Manny's new life was different from anything he'd ever imagined. Not in a bad way, because his old life with his misfit family had been just fine, and so was this one, but just different in a different way. He'd never dreamed he'd be able to travel around the world, experience so many new things, be part of something as exciting as a rock band that sold out every show, and even get hit on by boys and girls just because he was with the band. But then Kalo had found Ali and they had been bonded to each other, and bam, suddenly Manny and the rest of his family were jetsetters. He wasn't sure if that was the right word for flying around the world in a private jet, visiting more countries than Manny had really known existed, and living in two places at the same time. Well, not exactly the same time since there was still only one of him. But be it jetsetter or high-flying roadie, it definitely wasn't the path he'd ever expected his life to take.
He'd liked his job at the auto body shop, and he'd been treated well by the few acquaintances he'd had in town, but quitting hadn't been any big deal for him. Answering the phone and filling out paperwork wasn't something he wanted to do for the rest of his life, anyway. He had no real clue what exactly he did want to do, but Ali always told him he had time to figure it out. Manny knew that was true, plus, there was another part of his life he needed to get straightened out before he made any long-term commitments. This new life might be just the way to get there, and losing a few quasi-friends was more than worth it.
With all the changes, at least they'd kept the family's secluded cabin in the mountains. Manny was happy to be able to still live there part of the time, since it had been his only real home for so long and held almost every good memory he had. He admitted it was a little confusing going back and forth sometimes, especially when he woke up and didn't remember which one of his rooms he was in or even what country for that matter, but it was an adventure. It was as if he was on a journey like the one in his favourite movie, The Hobbit, except his goal wasn't to reclaim something that had been taken from him.
Instead, Manny's singular hope was that spending half his time in Romania would be just what he needed to do to find his spirit mate. It was logical, really. It was where both Lucius and Ali's mates had come from, so hanging around them ought to be some sort of good luck charm for him. He was also pretty sure Bunica, or Anca as Ali preferred Manny and Kristof call her, had said something about all spirit mates being related to her family.
So for Manny, this new life was a win-win situation. He got to travel, have fun, and be with the people he loved while he searched for the last piece of the puzzle that was his life. And he hadn't even had to give up anything really important to pursue it since his family was still together almost each and every day.
It had been nine months since Ali and Kalo had been married, or handfasted as Ali told him it was called, and Manny couldn't have been happier with his new family. He'd loved his life when it had been the four of them-Lucius had said they were the four musketeers-but having more people to love and care about him was a plus in Manny's book. It was true that he didn't see Ali as much as he used to, or maybe it was just that they didn't have as much one-on-one time now. He was still trying to understand the whole mating thing, but sometimes he missed the old days of Ali being able to spend more time with him. It didn't bother him though, at least not much.
He'd grown up in a big family, and even though, ultimately, they hadn't been very nice, he still liked to have people around, as many as possible to make him feel secure and wanted. The occupants of the big house in the Carpathian Mountains numbered seven now, since Anca had also moved in-eight when Kristof was there.
He thanked God or whoever listened to his prayers that Romania existed at all, because the place had brought so much happiness into his family's lives. Kalo was besotted with Ali. Ali didn't come right out and admit it very often, but Kalo was everything he'd ever really wanted, too. He brought a pretty light to Ali's eyes whenever they were in the same room-Ali smiled more, was less snippy, mostly, and the way he looked at Kalo made Manny's heart warm. And Kalo treated Manny like a brother or maybe even a son, since Ali still liked to mother him.
Lucius, of course, was joined at the hip with Nicu, who had to be the sweetest person ever. Lucius still hung around with Manny, and Manny knew they would always be close, but sometimes he felt like the third wheel. He found himself thinking a lot about the day he could double-date with the couples in his family. The day he might have a mate of his own to spend all his time with and who loved him more than anyone else. If he ever found that special person who made his eyes sparkle all the time, Manny would be the luckiest man in the world.
Besides his spirit mate, the other thing missing in Manny's new life was Kristof, who was off working in the woods in Canada. He still came to Romania sometimes, but he hadn't wanted to give up his job and friends in the mountains so he wasn't with them as much as Manny would have liked. It was always the best kind of reunion when Kristof came off the job and crushed Manny like some tiny mouse in his strong arms. Manny didn't even mind being squashed so much anymore since it was part of the big bear's emotional homecomings, and he loved seeing that wide grin. Not that he'd stop complaining. It wouldn't do for Kristof to get too cocky.
When Manny came up for air at the shallow end of the Carpathian house pool, he was greeted by Mika's friendly face and the tantalizing aroma of coffee. "Hey! There's my lean, mean, swimming machine." Oh yeah-then there was Mika. "Don't you ever get tired of going back and forth, little one?"
Manny still couldn't believe he had a pool that he could use whenever he wanted; even his mountain lion had stopped whining about hating the water. Manny had started swimming every day. He did it mostly because he liked it, though Ali kept telling him he had a beautiful swimmer's body and was toned to perfection, but that was just Ali being Ali. Manny did think he'd gained a little previously non-existent muscle in his upper body. Not like Ali said, but maybe it was a bit of an improvement anyway.
After shaking some of the water from his hair, Manny took Mika's proffered hand and let himself be yanked from the pool. He accepted the towel Mika wrapped around his shoulders, slipping it down around his waist to cover the swimsuit he thought was far too small to be paraded around in. Ali had bought it for him, saying it would look adorable. Like Manny really wanted to look that way to his family. It made him more than a little self-conscious, especially around Mika.
"You must have been up early. It's only eight o'clock and you've already done your laps for the day?" Mika grinned at him as he blew on his steaming cup of coffee. "I should bottle some of that energy, little one."
Little one. It was a nickname Manny would never admit to liking, but he really did. Mika had nicknames for everyone, but they usually changed from week to week, day to day, hour to hour, while Manny's always stayed the same. It made him feel like he had a special place with Mika, one where he felt safe and happy. Of course, he didn't know if Mika was just using it all the time since Manny was the littlest one in the family, so he tried not to take too much stock in just how lucky it made him feel.
Manny squinted at Mika as he rubbed a second towel over his wet hair, carefully choosing his words before he spoke. "De obicei, suntei de dormeza."
Mika burst out laughing, slapping his hand on his knee as he tried to stifle his amusement, almost sloshing his coffee all over himself. He shot an apologetic glance Manny's way.
Manny huffed a sigh. "What did I say this time?"
"Pretty sure you just called me a couch."
Manny dropped his chin to his chest, the towel suddenly more useful to hang over his face and hide his flaming cheeks.
Mika held out a hand in apology. "No, just wait. It's not necessarily an insult. It's cute."
"I wasn't being cute, Mika."
"What were you trying to say then?"
After another huffy breath, Manny peered into Mika's light purple eyes. "That you are usually asleep."
Mika nodded, slipping the towel from between Manny's lax fingers to help him dry his hair. "Then you'd be right. I am usually sleeping, especially after a hot date, and sometimes I do that on the couch."
It was impossible to not smile when Mika was around, even when Manny was embarrassed. He'd been afraid of Mika in the beginning because he was so big and loud, but that had mostly been when Mika had been pretending to be Kalo. Manny didn't really understand why he'd done that, and he'd never seen Ali so mad, but then things had changed. Since the move, Mika had become a really good friend to him. Plus, Manny couldn't get over the fact that Mika was hotter than any man he'd ever met. Even if he tried hard not to show that he noticed.
Since the rest of the family was paired up, Mika and Manny were together a lot. Mika was even Manny's unofficial date when the whole lot of them went out to the movies or to dinner, but only in a strictly platonic, best-buddies kind of way. Sure, Manny thought Mika was beautiful, funny and talented, but there was no way they could ever be more than best friends. Manny had his priorities when it came to finding his spirit mate, and Mika...well, Mika had more lovers than Manny could ever imagine having or wanting. Plus, feeling anything other than friendship for Mika was just dumb since Mika didn't even have a birthmark, let alone an identical one to his. Getting too attached would just make it hard when Manny found his true mate.
After accepting a bottle of water from Mika, Manny asked, "Why are you up so early again? You guys aren't doing any traveling this week, are you?"
"Heading into town," Mika said. He slumped into one of the iron chairs by the pool before raising his cup to his lips and taking a careful sip. "Was wondering if you wanted to tag along?"
"I'm not sure if Kalo has something he wants me to do today."
Manny kept busy by helping out in the small studio at the back of Kalo and Mika's property, or accompanying Lupi Siguratici to their gigs. Kalo was teaching him how to work the sound equipment, and he was getting good at it. He had no ambitions of being more than a background guy, but he liked being part of the music. Mika had even given him a few lessons on his electric guitar. Manny didn't have one of his own, but he was pretty sure once he'd earned enough of his own money, he'd want to buy one.
So far he could only play a few chords, and he actually preferred the old acoustic that Mika kept in the house. He'd shown Manny how to play "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls, one of Ali's favorite songs. Mika said it'd be a good way to get witch boy to okay the guitar purchase by buttering him up. Mika's attitude toward Ali always made Manny laugh.
"Well, this trip is totally work related so I think you're in the clear." Mika's eyes sparkled at him over the rim of his cup. It was his "I'm pretending to be innocent" look that didn't fool anyone. "I ordered a couple of guitars and they're ready to be picked up. I'll even let you drive if you want."
Manny definitely wanted to, and not just to drive. Spending time with Mika was always a highlight of his day.
"Sure. Do I have time for a shower? I don't like being all salty."
"That's what happens in a saltwater pool. Kind of like a good Ciorba de ciocanele."
"Gross," Manny said. He knew Mika meant the pigs' feet soup that Anca liked to make so often. He wasn't a fan and didn't think he'd ever be one. "That's sort of an insult to me."
Mika chuckled, rising from his chair to give Manny a little snap with the towel. "Not if you like the soup. I'll give you half an hour; don't tell that bossy mama of yours where we're going."
Manny tightened his towel before standing to follow Mika. "Why not?"
With a groan, Mika stepped backwards, his cup clutched against his chest, eyes wide in mock fear. He twisted his head from side to side like he was expecting Ali to suddenly appear. He was such a ham. "You know how he gets. I'll have to sign a promissory note or contract or some other shit like that just to get you out of the house, and then...he'll give us a list of errands."
"Esti nebun," Manny returned carefully. "Did I say that right?"
"If you called me crazy, then you scored."
The grin that cracked Manny's face threatened to split it in half. "Score."
"Gonna change your name to little bastard soon."
"You'd never do that."
Mika stopped walking, waiting as Manny caught up the few steps. He flattened his hand between Manny's shoulder blades and guided him up the staircase, his voice no more than a whisper, "Hah. Just try me."
"Hey, Mika?" Manny kept his eyes glued to the road. He loved driving Mika's truck. It was a lot like Lucius' in Canada, except newer and so high off the ground he could barely get into it without jumping. Awesome. Ali called it "an accident just waiting to happen" and "garish even for an egotistical rock star". Which made it that much better.
Mika turned down the radio, then braced one foot on the dash. "Shoot."
"Do you ever wonder why Kalo has a spirit mate but you don't?" It was something Manny had always been curious about, and since no one discussed it, except to say Mika didn't have a spirit-mate birthmark, it had been bugging him for a while. "I mean, if that's not like a rude question or anything."
"Not rude, and nope, doesn't bother me. Um..." Mika paused. Manny wondered if he was trying to put words to his thoughts or if he'd dismissed it before since he always said he wasn't the type to settle down with one person. "Bunica says Roma twins are rare, even more so with the special issues Kalo and I have."
"You mean being shifters and weird vampires."
"Hey! We're not weird," Mika protested, then snickered, stroking over the silver labret in his chin. Manny found himself staring at the piercing a lot, wondering how it felt and whether he'd look good with one. Of course, Ali wouldn't be pleased, but it really wasn't his business-except, yeah, it really was because no matter how annoying Ali could be sometimes, Manny still kind of liked how protective he was.
Mika continued, "We're unique because we were born and not made. As for spirit mates, there's some legend about only one per set of twins, and of course, they say Roma twins are cursed anyway."
"I'm sorry." And Manny was truly sorry because as far as he was concerned, knowing someone was out there who was specifically made for him was the most exciting thing he could imagine. It was like he was guaranteed to be loved someday, and not just the love of his chosen family-love that would make him feel whole and wanted in a different way.
"No sorries. I wouldn't want to pass my curse along to anyone, now would I? Besides, I don't think I'm mate material anyhow. It sounds like way too much responsibility and pressure."
Manny snorted before replying, "You say that, but I know you love your family. Everyone needs love, Mika."
"I do, but that's not the same thing as being with one person, being committed to one person for the rest of your life. I'm a goddamn vampire. Who knows how long I'll be around for that kind of boredom?"
Mika's answer made Manny frown. He sat up straighter, his spine stiffened against the back of the seat, and he fixed his hands on the steering wheel so that they were at the perfect driving position-two and ten o'clock. His teeth automatically latched onto his bottom lip, and suddenly he felt uncomfortable.
"Listen," Mika said quietly. "You're gonna find yours, and it's going to be perfect. I have no doubt in my mind that you'll be the absolute best mate to whoever's waiting for you. My feelings on it don't apply to souls like yours, Manny."
Manny chanced a quick glance at Mika. "Souls like mine?"
"Yeah. Gentle, giving souls, who want nothing more than to make people happy. I'm too selfish for that. You've seen me." He chuckled, but Manny couldn't join in.
"But Kalo and Nicu-"
"Were brought up differently, and they're just different from me, period. Kalo did the whole rock star lifestyle thing before he met Ali, but he was never as content with it as I am. And I don't think either way is right or wrong-just different." Mika kicked his feet up on the dash, and Manny snuck another look. Mika's head was thrown back, his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. "I just go with the flow, and that's all I need."
Manny couldn't resist digging a little deeper. "Maybe one day you'll find someone to change your mind?"
Mika snorted. "Pretty sure if there's someone out there for me, he's already taken, and with me being who I am, that's probably for the best."
Manny took his eyes off the road to sneak another peek at Mika. "What do you mean?"
"Ah, come on. You know what I'm talking about. I'm no poster child for monogamy nor do I wanna be. Variety is the spice of life, right? And I do love some variety in my diet. I mean, what's not to like about getting busy with a hot pot-bellied bear of a man one night then a smoking muscle god the next? Since Kalo traded in his rock star lifestyle for wedded bliss, someone has to uphold the family name, and I've gladly taken on the challenge."
They were quiet for the rest of the drive. Manny concentrated on the road but worried that he'd said something wrong. Mika was rarely quiet unless he was hung-over or hadn't had any sleep. Manny really hoped his silence was because of one of those things. Otherwise, he'd managed to put his big foot in his mouth.
Mika was softly snoring by the time Manny pulled into town. He hated to wake Mika, but he couldn't remember where to turn so he poked Mika in the ribs.
"Not sleeping," Mika said from under his jet-black drape of hair. He didn't lift his head, just kept leaning against the window, but Manny saw the tiniest of grins through the messy strands. "Is it time to get up?"
Manny chuckled then poked him again, aiming higher to connect with Mika's underarm-where he happened to be very ticklish. Mika squirmed then twisted quickly away, one hand wrapping around his other arm as he tried to protect himself.
"You've got a mean streak," Mika said with a growl-one that was neither scary nor real. "I see at least you got us here in one piece. Turn left at the next light. Sorry for my nap."
"It's okay. Did you get in late last night?"
"I don't remember, so I guess that's a yes." Manny caught a glimpse of Mika's wide smirk and wondered if he had been on a date or just out with friends.
"Not a date. Buddy of mine is getting married so we had to celebrate, or rather, we had to help him mourn."
"I never asked if you were-hey! You're not supposed to be able to do that." Looking inside other people's heads wasn't one of Mika's gifts, at least not that Manny was aware of.
"I didn't do anything."
"You got into my head or you wouldn't have known I was gonna say that."
"Left lane, little one. You're going to miss the turn."
Manny pouted dramatically, but Mika just snickered and gave him a gentle shove.
"You know I can do it sometimes. It's Bunica's fault. She doesn't like me to shadow people so she's been training me in other skills."
As he turned onto a now-familiar street, Manny contemplated Mika's words. "You can learn how to do stuff like that?"
Mika shrugged, pointing out an empty parking spot. "She says you can, but only if you've already got it in you. Whatever that means. She's not always the most explanational person."
"I don't think that's a word," Manny teased as he carefully parked the truck. "Explanational. Not a word."
"You just called me a smart ass, didn't you?"
"I'm starting to regret teaching you Romanian. And if you recall, istetule, English is not my first language."
"Ali says your first language is vulgarity."
"Fute! I'm never vulgar."
Manny burst out laughing, rocking forward until his forehead rested on the steering wheel. He laughed more with Mika than anybody he'd ever known, even Lucius. Ali said Mika's humor was demented, but Manny was sure it suited him just fine.
The offended pose Mika struck didn't last long and he soon joined in on the frivolity, lightly poking Manny in his own ticklish spot-behind his ear-and making him jump. He whacked his head on the driver's side window and bit down on his tongue in the process. It was proving to be a painful but awesome day. He opened his door then hopped down onto the pavement; Mika joined him as he landed.
"I swear I'm gonna get a step stool for you. You're going to damage something when you fall out of the truck like that."
"Shut up!" Manny hissed, straightening to his full five feet, five inches. "I'm a cat. I always land on my feet."
Mika chuckled and slid an arm around Manny's shoulders as they crossed the street. Manny rested against him comfortably. He always thought walking like this was a good fit since he was a tad short and Mika was a damn giant.
"Land on your feet? Good one. Think that up yourself or did you have help?"
Manny thumped his head against Mika's chest. "You looking for a fight today, Mikalo?"
"Gonna get your mama to defend you?"
"Only because you have Anca to fight your battles and she's too mean for me to handle."
Mika immediately bent over, his head hanging low, his hair almost touching the pavement. "That one hurt. You better apologize before I cry right here in the middle of the street."
"Don't want you blubbering like a baby," Manny said with a hint of sarcasm-or maybe much more than that. "I'm sorry. I won't tell anyone else that your grandmother is your bodyguard."
"Get your arse in there, ya little shit." Mika made a fist at Manny then swept his hand toward the store. "You're in an awfully good mood. Someone might think you got laid or something."
Manny's cheeks heated up. He scuffed his shoe against the concrete. "Naw, I leave that to you. Ali says you get enough for all of us."
"There's no such thing as enough."
Mika quirked an eyebrow while Manny blushed all the way to his toes. He dug deep for a retort. "Esti nebun."
His Romanian friend faked a gasp. "You're asking for it. If you're not careful I'll make you talk to the store manager in Romanian. Next thing you know, he'll think you asked him out because your language skills are so damn bad."
"Ali would kick your butt if you sold me out like that."
"Your den mother's got nothing on me."
"What if he wiggles his nose?"
"Fute. Then I'd be eating out of a trough and wishing to God I'd listened to you."