Second Body Problems
Liam only went to the local moondances for the bábovka. The Tvardovskys brought it every month and it was to die for. If they ever stopped, there was a good chance Liam would never speak to another living being again in his entire life.
As he loaded up his plate, Liam decided the only thing he’d miss if that happened was the bábovka.
He edged around the field where the dance was in full swing. It seemed like every shifter in Tioga County was here tonight, transformed and frolicking under the light of the blue harvest moon. Liam sidestepped a cougar who had strayed past the edge of the improvised dance floor and ducked around a group of human onlookers.
There were more humans than ever this year. Not only on the fringes, but in the dance as well. Liam had heard rumors that the committee was conflicted about their attendance, but he was happy about it.
Maybe this moon he’d find someone to dance with.
He’d sworn off shifter lovers a year ago, just before he’d moved out here. Just after he’d transitioned. No, he thought, as he gazed over the field of shifters proudly displaying their other halves, humans are definitely better. They would never question the way he smelled, or the sex of his wolf, or why he hated transforming.
They wouldn’t care about proper moondancing, or what it meant.
Liam found a stack of crates in the shadow of the barn and sat down to eat and watch. A bear waltzed by on their hind legs with a dainty woman in their arms. Two wolves tumbled in front of him, more wrestling than dancing. They knocked into a group of humans. In a minute they were all on the ground fighting. He snorted.
Like anyone even moondances properly around here, anyway. Maybe, if I just—
“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?”
A rough, accented voice interrupted Liam’s thoughts, and he looked up, startled. A man he’d never seen before leaned awkwardly against the next crate over. The moonlight painted him in chiaroscuro relief with flashes of liquid brown eyes and artist’s hands. Soft lips formed a perfect cupid's bow over sharp white teeth. Now that Liam was paying attention—and, oh, was he paying attention—he could just barely smell the stranger, earthy like a wolf but dryer and spicier, and so very masculine.
Liam felt his cheeks heat up.
Well, hello there. No, stop it. He’s a shifter. Do not engage.
The stranger quirked an eyebrow. “I promise, I don’t bite.”
Liam swallowed and shuffled over, patting the space next to him. The stranger grinned and sat down heavily, sending another wave of his scent rolling over Liam. Liam was concentrating so hard on tamping down his own wolf’s surge of interest that he almost didn’t notice the other shifter’s barely concealed wince.
“Are you alright?” Liam blurted out, then bit his lip. So much for do not engage.
“I am now.” The deep-voiced reply was accompanied by a wink. At Liam’s blank stare the stranger held up his hands and continued in a lighter tone. “Sorry, sorry. I really should know better. I’ll back off. I’m Teo, by the way.”
Teo dropped one hand but held out the other in a distinctly non-shifter greeting. Liam hesitated. This, right here, was the perfect chance to stop engaging.
“Liam,” he said, and tentatively shook hands. Teo’s palm was large and lightly calloused, and his grip was firm but not overbearing. Liam’s wolf arched into the contact, and he let go reluctantly.
“Liam,” Teo repeated, testing the name. Liam shivered at the way he said it. “It’s nice to meet you, Liam.” Teo smiled at him like they were sharing a secret, and Liam found himself smiling back. “Now I can tell my abuela that I made a new friend tonight with a clean conscience.”
Liam was interested despite himself and leaned closer. “You’re new here?”
“Just moved from the city. The country air is supposed to be healthy, and, well…” Teo waved a hand towards the meadows and woods in the distance. “It’s for my abuela, mostly.”
“Oh,” was all Liam managed in reply, his reserve of social graces running dry. He rallied valiantly. “That’s nice.”
Teo nodded absently, gazing out over the sea of shifted dancers. A moment passed in silence. Liam couldn’t tell if it was awkward silence or if he just felt awkward because he was terrible at socializing. Liam stole a glance sideways, drinking in Teo’s moonlit profile.
Teo didn’t look like he felt awkward.
It was probably just Liam, then. Like always.
Liam picked at his bábovka. He’d barely even gotten to taste it before Teo had interrupted him. He stole another glance at his impromptu companion. Not that he necessarily minded. With the breeze off the field and the scent of shifters heavy in the air, there was no risk of awkward questions or forced outings tonight. It was safe here on the outskirts of the moondance. Liam could indulge in a little looking, at least.
We could do more than look, his wolf murmured, but as usual Liam ignored him.
Teo turned back, and their eyes met. Liam froze at being caught staring, but Teo just blinked and smirked.
“Are you planning on dancing tonight?” Teo asked.
Stiffening, Liam forced himself to shrug. “Maybe later,” he lied.
Teo tilted his head, eyes dropping to Liam’s lap. “Yes, I can see you have plans already.”
“W-what?” Liam’s whole face flushed as his thoughts took an immediate nosedive. His wolf pressed against the back of his mind, panting his interest. Teo’s expression, caught between mirth and guilt, brought Liam up short. He looked down at his lap and the plate balanced on his thighs, piled high with Czech pastry, and suppressed a groan.
Crossing his arms defensively, he ground out a reply. “No one else here appreciates the food.”
Teo laughed. It was a beautiful sound, as deep as his eyes and as smooth as his skin. It made Liam wish he was funnier. He wanted to hear it again. He wanted to hear it pressed against his throat, his lips; he wanted to kiss it.
Liam swallowed, distracted. He might have a problem.
“Oh yeah?” Teo said, eyeing the overflowing plate. “That’s a lot of appreciating going on.”
Liam huffed, grateful to be talking about something familiar.
“It’s bábovka,” he said. “It’s worth it.” Emboldened by Teo’s soft chuckles, Liam broke off a chunk of pastry and held it out. “Try some?”
Holding his breath, Liam watched as Teo took the bábovka, fingers lingering on his for much longer than strictly necessary, and began nibbling at it. When Teo got to licking his fingers clean—fingers that had touched us, might taste like us, Liam’s wolf whispered—Liam forced himself to turn away.
“Well...” Teo hummed, leaning closer. “I can certainly see the appeal.”
Liam glanced back but avoided meeting Teo’s eyes, blushing furiously. He was at least eighty percent sure Teo was not talking about the food. It had been ages since anyone flirted with him so obviously. It made his chest feel tight and hot and fluttery. Liam didn’t know how to respond.
Teo pulled away, shaking his head. “Perdón, I forgot myself again. I’ll stop for real this time. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
But you didn’t, Liam thought. And wasn’t that just the problem? He should let it go, nod along, and… what? Go back to being alone and avoiding people like he avoided his problems?
Liam bit his lip and wondered when, exactly, he had stopped taking chances. It was safe here. He was safe here, as far away from his family and his ex as he could get. There was just him, and the moon, and the hot shifter looking at him with an expression of mild concern because he was taking way too long to answer back, oh fuck.
He took a deep breath, gathering his courage to say—
“Don’t bother!” A drunk shout interrupted him, startling Liam and Teo both. A grey timber wolf had stumbled out of the swirl of bodies in front of them, transforming in a roll of flesh and crude laughter. He gestured rudely at Teo but looked—leered—at Liam. “You ain’t getting a moondance out of that fake wolf.”
Liam recoiled even as Teo half-stood, one foot on the ground, and calmly said, “I asked you to leave me alone.”
“And what are you gonna do about it, shiftless?” The man sneered, lurching closer. “You can’t do nothing.”
Liam watched an expression of helpless rage play out over Teo’s face, and in that moment he had never felt so bold.
“Get lost,” he muttered, then cleared his throat.
“Whassat, pretty thing?”
Liam’s wolf rose up inside him, ears back and fangs bared. He let it seep into his eyes and his lungs, let it ride his voice and turn it into a growl. “Get. Lost.”
The man reared back with a look of surprise before turning tail and disappearing into the crowd. Liam stared after him, stunned. That had worked. He had done that, and he hadn’t even needed to psych himself up for a week over it. He just did it. His heart was pounding so loud it drowned out the music, the dance, everything but this moment right here.
He tugged at the hair behind his ear and risked a glance at Teo.
Teo smiled at him gently, still half standing, and shook his head. “Thanks. You really didn’t have to do that.”
“He was a jerk,” Liam muttered, trying to yank his hair close enough to chew on, and cursing internally when he remembered he’d just got it cut. He was pretty sure his hands were trembling.
Teo sighed, though it seemed only a front. “Yeah, well. I might have been flirting with him earlier.”
“You have terrible taste in men.” That must be the adrenaline speaking because it definitely was not Liam.
“One out of two isn’t bad,” Teo protested. “But there was misunderstanding. He claimed I had led him on.” Teo hesitated, eyes searching Liam’s face. “Look. He might have had a bit of a point. A tiny one. Miniscule, really.”
Liam started to shake his head, not knowing how to disagree with that but knowing that he had to. Teo couldn’t have led that man on. Teo wasn't that kind of guy.
Liam couldn’t stand what it meant if he was.
“No, what I mean is…” Teo sighed for real this time. “It’s not like that, but he wanted a dance, you know, a proper moondance. And I’m not saying you’d want that, too, though I’d be happy if you did, but I can’t really do that right now. It’s not that I can’t transform. I’m not shiftless. But I wouldn’t really be able to moondance if I did, not like…” Teo trailed off and gestured over the field of roiling, twisting bodies.
Liam thought about this. “What?”
Teo laughed again, and hopped back onto the crate, twisting to face him. He reached down and pulled up his jean leg. The silver and black of a prosthetic practically glowed under the light of the moon. “It doesn’t really carry over to the other form, you know?”
“Oh,” Liam managed, staring dumbly at Teo's leg and knowing he shouldn't be. Then he thought about what Teo said—really thought about it—and found himself smiling more genuinely than he had since he moved away from home. “Yeah, actually. I think I do, in a way.”
It was Teo's turn to look surprised, and he let his leg fall back down against the crate with an oddly metallic thud. Liam giggled, giddy and careless, and leaned over.
“You can’t change the wolf.” Liam whispered it like a promise, and maybe it was. He could feel his wolf slinking down in the back of his mind, a presence equal parts comfort and reminder, and for the first time since he had transitioned, he felt fully at peace with it. It wouldn’t last, Liam knew—that kind of second body dysmorphia couldn’t be chased away with a pretty face and some flirting—but maybe, for tonight, it was okay to just not.
Not worry about transforming, or tradition, or what other people thought.
“Well,” Teo was answering, “I mean, I can. It just requires more effort, and another person if I want to attach the prosthetic. But I feel like that’s not the point you’re making.”
Liam snickered. “Not really.”
Teo waved his hands dismissively. “Then let’s just go with what you said. It sounded better anyway. Poetic-like.”
A surge of bravery propelled Liam to his feet before he could talk himself out of it. He reached out and grabbed Teo's hand with both of his, hoping his palms weren’t sweating and his hands weren’t shaking.
“I’m tired of feeling like I don’t belong.” Liam met Teo’s eyes, kind and curious, and stood a little straighter. “I’m going to dance tonight and you’re coming with me.”
“Oh, I like it when you take control.” Teo wagged his eyebrows, but his expression faltered when he glanced back at the field of shifted forms. “But—”
“You can stand, can’t you?” Liam interrupted him, voice pitching higher with nerves. “It’s like high school. All you have to do is sway.” Not that Liam had ever dared attend the dances at his own awful high school, but he was fairly certain that was how non-moondancing went.
“Who cares about tradition?” Liam continued, and prayed Teo agreed. He felt like a glass balloon, impossibly light but like the slightest push would break him now. If he had to stop and reason—if he had to stop and think—Liam feared that he would plummet to the ground so fast, he might never recover.
Teo grinned and got up, stumbling a little on the uneven ground. “I am pretty good at swaying.”
He was taller than Liam, the perfect height for a dancing partner. Not moondancing. Human dancing, the kind where Liam could rest his head on Teo’s shoulder, nose buried in the crook of his neck to catch his scent. Coyote, Liam’s wolf murmured, finally close enough to recognize the dusky scent of almost-wolf and commit it to memory. Teo. Ours.
And he was going to have to deal with that later, but not now. Not tonight. Tonight was for dancing, and the moon, and feeling things without thinking about them.
Liam wondered why shifters had moved so far from human customs, because this was amazing. Better than moondancing any night. Teo’s chest was warm and broad, and his arms were around Liam’s waist, and they swayed together to the music under the light of the blue harvest moon.
They stuck to the edge of the field, and only got knocked over twice. It was the best moondance Liam had ever been to.
He couldn’t wait for the next one.
Evelyn Benvie is the wooly jumper in a family of black sheep. Both a cynic and a romantic at heart, she writes diverse, queer-positive fiction and poetry that have been published online and in print. Her first novella, Something to Celebrate, was recently published by Mischief Corner Books. Find out more at evelynbenvie.com or connect with her on Facebook @Evelyn.Benvie.3 and Twitter @EvelynBenvie.