Nick has seen some shit since he came to Columbus. The arena curse manifests itself in a variety of ways—not just losing streaks or bad bounces or freak injuries. Prouter, before he got traded to Jersey, used to turn into a large black Labrador retriever when he got stressed out. Wenny and Bill woke up in each other’s bodies once, and went three days, including a game day, before anybody noticed. One time Dubi blurted out everything he was thinking, unable to filter it, and the things Nick heard about what he wanted to do to Crosby are permanently seared into his memory and everyone else’s; Cam still occasionally makes a spanking motion when Dubi walks by, just to fuck with him.
This, though, is a first.
“Said we were the team parents too many times,” Bob says, mournfully, surveying the scene in front of them. Thank God he’s still normal. Nick would not be able to handle this alone.
You turn your back for one second to have a meeting with your coach one-on-one and come back to your entire locker room being full of elementary schoolers where teammates should be, Jesus Lord in Heaven, what is Nick’s life. He makes a mental note to burn some sage at center ice next practice, because it annoys the shit out of the arena ghosts and they deserve that right now.
Bob occupies himself trying to extricate Korpi from his goalie gear, which he is swimming in, a tuft of ginger hair poking up and not much else. He’s younger than some of the others, Nick notes distantly, in the part of his mind that compartmentalizes this nonsense enough to be calm about it. Hartsy and Dubi look like second graders, and Zach looks about four or five, and everyone else is somewhere in between. As they are all five to eight year olds with nothing to do and no idea why they are five to eight year olds, the room is very loud.
“Fligs,” Matty says, very small and serious, hands on his hips, “I have a question.”
“Yes?” Nick asks, trying to ignore Dubi, who is trying to tickle Cam. It’s comforting, in a way, to know he was always the way he is.
“Can I have a horsey ride?”
Well, at least Nick has plenty of experience with this sort of thing. He nods and gets on his hands and knees so Matty can clamber up onto his back. Matty makes a whip-cracking noise with his mouth, and Nick obediently crawls forward a bit on the locker room floor, trying not to think about how gross the floor in question is. He neighs obediently when Matty kicks at his sides.
“Okay, I need to get up now,” he says finally.
Matty sighs deeply and rests his head against Nick’s back for a long moment before sliding off, and Nick ends up cross-legged on the floor, looking around. Jack’s big brother instincts got retained in the change, it seems, and so he’s cuddling Zach to his chest and rubbing his back, making little soothing cooing noises. Bob has Korpi in his lap and a Swede under each arm, and Bill and Wenny are trying to cheer Korpi up from either side of him, pulling funny faces and chattering to each other in Swedish. Murrs and Boone are… wrestling.
“Ow!” Murrs yells. “Bob, he bit me!”
Nick has never remembered more clearly than in this moment that Boone is a younger brother.
He extricates Boone from the tangle of limbs and jersey, tugging him back with hands under both armpits, and Ryan scowls and thrusts his arm forward for inspection. The bite mark isn’t deep, but it’s hard to miss, and Boone’s baby teeth are apparently much pointier than Nick expected.
“Don’t bite your friends,” Bob says mildly, shifting a bit to accommodate as Sedsy tries to join Korpi in his lap. Good thing he’s flexible.
“You’re gonna turn into a vampire,” Dubi says, having gotten distracted long enough to let Cam escape to the scooter gang puppy pile that’s starting to form, but still in the mood to be a shit-disturber.
“I am not,” Murrs says, scowling at him.
“You are! Look, there are his fang marks.”
“I’m not a vampire,” Boone says, but he puts a hand over his mouth to hide his teeth anyway.
Murrs’ lip wobbles, and Nick knows the need for reinforcements when he sees it.
“Bob, I will be right back, I promise. I’m going to go grab one of the trainers. Murrs, don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t turn into a vampire.”
“Thanks,” Murrs says, eyes big and a little watery, and he hugs his arm to his chest.
The first he sees is Scott, one of the younger trainers, small and blonde and with big square glasses. He’s been around for long enough that he’s used to arena-related nonsense, though, and takes one look at Nick before saying, “code alert?”
Code for internal disaster. Hospitals probably don’t mean it in the same way they do.
“Yeah. Grab your first aid kit. Nobody’s hurt, but—you’ll see.”
“Jesus Christ,” Scott says, surveying the scene in front of them. Bob has acquired another child, and now has Nuti and Korpi precariously balanced on each knee, Sedsy in the middle of his lap, and Bill and Wenny tucked under his arms. Jack is holding court for Zach and Saader, telling them a story. Dubi and Hartsy are squabbling, with Gags trying to play peacemaker and failing, and Murrs is still clutching his arm.
“Boone bit me,” Murrs proclaims to Scott, and Boone leans up against him and rests his head on Murrs’ shoulder. He looks terribly guilty.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Scott says, trying for as much sympathy as he can manage without giggling, but Nick can hear the edge of it in his voice. “Do you want me to put a bandaid on it?”
“He’s gonna turn into a vampire,” Dubi says, taking a break from pulling Hartsy’s hair. “Look at those teeth!”
“He is not,” Boone grumps.
“Well,” Nick says, crouching down to eye level with Murrs. “You don’t need to worry, because Scott has special anti-vampire bandaids. Do you want one?”
Murrs nods and holds out his arm, and Scott solemnly puts a bandaid on each side of the bitemark. They have little Batman symbols on them.
“And one for you,” Scott says, sticking a bandaid on Boone’s forehead. “Now you can’t turn anybody into a vampire.”
Boone beams and hugs Murrs to his side.
After a moment, Bob says, “So… now what do we do with all of them.” He’s got three squirming children in his lap, so it’s a fair question.
“Now,” Nick says, “we bring in the calvalry.”
“Troops, Bob. Troops.”
Milana’s eyes are very wide as she takes in the scene in front of her. She’s dragging a mesh bag behind her, and Janelle has Landon balanced on one hip and another bag in her other hand, and Nick has never been so glad to see his wife in his entire life. Wedding day excepted, anyway.
“This is a first,” Janelle says, completely failing to hide her laughter. “I brought toys. Hope they work.”
She’s brought the mini-sticks sets—two nets, two goalie sticks, and enough regular sticks to occupy eight or so of the kids, and the other bag has an assortment of coloring books and crayons and the sort of miscellany of toys Nick associates with ‘well it was on the floor at the time’.
As he kind of figured, everyone scrambles to grab a stick. Everyone is still wearing extremely oversized jerseys, so it’s more of a pileup in the general direction of the sticks than an actual scramble, but, details.
“I’m goalie,” Korpi announces, and Milana grabs the other goalie stick before anyone else can and proclaims, “me too!”
Bob gives Nick a very approving look, and Nick buries his head in his hands. He was trying to keep that whole ‘oh god, am I raising a goalie’ thing secret for this exact reason.
Five minutes later, there’s a 4-2 game running, with Nick as referee and Bob as impromptu goalie coach to Milana, and the kids who couldn’t grab sticks are making a general mess of the rest of the toys. Landon is chewing on the side of a coloring book. At least it’s not the crayons, Nick figures. Coloring books are easier on the digestive system.
This, of course, is the point at which Torts walks in. Nick wasn’t sure he was even still in the building.
“Oh f… iddlesticks,” he says, a last-minute save, and is about to turn and walk right back out the door when Dubi pauses in the middle of cross-checking Boone and pipes up, “come coach!”
Torts exchanges a look with Nick, shrugs, and sits down. He’s got a glint in his eye like he’s already thinking about how he’s going to give Dubi shit for this, but honestly, he’s going to have to beat Nick to it, so.
“How long have they been like this?” Torts asks.
“Hour or so? They were like this when I got back from meeting with you.”
“I liked the ‘turning into a Labrador’ thing better. Think it’ll last?”
“No idea. I hope not. Not sure how we’re going to transport them all if it lasts the rest of the day and we need to take them home to sleep.”
“I can call Karen,” Janelle says, trying to extricate a crayon from Landon’s mouth. “She can probably borrow a school bus after hours.”
“Dad,” Dubi interrupts. “You’re supposed to be coaching us.”
It takes a moment for everyone to realize he is talking to Torts, at which point all adults present mentally compile this absolutely golden blackmail material. And they thought the Crosby thing was good pickings.
“Yeah,” Nick says, fighting to keep a straight face. “Go coach.”
“Game winning goalie here so far,” Bob says, gesturing to Milana and beaming. “Have to make sure her defensemen, you know, know where to go.”
Nick is never going to hear the end of this.
On the other hand, he’s going to be able to make fun of Dubi for the next decade, so. Silver linings.
Everyone turns back to normal overnight. Nick knows this largely because he gets a voicemail from Dubi at five in the morning.
"If you ever repeat what I said again I will end you."
Well. He can try. Nick likes his odds in that fight just fine.