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in sheep's clothing

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Nicky goes to the National Zoo when he needs to relax. It’s only about a mile north of the studio he rents near Dupont Circle, and some days the idea of spending another minute inside makes his eyelids twitch. The advantage to working the European markets is that he’s given a lot of freedom to set his own schedule - and the downside is that he spends a lot of time in his apartment, having webcam meetings at 3AM.

DC is having a wet fall this year, and so although it’s a Saturday, the zoo is as empty as Nicky’s ever seen it. Many of the animals seem to have taken that as their cue to be indoors as well, and Nicky makes the climb up to Lion/Tiger Hill without stopping.

One of the juvenile tigers is lounging in a den cut from the rock step, and he stands against the wall, watching the shift of stripes as it breathes. It’s soothing, almost hypnotic. He focuses on the pattern of its hide, leaning closer -

There’s a moment when it feels as though he’s lost his balance, and he closes his eyes against the dizziness. When he opens them again, instead of being fifty feet from the tiger, he’s close enough to touch.

Nicky stares at it. The tiger stares back.

“Oh, shit,” Nicky says.

He’s twenty-five years old. This shouldn’t be happening now.

But it is. He takes a slow step backwards, then another. He thinks he needs to be able to see where he wants to go, which would involve turning his back on the 200 pound predator currently eyeing him like an oversized cat toy. If he can get far enough away -

The tiger licks its chops and stands.

“Oh, shit,” Nicky says again, right as he hears snarling from behind him, growing louder.

He turns - and a shaggy blur of grey and brown charges past him, knocking into the big cat. The tiger yowls high and furious and claws at the other animal, but the dog’s thick coat protects it - if it is in fact a dog, and not a well-camouflaged bear - and it gets its massive jaws into the scruff of the tiger’s neck with brutal efficiency.

He expects blood then, but the dog doesn’t use those gleaming canines to tear. Gripping tight, it drags the tiger further from Nicky before releasing its captive with a toss of its head. The cat knows when it’s outmatched - as soon as the dog lets go, it scrambles inside.

Nicky doesn’t want to wait around for it to come back.

He’s emphatically not a dog person, much prefers looking at animals to petting them, but this particular dog saved his life. The least he can do is extend a cautious hand, which the animal noses with brief friendliness before tucking its head - twice the size of Nicky’s own - under his palm. Nicky stares hard at where he’d been standing mere minutes ago, and thinks there.

He half-expects the dog’s owner to start screaming as soon as they appear back on the concrete path, but there’s no one around, even when he pivots, scanning the area. The dog politely waits for him to finish his circle before rearing up - and up, because the thing is huge. It settles both paws on Nicky’s shoulders and grins at him, tongue lolling enthusiastically. 

Nicky tries not to let his knees crumple under its weight. Then he sees something glinting in the riotous fur: a tag, dangling from a solid silver chain, one word carved into the metal. “Peritas?”

The dog woofs, booming, and drops back to all four legs when Nicky winces at the volume, standing patiently still while Nicky leans in and fumbles for the tag. Maybe it’ll have the owner’s contact information. Upon closer inspection, though, the flip side is blank. No name, no address, no phone number.

He should probably call animal control. But the instant he straightens to pull his cell out of his back pocket, the dog woofs again and lopes off, disappearing into the bushes lining the path

Nicky stares after it, but by the time he gets his feet working enough to go look, the dog is long gone.

At some point he'll have to get in touch with his parents and let them know he manifested, but he doesn't judge himself too harshly for spending Sunday on the sofa with Netflix instead, resolutely ignoring everything except for the reassuring certainty that he’s still breathing and in possession of all his limbs. It's a good feeling.

“Hey,” Mike greets him when he comes into the office on Monday morning. “Do anything fun over the weekend?”

Nicky thinks about telling one of his baby interns that he learned he could teleport, nearly got mauled by a tiger, and was finally rescued by a giant vanishing dog.

They’d send him straight to the hospital. “Nothing much.”

Mike’s a good kid - so is Tom, for that matter, but they, like most people, think superpowers only exist in comic books. (The Bäckströms have always been special.)

There’s an envelope waiting for him on his desk, which is relatively unusual - most of his professional communications occur online or over the phone. But he keeps a letter opener inherited from his grandfather, and uses it to slit the envelope neatly, fishing the paper out to read it.

And then read it again.

“Mike, Tom, either of you know a Dr. Alexander Ovechkin? From the National Zoo?”

His interns swap glances and shrug.

“Nope.”

“Not me either. Why?”

“He invited me to a fundraiser,” Nicky says, slow as he tries to think of where he might have met Ovechkin before. “As his personal guest.”

The reaction to that is predictable: Mike and Tom grin and nudge each other. “Ooh, dad’s got a date.”

“Children,” Nicky says mildly, because sometimes it’s easier to just accept these things. "Consider this a warning, because I will make you do end-of-quarter reports for the entire department."

When both of the younger men have been sent off with work - not the end-of-quarter reports, because he's not actually a sadist - he tucks the invitation away. He doesn’t need to worry about it on company time. But as soon as he’s home, he can’t help but pull it back out, turning the heavy cardstock in his hands. There’s an inked scrawl on the back that he hadn’t noticed before.

Thank you for helping my dog!!!!

Which answers one question only to pose another, more worrying than the first. What Ovechkin saw - if Ovechkin saw - it could put Nicky’s whole family at risk.

Unless he can convince the man to trust Nicky over his own eyes.  

He opens up his calendar and clears Friday evening. Apparently, he’s got a date.

Tom and Mike give him the expected hard time when he shows up to work at the end of the week in khakis and a polo. “You’re never gonna score a second date looking like that,” Tom chides him.

Nicky finds this ironic coming from someone who’s allergic to putting a hat on forwards, and says so.

“Nah, he’s right,” Mike says sagely. “I mean, nobody’s expecting you to be Hank from accounting -”

“Obviously, because Hank from accounting is fucking ridiculous -”

“And clearly Photoshopped -”

“Who even wears a three-piece suit to work these days?”

“Right? Making the rest of us look bad.” Mike shakes his head. “But you gotta put a little effort in! Isn’t this a fancy event?”

“Yes,” Nicky says. “Which is why I didn’t want to wear my nice suit to work and get it wrinkled, when I could, for instance, go home and change before dinner.”

“Ohhh,” the guys say in unison.

“Smart,” Tom adds, sounding impressed.

“Thank you,” Nicky says. “I’m very happy you approve.”

He doesn’t have a suit that makes him look like Hank from accounting, of course, but he has one in deep charcoal wool that will more than suffice for black tie optional, and that’s what he winds up wearing.

It occurs to him as he steps out of the cab that he has no idea how they’re supposed to find each other. Presumably Ovechkin knows what he looks like, and a quick Google search had revealed a grainy photo on the zoo’s website, but the ballroom at the hotel where they’re hosting the fundraiser is swarming with people.

The man who cuts unerringly through the crowd manages to stand out anyways. He’s even taller than Nicky himself, and too broad-shouldered to be called gaunt despite the sharpness of his cheekbones.

“Lars?” the man asks, smiling so enthusiastically that Nicky wonders what would happen if he said no. He could turn around and leave right now.

“Nicklas,” he says instead, and shrugs, rueful. “Nicky, nowadays.”

“You work with Americans too,” Ovechkin - he must be Ovechkin - says, laughing. His accent is pronounced, but it’s not like Nicky can throw stones. “Sweden?”

“Russia?” Nicky counters.

Ovechkin smirks. “Of course. I’m Sasha.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nicky says. “Though I admit I was surprised when I got your invitation.”

“You helped the dog,” Sasha says. He hasn’t stopped smiling, though his lips quirk at some unshared humor.

Nicky’s heart speeds up. “I tried to look for his owner, so I could make sure he got home safe. I must not have seen you.”

“But I saw you,” Sasha says, like he’s the henchman in a bad movie. The delivery is wrong, though, cheerfully pleased instead of ominous, and so Nicky just raises his eyebrows and replies,

“You could have said something.” Sasha’s not the only one who can play it cool.

“Sorry,” Sasha says, unrepentant. “I thought you won’t want to speak to me until I put pants on.”

Nicky stops dead in his tracks. “What.”

“Well, I can’t talk as a dog, Nicklas,” Sasha says, and grins to reveal four curved, gleaming canines.

The only reason Nicky doesn’t zap himself out of there immediately is probably the only reason Sasha invited him to the dinner in the first place - too many eyewitnesses. He’s half-tempted to risk it anyways, because he’s been practicing in the privacy of his apartment and he’s a lot faster now than he was a week ago, but Sasha - Sasha looks hopeful.

“Okay,” Nicky says, breathing deep through his nose. “We’re going to go find a nice, quiet bar. You’re going to buy me at least two shots of vodka, and then you’re going to explain what the hell is going on.”

Sasha puts his hand up for a cab immediately.

“Okay,” Nicky says again half an hour later, feeling calmer already. Sasha more than made good on his demand for vodka shots, and the alcohol is buzzing pleasantly through his system. Besides, it’s dark enough inside the bar that he’s reasonably sure he could get out if he really needed to without being spotted. “Explain from the beginning.”

“Okay,” Sasha agrees. “It started when Mama and Papa loved each other very mu-” To his credit, he doesn’t yelp when Nicky boots him solidly in the shins.

“I’ll leave,” Nicky says.

Sasha makes the most forlorn expression he’s seen on anyone over the age of five. “So harsh, Nicky! You know I am a shifter, and that I work at the zoo. The rest is luck. I smell -” he twitches his nose. “When you wind up in the enclosure with Bandar. The tiger.”

“I’d guessed. Is your whole family - do they know?”

Sasha nods. “Papa’s like me, and he told Mama before they married. She’s not ovcharka, though.” He glances at Nicky in renewed delight. “Like I said, it's luck that we meet! Not so many of us out there.”

“No,” Nicky agrees quietly.

“So I think - if anyone else sees, you will get in trouble. Maybe just for being in enclosure, maybe for more, you know?”

“You couldn’t have gotten me out any other way?”

Sasha looks serious for the first time in their brief acquaintance. “Maybe. If Bandar didn’t get you first.”

Nicky swallows hard. That he almost died shouldn’t be the most surreal thing about last weekend, but then again: he almost died.

“You were risking your life, though,” he says quietly.

Sasha laughs out loud. “Was I?”

“Yes,” Nicky insists, and then thinks about the sheer size of Sasha’s other form. “Well. Maybe.”

“Not at all,” Sasha says amiably. “I knew you could move us both, if you had time. So I gave you time."

That…..makes an appalling amount of sense. Nicky hopes it’s the vodka. Otherwise he’s just agreed that jumping into a tiger enclosure was the sensible thing to do.

“Fine,” he groans, and thumps his head down on the table. And then, because the table is filthy and he’s remembered something, he picks it back up again. “Why Peritas?”

“Alexander the Great’s favorite dog. I thought, I’m also Alexander, I’m also great!”

Sasha is either drunk or genuinely this exuberant all the time, and Nicky’s becoming dreadfully certain that it’s the latter.

“Does that make you your own favorite dog?” he asks.

Sasha says teasingly, “And yours.”

He’s not admitting to anything. “I don’t even like dogs,” Nicky grumbles.

“I like you, though,” Sasha says. He sounds no less sincere for the amusement coloring his voice.

That last shot is looking more and more like it had been a bad idea, Nicky thinks. “We barely know each other.”

Sasha shrugs. “We already saved each other once, Nicky. I trust you. Now you know the one thing about me that nobody else in this country does. So yes, I like you.”

“Secrets are a lonely thing,” Nicky says. “Is this a date?”

“Do you want it to be a date?”

“Maybe,” Nicky says thoughtfully. “I like you too, I think, but you also bought me a lot of vodka.”

Sasha’s eyes are bright with laughter. “Yes, I did.”

“Hm,” Nicky says. “I’m going to go home, drink a lot of water, and pass out. And then….”

“And then?”

Nicky smiles. “We can talk about you getting that second date.”