He wasn't tired of the bit, not really, but sometimes he pretended that he was to rile Chirrut up.
“Get a new scam, why don't you,” he would say when the crowds were thin, early in the morning or during that hot late-afternoon lull when the winds stopped and the city streets smelled like baking sand, dull and dry. The happy shrieks of playing children would have been replaced by the repetitive, overlapping song of vendors’ calls and the chants of pilgrims; the kicked-up dust would hang in the air around them, a red-brown haze waiting for the evening winds to carry it home to the desert.
“It’s not a scam,” Chirrut would reply dutifully. Baze could hear in his voice how the corners of his lips turned up in a smile.
“Well, you sure sell it like one.”
Chirrut would tilt his chin up and Baze would come forward out of the shadows and crouch beside him, elbows resting on his bent knees.
“Maybe one of these days I’ll tell your future,” Chirrut would threaten. His face would be tilted toward Baze and Baze would look at the slope of his cheek, his parted lips, the scar just under his eyebrow. As though Chirrut would need to hear the clatter of his weapon against his thigh or the sharp intake of his surprised breath for either of them to know Baze’s future.
The problem Baze seemed to keep running into was that faith was dependent on an absence of proof.
“The Force is all around us,” Chirrut said, and Baze used to believe him: he used to look up at the arching walls of the temple and the vast shimmering expanse of Jedha, the red sand and the pink horizon and the white-blue sky, and he remembers that he felt the Force, then, but he can no longer remember what it felt like. There seem to be a lot of things he can no longer remember. The tiles on the floor of the Temple of the Whills were laid in intricate geometric patterns, whirling black and white designs stretching out across the echoing foyer, but he can't picture them in his mind, though he still wears the boots he wore the last time he stood upon them. The temple was gone, now. Baze had watched the flocks of TIE fighters, ion engines screaming, whirl up into the sky and circle back around like the arrowbirds would in the spring: spiraling up and up and up into the atmosphere and then swooping down again, gaining speed, wings tight against their small bodies. The spires of the temple had crumbled and fallen, and the massive statues, the peaked arches of the doorways and the sloping ceilings. The arrowbirds were gone, too, their nests gone, the trees they nested in gone, the courtyards that held the trees gone.
And Baze’s faith had gone, too.
If the Force did exist, Baze now knew better than to rely on it. It was more painful to believe that this was a galaxy in which the Force existed and yet still the atrocities he had seen had happened, so he gave up hope. The only constant in Baze’s life now, the only miracle that proved to Baze day after day that something was worth fighting for and something was worth protecting, well. It sat in the worn-down divot of a stone step in front of him, repeating to an unhearing torrent of passing strangers, “May the Force of others be with you.”
“You have another job,” Chirrut said when Baze returned from the meeting point.
“We have to eat,” Baze responded. He felt unsettled: the client had been shadier than usual, goggles barely pushed above his eyes, a voice modulator strapped over his mouth. They had met in an abandoned building, dust motes swirling in the early morning light that slanted through the boards nailed over the windows. The client had already been there, waiting, though Baze had arrived early to scout out the space. Sometimes Baze’s clients were nervous but this one stood still and steady, feet apart, hands clasped behind his back: parade rest. It was suspicious.
Chirrut turned his face toward Baze, eyebrows drawn together. “You don’t want to do it.”
Baze looked at Chirrut’s hands curled loosely around one of their red clay mugs. He sighed. “It will be fine.”
“You still think you can lie to me?”
Baze resisted the urge to run his hands over his face. “I don’t know why I bother trying.”
“It’s because you want to make me feel better.”
“Please,” Baze said, and though he meant for it to be sarcastic it didn’t come out that way.
Chirrut stood and came toward Baze, backing him against the wall of their small apartment. Baze closed his eyes. Chirrut rose up on his toes and Baze tilted his head down to press their foreheads together. They breathed like that for a moment and Baze settled, calm again, Chirrut’s hand wrapped around his wrist, finger to his pulse. Chirrut had been drinking the strong black tea he liked; Baze tasted it on his lips as they kissed, just briefly.
“It’s getting late,” Baze murmured. The sun had already begun to beat down on the city. Baze worried another panhandler or con man had set up in their usual spot in a doorway beside a row of stalls in the market.
Chirrut rose up to kiss him again, soft and familiar. “Then let’s go.”
The job went badly.
“At least you got paid,” Chirrut said.
“Yes, and we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.” Baze did not flinch as Chirrut peeled the torn edges of his shirt away from the blaster wound that stretched from his scapula up over the curve of his shoulder. The dried blood had plastered the shirt to Baze’s skin and as Chirrut lifted it away, Baze felt the wound open again. Chirrut’s hands were steady.
“Listen to Chirrut?”
Baze laughed roughly. “I do not remember you telling me not to take the job.”
“What use is there in arguing with a wall?”
Baze grunted. Chirrut pressed a damp cloth to his back and Baze closed his eyes. He felt the splay of Chirrut’s hands over his skin, strong and callused and warm. Chirrut gently scrubbed the cloth over the wound. Baze breathed steadily as pain rose up and rolled out from his shoulder in waves. Chirrut removed the cloth but kept one hand pressed over the line of Baze’s spine, palm flat. After a moment he felt the cool tingle of bacta cream smeared over the wound and his skin broke out in goosebumps, a single involuntary shiver wracking his body. Chirrut stroked his back soothingly. His hand was still wet from the cloth and left a streak of water on Baze’s skin that cooled quickly. Chirrut laid gauze over the wound, then wrapped it in a bandage. It seemed like too much, more care than Baze needed. He didn’t fight it.
“Next time,” Baze said, “perhaps the wall will listen.”
“That seems unlikely,” Chirrut said, but he rose up on his knees behind Baze and draped his arms over Baze’s shoulders, carefully avoiding the new bandage. Baze leaned into him. Chirrut pressed his face into Baze’s hair, though Baze was sure he smelled of sweat and gun oil and the acrid ozone scent of blaster fire.
“Isn’t anything possible in the Force?” Baze teased.
“In the Force, yes,” Chirrut said with a smile. “In Baze Malbus? Not so sure.”
“Baze, tell me,” Chirrut pressed. “All of it? The whole city?” Baze didn’t answer. It felt as though his heartbeat was shaking his whole body. “Tell me.”
“All of it,” Baze said abruptly. He knew Chirrut needed to know but it seemed as though it wasn’t quite real until Baze said it, until Chirrut understood. The whole city. The streaks of stars in hyperspace outside the windows of the ship threw splashes of light and deep shadows over the walls, the control panels in the cockpit, the dirty and exhausted faces of everyone on the shuttle. Baze remembered the dappled sunlight filtered through the trees in the courtyard of the temple, the way the light seemed to pick up the verdant greenness of the leaves and cast it over the ground and Baze’s hand as he held it in front of him, fingers splayed as though he could catch the warm summer breeze that rustled the leaves.
Chirrut reached out and Baze took his hand. It seemed like a paltry comfort. Baze thought of the pilgrims who came to the Holy City; the brother and sister he saw walking to school every morning from his and Chirrut’s niche, the older sister always holding the hand of her little brother, sometimes scolding him for reaching up with wonder toward the trinkets displayed on the folding tables of the merchants they passed; the Twi’lek tea vendor Chirrut haggled with every month for a small paper bag of loose dried leaves. Baze tried to call up the incandescent rage that he relied upon when fighting imperials but all he could feel was the chasm that seemed to yawn inside him, his bottomless grief. Their landlady and the young man who worked the vegetable stand ever since his father passed away. Chirrut ran his thumb over Baze’s knuckles. Baze wondered if he still felt the Force.
The rebel base was located in an oppressively humid jungle, the air so thick Baze felt as though he breathed water. Chirrut had only missed a single step as he exited the dry recycled air of the stolen imperial transport, bowing for a moment under the weight of the air and then immediately adjusting. Chirrut was like that. Baze had struggled to hoist the generator for his cannon onto his back.
He sat with the generator between his feet now, in some kind of waiting area beside Chirrut as the nervous imperial pilot, Bodhi, paced nearby. Chirrut practically vibrated with energy.
“Praying?” Baze asked, though of course he already knew the answer. He glanced sidelong at Chirrut’s hands clasped loosely around his staff. There was still dirt under his short fingernails: the dust of Jedha. Baze abruptly thought of the tiny particles that still likely gathered in the few folds of his own clothing that hadn’t been soaked through by the relentless Eadu rain; in the unbrushed tangle of his hair; inside his boots, warmed by his skin.
“May the Force of others be with us,” Chirrut murmured. “May the Force of others be with us.”
“The council will decide what it decides,” Baze said.
“No reason the Force should not nudge them in the right direction.”
Chirrut went back to his chant, but only for a moment. “Here they come,” he said, raising his voice so Bodhi could hear.
Bodhi’s head jerked up violently and then he caught himself, shaking his head a little, smoothing his palms down the front of the jumpsuit he still wore though the rebels had offered him a change of clothes. “Let’s hope for good news,” he said, and turned toward the yawning stone doorway.
“It is not,” Chirrut murmured to Baze.
Something cold settled in Baze’s stomach. He sighed and the thick, humid air seemed to want to choke him. He hadn’t been able to breathe since Jedha. He moved to stand but Chirrut held him back with a light touch to his arm.
“For luck,” Chirrut said, and without thinking Baze turned toward him, cupping Chirrut’s cheek in his hand, sliding the pads of his fingers over the very faint rasp of stubble on Chirrut’s jaw. Chirrut pressed toward Baze, letting Baze’s hand curl around the back of his head, the closely cropped hair at the nape of his neck, the dip where his skull met his spine, warm and a little damp with sweat, and he kissed him, milky eyes fluttering closed. It only lasted a moment, enough for their lips to meet and for Baze to take a quick close breath of Chirrut’s air.
“You don’t need luck,” Baze murmured. “You have me.”
The Force is with me and I am one with the Force.
Baze rained cannon fire upon the advancing stormtrooper squadron, alternating precision shots with random bursts. As a Guardian, he had protected the temple; as an assassin, he had traded strangers’ lives for money; as Baze Malbus, he would kill as many of the people who had taken his home, his faith, and his life from him as he could.
He would not stray far from Chirrut.
The Force is with me and I am one with the Force.
The generator of his cannon blazed hot against his back, its gears shrieking and grinding but still barely audible over the crash of the AT-ATs through the trees, the whine of ion engines, the constant crackle and thud of energy bolts through metal and plastic and flesh. Waves of troopers fell as they flooded onto the beach, clutching their melted armor or just slumping, deadweight, in a spray of sand. He fired his cannon. The waves kept coming. He felt a familiar pain rocket through his body, that of a blaster bolt: numb and white-hot at the same time, momentarily narrowing his physical sensations to a small circle of burned skin and screaming nerves. He didn’t remove his finger from the trigger even when he fell to his knees, pushing his body up with one hand, forcing himself forward again as his heels sank into the sand. When he dragged in a breath, he smelled burning flesh. He kept on firing. Chirrut. Chirrut. Chirrut.
A dying trooper near a trench in the sand weakly tossed a grenade toward him. Its red eye blinked.
The Force is with me and I am one with the Force.
He remembered Jedha, his home, its heat and cold, its vast, windswept deserts. He remembered the temple silhouetted against Jedha’s rising sun, its impossibly tall spires, its intricate twisting pillars, and he remembered the awe-inspiring statues that flanked it, lightsabers soaring up and up into the brightening sky. He remembered the fierce sweet flare of protectiveness that had risen up inside him when he looked upon it.
He remembered the Force.
He wrenched his body around in the rough wet sand and craned his neck to look at Chirrut, one last time.
The Force is with me.