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Mating Rituals

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Sabine was sitting in the common room of the Ghost with her boots kicked up on the table when Kallus entered.

Or…half entered.

She flicked her eyes up over the edge of her datapad, watching him as he stopped. Hesitated. Avoided her eyes. Inner debate made his posture even more stiff than usual, and he turned around twice to go back the other way, never quite making it.

Sabine raised an eyebrow.

“Morning, Agent,” she greeted, perfectly pleasant.

Kallus winced, both at the direct form of address and her choice of title. Even after abandoning the Empire, the majority of the Ghost’s crew still referred to him by his former rank, no matter how he protested. Old habits died hard, though Kallus was also certain they did it just to prod him.

“Oh. Sabine.” He turned back to face her, composing himself. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No intrusion.” She looked back down to her datapad, scrolling idly through its contents. “It’s a small ship.”

“Yes. Well.” Kallus cleared his throat, and stood exactly where he was, arms tense where he held them crossed, one hand to his chin, and a slightly constipated expression on his face.

Sabine wondered how long he would have stayed that way if she pretended to ignore him.

But she felt sorry for him, and tipped down her datapad to look up again.

“Did you need something?”

“Yes!” He blurted, too quick and overly loud. And he knew it. “I mean…no! Well, that is…I mean…” He turned his face down and to one side, shame wrenching his expression. One corner of Sabine’s mouth quirked up. “If you’re not…otherwise occupied?”

“Never too busy for a crewmate.” Sabine moved her boots off the table and sat up, leaning forward to give him her full attention. “What’s up?”

Kallus breathed out, and his shoulders relaxed the barest amount. His hands even unclenched a little from the fists they formed.

“It’s…well…” He faced her, though he kept his eyes averted, looking away as he spoke. “There’s a certain matter on which I require some assistance. I broached the subject with General Hera, and she suggested I speak to you.”

General, Sabine echoed in her thoughts, smiling again. So formal.

“Okay.” She nodded. “What about?”

There, Kallus hesitated, that constipated look returning. As much as Sabine enjoyed their former enemy’s discomfort, she was quickly getting the feeling that this was a serious matter. She would have to keep her teasing to a minimum. (The entire crew had made an agreement to be supportive and gentle with Kallus while simultaneously trying to cure him of all his deeply ingrained bad Imperial habits. It was a fine line.) So she remained quiet, her look up at him patient and prompting.

“It’s…well,” he finally managed, shifting his weight in place. So incredibly uncomfortable.

“Is it Zeb?” she offered for him.

Kallus flinched like she’d just landed a blow to his jaw.

But, to his credit, he didn’t back down.

“Am I that obvious?” he murmured.

Sabine hummed.

“Well, you do have only one glaringly large weak spot constantly looming over you that I know of.” She reached out and patted the couch seat beside her, scooting over to make room.

Kallus looked…surprised…but went, taking a careful and very stiff seat beside her. Not too close.

“It does concern Zeb,” he confessed, nodding his head. Leaning forward with his hands lightly clasped over his knees. “I understand you know him fairly well?”

“We work together,” Sabine nodded. “We both like to blow things up. Kanan was the one who recruited him, and that was before I joined the crew. But…yeah. I guess I know him fairly well.”

Kallus nodded. He kept his eyes down on his hands, fidgiting as he squeezed and rubbed his thumbs over his half gloves.

“Something happened. Recently,” he said. “And I’m not certain what to make of it.”

“Oh?” Sabine tilted her head, genuinely curious.

Kallus’ nodded, his eyes distant.

“It was…early this morning,” he said. “Zeb and I were in the cargo hold for our usual sparring session…”

Sabine nodded as she listened. She had sat in on a few of those. They were brutal. There probably weren’t a lot of humans in the galaxy who could stand up to a Lasat in hand-to-hand combat, let alone using their own preferred weapon, but somehow Kallus managed. Sometimes Sabine and Ezra made bets about who would win that day. It wasn’t always a clear call. Zeb definitely had the advantage in size and strength, but Kallus was so fast, and no pushover himself when it came to being tough.

Sabine had watched the way they both moved very carefully. It wasn’t a case of Zeb letting him win when he was the one who ended up on his back, a borifle at his throat.

“…Zeb did something…strange.”

“Yeah?” She prompted.

Kallus hesitated again. He ceased his fidgiting, hands clasping tightly together between his knees. Holding himself still.

“We had finished several matches already. Probably nearing the end of our session, when Zeb…he…” His brow furrowed, thinking hard about the words he chose. “We were locked in a particular hold where I could have swept his leg to take him down, but he’d blocked me with the end of his rifle.”

“Yeah,” Sabine nodded. “I know that move.”

“It was a stalemate. It came down to a test of strength as to who could overpower the other – which Zeb invariably wins.” His nose wrinkled in disgust. Internally aimed, Sabine thought. “But then…he moved! His lifted his rifle just enough to give me an opening and…he must have known I would take it! How could he not? So I did. We’ve gone through that maneuver dozens of times…! It’s practically an unconscious thing at this point…!”

“Wait.” Sabine blinked. “He threw the match?”

“Yes!” Kallus tossed his hands. “And I cannot for the life of me fathom why!”

“He didn’t say?”

“No! He…I took him down, and he just…smiled and laughed at me, like it was all fun and games. And then he…”

Kallus hesitated again. Sabine stayed quiet this time, watching him.

Kallus bowed his head, quieting from his outburst. He rubbed the back of his neck, a gesture she was pretty sure he’d picked up from Zeb.

“…and then while we were there, he reached up, and grabbed the back of my head. He pulled me down in what I thought was a countermove, but instead he just…pushed our heads together. Here.” He touched his brow. “And held me that way for a moment.”

Sabine raised an eyebrow.

“And you didn’t ask him about it?”

“No. I may have…” Kallus took a breath. He blew it out as he sat up straighter, bracing his hands again over his knees. “I may have snapped at him for doing something so childish.”

Sabine dropped her eyes back to her datapad. She brushed her thumb along the side to scroll through a few pages while Kallus went on.

“He doesn’t have to lose to me on purpose!” Kallus gestured with his hands, more and more as he lost his composure. “My ego is not so fragile I can’t lose a match! Nor am I some new recruit who needs to be protected and reassured!”

“Maybe he was trying to say he was proud of you?” Sabine hummed, half distracted.

“Proud?” Kallus spat. “Or pitying? He’s been doing all sorts of strange things lately. Inexplicable exercise in the bunk at odd hours. Going out of his way on missions to try and be daring. Doesn’t he know that is exactly how soldiers get hurt?!”

“Hmm,” said Sabine.

“He devotes hours to grooming these days. He leaves fur constantly all over the bunk, and—oh, stars.” Kallus put his face in his hands as his skin flushed red. “A few days ago, during the briefing, when he kept speaking out of turn and flexing?”

“Yeah.” Sabine chuckled. “I remember that.”

“If there had been any more posturing and strutting he would have been wearing a medal. He doesn’t have to try to impress me. Or anyone! I don’t know what’s gotten into him, and I don’t know what—”

“Mating ritual.”

Kallus stopped. He blinked and looked aside to her, only then realizing the amount of volume he’d allowed his voice to reach. His red flush remained.

“What?”

Sabine turned her datapad around to show him the page she’d scrolled up, pointing out one particular block of holographic text.

“Lasat mating rituals. Frequently involving demonstrations of strength, combat prowess, or physical ability.” She turned the datapad back around to read from it directly. “When a Lasat is ready to take a mate, traditional methods dictate that the suitor first courts their intended’s favor. This can come in the form of gifts, contests of skill, or – in some tribes – a physical challenge in which the suitor is expected to lose as a sign of humility. If the intended accepts the surrender, the custom is to then touch brows as an acknowledgement of equality and consent.”

Sabine looked up over the edge of her datapad. Kallus’ cheeks were fully red now.

“It also says here Lasats mate for life,” she added.

“W…Where did you find that?” Kallus sputtered, words and thoughts finding it difficult to coordinate.

Sabine smiled.

“The Holonet’s a wonderful place. Oh! And listen to this…conventionally attractive features include bold markings and fur patterns, especially in purple hues, strong body odor, facial hair…”

“You mean…?” Kallus looked to her, suspicion and something like mounting realization – or horror – taking over his face.

Sabine nodded.

“Zeb’s hot.”

“Well, he’s…” Kallus sputtered, practically choking. “He’s not…I mean…I never thought…! Well…perhaps at first but then I was…that is…we were…”

“Missed that part when you were compiling your research on all of us?” Sabine mumbled under her breath, amused as she watched the show. She let him flounder, adding in a little louder after several moments of casually scrolling through her datapad:

“You know, with that beard, you’re probably not so bad by Lasat standards yourself.”

The red had crept all the way down Kallus’ neck by then. It made his freckles stand out more prominently under the unflattering ship lights.

“Then…all this?” He swallowed, mortified. “What he’s been doing…?”

“Flirting.” Sabine nodded. “Hard core.”

There was a moment’s quiet. Then Kallus jumped to his feet.

“Why didn’t he just say so?!”

Sabine sighed. She blew a lock of hair out of her face as Kallus paced the room, caged agitation. “Okay. I know the Imperials aren’t big on romance, but even you should know that’s not how flirting works.”

“I am well aware of how it works!” Kallus forgot or simply ceased to care just how much his voice would carry through the small ship as he shouted. “That is not the point! Why not just out with it? Why the posturing? It’s not as if we haven’t already—!”

He stopped himself, flushing again as Sabine looked up in perfect innocence. Ready to let him complete that statement.

“The status of our relationship should not be in question,” he finished, more sedately.

“Maybe Zeb wants to take things to the next level?”

“Why?” His expression wrenched. “We’re sharing a bunk. We share…most everything. What else is there?”

“Seriously?” Sabine looked at him. Flat. Kallus flinched before the idea that he may have genuinely offended her.

She rolled her eyes, ignoring the apology in his look.

“Look, just because we live our lives on the run and may all die tomorrow doesn’t mean we stop believing in marriage.” The word hung in the air like the wake of an alarm, muting all else in comparison. Another slap to Kallus’ face. Sabine slouched her posture back into the couch cushions. She drew her boots up underneath her, settling back into the comfortable arrangement in which he’d first found her, her eyes going back down to her datapad. Ready to ignore him once more.

Though she took the time to add: “We’re still people.”

Kallus looked away from her, properly shamed. His hands had formed back into fists, lowered stiffly at his sides.

“It just seems,” he said quietly, after a moment. Tight with control. “A low priority, considering all else.”

“Maybe,” she said, a touch petulant. “Or maybe it’s that much more important.” She scrolled through her datapad, pressing harder than she had to, not really comprehending anything she passed. “If you don’t want to accept his proposal, that’s fine. Take his borifle. That’ll be the end of it.”

Kallus’ fist tightened as indignity flared.

“I would never—!”

“Why not?” Sabine’s eyes flashed over the top of her datapad, meeting his with a ready challenge. “He technically lost to you. It’s your right. It’ll cinch your place as his superior.”

“I don’t…” said Kallus, with the dawning realization that only locked into place as he spoke the words. Heard them aloud for the first time. “…want to be his superior…”

Sabine raised an eyebrow as she watched him. Watched the process work behind his eyes. It was quiet in the common room, made all the moreso by the sudden lack of their voices and the listening of probably everyone else in the Ghost who could hear them. One of them may have even been Zeb.

Poor guy.

“Kanan and Hera got married,” she said in one last argument. “Back on Ryloth. It wasn’t a fancy ceremony, but it meant something to them.”

Kallus was quiet. He was back to looking down. Half turned away from her. Looking at his hands.

“They also talk to each other when they have a problem. Sets a good example for us kids.”

“You do realize that I am at least a decade older than Kanan?” Kallus murmured.

“Then you should know better.”

Kallus sighed. He dropped his head and pushed a hand back through his hair, the tension returned to his shoulders. Sabine was quiet, letting him work his thought process out for himself, until at last he let his arm fall back to his side with a flop of resignation.

“You’re right,” he said, low and without emphasis. “You’re right. Of course. I should go talk to Zeb.”

Sabine nodded the barest amount. Kallus took a breath.

“Thank you, Sabine. You have been…of utmost assistance.”

“Don’t mention it. Agent.”

Kallus lingered a few moments longer, tugging down the edges of his tunic. Brushing imaginary dust from the fabric. Sabine glanced up just in time to see him checking his reflection in a gleaming surface of the ship’s interior, and rolled her eyes again.

He did the same start-stop hesitation of leaving as he had when he first came in.

“What if he’s upset it took me this long to notice?” He glanced back to her, framed in the entryway.

Sabine didn’t bother to look up from her datapad.

“Do you really think he will be?”

“…no,” said Kallus, and drew another breath. “No, of course not.”

Sabine waved without looking as he finally turned to go. The sound of the door swished shut after him and his boots faded by degrees down the corridor.

She sent him a copy of the information she’d found on the Holonet to read over later.

*****

If someone had told Kallus at the beginning of his career that one day he would be sharing a bunk with a Lasat – not just a bunk…sharing a bed – not only would he have never believed them, but he would have arranged to have the would-be jokester shot on principle.

Then again, he would have never thought he would be the one to betray the Empire and throw his lot in with a bunch of rebels, either.

Sometimes it was still hard to believe.

Kallus stood against the railing that overlooked the cargo hold, his hands resting lightly on the cool metal and its chipped yellow paint. Zeb, Ezra, and Chopper loaded and prepped a shipment of arms and supplies down below, ready to be delivered to whatever outpost in dire need they found themselves visiting next.

They hadn’t yet noticed his presence, and Kallus made no effort to alert them, allowing himself instead a moment of indulgence in watching Zeb work.

“Here comes another one!” Zeb growled, hefting one particularly enormous crate over his head with both hands. “You ready, kid?”

“I am so not ready,” Ezra whimpered.

Zeb laughed. It was a full, breathy sound. Completely committed. The same way he rarely held back any time something gave him cause to laugh. The crates had to be heavy, their anti-gravity propulsion units switched off, but Zeb hefted them like they were nothing. The act of it caused his back muscles to ripple and bunch and his voice took on a throaty, growling edge, the sound of which made Kallus draw in an involuntarily sharp breath.

He threw the crate at Ezra, who stood on the opposite end of the cargo bay, his hands up in the air. Ezra winced, cringing, clamping his eyes shut as the crate’s shadow overtook him, but didn’t lower his hands. He gasped and strained and dropped down to one knee as the crate halted suddenly in the air, a bare few inches from crushing him. It hovered precariously as Ezra turned, guided it with careful gestures of his hand, finally letting it drop onto a tall stack of similarly-marked supplies.

He sagged and let out a breath, wiping one arm across his brow.

“I don’t think the Force was meant to move freight,” he grumbled.

Chopper snickered.

“Practice never hurts, right?” Zeb smirked, already picking up another crate. “You never know when it might come in handy. Here comes the next one!”

“No—wait! Not yet!”

“Garazeb.”

They stopped. The sound of Zeb’s full name – usually reserved for Hera’s exclusive use when she was angry – drew all eyes and viewports up to the walkway.

Kallus met them with a stern look of severity, his posture rigid, chin tilted up as he peered down his nose. He’d changed from his tunic into the black undershirt and form-fitting pants he usually wore in sparring sessions, and his modified borifle was strapped across his back. Once he had their attention, he took hold of the railing and vaulted over, falling the distance to the floor below, where he landed in a perfect crouch and a hard thud of boots.

The smirk was gone from Zeb’s face. He watched, staring, ears pressed forward with intent focus as Kallus rose back up his feet. One gloved hand reached over his shoulder and unstrapped the rifle, and with an expert flip Kallus swung it to hold crosswise in front of himself, activating the powered ends.

“Face me,” he said, barked less like an order and more like a challenge.

Zeb’s eyes went wide, the significance of the first words Kallus had ever said to him not lost. He seemed to forget he was still holding a crate as he stared, unmoving, for long moments that stretched on into quiet.

Off to one side, Ezra shifted his weight, and scratched at his cheek where he lingered as the awkward silence drew on.

“Hey, Chop,” he finally ventured, careful to keep his voice low. Zeb and Kallus seemed to have attention only for each other, but the sense of intruding on something private and – important? – tugged at his conscience. “Maybe we should go see if Hera needs help? Up front?”

Chopper beeped in protest – something about not wanting to miss a show like this – but Ezra nudged him with his boot and wound up pushing him out of the cargo hold, shutting the door securely behind them.

Zeb didn’t notice them leave.

He was looking at Kallus. Kallus: strong and solid in his stance, the hard look of determination in his eyes reflecting a hint of the borifle’s light. He was breathing through his nose the way he did when he was trying to be fierce, his expression pinched, lips drawn small and tight together.

He was adorable.

Normally Zeb thought that outfit on him was a little too slimming. It made him look even scrawnier than he already was. But Kallus was built for economy of movement, not strength, and right now the effect of showing more of his body than usual made the fur on the back of Zeb’s neck bristle, rippling all the way down his spine.

“Do you accept?” Kallus barked again after a moment, when the quiet had gone on too long, filled with only the buzzing of the borifle’s glowing tips.

Zeb blinked back to himself.

He still held on to the crate.

“Err,” he rumbled, sheepish, glancing aside around the cargo hold. “I don’t have my weapon?”

There, Kallus faltered, sputtering. His face all hard lines of indignation.

“…well go get it!”

Zeb nodded, dropped the crate, and went.

*****

It was brutal.

The sound of borifles clacking and crashing together filled the cargo hold – and most of the ship – along with the buzzing sound of crackling energy as their glowing tips struck, deflected, and blocked. A constant stream of grunts, growls, gasps, and snarls punctuated each attack, giving the impromptu sparring session all the sounds of a full-on savage brawl.

Zeb and Kallus had no audience for their fight. The rest of the crew seemed to hold the collective opinion that it was wise to stay away.

A fortunate thing, as in this particular battle both parties utilized as much space as they could throughout the cargo hold.

Zeb and Ezra’s rearranging efforts had cleared most of the floor space, and the stacked crates along the walls served as multiple platforms from which one could strike. Zeb scaled the heights and different levels with all the arborial skill of his ancestors, and Kallus was swift to counter: rolling, ducking, spinning, never still, giving ground only when it was to move to a more advantageous point.

If the duration of their match wasn’t a testament to their comparable abilities, then the amount of times they wound up locked close together in a secure hold spoke as much.

It went on for a while, with Zeb surprised and – pleasantly – intimidated by the amount of fervor Kallus was showing. Sweat made his garments cling close to his skin, and his scent was strong. Heady and clean and sharp. Especially in those moments they crossed rifles and locked so close together, Zeb found himself calling upon all his willpower not to lean in and steal a taste.

He liked the way Kallus tasted.

It was one such instance when they were locked. Rifles braced. Arms tangled. Feet firmly planted. Kallus could have twisted out of it, but such an angle would have risked breaking his arm if Zeb didn’t yield with the movement. (Which he wasn’t supposed to. This was meant to be practice, after all.) Zeb could have pulled back, but to do so would expose his side to a painful energy jab. Hot breath panted on Kallus’ collarbones and their hips ground together in a not-unsuggestive way, though that wasn’t why Zeb was grinning. Laughing with a ragged thrill, no restraint to his delight.

Kallus’ beard pulled tight as well, unable to help his own knowing smirk.

There was a glint in his eye, and he tilted his head just a little to one side, eying Zeb while they were close.

Then he shifted, suddenly, easing his weight off his rifle and giving Zeb the opening he needed to move.

Which he did, swift and without conscious thought, and slammed Kallus down to the floor before he fully realized what he was doing. Kallus grunted, his back taking the brunt of the impact, and Zeb froze as he leaned over him with his borifle at his throat. A finishing move.

“You,” Zeb breathed, the fear that he’d broken him slow to dissipate. “You did that on purpose.”

“Yes,” Kallus grunted around catching his breath. He lifted his eyes, the tension and resistance in his body easing as he surrendered to Zeb’s pressing weight. He eased his grip on his rifle, letting it go.
“You win.”

Zeb’s mouth parted. His jaw fell slack. Breath fell away and he was perfectly vulnerable and unguarded against Kallus’ hand as it rose, reaching for the back of his head. He caught Zeb and pulled him down, touching their brows together with a sound like a sigh.

Zeb closed his eyes without thinking, a sense washing over him like slotting home. Falling into place. He relaxed into Kallus’ hold and released his grip on his borifle as well, letting it fall away to one side. The weapon clattered against the metal flooring of the cargo hold, its ends shutting themselves off. There it lay ignored, Zeb’s hands free to slip beneath the small of Kallus’ back instead, lifting him up. A purr rumbled through Zeb’s chest like a growl, reverberant deep through their bones.

Kallus wrapped his arms around him in return.

“Does this mean…?” Zeb rumbled.

“Of course it does.” Kallus nested his face into the fur along Zeb’s cheek and neck, surprisingly fine and soft there. Hands grasped onto his big shoulders. Felt his big arms around him. Everything about Zeb was big. “You must know there is no way I would surrender that hold otherwise.”

Zeb laughed, though this one was gentler than before. He squeezed him into a hug, not with a fraction of the strength with which he wanted to – Kallus could tell he was holding back – and held him like he was precious. Something to be sheltered. Protected.

This time, Kallus didn’t mind. Least of all when Zeb nuzzled into his hair and licked his neck, rumbling over his purr just loud enough for Kallus to hear.

“Arren…”

The sound of Kallus’ first name, spoken aloud – for Zeb’s use only – should probably not have affected him the way it did. He shivered, as much from the sound of it on Zeb’s voice as from the cooling sweat on his body contrasted with the warmth of Zeb’s half covering him, alternating and aggravating his nerves in wave after wave. He touched the back of Zeb’s neck with a gentleness that surprised even him, and raised his chin to bare more of his throat.

Neither he nor Zeb were much for kissing, but nuzzles and licks seemed to amount to the same. Or at least produced the same results.

“What do we do next?” Kallus murmured, in no real hurry to break apart, other than the cold of the floor was beginning to seep in the wake of sparring adrenaline.

Zeb’s mouth crooked in a grin. A flash of teeth before he licked his lips.

“Next,” he rumbled. “We go back to our bunk.”

“I meant in a matter of ritual—!” Kallus protested, already struggling as Zeb pushed up and off of him. All was in vain as he found himself lifted with no more effort than Zeb took in moving those crates, hefted into his arms and carried like some bride over a threshold as Zeb turned, climbing up the ladder out of the cargo hold that would take them back to the crew bunks.

Kallus looped his arms around Zeb’s neck and held on, an excuse among his token protest.

“I assume there’s more to it than just…this.”

“Yeah.” Zeb chuckled. “We’ll get to that.”

“What about our rifles?”

“They’re not going anywhere.”

“And the others?”

“Well, they’re probably not going anywhere, no matter how embarrassing we act around them.” Zeb laughed at his own joke and nuzzled Kallus’ cheek. Kallus poked him in the chest.

“You,” he said, mock disdain barely concealing genuine affection. “Are intolerable.”

“And you’re gonna look so pretty once we get you dressed up in traditional wedding garb. That is…if we can find any that fits.”

Kallus cringed full-bodied.

“Please. Tell me you’re joking.”

Zeb grinned, massive, and just laughed again as they reached their bunk. He pushed the control panel open with his foot and ducked inside, the door sealing shut behind them.