It’s nothing urgent, he reasons. It’s nothing he absolutely needs. Caboose has gone a long time without having someone love him back, so getting through just a little bit more really isn’t such a big deal. It’s just…
Donut’s got a great laugh. And he laughs a lot. He does this thing when he’s listening to you, really listening, where he turns his head so you can talk toward his good ear, and his lips will curl up and and part ever so slightly, and his hands will go very still — Donut talks a lot with his hands, makes big gestures and does a lot of touching. Caboose has noticed. He has been on the receiving end of more casual shoulder touches or brief fingers on his waist than he thinks one person should be allowed to tolerate.
Tucker says Donut likes him back. But Tucker is wrong about a lot of things, and Caboose...doesn’t want to be disappointed. He could understand someone not wanting to be with him. He’s very loud, his thoughts are all over the place, and most days he doesn’t really remember what he had for breakfast. So liking him, getting attached to him — Caboose can imagine it’d be hard.
He just also wants to imagine that it’s possible. And if it could be Donut — with his hands and his smile and the little eyebrow lift he does when he’s got a joke and it’s on the tip of his tongue and he knows when he says it there will be wailing (Simmons) and gnashing of teeth (Grif) —
God, if it could be Donut, then Caboose would be pretty okay with that.
Chorus is quiet, after the war. Caboose walks the sidewalks of the old capitol without his armor, watching buildings getting repaired, others being knocked down to make way for the New Armonia. Kind of the right time, he thinks. It’s almost New Years.
He only knows this because of Simmons, who’s had his calendar constantly refreshing on all his tablets and his HUD for the last six years. New Years means they missed Christmas, but Caboose was never really attached to the winter. No seasons on the moon. New Years, though...that could mean something. That could be when things change. That’s when you’re supposed to change.
He likes the anonymity of walking without his helmet, without his signature color. He wears grey and soldiers brush past him without even nodding. Caboose smiles and heads to the base, jogging through the entrance and flashing his ID. For the first time in so long, his shoulders feel light. He feels free.
And even though the world is strange, even though Chorus is going to start changing, for real — even though Church is gone — Caboose feels like he can really do something. He’s sad, of course. He’s been sad for a long time, but there’s no reason to tell people that all the time, or make it a big deal.
It’s New Years. It’s time for everything to be different.
He takes the stairs up to the Reds and Blues’ shared wing. Maybe he’ll go to the gym. Maybe he’ll run for a while. Maybe he’ll —
“Hey, Caboose.” Donut is standing in the kitchen, eating a bowl of cereal. “How was your walk?”
Caboose’s mouth goes a little dry. “It um. It was good. It was a walk.”
Donut smiles. “That’s great.”
Caboose nods. “Yeah. Yeah it is.” He presses his hands flat against his legs, rubbing denim against his palms. “Um, what are you doing? Like. Today. With your day. What’s your schedule?”
Donut laughs. “You’re so funny.” He turns and puts his bowl in the sink. “I was going to help at the motorpool today. Lopez said I didn’t have to, but you know how he is.”
Caboose does know how Lopez is. He understands Lopez perfectly fine. He spoke Spanish on the moon with his mom, but no one’s ever bothered to ask him if he knows what’s going on, so the fact that Caboose has been privy to Lopez’s slow decline into apathy really isn’t any of their business.
“That sounds like fun.”
“Well. It promises to be exciting, I’m sure!” Donut finishes off the juice in his glass before moving past Caboose to get to the door.
One hand touches his arm, and Caboose makes a noise, just the softest thing, and a singular spark passes between them, traded at the point where Donut’s fingers touch the grey fabric of Caboose’s sweater. His eyes look up, for the quickest of seconds — and then it’s over.
Just like that.
“I’ll see you later,” Donut says, in a way that shouldn’t sound like the promise it is, but still makes Caboose excited.
“Um, okay.” Caboose stands perfectly still until Donut’s shoes are on and he’s closing the door behind him.
He goes to his room and shuts the door, locking it tight behind him.
Donut and the other Reds leave unexpectedly one morning. Kimball wants to use them as much as she can before they finally leave Chorus. They’ve been promised a place to go, and while Wash is pushing for a quick departure, that’s just not possible with the UNSC blockade. Caboose wakes up and absentmindedly asks after them when he finds only Tucker and Carolina at the kitchen table.
Carolina looks up from her toast. “You like Donut?”
Caboose scowls. “Everyone likes Donut. He is very likeable.”
“No, I mean—”
“I know what you mean,” he mutters, going to the fridge and getting out the juice.
“He does,” Tucker says. “And Donut definitely likes him back. You guys should just make out and stop torturing the rest of us. You’re almost as bad as Grif and Simmons.”
“No one can be as bad as Grif and Simmons,” Caboose says. He sits across from Tucker and takes some of his eggs. “Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.”
“Wow, you learned your holidays.”
Caboose sticks his tongue out. “I mean there is a party.”
Carolina nods. “That’s true. Kimball’s having something for everyone.”
Tucker shrugs. “So? It’s just going to be us saying goodbye to one shitty year, hello to a new one.”
“Try a little optimism,” Carolina urges, but Tucker just scowls. She turns back to Caboose. “You know, you can kiss someone at midnight on New Year’s.”
Caboose chokes on his orange juice. “Um, yes. Yes, I know.”
She wiggles her brow and Tucker snorts. “Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that.”
“I want Caboose to be happy. If kissing Donut would make him happy, I want that for him.” She nudges his hand on the table. “It’d make you happy, wouldn’t it?”
Caboose feels his cheeks get hot. “...Yes.”
“You should ask him, then. What’s the worst that could happen?”
He could say no and prove everyone who has ever said anything about me ever totally and completely right.
“Yeah,” he says weakly. “I’ll, um. I’ll ask him.” He gets up from the table and puts his glass in the sink.
“You didn’t eat anything!” Tucker calls after him.
“Not hungry!” Caboose shouts back, before going upstairs to change into his running clothes.
Every step that hits the pavement after that is calming. He doesn’t need music — Smith says it’s kind of scary that he can work out without it. Bitters says it looks like he’s contemplating murder. What he likes to think about when he’s running is stuff that makes him happy. Blood Gulch and home, memories of Church and rebuilding Epsilon. The first days with Wash, winning the war. Good thoughts propel him forward, waking up his body and opening him up.
He is totally at peace with himself, here. He is totally calm, in this moment. Outside of this, his heart and his mind is confused. Wash tells him it’s very normal. That when they stop fighting, things will get better. When they leave Chorus, he’ll be able to process.
Caboose likes this idea, but he’ll also miss this place. He’ll miss watching it grow.
It’s kind of like home.
But then — home has always been complicated, and really, there’s a lot of things he thinks of when he thinks about home.
Donut is one of them.
Donut is definitely home.
The Reds get back later in the day, and Caboose tries not to act eager to see them. He’s in the living room, letting Carolina stretch her legs across his lap while Tucker tries to pick something to watch. As soon as Donut steps into the room, Carolina moves, goes to the kitchen to get something to drink and then pretends she needs to get to bed early. Everyone sort of silently telegraphs some kind of message to one another, and Caboose and Donut are left alone in the sitting room, abandoned to the awkwardness of the moment.
Donut clears his throat as Caboose sits up straight, staring at the black screen of the TV.
“So there’s a party tomorrow,” Donut says.
“Yes!” Caboose presses his lips together. So loud, sometimes. “I mean. Yes. There is.” He glances at Donut. “Are you going? I mean, parties can sometimes be just...just the worst.”
“Sometimes. I want to go, though. I mean, New Year’s was always a big deal back home.” He finally goes to sit on the other sofa. “Was it important for you, when you were growing up?”
“Kind of. My dad liked it. He made lots of resolutions.”
“Did he keep them?”
Caboose nods. “Yes.” His father was pragmatic. He never made resolutions he couldn’t keep. “My dad was...he really liked trying to make things better.”
“He sounds like a pretty cool guy.”
Donut leans back. “My mom never made resolutions. She said you could decide to make yourself better whenever you wanted to, but she really did believe in fresh starts. The first day of the year was...it was like, crisp.”
“Like an apple,” Caboose says, without thought. He cringes. He free associates too much. People think it’s weird.
But Donut grins. “Yeah. Like an apple. Just...taking a bite.” He looks over and they make eye contact for a few minutes and it’s almost like...like they both know. Like Donut knows what Caboose is going to ask him tomorrow. Or like they both know what could happen when midnight comes.
Caboose is the first to look away, and Donut stands.
“I need to get some rest. It was a long day.”
“Have a good night,” he says, and puts a hand on Caboose’s shoulder.
At this point, he’s doing this on purpose.
And Caboose is pretty okay with that.
“Ugh,” Grif mutters. “There are so many people here.”
“Can you not be social for ten minutes?” Simmons asks, and Caboose decides to walk away.
“Are they doing it already?” Wash asks, handing Caboose a cup of punch.
“Yes.” He takes a sip. “Is this—”
“Spiked,” Tucker says, coming in between them, putting an arm around them both. “My idea. Kimball approved. It’s not New Year’s if we’re not getting completely trashed.”
“You said you hated this,” Wash says, deadpan.
“I do. But with alcohol, most things get better. Like your bad attitude.”
Wash turns away, draining his cup before filling it again. Tucker looks smug.
The gym on the base makes a good place for the party. For some reason Palomo is in charge of the music, but he seems to be doing a good job. Caboose has always kind of liked Palomo. He feels for the guy. The other lieutenants are clumped together, while soldiers mill about in civilian dress. Caboose goes through three glasses of punch pretty quickly before getting some pretzels and finding a place to watch.
“You’re not going to dance?”
Caboose turns and sees Donut nursing a twin glass, his head turned to the side, expression good and open.
“I don’t dance.”
“I bet you’re good at it.”
Caboose shakes his head. “I’m not at all. I step on people’s feet.”
Donut laughs. “Well I think we should try it.” He goes and takes Caboose’s cup from his hand and sets it on a table. “If you want,” he adds.
“I want to dance with you,” Caboose says firmly. He will do absolutely anything to be close to Donut, even if it’s just tonight.
If this is the last chance ever, the last dance and the last party and the last New Year’s before they leave Chorus and leave this feeling behind — then he’ll do it.
Because for some reason, tonight feels final. Like if he says nothing, if he does nothing, then the feeling will disappear. They’ll both forget the quick touches and lingering gazes and soft words trading in the living room at night.
Apples and mothers and goodnight’s.
“I took some lessons,” Donut says helpfully. “But it was, like, a really long time ago.”
“Well. We can be bad at it together.”
Donut laughs. “Yeah. That’s a good way to look at it.” He helps Caboose know where to put his hands and says gently, “I’ll lead, if that’s okay.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“No worries. Just hold on.”
Caboose nods. “I can do that.”
They do a little bit of awkward swaying among some other dancers before Donut remembers a few steps and is able to guide Caboose in a bit of a waltz. It’s nice to be here with him, though Caboose feels like he towers, even though Donut doesn’t seem to mind. They dance through a few songs before Caboose starts to feel eyes watching him and he suddenly doesn’t really want to be at the party at all anymore.
“I’m, um. I’m done.”
“Okay,” Donut says, easily, so easily. They go back to the table and pick up their drinks. Caboose wants to go home now, but he also wants to stay. It’s kind of nice to just sit and listen to music. Donut tells him he’s going to see where Grif and Simmons went to, so Caboose finds Wash and sits in the chair opposite him.
Wash glances over. “How was your dance?”
“It was fine.”
“You looked happy.”
“I am happy.”
Wash angles himself toward Caboose and drains his glass. Caboose absently wonders how much he’s had to drink.
“You,” he says, and points.
Probably a lot.
“Yes,” Caboose says. “Me.”
“You know, Church left me a message.”
Caboose feels his back stiffen. “Wash—”
“No, I know. I know you don’t want to talk about Church, but he told me—” Wash swallows thickly. “He told me to let you look after me. And for me to look after you. I think...I think he wanted us to be brothers.”
Caboose relaxes. “...Oh.”
Wash grins. “We’re old hat at that, aren’t we?”
“I’ve been a brother for a long time.”
Wash nods. “Me, too.”
“But I’ve never had any.”
“Well.” Wash turns to face the dancers. “Now you do.”
Tucker comes by and sits heavily at the table with them. “What’re we talkin’ about?”
“How we’re brothers,” Wash says, and takes the drink Tucker hands him.
“Yeah!” Tucker raises his glass. “We’re brothers. And you know what? Caboose?”
Caboose sighs. “What, Tucker?”
“You should just be with Donut! Like, be with him! Tell him you like him and like—” He sets his drink down and knocks his knuckles together. “Kiss.”
“Oh!” Wash smacks the table a few times. “Yes! That’s such a good idea.”
Caboose gets up. “I think you both need water.”
“We need snacks,” Tucker says. “Bring us snacks.”
Caboose sighs. “Okay. I will bring snacks.”
He loses track of Donut for a while. Tucker and Wash convince him to have a few more drinks, so he’s very pliant when he sees him again. Caboose is big, so his tolerance is pretty high, but he stills gets a little light headed when he stands up close to midnight.
“He’s going!” Tucker says. “Wash, look. He’s gonna go find Donut.”
“Go, go, go!” Wash urges as Caboose leaves them both behind.
Donut is hovering at the edge, taking care of a stooping Grif who can’t seem to stop laughing.
Caboose points. “What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s been a long time since someone’s done shots,” Donut says kindly. “Let’s sit down, Grif. I’ll find Simmons.”
“Fuck Simmons. That guy is so—” He falls back into a chair. “He’s so…”
“You hang onto that thought,” Donut says. He turns to Caboose. “You okay? There’s a lot of cups at that table.”
“That was Wash, mostly.” Caboose puts a hand on Donut’s elbow and pulls him away. “It’s almost midnight.”
Caboose takes a breath. “At midnight you...well you usually…”
Donut laughs. “Caboose—”
From the stage, someone starts counting down. Caboose panics. He hasn’t asked. He hasn’t said it, he hasn’t told him—
Donut pulls him close. “I want to kiss you. Can I kiss you at midnight?”
Caboose stares. “I...yes. Yes. Can I kiss you?”
“You bet you can.”
The crowd chants together: Five. Four.
Caboose pulls Donut away from everyone, into a darkened hall.
Donut breathes. “I thought you’d never—”
“I thought you—”
“It’s been a long time,” Donut says.
“That’s okay.” Caboose reaches down and takes Donut’s face in his hands. “We can go slow.”
And as the crowd cries out, “One!” and everyone cheers —
Caboose leans in and Donut pushes himself up — and they kiss, as one year fades into another.
Donut shuts the door behind him and locks it, pushing Caboose toward his bed. They haven’t taken their hands off one another since midnight and Caboose likes it that way. The room is dark until Donut turns on a little light by his bed, crawling between Caboose’s knees and pushing his shirt up to press his lips to the plane of his stomach.
“God you are ripped.”
“I work out.”
Donut stops, the laughs, mouth open against Caboose’s chest, his whole body shaking with it. “You’re amazing,” he mutters. “You’re so amazing.”
Caboose reaches out, pulling him up so they can kiss properly again. “I think you’re amazing.”
“Oh.” Donut pushes himself up on his hands, looking down and grinning. “I am.”
On Iris, things are probably going to be different.
But right here, and right now, things can just...be what they are.
Donut falling asleep with his head in Caboose’s lap. Caboose coming in from a run and Donut still wanting to kiss him. The two of them sharing ice cream and juice and making Grif gag when they catch each other in passing and Donut just lays one on him.
It’s so good.
It’s so good.
And so Caboose just says it, he just blurts it out: “I love you,” while Donut is brushing his teeth and Caboose is trying to read before bed. “Sorry.”
Donut stares, then goes into the bathroom to spit and rinse. He comes out after a second and stands in the middle of the room, like it might be this in between space right in the middle of the moment before he knew how Caboose felt and the moment after. Something strange and liminal.
“I’ll go.” Caboose tosses his book away and tries to bolt, but Donut snags his wrist and pulls him in. They crash — Caboose’s mouth presses against Donut’s and Donut’s hands slide up under his shirt, blunt nails gently scraping over Caboose’s waist.
When they part, Donut is smiling, and he’s got one brow raised and Caboose realizes now that he hasn’t made a mistake, he hasn’t broken everything.
Donut leans in as Caboose stoops down to kiss him again and Donut laughs against his mouth.
“I love you, too,” he says. “I really, really do.”
And Caboose —
Caboose breathes. He feels relieved, like a moon finally rising over the horizon after ages of darkness. He lets Donut pull him into bed and they curl up together. Two waning crescents, side by side, while the sun comes up on the other side of the world.
But they — they rest. And they are at peace.