Kallus tilted his rank bar back and forth in his hands. Watching it, studying it. Several of the battered rebels sharing his little stretch of corridor eyed him warily for it. Angrily, some of them. Verging on hatred here or there. He could hardly blame them. Especially not today. Of all things he could be doing, in this time and this place, fiddling with imperial insignia really should be among the last. He couldn't ... help it, though. He really couldn't.
It wasn't regret he was feeling. He didn't think so, anyway. At least not for that. This. This thing in his hands, this career laid out in little squares along a bar. Blank. Empty. Hiding horrors. Not very well, maybe. Those around him weren't fooled. They never had been. They didn't need those coloured squares to state the massacres behind them openly. They knew. They'd always known. It was, after all, the reason they were here.
Here on this ship. Here in this rebellion.
He didn't know if he could say the same. That was it, that was the problem, the reason he kept turning the thing in his hands. That was why he dared their hatred even now, why he compulsively examined the evidence of his sins in front of them. He was an imperial. He had always been an imperial. Even after becoming Fulcrum. Even after acknowledging what a part of him had always known, the monster the Empire had made him and that he had near-casually become. Even after remembering honour and turning on the Empire that had betrayed him as much as he it. Even still. He hadn't left it. He had betrayed it, but he hadn't left, not even when granted the opportunity. He'd stayed. He'd worn their uniform all the way to the end, and he wore it still.
He had, he thought, planned to die wearing it. Inasmuch as he'd ever planned anything. He'd planned to die an imperial. An imperial traitor, yes, but still, nonetheless, an imperial.
And now ... now what? What could he honestly say he was now?
A rebel, in theory. In practicality, too. There was no going back from this now. He'd made his choice the moment he'd set foot in that escape pod. He didn't regret that. Didn't, couldn't. He'd wanted to live. Whatever else he was or might have been, he was a survivor first and foremost. Had been since Onderon. He'd wanted to live. He'd made his choices accordingly. He didn't regret them.
And, if he was honest, for more reasons than just survival. If survival was all he'd wanted, he'd never have become a spy in the first place. No. The rebellion was more than that. Damn near the opposite of it. Never had he seen any group of people flirt more often with death than this lot. Signing up with them was a death sentence perpetually deferred, never a death sentence denied. And yet, despite that, he still didn't regret. He couldn't.
Part of it was that they'd come for him. More than once. They'd let him live, time and again, and actively tried to save him several times. He was alive now because of them. They'd come for him. With all a battlefield between them, with no more reason and no more value to saving him, they'd come anyway. He'd called, and they'd come. For the survivor in him, that alone was more than enough.
And the other part, of course, was what Zeb had returned to him on that stupid, icy moon. The other part, that ragged, half-remembered thing, was honour. Was right. He'd lost it, so long ago. Had never really been very good at it. Order had always been an easier fix, and the Empire had offered it in spades. Peace at the point of a las-pistol. It was easy. It always had been. And it wasn't ... it wasn't right. Some part of him had known. The Lasan massacre. Hadn't he always known it was wrong? At the time it had been ... not easy, exactly, but easier, part order and part vengeance. For Onderon, for ... for everything. But he'd known, despite that. He had known.
He'd beaten that lasat guardsman fair and square. He'd accepted the bo-rifle in the spirit it was offered. Though he'd misled Zeb afterwards, used the horror of what he'd done and the implication of something he hadn't as a weapon, he'd always known the difference. He'd had a right to that bo-rifle. He hadn't had a right to ... so many other things. Zeb had reminded him of that. Zeb had forced him to face it.
So he'd become Fulcrum. So he'd betrayed his uniform. So he had aided and abetted the rebellion at every available turn. So he had ... prepared himself to die. An imperial monster. An imperial traitor. Turned against them, and destroyed for his treachery, as perhaps was only fitting. He hadn't planned to live. He'd wanted to, but he hadn't planned it.
It had been instinct. All of it, everything from that hidden meeting of Thrawn's, that trap. Everything he'd done had been pure instinct and nothing else. He'd tried to warn the rebels, because at some point since that moon doing so had become the only reasonable thing. He'd defied Thrawn, fought Thrawn, because he'd already known he was going to die and damned if he did that on his knees. If they wanted an imperial monster they could have one, and choke on it too! He'd watched Atollon die, as once he'd watched Lasan, and this time he hadn't bothered repressing his horror or his guilt. And then, when it came to it, when it came down to the last gasp and he'd seen a chance to live, a chance to join up with those he'd been willing to die for ...
He'd taken it. Instinctively. Without any thought at all.
And now here he was. No longer an imperial, traitor or otherwise. But not ... not quite a rebel either. He didn't think. He didn't know. Could anyone really be a rebel after ... after being what he had been? He'd killed so many of them. Hunted more. Everyone in this corridor, looking at him with weary, wary hatred, could he ever truly call himself one of them? Surely the bar in his hand, surely that record of oppression, said otherwise.
He clenched his hand around it. Curled it into a fist, and he didn't know if it was to hold onto the thing or to try and crush it. Maybe both. He didn't know what he was anymore. He'd made a choice, made it on nothing but instinct and some vague longing for ... for what he'd lost on Lasan, what he'd regained, if only in part, on Bahryn. He hadn't thought. It had happened too fast for thinking. There'd only be fight or die, and he had never in his life willingly chosen death. The risk of it, maybe, but never the thing itself. He'd leapt, hoping if not really believing that someone would catch him. And he didn't know what to do, now that someone had.
A hand closed around his. Rank bar and all. Someone's hand (Zeb's hand, huge and purple and unmistakable) wrapped around his own, and Kallus jerked backwards in startled shock, nearly slamming his head into the bulkhead in the process. Which wouldn't have done him any favours. Thrawn had knocked his head against enough things already today. He blinked up at the lasat crouched in front of him. He stared in dazed bewilderment at his ... his ...
"You should stop that," Zeb told him. Gently. Sort of. Not as gruffly as he might have, at least. "Put that away, yeah? You're making people nervous. You don't need it anymore, anyway. Stick it somewhere nobody's gotta see it. The day everyone's had, I think they'll all be grateful."
... You don't need it anymore. You don't need it. How easy they all made it sound. Zeb. Thrawn. The rebels and the imperials both. How easy and how certain they all seemed to think it was. As if it was already done. As if his choices had already been made long ago.
And, yes, admittedly they had, admittedly his choice was made the moment he became Fulcrum, and again the moment he stepped into that escape pod and cried out for rebel aid, but still. But still.
"I don't know how to do this," he said. Thinly, distantly. To Zeb. To a man whose entire race Kallus had helped kill. Sitting in a corridor full of people wounded on a battlefield he had led Thrawn to. I don't know how to do this, said the imperial to a ship full of rebels. The irony of it was desperate. The irony of it burned.
Zeb blinked at him warily. For the idiocy of it, probably. He didn't know how to what, exactly? Put a rank bar away? Put a uniform away? Put a life away? He knew how to do all of that. He'd done each and every part of it a hundred thousand times. A hundred thousand lives. The Empire's peace. And what? Now the monster needed help tying his shoelaces? For pity's sake!
The lasat didn't comment on that, though. Zeb didn't mention any of that. Whether that was cruelty or kindness, Kallus didn't know. He'd always had a hard time telling those two apart.
"... You're shaking," Zeb ventured at last. Cautiously. Still gently. He reached out, eased Kallus' fingers apart. "It's the adrenalin. The crash is hitting. Battle's over. You didn't die. Close, but you didn't. It's hitting you now, that's all. Just let go. It'll be all right in a while. You just gotta let go."
"It's not adrenalin," Kallus snarled back. Low and fierce, clenching his fingers back around the bar. Regretting it, almost instantly, and not just for the hostile stir around them. He flinched, and dropped the bar into Zeb's hand. Again, without a thought. Again, on nothing but instinct. He opened his hand around his past, and watched it fall into Zeb's hand.
Zeb dropped it. Like it was nothing. It bounced off his claw and dropped to the deck like nothing at all. Zeb caught his hand instead. Gripped it, just on the edge of painfully, and forced Kallus to look at him.
"I know, all right," the lasat hissed quietly. "I know. You lost everything, I know. It's hitting you all at once, I know. Everyone on this ship does. Everyone's been there. Everyone's there again right now. And, look, maybe you regret it, I don't know, maybe you're having second thoughts, but it doesn't matter. It's done now, it doesn't mat--"
"I don't regret it," Kallus interrupted. Suddenly. Emphatically. Without thought. Always, without thought. Zeb fell silent, eyeing him uncertainly, and Kallus scrambled to explain. "It's not ... it's not regret. It's not that. I don't regret a single thing I've done that brought me here. It's just ... I didn't plan for this. Being here. I don't know what to do. I never planned on ..."
His throat closed over, clenched itself around the words, strangling them. It didn't matter. Zeb heard them anyway. Or guessed them. He knew, either way. He softened, and relaxed his hand around Kallus'.
"On making it this far," he finished, and it was gentle again. They were back to gentle. "You never planned on surviving. I did wonder."
Kallus grimaced. It wasn't ... No. Not quite like that.
"I didn't plan on dying," he corrected, pride needling him as much as anything else. "Believe me, I had no plans to die today. I wouldn't give Thrawn the satisfaction. I just ... I just didn't plan this, that's all. I thought if it came to it ... I thought when it came to it that I wouldn't have a choice. I know what happens to imperial traitors. Better than most. I thought if he found me at all it wasn't going to matter what I had planned. So I didn't. I didn't plan beyond Fulcrum. I ... I don't know what to be, if not that. I can't go back. I don't know what I am."
Zeb was silent, for a long second. So was the entire corridor, Kallus realised abruptly, with more than a twinge of alarm. Everyone was listening. Every eye in this cramped bit of ship was on them. Kallus swallowed. And Zeb spoke.
"I never planned beyond Lasan," the lasat said softly. Gently, even still, even while Kallus cringed. "I never planned beyond the Guard, beyond rising through the ranks, beyond bringing honour to my post. I never planned on what happened, on what you and your Empire did to us. I never planned on surviving it. For a long time, I didn't. Not inside. Not where it mattered. I lived, but a part of me died then. And I didn't get it back. Not until much later. Not until I found people worth fighting for again."
Kallus closed his eyes. Clenched his hand, as much as he could around Zeb's grasp. He turned his face towards the floor, all the horror and all the guilt he had so long ignored flooding back again. This. Yes, this. Here was the absurdity of it. Here was the cruelty in their endless, damnable kindness. For all of them. For him and for Zeb both, and the rest of them as well. Here was the reason it couldn't work, the reason he would never be a rebel. Here was the reason it had been wrong. From the very start. He'd always known it to be wrong.
"... What were you doing, when you sent that message?" Zeb asked. Softly. Pointedly. Kallus opened his eyes and blinked at him. Zeb gripped his hands more firmly. "When you tried to warn us, knowing you were going to die for it. What were you doing? You were fighting. For us. And it cost you everything. And you did it anyway. And you would again, wouldn't you? If you had to make that choice again in the morning. You'd do it all again."
Kallus nodded. Wordless, bewildered, but he meant it. Instinctively, apparently. These choices he made without any thought at all. He knew what he'd choose again tomorrow. He knew he wouldn't regret it. Bleed for it, maybe, inside and out, but not regret.
"Right," Zeb said, nodding as well. "That's what you do, then. That's what you are. And, hate to break this to you, but you've been that for a while now. Since that moon, I think, but since Fulcrum definitely. Yeah? You've been one of us for a while. You ... You lost something, I think. The way I lost something. You lost it a long time ago, like me, and you put something else in place of it. Became something else. But then you found it again. And when you had to choose between what you'd lost and what you'd become ... you chose it. You chose us. You chose right. And, I don't know, maybe I'm just saying this because we need all the help we can get, but ... I think that counts for something. What you chose, when you knew you had the choice. Not sure how much, but I think that has to count for something."
Kallus ... stared at him. Just stared. It wasn't ... it didn't make sense. None of it did, none of ... None of them ever had. Zeb, helping him on that moon, after everything he'd done on Lasan and after it. Bridger, coming to pull him out when he hadn't known he needed it. Syndulla, flying to his rescue across a battlefield when he couldn't possibly be of any more use to them. Kanan, thanking him earlier, as though he'd done anything beyond fall into a trap and drag them all in after him. They didn't make sense. He didn't make sense, not around them, not in the face of them. He did things without planning, without thinking. Did things for no better reason than that they seemed right. What sense did that make? What hope could it possibly have?
And he was going to do it anyway. Because they did it, because they had done it first. Because they had spared him when he hadn't deserved it, and given back to him something he hadn't even realised he'd lost. It was done. It'd been done all along. He'd made his choices long ago.
He wasn't an imperial anymore. He wasn't an agent, wasn't a traitor, wasn't a spy. The only thing left to be was a rebel. Whether he was designed for it or not.
"... He said I had the heart of a rebel," he managed. Distantly. Dreamily, almost. Zeb blinked at him, his face a picture of wary confusion. Kallus almost laughed, but made an attempt at explaining instead. "Thrawn. When he caught me. He said I had the heart of a rebel. I, ah. I said I'd take it as a compliment."
Zeb blinked again. And then ... then he laughed. A rich, delighted chuckle. He pulled Kallus up, tugged him forward into a rough, desperately warm embrace. Kallus latched onto him instinctively. Returned the gesture, without any thought at all.
"As well you should," Zeb growled, his voice a rumble under Kallus' cheek. "Bastard wasn't wrong either. Might as well take your compliments where you can, even if it is your enemy giving them. 'Heart of a rebel'. Hah! I like that. Yeah."
... Yes, Kallus thought. Leaning into the lasat, the rebel who'd saved him. Yes. He rather thought he liked it too.
And past a certain point ... was it really worth denying it anymore?