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Odd Man Rush

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Bitty's danger sense first goes off on Thursday afternoon, when he group-texts the frogs about ordering pizza and Chowder doesn't immediately respond, but he doesn't feel well and truly alarmed until Chowder finally texts back two hours later.

“Oh,” says Bitty. He stares at his phone in dismay.

“What's the matter?” says Jack, quickly glancing up from the textbook he's annotating at the kitchen table. He looks mildly alarmed, like he thinks Bitty cut himself chopping sweet potatoes (as if — Mama Bittle taught her son proper knife technique when he was seven).

“Something's wrong with Chowder,” Bitty says.

To his credit, Jack immediately puts down his pencil. “What?”

“I don't know,” he says, “but just look at this text!” He shoves his phone at Jack.

“...He says he's coming over,” Jack says slowly.

“And that's it!” Bitty exclaims, pulling his phone back. “No news about his day, no requests for pizza toppings— there's not one single exclamation point in this text!”

“I think you're overreacting,” Jack says. He's becoming a regular sweetheart this year; he modulates his voice and everything, and doesn't just flat-out tell Bitty he's being melodramatic.

“He didn't use capslock once,” Bitty says darkly. “Not once.” He lifts his phone.

He only gets '!!!! are you' typed in before Jack's warm hand is suddenly on his, lowering his phone. Bitty stares at their hands. His heart jackhammers in his chest.

“Bittle. Let him get here,” Jack says. “See what he has to say.” He finally drops his hand.

“Jack Zimmermann,” says Bitty, smiling, trying to recover. “Is that interpersonal advice I hear?”

“Maybe,” says Jack, but he looks like he's trying not to smile as he turns back to the study guide he's drafting.

Bitty is proven correct, unfortunately, when Chowder shows up for dinner. He beats Ransom, who's in full coral reef study mode at the library, but nobody else. It's wildly uncharacteristic. If there’s food to be had that isn’t from the d-hall, Chowder is usually the first through the door. Tonight, they've all already scattered across the living room with slices of pizza by the time he arrives.

The second Chowder drags himself through the door, Bitty has to restrain himself from rushing over, hugging his face, and demanding to know who hurt him.

“Chowder!” Nursey calls from the diseased living room couch that is the bane of Bitty's existence. “Dude, would you please tell Poindexter that Voracek isn't gonna win the scoring race this year? It's ridiculous.”

Apparently, no one else on this team is capable of recognizing total frog devastation when they see it.

“Fuck off, he could! Look at the start he got!” says Dex, but he turns to Chowder too, clearly expecting him to either beg off and convince them to stop arguing, or to make an explosively excited case for Joe Pavelski or Logan Couture from the Sharks.

Chowder says, “Oh, uh, I dunno,” and edges past them to the kitchen. The whole living room goes silent in his wake, but Bitty has more important (sad, sad) fish to fry.

Bitty follows him into the kitchen. “Chowder?” he asks. “You okay?”

“Hey Bitty,” says Chowder. He shuffles his feet. “Is there pie?”

"Goodness gracious, of course there is," Bitty says. He bustles him into a seat at the table and digs into the fridge. There are three partial pies still remaining, in a sign of just how much celly-baking he's done since his finals ended yesterday. Pies don't typically survive more than 20 minutes in this house, but the sheer volume that Bitty has made in 24 hours has been too much for even the bottomless-pit monsters of the Haus. "Apple, chocolate chiffon, or sweet potato mini pie?"

"Chocolate chiffon, please," says Chowder. He has slumped with his chin in his hand. Bitty will make a thousand pies if it means Chowder will never make that face ever again.

Chowder gets a reprieve of exactly the amount of time that it takes to anxiously cut two pieces of pie and pour two glasses of milk, and then Bitty sits down with him and says, "What's going on?"

Chowder listlessly pokes at his big slice of pie — another sign that something is desperately wrong. "Caro doesn't want to date anymore," he admits, dragging the tines of his fork through the chocolate filling.

"Whaaat??" Bitty says, louder than he means to, but genuinely shocked. "I thought y'all were doing so well!" Chowder and Caro were tall and gawky and absolutely adorable together, like a sack full of kittens. Enthusiastic kittens with braces and a shared tendency to trip at the worst possible moment, who talked to and about each other all the time. After Winter Screw, Jack lost his patience very quickly and wanted to place a moratorium on girl talk at practice, but Bitty talked him down for Chowder’s sake. Chowder may not have known Caro for long, but Bitty thought their baby goalie’s head would explode if he was forced to choose between obeying Jack and happily mooning over her.

"Unnngggghhhhh.” Chowder slowly sinks down until his face is smashed against the table. "Me too!" he says, muffled.

"What'd she say?" Bitty asks.

He doesn't lift his head. "We don't have chemistry," he says morosely into the table. "At first I was like, ‘wait, what? we're taking bio! chem’s not til next year!’ " He makes a low, wordless noise of pure mortification.

Bitty cringes with sympathy embarrassment. "That's not — that's not so bad," he starts, and then Shitty comes in whistling, snow in his hair.

In a concession to the fact that it is basically the frozen tundra outside, Shitty's wearing a T-shirt, jeans, actual shoes, and his hat with the ear flaps. "What's with Chowder?" Shitty asks, cutting himself a good half of the remaining chocolate chiffon pie as one "slice."

"Caro broke up with him," Bitty says, feeling increasingly indignant on Chowder's behalf, and Shitty freezes with a forkful of pie just a few inches from his open mouth.

"Oh, shit, a dumping? Brah,” Shitty says sympathetically, and he pats Chowder on the back. Chowder mumbles something against the table. Fork in hand, he's trying to scoop up a bite of pie without lifting his head. It's just about the saddest thing Bitty has ever seen. “You know what this means, right? Chowder, my son: we’re gonna get you hammered, you fuckin’ beaut.”

“I don't know if that's the best idea," Bitty says dubiously, looking at the back of Chowder’s dejected head.

“Bits, it’s Haus tradition!” Shitty exclaims, warming to his subject. He’s probably about five seconds from striking a Captain Morgan pose with his foot on a chair. “It’s got to be done!”

“Okay,” Chowder says, unexpectedly. He bolts upright. There is a gigantic red mark on his forehead from the table. “Yeah, okay! Let’s get hammered!!”

Bitty pushes his plate closer to him. “Eat your pie first,” he says wisely.

True to Shitty’s word, they get Chowder completely tanked. Not that it’s hard — that sweet, sweet summer child starts flushing after one Keystone Light.

Bitty may have had his initial misgivings about the plan, but he should have had faith in Shitty. Everybody who actually lives in the Haus shows up or sticks around — except Ransom, who's sending increasingly dire-sounding texts from the library — along with Lardo and six or seven other teammates. It feels like one of the smallest groups the Haus has hosted in months, after a whole string of parties so big they needed their own hash tags. Shitty breaks into the stash of bottled beer that lives in the cooler on the back porch.

After scarfing his slice of pie and half a pizza, proving that heartbreak didn’t damage that boy’s appetite any, Chowder gets handed beers and unceremoniously wedged onto the couch between the armrest and Nursey. Holster brings the Wii down from the attic and, with great ceremony, allows Chowder to pick Jigglypuff, even though Jigglypuff is always reserved for Ransom even when Ransom isn’t home. They even convince Jack to play a round. He perches on the sofa arm above Chowder and is just as terrible at Super Smash Bros. as Bitty would have predicted.

“What — what is it doing,” Jack says, to mass laughter. There are eight players draped across every piece of furniture in the room and lying on the floor, swearing and shoving at each other, and Bitty doesn’t even know which character is Jack’s. Bitty has chosen to lean on the back of the couch and watch the chaos. “Wait, is somebody the pink thing? What’s it—”

“Yo,” says Lardo, and then, amid all the chaos onscreen, Kirby sucks Mario into its mouth.

“Fuck!” Jack objects, loudly, glaring across the room at Lardo as she grins.

Chowder has a beer squeezed between his knees as he plays and his face is going redder by the second, and he’s been giggling and elbowing a trash-talking Nursey for at least 15 minutes straight, so all in all, Shitty’s break-up tradition actually looks like a resounding success.

Chowder and Lardo are just about the only two characters Bitty can actually track onscreen, little pudgy pink balls that they are. Chowder has chosen to focus on floating around, singing everybody else to sleep.

“Chow, I swear to Christ!” moans one of the senior forwards, as his sleeping character gets punted offscreen, screaming.

Jack says, “Nice,” and claps Chowder on the shoulder.

Chowder freezes and then stares up at him, rapturous and well on the way to so, so drunk. “You’re really bad at Smash Brothers,” Chowder tells Jack, who looks mildly affronted. “Like, really bad, sorry sorry, but it’s okay, because you’re so good at hockey!! And, like, everything else! Everything.” Onscreen, Jigglypuff dies.

“So schwasty,” Nursey says fondly.

Bitty leaves Chowder in Dex and Shitty’s capable hands when he goes to the kitchen, Shitty having decided to impart profane Sage Life Advice. Chowder looks like he's about two seconds from taking notes. Bitty's initial plan was just to pick up another beer, but then, once he opens the refrigerator and gets inspired, he decides to bake a basil peach pie. He connects his phone to the Bluetooth speakers that they always leave on top of the microwave. He picks a Kiesza playlist on Pandora and happily sings along to "Hideaway" and boogies as he hunts down the fresh basil that he knows is in the fridge somewhere.

There’s a burst of incoherent yelling from the living room. Bitty's takeaway from it is that Lardo-as-Kirby has just wasted all comers and is celebrating her victory while everybody else complains. He laughs to himself.

Only Ransom and Shitty have one final left, each, and Shitty has declared that “there is a finite fucking amount of information that can fit into this head, even on Judith Butler and gender performativity, and I’m out!” so he’s not doing any more studying tonight. Everyone else is already finished. Bitty has a flight booked out of Logan on Saturday and most of the team will leave within the next few days, too. But for the time being, it’s a much happier Haus to be in then it was during finals.

Bitty's Pandora playlist has moved on to Sia when Lardo wanders into the kitchen.

“Lardo! Am I looking at the 2014 Samwell Men’s Hockey Smash Brothers champion?” Bitty asks, sticking the ball of dough in the refrigerator to let it set.

“Bitty, I’m the 2014 Smash Brothers champ of at least southern New England,” Lardo says. “Probably northern, too, since Dex sucks too.” She’s wearing a pair of sunglasses that are way too large for her face — probably the spoils of her big win. You’d think those boys would have learned, by now, not to bet against Lardo. She hops up on the counter. “Can I help?”

Bitty shoots her an assessing look. “How d’you feel about pitting peaches?”

She considers it. “Peachy keen,” she says.

The work goes much, much faster with two sets of hands (that’s one of the best things about college: living in a house full of boys and visitors who, in order to be guaranteed first crack at whatever’s cooking, are almost always willing to do prep work), especially when the owner of the other set of hands is happy to have a kitchen dance party while doing the work. Dex gives them a weird look when he ducks through the kitchen to get more beers, but when Shitty comes in a little while later, he joyously joins right in, bumping Lardo with his hip.

“I defended your title, bro!” Shitty shouts to Lardo over the sound of the music, which has, admittedly, gotten a little loud as Bitty has tipped further from ‘pretty tipsy’ into ‘a little bit drunk, maybe.’ “But you gotta come back; Rans finally showed up and we think he’s gonna start with the murder eyes if he doesn’t have an opponent worthy enough to distract him.”

“It’s been real, Bits,” Lardo says, solemnly perching her stolen sunglasses on top of Bitty's head.

Shitty turns on him. “Bitty, you gorgeous fucker! You’re playing, right?”

“Next round, next round,” Bitty says, waving them on without him, and he finally finds himself alone again in the kitchen. It’s just him, the string of blinking Christmas lights strung up over the basement door, and Pandora, which has moved on to John Legend.

Bitty finishes off the dregs of his latest beer and double-checks both the oven temperature and the time set on the timer, and feels content about the state of his little world. He feels content; he is content. He’s very happy with his life at Samwell, and he isn’t about to let a romantically-lit kitchen, a couple of beers, and John Legend singing about giving all of himself influence him.

Just to be safe, Bitty reaches over and gives John Legend a thumbs down. The station jumps to “All About that Bass,” which is a big improvement, even if Shitty did play this at #EpiKegster with the hollered dedication, “THIS ONE GOES OUT TO JACK LAURENT ZIMMERMANN, YOU FUCKIN’ ADONIS.”

Bitty has just thumbed down the volume on the music and turned toward the sink full of dirty dishes when he hears someone say, “Bitty?”

Bitty turns around. Chowder is standing in the door to the living room, looking unsure and so young (and so drunk; so, so drunk, lord). “D’you think I did something wrong? Caro’s really nice and she was maybe gonna come visit from Santa Clara over break so maybe I messed up; oh, do you think I sh—”

“No!” says Bitty, and as mad as he currently is at freshman volleyball player Caroline McCoy on pure principle, he also feels begrudging respect. Anyone who could break up with this face knows exactly what she wants and has a backbone made of pure steel. “Nooo, no, no, bless your heart; you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Chowder doesn’t say anything. Bitty puts his dish cloth down decisively. “C’mere,” he says. Chowder blinks at him, but when Bitty opens his arms, he comes across the kitchen and folds himself into Bitty's hug. It feels like he has to practically bend in half to push his face into Bitty's shoulder; he’s a newborn goalie lamb, but he’s so, so lanky.

“I really like her, Bitty,” Chowder says, subdued and muffled into Bitty's hoodie, and Bitty's traitorous heart tries to rip right out of his chest, good lord.

"I know," he says, squeezing him tight. "I'm sorry, Chowder; she's gonna miss out. No more drinking for you tonight, okay?"

"Okay," Chowder agrees readily, his voice thick.

Bitty looks up and finds Jack standing just inside the kitchen, looking at them strangely. Bitty pulls a helpless face at him over Chowder's shoulder. Chowder doesn't feel like he's planning to let go of the hug any time soon, which is a plan that Bitty is 100% behind, but he wishes he could do more to help him feel better. This child should never be sad. It's terrible. It's probably against the rules of nature.

Jack's eyebrows rise and then lower, and then he makes a vague gesture that Bitty understands — God help him, actually understands — as meaning 'do you need help?'

Bitty tightens his arms around Chowder protectively. Wild horses couldn't drag him away from this hug (Chowder is actually a great hugger; he's got just the right balance between tight and too-tight, and, like most things in his life, he has thrown himself into this wholeheartedly), and that includes Jack Zimmermann.

And while the silent offer is sweet, it's also a little hilarious. Bitty really likes both Chowder and Jack (he likes Jack too much, when he’s being honest with himself). He would never submit either of them to Jack's attempts at emotional comfort. Bitty often finds Jack weirdly comforting, but he strongly suspects that Chowder, who's intimidated by him even at the best of times, would not.

Giving them one last look, Jack leaves them be. The wonderful thing about Jack is that he'll probably go back out there and run interference, keeping drunk teammates out of the kitchen. One drunk sad teammate is enough to deal with.

Said teammate sways on his feet. A little alarmed, Bitty says, "Chowder? You good?"

Chowder sniffles and says, "Yeah? Yeah. Yeah!!” His face feels hot against Bitty's neck.

"You wanna go sit for a spell?" he asks. "I've been doing a lot of work on my core lately, but if you fall over, I just don't think I'm gonna be able to catch you."

"Aw Bitty, 'm not gonna fall over!" protests Chowder, sounding more like himself, but he slowly peels himself away from Bitty. His eyes look red. Even his bangs are drooping.

"C'mon," Bitty coaxes, but Chowder hesitates at the doorway, standing just far enough back that he can peer out into the living room without being seen.

"Uhh," he says, and he swipes the back of his hands across his eyes, "Bitty, I don't know if I wanna..." He trails off, but after a minute, Bitty puts it together — Chowder doesn't want their teammates to see him teary-eyed. He gets it, though if any male sports team in the world could deal with seeing a teammate cry, it would be this one. Hell, they all saw Holster get choked up over a rumor that there was only going to be one more season of The Simpsons, and nobody even chirped him that hard.

"Hang on," Bitty tells Chowder, and then he raises his voice. "Hey y’all, is it snowing??" There's an immediate response: crashing, yelling, thudding, running footsteps, the front door banging into the wall.

The second the noise has faded, Bitty tucks Chowder's arm into his and hustles him down the hall. The living room is empty, the sounds of a vicious snowball battle drifting in through the open front door (look at that, it apparently really is snowing), and Bitty safely gets Chowder wobbled upstairs, where, despite his insistence that he's not going to fall over, he bonelessly drops to sit on Bitty's bed the second he's within reaching distance of it.

"Oh, sorry," says Chowder, absently (drunkenly) patting Bitty's bedspread. "Is this okay? I can totally get up if this isn't okay; sorry, Bitty, this probably isn’t okay—"

"It's okay," Bitty tells him. He pats his head. “You take all the time you need.”

Chowder visibly eyeballs the pucks sitting on top of Bitty's doorframe, and he slides a little farther down the bed, away from the door. He looks up at Bitty again. “Can I sit for a while?”

“You want a little alone time?” Bitty asks.

“Is that okay??” he asks anxiously. This child.

“Sure,” says Bitty, privately resolving to check on him every 10 minutes. “You just sit right there, all right?”

“Thanks Bitty, you’re the best,” says Chowder, so completely genuine that it tugs at Bitty's heartstrings all over again.

“Holler if you need anything,” Bitty instructs firmly, and he leaves the door open a crack on his way back downstairs.

He comes back seven minutes later, because he can’t help himself. When he peeks in the door with a light tap that Chowder doesn’t seem to hear, he finds that Chowder has kicked his shoes off and curled up. The only boy who's been in Bitty's bed all semester long seems to be very seriously talking to Señor Bunny.

Bitty snakes his arm in the door and stealthily leaves a bottle of water on his dresser, and he goes back downstairs.

“Hey Bitty, where’s Chowder?” Nursey asks in the living room. He’s on the couch, now with his back against the armrest and his legs thrown across Shitty and Pacer, both of whom seem to be taking it with good grace. They’ve apparently moved on from Super Smash Bros., Dex and a wild-eyed Rans jostling each other while playing FIFA. Somebody dragged the beer pong table out of the closet, and Faulksy and Holster are crushing Gonzo and Wags. It smells faintly of weed, so at least one or two probably went out front to smoke. Everybody is wet from the snowball fight, aside from Lardo, who is, mysteriously, bone dry.

“He’s taking a break upstairs — ‘scuse me, that’s me,” Bitty says as the timer goes off, going to rescue his pie. Somebody has turned out the lights while he’s been out of the kitchen, leaving just the Christmas lights on. He opens the oven door for a look at the pie. The crumble on top is starting to brown beautifully, golden and perfect. It smells divine. He turns the temperature down to 350° and sets the timer for another 20 minutes.

He looks around the kitchen and winces. There are pizza boxes and stacks of dirty dishes everywhere. “Your mama taught you better than this,” he says to himself. He starts breaking down the boxes and tossing out half-eaten pizza crusts, wiping down plates and the table. He puts away the canisters of flour and sugar, and tucks the leftover butter into the fridge. He Swiffers the floor to “Partition.” His head is buzzing, but Bitty has always gotten the responsible kind of drunk where he cleans up and checks to make sure nobody’s puking. He appreciates cleaning while tipsy.

By the time there’s 10 minutes left on the timer, the night’s monstrous pile of dishes in the sink has shrank to just the large pile of dishes from the last couple pies that Bitty baked today. The rest of the kitchen is looking cleaner than it has since finals began.

Satisfied with his work, Bitty finishes his beer and goes upstairs to check on Chowder.

“Chowder?” he calls, rapping at his door and then pushing in. “You really oughta have some—” Chowder’s not sitting on the bed. He’s not sitting at Bitty's desk, either; he’s nowhere to be seen. A freezing cold breeze tugs at Bitty, raising the hair on the back of his neck: his window overlooking the porch roof is open.

Bitty has a half a second to clutch at his heart before he realizes that Chowder isn’t flailing around on the roof alone — there are voices out there. He grabs the bottle of water off his dresser and hurries to the window.

It's still lightly snowing. Chowder is tucked just under the window, slumped on Dex with his face smushed against his shoulder. Nursey is sitting facing them, his legs folded. Even as Bitty looks out, Nursey says something that makes Dex snort and Chowder bloom with a completely goofy smile. Nursey laughs at the look on Chowder’s face; Dex slants a glance sideways at Chowder and laughs too, making no move to try to shove him off.

Bitty almost hates to disturb them, but Nursey has caught his eye. “Y’all all right out here?” Bitty asks, leaning out the window.

Chowder lights up. “Bitty!” he says. “You’re upside down!! Did you know?”

“Nope, thanks Chowder,” Bitty says, rather than trying to explain that Chowder has tipped his head back and is looking at him upside-down.

“We’re cool,” Nursey promises. “We’ll be down in a couple minutes.”

“Make sure they’re drinking plenty of water,” Bitty tells Nursey sternly, and he passes him the bottle of water. He waits until he's sure that Nursey has a good grip on it, before he lets go. That boy could drop a glass even if it was glued to his hand.

“Hey, I’m not drunk,” Dex says, blatantly lying. His ears are covered by his hat, but Bitty would be willing to bet that they’re just as pink as Chowder’s face is.

“Dude, chill, Bitty’s just trying to help,” says Nursey.

Bitty leaves the room on Dex’s outraged, “Stop telling me to chill!

Downstairs, the impromptu party is winding down. Ransom has disappeared, but Holster is gone too so he’s probably upstairs in the attic making sure Rans doesn’t try to study his brains out all night instead of sleeping. Ollie, Gonzo, Pacer, and their other teammates have cleared out. Lardo is helping Shitty throw empty beer bottles into a trash bag, and collect empty pie plates and pizza boxes. Shitty is smiling enormously at whatever she just said.

Bitty steps into the kitchen and finds his pie cooling on the countertop and Jack Zimmermann washing dishes at the sink with his plaid shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. “Oh,” Bitty says, pulling up short, startled.

“The timer went off. It was supposed to come out, right?” says Jack, looking back over his shoulder.

“Yes!” says Bitty. “Yep. Thank you.”

He turns back to the sink. “Quite a mess, Bittle.” Anybody who thinks Jack is humorless has never had that sly tone turned against them, and definitely not while standing in a kitchen that smells like basil peach pie and is lit by strings of gently blinking Christmas lights while Betsy the oven makes the soft clicking noises that mean she's cooling off, and, good lord, Sam Smith plays quietly in the background.

Bitty swallows hard. “I was gonna come finish the dishes,” he protests.

Jack glances back and smiles under the soft light. “I know,” he says. “Figured I’d give you a hand.”

Bitty is still a little drunk. Really, he is too drunk for this. He viciously stabs at his phone and, thank goodness, Pandora jumps to “Timber.” There’s nothing remotely longing about “Timber.” Jack immediately wrinkles his nose, but Bitty is filled with the satisfaction of a job well done. “I can dry,” he offers quickly, grabbing a dish towel, and he and Jack work in companionable silence for a minute or two. They make a good team just like they do on the ice, Jack handing Bitty clean dishes to be dried and tucked away into cabinets. Bitty concentrates too hard on not letting their hands touch and nearly drops a bowl. If he doesn't watch it, he'll be just as bad as Nursey.

“How’s it going upstairs?” Jack finally asks.

“Chowder’ll be okay. I think he just needs some time. He was really into that girl; they were cute as anything.” He shakes his head.

“Oh,” he says. “Good. That he’ll be okay.” He looks weirdly squirrelly, then Bitty understands why when he adds, “Do you think I should talk to him?”

“—That's okay,” says Bitty, deciding against taking a stab at explaining that Chowder hero-worships Jack and is terrified of his resting face. “The frogs are on it.”

Jack looks enormously relieved, washing the last mixing bowl, and Bitty has to turn away to hide his laugh. Thankfully, a tremendous clattering on the stairs interrupts. For a second, Bitty thinks somebody has fallen down the stairs, but his three favorite frogs stagger safely into the kitchen a minute later. Chowder’s arm is slung around Nursey’s neck, Nursey holding him up. He looks sleepy and drunk but otherwise none the worse for wear. He’s got Dex’s navy blue winter hat jammed down over his ears.

“Yo C, which coat’s yours?” Nursey asks, tossing an empty water bottle at the recycling bin and looking over the mountain of winter gear that has gathered on top of two kitchen chairs. Dex shoots him a scornful look and pulls a teal and black Sharks jacket out of the pile.

“Is that all he’s got?” says Nursey.

“It’s what he was wearing earlier,” Bitty confirms, frowning. Chowder has a coat that's appropriate for winter in Massachusetts. Does Bitty need to text to remind him to wear it? He can do that.

The two frogs folding Chowder into his jacket is a comedy of errors. Chowder himself is no help, laughing the whole time. He's a few inches shorter than them and must weigh less, but he's all limbs and slippery like an eel. Dex drops him while trying to get his arm into one sleeve.

Bitty yelps but Jack is there, catching Chowder under the arms and setting him back up on his feet. Chowder blinks at him for a minute, then lets his head thunk into Jack’s shoulder. He’s cheerfully crooning something muffled.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Bitty scolds, as Nursey and Dex peel Chowder off Jack. Even Nursey looks a little quailed by the look on Jack’s face. “Be careful!”

“I’m trying; he’s a rag doll!” Dex says, but he’s zipping Chowder’s jacket as he says it, so Bitty doesn’t put a lot of stock in his complaining.

Nursey wraps Chowder up in an oversized scarf that, like the hat Chowder is wearing, almost certainly doesn't belong to Chowder. If Bitty was the Grinch, his heart would have grown three sizes today. As it is, it feels too big for his chest. “Night, Bitty, Jack,” says Nursey. His mouth is tilted in that perpetually cool, amused look of his.

Chowder says something that's completely muffled by the scarf that has been wrapped almost all the way up to his eyes. He manages to shove it down enough to tell them, "G'night guys!!" and then he's talking a mile a minute as the three of them go out into the hall. It barely even slows him down when Nursey bangs him into the doorframe.

The kitchen is quiet, for a few seconds.

“The frogs are on it, eh?” asks Jack.

“Oh, shut your mouth,” says Bitty, and he’s gratified when Jack laughs. “Chowder’s the only thing those two agree on; they’ll take good care of him.” If they know what’s good for them, he finishes darkly to himself. He covers the basil peach pie and tucks it into the fridge.

Even without looking, he's painfully aware of Jack moving around behind him, putting away the last few clean measuring cups. Last but not least, Bitty unplugs the Christmas lights and grabs his phone.

Lardo is standing with the frogs in the open front door, which does, admittedly, make Bitty feel better about their chances of making it back to the dorms in one piece. She tips Chowder’s face down to her and then laughs at whatever he says to her, and she turns and waves to Bitty and Jack before following the frogs out. There’s a yelp and a definite trip from Chowder, Nursey staggering under his weight, just as the front door closes behind them.

“Bittle,” Jack says, because Bitty apparently took two steps toward the door. “They’ll be fine.”

Bitty points threateningly at Jack. “You be nice to him tomorrow — that child is gonna have a fit when he wakes up and remembers he fell on you.”

“He’s only a year younger than you,” Jack points out but Bitty turns as he’s going up the stairs, and points at him with added vigor. Jack sighs. “I’m always nice to him.”

“Extra nice, Jack Zimmermann,” Bitty warns, and then has to focus on the stairs, because: stairs. Maybe he should have grabbed himself a bottle of water, too.

He thinks Jack is laughing at him, behind him, but for the sake of his dignity, Bitty ignores it. He tries to ignore that it's a nice laugh, too.

Jack says, “Good night, Bittle,” in the hall. He's hovering, in that awkward way he gets sometimes. The Haus is quiet and still all around them.

Bitty says, “Night!!” and flees into his room.

The second he closes his door, he thunks his head against it. “Stupid, stupid,” Bitty tells himself quietly, “don't be stupid.”

He turns away from the door. The frogs thoughtfully closed his window, but even with it shut, he can still hear them outside. He glances out before pulling the curtains. They four of them are walking past the dark houses of frat row toward River Quad, silhouettes clearly outlined as they pass under a streetlight. Lardo is walking backwards slightly ahead of Nursey and Dex, who have boxed Chowder in between them.

A wave of warmth washes over Bitty, and he falls asleep trying to compose the perfect #gotyourback tweet.

In the morning, Bitty sleeps until he doesn't have a headache. When he finally checks his phone at noon, he has a string of Twitter email notifications (apparently somebody got ahold of his phone last night when he left it in the kitchen, and they are gonna get it), and an even longer string of texts from Chowder. The first four of them are just variations on "OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OHH MY GOD OH MY GOD!!!!!" on repeat, with horrified emoji interspersed, but then there was a ten-minute break and Chowder texted again.

wow jack called!!

he was really nice!!!!!!

Bitty smiles at his phone.