if Chirrut didn’t show such clear delight at Baze’s mere existence. It was Baze he looked to first when he made a joke, waiting for Baze to laugh, to appreciate Chirrut’s humor. It was Baze he shared food with, sneaking him steamed rolls when Baze was on guard duty, huddled high on the temple wall with the wind cutting through him like so many knives.
And it was into Baze’s bed he crept, that first night after he’d been officially accepted as a novitiate, inducted into the temple with great pomp and ceremony.
He’d been trembling, on the verge of tears, and Baze had reached for him without thinking, gathering Chirrut’s skinny frame close and tucking his newly shorn head under his chin.
They’d fallen asleep like that, and in the morning Baze had pretended not to know that Chirrut had been sucking his thumb in his sleep.
Chirrut wriggled on top of him. “Baa-aaze,” he cajoled. “Wake uuup.”
Baze groaned, deep and heartfelt, and let the pillow fall on the floor. Rolling his head, he glared at Chirrut, eyes silvered by the moonlight slanting through the window.
“Why are you like this?” he hissed.
Chirrut bounced his weight up and down just enough to make the cot creak. Baze grabbed at the sides and glared at him. Undeterred, Chirrut grinned.
“You wouldn’t have me any other way,” he said. “Come on.”
Scrambling to his feet, he tugged his red and saffron robes straight and held out a hand that Baze ignored.
It was just after midnight, Baze judged as they crept through the halls of the temple, avoiding the occasional monk by hiding in doorways, hands over their mouths.
Still half-asleep, it took Baze entirely too long to realize where Chirrut was taking him, and he only balked when Chirrut tugged on the heavy wooden door set flush against the red stone walls, drawing it open silently.
“Chirrut, why are we down here?”
Chirrut’s eyes gleamed with mischief in the light from the feeble torch set in the sconce on the wall.
“You’ve always wanted to see it.”
“Maybe with proper supervision,” Baze objected, setting his heels. “We’re not allowed down here for a reason. Novices have died, Chirrut.”
Chirrut rolled his eyes as he lifted the torch off its hook. “No one we know. In fact, I’ve done some asking around. Of the novices who have supposedly died down here, did you know that not a single person exists who knew them in real life?”
Baze stared at him.
Chirrut bounced on his toes. “Come on then, are you scared?”
He disappeared into the dark hallway beyond the door and Baze muttered a curse and plunged after him.
He smelled water before he heard it, cool and clean in his nose as rushing noises filled his ears. Baze stumbled out into a huge cavern lit only by Chirrut’s torch.
Water tumbled past their feet, white and frothing, carving its way through the rock to vanish in a spray of mist under a huge overhang at the far end of the cavern.
On the other side was a massive waterwheel, the relentless flow pushing the buckets up and over the top in a never-ending cycle.
“That’s how we get our power,” Chirrut remarked. He knelt and let his fingers trail through the clear water. “Wanna go for a swim?” His smile was bright and sharp, cleaving the dimness between them.
“Don’t be stupid,” Baze said. He was jumping at every sound, convinced they were about to be discovered, and it made him twitchy, irritable, rolling his shoulders under the weight of invisible eyes.
“Current’s too fast anyway,” Chirrut said. He stood and shook water off his fingertips, then cocked his head. “Can you hear it?”
“The kyber,” Chirrut whispered, his eyes suddenly dreamy. “Baze, oh it’s beautiful, it’s singing to me, can’t you hear it too?”
“I can’t hear anything except you blathering!” Baze snapped.
Chirrut cupped a hand over Baze’s mouth. “Shh,” he said. “Listen.”
Baze was acutely aware of Chirrut’s long fingers, curved against his cheek, and his warm palm, flattened across Baze’s mouth, and it took him several long moments to remember how to breathe.
But then he heard it too, a hum that started low and deep, reverberating in his bones before splitting into a thousand harmonies, each impossibly pure, carving their way into Baze’s soul and twining around his bones in aching bliss.
It was an eternity before Chirrut dropped his hand. There were tears on his face.
“Baze,” he whispered, swaying closer, until Baze could feel his body heat radiating off him in waves.
“Yes,” Baze managed, and lowered his head. Their lips were nearly touching, Chirrut’s eyes closed and tears drying on his cheeks, mouth parted and wet—
“What in the frelling nine depths of Shaitana are you doing?”
They snapped apart, straightening to attention as Elder Athbor advanced on them, his antennae whipping in wild agitation over his cranium.
“You are both getting detention for a year,” he hissed. “To the kitchens, now!”
The morning bell was far too early for reasonable people, Baze privately thought. Still, he kept his complaints to himself, unlike Chirrut, who whined all through morning showers, shaves, and doing each other’s tunics up.
“Why are the buttons on the back anyway?” he groused as he worked on Baze’s.
“The elders say it’s to remind us to ask others for help and not to rely only on ourselves,” Baze said through a yawn. He turned his head to see Chirrut doing the same, eyelids drooping over his milky blue eyes. Sorrow panged him yet again, but he shook it off as Chirrut finished the last button and shoved his fist against his mouth around another yawn.
Baze did Chirrut’s buttons up and helped him into his robes, settling them around his shoulder and wrapping them neatly at the waist. Chirrut batted clumsily at his hands and Baze stifled a laugh.
“Come on, help me with mine.”
“I’m blind,” Chirrut protested. “Have you no heart?”
Baze’s unimpressed silences were loud as a shout, Chirrut had once told him. He let one roll out now, and Chirrut suppressed a snicker and scooped the saffron robes off the bed. His hands were quick and deft as they settled the woven linen folds in place.
“Are you nervous?” Baze asked before he thought better of it.
Chirrut’s hands stilled on Baze’s chest, his face angled down where Baze couldn’t read the expression on it. “Were you?” he countered.
“Of course,” Baze said. “But I’d trained. Prepared. Drilled countless times. I knew I could do it, and that you’d be there waiting for me when I came out.”
Chirrut lifted his head, a smile curving his mouth. “All the novices wanted to talk to the mighty Baze Malbus, graduate of the seventh duan at twenty-two years old, three years before anyone in living history.”
Their faces were so close together, Baze could feel Chirrut’s breath warm on his skin. He wanted—he shook his head and stepped away, adjusting the robes.
“As they will with you,” he said. “Come on, then, it’s time for breakfast.”
Sure enough, they were thronged by novitiates and acolytes as they gathered breakfast and sat down at their favorite table.
“Brother Chirrut, Brother Chirrut, bless me, please, I take the second duan today.”
Chirrut wiped grease from his meat pie on the rough-spun napkin and touched the acolyte’s forehead with two fingers, murmuring the traditional prayer for peace and triumph on her forehead.
“You will do well, T’nith,” he said, smiling.
“Let him eat,” Baze said gruffly, shooing everyone away. “He needs to concentrate before he takes the duan, go on now, leave him be!”
Chirrut was laughing silently when Baze turned back to him. “So protective,” he said. “I don’t mind talking to them, Baze.”
“I know,” Baze muttered. “But you need to focus.”
Chirrut’s smile turned soft and fond and he opened his mouth to say something as Brother Athbor strode into the kitchens.
“It is time,” he said, voice reverberating through the space.
Baze hated waiting. Taking the duans himself had been a simple thing, if challenging. He’d known what he was doing, every step he was taking. Waiting for Chirrut, knowing what he was going through in excruciating detail and blind, on top of that—Baze tugged at his robes and practiced his meditation. I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.
He’d promised himself that when Chirrut had passed the seventh duan, then Baze would tell him.
The Force is with me and I am one with the Force.
What if Chirrut didn’t feel the same way?
Deep breaths, in and out. Chirrut loved him, Baze knew. But did he love him the way Baze so desperately wanted him to?
Hours passed as Baze prayed. Taking the seventh duan was an all-day process, long, arduous, and exhausting. Maybe he shouldn’t tell him immediately. After all, if Chirrut didn’t reciprocate, he’d be too tired to find a gentle way of turning Baze down.
It would be kinder to wait, more thoughtful.
Baze pressed his forehead to the stone in front of the altar, worn satin-smooth by countless foreheads pressed to it in the same manner. Had they felt this way too, Baze wondered briefly. Torn apart by his own restless heart, wanting to be a faithful disciple, a stalwart Guardian of the Whills, and dreaming of Chirrut’s skin, of long fingers in his hair, that lush mouth breathing Baze’s name, sightless blue eyes turned upward as Baze pulled devotion from his lungs.
The bell gonged, deep and sonorous, and Baze shot to his feet as the stone door slid aside and revealed Chirrut, shoulders sagging, ash streaked across his forehead and cheeks.
Baze leaped forward and caught him as Chirrut’s knees buckled. He was damp with sweat, soaked through his short hair, his garments clinging to him. Baze pulled Chirrut’s arm over his shoulder and tucked his own around Chirrut’s waist.
“I—did it,” Chirrut said, leaning into Baze’s strength. “I… thought of you, Baze, and I did it. I passed.” His temple was next to Baze’s mouth and Baze couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to it, avoiding the ash.
“Come on,” he whispered, voice rough. “Let’s get you cleaned up so you can rest.”
He helped Chirrut across the courtyard, but by the time they reached the outer hall, Chirrut had recovered enough to pull away.
“They’ll want to see me on my own two feet,” he said.
The acolytes were clustered on the other side of the door, and a cheer went up at the sight of Chirrut, tall, slim, and proud, Baze right behind him.
Baze spotted T’nith in the crowd, the ash on her temples marking her graduation to the second duan, and he grinned at her.
He steered Chirrut through the throng with a hand on his waist, letting him take his time to speak to the other acolytes, gracious even in his exhaustion, but finally Baze couldn’t take it any longer.
“Make a path,” he said, loudly enough that everyone flinched and scattered. “Brother Chirrut needs to rest. You’ll have a chance to talk to him later, go on now!”
Chirrut laughed under his breath and when Baze turned toward him, Chirrut looped both arms around his neck, pulling him down so their foreheads were pressed together.
Baze froze. This close, he could smell the sheep fat and bo ash from the marks on Chirrut’s temples, and he held very still, wondering what he was supposed to do.
“Do you remember that night in the cavern?” Chirrut murmured.
“The night you got us six months’ kitchen duty?” Baze said, his voice suddenly rusty, creaking with nerves.
“Why haven’t you kissed me already?” Chirrut asked.
Baze floundered. “I’m—I didn’t—I thought you—”
“I’ve loved you since the alley, twelve years ago,” Chirrut whispered. His eyes were open, sightlessly imploring Baze to feel the same way, and Baze swallowed around the joy choking him as Chirrut went up on tiptoe and pressed their mouths together, soft and clumsy and sweet and better than all the times Baze had imagined it.
Baze fisted a hand in the back of Chirrut’s robes and pulled him closer as a helpless noise fell from his lips and Chirrut devoured it, their tongues sliding together hungrily there in the hallway, lost to the outside world.
Chirrut broke away first, worry crossing his mobile face. “You do—you love me too, right?”
Baze couldn’t help his laugh as he yanked Chirrut closer and buried his face in Chirrut’s throat. “I love you more than anything, you idiot,” he managed, and closed his eyes as Chirrut’s laugh vibrated through them both.