Bitty doesn’t get sick. It’s inherited; his mother never caught cold either. She always said she had too much to worry about taking care of him and coach to get sick—that the germs couldn’t catch her. Once Eric was old enough to keep stride, they kept the house running and kept the rest of Madison county on its toes at the annual fair.
He hasn’t been sick since he was seven or eight, because he just hasn’t had the time. Figure skating with a personal trainer of Katya’s caliber isn’t for the faint of heart, and even if he’d stopped moving long enough for his immune system to be caught unawares, she’d never have let him shirk practices unless his body was colder than the air in the rink.
For all of that, he’s convinced that he’ll be fine when a flu hits the Haus in February. He doesn’t get a shot when Jack suggests it because they’ve always seemed more trouble than they’ve been worth. His whole arm aches days after, and half the time it feels like he needs to sleep for a week anyway. So when Farmer infects Chowder, Chowder infects the couch, and the couch does what Bitty’s always known it would do and infects Shitty, Holster, and Ransom with some kind of plague.
“I’d sell my kidney for any of you, but if I you get me sick before my next show, I will sell your kidneys,” Lardo tells them over the phone. No one has seen her outside of practice since.
Jack is adorably, hopelessly clueless as to how to take care of them. It plucks at every last one of Bitty’s heartstrings, because Jack cares so damn much. Anyone who treks across campus to make sure his teammates are stocked up for an impending blizzard is someone whose heart is in the right place, but there isn’t room for a nurturing cog in the machine of Jack’s body.
He tries, though, and Bitty gives him so much credit. Jack meets with the other boys’ TAs, and even though Chowder is the only one who’s actually grateful to get the assignments and notes he’s missed, only Ransom actually threatens violence. Shitty weeps when Jack mentions his polisci thesis advisor passed on some edits from his latest draft, but that could have been the NyQuil.
Meanwhile, Bitty’s pulled out all the stops. He’s got a slow cooker that’s been going nonstop for days with the heartiest stews Moo Maw ever dared to try in the deep south. He bought a bushel of oranges, intending to make OJ until Jack told him juice without the pulp was about as effective an immune booster as flat cola, so he slices up half an orange for everyone at every meal. He makes himself fresh squeezed every morning. Decades of ingrained generational wisdom can’t be tamped down by even Jack’s pout, but he does it while he puts on a pot of throat coat tea.
Three days into Flugate 2015, there’s an upswing. Chowder’s well enough that he’s going to class again, and Holster’s up and about. He’s going so far as to change out of his pajamas during the day and leave his room when he’s hungry. Shitty’s feeling well enough to smoke up again, which is a boon to everyone in the Haus. A Shitty who’s been sober for too long isn’t pleasant.
It’s a good thing they’re making a turnaround, because Bitty’s really starting to feel rundown. He’s always doted on them, but between waiting on Holster, Ransom, and Shitty, picking up the slack in practice, and attending enough class not to risk academic probation, he’s exhausted.
“Bittle, I thought I told you to stop messing with the thermostat,” Jack grumbles the second he walks in.
Bitty’s a touch testy, so he snaps, “I haven’t! I might be warming my fingers over the oven to thaw them out, but I didn’t touch your thermostat.”
It’s freezing in the kitchen even though he’s been baking all morning. The oven’s been going at 375 for hours, but Eric still passed the layered look about one pullover and two cardigans back. If the radiator weren’t warm to the touch, he’d guess the heat was broken altogether.
Jack snaps a picture of Bitty from the middle of the den, and Bitty doesn’t even have the energy to frown. He’s starting to get used to Jack’s paparazzo act, or if he’s not, he’s pretending in the interest of keeping the peace for the rest of a long semester.
“It’s gotta be thirty degrees in here! You’re cold?”
He’s mixing, technically, but it won’t be too catastrophic if he takes a break. His shoulders are throbbing; he’ll sit down for a few minutes, ignore Jack’s refusal to adapt to American systems of measurement, and maybe nap on the kitchen table. Or the counter. The counter is closer, and if the room keeps spinning the way it’s spinning now, he doesn’t like his chances of walking.
“You’re pale as a sheet,” Jack observes, voice wobbling with the oscillations of the room.
Bittle bats at the hand that reaches toward his cheek, but it isn’t clear which of the hands coming toward him it the real one, and he misses with every swat.
It’s probably good that he missed, because Jack’s palms feel sturdy and comfortable on either cheek.
“Pale, clammy, and you’re burning up. You should’ve come with me to get a vaccine, Bittle,” Jack murmurs. He bends his knees and tilts Bitty’s chin so they’re eye-to-eye, but this is all too much effort for Bitty to want to expend.
“Gotta start this batch,” he drawls. All this twirling around is starting to upset his stomach. He should get his cake in the oven so he can take some time to sit down and drink some Gatorade.
It would be easy to be frustrated that Jack is holding him in place, but Eric’s not sure he’d be moving either way, so he slumps forward for lack of any better plan. The frigid air still clings to Jack, but it’s a relief rather than a bother when it seeps from his chest to the side of Bitty’s face.
One of the hands that had been on Eric’s cheek slides around his head and tangling its fingers in the longer strands of hair, cradling him. The other withdraws altogether, leaving him bereft until Jack winds his free arm around Bitty’s shoulders.
“You’re sick. You need to go to bed.”
“Ha,” Bitty says. “I’m not sick. I don’t get sick. I’m too busy taking care of you boys.”
Jack huffs, towing Bitty toward the stairs.
“Holster and Ransom made it twenty years without your cooking.”
Eric considers refusing to climb when Jack starts on the bottom step. It’s partly because he doesn’t want his batter to go to waste, partly because it seems pretty difficult. He remembers that Jack is very capable of lifting and carrying him to his room if he doesn’t cooperate, and decides to compromise with himself by whining, “Sriracha and hard boiled eggs aren’t a balanced diet. Michelle Obama would’ve cried if she’d seen them before I came along.”
Jack snickers, “I’ll make sure to distract her if she visits while you’re resting.”
“It’s not funny! I’m not sick, and you need my help!”
Jack roots through his dresser, giving Bitty seven different cardiac episodes. He reminds himself that no matter how he feels, Jack is straight and doesn’t care about any of the more interesting contents of his underwear drawer. It helps a little, in that it leaves him with an empty, melancholy feeling.
“Here, change into these.”
Bitty stares at his favorite pair of flannel pajama pants, as well as the SMH shirt (far too faded and worn to be less than two years old) that somehow made its way into his laundry and falls halfway down his thighs.
“Just take a break, would you? We’ll be fine for a few days while you—”
“—get back on your feet. You don’t have to be on all the time—”
The clipped, urgent tone of his voice draws Jack’s attention.
“I think I’m gonna be sick.”
Jack runs to get the trash can from his and Shitty’s bathroom, and he’s back just in time.
Bitty never gets sick, unless he’s hundreds of miles from home in February in New England’s armpit. He calls his mother more than any grown boy should admit, but he’s feeling so lost and confused. He hasn’t been bedridden since he was too small to hold a breadknife, and it’s not a welcome reminiscence.
Holster has younger sisters, and he swears by hot water bottles for an upset stomach. Bitty explains to him that he doesn’t have cramps; he’s not menstruating, but the water bottle actually does feel nice. It traps heat under his comforter for hours at a time and helps fight off the chill, so if he’s miserable, at least he’s comfortably so.
Holster tries to keep him company while Ransom shakes off the dregs of his flu, Shitty gets over the whitey to end all whiteys, and Jack goes to class like the functional adult the Haus otherwise lacks. They watch broadway shows on Youtube, and even though Holster is singing along to La Vie Boheme in a beautiful baritone hardly scathed by his brush with death, Bitty curls away from the screen halfway through the second act and feigns sleep.
Shitty tries to bake. When that doesn’t work, he tries to make stew, and he breaks the slow cooker. He promises Bitty he won’t cook anymore and spoons up behind him instead. It’s sort of nice, but Shitty’s embrace doesn’t offer the same sort of comfort that Eric needs in his regressed state. When he starts weeping silently on his side, Shitty spares him his dignity with a scruffy kiss to the temple and leaves him alone.
Holtzy and Shitty manage to convey to Ransom by the time he’s recovered that Bitty isn’t in the mood to entertain visitors. Instead, he fights Jack when the latter tries to bring Bitty his missed coursework. To show how thankfully he is, Eric manages to tweet about it: #GotYourBack.
By day four, he feels just as bad as he had day one. He’s only keeping down sports drinks and toast, upchucking whenever Jack insists he try to keep his weight up with protein shakes or granola bars. He doesn’t even say anything anymore when he calls home, except to whimper, “Mama,” so she knows what poor soul’s called her in tears.
She coos, “Oh, Dicky,” in his ear, humming nonsense just to soothe him, but it’s poor consolation when he’s so far from home.
“Honey, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got a call on the other line. You want me to call back when I’m done?”
Bitty sniffles, “No, I think I’ll snooze awhile.”
He clutches Señor Bunny closer to his belly and shudders when he hangs up. He dozes a little—he must, because the sun’s higher in the sky than it was only a second ago—interrupted by a knock at the door.
Eric rolls onto his back in the barest imitation of interest.
“How do you feel, Bittle?”
“Like a cow ate me and shat me out under the noon sun during a drought.”
Jack’s probably smirking at him or chuckling under his breath, but Bitty doesn’t feel like moving his sore neck to turn his head and check.
“Jack, if you brought me homework, I’m gonna wash the sweater my mama made you for Christmas in hot water,” Bitty moans. It’s made with wool blend yarn. It’ll probably be snug on Bitty if he follows through on his threat.
His sinuses are all so clogged up that even though he can hear Jack walking, he can’t tell he’s gotten closer until someone’s levering Señor Bun out of his grip. That’s incentive enough for Eric to roll his head down to see what’s going on.
“You can have Monsieur Lapin back in a minute. Do you need help sitting up?”
Jack’s carrying a thermos, and once he sets the bun on Bitty’s nightstand, he hooks Bitty’s elbow around his neck and slides him upright easy as pie.
“Feels like you’ve lost at least a kilo this week.” It’s not a chirp; Jack isn’t smiling.
“You’re not gonna make fun of my rabbit?”
“Eat this, Bittle,” Jack prompts. He unscrews the lid and a huge quaff of steam escapes into the room. Bitty’s glad he can’t smell anything, because if even the thought of food turns his stomach, he’s sure the scent of whatever Jack’s made would send him lunging for the bin.
Bitty grimaces, “I’m not trying to get any smaller here, but I don’t think I can stomach any more of your science experiments.”
That does drag a little twitch from the corner of Jack’s lip, and the slope of his eyes softens.
“Not even Mama Bittle’s Chicken Noodle Soup?”
As he says it, Bitty sees chunks of chicken, white and dark meat, because those who waste not want not, and short lengths of spaghetti pour into to lid. The broth is dark, just like his mother always made it, and she never taught him how to get it reduced that far without separating the fat.
Jack fishes a spoon out of his back pocket and folds everything up securely in Bitty’s grip.
“How did you do this?”
“Your mom helped. She’s as good a teacher as you.”
He takes tentative sips, spoon only half full to keep from spilling broth all over his blankets, and the first mouthful is so perfect Bitty forgets where he is. He’s sitting at his kitchen table in Georgia with a case of the sniffles, and his mother is sitting across from him, spooning extra noodles into his bowl from her own.
It’s the first thing he’s had in days that feels like sustenance. It’s savory, salty, and hot, and he struggles not to wolf the rest down. Chewing is a lost art, and he relishes each bite of solid food in between slurping the broth that coats his tongue.
“Did it come out alright?” Jack asks, half-earnest. Bitty looks askance at him as he drains the last of the soup straight from the lid in lieu of an answer. “I thought it was good, and Suzanne said it looked right, but without her here...”
“How did you—Jack, I don’t even know what to say. This was amazing; you didn’t have to do that.”
“It’s nothing more than you would’ve done if I were sick,” he says, deflecting weakly. Bitty knows he’s smarter than that. He knows Jack realizes the huge disparity between Bitty the Baker cooking for a friend and Jack calling Eric’s mother for a specific get-well recipe because Bitty hasn’t kept anything down in nearly a week.
But if Jack was nice enough to ignore Señor Bun, Bitty can ignore this. He’ll just have to distract himself with a second serving.
“I’ll let you get back to sleep,” Jack says when Bitty’s yawning a few minutes later, collecting the dirty dishes.
The prospect of being left alone again tears Bitty out of the memory he’s built up in his head, kitchen table and extra noodles fading away. The homesickness claws at his chest at the sight of Jack’s back at the door.
“Would you keep me company? For a while anyway,” Bitty asks.
“Sure, Bittle. I’ll be right back up.”
Anxious and riled, Eric snags his rabbit and hugs him tight again, burrowing deep into his covers. He’s about convinced Jack’s never coming back when the boy himself walks in with a book tucked under his arm and his shoes kicked off.
“Do you mind if I sit on the bed?”
Bitty feels so much better with Jack next to him, present but not suffocating. He’s there, a page flipping once every minute or two to remind Bitty he’s still with him, but he’s placid and silent.
Jack’s thigh makes a perfect pillow, he finds. He also finds that short fingernails scrubbing at his back through his shirt is the second most comforting feeling in the world.
His mother’s voice at the door, waking him from his nap, is the first.
“Dicky, baby, how are you holding up?”
It could be that he’s ill to the point of hallucination, which would go quite a way to explain why he’s curled in Jack’s lap in his own bed, but Jack doesn’t seem illusory when he sweeps Bitty’s hair across his forehead.
“Hi, Suzanne. He just woke up. He managed to eat a lot before he passed out, though.”
His mama smiles at Jack like he hung the moon.
“I’m sure he did, honey. I peeked in the fridge on my way in. You did a great job.”
“Take it easy,” Jack whispers into the crown of Bitty’s head. He slips onto the floor and hugs Mama Bittle once he’s on his feet. She has to stand on her tiptoes to loop her arms around his neck.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she sniffs.
Jack nods with unironic solemnity before padding softly across the hall. Eric’s mother takes Jack’s place on the mattress, and even with a million and one questions left unanswered, Bitty throws himself into her arms.
“You poor thing. I’ve been a wreck all week worrying about you.”
She presses kisses into his hair and rocks his shoulders from side to side in her embrace.
“I can’t believe you came up here just ‘cause of me. Coach didn’t mind you taking the car?”
She chuckles, saying, “No, sweetheart, he was glad to get me out of the house. I flew up here, anyway.”
Alarmed, Bitty scrambles up onto his wobbly knees.
“Mother! You can’t go buying plane tickets every time I’m having a bad week!”
“If we could afford it, I’d fly up every other weekend to see you,” his mother tells him, stroking his feverish cheeks. She frowns after holding his gaze for a minute, though.
“But you’re right. I couldn’t have come if Jack hadn’t insisted. What a nice boy, he is.”
Bitty sways into her side and snuggles close enough that he can smell her perfume under the scent of travel and frost.
“What do you mean, he insisted?” Jack isn’t the type to forget that most people don’t have the kind of money he does, but he did recently watch Bitty spend an irresponsible amount of his monthly budget on crockpots.
“He called me the other day at the end of his rope, asking about my soup or anything else that might make you feel better. Before I knew it, he was buying my ticket! I had to fight him for ten minutes so he wouldn’t spring for first class.”
Arms tight around his mama’s middle, Bitty’s lightheaded. He’s relieved, shocked, and he has half a mind to march into Jack’s room and collect a hug from him, too.
“I’m so glad you have him to take care of you, Dicky,” she croons.
“Yeah,” Eric hides his grin in Mama Bittle’s neck. “I guess we take care of each other.”