Lake Eden was picture perfect. Surrounded by trees, the lake sat in a forested valley between low hills. A red lifeguard stand rested on the white sand beach and a line of buoys marked off the safe swimming area.
A line of teenaged girls marked off the area around Alexei.
Being a good five inches taller than most of his fan club, Alexei easily caught sight of Nikolai making his way towards them. The girls ranged from twelve to almost Alexei’s age. The younger girls, in one-piece suits, huddled together, giggling amongst themselves. Alexei had felt safer playing his violin in bikers’ bars. Judging by the barely contained laughter he could see in his brother’s expression, Nikolai found the whole situation hilarious.
Nikolai’s presence was, in fact, not helping things in the least. He wore the high-waist, tight black pants required by the dance instructor position, but he had taken off the white dress shirt. The white sleeveless undershirt clung to his chest and freckles dusted the swells of muscles in his arms. He looked legs even more like sex on than usual. The tight pants left almost as little to the imagination as Alexei’s bathing suit. The black material emphasized the curve of his ass and the muscles in his thighs as he sauntered through the crowd like Frank Sinatra after a show. Some of the moms recognized Nikolai from dance class and turned their attention to him. He smiled at them, greeted a few by name, but it was his fake charm every time.
Alexei fumbled his way through some awkward conversation with a truly stunning blond girl with huge breasts and a tiny bikini. The other girls stepped back a bit, acknowledging her status as alpha female of the moment. Alexei dragged his eyes from her cleavage, only to find nothing else safe to focus on. He had decided on an uncomfortable level of eye contact as the most polite solution by the time Nikolai walked up next to him.
Alexei’s fingers slid around his waist under the sweatshirt and squeezed briefly over his hip, before Nikolai pressed up against his back.
“I was wondering why you were late,” Nikolai whispered. “I gotta borrow your boy here, ma’am,” Nikolai told the blond, looking over Alexei’s shoulder with a grin. He clapped both hands on Alexei’s shoulders hard and Alexei flinched. She pouted in mock disappointment, and Alexei thought her lips were almost as pretty as Nikolai’s.
“Aw, can we have him back later?” She smirked at Alexei, giving him a slow once over.
Alexei had seen the look before. On television. During shark week.
“Maybe.” Nikolai’s hands slid down half an inch towards Alexei’s collarbones with a hint of possessiveness. The blonde’s smile faltered. Recovering, she lifted her long hair off the back of her neck with a deep stretch. Nikolai and Alexei took in the perfect roundness of the top of her breasts.
“Well, you know where to find me,” she threw over her shoulder as she strutted away. Not wanting to spoil a good exit, the rest of the crowd dispersed silently.
Nikolai slid his arm up and around Alexei’s neck, putting him in a headlock and dragging him away from the lake. “Man, you’re like Justin Timberlake in there, chavo. Thought I was going to have to lay one on you to get them to leave you alone.”
Alexei’s stomach clenched at the image. He twisted his head to try and see Nikolai’s expression, but Nikolai looked determinedly away, arms still locked around Alexei’s neck.
The staff cafeteria was off to one side of the commercial kitchen. Like everything else at the camp, it was only about half full, as if it were built for a much larger crowd. Once the press had gotten wind of the two deaths, the cancellations had started coming in. Some families already here had packed up and left, dragging their traumatized kids after them.
Alexei couldn’t blame them. The whole place was creepy. When Mr. Weisman had purchased the camp about twenty years ago, the cabins and the mail house had been vacant since the late sixties. He’d restored everything, but still it felt old and sad somehow. Not angry, nothing threatening, just this silent, creeping despair.
Nikolai nudged him with an elbow, and they carried their trays to a table where the other dance instructors sat. Some guy in his early forties with salt and pepper hair gave Nikolai a friendly nod. A dark-skinned guy Alexei pegged as somewhere in his late twenties talked to a beautiful blond woman in a low-cut dress. Alexei couldn’t tear his eyes away from the creamy curve of her breasts. He stood frozen as Nikolai stepped his legs over the bench to sit across from her.
“Hey, Sharon.” He smacked Alexei on the thigh, making him jump.
Alexei’s face flushed red as he realized where he’d been staring.
“Sit,” Nikolai ordered.
Nikolai pointed at the guys across the table. “Frankie, Dallas, this is my brother, Alexei. Alexei, this is Frankie, teaches ballroom. Dallas, hip hop and Latin.”
Sharon smirked at Nikolai as his hand landed heavily between Alexei’s shoulder blades. “And you’ve already met Sharon and her boobs. She teaches ballroom with Frankie.”
Alexei prayed the floor would open up and swallow him. Or swallow Nikolai. Either way was fine with him. Sadly, long acquaintance with Nikolai-induced mortification had taught him neither would happen.
“You’ll have to forgive him his lack of manners,” Nikolai continued. “He was raised by wolves.”
Alexei lifted his glass of soda to his mouth to cover his awkwardness. “Raised by you, idiot,” he muttered.
Nikolai leaned into Alexei’s side, hand rubbing gently on his back. “Damn straight,” he whispered. “And don’t you forget it.”
Alexei wasn’t sure why those words sounded so possessive to him; why they made goosebumps break out on his arms and legs. Between Nikolai’s hand, his words, and Sharon breasts, Alexei could hardly figure out what to focus on. He wished he had put his sweatpants on over his bathing suit.
“So Frankie here,” Nikolai pointed with his fork, mouth full of sloppy joe. “He’s been coming here on and off for twenty years. Says this isn’t the first time there’s been drownings.”
Trust Nikolai to jump right in. Alexei was impressed. Something about Nikolai made people bond with him. They told him all kinds of things. He could imagine Nikolai a hundred years ago, pulling up to a town with a gorgeously decorated wagon and a troupe of singers and dancers. Mothers locking up their daughters, and husbands standing between Nikolai and their wives. Actually, the two of them together could have made world-class con-men. The people who were put off by Nikolai’s unsettling combination of almost unreal prettiness and knowing smirk were usually reassured by Alexei’s almost other-worldly innocence.
Frankie leaned forward. His gray hair and pale blue eyes gave him a distinguished air and Alexei wondered what he was doing out here in the middle of nowhere teaching bored housewives for chump change. “Yeah, everyone knows the place is haunted.” He had a strong New York accent. Alexei liked the way he sounds. “Me and the guys used to take chicks to the cemetery, or down to the lake. Then we’d make a campfire, get them all scared, y’know?”
Sharon rolled her eyes.
“So do you think there really is a ghost killing people?” Alexei asked.
Frankie shrugged, took a bite of his hamburger. “Just ’cause I ain’t never seen one, don’t mean there ain’t any. Rumor has it there were these sisters. Someone killed them, or they killed each other. Don’t know. But their bodies got thrown in the lake and so now they haunt it.”
“So, Alexei,” Sharon purred, leaning forward. Alexei couldn’t stop his eyes from darting downward. Sharon smiled and squeezed her ample breasts between her arms as she propped her elbows on the table. “How old are you?”
Dallas nodded in agreement. “You going to college in the fall?”
“Already in,” Nikolai answered for him. “Alexei technically graduated at sixteen. Took the ACTs and got a 33. Got offers from all kinds of schools.”
“Nikolai has an associates in music theory,” Alexei added, trying to deflect the attention from himself. Their education was just another thing that set them apart from so many of their family. Finishing high school wasn’t so much of a big deal anymore with the kids his age, but not a lot of the men in his family went to college. Alexei would always be grateful to Pavel for encouraging their education in spite of opposition from the bibis who though it would only serve to draw them further from Rom ways.
“Cute and smart, the both of you,” Sharon remarked. “So what are you studying?”
“I’m taking some online courses in music and folktales. Kind of a hobby of mine.” Taking advantage of a conversational lull, Alexei scarfed down some of his lunch.
“We’re not really in it for the piece of paper. Taking classes is something to do when we’re on the road,” Nikolai said. “Can’t imagine staying in the same place for four years.”
“So what do you do when you’re not hanging out in camps?” Frankie asked.
“We’re musicians. We play weddings and parties. Hotel jobs when we can get them. It’s hard to get gigs in bars when you’re too young to drink. Sometimes we bus.”
“So, cute, smart, talented, and… single?” Sharon and Dallas both seemed extremely interested in the answer.
The boys exchanged glances. They had an unspoken agreement not to talk about their engagements for the whole summer.
Sharon lifted one perfectly groomed eyebrow. “So? No girlfriends, or,” her eyes flicked briefly towards Alexei, “boyfriends?”
“We’re, uh, kind of engaged.” Alexei braced himself for the, “But you’re so young!”
“To each other?” Dallas asked.
Nikolai choked on his soda, and Alexei pounded him on the back in a completely useless gesture. He bit his lip to hold back the slightly hysterical laughter threatening to come up.
“No,” Alexei said. “To girls. Two girls. Sisters. And as for, uh, boyfriends. Well. That wouldn’t really be on the table.”
“Pity,” Dallas murmured.
Sharon finally said what Alexei was waiting for. “Aren’t you too young to be getting married?”
“Not for our family, so much. Katherine and Maria are even younger. Sixteen and eighteen. Any way, it’s not happening for another year, until Katherine’s done with school.”
“Or two years,” Alexei added.
Frankie motioned at them with a hotdog at the end of his fork. “So what are you guys? With those names? Russian or what?” He popped the hotdog in his mouth. “You know what I think,” he asked through a mouthful of food. “All the moving, working in ‘construction.'” He gave the word finger quotes. “You’re gypsies, aren’t you? Man, I ain’t seen gypsies since I was a kid in Brooklyn. My mom always used to say to me and my brothers, ‘I’d sell you to the gypsies but they have their own problems.'” He laughed at his own joke. “Didn’t know you guys were still around.”
It had been at least six months since anyone called them gypsies. Frankie probably didn’t even realize he was being insulting. Alexei couldn’t usually be bothered to educate outsiders on the correct terminology. After the thousandth time the conversations got a little boring. Nikolai, though, given any opening, would talk endlessly about himself, their family, and Rom culture and history. He loved being the exotic Rom educating the gadje.
“Yeah we’re still around,” he said with a wide, gorgeous smile. “Though the correct term is Roma or Romany. Gypsy is a slur. We’re Ruska Roma, to be precise. Our Da came over from Russia after World War 2. A lot of his family got killed in the camps.”
Dallas’ brow furrowed. “Jewish gypsies?”
“No. The Nazi’s targeted other groups as well. Like homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and the Roma people.” Alexei was no longer surprised most people had never learned that fact.
“Basically they hated everyone,” Nikolai added.
“Equal opportunity haters.” Dallas scowled.
“Oh yeah,” Nikolai agreed. “So, there aren’t exact numbers, but historians estimate they killed around a million Rom over the years.”
“Wow,” Sharon breathed. “I never knew.”
“Most people don’t.”
No one had anything to say after that. Alexei found bringing up the Holocaust was usually a conversation killer.
To Alexei’s relief, Sharon broke the awkward silence. “So do you play gypsy, I mean Roma, music?”
“Yeah. Some traditional stuff. We do contemporary arrangements, too. Some American folk music. I play guitar. Alexei plays violin.”
“I’ve seen some Gyp—, um Rom musicians on YouTube.” Dallas smiled at them appreciatively, unconsciously licking his lips.
“We’re there,” Nikolai said. “We’ve got our own channel. With fifteen hundred subscribers.”
“I’m gonna check you out. You got a name?”
“The Sirota brothers,” Nikolai answers. “That’s us.”
Frankie frowned. “You guys don’t look alike at all. You really brothers?”
Wasn’t that the sixty-four thousand dollar question? People have been questioning their parentage their whole lives. Alexei wished he knew the answer, but he didn’t. So he usually said what he thought people wanted to hear. Most often, he simply said yes, they were really brothers, and didn’t offer more. But for some reason, he didn’t want these people thinking he and Nikolai were brothers. “Da, net, navernoye ,” he said. “Where we come from and who we are is the biggest mystery in the family. Nobody really knows.”
“Really?” Sharon narrowed her eyes.
“Cross my heart.” Nikolai matched action to words with a grin.
Dallas swiveled to face Alexei. “This I have to hear. Tell.”
“It’s a long story,” Alexei cautioned.
“We got nothin’ but time.” Frankie leaned back against Sharon and she draped her arm around his shoulders.
Alexei raised his eyebrows in question to Nikolai. Shall we?
Nikolai spread his hands, palms up. Why not? They both loved to perform and they hadn’t told the story to a new audience in a while.
“Te vakerel avka sar hin.Sar kampel.” Nikolai said in answer to the unspoken question. “Sar džal e paramisi skladnones.”
“What’s that?” Frankie asked. “What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Tell it as it is, the way it must be, the way the story goes.’ It’s a caution to the speaker to stay true to the story,” Alexei translated.
“In other words,” Nikolai explained, “We all know how it’s supposed to go, so don’t fuck it up.”
“Pretty much.” Alexei took a deep breath, and Nikolai laughed.
Alexei shook his finger at him in warning. “Hush kaker.” He ignored Nikolai and turned to Sharon. “I’ll give you the short version. The vitejzaika paramisi, the entire heroic tale, would take us all day and into the night.” His voice rounded with the singsong rhythm of a storyteller drawing his listeners closer. “I will tell you a story you will never forget.”
He leaned forward, gathering his small audience with his eyes. “Sas kaj na sas, mre gule Devla bachtaleja the čačeja...”
Nikolai translated immediately after. “Once upon a time, my sweet God, blessing and just…”
“ …sas jekh oro Rom...”
“There was a poor young Rom,” Nikolai continued. “As if there is any other kind.”
Alexei ignored his bad manners. “Sas les ajce čhave, keci hin pro ňebos č?ercheňa.”
“He had so many children, as many as there are stars.” Nikolai smiled at Alexei and they said the next line together.
“A mek jekheha buter.” “And one more.”
Sharon clasped her hands together joyfully, her laugh musical. “A fairytale!”
Dallas nudged her to shut her up, jerking his chin at the boys. Frankie leaned forward, elbows on the table as he sipped his coffee.
Alexei waved to Nikolai, who took the reins. After years of hearing and telling the story, they had perfected this performance.
“It was a dark and stormy night. And this čhavo, this Rom, our dadro, not so young anymore, all his children grown. He was lost. Lost in the woods on All Hallow’s eve after taking a wrong turn out of the fine local drinking establishment he had sheltered in during the worst of the storm. He’s muttering, cursing the rain and the darkness and the trees, when, out of nowhere, a visage appears on the road in front of him. An old woman.” He spread his hands incredulously. “Just standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the storm.”
Alexei picked up the thread. “Now as you can imagine, our Da first attributes this vision to the potency of the local moonshine. He moves closer, expecting the mirage to disappear any second. But the vision only grows clearer. It was definitely a woman. An old woman, with long gray hair and a staff glowing blue in the moonlight.”
“It was a chovexani—a witch!” Nikolai burst out, startling everyone at the table. “Now this could have gone very badly. Witches, as everyone knows, are tricky, dangerous, and quick to anger. But our da is a polite man. Wahzo, pure at heart. And, more importantly, clever and well-versed in the ways of witches. So, he stops, doffing his hat at the witch.”
Alexei’s accent was better, so he picked up with the Romani, Nikolai translating directly after. ‘May God say good day to you, my dear old mother.’ When she hears this, the witch is impressed. A poor man, yes, but polite.” Even Alexei grinned.
“She answers back, with a small smile on her face. ‘May God say the same to you, hero. If you had not said those polite words, you would no longer walk on green grass. You would already be eliminated from this world.’
“Naturally, our da is surprised. A hero? Him. Not likely. ‘Excuse me, phuri daje,’ he says. ‘You have the wrong man. I am no hero.'”
“She doesn’t disagree, our Da is quick to point out, but somehow she seemed almost desperate to him. Like she had no other options. ‘Well you must be,’ she exclaims, and waves her wand towards the trees lining the road. ‘Come here,’ she beckons to someone Da can’t see. Someone, or something, moves in the shadowy darkness.”
Alexei discreetly checked on his audience. Dallas, Sharon, and even Frankie had stopped eating and leaned forward so they wouldn’t miss a word. Further down the table people stretched their necks, straining to hear. He coughed quietly, clearing his throat with a rough grumble. He touched his fingers lightly to his lips, too parched to go on. A girl with a half-shaved head and a pierced nose passed him a bottle of water. His Da would usually have gotten a whiskey at this point, but Alexei was happy with water.
Alexei accepted the offering graciously as his due as story teller. “Thank you.” He took a long, slow slip, letting the tension build.
“What was it?” Sharon blurted. She slapped both hands across her mouth, eyes wide.
Nikolai’s eyes shined. He loved watching Alexei tell a story. This one in particular.
“It was e princezna. A woman so beautiful, she had no equal in three worlds.”
“A warrior Princess,” Nikolai elaborated. “With a bow across her shoulders and a sword at her hip. Dress torn, hair wild and full of leaves.”
“Like the very spirit of autumn,” Alexei continued. They’ve had their parts down pat for years. “With her is a hound with eyes of fire, and teeth like daggers. Its head rises to the height of her shoulders.” He glanced towards the door where Mulevi waited for them. “And even more unbelievably, there was a child standing next to her. A young boy of maybe three, with eyes as blue as the winter sky, and hair as black and shining as the moonlit night curling down past his shoulders. He carried his own small bow in his hands, as he stood there, completely silent.”
Nikolai should have come in at this part. It was his turn to pick up the story, but he wasn’t paying attention. He stared into the distance like he was trying to remember something, so Alexei kept going.
“Now some say she had another child with her, a baby. Some claim it was a creature, a protective spirit given human form. Sometimes it is nothing but a doll, old and well-loved. A protector of sorts. But whichever way the story is told, they all say she knelt down to look right into the eyes of the little boy. ‘Stay with Alexei,’ she tells him. ‘Never let him out of your sight, love him like a brother, Nikolai, and he will protect you when I cannot. He will know what to do.'”
Nikolai frowned, eyebrows furrowed. Alexei stopped and waited for him to say something, but he just shook his head, waving his hand for Alexei to continue.
“Wait,” Frankie interrupted. “She told you,” he points at Nikolai, “that he -” He jerked a thumb at Alexei. “Who was a baby, or a spirit or maybe a doll, would protect you?”
“Obviously I’m not a doll,” Alexei pointed out.
“Yeah,” Nikolai said quietly, lost in the spell of the story. “Kada pes čačes ačhiľa. It really happened.” He pulled himself up and laughed, acknowledging the ludicrousness of the whole story. “She also gave him the hound, Mulevi, saying she had stolen him from the spirit world and he would also protect us. Then she handed him a golden box with a song in it, the score written on the finest paper Da had ever seen. Also in the box were these.” He pulled his St. Sarah medal out from under his shirt. Alexei did the same.
Frankie reached for Nikolai’s medal, sliding his glasses down his nose to examine them. “Nice. Catholic?” He let the medallions drops.
“Russian Orthodox.” Nikolai tucked his medal back into his shirt.
“So, Sirota is your father’s last name?”
“No. Sirota means orphan in Russian. Da thinks he’s funny.”
“You guys should get jobs as story tellers,” Sharon said. “That was amazing. So, how much is true? And are you brothers or not?”
“Who can say? There was a woman, two kids, and a dog, for sure. Da’s actually kind of old; he was a widower when he got us. Sometimes we’re brothers.” Nikolai threw a sideways glance at Alexei. “Sometimes we’re not.”
Nikolai licked his lips and without an order from his brain, Alexei’s eyes locked on his mouth. His body was not under his control when it came to Nikolai’s mouth. Dallas inhaled sharply. Shit. Dallas would notice that kind of thing. He coughed and elbowed Nikolai a little too hard. “Yeah, when he’s being a jerk, I get to disown him.”
“So, um, Dallas,” Alexei changed the subject fast. Enough about them. “What do you think about the camp?”
Alexei liked the way Dallas’ buzzed hair followed the curve of his scalp. His strong arms were rounded with muscle and Alexei wondered what his ass looked like. Goddamn it, his hormones were working overtime out here. It was like he was fourteen again and everything made him hard. Must be all the fresh air. Or the bikinis. Or the way Nikolai was always touching him.
“The job’s not bad,” Dallas said. “The kids are cute and they listen pretty good.”
“The moms ain’t all that bad either.” Frankie added. He and Nikolai shared a fist bump. “Your boy here is fresh meat.” Frankie tilted his chin at Nikolai. “He’s at the golden age where he’s got both the mommas and the daughters thinking of signing up for some private lessons.” He punched Nikolai in the arm. “Enjoy it while it lasts, kid. Time’s a bitch.”
“How’s the teaching going, Kolya?” It’s only been one day. Nikolai loves to dance, but this was a whole new gig.
Nikolai groaned and dropped his head to the table. “Truthfully, man, it’s terrible. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t dance. Not like these guys.”
Sharon patted him on the hand. “Don’t worry about it. You’re hot and you move like an angel. We’ll use you as a partner, just listen to what we say. It will be nice to have some men for the women to dance with. You should come by too, Alexie, if you have some free time. We’re always short of guys.”
Alexei was saying no before she’d finished. “No. No, thank you. I’m terrible. Really klutzy. Ask Nikolai.”
He turned to Nikolai for support, but there was no none coming from that corner.
“I don’t know, Lyosha. You’re not so bad.” Nikolai shimmied in his seat, biting his bottom lip with a little white man’s overbite.
Alexei punched him on the arm.
Dallas stood up, gathering up the remains of his lunch. “Don’t listen to him, Alexei. Just show up. Looking like you do…” He leered as he blatantly checked Alexei out. “You’ll do all right.”
Nikolai spread his hands, shocked. “Did you just check out my little brother?”
Dallas shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe. He’s eighteen, right?”
“And six months,” Alexei didn’t even try to hold back his grin.
“And engaged. To a girl,” Nikolai added, as if Alexei had forgotten.
Alexei’s smile faltered. Dallas tried to catch his eye, but Alexei kept his head down, afraid of what he might see in Dallas’ face.
Sharon patted Nikolai on the cheek. “Don’t worry, honey. You’re still the prettiest boy at the ball, but your sorta-brother here is some stiff competition. Those dimples? You’d better watch out for him.”
“I always do.”
She slid gracefully off the bench and picked up her tray. Alexei’s eyes were again magnetically drawn to her cleavage.
“You coming?” Frankie pulled out a pack of cigarettes and smacked them against the palm of one hand. “We got two afternoon classes. Cha-cha and waltz.”
“Yeah, I’ll be right there.” Nikolai walked towards the tray return window, looking over his shoulder at Alexei.
“See you around, Alexei,” Dallas called with a wave.
“See you.” Alexei lifted a hand in return.
Nikolai took Alexei’s tray from his hand and dropped them both on the pass-through to the kitchen, sticking their personal silverware in his pockets. They’d clean them in the cabin later.
Outside, clouds moved in from the west and the humidity was high. The silence between them was strained, and Alexei was in no hurry to find out which of the many reasons it could be.
“No more swimming lessons today?” Nikolai asked.
“Later. I have the three-to-five shift. Thought I’d let Mule out for a run, then head over to the main house and check some stuff out. Maybe those lost girls Frankie mentioned.”
“Ghost hunting? Seriously? Why?”
“I don’t know, Nikolai. There’s something here. Can’t you feel it?”
Nikolai turned towards where the trees were thickest. “It’s only these woods. They’re spooky.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “Maybe. Feels like something’s watching me. Make sense?”
“Yes and no. Look, I just don’t like this place.” He shifted restlessly. “Don’t you need to get to class?”
Nikolai nodded, but didn’t leave. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.
Oh god, that’s never good. “So, uh, I should…”
“So,” Nikolai interrupted. “I…the story, the part about the doll…”
Alexei waited, but nothing more seemed to be coming. “Yeah?”
“Do you think the story is real?”
This was an old, old conversation. When they were kids, and always separate from the close-knit family around them, they had needed it to be true, founding solace in the romantic mystery.
“It’s, just…the doll. I remember a doll. I think I had a doll. With long white hair.” His eyebrows drew together as he concentrated, as if he was trying to recall a time-faded dream. “I had it for a long time. Maybe he was an imaginary friend?” He pressed his fingers into his temples.
What was Alexei supposed to say? “Well, what happened to it?”
“I don’t know. Lost it? Da took it away when I got too old for dolls?” He rubbed his hand across his face. “It’s stupid.” He took a deep breath, exhaled. “So…” he said to the ground.” Change of subject. I never, never asked you this, not right out…”
Alexei felt nauseous. He contemplated running away from this conversation, but since he’d have to go back to the cabin eventually it would make going to bed awkward.
Nikolai looked up, directly at him. “Do you like guys?”
Oh. That. Alexei exhaled. After wresting with the question for years, he’d finally admitted to himself he was gay. Not that he would ever get to do anything about it. Homosexuality was completely taboo in the Roma culture. Being Roma and gay would be a living hell. Leaving his family, leaving Nikolai, would be worse even if Nikolai wasn’t the main object of his attraction. But he was, most of the time he was the only object. Being in love with Nikolai made the entire situation even more hopeless. Even if he wasn’t Rom, if he was a normal, American kid with the most progressive family in the world, they would be disgusted with him for wanting the person who is, at least emotionally, his older brother.
He was in love with the one person on Earth he could never have.
He’d never tell Nikolai, never ever burden him with his secret. But he was tired of hiding everything, especially from Nikolai. If he said it out loud, if they talked about it, maybe Nikolai would back off the Katya stuff a little.
“Lyosha?” Nikolai asked after a few long seconds.
“Yeah. I do.” He twisted his mouth into a weak smile. “Not like it matters. Da would kill me, or it will kill him. Somebody would end up dead,” he rushed to add when Nikolai didn’t answer. “I guess I always assumed you knew. I mean, you’ve beaten up more than one kid for calling me a fag.”
Nikolai flinched from the slur like it hurt him. He did the head tilt and eyebrows raised thing he did when he was processing new information. Alexei watched him, waiting. In order to hear all of what Nikolai wa saying, you had to watch his face. If you only listened to the words, you would be missing ninety percent of the message. His expressions and body language were more important than the words. Of course, looking directly into his face could be dangerous. Sometimes Alexei saw Nikolai’s face on his retinas like an afterimage of the sun. It wasn’t fair for a man to be so pretty. It wasn’t fair for Alexei to have to be around him all the time.
This would be one of those times the sight of Nikolai’s mouth had blotted out the sound of the words coming out of it. Damn it.
Alexei’s head bobbed like a figurine on a dashboard. “Yeah, fine. Good. I’m good. And you’re, uh, good with, you know. Me. And guys? Not that I, I’ve done anything. With anybody. Or ever will. Don’t tell.” He may not have heard what Nikolai had said but given that he wasn’t running off in disgust and hadn’t punched him, Alexei figured it couldn’t have been too bad.
Nikolai huffed out a laugh. “Yeah, Alexei. I’m good. We never really talked about,” he cleared his throat. “Sex, or anything, have we?”
They hadn’t. They didn’t. The closest he’d ever come was an awkward, stammered thank you, when he realized Nikolai had somehow talked his dad out of getting him a hooker for his sixteenth birthday. Alexei had learned a lot about sex anyway. After all, the internet did exist. But talking about sex? With Nikolai? No, that was never going to happen.
Because, if he was completely honest, Alexei didn’t trust himself around Nikolai. Sometimes the urge to confess his feelings, romantic and carnal, was almost overwhelming. And the nicer Nikolai was to him, the closer he tried to be, the more Alexei loved him and the more he wished he could force himself to push him away for both their sakes. But the thought sucked beyond the telling. Nikolai was his life. He was the music, and the adventure, and the future all in one beautiful package. So Alexei stayed and suffered in silence.
“That’s too bad. Sometimes, I wish we weren’t… like we were…” Nikolai trailed off. “But, well.” He twisted his head up to look at the sky, the earth, the woods, any place but Alexei’s face. “You’re not alone. In anything. Ever.”
He couldn’t mean… No. Alexei would have noticed. He would have seen. “Kolya?”
Now it was Nikolai’s turn to shrug. “I don’t tell you everything.” He dug through his pockets and Alexei could tell he wished he had a cigarette. So did he. The no smoking on camp grounds was tough on both of them. They should quit anyway.
“Oh, wow,” Alexei stared up the trail towards the parking lot, like he could see their van. Like them, it was normal white bread on the outside, but full-on Rom on the inside. “If Da knew, it would kill him.”
Nikolai reached out and ran his hands down Alexei’s braid. His eyes were dark blue, almost gray. “A lot of things would kill Da if he knew.”
Alexei couldn’t breathe, couldn’t physically draw air into his lungs. Nikolai couldn’t mean what it sounded like he was implying. Nikolai wanting him back would make it worse, so much worse. It might actually kill him.
Nikolai dropped his braid like it burned him, gave a forced laugh, and punched him a little too hard on the arm. “Yeah, so… Dallas?” he asked, backing away from the intensity between them.
If Alexei’s answering laugh was shaky, who could blame him? “I only saw him for, like, twenty minutes.”
“But he is kinda hot, right?” Nikolai got that wicked look in his eye and the beginnings of a smirk.
Alexei laughed for real. A weight he hadn’t even noticed was lifted off him, and the respite, however small and short-lived, was welcome. “Yeah, Nikolai. He’s pretty hot.”
“Hotter than Sharon?”
Some imp of the perverse made Alexei step in closer to Nikolai. Close enough to see the gold flecks in his blue eyes.
“I don’t know, Nikolai. I’d have to check them both out a little bit more to decide.” Nikolai’s pupils expanded, swallowing up the blue. Oh shit. Oh shit. It was the hottest thing Alexei had ever seen, and he stumbled back from the force of the punch of desire hitting him in the stomach.
Nikolai hadn’t moved. “I gotta go,” he murmured.
All Alexei could do was nod like a simpleton. “See you at dinner?” As if Alexei has somewhere else to be.
“Yeah. Okay.” He left without a backwards glance.
Alexei watched him until he disappeared into the trees.