It was only a few months after Zhenya had moved to America when it happened. It was late November, the Pittsburgh winter setting in early and cold, and Geno had headed out to the shifters’ reserve for the first time since his move. He hadn’t originally had plans to go, but he’d been lonely recently and one of his coworkers had invited him, so he went.
But Sergei and his family were nowhere to be seen when Zhenya arrived at the massive gate leading the way into the reserve, and Zhenya was too impatient to wait for them. He shoved his shifter credentials at the man at the gate, barely followed what the man said in return, and entered the reserve, already pulling at his shirt as he followed the trail in the direction the guard had pointed.
He ended up at the coin lockers used to keep shifters’ belongings safe while they were shifted, and puzzled his way through paying for one with the Russian-English dictionary on his phone. Shoving his shirt into it, Zhenya toed off his sneakers without untying them, undoing his belt buckle and shoving his pants and boxers down his hips. When he went to pick up his shoes and put them into the locker, though, there was only one shoe there.
Zhenya blinked, confused, and looked around, already shivering in the winter cold---Russian winters or not, being naked in November was not fun. And his shoe hadn’t wandered off by itself, so he suspected a far more common culprit.
Padding carefully around the side of the building, Zhenya peeked around the corner and saw exactly what he had expected; a young canine shifter (looked like a wolf of some kind), all big paws and tufty fur, about to set his teeth into Zhenya’s sneaker. Zhenya took two quick strides and, before the pup could do much more than yelp in surprise, scruffed him at the neck, lifting him--her--up to eye level.
“Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to steal other people’s things?” Zhenya asked her in Russian, and the pup let out a little whine, ears going back before growling, clearly hoping that she’d be scary enough to get Zhenya to put her down. She was more cute than anything, though, and Zhenya smiled a little. Maybe when she was full grown she’d be more intimidating.
There was the soft sound of footsteps through the brush, and a much--much--larger wolf appeared out of the forest, teeth bared and yellow eyes darting back and forth between the two of them. Zhenya swallowed. Well, if this was what the pup had to look forward to when she grew up, no wonder she was fearless. The pup yelped and wriggled in Zhenya’s grip, and he carefully lowered her to the ground, leaning over to put her as far away from himself as possible.
“This yours?” he asked in English, pointing at the pup, who shook herself out vigorously and then pranced over to the bigger wolf. “Took my shoe.” He pointed at the discarded shoe off to the side, and the wolf’s teeth instantly disappeared, ears going up as he sniffed in the direction of the shoe before clearly turning to glare at the pup. She was only cowed a little bit, ducking down before trying to charm her way out of trouble, prancing around her...father? Mother? Older brother? Zhenya wasn’t very familiar with wolf ages. The older wolf wasn’t having it, though, and bowled her right over with a big paw, sending her flat on her back. Then he ducked his head in apology to Zhenya.
Zhenya waved a hand. “Is fine, fine, no problem,” he assured. “Is baby, yes? No problem.” He picked up his shoe, indeed no worse for wear except for a few more mud streaks. “I go, now. Cold.” He gave the two wolves a smile and ducked back around the corner, stuffing his clothes into his locker and then quickly pulling the shift over himself. Shaking out his pale spotted coat--his winter coat was still coming in, which made him look kind of patchy---Zhenya heard the shouts and running footsteps of Sergei’s children, followed by the measured tread of Sergei himself and his wife Ksenia.
Bounding out to greet them and making the girls squeal over his handsome lynx form, Zhenya forgot about the two wolves he’d met earlier.
Zhenya saw them again, though. The next time he went out to the reserve he was stalked rather ineptly by the pup, following him on the ground as he leapt through the trees and making Zhenya wish he could roll his eyes as a lynx. She was cute in her determination, whoever she was, and Zhenya didn’t mind her trying to creep up on him when he settled down on a fallen log---though he didn’t let her catch him, jumping away right before she pounced.
That was when she was bowled over by her father (mother?) again, the same wolf as before huffing and grumbling at her in reproach. Zhenya rather got the impression that he was trying to teach her manners. He gave a cat smile, whiskers trembling in amusement, before leaping away again.
The next time Zhenya saw them, neither of them were shifted.
“Oh,” somebody said as they bumped into Zhenya’s shoulder in a crowded coffeeshop, “I’m sorr---oh.”
Frowning, Zhenya looked up in confusion. It had just been a little bump; it was crowded, it was totally understandable. Why then had the man sounded so shocked?
The man looking back at Zhenya with wide eyes was solid and well-built, muscle filling out his frame and giving him a strong presence. His hair was curly and dark, flopping over his forehead slightly. His features were strong, his lips full, and his light brown--almost golden--eyes were full of shock. Zhenya didn’t think he’d ever seen the man before, and he thought he’d remember such a handsome face.
“Is okay,” he said, “no problem.”
“Oh,” the man said again, seemingly struggling for words. “I just--you--I--sorry!” And he dashed out the door, brushing past Zhenya and leaving a soft drift of scent in his wake, quickly disappearing in the mass of bodies, but not before Zhenya caught it. And that… was familiar. He’d smelled that scent before. But where? Frowning in thought, Zhenya made it to the front of the line and placed his coffee order, trying to remember.
It wasn’t until he was halfway back home that he realized it was the same scent of the adult wolf he’d kept on running into at the reserve, and now it was his turn to say, “Oh!”
Zhenya didn’t see the wolf at the reserve again, but a little over a week after their first human meeting, Zhenya was standing in line at the coffeeshop again when he heard a little cough at his shoulder.
“Um,” the man said, looking slightly embarrassed as Zhenya turned to face him, “hi. Um. I don’t know if you, uh, remember me…”
Zhenya nodded, offering the man a friendly smile. “Know you,” he said. “Daughter take my shoe, yes?”
“Oh, Taylor’s not--she’s my little sister,” the man said, blinking up at him, and Zhenya felt a little bubble of hope float up in his chest. It didn’t look like the man was wearing a wedding ring, and if the wolf pup wasn’t his daughter, maybe… “I, uh, wanted to say sorry for her, actually. And, uh, last time too. I was surprised to see you here and I didn’t think---well, sorry.”
Zhenya had only caught about half of that, but he nodded anyway. “Is okay,” he said, because he had definitely heard at least two ‘sorrys’ in there.
“Can I… uh, buy your coffee to make up for it?” the man asked, and Zhenya couldn’t hold back a slow grin.
“Yes,” he said, leaning in slightly, flirting, “if tell me name.”
“Oh!” the man said, and went just a little bit pink with embarrassment, ducking his head awkwardly. “It’s Sidney. Um, I’m Sidney. Crosby. Nice to meet you.” He stuck out his hand.
“Sidney,” Zhenya said, testing it out on his tongue, and took his hand. “My name Evgeni. Nice to meet.”
Their second date (first official date, Sidney insisted, because getting coffee, exchanging phone numbers, and then texting each other constantly for the next two weeks apparently didn’t count) was actually taking Sidney’s little sister Taylor Christmas shopping. Sidney tried to say that this wasn’t an official date either, at first, but Zhenya shut that down, because with the two of their schedules--Sid a firefighter, Zhenya an engineer--they might not have a normal first date until February, and that was unacceptable.
So they took Taylor to the mall, letting the eleven-year-old wear herself out with excitement and questions about Zhenya. (“How old are you?” “Twenty-five.” “Sid’s twenty-four. What kind of cat do you shift into?” “рысь. Lynx.” “Sid and I are wolves. What TV shows do you like?” “Don’t know. English is too hard.” “Sid likes documentaries and the History Channel. So booooriiiing. I like…”) All in all it went fairly well, with only small hiccups about one of them having to leave so that their own present wasn’t spoiled.
Afterwards they stopped at a restaurant for dinner before dropping Taylor off with a tiredly smiling Mama Crosby, who kissed them both on the cheek before chivvying Taylor upstairs to bed. Sid lived close by, so they walked, the light snow crunching under their feet and their breath misting in the air.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Sidney asked, breaking the comfortable silence between them.
“Of course.” Zhenya looked over at his boyfriend, tucking Sidney’s arm firmer against his body.
“The first time we met in the coffeeshop, do you remember?”
Zhenya grinned. “Of course. Ran out like I was scary monster.”
Sidney jostled him slightly. “You weren’t scary. I was just…” he sighed, breath gusting out in swirling patterns of white that dissipated into the cold night. “I saw you, and I recognized you from the reserve, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how you had looked standing there naked, telling Taylor off for chewing on your shoe.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, delighted, “You run because you think I’m hot! You think about me naked---”
“Geno,” Sidney whined, using the new nickname Zhenya had begun using for his American friends, “I wasn’t thinking about you naked---”
“Sid not think about me naked?” Zhenya affected an exaggerated sad face, looking at his boyfriend with reproach. “Bad boyfriend. I think Sid naked all the time---”
“Oh my god, stop,” Sid said, laughing, giving Zhenya’s arm a punch. “You’re the worst, honestly.” Then he sobered, staring up into Zhenya’s face. “Is that what we are? Boyfriends?”
Zhenya faltered, his steps slowing to a halt. “We not?” he asked, frowning. “Talk always, want to see you on weekend, want kiss. Sid not want boyfriend?”
“Yeah,” Sidney breathed, “yeah, I do want that. A lot. Can we kiss now?”
Zhenya tilted his head down until their noses were brushing, lips barely an inch apart. “Sid want, we kiss every day,” he murmured.
“Yeah,” Sidney breathed again, before swaying forward and pressing their lips together. Zhenya hummed, warmth spreading through his body from where they were connected, and the two men stood there for a long time, kissing as snow began to fall gently from the sky.