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Digging Out the Root

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Between hastily packing and arranging travel and saying goodbye to friends and family, Geno barely heard anything about the NHL's new rules coming out of the lockout. Maybe he could have found out more if he looked, but he didn't much care. Whatever they wanted, whatever they had changed, it didn't matter because Geno was going home. After four months on strange ice that used to be familiar, he was going to play Penguins hockey again. He would sacrifice an arm for the privilege.

Well. A finger, maybe. One of the small ones. Something he could lose and still grip a stick.

Geno shook his head blearily and dragged his eyes up from the sink to meet his gaze in the bathroom mirror. He watched his face become a wry grin, laughing at himself for his fleeting thoughts of what he would give up to play again. Whatever was in the new collective bargaining agreement, he sincerely doubted it would involve amputation. And, he thought as he returned to washing his face, getting ready for his first optional practice because he simply couldn't wait to get on the ice, it would be worth it.

Geno drove fast to the practice rink and strode inside with a spring in his step. His eyes ate up the view of the state-of-the-art facility, the grey and yellow accents on the walls, the Penguins' logo—he beamed at it as he reached the doors to the hall of locker rooms and flung them open.

In his enthusiasm, Geno burst through the doors and nearly ran straight into Sid. Sid was standing just inside with his arms crossed, talking low with Dan and Ray and Dr. Harner. He didn't look happy—which, considering he was faced with their head coach, general manager, and team doctor, was not surprising. It would take a lot of something serious to get those three in the same conversation. Geno's heart sank. His bounce deflated.

Ray turned a tight smile on him. "Hi Geno, welcome back," he said, reaching to shake his hand.

"Happy to be back," Geno said absently, his gaze inexorably drawing toward Sid. Sid's eyes were averted, not meeting anyone's stare. His jaw was clenched. When Geno looked at him, Sid dragged his eyes up with a 'help me' expression, and Geno jumped into action. He lurched forward and wrapped Sid up in a giant, exaggerated hug, using the embrace to walk Sid away enough to whisper, "You okay?"

Sid shook his head subtly against Geno's shoulder.

"Come," Geno said, increasing his volume to be heard by the group as he pulled back. "I come back with lots things to show you. You learn Russian way. Best hockey."

Sid followed the tug of Geno's hand around his wrist with an apologetic grimace back at his leaders. The flash of his teeth failed to mask the relief he plainly felt at the escape.

"Think about it, Sid," Ray called in his stern but fatherly this is serious tone. "It'll be a short season."

"Yeah, I'll think it over," Sid called. His voice held no real sincerity. He pushed Geno to drag him away faster.

When they were out of sight, Sid slowed. His wrist tugged out of Geno's grasp as he dragged his feet to a stop and finally slumped against a wall. His eyes barely seemed to have the energy to come up from the floor so he could offer Geno a weak smile. "Thank you."

"What's wrong?" Geno asked.

"I can't play," Sid said with a shell-shocked expression on his face like he couldn't believe it.

Geno certainly couldn't believe it. "What? Why?" he cried before tempering himself. Sid had come back from a terrible concussion not long ago. The answer might be obvious. "Head still bad?"

"No," Sid groaned. "It's not my head. It's—Jesus Christ. I was at the fucking negotiations. How could they think I'm not capable?"

Nothing Sid said was making sense yet. Geno pressed for more. "What they do?"

"The CBA." Sid spat the word out like it tasted bad. "The new agreement. They banned suppressants."

Geno's heart skipped into a new rhythm. He had known Sid was on suppressants since the first time they played together. It was evident from the chemical, soapy smell of his sweat. None of what Geno could only assume were omega pheromones ever leaked through, so clearly, the drugs were high-dollar, state of the art.

It had always made Geno a little sad that Sid felt the need to lock a part of himself away like that, but he understood. Some omegas didn't want to be a slave to their bodies. Geno liked his heats—liked feeling irresistible, every nerve set alight. But with Sid's personality, his desire to tightly control the variables in his day to day, Geno could see how he might hate the loss of self-control.

A second wave of emotion rolled over Geno—outrage. The league thought omegas couldn't play while suppressed? He would show them a thing or two about what an omega could do.

"I think I have to get bonded," Sid said in a hollow voice, cutting off Geno's building outrage.

"Wait, what?" Geno asked, mind jumping like a car on a blown tire. "To who?"

"Anybody." Sid's eyes were unfocused, staring through the wall in front of him. "I don't know. I just need to bond."

"That's a story," Geno scoffed. He had always thought they had good sex education in Canada, but apparently, the rumors persisted there, too. "You don't stop heat if you bond."

"Heat?" Sid asked, eyes squinched up curiously. "G—I'm not. You know I'm an alpha, right?"

Geno did not know that. He grasped for words for a moment before he exclaimed, "Well, why you want suppress then? Alpha can play without."

"No," Sid said firmly. "At least—look. Before suppressants, the top players in the league were always omegas and betas, right? Richard, Howe, Orr. There's a reason. Alphas get too mad about stupid stuff. We don't make good decisions. I've got enough of a temper without thinking about competing for mates like a fucking cave dweller."

As much as Geno wanted to protest, to say that unsuppressed and unbonded alphas did well in the league all the time, he couldn't actually think of a single example. Ovechkin got off suppressants in the summer to sow his wild oats, but he became intolerable when unmedicated—proving Sid's point. Alpha instincts told Ovi to fight for mates, to challenge anyone who got near an omega, Geno included. After too many fistfights and apologetic next-day phone calls, Geno had given up on interacting with summer-Ovi.

Sid seemed pretty sure he wouldn't be any better, that his knot would take the driver's seat and steer him off the road. After all the work he'd done to get to this point, to get back after his injury, Sid was facing losing control of his own mind. Geno's heart felt heavy with sympathy.

"What's Ray want?" Geno asked, hoping for a better solution. "He say think about."

"He wants to chop my dick off," Sid said bitterly.

"No fucking way," Geno growled, whipping around toward the door like he would—what? Attack his general manager? The impotence of his fury made him even angrier until Sid touched his arm to get him back.

"He didn't say that. I was exaggerating. He only meant to help. There's a surgery. Knot removal. It's got a three-week recovery—"

"No!" Geno said, disgusted that Sid would consider mutilating himself, even for hockey.

"Yeah, well. That was pretty much my first reaction," Sid said with a wry shrug. "So. That only leaves one solution."

Geno choked around his second attempt to swallow the idea but managed to force his mouth to form words. "You think you get bonded, it help?"

"Yeah. If I bond with someone, I'm free. At least enough that I won't be fighting for mates on the ice. I can control everything else."

Geno numbly watched Sid pace away and come back with a miserable groan.

"I just—I have to. I have to,” Sid said firmly. He sounded like he was convincing himself. "So I can play."

Sid went quiet and still, a plane stalled in the air with no fuel, waiting to crash. Geno didn't want to let him freefall, but he had no idea what to say. Five minutes ago, Geno didn't even know Sid was an alpha, let alone the potential threat his biology now posed to his career.

"Sid," Geno said gently, hoping the right thing to say would come to him. Sid's eyes came up, pleading for something, and no words materialized. Geno ended up lamely asking, "What can I do?"

Sid's gaze dropped away. He seemed disappointed. "I looked into it already. I'll get a matchmaking service. Hopefully, I can get a match before the season starts. I just have to tell the agency what I want."

“What do you want?”

Sid returned his eyes to Geno's face, searching. Geno wanted so badly to make this better for him. But there was nothing to do. The collective bargaining agreement was finalized. Sid had to find a mate or forever alter his body if he didn't want his hormones destroying his career.

For a brief, crazed moment, Geno considered offering himself. Sid's suppressants would wear off in a day or two once he stopped taking them. When Sid's dormant scent glands came online, Geno could tip his chin back and let Sid rub against his neck, testing. He thought they would be compatible—he knew they would be.

A sudden thought stayed Geno's offer. He had always thought Sid was an omega, but Sid didn't suffer the same misconception. He had known Geno's biology from day one and never shown any interest. And now, faced with needing a mate—Sid would say something. If he considered Geno an option, he would ask. He would be sheepish and apologetic about it, but he would ask.

"It's okay," Geno said instead of proposing. He hoped he sounded reassuring. "We figure it out together."

"Together?" Sid asked, eyebrows up in surprise. It wasn't a bad surprise, though. He looked hopeful. Geno charged ahead.

"Yes, I help. I'm wingman."

Geno knew he had said the right thing when Sid cracked a genuine little smile.

—1—

Sid spent the downtime waiting for their pre-season physicals checking boxes on a form for the matchmaking service. It was several pages long. Each page was filled top to bottom with yes or no questions. Leaning against the wall outside the doctor's office with his teammates, Sid tapped his pencil gratingly as he carefully considered his answers.

"Do you think it's rude if I say I want someone with a job?" Sid said, musing more than really asking.

"They have to have a job," Flower snorted. He had joined in the conversation without being invited, butted in when he overheard Geno and Sid discussing qualities in potential mates.

"Why?" Geno asked just to be contrary. He knew Flower was right. Sid could never take someone seriously if they weren't driven, motivated. "You rich, who cares? Maybe they job is work out, be hot."

Sid grinned back at him. "Six-pack mandatory, eh?"

Geno shrugged remorselessly. A tiny, jealous voice in the basement of his mind whispered that he could have a six-pack, easy. All he had to do was target his abs for a couple of weeks and get a little dehydrated. It happened every summer while he strength trained, before hockey came along to ruin his vanity progress.

"I'm saying yes," Sid declared.

"Good," Flower said. "He'll need a job to keep from going crazy while you're on the road. Unless he comes with us."

"Why would he come with us?" Sid asked, voice distant as he scanned over the next question. "Must love to see new places? What kind of question is that?"

Flower turned back with a fond but exasperated look at Sid before his eyes drifted up to Geno. He subtly shook his head like he thought Sid wasn't getting something, but Geno also missed whatever it was.

Between the three of them, they managed to get the form entirely filled out by the time the doctor was done with their physicals.

Less than twenty-four hours later, the agency delivered the first match.

The team was just off the ice after practice—still unofficial but with so many players and coaches, it may as well have been sanctioned. The locker room was full of happy, sweaty faces, and Sid’s was one of them until he looked at his phone. Geno watched his smile drop away before he slowly got to his feet. Instead of going for the door, he crossed the room to stand in front of Geno.

"Hey. They've got someone."

It took Geno a moment to unpack Sid's words. The matchmaking service had found someone for Sid, a mate they chose in part based on Geno's help with the questionnaire. He wrestled his indignant sneer under control and nodded solemnly. "Okay, good."

Sid stayed, hovering over Geno like a seagull on the beach. Geno raised his eyebrows questioningly, unsure what Sid still wanted from him. Sid answered, "You, uh. Coming?"

When Geno had offered to be a wingman, he thought it meant Sid might call him if he needed to escape a bad date or that Geno would briefly meet the guy to give his approval before the bond. He didn't think Sid wanted him to chaperone like an adult at a middle school dance.

Seeing his hesitation, Sid continued. "It's just, I could use the second opinion. It's all going to happen fast, you know?"

And Sid knew Geno was less charitable about people than he was. If the guy was a psycho or a narcissist or annoying, Geno would zero in on those traits. Sid's logic was sound.

"Okay," Geno sighed, regretting his choice to play wingman without a detailed outline of his duties. "Tell me when."

"Now. He's here, outside."

“Sid! You can’t meet guy here.”

"Why not? I'll be here a ton this week when real practices start. It's open, public, well-lit, so he'll feel, you know. Safe. Besides, if we hit it off, maybe we can skate. I put must love hockey as one of my others."

Geno had to admit, Sid had put some real thought into using the practice facility as his speed dating site, sacrilegious as it may be. Geno rose with a groan. "Not even shower first?"

Sid did hesitate about that one, but he ultimately shrugged with a grin. "He'll be able to scent me a mile off, eh?"

Geno made a face, but Sid wasn't wrong. With the suppressants wearing off, the chemical odor of dish soap was fading, leaving Sid's musky, vanilla scent underneath. And that was after an hour of skating to become nose blind to it. The omega in the lobby would be hit by an olfactory train.

Geno threw on a hoodie and followed Sid out. As they rounded the final corner, two people came into sight: a woman in a smart, grey suit and a man in a black Philadelphia Flyer's shirt. Geno fought his lip not to curl into a sneer about the guy as he looked around the lobby, searching for the match.

Sid slowed his steps uncertainly and breathed, "Okay," with his exhale. Then he picked up the pace and beelined for the Flyer's fan. When the guy caught sight of Sid, his eyes got huge. He cut an uncertain glance at the tall, brunette woman. She didn't look at him, smiling instead at Sid. She seemed vaguely proud, like a mother presenting her child. But they were too close in age for that, so Geno supposed this must be the matchmaker.

Geno slowed his steps and hung back as Sid approached the pair. He wanted to get a good look at the matchmaker's face when she realized this match would not work.

"Hi, I'm guessing you're Nick?" Sid said. He stuck out his hand. Nick the Flyer's fan shook it without tearing his eyes away from Sid's face.

"Yeah, hi," Nick said weakly. He looked like a cartoon of a man sweating through his shirt, pulling on his collar. Geno could almost muster sympathy for him. "I, uh—"

Seeing Nick's discomfort, Sid put on his most charming smile. It was the one he used on season ticket holders and babies and—in a pinch—the media to get them talking about something other than a points drought. "You had no idea you were meeting me, eh?"

Nick shook his head and glanced at the matchmaker.

"I apologize," she said without anything resembling actual contrition in her tone. "Due to the celebrity nature of our clientele, we don't reveal identities until the actual meeting."

"Oh," Nick said, turning his eyes back to Sid. He looked like he might faint. "Okay."

"Yeah, I think in this case—maybe some forewarning would have been nice," Sid told the matchmaker gently.

The matchmaker raised her pencil-thin eyebrows. "I'm not sure I understand."

"It's Sidney Crosby," Nick exclaimed like that was a bad thing. Geno took a step forward, and Nick seemed to notice him for the first time. He swallowed.

"He's a Flyer's fan," Sid explained to the matchmaker. "I'm not sure this is going to work."

The matchmaker pulled a small notebook from her black purse and flipped it open. "I'm showing that Nick is a 90 percent match. You specified that your mate should enjoy hockey. They had to be funny, kind, adventurous, employed. You didn't say anything about the Flyers."

Sid coughed a laugh. Clearly, he wasn't expecting to need to explain. "That's fair, sorry. The Flyers are our rival team, so I don't think—Nick, correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't want to bond with me, right?"

"Only if you retire," Nick admitted carefully with a little grin and a sheepish shrug.

Geno closed the remaining distance between them and crossed his arms beside Sid to glare down at Nick. The sliver of humor appearing on Nick's face shuttered, replaced again by anxiety.

"Not helping," Sid said low to Geno before he herded Nick away to talk with him privately, waving off the matchmaker's attempt to follow. Geno watched them speak in low tones across the room until Nick the Flyers fan started to relax.

"You're an omega," the matchmaker said. When Geno looked, he found her eyes scanning up and down his body like she was sizing him up for something.

"Sid ask me to come," Geno said, feeling irrationally defensive. "I'm wingman. Make sure he don't bond with somebody bad. Definitely not Flyer's fan."

"I see," the matchmaker said. She didn't smile at Geno the way she did for Sid. She watched him like a scientist studying a specimen. "Well, if you're tagging along, I suppose we'll see each other a lot. I'm Marta."

"Geno."

By silent, mutual agreement, they didn't shake hands. Across the room, Sid grinned and clapped Nick on the shoulder. The two of them returned to the group, both chuckling about the situation.

"Bad news," Sid said with a silly grin playing on his mouth. "Nick doesn't want to be disowned by his family, so he's going to pass on bonding with me."

Marta's eyebrows arched disapprovingly. She sighed as she tucked her notepad back into her purse. "Very well, I’ll add the Flyers to the list of automatic rejections."

"Sorry, man," Sid said with a shrug to Nick, who grinned back.

"Don't worry about it. Just a funny story to tell the grandkids, right?"

They parted with a handshake—Sid really could win anybody over face to face. Marta swooped in to take over, talking about NDAs and cheerfully reminding Nick that he could lose his whole life if he blabbed.

"Sorry, Sid," Geno said when they were alone. He was starting to feel a little crusty from the dried sweat on his skin. He was glad the meeting had been brief so they could return to the locker room for a shower.

"Ah, it's okay," Sid said with a grin and a shrug. "That was just the first try. She's got a week to get it right."

Geno said nothing, but he felt a flare of irrational annoyance with the matchmaker. He couldn’t pin down whether it was irritation at her total failure of a first pick or anticipation that she might do better next time.

—2—

Apparently, the matchmaker was intent on correcting her mistake because the second candidate arrived bright and early the next day. Geno tried hard not to roll his eyes when he pulled into the parking lot and spotted an unfamiliar, silver Mercedes among the handful of players' cars. The matchmaker, he assumed. His suspicion was confirmed when he entered the building and spotted Sid with Marta and a muscle-bound guy in a sleeveless hoodie.

Sid's eyes found Geno as he approached. Geno didn't think he imagined when they softened, Sid's put-on smile becoming real. "Good timing, I was about to text you.”

"Yes, you don't tell me you have date," Geno said with a glance at the guy. He had a crewcut, which made him look severe. He sculpted his facial hair into crisp lines. Geno couldn't imagine Sid being with somebody who spent so much time and effort making his hair look bad.

"This is Ralph," Sid said, bringing Geno out of his thoughts. When they shook hands, Ralph gripped too hard, as though trying to prove something. Geno scoffed internally. Sid couldn't marry this guy who wore his insecurity on his sleeve.

"Nice to meet you, man," Ralph said, grinning with straight teeth. "Sid was just about to give me a tour of this place."

"See what?" Geno asked, looking around like he had missed something. "Ice, locker room, gym. That's it."

Sid grinned down at the floor, hiding his laugh at Geno's sneering tone. Thank god, he didn't seem to be taking this muscle man seriously. Sid cleared his throat before he looked up. "We were just going to hit the gym for a while."

“For date?” Geno asked skeptically.

"I'm a personal trainer," Ralph said by way of explanation, which in no way surprised Geno. "Thought I might put this guy through his paces, see what a pro athlete can really do."

Geno briefly considered texting Andy to tattle on this athletic infidelity, but the look in Sid's eyes stopped him. Geno followed Sid's gaze, watching him scan Ralph with a glint of fierceness in his expression. Whether he knew it or not, Ralph had put a challenge in his words, and Sid wouldn't back down from a challenge.

"Okay, sure," Geno said, curiosity piqued. He was always interested in a good show, and watching Sid outwork his date on the free weights would provide some delicious drama. "I come with you."

Sid led the way to the gym, talking cheerfully with Ralph the whole way while Geno trailed behind them. Ralph sounded confident as they discussed the upcoming workout, cocky even. He seemed like he expected Sid to be impressed with his knowledge of muscle groups and targeted training. And to his credit, Sid did seem to play along, even going so far as to hand over his logbook, the little notepad he used to track his routine.

"Leg day, huh?" Ralph asked, looking at the book, and Geno snorted. Every day was leg day for a hockey player. This man knew nothing.

"Just a warmup before we get on the ice," Sid admitted. Geno felt irrationally smug about the way Ralph's head jerked up to look at Sid, perhaps gauging whether he was joking.

Ralph whistled. "That's some serious poundage. I hope it's not a long practice."

Sid didn't say that it was an informal practice. Nor did Sid tell him that their time on the ice would be intense because they were getting ready for the season. He didn't include that he would probably tack on some additional minutes while the Zamboni driver wryly went to snag a cup of coffee from the locker room and wait for him. He simply said, "Oh, it's not too bad. Up here on the left."

Geno followed them through the doors to the weight room. It was empty—not surprising two hours before ice time. People would file in as the morning progressed.

Because he lived in the present century, unlike Sid, Geno pulled out his phone for his trainer-curated workout. He spent his warmup on a stationary bike trying to ignore Ralph, who was chattering away about the importance of form. Through his closed ears, Geno could make out Ralph's comments about how perfectly Sid held his posture while jogging on the treadmill. That was when Geno stepped off the bike and went for the free weights across the room to escape.

"Who is this?" Flower's voice called from the door before Geno got through his first set. "New call-up?"

Flower knew it wasn't. In fact, judging by his glimmering eyes, he had figured out precisely who Ralph was and was delighted by the surprise presence invading their pre-skate workout.

Sid introduced Ralph with a giddy smile. If he was annoyed by Ralph's constant talking, he didn't show it. But Sid could handle stuff like that. He liked talking to people, especially when those people were going all bug-eyed at his deadlifts and heaping praise on him until he turned pink with the shame he knew he should feel.

Geno rolled his eyes on his way past the lovebirds for a couple of dumbbells, a band, and a half ball. He dragged everything across the room, far away from them. He could still hear Ralph talking while he mounted the half ball for stability squats.

"I know, it's so early," Flower grumbled under his breath on his way to the treadmills. "He couldn't meet this guy in the afternoon when everybody is awake?"

Geno shrugged noncommittally, knowing it wasn't the early morning that made him irritable but the presence of Sid's date. His possible mate—Geno sneered reflexively and looked over his shoulder for some sign of Sid getting annoyed with Ralph. Sid still looked bright-eyed and happy spotting Ralph's bench press. Geno snorted and returned to his squats.

Geno was on his third set when the half ball trembled under his feet. He caught his balance and kept himself upright on the way down. He could feel the band stretch across his knees, his thighs flexing to keep it tight. He held the squat for a beat before he slowly rose up.

Before he could lower again, a pair of hands closed on his hips. It was not unusual for a Penguins' trainer to happen by and adjust his stance slightly, so Geno didn't jump until he glanced in the mirror and caught sight of Ralph.

Ralph grinned at him. "If you just pop your butt out a little more, it'll take some strain off your knees."

On the treadmill, Flower looked so full of unsaid chirps he might come apart at the seams. He glanced at Geno's face to gauge his odds of survival if he said them. Geno glared at Flower while he spoke to Ralph. "I'm okay, knees is fine."

"Just trust me, I know what I'm doing," Ralph said cockily.

Geno hated the hands on his hips and the condescension in his tone, and—most of all—the fact that Ralph was right. Geno did need to adjust his stance. His knees were creeping past his toes. He pushed his butt out against his own instinct to resist whatever Ralph said and lowered.

"There you go, good job." Ralph patted his flank like a horse when he stood. Geno clenched his teeth together to keep all the snappy words from escaping. At least his compliance made Ralph leave to bother Sid some more—or rather, to coo over his unbelievable strength.

Geno's eyes followed Ralph's journey back to the free weights and found Sid watching him pensively. His brow was creased like he was worried about something. He cocked his head a little—you okay?

Geno begrudgingly nodded. God, he hoped Sid didn't pick Ralph. He couldn't imagine putting up with his cocky attitude at every Christmas party.

Sid was still working out with Ralph when Geno called it quits on the gym and headed for the locker room. They had free ice in an hour. If he really dawdled with his pads, he could justify sitting in the locker room and stewing.

To Geno’s surprise, Sid joined him as he got into his skates, less than halfway through the process of dressing.

"Where's guy?" Geno called.

Sid shrugged. "He left," he said as he reached his stall and stripped unceremoniously out of his shirt. Geno consciously did not follow the lines of Sid's body down to the crotch of his loose shorts. Ever since finding out there was a knot down there, the curiosity was hard to resist.

Geno definitely averted his eyes when Sid hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his shorts to lose those, too. "You like him, I think. You check and see if he's Capitals fan?"

"No, I don't think so," Sid's said. Geno kept his eyes on his skates, tying them slowly while he waited for Sid to cover himself. "He was Pittsburgh born and raised, so probably one of the good guys."

"Maybe you ask next date, make sure."

"There's not going to be a next date."

Geno dared a glance up and found Sid in his base layer tights pulling a sock on. "You don't like?"

When Sid shrugged this time, he did it with a sheepish little glance. "You didn't."

Geno blinked and sat back. He couldn't get any detail out of Sid because teammates were starting to straggle in, glancing weirdly at Geno for being half-dressed ahead of everyone. But Sid had rejected an omega match simply because Geno didn't like him. Sid trusted him. It felt like that meant something.

Geno shook himself with a stern mental scolding. It meant Sid was his friend and trusted him to be a good wingman. It meant he had to be worthy of Sid's trust and not scowl at every match until Sid had no choice but to turn to the only eligible omega he knew—Geno—like some kind of terrible romance movie.

Or, Geno thought sardonically, he could just ask Sid if he wanted to bond. Maybe Sid—proactive, motivated Sid—was just waiting around for Geno to pop the question. Geno rolled his eyes at his own frivolous hope. He was friends with Sid. For years, he hadn't even known Sid was possible, and nothing had ever gotten weird between them. He could just keep going like that, as though nothing had changed.

Walking out to the ice with Sid, the first two players down the tunnel, Geno caught a whiff of Sid's emerging alpha pheromones. His mind flashed images of what he should do—roll onto his back with his neck bared and let his alpha crawl between his legs. Sid would settle there, thick and heavy, and slide his dick into Geno's wet hole.

Geno mentally shook himself, flinging the erotic daydream away. Okay. So, maybe being a good friend and wingman wasn't going to be easy.

—3—

Geno gave himself extra time to jerk off in the morning to keep his body's opinion out of his business. He luxuriated in bed, half asleep as he ran his hand down his stomach to cup his dick. It hardened under his touch as he cast his mind around for a suitable fantasy. He settled on an oldie but a goodie: going into heat in a hotel room on the road, desperate for a knot, he would answer the knock on the door to find an alpha sniffing after him, equally uninhibited.

Geno consciously didn't bother imagining the alpha's face. He also skipped all the parts where they played and teased and undressed. He let his mind take him right to the good stuff, both of them naked on the bed with the alpha teasing his fingers along Geno's slick hole. Geno put his own fingers there, tickling the sensitive skin of his hole up to his taint and back again. The alpha would put his mouth there, tongue flat against the rim to get all of his taste. Geno tried to duplicate the feeling with his fingers, but it wasn't the same.

"Come on," Geno grumbled to his anonymous suitor, tugging at his own dick to move things along. He did actually have to get to practice, after all.

The alpha obeyed him with the malleability of a fantasy, crawling up between Geno's legs and settling his thick body there. He guided the head of his dick up to Geno's hole. Geno pushed two fingers inside himself with the imagined slide of the alpha's dick entering him. In his mind, the alpha would be thick and heavy all over. He would press Geno down into the mattress with his weight, lying on top of him while he worked his hips in and out. Geno tugged artlessly on his cock while the man in his mind fucked him in long, slow, perfect thrusts until he felt like he would go crazy.

"I'm close. I'm coming," Geno panted, eyebrows drawn together as he worked his dick faster.

To his surprise, the fantasy man answered in English. "No, hold off. I'm almost there. Come on my knot."

The voice was familiar. Somewhere along the way, the faceless alpha had morphed into Sid. Geno hesitated a second, but he was so close. And it was only a fantasy. He resumed his pace, consenting to the scenario his mind created. He could clearly picture Sid's face, sweaty and concentrating as he shoved his knot inside and came in waves. Geno bit down on saying anything mortifying like Sid's name when he tipped over the edge, clenching around his fingers.

It took three breaths in the afterglow for Geno to curse himself. Fantasies of Sid wouldn't help his situation. It certainly wouldn't make him a better wingman, which was the whole point of getting his sexual frustration out before practice. Geno kicked back the covers irritably to go get ready for the first day of training camp.

Thankfully, the structure of an official practice kept Sid from meeting any new suitors ahead of time. He had to do serious things like fuss over his edges and tape his pads to his body and smile for the camera the team set outside the locker room doors. The routine gave Geno time to mentally reset, to talk and tease Sid on the ice and remind himself that, alpha or not, Sid was his friend—nothing more.

The media team wanted Sid again as soon as practice ended, stopping him at the bench door. "Ah, guys, I'm all sweaty now," he said as he skated up to them. Geno walked down the tunnel to the sound of his fading laughter, joking around with the camera guy. He didn't stick around to see what they were doing, too leery of getting caught and being made to participate.

Geno slowed when he rounded the corner and found Marta, the matchmaker, standing outside the locker room with a short guy in a tailored suit. The guy—square-jawed, brunette, objectively handsome—eyed the incoming players with a look of muted distaste. Geno nearly turned around and told Sid he needed to take another hour on the ice, give this yuppy time to vacate.

But, he reminded himself, he was being a good wingman. Geno straightened his shoulders, took a sharp breath, and approached the guy.

"Hi, you here for Sid? He's busy with cameras, but he come in a second." Geno pulled his hand out of his sweaty glove and stuck it out, introducing himself as he did.

The guy stared at Geno's hand for a second like he thought it might be a joke before he clearly forced himself to take it. As he leaned in, however, he relaxed. "Brian. Nice to meet you, Mr. Malkin. I—never knew you were an omega."

"All my life," Geno said, putting all the charm he could manage into mustering a smile. "You want tour while we wait? Can see locker room, all naked guys."

Marta shot him a stern look. He understood. She was here hoping Brian would warm up to one guy in particular—Sid. She didn't want him ogling the goodies of every professional athlete in the locker room.

"Hey!" Sid's voice said behind Geno, and he melted with relief that he wouldn't be stuck giving a tour. The man with the stick up his ass would not be Geno's problem, he thought, watching Sid introduce himself with a rush of relief. "Sorry, I got held up. They're just running the Zam now. I was thinking we could stick around, skate a little bit."

"Sid," Geno groaned. "That's not real date. Take him somewhere nice, not teach him ice skate."

"Actually," Brian said. "I know how to skate. I competed in the Olympics in '06. Ice dancing."

Sid beamed, genuinely delighted. "Don't suppose you have skates with you?"

"In my trunk," Brian admitted. "When I saw the address, I figured it couldn't hurt to be prepared."

"Perfect, we'll just get changed while you grab them." Sid walked away from Brian with a clap on Geno's shoulder. Apparently, he was the "we."

Geno stripped all the way down to get out of his soggy base layers and changed into a baggy, comfortable tracksuit. He switched a different pair of skates to avoid putting his feet in the sweaty ones. He noticed Sid did the opposite, remaining in his damp practice skates, and wondered how Brian would deal with Sid's grosser tendencies. He seemed so snooty, and he would be courting an alpha who practically bathed in sweat.

They met Brian at the entrance to the tunnel. He had stripped out of his blazer, replacing it with a pristine, blue sweater. The matchmaker was nowhere to be seen.

"You keep whole outfit in car?" Geno chirped.

"Usually, two or three," Brian confirmed with an easy grin. It seemed that having skates on his feet relaxed him—something he had in common with Sid, Geno reluctantly thought. "I'm always on the go, and sometimes I don’t have time to run home."

"We know what that's like," Sid said, eyes sparkling as he led the way to the ice.

Brian didn't hesitate a second before launching out onto the matte, freshly-resurfaced ice. He moved his white skates quickly, gaining speed for a lap while Sid hung back with Geno.

"He looks happy, eh?" Sid said.

Geno shrugged. "Sure." He had to admit, Brian looked more at home on the ice than he did off it.

"So. You were wrong. It's a good date."

Sid winked before he pushed away from the boards, leaving Geno's face hot with the lingering feeling left by Sid's smile.

Geno took to the ice and skated a few easy laps far away from Sid and Brian. Thankfully, they weren't alone for long. Free ice always attracted people—players with their kids, staff members, even the doctor came out for a little exercise.

Flower appeared, puffing a little as he rushed out to the ice. Clearly, nobody had told him about the date. He had found out about it on his own and returned to see the train wreck.

"What did I miss?" Flower asked as soon as he slid in next to Geno on the ice and matched his leisurely pace.

Geno shrugged. "He good skater. He did like big flip. Like this." Geno demonstrated Brian's admittedly impressive backflip with his fingers. Flower whistled.

"He's dressed to impress as well. This could be the one, you think?"

Geno set his mouth mulishly and shrugged again. It felt like losing. Worse, it felt like losing a game he wasn't in—like being on injured reserve.

Flower's eyes sparkled up at him for some reason, clearly laughing at him. "Oh, my friend. You're turning green."

Geno looked down at his hands. They were pink from the cold, not green. "What?"

"Nothing. You will figure it out."

Geno frowned, unsure whether he was being laughed at, but he ultimately let it go. Flower was always teasing, always laughing, and he never meant anything cruel by it. Besides, Geno was happy to have him there, a distraction from all the things he didn't like about Brian.

When the Zamboni doors opened, Geno lumbered down the tunnel, feeling heavy and tired. Sid lingered with his date, probably making plans for lunch or dinner or the rest of their lives. Geno ripped the laces out of his skates in his rush to get them off.

By the time Geno showered, Sid's skates were in his stall, but Sid was nowhere to be seen. His keys and sunglasses were missing. Had he driven home to shower? Gross. Geno gathered his own things and shuffled out the door.

Brian was sitting on a bench, just outside the locker room. He was finishing tying his shoes when he spotted Geno.

"Oh, hey," Brian said. "Wondered where you went."

"Just take shower. You and Sid going out?"

"Uh, no. I don't think so. He took off, said something about catching a run on the way home."

"Bad date?" Geno asked, firmly ignoring the little victory parade in the dungeon of his soul.

"No, it was great. I had a lot of fun. We just aren't bond compatible, you know? I'm sure Sid would make a great friend."

"He is. He's great."

"No doubt."

"Sid like you," Geno pressed. "He take you skating. You should go to dinner with him."

Brian shook his head. "Buddy, I'm in sales. High-level sales. And part of what makes me good at my job is I don't chase contracts I can't land."

"It's not contracts. It's bond. Love."

"I did a backflip for that guy, nearly blew out my patellar tendon all over again, you know what he said? I hope Geno saw that—he'd love it."

Geno hovered, uncertain of what to say. "Sid is my friend. I'm not like—steal. Don't worry."

Brian chuckled and rose with a pained groan while favoring his sore knee. Once on his feet, he straightened his tie and grinned at Geno. "Good luck, man. Really."

Geno gaped after Brian as he walked away, at a complete loss for what to say or think. He didn't move until Flower burst out of the locker room doors with his hair still wet, searching around like a drug-sniffing dog, and said, "Where are they? Did I miss anything?"

—4—

Brian's words stirred around in Geno's head, a troubled stew that stayed with him the rest of the day and well into the night. What did he mean he couldn't win Sid? Did he think Sid was interested in Geno?

Was he right?

Geno allowed himself a few crazed moments to consider it. Only long enough to get home and jerk off while imagining Sid pinning him to the couch, bruising his hips against the arm with the force of his thrusts. Then he cleaned up and shook himself off. It was crazy. Brian was wrong. Sid was not one to brood in his unhappiness. If he longed for someone, he would just say it.

Sid would surely have said if he liked Geno at some point in the past six years.

Yes, Geno told himself, firmly packing away any thought of an alternative. Sid would have said. Brian was merely jealous—an insecure, envious omega who wasn't worthy of Sid in the first place. He couldn't handle Sid's long road trips, his adoring fans. There would be other matches. Somebody even better would come along.

Sometimes, Geno hated being right.

The next guy appeared at the glass during practice with the grey-suited matchmaker by his side. He was poured into a T-shirt with a symbol on the left pec—a Pittsburgh Fire Department symbol. Oh boy, the matchmaker was getting really good.

"Holy shit, man," Nealer called from the front of the line on a passing drill. "Take a look at this beefcake. Somebody come get your boyfriend. Or—girlfriend's brother? Who's he with?"

"He’s with Sid," Flower said from his place in the net nearest them, voice muffled by his mask. Nealer's head jerked around just as the whistle blew, and he cursed before taking off. He missed the pass in his distracted state and settled on the other side of the ice. He waved his hands, a clear gesture telling somebody to bring him details after their run.

Next in line, Tanger said something fast in French to Flower, who said something lengthier back to him. In the middle of his speech, the whistle blew. Players from the other end raced down and shot on Flower. He made the stop without a moment's pause in his words.

Tanger turned back with raised eyebrows to look at Geno for some reason. Then the whistle blew, and he took off.

The next whistle brought Geno to the front of the line just as Sid settled at the back, looking pink and flustered. No doubt, Nealer had started in on him at the other end of the ice, and Tanger had joined in upon arrival. Geno caught Sid's eye with a significant jerk of his head in their direction—want me to hit them?

Sid cracked a smile and shook his head. The whistle blew and took Geno away, but it was enough to know that he didn't need to do anything drastic.

Geno crowded into Tanger under the pretense of getting out of firing range behind the net. "What you say to Sid?"

Tanger grinned, black eyes shining, and said something innocent-sounding in French as though he didn't speak a word of English.

The line moved and brought Geno face to face through the glass with the muscular omega fireman. When they met eyes, the fireman grinned. Geno fought his instinct to scowl away from the guy and waved at him instead.

"Did you hear?" one of the rookies whispered in Geno's hearing range. "That's Sid's mail-order bride. Groom, whatever."

Geno glared at the kid. He wasn't good enough for the Penguins. He wouldn't be on the roster by the end of camp, so Geno didn't think it would throw off team chemistry to threaten him. "Don't talk about this," he snapped. "You don't know it."

The rookie cowed away with a muttered apology, but it was far too late. Somebody—probably Nealer—had thrown a match, and the wildfire was out of control.

With the team tittering away like old women, it was no surprise when Sid wanted to meet the fireman far away from the locker room.

"We're going to lunch," Sid announced when he returned from a brief meeting with the matchmaker and his date. "He's going to meet us out front."

"Me too?" Geno asked.

"You're my wingman, right?"

Geno's mind flashed back to the day before, to Brian, the ice dancer who had nearly blown out his knee trying to get Sid's attention and still thought Geno had won their imaginary competition. Whether Sid thought of Geno as a possible bond-mate or not, other omegas saw him as a rival. They saw him as a threat. And in a restaurant setting, more intimate than an ice rink, the firefighter would consider Geno a third wheel.

Briefly, Geno considered going anyway. The selfish little troll in the basement of his mind cackled that he could scare this one away, too. Sid couldn't bond with an omega if they couldn't get past the first date.

But that wouldn't be fair to Sid. It would be dishonest. For better or worse, he had agreed to help Sid find a guy. With that in mind, Geno firmly mashed his wingman hat onto his head and chewed on his words for a moment before he answered, "Maybe not today."

Sid whipped around to gauge Geno's face, see if he was kidding. When he saw that Geno was serious, his light expression grew heavy, almost a pout. "G, You can't leave me alone with this guy. What if he's a total jerk?

Geno had every confidence that Sid could handle anyone, even a total jerk. He shoved Sid lightly toward his locker. "Then don't bond. But you have to go to date. Nice place."

"Fine," Sid said with a playful roll of his eyes and a begrudging smile. "But I won't forget this."

"You be fine. Maybe have nice date, talk to someone about not hockey for once."

Sid's grin grew wider, amused. "Where's the fun in that?" he joked, but he was done resisting. He stripped out of his pads to get ready for his date.

On the way out of the building, Geno paused to watch Sid speaking to the fireman in the lobby. The fireman beamed. Even Geno had to admit, he had a great smile. He said something that made Sid laugh—a good sign. Geno ducked his head and walked the other way to the exit.

Two hours later, Sid sat despondently at Geno's kitchen island with a spoon in a carton of cookie dough ice cream. "I don't know what got into me," Sid said. "That guy was nice."

"Sure, he's nice," Geno said. At least, it seemed like the fireman had been nice. He was clearly charming, the way he had made Sid laugh. Apparently, things had gone well after they left the facility, too. Sid had said he enjoyed talking with the guy all throughout lunch.

But, at the end of their date, when the fireman had said something about seeing Sid again, Sid had said nothing.

"I just froze," Sid groaned before he shoveled a bite of ice cream in his mouth.

"You don't say anything?" Geno prodded.

"After a minute, when he was just staring at me. I said I would think about it."

Sid had said he would think about it, then gotten in his car and driven straight to Geno's. The warty cave troll in Geno's mind was jumping for joy at what it might mean.

"So you don't like him?"

“No, I did. I really did. He was nice and funny and—I don't know why I didn't just say yes."

"It's okay," Geno forced himself to say. "You can call him, say sorry. Maybe meet again."

"I don't want to. G, I don't want—this. I don't want these guys. I want—" Sid cut himself off and slumped over the ice cream. "I only have a few days now. The last of the suppressants are wearing off, and the season is starting. I need to pick. I can't afford to send guys away when they're nice."

"Hot," Geno corrected.

"And hot."

"So. What's problem?"

"I just—didn't want him."

Geno couldn't stand seeing Sid looking so dejected. He leaned across the island and patted Sid's spoon-holding hand. "It's okay. Don't worry. You find someone, I promise. Maybe perfect guy is playing Call of Duty? We get online, maybe find him there."

A smile twitched onto Sid's mouth. "It'd save me the matchmaker fee."

They did not find a man in the online servers of Call of Duty, but it helped. Geno teased Sid mercilessly every time he got sniped and poked at his controller to mess with him. He watched the stress ooze out of Sid's body until he was slumped back against the couch with his eyes all scrunched up with happiness after a successful run.

Geno idly mused about whether Sid's bond-mate would let Geno continue to do this, bring Sid back when he hit a breaking point. He wondered if it would make the other omega jealous, the way Sid showed all of his teeth in a crooked smile when Geno made a sharp-tongued comment at him.

As Sid's giggles faded into a fond smile, Geno thought—not for the first time since finding out Sid was an alpha—that they were a perfect match. Friends made the best couples, his mother always said. She and his father had been fast friends before they ever went on a date. Maybe Geno was right that Sid wasn't pining for him, and maybe that was the problem. Maybe he was oblivious, looking everywhere for something he didn't know he could have at home.

"Maybe," Geno said, the word coming out before he could prepare for the rest. Sid's eyes sharpened at him, listening. Geno spooled up what he wanted to say. Maybe Sid should scent him, rub his cheek against Geno's neck and just see how they smelled together. He hadn't gotten that far with the others, but what could it hurt to try?

Geno thought about the trust Sid put in him to help him find a good match. Sid was counting on Geno to be honest and open-minded, not to undermine the entire process by catching feelings. If he didn't want to scent Geno, if he didn't want to even try, Geno wouldn't be able to take the suggestion back. The trust between them could be irreparably damaged. They could hurt the team, their friendship. Geno sighed out between his teeth, letting the words fly away in a hiss of breath.

But Sid was staring at him, waiting to hear what he had to say. Geno hunched. "Maybe not meet guys at practice anymore, huh? Maybe you scare them off."

Sid's expression pinched like he might resist, but he sighed. "Yeah, you might be right. Trying the same thing, getting the same result. I guess it's time to try something new."

Geno nodded firmly. His jealous internal troll grumbled into the corner and went quiet. It wasn't worth the risk, putting their comfortable friendship on the line to suggest bonding. He would just need to keep helping Sid find a mate, preferably one he could stand.

—5—

Something new turned out to be a large gathering of omegas at Sid's house.

"I talked to the matchmaker after we hung out yesterday," Sid said as he stripped out of his pads after practice. "She arranged a meet and greet at my place with a bunch of guys. With a little luck, we'll get this knocked out today."

"At your house?" Geno asked, exchanging an alarmed glance with Flower. "That's safe?"

"They're all vetted, don't worry. But you can come play security if you want."

Sid said it with a wink before he walked off, but Geno knew he would take the offer. When he was showered and dressed, he got in his car and drove straight to Sid's house.

Geno parked next to the matchmaker's silver Mercedes—the only other car in the driveway. He would normally knock on Sid's door, but the presence of the matchmaker emboldened him. He tested the knob and, finding it unlocked, let himself in.

"Hello!" Marta's singsong voice called before she flowed around the corner. Her smile broke when she caught sight of Geno. "Oh, it's you," she said in the flat, unimpressed voice she always directed toward Geno. "Sid's in the kitchen."

She pulled out her phone, dismissing him, and he was more than happy to get away from her.

He found Sid in slacks and a sweater setting out cups and filling them with ice. Unlike the matchmaker, Sid looked happy to see him. "Marta says I have a beautiful kitchen for hosting," Sid said, amusement tinged in every word. "I think she put it in the sales pitch. Plays hockey, cleans up okay, nice kitchen. Marry this guy."

Geno couldn't deny the appeal. "They want to, for sure. You pick anyone you want."

Sid swung his eyes over with the strangest expression, pensive and serious. Geno squirmed under the gaze and quickly changed the subject.

"Doing drinks?" he asked, nodding at the glasses of ice.

"Just waters. There's beer in the fridge if you want it."

Geno took the offer and snagged two bottles out of the door. He opened them and passed one to Sid. When Geno held his bottle out, Sid smiled softly and clinked them together, a subdued cheers between them before the house filled up with hot young men who wanted to steal Sid away.

Side by side in the sparkling kitchen, Geno could smell Sid's undiluted scent. Whether because of the distance or the last of the suppressants, it wasn't as bad before, at Geno's house. Likewise, in the locker room, the smell mingled with others into a cacophony—mostly indistinguishable.

But here, in Sid's kitchen—Sid tipped back his chin to sip the beer, and a waft of his alpha scent seemed to flow off of him. Geno leaned closer, tasting the subtle notes with no trace of chemical interference.

Movement in his periphery made Geno glance up and draw back. The matchmaker—Marta—stood in the doorway. Her eyes floated between the two of them, dawning with something. Interest, maybe? Realization?

Sid noticed her too. He broke the moment by putting the beer bottle down and resuming his task of filling glasses. "Sorry, just taking a little break."

"Please, allow me," Marta said, her voice softer than Geno had experienced as she crossed the kitchen to take over. "I believe your first guest is coming up the driveway. You can go meet them at the door."

"Yes, ma'am," Sid said. His voice was a fusion of cheek and sincerity.

Alone in the kitchen with Marta the matchmaker, Geno sipped his beer and strained to listen for Sid's voice at the door. It was no use. It was too far away.

"You know," Marta said as she expertly poured water from a pitcher into each glass, "my agency isn't just for alphas. If you're looking for a mate—"

"No," Geno said sharper than he intended. He consciously softened his voice. "I'm okay, not looking."

Marta arched an eyebrow at him like she doubted his sincerity. Geno didn't last long before he had to retreat and get away from her. He skirted around the foyer where at least two men's voices were mingling with Sid's in conversation and slunk into the den to turn on the TV. It was on the golf channel, clearly what Sid had been watching last. Geno snorted and changed it to ESPN for football highlights.

Voices multiplied in the house as Geno told himself he wasn't hiding. He was accessible. Anybody could walk in and watch analysts have wrong opinions about Drew Brees with him.

Sure enough, a voice behind him said, "I'm guessing you're not here to meet Sid."

Geno turned. The man had blond hair, long and thick, pulled back into a ponytail. He smiled naturally with pink lips. His eyes were so blue that Geno could see the color across the living room. In short, he was gorgeous.

"No, I meet him once already," Geno said. The guy chuckled—he knew who Geno was, then.

"I'm Francis," the guy said as he meandered in, eyes on the TV.

Since Francis clearly knew who he was, Geno didn't offer his name. He gestured at the TV instead. "You believe this? They think he's so great."

"You don't?"

Geno grumbled. In truth, Brees was fine. But he would be more fine if he played for the Steelers.

The couch flexed as Francis bent over with his forearms resting on the back. "So, uh. You got any insider tips?"

"For football?" Maybe the guy didn't actually know him if he thought Geno was a football player.

"No," Francis chuckled. "For Sid. He's nice enough, but he's kind of—distant. How do you get close to him?"

A hot flash of protective anger rushed over Geno, and he had to take a couple of breaths. He wanted to be sarcastic, say that winning a Stanley Cup with him was a good place to start. But he was being good. He was being a wingman.

"Just be you," Geno said, pushing off the couch as he did. He knew he wouldn’t want to stay and coach Francis for long. "You be real with Sid, he be real with you."

“Real, huh?” Francis smiled like it was a joke Geno should be in on with him. “What kind of real are we talking? He seems like a guy who would appreciate a challenge, so nothing too submissive.”

“Sure, do whatever you want. I have to—”

Geno didn’t finish his sentence before he slipped out. He told himself he wasn't running away when he proceeded to the back door and strode out into the cold. He just needed some air, a minute alone. He needed to calm his nerves so he wouldn’t go back to Francis and punch him in the mouth for trying to strategize getting close to Sid. It was precisely that kind of inauthentic behavior that Geno worried about when he heard about the agency. Some gold-digging omega might come in and bond with Sid for no reason other than his money, his fame. They might not realize what a prize they had, that Sid was more valuable than an NHL contract.

Teeth grinding, Geno forced himself to walk away from the house. Sid was smart. He would know if someone lied to him, if they were just telling him what he wanted to hear. And if, somehow, he got snowed by Francis, Geno would tell him. That was his role, after all. Sid’s wingman.

Geno walked until he reached the concrete slab in the back, adjacent to the drained pool. He wasn’t surprised by the hockey net there. Sid kept it up almost all year for friends' kids when they came over. As the matchmaker had noted, Sid's house was perfect for entertaining, full of thoughtful touches.

A stick rack to the side held mostly child-sized sticks, but Geno spotted a few that were longer. He pulled one out and turned it around to confirm it was Sid's. It was a little shorter than Geno would cut it, but flat on his feet, it didn’t bother him much. He snagged a couple of rollerballs and tossed them out onto the little makeshift half rink.

Geno slowly handled one of the balls around, getting his hands used to the feel of the short, light stick. The ball moved differently than a puck, bouncing and skittering across any imperfection on the concrete. When he shot, the ball sailed wide of the net and bounced up the grass until it hit the inside of someone's sneaker.

"Going to take out a window, eh?" Sid called, stooping to grab the ball. He tossed it down to land squarely on Geno's tape.

"Because I use this little stick," Geno teased, delighted to see Sid stopping to get another adult-cut stick from the pile.

"Not a lot of giraffes coming over to play street ball with me," Sid retorted. He tapped his stick on the ground, and Geno passed it to him. When Sid shot, the ball went top shelf, right corner.

"Show off," Geno grumbled, and Sid beamed. Geno snagged the second ball from the sidelines. "You done with party?"

"Just a little break," Sid said. "Wondered where you went. I can't do this without my wingman."

Sid said it with a lilt of kidding in his tone but something troubled in his eyes. He snagged another ball and handled it restlessly.

"I think you can do it without me," Geno said, mumbling and avoiding Sid's eyes.

"That's not our deal," Sid teased him. There was something under the light poke, though. Pleading. He didn't want Geno to leave him alone.

"I know, I make deal," Geno admitted sullenly. "But. I think I'm not good wingman, okay? I don't like these guys. Any guys. I think they not good for you. You get only best, and this," Geno waved a hand at the house. "This isn't best. You pick someone okay because you want to hurry, get to play, but maybe—"

"You think I'll regret it, getting bonded," Sid finished for him, pensive. He flicked a shot into the net. "You're not wrong."

"Just—tell them all go home," Geno said, heart racing. He was going to say it. He was going to suggest that Sid just make the obvious choice and bond with him. Sid was staring at him without judgment, watching his face.

But Geno didn't say it. His tongue sat in the bottom of his mouth like a toad on a log, useless, paralyzed with fear of the unknown. And Sid ducked his head.

"I can't do that," Sid said, grimacing. "I haven't even talked to all of them yet."

"Polite," Geno sneered.

"Yeah, well. You can take off, if you want. It's okay."

At the end of his mental fuel reserves, disgusted with his own cowardice, Geno nodded. "Okay, I can go. Maybe you talk to lots guys, find perfect one."

"I doubt it," Sid said, his somber eyes wandering back to the house.

Selfishly, as he escaped through the back gate and out to the driveway, Geno hoped Sid was right.

—+1—

Geno lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling for a long time after his alarm went off, mind wandering. He wondered how the rest of the party had gone, if Sid had met anyone interesting. He brought his phone up to his face numerous times, opened Sid's contact, and then closed it without a word because he didn't want to know.

Because of his moping, Geno didn't make it to practice until half an hour before, just enough time to dress and warm up. He was so focused on rushing into his pads that he barely noticed the buzz in the locker room.

"Did you hear about Sid?" one whisper hissed across Geno's ears.

Another whisper. "He had a matchmaker?"

Geno darted his glare around the locker room. Sid wasn't in the room, but Geno’s hard stare quieted everyone down to a simmer.

Geno found Sid out on the ice, leaning on Flower's net while the goalie roughed up his crease on the freshly-Zambonied surface. Geno joined them, slumping against the other side of the net. To his surprise, Flower looked happier to see him than Sid.

"Guess what," Flower cried when Geno got in earshot.

"Tell me," Geno demanded.

"Flower, don't," Sid groaned, and Geno's interest sharpened. What did Sid not want Geno to know? He had found a guy at the party after all?

"You tell him, then," Flower demanded.

"There's nothing to tell. She thought I was hopeless from the beginning—Geno knew that."

"She?" Geno asked.

"Marta," Sid answered, looking sheepish. "The matchmaker."

"She quit!" Flower said, his voice like the release of a hose bursting after too much pressure built up. He looked delighted. "Sid is so hopeless the poor woman gave up!"

"That's not exactly true," Sid said. "She said she didn't think she could help me. She didn't say I was hopeless."

Flower's eyes squinted closed with the force of his joy, turning to Geno as though he expected him to join in the teasing. Geno ignored him, spinning in the new development, eyes only for Sid.

"So. No more guy?" Geno asked.

Sid sighed. "No more guys."

"What about games?" They were starting in three days, a shortened and condensed season.

Sid grimaced. "Well. There's always the second option."

"Sid, no," Geno said, leaning over the net toward him. "That's crazy. You can't do surgery."

"Surgery?" Flower asked, perking. "Knot removal? Jesus, Sid."

Sid shrugged. "What choice do I have?"

Flower rolled his eyes so emphatically that the mask precariously balanced on his head nearly tipped off. He said something in French before switching back to English. "Luckily for you, I know somebody."

"Who?" Sid asked suspiciously.

"Someone perfect. He has a good job, loves to travel, very funny. Hates the Flyers more than you. I could introduce you if you like. Before you go around cutting things off."

Sid's expression tightened with suspicion. "If you knew about him, why didn't you say anything before?"

"I tried, believe me."

Sid reluctantly shrugged. "Okay. If you think I'll like him. Can I meet him today?"

Flower's eyes gleamed over at Geno for some reason when he nodded. "Yes, certainly. I'll bring him to your house after practice."

Geno didn't even ask before he followed Sid home to meet the omega. When he arrived, Flower answered the door instead of Sid, grinning like a cat licking cream off its lips. "Hello again, Geno."

"Where's this perfect guy?" Geno grumbled at him.

"You'll see. Come on."

Geno followed Flower into Sid's house, pausing briefly to toe off his shoes. He didn't see another set, so the omega must not have arrived yet. He tried to imagine what the omega's footwear would look like—loafers, maybe? Boat shoes? Something bougie, if they knew Flower. Geno nestled his designer sneakers against the wall and padded further into the house.

Sid sat at the dining room table, bouncing a knee underneath it. His eyes scanned over Geno before registering him as a friend. He smiled—or attempted to. "Hey, G. I didn't know you were coming."

"I'm still wingman," Geno said stubbornly, though he wasn't entirely sure what he was doing at Sid's house. He had rushed headlong without a plan so that he could—what? Scare the guy away?

"Give us a moment to prepare," Flower said breezily, gesturing at Sid to follow him. When Geno started to go with them, Flower stopped him. "You stay, answer the door if the guy comes."

Geno paced the dining room, heart thumping with every creak and sound in Sid's house. This was it—the perfect guy was about to knock on the door. All of the matchmaker's hard work would pale in comparison to the man who would come to capture Sid's heart. With Flower to vouch for him, the guy would charm his way into Sid’s life. Maybe they would bond right away, wasting no time mingling their scents. Sid would come to the next practice smelling like someone else, his chemistry permanently altered by his connection to a perfect stranger.

The thought was unbearable. Geno’s throat felt like it might close up, his stomach pitching like a bucking horse. Every part of him wanted to reject the notion that he was losing Sid. No amount of reasoning could penetrate his churning thoughts until the most urgent of them rose to the top.

He should have said something.

It was a week since Geno found out Sid was an alpha, that he needed to bond. All that time, he could have—should have—opened his mouth and said something. And now it was too late.

Except—Geno thought abruptly—it wasn't too late. The doorbell hadn't rung. A glance outside revealed no car in the driveway. The omega wasn't there yet. There was still time.

If he was losing Sid either way, he had to try.

Geno burst through Sid's bedroom door without knocking. Flower was sitting on the edge of the bed, dangling his feet like a kid dipping his toes in the water off the side of a dock. Sid was standing, thumbnail in his mouth as he looked deep in thought. Both sets of eyes turned on Geno—one delighted and one curious.

He had to do it. It was now or never.

"Sid, don't bond with stranger," Geno said in a rush of breath. He watched Sid's eyes get bigger but hurried to stop him before he could speak. "I know Flower think he good. Maybe so. But this guy don't know you. He don't know how you act after loss—so cranky. Maybe he think, oh it's okay, it's just hockey, because he don't understand. I understand. I know you. I'm best. Don’t bond with this guy. Bond with me."

Sid slowly turned his shocked look to face Flower. "Holy shit, you were right."

"My work here is done," Flower said, an obscenely smug smile plastered all over his face as he pushed himself up to his feet.

"Done?" Geno asked. "What happen to guy?"

"It's you, stupid," Flower said, clapping his shoulder on his way to the door.

“What? Me?”

“You spent the whole week following Sid, glaring at his suitors. The only person who didn’t notice was this fool.” Flower gestured back at Sid. “So I told him. You’re welcome.”

Sid looked embarrassed and flustered but also—when his eyes cut from Flower to Geno, his expression was cautiously hopeful. He wanted Flower to be right.

The door closed behind Flower when he left and plunged the room into stark silence. The only sound was Geno’s heart, pounding loud enough to fill the whole house like a subwoofer.

“Sid?” Geno asked. His voice sounded weak, which made sense. He felt dizzy with anticipation. “You want bond me?"

Sid gaped like a fish, obviously struggling to find words before he nodded. “Yeah, I do.”

“Why don’t you just ask if you want? You get matchmaker to make me jealous?”

The accusation seemed to shake some of the stupor off of Sid. He breathed a caustic laugh. "Yeah, G. It was all an elaborate plan to get you.”

He said it sarcastically, but considering the outcome—if it were anybody but Sid, Geno would legitimately wonder. But Sid wouldn’t start a relationship with deceit, which left the question. “If you want me, why you go for other people?”

“I mean, honestly. I just didn't think you were an option. You never seemed interested—like, at all."

Christ, Geno scrubbed his hands over his face. He hadn’t known Sid was an alpha. For six years, he had treated Sid like another omega—of course he didn't seem interested. There was nothing to be interested in as far as Geno knew. "No, I am. I want you so much I think I go crazy. When you go off suppressant, now you smell like—"

Sid grinned, ears obviously perked. His surprise was wearing off and it was rapidly being replaced with delight. “What? What do I smell like?”

"Alpha," Geno admitted softly. He worried Sid might laugh at him, but instead his smile fell away and his eyes widened, intensely interested in Geno’s words. “You smell like my alpha."

Sid swallowed. His grin didn’t come back. Instead, he tipped his chin up to taste the air through flaring nostrils.

“You smell from way over there?” Geno asked, teasing.

“I haven’t done this a lot,” Sid said. His smile crept back onto his face, crinkling around his eyes—self-deprecating. “I haven’t done this ever. Scented people.”

It made sense if Sid had been suppressed his whole hockey career. Suppressants neutralized the scent glands. Geno understood—Sid was asking him for guidance. He didn’t want to just charge up and tackle Geno.

Though Geno wouldn’t mind if he did.

Instead of waiting for Sid to move, Geno approached him slowly, rolling his bare feet heel to toe as he walked. Sid watched him, eyes following every move until Geno stood in front of him. “You have to get close,” Geno said. “You see it in movies. I do this,” Geno bared his throat willingly. He shivered when Sid leaned in closer, clearly catching on. “And you smell.”

Sid’s fingers lightly touched Geno’s waist as he inched their bodies closer. The tip of his nose trailed under Geno’s ear. His mouth was open, hot against Geno’s skin. He breathed in deep through his nose and out through his mouth, chest heaving more and more, inhaling Geno’s scent.

"I smell okay, too?" Geno asked when Sid didn't say anything.

"So good," Sid said. He sounded a little dazed, like he was out of breath. When he pulled back, his eyes were intense, searching Geno's face for signs of—what? Hesitation? Rejection? Maybe he still wanted guidance on where to go next and how much to push.

"Come," Geno said, tugging on Sid's shirt to get him close again. He tried not to feel nervous, tried not to show that he had never done this part either. He had never gotten serious enough in a relationship to mix their scents, testing their compatibility for a bond. Now, minutes into being set up, he was doing it with Sid. Considering the slick feeling between his ass cheeks, Geno thought he knew where they would end up after they mixed their scents. Going to bed together, bonding—it all seemed inevitable at this point. “Sid, do it.”

Sid returned to nosing under Geno's ear for a second and then turned, rubbing his cheek against Geno's to mingle their scents. A bloom of vanilla and musk and earthy dust came together in a new smell, intoxicating. Sid clearly thought so, too, because he made a kicked noise and did it again, pushing his cheek against Geno's. Geno could hear Sid's shaky exhale.

"Oh, Geno." Sid's voice sounded surprised and heavy—like someone getting a rare and special gift. Their combined pheromones snapped through Geno's system, exhilarating every nerve. The excitement pooled around his groin as Sid touched his tongue lightly to Geno's jawline. "I knew you smelled good. The suppressant helped—mostly. But sometimes, when you were close to heat, I couldn't help it. I tried not to smell, but you were so good."

Geno tipped his chin back proudly at the admission that his heat-scent had crumbled Sid's famous willpower. Sid had tried to get a whiff even when he couldn't pop a knot through the drugs. It did nothing to dampen his own feelings of arousal.

"So," Geno said, side-eyeing the bed. "We do this now? Or wait and talk?"

“We can talk after,” Sid said without taking his lips away from Geno's skin. His words tickled under Geno's ear. “I don’t want to stop.”

Sid accented his words with nudges from his hands on Geno’s hips, not-so-subtly moving them toward the bed. “If we do this, we might bond,” Geno said. They should tell people before they did it, warn the team.

Things were simpler for Sid. High on Geno’s scent mingled with his, his alpha instincts were telling him to go for it. A bond-compatible mate was leaking slick right in front of him. He would see no reason to stop.

Sure enough, Sid nipped at his neck. “I thought bonding was the point.”

Geno shuddered. They were moving fast, but it was what Sid signed up for. He had planned to move nearly this fast with a stranger. With Geno, maybe it made sense that he felt comfortable jumping all the steps, crawling into bed without so much as a first date.

Sid’s hands gave up on pushing Geno toward the bed long enough to slide down the back of his pants, cupping his ass cheeks. His fingers slid between them, touching the wetness there. “Fuck, G. You’re wet. I think you want this, too. Tell me you want this.”

Geno couldn’t deny it. He didn’t think a date would change anything. He could always bully Sid into taking him to the movies later.

“I want,” Geno agreed. “Kiss me.”

Sid tore away from mingling their scents and filling his nose with Geno’s smell to crush their mouths together.

They stripped awkwardly, unwilling to part long enough to make it easy, and Geno climbed onto the bed. Sid stalked after him, fully consumed by the alpha need to pursue his mate. When Geno flopped onto his back, Sid crawled between his legs.

"You do this before?" Geno asked. Sid's laugh huffed against his chest.

"Once or twice," he replied, the words buoyant with light, amused sarcasm.

"With knot?"

Sid's lips stopped right in the middle of Geno's sternum. His eyes flicked up, cautiously scanning Geno's face before continuing the journey to explore Geno's nipples. "No," he said simply, clipped.

Geno’s stomach swooped at the realization. Of course he hadn’t. Seeing his talent, his potential, Sid would have gone on the pills as a teenager, right when his knot began to develop. Even in the offseason, he must have stayed suppressed. After all, every encounter with any omega would risk a bond, something Sid was clearly trying to avoid.

Until now. Until Geno.

The weight of Sid's trust settled on Geno's chest, a burden and a gift. He curled his fingers into Sid's hair and tugged him up to kiss him. Geno could feel the hot length of Sid's cock against the cut of his hip.

"Not like this," Geno said, nudging on Sid's chest to move him back. Who even knew how long a knot would last after ten years of pent-up energy. Geno would ruin his hips with Sid's weight locked between his thighs for an hour or more. He didn't want to start the season on injured reserve.

Sid followed the insistence of Geno's pushes and spooned around behind him. He slid a hand down Geno's side and cupped it around the inside of his thigh, lifting the leg while he nosed against Geno's neck. His breath was coming—not fast, but deep. He was going into the trance, opening his mind up to bond. With a thrill of mixed emotion, Geno realized this was going to work. Sid would put his dick in Geno and knot him, tying them together mentally and physically forever.

The head of Sid's dick found Geno's hole and pushed inside. Geno was so wet it was almost frictionless. When he was all the way in, Geno could feel how the base was already swelling, preparing Sid’s knot.

Sid locked a hand onto Geno’s hip and used the grip for leverage, drawing his dick half out of Geno’s sopping hole before thrusting it back in. He could only move slowly in their spooning position, an intense tease which made Geno push back against Sid’s body, seeking more.

When he grew frustrated with the lack of leverage, Sid rolled Geno onto his belly and pushed Geno’s thighs apart with his knees. His body was a heavy weight lying on top of Geno when he lined his dick up and drove it back in, his mouth tracing along Geno's spine while he worked his hips in rolling motions.

"Geno," Sid said. His voice was plaintive—asking for something. Geno craned his head to the side to catch a look at him in his periphery. Sid looked beyond overwhelmed, maybe even a little scared.

"It's okay," Geno said. He felt back until he could pry Sid's clenched grip away from the sheets. "Do it. We'll be okay."

Sid's fingers slotted between his. When he pushed in this time, his knot felt almost too big to go in. Geno pushed back against it, lifting his hips.

"Give," Geno grunted, squeezing Sid's fingers. "I want this alpha knot. Give it."

With a growling groan, Sid pushed his knot inside. His hips twitched against Geno's ass as he came. Geno tried to concentrate on opening his mind to the bond—whatever that meant. He had never experienced anything like this before. He was just basing his actions off the advice he could remember from his formative years, which was mostly geared toward encouraging teenagers not to bond. They said to close his mind, so he tried to open it.

When the bond washed over him, Geno didn't think there was any amount of closing his mind that would have stopped it. It would have seeped in under locked doors and broken down barriers. Bonding with Sid seemed inevitable. Distantly, he was aware of Sid rolling them to the side, nibbling under his ear while he grasped Geno's cock. He felt the jolt of pleasure when he came, but he couldn't spare much mental processing power toward it.

Sid held him while he drifted. He didn't say anything, just held him. They fell asleep like that, knotted together and bonded. Everything uncertain and frightening about their future seemed very far away.

___

“I think you should pay me,” Flower complained, leaning on the counter while he watched Sid make a pre-game sandwich. Flower was holding a banana but hadn’t even begun to peel it. He was waving it around like a bent exclamation point, emphasizing his words by gesturing with it. Geno poured a bowl of cereal in extra slow motion while he eavesdropped on them.

Sid grinned without looking up from his sandwich crafting. “Pay you for what?”

“The same thing you hired the useless matchmaker for—I found you a bond before the first game.”

Sid snorted and licked the knife, one side and then the other. “You didn’t exactly bend time and space. Geno was right here. I would have figured it out.”

Flower rolled his eyes in a wide arch from Sid to Geno. “You believe this? He says he would figure it out, like six years isn’t long enough.”

“I only had six days off suppressants," Sid protested. "Give me a break.”

“You would have dated every omega in the world before Geno. And he would have started killing them.”

Geno shot Flower an outraged look and nearly missed the delight on Sid’s face.

“Were you jealous?” Sid asked, grinning at him.

“Jealous is a small word,” Flower chuckled. “I’m surprised any of them got into the building. Even I could smell Geno claiming you.”

It was a lie. Flower was a beta without the scent glands to read anyone. But he continued.

“It was terrible. Can you imagine if you had bonded one of them?”

Sid’s eyes were still on Geno’s face. He was still smiling but softer. “No. I can’t imagine that.”

Geno’s heart skipped a beat. He allowed himself a small grin at Sid before he picked up his cereal bowl. “You don’t have somewhere to be?” he asked Flower pointedly. The goalie had plenty of his own pre-game routines to attend without nosing in on Sid’s.

“Okay, fine. I’m going. But you owe me.” Flower gestured one final time with the banana on his way out the door, leaving Sid and Geno alone.

Sid dropped his sandwich on the plate, untouched, and turned to face him. Geno watched him approach, slow steps across the floor. As he drew near, Geno could smell him—vanilla musk and clean sweat mingled with something so familiar as to nearly be undetectable. He smelled like Geno.

“I get it now,” Sid said, looking beyond smug. “You weren’t helping me pick a guy. You were scaring them off.”

“No, I wasn’t!” Geno protested even though he knew it was at least half true. He preferred not to think of himself that way—manipulative. It was all subconscious, mostly. He had tried his best.

Sid’s smile only grew at Geno’s strong objection. He stopped in front of him and shook his head. “Don’t feel bad.”

Geno didn’t feel even slightly bad that Sid had not bonded any of those guys. Sid probably knew that. He only felt bad that he had failed to keep his promise to Sid, failed to be a good wingman.

“I wasn’t thinking about it, but I’m pretty sure that’s why I kept you around,” Sid said.

“To scare omega?”

“No. Yes. I just wanted you near me—only you.”

Fondness filled Geno up to the top and spilled over, pushing out any residual guilt. “You have me now. Everybody know it, too, the way you smell. Whole world will think we’re bond.”

“Good,” Sid said firmly. “I want everyone to know.”

Geno leaned in and kissed him, knowing that if they won the game it would become a nightly routine. Not that it would be a huge sacrifice if that happened.

“Go eat sandwich,” Geno said, though he had a grip on Sid’s shirt to stop him from going away before he got one more kiss. “You go through all this to play, get bond, now you mess up pregame. Go to work.”

Sid took his scolding with a delighted grin and pulled away from Geno’s grasp. He seemed relaxed and pleased with his situation. “We have to show them what we can do, eh?”

Geno caught the infectious good mood as he scooped up his cereal again to finally eat it. “We show them best,” he agreed, feeling smug and happy and very prepared for the start of the season.