The early morning staff meeting was larger than Nikolai expected. The whole camp was bigger than Nikolai expected. Moms, dads, and kids all together like something out of a movie. And he and Alexei were part of it.

He couldn’t believe their dad let them work here this summer. Pavel didn’t like them living with the gadje. He distrusted the non-Romani, didn’t want Nikolai and Alexei away from the larger kumpania. But Nikolai had struck a deal with him. If they got engaged to Katya and Maria, they could spend the summer alone. Even better, Katya had put her foot down and refused to get married until after she graduated high school. Maria pushed to have her and Nikolai’s wedding earlier, but the Katya and the boys had lobbied for a joint wedding in two years. They’d won, thank god. A lot could happen in two years.

Whatever. Nikolai wasn’t going to borrow trouble by worrying about a future that might not even happen. Weisman said they could stay on the rest of the summer. Nikolai was going to enjoy it. See a little of what he’d been missing his whole life. Maybe find someone who captured his mind and body besides Alexei. Much as he loved Maria as a friend, she didn’t even come close.

Nikolai pressed his thumbs into bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the headache he always got when he thought about Alexei. Of all the people in the world, he was fixated on the one he couldn’t have. Alexei was everywhere lately, filling up his senses like a girl in a bad John Denver song.

Nikolai had gone with some gadje girls, lost his virginity to a prostitute his da bought for him when he turned fifteen, and flirted chastely with the Rom girls they tried to set him up with, all without making any promises. Alexei wasn’t as good as Nikolai at playing the game. Nikolai had talked their Da out of hiring a prostitute as a surprise present for Alexei’s sixteenth birthday. He’d lied and said he had taken Alexei around earlier in the week. The bibya were ecstatic when Alexei agreed to get engaged to Katya. It put the worst of the rumors to rest.

Nikolai’s mind shied away from the thought that there might be some truth behind those rumors. Alexei was special and perfect. Not wrong and perverted like he was. Nikolai could be with girls. He’d done it before. He would do it again and get Maria pregnant.

Alexei elbowed Nikolai in the ribs, snapping him out of his daydreams. He looked around the staff room and locked wide eyes with Mr. Weisman.

“Sound good, Nikolai?” The twinkle in Mr. Weisman’s eyes made it clear he knew Nikolai hadn’t heard a word he’d said.

Nikolai snuck a look at Alexei. No help there. One day they were going to cash in on Alexei’s professional-level poker face. Oh, well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “Yeah, sure. Of course.”

Alexei snorted and Weisman’s grin widened. “Excellent. The first few lessons are group lessons, so we’ll start you out easy. Eleven o’clock in the ballroom.”

The rest of the details were quickly sorted out, and the staff shifted around to fill in the new gaps, and they were dismissed. Nikolai grabbed Alexei as he pushed away from the wall. Alexei bit his lower lip, holding back a laugh. His eyes sparkled. Alexei’s happiness was worth whatever horrible job Nikolai had agreed to do.

“Okay, what did I get myself into now?” He swung his arm around Alexei’s neck, pulling him in to rub his knuckles against his skull.

Alexei laughed as he twisted his way out on Nikolai’s hold. “You’re going to be giving dance lessons!” He slicked his hair back down as much as he could.

Nikolai combed it back for him, letting the strands run like silk through his fingers. Alexei’s neck was warm under Nikolai’s fingers. He shook Alexei’s head back and forth gently. “Yeah? You think I won’t be able to. I’ll be great at it. It’s my wild gypsy blood. Taught you, didn’t I? I seem to remember you got really good at it.”

Alexei eyes widened and he blushed.

Oh yeah. They don’t talk about those days, do they? Repress and deny, the Sirota motto. It was a good one. Nikolai could work with that. He allowed himself a brief moment to remember Alexei’s body against his… and an even briefer moment to remember Alexei hard against his thigh, Alexei’s hands on his ass for one confusing, glorious minute until Alexei had run from the room.

That had been the last of the lessons.

The heat of Alexei’s skin reminded him his hand was still on Alexei’s neck. He pulled away but Alexei didn’t move, looking at Nikolai like he can’t remember what he was going to say. Nikolai wondered for the millionth time how his eyelashes could be so dark when his hair was almost white.

Nikolai cleared his throat. “So, um, what are you going to be doing while I’m cha-cha-ing around the place?”

“Swimming lessons. Not surprisingly, no one is fighting to be at the lake.”

An image of Alexei in a Speedo flashed through Nikolai’s mind. He licked his lips. “Good, good. You going to be okay with all the girls in bikinis and such?” It was a serious question. Alexei had always been uncomfortable around strange women, let alone strange women in bikinis.

“I’ll be working with the little kids, not a lot of bikinis.”

“I don’t know. I worry about you with all those half-naked raklya.”

“Let me guess, you’re willing to throw yourself between me and them? Be my hero?” Alexei tilted his head and batted his eyes adoringly at Nikolai.

Yeah, Nikolai kind of was. But probably not for the reasons Alexei thought. He scowled, thinking of all those girls ogling his gorgeous brother.

Alexei put his hand on Nikolai’s arm. “Hey, if you’re actually upset, I can ask for a different assignment.”

He was being ridiculous. “No, it’s fine. You’ll be fine.”

“Besides, it’s time to get out into the real world. Isn’t that what you said?” Alexei asked.

“Summer of discovery,” Nikolai agreed, clapping Alexei on the shoulder.

Alexei shrugged out from under his hand. “Some things I already know,” he muttered to himself.

Nikolai chooses to ignore that. “Yeah, well, naked women aside, be careful out there, okay? People have drowned.”

“The last girl said a ghost grabbed her boyfriend. I read about it in the paper.” Alexei tried to gauge Nikolai’s reaction.

Alexei’s always been afraid of the ghosts and spirits he’d seen surrounding him since childhood. Nikolai didn’t want to believe in them, but he’d spent enough nights holding a trembling, terrified little boy to realize that something real was frightening Alexei. Denying the existence of ghosts and spirits, despite the importance of them to his family and his culture, was simply the easiest way he could think of as a kid to stop Alexei from being afraid of the dark. Truthfully he wasn’t so sure ghosts and evil spirits weren’t real, but he would take that to his grave.

“Better get the Ghostbusters on speed dial then.” He gave Alexei the expected eye roll. “Don’t worry. It’s probably just some psycho.”

“Oh, thanks. I feel much better now. You be careful, too, okay? Check back in at lunch?”

“You got it.”

 

 

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