Zeb didn’t blink, believing that if he closed his eyes for even a moment, he would be gone. Him, who was here, shaking, bruised, and heavily leaning on one leg, but here and safe.
Kallus was standing before him now, as he should have been months ago instead of following his self-sacrificial streak and almost getting himself killed. It was almost difficult to fully take him in, but his relief and eagerness won over his anxieties and whirling brain, and he realized that he was safe, and he was standing, looking at him, with an undiluted love that could only be matched by Zeb’s own.
Zeb thought of when he first felt a distantly connected emotion to his now unmitigated affection. He remembered, now fondly, when he left the subzero surface of Bahryn, with Kallus still stuck in the cold, with a grudging, but very apparent and growing, respect for the man he once wanted dead. It felt like so long ago; so much has happened since that fateful day, yet, somehow, it still felt like only yesterday he had climbed aboard the Ghost with no feeling in his paws or feet and a permanent imprint left on his heart.
In the months that followed, he heard nothing from the Imperial. He knew, though he did not know how, he had made it off the moon alive. He thought it for the best he heard not a word from the Agent so that they could go back to how they were before - maybe not pure enemies but Rebel and Imperial, as they should be. That didn’t stop him though, from lying awake at night, thinking of Bahryn, wondering if Kallus was doing the same on a Star Destroyer days away.
When he did hear from Kallus, he was taken aback. As Sabine relayed his short message to him, he gripped his borifle tighter to stop his mind from racing. He could no longer pretend Kallus was somehow separate from him, the same as he was before. The good for nothing Imp - or could he even call him that anymore - had actually taken his advice. He knew not yet how far Kallus would go, but he knew that he had made an irreversible decision, and it was all because of Zeb.
After that, it was hard to put Kallus out of his mind. He wondered what the man was doing with himself, how he had changed, what that meant for their relationship. They were now no longer even adversaries if Kallus truly had changed, which Kanan confirmed when he revealed the identity of their new Fulcrum. He knew at that moment he had to talk to Kallus again, hear personally from this changed man - not through a masked voice behind a symbol, but individually, intimately.
It wasn’t hard with the help of Chopper to decode and hack into the frequency used by Fulcrum. It was one of the few times Zeb remembered that bucket of bolts actually helping him. They were stuck planet-side on Atollon until their fuel shipment reached them, and it was exactly the opportunity Zeb had been waiting to get, hopefully, in touch with Kallus. He knew it was risky and could potentially put himself in danger, but the urge to speak to Kallus was so strong, he could not push it down anymore. He remembered the first conversation they had since their crash landing on Bahryn.
“By the light of Lothal’s moons.”
“State your identity.”
“Someone who never knows when to give up.”
They talked through the night, Zeb alone in the dark cockpit of the Ghost, making sure to quiet his voice and stifle his laughs, and Kallus, probably, in his chambers during hours where only a few zealous workers were awake, a group Kallus would have been part of if he hadn’t listened to Zeb those few, long months ago.
The pair talked almost constantly. When Fulcrum was not sharing pivotal news with the Rebellion, Kallus was talking with Zeb, and Zeb only hoped he was enjoying their time together as much as he was.
It was a blistering day on Lothal when Kallus and Zeb saw each other for what felt like the first time. They stared at each other across the dusty way, and, acting on impulse he could not override, an impulse that felt so foreign to him now, he charged up to the man clad in Imperial armor and fought him but with none of the hatred that had fueled their every confrontation before. It was under an equally foreign but, this time, welcomed impulse that, surrounded by the heat, he pushed Kallus up to a crate under the ruse of combat and collided their lips together. At that moment, Zeb realized that his respect for the Rebel spy had turned into an insatiable sensation of love.
This became a pattern: they would meet on opposite sides and steal a moment of bliss together during the chaos. It was a way they could make sure the other was alright - talking at night, thousands of miles away from each other could only tell so much. Then they would part almost as quickly as they came together, but always painfully. Zeb said to Kallus one night it was like ripping off a bacta strip, but he knew he didn't have the gift of words.
When Kallus cut all communication so suddenly though, after his failed extraction, Zeb longed for that pain to return; he longed for anything that would tell him whether his love was alive or lying next to dead somewhere in an Imperial prison. He knew, logically, Kallus was just being cautious. With Thrawn more suspicious than ever, he didn’t want to put anyone, especially Zeb, in danger. That didn’t stop the nightmares from coming almost every night and the agonizing worry from clouding all his thoughts every day. That agony he had only felt once before, and he did not want to lose the one thing he loved most in his life. He wouldn’t be able to take it.
Those sporadic Fulcrum transmissions were the only thing that kept Zeb from spiraling. They were his only lifeline, his only connection to Kallus, and they did nothing to ease his distress. They were shorter than normal, as if Kallus only had a few minutes to send out his findings, and in each successive transmission, Zeb could hear his lover’s voice through the mask, his anxiety growing, his speech quickening, and he dreaded the day when he would hear no more from him, the man he had come to adore.
That day came just as the rest of his world was crashing down. When Kallus’ transmission cut off, it was only the beginning of a plethora of disaster. His lover had been caught, probably executed for treason already, and his home was being invaded by the Empire, his comrades were dying before him, and he was utterly powerless to stop it...again.
Only this time, he was able to flee with his family still intact. Though the Empire had destroyed Atollon, they hadn’t destroyed the Rebellion. And when Zeb saw Fulcrum’s symbol flash up in the cockpit, he knew the Empire hadn’t destroyed him, and they would never succeed in doing so - no matter how many times they tried.
Zeb took in the battered Rebel who was almost ready to collapse before him and held him in the softest embrace. He felt the chill of Kallus’ body seep into his own and ran his paw through his tangled hair. He breathed in the smoke and the blood and the pain from his fragile form, needing to take it all away.
He felt Kallus shaking in their embrace, but Zeb held on, making sure he wouldn’t fall. Kallus rested his head on Zeb's chest, and Zeb felt the little strength he had left, the residual bit of energy still keeping him on his feet, leave his body.
“I missed you,” he said, so quietly it was barely loud enough to not be drowned out by the commotion surrounding the pair, but Zeb heard it loud and clear.
“I love you,” Zeb said, but he wasn’t sure if Kallus, asleep against him now, had heard.