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Really, Claude should have known what was up from the minute Gritty plucked his phone out of his hands and gestured enthusiastically towards a supply closet.

"What is it, buddy?" Claude asked. He was too tired for this; they'd just played a long away game against the fucking Penguins, and he was ready to get on the bus, put his headphones on, and zone out. However, Annie had asked Claude to be more patient with Gritty, and Annie scared Claude shitless.

Gritty bounced his considerable bulk up and down and pointed towards the closet again.

"Can you use your board, bud?" Claude said. "I don't know what you want me to do if you don't use your words."

Gritty rolled his eyes around several times, but pulled out his communication board and jabbed violently at the boxes: SEE SEE GOOD LITTLE CAT SEE.

"There's a… kitten," Claude said, looking at the closet. "Bro, I don't think that there are any cats in there."

ME HEAR LITTLE CAT SEE SEE SEE GOOD PICTURE.

This was probably an attempt at a prank. In fairness, though, Gritty did really like cats. So, it was possible that there was kitten in the supply closet. Claude still wasn't sure, however, if Gritty liked cats the way people on the internet liked cats or the way Alf liked cats.

Regardless, Claude wasn't going to try to fight the "is-this-a-prank-or-not" battle with a temperamental, seven-foot-tall, three-hundred-seventy-pound mascot.

"Okay, fine," Claude said, opening the closet door. He just barely registered someone saying "wait -" before he was unceremoniously shoved into the closet and the door slammed shut behind him.

"What the fuck, dude?" Claude said, turning to the door. He tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge. Outside of the door, he could hear the sound that was Gritty's laugh: a weird, simultaneously rumbling and squeaky noise that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

"Shit," the someone in the closet said.

Claude turned around to see fucking Sidney Crosby, damp-haired and dressed in his game day suit, sitting on an overturned mop bucket.

"Fuck," said Claude, the gravity of the situation finally starting to sink in. "How long have you been in here?"

Crosby checked his watch. "Half an hour," he said.

"… Did he take your phone?" Claude said, even though he already knew the answer.

"Yeah," said Crosby. "He wanted to take a picture of me with a kitten or something."

"You seriously fell for that?"

"Our mascot's normal," said Crosby. He sounded kind of defensive. "I'm used to taking Iceburgh at his word when he wants a selfie because he's never locked me in a closet."

"To be fair, Gritty's never locked me in a closet either. He's kind of new to the whole mascot… thing," Claude said. "He's still trying to figure out how pranks work."

"Are you some sort of Gritty apologist?" Crosby asked. "Because from where I'm sitting, we're both trapped in a supply closet."

It took forty-five excruciatingly boring minutes for the door to open. Claude hadn't realized how much he relied on his phone when he was bored.

"Thank god," he said feelingly to Annie as he walked out. "I was worried you guys had left without me or something."

"Nah," she said, passing him his cellphone. "It just took a while to get Gritty to tell us where you were. Crosby," she said, looking over her glasses, and passed Crosby his phone.

"Thanks," Crosby said, shooting Annie a nervous glance before heading down the hallway in the other direction. Claude couldn't blame him. Annie was about five feet tall, all sharp angles, was usually looking at her phone, and gave off a permanent air of not giving a shit; she was the amalgamation of every girl that had scared him in high school.

"Let's get to the bus," she said, heading down the hallway.

"So," Claude said, "why was Gritty holding out on you?"

"Don't know. I think he felt like it was really important for you to be in there."

"Does he have a problem with my play?"

"Doubt it." Annie shrugged. "I'll talk with him tonight, get it out of him."

"Keep me posted."

"Sure."

 


 

Two weeks later, Claude had found himself trapped in various supply closets with PK Subban, Dougie Hamilton, Brendan Gallagher, and Tyson Barrie (twice). It somehow wasn't actually surprising when he got shoved into a supply closet at the TD Garden.

Brad Marchand was there. He seemed totally absorbed in a small book – surprising, as Marchand had never really struck Claude as a reader – so Claude turned to try the closet door.

It was locked. That also wasn't surprising.

"So, uh," Claude said, "good book?"

Claude was only able to catch a glimpse of the cover before Marchand grunted and tucked the book in his jacket pocket: it was black, with a red and white title that appeared to say "Art" and "War."

"I've read it before," Marchand said, looking at Claude narrowly. "Did your team's overgrown muppet shove you in here too?"

"Yeah," Claude said. "Sorry. He's been doing this a lot lately. I think he thinks it's a fun prank, so…"

"Tell him that next time I see him, I'm going to fuck him up, eldritch horror or not."

Claude looked at Marchand. "He is seven feet tall," Claude said.

"Try me, bro."

"I'll… let him know, then."

They stood there, staring at each other. Claude found himself wondering if Marchand actually could take Gritty on. He kept thinking about this nature documentary he'd seen once where an angry honey badger had attacked six lions and won. Marchand finally shrugged and took out his book again, flipping to what looked like a well-thumbed page and glaring at it.

"Wouldn't have taken you for a big book guy," Claude said awkwardly.

Marchand shot him a glare. "We're a bunch of intellectuals on this team," he snapped. "Charlie does word searches and I read books."

"What is it, then?"

"Da Vinci Code," Marchand said immediately.

"Bullshit."

"Fuck off, I'm not in the mood for this garbage. It's already like I'm living out a bad fanfic."

"I don't read those."

"Well, neither do I, and yet…" Marchand spread his hands expansively. "Isn't that the cliché, man? Two dudes get locked in a closet and fuck or whatever?"

"I don't want to – I'm not gay," Claude said, suddenly filled with rising horror. "I'm married. To a woman. We have a child."

Gritty couldn't possibly be thinking of that, right? He was a mascot. Mascots didn't have sex. They just kind of… appeared when they were needed.

"Whatever. Mostly, I feel bad for your wife. Your mascot's definitely the better-looking ginger," Marchand said.

That at least broke Claude out of his mascot-related train of thought. Marchand's smile was getting mean. That meant the real chirps were coming, and Claude wasn't in the right mental place for Marchand's particular brand of brutality. Claude wondered if, if he were to choose drinking floor cleaner over being trapped in a closet with Brad Marchand, the team would forgive him – or, at the very least, understand his life choices.

 


 

Claude hadn't ever set up an actual meeting with Annie – she'd just been there when he'd met up with the front office at the beginning of the season, and they'd covered Claude's mascot involvement then.

Besides, she was pretty new to the team. She'd only gotten hired after Gritty had emerged in the Wells Fargo Center and started terrorizing the hot dog vendors and building some sort of nest under the hood of one of the Zambonis.

There was a first time for everything, though, so he sent Annie an email and arrived at her office with a box of donuts. He figured it couldn't hurt to get on her good side, but when she opened the door, she looked down at the box like he'd brought her roadkill.

"I… brought donuts," Claude said helplessly.

"I can tell," Annie said. "This is about Gritty?"

Claude looked at her nameplate on the office door, which read Annie Park – Mascot Manager. "Uh. Yeah," he said. He'd thought that went without saying.

"Come on in," she said.

Annie's office was mostly like Claude had expected, which was to say that it was aggressively impenetrable. However, he'd expected no personal touches, and she did have some art on the walls. All of the art was too weird for him to understand, though. It was all very modern.

"So, uh," Claude said, sitting down in the chair opposite Annie's desk and a painting of green, blue and yellow blobs, "I was wondering if you'd figured out why Gritty keeps trapping me in supply closets."

Annie's jaw tensed slightly. "I've got a lead," she said.

"What is it? Is it a prank?"

"It's not a prank," Annie said. "I… well, I looked at his internet history."

"His internet history?" Claude asked. "Does he have… access to the internet?"

"He's got Twitter," said Annie.

"But like – he has access to the internet… all the time?"

"Sure," Annie said. "He has a phone."

Giving Gritty unfettered access to the internet seemed kind of like introducing a twelve-year-old boy to the internet and hoping he wouldn't search "boobs:" if you came back in fifteen minutes, you'd find the kid had finished with searching "boobs" and had moved on to searching for the most depraved hardcore pornography imaginable. Claude didn't want to know what they'd been hoping Gritty wouldn't search.

"So. What did he… find?" Claude said, dreading the answer.

Annie looked towards the ceiling. "Have you ever heard of fanfiction?"

"I know my agent told me not to look at it."

"That's a good move. Don't," Annie said.

"Has… Gritty been looking at it?"

"Yes," Annie said.

"Oh, no."

"I think," Annie said, "that he's decided that the Flyers need… more talent. And he's decided the best way to get it is to make you fall in love."

"I'm married," Claude said.

"I don't think Gritty's clear on marriage or monogamy," Annie said.

"Also – how's making me fall in love going to work with getting more talent?"

"I think," Annie said, deadpan, "that he's under the impression that, if he managed to, say, set you up with Sidney Crosby, Crosby would want to play with the Flyers and request a trade."

"That's not how that works," Claude said, horror mounting. "That's not how any of this works. And even if it was how it worked, I don't think we could afford Crosby anyway."

"Gritty and I are also working on the concept of money," Annie said. "We've almost gotten to the point where he comprehends that you have to exchange money for goods and services. You try explaining salary caps to him."

"Does he understand… fiction?"

"Absolutely not," Annie said.

"Fuck," said Claude.

"Keep in mind, though, that I haven't actually talked with Gritty about this whole theory. I could be totally wrong."

"Honestly," Claude said, "that definitely makes it worse."

 


 

"So," Ryanne said, sitting down on the couch with a glass of wine, "how was your day?"

"I found out that the best explanation we currently have for why Gritty keeps locking me in closets with people is that he thinks getting me to fuck other hockey players will make the Flyers a better team," Claude said miserably.

Ryanne laughed so hard that she woke the baby up.

"On the bright side," she said when Claude returned from baby-soothing duty, "I was kind of worried that Gritty was jealous of Gavin. So honestly, this is okay."

"Oh, no," Claude said, possibilities suddenly running rampant through his mind. No one had ever told him that mascots could be like pets or firstborn children. It hadn't even occurred to him that Gritty might consider Gavin an interloper. What if Ryanne and Gavin came to a game, and Gritty rushed the stands and ate the baby? Ryanne probably couldn't fight Gritty off, and Claude would be on the ice. Gritty was fast when he wanted to be – Claude being on the ice could mean being too far away to make a difference.

Gritty hadn't eaten any babies yet, but it was difficult to predict what Gritty might do.

"Claude?" Ryanne asked, frowning slightly. "I wouldn't worry about it. He seemed really excited about him."

"What if he eats the baby?" Claude whispered.

Ryanne looked momentarily thoughtful. "It's a non-zero chance," she said, "but given that Gritty hasn't shown any interest in eating babies, I think we're probably good."

 


 

GATORADE, Gritty pointed. He was pointing at his board violently enough for it to be loud – he kept whacking the cardboard with his finger. GATORADE GATORADE GATORADE. GRITTY GATORADE.

"Okay, bud," Claude said. "What color?"

FIGHT.

"That is… not a color," Claude said.

"He means red," Annie said, not looking up from her phone.

Claude tossed Gritty a red Gatorade and then sat down next to Annie, watching the practice that was going on. "So," he said in an undertone, "any news?"

"On what?" Annie said.

"The whole… closet… thing."

"Oh." Annie looked up from her phone then and looked suspiciously towards Gritty. Gritty was distracted by the Zamboni, which was about to come onto the ice. "Well, not really. He's still not saying anything."

"He's a mascot," Claude said. "They don't talk."

"I spent the entire bus ride back yesterday trying to get some useful information out of him," Annie said, "but nothing."

"Ryanne was wondering if it could be that he was jealous of the baby."

"Given that he spent half the flight back the other day trying to convince me that babies like drum kits and I should approve him purchasing your infant a drum kit, I don't think he's jealous of the baby," Annie said.

"I thought you said he doesn't understand money."

"He doesn't. That's why I have to approve anything he tries to buy with his corporate card."

"Why does Gritty have a corporate card?" Claude asked, momentarily sidetracked.

"Well, he's got to eat."

"Ma'am?" The Zamboni driver shouted. "Ma'am, are you the mascot handler here?"

Gritty appeared to be trying to crawl under the Zamboni. The Zamboni was, at least, safely turned off, but the driver looked like he was going to either burst into tears or pass out. From his expression, it appeared that either reaction would have been out of sheer terror.

"Gritty," Annie said, standing up, "get out from under there. Don't you want your Gatorade? It's red!"

Gritty rolled out from near the Zamboni and sat up, eyes rolling wildly. Annie shook the bottle. Gritty looked at the Zamboni, then the bottle of Gatorade, then the Zamboni again.

Then he did a weird almost-burpee into a standing position and waddled over to take the Gatorade. He sat down between Claude and Annie, drinking his Gatorade and grinning toothlessly.

After he finished the Gatorade, he took out his communication board and pointed at FIGHT.

"Nah, bud," Claude said. "This is practice, remember? We don't fight our teammates."

That had taken a while to teach Gritty.

FIGHT GAME.

"Depends on how the game goes," Annie said, absorbed once again in her phone.

NO. NO NO. FIGHT GAME.

"There can't be a fight in every game."

Gritty huffed, made a flapping gesture with both hands, and put his communication board back away. Then he dramatically crossed his arms over his chest and pouted.

 


 

"Claude Giroux! People are telling me that your mascot, he's locking best players in closets. So, I'm thinking this is an honor, yes?"

Claude looked at Alexander Ovechkin and then his watch in mounting horror. It took, on average, about a half an hour to get rescued from whatever closet he got locked in – mostly because, as it turned out, there were a lot of closets in most hockey rinks. While everyone had come to expect that Claude and someone else would be trapped in a closet, Gritty had gotten better at keeping exactly which closet he'd shoved his victims into a secret.

Being trapped in a closet with Brad Marchand for forty-five minutes had been bad enough, but Claude didn't think he could manage being trapped with Ovechkin for that long.

"Uh," he said, realizing Ovechkin was looking at him like he was expecting an answer, "sure?"

"Good, good," Ovechkin said cheerfully, pulling a flask out of his jacket pocket. "I'm hearing this, so I think – good to be prepared! You want some?"

"Uh, sure," Claude said, taking the flask. "What is it? Vodka?"

Ovechkin scoffed. "No, not vodka. Whiskey."

It was, in fact, whiskey – good whiskey. Claude's estimation of the situation immediately improved. He took a swallow and passed the flask back to Ovechkin, who said "za kladovyye!" and then took a drink himself.

"So," Ovechkin said, "why closets? Why best players? Gritty wants you to get advice, learn how to win Cup?"

"No…" Claude said. "He's, uh. I guess he's been spending too much time on the internet."

"Ah," Ovechkin said wisely. "Yes, mascots should not spend time on the internet. Slapshot did this and tried to kidnap the Cup. He said he needed to make wish, but… that is silly. The internet is not good for mascots."

"Our mascot handler seems pretty unconcerned about it."

Ovechkin made a derisive noise and took another swig out of his flask. "American mascot handlers are too soft," he said. "In Russia, mascots listen. Behave. They are not… chaos monsters."

"Bro, if you want to ship Gritty to Russia, you can go right ahead," Claude said. "I'm really sick of getting trapped in closets."

 


 

"Gritty Liberty Bell Flyer," Annie said sternly, looking at Gritty through narrowed eyes, "I need you to come clean about this right now. Why do you keep locking Claude in closets?"

Gritty rolled his eyes before slapping his hands over them.

"We can still see you if you cover your eyes," Annie said.

Gritty moaned loudly and uncovered his eyes so that he could pound his hands on the table. Chuck twitched nervously. Claude couldn't blame him. The guy wasn't that used to working with mascots. After all, no one hired or fired mascots; they just appeared, Athena-like, when a franchise was ready for one.

Privately, Claude didn't think that the Flyers had really been ready for Gritty. He didn't think it was possible to be ready for Gritty.

Forty-five minutes of good-cop bad-cop later, Annie let Gritty leave the conference room. She closed the door behind him, walked back to her chair, and sat down with a sigh.

"So," Chuck said, "that went… well."

"Usually he backs down when I pull the middle name card, but we've made zero progress," Annie said. "He's going to lock Claude in a closet in Ottawa."

"You must have had experience with this sort of thing before," Chuck said. "You came highly recommended – all of your college coaches said your mascot was the best behaved it had ever been."

"Yeah, well. Wrangling Scrotie mostly just meant keeping him from busting into strip clubs and art galleries," Annie said dryly. "And the stakes were a bit different. No one's heard of Scrotie, and right now Gritty's the most famous mascot in sports."

"Look, Comcast doesn't care about the details so long as the media doesn't find out that Gritty's locking players in closets."

"Yeah, but I care that Gritty's locking me in closets," Claude protested. He definitely didn't whine.

"Of course you do. And that's completely reasonable," Chuck said. "We're doing what we can –"

"I just don't want to get locked in a closet again. Especially not with someone from the Senators," Claude said.

"Is there anyone even worth locking in a closet on the Senators?" Chuck asked, apparently mostly rhetorically.

"This isn't funny," Claude said helplessly, even though it was a little funny. A very little bit.

 


 

After being locked in closets with Aaron Ekblad, Jordan Eberle, Matthew Tkachuk, and literally half of the Senators roster (that closet had been really crowded, and Claude didn't want to think about what kind of outcome Gritty could possibly have been imagining), Claude found himself standing outside of Annie's office door again.

This time, he'd brought coffee, which seemed safer than donuts.

Annie opened the door as soon as he'd knocked on it once. She glared at him before taking one of the two coffees he was holding.

"You," she said, "are the least of my problems right now. Come back later. I need to talk with the cops about whether or not Gritty assaulted a thirteen-year-old."

"Did he?" Claude said.

"The party line is no," Annie said, and shut the door in his face.

Claude looked down at the coffee he was still holding. It was the black one, which meant Annie had taken the one already doctored up with almond milk and protein powder. Which meant Annie had taken Claude's coffee. "Fuck," he said.

Somehow, he had a feeling that the whole "help, our mascot keeps locking me in closets" issue was going to be on the backburner for a while.

 


 

"Wow," Ryanne said. "Still?"

"Yes," Claude said, flinging himself onto the sofa and covering his face with his hands.

"So… is this still the 'getting you to fuck hockey players' plan?"

"I don't know," Claude moaned, ignoring what sounded like Ryanne trying – mostly unsuccessfully – to muffle giggles. "And I'm not going to fuck other hockey players. There are at least ten reasons I'm not going to do that."

Ryanne hummed thoughtfully before she said "only ten?"

Claude did not dignify that with a response. He instead lay on the couch and wondered if this mess would ever be over.

It couldn't keep going, right? At some point, Gritty would have to stop locking him in closets.

 


 

"Again? Seriously?" Marchand looked spectacularly unimpressed. "I'm not in the fucking mood for this."

"What, are you in a bad mood because you couldn't hit a stationary puck?" Claude asked. It came out a little smug.

"Fuck you. You've got bigger problems, anyway – it's been fucking months and your mascot's still stuffing you in closets? What's with that?" Marchand crossed his arms over his chest and looked down his nose at Claude, which was impressive given that Claude was taller than Marchand. "You getting to know every closet between here and Philly, bro?"

"… here and California," Claude muttered under his breath.

Marchand snorted. Then, after a minute, he said "you're serious."

"Yes."

"Well, shit."

They both stood in silence for a moment. Claude stared at an enormous bottle of cleaning product to avoid looking Marchand in the eye. The contents were extremely purple.

Even after Claude had finished examining the cleaning product's instructions in both English and Spanish, Marchand was uncharacteristically quiet.

"Wait," Claude said, looking away from the cleaning bottle, "you're not going to be an asshole now?"

"Nah," Marchand said. "I mean. This is pretty shitty for you, bro."

"This is pretty shitty for everyone involved," Claude said. "I don't think anyone wants to be locked in a closet after a game."

"Look, what I'm saying is – I'm not going to kick a man when he's down."

Claude had definitely seen Marchand kick a man when he was down. Well, metaphorically. He probably wasn't stupid enough to actually kick anyone.

"Look," Marchand said. "This is – I'm going to do something about this."

"No thank you, that's okay," said Claude.

"Nope. You clearly need help. This shit is kind of my wheelhouse."

"I'm – this shit is nobody's wheelhouse. We've been trying to figure this out and the closest we've gotten is that there's fucking fanfiction in his internet history. So unless you've been up to some really weird shit, you are not the help we need, bro."

Marchand looked like he was getting ready to say something when someone knocked on the door.

"Yes, we're in here," Claude said desperately.

"Oh, okay," said the person on the other side of the door. The door rattled, but didn't open. "One moment. Sorry."

It didn't take one moment, it took ten torturous minutes. Marchand kept opening his mouth, looking thoughtful, and closing it again. Once the door opened, Claude stepped as quickly as he possibly could out of the closet to find Patrice Bergeron, Annie, and a janitor.

"Hey, Giroux," Marchand said, still from within the closet.

Claude ignored him and said "thanks" to his rescuers instead. Bergeron nodded politely and said "bienvenue;" the janitor just grunted and walked away, which just went to show that, excepting other Francophones, everyone in Boston was an asshole.

 


 

"Look, I know you're busy with the whole… Gritty assaulting someone thing. But I really want to avoid –"

"Claude," Annie said as she picked up her backpack to board the plane, "I really do not have the bandwidth to deal with this right now."

"It's just – I just got locked in a closet with Brent Burns. He's very nice, but he doesn't have any teeth."

"You don't have any teeth." Annie closed her eyes and sighed. She looked exhausted. "Look. My job was hard enough when Gritty was just this… lovable weirdo. Now there's headlines about him assaulting literal children. At this point, we've got the whole closet thing down to a science, right? So just… consider it a break or something. It can be a part of your postgame routine."

"We don't have it down to a science because I'm still getting locked in closets," Claude said.

"Yeah, but it takes us, like, twenty minutes to find you, tops."

"Fine," Claude said. "I'll keep making awkward conversation while I'm locked in closets."

 


 

"Oh, it's you."

"What?" Crosby said. He looked appalled. "Wait. Am I locked in a closet with you again?"

"Yeah, it's Gritty's thing now," Claude said, turning an empty mop bucket upside down and sitting down on it. "Don't even ask."

"You seem… really blasé about this," Crosby said.

"Man, at this point, if there's a hockey player in the league, I've probably been trapped in a closet with him," Claude said. "And I've been in this specific closet, like, a dozen times."

"Jeez."

"Yeah."

They sat in silence for a second.

"Do you know… why your mascot's locking you in closets with people?" Crosby asked.

"He's been reading too much fanfiction, I guess," Claude said.

Crosby gaped at him. Claude couldn't bring himself to care. This was his life now.

 


 

"Oh my god," Crosby moaned. "This can't be happening. This is the second time in two weeks."

"Sorry, bro," Claude said.

"You know, I'm need to get home," Malkin said. He sounded deeply unimpressed. "My son, he's not want to sleep unless I put him to bed."

"Yeah, sorry, I hear you." Claude looked at Crosby. "I really didn't think he was going to get you this time."

"Yeah, well, Geno thought that two would be better than one, so…" Crosby shrugged. "Guess I got complacent. I wasn't expecting him to just sprint up and just… shove us in here."

"Are you kidding? Gritty probably looked at you guys and saw a two-for-one," Claude said.

They stood in silence. Malkin kept gently hitting the back of his head against the wall.

After a few minutes, Crosby cleared his throat. "So, Brad and I were texting, and –"

"Brad?"

"Uh, yeah, Brad Marchand. He plays for the Bruins," Crosby said, as though Claude might not know who Brad Marchand was. "He said he was doing some research for you?"

"He's what?"

"Yeah, I don't know. That guy's like a pitbull, you know?"

Claude and Malkin looked at him skeptically.

"… Sure," Claude said. Honestly, the comparison seemed extremely unfair to pitbulls.

"Pitbulls cute," Malkin said, clearly unconvinced.

"Geno, I just meant – once he's got an idea, he won't let go of it," Crosby said. "Anyway, I offered to help out however I could, but I haven't got a ton of time –"

"What kind of research is he doing?"

Crosby shrugged. "I don't know. He said he doesn't need any help because he does it anyway, so this just meant he 'picked up the pace.' Whatever that means. I gave him your number, so he'll text you whenever he finds what you're looking for."

"I don't know what he's looking for," said Claude helplessly.

 


 

When Claude checked his phone a couple afternoons later, it had a text message from an unknown number that said I thought you said he was reading fanfiction

Claude added the number to his contacts as "Marchand" and responded that's what we think what do you mean

Marchand responded I found something but its sure as hell not what I was expecting

There was a URL pasted haphazardly on the end of the text. Claude opened the link. It looked like some kind of an article, albeit one that was suspiciously free of ads or pictures – he scrolled halfway through, stopped at the first instance of his name, and then scrolled back up to the top.

It was not an article. It was not, in fact, on a news site at all.

"Oh my god," he said.

 


 

"Read this," Claude said, slamming the stack of papers down on Annie's desk. At least, he tried to slam it. With a five-page stack, he wasn't very successful – really, the papers flopped instead of slamming – but it was the gesture that mattered. "I know, Gritty's under police investigation, whatever, just read this."

"Okay…" Annie said, looking over the top of her glasses at him, before she began scanning. She shifted slightly in her seat after a second, frowning at the pages.

After fifteen minutes and all five pages, she set the papers down. "Where'd you find this?"

"Brad Marchand sent it to me. Look, that's not important. The important part is – this is the motive, right?"

"Motive is kind of a strong word, but… yeah," Annie said. "I guess this is what Gritty's trying to do."

"This is doable," said Claude.

"Is it?" Annie said. She sounded skeptical.

"Okay, let me clarify. This is a thousand percent more doable than me fucking Sidney Crosby," Claude said.

 


 

"Wow," said Ryanne. "This is… wow."

"He's a mascot," Claude said. "I don't know if he's ever read a book. Actually, I don't know if he's ever read anything."

"I'm just… I feel like I'm witnessing history. This might be the new My Immortal."

"The new what?"

"Never mind." Ryanne flipped one of the pages. "It just… really deserves to be read out loud." She cleared her throat. "'wow girtty your the best hockey player in the world!!' said sidney crosby 'I wish I could play hockey like you' 'its okay' said gritty 'I AM THE BEST HOCkEY PLAYER BUT MY BEST FRIEND cLAUDE IS EVEN BETTER WITH ALL OF US TOGETHER WE WILL DEFINITELY WIN BACCK THE sTANLEY cUP'."

"Please stop," said Claude. Gavin squawked indignantly from Claude's chest and waved his fists. "See, even the baby wants you to stop."

Ryanne was quiet for a moment before she said "his spelling and grammar are… not great."

"Yeah. The random caps lock is pretty bad too."

"I don't know. It kind of adds to the aesthetic."

"Terrible capitalization adds to the aesthetic? What aesthetic?"

"You know. Kids these days," Ryanne said, and flipped to the next page. "Aw, you're all playing hockey together. That's nice."

"It's not nice, it's a terrible rip-off of Space Jam," Claude muttered to Gavin. Gavin blew a spit bubble.

"Yeah, the whole hockey-playing alien thing is kind of weird. Better than this subplot with the werewolves and vampires, though, that's totally out of left field." Ryanne paused, then looked up. "Has Gritty seen Space Jam?"

"He's got a condo and it's got cable, so…" Claude shrugged.

"Why does your mascot have a condo?"

Claude shrugged. "Annie said it freaked out the night staff when he lived at the rink."

They both thought about that for a second. "Yeah," Ryanne said, "if I was trying to clean at like, two in the morning and Gritty came out of nowhere, I wouldn't like it either."

Claude pictured it for a moment: giant, rolling orange eyes peering out from beneath a dark stairwell; Gritty coming forth from the darkness, toothless mouth open wide in a grin, arms outstretched; Gritty menacingly approaching, rhythmically whacking his communication board to say HOT DOG. HOT DOG. HOT DOG.

"Yeah, that'd be a fucking nightmare," he said.

 


 

"Uh, here. I brought coffee."

"Thanks," Annie said. "That last one you brought was good. What'd you do to that?"

"Oh. Uh, you took mine, so it had protein powder in it."

"Huh," Annie said, taking a sip of the coffee he'd passed her. "Well. Uh. Given that I'm not trying to get yoked, this'll work. Thanks."

"Right," Claude said.

"Okay. So. Gritty wants to play a hockey game with… all his favorite players. How're we making this happen?"

"Right, so, I think I can get Crosby to help out, and I think Marchand's in, so that's two down," Claude said.

"Look, that's not even the question," Annie said, putting her coffee down and leaning over her desk. She put one finger on the surface of the desk. "One – where are we playing this hockey game?"

"Uh… I was thinking at the practice rink?"

"Do we have the okay from the staff?"

"Do we… need an okay from the staff?"

"Well, unless your plan was to waltz up with twenty professional hockey players and discover that the door's locked and the lights are off, yeah."

"Right."

"So two, how are we talking said twenty professional hockey players into playing a hockey game with Gritty?"

"Well, one of them's me, one of them's Gritty, and two of them are on our team, so…"

"Sure. How about the other sixteen?"

"We could make it a… charity thing?" Claude said. Hockey players loved doing charity things.

"Let's say that works," Annie said. She sounded extremely skeptical. "That'll get them to play a game right before playoffs?"

"Oh. Yeah. Right."

"And three – who are we playing against? Because I'm kind of low on…" Annie referred to the printout of Gritty's magnum opus. "Brain-eating aliens. Or vampires. Or werewolves – what the hell has he been reading?"

"Look, we'll… figure it out. Play it by ear."

"I'm also going to point out that Gritty was exonerated, but I'm not sure everyone's going to be psyched about playing a charity hockey game with Gritty. He's now famous for allegedly punching a thirteen-year-old in the back."

"But he's cleared."

"To the police, yes. In the court of public opinion…" Annie made a shaky motion with her hand. "Look, I'm going to be real with you, Claude. This whole 'play a hockey game with Gritty' thing is… not impossible. But it seems like it's going to be really, really hard. I mean, if we can figure out how to do it, I'm on your side. I'd like to stop having to find which closet you're trapped in just as much as you'd like to not be trapped in closets anymore. But I think planning this is going to take more time than we have."

"Okay," Claude said. "Right."

"Now, if you don't mind, I've got a call with a talk show host in fifteen minutes who wants to book Gritty, probably to get dirt about the assault that didn't actually happen, and I haven't had lunch yet."

"Right. Thanks."

"Sure."

Heading out, Claude grit his teeth. He'd make this game happen, whatever it took. He'd done hard things before. He just had to grit his teeth, bring his A game, and take it one game – step, whatever – at a time.

 


 

"Dude, I'm in Chicago, I have a game in seven hours, and it's fucking miserable here. Why the fuck are you calling me on the phone? Who even makes phone calls anymore?"

"Thanks for sending me that… uh, Gritty's, uh… I wanted to talk about it."

Marchand scoffed. "About the ridiculous plot, the poor characterization, or the worse grammar? Because man. What a mess."

"No, not that. I…" Claude sighed. "Were you serious about helping me out with this?"

Marchand was silent on the other end of the line. After a long moment, he said "sure, I guess."

"We need to set up a hockey game with Gritty's ideal team."

Marchand was silent again.

"Like in the story," Claude clarified, just in case Marchand hadn't gotten that part.

"No, yeah, I got that," Marchand said. "It's just… if we're trying to reenact fanfiction, I'm gonna be honest, Gritty's definitely isn't even close to the top of my list."

"It's the only way I can think of to not be repeatedly locked in closets with you, Crosby, and, shit, I don't know, Ovechkin for the rest of my career," Claude said. "Wait – what? How much of this shit do you read?"

"It's really good fuel for chirps," Marchand said. He sounded defensive. "And sometimes I want to see how it ends. Anyway, fine, we set up a hockey game. That's… kind of going to be easier said than done."

"Look, we don't play the Blackhawks again this season," Claude said, looking over the schedule. "Well, probably. Barring things going weird in the playoffs. So can you ask Keith and Koekkoek if they're in?"

"I…" Marchand groaned. "Sure. Fine. I'll… fine. You owe me. You owe me big time."

"Yeah," said Claude. "Yeah, I do."

"Anyone else I need to talk to?"

"Let me look at schedules," Claude said, and then pulled them up to compare. "Uh… Yeah. Fuck. I'm gonna owe you a lot of favors, bro."

"Cool," said Marchand. He sounded pleased about it, which sent a bit of a chill down Claude's spine. Marchand was not someone he wanted to owe favors. "Send me a list."

 


 

Marchand sent him a text at about two in the morning that said keith and koekkoek are in

thanks man Giroux responded the next morning. I'm talking w wayne and subban so wish me luck. Except prob will be locked in a closet w subban so w/e

Marchand just texted back haha, which felt unfair. Marchand didn't have to worry about being regularly locked in closets after hockey games.

 


 

"Wow," Subban said. "This is like, the second time we're in this situation, right? What's going on? Is everything okay with Gritty?"

"No, everything's definitely not okay," Claude said, looking around the supply closet – which looked like every other supply closet he'd been trapped in in recent memory – and barely suppressing a sigh. "You seem weirdly okay with this, though."

"Eh, I don't know. I don't love this, but Gritty seems cool," Subban said cheerfully. "Chaotic."

"That's… definitely one way to put it," Claude said. He took a deep breath. "Look. Dude. Um. How would you feel about never getting locked in a supply closet with me again?"

Subban looked at him like he'd grown three heads. "Is this a joke? Uh… Positively…?"

"Okay. It's a long story, but basically, Gritty wants to play a hockey game with, uh, you. And me. And a bunch of other people. Oh, and Wayne, if you're willing to ask him and he agrees. Probably in the post-season. Would you be up for that?"

"Bro," Subban said solemnly, "I would be honored. I mean, come on. A hockey game with Gritty and the Wayne Train? Count me in."

"Thank you," Claude said. "Oh my god, if I have to be locked in another closet ever again, it'll be too soon."

"Wait, how many closets have you been locked in?" Subban said. He sounded horrified.

"Dude, like… every closet between Boston and California."

"That's a lot of closets." Subban paused. "Who'd you get stuck with in California?"

"Brent Burns."

"Oof. You know, I've heard he's a good guy, but between the teeth situation and the, uh, flow… I don't know, man."

"Tell me about it."

 


 

"A game," Ovechkin said thoughtfully, taking a swig from his flask.

"After the Cup finals," Claude said.

"Hm. If it's after Cup finals…" Ovechkin pursed his lips. "Who's going to be on this team?"

"Uh, Gritty," said Claude. "Me. Um… Brad Marchand… uh, PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds agreed, and so did Duncan Keith and Koekkoek. Hopefully Crosby, but I haven't talked to him yet –"

"Yes," Ovechkin said, surprisingly forcefully.

"Woah," said Claude, despite himself. "What… brought that on?"

Ovechkin shrugged. "I've wanted to play with Crosby in serious game. So, I'll play."

"This is not going to be a serious game," Claude said. "Look. This is Gritty's dream game. It's not… I don't even know who we're going to be playing yet. I'm just trying to arrange this so Gritty might stop locking me in closets."

"Hm." Ovechkin wrinkled his nose and took another swig out of his flask. "I don't know, then."

"Do you want to be locked in closets with me after every game for the rest of our careers?" Claude said desperately. "I mean, I've still got a few years in me."

"Claude Giroux, I like you," Ovechkin said, clapping one hand on Claude's shoulder. "Lock me in closets with you until the end of time. It will help us become brothers in hockey. It's, you know. Bonding experience."

"Uh, thanks, I guess I like you too, but I don't want to become brothers in hockey."

"You seem upset. Whiskey?"

Claude held out a hand and, once Ovechkin had passed it to him, took a good swig out of the flask. He'd hoped it would help, but it didn't make as much of a difference as he'd hoped. He took another swig with the same results and turned to look Ovechkin in the eye.

"If you're the reason that I'm going to be locked in supply closets after every game for the rest of my career, I'm going to have to fight you every time we're on the ice together," Claude told Ovechkin solemnly. "I don't want to, but I'll have to."

Ovechkin snorted. "Yes, you and the rest of the Flyers want to play good clean game, is that right?"

Claude shrugged.

"I'll think about it. Give me your number, I'll text you," Ovechkin said, handing Claude his cellphone, which was open to a new contact form. "If I'm hurt, my answer will be no."

"Yeah, that's fine," Claude said. "You could probably just… sit on the bench. It's really not gonna be a serious game."

"I'm not going to sit out game, even if it's not serious," Ovechkin told him. "I'm a hockey player."

 


 

"Coots, Jake," Claude said, "I have a big ask of you guys."

"Okay…" said Coots, pausing in the middle of picking up his duffel bag. "Should I… stop heading out, then?"

"Just for a sec," said Claude. "It… won't take long. Sorry, guys."

Jake raised his eyebrows, gym bag already over his shoulder. "What's the favor?"

"You know how Gritty's been trapping me in closets after games this season?" Claude asked, looking heavenward to avoid looking Jake or Coots in the eye.

"Uh, yes," Coots said, looking over towards Jake. Jake shrugged.

"Well, it's because he… it's… fuck. This is complicated," Claude said. "We found out that he wants me to make friends with these hockey players so we play his dream hockey game. Well, we think that's it. And, uh, good news. You guys made the Gritty short list."

Coots looked back and forth between the two of them. "Was his selection criteria orangeness?" he asked, pointing one thumb towards himself. "Because, like, as it is…"

"No, of course not –" Claude thought through the list of players. "Oh my god."

"He picked players based on how orange they are," Jake said. He sounded very unimpressed. "You know, it's been a while, but every so often, I think to myself… America's weird."

"Fuckin' tell me about it, bro," Claude muttered. "I mean, I don't think that was the only selection criteria – but anyway. I'm trying to set up a game. It'll happen after playoffs. Are you guys up for it?"

"Sure," Coots said, slinging one arm around Claude's shoulders and ruffling Claude's hair. "Mon gars, I don't want Gritty to lock you in closets forever."

"I don't want Gritty to get ideas and start locking you and me in closets," said Jake.

"Thanks, guys," Claude said. "You guys are… thanks. You guys are great."

"Anything for my bro," Coots said, and ruffled his hair again. Claude tried, ineffectually, to swat him away.

 


 

"So, Gallagher's in. Also, I had to have a civil conversation with a fucking Hab, so I feel like I deserve a sainthood or something."

"Yeah, yeah, you're the greatest," Claude said absently, mixing up some rice cereal. Gavin squawked happily in his high chair, patting the tray. "Thanks, bro."

"You better be grateful, because somehow I have a weekly phone call with you now," Marchand said irritably. "This is bizarre."

"Aw," Claude said, making faces at Gavin as he brought a spoonful of cereal up to the baby's mouth. "I like talking to you too, Marchand."

"That was not my point," Marchand snapped. "I will hang up on you. Try me."

"We're going to be best friends," Claude said. "They'll start writing articles about our unlikely bromance."

"No," Marchand said, and hung up the phone.

"He's a wimp," Claude crooned to Gavin. "Yes he is. He doesn't want to be friends because he's too much of a wimp." He scraped up a little rice cereal from Gavin's chin and guided it back into the baby's mouth. Gavin smacked his lips thoughtfully. "Yeah, yummy, huh?"

"Are you calling our baby a wimp?" Ryanne asked, stepping into the kitchen, hair still damp.

"No, I'm calling Marchand a wimp," Claude said, and scooped another bite of rice cereal up.

"Game planning's not going well?"

"No, it's going great, we're like, halfway there," Claude said. "Next up it's San Jose for me, Calgary for Marchand, and then… well, we're in the homestretch."

 


 

"Hi," Annie said, tinny through the phone. Distantly, through the phone, Claude could hear a noise that sat squarely between "braying donkey" and "screaming woman." "You need to calm Gritty down."

"What?" Claude said, muting the TV – the news was all stressful anyway. "What do you mean?"

"He's learned about the season being postponed and he's freaking the fuck out," said Annie.

"He's not alone on that one," said Claude. He'd recently vacuumed every room in the house out of sheer nerves, which was ridiculous because it both upset the baby and because they had cleaners who did that. Well, maybe they didn't for the next few weeks. Months? He'd have to figure that out.

"So far as I can tell, you're not throwing hockey pucks at your shared condominium wall," Annie said. "Or sneaking out to steal toilet paper, which you're keeping in a huge pile in your bedroom."

"Why's he hoarding toilet paper?" Claude said, fearing the answer.

"Honestly, I think it's just to sew chaos," Annie said. "The worst thing is definitely that he won't stop screaming at the top of his lungs."

That was the moment that Claude realized the horrible banshee noise was Gritty. Between the cadence of the sound and the fact that it had been going on for the entirety of the phone call so far, it didn't seem like he was going to stop making that noise any time soon.

"Look," Annie said, "can you talk to him? Tell him something that'll calm him down."

"I'm not super calm either," Claude said. "I… don't –"

"Tell him about you and Marchand's whole… game… thing," Annie said. "He'll like that. And it'll give him something to look forward to. I think he's mostly mad that the playoffs are being postponed when your chances were so good this year."

"Don't jinx it," Claude said automatically. "You're sure we should tell him about the game?"

"Yeah," Annie said. She sighed. "We'll… figure out something at the beginning of next season. Or the end of this one, I guess, if it happens. I guess it won't be that hard to rent out the practice arena and just… mess around for an hour or two."

"Okay," Claude said. He took a deep breath. "Okay. Hand him over."

The horrible noise got louder. Annie said, from far away, "hey, Gritty? Claude wants to talk to you."

There was a strange hiccupping sound in reply, and then the horrible sound was right in Claude's ear.

"Hey, buddy," Claude said, trying to figure out how to put his hands over his ears while simultaneously talking on the phone. "Can you… stop that for a second? I can't hear myself talk."

The noise quieted into a long, whimpering moan.

"So, bud, I've been thinking," Claude said. "You know, Brad Marchand, he found the story you wrote. About the… hockey game against the evil aliens?"

A questioning sound. At least, that was how Claude was interpreting it. He soldiered on.

"And he was thinking, that sounded like a pretty cool idea. So… I mentioned it to some of the guys, and we've pretty much got your team together. So, uh, I was thinking – maybe when all this dies down, we get the Gritty dream team together and, you know. Shoot a few pucks. What d'you think, bud?"

The response was a deep, yet somehow still squeaky, yowl. It sounded sort of like the sound that would result if someone had dropped a pipe organ on a cat and then hit the wreckage with an out-of-tune violin for good measure.

"So… you think you'd be up for it? You, me, and Sidney Crosby skating around a little?" Claude prayed that Crosby would, in fact, agree to do this. Gritty started making a noise like an abused hinge. There were also a lot of loud thumping sounds.

"Great," Claude said. "Can you give me back to Annie now?"

Gritty grunted. After a few seconds of what sounded like fumbling, Annie said "well, that worked."

"He's not throwing pucks at the wall?"

"Nah. He's jumping around, but the downstairs neighbors are used to it at this point." She sighed. "Thanks. The screaming was getting to me."

 


 

"Hey," Claude said. "Hanging in there?"

"What did you say to him?" Annie hissed into the phone. That was kind of weird. Well, not that weird – she'd been trapped in a condo with Gritty for the past few weeks. That would make anyone snap.

"What do you mean?"

"He's been really happy," Annie whispered. "He's in better spirits than he is at the beginning of the season. He's in better spirits than he was a month ago. He spent all of St. Patrick's Day dancing. He's been quiet, well-behaved, and is spending most of his time on his computer. What did you tell him?"

"Uh," said Claude. "We're… talking about Gritty?"

"Yes, we're talking about Gritty. Who else would we be talking about?"

"Right," Claude said, wracking his brain. He'd spoken to Gritty only a couple weeks ago, but it felt like it had been decades. "Uh… I told him that we'd, you know. Shoot some pucks, skate around a bit."

"That's all?" Annie said threateningly.

"Yeah," Claude said. "Yeah, that was all."

"Okay." Annie groaned. "Cool. Thanks. Bye."

"Bye," Claude said, and looked at his phone confusedly after Annie had hung up.

He sent off a quick text to Marchand. Did you talk to crosby?

It didn't take long before he got back yea. Why

Gritty knows about the game now

His phone screen lit up, and he swiped open the call. "What d'you mean, he knows about the game?" Marchand asked.

"I guess he was going nuts after the season got postponed, so Annie – uh, the mascot handler here – asked me to tell him about it to see if it would calm him down. It did, so…" Claude shrugged, even though no one could see him. "Why'd you call me about this?"

"Because I'm trapped in my house and I'm bored," Marchand said. "The only people I've talked to all day are my wife and kids. I think I'm going to go insane."

"Yeah, I… yeah," Claude said, given that he was in pretty much the same boat. "Well, I've talked to the baby. And the dogs."

"Dogs don't count," Marchand said. "But yeah, I've also talked to the dog."

"Anyway – is Crosby in? For the game. With Gritty."

"Yeah, he said he's up for it," Marchand said. "I think the exact quote was 'anything to stop getting trapped in closets with Giroux.'"

"Well, that's fair," Claude said. "The feeling's mutual."

"Yeah. And I've got confirmation from the last couple of guys through, you know, the phone tree. So. Do you know if Gritty's, uh… doing anything? About the game? Now that he knows about it?"

"Nah," Claude said. "And it's not really a game. I told him we'd just go and shoot some pucks. I don't know, maybe we play a scrimmage or something –"

"Whoa whoa whoa," Marchand said. "Look, last night we did a dramatic reading of Alien Fight on the Ice Jam: Blood Moon –"

"Wait, what?"

"Alien Fight on the Ice Jam: Blood Moon," Marchand said dryly. "You know. Gritty's fanfic."

"A… dramatic reading?"

"Oh yeah. I played you, me, and Gritty, Bergy played Crosby and –"

"Why was Bergeron there?"

"Oh, we were appropriately socially distanced," Marchand said, apparently missing the point entirely. "We all did it on Skype."

"Who was we?"

"Me, my wife, Bergy, Bergy's wife," Marchand said. "We were all trashed. It was awesome. My only regret is that we didn't record it, we could've – eh, actually, no, we couldn't have put it online. That'd be asking to be doxxed. Also, I don't think we were super coherent at the end, and that doesn't make for a good podfic. Actually… hey, is it doxxing if you're famous?"

"I… You're…" Claude sighed. "You're the most confusing person I've ever met."

"Bro," Marchand said. He sounded oddly flattered. "Anyway. We just did a reading, and I don't think Gritty's gonna be happy with a scrimmage. The fic was about saving the world from evil aliens and supernatural monsters by winning a hockey game. That's not scrimmage shit."

"Yeah, we're kind of short on aliens," said Claude. "It was hard enough to pull together one team, and we had a list. It's going to have to be a scrimmage, unless you think you can talk the rest of your friends into, I don't know, putting on some monster masks."

"Fine," Marchand said. "But you know what? If Gritty keeps locking you in closets after this, don't blame me."

 


 

"So, with training camp underway, does it feel good to get back on the ice?"

"Yeah, it's great to be back, we've got a great group of guys, and we're feeling optimistic and looking forward to a great season," Claude said. "Last year was disappointing, but you know, we're glad that the league was focused on keeping everybody healthy. So, well, sometimes you gotta put the past behind you and push forward and I think we're gonna do that this year."

The interviewer – he was new, had to be an intern or something – nodded. Then he said "now for the question that's on everyone's mind – Gritty tweeted out this morning that you and the 'Gritty Dream Team' would be playing a charity game on Saturday. Can you give us an idea of what to expect?"

Claude did not say what he was thinking – which was what!? – but that was only thanks to the fact that he'd been a professional hockey player and, by association, a semi-professional interviewee for almost fifteen years. "Yeah, it's going to be a great group of guys and we're playing for a… great cause –" he really hoped it was in fact for a great cause and not for… the Society for the Protection of Mosquitoes or something – "so I'm really looking forward to getting out on the ice and playing some hockey."

"Gritty did leak a few names and the team sounds… incredible. You, Couturier, Voracek, Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby… How did this team come about?"

"Well, you know, we all just... Gritty's a great teammate, and, uh, we're all brothers out there on the ice, and… we wanted to support him?" Claude said. "It's going to be a great game, I think we're all looking forward to it."

"I know we definitely are. Thanks for your time."

Claude nodded and went for his phone to text GRITTY TWEETED ABOUT THE GAME??? to Marchand before he went to take a shower. At least while he was showering, he could take stock of the situation. Saturday was, thankfully, the day that they'd arranged, so it wasn't like everyone had to make it out to Philadelphia purely because of Gritty's whims. He and Annie had talked to the rink weeks ago, and he'd sent out the weirdest email he'd ever had to send to everyone he'd recruited to the… team. But he hadn't been expecting any of this information to be released to the public.

he did? was waiting on his phone when he got back to it, quickly followed by oh wow. He did. yikes

Claude checked Twitter. There was, in fact, a tweet on Gritty's timeline.

A Twitter screenshot from Gritty's timeline. Gritty comments "It doesn't get any better than this." There is an image advertising that, on September 20, "the Gritty Dream team battles for Pennsylvania"

 


 

"His Twitter?" Annie was quiet for a second. "Oh, yeah, that. He asked Hannah to help him out with it."

"Hannah?"

"The designer."

"He… asked the team's graphic designer to make him a picture to advertise a totally non-Flyer sponsored scrimmage?" Claude pinched the bridge of his nose for a second. "And then tweeted 'no spoilers, but Claude, Coots, Jake, and I are going to teach Crosby, Ovechkin, and others how to be a little grittier'?"

"He's really excited," Annie said after a minute. "And all of his planning did help keep him busy enough to keep me from going completely insane while we were on lockdown. Also, the Flyers might not be sponsoring it, but Brian did retweet it."

"Look, I… Do you have any idea what he's planned?"

"Like, a little," Annie said.

"Could you… figure out more?"

"Dude, whatever he's done, it's done," Annie said. "Just… take a deep breath, show up on Sunday, and play some hockey. How bad can it possibly be?"

 


 

"I'm not wearing this."

"Oh my god," Claude said. "Please. Just… I know it's ridiculous. Just. Put it on."

Crosby held up the sweater and glared at Claude. "It has googly eyes."

"Yeah, I mean, Gritty's got googly eyes, so –"

Crosby turned it around. "He misspelled my name and gave me the wrong number."

"Look, I don't –" Claude looked around and saw Gritty standing, pulling his own sweater on, smiling serenely and humming tunelessly. He grabbed Crosby's arm and pulled him over, leaning towards him, and said in an undertone "I'm honestly not confident that Gritty's literate, so –"

"It's six letters," Crosby said.

"Look, Marchand's name is – not even his name, and he's good with it," Claude said.

They both looked over at Marchand, whose sweater inexplicably said CHOPSAW on the back.

"He at least got the right number," Crosby muttered.

"Look, it could be worse. He could've had it say, I don't know, asshole or something. Just grin and bear it, okay?"

Crosby grumbled something under his breath, but went to put the sweater on. Claude pulled on his own and looked at the front. Gritty's face was embroidered in exacting detail, with two enormous googly eyes. It was surprisingly well-made.

"Hey," Marchand said in an undertone, "how'd he get the money for this?"

"I'm not going to ask because I don't want to know," said Claude.

Marchand nodded understandingly. "Yeah, I get it. At this point, it almost makes you wonder if the answer would be, like… wetwork."

"It definitely doesn't make me wonder that," said Claude. He sat down to put on his skates and to question what the hell he'd gotten himself into.

"These are amazing," Subban was saying loudly to Gritty, pointing at the Gritty face on his chest. "We get to keep them, right? Because I'm definitely framing this."

"Hey, uh, is everyone decent?"

"No," someone answered, "it's a locker room."

"Well, I'm coming in."

Claude looked up to see an older man in a suit walk into the room and look around. He looked mildly confused, but that was par for the course. The only people who didn't look confused were Subban, who seemed to be determined to enjoy himself to the fullest; Barrie, who seemed to be taking everything in stride; and Anderson and Quick, probably because they were goalies and used to this shit.

"Hello everyone. I'm Jim, I'll be your coach for this game," the man said. "I'm going to be honest with all of you. I've never actually had anything to do with hockey. Well, I've watched a few games, of course. But anyway – Gritty got in touch, and when Gritty asks you to coach his team, what is there to say but yes?"

No, Claude thought to himself. You could also say no.

"Anyway, you're all professionals, so I'm sure you'll do fine," the man said. "So, uh… Let's get out there and play some hockey."

Gritty jumped up and down and then turned in a circle to look around the room, an enormous grin splitting his face while his eyes rolled uncontrollably. He then waved Claude over and pointed first at the C on his own chest, then the A on Claude's, and then looked at Claude expectantly.

"Right," Claude said. "Well. I… thought this was going to be a scrimmage, but I guess we've probably got some sort of an audience out there. So let's play hockey that's good enough to… well, give them their money's worth."

"Tickets were five dollars, though, weren't they?" Gallagher said, looking at Gritty.

Gritty nodded.

"Well, five bucks is five bucks," said Thornton.

The room was quiet for a moment. Crosby shrugged and said "well, let's play some hockey."

"Yeah," Claude said. "Let's play some hockey. Okay, Gritty, bud, you want to go over lines?"

Gritty nodded and, in surprisingly tidy penmanship, wrote out the lines on a whiteboard:

LW C RW
Giroux Crosby Gritty
Marchand Thornton Gallagher
Ovechkin Couturier Simmonds
Tkachuk Kadri Voracek
D-Pairs:
Burns Hamilton
Keith Subban
Barrie Koekkoek
In Net: Anderson

"Look good? Make sense?" Claude said.

"Third line?" Ovechkin said irritably.

"Look, it, um…" Claude sighed. "I don't know. Gritty's got a plan."

Gritty puffed out his chest and nodded decisively.

"Fine," Ovechkin said, and crossed his arms over his chest. "I can still get hat trick on third line."

"I bet," Claude said. "It's a scrimmage. Okay, let's go out, get warmed up."

 


 

Whatever Claude was expecting, it was not for the warmup to look and feel like an actual warmup. There were a lot of people wearing Flyers gear standing against the glass holding signs.

Annie was on the bench, sitting and chatting with the older guy – their coach for the day – which was a bigger relief than Claude really wanted to admit, even to himself. At least this way there was someone present who was supposed to have a modicum of control over Gritty.

He looked over at the other side of the ice and blinked.

"Are those guys… football players or something?" Crosby asked, coming to stop beside him. "They're huge."

They were, in fact, huge. Even the smallest one was built like a refrigerator. Their skating, however, reminded Claude of this GIF he'd seen once of a horse sliding around gracelessly on a patch of ice, wobbling while its legs skittered frantically.

"At least they can't skate for shit," Claude said.

"If I get a concussion, I'll sue," Crosby said. "I don't know who I'll sue, but I'll figure it out."

"None of us can get hurt, it's not even the preseason," said Claude.

He felt like someone was standing behind him and turned to find Gritty looming over them, eyebrows furrowed. "Whoa," he said. "Sorry, man."

Gritty pointed threateningly at the net.

"Right," Claude said. "I'm sorry. I'm warming up now."

He headed over to shoot a puck, Crosby hot on his heels.

"Is that Gretzky?" Crosby said suddenly.

Claude jerked right before he finished his shot. "What?" he said, looking over his shoulder.

It did, in fact, appear that Wayne Gretzky was sitting on the opposing team's bench. He was wearing a suit. Beside him was Emilio Estevez, also wearing a suit. Gretzky did not seem impressed by Emilio Estevez or by his team.

Gritty cleared his throat behind Claude and pointed at the puck, which had ended up somewhere in the corner of the rink.

"Right. I'll focus," Claude said, and shot another puck.

"On the bright side," Crosby said, "he wasn't a great coach."

Gritty cleared his throat again, louder.

"Jeez," Crosby said. "Fine. I'm not allowed to talk?"

As Claude skated away, he saw Gritty cross his arms over his chest and glare down at Crosby, mouth set in an exaggerated scowl.

 


 

"Okay, guys," the referee said, skating up to the bench. "I'm going to be honest. I'm not sure why I'm here. I'm not actually a referee, I just play one sometimes on TV."

"So are you… not going to referee?" Claude asked.

"Look, my point is that I'm not a professional. I promise I'll do better than the dog."

There was a golden retriever sitting beside the referee. It was wearing a little striped shirt of its own, which was very cute but still didn't fill Claude with confidence about the dog's refereeing skills.

The referee squinted at the dog (although it seemed like his eyes could have also just naturally have been sort of squinty). "Anyway, that's why I want a good, clean game from you all. No funny business," he said. Then he shrugged and said "really, though, I think that guy's going to be doing most of the work and I'm just going to try to keep up."

Claude looked where the referee was pointing. Standing on one end of the rink was an enormous, muscle-bound nightmare creature. It had a human body, a horse's head, human hands, and hooves instead of feet. It was pure white with a purple mane and tail. Its striped shirt was at least two sizes too small and was stretched thin over a six-pack and impressive pectorals. Through the fabric, Claude could just barely make out a tattoo of a purple horseshoe over its heart.

It lifted one of its enormous hands and did the universal I'm watching you gesture at Claude.

"Oh my god," Claude said.

"What the fuck," said Crosby.

Gritty sighed dreamily.

"Gritty, if you end up washed-up like him, I've done my job wrong," Annie said as the human referee skated to the other side of the ice.

Gritty gestured exaggeratedly with both arms at the horse-man, then grabbed his communication board and hit SEE about a dozen times.

"I see him," Annie said. "Being a jacked man-horse clearly didn't work out for him."

Gritty pointed dramatically at NO and GOOD and then, after putting his communication board away, rested his chin on his hands like an elementary schooler with a crush while he stared at the man-horse. The man-horse in question appeared to be, through the single human referee, having a very serious conversation with the other team, Wayne Gretzky, and Emilio Estevez.

The golden retriever laid down on the blue line and started, very studiously, licking one of its paws.

"This is going to be chaos, isn't it," Crosby muttered under his breath to Claude.

"Yes," said Claude. He was starting to get the feeling that this was not, in fact, going to be a scrimmage.

 


 

"Hello, and welcome to the Battle for Philadelphia! Today we're hosting a once-in-a-lifetime game between Gritty's dream team, as envisioned by the mascot himself, and your Philadelphia Eagles!"

"Wait," Crosby said as they skated out to the faceoff circle, "they are a football team?"

"Seems like it," Claude said as the announcer prattled on.

"They… definitely know tackling's not allowed, right?" Crosby looked concerned.

"I think the NFL cares more about concussions than the NHL," Claude said. "You're… probably going to be fine."

Crosby rolled his eyes and glided into position, settling down across from a man who did not appear to be terribly clear on how one might want to handle a faceoff. He was just standing there, clearly slightly unsteady on his skates. He was, however, a giant in comparison to Crosby.

The man-horse skated up, looked between the two of them, made a rumbling grunt that seemed to come from deep within its chest, and then dropped the puck. The crowd roared.

Crosby, unsurprisingly, won the faceoff.

 


 

Saying that playing a hockey game against the Philadelphia Eagles was like taking candy from a baby would have been unfair to babies everywhere. The Eagles were barely able to touch the puck, let alone hold onto it. Their sole saving grace was that their goalie was decent, but he was only decent because he was big enough to physically cover most of the net.

After a line change, Claude settled in to drinking some Gatorade (the only available flavor was red) and watching the game. They were up 7-0. Gritty had gotten a hat trick and was glowing.

Marchand leaned over and said "this is… something."

"It's pretty weird all right," Crosby said, watching as Ovechkin went by, cellying all the while.

"The hard part seems like the dog?"

"Yeah," said Claude. The golden retriever went skittering by, chasing the puck, totally oblivious of anyone around it. "Hard part is definitely not hitting the dog."

 


 

"You guys are playing great hockey," said their coach.

"It's ten and oh," Crosby said skeptically.

"Yeah, I don't know if it's great hockey," said Coots. "Mostly I'm trying not to skate into the dog."

"Okay," Annie said to the coach in an undertone, "now you tell them that they need to not get sloppy with their defense."

"Annie, we're not going to need to play a defensive game," Claude said. "It's ten and oh."

Suddenly, the lights went out, and the locker room was plunged into darkness. Claude could hear footsteps, but he couldn't see anything.

Gritty gasped delightedly.

"What?" Marchand said loudly, and then, "oh, okay."

The lights came back up. Half the team was missing.

"What," Claude said, "the fuck."

Gritty waved his hands wildly, then raised them up over his shoulders and made a fierce face.

"Monsters?" Annie said dryly. "Oh no. Whatever will we do?"

Gritty puffed out his chest, tapped it, and then went over to the whiteboard and rewrote the lines.

"Gritty," Claude said, looking at the board, "we don't have a third or a fourth line anymore, we have… one and a half d-pairs, and you have me playing both left and right wing."

Gritty nodded solemnly and clenched one fist, looking towards the door dramatically.

"Do we know if they're… okay?" Wayne asked.

"They're fine," Annie said, not looking up from her phone.

 


 

"It looks like there have been some changes on the Philadelphia Eagles team – it's been taken over by werewolves and vampires! And they've enthralled part of the Gritty Dream Team! What will Gritty do?"

The crowd went wild.

"The announcer's really getting into this," Coots said. "Shit, the fans are getting really into this."

"I don't know what the fuck is happening right now," said Claude.

Gritty patted his shoulder and clambered over the boards. Claude followed him to the faceoff circle and settled opposite of –

He blinked a few times. The man across from him looked vaguely familiar in a wholesomely handsome way and was listening, very seriously, to what Sidney Crosby was quietly telling him, nodding occasionally. They'd all changed into new jerseys – black with an enormous, photorealistic moon on the front. Crosby's name was still misspelled, and he still had the wrong number.

Then he looked over and saw Marchand, who looked extremely pleased with himself.

"What's happening?" he asked Marchand.

"We're… vampires now, I guess," Marchand said. "Or werewolves. Honestly, that part wasn't very clear. Either way… grrr."

"You're supposed to be playing on our team," Claude snapped.

"Bro, I'm having the time of my life right now," Marchand said. "I have no idea how they arranged this but it's fucking awesome."

"Why is this happening?"

"Did you even read the fic, bro?" Marchand asked. He sounded unimpressed. "This is… okay, not exactly how it happened. But it's pretty close."

"No, I didn't read it," Claude said, "but I –"

He felt a rush of hot air on his neck and heard a loud, unimpressed snort. He looked up to find the man-horse referee glaring down at him, muscular arms crossed over its broad chest. It pinned its ears and tossed its head towards the faceoff circle, where Crosby and Gritty were waiting.

"Right," Claude said. "Sorry, man."

The man-horse huffed and skated towards the circle, holding the puck. It stopped, looked solemnly between Crosby and Gritty, grunted, and dropped the puck.

Crosby won the faceoff, because of course he did, and passed to Marchand – because of course he did. Claude took off in pursuit, but Burns intercepted.

"Of course you're on the werewolf team," he said.

"Yeah," said Burns, drawing the word out. "The Count asked if I actually am a werewolf, so…"

He shrugged, then checked Claude into the boards. On the bright side, it was a pretty gentle check.

"And Lautner has the puck. He shoots and – that's one point on the board for the Philadelphia Eagles!"

The crowd was going ballistic.

 


 

As it turned out, playing both left and right wing against a team of mostly professional hockey players was not easy. He'd thought it wouldn't be so bad when he'd seen that one of their D-pairs was Subban and Count von Count; how hard would playing against an actual, literal muppet be?

As it turned out, it was pretty difficult. Muppets, after all, had a tenuous grasp on reality and, as it followed, physics, which meant that sometimes the Count moved much, much faster than should have been possible.

Sometimes, he moved much, much faster than should have been possible directly into Claude.

"Holy fuck," Claude said as what felt like a large dog barreled directly into his hip, knocking him into the boards.

"One check, ha ha ha ha!" said the Count as he skated away, his cape swirling behind him. The goal horn sounded. "One, two, three, four goals! Ah ha ha ha ha."

It was, thankfully, time for a line change, which meant Claude got to skate (a little gingerly) over to the bench. He settled down beside Annie, who was watching the game with more single-minded focus than he'd ever seen her watch a game before.

"What is happening?" he muttered to her.

"Well, you're playing hockey against a couple people who played famous vampires and werewolves," she said. "And one actual vampire."

"Is the Count really a vampire?"

"Huh," Annie said thoughtfully. "Honestly, I've never really thought about it, just accepted it as fact. He probably doesn't drink blood."

They both looked at Gritty, who was happily drinking a red Gatorade and humming.

"Hey, Gritty," Claude said. "You're… tangentially related to the Count, right?"

Gritty shook his head no.

"Well, that shuts down that line of questioning," said Annie.

"Don't you usually have your phone out by this point?"

"Mayor Kenney doesn't know the rules well enough to coach effectively, so I'm his assistant this game," Annie said. "And I also had a real thing for Skarsgård when he was on True Blood, so…"

"What?"

"Him," Annie said, pointing at one of the forwards on the other team. "I mean… oof."

"And that's Ovechkin coming through for the Eagles, assisted by von Count."

"You can't be into one of their people," Claude said. "You're on our team."

"I'm not really into Skarsgård," Annie said. "He's married. Anyway, you guys have to pick up the pace. They're gaining on you."

"Yeah, well, there are more of them," said Claude. "And they've got a muppet. He's not governed by the laws of physics and the dog's scared of him."

The dog went skittering past, still chasing the puck. Its tail was wagging furiously.

Gritty held up his communication board and hit BAD and REF.

"Ain't no rule that says a dog can't be a referee," Annie said absently.

The man-horse glided past, massive arms crossed over its equally massive chest as it watched the play. Gritty sighed and turned his enormous, rolling eyes towards it. He held up the board again and hit GOOD. GOOD REF.

"Sure, buddy," Claude said. "He's… really something else."

The goal horn sounded.

"And another one for the Eagles! That brings the game up to six-ten, Gritty Dream Team in the lead… will this be an upset, folks?"

 


 

"Okay," Annie said. "Sure, it's fifteen-ten, but hope's not lost."

"How the hell did this happen?" Claude asked the room at large.

"Well," Barrie said reasonably, "they had a full team of people, a fresh goalie, and one of them is a muppet."

"We're professionals," Claude said desperately.

"So are they," Coots said.

"And they did have Crosby," Keith said.

"Crosby is not that good!" Claude said. His voice came out maybe a little high-pitched, but he definitely wasn't whining.

Gritty suddenly ripped off his sweater.

"Oh my god," Claude said, shielding his eyes, "Gritty. Put your clothes back on."

Gritty removed his shorts instead, which was the opposite of putting his clothes on.

"Gritty, what are you doing?" Annie said, before she said "oh, okay."

Claude hesitantly unshielded his eyes. Gritty had donned a black tutu and was struggling into a matching tank top. He saluted, then marched out the door.

"I should… probably go with him," Claude said, and followed.

Gritty marched down the hall into the opposing team's locker room. As soon as he stepped inside, it went suddenly silent.

Gritty coughed into his hand and set a cellphone down on the floor. Chariots of Fire began to play through the speakers. It sounded like tinny garbage, but that wasn't enough to keep Gritty from raising onto his toes and joining his hands above his head.

What followed was what Claude could only assume was an interpretive dance. He hadn't seen very many, but he was confident that it was not actually possible to do an interpretive dance worse than the one Gritty performed.

It seemed like it was supposed to be serious. It was not. Gritty had almost no rhythm, which was somehow worse than him having no rhythm at all. Gritty's bulk bounced comically every time he tried to leap gracefully through the air. Gritty was not actually very good at balancing on one foot. He, at one point, flossed and then dabbed. Both dance moves appeared to have been performed completely unironically.

He finished by making a grasping motion and hugging his arms to his chest, face turned to the sky, eyes closed.

Everyone looked on, mouths agape.

Someone behind Claude began clapping. Claude looked behind him to see Annie, who was clapping enthusiastically and mouthing "everybody come back now."

Marchand pointed to himself and made sort of a circle with his other hand towards the rest of the professional hockey players in the room. He mouthed "us?"

Annie nodded, still clapping. Then she jerked her head towards her hands several times.

Marchand, who apparently was contractually incapable of being a good sport unless it involved making mascots happy, began applauding as well. The rest of the room looked around, then shrugged and also began clapping.

Gritty opened his eyes, beamed, and began to alternate bowing and curtsying. Annie gestured towards the door, and the professional hockey players filed out.

"What the fuck was that?" Crosby asked in an undertone once they were safely in the hallway. Gritty still appeared to be basking in applause in the locker room.

"Gritty wanted to do a dance to remind you about what's important in hockey," Annie whispered.

"Which was…?"

"Teamwork and love of the game."

"Oh." Crosby was quiet for a second. "Well, that is what's important about hockey."

"You cannot possibly be this much of a cliché," Claude hissed.

"Well, I mean, why does anybody play hockey?" Crosby asked philosophically.

Claude did not answer, because he absolutely refused to say the words "teamwork and love of the game" out loud.

"Anyway, now that we've rescued you from the vampires and werewolves," Annie said, "let's get you back into your original uniforms and get back to hockey."

"You didn't really need to rescue us," Gallagher said. "They were really very nice."

"Look, it's a part of the narrative." Annie sighed. "And I mean that in like, a professional wrestling sense. Helping plan this was the most complicated thing I've ever done at this job."

"You've known what's going to happen?" Claude said, trying to contain his seething rage. He wasn't sure he was successful, because Annie looked totally unimpressed with him. She did not, however, respond.

"Oh… kay," said Marchand. "Look, let's finish this game up. I want to see how this thing ends."

 


 

Claude had never been happier to see football players. He'd also never been happier about being on the ice with Sidney Crosby. Playing both wings to Gritty had been its own special kind of hell.

He was in the middle of stealing the puck from a football player with a very tenuous grasp – both literally and physically – on stickhandling when the crowd's roar reached a fever pitch. Claude turned to see that Gritty and one of the football players had dropped gloves and were fighting. The football player had managed to grab Gritty's sweater and was getting in some decent hits, but Gritty was merrily and ineffectually flailing like he was in a slap fight.

The human referee and the man-horse started skating towards them. The human pulled the football player away, talking to him, while the man-horse grabbed Gritty by the scruff of the neck and gave him a good shake. Gritty looked ecstatic about the whole situation.

The man-horse held up one hand in the air, then two fingers as he escorted Gritty to the penalty box.

"Five minutes for fighting for Gritty and Driscoll," the announcer said.

Gritty had already begun happily taunting the football player on the other side of the penalty box, plastering himself against the divider and rolling his eyes while making strange braying noises. The football player held his ground.

Claude got ahold of the puck and passed it to Crosby, who buried it in the net. Claude skated up and bumped their helmets together.

"What is wrong with you?" Crosby asked. "What are you doing?"

Claude couldn't really answer that question. He skated away.

"Did you hit your head?" Crosby called, skating after him. "You need to get off the ice! I think you might need to go through concussion protocol!"

 


 

"That's the buzzer, folks – and it's fifteen to twenty-three. The Gritty Dream Team wins! The! Cup!"

Gritty was leaping up and down in ecstasy, making a horrible yowling noise. It sounded kind of like when Claude's dogs saw something through the window that looked particularly edible, like a rabbit or an outdoor cat.

Some of the event staff rolled a red carpet out onto the ice, and two men in suits and white gloves came out carrying the cup, surrounded by pyrotechnics. The crowd was going wild. The effect was slightly diminished by the fact that the cup was only three inches tall and had a Philadelphia Flyers logo emblazoned on the front.

"What," said Claude.

"I mean, we couldn't get the actual Stanley Cup," Annie said.

"Sure," Claude said, "but…" he plucked at his sweater. The googly eyes on the front googled wildly. "I mean, the budget didn't allow for a… better replica?"

"Look, I sorted by lowest to highest price on Amazon and he picked this one," Annie said.

"Would the team captain please come up to accept the cup?"

Gritty, still yowling, skated up to accept the cup. He began to skate a lap around the rink, howling all the while, holding up one hand as he did so. The cup was almost entirely enveloped by his hand.

"This is one of the best days of my life," Marchand said, watching raptly.

"I know, right?" said Subban.

The two fist-bumped, still both entirely focused on the spectacle before them.

Annie passed Crosby a slip of paper as Gritty approached. "Can you say this to Gritty, please?" she said.

Crosby looked at it. "No," he said. "I'm not reading this."

Annie looked at him and raised her eyebrows. Gritty skidded to a halt in front of the bench and raised the hand with the trophy, still yowling enthusiastically.

Crosby heaved an enormous sigh. "Wow," he said begrudgingly. "Gritty, you're the best hockey player in the world. I wish I could play hockey like you."

Claude had never been less convinced by Crosby's acting, and he'd been subjected to the man's multiple commercials. Annie seemed fine with it, though, because she patted Crosby on the shoulder in thanks.

Gritty stopped yowling and looked at Crosby. Then he looked at Claude. Claude hadn't realized mascots could cry, but there appeared to be tears in his eyes. He took a breath.

"CLO," he said, "AH RUH OOH."

Claude looked over at Annie. Annie made a "go-on" gesture with both hands. Claude looked back at Gritty, who was looking at him expectantly, holding out both arms like he was looking for a hug. He looked back at Annie and raised his eyebrows and widened his eyes desperately.

Annie made the same gesture again, but bigger.

"Okay," Claude muttered to himself. Then he slid forward enough to give Gritty a hug. Gritty's fur was slightly damp with sweat, and the olfactory experience was one he hoped to never have to repeat.

"Thanks, buddy," he said. "I love you too."