Chapter 1: DEDICATION
'you are in love
what does love look like'
to which i replied
'like everything i've ever lost
come back to me.'
from _salt_ by nayyirah waheed
Chapter 2: ZEB
A knock at Zeb's door disturbs his quiet (lonely) life.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Swaying like the waves of a pale, golden sea, Lothal’s grassland unfurls before him.
Zeb Orrelios glides through the dry, shoulder-high reeds on his puttering speeder, weaving past ochre stems tall enough to brush up against the pastel sky above. Its cloudless expanse is vast and unbroken, wholly unburdened by the troubled world, brought down only by the soft shape of swirled, cone-like spires that make up Lothal’s distinct rock formations.
Outside the murmur of his vehicle, an organic hush ripples over the grassland: a marrow-bird scratches against the ground, picking at the remains of a carcass; a brown-striped Loth-cat stealthily ushers her brood, directing them through the swaying prairie footpaths. Even his own, tired breaths are subdued, fading into the sound of the wind through the grasses.
But the silence, he’s decided, suits him just fine. After all, I’ve become used to it by now.
The broad-shouldered Lasat coasts to a stop on his speeder, its ancient frame groaning with tired protest. Zeb gives it a thankful pat as he dismounts, an understanding passing between himself and the Clone-War aged relic. Hoisting his travel bag over his shoulder, he moves towards the stooping shape of his door.
“Hello there,” he says, greeting only shadows.
Zeb places a hand on the cracked sensor-port at the door, which runs a quick scan over his palm. The deadbolt withdraws, and he passes over the threshold, its smooth, rounded stones now grown familiar under his foot. Zeb deposits his pack on a hook by the door, then he stretches, a long creak in his bones reaching far beyond the tiredness of his current years.
“M’home,” Zeb announces in a dry humor. Nobody responds, just as expected.
With a wince at his own, predictable joke, Zeb makes his way towards the kitchen in search of food. He steps over the gray-brown smoothness of the floor, the sound of his footsteps echoing over the emptiness of the living room, down the emptiness of the hall, into the darkness of his twin bedrooms and refresher. He doesn’t stop to admire the last colors of sunset threading through the window, and makes his way instead towards the cooling cube in the corner.
“Tooka?” he calls, fully expecting that the feral creature won’t answer his words. “You around here, ya mangey critter?”
Zeb tries his best to ignore the sinking feeling of disappointment as the small, vagabond Tooka-Cat does not appear at his window. Instead, he busies himself with rummaging around inside of the cooler, the rush of chemical coolants washing over him in a plume, casting dim light in the darkened room. He stares for a moment at the stale, crumbled foodstuffs twisted and covered in frost, then shuts the door in a decisive motion.
Kriff it. Better to go to bed hungry than be poisoned by my rotten leftovers.
He makes a grumpy note not to try and cook for himself like before. Better now to stick to the food made by street vendors, sold in the market in single portions for pathetic loners, war veterans, and bachelors such as himself. “Ya know, I didn’t used to just cook for two,” he says abruptly, speaking as though the Tooka-Cat is present and listening. “Believe it or not, I used to cook for the lot of us, back on the Ghost.”
The pain of it only burns at his chest for a moment. So, Zeb breathes deep, and continues.
“I really wasn’t too bad at it, either. Kanan would help me, even after he went blind, in preparing all the stuff for our mealtimes. The kids liked it, more often than not, and would eat their fill. And, of course, I could always blame it on Ezra and his meddling hands if something went wrong in the end.” Zeb winces at hearing the names spoken, sensing the loss of his distant Specters. Still, he presses on. “Hell, I could make something to satisfy Hera , even when she was sky-sick and pregnant!”
That finally does it. The reality of the present strikes him, a jolt of fresh pain that bites through his chest, and cuts his words to immediate silence.
Kanan. Ezra. Sabine. Hera. Chopper.
The faces of his crew, closer than friends and truer than family, waver in front of his eyes like real ghosts. It’s been several years since the death of his Jedi - and, likely, also his Padawan learner - but the grief of a world without his friends has set in Zeb’s bones like a molten lead. And not only himself, but worse, his fellow survivors; for, unable to bear the weight of the loss, Hera and Sabine had left him, and had left them all whole star systems apart.
It had, of course, not been ill intended. Sabine Wren had left to assist her blood family back on her home planet of Mandalore. It was out of necessity, Zeb understands, but he still wishes for her fierce, loyal presence. And Hera Syndulla had gone soon after as well. Like Sabine, it was crucial - she’d been called on to direct the newly-forged, fumbling Alphabet Squadron - and besides, she’d had more than her hands full already in parenting a small, fatherless newborn. Hera was closer now to Chandrilla and the new phase of the Rebellion, and her departure had made perfect sense.
Not that it had made it any easier on Zeb.
Still on the battered, war-shaken Lothal, unable to leave behind his duty to the Rebellion but too broken to help out in any way other than small, daily tasks of the local rebuilt, he’d remained for the fragile attempts of finding a purpose when everything else he’d loved now was rubble.
Zeb grunts in irritation, and he opens a cupboard. He’s searching around for an instant nanowave packet, ready to slice open the seal with his unsheathed, clawed hands and to gorge himself out of his troubles, but instead, his fingers close around the unexpected, roughly-spherical shape of a ceramic drinking cup. Zeb frowns in confusion, then pulls the handleless shape into the dim kitchen light for a closer inspection.
It takes Zeb a long, dull moment of staring at the artist’s crudely-carved initials before the memory rises for him. He recalls a tiny, pointy-eared toddler seated upon his lap, playing with cheery fistfulls of mud while his mother stepped out for a debriefing. Hera had returned to find Zeb in his own fashion of babysitting, the pair of them covered with Lothal’s clay-like mud and grinning like a pair of foolish Loth-cats. She’d scolded them gently for getting so dirty, then had taken the “cup” from Jacen’s wet hand, preserved it for further baking and casting. Zeb can see now that she’d even taken the time to paint it with her son, its mottled flecks of green, gold and earth-brown all mixed together with the impressions of tiny, clawed fingertips.
Zeb swallows dryly, the anger and pain inside of his chest melting into a heavy depression.
He turns to the window to face the last golden-pink threads of sunset. Zeb tips the forgotten gift into the sink, filling the lopsided cup until it is brimming. The musical tinkle of water should be soothing, a sign of life in the midst of stillness, but he only finds himself flinching at the disruption. He swallows again, and finds that there are beads of moisture now brimming at the crease of his eyelids.
It’s been too long, he thinks. Too long since I’ve seen my family. Since we’ve all been okay.
After a moment’s hesitation, he cracks open the window, leaving the cup in case the roaming tooka-cat shows its face. Then he abandons the crinkled foil of the nanowave packet, long grown familiar with his aching belly and hunger, and slumps his way back towards the ‘fresher.
Zeb presses against the seal of his jumpsuit, kicking and stepping his way out of the dusty garment. It’s an old habit - privacy is unnecessary, given that he’s the only living soul here for miles - but he makes his way towards the refresher door anyhow before stripping himself. Now unburdened by clothing, he bows over the frame of the basin, using a foot to discard the suit and a hand to remain steady. He feels a tired and disappointed sigh escape his lips as he observes his exhausted, disheveled appearance, thinking of the distant, handsome Last who had once been the confident Honor Guard captain. Now, he would probably repel a rancor.
“Ezra used to call me stinky,” Zeb chuffs, no real humor in the sound. “Guess the kid really had no idea what he was talking about.”
The man looking back at Zeb is nothing like the man that he remembers. Loss has left its distinctive trademarks. There is a clear tiredness around his eyes, a weariness that comes from being aged past his prime and feeling the toll of a warrior’s lifetime exhaustion. There is a dullness to the green of his eyes and a grayish sheen of matte to his pelt, obscuring the boldness of his once-purple fur. His proud ears are shifted to point downward, and the frown on his face pulls likewise. One boorish fang peeks at him irritably, hinting at the temper that boils far too close to the surface.
It had begun at the moment that Kanan had died. It hadn’t left him since he’d last seen Ezra.
Zeb snarls, anger cutting through his haze of depression, as though he could scare his own thoughts away. He feels the edge of the basin bite into his palms, aching from where he grips the shelf with far too hard, but he holds it as long as it’s physically possible. After several long moments of painful endurance, and his breath begins to raggedly rise and fall, he drops his gaze and his grip and stumbles backwards.
What does it matter, Zeb. They’re all gone.
Leaving the soiled jumpsuit on the ‘fresher floor, he makes his way to the heavy dark of his bedroom. Zeb stumbles around, then drops to his knees in the nestwork of ragged blankets and quilts, curling around himself in the dark. He tells his mind that if he can just play at rest for a few hours, then he’ll be able to get back to work around dawn, hauling crates and packing orders and pretending that he’s never been called captain, brother, or hero. The war had taken it all from him, right down to the very dust that he’d kept from Lasan, and there was no sense pretending that such a life was worth living for.
No. Can’t go there. Can’t let my thoughts wander…
If he could just keep himself distracted…if Zeb could just make it through the next month, the next year, maybe pick up some work again as a gladiator…yes, it had been hateful, but the feeling of crushing bone in his fists, the sense of power , the mindlessness of giving himself over to violence…the way that simple violence owed him…not to mention, the potential distraction…
Zeb is still falling asleep into a restless silence, trying to convince himself that he will be fine, when he hears the loud sound of a knock at his door.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
I've really been enjoying how mistress_quickly (Mouse) has added some author's ruminations to each of their chapters, so I thought I'd give it a try. Thanks for the good ideas, and of course the good writing as well, Mouse!
This story starts out sad, but I promise, it's only going to get better from here. I don't want to burden you with anything to too heavy, because I'm sure you already have all kinds of sorrow in your own lives to bear. I've been chewing on this story for a while, but I've also been waiting for a time and space to write it in which my own mental health would not give out for dwelling here. If Zeb's grief or present state of depression resonates with any of you, I am sorry for what you are carrying. I hope that his recovery and eventual joy will be something that comes to you as well.
Chapter 3: HERA
Hera asks Zeb for a big favor.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The sight of Zeb darkening his own doorstep - soiled jumpsuit hanging undone at his waist, striped fur mussed and grayed from neglect, breath reeking like an unkempt bantha - makes her almost decide to reconsider. But, after all, she is the general.And Hera Syndulla never gives up.
Steeling herself for what is certain to be a tough conversation, she raises her chin and summons her best captain’s voice.
“Specter Four,” she greets him, keeping her blooming feelings of worry and sorrow beneath a calm, unruffled surface. “I know that it’s late, and you weren’t expecting me. But we need to talk. It is important."
Zeb’s heavy brow pulls back on his forehead. “Hera,” he grunts, voice sounding cracked and raw from disuse. “It’s…weird to see ya.”
It’s not the warm welcome for which she’d been yearning, but it was far better than being turned away outright. Hera’s heart aches, looking at him: it appears as though the haze of depression, which had settled on Zeb like a fine, deathly dust after Kanan and Ezra, has sunken its way deep into his bones. He does not appear to have made contact with the counselor’s coordinates she’d left for him, and doubts he has made contact with his fellow Rebels stationed upon Lothal as well. The Lasat looks tired, weary, more forlorn and lonely than even the first time that she had met him. She can hardly recognize the handsome, confident man that had once been an anchor for their crew and family.
But that’s why you are here, Hera reminds herself. He’s still Zeb. And you need him. Just like he needs you.
“Will you let me inside?” she asks, gesturing to where the Lasat blocks the door with his towering frame. “I know that you’re not delighted to see me, but I’m counting on you and your assistance. I need to ask you a favor…one that I really can’t entrust to anyone else.” She searches his face for signs of softness, compassion, in the midst of his sadness. “Can you give me a minute? Just for old time’s sake?”
Something about the phrase makes Zeb flinch. He nods, taking a slow, dragging step backward.
“Thanks, Big Guy,” she says, walking past him. Holding herself as though there aren’t years of distance and grief lodged between them, she pats his arm fondly, massaging her fingertips into the soft, striped fur of his biceps. And, even now - as Zeb’s face remains in a stiff, solemn mask - he does not draw away from the kindness of her touch. For that, she is deeply grateful. “I’ll try not to keep you awake for too long.”
Zeb grunts and shrugs. He bends down to flick on a table-side light, and the house is suddenly illuminated in a warm and comforting glow.
Hera sighs, sitting down on her favorite wicker chair, which once used to rest in the cockpit of the Ghost. Zeb chooses to sink onto the leatheris couch, a poof of dust rising and settling down beside him. It’s much like she remembers it here - if not a bit more unwashed and decrepit. The home is a modest, two-bedroom dwelling, with a tiny kitchen and messy refresher. She scans the room, spying a pile of unwashed dishes on the kitchen counter, a half-opened packet of nano-wave foil from dinner, and a widow cracked open to let in the night air. To her mild surprise, a rust-orange Loth-Cat rests there, one sooty paw stretched out in sleepy contentment.
Relief flows through her, and Hera relaxes into the chair.
Zeb remains somewhat tense where he is seated upon his furniture. Yet, even behind the rugged distance that he’s projecting, the lasat seems to be still every bit of the man that he once was as her Specter Four back on the Ghost. If Hera did not know Garazeb as well as she does, she might have been discomforted by their quiet; however, she does know him. She’s knows him long, and she knows him deep. They’ve bonded like family, through thick and thin, and there’s nobody else that she would entrust with this mission.
“I won’t make you wait,” Hera says presently. “You’ve never been one to savor small talk.”
At this, Zeb actually smiles. It’s a good look on him, perking up his tall, proud ears and making those verdant green of his eyes brighten. Memories flood back to her of better times - good years, even before the kids had joined them - when she, Zeb and Kanan had leaned on each other as one crew and family. Cantina music, handfuls of ale, and swaying together through star-speckled streets remind her of their earliest victories for the Rebellion, and of the dreams that all three of them had shared together, all full of hope and passion and dreams.
“I need your help with Jacen.”
The Lasat blinks at her. Then he nods, raising a hand to scratch slowly at his beard. “Sure,” he says, grating sharp claws through rough bristles. “M’a bit out of shape when it comes to younglings, but I suppose I could handle watching him for a few days. You got some kinda dangerous mission coming up for the Rebellion? Or did ya just need a break from all of the war and the toddlin?”
Hera laughs softly. She leans forward, placing both hands on her knees.
“The former,” she says. “Traitor’s Remorse has just turned up more treasures. Actually, we’ve found another Imp with fair enough skills and intel to add to Aiden’s squadron. She’s a good pilot, but better than that: we found out that she’s a Shadow Wing defector.”
Zeb’s ears tilt forward. He recognizes the name of the Empire’s infamous Tie-Fighter squadron from their brief transmissions, and he quickly senses its importance.
“I think that this one could really make all the difference, Zeb. Yes, Yrica Quell is a mess, but I believe that she has the potential to change the tide of this battle. If I can just spend some dedicated time with her and the squadron, make sure that the process of healing and commitment to the Alliance is happening well, than we might just be able to end this foolish dog-fight with the remnants of the Empire.”
Zeb shifts in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. He flexes his long and dexterous toes, as though grasping for the right words to answer.
“We can’t keep this up with Shadow Wing any longer. The Rebels know it, and I think the Imp’s ‘Grandmother’ knows it as well. So we have to take this opportunity, Zeb, while it lasts. It might be a thin chance, but maybe, it’s the answer to what we’ve been waiting for. I want to end these attacks once and for all, and set us free from the last of the Empire. And this pilot Quell might just be the one for the job. She could lead them, with the right mentor and guidance.”
There is a long silence as Zeb considers. He puts his foot down, crosses to the other.
“So, how’s this all gonna work?” he asks, sounding distant. “I watch the kid while you go into the war-zone? Jacen stays safe with me for a couple weeks, maybe a couple’a months, until you know that the new squadron is stable. Then, you come back and scoop him up from Lothal? Ya head back to the war to keep being The General?”
She senses a tone of pain in Zeb’s voice. Perhaps loneliness, perhaps bitter regret.
“The war is ending, Specter Four,” she tells her friend gently. “There’s not much left to be done beyond securing this sector. Hopefully, taking down Shadow Wing will be my final mission. So if you can help me keep Jacen safe through all this, I’d like to retire somewhere with you on Lothal. Or, maybe, that planet we found…Lira San?”
Zeb shakes his head, pushing away the idea.
“You don’t gotta make any promises that you can’t keep.” The striped Lasat grunts and rises from the couch. “You don’t gotta make any long-term decisions. You’ve got a whole life ahead of ya, not to mention, the kid.” He gazes towards the kitchen, where the Loth-Cat bathes in the window, bowing to lap from the still cup of water. She recognizes it now for what it is: the handmade cup that Jacen had made for him, not long after he’d turned one year old. “Course I’ll help. You don’t gotta beg.”
Hera’s heart swells inside of her chest. She closes her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks.
“You’re a good man, Garazeb Orrelios,” she says. Honorable. Loyal. Trustworthy to the end. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough.” She opens her eyes at the sound of footsteps on stone, then wraps her arms around Zeb’s tall waist as he bends to encircle her in a hug. “I know that I’m asking you for so much. But I couldn’t trust anyone else. Thank you, Zeb.”
A paw-like hand pats her on the head, claws scratching gently behind her ear cones.
“You’re family,” Zeb replies to her simply. Then, after a moment, he chuckles with embarrassment. “Although, it’s been a minute since I looked after a kit. Jacen’s only stayed with me for a few days at a time, and last you were here, he was fairly little.” He gestures, making a scooping motion with his hand. “Probably could use a refresher.”
Hera grins, and she steps back from Zeb to view him from an arm’s length.
“Well, I have good news on that front.” He raises an eyebrow at her, and she puts one hand on her cocked hip. “Zeb. You didn’t really think that I was going to leave you alone to manage my Force-sensitive child without another set of hands, did you? I’ve arranged for some help. He should arrive here in the morning, along with some items and written instructions, and he will stick around to help you get settled.”
The lasat shrugs his shoulders. But even in the forced confidence of the motion, she can see his clear relief at the suggestion.
“That’s a good idea. You’re always thinking ahead on those kind of things.” Zeb looks around, as though realizing for the first time that she does not have the child with her. “Uh, where is the little guy, anyway? Is he also going to join me in the morning?” Zeb’s gaze drifts to the cluttered kitchen, the scattered laundry, the unswept floors. His ears droop a bit, then pull back, embarrassed. “I, hmm. I could clean up a bit.”
Hera raises to her toes, kissing him on the furred cheek. Then, to tease him, she makes a show of wrinkling her nose at the smell of his whiskers.
“You’re family,” she echoes. “It doesn’t matter. But, yes, he’s asleep right now on the Ghost. I’d hoped that we could camp out on the ship overnight, then say our goodbyes before my departure in the morning. We’ve talked the whole thing over already, of course, and he’s very excited to stay with Uncle Zeb. That would give you a few more hours to rest and prepare, before I release the wild one out in the world…”
Hera smirks, and Zeb chuffs with a kind of real humor. It doesn’t sound just like the man from before, but he is starting to once again be familiar.
“That kid don’t know what he’s bargained for,” Zeb says with feigned loftiness, rolling his old confidence on like a familiar coat. “I’m not sure if you’ve been spoiling him out in the stars, but he’s not gonna get a lick of that here! We’re gonna do some real, down-to-earth work around this house. Gardening, shoveling, dishes as well. Hours of meditation. Maybe even some sparring, if that suits him.”
She snorts, eyes the dishes, and shakes her head. “Zeb. If I wanted a torturer instead of a ‘sitter, then I would have just left him on the ship with Chopper.”
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
This is the third rewrite of this chapter, and it's a lot different than the first two takes. I wanted to make a clear movement towards something warmer and softer in this chapter, so I had to sit with Hera and Zeb for a while to see what they would say in this progressed stage of "recovery". The first two drafts are hard reads, with Zeb feeling angry and betrayed for having to go through his grief alone, and Hera disquieted and unable to recognize him in his current state. But I didn't want to leave Jacen in that kind of state, and I wouldn't have any respect for an adult who left me on those terms, so I needed to approach the story again and start over. I found myself leaning into ABC Squad's voice for General Syndulla to find my way through it. Thanks for that, captain.
Also, sorry that these chapters seem a little short. Hopefully they are not too short to not read the story. I'm going to shoot for a minimum of 2,000 good ones each time to call it enough. Hopefully there will be more! But if not, I'm just going to let it be what it is.
As usual, thanks for reading, and stay safe out there.
Chapter 4: ZEB
Zeb's helper arrives. He feels...uncertain.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hera’s departure is short and sweet.
In the early morning, just before dawn pours over the horizon and paints the grasslands from gray into gold, the twi’lek pilot returns to his door. Zeb hurries over and ushers Hera inside of his hastily-cleaned dwelling, its floors still damp in some places from where he’s spent the wee hours of morning sweeping and mopping the cobwebs away.Jacen Syndulla is tucked sleepily against her shoulder, sucking his sage-green fingers and quietly observing his new surroundings. The youngling doesn’t complain when his mother hands him over to Zeb, kissing him firmly upon his plump cheeks and murmuring promises to him in Ryl. He doesn’t even whimper when she waves goodbye, heading back to the waiting spaceship.
Zeb should have known that the kit was just saving up his energy for later.
“Easy!” he cries urgently. With a burst of movement, Zeb leaps across the room and catches the boy from where he is hovering several feet above the ground, rotating slowly. “Don’t do that while I’m outta reach, alright? What’s gonna happen to you if you fall?”
Jacen looks back at Zeb with wise, blue eyes. Then he throws back his head, and he screams.
“Karabast!” Zeb yells with equal alarm, nearly dropping Jacen on his green-haired head. “But ya didn’t even do anything!” He pulls the squirming kit against him, feeling Jacen sink the tiny prick of his kitten-like claws into the thicker ruff of his chest fur. “But I caught you!” Zeb protests. “There’s no reason for you to cry!” Jacen, however, continues to wail, increasing in volume, and Zeb holds onto him for dear life. “Karabast,” he repeats in a mutter. “Ya know, you were a lot more quiet when you were just an infant.”
It seems Zeb had been right. He is out of shape for babysitting a kit. It’s been far too long since he’s spent time with Jacen. Since he’s seen a youngling. Since he’s seen…anyone, really.
With a huff of guilt and effort, Zeb tries to calm himself down from his anxious spiral. He remembers practicing breathing with Hera during the months of her pregnancy, taking in great inhales and exhales in attempts to steady her breath and lower her heart rate. He plucks at the muscle memory now, hoping for some present direction, and attempts to recreate the experience. And while it doesn’t feel like he remembers - more frantic pants than a calming rhythm - it does seem to be help him find center on some level within.
Meanwhile, Jacen re-discovers the action of kicking.
“You were also a lot less wiggly during those days,” Zeb informs him. “Keep it up, and you’ll be about as much trouble as yer old dad was.”
The words slip out of him so easily, so naturally, that Zeb doesn’t even have time to flinch. He freezes after, clutching Jacen to his heart and hoping that the boy hadn’t heard him, that he hadn’t taken caused irepperabae damage from the mere mention of Kanan’s name. But as Zeb waits for the familiar wave of pain and nausea to wash over his body, for the memories to rise up and drag him back down…it just doesn’t come. Not for himself, and seemingly, not for Jacen.
“Huh,” he says, holding the child aloft. His little legs seem to sprint on air. “Not so bad, actually.”
Face to face with his ‘uncle’ Garazeb, Jacen finally stills and stares back at him. Zeb admires the features of the three-year-old child, noticing the smooth curve of Hera’s chin and cheekbones, the warm laugh-lines and wrinkles of Kanan’s smile. Zeb finds his own mouth curving into a soft expression of fondness as Jacen reaches out to touch him, his fingers curling and latching into the short, brush-like fur of his dark purple beard. There’s something soothing about Kanan’s blue eyes starting back at him, even now, after all of this time.
“What do you need from me, kit?” he asks softly. “Are ya hungry? Time for a diaper change?”
It occurs to Zeb that it’s been a while since he’s changed a space-diaper, and he wrinkles his nose in hesitation. “I know that yer mom taught me how to do it once,” he admits to Jacen, “but that don’t make it any more entertaining.” He pats at the toddler’s bum, not feeling the sodden weight that would imply that he needed a change, and he sighs in genuine relief. “Okay, so less of the second one, then. Maybe we should find you some breakfast?”
Tears cling to Jacen’s green eyelashes, catching the dawn sunlight. Slowly, he nods at Zeb.
“Ah, there it is!” Zeb declares proudly. “See, I knew you were smart enough to understand me!” He pulls the child into his chest, hearing a muffled giggle from Jacen. “Last time we played together, you didn’t have much yet for words. But your mom told me that you can actually talk now, even if it’s not in full sentences, and that you can understand what I’m saying.”
Still l holding onto Jacen with both hands, Zeb uses his foot to open the chiller.
“Er,” he says, peeking down at the youngling. “Mind if you try and use some of those words now? We might need to pick up some kinda groceries…” He looks down at Jacen with uncertainty, and the boy looks right back at him with equal bewilderment. “Oh. I guess your mom did make a list for us. She said she’d be leaving that with her helper, and that they’d be arriving sometime sooner than later this morning. I wonder where…"
And then, just as if the Force is watching over, Zeb hears another knock at his door.
“Perfect timing,” he says, grinning at Jacen. “That should be them!” He pauses to scruff a friendly hand through the boy’s green hair, feeling a wave of relief washing over him at the prospect of receiving some help in this new endeavor. “I know that I might look all-powerful, but it never hurts to work as a team with somebody else,” Zeb informs Jacen. “Especially when it’s somebody trustworthy, with all the right credentials and experience. While I do remember a few little tricks from my days back on Lasan, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve been there. Plus, yer a lot less hairy than some of the other ones I’ve had to…w-wrangle…”
Zeb finds himself stopping short. He’s opened the door, and now, he’s been struck into disbelieving silence.
Standing there in the doorframe of his home, covered head-to-toe in tactical gear, and wearing a backpack outfitted with diaper straps, is none other than former ISB agent Alexsandr Kallus.
The man has grown thicker in beard and stature than the last time that Zeb recalls seeing him, but his steely-eyed glare is just as sharp as ever. Kallus is both softer and rougher somehow in his rebellion from the Empire: his long hair falls loose from his golden top-knot and tumbles into his amber eyes; his well-worn, sun-bleached clothing matches the practical fashion of Lothal’s locals; his pale, human skin has grown freckled and tan from working long hours outside with rebel comrades. Zeb’s former nemesis stands tall and proud in his freedom, unwavering in his sense of duty as he stares with determination at Zeb.
“Zeb,” Kallus says, pronouncing his name with that same, careful smoothness that he’d once used on an ice moon. “I’m here to honor the General’s assignment.”
The world seems to shrink and then grow in Zeb’s vision. Distantly, he realizes that he must look ridiculous, clutching a toddler in shock and leaning against his own doorframe. Zeb feels his unwashed fur rise to uncomfortable standing, and he shifts Jacen so that he can pat it back down. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when Zeb realizes that he’s presently shirtless, the dirty jumpsuit that he’d applied left abandoned during the hours of nighttime cleaning.
Feeling utterly foolish and embarrassed, Zeb takes a deliberate step back inside his dwelling.
“Nah,” he says quickly, using his free hand to try and shove the door closed. “I don’t know what you think Hera was saying, but you’ve got it all wrong. I’ve got it from here!” He feels the door bounce back against his hand, and Zeb stubbornly applies more pressure. “I’m Jacen’s uncle. We go way back. Thanks for visiting, though! See you later!"
There is a grunt of pained irritation. Zeb looks down, seeing Kallus’ boot wedged in the crevice.
“Garazeb,” the other man says, making his name sound like a threat. “General Syndulla warned me that you might be stubborn. I’m simply not taking “no” from you for an answer. Let me in, for Sith’s sake, and I’ll show you the items that she’s left us. Alright?”
Warned you? Left US ???
More bewildered than angry, Zeb lets himself to take a step back. And, for the second time in so many days, he allows someone pass inside of his home. Alexsandr Kallus, his former enemy and dogged enemy of the Ghost, moves into the sanctuary of his silent space. The blond-haired human drops what appears to be a weaponry-bag-turned-diaper-sack onto the freshly mopped floor, and he looks around with obvious interest. And even though Zeb has grown familiar with the sight of Kallus among the rebels, he still feels a chill rippling down his spine as the Imperial traitor observes his dwelling and makes calculations.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” Kallus says calmly. “I’m impressed. You keep a rather tidy household.”
Zeb’s feelings of anxiousness turn grumpy, then sour. He sets Jacen down, allowing the child to scamper off playfully to the kitchen. “What’re ya doing here, Kallus?” he asks, sounding more hostile than was probably warranted. “You had some kinda meeting with Hera? That’s all fine great, but your name was something that she never mentioned. As far as I know, I’m waiting on someone who can be my helper. And I doubt that you had much time for swaddling children while you were off hunting down rebels.”
Kallus’ gaze seems to harden. He kneels to the floor, silently unfolding items from the duffle.
As he stands there, the regular feelings of discomfort that so often rise within Zeb when he’s around Kallus come back to him once again. Hesitation. Anger. Begrudging trust. It had been strange when they’d first picked him from that escape pod, but it had only been more stilted as Alexsandr Kallus had joined the rebellion. Yes, Zeb had worked hard with him to escape Bahryn, but he’d never once expected for the ISB agent to actually join him. Kallus’ defection, apology, and present work as a rebel is excellent; but it does not atone for his past. Kallus had shown himself of incredible violence, and to Zeb, he was the least likely choice for protecting a kit. He’d seen what Kallus had done to the ones of Lasan, after all.
Feeling Zeb’s eyes resting on him, Kallus looks up through his golden-blond hair. “Do I misunderstand you?” he asks briskly. “I thought that you trusted your captain?”Even though it’s been over three years since he had defected, Kallus clearly has some of the Agent still about him. He stands tall and proud, arrogant in his interrogation of Zeb, and the tilt of his chin is commanding respect. His body is still firm and strong, implying that he’s continued his sparring regimen, and Zeb wonders if he could still take the other man down in a battle as he had before.
“It sounds to me like you are doubting her judgement.”
Zeb feels a growl build in his chest. He looks at the golden-red fur that has grown over Kallus’ boxy jawline, wondering if he ought to punch it until it dents. “Don’t act like you know Hera better than I do,” he rumbles. “Fine. I’ll take a look at whatever she’s left us. But once you’re done playing delivery boy, you head back to the other rebels and stay there. Clear as kyber?”
Kallus snorts, busying himself with unscrewing the lid of a green, opaque bottle and sniffing.
“Perspicuous,” he replies grimly. “Now, go and fetch Jacen, would you? I have to ask him if he prefers sea siren milk or if he’d rather try bantha cream to go with his nutria-porridge.” He rises from where he is kneeling, holding multiple bottles of colorful liquid in one hand and pinching a sack of grain in the other. Zeb blinks at him in mild surprise, uncertain where the other man had acquired this level of caretaking skills. “Sooner, rather than later, would be best,” Kallus sniffs.
Irritated once again, Zeb stumps into the kitchen. “Jacen?” he calls. “Do ya eat nutria-porridge?”
And he shouldn’t have been so surprised that another unexpected, yet welcome, guest has showed up in his kitchen that morning. For, sitting on the open window ledge, rubbing his fuzzy face against Jacen's hand, tickling him with his long, whispery whiskers, is the familiar sight of the wandering, ginger-orange Tooka-Cat. He is purring as loudly and radiantly as one who has finally made the long return journey after being away from home. And when Zeb lifts the bottle of cream in his hand, both the child and the creature chirrup in pleasure.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
I promise that I didn't mean to put a month in between updates. I PROMISE. But work has been consistently busy, and then a dear friend came this past weekend to visit, and I suddenly lost a whole set of days that had slipped between my fingers. I'll try to be more diligent about getting this story down on paper (computer)? Maybe if I set a weekly publication date, that will help. I'm thinking Sunday nights.
Were you even a tiny bit surprised about Kallus? I couldn't help but think of THIS art from Sempaiko, even though it's a different story (as of now): https://sempaiko.tumblr.com/post/617102596250927104/garazeb-orrelios-what-have-you-been-feeding
Chapter 5: HERA
Hera begins her new mission with ABC Squad.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Traitor’s Remorse was a place aptly named.
Far from what one would call hospitable, the former rebel base is frequented by dusky clouds, frostbitten temperatures, and grayish, spike-riddled fauna on its tundra surface. The abandoned base had been an ideal location for rehabilitating former Imps who had defected to what was once the Rebellion, now The Alliance to Restore the Republic. It’s out of the way enough to keep recruits from being underfoot, but close enough for any leadership to stop by and check in on things, just to make sure everything is going well. And while Hera never feels quite at home when she visits the training camp, she supposes that is all for the best. As such a morose place to live, it would surly color the quality and character of her leadership.
After all, that’s what she suspects happened to someone like Caern Aiden.
“There’s something wrong with her,“ officer Aiden is saying, sitting across the table from Hera. The dark-skinned Balosar has kicked up his mud-coated boots on the shining surface of the durasteel table, and he’s toying with a stray datapad in his hands. The man would look almost completely human, if not for the tall antenna stocks that twitched on top of his head. The sensory appendages were always moving, constantly observing his surroundings; and, as Hera knows now, likely also looking for the best possible opportunity to serve himself and his own interests. “I can tell that Quell is not right. She’s broken. And this is just not gonna work out.”
Hera frowns and crosses her arms, preparing to argue.
She feels a familiar sense of righteous indignation rising up in her chest. Who are you to judge a person for what they’ve done? She wants to ask him. Aren’t you also a defector? Truth be told, she’s never much liked the man: too duplicitous to be trusted with sensitive information, too self-centered to put his life on the line, the spy is just as slippery as his employment. But Aiden is the best tactical leader that they’ve currently got, and so, she’s settled for working with him on Alphabet Squadron.
“You don’t know that,” she replies, trying to keep her voice calm and patient.
“Yrica Quell is a talented and qualified pilot, and she’s recently gone through significant trauma, as your ITO droid reports.” She gestures to the datapad filled with therapy notes in her hand. “Give her some time, some support, and she’s bound to recover and do very well. Everything that we have on her suggests it. And, besides: anyone who has left the Empire is worth fighting for. We shouldn’t give up on her now.”
Her passionate speech doesn’t seem to move him. Officer Aiden snorts, flicking a finger over the screen of his datapad.
“Maybe you ought to do your own assessment,” she suggests to the man, fighting to keep her voice civil. “Tasking a former imperial torture droid with counseling sessions could be a weak point in this endeavor.”
That gets his attention. At the mention of his beloved droid, Aiden looks up and glares.
“Don’t underestimate my droid, General. ITO is among the very best that we’ve got on this desolate rock.” Aiden sits back, bringing his boots to the floor. He runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper dark hair, blinks tiredness from his muddy brown eyes. "They’ve saved my life more than once, and I’m sure they would do it again. If Quell needs a life-raft, then she’s in good hands.”
On this, Hera finds herself finally agreeing with the man. Her longest and closest friend is Chopper, and she has utmost trust in the CH-10P droid.
“I can respect that,” she says. “And I believe you. But maybe you also need to be a voice of guidance and affirmation for her? Quell has not only seen the recent destruction of a planet, but she has also lost her squadron and life as she knows it. She’s all alone right now, and someone like that could be liable to turn in the wrong direction. As you say, part of her trust and spirit is broken. But it’s not beyond salvage. If you invest some time in her, I’m sure that Yrica will be able to lead Alphabet Squadron.”
Aiden shifts in his chair. He looks at her keenly, rubbing a hand over his chin bristles.
“What is Yrica Quell to you, General?” he asks her, leaning forward. “We have lots of defectors, but this one seems important to you. Yes, she’s a talented pilot, but we’ve had many of those come and go. Is it possible that you’re seeing more in her than is actually there?” He gestures out the dreary window, towards the distant training yard, where Quell is supposedly running. “Maybe you’re thinking more about your own story, and hoping to see a bit of yourself in her success?”
Hera blinks, and then smiles. Aiden is an impertinent bastard, but he is clever.
“Of course I do,” she replies calmly. “She is a person who has been wounded by the violence of war, and she’s trying to find herself some recovery. She’s someone who wants to make a new life for herself, somewhere out in the stars, where she can find healing and freedom and justice.” Hera rises from her chair, setting the datapad back on the table. “And I’m someone who will always support that kind of effort. I look for the best in people, Officer Aiden, and I believe in second chances.”
She gazes at him for a beat of silence, then nods, and heads for the door.
From his place back at the table, Aiden murmurs: “Very well, General. We’ll do this how you like it. I don’t share your sentiment…but I do hope that’ I’m wrong. And I hope that Lieutenant Yrica Quell never gives you a reason to change your mind.”
Pushing down an unsettled feeling, Hera steps into the gray light of Traitor’s Remorse.
Less comfortable than the tropical moons of Endor, but nothing compared to the freezing blizzards on Hoth, the planet greets her in its downcast afternoon light. Her footsteps echo on duracrete sidewalks, weaving between small bunkers and barracks, and she makes her way past the intelligence offices, living quarters, and dining hall. Soon, the stiff buildings begin to fade into tents, and the network of security fences unspool into spiked weeds. Her boots shift to a crunching sound as frosty rocks and dirt turn beneath her feet, and her breath plumes out in small, puffy clouds.
I look for the best in people. I believe in second chances.
The words of commitment echo inside of her head as she strides towards the training grounds. It’s been three years since that fateful day over Lothal, and she’s still just as determined, if not more, to find a better life for herself, her family, and the other families out there. Three cycles of a solar system later - in which she’d lost a partner, carried a child, birthed a son, and watched an empire crumble - she’s only gained more hope for the future. And while Hera knows that things can be destroyed in mere moments, she also knows that the work of healing and restoration takes months, if not years, of effort. So she’s still here, and she’ll continue to give it her all. General Syndulla never gives up.
But I am tired, she admits inwardly. I miss my son. I miss my family.
It had been truly terrible, walking away from Jacen the previous morning. She’s left him to be cared for by others on several other occasions, but never for so long, and not while he was old enough to understand her absence. But while this is true, there’s nobody that she’d rely on more firmly than Garazeb Orrelios - except, perhaps, the fierce commitment of rebel captain Alexsandr Kallus - and she’d enlisted them both to watch over Jacen.
In spite of the loneliness and the chill, Hera smiles warmly.
I hope that they’re all doing well, she thinks to herself. I hope that Jacen is sleeping and eating without too much trouble. I hope that he’s having fun with his uncle Zeb. And I hope that Zeb has accepted the hands reaching out to help him. She thinks of that night, standing in the doorway with Zeb, holding her friend in a heartbreakingly tender hug. He’s been alone by himself for so long. Hopefully, he’ll open up and learn to trust.
If there’s anyone Zeb will team up with against the tough odds, it’s Alexsandr Kallus.
Hera looks up. The ground underfoot has turned softer now, shifting into long, purple-black grass, and a gate stands open in front of her. The winding path has taken her to the exercise area, and to the other former imperial that she is relying with all of her might on at the present moment. Hopefully, Yrica Quell will turn out to be just as loyal and valuable to the Alliance as the newly-promoted Captain Alexsandr Kallus ever had.
“Quell?” she calls, stepping through the gate and closing it behind her. “Yrica Quell?”
The human pauses from where she is working out. Lanky and strong, with ice-blonde hair cropped into the militant shape of a soldiers’ crew-cut, she is every inch of a fighter. Sweat rolls down her tawny skin, clinging to the white cropping of her shirt, dripping off the rigid cast and loose sling that holds up her arm. It appears as though she is still injured enough from her crash that she shouldn’t be working out, but Hera knows what it’s like when you’re dealing with grief. You end up doing lots of things that you shouldn’t, just to get past the more difficult hours.
Quell wipes a forearm over her copper eyes. She’d still holding a free-weight in one hand, and resumes making arm curls as she eyes Hera with caution.
“Maybe. Who’s asking?” Her voice is low and dry.
Hera places a hand on her hip. “I’m General Hera Syndulla. And I’m here looking for ace pilot Yrica Quell, formerly of the Empire’s 204th, and current hopeful of the Alliance.” She watches as the blonde raises her eyebrows, one of them still tugging downward from a jagged scar that runs across. “If that’s you, I’m hoping I might have a word about Alphabet Squadron.”
Quell appears to be interested, or at least, appropriately polite. She stoops to drop the free-weight, then rightens with a saluting posture. “Sir,” she says to Hera formerly.
“There’s no need for that,” Hera assures her, crossing the space on the track between them. “You may call me Hera, or, if that’s too odd, General Syndulla.” If this introduction surprises the other woman, she doesn’t show it. Hera makes a note of this; perhaps, Quell had heard of her while she was working with Shadow Wing. This would imply that she had been higher up in the ranks, maybe even administration. Or, maybe, she just has a superior poker face. “At ease,” Hera smiles. “Let’s talk for a moment.”
The human slouches, shoving her hands in her loose jumpsuit pockets. Hera has to admit that she is impressed, from Quell’s powerful build to her stoic composure.
But that is mostly just posturing, Hera suspects. There is a familiar dullness behind Quell’s eyes that does not allow for the muted sunshine of Traitor’s Remorse to soak beyond her skin. It reminds her, strangely enough, of Garazeb: someone who has been deeply uprooted, thrown about and unmoored by violence, and who is floating adrift in depression while questioning themselves and all that matters. For all of the tough musculature and imposing stare to make her appear formidable, Quell has a form riddled with illness and bruises. Her ribs stick out a bit too much for Hera’s comfort, and the cropped shirt just below her lungs shows that her heartbeat is raised and her breathing is ragged. Are you punishing yourself for what you have done? she wonders, looking the woman up and down. Could you forgive yourself, if I can?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says to the human woman. “Your squadron mates have put in a good word. I’m on favorable terms with young Wyl Lark, and he seems to think that you’ve got some good piloting skills.”
This seems to surprise Quell. She blinks, trying to appear unfazed. “Yes, General.”
Hera smiles, seeing that Quell will not drop the formalities yet. “I’ll get right to it. I’ve been informed of who you are, where you’re from, and what you’re capable of from Officer Caern Aiden.” She watches an interesting flash of fear, than what she might call self-loathing, pass over Quell’s face before vanishing under an impassive mask. “I typically don’t make field trips for recruiting agents, but I’m here to ensure a special mission.” She turns, giving the woman the fullness of her attention. “I want you to be in charge of Aiden’s new squadron, Lieutenant Quell. You’re the right person for the job, and you’ve got all the appropriate skills. If you say yes, you and Alphabet Squadron will leave for our ship, the Lone Star, by no later than tomorrow morning.”
Quell doesn’t flinch away or offer protest. She merely nods, acknowledging Hera, keeping a look of tempered respect on her face.
Good, Hera thinks, watching the human. Not too proud, not too shameful. She knows she has skills. Hera approves of how this meeting is unfolding. She knows that confidence and an understanding of one’s own abilities can serve a leader quite well, especially when they are under pressure, and have to make tough calls for the good squadron. She also knows that Quell is very much aware of her failings, and that she will strive to work on them and to do her best in this new opportunity. She wants this, Hera thinks, watching light blooming behind Quell’s masked face. She wants to fly, and to have her second chance.
“Sir,” Quell replies, slipping back into formalities in her apparent shock. “I would be… honored.”
Hera beams. “I’m glad to hear it!” she says with warm approval. “You’ll have some of the regular responsibilities that you’ve become familiar with as a former lieutenant, but naturally, you’ll have to unlearn some Imp and re-learn some rebellion before we can get you back out in the sky.” She smiles reassuringly to the woman. “It shouldn’t take long. Training will begin in no later than two days’ time, so we’ll need you to round up your squadron and depart for the Lone Star with me soon as possible. Once you’re all settled, we’ll get you started with our training simulators. It’s Officer Aiden’s desire to have you all out and ready for battle before Shadow Wing has the time to advance.”
Quell nods, all seriousness and commitment. She reminds Hera of Kallus, with that same ferocious, maybe desperate commitment to serving a new life in the rebellion.
“You have everything that you need to be the leader that we want you to be,” she assures Quell with a firm, kind conviction. “You have the training, the smarts, and the field experience. We just need your time and your effort to build up a bond with the rest of your cremates. When you can trust each other enough that they’ll follow you into battle, we’ll know that you all are ready to take down what’s left of Shadow Wing.”
Hera watches Quell give a slow nod. Many thoughts are flashing behind her eyes.
She suspects that the woman is thinking of her incoming crew, the Alphabet Squadron, and how she feels about them. Of the sensitive human pilot, Wyl Lark, and of his combative theilen crew-mate, Chass na Chadic. Of the human Nath Tensent, more pirate than even his friend Caern Aiden, and of the surreal and silent Kairos. All of them make up a strange, lopsided combination, to be certain - filled with secrets and wounds and suspicious motives - but they are a crew. And together, they are the very best pilots that the Alliance has to offer.
“…Thank you,” Quell says at long last. She looks at Hera, and the words clearly mean more than their simple sound. “I appreciate this, General. More than you know.”
Hera smiles, placing a hand softly on the woman’s uninjured shoulder. She can tell just from their brief interaction that Officer Aiden had been partially right: Quell is damaged. She locks down her briefest thoughts and emotions; she carries a great deal of trauma, but does not want to address it. She is lonely, in pain, and has been pushing away her potential new squadron. She has not yet forgiven herself for time in serving the Empire, and maybe, will never allow herself.
But Hera is not in need of perfection. She’s in need of a warrior. And one, just like her, who will not give up.
“You’re welcome,” she tells Yrica Quell. “And I’m glad that I got the privilege to ask you in person.” She gently squeezes the human’s tense shoulder, then releases her contact. And while she may just be imagining it, Hera almost thinks that she sees Quell lean back towards her, as though she is seeking more of the comforting touch of a mother. Like one who also yearns for the closeness of a family that has departed and remains beyond grasp. “I’ll see you again soon, Lieutenant Quell. Come and find me on the Lone Star once you’ve arrived, alright? I would enjoy some more time to chat.”
Once again seemingly surprised by Hera’s words, the former Imperial snaps a salute. Hera hides a gentle smile, waving her off in dismissal.
And as Quell departs, she stands alone, wraps her arms around herself. I miss my son, she thinks, wondering how Jacen is doing across the stars. She tries to picture him, wrapped up in the safety and warmth of Zeb and Kallus' arms. Of her own arms. With Kanan. I miss my family, she thinks with heartache. I promise you, all of you, that once I’m done with this final job, and I return, I’m never going to leave from your side again.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
Here's the MONDAY chapter release, just like I promised! Wahoo! (I had a road trip back home, so I was able to voice-record my rough draft on the way there, use a text-to-speech reading app for the way back, and make my edits once I had returned. Can I just say, it's really something to hear your own story read aloud?) This chapter is especially for my friend Salamanda, who, to be fair, is the one who wanted this story in the first place. They're the biggest fan of ABC squad, and I got so excited connecting the dots between the Rebels timeline and the ABC plot for this story. Did you know there's lots of good, good mommy Hera content in those books? Worth a read or a listen, to be sure. I like the third one the best. For those of you who are just here for the Kalluzeb...fear not! We return next, and say there for a while, in the following chapters.
Chapter 6: ZEB
Zeb talks to Kallus. He's not so bad.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
As much as it wrankles him to admit, Alexsandr Kallus had been right.
Zeb had indeed doubted his captain’s judgment. With no illusions about the innocence of the other man’s record, he had flat-out refused that someone like Kallus could be the appropriate choice for such a tender mission. After all, Zeb had first become acquainted with Kallus as the other man held (what appeared to be stolen) bo-rifle aloft, spewing hateful words about Lasan, and, intending to burn the striped pelt off his back.
But that was before Kallus had changed.
Discarding his old title of “Agent” and replacing it with his given name, “Alexsandr,” Kallus had left his old life behind when he’d defected from the Empire. Zeb’s hesitation towards the man was not unwarranted, but it did draw from before he’d committed to a life with the rebels. It was before they’d been trapped on that ice moon together, fighting for their lives and facing down death as begrudging partners. It was before Kallus had revealed himself as the newest Fulcrum, saving the lives of Kanan and Ezra and committing himself to the Rebel cause. It was before he’d thrown himself into harm’s way over and over again, in order to save Zeb and his crew from being pinned down by Grand Admiral Thrawn and killed by the Empire. In the years since Kallus had become a rebel, he’d shown himself over and over again to be trustworthy. Hera had even given him a rank and promotion, after he’d served in the Battle of Endor.
It seems Zeb is just taking his time catching up.
“Hand me that last box of plasters, would you?” the now-captain Kallus asks Zeb. He has finished re-packing his tactical bag after breakfast, bulging once again with diapers and rations and waxed coloring sticks, and now he’s placing the most-likely items on top before following Jacen out into the grasslands. “I’ve packed several others in the duffle, but I’d rather have more in the case of any event.”
Zeb retracts his claws and dutifully hands him the medical box.
It’s been an astonishing morning, and he’s still reeling from the strangeness of it all. Zeb’s former nemesis and once-hated rival had swept into his kitchen, quickly locating his scattered and bent utensils, and then, without preamble, had whipped up a fresh and nutritious breakfast for Jacen. The child had devoured the meal, scarfing it down in even less time than it had taken for Kallus to put together, and he’d asked for seconds before Zeb could so much as pour himself a mug of caf. He’d watched the boy through wide eyes as Kallus had wiped him down, changed him, and sent him outside to play in the grass with the Tooka-Cat. All expertly done, and without hesitation.
“Here.”Their fingers brush briefly in the exchange, and Zeb quickly draws back.“Thanks.”
A long, stilted silence follows their words, and Zeb chews nervously on his lower lip. He feels that awkward tension of trying to remember how to talk again with another person in real, spoken words, as well as the new strangeness of realizing that maybe he doesn’t know Alexsandr Kallus. As he watches the other man cinch up the tactical diaper bag, muttering to himself and double-checking the clasps, he wonders, “ Who gave you directions to navigate my kitchen?” and “Where did you ever learn all that?”
Instead, he just settles on asking: “So…Hera said that she’d made us a list?”
Kallus looks up, raising a sharply-defined eyebrow. “If you’ve decided to accept my help?...” His voice is calm, but Zeb still senses an underlying coolness from his initial rejection. “...Yes. The general left a thorough checklist for Jacen’s caregivers. Not only does it record Jacen’s routine in detail, but it also contains a list of choice groceries, bedtime rituals, and how to soothe him when he lashes out in the Force.” He rummages in one of his many cargo pockets, pulling out a handwritten note on a rare piece of crumpled flimsy. “See for yourself.”
Zeb hesitates, not wanting to touch Kallus again. The thought makes him nervous, though he doesn't know why.
“I believe you,” he says, gesturing for the other to keep it. “But before we get started, I guess that I still have a few questions...” Kallus nods back at him, and Zeb wonders where to ever begin. He decides that he might as well just go for an honest question, get started right with his bewilderment. “How did you learn all of that…youngling wizardry?” He asks. “Did you have time to study before you agreed to all this?”
Kallus purses his lips, as though he is figuring out if he’s being mocked.
“I’m not trying to offend you!” Zeb rushes to reassure him. “Clearly, you know what you’re doing with kits. Whatever it is that you just did right there, it was exactly what Jacen needed. And you can color me as impressed.”
Strangely Kallus’ skin flushes.
Zeb recognizes it from his time with his Ghost family as a human blush; blood flowing through the neck, up the ears, and across the cheekbones, exposing the fleeting emotions beneath. It’s an oddly endearing look on Kallus, next to his golden hair and freckled, but Zeb is uncertain about the source of emotion. Is he angry? Embarrassed? Not wanting to alienate himself any further from the man who would now be his helper, Zeb grasps for more words to put him at ease.“Anyways, uh, you can ignore all of that. I s’pose that, first of all, I owe you an apology: You know what you’re doing. And I shouldn’t have doubted you, or Hera’s judgment.”
Kallus appears to recover, clearing his throat and running a hand through his fallen bangs.
“There’s no need for that,” he tells Zeb politely. “And, yes, your insight is as astute as always. Believe it or not, I did have a life before the Empire. And it involved several siblings, to whom I was caretaker.” He gives Zeb a tight, tentative smile, as though he expects an argument. “I was the oldest. So it often fell on me to watch out for them in the absence of my working parents.”
Zeb blinks, feeling off-balanced. He’d never considered a young, boyish Kallus. One who looked after others, or had a family.Outside the window, Jacen howls with laughter and the Tooka-Cat chatters.
Kallus swings the tactical bag over his shoulders, strapping the belt around his firm and defined abdomen. “Apologies,” he says, pulling it tight. “I don’t want to burden you with any of my old stories. Shall we go outside now? Read through that list together, then try and entertain our little Loth-rat?”
And, to his mild surprise, Zeb finds himself smiling. He had once called Ezra by that very same nickname, and hearing it now feels both pleasant and warm. “Yeah, let’s,” he agrees, scooping up his mug of caf. “Lead the way, Kallus.”
Lothal’s prairie is golden and bright, a sea of soft blades in the late-morning sun. Zeb hears rocks crunching quietly under his feet as he follows Kallus toward a trio of boulders, tall and bowed low with their smooth, rounded domes as they shelter a flattened out space between them. Jacen plays there, trailing a reed for the vagabond Tooka, the creature gambooling and growling happily after him. Once again, Zeb thinks of Ezra Bridger; but this time, he doesn’t find his heart breaking. Somehow, the presence of another person makes the memory more soothing than bad.
He also notices that the silence has grown less stuffy between them, for which he is grateful.
“Not so much experience with the younglings, then?” Kallus asks, crouching to kneel and then sit down on the prairie. He grunts, rubbing at what must be an old, injured knee. Kallus chooses to rest a respectable distance away from Jacen, yet still close enough to keep a watchful eye (and stun bolt’s distance) from him. “Other than, say, your teen human crew-mates?”
Once again, Zeb finds himself cautiously smiling.
“Yeah,” he says, thinking fondly of Ezra and Sabine. “They were good kids. Drove me right crazy, but kriff, they were fun.” He grunts, sitting down next to Kallus, drawing his long legs underneath him. “And funny! Sabine always knew what to say when the odds were down to boost up morale. And Ez, heh, he never missed an opportunity to get himself into trouble. Knew how to make fun of himself, too, which is more mature than you would expect.” His heart gives a painful squeeze, but then, the tension ebbs and begins to fade. “Miss ‘em, of course.”
Kallus hums in agreement. He knots his hands around his knees, watching Jacen.
“What about you?” Zeb hears himself ask. “Said that you were the oldest of your kin?” Karabast! Zeb watches as Kallus’ shoulders momentarily tighten. What are you doing? You don’t know the first thing about Kallus! It’s an incredibly personal subject, and if it’s anything like his own story, Zeb knows that the answers could unearth heartbreak. You don’t know this man, and you don’t want to hurt him. He has a whole life, a whole family, you know nothing about. But maybe it’s his lack of sleep, or maybe it’s the sight of a shaggy-haired boy running after a Tooka, but Zeb is feeling the echoes of his old past. And it seems to be messing around with his judgment. Because…I’m still curious."Er. That is. If you're okay answering."
But Kallus does not seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if he’d expected such a question.
“Sisters,” he says, golden eyes still on Jacen. Three of them, and all of them younger.” He smiles softly, and Zeb can see lines of tiredness around his eye creases. “I haven’t been in contact with them since I left the Empire. Hiding or sympathizing with a traitor could get you imprisoned, tortured, or killed by ISB.” He grimaces. “I should know.”
Zeb isn’t sure what to say. Kallus seems to offer this freely, so he doesn’t stop him.
“Hopefully, though, it will not be forever.” Finally, Kallus turns to look at him. His golden eyes appear tired and sad. “Someday, I mean to reconnect with the ones who are left. Find out if we can try being a family again, after what this war has done to us.”
For a brief moment, Zeb thinks of Hera, and her offer to retire someday on Lira San with himself and Jacen.
“Yeah,” he manages, not wanting to hurt Kallus and his feelings any further. “That’s… difficult. I’m sorry. I’m sure you think of them often.” Zeb flinches. You don’t know him well enough to be having this conversation, he tells himself. You’ve forgotten how to be around other people. You can’t just poke at somebody’s wound, and expect them to open up and answer!
But, once again, Kallus just softens.
“Ah, I do,” he replies, scratching his chin. “And more often than I expected.” Lothal’s sunlight dances off of Kallus’ freckled skin. Zeb remembers how the blush had looked there, just before in the kitchen, how it had softened his sharper features. “It’s always about the most random things. Like…how Inessa would never eat her carrots, not even when she was starving, and how she would hide them in the table cracks to avoid eating them. I’d find them, years later, all wrinkled and old and disgusting, when I had to crack it open and clean it.”
Kallus chuckles at another fond memory, shaking his head.
“Or how the twins would always bicker. They were forever in competition! It didn’t matter what one was after; the other wanted it too, and she would have better. One time, Oksana found a little, round rock and somehow convinced Pasha that it was a meteorite. Of course, we didn’t have such things coming through the atmosphere shield so close to Coruscant; but she was bound and determined to get one for herself. Eventually, when I thought that I’d go mad, I just had to make one: polishing up another stone and making it look a lot like the other.”
The human sighs, smiling but still somewhat sad.
“I suppose that they’re all grown-up now and don’t need me anymore. Not for making false rocks, or for any of the other household duties that I managed to learn along the way. Just as well that we’re currently out of contact.” He drops his hands, reaching and pulling a data-pad out of his duffle. “Oh. By the way, I’ve also transcribed the list here as well. So you can keep Hera’s copy, if you’d rather…?”
“Thanks,” Zeb says, reaching out. “I’d like that.”
But he’s not thinking about Hera’s instructions.Inside of his head, Zeb is picturing a small, haughty human with Kallus’ hair ordering around his many siblings (and, of course, being mostly ignored). Zeb finds himself wanting to ask Kallus more about his sisters and family; about their parents, the planet where they had grown up, the life they had lived before the Empire. Strangely enough, Zeb doesn’t find his curiosity ending there: he finds himself wondering what a young, teenage Kallus had thought about when he’d been recruited into service. To know about the long nights when Kallus had doubted the Empire, and how he’d first been chosen to become Fulcrum. Some small, careful part of him even wants to know more about Lasan, and how the death of Kallus’ platoon had changed him.
Because, even if it seems foolish, something about this new Kallus makes Zeb want to trust him.
It might be against his survivor's instinct, but Zeb is inclined to open himself up to the rebel's version of Alexsandr Kallus. He wants to hear more of the other man's stories, and yes, he wants to share some of his own tales. The easy, casual way that Kallus had shared the fond memories from his past makes Zeb want to return to his stories of Kanan and Ezra: to breathe life into the times that they'd shared together, to remember and share them with somebody else besides his shadow. Maybe, if Kallus understand what it's like to leave loved ones behind, he can understand what's been weighing on Zeb. And, maybe, if he has all these secret skills that he's willing to show in caring for Jacen, he might have even better ones in showing up for Zeb and being his friend. For all that he'd actually hated the man once before, this Kallus is different; and he finds himself feeling startlingly grateful for that.
So this time, when Kallus extends his hand with the checklist, Zeb allows himself to take it. And when their hands brush, he doesn't jolt back.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
This chapter fought me tooth and nail! This is only about a quarter of what was originally written, but I want to make sure that the pacing is right. This is a slow burn, after all. The trust will come.
Chapter 7: ZEB
Everybody is exhausted after Kallus and Zeb's first day as parents.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Kneeling against the sudsy, water-damp floor of the ‘fresher and trying his best not to lose his splayed balance, Zeb faces down Jacen Syndulla with a stare fierce enough to rival his mother. Still, it hardly matches the boy’s own stubbornness, and Zeb doesn’t see any of the give that he’s looking for in those wise, blue eyes. He growls, lowering his heavy eyebrows to look as ready as possible for any potential brawl.
“Ya will let me wash behind yer ears,” he rumbles, waving the sponge in a bubbly threat. “They’re dirty. They’re turning green, for stars sake!”
There is a muffled laugh from the doorway behind him. Alexsandr Kallus is leaning calmly against the frame, smirking behind his red-gold beard as though he’s just been let in on a secret. It’s an expression much more pleasant than the glower he’d worn earlier in afternoon while they’d tried (and failed) to find Hera’s fresh produce at the local market, and it’s different still than the despair that he’d shown while attempting (unsuccessfully) to try and feed Jacen the poor meiloorun substitute at dinnertime. Now, in this moment of Zeb’s bath time distress, there is a spark of humor in his eyes that is nearly…charming. Which, of
“Of course his ears are green, Garazeb. He’s just like his mother that way.”
Zeb huffs and rolls his eyes. He already knew that bit of information, so there goes that choice form of persuasion. “Well then, why don’t you just come over and do this, Mr. Youngling Expert? If yer so keen?” He raises the sponge and beckons Kallus. “If you’re as good as you say you are, then you can wash down this Loth-rat without slipping in the lakes that he’s made and ending up falling flat on yer ass."
To his surprise, Kallus laughs. He shrugs one shoulder and nods. “As you wish.”
Zeb moves over as the man waves a hand, gesturing for him to make room on the floor beside him. Kallus crouches down on the refresher floor, tactical boots squeaking against the soapy puddles, making himself eye-level with the child. “Jacen,” he says, stripping off his fingerless gloves. “Do you want to pour this next cup of water on your head, or, shall I help you out?”
Against expectations, the child reaches out and grabs the bobbing cup.
Zeb eyes Kallus with grumpy amazement. It’s not the first time today that he’s beheld the man with startled appreciation. The human has powerful skills of insight; giving the kid an option, it seems, is far more effective than a power struggle. Now, Jacen is happily participating in his own washing by dumping the soapy water over his head and dousing his ruffle of emerald curls. Pointed, green-tinged ears peek out from behind his head, as well as the defined, rounded nubs of the fledgling lekku just above them.
“Very good,” Kallus says, smiling at a dripping Jacen. “Now. How about the next one?”
Zeb shakes his head in a tired, yet grateful, surrender. He watches with grim admiration as the human guides Jacen into pouring another cup over his head. “I’m starting to think that it was less of the ISB teaching you skills of persuasion,” he mutters to Kallus with a dark, low-voiced humor, “and that maybe it was more of the other way around in the end…”
Kallus snorts, somehow finding humor in Zeb’s words. “Not even close,” he replies. “Like I said, I learned all of this from my sisters.”
He’s funny, Zeb decides, watching the former Imperial tend to the half-alien child. He actually has a sense of humor that suits him. It’s not always the best comedic timing - Zeb thinks of how Kallus had tried to make a joke to get Jacen to eat his supper, and how the boy had simply stared daggers at him - but he’s come to notice it as a prominent character trait. I guess that I didn’t expect it, he thinks. Not from someone who made a past life as a cold-blooded killer. Zeb watches Kallus return the filled cup to the boy’s open hands, still marveling at the changes in the life of this man. But, then again, I didn’t expect half of what I learned today about Kallus.
For it had been an exhausting, informative, yet overall positive first afternoon as stand-in guardians for Jacen Syndulla.
After the youngling had worn himself out playing with the Tooka-Cat in the grass, they’d gone into town for groceries and other supplies at the market. And, outside of finding a meiloorun fruit, they’d been mostly able to complete Hera’s list, much to Zeb’s relish and satisfaction. During those hours together, he’d learned a great deal about the other creatures who would now be occupying most of his time: that Kallus, along with having a keen sense of insight for youngling needs and interests, was a vicious and thrifty bargainer. (He’d haggled down the price of leatheris diapers to credits far lower than Zeb had ever thought possible). And Jacen, along with being a bright-eyed and curious creature who attracted lots of attention, had a remarkably short fuse and hot temper for anything other than playing outside (They’d finally given up and left for a much-needed nap after this second meltdown that afternoon).
Fortunately, a rest and some dinner was exactly what had been needed to restore them.
“Hand me that shampoo, will you?” Kallus asks Zeb. He holds out a hand, waiting expectantly.Grow familiar with this kind of routine between them, Zeb nods and searches for the brightly-colored bottle. He notices a raised network of spidery scars interwoven on top of Kallus’ long-fingered hands, now revealed in the strange absence of his fingerless gloves. They are far more strong and callused than he’d expected for someone who had once done the office work behind commanding troops. Now, in his life among the rebels, it seems as though Kallus has taken to doing most of the hard work himself. The odd reverse-tan on his fingertips is only more evidence, standing out bright and odd against the sweet-melon scented shampoo bottle. "Thanks."
“Careful!” Zeb says suddenly, reaching out to stop Jacen in his attempts to drink a mouthful of the fragrant soap he'd just snatched from Kallus. "Don't do that!"
But the other man simply chuckles, reaching up to hold Zeb's arm back with a gentle restraint. “It’s alright,” he says, fingers resting wet and warm against his striped pelt. “The more you try and stop him, the more interested he's going to become." He smiles at Zeb's disbelieving expression. "Oh, they make this stuff knowing that kids will get up to trouble. It can end up pretty much anywhere: in the hair, on the skin, in the eyes, in the mouth—“ he gives Jacen an eyebrow as the boy grows bored and, instead of ingesting, begins to squirt the soap at the ceiling. “—but I guess that I still wouldn’t recommend it.”
He’s half-listening, but Zeb is distracted. Instead of giving Kallus his full attention, he’s staring down at the sudden and unexpected contact between them.
The other man doesn’t seem to notice for a moment, but then, he finally spots it too. Oddly enough, Kallus doesn’t immediately withdraw his touch from Zeb; they both sit on the bathroom floor, gazing at the gesture between them, watching it together as though they are spectators, watching somebody else’s brief moment of intimacy. Zeb thinks of when Hera had rested her arm on him in the doorway, in a gesture of friendly companionship; he thinks of how Kallus had given his arm a supportive pat, and how that touch had seemed to linger on his skin for long moments after.
Then, all at once, it’s over. Kallus is pulling back, clearing his throat, and Zeb is sinking back towards the floor.
“Ugh. Long day,” Zeb says, in what he hopes sounds like an explanation. Not that I need one, he quickly tells himself. Not that either of us are looking for that. And it wasn’t untrue; the day had involved more cleaning, cooking, shopping, and social time then he’d experienced in those few hours than in his last year. “I, uh, I’ll be ready to hit the sack when it’s time. I think that we're getting close to Jacen's scheduled bedtime as well.”
Kallus hums in agreement. He looks at his wrist, bleached and absent of his usual chrono. “Mmm. Hand me that towel, would you?” he asks Zeb.
Grateful for a new topic of focus, Zeb reaches for the newly-purchased item that had been hung carefully on the hooks of the ‘fresher door. It’s fluffy, maybe even aggressively soft, and it matches the cute, hand-stitched, Tooka-cat pajamas that Kallus had purchased for Jacen just hours before. Like the diapers, he’d been single-mindedly set on acquiring his prey, and had been very proud to bring home the matching set of towel and pajamas in so little credits it made Zeb’s head spin.
“I agree,” the human says. “Let’s wrap things up here…and by things...I mean you!”
Striking out quick and lithe, Kallus moveswith the towel at Jacen, ensnaring the squealing and splashing child. The youngling giggles and howls in gleeful protest, but Kallus doesn’t seem to mind the defensive splashes, and he doesn’t let go until the boy is thoroughly bundled into a fuzzy, yellow-and-purple envelope. He makes growling noises, startlingly familiar to a Lasat, and he
“Prepare for delivery, Garazeb!” he says, turning and hefting the swaddled boy into Zeb’s arms. “Take this lumpy package back to his bedchambers.”
Zeb blinks and manages to catch the kid. He glances down, unable to hold back his smile at Jacen’s giggles, and pulls Jacen into his arms. “Yes, Captain,” he says, giving Kallus a lazy salute. He makes his way down the short hallway, keeping a wriggling Jacen in-hand. The room is ready and waiting for them: for that afternoon, while Kallus and Jacen had still been napping, he had assembled what looked (by his estimation) to be a proper human space for the child. Zeb had decided that it would be best to give the kid his spare bedroom, as they were still unsure just how long he’d be there. Zeb had organized all of the dresser drawers so that the clothes left for him by Hera were neatly unpacked; it had been more difficult than it sounds, as Zeb hadn’t so much as folded a freshly-laundered jumpsuit since his arrival at this dwelling. It took several tries, and quite a bit of rearranging, but eventually he'd made a space that appeared to be welcoming and cozy for the youngling.
“Ah, here we go, then,” Zeb says, dropping Jacen unceremoniously onto the bedsheets. “One special delivery for his nighttime departure.”
He’s awkward, and he knows that he’s not half as good at this as Kallus, but Zeb finds that he rather enjoys the play-acting and imagination time with the kid. It’s not like he’d had other learning experience; Sabine had been far too old and too serious for such things when she’d first joined them on the Ghost, and Ezra’s sense of humor had always been more mature than his age had ever allowed. But it feels good to stretch his dreaming muscles, reaching back to a time when he’d played with the other kits on Lasan, and with little more than a care in the world. It feels right, somehow.
Jacen’s features become suddenly anxious. “Story?” he asks, speaking his first audible since Hera had left them. “Read story for bedtime?”
Zeb finds himself blinking back his surprise. Ah, there’s your voice! he wants to say, but he doesn’t want to embarrass the kid. Instead he asks, “A story? Sure, kit, I can read you a story. I saw that your mama left some of those pop-up board books here. Wanna to read one of those together?” He points to the corner, where a basket of Jacen’s favorite books and toys had been waiting for him to be discovered. Jacen, all sleepy smiles of relief, nods and runs on his bare little feet to the basket. His bare…everything.
Whoop, Zeb recalls those striped Tooka pajamas. Yeah. We’ll likely be needing that.
After helping Jacen snuggle into his cozy fabrics and tucking him into the patchwork of blankets, he joins him upon the squeaking mattress and starts reading to him from one of the pop-ups. It’s a short story, with brilliant and colorful pictures, and it’s all about a little rodian boy who goes out on a wild-western space adventure. Jacen seems to have read this one many times, and he is enraptured as Zeb turns the pages and reads aloud. He gets so engaged with it that Zeb can’t help himself getting drawn into it more, finding himself choosing voices and making sounds for the story. He even does a drawl for the cowpokes out in the desert, and a high, squeaky whine for the puffer-pig doll.
“Alright,” he says, yawning and putting the finished book down. “I’m tired, kid. And I’m guessing that you are, too.”
He hesitates, then ruffles a gentle hand through Jacen’s damp hair. The boy smiles up at him, eyes half-lidded and dreamy above well-chewed fingers. He seems quite content by the simple warmth of the affectionate gesture, and Zeb decides that he’ll have to make an effort to do more things like this, to offer up hugs and holding hands, because it seems to comfort and relax Jacen. He’s out of practice with safe, gentle touches - the awkward interaction with Kallus in the refresher had been evidence enough - but it seems like an important addition to the child’s wellness. It might take a little practice, but Zeb supposes that it will be easy enough to manage.
“You get some rest now,” he says, tucking in Jacen and patting his head. “Your old Uncle Zeb is gonna be right next door. Whatever you need, I’m right here for ya.”
There’s something about the words that make him choke up. As he watches Jacen nestle into his bed, he realizes that this is the kind of sentiment that he’d been missing so much from his time on the Ghost. Hera and Kanan had always offered himself and the kids a kind of reliable, familial tenderness throughout the years they’d travelled together, and it has been years now since he’s heard such words offered his way.
“You rest now. You’re safe here.”
Feeling that familiar ache inside of his chest, Zeb rises and switches off the lamp light above them. He’s about to turn and walk out of the room when there is a scratching outside at the window - and, when he looks, he finds the form of the vagabond Tooka-Cat there. Patiently waiting, wanting to be let in so that he can be a comfort to little Jacen and curl up in warmth at the end of his bed.
“You too,” he chuckles, opening the window and letting him in.
As Zeb closes the door and returns to the hallway, he finds Alexsandr Kallus there waiting for him. “Given the current state of things, we’re going to need to give that creature a name.” The man nods to the closed door behind them, where Jacen and the Tooka have snuggled in for the evening. “Well done, Garazeb. That was a fine job that you just did there.”
Zeb feels his fur ruffle in embarrassment, rising around his neck and ears in mild pleasure.
“Aw, ain’t nothing,” he says. “It was kinda the easiest part of the day, actually. I was expecting that it would be bad, having to separate from him and the dark and everything, but the kid seemed already as tuckered out as I am.” He smiles at Kallus. “Nothing compared to what you’ve been doing, though. You make all of this parenting stuff look right effortless.”
It’s harder to see than in the morning sunlight, but Zeb is fairly certain that Kallus once again blushes.
“You’re kind,” he replies. “Like I said, I’ve been doing this kind of stuff for years. It’s far more impressive to see someone step up to it when they’ve not had siblings or the like to look after.” He pauses, then says with clear discomfort, “You…didn’t have siblings, did you? Back on Lasan?”
Zeb sighs heavily. I don't think I'm ready to talk about that, he thinks to himself.Not yet. Not now.
“No,” he replies, looking away from Kallus. “I didn’t.” The silence pulls long, and Zeb remembers why he had felt so uncomfortable with Kallus for so many years long before. In all of the business of the day, he'd almost forgotten the strangeness of their situation: the tension of working together with his former nemesis, the work they are doing to try and keep up a favor to Hera. “Look, it’s getting late. We gonna meet up at some time tomorrow? Or were you planning to come on a regular schedule?”
Kallus nods, as though responding to some kind of unspoken question. He reaches into his pocket, pulling out a glowing chrono that he’d removed for the bath.
“You’re right," he agrees quietly. "Why don’t we plan on just before breakfast? That way, I can teach you how to make that porridge that Jacen liked so much, and we can still have some time to plan out the afternoon.” He slips the chrono back in his pocket, looking at Zeb with almost an apologetic smile. “We’re scheduled to stop by and check in with Rebel Command later that day, if you recall."
Zeb feels his stomach give a tight lurch. Fear? Discomfort? He gently massages his gut. After all of this time alone, I may have become afraid of social interactions...
“Sounds great,” he says, not feeling so great at all. “I’ll be looking for you just after the sun rises. Sometimes I get out and go for a walk before then, so, if I’m not home yet, then you can just let yourself in.” He reaches into the seal of his pocket for his spare code, thinking that he’ll just have to re-program the door panel to recognize Kallus’ hand if this adventure lasts more than a few months. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”
Kallus takes it, gingerly holding the code-seal between two fingers. He stares at it, as though it is something precious and fragile.
“Thanks.” He breaks the brief spell, tucking the key code into his pocket. Then, after a moment’s awkward hesitation, Kallus adds, “I also go out on my walks in the morning. So I’m often up around then as well. Let me know if, you know, you’d like some company on your meanders?” He gives Zeb a quick, nervous smile, then he turns and makes his way towards the entrance. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then, Garazeb. Bright and early. Don’t forget to send a holo if you think of something else that we need from in town...or, if you need a late-night helping hand with Jacen.”
And before Zeb can so much as ponder that interaction, he excuses himself, waving a hand backwards over his shoulder in departure.
Zeb is left in the darkened shadow of his door, watching after Kallus' receding form, wondering where all of that anxious energy had suddenly come from. He's also wondering at the nerves that seem to be building inside of him, wanting to to call after the man to ask him where he is resting for the night, and if he'd like to stay just a little bit longer. Writing it all up to his long-term loneliness, Zeb yawns widely, and makes his way back to his bedroom.
Hopefully, Jacen will sleep just as long and hard a night's rest as he anticipates for himself.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
Ugh. The self-hate gremlins are back. Look, I know that it's not the best writing. It's not even my best writing. But I'm trying to be faithful about typing things out and posting them, even when they feel far less than perfect. Can anybody else relate? On these kind of days, when I feel really doubtful about my skills, my hope is that I can at least keep my writing muscles in shape, so that when the muse strikes, I'll be fit as fire. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.
Anyway, we're finally making it through the exposition. Now, onto the feels and the found family!
Chapter 8: ART BY LOTSODOODLES
Artwork: General Hera Syndulla and her Alphabet Squadron
I was inspired to read Alphabet Squadron and to write this story for my dear friend @lotsodoodles! Please admire their extraordinary artwork, and send them some love and appreciation on their social media platforms:
Ko-Fi: http://ko-fi.com/lotsodoodles(Video) Star Trek: Voyager
REMINDER: never post artwork without an artist's explicit permission being given to you first!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
REMINDER: never post artwork without an artist's explicit permission being given to you first!
Chapter 9: HERA
Hera hopes for bonding with Alphabet Squadron. She notices some between Kallus and Zeb.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Without any hint of the bickering squadrons inside, the Lodestar glides serenely through open space. In the time that has passed since its initial service to the Republic Navy during Clone Wars, the outer hull of the military vessel has grown dented and encrusted with minuscule, glittering, crystalline barnacles. Not enough to slow its pace down, however: General Hera Syndulla would settle for nothing less than the stealthiest, most stalwart vessel possible, if it was to be underneath her command.
“If only Alphabet could get on board with that plan,” she mutters tiredly to herself.
Of all her current New Republic squadrons, the aptly-named Alphabet Squadron was the most eclectic and, likewise, the hardest to manage. Like her other Hail, Vanguard and Meteor Squadrons, this crew was made up of a range of experience: some of them ranged back to the older, more peaceful days of the Jedi republic, and some of them, new and freshly-defected from the Empire. But, unlike the others, these people seemed to be far more stubborn. Each one of them carried their own strange and incongruous peaces, and appeared not to fit together as one. Not, that is, without some in-fighting.
Hera sighs and taps at the readout results her datapad. It appears that the squad had failed yet again this morning at their flight simulator.
Somehow, in spite of all of the evidence that points otherwise, Hera is yet determined that it will all work out with the squadron. She cannot be sure, but sometimes, she can just feel the certainty of it, in the way that Kanan used to talk about how he was so sure right down to his bones. Not for the first time, Hera wonders if her late partner had left her with some kind of intuitive gaze through the Force. That, or he’d just left his dogged and resilient sense of hope, that something can and will arrive for the better.
Well, we sure are in need of some hope, Hera thinks. Alphabet has a long way to go.
There is a knock at the door, and the first of the crew begins to join her. Unsurprisingly, the first one to arrive (early, or forever on time), is the mysterious and stoic Kairos. Visually, the woman reminds her of a verpine, covered with interlocking and iridescent plates that shuffle together into a fluid exoskeleton. This continues to meld over her obscured and unreadable face, as well as wherever her heavy armor exposes her body. Emotionally, Kairos reminds Hera of a younger Zeb, all shell-shocked and distant coolness from the others. It makes her wonder about whether Kairos had likewise been forced from her own planet in violence, and what kinds of suffering she must be quietly hiding underneath it all.
Trust, Hera decides, will be the growth for Kairos if she is to bond with her teammates.
The second figure to enter is Chass na Chadic. Chaotic as her spiked, violent-green hair, Chass is a woman hell-bent on revenge. From all other members of the squadron, Hera holds the most concern for this woman. The bronze-skinned, spiky-horned theelin has a tendency to bully and bite at her teammates with cruel, taunting words - ones that go far beyond regular pilots’ banter - and are most certainly intended to push them out at a distance. That, and her habit of throwing herself into dangerous, even lethal situations, makes Hera sure that she hasn’t recovered from the survivor’s guilt of losing most of her Hound Squadron. As Chass plunks down in her chair, kicking up an unlaced boot and scowling sourly across the table at Hera, she practically dares her general to call her out on insubordinate behavior.
Gentleness, Hera thinks to herself. Chass needs self-gentleness for her wounded heart.
The third person to enter the room could not be more different from the previous; which is strange, for he is also the one who knows her best. As the other and final survivor of the late Hound Squadron, Wyl Lark is a friendly and easy-going human. He is clearly a peacekeeper among the crew, and is deeply troubled by the way that Chass is holding a grudge against him. Unlike the others, Wyl goes out of his way to seek bonding and connections with the crew, seeking them out at meals and buying them a bulb of beer for a conversation late in the evening. If Hera had not known Kanan so well, she would have thought that Wyl was an innocent and open-hearted man as he projected. However, she knows him; and she senses that there is a heaviness and cold sense of doubt hat he is unwilling to open or share. Whether it was the sadness of losing his friends or the loneliness for his plyneus people, Hera knows that Wyl is making himself.
And so honesty, Hera decides, is what Wyl Lark must learn to help himself and others.
As she’d expected, the last (and consistently latest) to arrive is Nath Tensent. Suave, serene, and unbothered, the pirate Nath has an easy and persuadable presence with others. Not that it’s helped him out with Alphabet, though: from Kairos’ silence to Chass’ aggression, there hasn’t been much of a culture to manipulate. Of all the people in the squadron, Hera is the least invested or concerned in the well-being of Nath. He’s been around for a while, and is consistently a self-serving and slippery bastard. Whatever the situation holds, Hera knows that she can count on him to do the job…so long as his own well-being is also served. If the man were capable of any growth, she’d encourage him to become more generous and thoughtful towards the others of his inner circle. However, not everyone shows the promise of change.
And, of course, there is Yrica Quell.
“Good afternoon,” Hera says, greeting the group of pilots. “Thank you for coming in a timely fashion. As I’m sure that you are aware, your captain Quell will not be joining us, as she is on another mission. However, your squadron is still in need of assistance.” She eyes the reactions of the group, waiting to see if anyone would object. Chass, as expected, flares her nostrils in anger; Kairos and Nath are unreadable. “I read the latest report from your flight simulation. That, along with the recent failure on Abenedo, leads me to believe that you require some further training.”
Chass snorts. She flips back her hair, saying, “Well! If we had a real captain around, then maybe we’d be able to make some actual, real progress!”
Golden-blonde Wyl shoots her a look, his mouth pulling tight in frustration. “C’mon, Chass, you know it’s not like that. Quell has been trying her best with all of us, and she was needed to scout out that pirate mission. That failure this morning was ours alone.” He looks at Hera apologetically. “Sorry, General. What were you saying?”
Hera closes her eyes, willing herself to be calm and not be drawn into the tension.
“It’s clear to me that you need to learn to work together more fluidly as a squadron,” she continues. “And for that, we’re going to send you out on another field mission.” Hera watches as the pilots perk up, seeming excited about the potential. “Not a battle, or any of that kind of recon. We need you to focus on team dynamics, and learning to hear and work with each other.” She watches Chass’ face sour, but Wyl’s brighten. “I’m sending you out tot he Harkrova system for a pickup mission. You’ll get us some supplies there, and do a few other tasks.”
Hera pauses to gauge their reaction.
Kairos nods, dutiful and silent as ever. Nath shrugs as though he does not care, but Hera can already see the eagerness playing around his nervous fingertips, as he thinks of the possible scores he could make. She is unsurprised that Chass and Wyl are already sending exaggerated looks at one another, as though having a shouting match with only facial expressions.
She frowns at them, crossing her arms until their faces fall silent.
“You won’t have Quell there to keep you and line and give directions,” Hera says, “so I expect that you’ll have to communicate clearly and effectively with each other. If all things work out, we’ll write this down as a team-building exercise. And, if you bring back enough supplies, you’ll be doing a service for the whole of the Lodestar. That can help build up your reputation as helpful, rather than a liability to the other squadrons.”
Tough words, but they are truthful. Hera watches the as the crew collectively cringes.
“So. Are you up for it? If so, I’ll want your team reporting for duty in no less than,” Hera checks her watch, “two hours.” She looks up, satisfied to find that even Chass is looking abashed. “Good. Adan will find you for further instructions. I have another meeting that I have to make, so I’m going to depart from you now, unless you have further questions.”
They didn’t offer any, and she hadn’t expected it. One by one, the Alphabet Squadron shuffles out of the room. Hera sighs, rubbing a hand on her temple. I wish that I didn’t have to push them like this, she thinks, watching Nath trail out at the end, skulky even for him. But if I don’t, who will? For a brief moment, she thinks of Yrica Quell: steel-eyed, sharp, and filled with enough self-loathing and doubt to sink even the former Chimera. “Someday, we’ll have an excellent captain in her,” Hera says aloud to herself. She strides across the room, keying in the coordinates for her long-distance holo. But, until then, the squad is just going to have to do that much-needed bonding themselves.
Shaking herself out of business mode, Hera spins the dial on the holo projector. She waits patiently as it maps out her face, then waits while it codes out the call.
It takes several minutes, but then a blue-tinted face appears on the live, multi-dimensional mapping screen. “General Syndulla!” The young, boyish face of Mart Mattin grins back at her, looking a bit more aged with his new, rugged beard and scarring from his time with Starlight Squadron. However, the friendly spark in his brown eyes is still there, and he looks every bit of the kid that Ezra had helped to coordinate the secret arrival of purrgil. “Nice to see you again! How’s life on the Lodestar? Those gunnies giving you trouble?”
Hera smiles, shaking her head and feeling her lekku sway from side to side. “Lieutenant Mattin, it’s good to see you as well. How fares our finest Iron Squadron? And the rest of our team out there on Lothal?”
She waits while the human calls his former shipmates over, waving the theelin woman Gooti Terez and the human man Jonner Jin into the circle. Hera remembers fondly when she’d first encountered the four of them, R3-A3 included, drifting alone and wild amidst the stars. Those days, they’d been nothing more than young rebels without a cause, and a thirst for freedom beyond their worlds. Now, they were proper adults, leading the re-construction of a newly independent Lothal, and with a veteran of the infamous Starlight Squad among them to boot.
“It appears as though you’re doing just fine. Now, give me more details on your report.”
The human rattles off several week’s worth of information, including notes on the ongoing construction of Lothal City’s new energy station. Hera listens patiently and offers an insight here and there, then asks to hear more about the latest recruits. It’s not the same kind of bloody battle-action that they are having to navigate on board the Lodestar, but she finds herself all the more grateful for it. Lothal has seen enough of its hardships, as well as her loved ones who still dwell on its surface.
“That should be all, Lieutenant.” she says. “Now, if you don’t mind, could I bother you to leave the holo open? Soon, I’m going to have a transmission from—“
There is a shuffle of voices and movement in the background, and then, a familiar and beloved face appears before her in the holo light. “—Jacen!” she cries, beaming and leaning in closer, as though she can actually hold the shape of her son. “Oh, love, how are you? I’ve been missing you so!” Instinctively, the boy lifts a hand and brushes it up against the projection. She matches him, reaching out her own hand, only to feel the cold prickle of static between the distant stars.
“Mama,” he says, suddenly looking both teary and small. “Mama, come home soon?”
He looks at her with those brilliant eyes, Kanan’s eyes, and trembles just a bit on his plush lip. Hera is devastated. It nearly shatters her heart, watching her only son so far away and longing for her, and not being able to pick him up and hold him. But then, she notices that the two hands that are gently holding him up are now drawing into a warm, soft embrace. To her relief, the familiar faces of Garazeb Orrelios and Alexsandr Kallus materialize, stepping into the range of the holo-projector and joining her son at the table. They must be standing very close, all three of them gathered together, for them to appear as one figure in the tiny projector.
“Jacen, love, I’ll be home just as soon as I can.”
She swallows back tears, nodding with stern gratitude to both Kallus and Zeb. “Mama’s working very hard with the new squadrons, but soon, they’ll be able to stand on their own. They’ll be able to take care of themselves, and I’ll be able to come home and take care of you.” She smiles, seeing Jacen smile bravely back. “I’ll get them up and running with their own captain, and then, I can pass on this fight to the next generation.” Hera snorts, shaking her head and fighting back tears of sadness and laughter. “Sorry, Jace. With me as your mom, you’re soon going to know more vocab from war than from even your own alphabet in Ryl.”
Jacen makes an echo of her snorting sad-laugh, his blue eyes wide and mirroring her. Hera knows she should be strong for him, so she sniffs and pulls herself together.
“So. How are you, kiddo?” she asks, trying to sound as normal as possible. “Are the uncles feeding you well? Are they taking you lots to play outside?” She watches the figures behind her son with mild amusement, taking in Kallus’ soldier-serious stance and Zeb’s looming, protective posture. "Hopefully they're looking after you still, and not letting you roam with the wild, feral creatures."
“Course we aren't!” Zeb protests loudly. “We know how to make all the right foods an’ stuff! The kid is doing perfectly well."
Kallus, whose hands are holding Jacen aloft, shots Zeb a sideways look. “Everything is going very well, General,” he replies to her. “No incidents with the Force to report. We found everything on your grocery list, aside from a crate of that fresh meiloorun.” He winces as Jacen kicks, trying to reach closer to try and touch Hera. “Lots of time exercising outside in the fresh air. Zeb has a tooka-cat, and that’s been keeping the boy company.”
“Oh, a tooka?” she asks her son, catching his eyes and smiling brightly at his excitement. “How sweet! What’s his name?”Kallus looks at Zeb, who looks down at Jacen. None of them speak, until Zeb simply says, “Er…Tooka.”
“That’s nice, love,” she says. Hera holds back a knowing laugh, gazing at the familiar shape of her son, longing to pull him close and feel his heavy, familiar weight against her chest. She longs to smell the sour-sweet scent of his scalp, to scratch her fingers through his verdant green hair, to rock him softly as he falls to sleep. How many days have I been gone now? She wonders, knowing that it is till less than one week. And how many days will there be left?
In the present moment, it feels like a lifetime.
“So you’re eating, and playing, and bathing as well. I can tell because your ears look so clean and cute!” She makes tickling fingers at him, and Jacen dissolves into a fit of giggles. That makes Kallus, holding him, grunt and hug tighter in order to keep the child steady from falling out of his grasp. Zeb snickers, his ears pulling back with open affection. “And are your uncles helping you sleep, too? Are they reading you bedtime stories and singing you songs?”
Zeb’s face grows serious as the grave. “Now, Hera,” he says, “Don’ go givin' him ideas...“
“Stories!” the child says. “No lullabies?” He looks hopefully up at Kallus, who shrugs and bounces the child where he rests. “Tonight, I’ll try and sing you a song,” the former Imperial promises. “What do you like? Better tell me now, or have your mom make a list, while we’ve got her right here to help interpret.” He looks pointedly at Hera. "I can't do space opera, but I can offer a mean vibrato on the right occasion."
Hera grins, her heart warming with affection. “Of course,” she says fondly. “But, don’t forget to ask Zeb. He’s got a marvelous baritone with that voice, you know."
Zeb glares at her, narrowing his emerald-green eyes, while the human’s gold ones tug wide with surprise. “I hadn’t known!” he says, looking over his shoulder at Zeb, who seems to become embarrassed, and then, rather sulky. “You hadn’t mentioned anything like that, Garazeb.” Hera notices that when Kallus says the other man’s name, he rolls his consonants, just as Zeb had done in his native lasana. She also notices that the sound of his words make Zeb’s ear twitch, and not in a way that proclaims his annoyance. It's curious...she'd anticipated that the two of them would get along, but it seems as though they've reached a new stage of comfort. Their relationship has always been one of tension, but there seems something more...open there, now. At least, towards the possibility of something else.
“And how have you two been faring?” she asks. “It seems as though you’ve managed to figure out a holding pattern?”
The tall lasat frowns, suspecting what Hera might be hinting at with such a question, but Kallus is kind enough to play it civil. “Yes, indeed,” he replies. “I would say that everything’s going quite well. Outside, of course, that first morning when you failed to mention our partnership here to Captain Orrelios…I think our encounter might have been more smooth, if you had prepared us both.” The tone is not accusatory, but Hera can read in between the lines. “However. I do understand that you were in a rush, and not everything can be handled in such a moment.”
Hera inclines her head, offering him a wordless concession.
“My apologies. Zeb, I was afraid that you’d decline me outright, no matter who I partnered you with. Kallus, I knew that you'd likewise refuse if he did. But the fact that you and Captain Kallus here have been able to tackle all of this together makes me more certain than ever that I chose the right people to be my co-parents.” She raises her hands. “Even if it was an admittedly covert maneuver.”
Zeb grumbles something unintelligible. But when he leans lower and closer to Kallus, gazing down fondly at Jacen, she can tall that her instincts had been correct.
“Anyway, you both have my gratitude. My son looks healthy and well, and the two of you haven’t tried yet to kill each other yet. Can you keep it that way, at least for just a few weeks longer? I want to get Alphabet Squad up and running, and I just sent them off with a new bonding mission. If all goes well, they should be flying steady within a quarter-turn’s time. And then, they can take on what’s left of that remaining Shadow Wing squadron.”
The lasat looks relieved, but Kallus looks doubtful. He turns away, pressing Jacen into Zeb’s hands, then turning his back to block them both out from the screen.
“Hera,” he whispers, trying to keep his voice down. “That sounds like a rather long job. Are you sure that it’s going to be within a month’s time? Shouldn’t we estimate it to be quite a bit longer?” His features express concern. Not with what she suspects is distress at handling the current situation, but more of an anxious care and protection about the two who are standing just behind him. “I don’t want to make Jacen any broken promises. For now, it might be best to just tell him soon, and not when.”
Hera feels a familiar squeeze inside of her chest.
She watches as Kallus turns, nesting her youngling within a circle of powerful arms between himself and Garazeb. Jacen looks happy, twisting and tugging at Zeb’s arm gauntlets, as though he can remove them by sheer will alone. Zeb is looking down at him with a kindness and affection, so raw and tender, that she simply knows that he is thinking of his lost brother Ezra. Kallus, for his part, has his shoulders inclined towards both of them - keeping one eye on Hera, one eye on Zeb - and always a a steady hand on Jacen.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she nods in agreement.
“Yes,” she says aloud. “Of course, you are right. But, until then, Jacen," she catches his eye, and all their attention, "I need some stories! Where have you gone out adventuring with Uncle Zeb? What bedtime stories have you been reading, and does he still do the voices? Has Uncle Kallus ever taken you solar-surfing out on the prairie, just like he promised me that you would?" She pulls up a tall stool and props her elbows down upon it, leaning forward and listening to every word that her child clumsily says. The moments like this between them are few and precious, and she would not trade them for anything else.
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Last week it was pretty tough to get any writing done, so I posted some awesome art from @lotsodoodles to tide us over. Tonight, I was able to sit down and write out the whole chapter that I've been pondering for the past couple of weeks. It felt really good. Thanks for all of your support, and for the kind comments. It's helping. <3 <3 <3
Chapter 10: ZEB
Zeb, Kallus, and Jacen go solar-wind surfing. The adults have A Moment.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The warm, dry wind gusts pleasantly against the fur of Zeb’s face, tugging at the length of his beard and filling his ears with pressure and sound. As he smells the freshness of the air and feels the radiant warmth of the sun overhead, he knows with satisfaction that they’ve chosen the perfect weather for their adventure. With a practiced and confident ease, he steps one foot wide and flat on the board, balancing his weight against the unfolding mast and sails.
“Right then, kiddo,” he says, tugging the solar-wind surfer skyward. “Once we get goin, I’m gonna need ya to hold on to me tight.”
Jacen Syndulla gazes up at him with such unrestrained and wide-eyed joy that Zeb cannot help but think of his mother.
“Yeah,” he chuckles, “Your mom and I used to do this kinda stuff all the time.” He wraps his dexterous toes around the round, blunted edge of the board, feeling the wind against his back and the whistle of the prairie grass around them. “But that was long before you were even born. It was even before I’d met yer, uh, Uncle Kallus.”
Zeb throws a quick grin over his shoulder.
The human standing behind them looks rather more nervous than usual - he’s clutching their bag of provisions quite close to his chest - but when he hears the familiar name fall from Zeb’s lips, it makes his stiff shoulders seem to relax just a little. It makes something inside of Zeb’s chest soften, too.
“Watch this next part,” Zeb instructs Jacen.
With an extra measure of flair, Zeb shakes his arm to unfurl the sails. As they hit the sky, the solar-weave billows and glows with a brilliant light: threads of red, purple and gold catch the sun’s rays and activate into a radiant energy. “Hear that?” he says, tugging the rope and watching the sails snap taunt in the current. He feels giddy, as though Jacen’s joy is infectious. “It works together, the sun and the wind. Makes the engine go purr. And once this gets goin’, we’ll be able to cruise right over the prairie. Unstoppable!”
Jacen beams. He turns to Kallus, reaching out green-tinted fingers for his leatheris helmet.
“Now, you be careful,” the man sternly tells Jacen, crouching down to help him secure the strap of the helmet beneath his small chin. “I know that Uncle Zeb seems to think that this thing is safe, but I’ve seen more rookies than I’d prefer come limping back to rebel base with bruised ribs and broken bones.” He slips a finger beneath the buckle to test the fit. “The last thing we need is for your mother to get a comm that we’ve turned her precious son to space-jelly.”
Jacen giggles, and Zeb waves him off. The orange Tooka-Cat, ever-present and watching, chirrups. “Relax, Kal. Flying is in the kid’s blood.”
He holds back a smirk as Kallus grumbles something that sounds suspiciously like ‘better be the only blood that I hear of,’ then lets his fingers brush against the other man’s in brief reassurance as Jacen exchanges hands. The kid clambers into Zeb’s open arms eagerly, and he steps his other foot from the ground, balancing both of them on the center line of the hovering board.
“Hold on,” he instructs, shifting his hands so that they settle firmly on the boom. “Wrap those lil’ legs around me. Yep. And now, keep yer hands on my shoulders.”
Zeb’s heart bursts with affection as Jacen cuddles into him and clings on tightly, just as lasat kit would do with their parent. He nuzzles the boy, using his head to nudge him into gentle position so that they are both facing the same direction. Wind tosses Jacen’s emerald curls in his face, and his blue eyes are wild and brimming with mirrored excitement. Zeb can feel his tiny heart racing against his own chest, like the smallest bird ready to burst out and fly.
“Perfect. You just hold on there, until you want to stand on yer own feet. Now: are ya ready?”
“READY!” Jacen says, piping up in a loud, clear voice over the engine. Zeb feels himself smile; it’s only been a few weeks that they’ve been watching over him now, but Jacen is finally speaking in full (if a bit fractured) sentences. He treasures each one of them, knowing that it’s a sign of the boy’s growing trust in them. A sign that things are going quite well. “I’m ready, Uncle Zeb!”
“Then let’s get goin’.”
Keeping his weight centered in the board, Zeb toggles the switches on the boom’s handrail. He hears the whirring of mechanics as the stabilizing fins retract beneath them, and feels the familiar wobble as the board finds balance by his strength, the wind, and the sun alone. For the first time in as many years as he can remember, Zeb feels his own heartbeat begin to race and soar with the rush of joyful adrenaline.
He loves flying like this…how could he have forgotten?
Jacen cheers with delight as Zeb releases the engine beneath them, the board surging forward and engine roaring to life beneath the sun’s blaze and by the wind’s power. He shifts, putting one foot on either side of the mast, and bends his knees slightly to angle the nose. It’s a rush, accelerating from where they’d been anchored to racing along with the howl of the wind. Zeb lets out a whoop that matches Jacen, and they rocket into an open sprint, slicing over the golden landscape like the burst of a plasma bullet.
“Higher, Uncle Zeb!” Jacen yells into the wind. “Let’s go higher!”
“Higher it is!” Zeb leans the sail towards the back of the board, turning the nose into the wind. The engine purrs and shudders beneath him, the folds of the sail snapping tight, as the speeder curves and turns towards a cluster of tall, rounded rocks. “Get ready—” He hears Jacen gasp as they rapidly approach the base of one of the wider formations, flinching back towards Zeb’s safe, solid firmness. Zeb bends low and flexes his toes, preparing to snap the board upwards at just the right moment. “—Now!”
When they come to the gnarled roots of the prairie rock, Zeb stomps back his foot and tugs sharp and hard on the boom.
The nose of the board pulls swiftly upwards, dropping down the tail, and they sail rapidly upwards on the sheer force of the air currents beneath them. Jacen and Zeb whoop in a rush of delight as they surge upwards along the curved side of the rock, skipping off the rounded crest of the top and sailing aloft through the vast, open sky of the air up above.
“Wow!” Jacen bellows, blue eyes weeping from wind and excitement. “This is good, Uncle Zeb!”
It is good, Zeb thinks, gliding them back towards the swaying grasslands below. It’s so good. I guess I’d forgotten what good actually feels like.
While the moment of realization does carry a taste of sadness, it also melts away quickly into something that feels more rich and comforting, something that speaks more of satisfaction. He smiles softly to himself, embracing the feeling, appreciating it nearly as much as the rush of wind rushing through his short fur. More and more often these days, Zeb notices that he’s finding himself more able to spend his time fully present in the moment with Jacen and Kallus, connecting with them about stories and feelings rather than getting lost in the past. He inhales, breathing deeply and soaking in the present moment.
Right here, right now, everything is a pure, perfect shade of golden.
For what could be minutes or what could be hours, Zeb and Jacen sail across the prairie together. They pick up speed and scale over rocky outcrops, circle in wide eddies around trees and other formations, launch from the highest peaks and towers until they are falling upwards toward the sun. Jacen is a magnificent flier, and has natural bodily talent, making his way to stand on his feet and hardly needing the safety belt that cinctures between them. Zeb loses track of how long they race and glide their way across the grasslands, until he realizes that they have finally returned to where they began, where they encounter the waiting figure of Kallus.
Zeb can tell that the human is anxious. He’s standing with all of that tension again, holding both of his closed fists over his chest. However, when they draw close enough for Zeb to see him, Kallus drops his hands to his sides in a clear attempt to open himself and share their happiness with them. “Welcome back,” he calls, his voice only holding the slightest waver. “That was quite an impressive jump that you pulled back there, over those rocks.”
Zeb glides to a stop, flicking the lever so that the fin extends below for hovering balance.
“IT IS FUN!” Jacen exclaims, his voice still maxed out to its fullest volume from having to scream over the sound of the wind in his ears. “FLYING IS REALLY FUN, UNCLE ALEX!” Zeb unhooks him from the safety strap holding them together, and the boy tumbles off of the board and scrambles his way towards the waiting human “FLYING IS FUN! NOW IT'S YOUR TURN! YOU TRY IT!”
Kallus stiffens, his body wound tight as Jacen plows into him for a sprawling hug. “Oof!”
Zeb chuckles, scratching the side of his fluffy, wind-ruffled beard. He knows that it’s not the hug that surprised Kallus; it’s more the fact that the kid has invited him to join in an activity where he’s not prepared a dismissal that will also save him his pride. Because, for whatever reason, Kallus as been visibly anxious about solar-wind surfing since he’d first brought it up. Whether he was insecure about the speed or the height, the human clearly had some form of resistance.
“Woah, Jacen!” Zeb laughs, raising a halting hand. “Buddy, no. It’s okay if he doesn’t wanna.”
From where he’s been knocked down to the grass, Kallus looks up, squinting through narrowed, blonde lashes at him. Zeb gets the feeling that he’s trying to see if he is being taunted or genuinely given a chance; and when he detects that Zeb’s not making fun of him, Kallus blushes deeply, as though this form of pity or kindness is far more embarrassing than being taunted.
“What makes you say that?” Kallus asks, rising to standing and brushing the dust and grass off his shoulders. “I’ll do it. I never said that I wouldn’t to try it myself.”
Zeb blinks at him surprise, then shrugs. “Oh, okay. Sounds good!” He gestures for the other man to come join him, pointing to the small space in front of his knees on the board. “We’ll put ya right here.” Kallus blinks, frowning at him with his brows knotting. “Nah, you’re not going out there by yourself. It might sound silly, but you always wanna do this with an experienced partner when it’s yer first time.” He unbuckles the strap from around his waist, extending it for someone larger than Jacen. “But hey, you’re in luck: I just happen to know what I’m doing.”
And, for some reason, these words also seem to make Kallus blush.
The human man makes his way through the waist-high grasses towards Zeb, shedding his tactical bag and plucking up the leatheris helmet from the child. As Jacen flops down next to Tooka, Zeb takes the flexible helmet from Kallus and tugs on the straps to resize it. Kallus tugs it over his sandy-haired head, pausing only to shake out his bun of long, golden hair to fall around his chin. And, just like Jacen, Zeb checks the safety and fit by slipping a finger under the chin-strap, tilting and testing to check out the tension.However, this time, his fingertip rasps against bristles and skin, settling into the smooth space just between his golden beard, resting just below soft, parted lips.
Garazeb freezes, his breath caught in his lungs.
Alexsandr Kallus is looking up at him, eyes wide and luminous, reflecting the gold of the Lothal grassland and sun. Loose, rebellious strands of hair sway along his forehead and jawline, not unlike that first time on the Ghost, when they had rescued him from certain death. Like that time, he also appears somewhat nervous, alert to Zeb’s closeness. However, Zeb cannot remember a time when he had ever been so aware of the sheer physicality of the other man’s presence: like, the plush of his lips, gently and softly parted; or the starry freckles that detail his nose, cheeks and chin; or the rich flecks of brown mixed into the gold of his eyes; or the threads of rusty, red hair dispersed through his bangs and beard.
The swallow, that tugs in his throat at Zeb's touch. The intake of air, as their eyes meet.
For the second time that afternoon, Zeb isn’t certain how long the time passes. It could have been hours, or it could have been minutes, as he tilts Kallus’ face up towards him and stares. But he does know that, eventually, sometime during those moments, his heartbeat starts up and is suddenly racing. From a dormant place of long hibernation, Zeb finds that he’s feeling a rush of motion, sense, and sound. His pulse pounds in his ears, nearly drowning out the sound of the wind around them, and so loudly that he wonders if the other man can hear it, too, and that’s why he’s staring back at him.
“We should…” Zeb falters, trying and failing to find his words after such an unexpected event.
“Yeah…” Kallus says, seeming just as stunned and dazed as himself.
It's the sound of Jacen revving the engine, attempting to glide on the solar-wind surfer, that finally snaps them out of the moment.
“Oi!” Zeb shouts, rounding on Jacen and finding him two-feet up on the glider. “Kid! I told ya that you weren’t supposed to do stuff like that!” He rushes to close the space between them, Jacen shrieking and pumping desperately at the gears and buttons to try and accelerate away from his uncle. He fails, screeching with laughter as Zeb reaches him and tosses him roughly over his shoulder. “But it’s not my first time!” Jacen protests, kicking and wriggling against his captor. “It’s not my first time! I can do it!”
Kallus smothers a laugh, appearing both amused and appalled.
Zeb growls, dropping the kid down in the grass. “Oh, that is not what I said!” he picks up the tactical bag, thumping its heavy weight down on top of Jacen’s lap to hold him down for good measure. “You’re trouble, kid! Just like yer folks.” He shakes his head, looking up at the sky as the youngest Syndulla protests and struggles to escape from the backpack. “Karabast...just imagine if you were actually raised around yer kid brother, Ezra. We'dve never have had a moment of peace and quiet!"
But for all of his would-be-complaining, Zeb knows truly that, in this moment, he is happier now than he's been in a very long time.
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Oop, looks like we're finally getting somewhere with these guys! The next chapter follows closely after this one, with even more bonding between Kallus and Zeb, and we're getting closer to the point of actual pining. It seems like Zeb is a little slower on the uptake than Kallus, right? My theory is that after all he's been through, he really has shut down a lot of his more 'normal' and healthy systems to survive, including romance, and that's why it's taking so much time for Zeb's body and mind to return again. In my opinion, him noticing and catching feelings for Kallus is a sign of his gradual healing. PS, I hope some of you are Treasure Planet fans: that's what I was thinking of, when I was picturing the vehicle that the fam is using! (https://youtu.be/1ainH4-EuwU)
Chapter 11: ZEB
Kallus and Zeb do some stargazing. An offer is made.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Maybe it was because they’d spent the majority of their daylight hours in the warm, rushing winds of the prairie, but now the quietness of the cool, evening grasslands feels almost dreamlike in its serene quality.
Tall grasses, dimmed from the brilliant gold of the sunlight are now painted silver and hushed by the moon. It’s credence hangs half-full and lazy up in the sky, casting long, rippling shadows and making even the gloomiest spaces feel bright. Pinpricks of stars speckle the surrounding vastness above, shining with magnitudes of brightness and color, yet remain unpolluted by the distant glow of Lothal’s capitol and its bustling skyline.
So it’s easy, Zeb thinks, for himself and Kallus to lie on their backs in the grass, gazing up at the stars, appreciating the beauty of the midnight view as it’s been presented to them. Easier than it ought to be. Plus, he's enjoying it.
“That one looks familiar,” Kallus murmurs, his voice soft but still easy for Zeb to hear, given the closeness of their proximity. “The banded songbird, right? Just there, turned to gaze back over its wing?” He traces the outline of a bird-like shape in the sky, drawing with his half-gloved fingers to connect the light of the constellations. “I remember first learning it back on Yavin. Never thought that I would survive the heat. Or those judging looks from the newer rebels!”
Zeb cringes, his ears tugging back in regret. “Yeah. I remember. Those weren’t always the easiest days.”
He knows; he’d been somewhat of a contributor. Along with several others, Zeb had given the former Imp a wide and unsubtle berth, wondering if they ought to give him more time in vetting himself. However, whether or not the others believed that former ISB Agent Kallus had been through a true change of heart, he’d come through for them time and time again. Hard-working and boundlessly useful, Kallus had risen through the ranks - first as a cadet, then as a captain - and hd served Massasi Base loyally with Intelligence. Zeb can even remember how, one night, he’d come back from a mission and had been informed that it had been Captain Kallus who had saved their skins. It had rankled him, then. Now, he almost admires it.
“But they were wrong about you, huh?” Zeb offers. “You didn’t defect on accident.”
Kallus snorts. He brings his hand down from the sky, scratching his bearded cheek in what might be embarrassment. “No, most certainly not,” he agrees. “Although, I’m ashamed that it took me so long to get there. One would think that someone who has ‘the heart of a rebel’ would have realized the depth of the Empire’s cruelty far sooner and braver than it took myself.”
From where he lies on his back, Zeb frowns. He turns, shifting on one arm to look at Kallus.
“What? This isn’t some kinda test, where you get better points for being a better person sooner than others. You choose the right side, Kal! You asked the questions, and then you listened, and acted. That’s pretty incredible. So I don’t see any reason to be ashamed of yourself.”
Even in the dark, Zeb can see that Kallus blushes.
It seems as though he’s doing more of that as of late, but Zeb can’t say that he minds in the slightest. In fact, he’s becoming rather fond of the pattern: he finds that the rising color meets, then obscures, the darker, auburn-red freckles that cover his face, cheekbones and nose, and leave his ears and chin glowing with a soft and pleasantly pinkish color. He finds that it reduces the eloquent, sometimes even cuttingly sharp words of Kallus’ mouth to stuttering and stammering sounds.
He also finds - as he’d just witnessed for the first time today, when they’d ridden the solar-wind surfer together - that this blushing is often accompanied by a rush of heat. One that floods from head to toe of his body, creating a pleasant and warming sensation against the flushed skin and the flex of his muscles.
He’d felt it himself, as Kallus had gasped and leaned into him, braced against Zeb’s sturdiness and racing along with the wind.
“Thank you,” he mumbles. Kallus becomes predictably flustered, picking at his fingerless gloves, so Zeb moves on to another subject. “No problem. Anyways…you thought that you were going to melt in the heat of Yavin? Well, I couldn’t stand the sub-zero temps back on Hoth!” Zeb shudders, thinking of the way that the icy wind had cut right through even his most formidable jumpsuit. “I know that Lasats look like we’re beyond mortal damage, but this gorgeous pelt isn’t made for tundra. It’s more of a jungle and mountain range situation. Like—well. You remember Lasan.”
Beside him, Kallus gives a slow nod.
Karabast, Zeb winces. Leave it to me to put my foot in my mouth. So rather than recounting the various bases that he and Kallus had shared during the war, he lapses instead into silence, thinking ab out the long, cold night that the two of them had first stared at the stars. It’s much better here, he decides to himself. Less chance of betrayal and imminent peril.
“What are you thinking about?” Kallus asks, shifting beside him.
But his voice isn’t accusatory, Zeb is relieved to notice. In fact, it’s slow, patient, as though he has nothing better to do than listen to Zeb talk about whatever he’s pondering. Once again, Zeb feels a flutter twist in his gut at the lingering gaze that Kallus lays on him. It reminds him of the moment earlier that afternoon, when he’d prepared the other man for the speeder, and when he’d felt the human’s pulse quicken under his skin as he’d gently tipped his chin up.
“Er. Stargazing,” he says, both an omission and a truthfulness. “On other occasions.”
“Yeah?” Kallus shifts to be propped up on his elbows, giving Zeb the fullness of his attention. Silly, he thinks. He should be looking at the beauty of the evening around them, not back at Zeb. But he has to humor the man, given his level of rapt attention, so he quickly spans his mind for more answers.
“Yeah. We, uh, we actually have a legend of sorts in Lasat culture. It’s about the balance within the Ashla, and some folk heroes called The Fool, The Child, and The Warrior.”
Kallus raises his eyebrows in curiosity, and Zeb realizes that he should probably share this one with Jacen later. The kid loves stories, particularly before bedtime, and this one has all kinds of different endings depending on the storyteller and context. “Well, I don’t wanna bore you with it…” but Kallus nudges Zeb with a prompting grin, and Zeb huffs out a breath of amusement. “Alright, I’ll tell ya. But don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”
He reaches up in the sky, tracing shapes in the stars with clawed fingertips.
“So, there’s these three figures that you can see in the skies of Lasan. The way we tell it, you should be able to find them in any starscape with just a few adjustments, so I’m just making an approximation.” He traces along from a tall, bright star that reaches outwards to a length of others. “See that one? That’s The Warrior. He has a bo-rifle ready and held up for a battle.” Zeb blinks for a moment, then moves a hand over to a smaller cluster of stars around a milky nebula. “We’ll call this one The Child. See? The little one is reaching upwards, ready to grow and to climb.” He spends a longer moment looking for the last, then finds its rounded and jovial figure. “Ah, alright, here we go. This one is The Fool. You can see in he’s just about to take a leap, but it’s also going to end up a little unorthodox or funky.”
Kallus laughs softly. He is watching Zeb’s hand, but also glancing back at his face with those liquid-amber eyes, as though watching Zeb’s expression is just as good as watching the stars.
“You can tell this story lotsa ways. One of the three is usually working against the other, but to the benefit of the third. But, ultimately, it benefits all of them. Old Chava used to tell it like this: ‘The Fool, simple and selfish, will lead The Warrior, bold and bloodthirsty, to hunt down The Child, our hope of tomorrow, in order that they might destroy him.’"
Kallus winces. “Mmm. Maybe we don’t tell this one to Jacen at bedtime?”
Zeb snorts, his ears quivering with silent laughter. “Nah. It gets better: “Our new home is found when The Child saves The Warrior and The Fool. Only together will they find…” He stops, not wanting to finish the prophecy. Zeb has never told Kallus about paradise - Lira San - the fabled homeland of the Last people. For so long, it was because the other man had been his enemy and a terrible threat. But now, after so long, it just feels like Zeb’s own precious secret. And, after losing loved ones like Kanan and Ezra, things that are precious must be protected.
“Find what?” Kallus asks, watching Zeb carefully. But when he doesn’t answer his question immediately, Kallus seems to understand that this piece of the story is not for him. He settles back down the grass. “Wow,” he says, sounding thoughtful. “That’s pretty interesting. So, according Chava, does that whole thing only happen once, with three people? Or does it happen over and over again?”
Zeb’s smile returns, appreciating the quickness of Kallus’ thinking.
“More of the latter,” he says, relaxing again. “It’s a sort of story that’s moldable, so that you can use it to learn from all kind of situations. Think I’ve played several of the different roles along the way myself, and I bet I will again in the future.” He chuckles. “There’s no shortage of The Child around here these days. That much is certain.”
Kallus joins him in chuckling, and the pair of them settle into the grass.
After a long, quiet moment, and several shooting stars later, Kallus clears his throat. “I suppose that I should be going now,” he says with a sigh. “It’s a bit of a trip back into Capitol City, and I want to make sure that I’m back here in time for Jacen’s breakfast. It must be past midnight, given where the moon is on the horizon.”
And, something about the way that he says that stirs up a strange, distant longing in Zeb.
Startled, and just as surprised by his words when he thinks them as when he speaks them out loud, Zeb talks aloud into the darkness. “Well. Ya could always just stay?” It’s a question to himself as much as Kallus, and the words hang there, heavy with unexplored feeling. “I mean. We’ve got plenty of room. And you’re just going back and forth anyway. Why don’t you take the couch, or the guest room? It’ll make things easier, for us and for Jacen.”
It’s that moment between them all over again. Zeb holds his breath, feels his heart waking, just as it had before the speeder. He waits, blood pounding, wondering what the other will say.
“That’s…that’s a good idea,” Kallus finally says. His voice is soft, careful, and his words seem to be chosen with the utmost care. “Very good. Actually, I’m surprised that we did not think of this before. I might just take you up on that offer.”
Zeb’s heart is pounding so loud that Kallus must hear it. His blood sings, alive and working. He inhales slowly, willing himself into calmness.
“Alright then,” he says, pushing himself half-up and helping Kallus stand. “That’s going to make things from here on out a whole lot easier.” And he almost believes it, as he feels the other man lean into him, sharing their closeness and body heat under the vast, cool expanse of the stars. Even if it is too good to be true. “Let’s get you back home, and get you settled.”
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
Please do the math with me, because Zeb sure isn't: HOW MANY ROOMS. HOW MANY BEDS. HOW MANY PEOPLE IN THE HOUSE. We are getting dangerously close to there-was-only-one-bed territory, and I'm here for it. (Hey, also, I'll probably come back and write a story about their windsurfing adventure at some point...but it needs more time and focused attention later. I hope you were tantalized by the morsel I shared.) This chapter was the other important one that I first imagined with the windsurfing day. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Chapter 12: ART BY LOTSODOODLES
Artwork: "Yrica Quell"
I was inspired to read Alphabet Squadron and to write this story for my dear friend @lotsodoodles! Please admire their extraordinary artwork, and send them some love and appreciation on their social media platforms:
REMINDER: never post artwork without an artist's explicit permission being given to you first!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Heads up! Next chapter will be a Hera POV and will contain ABC Squad spoilers! I'll put a reminder in the tag for next time too.
Chapter 13: HERA
General Syndulla faces some setbacks.
Heads up, this chapter contains major spoilers for Alphabet Squadron! If you want to skip it, the main idea is that things are not going as well as Hera had hoped. She spends some time fixing the Ghost, reflecting on the past few weeks of trouble, and sending a message out to her boys back on Lothal.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The engine is busted up again, the damned thing!
From where she is crouched beneath the undercarriage, Hera grits her teeth in annoyance.
She has been tending to the various wounds on her starship - a broken engine, a punctured freight door, and several large dents and cosmetic scratches - after the most recent skirmish with the notorious 204th. It’s been tedious work, leaving her coated with a layer of grease, oil, and grime, and its stains her striped, green skin blackish-purple. One might think that this kind of grunt work was giving commands on the Lodestar, or serving as a general to the New Republic.
But Hera Syndulla can think of no greater honor than caring for her ship. Especially when the Ghost has been part of the family to her, and has carried herself and her loved ones faithfully for so many years.
“Chopper,” she calls, fingers reaching out and searching for a distant tool beyond her grasp. “Bring me that space sonic screwdriver, will you? It's way worse than we thought.” Oil drips down, long and viscous, from the ship parked above her, and it spatters her nose in a dreadful puddle. She grimaces. "Yeah. With some speed, if you can, love.”
There is a beeping and whirring sound as the C1-10P droid locates and carries over her tool. He drops it with a heavy clunk by Hera’s bent knee, and she scoots backwards from under the freighter with the wheeled-creeper bracing her spine. “Thanks,” she says tiredly, pausing and blinking for just a moment before accepting a clean handkerchief also offered by the astromech droid. “Just a few more minutes, Chop. And then I think we’ll finally be ready to take a short break.”
Predictably, Chopper expels a rude comment. Then he rolls away, soiled handkerchief held aloft in his claws.
“You’re telling me,” Hera mutters, focusing on the cracked engine again. “I’m more than ready for a nap and a sonic. If I’m not mistaken, it’s half-past midnight.” And then, to her sudden surprise and despair, a whole spray of oil gushes out from the fractured engine, just missing her face in its glistening blow.“Kriff!” she explodes in anger, squinting and rolling away from the spill. “Well, that wasn't supposed to happen, either!
Nothing here has been as it should. And she knows now for a fact that things will get worse before they get better.
It has been a truly exhausting series of weeks, with one major setback after another.First, it had been the civilian losses at Abednedo, and all the tension that it had caused between leaders in the Barma Battle Group. Then, it had been the ongoing bickering between Alphabet Squadron; although, that had been sorted out for the most part with painted tattoos. However, even that minor success had been cut too short by the shocking events at Pandem Nai, where all of their problems had literally caught fire and ruptured. Hera’s precious ship had been damaged in the skirmish, and they’d very narrowly rescued the citizens from perishing on a burning planet. So while the rest of the Lodestar had celebrated what had appeared to be a victory, Hera had remained tense and suspicious, waiting for the next move of the Empire, preparing for the setback that was certain to come.
She’d never have guessed that it would come from inside with their own Caern Adan.
Hera wipes the rich, star-black oil from her skin. She watches as more of it spills out from her ship, spinning slick and dark down into the drain. “Well, Chop, that one’s gonna set us back a bit.” She groans, stretching her spine and lifting her arms above her head. “Alright, new plan: we take that break now. Then, we start up again in the morning.”
The twi’lek woman strips her stained, orange jumpsuit off of her shoulders and deposits it into the recycling bin of the Lodestar’s repair shop.
Grimy and tired, with oil-spattered boots slung over one shoulder, her heavy lekku hanging long and wilted, Hera turns towards the promise of her waiting bed. “This has been a rough patch of air,” she sighs to the astromech droid cruising beside her. “I’ve got a feeling that she’s gonna need a whole lot of rest and TLC before she’s back on the battlefield at full force again.”
At this moment, Hera isn’t sure if she’s speaking more of the Ghost or herself.
She arrives at her door, momentarily surprised by how fast her tired feet had gotten her there. Hera waves a hand over the panel, stepping inside and allowing Chopper to trundle past to his charger. Upon crossing the threshold, the green-skinned woman groans and passes a hand over her eyes. The thin, blue light of the chrono informs her that it’s a very late - or rather, a very early - hour, and she searches tiredly among the bedclothes for her sleeping tunic by its dim glow.
“There you are,” she sighs with relief, locating the long, off-white tunic among the sheets.
Kanan’s old garments slide over her shoulders, dropping with thick and heavy comfort. The fabric is soothing, both for its familiar weight and its soft, brushed texture. She inhales, imagining for a brief moment that there is a lingering scent of her lover. But she knows better; Kanan is galaxies far, far away. And right now, she is alone in this world; if not for the presence of her longest and most reliable partner.
“Wish I could re-charge my batteries just like you, love,” she says affectionately to Chopper.
Hera groans, dropping down in her viewing seat and allowing the tunic to flow past her knees. It provides a blanket-like comfort as she is seated in her starboard chair, nestled into the leatheris cushions as she gazes out the dark expanse of transparisteel viewport.
“Stars know I need it.”
But, like these last few weeks of war, it isn’t at all that easy or simple. After the soldiers had their time to catch their breath after Pandem Nai, she had sent her squadrons out to the Cerberon System to recover Troithe. But what had begun as a simple bait-and-switch to catch Shadow Wing had turned into an all-out brawl over the capitol, during which Kairos from Alphabet Squadron was mortally wounded. Caern Adan, closer to her than all the others, had immediately gone after her; but, due to unfortunate timing, he’d been intercepted and captured by imperial slave-traders. Somehow, that bad timing had turned even worse, as Nath and Quell had failed to reach him in time; and Adan’s time-released briefing of sensitive information and been released over the airwaves.
“This is Caern Adan of New Republic Intelligence. If you are hearing this message, then I have likely been captured and killed. Therefore, I am passing on sensitive and timely information regarding the one who is called Lieutenant Yrica Quell.”
From where she gazes out at the stars, Hera’s brow pinches tight in frustration. Her departure for Vanguard Squadron could have gone better, should have gone better, if not for this Sith-blasted announcement. Yes, Hera had received the briefing collected by Nath Tensent after Pandem Nai that Quell had been involved with far more than she’d ever admitted; but, just like in the case of Captain Alexsandr Kallus, Hera believes in second chances. Quell’s defection from the Empire had been enough for her, even with the blood of Necronus staining her hands. As the general, she’d learned to live with and make greater pardons.
But that was not so with Alphabet Squadron. All of the careful, painstaking work that she’d done to bring the crew together had been fractured in that fragile moment.
Hera hugs her knees to her chin, frowning and thinking deeply about the subject. She’d made so much progress with Yrica Quell. She’d felt it, as the human had begun to finally, slowly, place trust in her as a worthy leader and as a safe friend. But all of that had been squandered by Adan’s pre-recorded broadcast. The nature of Quell’s involvement with Necronus and Operation Cinder had been enough to bring disastrous consequences. The bonds between Alphabet Squadron had sputtered and died with the exposed lies of their leader, and their trust had been lost in her and their commander.
Hell, they’d likely lost trust in the whole Rebellion.
Wearily, she rests her forehead and lekku on her open hands. They feel heavy, as though laden with durasteel. Hera’s neck aches from the effort of holding them up, and her wrists throb from the tiredness of working on her engine. She really should take a sonic shower, but shejust doesn’t have the motivation to get up and move about her cabin right now.
I’m glad that Jacen can’t see me right now, she thinks, grateful for once for the distance that is separating them. I don’t want him to see me like this. Hopeless.
Rubbing her fingertips against her temples, Hera decides to give herself fire more minutes of feeling despair. Then, she will get up; shower; brush her teeth; and do whatever else that she can before falling to a shortened but restful sleep in her bed. It wouldn’t be enough to restore Alphabet Squadron, or all the other broken relationships in the galaxy; but it would be enough to get her through until tomorrow, where she can show up and fight again another morning.
Because General Syndulla never gives up.
Finally ready to face the moment, Hera pulls out her handheld comm, and records a new message to send back to Lothal.“Hey, loves. It’s me, Hera. Mom.” She raises the blinking, hand-held box to her mouth, speaking slowly and clearly into the recording. “I’m sorry that I’ve been out of touch for a while. Things have been…wild here, with the New Republic.” She smiles, knowing that this is a major understatement, but that it will save them much headache. “I’m currently working with Vanguard Squad in the Bormea Sector. We left Troithe in the hands of Alphabet, but things are looking…” she searches again for abbreviation. Fragile. Dangerous. Close to chaos. “…Difficult right now. So I might end up back there before the month’s out.”
Hera shifts in her seat, cradling the hand-held comm recorder to her chin.
“It’s been a long couple months, boys, but I’m hoping that I’ll be home to you soon. Chopper and I are okay. And I hoping that you are, too: that you’re all eating and sleeping well, getting lots of playtime outside, and starting to learn from your schoolbooks.” She shifts in her chair. “I miss getting to read bedtime stories, go racing with you, and flying out in the skies of Lothal.” She smiles and closes her eyes, thinking of how Jacen cheered every time she soared close enough to see a planet’s surface. “But I know that you’re taking good care of each other. And that you’ll be okay until I come home."
She presses a soft kiss into the voice-box, hoping that the sound will be audible to her son’s sensitive, human-like ears that looked so much like his father’s.
“Keep looking after yourselves. Don’t forget to stop by rebel base to check in with the others once in a while. I want a new holo-comm, so I can see your beautiful faces, and make sure that you don’t have any new battle scars.” She smiles, then frowns slightly. “No, really, Zeb. Kallus. Don’t go teaching Jacen any sparring. He’ll have enough time to grow into a warrior.”
Hera releases the sternness from her voice and chuckles.
“Love you, kids. See you soon.”
And she hopes that it’s true, as she clicks off the comm.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
Sorry that this took so long! SORRY! My work schedule has shifted with the fall season to be much busier than the summer. I'll still make sure to get regular updates done, but it might be more delayed than I hoped.
Anyway, I hope that this chapter made some sense! I know that I'm packing a whole lot of "Alphabet Squadron" and "Shadow Fall" into one chapter, but this is how things seemed to make the most sense to me coming from Hera's reflection. It's going to be a while until we hear from her again, possibly until closer to the end of the story, so we'll get back to our regularly scheduled romance next chapter.
Thanks for waiting, and always, for reading along!
Chapter 14: ZEB
Zeb dreams. Kallus opens up. Everybody does some gardening.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Zeb isn’t sure if he’s awake or dreaming.
They are on the prairie, solar-windsurfing again. All around him, the golden blades of grass are swaying in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. In front of his chest, just beneath his chin, he feels that the soft, flowing threads of silken hair brushing against him. It blends in with the colors around them, nearly indistinguishable from the rippling, grassy field of gold. And although he cannot see the other man’s face, he knows by instinct that it is Kallus. Zeb can’t see the expression that the other man is wearing. He can only glimpse the outline of his profile from the side; the sharp ridge of his stern nose, the curve of his plush lips, the length of his thin, translucent eyelashes. A scattering of starry, ginger freckles. The minuscule movement of breath as it passes.
But he can feel him.
Kallus is pressed back against him, his spine running as a long, steady line from Zeb’s breast bone down past the curve of his stomach. Zeb can feel the way that the man is trembling: either from the chill of the wind, or his fear of flying, or maybe even from the closest of their contact. He can feel each one of the man’s breath’s as his lungs, expand, pushing back against Zeb’s chest, and huffing out air in front of them. He can feel the heartbeat as it pounds restlessly inside the smaller rib cage. He can feel the curve of the other man’s backside pressed into him, fitted gently between his own parted legs, braced against his thighs for sturdiness. He feels the tension of calf muscles flexing against his shins. The restless tap of a strong, booted leg.
“Faster?” Zeb asks, hearing a surprising tremble in his own voice.
He is whispering, yet unsure of why, and he does not know if the other man can hear him over the sound of the wind. And yet Kallus nods, the shell of his pale ear blushing pink. “OK, yeah,” Zeb hears himself agree out loud. He adjust the hand that is splayed across Kallus’ hip, so that his fingertips wrap around and hold onto him more firmly. He guides their bodies more tightly together, and uses the other hand to push on the solar surfing wing. “Steady,” he says, not sure who is needing the words of reassurance more. Kallus exhales heavily beneath him. The speeder accelerates, rising beyond the waves of grass. They coast above a rocky outcrop, their bodies tilting ever-closer together. Zeb is surprised by the heaviness of him, the firmness of him, the surprising suitedness of their forms fitting together. The air becomes bumpy, and Kallus’ hands tighten into white-knuckled fists over the boom. His form grows taunt against him.
“Easy now,” Zeb murmurs. “I’ve got you. Yer gonna be just fine.”
The human turns his head back to look at him. For the first time, Zeb can see the light reflected in his golden eyes. Kallus looks directly at him, and the intensity of his gaze sends ribbons of fire spooling throughout his chest. W ith absolute trust and certainty, Kallus nods. Zeb feels a thrill of feeling rush through him. He swallows, hand tightening over the curve of bare hipbone exposed between them. Clawed fingertips press into warm flesh, and he feels a corresponding shudder. With more boldness than he thought possible - this is a dream, isn’t it? It cannot be reality - Zeb allows his fingers to ghost along skin. He feels the flinch of tense abdominal muscles, the smoothness of muscle gliding into bone. He exhales a soft, yet audible, groan.
His eyes snap open.
It takes Zeb a full, dizzy moment of panic to remember what precisely happened. Last night, after late hours of star-gazing with Kallus, he had invited the other man to stay with them in their den. (It was only suitable, as he would have to travel back to the city, and return early in the morning at dawn). With Jason occupying the one and only other suitable bed, Zeb had simply invited Kallus to join him in his. He had not thought much of it, nesting the pair of them down with opposite pillows and blankets. It had been the natural thing to do, and would not be anything peculiar or special. But it certainly feels intimate now, as their sleeping bodies lie resting, entwined.
Blinking back the disorientation of sleep, Zeb is startled to find himself lying comfortably in his own bed. He is even more surprised to find that the form pressed against him is very much real, and that the warm sensation of radiant skin beneath his fingertips had not vanished along with his dream. Zeb's hand is exploring the space underneath the rumpled, warm threads of a tunic -histunic - but the skin underneath very much belongs to Alexandr Kallus. Zeb's fingers tell him that the other man's skin is deliciously warm, silken-soft to the touch, and that there is a pleasant and sculpted flow of musculature beneath. In this gentle fog between waking and dreaming, this gentle touch could be a caress.
Retracting his claws, Zeb extracts himself from the equation. He moves slowly and carefully, hoping not to make the slightest sound. It appears that he is successful, for the other man doesn’t move or mutter in his slumber; he simply sighs and burrows more deeply into the blankets, inhaling deeply and smiling at whatever dream is inside his head. Didn’t expect that, Zeb thinks, his head pounding and a loud, wild buzzing between his ears. He gazes down in disbelief at the sleepy and tousled Kallus, his long legs bare and freckled where they peek from beneath Zeb’s tan, rumpled tunic. He looks calm, comfortable. His chest is slowly rising and falling. One hand rests under his head. One of his knees is bent and twisted, covered with scars around the cap, and he wonder briefly if this is the residual damage left on him after the ice moon. He looks...human.Vulnerable.
“Karabast,” Zeb mutters, this time out loud. Shaken, his fur ruffled and prickling, he quickly makes his way towards the refresher.
Spinning the cycle to cold water instead of sonic, Zeb shakes himself and sends his fur ruffling. Like his coat, he needs to shake these strange thoughts from his head. He doesn't know what to make of them, how to feel about them, when he hasn't...wanted someone for more years than he can remember. Feeling unnerved by the dreamlike encounter, Zeb decides to give himself time to sort it out, and he allows the waves of water to rush over him and washing off the feeling. It doesn't have to mean anything,he tells himself.Not unless... he runs a hand through the soaking hair on his head.Time. Just give yourself a minute.
As it turns out, Zeb has more than a minute.
It is late morning, and he's already had time to be out for a walk, make Jason breakfast, and begin household chores, before Kallus finally wakes and joins him. The bearded human emerges from the bedroom, wild-haired and soft-eyed, looking as though he’s had the best sleep of his life. He’s now dressed himself - which, Zeb notes, seems to feel like a slight disappointment to him - and he seats himself at the kitchen table with a steaming mug of freshly-made caf. Zeb swallows, unsure where to start.
To his relief, Kallus does it for him.
"Good morning, Garazeb,” his bed-guest says, pleasant and exceedingly normal.“I have to thank you once more for allowing my presence in your home last evening. That bed of yours is certainly comfortable! I feel more refreshed than I have in months.” Kallus blows at the steam rising over Jacen's hand-made mug. “It is no small wonder that I overslept,” he chuckles. “But, still. I ask your forgiveness. I should have helped out this morning.”
Zeb's head feels fuzzy. “No need,” he grunts. He scratches behind his ear, uncertain. “And it ain’t a problem. There’s more than enough room here for all of us.”
This earns him a pleased, radiant smile, and Zeb’s fur fluffs as he remembers the feeling of waking up beside Kallus only hours before. He clears his throat, looking out the window. More than enough, he thinks to himself. Far more than could warrant the way that we woke up together. Not for the first time, Zeb wonders when during the night they’d migrated together. Were we that that way for minutes? Hours? He chews on the inside of his lip, wondering if Kallus will finally mention it.Doesn’t seem likely, though, as the other man is calmly thumbing through news on his datapad now, lost to the outside world and its concerns.
Perhaps, he'd noticed nothing at all.
“Gonna do some gardening today,” Zeb ventures, trying to feel out the moment. Kallus places up at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue. It doesn’t seem like a loaded gesture. “We gotta uproot before the winter. I suspect that we’ll see our first autumn freeze by tomorrow, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Kallus blinks at his words, and Zeb adds, “Jacen, I mean. I’m not trying to rope ya into more chores. He already told me he wanted to help.”
Kallus chuckles. “Zeb? It’s fine. I’m not afraid of some dirty work.” He winces, setting the datapad down. “Ah, physically, of course. Ethically, I feel as though that ship’s run out.”
Zeb frowns, hearing the embedded self-loathing. “Course you’re invited to join us, if you wanna," he says. "I’m sure that I’ve got some gardening gloves that’ll fit ya.”
Wondering if he's being overly enthusiastic, Zeb glances down at the table. He notices the other man’s hands, which might’ve been a mistake, as it reminds him of their firm grasp on the glider, the way his own hands had stroked Kallus' skin.Did that really happen? He suddenly wonders. Did we actually fly together yesterday? How much of that was just a dream, and how much of it actually took place out there? Anxious, unsure, he finds himself staring at the unusual sight of Kallus’ ungloved hands, and the network of pearlescent scars rippling from where he holds his caf. He’s never asked where the scars come from, and Kallus has never offered that information. That's just fine: Zeb’s had his own share of long-lasting injuries, after all, and most of them come with unpleasant stories.
“I didn’t realize you had a garden,” Kallus says, but carefully, as though not to offend. His eyes flick out the window to Zeb's sad, pathetic excuse of growing earth.
He chuckles a little at that. “Oh, well, it’s definitely a work in progress. I’m not what you’d call a professional," Zeb admits. "When I first moved out of the city, I thought that it might be useful to have some fresh veggies and herbs on hand.” His ears twitch. “But I, ah, I let it go after a while. Got distracted. Still, there’s some stuff I can do for late-harvest, and winterize before the first frost, if I wanna use it better come springtime.”The shameful reminder that he had been dormant for many months threatens to creep up on him. However, he manages to push it gently back down. Progress, then. “You wanna get started?”
Kallus nods firmly. The gesture reminds Zeb of his dream, and a flutter stirs in his stomach.
“Alright, yeah. Let’s go round up Jacen, try to put some boots on him or something, and then we can get to work with the kebroot tubers and maybe the bloddles. Those ones grow underground, and might’a survived long enough without some tending. Plus, with the weather soon getting cold, it’ll be nice to have ingredients for winter soup.”
And then, even after that initial and unexpected shock of the morning, Zeb finds himself falling into a comfortable, now-familiar pattern with Kallus again as they go about their domestic rituals. Side by side, they go about cleaning the household and corralling Jacen. After fitting themselves out for fieldwork, they stake out their work in the crumbling garden, rooting around for bulbous and brightly-colored vegetables buried underneath the dry soil. Zeb is surprised at how many healthy ones can be salvaged, even after the long, summer season of dryness and neglect. Kallus is surprised by Jacen’s unorthodox gardening method, which involves using both hands out in the Force to lift up huge and veggie-strewn dirt clods.Tired and satisfied, they return to the warmth of the indoors, tumbled together on the living room sofa for an afternoon nap before a late lunch.
Somehow, the normalness of it makes Zeb's chest tighten and ache.
Yawning, Zeb slumps on the couch and cradles Jacen against his chest, preparing for a lazy weekend nap. Kallus, not quite settled yet, takes to massaging and stretching out his leg muscles against the firmness of the fllor. He grunts, appearing to have some extra stiffness or pain in the muscles, and Zeb remembers the look of his twisted leg folded beneath his sleeping form, and just how vulnerable the human had looked. “From Bahryn?” he asks, lifting an eyebrow and making a gesture.
It’s a bit personal, but then again, the man had shared his bed last night.
Kallus shrugs one of his shoulders in an attempt at casualness, but Zeb can see the man's clear unhappiness with himself. His mouth forms a slim line of frustration, but seemingly not at Zeb, as his fingers dig into the muscles. “...Yes. From after our stint on the ice moon. It seems as though I overdid it when I returned to the Empire. We had all the proper amounts of bacta and bracing, so it should not have been an issue." He winces. "However, I was quite eager to get back into my field work, especially after committing as Fulcrum, and so I didn't do what I ought. It was all the more essential for me to keep up appearances, after all, after committing to my new role as Fulcrum. And taking sick days or leave for my ‘personal health’ was going to attract unwanted attention from my supervisors, which was the last thing that I wanted at that precarious time."
He is staring at Kallus, who notices, then flushes guiltily under his gaze. “Oh, don’t look at me like that! It was the best choice. Caring for myself was least priority."
Zeb frowns at the former Imperial, not very much liking the idea that he had sacrificed even that much of himself for a mission. He’s always known that the stakes had been high for the other man, but he’d never considered the sheer amount of personal cost. It couldn't have been easy to walk way from the Empire, but he didn't know that the man had physically suffered for it. What else didn't he know about Kallus? “M’sorry you had to go through that,” he offers. “That isn’t right.”
Kallus shrugs again. “Just another reason why the Empire is terrible,” he sighs. The sound turns into a grunt of pain as he massages more deeply around his knee joint.
Thinking of distracting him for the moment, but also genuinely curious about the answer, Zeb decides to ask him a question that has long been of interest to him.“So, uh, how did it actually happen? You, taking on the role of Fulcrum?”
He waits, watching Kallus struggle with sorting out pain and his inward thoughts at the same time. Then, after a long moment of silence, he answers. “It was you, really. Well: you got me started.” Kallus looks down at his leg, twisted and scarred from Bahryn, and he blushes lightly again. “You told me to seek out the answers, and so, I decided that I better go out and ask them. Very quickly, it took me to places that I shouldn’t be - files that the ISB had coded-out or deleted - and I was convicted. News reels of prisoners, innocent planets dead, all kinds of dirty work and cover-up. I was horrified. In the end, I traveled down some significant and secretive rebellion rabbit-holes, which must have triggered some sort of internal alarm, with ISB on classified rebel platforms. Because, one afternoon, I found myself being faced down by a murderous Fulcrum. A man by the name of Cassian Andor.”
Zeb blinks in surprise. He’s heard the infamous rebel, of course, but he’d never realized that Andor had been a Fulcrum too. He also didn’t know that Andor had met Kallus.
“Turns out," Kallus continues, "My suspicions were right. I had spooked the rebellion insiders by snooping around in rebel files. He assumed the worst, because I was ISB, and he very much wanted me dead. Andor must have figured that I was on-route to take down the Alliance from the inside, and was about to put a swift end to that.” Kallus grunts, massaging his knee in time with shaking his head. “But, well, after making ourselves bleed a little, we finally got to talking. And Cassian decided that all the damage—or rather, the healing—that you had done to me was worth something. So, he set me up with a little black book - this kind of leatheris-bound manifesto - to test my commitment. It was an audio-journal that some kid had wrote, all about the how and why to defect from the Empire, and it turned out to be quite an effective advertisement."
Zeb whistles, impressed. “Hmm! So, you got recruited, then?”
“In a word, yeah.” Kallus uses his arms to pull himself up off the ground and plop himself back onto the sofa. “What was left of my teetering loyalty was completely ruined by that manifesto. I found myself thinking about the words from the book, day and night, until it was all I could do to locate Cassian again and beg him to take me in, warts and all. I just had to. When I finally located him, I told him that I wanted in, and that I would hand over the keys to the Empire from the inside. It took some convincing, but he eventually saw the wisdom of it in the end. Or, at least, the former Jedi Ahsoka Tano did. Sounds like she was the one who finally convinced him."Kallus grimaces, a look of deep self-loathing on his features. “I’m glad she did, too. Not many would, or should, have taken me in. After everything."
Startlingly, Zeb feels a rush of fierce and loyal protection.
Of course they would!, he wants to growl, shaking the other man until that sour expression is gone. However, he knows realistically that it has only been a few months since he’d allowed the man to befriend himself; and stars only know the pain that he’d caused other people.Hispeople, on Lasan. Yet, even with this scarred and tainted past, Zeb realizes that he cannot help but see the real Kallus. Passionate, committed to justice, and filled with shame and despair at his actions. He recognizes the signs of its presence, from the many months of living alone and blaming himself for Kanan and Ezra, and he wants the man to release that bitter poison.
“Well. I’m glad that they did," Zeb hears himself saying. “I’m glad that you’re here with us, now. Seems to me like the right thing."
As soon as the words leave his lips, he feels embarrassed. The fur rises up around Zeb's ruff, and he tugs his ears back against his head. It's a vulnerable thing, especially with his connections and wounds to Kallus' past, to express this kind of welcome. But he realizes after saying these things that hemeansit. He cares about Kallus - as a colleague, as a rebel, and now, even as afriend- even if it feels strange and naked to say it. Zeb chews on his lip, hoping that he hasn't said too much, or something that would make it odd and awkward between them.
But then he locates a soft, fond look on the other man's face. Trusting, totally confident in him, it's just as he'd been in Zeb's dream of them on the speeder.
“I am, too,” Kallus answers, at almost a whisper. And then, much to Zeb's surprise, he feels the brush of fingertips over his hand. Between his four, short-furred digits, Kallus' own fingers slide in and weaves their palms together in a steady grasps. It's warm, and close, and almost as intimate as it had felt when he'd woken up next to the other man this morning in his own bed. Kallus applies pressure, so that the gesture is sure, and their forearms come to rest upon each other. Then, he leans in, placing his bearded jawline on Zeb's near and waiting shoulder. The human man exhales a deep sigh, sinking his weight and form against Zeb's outline, resting against him with total trust and confidence. "I am."
And, as though in the hazy, sweet fog of a dream, Zeb returns the gesture. He rests his own head upon Kallus, breathing deeply in and out, resting.
It is only a matter of minutes until they all fall asleep together, woven into a family of three, holding each other close for support and comfort. Zeb suspends Jacen close to his chest, just over his slowly beating heart, and Kallus tucks his head into the space between Zeb's shoulder and chin. They lean against one another, warm and sleepy and dusted with earth, as though this is the most natural and normal thing in the world. And, indeed, the last thought that Zeb has before drifting off into a blissful sleep is that this is the most familiar and well-worn gesture, as though it had happened for years and years, and would continue forever into the future.
The right thing,Zeb thinks. Then, he dreams again.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
It's been a while, but hopefully it's worth it, because this chapter is a big one for me! First off, you get some sweet, sweet sauce from inside Zeb's head (OR IS IT?!). Then you get some domestic fluff and bliss (a la Blum-HC gardening). Follow it up with some canon-compliant backstory (ANDOR? ANDOR!!!) and you've got the recipe. I was so proud of myself for figuring out how to slip in Kallus' Fulcrum story with my favorite series in the Star Wars universe yet. I hope you enjoyed it reading this long-awaited chapter as much as I had writing it.
Thank you, Nemik, for your service.
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Chapter 15: ZEB
Life find a rhythm. Then, it changes.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Time marches on.
Weeks, then months, pass on Lothal. As the planet turns, late fall touches the prairie with its sudden and beautiful transformation. Golden blades of grass turn silver as the fine, slim reeds are coated by layers of frost every morning and evening. The air becomes crisp and cold as a ship’s hull in space. Each warm, exhaled breath forms a ghostly shadow upon the breeze. Plants curl inward, flowers return to the earth, and the brisk taste of snow flavors the wind. Tunics are exchanged for heavier garments, and insulated gloves are added into the equation. Boots and scarves are wrestled onto Jacen Syndulla’s reluctant, bare skin, and his adventures outside become far shorter. Even Tooka, a lifelong resident of the outdoors, wanders into the home and stays there to soak up the fireside’s warmth.
So Zeb feels reluctant, maybe even stern, when Jacen insists that he’ll spend the coldest day of the year so far outside searching for the fabled Jedi temple.
“I’m not sure how to get there, kiddo,” Zeb says, stirring the stew as it bubbles thickly upon the stove. It smells rich and meaty, filled with strips of seasoned bantha steak and flavored with tubers and herbs from the garden, and it will make for a perfect supper later this evening. “Yer dad and Ezra were the only ones that went on that particular trip. For all I know, it’s just a story!”
But it seems as though that was precisely the wrong thing to say. Jacen bounces up and down in excitement, his blue eyes alighting in mischief and wonder.
“Then I have to go!” he insists, pulling at Zeb’s length of tunic.“Stories are always the best adventures!”
With a stubborn resolve so much like his mother, Jacen sets his face towards the door. He dutifully pulls on socks and boots, obedient under the weight of Zeb and Kallus’ gaze. Zeb smiles fondly; the boy has grown up so much in these few months together. Even though he is small and scrawny for his age, his skills and his speech (not to mention, his petulance) has grown leaps and bounds. Zeb suspects that Jacen will soon be of age when he can begin his public education with others - maybe, this same time next fall - and he also suspects that the teachers will be in for some serious trouble.
He’s terribly proud of him.
“Wear your hat,” Kallus instructs from his reading spot the sofa. “Gloves, too.”
Jacen makes to stick out his tongue, but then he thinks better of it. He pulls on his knitted hat over his head, covering his pointy ears, and the long earflaps hang down over his speckled, sage-green, rounded cheeks. “Okayyy Uncle Alex,” he complains, with the kind of exaggerated frustration that only young children can have. “Fine. Now I’m ready!”
At these words, the ginger-striped Tooka rises from his bed by the fire. He arches his back in a long stretch, then ambles over to Jacen, taking his usual, loyal place by his side.
“Be back before the setting sun hits the mountains,” Zeb calls, returning his attention to the simmering stove. “I don’t want ya to be out there when it gets dark. ‘Specially with the cold wave we got in today. It’ll snow any hour now, and it’s easy to lose yer way when you can’t see the marks and patterns set in the grasses.”
Jacen snorts. “I don’t need the grass, Uncle Zeb.” He proclaims, opening the door and letting in a blast of cold wind. “I’ve got the Force!” With that, he marches outside.
Kallus, from his seat on the couch, sighs with a tired fondness. He’s reading his datapad - now with the assistance of a pair of new eyeglasses, for which he was recently fitted - and their tortoiseshell frames slip down the blade of his long, stern nose.
“He’s beginning to sound too much like Ezra,” Kallus says. “Foolishly heroic. Overly-confident in his skills. Not at all worried about what he doesn’t know.”
Zeb chuckles. He pours a small measure of soup into a new ceramic bowl - this one, marked by their three, shared handprints - and blows at the steam as it rises.
“Then he’s just like his Uncle,” he says, stepping out of the kitchen. He brings the bowl over to Kallus, who accepts it for their familiar taste-test. The human raises an eyebrow at Zeb, and he smirks, one fang popping out from his lower lip. “Am I wrong? How many people decide that they can take on the might of the Empire and pull a stealth job right under the Grand Admiral’s nose?”
Kallus flushes, ducking his head to drink from the bowl. “You’re mocking me,” he mutters, in a tone that Zeb recognizes as both pleased and embarrassed.
Zeb smiles. Both of them know that these words mean to carry no harm. In fact, this kind of gentle teasing has become a regular part of their banter. Zeb and Kallus ritually trade ribs and compliments alike, and he's grown quite fond of the comfortable exchanges. At times, he even wonders if this might be a miniature version of their own journey: from the most bitter of enemies to the closest of friends. These days, they share things freely with humor and heart. And he thinks that he can mark it with the arrival of Jacen.
“I would never,” Zeb quips. “What do ya think? More salt and pepper?”
“Nah. It’s perfect,” Kallus replies with a lip-smack and a fitful sigh.
He extends the empty bowl out to Zeb, and their hands brush the exchange. These days, Zeb does not draw back as Kallus’ fingers stroke over the short, velvet fur of his hand. He doesn’t twitch as they sneak into the bending crook of his palm, stroking over the padded shape of his fingers, finding their familiar shape and place.Zeb smiles shyly back at Kallus, giving their woven hands a squeeze. Then, takes the bowl back to the kitchen.
“What are you readin’?” Zeb asks, placing a lid over the pot and busying himself with tidying up the kitchen. “You’ve been absorbed in that since ya woke up this morning.”
Kallus shrugs, glasses slipping down his nose again. He looks perfectly comfortable, framed there by pillows and the dancing light of the crackling fire. Ever since that first night they had shared Zeb’s bed together, Kallus has stayed in the den with him, drawing closer and closer in their patterns of sleeping. Now, their nightly ritual involves curling up together under one blanket before blowing out the last candlelight. And there’s something so soft and natural about it, that Zeb doesn’t bother to ask questions anymore.
“Oh, nothing special. A romance. The latest Nemodian Sparks novella.”
Zeb smiles, chuckling and returning to cleaning. He’s learned over time that the once-fearsome Agent Kallus has a soft spot for these kind of novels. At first, he’d gently teased the other man, hoping to get a rise out of him. But then, after he’d breezed through one of the spicy books himself (with much sweating and surprise at the content!), he’d quickly understood the appeal. Perhaps the greatest surprise to Zeb had been the fact that most of these books had featured human-and-alien interspecies lovers. Strange, given the fact that Kallus had spent so much time with the Empire, where such romances were deeply discouraged, and even on some planets forbidden. Maybe he was still working on draining the programming out of his system. Or, maybe, he’d always had his own preferences.
“Is it Dusk on an Alien World again?” Zeb asks, quoting a famous title and regular read. He hears Kallus snort, and imagines the playful expression on his face.
“No. But it’s part of that series.” His voice sounds closer, and Zeb’s ears twitch as he hears the shuffle of stones beneath leatheris slippers. Then, happily, he feels the slide of warm hands around his waist, and the leaning of Kallus’ chest against his back. He closes his eyes, sighing into the familiar warmth of the touch. “Care for some help around here?”
“Nah, I got it.” Zeb brushes his hands over Kallus’ embrace, staying in place for a time.
The fireplace crackles, and he sees the first snowflakes of winter beginning to fall outside. Zeb allows himself a rumbling purr of contentment and satisfaction, and he feels Kallus scrunch his fingertips further into his short fur. He feels heavy and lazy, ready to take a nap, and thinks of suggesting it to Kallus.
Then, the sound of their comms begin to beep and chime in unison.
Kallus sighs, then releases Zeb. The man reaches down to his pocket for the device, and Zeb moves away towards the windowsill to grab his. He passes a thick, clawed thumb over its face, then watches as information begins to unfurl. First, he notices that the code for the sender can be tracked back to _THE GENERAL H. SYNDULLA_ and his heart leaps with excitement in his chest. Then, he blinks with surprise and a mixture of rapid, conflicting feelings as the rest of the message is spelled out before him.
|| SPECTRES FOUR AND EIGHT:
_BAD NEWS: LODE STAR DESTROYED, WITH MULTIPLE CASUALTIES. ONGOING COMPLICATIONS FOR ALLIANCE ON-PLANET AND IN SYSTEM._
_GOOD NEWS: SHADOW WING DOWN, MISSION WITH ALPHABET SQUADRON COMPLETE._ SPECTRE GENERAL TO TRANSFER HOME WITHIN THREE DAYS._ ||
Zeb stares at his comm, hardly daring to breathe.
They’ve all been waiting for it, on some instinctive, background level, for so long. It has been more than a year since his friend Hera Syndulla had arrived at his door, knocking with her late-night request and finding him at his loneliest hour. And while he’d never expected for it to last forever, Zeb had not been prepared for the sudden and inevitable conclusion of their extended time as Jacen’s caregivers. In the past months, he’d had the privilege of getting to know the child - as a person in his own right - and had watched him grow from timid and shy to an unstoppably bold, big-hearted kid. He’d also grown familiar and fond of the pattern of life with Kallus: their weighing and sharing of domestic responsibilities, the trusting and working together to care for the tiny being. And now, with this latest news from Hera, he knows that this season is nearly done.
They’ve been waiting so long. But now, it feels…too soon.
Zeb holds his comm inside of his palm, not daring to say the first word. It’s an unnatural silence that hangs in the room, and he knows that Kallus has also read and is reflecting upon the message. Thinking of the other man, and wondering what is going on inside of his head at this news, suddenly makes his heart lurch inside of his chest.
What’s this gonna mean? He wonders, staring at the words. For Kallus? For…Us?
The other man clears his throat, and Zeb turns to look at the human for the first time. He’s stricken by what he sees there: Kallus is slumped in his shoulders; his golden eyes are wrinkled, tired, and dim; and there is a grim tug to the corners of his bearded face. Strange; Zeb hadn’t realized that the look of Agent Kallus had disappeared so thoroughly, until now, when the sad and burdened resolve has returned.
“Well. It looks as though we should…celebrate?” His tone says anything otherwise.
“Uh. Yeah. Guess we should.” Zeb tries to give the other man a smile, but he feels it trip and stumble as well. He looks at the mixture of feelings displayed so clearly on the other man, and he wonders if his own feelings are just as transparent as well. Anxiety. Sadness. Disappointment. Regret. Swallowing thickly, Zeb tries to think of their child first. “We better tell Jacen. He’s…he’s gonna be so happy to see his mum again.”
“Happy,” Kallus echoes in agreement. His narrow mouth twitches.
Zeb stands there, feeling like he ought to say something. After all this time? He wonders, feeling itchy and discomforted all over. After everything that we’ve been through together, and all that we’ve shared while we’ve been raising Jacen? That’s all we can say? There’s got to be more. There’s got to be something we can do or share…But Kallus is already gathering up his mask. His face has been put back into professional standard and his coat is being tugged over his shoulders.
“We ought to go out and get him, don’t you think?” Kallus says. He turns towards the door, not looking at Zeb. “I think he’d want to hear about this right away.”
Zeb’s stomach churns, but he doesn’t know what else to do. Nodding gruffly, he makes his way towards the door as well. “Yeah,” he says, rooting around for his scarf. “Yes.” There is that long, sticky silence between them as they finish dressing. And, as they walk out the open door into the chill, Zeb feels it coming to settle deep into his bones.
It’s over, he thinks, a hollowness forming inside of him. Everything that we’ve had for the past few months now. It’s over.
Like everything else that he’s ever lost, Zeb feels it burning and aching inside of his chest. He breathes, slow and deep in the cold winter air, feeling it bite against his lungs. Kallus doesn’t look back, and he strides onto the wintry landscape, leaving the impression of his boots behind. And Zeb, feeling all of the weight of the world, walks slowly in the empty footsteps behind him.
//// //// //// //// WRITER'S RAMBLINGS //// //// //// ////
We're in the home stretch, folks! There are only TWO more chapters left of this story. Please stick around for the exciting conclusion...I promise that you're not going to want to miss what comes next! (In case you didn't notice, this is the inevitable HURT that comes right before the COMFORT. Plus, I can't wait for you to see the canon-compliant-ish ending.) Much love and light to each one of you in this holiday season...If you are struggling, know that I'm pouring a glass for you. Cheers!
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Chapter 16: ZEB
Zeb and Kallus search for Jacen. They find each other.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
They’ve been searching for hours, but still, there is no sight or sound of Jacen Syndulla.
By now the daylight has waned, and the sun is far past Lothal’s snow-capped mountains. Increasingly anxious, Zeb and Kallus circle back to the house; but to their dismay, they do not find Jacen returned by his expected time, nor any other signals of his journey in the freshly-fallen snow. There are no signs of Tooka and his telltale scratch-marks, nor the broken reeds and scattered sticks of a boy who is learning to practice and play with the Force. So now, each new breath that Zeb takes seems to stream out of him like an angry cloud, hovering nervously around them, growing ever more heavy, as the pressure builds and their worry increases.
“We’ll find him,” Kallus keeps saying in a determined refrain. But his shaking hands suggests otherwise, clenched into fearful, white-knuckled fists at his sides.
He's not the only one. Zeb is feeling downright miserable. The stiffness that had set in with Hera’s unexpected comm message has now faded into something more…sour. As they trudge through the frozen mud and flaking snow, with Zeb’s mind conjuring up images of a lost and homesick Jacen, he cannot help but also imagine the stony, dark silence of his soon-empty home, and how quiet it will be once again without the child (or Kallus’) presence at his side. It leaves something rank and raw underneath his pressing fear, and he finds himself irrationally angry, ready to lash out at any moment, as he stomps his way through the fallen snow.
“You’re sure he didn’t take the solar-surfer?” Zeb asks Kallus a little too roughly.
He's repeating the question for what must be the third time, and both he and Kallus know the answer. However, he doesn’t have any other words left at this point.
Kallus huffs, his mood darkening.“Yes, I’m sure, Garazeb. I double-checked the gardening shed right before we left.” He raises his hands, breathing a lungful of hot air into them, then rubbing his purpling fingers together. “Foolish of me. We should be gliding right now, not making this wretched distance on foot! Wast of time. Waste of energy.”
Zeb holds back his snarky reply. Kallus’ typically eloquent, polished words have been cut short and terse, echoing the rudeness that Zeb has shown him.
“Not yer fault,” he finally admits gruffly, ducking around a rock formation. “Not our first priority, neither. We left the house pretty quick. You even forgot to grab yer gloves.” His eyes trail back to Kallus’ hands, more blotchy and pale than they should be in their thin, human flesh. Zeb has become quite familiar with them - from the pearlescent scars on top to the rough, hard-won callouses underneath - and he knows that they ought to be more pinkish or gold. “Stop. C’mere for a second. Let me get a look at those paws.”
Kallus begrudgingly pulls to a halt. At this point, he knows better than to argue with Zeb. He lifts up a reluctant hand.
Zeb takes Kallus' hand in his own. It’s speckled with unnatural color, and the blood has risen in a way that he doesn’t like, so he cradles the skin and bone between his paw-like hands and begins to massage a soft pattern.“You gotta take better care of yourself,” he mutters, rubbing Kallus’ fingers between his own. Zeb thinks he can feel some of the regular warmth returning, and he focuses on pushing the abundance of his own body heat into the other person. He watches with satisfaction as color begins to flow back, and he raises the hand to breathe on it, as he’d seen Kallus do in a previous moment. “No sense freezin’ up like an icicle, here. Maybe we ought to just...go back home and wait for him inside, where it’s a little bit warmer.”
He doesn't like the idea, but it's practical. And Kallus must really be cold, because he makes an unhappy, tense nod.
Relieved, Zeb turns back towards the house. He decides that Jacen is likely both strong and smart enough to make it out of whatever adventure he’s ended up in, and that if he has still not returned by bedtime, Zeb will raise hell and call in a search-and-rescue team from Lothal’s local rebel base. But that’s precisely when a gust of cold, bitter wind blows an emerald-green, hand-knitted scarf directly into their walking path.
“Oh!” Kallus yelps, in a voice of distress unlike Zeb’s ever heard. “Garazeb, look! It's the scarf that I made him!”
The man plows through what is now a raised drift of snow, and snags the material out of the air. With a sinking feeling of horror, Zeb sees that the scarf in Kallus’ frigid hands appears to be shredded and torn at one corner, and the loops of the knitting have become undone. He feels himself tilting towards that terrible, consuming precipice of fear.
“Oh, no!” Kallus says once again in that terrible tone. “Zeb, what’s happened to Jace!? We have to find him, right now! He could be in danger!”
Sucking in breath, he recalls Kallus’ mantra. He steadies himself, finding center. “We’ll find him,” he assures Kallus, speaking the words of his once-confident refrain. Zeb crosses the distance between them and places both of his hands on Kallus’ trembling, frost-covered shoulders. Then, he turns them around, towards the direction of the incoming wind that had sent the evidence of Jacen's journey in their direction. “We’ll find him, Kal. Just like you’ve said all along.”
Kallus swallows, his throat raw and bobbing in the cold. His lips are pressed too tightly together in distress for words. Zeb can relate.
“Follow the current,” he says, making his way into the wind. He feels Kallus reach out to squeeze his hand, and returns the small gesture. Together, they move with difficult speed through the increasingly treacherous terrain, finding brambles and boulders half-covered with snow, and thinly-layered ice over small, brittle pools. “Karabast,” Zeb mutters, feeling ice splinter wetly beneath his feet. “Couldn’t have been a computers kid, huh? Couldn’t have wanted to play inside with dolls?” He navigates another shallow puddle, his time pausing to help Kallus along. His old, injured leg is acting up, and he seems rather stiff. “Would've been too much to ask, to just have a docile, obedient kit.”
Kallus laughs tightly. “No, you wouldn’t like it,” he disagrees. “Zeb, you and I both know that we’d be bored out of our minds if we didn’t have a kit just like Jacen."
His bad leg gives out, and Kallus slips on the perilous ground beneath him, rapidly rotating his arms for balance. And Zeb, feeling a surprising prickle of warmth slip inside of him, reaches out just in time to catch him. Kallus clings on to Zeb, hands wrapping around his waist and fingertips digging into his winter coat and chest fur. He pants, righting himself and cursing his leg. Zeb thinks he hears the phrase"kriffing ice moon!" under his breath.
“No, yer right,” Zeb admits with a small smile. “We wouldn’t.”
Kallus blushes, brushing ice and snow off of his jacket, and they continue on in shy, embarrassed silence. Neither one of them comments that it would be highly unlikely that the pair of them would ever be raising a child together, living under the same roof and sharing a bed, if the general hadn’t commanded them; and neither one comments on the natural, truthful acceptance of their plight, and how perfectly it had brought their lives together.For a moment, Zeb feels warm and light-headed. Then, he is grounded by Hera's sobering words.
Lost, Zeb thinks, his gut growing cold.Everything lost, all over again.
But he doesn't have much time to linger with these most depressing of thoughts. “Look!” Kallus cries out again, pointing towards an indentation in the snow. Zeb hurries forward, finding a tiny bootprint fading into the landscape. “That could be from Jacen!” The human man drops to one knee, examining what is left from the child’s walking path. By Zeb's estimation, Kallus is right: the boots appear to be about the right size, and they are surrounded by the tiny, bird-like scratchings of the orange Tooka Cat who forever follows him. “That’s our Jacen. We’re on his path!”
“Good eye!” Zeb says, thumping Kallus warmly on his shoulder. “Looks pretty fresh, too. We should be able to catch up to him in no time."
He beams up at Zeb. And - or the briefest, most heart-stopping moment - it seems certain as though Kallus might kiss him.
Zeb’s heartbeat nearly explodes in his chest. His eyes widen, and his ears pull back. He swallows thickly, tongue caught up in his throat. He remembers that look from under the stars, when Kallus had lounged on one side and looked at him fondly. Zeb knows that should be dazzled, that he should do anything not to miss this chance; and yet - against the deafening roar in his chest, the fluttering heartbeat inside of his lungs - he can also feel the sick, sharp splinters of heartbreak.
Gone. Soon, he'll be gone, and you'll just be all alone again.
Swallowing the bright shock, great sorrow, and overwhelming want of his feelings, Zeb lets his heart fall back into his stomach.“...Hey,” he says gently, not wanting to hurt the other man in the moment. “Let’s…let's just let’s keep moving. We, uh, we don’t want to lose him.”
Something in Kallus’ face seems to shutter. However, he recovers fast. “Right. Of course.”
“Right.” Zeb trails after him, lost deep in thought.There is something there, between us, he realizes with a resigned sense of loss. I was always so unsure. Yeah, I kinda suspected it, but, I couldn’t really ever be sure…He watches as Kallus approaches the rocky, half-enclosed mouth of a cave, inspecting the narrow openings of the structure. His heart flutters, then once again, aches. But it doesn’t really matter, now.It’s too late. I can’t bear to lose anyone else that I love.
From the entrance to the cave, Kallus waves a hand.“Garazeb! Come closer. I think that I found the problem.”
Zeb shakes the feelings and thoughts aside and he hurries over, following the keen insight of the former ISB agent. “Look," Kallus tells him. "These footprints lead right up to here, and then, they totally vanish. Jacen must have climbed in to enter this cave, but then, the opening must have collapsed even further from the disturbance. He's probably trapped just inside, unable to get out, even with his use of the Force.” Kallus peers in through the narrow gap, searching in the shadowy darkness. “Jace? Spectre Seven? Can you hear us?"His love for the boy is painfully transparent in the tone of his urgent, anxious calls.
“Yeah. Yer probably right. Move aside.”
Zeb unstraps his bo-rifle from his back and chest. After examining the face of the rock, he begins to make short, calculated blasts at its surface. To his distress, the cave itself begins to rumble, and Kallus’ breath tightens in protective fear. Zeb swallows thickly, waiting for the tremors to pass. More rocks crumble down from the top, meeting the other shards at the bottom to form a crown of dangerous, fang-like rocks at the mouth. “It’s gonna be alright,” Zeb assures them, although his voice is shaky. “The kit is tough. He’s Hera and Kanan’s son, after all.”
“Right,” Kallus agrees. The fierce, loving look in his eyes adds the unspoken words: And he’s ours as well.
After several long, tense moments of rifle blasts, the avalanche of stone begins to lessen. Gradually, Zeb can see more of the larger rocks falling away, leaving a more clear passageway for them to enter. When there is nearly a large enough space for one, human man to fit inside, Kallus begins to dig, using his cold, battered hands wrapped in the tattered remains of Jacen’s scarf. Eventually there is enough room for him to pass, and the two of them work together to clear a space for Zeb to squeeze inside.
It’s dark within, and very quiet.
“Jacen?” Kallus calls, his rich, low voice echoing off the resonant walls. He steps forward, then inhales sharply. Zeb spies what he’s seen and his own heart drops: the torn, remaining fragment of the boy’s scarf, trapped beneath an icy boulder."Hurry." The two of them rush forward, hefting and lifting the boulder. But thankfully, blissfully,he is not there.
“Okay,” Zeb says with forced calm, rubbing his palms together. “So we know that he’s in here. Or, that he’s been here. We’re just gonna keep looking until we find him." He reaches out in the dark to find Kallus’ hand once again, then laces their fingers together as they find home. After all of this time, and even with their impending separation, it feels good and familiar. He allows himself the momentary comfort, knowing that it will not last for much longer. “Sound like a plan?”
“Yes. I trust you.” Kallus replies.
With a gentle squeeze of their hands, they venture together into the darkness.
It feels like hours since they'd first entered the cave.At first, Zeb is thankful that they are finally out of the wind and the cold. But now, after lingering in the quiet dark, he feels as though there is an extra-wet, sodden chill that has settled deep into his lungs and bones, and he finds himself shivering even under his fur and thick, insulated coat. Kallus, of course, is shivering too, and the small, shared connection between them provides the only kind of tentative warmth.
"Keep looking," Kallus murmurs. "We'll find him."
They look high and low, inspecting the cave’s every corner and crevice, but find no other signs of Jacen Syndulla.
They do find tall, swirling pillars of stone that rise up proudly from the cave's surface, looking just like the ones that adorn the beauty of the outdoor prairie. They hear small creatures skitter and climb inside of the cave - most likely mynocks and bats and other small rodents - who sometimes watch them with glowing, bright eyes. (At one point, Zeb even thinks that he’s spotted Tooka; but it only turns about to be a brilliant-white Loth-Cat.) They even find a set of cave markings, ones ancient and gold and painted on stone, that seem to be in a language that neither Kallus nor Zeb can translate.
And yet, the greatest, most breath-taking discovery is still waiting for them around the next corner.
As Kallus and Zeb continue onward, the cave gradually grows less shadowy and dark, and begins to glitter with luminous, dazzling crystals. While Zeb is no expert, he can tell from the way that Kallus gasps and admires each one of them in turn that they must be the priceless material Kyber, an element known and treasured by Force users everywhere for their use in engines and weapons, most particularly, lightsabers. There had been a time when Ezra had gone searching with Kanan for them, so that he could make his own tool in the tradition before him.
It appears as though Jacen has found the lost Jedi temple of Lothal after all.
Slowly, Zeb’s fear begins to melt into wonder as they make their way through the rainbow and glittering caverns. Strangely enough, he feels as though he’s been let in on a tremendous secret, like he’s experiencing something divine and precious, and that it must be treated with their utmost care. They speak now in hushed tones and whispers only, as though they do not want to disturb the mysterious presence that has settled around them. And, after a while, Zeb realizes that even the cold, wet chill of the darker part of the caves has become completely forgotten.
“No wonder the kid lost track of time,” Zeb whispers to Kallus, looking around at the softly glowing gemstones. “I feel like we’re in Ezra’s World Between Worlds.”
Kallus hums in quiet agreement. He’s still holding onto Zeb’s hand, even though there is plenty of brightness around them. And, in spite of the startling beauty in their presence, Zeb feels the pang of heartache again. He sighs, dropping Kallus’ hand, and rubs the back of his head uncomfortably. To his surprise, Kallus turns and narrows his eyes at him, tilting his head to the side for inspection. He crosses his arms, and takes a determined set of his bearded jaw.
“What’s wrong, Zeb?” Kallus asks him, voice careful but pressing. “And don’t bother trying to say that it’s Jacen."
He looking at Zeb with a shrewd and stubborn determination, as though he can see through him with his sheer willpower alone. “At first, I thought that it was the kid, and a fear that we weren't going to find him. But now that we know that he's here, I can tell that there's truly something elsebothering you. Something beyond these last few hours of cold and searching. And I want to know. Because it's really bothering you."
Zeb's nostrils flare. He feels his ears pull back and flattening against his head in agression.
“Yer smart, Kallus, and you’re good with details. But that doesn’t mean that yer entitled to everyone else’s!” But when his prickly defensiveness does not seem to deter him, Zeb panics and tries for a further, more cutting deflection. “Ah, what does it matter? Are ya so bored with your easy little hunt-and-chase that yer coming back to cause me some fresh torment?”
Kallus’ eyes flash with surprise and hurt, but the set of his jaw only pulls deeper.
“What does it matter? Garazeb, you’re my best friend!My partner! And you’re clearly in pain. I want to understand what’s going on with you right now, so that I can offer you some kind of reassurance or comfort.” The hands gripping around his elbows twitch and flex, as though he’d like to reach out instead of lock up. He resists the urge, keeping his golden eyes locked on his Zeb. “You can try and derail me from this all you like, but I’m not going to fall for any of that. I’ve known you for too long, now.You can’t lie to me and just get away with it.”
Something about these last words make Zeb's liquid, heavy depression suddenly harden; then brittle, then snap.
“Oh! So, now we’re being honest with each other?!” he snarls, voice more raised than he would prefer. “When did that begin? Where would ya like me to start?”
He swallows, feeling the burn of tears welling up in his eyes.“Should I start with the atypical part about living together? Or the way that we talk over caf every morning about deepest dreams and desires?" He swallows again, feeling a stiff, heavy thickness in his throat. "Should I mention those long, lingering looks that yer always given' me? Or bring up the way that we spar and we sing and we garden together?" And, yes, the tears are falling readily now, but he's still not sure why he's shouting as Kallus like he is angry.
"Our co-parenting, maybe? Our sharing a bed?!”
Zeb is fully sobbing now. He knows from recent experience that he cries far more often now than when he’d been alone - and that, supposedly, that's supposed to be a good thing. His feelings, damn them, seem to flow much more freely after all of his practice at opening up with Jacen and Kallus. Zeb's had all these months of sharing his most tender and vulnerable emotions, and right now it’s too kriffing difficult, maybe even impossible, to place himself back into that stern, stoic, unfeeling man who just weathers one loss after another. He can't bear it. He cannot begin to bear it.
“Do I have to be the one to say all of this? Aren't you gonna reply? Are you even trying?!"
Kallus squeezes his arms across his chest, giving himself a small self-embrace and a gesture of comfort. "Yes. I havebeen trying. Passionately." He looks at Zeb with the most serious, honest expression in the world, and Zeb can see his own pangs of heartbreak and longing echoing back. "I know that you've noticed. Don't try to tell me you haven't noticed. I've been reaching out for you since the first day you let me, and you're not even attempting to meet me back in the middle."
Zeb growls, rumbling low in his chest. He feels anxious, unwell, and angry.
Turning swiftly to glare at his reflection on the wall, Zeb looks at himself mirrored back in the crystals. The kyber glimmers transparently back at him: enhancing his tears, amplifying his frown, showing his anguish off to the world. But the man that he sees looking back at him is also much more the man that he had forgotten that he could be. Tall, confident, well-groomed, handsome; Garazeb Orrelios, Spectre Four, stands there before him. There is a healthy luster behind his stripes, and the pride of a warrior back in his stance. As Zeb stares at his figure, he can’t remember looking this way since...before Lothal. Since before Kanan and Ezra.
“I'm…sorry,” Zeb says, his voice raw and low. “I just...can't. I c-can’t lose thisagain."
Zeb closes his eyes, feeling defeated. But then he opens them up once more, when he feels strong, heavy arms of Kallus wrapping around him around him. Zeb realizes that his friend (and, perhaps, so much more) has already crossed the distance between them, bringing them back together as they were before, and is now gently stroking a hand through his fur, running his fingers over his exposed stripes exposed, making each gentle movement a comforting and familiar embrace. Deep in the midst of his grief, Zeb gives a shuddering sigh, and relaxes into the familiarity of the gesture.
“Then don’t,” Kallus whispers. “Return to me.”
Zeb does not understand. He tries to look around, and Kallus also shifts to face him. The hands that are holding onto Zeb begin to gently push and turn him, and he follows the firm, soothing guidance, rotating until that he is face-to-face Kallus. The other man stretches up on his toes, locking eyes with Garazeb, holding the pair of them close as his arms. As Kallus tilts his jaw up and gazes at him - so much like that first time when they had been solarsurfing - and he simply breathes, sharing the intimacy of the warm air between them.
“Come back to me. And stay here. Together."
And Kallus kisses him.
Zeb feels a sob rise up in his chest at the press of the other man’s mouth upon his. The sound turns into a groan of grateful, pleading relief as their arms weave comfortably around each other, their bodies melting together and falling back softly against the support of a rock formation. Zeb feels the pounding burst from inside of his chest, the singing pour from inside of his ears, and the rush of a-fast melting heart from the anguish frozen inside of him. Their bodies move slowly and sweetly together, the glittering world of the cave dissolves, and all that hovers with him is the promise that love, even greater than death, will live on.
Return to me. Stay. together.
He is gasping and pleading when they break apart, but Kallus is calm, and he guides them gently back together again. The other man makes soothing and hushing sounds between their kisses, acknowledging each one of Zeb's wracking sobs, then working a caring touch into each one of them. It feels as though he is coming alive alive; it feels like healing, where the wounds on his soul stitch themselves up. In wonder, Zeb finds one hand curved around Kallus’ waist, the other hand, tangled in his soft, golden hair. He's holding onto him like his very last breath; he holds onto Zeb like somethingprecious,that he has no intention of letting go.
“Stay,” Kallus murmurs, his eyes half-lidded and hazy between his kisses. Then, he sucks in a breath, and he babbles.
“Grow old with me, Garazeb. Raise a family together. We’re already doing this now, so, there's really no reason why you and should I have to be finished, right?" Kallus is still rosy and starry-eyed from kissing, but he speaks urgently, as though persuading Zeb to this cause is of utmost and pressing importance. "Why not carry on? We clearly have such a good thing, going together. And do you know what? I think that we could even be better!"
Zeb smiles, mirroring Kallus' joy. The other man sobers slightly, stroking through Zeb's velveteen short-fur and rough twines of beard.
"I will do my best," Alexsandr Kallus vows, his golden eyes equal parts feirce and tender. "I truly will. I know that I can't give you everything back that you've ever lost. I know that I can't fix the damage that has been done. But, I can give you something else; something precious." He cups Zeb's bearded chin, tipping their heads together. "I'll give you my love. My heart. All of it, Garazeb. " He strokes his thumbs across Zeb's chin, then cradles his head in his gentle hands.
Zeb blinks through his tears, voice rough and disbelieving. “I love you,” he whispers, daring the words.
And Kallus, who smiles just as tenderly, presses their sweating foreheads together. "I know. I love you, as well."
With Kallus' gentle guidance and pressure, they settle down onto the cave's dusty floor. The human man climbs onto Zeb's knees, then he kisses Zeb even more, and this time with even more urgency, and his arms make their way down Zeb's chest and his back. Kallus settles down into Zeb's open lap, gazing up at him reverently, waiting for a spoken permission. and Zeb, wide-eyed with want and wonder, would have given himself, all of him, to his lover right then and there. That is, if it hadn't been for the next sound.
From the hazy darkness, a quick, loud gasp and a giggle emerges. "Uncle Zeb! Uncle Alex! What are you doingdown there?"
Jacen Syndulla, in all his rambunctious and impish glory, drops down from a stone hanging from above. Dangling from around his neck is a brilliant pair of emerald-green kyber crystals, and he holds what appears to be a hand-written letter wrapped tightly in his had. The boy is grinning from ear to ear, his brilliant blue eyes twinkling mischievously, and he seems to be delightedby this turn of events. Without any hesitation, Jacen makes his way, putting on the best stink-face for show.
"Don't ya know? This is a Jedi temple! Yer not supposed'ta be doing that!"
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SNOW DAY EARLY UPDATES! We've had two consecutive days off work here due to some truly record-breaking snow (I'm talking more than 2 feet in 24 hours), so I've been able to peck away at these last two chapters. You can expect the final one within the week, I think. It's so satisfying to finally see these boys communicate - and KISS! - and I can't wait to write my favorite and final chapter up next. Thanks for coming along for the ride, I hope you've been enjoying it too!
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Chapter 17: HERA
Family Reunion And (No) Farewell
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The golden, hazy atmosphere of the hidden star cluster is just as dazzling as Hera ever remembered.
From the most comfortable chair on the Redemption’s observation deck, the former general watches the glittering skyscape passing them by. She holds her sleeping son, breathing in time with her heartbeat, as she listens to the rumbling sounds of the around them ship powering down. The hefty Nebulon-B frigate is rapidly approaching its destination; and while Hera would rather be piloting her way down to planet on her Ghost, she would hardly turn down the Alliance’s generous offer to escort herself and her companions on this last, final mission to Lira San. She smiles, hardly daring to believe it.
After they touch down, it will all be official: Hera Syndulla will be retired. And their long, endless struggle with war will be over.
“Beginning planetary approach,” a polite voice calls from the starboard side of the ship. “Prepare landing sequence.” There are murmurs of acknowledgement, and Hera watches with interest as a team of navigators and pilots begins to work on outputs. At one time, she would have taken the time to ask each one of these diligent soldiers about their lives, skills, and ambitions; now, she sits back, knowing that this is just one of many other duties that she will need to release into the next, capable hands that follow after hers.
“You awake, Jace?” she asks, stroking a handful of hair. “We’re almost home now.”
Blissfully happy to be back his mother’s arms again, the boy does not even stir at her words. Hera considers whether or not she should rouse Jacen to see the mysterious planet and hidden star cluster as they approach, but she decides to just let him sleep instead. There will be plenty more times to explore, she thinks, kissing him softly on top of his head, right where his green hair begins to curl. We’ll be back in the sky in no time.
A stable, civilian life doesn’t mean a boring life, without adventure.
Hera’s contemplating this when the frigate shudders and rumbles, signaling that the docking process with another ship has begun. Hera blinks in surprise—she hadn’t even noticed another vessel approaching!—but she remembers Zeb mentioning something about a diplomatic envoy being sent their way, to greet the highly irregular occurrence of guests. According to her Lasat companion, not many make it through the rugged star path to the hidden paradise; and, even less of them survive without an official welcome. Fortunately, they’re bringing the former captain of the Lasan High Honor Guard with them. Or, rather, he’s bringing them along with him.
The door shifts open behind her, and Hera looks over her shoulder to watch as Garazeb Orrelios and Alexsandr Kallus walk through the passageway together.
By itself, this is not an unusual sight. After being the most bitter of enemies, the pair have become the best of friends, nearly inseparable, after her assignment with Jacen. But Hera would have never have imagined just how close the two of them would have grown, to the point that Zeb would have chosen to invite Kallus along with them on this final voyage. Or, to the tender way that he leads him now, towards the expanse of transparisteel viewport: guiding Kallus with gentle hands, one of them resting on the small of his back, one of them placed softly over his eyes.
“May I look now?” Kallus asks, a hint of laughter in his low, smooth voice.
“Nah, not just yet,” Zeb chuckles, leading him forward.
Hera watches, enchanted, as the two of them make their way towards the viewport. She decides to remain quiet and unannounced, as the two of them seem to be in their own little world, and to let the quiet and intimate moment just happen between them without intrusion. She strokes a hand through Jacen’s hair, watching the tenderness unfolding between them, and feels a sense of affection and love for her dear friends.
“Alright,” Zeb finally says, shifting his arm from Kallus’ gaze to rest on his shoulders.“Now, you can open yer eyes.”
Hera watches as Kallus blinks open his eyes. No longer obscured by purple, clawed fingers, it takes only a moment of his golden gaze to focus. He blinks in confusion, then, shocked recognition. Color floods his stern, freckled features, and he sways unsteadily against the other man’s side.
“…Garazeb?” He breaths, unable to look away from the sight. “Is that…are we near…?”
“Lira San,” Zeb confirms. He squeezes Kallus’ shoulder tightly. “Yeah.”
The human man turns to face the Lasat, his eyes alight with something that Hera could only name as adoration. Kallus scans Zeb’s face, as though looking to see some sign of a trick, but he only seems to find Zeb’s fondest smile and softest eyes in return. He looks as though he is about to say something tender, but the noise of a door shifting open interrupts them. They turn, Zeb’s arm still wrapped around him, to face the passage.
Four Lasat—the the diplomatic envoy—are standing in the doorway, complete with the familiar and welcome faces of Lady Chava and former Honor Guard, Gron.
Hera has never encountered any Lasat from Lira San, and the sight of them is beautiful and striking to behold. One of the strangers, Hera can see, is silvery-grey in their pelt, with a pattern of stripes far different from Zeb’s. The other stranger, who is tawny and nearly gold in fur, bears a regal staff that looks much like a modified bo-rifle. And while both of them stand tall and proud, they do not diminish the dignity of the elder Lasan survivors who are there with them. Chava looks looks every bit as wise and mystical as their last encounter, and Gron seems to be gazing at Zeb with all the pride and affection of a beloved grandfather. Wrinkled, wild-haired Chava catches Hera’s gaze out of the corner of her eye, and she winks, and grinning at her knowingly. Hera winks back.
“…Zeb,” Kallus whispers, his voice heavy with feeling. “Zeb, there’s no way that I—“
She watches as Zeb fully turns the other man to face him him, gathering Kallus’ bearded jawline in his hands. He strokes a clawed thumb over his former enemy’s cheek, then brings their foreheads together softly. As he passes words between them, Hera can only catch bits of words and phrases, including what sounds like, “home, here, with me,” and “welcomed as one of us.” She watches as Kallus begins to tremble, then fully shake, as though the words shared between them undo the stiff bindings that hold him together.
And then, she watches as they share a kiss, both tender and passionate, with Zeb holding onto Kallus’ upturned and tear-streaked face, the other man gripping onto his jumpsuit.
Hera sighs with contentment. She watches for a long and happy moment, seeing them smiling and whispering soft nothings under the golden, glittering light of Lira San’s atmosphere, until she notices a stirring in her arms. Jacen Syndulla has just woken up; and he seems to be looking right at his uncles, with a mingled look of delight and disgust on his cheeky face.
“Ugghh, Mom! They’re doing it again—!”
Kallus and Zeb break apart with a start, turning to look wide-eyed for Jacen. And when they spot Hera sitting comfortably in her chair, holding her giggling son and watching it all, Garazeb groans and passes a hand over his head. His ears twitch with nervous humor, and he looks as though he might faint. Kallus, however, just beams, and he blushes with even more radiantly than before. Hera swears that he looks just like a Loth-cat caught with its paws in the the cookie jar, but he doesn’t seem the least bit repentant about it.
Seemingly forgotten from the doorway, Gron begins to clap. “Good on ya, Captains!” he yells. “Congratulations!”
Hera joins in, holding back a laugh, and soon the whole crew has erupted into cheers and applause. Kallus blushes deeply and makes a shy wave, and Zeb’s fur fluffs out to its fullest extension. He clears his throat and smooths back his hair, pulling Kallus snugly against his side. “Uh, thanks,” Zeb says with pleased embarrassment. “We’re, um, we’ve been working on this for a while now. Heh.”
Gron is the first to cross the distance between them. He thumps his former Honor Guard brother on the back, Kallus’ hand in his own.
“So, you’re the Warrior I’ve heard so much about?” he says, ears turned forward and upward at the taller man. “I hear you’re a decent hand at sparring! Can’t wait to get you out on the battlefield.” Kallus, who has clearly not seen a Lasat since Garazeb and the terror back on Lasan, returns the gesture with a shaking hand. Then, he offers a sudden bow to the Lasat elder: bending at the waist and folding one fist into the other palm. “Ho-ho!” Gron says, stamping his foot in approval. “Our Garazeb has taught you well!”
Hera watches as Chava and the other three Lasat make their way towards them, the older woman leaning heavily against her gnarled cane for support.
“And so, the Child returns home,” she says in greeting. Chava lifts a fond hand to pat at Garazeb’s, and the taller man bows to give her a hug. “Welcome, Garazeb Orrelios. We are honored that you and your family have come back here.” She pinches his short-furred, fuzzy cheek, then turns to pinch at Kallus as well. “Especially you, Warrior! What was once Lost has now been Found. Come, walk with us; we will tell you all about our world and our people. You have much to learn, to become one of the members of Lira San.”
Kallus rubs at his reddened cheek, looking as though he might weep all over again. Wordless, he nods.
“And you, dearest Mother,” Chava says, turning to look at Hera. “So glad that you would join us as well. It delights me to see that your little one is growing up so lovely and strong! Of course, he's looking so much much like his father.”
In her arms, Hera feels Jacen wiggle. He looks up at her, blue eyes dancing. “She knew Dad?!”
“She did,” Hera confirms, hugging him tightly. "And she's right about that." Savoring the warmth of the moment with her dearest friends and family, Hera rises, and joins the small crowd waiting now on the deck. “Jacen,” she says to the child on her hip, “This is Lady Chava, and the Honorable Gron. They’re friends of Garazeb, and they once knew your father.” She pauses nodding to each of the new Lasat. "I don’t know either of these fine folks, so I can’t introduce you, but I’m sure that they’re marvelous also.”
The gold Lasat laughs, and Hera is set at ease by their musical voice. Their accent is very different from Zeb's, and speaks of a lifetime here on Lira San.
“You’re very kind,” they say, inclining their head towards Hera and Jacen. “I should have known, as you are the family of the famed Captain Orrelios.” They offer a hand to Zeb, then to Kallus, to shake. “I am Navar, an ambassador of the royal family. And this is one of my partners, Bazal.” They nod to the silvery Lasat, who inclines his bearded head and shakes hands with all of them as well. “I realize that this kind of greeting is your human custom…might I welcome you home to Lira San with one of ours as well?”
With a nod of permission, the golden Lasat steps forward. They nuzzle a bearded cheek against Zeb.
Hera watches as her friend startles, then sighs with delight at what must be an old and beloved gesture for their people. The two tall Lasats rub cheeks like old friends, leaving Zeb grinning and audibly purring. She feels a surge of joy and protective love in her heart as Zeb draws away, his eyes sparkling and his ears twitching with emotion.“You’re next,” Navar says warmly, beckoning Kallus. Blushing, Kallus hustles forward to receive the gesture.
“Heh heh, I think that you’re gonna fit in just fine, Zeb chuckles, watching Kallus scrub his golden-red facial hair into their beards. Kallus even exchanges the gesture with Chava, who uses her tall, coiffed mane on top of her head. “Who coulda known, that you belonged right here with the Lasat?”
Kallus turns, shifting his gaze to rest fondly on Garazeb. “You did,” he says.
Hera watches as he reaches up on his toes to share the intimate greeting with Zeb. And, although it appears to be something wholly new between them, it is entirely perfect, and completely beautiful. Unsurprisingly, the nuzzle turns into a kiss, and then, all of the deck crew is clapping again (with the exception of Jacen, who mimics gagging). Hera laughs, hugging the boy close, feeling the warmth of the love surrounding them.
“You brought me home,” Zeb replies softly. “An’ it’s my privilege to return the favor.”
There would be many more years, of this blessed life together. Decades more, for the two of them to exchange their love and care for one another, as they build their new life and family together, on the safe haven of Lira San. And Hera would get to witness it all, as she raised Jacen, and they spent their time going and coming from their new planetary home. She would get to see her two friends grow old, and raise a batch of their own kits together, and be the parents that neither one had. She would get to see Kallus soften, and Garazeb bloom, until the two of them were more radiant, healthy, and whole than they’d ever been before. And she’d get to cherish each one of them as members of her own, precious family, and never have to say too-soon goodbyes again. In fact, she would soon find herself saying hello once again, to someone she thought she'd lost forever.
...But that is another story, for another time.
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Here it is! That canon moment, from the final episode of Season 4, with Kallus and Zeb standing together on the bridge, doing that gay shit that made us all realize that it was going to work out in the end. I STILL can't believe that we got such good food with Rebels, and that KalluZeb is all but canon. Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this story, and for all of your time and thoughtful comments. I will likely write a few more stories here in this universe (maybe a sequel from Kallus and Kanan's perspective? Maybe some prequel-type stories? Who knows!) It will be when inspiration, or Jacen, strikes.
Finally, in case you are wondering about Sabine, she's still looking for Ezra at this part of the timeline. And in case you're wondering about Ezra, hey, aren't we all?! I HOPE WE FIND OUT SOON. WHERE IS HE, DAVE. WHERE. I can't wait to find out.
Cheers, and May the Force be with you, always! Mudkip
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Chapter 18: ART BY LUCASFILMS
Straight (or gay) from the gallery of Star Wars on the official website for the last episode of Rebels! Enjoy.