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i'll walk beside you love (anyway the wind blows)

Chapter Text

The house in question was called the dacha by its owners, as if it were a gift given to them by the Tsar himself for being such leal vassals. While the house did rest on a country estate (which possessed the name of Arkadiya), it served more as a permanent residence than as a summer home. It did not offer itself as a setting for social gatherings—for masquerades and dinner parties and salons—as the owners did not find particular pleasure in receiving guests or hosting them. In fact, it was not even located within the territory of the Rossiyskaya Imperiya or its Tsars. The closest it came to Rossiya was the port settlement of Vladivostok on the Zolotoy Rog, miles and miles away across the Nihonkai.

The dacha was situated at the top a series of hills with gentle, relaxed slopes, resting near the boundary where the estate and the forest met. If its inhabitants were to look out the front windows, they would be greeted by the rolling, green landscape of the property before them—dotted here and there with gardens, stables, animal pens, and such; bisected by a winding dirt road seldom-used by outsiders; and encircled by a thicket of trees which acted as a natural barrier to ward off unwanted visitors.

The house itself stood three stories tall with an attic up above and a hidden basement down below, darkly colored from the steps of the expansive porch to the caps of the chimneys extending from the decorative gable roof. It was not quite as grand as an English country house or a château français, but certainly not as humble as Svensk sommarhus or a Norsk hytte. Nonetheless, it made for an imposing sight and a comfortable home, for it was called home by a peculiar sort of people.

Upon entering the building, one was first struck by the sheer number of things within the house. Wood carvings from Sverige and intricate clocks from the Deutsches Kaiserreich. Porcelain figurines from Österreich-Magyar and colored glassware from Venezia. Ornate rugs from Iran and painted ceramic from Türkiye. Silk screens from Zhōngguó and hand fans from Nippon. Delicate lace from België and elaborate tapestries from France. Lacquered boxes from Kyiv and amber jewels from Polska. One glance was that was needed to know that this house belonged to collectors and travellers.

The second thought impressed upon the observer was the sheer number of frames that decorated nearly every level surface within the house. Countless frames lined the walls and shelves of the dacha, shining with polished wood or glittering with silver and gilt. Not a single room was spared, save for the library towards the front of the house. There, the walls were instead lined with overflowing bookshelves, and what little wall space was left was dedicated to even more frames.

Pressed flowers and dried insects pinned to framed cork boards—mournful and macabre preservations of beauty in life and death—climbed the walls alongside the worn, carpeted stairs: shiny black beetle shells and iridescent butterfly wings winked beside papery crocuses, wisteria, and bell orchids that still retained their faint perfume. Paintings in watercolor, oil, tempera, and pastel hung from the walls of every room—windows that offered still glimpses of the stately Zimniy Dvorets overlooking the Neva in Sankt-Peterburg, the grand Pont Alexandre III arching over the Seine in the glow of a Parisienne night, or the golden sun rising over terraced rice fields in the Nippon countryside. Intricate papercuttings danced about the doors and archways of the house—scenes from old Deutsche Märchen were played out in the warm tones and rustic colors of scherenschnitte from Schweiz, gardens bloomed and birds soared in the cheery spring colors of wycinanki from Polska, and rats and dragons and tigers came to life in the bold, rose red jiănzhĭ from Zhōngguó. Pages neatly torn from a collection of old books—this one yellowed and scribbled upon with feverish kanji written in browning black walnut ink; this one still creamy white with neat, uniform Cyrillic print in purplish iron gall ink—filled in the gaps in between, offering thoughtful anecdotes, prudent advice, and introspective opinions to those who were particularly distracted and found their attention drawn to the walls. And one often found their attention drawn to the walls.

And yet, in the entire house, there were only five portraits on display downstairs in the parlor (on the very rare occasion that the inhabitants should receive guests). Oh, certainly, there were other pictures tucked away in photo albums and scattered throughout the bedrooms and halls that occupied the familial upstairs. These five in particular, however, told enough of a story together. They were all lined up along the engraved mantelpiece of the riverstone fireplace, situated beneath a curious mounted set of silver daggers with blades that danced with firelight and handles that twinkled under the moonlight.

The first picture on the left-hand side of the mantel was worn and faded with age. The already muted colors when it was first developed were now almost identical to each other in various shades of gray. One could barely make out what the colors had been once upon a time. Against the nondescript gray background, two older boys stood on opposite sides of a plain wooden chair where a younger boy sat. They were all clothed in plain dark pants and white kosovorotki.

The tallest of the trio leaned on his elbow against the back of the chair. He was thin and lithe with freckled, sun-tanned skin. A braid of flaxen gold hair fell over one shoulder. His gold eyes shone with a mischievous glint and he wore a toothy grin, leaning forward with his ankles crossed and a firm hand planted on his protruding hip. The second boy stood opposite of the cheerful boy, more demure in his posture as he stood straight with his hands folded atop the ear of the chair. His figure was slender and willowy. Where the older boy was gold, he possessed loose gray hair and eyes as soft and lustrous as silver. His smile was a gentle upturn of his lips against a composed, ivory face. But it was the third boy seated between them—evidently the youngest—who stood out the most.

Smaller in size and stature, his ashen complexion and frail frame gave the impression of constant illness. The skin on the bony hands in his lap looked parchment-thin, as if it would tear at the slightest sharp movement. Lank, greasy black hair skimmed narrow shoulders—a stark contrast against his pallid skin, like that of an anemic. There would have been little difference in the boy between the faded photograph as it was now and as it was then, when it was new and held some semblance of color, years and years ago. So devoid of a healthy blush, so devoid of color was he that it was almost a shock to see deep purple eyes stare back from the photo—shadowed by half-moon bruises, hazy with exhaustion yet sharp with an almost imperceptible glint of intelligence. He wore no smile, but that violet gaze seemed to command your attention. They seemed to pierce straight through your very being—through the confines of the picture, through the distance in time and space between the observer and the room in the photograph.

On the back, in the graceful, looping cursive of a woman long dead:

Николай, Федор и Иван—15, 10 и 12 [1]

The next portrait beside this was that of an attractive couple. It was not as aged, and the colors were more vibrant and festive. Though they did not touch, there was a certain intimacy between the two subjects of this portrait—an unexpected comfort in the other’s presence. One could see it in the purposeful way their sleeves brushed together, and in the subtle manner they leaned towards one another. These were two people unused to sharing such ease with another being, yet adjusting quite admirably to the sensation all the same.

The youngest boy from the previous picture—Fyodor—was now a young man in this one. He was much more handsome now than he had been in his youth, with soft black hair and softer edges. The bruises and shadows of his face were absent, though his pale skin still gave him a mild sickly appearance and an air of anemia. He wore a mauve kimono embroidered with wisteria and butterflies in green, white, and gold-thread. There was a gold-trimmed white coat draped across his shoulders, a gold-banded black flute clasped in his hands, and a gold filigree butterfly perched above his right ear, holding his bangs back from tired, violet eyes. This time, a faint whisper of a smile graced his thin lips.

To his left, standing at just about the same height as him, was another young man, appearing perhaps two or three years his senior. He had an ethereal beauty about him, with translucent, pearl white skin; long, thick hair the color of sea foam; and vacant, half-lidded eyes tinted with the rich red of coral and rubies. Gold and crimson faded in and out of his white kimono, from his patterned sash to the checkers and leaves scattered across his sleeves. Short black gloves covered his folded hands, a black choker knotted with a gold cord drew attention to his slender neck, and a sheer crimson scarf flowed from his arms like a winding stream of blood. On his pale face—paler than even the man next to him, an astounding feat—was a quiet, little smile, hushed and content.

On the back of this one, in a curious mix of hiragana, katakana, and kanji, dated many, many years after the last photograph:

フョードルと龍彦 — 私たちの結婚式の日 [2]

Purposely placed at the center of the mantelpiece, it was clear that the third photo held a place of quiet pride. This picture was the most populated of the five on display—six people in total. Two older men and a young boy stood towards the back, while a seated couple and child took up the foreground. It would only be appropriate to designate this as the family portrait.

With his shaggy blond hair and the long braid draped over his shoulder, Nikolai was easy to identify—now a man grown, though his gold eyes still shone with an impish gleam. His coat was boldly two-toned, his shirt collar excessively ruffled. A sly grin stretched across his freckle-starred face as he emulated his younger self and leaned forward to rest his arms on the back of a chair. To his left, Ivan stood prim and proper, his shirt, vest, and tie neatly pressed and ironed. His hair remained long and loose as it was in his youth, neatly pulled back and brushed away from his face. The droop in his eyes was just as drowsy, the slight dip of his smile just as languid. To his left, there was a new figure—a youth barely aged a decade, with short, messy, reddish-brown hair, fair skin, and pale, grayish-green eyes. There was an odd cross-like scar beneath his right eye, though it did little to detract from his shy smile.

Seated before Nikolai and Ivan, Fyodor and Tatsuhiko made a very handsome couple, their clothing much simpler than that of their wedding photo. For Fyodor, black pants and a black rubakha with floral embroidery in red and green around the sleeves and collar, his hair pulled back into a loose tail so that his bangs framed his face; for Tatsuhiko, a white yukata with a striped black sash around the waist, his hair tied into a long, thick braid that fell over his shoulder and rested in his lap. While gold, silver, and gray-green eyes looked to the observer and the unseen camera, red and violet eyes were fixed upon the child in Tatsuhiko’s lap. And there he was: a little, moon-faced baby—a year old, at least—dressed in shapeless, knitted black booties, black pants, and a white rubakha with blue embroidery that matched Fyodor’s. Wisps of silvery white hair brushed his head; chubby, moon-pale cheeks bloomed with a healthy, rosy pink; and crossed, gold-violet eyes were set above a button nose. He gnawed intently with newly emerged milk teeth on a coral teething ring, his tiny fists curled around the silver-and-ivory handle done in the shape of a serpentine dragon. He was the picture of perfect contentment, oblivious to the fondness and amusement in his admirers’ eyes—the silent laughter that spilled from Tatsuhiko’s lips as he held the child close to him, and the tender smile on Fyodor’s own as he brushed his fingers against soft cheeks.

Five different hands had written on the back of this portrait, all addressed to the little baby:

С днём рождения, Ацуши!
Много пожеланий радости, удачи, успехов и процветания.
Всего наилучшего, Дядя Коля, Дядя Ваня и Алёша [3]

Моему сыну:
Со всеми моими самыми нежными мыслями и наилучшими пожеланиями.
Твой папа [4]

パパと父ちゃんがあなたをとても愛していることを常に忘れないでください。 [5]

Fourth down the line was one of the newer pictures, this one taken several years ago. It was the most candid of the five, its subjects unaware of their likeness being taken. There were only two people in this photo, and it was only one to be located outdoors. With prior knowledge of the estate’s geography, one could recognize the beach northwest of the property, just a mile away from the house through the trees that stood to the rear of the dacha.

The picture was taken on a cloudy day, the lighting dim and the sky a vague, nebulous blue-gray. A dark blanket had been spread out in the shade of the trees where soft, green grass gave way to fine, white sand. There sat Fyodor with his young son, Atsushi, who was now a small child. Fyodor sat cross-legged with Atsushi settled in his father’s lap, Fyodor’s chin perched atop his son’s head. He held an open book before the two of them—a thick, leather-bound volume with gilt edges and a dark red cover with gold embossed curlicues and Cyrillic lettering that spelled out Народные Русские Сказки [6]. Off to the side, a writing slate with two slate pencils and a small stack of books loosely bound by a leather strap lay abandoned. The books were just as richly colored and decorated, the titles predominantly in russkiy yazyk and nihongo with one or two in français. The slate’s surface bore two sets of Cyrillic: the top line neat, uniform, and evenly spaced; the bottom line hesitant, clumsy, and childish.

Atsushi appeared to be about five or six in this snapshot. His small figure was dwarfed by his father’s looming frame, his face still round and soft with the last vestiges of baby fat. His hair was choppy and uneven, as if he’d had an unfortunate encounter with a pair of scissors. His eyes—the color reminiscent of his father and uncle’s eyes, or perhaps the sun at dusk—were still very doe-like in their appearance, shining with the curiosity and innocence and naivety of childhood. Those eyes were transfixed to the book before him; there was a slight forward tilt of anticipation, his lips parted in a moment of awe. Beady black eyes glinted from the white amigurumi tiger clutched tightly to the boy’s chest. It was almost startling to look between father and son. Where Atsushi had grown into a young boy, Fyodor seemed to have not aged between this picture and his own wedding photo. Where Atsushi shone in the light, Fyodor lingered in the darkness. The shade of the trees couldn’t disguise the hollows of his face or the shadows beneath his dull, weary eyes. His hair hung limp and lifeless about his somber face. He leaned forward as though there was a weight pressed upon his back. One had to wonder if the melancholic gloom that surrounded Fyodor had to do with Tatsuhiko’s absence in the photo.

The two had been photographed by the other boy in the family portrait, Alyosha—Alexei. His handwriting adorned the back of the picture, his cursive neat if lacking in character:

Федор и Ацуши читают Афанасьева вместе
А. Ф. Карамазов [7]

The fifth and final portrait on display was the newest, taken a little over six months ago. At first glance, one could easily mistake it for another picture of Fyodor and Tatsuhiko. It wasn’t though. This was another wedding portrait—Atsushi’s wedding portrait.

Basking in the sunlight that streamed through the glass of the solarium, Atsushi looked especially lovely with his hair lit up like spun silver, accentuating the odd streak of black that ran through it. At eighteen, he looked so much like his father, seated at the edge of the couch in his white kimono, shining like the moon while his eyes lit up with the warmth of the sun. But where Tatsuhiko had been reserved and restrained, Atsushi was completely sincere. He looked not towards the camera, but to the other young man seated beside him, the smile that overtook his face silly and beaming and absolutely besotted.

Atsushi’s husband was the night to his day with his pitch black robes and soot black hair, the long bangs that framed his face fading towards the ends into a bleached bone white. He was the moon to Atsushi’s sun, the faded remains of crescent-shaped bruises lingering beneath eyes that were a sharp, steely gray. Where Atsushi was flushed and glowing with anxious excitement, he was waxy and wan. His lips and brow were thin and pale, his figure slender and gaunt, his face sharp and narrow. He had the same air about him as Fyodor did in his youth—an air of constant sickness. But he was handsome in his own unconventional way, especially with the soft smile that tugged at his lips, his hands clasped between Atsushi’s. He did not face the camera, either; his attention was Atsushi’s alone.

On the back of this, his writing steadier and more confident than his crude scribblings as a child:

龍之介と敦 [8]

And then, as though it were an afterthought:

Дорогой мой Рюноскэ,
Ты и я, и никто другой.
С любовью, Ацуши [9]