Their big brother was kinda a jerk, but I think mostly because he’s at the age where he thinks he’s the coolest thing ever and showing love to little sisters is so uncool (or okay make sure no one is looking first)
Summary: WW2 AU. Insane Russian Commander Ivan Braginski is the terror of his battalion and his enemies alike. He controls the lives of thousands - but it is the memory of one that controls his own. Tie-in to ‘Lily of the Lamplight.’
This is a tie-in fic to my ongoing WW2 AU series. Like 'My Echo,’ it will be a collection of short chapters and flashbacks - from Ivan’s point of view - following the main storyline to my PruAus story, 'Lily of the Lamplight.’ It probably won’t make much sense unless you read that one also, I’m afraid.
WARNING: Although this story is part of the Veraverse, please be warned that it is very dark, potentially unsettling, and a very different type of 'love story’ to the others in the series. Warnings for the story include a rather creepy Ivan, age difference, violence, and dubious consent. Please do not read this expecting a fluffy romance – and if the previous themes bother you, then please do not read this at all. You do not need to read this story to understand 'Lily.’
The Russian Front
The noise from the wireless radio drifted into Ivan’s mind like droning, senseless whispers: futile and immaterial, lifeless and empty. Strange words in English he could barely understand; sentimental words in Russian he did not want to. Ivan wondered vaguely if he should turn it off, then wondered uncertainly if it mattered, then wondered angrily who had placed this whispering machine in his makeshift quarters to hum and drone and mock him with its bleak, cheerful, vacant lies. Ivan attempted to ignore it as he stared at the papers on the desk before him. The lying sighs from the radio bled into the senseless words on the page. These words were not for him to understand. Ivan was no man of words - he was a commander. He told men who to kill and how to bleed and where to die. He did not draw lines through letters - that was the business of lesser men. These words belonged to others. Belonged to men like…
“Eduard!” Ivan called the name lightly. Officers who shouted did so because they could not control their men; because they were not loved, feared, or honoured. Ivan had no need to shout. So why, now, was he was not being answered? “Eduard!” he called again. Where was his Estonian? Why did he not answer? The tent flap was open. Ivan frowned at the evasive words laughing up at him. His Estonian would understand these words. He would turn them around and put them in order and send them away somewhere they could not confuse and disturb and mock and laugh. But why was that radio still murmuring, still mindless and pointless and grating and endless and…
Jealousy. Was only through jealousy, Our hearts were broken
And angry words were spoken.
Now all I have is memory
To cherish so tenderly…
Ivan clenched his teeth and tasted blood. The chaotic, clamouring wireless whispers twisted into evil words, sung with a deceitful English voice, hammering into his skull and screaming at him accusingly and no, he did not need Eduard, he needed his Lithuanian, he needed… “Toris!” Ivan snapped his head to see the tent opening flapping in the wind. Flapping vacantly, incessantly… no one entering, and no one standing beyond… and why was there nothing but these words and this void and this noise, this ceaseless noise, these rough, shrill, mocking echoes merging with these empty, laughing words that would… not… stop…
Twas all over my jealousy,
My crime was my blind jealousy,
My heart was afire with desire for you
But I never thought that your love was true…
Ivan shook his head. He fought for breath. He felt it all diminish, and collapse, and cease. Then the world turned white; and Ivan remembered.
Yao belonged to Ivan. He belonged to him from the very second Ivan first beheld him, on a freezing morning in late autumn, standing proud yet wary in the vast, bare, silent entrance hall of Ivan’s vast, bare, silent manor. His hair as long and black as midnight in winter; his eyes as dark and narrow as the slowly collapsing hallways of the crumbling Braginski mansion. So small, so fragile, like a frightened orphaned cub left alone and helpless in hunting season. They said he had come from China: he and his sister, the bland little girl who stood uncertainly in her lovely brother’s shadow. Both pretty teenagers who would work hard, require little, and most importantly, had no family to ask questions. Ivan’s blood burned through his veins, his breath hot and thick in his lungs. His back straightened; his chin rose; his eyes flashed as they drank in his dark, beautiful, proud little orphan cub. Ivan said the words aloud. “He’s mine.”
The boy’s eyes widened at that, fixed rigidly on Ivan’s own, sharp and alarmed. It was a look Ivan recognised - one he knew well. Fear. Ivan returned the stare evenly.
“Vanya, darling, we don’t own people. He is to be a servant, not a slave.”
Ivan ignored his older sister’s words. The boy was his. From that moment, Ivan knew. The boy was his, and always would be. “He is my servant, then. My private servant. No one else’s. Do you understand?” Ivan turned a dark glare on Katyusha. She nodded hastily and looked away.
“Why would you want him anyway, Vanya?” asked Natalia haughtily, sashaying too close to the Chinese siblings and inspecting them disdainfully. Her bright gold, jewelled gown clashed magnificently with the dark remnants of pre-revolutionary décor along the walls. The boy blinked carefully towards her as she smirked. “I doubt this little weakling will last the winter.”
Ivan smiled indulgently. “I will dress him in furs, and lay him before the fire, and he will survive because I wish it.”
Natalia laughed her high, cold laugh. “Like a little doll!” She ran a hand along the boy’s narrow shoulders, touched his hair airily. His delicate features furrowed, insulted and slightly angry.
“Yes,” said Ivan smoothly, his greedy gaze locked on the affronted boy, enjoying the collection of emotions that danced across his face. “My pretty little china doll.”
Natalia stood behind the boy, gently playing with his hair. She smirked again, staring at Ivan through those midnight black locks and her own lowered lashes. “But Vanya, you always broke our dolls, don’t you remember?”
“Natalia!” said Katyusha disapprovingly, warningly. “Leave the poor child alone.”
Natalia groaned, flicked the boy’s hair one last time, and pushed between the siblings, flourishing her wide skirts as she did. “Whine whine, moan moan, Katya. You do little else these days. And just what are you wearing, dear sister? You look like a housemaid. You should give that horrid dress to the little Chinese girl.” Natalia threw the girl a mocking glare. “Though I don’t think the poor thing could fill out the chest.”
Katyusha frowned reproachfully, twisting her hands nervously before her. “Talia, dear…”
“The girl will go to the kitchen,” Ivan interrupted. He had no time for his sisters’ inanity, or for the insignificant girl with the flower in her hair. “The boy stays with me.”
At those words the boy turned red, his hands clenched into fists, and he took a firm step forward. “My name is Yao. I am not a child, I am sixteen years old. And as the lady said earlier, neither am I a slave. My sister’s name is Mei. We are here to work. We expect to be paid, and we expect to be treated with respect.”
A brief silence followed the words, before Natalia broke into high peals of laughter. “Sixteen, Vanya! And the little doll speaks Russian! Is his accent not pretty?”
Ivan smiled in agreement. “Pretty.” As pretty as his soft, bow-shaped lips; as his brave, empty words. Yao’s bold gaze faltered as Ivan’s grew deeper. Immediately, the hall felt too crowded. Ivan wanted the others gone. “Go.”
Ivan merely spoke the order, but his sisters reacted immediately. Natalia rolled her eyes and swept from the room, glowering fiercely at Yao one last time. Katyusha looked concerned as she took the girl’s hand. The girl stared wide-eyed at her brother, clutched at his hands, cried frantic words Ivan did not understand. Yao responded reassuringly, smiled and nodded, even as Katyusha spoke kindly and led the girl from the room. Always kind, always fretful, always obedient Katyusha.
The vast hall fell finally silent, the last of Katyusha’s nonsense words fading to echoes against the barren stone. Yao took a few moments to turn slowly back. His hands were still in fists; his eyes still wary. Ivan took slow, deliberate steps through the heavy air to stand before him, over him, so close Ivan’s coat brushed the tips of Yao’s shoes. Yao did not back away.
“Yao.” Ivan said it slowly, savoured the feeling of the word on his lips for the first time. He liked it. Short and fleeting: a soft yet strong beginning yielding to a gentle, almost lingering finish.
“Mei… my sister…” Yao’s chest rose and fell, an evident attempt to grasp for control. Ivan smiled at the futile effort. “I promised her we would not be separated.”
Ivan lifted one shoulder in an indifferent shrug. “You should not make promises you cannot keep, Yao.” Yao placed a hand to his mouth briefly, as though he was holding something back. On some strange impulse - one Ivan did not recognise and did not understand - he continued to speak. “She will be looked after. Katya is often tending to strays.”
Yao creased his smooth brow, parted his lips, drew his arms to his chest. He did not respond, so Ivan let the silence fall between them. There was so much you could tell from someone through silence. Ivan was intrigued to watch Yao thinking, to see him trying to comprehend. It was enthralling: the boy’s initial look of fury, his desperate glance back at the front entrance, the final resigned understanding on his face. The first of the winter snowdrifts were building against the door. The lost little cub had nowhere else to go.
But silence could only tell so much. Ivan reached out a hand, rested it in the air by Yao’s pale cheek. He could sense the warmth pulsing through Yao’s veins. “Why are you here in Saint Petersburg, little Yao?”
Yao’s dark, thin eyebrows drew together. He seemed at a loss for what to say. “I thought this was the old name, Saint Petersburg. Is not the city now called Leningrad?”
The smile fell immediately from Ivan’s lips. His hand closed in a fist. His very bones seemed to seize, a furious surge of anger filling his chest. He refused to call his city by that name. He refused even to acknowledge that name. Ivan gritted his teeth as he asked again, loud and demanding. “Why are you here in Saint Petersburg, little Yao?”
Yao flinched, then quickly blinked it away. He hastened to answer. “The journey is not a tale worth telling. These are desperate times. Men will do what they must when they are desperate.”
Ivan laughed bitterly. He expected such words. “Desperate enough to serve the broken nobility of Russia.” Since the revolution, domestic servitude was an underground practice – never spoken openly, never revealed to the world. But the Braginski mansion was trapped in the days of the Tsars, darkly defiant of a changing country. Tradition still lingered in this place, faded and broken.
Yao stared up at Ivan with a look now less fearful, yet tinged with uncertainty. His pale cheeks were darker now, his chest still rising and falling in that vain attempt for control. “Why do you speak like this?”
Ivan paused at that. Those words he did not expect. His brief anger fell away, his hand falling to rest lightly on Yao’s slight shoulder. “My words upset you?”
Yao looked warily at Ivan’s hand, then back into his eyes. “They confuse me. There is something behind them.”
Yao’s eyes were like fire. They looked too closely; they pierced too deep. For the first time Ivan could remember, he felt unsettled. He tightened his grip on Yao’s shoulder in response. “And do you always speak so plainly, Yao? Do we not all hide behind our words?”
Yao took a sharp breath, but did not shrink from Ivan’s clenching hold. “Only when we have something to hide.” Such remarkable composure. Ivan wondered what it would take to break it. “Truth is told not in word, sir, but in action.”
Ivan was both fascinated and disturbed. This little stranger had angered him, unsettled him, enchanted and surprised him, all in mere minutes. Ivan refused to allow him such control. “From now on, Yao - whether through word or action - there is nothing you can hide from me.”
Yao’s response trailed into silence when Ivan leant down slowly, touched his lips to Yao’s temple, inhaled the smell of him. Something young like newly-picked oranges, yet old like deep-forested trees in winter. Ivan let out a breath like a growl, and heard Yao’s own breathing quicken in response. It made him smile. “Are you afraid of me, Yao?”
Yao’s words came slower when he answered. He again drew his arms to himself, and his burning brow was beaded with sweat. “I… do not know yet.”
Intriguing. Ivan drew back slightly. “Do you think I will hurt you?”
Yao turned his face to Ivan. This close, his cheeks were aflame; his lips humid; his eyes startlingly dark. Ivan could hardly distinguish the pupil from the ink pool around it. Yao replied with defiant honesty. “Yes.”
“No.” Ivan gently released his grasp on Yao’s shoulder, brushed Yao’s hair from his collar. These clothes were too thin and ugly. Ivan would replace them with garments as silken as these black locks. Ivan would brush his hair and stroke his skin and control his insolent, charming words. “No, I do not hurt my things, Yao.”
“Things?” Yao’s features immediately twisted. He blinked alertly, spoke angrily, as though broken from a trance. “Who are you to speak to me so? Who are you to say any of this to me? These words of yours go too far, sir. I am notathing. I am most certainly not yours, and I…” Yao’s cheeks reddened as his speech tumbled from him, incensed and unchecked and useless. Ivan just smiled and ran his hand lightly down Yao’s arm. “I am here to work,” Yao continued, his voice rising apprehensively at the touch. “I do not know what sort of work you expect from me, but…”
Yao broke off with a gasp when Ivan abruptly gripped his wrist. Ivan tilted his head curiously, amusedly. Such pretty defiance. Such brave, angry words; so easily stifled. “No, Yao. You are not a thing.”
Yao’s dark eyes widened. Ivan could feel his blood throbbing beneath his skin. So thin; so breakable. Carefully yet firmly, Ivan took Yao’s fingers in his own and forced his clenched fist open. Yao parted his lips, but did not speak. Again he looked afraid, but this seemed a different fear than the last. Ivan pressed a kiss to Yao’s burning, open palm, keeping his eyes fixed on the unfathomable, inky darkness of Yao’s own. This defiance was nothing. Ivan had already decided: he wanted this boy. And Ivan always got what he wanted. “But you are mine.”
The memory slowly faded; the world came back, harsh and white and obscure. The wireless whispers still droned, futile and senseless. Ivan drew a very slow, very deep breath of air into his lungs. Then, with a hot rush of fury and a sudden, almost unbidden twitch of his arm, Ivan snatched the radio from his desk and hurled it to the ground. It splintered and shattered, bleeding a last high-pitched whine before finally falling silent. Ivan stared at the lifeless, broken pieces, feeling only brief, hollow satisfaction.
The word was spoken carefully, barely more than a whisper. Ivan looked up sharply. His Lithuanian stood uncertainly in the tent entrance, clutching a folder to his chest, a familiar look of fearful apprehension on his pretty face.
“Toris.” Ivan lifted his chin and gestured for the private to join him. Toris hesitated before doing so. Another day Ivan might have punished him for such a hesitation. But this pounding rage still boiled his blood, that taunting song still rang in his head, and he needed explanation. “These words.” Ivan gestured over the maddening papers on his desk. “What do they mean?”
Toris glanced at the papers briefly before answering. “Kalova requires reinforcements, sir. The Germans are retreating, and HQ requests that you send a battalion to take the village.”
Ivan raised an eyebrow. “Kalova?” The hot fury began to cool. There would be time enough for that in battle. The blood and the fury; the bitter, roaring chaos of it. Ivan relished his time of deafening, silent madness. “The little fortified village in the forest.”
Toris nodded hastily. “A prison unit will take the Germans’ place – there is only believed to be fifty men or so. It could easily be taken with a company or two.”
Ivan felt he could breathe again, the white haze clearing from the room. War and battle and death - this he knew. This he could understand. “A prison unit? Intriguing. ”
“An easy defeat.” Toris did not sound like he believed his words. “Our presence will hardly be required.” Poor, lost Toris, who felt so strongly and worried so much.
“Perhaps not so easy. No, I think I will handle this personally.” Ivan adjusted his scarf, twisted his lips in a smile, and ran a hand down his Lithuanian’s cold, pale cheek. Toris did not react. Ivan’s Lithuanian was pretty, yes, but his eyes were too light and his defiance long vanquished. “Do not underestimate desperate men, Toris.”
To be continued…
The rank of 'polkovnik’ is roughly equivalent to a colonel.