Alex lets the class go a little early, partly just to be nice and partly because he's finally managed to discover Dr. Bäckström's office hours. All it required was a little judicious snooping through the faculty directory and the Classics department's website. If he walks briskly across campus, he should get there a half hour before they end. Perfect.
Alex maybe walks a little too briskly, something approaching a full jog, so he stops on the first floor to let his breathing go back to normal and attempt to flatten his wind-tousled hair. (The latter is a lost cause).
"Come in," Nicke calls, when Alex taps politely on his slightly open door.
"Hello," Alex says, bounding into the office. Good, he's not with anyone.
"Office hours are for students, Dr. Ovechkin," Nicke says, giving Alex a judgmental look. His judgmental look is very sexy, so this is not a good discouragement.
"I need your professor-y expertise."
"Professor-y isn't a word." Nicke rolls his eyes, but there is also a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth so that isn't really a good discouragement either.
"Please?" Alex tries, leaning on Nicke's desk in what he hopes is a reasonably seductive fashion.
Nicke looks at him, tapping his fingers on his desk. "I guess I can spare you a few minutes. My office hours are over at five, if you want to come back then."
"Perfect," Alex beams. "We can get coffee. I know a place."
"I haven't agreed to help you yet," Nicke points out.
"It's good coffee," Alex says. Nicke laughs, and Alex leaves the Classics building with a coffee date and a smile.
ROAST! does have good coffee, especially when you order the kind with a huge amount of different syrups and whipped cream on top.
"That's almost the size of your head," Nicke says, eyeing Alex's drink in alarm.
"I know," Alex says happily. "What do you want to drink?"
Nicke gets a black coffee, and the barista leans over the counter and makes hearteyes at him while Nicke orders, gets his coffee, and then painstakingly adds a precisely measured amount of cream and sugar to the coffee. Alex would be jealous, but the barista is probably about nineteen so Nicke is immune to his charms. Also, Nicke is either unfortunately oblivious to hearteyes or has been attempting to politely reject Alex for the past month. Alex chooses to live in hope and believe it's the former.
"So," Nicke says, waiting for his coffee to cool instead of just drinking it fast enough that it only burns his mouth a little bit, "what did you need my help with?"
"Remember that talk we met at?" Alex asks, fiddling with the button on his cuff a little nervously. He doesn't think Nicke is going to say no to this idea, but he also isn't completely confident he's going to say yes.
"The one I was giving? Yes, vaguely."
"Well, you mentioned that some of your research is in Sævardrian."
Nicke blinks at him, slightly startled. "That was in one of the footnotes on the powerpoint. I didn't think anyone even read those."
"I'm very observant," Alex says. This is true, but it also was not something he noticed during the talk. It was on his sixth time rewatching the video of the talk that he got curious about something Nicke mentioned and went to dig up a copy of the powerpoint. Nicke doesn't need to know this, though, and Alex is fairly certain the library event coordinator he emailed to ask for a copy of the powerpoint slides bought his (halfway true) story about just being really interested in the subject. "Have you heard of the Sævardr?"
"Sævardr?" Nicke repeats.
"Yes. It's a sea monster, or a species of sea monsters depending on which accounts you believe."
"There's no such thing as sea monsters," Nicke says firmly. Alex waves a dismissive hand. He's used to skeptics.
"You don't have to believe in them to help me," he says. "I just need your help with some translation."
Nicke squints at him, evaluating. "Okay. Start from the beginning," he says after a moment. Alex smiles, wiggling a little to sit up straight in his chair and fold his hands.
"I research, track, and document cryptids in my spare time," he says. He pauses. People usually have questions.
"Isn't that a strange hobby for a math professor?" Nicke asks. "Aren't you all about logic?"
"Clearly you don't know many mathematicians," Alex says. "Anyway, there are fairly extensive reports of one or more Sævardr in various lakes around here. I've never really looked into them, because the sightings tend to hop all over the place. If there's a sighting somewhere, you can almost guarantee there won't be another one in that same place for a while."
"What does this have to do with me," Nicke breaks in.
"I'm getting there," Alex says mildly. He takes a sip of his drink, just to be difficult, and then grins at Nicke.
"You have whipped cream on your nose," Nicke says, with great dignity.
"Anyway," Alex continues, "I was reading one of the books you referenced in your talk and I found a map that I think is related to the Sævardr. The only problem is, all the notations are in untranslated Sævardrian. That's where you come in."
"So you want me to translate for you so you can go on a wild goose chase?"
"A wild sea monster chase, yes."
"That seems like a waste of time," Nicke says.
Alex shrugs. "I can pay you to do the translation work if you want. Like I said, you don't need to believe me to help."
Nicke, for some reason, looks offended at this. "I'm not going to charge a friend for a favor," he says waspishly. "I'm not an asshole." Alex is too busy inwardly thrilling that Nicke referred to him as a friend to respond to this. "Do you have the map with you?"
"Of course," Alex says, pulling the book out of his bag. "Don't write on it, though, it's a library book."
"I'm not a freshman," Nicke says, but he's already absentmindedly running his finger over the page and doesn't put any real heat behind it.
Alex kind of expects that to be it. It doesn't take Nicke long to translate the notations around the map, not even with writing them all out carefully and going over them with Alex.
"Thanks," Alex says, folding up the paper and tucking it carefully into his briefcase.
"Sure," Nicke says. He sips his coffee. "When are you going?"
"Probably the day after tomorrow. The notes theorize that the Sævardr’s location is partly influenced by what constellation the moon is in, so I think there's a good chance it will be at Lake Lanmis around now, especially since it's rarely spotted there."
"That's definitely...a theory," Nicke says. He pauses, but it looks like he maybe wants to say something else. Alex waits. He doesn't mind silence, especially not when he can watch Nicke frown thoughtfully. "I'll come with you," Nicke adds finally, abruptly.
"Oh," Alex says, surprised.
"I don't have to," Nicke says hastily. "If you don't want-"
"No that's fine," Alex breaks in quickly. "You're welcome to come."
"Okay." Nicke still doesn't look totally at ease, so Alex opens himself up for some mocking.
"See, I knew you secretly believed me about the Sævardr being real," he says triumphantly. Nicke snorts and rolls his eyes and relaxes, and Alex grins at him.
"Why do we have to do this in the middle of the night," Nicke complains, shoving aside some brambles to try and clear a comfortable spot for lurking.
"Shh," Alex whispers, "you're going to scare the Sævardr away."
"It's a sea monster," Nicke says, but he lowers his voice obligingly, "it's not going to be scared by loud talking. It could probably eat us."
Alex judiciously decides to debate this instead of returning to the middle of the night point, considering the timing decision was mostly related to aesthetic. Whatever, what's the point of hunting cryptids if you aren't going to do it in an aesthetic way? "There's no indication that the Sævardr is aggressive toward humans. Just shy."
"It's not shy," Nicke grumbles. "It probably just finds humans invading its lake and talking loudly annoying."
"So you see my point about the whispering," Alex says, as triumphantly as he can manage in a whisper. Nicke gives him a thin-lipped glare, and Alex grins at him. He definitely won that one.
Alex spreads out an old blanket so they have something to sit on. With the brush in front of them pushed partly aside so they can see the lake while still being screened, it's kind of cozy in the little hollow. Which, okay, is a not entirely unexpected side benefit. Alex didn't plan this expedition as a seduction mission, but if he can kill two birds with one stone...
"Why did you get into cryptid hunting, anyway?" Nicke asks. Alex turns to look at him carefully. He's very close.
"Uh," Alex says, briefly forgetting his entire life story. "Well, when I was in college I had a roommate who was really into Bigfoot. I was pretty skeptical initially but he made a good argument. I don't know. There's a lot of stuff about the world that we don't know yet, you know? Isn't it more fun to, like, live with the expectation that there are wondrous and interesting things out there? Even if you're wrong about some of them, you learn cool stuff along the way."
Nicke looks thoughtful. "That's a fair point, I guess." He pauses. "What would you do if you actually saw one, though?"
Alex shrugs. "No idea," he says cheerfully. "There's no reason to get all invested in a certain outcome. It makes the journey less enjoyable, if you aren't open to possibility."
"I guess," Nicke says. He shifts around, lying on his stomach and propping his head up in his hands. "You're strange, Dr. Ovechkin. Has anyone ever told you that?"
"Many, many people," Alex says. "Also, call me Alex."
"Alex," Nicke slants a teasing smile at him, and Alex knows he's about to be mocked but can't bring himself to care. "You'd probably fit right in with the Sævardr."
"I'm taking that as a compliment," Alex says. "I like to think I'm an excellent ambassador for humanity as a species."
"You're certainly something."
"What about you? Why did you decide to come with me?" This is maybe pushing it, but Alex has to ask. Nicke is quiet, but looks thoughtful.
"I'm not entirely sure," he admits, after a moment. "Maybe my life could use a little bit more wonder."
"Not enough students asking you if they really need to do the required reading?"
"Too many, more like," Nicke grumbles. "I don't understand why they can't just read summaries and make a good faith effort to fake it, like we did in the olden days."
"Were you a slacker in college?" Alex asks, delightedly.
"I have a doctorate," Nicke points out. "Cutting corners somewhere was inevitable." He smiles at Alex, a little ruefully. "I was pretty boring in college, honestly. I erred more on the side of extra reading. No interesting roommates for me."
"I spent a lot of my spare time on learning random programming languages for fun," Alex admits. "I don't think anyone becomes a professor without being a huge nerd, first."
"That's probably true," Nicke laughs. "So, how many students have you caught checking Instagram while pretending to take notes this semester?"
Alex isn't really expecting anything to happen, so he isn't particularly disappointed when nothing does. He got to spend time with Nicke, and made him laugh twenty-three times (yes, he counted), and tell him about the local cryptid newsletter he has a (tenuously anonymous) column in, so it's a night well spent in his book. Nicke doesn't seem disappointed either, but he does seem a little antsy about scheduling another hunting expedition. Alex had sort of expected him to lose interest, or make an excuse, so he's surprised when Nicke shows up at his office two days later.
"Hi, Nicke!" Alex says delightedly, and then it occurs to him he maybe should have made a joke instead. Nicke gives him a sort of soft smile, though, and Alex just grins helplessly back.
"Are you free later? I was going over my notes on the map earlier and think I might have missed something."
"Oh. Sure. ROAST! again?"
"Yeah that works," Nicke says. "See you at six."
It's not until Nicke leaves that Alex realizes that Nicke has somehow found out his office hours schedule. He tries not to read too much into this. Maybe Nicke is just really into the hunt for the Sævardr.
When Alex gets to the coffee shop, Nicke is sitting in a corner with his black coffee and his feet propped up on a second chair. Someone eyes his feet and glares at him, and Nicke stares them down until they give up and find somewhere else to sit.
"Can I help you?" the barista says, and Alex jolts out of his amorous staring and orders a drink.
"You're not going to be able to sleep after that," Nicke says, eyeing Alex's drink suspiciously and swinging his feet off the chair.
"I'll go for a jog," Alex says, shrugging. "So, what did you find?"
Nicke pulls a notebook out of his bag, flipping it open. The pages are densely covered in writing, none of which appears to be in English. "Here," Nicke says, turning the notebook around and pointing to a few lines.
"Uh," Alex says. "I have no idea what that says, sorry."
"Oh," Nicke blinks. "Right. Well, I think we might have a chance finding the Sævardr once the moon moves into Libra tomorrow."
"Really?" Alex looks down at the page in excitement. It's still indecipherable, but somehow more interesting.
"Yeah." There's a strange note in Nicke's voice, but Alex is too distracted by tracing a hand over the Sævardrian letters to figure out what it is. Nicke clears his throat, and pulls the notebook away gently. "So," he says, giving Alex's drink a look again, "make sure you get some sleep tonight."
Alex smiles and takes a swig of his drink.
They resume their same spot the next night. It's a little cold, so Alex brought a second blanket to drape over their shoulders. In retrospect, he probably should have brought two extra blankets, because having Nicke warm and pressed up against his side is extremely distracting. Alex is not doing a great job watching for cryptid activity.
Nicke is quiet for almost an hour, and just as Alex is starting to get bored and thinking of starting a conversation about whale language and whether it's related to Sævardrian, Nicke shifts and clears his throat.
"I need to tell you something," Nicke says. "Or, show you actually."
"What?" Alex says, then his brain catches up with the words. "Oh, okay."
Nicke takes a deep breath, pushing to his feet and fidgeting with his shirt. "Down by the water."
"Okay," Alex agrees, letting Nicke pull him to his feet and following him as he picks a careful path down to the edge of the lake. He's half expecting Nicke to shove him in, or something. This impression is not helped by the way Nicke stops right by the water, and then tells him to close his eyes. Alex gives him a skeptical look, but obliges.
Nicke doesn't shove him in the lake. Alex just hears some quiet rustling, and then the soft splash of the water.
"You can open your eyes, now," Nicke says. His voice sounds strange, deeper and raspier. Alex opens his eyes.
Standing in the lake, literally two feet away from him, is the- a, maybe? Sævardr.
"Yes, I know," Nicke sighs. "Being a Sævardr runs in my family." He pauses, perhaps waiting for Alex to respond, but Alex is still incapable of anything except boggling. "You see why I can't let you publish this newsletter entry you're working on, right? I don't want people coming to see me all the time at my lake. I've put a lot of work into making my position difficult to track. I had to learn about moon cycles, just to throw people off."
Nicke seems to be getting nervous, it's hard to tell with the gills and the scales but he's shifting around a lot, so Alex clears his throat and attempts to speak.
"I won't tell anyone," he says, then lapses back into staring.
Nicke sighs. "It's hard to speak English like this. Close your eyes so I can change back." Alex obeys, freaking out behind his closed eyelids. He definitely thought he was prepared for the possibility that any of this stuff was real. He was absolutely not. "Okay," Nicke says. Alex opens his eyes. Nicke, human again with his hair curling damply on his shoulders. He's far too far away, and Alex steps toward him almost unconsciously. Nicke doesn't back up.
"Is this how you know so much about Sævardrian?" Alex says, and then winces. "That's probably a silly question."
"No, it's okay," Nicke says. "Sort of, yes. I picked my specialty partly to keep the legends around the Sævardr alive. It's my family history, you know? I want people to know it. I just don't want them to have the specifics."
"Oh," Alex bounces on his toes, back on comfortable ground. He can be helpful, here. "That's easy, then. We'll publish the column with the stories you want, and leave out details you don't. We can even say the Sævardr prefers Tortoise Rapids, if you want. They need more foot traffic."
"That's...a good idea," Nicke says slowly, looking startled. "You're taking this better than I expected."
Alex shrugs. "I mean, did you expect me to be upset about not wanting people to know where you live? I don't want strangers to know where I live either."
"I don't live in the lake," Nicke says. "It's just..." he trails off.
"Your lake house?" Alex teases. Nicke tries to glare at him, but starts laughing instead.
"Yeah, that's a fair description, I guess."
"So," Alex says, thoughtfully, "is the sea monster thing why you said no when I asked you out after your talk, or do you really not date coworkers?"
Nicke flushes slightly. "It was the sea monster thing," he mutters. "It happens automatically whenever I'm around water. It makes relationships require some creative explaining and I don't generally bother."
Alex nods. He hesitates for half a second, then takes the plunge. "Well, if you aren't interested I won't ask you again, and I'm totally happy if you just want to be friends, but if the only reason you said no was the sea monster thing...do you want to go on a date?"
Nicke opens his mouth, then closes it. "Yeah, okay," he says. Alex beams. "You're buying the coffee this time. I'm not taking authorship credit on this column, for obvious reasons, and you owe me."
"Perfect," Alex beams. "I think you'll really like the caramel macchiato."