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All the Reds and Blues were pretty shaken after the whole… Genkins-Labyrinth-Chrovos-Gods-Nightmare ordeal. Tucker wished he could claim to be an exception to the rule, but that was bullshit. Besides, he’d already admitted to his fucking anxiety attack -- there was no going back on that.

But Wash was getting his treatment, which was… well, it was something. And they could just hope for the best on this. Carolina still seemed especially bothered by his injury, and Tucker wasn’t sure if he should give her space or be there to comfort her. After all these years, it was still his instinct to go for the former, but he’d like to think he was growing out of that. He could display affection and comfort when necessary. That was totally fine. He was totally cool. No problems there whatsoever.

“I’m worried about…” and Caboose trailed off. It was enough to capture Tucker’s attention. Normally the simtrooper never hesitated to speak his mind.

Tucker furrowed his brow, opting to give Carolina some space as he talked to Caboose. There -- the decision was practically made for him. “Worried about… Wash? Is that it?” he prompted.

Caboose dropped his weight back onto his heels, interlacing his fingers in front of him as he bit his lip. “Um… yes, but that is not who I was talking about.”

Tucker tilted his head. “Carolina?”

“Yes. But no.”

He blinked. This wasn’t working. “Who are you worried about?”

“Well, I am worried about Wash and Carolina.”

Tucker forced himself to take a breath. Caboose had a tendency to talk in circles -- you had to be specific to get what you wanted from him. Even then, it didn't always work. “Who were you going to say initially? Before I suggested Wash?” He’d gotten better at talking to him -- at this point, it was like talking to a little brother -- but he was still learning. To be fair, he was learning a lot of things recently, especially since Chorus.

“It is, um… well, you see, I…” Caboose seemed to almost steel himself for his next words, which only made Tucker frown because Caboose normally didn't need to do that what had the Labyrinth really done to him-- “I am worried about Church.”

“Uh, what?” slipped before he could think. He backtracked, going through recent events to try and pinpoint where this was coming from. It seemed over -- Caboose had said good-bye through that machine and almost seemed content ever since. Until the Labyrinth. “Caboose, did… did the Labyrinth show you something with Church?” Tucker could put aside any of his own problems for now (ignore what those fears had told him, ignore what they revealed to himself, ignore the fact that he’d been helpless and needed to be saved because he couldn’t save himself) to help Caboose.

Caboose pinched his lips together, considering his words once more. Was it because this was about Church? Fuck -- was it because Caboose didn't feel comfortable talking to Tucker about Church? “Kind of? It was… ah, it was complicated. It was not fun, Tucker.”

Tucker forced a sympathetic grin. “I bet it wasn’t, buddy. And you know you can tell me about Church, right? I won’t judge you.”

Caboose blinked blankly. Then he practically beamed. “Yes, of course! We are friends, even though you are stupid Tucker, and I trust you. Yes.”

Was… was Caboose trying to comfort him? “Uh, right. Thanks. But--”

“I am worried about Church because I think I accidentally did something that, um, that could be… bad.”

“Bad?” he asked, taking a step closer. He glanced around the hallway, which was mostly barren aside from the nurses and doctors drifting in and out of rooms. He lowered his voice anyway. “What do you mean by bad?”

Caboose swallowed and swung his arms even more. Tucker instinctively put his hand on Caboose’s forearm so he’d have some contact to focus on. Caboose leaned in closer. “I am worried that I hurt him. The Labyrinth said I did something, and I did not want Church hurt. I thought he was done hurting, but maybe I-- maybe I made him hurt more because that is what I was afraid of. He is hurting because-- because that is what I was scared of.”

Tucker suspected the issue was far more complex than Caboose was able to describe right now. But either way, he seemed close to tears, his chin dropped as he clenched his jaw and let his hair flop down to hide his eyes. Shit.

Tucker leaned forward onto his toes so he could reach up and push back that hair. “Hey. Caboose. You’re okay -- Church is okay. The Labyrinth was messing with you -- whatever happened… it wasn’t real. The pain it caused to you is real, but nothing happened to Church. He’s… he’s gone. He isn’t suffering. You don’t need to worry about him.” He punched Caboose in the shoulder lightly. “No more team kills for you.”

Caboose gave him a hesitant smile, rocking forward one last time before he somehow made himself relax with a small nod of his head. “Ah, yes. Church is okay. Not alone and scared. Um, on an unrelated note, is it okay if I sleep in your room tonight?”

Tucker patted his arm. “Sure thing. Just don’t snore super loud.”

“I do not snore!”

“You snore so fucking loud, Caboose.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Stupid Tucker! I do not snore!”

Tucker threw up his hands. “Fine. Whatever you say, Caboose.”

Caboose released an annoyed huff but didn't offer any further argument.

Wash and Carolina would be fine tonight. If anything happened, he’d find out.

Tucker took one more deep breath and began the trek to his quarters.

 

----

 

Church felt… wrong.

He had a physical body, a physical form that was molded in ways he wasn’t familiar with.

He didn't know where he was. Everything was dark. Everything seemed beyond him, in an existence out of reach. Time moved in the weight of centuries and half-seconds all at once. Reality felt warped, whisps and molasses, rain and flames.

He… he was scared.

His fear lit a fire in the world, set alight the smoke only to wink out before he could examine it more closely.

It was wrong.

He needed to go somewhere safe. He needed to find somewhere safe, somewhere that wasn’t here. Somewhere that wasn’t just darkness and fear.

The Wrong World shifted, caved in toward him.

When it pulled away, he was somewhere else.

 

----

 

“Caboose,” Tucker offered in a daze, not even bothering to lift his head off the pillow. “Stop rummaging around in my fuckin’ closet and go to bed. I’m not gonna tell you again.”

He wasn’t sure his voice was remotely translatable in its muffled state, but Caboose seemed to get the idea. “Not me,” he said.

Tucker groaned, debating whether or not this necessitated his rolling over. He distinctly heard the hangers rustle, the plastic on the metal pole (bow-chicka-bow-wow) offering a familiar grating noise. “You can’t blame me, Caboose.”

“I did not say Tucker did it. I said it was not me.”

Caboose sounded accusatory there, and Tucker really wasn’t in the mood for an argument. “Whatever, just--”

SQUEAK!

There it fucking was again.

Tucker sighed and rolled over to catch Caboose in the act and

And Caboose was in his sleeping bag, glaring at Tucker. “See? Not me.”

Tucker blinked. “Whazafuck?” He hoped it wasn’t another rat. The last time he’d spotted one resulted in a rather embarrassing episode of screaming and breaking two lamps in his desperation to get away.

Creeeaak.

Part of the closet door pushed open.

Tucker’s heart pounded. Rats… probably couldn’t open doors. “Um, Caboose?” he said.

It was still dark; even darker in the narrow open crack of the closet door. Fuck, now he felt like he was a scared nine-year-old.

Caboose turned around to face the closet door. “Hm?” he said, perhaps in response to Tucker.

Tucker reached under his pillow, grabbing the hilt of his sword. (Yeah, he slept with his sword -- go fuck yourself.) “How… how about you get away from there, buddy?”

Creeeeeeaaaak.

Fear always sent a weird feeling up Tucker’s sinuses that made him feel a half-second away from crying. He was getting that feeling now.

He turned on the sword, illuminating more of the room.

Caboose was inching backward, moving until his back hit the edge of Tucker’s bed.

The door was open by about a foot now.

He hoped it was nothing. He really, really hoped it was nothing.

“Tucker?”

He totally didn't squeak as he whipped around to see who whispered in his ear.

No one was there.

His heart was pounding now, the fear visible in the slight quiver of his arms. “Guys?” he said, his voice pitching a bit higher than intended. “This isn’t funny! You’re scaring Caboose.”

Caboose made a sound that could be interpreted a million different ways, approval not being one of them.

Tucker turned back to the closet.

Two bright white orbs were staring back at him.

Tucker screamed, whipping the sword in front of him as he grabbed Caboose by the shoulder and tried to haul him up onto the bed.

Caboose thankfully complied until he was nestled against the wall, pressed into Tucker’s side.

The orbs retreated into the closet slightly, unblinking.

They were almost difficult to look at, leaving spots in Tucker’s vision every time he blinked.

Holy shit. Holy fucking shit what the fuck was in his closet son of a fucking fuck

In the glow of the eyes and his sword, he could make out some of the form. A narrow, long-snouted face that met to a perfect point. A protrusion of what looked like antlers mangled with tree limbs sticking out from its temples. Its body was still hiding within the closet, no hands or claws or legs or whatever visible.

“I’m not…” came the voice again, sounding mere centimeters from his ear. It didn't continue speaking.

Fucking was that the thing talking?

His grip tightened on Caboose.

The figure retreated a bit more.

Tucker swallowed thickly. “What do you want?”

Was there some way to alert people without letting the thing know?

Its gaze turned, just slightly, but enough for Tucker to realize its attention had shifted to Caboose.

Tucker felt himself grow defensive, not bothering to question why. “Hey, fucker -- you’re talking to me.”

“Um, actually, he was talking to me just now,” said Caboose.

The creature ducked down slightly.

“Don’t listen to it,” said Tucker. “We need-- I’m going to--”

“He just wants to be safe!” Caboose continued, his tone going pleading as he turned to face Tucker.

Was it an alien? Tucker knew a thing or two about aliens. “You aren’t going to impregnate Caboose,” he stated.

“I wasn’t going to impregnate Caboose, dumbass,” came the immediate response.

“Uh,” Tucker offered intelligently because he totally wasn’t prepared for the amount of sass in that thing’s tone. “Good?”

“I’m not a Sangheili, obviously. Wait, do I look like a Sangheili?”

It shifted again, head angling around. Its antlers(?) hit the wall and closet door as it did so, creating a loud crashing sound that then made the thing jump out.

Caboose shifted in a way that Tucker instantly recognized as ‘I want to help this new friend,’ so he thumped Caboose once in the chest to force him back, leaving the sword pointed at the creature as it moved completely into the room.

It had a long, thin body mostly composed of its spindly legs. Each ended in a distinct point, much like its snout; giving it an appearance like those four legs were the edges of sharpened tree branches. A long tail whipped out behind it, and Tucker’s mind automatically flashed to xenomorphs from those old Alien movies.

A low rumbling escaped it, not the near-ear whispers of before. As far as he could tell, it didn't actually have a mouth.

“Oh fuck oh fuck,” he found himself saying. They were going to fucking die. Oh fuck.

It turned around once more to face him, its eyes momentarily blinding him.

“I’m not going to hurt you. If I was, you’d probably already be dead.” The closeness was back, the ‘p’ sound popping close like its lips were pressed against him.

“Is that supposed to be comforting?” Tucker squeaked.

“Are you okay?” asked Caboose.

“Take a wild fucking guess, buddy,” it hissed, but the anger didn't seem directed at Caboose which was… something.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I think it’s my fault.”

It inched closer, the tail lashing cautiously in the air, tucking in near the ceiling. Tucker felt some of the blood drain from his face.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s pretty hard to explain. But, uh, this isn’t what I meant to happen. I am sorry, Church.”

“Church?” Tucker said, incredulous.

The thing seemed to hum. “What was meant to happen, Caboose?”

Was that a threat? It sounded like a threat.

But also, oh fuck -- Caboose thought this was Church. Wait, did that mean Labyrinth was back for some reason? Fuck fuckfuck

“HEY!” Tucker yelled, startling both the thing and Caboose. “SOMEONE GET IN HERE RIGHT FUCKING NOW! THERE’S A FUCKING MONSTER!”

“No, wait -- you don’t have to--”

The door burst open, flooding the room with light.

For a second, Carolina was in the doorway, eyes meeting that of the creature as it was illuminated entirely.

Then, in a wisp of smoke, it disappeared.

“Uh,” said Tucker, “I thought you were with Wash.”

Carolina’s spine snapped ramrod straight. She flicked on the lights to the room. “What the fuck was that,” she said, her tone entirely even. Not a good sign.

“Church,” said Caboose.

Her face hardened.

“Uh,” Tucker repeated. “Um. Good question.”

There had been an actual fucking monster in his closet.

He withdrew the sword. “Whatever it is, it’s somewhere on the base. And obviously, it can be literally anywhere, so… problem.”

“It’s Church.”

“It isn’t Church,” Carolina snapped. At Caboose’s hurt expression, she winced. “It isn’t Church,” she said again. “That thing couldn’t have been him. He’s dead-- destroyed-- whatever. He’s gone, Caboose.”

“Someone needs to warm Kimball,” said Tucker. Then he gave Carolina a pointed look.

She nodded. “I’ll do that. In the meantime--”

“What the fuck-- WHATTHEFUCKISTHATOHMYGOD--

At Grif’s shout, Tucker leaped from the bed, skirting around Carolina so he could haul ass to Grif’s room. He couldn’t lose anyone else -- not now.

 

----

 

Church was panicking.

He wasn’t thinking clearly, wasn’t acting with any real rationale.

When he warped into reality, he’d been trying to find somewhere safe. The only somewhere was rather with someone -- Caboose. Which seemed counterproductive when he really thought about it -- Caboose had killed him before, after all -- but he’d been acting on instinct. And instinct brought him to Caboose.

But he… he was still wrong. His body was still so wrong.

Caboose understood.

He didn't know how he was talking. It was another feeling. Not an action -- a fucking feeling of speaking. But he couldn’t do it, really.

Still, Caboose had heard him. And Caboose had understood, had… had seemed to register a familiarity about Church.

Tucker hadn’t.

He was a monster to Tucker, as much as he was a monster to himself.

Tucker’s panic came like tidal waves, ebbing a slow beat within Church’s head. And Tucker’s panic made him panic even more.

Then Carolina opened the door.

She saw him, saw him in his entirety and he saw the fear in her eyes and felt the fear and

It wasn’t safe.

He warped away, instinct taking over once more.

He’d probably be hyperventilating if he could breathe, if he had a mouth or nose.

Church was now facing a new door, one that looked almost identical to the one Carolina had just pulled open.

He was taking tentative steps backward, wanting to hide once more in the darkness, eyes not leaving the door.

“What the fuck-- WHATTHEFUCKISTHATOHMYGOD--”

He turned at the noise, and Grif elicited a screech Church had never known the man was capable of. “YOUR FUCKING EYES WHAT THE FUCK WHATTHEFUCK!

“Calm the fuck down,” he aimed at him.

Grif, much as Tucker had done before, turned around to find the source of the voice. Church briefly wondered what he sounded like, why they turned when he ‘spoke’, but then he remembered that he didn't even know what he looked like but it was bad enough to elicit this kind of response.

When Grif turned back, Church could easily make out the fear stretching Grif’s expression thin.

They were afraid afraid afraid of him

Church felt something against his belly, eliciting a surprised yelping sound from his throat that didn't have a mouth because he couldn’t speak speak but he could still make noise which was somehow even more infuriating--

And then he realized it was his own tail. A tail, which had, upon its own accord, tucked itself between his hind legs (because he had four legs no arms no hands whatthefuckwaswithhisfuckinglegswhydidtheylooklikethat)

“Oh-- uh, fuck. Shit. Um, sorry. You’re scared. Fuck, I-- it’s okay, boy,” Grif said, starting to pitch his voice a bit higher as though he were talking to a dog. “Or girl? None of the above? I-- I don’t know, fuck, um, I’m totally not gonna hurt you.”

Church couldn’t blink, so instead he just stared, tilting his head slightly. That was… nice. Some of the fear was still palpable, and Grif was still squinting as he looked at him, but his demeanor had changed.

His tail unwound slightly, relaxing enough for part of it to thump against the floor.

Okay, he really fucking hated that he couldn’t control that.

Then, because he still had some fucking pride, he told Grif, “I’m not a fucking dog, Grif.”

Grif didn't look behind him this time, instead blinking owlishly. “Is that you?”

Church just bowed his head in some kind of aborted nod.

Then the door flew open, this time with two figures in the doorway.

“Grif!” came a piercing shout, followed by, “holyfuckingshit!” which was more-or-less expected from Simmons.

“Get the fuck away from him!” Tucker snarled, holding his sword out in front of him.

He felt those waves of emotion, too; Simmons’ and Tucker’s own anxieties piercing through him better than that sword likely could.

“Calm down,” Grif said, holding up one hand as he scooted to the edge of his bed. “You’re scaring i-- her? Sounded like a girl--”

“I’m not,” he interjected.

“Right. Him?” When he didn't object, Grif continued, “He didn't do anything. I mean, I don’t know what the fuck he is and we should be, I dunno, careful, but don’t jump to fucking conclusions.”

“You screamed,” Simmons said, his eyes not leaving Church’s.

“I was surprised! Fucking sue me!”

“But what the fuck is it doing here?” Tucker hissed, still angling his sword at Church.

Tucker was simply trying to protect his teammates. This wasn’t something personal. He shouldn’t take it personally.

Church still felt himself tucking inward, lowering on his haunches as his tail curled around his leg, unbidden. He’d told Caboose what he wanted without actually telling him -- rather, he had projected the need to be safe onto him. Admitting that need to anyone, let alone Tucker, would be a fucking nightmare. But if he didn't… fuck, he didn't know what to do. There wasn’t a right answer.

“Um, I already told you he wanted to be safe.”

Almost automatically, his body relaxed when he heard Caboose’s voice.

“Caboose,” said Tucker, his voice low in warning, “you can’t trust this thing. This isn’t Church. I don’t know how it knew to tell you that, but--”

“He didn't tell me that!” Caboose interrupted, pushing past Tucker and into the room. “I felt it! And, um, it’s my fault. I accidentally did that Labyrinth thingy that did this.”

Labyrinth? “The fuck are you talking about?” he asked. There was no fucking way Caboose brought him back to life or… or what-fucking-ever.

(If anyone were to figure out how to bring Church back to life, leave it to the Blue moron. Fuck. Church didn't know what to believe.)

“Caboose,” Tucker repeated, and Simmons looked even paler now, “you’re… it’s tricking you.”

“You’re Church?” Grif squawked. He moved off the bed to stand in front of Church. “Holy shit! Really?”

Tucker made a disgruntled sound. “Grif! Don’t--”

“I’m going to hug you!” Caboose said before launching himself at Church, throwing his arms around his neck area and squeezing really fucking hard.

A rumbling escaped his throat, and it took him all of a half-second to realize that he’d fucking purred and fuck that was fucking humiliating and his tail was fucking moving again and he couldn’t fucking control it fuckfuck

“Caboose, I’m gonna fucking kill you. Stop hugging me.”

“You like it! I can tell!” Caboose somehow managed to squeeze even harder. Church suspected that if he’d been human, he would have cracked a rib. As he was, it was just… comforting.

“Shut up,” he snapped defensively, shifting his footing a bit.

“Dude,” said Grif. “You’re wagging your tail.”

“Fuck off!” he yelped, a low hum escaping his throat at that same moment.

“That-- he’s not-- don’t let this thing trick you,” Tucker continued, but his voice was wavering, the sword dropping slightly.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Simmons said. He still looked pale, but his cyborg eye was whirring inquisitively as he examined Church. “How do we--? This doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes it does!” Caboose chirped. “This is my best friend, and he looks like a big nice dog now--”

“I don’t look like a fucking dog!”

“--because dogs are great best friends, but you aren’t all alone like I was scared of, which is good! I can pet you now!”

“Don’t say that!”

“Ah, I’m so glad you’re okay, Church! And I am happy that you are happy to see me!”

Goddammit. He really was happy to see Caboose. He’d actively sought out Caboose. This was fucking ridiculous.

His tail whipped out, batting once against the ceiling and making Simmons jump.

“I can feel your feelings,” Caboose then stage-whispered, and Church felt his tail freeze mid-air. Fuck. He’d thought he was just able to feel other people’s emotions, not the other way around.

Grif snorted. “No hiding now,” he quipped.

“Shut the fuck up!” Church cried, poking one pointed leg at the man.

“Hey!” said Grif, jumping out of the way. “Don’t lash out at me just because you’re embarrassed!”

“I’m not embarrassed!” he defended, hoping it didn't sound as much like the lie it was to Grif’s ears.

Based on Grif’s smug expression, that wasn’t something he should hope for.

“You love me,” Caboose announced, nuzzling his face into Church’s side. Then he moved one hand up to scratch it behind his antler.

Automatically, his hind leg started kicking as Caboose apparently hit a nerve. A startled sound escaped him as Caboose laughed.

Church shook out his head and warped himself a few feet away from Caboose. “Hey,” he said, but it didn't have any bite behind it. “Don’t… do that.”

“You liked it,” said Caboose with far more confidence than he should have been allotted.

His tail swished out again, this time sweeping the floor near Grif’s feet.

Grif rattled a string of curses and darted out of the way, landing bodily into Simmons, who then collapsed backward onto the floor with Grif on top of him.

“Um!” Simmons offered.

Grif groaned and rolled off of him.

“What the fuck,” Tucker muttered, sounding like all resolve was slipping through his fingers.

Fucking--

“Tucker,” he said, putting all his focus on the man even as Grif-Simmons flailed about, ensuring that only Tucker heard this and nohewasn’tpawingatthegroundanxiously, “One time you forgot I was in your suit and almost started masturbating to Wash’s abs.”

Tucker’s face went completely slack. The sword drew in. “I--! That’s--! How the fuck do you know about that?!” Then he seemed to backtrack. “Wait, no, it was a misunderstanding! I wasn’t masturbating to Wash’s abs! I was-- oh god-fucking-dammit.”

“Um, dude?” Grif said from the floor. “What the actual fuck are you talking about? Why the hell did you bring that up?”

Tucker blinked, realizing his mistake. Then he whipped around to glare at Church. “I hate you so fucking much, Church.”

Church released a low, pleased rumble.

Tucker crossed his arms. “Fuck off! I’m totally gonna fucking blackmail you on the tail wagging and petting shit!”

Church released a higher, less-pleased rumble.

“He tucks his tail when he’s scared,” Grif offered helpfully.

Tucker snapped and pointed at him. “See? Blackmail. Get totally fucked, asshole.”

Caboose was stepping slowly closer, one hand outstretched. Church pretended not to notice. “I didn't do jack shit to deserve blackmail. Besides, you owe me after calling me a fucking monster.”

Tucker scoffed. “Whatever. I’m sorry.” He made it sound casual, but Church could sense the sincerity behind it. “In my defense, you kinda look like a monster. Or a dog. Maybe this is karma for you calling Junior a dog.”

“Junior can go fuck himself.”

“Hey! Leave my kid out of this.”

“You brought him up first!”

“What about the fact that Church didn't deny any of what Caboose said about him?”

Fuck. Grif must have been rubbing off on Simmons. Despite the innocent look on Simmons’ face, Church knew for a fucking fact he was maliciously proud of himself for picking up on this.

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

“Huh,” said Tucker. “You didn't.”

“Um,” he offered intelligently.

“Holy shit,” Tucker continued, stepping closer and giving Church an incredulous look. “You totally have it bad for Caboose, don’t you?”

If he were human, he’d be completely fucking red. Instead, his tail was going straight up. Tucker watched as this happened.

“I didn't say that,” he said meekly and probably a good few seconds too late.

“Holy shit,” Tucker repeated. “Is that how you got here? Caboose said you were trying to get somewhere safe. Did that mean you were trying to find Caboose?”

Since when the absolute fuck did Tucker have even a lick of common sense? “Um.”

“Not to mention, he can apparently feel your fucking feelings?”

“I can feel everyone’s feelings,” he rebuked.

“That’s weird as balls, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m pretty sure Caboose is the only one who feels yours.”

Caboose was still silent, stalking closer to Church.

Tucker’s face split into a slow grin. “Man, for someone who claimed to hate Caboose so much, you certainly have a massive fucking crush on him.”

“I’m--! That’s not what it is!” and he hated how much he seemed to be paralleling Tucker in that moment. “B- besides, I was an AI, and I’m still not even human!”

“That literally changes nothing. Besides, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that Caboose is completely human.”

Caboose stopped moving. “Um, I am human.”

“Sure thing, Caboose.”

Caboose resumed moving.

The tip of Church’s tail flicked. “I fucking hate all of you. Except Caboose.”

“Oh, so you admit it?”

“I admit that I don’t hate Caboose.” He lifted his chin. “Nothing more.”

Caboose jumped onto his back.

Church was impressed for one second, because his legs were long and even though Caboose was tall, that was still quite a bit of distance. In the next second, he was quickly adjusting his footing to compensate for the sudden weight on top of him. In the third second, he was craning his neck around to look at Caboose. “What are you doing,” he asked flatly.

“Piggyback ride!”

Church wanted to sigh.

He turned back. Grif and Simmons were now standing up, huddled in the corner of the room somewhat awkwardly. Two more faces had shown up at Grif’s door.

“Hello, Agent Carolina! Hello, Principal Kimball!” Caboose yelled, waving with enough enthusiasm that Church had to adjust his footing again.

“Er,” said Tucker, “I messed up. It actually is Church.”

Carolina blinked.

Kimball raised a brow. “That thing is Church?”

“This thing has ears,” Church defended. Both Carolina and Kimball did the looking-for-the-voice thing. “Wait, I don’t think I have ears. But I can fucking hear you.” He stomped one paw. “I’m not a thing.”

“That’s you?” Kimball asked, leaning forward. “How are you talking like that?” A beat. “How are you here at all?”

Caboose started scratching behind Church’s antler again. With a curse, his leg started kicking out again. To avoid falling over, he had to try manipulating his tail so it acted like a temporary leg.

Tucker snorted.

“Fucking hell, Caboose! What did I just tell you?” he said as his head leaned into the touch and another purr escaped him. Fuck.

“You said you liked me!”

“That’s not what I’m talking about!”

“How is… it can’t be.” Carolina’s head shook slightly. “Epsilon’s dead.”

“I brought Church back! I did not mess up and hurt him!” Caboose called triumphantly.

Carolina squared her chin and looked to Tucker. “How do you know? How do you know for sure?”

Caboose finally stopped scratching Church. Church’s leg instantly returned to the floor, and he lost control of his tail again as it tucked under his body and hooked around his right foreleg. “Oh, fuck off, sis.” He ducked his head down and pawed at the floor. “I’ve already dealt with enough shit today. Imagine breaking into fucking pieces and the next second--” He stopped himself. Caboose patted his head. Church shifted uncomfortably. “I’m just gonna.”

He warped away.

The new room had the lights turned on.

Church shook himself out, only realizing then that Caboose had teleported with him.

Caboose fell to the floor with an “Ooph!”

Church felt a small wave of regret surge through him.

Instantly, Caboose’s happiness flooded his senses. “That was fun!” said Caboose, bouncing up. He looked around. “Oh! We are in my room.”

Church allowed himself to take in the place. It was surprisingly tidy. A small machine was lying on top of a bed labeled ‘Freckles,’ and Church absently wondered if that was the same Mantis as before. Painstakingly drawn pictures covered the walls, and Church noted that he was in… well, all of them. Caboose had improved in his art skills a surprising degree over the years.

When he looked back at Caboose, the simtrooper was wearing an uncomfortable smile and his face was red. “Ah, um, yes. Those are my pictures.” He shuffled his feet awkwardly.

Church was frozen in place. His tail was doing that rising thing. Wait, was he getting second-hand embarrassment from Caboose? Caboose could feel embarrassed? Or maybe it was just himself and he couldn’t yet tell the difference. Fuck.

He raised one foreleg. Then the next. “They’re, um, really nice, Caboose.”

Caboose beamed. “You really think so?”

Church nodded.

“Aw, that’s--! That’s very nice of you to say, Church. You know, I like you, too. And if you want, I can give you butt scratches. Freckles loves those.”

Okay, the embarrassment was now officially his own. “Please don’t say that in front of Tucker. Ever.”

“Tucker already knows I like you! That’s why you’re in all my pictures.” His brows pinched in thoughtfully. “What did he mean when he said you wanted to crush me? You don’t want to crush me, do you?”

Oh. He didn't want to have to explain this. “Um.”

“Stupid Tucker. You wouldn’t hurt me, Church.”

He actually kind of wanted to explain this. If only because then at least Caboose would know, and even if it wasn’t reciprocated, there was no way Caboose would hold a grudge. “Um.” But Church was… different.

Church had a very complicated relationship with his emotions, and that was for more reasons than simply because his feelings were, in and of themselves, complicated.

He remembered then that Caboose apparently could feel what he felt. Was it similar to how Church felt his -- in unexpected, intangible bursts he couldn’t always separate from his own?

“Are you okay?” said Caboose.

He’d asked that earlier, when Church had first shown up. Church wasn’t okay then. He wasn’t completely okay now.

But he was alive. He thought he’d never get to see the Reds and Blues again. He thought he’d used the last of his chances. “The, uh, noun version of crush is very different from the verb you’re thinking of.”

Caboose’s mouth formed an ‘o’. “That’s right! There is a drink called Crush.”

Church winced and paced a few steps. Turned to study the various pictures of Caboose and him holding hands, of Caboose hugging his floating body, of Caboose driving his fucking tonka-chunk body… “A different noun.”

“Um, I don’t know another crush noun.”

He could do this. He wasn’t a fucking coward, and his feelings toward Caboose weren’t something he needed to be embarrassed about. “A crush is when you like someone--”

“Oh! Yes! I have--”

“--romantically.”

Caboose’s mouth snapped shut. His eyes dropped to the side, thoughtful. Then, “Oh.”

Church scraped the pointed end of one leg against the ground. Then he tried not to think about his stilts-for-legs. And he tried not to think about what Caboose could be thinking. And he tried not to think about the fact that maybe-his-feelings-weren’t-really-validbecausehewasn’tfuckinghuman

“What is that feeling?” asked Caboose, his voice going soft. “What, uh, you’re feeling right now.”

Church dragged his leg through the carpet again. “I’m nervous, Caboose.”

Caboose pursed his lips. “Why?”

Church shook out his head. His tail thwapped against the ceiling. “Because I… I’m, uh… Tucker was right.”

“About you wanting to crush me?”

“About me having a crush on you, Caboose.”

Caboose blinked.

Church considered warping away.

His tail swayed anxiously.

Caboose took a deep breath.

“THANK YOU SO MUCH CHURCH I HAVE A CRUSH ON YOU TOO AND NOW I CAN HUG YOU MORE AND KISS YOU AND PET YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE A DOG BUT YOU’RE ALSO CHURCH AND I LOVE YOU.”

He tilted his head, letting the feeling of warmth settle in every inch of his form. “Oh. That’s… good.”

Caboose was practically vibrating now, his soft brown eyes lighting up.

The warmth came twofold then, and it was like Church was finally getting to feel the sun, the unadulterated joy from Caboose swimming in his veins.

Caboose’s knuckles were turning white from how tightly he was gripping his hands together. “Are we boyfriends now?” he asked, curiosity buzzing off of him.

Church dug a leg into the ground. “I…” A frustrated sound escaped him, and Caboose tilted his head with a fresh look of concern. Still, he didn't speak, seemingly trying to let Church get the words out on his own. “I-- would like that. But I’m not-- I don’t… I’m not a person, Caboose.”

Caboose hummed. “Ah, you don’t think you’re a boy? So partners instead of boyfriends?”

“No. I mean… I don’t…” He tilted his head a bit and gave that question some thought. “Um, that may be something we address later. But I’m talking about how I’m not human.”

“But you’re smart and have feelings and like me and exist and can be happy and deserve all the happiness and I can give you so much happiness,” Caboose immediately countered.

Church’s tail gave a small wag. “You… don’t care that I’m not human.”

“You kind of are! If-- if I was turned into a dog right now, I’d still be a person at heart! But I’d also be a dog, and dogs are great. You are still Church. You were still Church when you were a soccer ball and a car and a robot.” He leaned forward and gave Church’s muzzle a pat, his lips stretching into a small smile. “And I like Church.”

Church allowed a grateful rumble to resound through him. He shifted his head so he could tap Caboose on the shoulder with it, his antlers nearly brushing the other man’s face. “Yeah, whatever. I love you too, Caboose.”

Caboose gasped.

Then he sprinted to the door, flung it open, and shouted into the hallway, “CHURCH SAID HE LOVES ME!”

He really should have anticipated this.

“What the fuck?” came Tucker’s distant reply.

“Church loves me!” Caboose announced.

There were a few pairs of footsteps coming down the hallway.

Then Tucker peaked in through the open door. “So.” He lifted an eyebrow.

Church warped behind him and nosed him through the doorway.

Tucker fell into Caboose’s room with a yelp. “Hey, asshole! What the fuck!”

“Did you really say that to Caboose?”

It was Church’s turn to get startled, and he whipped around to face Carolina in time to see her narrowly dodge a blow from his tail. “Er, sorry about running out on you earlier. Yes, I did say that. And before you ask again, yes, I’m Epsilon. Yes, I’ve also probably taken a nasty blow to the head that has caused all common sense to evaporate from my--”

Carolina’s arms wrapped suddenly around his neck. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“Oh. Um. Yeah, that’s… that’s okay. Nice to be back, sis.”

She pulled back then, fixing him with an unreadable expression. Then, “What the fuck even are you and what did you mean by love because I swear to God if you hurt Caboose I’ll cut you.”

It all came out in one breath, and Church took a moment to parse through everything. “I don’t know what I am, but it’s Caboose’s fault. I think. And, uh, I-- he-- hm. I think we’re together?”

“Waitwaitwait-- this is legit? You actually admitted it? Holy shit! I’m the fucking love doctor!”

“Shut the absolute fuck up,” said Church to Tucker, who had stumbled back to his feet and was grinning between Church and Caboose with a wild grin. “You are not.”

“I so am!”

“You’ve wanted Grif and Simmons together for for-fucking-ever, and guess what, dumbass? You haven’t done it.”

“Stupid Tucker!” Caboose added. He looked a tad confused.

“Yeah, fuck you.”

Tucker flipped them off. “Shut up. One at a time. Blue Team had to be first, obviously. Churboose for the fuckin’ win.”

Church flicked his tail. “What did you just say?”

“Winning is neat,” said Caboose, nodding gravely. “Especially when my best friend-slash-partner wins as well.”

Tucker shook his head a bit. “Wait--”

Carolina strolled over to Caboose and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Sorry for not listening to you earlier. I was… being mean.”

Caboose smiled widely at her. “I forgive you! You’re Church’s sister.”

“I… yeah.”

Caboose’s face turned serious. “I will take good care of him. I will not kill him again.”

“... Great… so you two are…” Her face twitched before she flattened out her expression. Church could still feel her guilt, her hesitation overlapping each other. “Dating?”

“Ah, I think so! He said he had a crush on me, and when he explained what a crush was because that’s what best friends do, I told him that I had a crush on him, too!” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Now I can hug him more and kiss him and…” He glanced over to Tucker, who gave Church an amused look. Caboose’s voice switched to a whisper, retaining the same volume, “And I’ll give him butt scratches because dogs love those, but he told me not to say that to Tucker.”

Tucker’s eyes bulged. A strangled snort came from his mouth. Then he doubled over laughing. “Butt scratches! You have got to be kidding me.” He cleared his throat dramatically and put a fist to his chest. Church wilted. “Bow-chicka-bow-wow,” said Tucker.

“I wish I could flip you off,” said Church, who then lifted when leg and pointed it at Tucker. “I’ll skewer you with this instead.”

“Church knows shake,” said Caboose.

“Please flip off Tucker,” said Church.

Caboose gave Tucker the middle finger.

Tucker’s eyes widened further as he gasped, pointing at Caboose. “You’ve corrupted him! He knows how to flip people off!”

Caboose was doing his shy grin thing as Tucker continued squawking about Caboose’s loss of innocence, “and not in the bow-chicka-bow-wow way.”

Caboose looked cute.

“Aw, thank you,” said Caboose, turning toward Church and broadening the smile. Right. Caboose could… do that. “You are cute, too.”

Oh.

“I’m gonna flip my shit,” said Tucker.

“Please don’t,” said Carolina.

“What the fuck is that weird-fuckin’ goat doing in the hallway?”

Everyone turned to see Bitters. He was eyeing everyone suspiciously, a half-eaten donut in his hand.

“That ‘weird-fuckin’ goat’,” said Tucker, using air quotes, “is Church.”

Bitters blinked and took another bite of his donut. “Uh. Right. Forget I asked.”

“He is my best friend and partner,” Caboose added, giving a sharp nod.

Bitters narrowed his eyes. “Uh-huh. So now we have two alien fuckers here?”

“Hey!” cried Tucker as Caboose explained, “Church is not an alien. And we aren’t--”

“I think that’s enough!” said Carolina, her face slightly flushed. “Bitters, what are you even doing here? I didn't think you had quest quarters at--”

“Uh, Wash was shot?” He shrugged. “Not sure if you heard,” he continued a bit sarcastically. “Anyway, Donut is still in there, so I thought I’d give them some space. I’ll visit later.”

Wash was shot?

“Oh, so that’s why you’re not in there,” said Tucker. “Donut’s been…” He made a face.

“What the hell happened?” asked Church.

Bitters yelped, dropping the remains of his donut as he spun in a tight circle. “What the fuck was that?” he squeaked.

“What do I sound like to you?” Church complained, whipping his tail. Bitters took a step back. “Everyone fucking does that the first time I talk.” Except Caboose.

“Because I am smart,” said Caboose.

“It’s like you’re whispering directly into our ears,” Carolina explained. “Takes getting used to.”

Yeah, everyone was going to need to get used to a lot of things pretty soon. “And Wash?”

Carolina bit down on her lip. “He’s… hurt. But he’ll live.”

Caboose nudged him. “Um, I can explain more later,” he told Church. “Yeah, we time-traveled.”

What the fuck?

He wrapped his tail around Caboose’s leg and hummed. Caboose firmly believed he was telling the truth with the time-travel thing.

“Oh, how cute,” said Tucker, putting his hands to his face as he looked at Church and Caboose.

Bitters had, by this point, picked up the donut and dusted it off. Fucking disgusting. And so like Grif. “Please,” said Bitters, rolling his eyes, “you’re not a romantic. You just--” His eyes landed on Caboose, who was watching him innocently, “uh. Nevermind. I’ve gotta find Matthews.”

He skirted away faster than Church had ever remembered the man moving before. “He’s a goat,” Bitters muttered as he scurried away.

“I like goats, too,” said Caboose. “They are like dogs with horns.”

“Thanks, Caboose,” he offered dryly.

“Wait until Donut hears about this,” said Tucker. “It’s not Grimmons, but--”

“Stop with the fucking ship names,” he snapped.

“--he still… called… it.” He tilted his head. “Where did Grif and Simmons go, anyway? Holy shit-- what time is it? Why the fuck were you awake?” he continued, turning to Carolina.

“Couldn’t sleep.” Her gaze flicked back to Church. “Don’t think I’ll be doing any sleeping for the rest of tonight.”

“Is that an insult on my appearance?”

She turned mildly amused. “I just found out you’re alive. It’s still a bit of a shock. But your appearance certainly is something.”

“Cute,” said Caboose, petting him.

She shrugged. “Big eyes.”

“How big.”

“Maybe try to sound a little less threatening when asking a question?” said Tucker. “But pretty fucking big.” He cocked his head. “You haven’t seen a mirror have you?”

“Nope. And I think I’ll wait a little while longer.”

Tucker’s face twitched, and Church felt the beginnings of what may have been more guilt. “Uh, you really don’t look like a monster. Not to say if you did it’d be bad, but… uh.”

“Tucker,” he said slowly, “I don’t care.” Which was kind of a lie, but he really didn't want Tucker… whatever.

“Also, fun fact: I think both Kai and Sarge are monsterfuckers, so that’s something to consider.”

He released an annoyed sound. “Stop talking.”

“Yeah, Tucker,” Caboose huffed. “Church and I are going to leave now so I can tell everyone he is back. You can look for Grif and Simon.”

Church almost laughed when Tucker actually perked up at the recommendation.

"They won’t know he’s actually Church,” Carolina informed Caboose.

“Yes. So I will tell them.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Church. “They’ll probably just think I’m a new pet of his. Besides, it may be kind of funny to go tramping in there.”

“Do you even know how to run on those peg legs?”

“Hey. Fuck you. I’ll figure it out.” Then, with a pointed, throaty sound, he bent down his front legs so Caboose could easily climb on top of him.

Caboose clapped his hands once and jumped on. “I am going to ride my best friend around the whole hospital and say hi to everyone!”

Church’s tail gave a wag, even despite Tucker’s murmured, “Bow-chicka-bow-wow.”

He turned back slightly, rising back up to all four legs. “You tell me where you want me, Caboose.”

“I WILL LEAD CHURCH!” Caboose leaned forward, hugging Church’s neck. “I AM DATING CHURCH!”

“Yeah, Caboose. You’re my boyfriend, and I’m, like, an eldritch horror or something. I don’t know what anyone else expected.”

Behind him, Carolina snorted.

Caboose planted a quick kiss against Church. “To the reception area!”

He knew where that was. His tail flicked. No need to run, then.

He warped into the reception area.

Dozens of people screamed.

Yeah, it was pretty fucking hilarious.

“I AM DATING THIS ELDRITCH HORROR!” Caboose yelled.

He wondered if his laughter came across to people’s ears, because he was dying of it.