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Optimus Reim: The Panthers' Problem

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Probably only Lou knows something’s going to happen before it actually does, but not even goalie magic or whatever freaky thing he’s got can predict when or where. So not a single player is expecting it when Juice gets the C, shakes everyone’s hands, puts on the new jersey…

And immediately turns into a panther. There’s no noise, no drawn-out transformation, no cracking bones, no puff of smoke. One second it’s Juice standing there, new captain of the Florida Panthers, and the next second, he’s a literal Florida panther.

There is not a single good thing about this. The media are there, they’ve been deprived of their Q&A session, and Juice is a motherfucking endangered animal.

Oh, and he accidentally rips up both sleeves, which deeply upsets the equipment manager.

--

Kampfer finds a note on his fridge the next morning in his own handwriting. He doesn’t remember writing it. Then again, he was pretty drunk last night. And yeah, he’s pretty sure his new captain turning into a goddamned panther is a great excuse to get completely wasted the night before training camp.

Shit is about to get really weird, dude, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Or should that be me? Fuck, this shit is bizarre.

He throws the note in the trash and doesn’t think any more about it. Then he makes some eggs.

--

It’s been a long time since a hockey curse was actually publicly confirmed, and the writers keep swarming to Sunrise. They don’t find a lot to write about when they get there; Juice has changed back and doesn’t become a panther again no matter how much they bother him. They ask the rest of the team for their opinions on it and get the same answer twenty times over.

Which means they start speculating. Will it happen to other new captains? Established ones? Kopitar?

It doesn’t. Eventually they go home and start pre-writing ‘injury or curse?’ stories for the regular season.

--

Lou doesn’t suit up for any preseason games, obviously, but he does come to all the home ones. Reims looks good out there, comfortable in a way Lou’s not sure he’s seen Reims before, and he waits in the room to tell him so afterwards.

Reims is seemingly distracted, because he’s only just started unlacing his skates when Lou walks in, and everyone else is gone.

They’ve met before, of course, shaken hands, but Reims was pretty awkward and Lou can certainly understand that. Now, though, Reims is solid, and Lou is really happy for him, so when he goes to shake hands, he claps Reims on the shoulder and tells him so.

Reims makes a low noise in the back of his throat, nearly falls over, grabs Lou’s arm to steady himself, and that explains it, actually. Lou’s arm warms under Reims’ hand, and when he looks, Reims’ handprint is right there in bright red.

“I don’t understand,” says Reims, and he looks sort of worried, so Lou takes pity on him.

“Left hand is platonic,” he says, taking off his shirt. This momentarily confuses Reims even more, until Lou shows him the yellow from McLennan, the green from Schneider, the blue from Läck, the nearly-black from Montoya. He gets along with his backups, OK? So sue him.

He shows Reims the purple on the back of his neck, too, the only right handprint he carries, and Reims shows him the pale silver on his back, right over his heart. Lou’s handprint on his shoulder is huge and distracting by comparison, but then, so is Lou. Reims can probably deal with it.

--

“This totally happened to McKeown!” Crouse says, ostensibly only to Juice but actually to the entire room.

“Crousey, we have a game to play, focus,” Huby demands, throwing a sock at him.

“No, seriously!” he picks back up after they’ve all chirped Huby for taking his new A too seriously. “Back when they gave him the C, he turned into a moose!”

“A moose?” Marchy is skeptical. “Really, Crouse?”

“Yeah! We made him go out on the ice. It was pretty funny!”

“Crouse,” says Juice, but then Gallant comes in and they have a game to win.

--

Reims isn’t as much of an optimist as he used to be; Toronto has a way of killing that for most players. Still, he knows where he stands here, which is really nice, and playing 1B to Lou looks like it’s going to be pretty cool, so he can’t help it. Florida really feels a little bit promising.

And humid. So humid.

Reims would like to think he’d have noticed the problem sooner if it wasn’t for Taylor Hall. And Alex Ovechkin. And literally the entire Lightning roster. And fucking Crosby. Seriously, did they make this schedule so he’d never get a starting job again?

Reims finally does start to pick up on it after Pittsburgh, but it’s not because he’s back to his usual observant self.

--

They take a loss in Pittsburgh, is the thing, getting shut out for the first time this season. Nothing feels quite right out on the ice and they can’t generate much offense. It’s making them all a bit nervy, especially since they’re heading into Toronto and Buffalo and it’ll be pretty fucking sad if they lose those.

It’s making Barky more stressed than the rest of them, as they find out when they get on the plane. Eks stops suddenly on the stairs, and D-Mac has to shove him to keep from running him over.

“You alright, Eks?” he asks, and it’s hardly the weirdest time or place Eks has zoned out so he’s really not expecting the answer he actually gets.

“Barky’s fucking floating,” Eks blurts out, and what the fuck? He totally is.

“Sasha…” Jags is saying from somewhere inside the plane, and the two of them hurry up the steps just in time to watch the entire team find out that Barky’s fucking floating, what the fuck?

“No way!” says Crouse. “They said Sean Avery could fly but I thought that was just Frontenacs legend. I never thought I’d see anybody actually do it!”

Reims looks pissed. Everyone else looks very, very worried.

--

Barky’s fine by the time they have to play, and they beat the Leafs and the Sabres and nobody does anything weird.

Then they lose to Detroit.

The room is quiet, everyone waiting for something to happen to someone else while they all strip out of their gear. Nobody sees anything even slightly odd until Eks puts on his suit jacket. It’s a little tight in the shoulders, and they start to chirp him about spending a little of his new contract on some clothes that actually fit, but he says, “It fit perfectly before the game…”

They’re all quiet for a while until Troch speaks up, because of course he does. “So you’re cursed. What is it? Bulking up a little bit? That might actually be useful, stop freaking out.”

“No,” says Eks, a little choked. “No, I think - oh fuck, I think I’m thirty.”

There’s skepticism from around the room then, culminating in Scevs saying, “Eks, you look exactly the same.”

But Juice disagrees. “Not quite. There’s a scar on his knee. Surgery, I think.”

Eks sits down, covers his face, and groans. They wait for him to say something. He doesn’t.

“Well,” says Troch, “at least now we know you eventually learn what to do with your hands.”

--

They’re set to play Boston, which is a shitty first game back after a long roadie but it’s worth it just to be home. It’s November 1, the day they were hoping they’d get Lou back, but he’s explaining that Reims is doing fine and he thinks he’d be better off waiting another few days when Mike walks in, late.

He’s red.

Not “I’m embarrassed because it’s only my first real season in the NHL and I’m late” red. No, he’s actually bright red all over.

It clashes really badly with his hair.

It clashes even worse with his jersey.

“I don’t even know what happened!” he says, as everyone starts asking him questions at once.

“Did you dress up as the Canadian flag for Halloween or something?” Troch asks. “Because that would be kind of boring and stereotypical.”

“...I was a pirate,” Mike says.

“Speaking of boring and stereotypical-”

“Something like this happened on the road, didn’t it?” asks Lou, and how the fuck did he know that? “If someone will fill me in, I’ll explain everything.”

“Michael Dal Colle turned orange last year!” Crouse starts.

“Shut up, Crousey,” says Mike.

--

Lou doesn’t explain everything. Not yet, anyway.

--

Kampfer gets another note. He doesn’t remember writing this one either. And he thought he’d been sober last night.

Oh well.

Smitty’s not dead, don’t panic.

He throws it away. Then he makes an omelet.

--

McKegg scores the game-winner against New Jersey. When they get back to the room, it’s full of eggs. Hard-boiled eggs. Dozens and dozens of hard-boiled eggs.

Lou takes a dozen of them home, laughing when Bjugs asks him if it was a prank and Troch demands to know how he did it.

--

“So,” Lou finally says on the plane back from Washington, “you all wanted to know about all the weird shit that’s been going on.” He pauses, thinking of the best way to put this, because he doesn’t want to have to say it again. Troch looks like he’s going to start talking. Lou cuts him off. “It’s a curse.”

“Of course it’s a curse,” Troch says. “People don’t just float or turn red or be thirty for no reason.”

“I was a fucking panther,” Juice puts in.

“That would be several curses,” Lou patiently explains, because he’s a goalie, he’s capable of great feats of patience. “This is just one.”

“So it is a team curse, like Edmonton’s?” asks Reims, suddenly interested. “But surely someone would’ve noticed it before now.”

“Not this one. It only shows up every eighth season; I should know.”

“Maybe the Frontenacs-” Crouse starts before the questions pile up.

“It’s happened twice?” Demers asks.

“What happened the first time?” Bjugs wants to know.

“Wait, how do you know about the second time?” comes from Kindl, who sounds unduly suspicious. Lou is a goalie, after all, and goalies know everything.

“What was your curse?” asks Troch, which is kind of rude - but he is an American, so that probably goes a long way towards explaining it.

“This is the third time,” Lou says, taking the questions in order. “The first time… Well, I won’t give you all the details, because a lot of them weren’t pleasant and they’re not my secrets to tell. I can tell you that Bure turned into a wolf whenever he heard howling.”

“When did he hear-” Pysyk and Petro start, simultaneously, before looking at each other with no small amount of alarm. Lou is saved from answering by Yands, though.

“Phoenix,” he says, and Lou nods in confirmation. “How did you keep it from the press?”

“We just said it was a prank. We were way too shitty for anyone to believe we’d suddenly eaten a curse. After that we made sure he was wearing earplugs.”

“But you were in Vancouver in 2008,” Kindl says, and repeats his question. “So how did you know about the second time?”

“Bouwmeester,” says Lou. “His curse was pretty nasty; he could see ‘reasonably imminent’ danger to his former teammates. So he called me to warn me.”

“Warn you about what?” asks Crouse, rapt.

“That they were going to poison me.”

Crouse sounds as if he couldn’t be happier. “Poison you?!”

“Who was going to poison you?” Huby wonders.

“How are you even still alive?” asks Troch.

“It was Tortorella. He finally managed to convince Gillis that I was untradeable, and that the only solution for the Canucks was for me to die. It’s the real reason he sat me in the Heritage Classic; he thought he’d been dosing me for weeks. Fortunately, I’d been warned, and had a friend of a friend of my agent call Tallon and ask him to work something out.”

“But that was years later,” Jags points out. Lou has never asked him why he knows exactly where Tortorella has been and when; he’s really not sure he wants to know.

“We eventually figured out that ‘reasonably imminent’ just meant ‘before the next round of the curse.’”

“But what was your curse?” Troch asks again.

“I’m a goalie,” says Lou. “Goalies don’t get cursed.”

--

Nothing new happens for the next two weeks, though Juice turns into a panther after their loss in Montreal and Barky starts floating again after their win in Toronto. Then several things happen at once.

First, they go on another roadie, and Smitty somehow disappears from the fucking plane. It’s not a long flight, just Ottawa to New York, where they’ll go straight to the hotel and collapse, but that kind of gets put on hold because Smitty was there when they boarded but he’s not there when they land. They try calling and texting but his phone is still on the plane, along with all the rest of his shit.

Gallant, hearing them plan a search, orders them to rest up for the game and let the front office do the searching, so they do.

In the morning, Jags gets a call from Marc Staal, who asks which hotel they’re in, sounding frazzled, while pans and children make noise in the background. Half an hour later, a taxi deposits Smitty at the hotel, where everyone proceeds to ask him what the fuck even happened.

“I fell asleep on the plane,” he says, “and I woke up in Marc Staal’s bed.”

Crouse looks depressingly excited. Troch gets there first, though. “Is he your secret hockey crush? Is that why you went to him instead of someone else? Did you sleep with him?”

Reims says, “What.” but loses his train of thought in the general uproar.

“His wife was very understanding,” Smitty says, and then the entire coaching staff is dragging him off for a lecture.

Second, Yands forgets his own name.

“Keith, how do you feel about your first game back at MSG?” asks a reporter.

“Who?” Yands asks.

Thankfully, she seems to think he said ‘what’ instead, and the rest of the questions go smoothly enough. Still, it gets pretty annoying on the plane home.

--

The curse apparently doesn’t want to ruin American Thanksgiving, because it leaves them alone (save Eks going thirty again - twice) for another two weeks. Everyone starts to get jumpier, thinking it’s becoming a pattern, that it’ll hit more people the longer it waits.

Except Jags. Jags doesn’t panic even a little bit. Nobody feels brave enough to ask why.

Lou does, though, because he knows Jags well enough by now to know the right way to phrase it.

“I was cursed before, so many times,” Jags tells him. “After the fourth time it starts to be the same one.”

“And you don’t mind it,” Lou finishes.

“Exactly.”

--

They’re playing Philly again on the last day of their 6-game roadie. It’s near the end of the third period of a tied game, and D-Mac is centering Crouse and Scevs when Crouse ices the puck and the Flyers send on their top line. Giroux wins the faceoff, and D-Mac finds himself covering Simmonds. Both their jerseys are riding up at the elbow, exposing that little bit of skin between glove and pad as they battle in the corner for the puck. Their wrists brush, which isn’t that unusual.

Until they don’t come apart.

He’s worried, for a split second, because he’s a good fighter but Simmonds is fucking terrifying - but they don’t fight. They do fall over though.

He hears Crouse shout something about how this shit definitely happened to Matt Cooke, apparently, but he’s pretty sure Cooke never had to deal with Crouse. The lucky bastard.

So he and Simmonds have to watch from the medical wing, ignoring the hovering and completely useless cursebreakers, as the Panthers take it in a shootout.

They come unstuck just in time for D-Mac to fly home with the team.

Flyers fans accuse them of cheating. For months. As if Voracek wasn’t just as good.

--

Reims is starting to see the shape of the curse, if he really concentrates, but he probably won’t be able to break it until everyone’s been affected. If what he’s read is correct, that is. There’s really not that much research out there on curses that affect groups; not many people have ever been powerful enough to execute a curse like that and make it stick.

There have, of course, been plenty in recent years; Edmonton’s is the best known, but he suspects St. Louis and Washington both have playoff curses. He knows San Jose did, because he’d dismantled it singlehandedly.

If he didn’t know better, he’d think the Leafs had been cursed, too. They aren’t, though. They just had decades of management who made them shitty all by themselves.

Besides those, there’s Bruce Boudreau, who should really have had someone take a look at his Game 7 curse last season. Unless he did and they just couldn’t figure it out.

Why is it, he wonders, that all these NHL teams don’t seem to be able to hire a decent cursebreaker?

--

“I can understand the Bernier thing,” Lou says to Reims, “but you never marked with Jones?”

That night, Reims notices a tiny streak of white at the edge of his hairline, and resolves to call Jonesy up sometime soon.

--

On Christmas morning, Kampfer finds yet another note he doesn’t recall writing to himself. Probably he should lay off drinking next year, just a little bit.

Don’t offer to sleep with Huby, it’ll just make things awkward.

But this note definitely calls for a drink, and it’s not next year yet. So he throws it away and pours a large glass of eggnog.

--

They’re ringing in the New Year in Dallas, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that that’s where the curse goes for Demers.

Demers drags a few of them along to a Stars party at someone’s house - Seguin’s, maybe? - and he and Scevs start catching up with all of their former teammates while the rest of the Panthers scatter to drink and talk and wish they were celebrating at home.

Except Reims. Reims keeps a close eye on Demers and Scevs, because Lou told him to and he can feel the curse looming, and that’s why he notices the exact moment it hits.

“Daddy!” Huby shouts from across the room, and that’s when Demers stops being able to talk.

Reims asks Lehtonen for paper and pen and drags Demers upstairs, Scevs following along like a lost duckling. He’s trying to explain what happened, while Demers interrupts with furious scribbling and indecipherable hand motions to ask if it’s really being called “Daddy” that triggers it, because he likes being called that and wants to keep it, when Scevs squeaks.

There’s a spider in the corner. It’s pretty huge, but it’s only a house spider. Reims turns to tell Scevs this, and Scevs squeaks again, because he’s a fucking rat.

Reims was not actually expecting that.

Reims makes Demers hang on to Scevs while he grabs Barky and Bjugs and Troch and Smitty, leaves Huby and Mike and Eks talking Canada and defense with the Benns and Hamhuis, and heads back to the hotel. Troch won’t shut the fuck up about Scevs and rats on the way back, talking until even Reims wants to punch him. Verbal diarrhea is pretty much his normal state, but this is just getting ridiculous, and…

Oh. That explains a lot, actually.

Mike is red in the morning, but at least they finally have a way to make Demers shut up on the plane.

--

So many of their problems have happened on the road that they all start to tense up en route to New Jersey; Juice turns into a panther twice on the flight there and Eks says he’s definitely thirty again, but they don’t see anything new happen.

Smitty disappears again on the bus to New York. This time, at least, they don’t panic. Probably one of the Islanders will contact one of them and everything will be fine.

This is how Eks gets simultaneous texts from Tavares and McDavid asking him what the hell is going on, right as Smitty’s getting dropped in front of the hotel by - is that the same cabdriver from last time?

“Strome,” he says, and heads to the elevators, trying to get rid of Crouse on the way.

Eks sighs. Everything’s under control, he texts Tavares. To McDavid, he says, Not even your team, Davo.

Still, that’s not new either, and the team hold their breath through the home-and-home and their eked-out win over Columbus, of all teams, because they’ve got a roadtrip through Canada next.

--

Lou is pretty sure Crouse is secretly hoping Tortorella ditches the Blue Jackets to try and poison him in Vancouver again.

Lou is pretty sure Crouse is a bit of an idiot.

--

Nothing happens at all in Calgary or Edmonton except hockey, because nothing ever happens in Calgary or Edmonton except hockey.

Well, there’s Edmonton’s curse.

Reims thinks they were hoping the new arena would mitigate it. He’s pretty sure it actually only made it worse. It’s so bad at this point it’s like a living thing, and he can see it feeding on the crowd’s anger, anchoring itself further with every goal the Oilers give up.

But that’s Edmonton’s problem. Florida has its own problems.

Florida’s main problem right now is finding a bucket, because when they’re in Vancouver McCann throws a small tantrum, stomps his foot, and turns into a trout.

He stays a trout on the plane to Arizona. Reims is the only one nice enough to look after him and make sure he doesn’t suffocate. He’s also the only one nice enough to put up with Troch’s incessant chatter and ‘rising to the bait’ puns. If he wasn’t a goalie, he’d think it was a curse.

--

They call up Shaw to replace McCann. The curse hits him immediately.

“Happening what’s understand don’t I!” he says, and the poor guy looks like he’s about to cry, even after the goalies pull him aside and explain as nicely as they can.

--

They play the Lightning at home. It’s the third time they’ve met this season, and Marchy’s really settled in as a third-liner, and they are, as mentioned, at home, and so it’s absolutely bizarre when they come back to the room, tied, at second intermission and he turns into a spider.

Scevs looks up to see what the matter is. And then Scevs is a rat again.

The stress of losing two forwards at this point in a tie game apparently really hits home, because Juice is suddenly a panther.

Well, fuck.

Fortunately, Scevs changes back when they take Marchy out of the room, and Juice changes back when he sees they’re only down one forward, but they have a tough ten minutes of juggling double shifts before Marchy comes back to the bench.

--

“You’ve been cursed before,” Lou says over the celebrations in the room.

“Someone took the ‘bug’ part of ‘lightning bug’ too seriously,” Marchy tells him. “Being a spider is kind of cool, though, as long as nobody tries to kill me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” says Lou, because he can see how it would be.

--

The curse goes completely dormant over the All-Star break.

It doesn’t stay that way.

--

They call up Brickley to replace an injured Scevs.

He frowns, and says, “I thought they traded Bjugs and Petro for Parise?”

Nobody really knows what to do with that.

--

Their last long roadie is in February. Smitty doesn’t show up for their morning flight to Nashville.

Lou gets the call this time, from Crosby - and it is a call, because for all they still call him ‘the Kid’ he’s basically an old man - and Smitty is waiting for them in the lobby with James Neal.

“Much better choice this time,” Troch tells Smitty during their postgame celebrations in the (Neal-recommended) bar. “Neal really knows where the party is.”

“Does that really surprise you?”

“Nah, I was just wondering if you made it worth his while,” says Troch, right before Reims appears and drags him off.

Smitty goes slightly pink.

--

They take two losses as they swing through California, but nobody eats curse. Reims was half-expecting whoever’d playoff-cursed San Jose to come after him somehow, but they don’t. So everybody’s already breathed a massive sigh of relief by the time they land in St. Louis, almost an afterthought.

As it happens, Kindl passes Bortuzzo in the hall, reaches out to give him a Kitchener d-man fistbump, and literally sets his own stick tape ablaze.

“Kindling fire!” shouts Troch before Bjugs can cover his mouth. Lou makes a mildly annoyed face.

Lou is still making the same mildly annoyed face after warmups.

--

“I thought they traded Yands and a first for P.K. Subban,” Brickley says the day after the trade deadline.

“Who?” asks Yands.

--

Kampfer still doesn’t know what the Huby note was about, but the first two were pretty on the money, so he’ll trust it.

Then he finds another one, and he’s 100% sure he didn’t write it, but it’s still in his handwriting, so he’s pretty sure he’s actually just been cursed all along. As curses go, it’s actually not really that horrifying.

Don’t sit anywhere near Kindl on any roadies. This is serious.

He still throws it away, because it’s not like he’s going to forget. Then he heats up a slice of his mother’s quiche.

--

Rau gets called up for a stretch at the beginning of March. He doesn’t explode when he walks through the door.

“Pay up!” Lou calls to Demers and Crouse.

“Am I missing something?” Rau asks, and he sounds completely normal.

“Not the spoken word,” says Lou, and raises his voice slightly, “which means Troch and Thorty also lose.”

That’s when Bjugs walks in, and Rau goes to give him a bro-hug, which is when he turns to stone.

“Minnesota is fucking weird,” says Barky. “You’re blocking the door.”

Eventually they extract Bjugs from Rau’s arms with a lot of effort and a little shaving cream, taking it in turns to tell Crouse to shut up about Sam Bennett’s Medusa curse already. Of course, it’s the moment they’re no longer touching that Rau un-statues and says, “Bjugs!” like they didn’t just waste twenty minutes separating the two.

“Body modification without change of shape,” says Eks. “So who won the pool?”

Wordlessly, Lou hands the cash to Reims.

--

They keep Rau and Bjugs carefully separate for the next few games, especially when it’s Minnesota that comes to visit. So Rau doesn’t turn to stone again. It doesn’t do anything to save Bjugs, though.

Troch takes a nasty hit at the beginning of the third, and ends up skidding headfirst into the boards. Bjugs moves up to the second line while they check Troch for concussion symptoms, scoring the game-winner off a nice feed from Smitty with five minutes left, and by the time they’re heading down to the room, Jags is shouting “Bjugy!” every five seconds and everyone’s congratulating him and they’ve all pretty much forgotten about the curse.

When they get there, Troch hops up and shouts, “Way to go, Rotisserie Chicken!”

A large, fluffy, white cat glares at him from Bjugs’ stall.

It’s probably a good thing they retired the Spacey in Space sweatshirt thing, because cat-Bjugs really doesn’t look like he’d wear it.

--

“Does he not get that nicknames are supposed to be short?” asks Bjugs, venting to Reims and Rau.

“He does,” Lou says from the corridor, “but he thinks it’s funny that you hate it so much.”

“And I don’t like chicken any more than anyone else!” Bjugs continues, ignoring him.

--

They have a game in Tampa the next day. Marchy isn’t even surprised when Pally texts him to come get Smitty.

“Palat?” Lou asks Smitty later.

“Palat,” Smitty confirms. “How did you know?”

“Palat wears the number 18,” Lou says, and fucks off somewhere like he didn’t just blow Smitty’s mind.

--

Reims can count on one hand the number of guys who aren’t cursed at this point. He can see it completely now, watch it building up, read where it’s going. He can tell it’ll be done before the playoffs. Five guys in four weeks, he thinks.

--

“I can’t effing curse!” Gallant says at practice, and Reims appreciates the irony but feels vaguely guilty for not thinking to include him on the curseless list.

Technically, he’s still curseless, Reims thinks, and doesn’t laugh.

--

On their three game roadie, Troch only turns Bjugs into a cat twice. But McCann turns into a trout again in Pittsburgh and Kindl accidentally sets Eks’ ergonomic neck pillow on fire. Lou ends up putting it out in McCann’s bucket, and Reims has to scramble to add water to it after the pillow absorbs a quarter of it and leaves the rest a little too warm.

It actually does a good job of distracting them from their pessimistic thinking for a while.

--

Five guys in two weeks, thinks Reims on the plane to Buffalo, which is when Huby stands up and shouts, “Guys, I think my curse is coming in!”

“What is it?” asks Barky, sounding worried. Reims is a goalie, he doesn’t have lineys, but he’d definitely freak out if something happened to Lou now, so he can guess what the feeling might be like.

“Your body’s changing,” deadpans Troch, “and you’re becoming a woman.”

Everyone laughs, until Huby says, “Actually, yeah. How did you know?”

At least it’s only Buffalo.

--

In the Huby aftermath, Pysyk kind of forgets what it might mean that he’s back in Buffalo until they land and he hears Petro cursing quietly.

Except Petro’s three rows away and not moving his mouth, so that theory is right out.

Wait, he thinks, is this telepathy?

Oh, fuck. says Petro, in his head, apparently.

“Telepathy!” Lou exclaims, bounding by them to get off the plane like a man 10 years younger.

--

Kampfer doesn’t offer to sleep with Huby, even if Huby is a pretty fine lady. After all, the other notes are three for three.

--

Of the three people affected that day, only one of them brags about it later.

It’s not one of the ones with an actually useful telepathic link.

--

The last game of the roadie is in Boston, where Thorty will semi-officially semi-retire. It’s Juice and Smitty’s birthday, but nobody’s in a particularly party mood because Thorty and Jags have yet to be cursed and there’s only about a week left.

Oh, and Thorty’s kind of a cult hero in Boston still for some reason. And Jags played there for part of a season. So everything’s probably fucked.

--

Juice never thought he’d be grateful that Scevs - or any other teammate, really - is injured, but he really, really is in Boston, because when Thorty steps out of the room it’s into a crowd.

Not of people. Of animals. Some of which are bugs. Some of which are spiders.

The spiders aren’t actually the worst part, even if he’s pretty sure some of them are actually deadly. Neither are the moths in Thorty’s hair or the massive army of creepy roaches or the rats loitering around the edges of the hall and - are they dancing? Even the realization that the floor is completely carpeted with ants somehow isn’t the worst part.

No, that would be the raccoon that climbs on Thorty’s back and refuses to let go.

That is, until someone’s dog - and he spares a brief moment to be impressed that they managed to smuggle a dog in, seriously - finds its way down to them and starts barking at it. Or yapping, really, it’s not a very big dog.

Of all the things Juice thought could go wrong in Boston, a raccoon and a dog fighting each other, possibly to the death, over Thorty? That really didn’t make the top twenty.

--

Nobody ever claims the dog, which is weird, given that they loved it enough to bring it to a hockey game.

That might have something to do with it losing an eye in a raccoon fight.

--

Jags is still Jags when they get on the plane, and he’s still Jags when they land, and he’s still Jags when they beat Montreal and clinch a playoff spot, and when they lose to St. Louis because they don’t give a shit, and when they beat Buffalo because they do still have some pride.

Reims is finding it difficult to breathe. Possibly he owns some of the credit for that loss.

Their last game is in Washington. Reims would be busy freaking out about how Jags played there except he already knows this is when it has to end. It’s not going to be a surprise. They’ll walk out of the room, and Jags will turn into a leopard or turn blue or sing like a bird or forget he ever played hockey.

Maybe, if they’re lucky, he’ll turn thirty.

So Reims tries to be a rock in the room and on the bench, because Lou’s in the zone and he won’t come out of it until it’s over, but his nerves are shot. He gets twitchy every time Jags gets checked, every time he manages to keep Alzner off the puck with the power of his ass alone, every time the puck even comes near him, actually.

Nothing happens to Jags the entire game.

Well, he scores a goal that makes Reims wince a little in sympathy, but that’s all.

It’s not until they’re leaving the ground that he hears Barky say, “Oh, shit,” and then Juice stalks by, not in his seat even though they’re taking off, because he’s a panther again and the seats on this plane are designed for people.

When they level off, he goes to see what’s happened, and it makes him very tired.

Jags is a child. The curly mullet would probably be funny if the situation wasn’t so stressful.

“He doesn’t speak any English,” Barky says, so Reims grabs Kindl.

“Jardo, jsi v pořádku?” Kindl asks, and Reims is pretty impressed that nothing’s on fire yet.

“Kid, right?” Lou calls from the front. “Pay up, guys!”

“Jags is a kid?” Crouse asks. “I thought that was just an NHL legend!”

“A legend?” Bjugs asks. He doesn’t sound like he actually wants to know.

“Yeah! The legend of why they call Crosby ‘the Kid’!”

Bjugs audibly groans, and Reims is extremely impressed that nothing’s on fire yet, or clawed to shreds, or even annoyed to death.

“Oh, no,” Lou says, grinning at Bjugs. “There’s a Philly fan who’s been kid-cursing Pens players for years. That one’s 100% real.”

Which is when Huby turns into a woman again.

--

It takes Reims almost the full three pre-playoff days to break the curse, carefully tracing the shape of it, listing the effects and the affected in order, guessing at its origin. When he’s done it, he brings them all in and stands them in a circle.

Except McCann. He can’t stand because he’s gone fishy again. And Marchy. He gets Marchy a chair so they don’t accidentally step on him. Then he has to get one for Scevs too.

When they’re all arranged exactly how he wants them, Reims takes his place, standing back to back with Lou in the middle of it. He starts off loosening it around the edges, leaning on Lou and turning slowly, detaching small pieces and absorbing them, until all that’s left is the initial anchor.

This one looks like a bow, one of the perfect ones they tie at gift-wrapping stalls, and when he grabs one end and pulls, it comes apart like one, too, surprisingly sudden and discomfortingly easy.

And, just as suddenly, the team are as they were.

“Are all of you magic?” Troch says to Lou, and Reims briefly worries the curse is still on Troch, but it’s not. That’s just Troch being Troch.

“Of course all goalies are magic,” Lou says. “How else could we be goalies?”

“Then why didn’t you fix this back in 2000?”

“Because I’m not a cursebreaker.”

“Ooh, what magic do you have?” Crouse asks, and they’re really going to have to break him of that habit, because one habitual talker is enough.

“Nothing special, really,” says Lou. “It’s just that sometimes, I read minds.”

--

Jags breaks his playoff goal drought three minutes into the first game.

“Being a child was a nice break,” he says when the press have gone.

--

Much later, during the offseason, the front office asks to meet with Reims. This is it, he thinks. Now that I’ve broken the curse here, this is the year I finally get sent to Edmonton. I can’t deal with Edmonton’s curse. Oh god, what if the Oilers keep me forever and make me keep trying?

Except the meeting isn’t about them sending him to Edmonton. It’s about him staying.

He manages to keep from crying until after it’s over.

And if Lou shows up a minute later to give him a shoulder to cry on, it’s not like either of them is going to say anything about it.