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Chicken Run

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“I’m calling a house meeting,” Chris says, yanking the cords out of the front of the PlayStation.

Billy wails, but it’s all drama - he was only picking out his Mario Cart racer. Dustin thinks it is rather considerate timing from Chris, really.

“Dorm meeting,” Mark says, predictably pedantic. “This isn’t a house.” He sits down obediently to finish his tuna though, so Dustin supposes they all saw this coming, even Mark.

“Family meeting?” Dustin suggests, dropping his controller into the gap between the cushions for safekeeping. Chris rolls his eyes but doesn’t object.

Eduardo wanders in at the last minute, as if the metaphorical string that attaches him to Mark has twanged to alert him. He settles against the back of the couch at Mark’s shoulder, eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Is everything okay?”

Chris waves him off. “You don’t need to stay Eduardo - you know how to use a door, unlike this collection of barnyard animals.”

Mark scoffs around a mouthful of tuna.

Chris holds up a slim book - the Harvard Student Handbook. Dustin recognises the cover.

“We all signed these at the beginning of the year,” he begins. “So you should have read the section on maintenance and repairs.”

“I never signed that,” Mark says. Chris ignores him.

“I’ll condense the paragraph for you,” he says. “Damage to a dormitory will result in the forfeiture of your deposit.”

He pointed at the door. Well, the drywall behind it, Dustin supposes. It’s off white like all the other walls. It’s a little scuffed. There are a couple of dust bunnies nestled in the corner.

“Do you see that mark on the wall?”

“I’m not on the wall,” Mark mumbles. Dustin doesn’t even need to turn around to know that Eduardo is smiling fondly at the half formed crack as the rest of them ignore it.

“I don’t see anything,” Billy says, stubborn.

“Well, maybe if you wore your glasses you’d be able to see the lock instead of chipping the paint off it when you stumble in at 4am,” Chris practically hisses at him.

“Is there a curfew?” Eduardo asks, the worry in his voice absolutely sincere. Dustin twists to give him a subtle nod in thanks for derailing Chris’s slide into homicide. Billycide, even.

“There’s no curfew,” Mark says, the disgust in his voice almost palpable.

“How could they expect us to do anything groundbreaking with those kinds of constraints? Some people are simply better suited to working at night. Sometimes it comes down to melatonin cycling - it’s not necessarily a deficiency-”

Anyway,” Chris said, sounding a lot calmer, in that pleased way that he was when he got the opportunity to stop Mark in his tracks.

Dustin wished he got that kind of pleasure out of playing Russian roulette with Mark’s temper. Chris was a braver man than him. Top shelf boss level.

“Anyway. That mark on the wall is eventually going to become a hole in the drywall, and if we lose our deposits because of adoor I will extract every dime out of your hides.”

There is silence apart from the subtle sound of Eduardo swallowing nervously.

Dustin grimaces. Maybe he has let the door bump the wall a couple of times. He’ll work on it.

To be honest, this is really a standoff between Chris and Billy. Billy is a shameless repeat offender who slams just about everything. The doors, the refrigerator, his drawers, his laptop, textbooks.

Eduardo has probably never slammed a door in his life, like some kind of gentle beanstalk giant.

And Mark - he is surprisingly careful. He slips in so quietly. Sometimes Dustin turns around and finds Mark digging through the refrigerator when Dustin could have sworn he was still at his art history lecture.

Dustin wonders whether Mark even knocks before letting himself into Eduardo’s single in Eliot. Probably not.

Dustin always knocks before he goes into the double he shares with Chris. Whatever anyone says, he does have some respect for his friends.

“I don’t slam the door and neither does Wardo,” Mark says finally, obviously bored and itching to end the conversation. “We’re not about to start slamming it now.”

“I’ll be sure to be really - careful,” Eduardo promises earnestly.

Chris sighs in resignation. He just nods at them both and presses his fingers to the skin between the bridge of his nose and his eyebrow. It’s the spot Dustin knows his reading glasses dig into after hours of reading at the desk in their room with the bad lamp.

“Billy and I will work really hard on improving our door skills,” Dustin gabbles quickly, hoping that Billy has enough sense today to simply agree with him.

Billy glares at him, mutinous, but he nods reluctantly. “Fine.”

+++

They do try, at least for the first few weeks. Dustin tries to think of it as secret agent drills - but he is prone to tripping over the small mountain of shoes just inside the door, so his attempts at stealth go mostly unnoticed.

Billy definitely slams the door less often. But Billy also uses the door less because he’s simply not around as much. He finds reasons to be out of the suite.

This isn’t as awkward as it could be: Chris is happy. Mark is the real beneficiary, as in Billy’s absence he has technically been upgraded to a large single. Eduardo is over so often they’re practically a full suite of four anyhow, and who doesn’t like Eduardo?

Dustin would feel bad for Billy, but honestly, he thinks getting their deposit back would be a nice little windfall. Chris makes a good point. He always does.

It’s no surprise that the knob on their dorm room door continues to bounce off the wall when it is thrown open too hard.

In a last ditch effort Chris bought one of those rubber things you attach to the wall to stop it from happening but Billy broke it off in about a week.

There are some nasty scuffs on the drywall now, black ones, even though the knob is brass. Maybe it’s something else - some kind of dark gold alloy. Dustin nearly aced AP Chemistry - and shouldn’t three years of chemistry ensure you leave school able to identify metals?

Whatever the door knob is made of, it leaves a mark when it smacks the wall. This time Dustin can definitely see a new mark - if not an actual dent. Chris will be furious.

The surprise is that today it is Christopher ‘I’ll take my deposit in the form of a pound of flesh’ Hughes slamming the door open.

“You have to help me,” Chris says, completely ignoring this shameless insult to their agreed door use etiquette.

Chris stumbles over the shoe mountain and the tangled cords of their PlayStation controllers to lean heavily on the arm of the couch Dustin has hijacked for the weekend.

He usually leaves the desk in their room to Chris - he has a lot more paper to deal with, whereas Dustin likes to labour under the illusion that he is running a paperless operation.

As far as Chris knows, Dustin does nearly all of his work on his laptop and at the Econ department labs. Even now, Dustin is not quite sure why Chris still believes this - Eduardo is also an Econ major, and he’s always lugging a messenger bag of paper around.

Dustin can only assume Chris is just enamoured with the ecological idea of being paperless because he is in a constant overwhelmed state of despair over his own mountains of readings and textbooks.

Dustin isn’t about to disabuse him of the notion. He just keeps his caches of notes under the bed and in the Econ locker that Chris doesn’t need to know about.

“You have to help me,” Chris says again, plaintive, and Dustin is immediately alert.

He pushes aside his makeshift desk/dining table/gaming centre situation and pats the cushions next to him. “What’s up, man?”

Mark took a couple of undergrad psychology classes in their first semester and Dustin is one hundred percent ready to crack out his second hand learnings.

Chris pauses for a moment, and hisses under his breath, “Is Mark here?”

Dustin shakes his head, “No, he’s at the labs - Wardo’s away this weekend, remember?”

Chris goes to check Mark’s room, regardless, and honestly, Dustin is intrigued by this all new sneaky Chris act. Very Double-0-Hughes.

“Okay, shit - Dustin, you have to help me,” Chris says, and Dustin’s brain fuzzes out momentarily and he’s very momentarily on the sand swept planet of Tattooine as he entertains the thought of Chris getting down on bended knee to beg. Chris would never. He has this amazing aura of dignity that Dustin can’t fathom.

“Uh huh,” Dustin says, completely willing to help, even if he’s blanking out.

“So Eduardo told me I could borrow his notes from that Business Ethics paper we’re both in, and he told me where he hid his spare key in Mark’s room-”

And honestly, that’s an shocking piece of Eduardo-related information that Dustin isn’t sure how he has missed.

Chris barrels on as if this is somehow a completely normal fact and not another earth shattering development in the absolute coup that is Mark effortlessly bagging one of the hottest people to cross the threshold of Kirkland House.

Maybe he should take the Psychology papers. Sometimes Dustin really gets why his peers are at Harvard...and then he wonders what the hell he’s doing here.

“So I let myself in and went to sit down at his desk - it is so quiet in Eliot, did you know that? No wonder he’s pulling upper 95th percentile grades. Anyway - I was just going through the notes and I just - I guess I opened the window before I sat down.”

Chris pauses for breath, and Dustin waits patiently for him to go on. He has absolutely no idea what Chris is talking about, but that’s par for the course. Chris doesn’t deal in absolutes the way that Mark and Dustin do, and Dustin thinks that’s beautiful. And extremely confusing.

“And - then - the CHICKEN jumped up and it practically tore open my arm for a second before it hurled itself out the window.”

Dustin remains silent for a moment, trying to sort through this data in a way that could make it make sense. It’s very difficult.

Clearly his face says as much, because Chris starts defensively rolling up his shirt sleeve - and it’s a lovely arm, wiry and pale - to show him the faint white scratches. There is no blood, which is for the best, really. Dustin isn’t great with stuff that should be inside the body being outside the body. Urk.

“I believe you,” Dustin says peacefully, “I’m just trying to place a...chicken in Eduardo’s room.”

Chris’s drawn face relaxes marginally to glare at him in a familiar way. “Don’t say it.”

Dustin can’t not say it. It’s criminal to let the opportunity pass. “I mean, you’re the farm boy.”

Chris sucks in a deep breath, and anyone but Dustin would duck for cover. Chris is like a big ruffled bird himself - he struts around intimidating people, but he can take a few pecks from time to time.

Chris leaps back on topic. “I’d forgotten - obviously - but his final club is still hazing him.”

Right, Dustin remembers Mark having some vocal thoughts on this topic as well.

“And now they have him looking after a chicken - as if that means anything. It’s hard to kill a chicken, you have no idea how tenacious the little bastards can be.”

“So there’s a fancy chicken on the loose and you need to catch it before they start serving up nuggets at Charlie’s Kitchen.” Dustin sums it up.

Chris closes his mouth mid-diatribe and watches as Dustin gets up to put his shoes on. “Yes,” he says, mollified.

“So - you’ll come help me look for it?”

Dustin shakes down a pile of dubiously clean laundry in the corner and snags a threadbare towel.

“I’ll do you one better,” Dustin says, flashing him a grin. “If you’ll lend me your gloves, I’ll catch it for you.”

Chris strips them off without further discussion and holds the door open for Dustin.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Mark would rat me out immediately.”

Dustin shrugs his coat on with a smile. “Can’t beat ole dependable Dustin.”

+++

Harvard Yard seems so much bigger when you’re searching it for a moving target no larger than a soccer ball.

Dustin decides the best way to narrow the search field is through intelligence.

“Excuse me, miss, have you seen a chicken in the last half hour?”

“Dustin,” Chris hisses at him. “I thought we were keeping this on the down low?”

“Do you really think Mark is tuned into campus gossip?” Dustin said, raising his eyebrows at him.

“Uh, no, just pigeons,” the girl replies, shooting them a weird look.

Chris exhales audibly through his nose. Dustin waits through the several second long interval. Calming breathing techniques are good. Not sure if he’s ever seen them actually work on Chris, but maybe they’re actually what’s standing between them and the void.

They stand quietly for a moment in the otherwise humming quad.

It’s just after the hour, so students are milling between classes, greeting each other. Some are heading into the convenience store or heading straight into the campus bar - and it’s only Monday, so Dustin can only send them his sympathies for what must be trying circumstances.

What Dustin can’t hear is clucking. What he wants to hear is clucking. Ground level clucking.

“Right.” Dustin says, turning in the spot and fixing Chris’s position in his internal GPS. “The plan is… You stay right here and keep a lookout for...bird activity. I’ll do recon.”

Chris, disconcertingly even paler than usual, nods and stays put. Which is frankly far scarier to Dustin than the possibility of losing Eduardo’s chicken.

Dustin is no stranger to interrupting people - it’s basically his go-to technique for meeting new friends. He used to work summers as a leaflet guy too, so it comes pretty naturally now.

There is a bit of a strategy to it, depending on what you’re handing out.

The leaflet guys want either brand recognition through volume - where you just hit Everyone with whatever you have, or they want attention from a specific type of customer - this is when you want to be a little more selective.

Handing out face cream samples to women and car ads to guys, that kind of stereotyping. Mix it up occasionally when you get the right vibe from their outfit or whatever.

Blah blah blah marketing. He’s sure Chris and Eduardo would know more.

Point is, there are a Lot of people in the Yard to ask.

Dustin hones in on a knot of stoners who look like they’ve established a camp on the steps.

“Hey, have you guys seen a chicken by any chance?”

Laughter. “Like, what colour?”

Dustin realises only now that he genuinely has no idea what Eduardo’s chicken looks like. What if it’s a fancy chicken?

“Chicken coloured?” He tries weakly. “Brown or maybe...white…” What other colours can chickens be?

“The little red hen,” the girl at the back shrieks, and Dustin is about to write them off when they all erupt into laughter again. “That way, man,” the guy sitting on the pavement says through giggles.

Dustin lifts his hand briefly. “Thanks.”

A lead is a lead, and he heads in the direction indicated, which is, unfortunately, for their Where’s Waldo situation, the busy side of the yard. Promising though, is that it is also the side with coffee carts and snacks. Poultry paradise.

Dustin asks the people sitting on the benches along the way if they’ve seen errant bird life. Most haven’t, but a couple of juniors nursing double fisted coffee cups nod and give him a general direction.

One girl says she saw a ton of chickens over the weekend, chicks too, but Dustin thinks she might be thinking of ducklings. A chicken belonging to Eduardo couldn’t possibly have that kind of game.

Dustin is in scanning mode, thinking through the efficiency of breaking the yard up into a gridded search area when Chris catches up.

“Any luck?” Chris asks briskly, though Dustin can tell he’s still freaking out. His cheeks always go pink in the cold and he’s paler than Mark’s lame fencing whites.

“Yes,” Dustin says. “I have eyewitness accounts that indicate our man could be in the area.”

“I think it’s a girl chicken,” Chris says, voice uncharacteristically unhappy as he corrects Dustin.

“I dunno,” Dustin says, “I’d say it’s a bit of a cock.”

Chris glowers instead of punching him, and that’s just such a sad response to one of his puns that Dustin has to glance away to let his face drop out of Chris’s sight.

Okay. Morale. Boosting morale. “Do you want to get coffee?” Dustin asks, seeing the crowd part in front of Chris’s usual coffee cart.

Chris starts. “Now? Right now?”

“Yeah.” Dustin says. “You look cold.”

Chris stares at him, zipped to the chin in a knee length puffer jacket, gloves back on and pulled over his wrists, scarf wrapped around every inch of neck.

There are a couple of solitary snow sprinkles perched in his sweeping fringe, and it’s crisp enough that they aren’t melting yet.

Fully rugged up, Chris looks like he must be positively temperate, despite having forgotten his usual hat. It’s not even a cold day, as snow days in Cambridge go.

Dustin, on the other hand, is in dark brown khakis, and a fleece windbreaker half-zipped over a tshirt he can’t remember belongs to him or Mark.

Accessories: a towel slung over his shoulder like a dishcloth, and what he wouldn’t hesitate to refer to as a charming grin.

“Coffee sounds good,” Chris says, finally.

His shoulders drop in resignation and Dustin regrets his attempt at distraction already. It’s far worse watching Chris shrink into his winter coat. He’s always charging around organising these intimidatingly huge campus-wide events - Dustin forgets Chris is actually the size of a tiny pixie.

“It’s just a lull in our campaign,” Dustin promises, reaching for his wallet chain.

+++

“Why do we keep coming here? It’s so bad.”

Despite his complaints, Chris doesn’t stop sipping his burnt coffee.

Dustin also took pity on a sad looking almond croissant. They’re picking it apart between them, standing pressed together under the tiny awning of the campus bookshop as a light shower dusts the Yard.

It’s half snow, half rain, and it blows over before they finish eating. Chris’s cheeks are nearly pink now.

“It’s cheap,” Dustin answers Chris’s rhetorical question. “And you’re an addict. You’re the one who keeps crawling back every morning.”

Chris huffs. “Because they open before seven! Like you’re not in a twisted relationship with gummy snakes.”

“I don’t deny this,” Dustin says, honorable when called out on the facts.

It’s a good sign when Chris starts sniping at him.

Dustin swirls the last of his coffee and offers it to Chris. He never can finish a cup.

Chris takes it without comment and drains the black dregs like the disgusting coffee fiend he is.

Dustin is stuffing their empty cups into the paper bag when he feels Chris grip his forearm, sharp fingertips digging in like - well, like talons, he has to admit with some amusement.

“Chicken,” Chris hisses, jerking his chin somewhere across the Yard, as if a bird might notice they’re talking about it.

Dustin scans the damp concrete. In between the umbrellas and stark soaked benches is a cache of garbage. Paper cups rolling with the gusts of wind, a couple of sandwich bags bouncing after them, and some greasy fast food wrappers. And a fat brown chicken, pecking industriously among them.

Dustin really hopes it is pecking at real food rather than scraps of grease paper and torn plastic. He doesn’t want to get hauled up on animal cruelty charges by the Boston arm of PETA or something.

They watch the chicken in disbelief for a few moments. It must have been there the whole time, scavenging the fringes of Harvard Yard as oblivious college students paid it little notice.

“Is that your chicken,” Dustin says finally.

Chris‘s eyes are glued to the fowl, fists flexing slowly like he’d be happy to wring its neck as soon as he can get into range. “Not my chicken.”

“Give me a second,” Dustin said, taking Chris’s shoulder gently and turning him on the spot to track the chicken’s path. “Do not let the unsub out of your sight.”

He hangs the towel over Chris’s shoulder and ducks into the convenience store next to them. There are a few fraught moments in the snack aisle as he cranes over the shelves to check in on Chris in between searching for the bag he needs.

The clerk nods at his selection, snapping his gum as he puts the transaction through. “Good choice, birds go nuts for this stuff.”

Dustin grins, “Oh yeah?”

A sign! Dustin knows that this is kind of rude - but this is clearly a tip from an NPC.

“You’re catching a chicken right? I’ve had like ten guys in here this week chasing fraternity chickens. You’ve done well - some guys said they lost them on the first day.”

“Thanks, man,” Dustin said. “Wish me luck.”

He shakes his head in disbelief as he heads back to Chris, popping the bag open as he walks out into the cold wind.

“Dustin, Dustin. Dustin,” Chris says, stress making his voice shrill.

To his credit, his gaze is still keenly fixed on the chicken, which has made the ambitious choice of scaling the John Harvard statue in the middle of the Yard.

“Gloves,” Dustin says, immediately. Chris peels them off and passes them over. Dustin gets one half on before backtracking - they’re way too small to fit his spade sized hands.

Dustin gives them back. “I’ve got this,” he says, as reassuring as he can manage. It’s a chicken. He won’t die from a couple of scratches.

It’ll be the sepsis that will get him in the end.

Dustin walks towards the statue casually, as if he is just hoping to rub the toe of the statue for luck like all the other students milling around.

There are a couple of family groups who are now visibly reconsidering Yale based on the barnyard animal situation developing before their eyes.

Dustin mentally apologises, but he has no other option. He scatters his first handful of sunflower seeds in an arc around the front of the statue.

Chris begins to swear liberally as the pigeons descend. G-d help them all.

Amongst the chaos Dustin’s plan begins to unfold. The pigeon horde crowds most humans out of the vicinity of the statue. This gives Dustin the casualty-free space he needs to take on the enemy.

He watches with bated breath as the chicken inevitably spies the seed and opens her beak and wings in anticipation.

She leaps into the fray, scattering pigeons and seed in a gentle cloud as her considerable feathered behind hits the bricks.

“Towel,” Dustin instructs, hand outstretched behind him. The fabric slaps into his grip and Chris retreats quickly.

As the chicken gets to pecking, Dustin sidles up behind her, casually. Maybe he wants some seeds too. Maybe he’s looking at the statue. Maybe he’s about to kick a pigeon. The chicken would never know. That’s how casual Dustin is.

He unfurls the towel as quietly as he can. Then he drops it heavily over her head and grabs her around her plump little torso. Luck is with him - he manages to wrap the towel neatly around her whole body, confining her sharp little feet and beak to grasping angrily at a double layer of cloth.

Success. A pure shot of pride puffs up his chest and he grins up at Chris, hoisting his bundled chicken into the air.

Chris is still safely about twenty feet away and he looks both relieved and utterly shocked. That’s fair - Dustin can’t believe it has gone this well, either.

His gloves are hanging out his pockets, forgotten, and his whiteknucked hands are wrapped around his middle. Dustin hops over the still teeming mass of pigeons, chicken cradled tightly in the crook of his elbow. He offers Chris a high-five, but Chris backs up quickly instead.

“Let’s take it back to Eliot,” he says apologetically.

Dustin narrows his eyes even as he obediently trails Chris back across the bridge.

“Sooo. Are you scared of birds, Chris?”

Chris snorts. “No.” He walks faster, crunching through the thin new layer of snow.

Dustin hums thoughtfully, hiking the chicken a little higher as he extricates his fingers from the prickle of claws working their way through the towelling.

“My mom is scared of birds too. My grandma keeps chickens in the yard. You can imagine how fun family reunions are.”

Chris slows almost imperceptibly. “That’s where you learned to catch chickens?”

“Nah, this is my first time,” Dustin shrugs.

Chris almost stops in his tracks at that. “Seriously?”

“Mmhm,” Dustin preens, striding ahead to walk with Chris whilst maintaining a respectful six feet of bird related distance.

“Unbelievable,” Chris says, under his breath. “Absolutely ridiculous,”

“What’s that, farm boy?” Dustin asks innocently.

“Oh, I’d like to see you milk a cow, townie.” Chris threatens him. He throws open the door to Eliot, narrowly avoiding walking straight into a clutch of bewildered residents.

+++

“I’ve got the key,” Chris says, practically sprinting ahead up the stairs to open Eduardo’s door.

Dustin jiggles his swaddled bird like a baby as they tackle the stairs slowly together. “You’re alright, aren’t you?” He coos to the chicken.

Dustin finds it strangely analogous to holding his little cousins. Madam Nugget - a fitting name which will simply have to do until Eduardo can fill them in on her real name - has calmed right down thanks to a stable grip that doesn’t allow for wriggling or flapping. The secret is supporting the butt.

She’s a hefty girl too; Dustin is sure he has carried lighter turkeys around the grocery store for his mom.

It’s like she can smell they’ve reached her temporary home - she starts writhing and fluttering like a dog desperate to slip its leash and run into the surf.

Dustin pins her firmly against his chest, patting gently as Chris flings Eduardo’s door open and ushers Dustin in.

“Okay, I have to - I’ll be in the hallway, keeping watch.” Chris backs out of the dorm, puffer coat rustling as he squeezes out through the nearly shut door.

Dustin stifles his chuckle, surveying the room. He’s never been inside Eduardo’s single before - Eduardo usually comes to Kirkland or they head to the library to study. Mark is probably the only regular visitor. One of his hoodies is folded neatly on the end of Eduardo’s bed, probably waiting for Eduardo to ferry it back to their dorm later.

The window is open, like Chris said, so Dustin takes the time to slide it shut while he still has Madam Nuggets in custody.

It’s stiff, like it’s been open a while in the changing temperature. Dustin wonders how Chris managed to push it open in the first place. It would need two hands and a considerable amount of force.

Seeing as Chris had been attacked in the open Dustin elects to give the chicken free range and leave it up to Eduardo to convince the monster back into her cage. It also seems a little mean to put her back in right after he’s just seen her living her best life out in the Yard.

Dustin puts the chicken down and peels away her swaddling. Of course, against all probability, she clucks at him and struts straight into her cage to settle down in the hay.

Unbelievable.

There’s a frantic knock on the door. Dustin desperately throws the towel around his neck like a shabby scarf. He opens the door only to find Eduardo literally coming down the hallway and Chris nowhere in sight.

How perfectly Double-0-Hughes. No matter - Mr. Moskovitz is a consummate professional.

“Wardo!” Dustin calls out, lifting his hand in greeting. “This looks bad, but I can explain.”

If Chris is swearing under his breath around the corner, Dustin certainly can’t hear him.

Eduardo grins, initial confusion dissipating.

He still looks a little strained around the eyes. The way he gets when they have a completely impossible stack of econ assignments to complete in less than two weeks. Or when Mark hasn’t eaten in two days or slept in three.

Eduardo jogs to the door, sliding his bag off his shoulder already.

Dustin closes the door behind him, “First of all, don't freak out, but I think your chicken figured out how to open the cage?”

Eduardo drops his bag, eyes immediately going to first the closed window and then the cage - which is full of plump snoozing chicken.

Dustin watches his shoulders drop and roll back as he sucks in a big calming breath.

“No,” Eduardo says. Relief colours his voice thoroughly. “I opened the cage. But I was sure - I was so worried I might have forgotten to shut the window.”

Eduardo pushes his hands through his hair, destroying the neatly gelled quiff. “Graças a Deus.... I can’t believe I left early for nothing.”

Dustin grins. Of course Chris would walk into this predicament - and then take on absolute responsibility for solving it.

He’s always fixing their problems - the most surprising thing is Eduardo actually getting a turn. Usually it’s Mark making an absolute mess of something.

If Chris doesn’t leave college with an honorary PhD in communications, it will be a crime, and Dustin will petition (after he asks Chris how to petition, probably). Chris has endless experience in talking aggravated baristas, waitresses, Harvard office administrators and, on one memorable occasion, a math professor, into reluctantly forgiving Mark his foibles.

It might be best that he doesn’t tell Chris that Eduardo left the window open after all. Dustin doesn’t think anyone would react well to the inevitable reduction in Eduardo’s life expectancy.

Eduardo creeps over to swing the door shut on the chicken cage and sets his messenger bag tidily on his desk with a sigh.

He turns his attention back to Dustin, giving him an encouraging smile, “Why were you here, anyway? Not that I mind - you’re always welcome,” Eduardo amends.

“I’m - uh - Chris asked me to pick up some notes? He gave me the key.”

Dustin literally has no idea where the key is. Hopefully Chris has it.

Eduardo blinks. “I forgot he was going to get those today. Is he sick or something?”

“Just busy,” Dustin says, blandly, “I’m just...doing him a favour. Because I’m such a good friend!”

Eduardo smiles at that. “You are a great friend, Dustin.”

Dustin gives him his best aw-shucks act.

Eduardo shuffles through some of the papers on his desk, eventually unearthing a faded and flattened green folder from the very bottom of the stack.

“It’s a good thing I came back - there’s no way you would have found it,” he laughs.

Dustin takes it eagerly. “I’ll get this to Chris.”

“No problem.” Eduardo says. “I’ll come over in a while, if that’s okay?”

Dustin doesn’t know why he asks - Eduardo, polite to a fault, always brings food, beer and some kind of magic that convinces Mark to both smile and leave his laptop for a round of Mario Cart.

“Mark will be pleased.” Dustin says. “I’ll text him to leave the labs early.”

Eduardo smiles, face softening. “Maybe I’ll go collect him.”

Dustin tucks the folder under his arm, chewing his lip in uncertainty.

Is this jealousy or just the subtle loneliness of third-wheeling? At least he and Chris have each other.

And Madam Nugget, he supposes.

Dustin is just about to head out when he remembers. “You’re supposed to take Mada- the chicken everywhere you go, right?”

Eduardo flushes, double checking on the chicken in her cage behind him. “Yeah - I mean, I really thought he’d be okay for a day-”

“She.” Dustin says automatically.

“She, right, yeah. Anyway, I left her food and water and I let her be like...free range? I know I should have taken her with me, but I’d have to explain the whole hazing thing to my father…”

Dustin flaps his hands at Eduardo until he pauses mid-sentence, nearly hyperventilating.

“I’m not gonna snitch on you to the final club or whatever,” Dustin reassures him. “I’m just asking if you’re going to take the chicken to the labs.”

Eduardo looks stressed. “I think I have to,” he says.

Dustin cannot think of an image more ludicrous than Eduardo carrying a chicken through the computer science department.

He wonders whether Mark will deign to acknowledge him with poultry in tow. Mark is surprisingly self conscious for a colour-blind nerd who owns no footwear outside of two identical pairs of adidas slides.

“And Kirkland?” Dustin presses Eduardo, who looks increasingly harried.

“She’ll be in the cage.” Eduardo promises.

Dustin shrugs, “Okay, but Chris has a bird phobia, so you might want to bring a sheet or something to cover her.”

“Oh no.” Eduardo says, his face twisting simultaneously into a stressed and guilt stricken expression.

Dustin waved a hand to diffuse the tension, “We’ll figure it out.”

“I’ll take Mark to the cafeteria.” Eduardo decides. “He needs something resembling nutrition and I can just feed the chicken little bits of something.”

Dustin, struck a sudden foreboding feeling, reaches into his pocket. “Here,” he says, tossing the ziplocked package of sunflower seeds onto Eduardo’s bed.

The cage lurches halfway across the table with the weight of a greedy lunging chicken.

“What the-” Eduardo steps back from the cage in apprehension.

“She’s powerful,” Dustin says wisely, and leaves Eduardo to it.

Chris has managed to sidle out of Eliot after all, and Dustin finds him conscientiously kicking frozen snow off the front steps.

“These steps are a death trap,” he says to Dustin in greeting, falling into step with him.

“Well?” He says after they round the corner.

Dustin laughs at his impatience. “Mission accomplished.”

Chris bumps his shoulder playfully and literally skips to the next road crossing. It’s one of the best things Dustin has seen in at least a week.

“I’m so relieved, you have no idea.” Chris says, earnestly. “Thank you so much, Dustin. Seriously.”

Dustin ducks his head as they wait on the curb for a line of cars to pass.

“My pleasure,” he says simply, and they cross the street in tandem, shoulders and hands bumping as they pick their way across the icy surface.

“Your hands are freezing,” Chris says. He pauses on the opposite curb, digging into his pockets for gloves.

“They don’t fit,” Dustin reminds him, flexing his superior jumbo hands in front of them in demonstration.

“Oh,” Chris says. “Well, here.” He took Dustin’s left hand in his right and squeezed it tightly, walking on quickly enough that Dustin has to take a couple of extra strides to catch up.

The cold doesn’t usually get to him, but Dustin begins to wonder whether he is experiencing hypothermia. He’s somehow warm and - quite possibly hallucinating.

Maybe Chris chats as they walk. Maybe Dustin replies? They get almost all the way back to Kirkland and Dustin can’t remember any of it - he’s pretty sure he lost his mind and went into a fugue state.

Chris’s chilly fingertips are gently brushing like ghosts across the back of Dustin’s hand.

The dorm comes into view, the stone dark with rain and ice and Chris drops his hand suddenly.

“Have you washed your hands?” Chris says, staring at his hand like Dustin has infected him with smallpox or something.

Dustin opens his mouth, then closes it again, confused. “What...are we talking about?” He says slowly.

Is this like...a cooties thing? Dustin is not a hundred percent certain about how cooties work in an adult environment.

“Since you touched the chicken!” Chris squawks.

“No,” Dustin says truthfully, immediately regretting it.

“Ugh,” Chris says, - which is kind of rude, Dustin thinks. Chris kind of looks like he’s about to gag, which is even more hurtful, to be honest.

“I’m so sorry,” Chris calls back to him weakly, already jogging ahead to throw open the heavy Kirkland door with his untainted right hand.

Dustin follows him into Kirkland, bemused but concerned that Chris might actually throw up and pass out from contracting this recently discovered strain of Dustin-Pox.

“I just really need to wash my hands.” Chris says, strained, and Dustin has to concede that he does actually sound apologetic.

“It’s fine,” Dustin says. He watches Chris run up the stairs and down the hall to the first floor washrooms.

The pipes groan. Chris must be cranking the hot water.

Two minutes later, the water stops and Chris appears at the head of the stairs, hands and face pink. Dustin notes that his scarf has unraveled a bit, and his slender pale neck is flushed too.

“Aren’t you going to wash your hands?” Chris asks from the top step.

His voice is absolutely scathing, despite the way his pink little nose makes him look like a rabbit from a distance.

Dustin stands to attention automatically, shoulders flinging backwards, something about Chris’s tone hitting an primordial button or something.

“Of course,” Dustin says, taking the stairs two at a time until he catches Chris on the landing. “You’ll help me, right?”

Chris glares, herding him down the corridor easily.