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crouched on one knee in the dark

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When Baze had believed, that belief had been a thing grounded in soil and stone: his feet planted firmly on NiJedha's streets, his back as straight as any of the temple's towers. When Baze had believed, he had been righteous, steadfast. When Baze had believed, his faith had inspired many things: first Chirrut's envy, and then his admiration, and then a frantic and ill-advised and glorious fumbling between the two of them in a dark corner of the novices' dormitory.

"I want to take the map," Baze had said, after the last of the initiation rites were done and their heads were shorn and they were Guardians. Few of the Guardians of their generation had chosen to take anything more complicated than simple bands around their arms or ankles, if that. There wasn't a requirement for more. But when Baze had believed, his faith had been in the past as much as in the presence of the Force. Baze had upheld the traditions.

"Not so practical, my friend," Chirrut replied after a moment's thought. They were walking through the cloister on the way to noon devotions; their steady steps carried them in sync past the ancient columns, through patches of warm light and cool shadow. "It will take a very long time, and who will see it but me? And you know what they say about blind men and maps."

Baze snorted, and kept walking, and that was an end to the debate.

Chirrut sat with him during the long hours it took Master Ngî to complete the work, one hand gripping the warm curve of Baze's bare shoulder. Through his palm, Chirrut could feel the twitch and release of muscles in Baze's back. When he focused on his breath, Chirrut could sense the way Ngî was layering Force-knowledge into the tattoo, each detail bright as sunshine and fine-tipped as a djûm-feather brush. It was easy to anticipate the beauty of the piece. By the time that Ngî laid down his needle with a grunt of satisfaction, Baze's forehead was beaded with sweat and his back a living, bleeding reminder of a Guardian's duty.

When they lay together at night, skin to skin and legs tangled, Chirrut's habit was to run his hands down Baze's back—to listen to the sounds of the temple and the sleeping city around them, to feel the alleys and streets and by-ways and squares in colours and etched lines beneath his palms. It was the kind of mantra that would have scandalised their old masters, but it made smiles come as readily as prayers to Chirrut's lips.

Baze's faith burned bright for years. NiJedha and its temple stood for a thousand generations. And then: gone, all of it.

Yavin 4 was no hotter than Jedha, but the air was heavy, wet—it was like trying to breathe in deep while stooped over a boiling pot. When they stepped off the ship, the first lungful made Chirrut cough, and he was exhausted by the time a harried-looking Rebel officer showed Baze and Chirrut to a set of quarters. "Bed here, 'fresher there, canteen opens in three standard hours," zie said, and hurried off, head tails streaming out from beneath hir helmet.

"Not important enough to debrief or to suspect," Chirrut said when the door closed behind the officer. "We have come down in the world."

"I'm taking the first shower," Baze said. He set his pack down on the floor with a clunk and shuffled off, and in the sudden silence, it was difficult not to remember what Cassian had told them: that the Rebel base was housed in a temple whose worshippers had long since disappeared.

Sometimes, Chirrut quibbled with the Force's sense of humour.

The shower started up and Chirrut found the bed and sat down. It was lower than the platform beds he was used to, but at least felt like it would be wide enough for the two of them to share. Chirrut sat, and remembered the sound that rock made when it cracked and shattered, and his head felt very empty.

Eventually the sound of running water stopped. Chirrut heard bare feet on stone, and then the creak of the mattress and the scrape of fingers against scalp as Baze sat down next to him and started to finger comb the tangles from his hair.

"There's plenty of hot water," Baze said. "You should you use it."

"I'm sure you're not suggesting I am anything other than fragrant and alluring," Chirrut said, though he was all too aware that some of Jedha's dust still clung to the soles of his feet and hid beneath his fingernails. "Has it taken you only a few decades to forget our vows so thoroughly?" He shifted so that he was sitting behind Baze, his thighs bracketing Baze's hips. He placed the palm of his hand on Baze's bare shoulder, and followed the line of it across to the nape of Baze's neck, and down. Chirrut knew, because Baze had told him, that every part of his back was covered, coloured. Chirrut knew, because he could feel it, that every part of Baze's back was a map of a place that no longer existed. The sharp line of a shoulder blade was the stretch of the city wall between the School of the Old Believers and the ruins of the satrap's palace; the dip of Baze's spine was the processional route to the temple; the puckered chain of a scar the line of the masters' huts outside the temple gate.

All of NiJedha was gone.

Chirrut leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Baze's waist and pressing his face to Baze's back. He felt Baze shudder; heard him struggle to keep his breathing under control and the way his ribs rose and fell with each intake of air. Some of the old masters had told fables, koans, of a long-ago time when the galaxy was young and monsters walked among the stars and a brave soul might dare take the weight of a whole world upon his back. Fable or prophecy? Chirrut wondered, fingertips stroking at the cut of Baze's hipbones.

"Doesn't the Force teach us to seek the still point at the centre of all things?" Chirrut said, words muffled against Baze's skin. "So on the bright side, my dear, in the interest of equilibrium, at least your map is now as much use to me as it is to any other being."

"Chirrut—" Baze sighed.

"We have one more night at least," Chirrut said, "let us have—" and Baze shifted, turned: his mouth hot against Chirrut's, his fingers tangling in the layers of Chirrut's robes. They were old and tired, both of them, and Chirrut's face was wet with tears he'd only just realised were falling. Would it be better, if his faith had cracked and crumbled like Baze's? Would it be better, if he didn't still feel that they were going where the Force was guiding them?

Impossible to know, he decided, as Baze pressed him down against the mattress and curled blunt fingers around his jaw and scraped his stubble against Chirrut's. There could be cruelty in certainty—and they had certainties enough to deal with for the moment. There was the map on Baze's back, as much burden now as duty; there would be no going home.

When Baze had believed, his faith had been a solid thing, centred on solid things: temple and service and the skilled hand of an artist, carrying on an ancient craft. Chirrut believed, and believed still, and it was because of this: that despite all that they'd lost, Baze never showed any regret for having once walked a Guardian's path; because Chirrut was sure that if the Force willed it, Baze could set his shoulders and carry on them a vanished city, still whole.