Soulbonded: Buried Desire
by A. E. Wasp
Copyright 2016 A. E. Wasp
To Doug and Raul, without whom I wouldn’t have made it through this book.
And to Ananda, Zoe, and Maya, without whom I wouldn’t make it through life.
Paramisi, (f.) paramisa (pl.) (Greek)—tale, fairy tale, story
Vitejzika paramis—story of a hero, a heroic tale
Most people don’t believe Pavel when he tells the fairy tale of how his boys came to him. The dark and stormy night. The Witch and the Warrior woman. The child, the music, the giant dog. Oh, the boy and the hound are all real enough, but most people assume Pavel was drunk (true, but irrelevant) and the woman some disgraced girl from another kumpania looking to rid herself of the children of her shame.
The story only mentions one child when there are obviously two, they point out.
But they love Pavel. And they love the handsome, charming boys full of light and music, even though they are probably at most half-Rom.
Most people assume the boys are Pavel’s bastards.
Most people are wrong.
It was almost nine p.m. by the time Nikolai pulled the van into the employee parking lot of the Nevele Family Camp on Lake Eden. In the passenger seat, Alexei stared out into the lingering twilight. The headlights swept across the half-dozen small cabins squeezed between the open space and the dark woods. The lot was empty except for a mid-nineties Sentra and a newer white Bronco. After Nikolai killed the engine, the only sounds were the sharp ticks of cooling metal and the whooshing of wind through the trees. The breeze caressed Alexei’s face. It sounded like the ocean and he half-expected the briny smell of salt water instead of the sharp scent of pine.
Mulevi leaped out of the van as soon as the door opened, the shaggy head of the gray wolfhound almost level with the hood. Nikolai stepped out with a groan, stretching first one and then the other arm up over his head. Under the thin t-shirt he wore, Alexei saw the valley of his spine between his back muscles. At twenty, Nikolai was six feet tall, with golden skin over smooth, sleek muscles. Broad shouldered and sturdy. Black curls fell almost to his shoulders, and his deep blue eyes were framed by a fan of lashes thick and dark enough to make a teenage girl weep. Alexei had seen women, and even a few men, walk into walls when he passed by.
Alexei sighed and freed his long, pale hair from an elastic band holding it loosely at the back of his neck. Besides being two years younger, he was also three inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than Nikolai. His wiry muscles stood out under his pale skin. Except for the eyes and the shape of their full-lipped mouths, the brothers looked almost nothing alike.
Most of the cabins were dark. Alexei hesitated before opening the passenger door. By the time he rounded the back of the van, the double doors were open and Nikolai was already inside. He was down on his knees pulling their duffle bags out from under the bed. Folded down, the bed took up most of the space. It could be folded up and turned into a table with benches, but they hardly ever bothered. The cramp but neat inside of the converted cargo van had a place for everything and everything was in place. Bright fabrics, velvets and paisley in jeweled tones lined the walls and hung from the ceiling. The hand-built storage units and tiny but functional kitchen counter were painted a glossy robin’s egg blue.
“Lyosha.” Nikolai tossed Alexei’s bag at him.
Alexei grunted softly, catching it bag almost absentmindedly. There was something, someone, slipping between the trees, headed away from the cabins.
“What?” Nikolai squinted in the direction of Alexei’s eye line.
“Did you see that?”
Nikolai shook his head.
Alexei shouldered his bag. “I thought I saw something back there.”
Nikolai paused as he grabbed the third bag. “Worth checking out?”
Alexei hesitated, listening closely to the night. Nothing. Well, nothing concrete. But he got a strong feeling it would be a bad idea to go into those woods tonight. “I…No. I think I’ll call Mooley back and we should get in the cabin. You got the key?”
Nikolai held up his hand, displaying the two small metal keys. He called Mulevi back to them with a two-fingered whistle.
The night was disturbingly quiet as they walked the few feet to cabin number six. Even the dog made no sound as he ghosted through the underbrush back to the boys. Alexei stood with his back to Nikolai’s as he unlocked the padlock. His eyes scanned the parking lot, the woods, and the other cabins. Despite the cars in the parking lot, there were no signs of life in the other cabins. Maybe their occupants were early sleepers. Work at the camp started early. Staff breakfast was at seven a.m. sharp.
“Lyosha?” Nikolai turned and looked over Alexei’s head, his breath ruffling Alexei’s hair. “Anything?”
Alexei shook his head, stepping backwards into the security of Nikolai’s space.
Nikolai put a hand on his shoulder. “Bad feeling?”
It’s one of the many things Alexei loved about Nikolai. He didn’t blow off Alexei’s intuition, what their dadro calls dook—the feelings he gets about things sometimes. He never did, even before Savannah.
The two of them had been alone there; Da off on a job, working construction in some city. Alexei had refused to stay in the motel one more night. Nikolai grumbled, but packed them up, texted Da, and drove them to the next equally cheap motel down the highway. That night the guy in room eleven hacked up his wife and kids and burned the first motel to the ground.
“I don’t know,” Alexei answered. “Maybe we should stay in the van.”
Nikolai grimaced. The two of them could still fit in the bed but just barely. Lately, they’d been more likely to drag the mattress outside into a tent. “It’s like a million degrees out tonight. It’s got to be cooler in the cabin than in that tin can.”
Alexei couldn’t argue with that. The van was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Still, it was the closest thing they had to a permanent home, their semi-modern-day vardo. All the little shrines and protective runes and spells and draba they’d collected over the years made Alexei feel safe there. Nikolai had never hidden his opinion that the charms were useless, or that the superstitions and ghost stories were fairy tales. But around his family he gave lip service to most of the Romani ways. He let Alexei do what he wanted with the van, painting charms on the walls and hanging a cross over the doorway. He was also right next to Alexei every night, for all their rituals and prayers, which touched Alexei more than he ever says. Nikolai had stopped going to church a few years ago, but Alexei went when he could. Finding Orthodox churches wasn’t so easy in most places. The only consistent show of faith was their St. Sarah medal. Neither of them ever took the necklaces off. Nikolai had a habit of playing with his when he was concentrating. The swishing sound of the pendant across the metal chain had lulled Alexei to sleep more than once.
“Alexei?” Nikolai wanted to sleep in the cabins, but he’d defer to Alexei for any of a hundred reasons.
Alexei buried his fingers in the wiry fur of Mulevi’s neck. The dog leaned heavy against his legs, head near Alexei’s hip. “What do you think, Mooley? Have a good check out? The woods okay?” The dog’s expression was unreadable, as usual, his long tongue hanging out of his mouth. “Okay then. Cabin it is. But I’m going to get some stuff out the van later; set up the room.”
“Great,” Nikolai unlocked the door. With a click of the switch and a mechanical hum, two bare bulbs illuminated the small room. “Oh cool. Bunk beds. Top or bottom?”
Alexei rested his chin on Nikolai’s shoulder. “There’s two sets, idiot.”
“Awesome.” Nikolai tossed his duffle on one of the sets of beds taking up most of the space in the room. Two crude wooden dressers sat wedged under the window. A flimsy door hid a small bathroom with a decent-sized shower stall.
The night pressed hard against the window, and Alexei drew the thin curtain against his own reflection.
They made one last run to the van, grabbing Nikolai’s guitar and Alexei’s violin. Alexei gathered up a few of the charms and amulets hanging around—a blue glass eye of God, a hand of Fatima, a silk scarf, some bundles of herbs and set them up on one of the dressers.
An electric kettle and glasses for the morning tea topped the other dresser. The two sets of towels and washcloths, one for the top of the body, one for the bottom, got tucked into a drawer.
Nikolai sat on one of the bottom bunks and pulled off his heavy shoes. “You gonna sit down at some point?”
“Just a second.” Alexei put down food and water bowls for Mulevi. His family was one of the few Rom Alexei had met who owned dogs. The way they licked themselves made them marhime, unclean. It had taken Da a long time to get used to having a dog around, but Mulevi couldn’t be separated from the boys. Da could drive him miles away, leave him with another family, or in a field, and somehow the dog would be back at the house before him, waiting as he pulled back in the driveway. After a long talk with the priest and a longer talk with a bottle of whiskey, he decided the dog could stay. Outside only. Of course, as soon as Da left, Mulevi was inside.
Alexei drops down on the bed opposite Nikolai, smacking the back of his head on the upper bunk as he does.
“Don’t laugh, durak.”
“I’m an idiot? I’m not the one who can’t sit without hurting himself.” Nikolai threw a shoe at him with a grin that made Alexei’s stomach do a little flip. Damn it. Alexei caught the shoe and flung it back. The metal springs of the top bunk caught the strands of his flyaway hair.
Cursing, he started to rip them off.
“Wait, wait.” Nikolai climbed onto the bed next to Alexei, reaching for the trapped hair. Alexei held his breath as Nikolai gently untangled each strand. “There.” Nikolai clambered behind Alexei, bracketing his body with his legs. He held out his hand. “Give me your scrunchie, Princess.”
Alexei pulled the elastic off his wrist, handing it back with a sigh.
“Oh, please. Don’t even try to pretend like you don’t like this.” Nikolai’s hands combed through Alexei’s hair, sectioning the strands like he’d done a thousand times before. “Though, you’ve been kind of stingy in letting me do it lately,” his words muffled because of the band clamped between his teeth. “Do you really not like it?” Nikolai leaned around Alexei to try and read his expression.
Alexei tried to keep his breathing calm, but Nikolai’s thighs were wrapped around his, and the heat of his body beating on his back in time with the soft tugging of his hair, made it hard to hide his humiliating reaction to Nikolai’s closeness. “No,” he croaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “No, it’s good. Great. It feels good.” Nikolai’s hands hesitated and Nikolai’s legs tightened around him before he started braiding again.
The gentle pulling was hypnotic.
They’d been on the road all day, driving from Charlotte up to this small Catskill Mountains town. Alexei’s eyelids drooped. A too-sharp tug jerked him out of his near-doze.
“Ow,” he reached up to rub his scalp, but Nikolai batted his hand away.
“Stop, you’ll mess it up.” His fingers moved confidently. “So, now that you’re a respectable engaged man, will Katya be braiding your hair for you when we get back?” His voice was light, as if he didn’t care either way, but the way his braiding faltered told Alexei the answer was important to him.
Alexei held back shudder at the thought of his sham of an engagement, but he frowned at the thought of Katherine’s hands in his hair. “No.
You know Katie. She doesn’t have the patience for it.”
“Good, good. So, ah, Mr. Weisman said he’ll introduce us to the other staff after breakfast,” Nikolai said, continuing a conversation they’d been having in the van. “He’ll tell us where we’ll be working. They’re short-handed from the staff quitting, so there should be a few jobs to choose from.” He took Alexei’s grunt as agreement. “So what are you sensing about this place, Miss Cleo?”
“You know I’m not a psychic, right?” He could feel Nikolai rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, no. I know. But you’ve got good instincts. So tell.”
“Nothing concrete. Just, something isn’t right. This place has weird vibes for sure.”
Nikolai snorted and mouthed ‘vibes,’ holding up a hand to forestall Alexei’s complaints. “Yeah, I believe you. Two people died here already this summer.”
“Great place to work you found for us.”
“Yes. Well, we need the money. We’re going to have wives to support when we get back and the pay was decent. And no rent. Beggars can’t be choosers.” Nikolai scooted them both back on the bed and leaned against the wall. His fingers ran through Alexei’s hair for much longer than it should take to do a simple braid, but Alexei would have died before drawing attention to the fact. “Of course, after we make a CD, we won’t have to worry. Jimmy thinks we’ll be big.”
Alexei tried to pull away to look at Nikolai, but Nikolai was ready for him, clamping his thighs around Alexei’s hips. Alexei sank back with a huff. “You got a lot of faith in one random guy.”
He felt Nikolai’s head shake against his. “Hey, it could happen. We’re really good. And Jimmy’s legit. He’s a friend of Maria’s. We’re practically family now. He’s not asking for any money up front, right? Plus he said he can get us some shows. We need a professional manager.”
Alexei was not as sure as Nikolai about any of this. About the guy, about the reality of making money with their music. They come from a long heritage of musicians, but the days of patronage from Russian tsars were two hundred years behind them. At least Jimmy was Rom. “I don’t know, Nikolai. The odds are really against us. Name any Romani musicians making it right now in America.”
“Kesha.” Nikolai tried to hold back a laugh.
Alexei snorted. “Yeah, even if that is true, and she is like one-eighth Rom, I wouldn’t be using her as my example.”
Nikolai’s hand in his hair tightened. Sighing deeply, he loosened his hold. “I know, Lyosha. We’ve had this discussion a million times. It’s not…it’s not just about making a CD.”
Yeah, Alexei knew. It was their chance for freedom. A way for them to have their cake and eat it, too. Alexei hated the way the family kept them at arm’s length because of their suspect parentage. Nikolai felt smothered by the way they live, by the iron walls of tradition and community limiting his every move. But no matter how much or how subtly Alexei tried to get Nikolai to change, to push the boundaries even a little, he wouldn’t rock the boat. He tried to make everyone happy, playing the role dictated for him, even agreeing to the engagements between them and the Demeter sisters.
“If we marry them,” Nikolai had promised, “we’ll be together all the time.” Alexei had agreed, despite knowing that his marriage, at least, would be a sham. Where Nikolai went, he went.
But still, he couldn’t help asking now, “What about Katherine and Maria? Where are they in this dream? Would they come with us on tour? As dancers? Singers?”
Nikolai’s breath hot was on the back of Alexei’s neck. “How could they, with all the…the babies. They’re going to be pregnant, or nursing, or with little kids a lot, right? They’ll stay home with their mother and the aunts. It will be just us.”
Alexei leaned back against Nikolai. He was tired of fighting. If the only way he could stay with Nikolai was to marry a girl he liked and respected, and give her babies, then he would walk down the aisle with a smile on his face.
Even if he wasn’t in love with Nikolai, he would still owe him this loyalty. Nikolai has always protected Alexei from the violence of the hyper-masculine world they lived in. Long before Alexei even understood what the words meant, Nikolai had beaten more than one cousin after whispering pedik or pedaras in Alexei’s direction. The ones he wasn’t allowed to hit, the brutish uncles and the sharp-eyed aunties, Nikolai deflected with his charm and outrageous flirting. It was as if he could be straight enough for both of them. Alexei wondered if Nikolai would be so quick to defend him if he knew the truth. But if anyone knew the truth, he could be kicked out. Permanently marhime. Impure. Alone.
“Besides,” Nikolai was saying, as much to himself as to Alexei. “We will be men, Rom. And no one can tell us what to do anymore. Not Pavel, not anyone.”
He only called their Da “Pavel” when he was upset. Alexei reached behind him, grabbing Nikolai’s thigh. “Hey, I get it. I do. I’m here, right? I came with you.”
“Yeah, you did.” Nikolai dropped a quick kiss on the top of his head. “Thank god, too. Because I’m good, but I’m not up to being a one man band.” With a final tug, he wrapped the elastic around the end of the braid. “Pretty as a picture.”
Thanks.” Alexei dragged the braid up over his shoulder. Nikolai’s hand followed, curving around the soft place where Alexei’s neck and shoulder met. He rubbed his thumb gently up the back of Alexei’s neck, and Alexei shuddered. Nikolai’s fingertips pressed into him, his breath warm on Alexei’s neck.
Pulling away quickly, Nikolai patted him roughly on the shoulder and climbed back off the bed. “Gonna get ready for bed.” He grabbed their toiletries bag and stack of towels and headed towards the bathroom.
Alexei put his hands between his legs and breathed heavily through his nose until his completely inappropriate erection went away. This was why he braided his own hair.
Nikolai took longer than Alexei expected, so he let Mulevi out one last time, and unpacked some of his clothes into the dresser.
When Nikolai came out in pajamas, he checked Alexei over quickly, then turned towards his bed. “I’m beat. Set the alarm?” Shoving the duffle under the bed, he wrangled the blankets until he could get underneath. “Shut the lights.” He rolled over, facing the wall. “Night, Lyosha.”
“Night,” Alexei echoed.
Mulevi lay down in the middle of the floor, halfway between the two sets of beds, his expression reproachful. The dog hated it when they were separated, like they were harder to protect that way. “Sorry,” Alexei apologized to the dog.
He watched Nikolai breathe for a second, his back moving up and down. It was stuffy and warm in the room, but for some reason the thought of opening the windows gave him chills.
Alexei used the bathroom, shut the lights off, and stripped down to his boxers in the dark. Nikolai was asleep before Alexei got into bed. He stared at the bottom of the upper bunk for a long time before falling asleep.