Francis likes being in control of his life.
There aren’t many people who would think so — in fact he can count on one hand the number of people who know this particular aspect of his personality.
He always looks like the spontaneous kind of man, the fun-loving guy who does everything just because he feels like doing it. And maybe there’s also some truth to this, maybe there are some things he does just for fun. Simple, little things that don’t really matter in the grand picture of his life.
The thing is, beyond all appearances, Francis needs to be in control of his own life. Francis needs to know where his life is going, needs to know what’s gonna happen next, needs to be certain who his friends are — and who his enemies are. Francis thinks twice before he speaks, thinks twice before he acts and is perfectly happy almost everyone else thinks he’s just annoying and foolish and a little bit dumb.
Being surrounded by, literally, a whole world that underestimates him has always been a great advantage.
Of course not every single one of them thinks he’s stupid, there are people who know him too well to trust his little tricks. Callum knows him too well, has known him for too many years and has never been fooled by his act — but that’s okay, he’s one of the few people Francis actually trusts. Antonio is his brother and of course he knows everything about him.
Ludwig always knew, and that had been a problem for a long time, until just recently. His father always knew the truth, but that doesn’t matter anymore — Father isn’t here anymore.
He’s fairly sure Arthur knows too — the perks of centuries of acquaintanceship and neighborhood — but he isn’t really certain. Arthur always acts like he sees Francis just like everybody else sees him, and then always does something to prove he knows that’s not the truth. Francis still isn’t sure if that’s just a coincidence or something else.
The fact is: he can count on one hand the number of people who really know him. And while everybody else underestimates him, Francis goes on micromanaging his life and making sure everything is perfect, just the way it should be.
To his great dismay, there are things he can’t control.
The first time Francis finds out about soulmates, he’s almost too young to care. A few crooked lines are starting to manifest on his lower back and while those lines aren’t enough to form even the smallest discernible mark, he still has questions.
His father talks about how those lines will eventually form various images of various things — like those blue tattoos we saw in Caledonia, father? he asks, feeling almost interested.
Rome laughs, with that fond look in his eyes that Francis loves so much, and honestly? He’s pleased he made his father laugh and everything else doesn’t really matter.
“In a way, yes. You’ll see different marks representing different things, and they’ll spread on your body and they could even change with time.”
“But why do we have these marks?” he asks, simply, climbing up on his father’s knees. Rome smiles again, ruffling his hair with one, callous hand.
“They’re meant to represent your soulmate.”
“My soulmate?” Francis suddenly perks up, bright eyes looking intently at Rome. “We have a soulmate too?”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“I thought only normal humans had soulmates. I didn’t think we did too.”
“We do,” Rome murmurs, suddenly looking sadder than he’d like. Francis looks at him with a questioning gaze and after a few seconds of silence, his father sighs. “There’s a chance your soulmate could be a mortal.”
“I don’t know why, kid. It’s cruel and unjust, I know, but that’s just how life is. It’s a small chance, though, in my whole existence I’ve only met one of us with a mortal soulmate.”
“But how do I know exactly who my soulmate is? And what if they don’t love me back — is that possible? That’s not possible, right? That would be—” Francis stops talking when he sees the sad look in Rome’s eyes. That look means it is possible.
“Life is complicated, Francis. You may not be able to recognize your soulmate. There’s the possibility you’re not the soulmate of your soulmate. You could have multiple soulmates and there are even people who don’t have one.”
“I really don’t like this.”
“It’s just something you need to know. This doesn’t mean you have to find your soulmate, you could just go on and live your life and be happy without one.”
But Rome looks into Francis’ eyes and it’s with deep sorrow in his heart he realizes the kid just wouldn’t be able to.
Nothing could have prepared Francis for what he feels like when the first discernible mark forms on his skin.
Spreading from his lower back there’s a tangle of dense arching stems, covered with prickles, with green leaves and small white flowers. He doesn’t really understand what kind of plant is that — or why there’s a plant growing on his back.
A few days later, some of the flowers have turned into small black fruits and Francis is even more skeptical.
“They’re blackberries, aren’t they, father? Why do I have blackberries on my back? What does that mean? Does this mean that my soulmate loves blackberries? I don’t understand.”
The first time Francis meets Arthur, he’s thinking about his soulmate. He’s not supposed to be there — his father warned him against wandering off the camp and Francis almost didn’t realize how far he went while he was thinking.
He winded up in a vast field and he doesn’t see its end nor its beginning. He supposes one could say he’s kind of lost. But that doesn’t matter: he’ll find the way back and his father will never know what happened. It’s not like there’s some kind of danger in a blooming field alongside the deep forest.
And that’s when Francis first think about his soulmate. There are several bushes full of blueberries, just like the ones on his lower back — just like the ones that are meant to represent his soulmate.
Francis still doesn’t know what those marks should really mean: does it means his soulmate really loves blueberries? Or does it mean something more figurative like his soulmate is both difficult because of the thorns and sweet because of the fruits?
Honestly, he finds this whole thing too much complicated for his taste. He just wants to know who his soulmate is and then go on with his life — or maybe he just wants to know how much and for how long he’ll have to suffer.
Or maybe he just wants to know who his soulmate is because there’s still a small chance he could be happy? In love with someone who loves him just as much as he does? With someone like him, someone who’ll live forever?
But his only clue is a stupid blueberry bush and there’s no way he could recognize his soulmate with only that.
And exactly while he’s cursing the whole universe and this whole task, he looks up towards the bushes and the forest and there’s someone there.
Francis fights to keep down a surprised yelp: he doesn’t know who the other boy is, he doesn’t know what the other boy wants. They’re in the middle of a military campaign and it’s possible the boy is not alone.
Francis doesn’t move, doesn’t talk — he just stares at the other boy and tries to figure out what he’s doing. He has blonde hair, is clearly one of the locals and seems to be very interested in picking all the blueberries he can found. Francis doesn’t move, doesn’t talk and a few minutes later, the other boy runs away.
He found a boy picking blueberries exactly while he was thinking about his soulmate. Is that a coincidence? Is that a sign from the universe? While he walks back to the camp, he can’t help but wonder if he will ever know the truth.
long distance bonding
In the midst of the stems, a lion rises.
The mark is very simple, very minimal. Francis looks at his own back in the mirror and slowly traces the outline of the animal. He brushes the few, black lines with his fingertips and marvels when he can almost see the lion leaping forward with a powerful roar.
The lion wears a crown, as simple as the rest of the tattoo, and Francis can’t help but wonder what could that mean.
I’ll ask Father, he quickly decides. Then he remembers that his father is gone and everyone he loved is far away and he’s alone, trying to survive the fall of everything he knew.
He can’t ask anyone — and in a situation like that, he shouldn’t even be thinking about something as foolish as this whole soulmate thing.
Francis covers the mirror and leaves his room, ignoring the feeling of the lion’s mark almost burning on his skin.
castles in the sky
It’s not until years later that Francis understands the impact of what he saw in that mirror. He still has the same tattoo: bushes of blueberries and a roaring lion with a crown, and it doesn’t matter that he still doesn’t know who his soulmate is.
Francis still has the same tattoo, centuries later. That means his soulmate is still alive, that means is soulmate is one of them, just like him.
He remembers his father explaining him how the marks fade and vanish when and if your soulmate dies. He remembers the day of his father’s death and Antonio’s tears and Byzantium’s cries of horror in front of the mirror — and he has to close his eyes and force that memory out of his mind. It’s too soon, it’s too early, it’s too painful.
His tattoo is still there, growing steadily from his lower back, and that means his soulmate is one of them. His soulmate could be someone he has already met, his soulmate could be someone he’ll eventually meet in the future.
Not that this makes any easier the task of finding out who his soulmate is: this whole interpreting marks that represent another person and figuring out who that is? Francis scoffs, feeling more disillusioned than ever.
There’s a chance he’ll never really understand.
Between bushes of blueberries and a roaring lion, grows a single stem with two roses, one white and one red.
Francis sits on his bed, right in front of the mirror, and asks himself once again if there’s any answer to that question, if there’s any truth to the thought he can't drive away.
Blueberries, a roaring lion, two roses. As much as he tries, Francis can’t stop thinking about one particular person who matches those characteristics.
Blueberries, a roaring lion, two roses; Francis sighs, running a hand trough his hair, trying not to look again at the mirror.
Blueberries, a roaring lion, two roses: there’s no sense in denying the truth any longer.
“Your tattoo,” Callum asks and it’s not really a question. Keeping his whole back hidden from the man he’s sleeping with is not exactly an easy job — Francis had tried for the first weeks and then simply decided he couldn’t do it anymore. He had been expecting that question for quite some time.
“Do you think it looks good on me?” nevertheless Francis tries to deflect the question hidden in the phrase, smiling warmly at Callum and leaning over to kiss him.
“Everything looks good on you,” he answers with the usual blunt tone, so different from the meaning of the phrase or the way he’s looking at him. Francis knows and loves him. “That’s not what I meant, though.”
“I think I’ll take your compliment anyway.”
“My brother is your soulmate.”
Those words hung in the air between them, dragging a tense silence behind. Callum is looking at him and Francis doesn't know where to look — doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t even know what to think.
“I think so,” he finally answers, even though Callum didn’t really ask anything. “I’ve known for a few years, but I think I’ve always suspected.”
Callum is still silent and Francis sighs wearily when he catches a glimpse of his tattoo in the mirror of their room.
“You haven’t told him.”
“Do you think I should tell him?”
“Do you want to tell him?”
“Not really. I don’t like to be vulnerable, you know that. And we both know he certainly doesn’t love me back,” Francis sighs again, avoiding Callum’s eyes. He doesn’t really want to admit aloud his feelings for Arthur, even though they both know. “But maybe I owe him th—”
“You don’t owe him jack shit, Francis. We don’t owe him jack shit,” Callum angrily interrupts him and Francis knows that resentment goes far beyond their relationship. He isn’t really involved in those brotherly matters — or rather he wasn’t until very recently.
“I could make you happy.”
“You make me happy.”
“But that’s not enough.”
“It’s enough for me. But it won’t be enough when you’ll understand who your soulmate is. Then I’ll be alone again.”
“I wouldn’t leave you alone,” Francis smiles because he knows this to be true and at the same time he knows that wouldn’t be enough for him.
Francis smiles sadly — but Callum kisses him and for a few moments everything is perfect.
When he’s alone again, the blueberries bushes disappear.
He panics, when this happens, remembering his father and Byzantium’s marks fading and everything he was taught. He panics and immediately thinks something must have happened to Arthur. But how could that be? England is fine, his country is doing more than fine and when he asks for news from the other side of the Channel, everything seems okay.
After a few weeks the blueberries are completely gone but between the roaring lion and the crown and the two roses, new marks are forming.
Francis looks in the mirror a servant is holding for him and carefully traces the outline of a skull, almost as minimal and geometrical as the lion.
A skull. Even in circumstances like these — between the anxiety of the last days and his worries and his usual heartache — Francis can't help but grin. A skull. This is so Arthur.
Francis doesn’t really like the sea. He’s always been partial to the countryside or a big, vivacious city. The sea? The sea is nice when you’re walking down a sunny beach or enjoying the beautiful view from a cliff.
Not when you’re on a ship in the middle of the sea and anything bad could happen, any moment now. No, thank you very much.
“So, you’re a buccaneer now?” he tries to focus on something other than his nausea or the way the ship rolls on the stormy sea. Damn his stupid idea and damn his stupid feelings.
“I prefer pirate.”
“You must be the only one who prefers being called a pirate.”
Arthur sighs, impatient, without even looking at Francis. He didn’t want him there, that much was very clear. Unfortunately for him, Francis knows his way around people.
“I don’t understand why you’re here.”
“I told you, diplomatic issues. And I wanted to... check on you.”
“Why, were you hoping I was dying?”
Francis closes his eyes for a moment, trying to hold down the wave of feelings and memories those words just brought back. Arthur doesn’t seem to notice what’s happening and just keeps spitting out malicious words. “No, you wouldn’t be here if you knew I was dying. You’d be getting ready to take away everything I have. Like everybody else.”
“That’s unfair. We have our history, I know, but-“
“But what? You’re just a lying thief, like everybody else in the whole fucking world.”
“You’re being paranoid, Arthur.”
“I’m being paranoid because I have to be paranoid!” and it doesn’t take a genius to know there’s something wrong with Arthur.
They don't talk again and the marks on Francis’ back grow and grow and grow. The tattoo takes more space and expands and Francis can't help but think that this happens because he can't keep under control his own feelings.
He never felt so alone in centuries of existence. The whole world is trying to survive and he’s trying to survive too — and that means that blood ties or friendship don’t mean anything to anyone. He sees enemies everywhere and yet can’t stop thinking, can’t stop fantasizing about what could be.
His back is now filled with thorns and briers and Francis doesn't really understand what that could mean.
Sometimes he feels like years have passed by without him even existing. He doesn’t remember things that happened, people he met, speeches he made, decisions he supported.
Not that his decisions matter, really. Francis remember his father reminiscing about a time when he could really take the reins of his own country, of his own empire.
Francis never knew such a time: he was too young and then too old. His entire existence feels like this: too young to care and then too old and tired.
He wonders if Antonio feels the same way, if anybody else in the world feels the same way. He wonders if Arthur feels the same way — he wonders what Arthur feels all the time.
He wonders once again if he should share his feelings with him, if he should tell Arthur about his marks. Francis doesn’t think, not even for a second, that Arthur could reciprocate his feelings. That’s not the point, that’s not why there’s a part of him that wants to tell Arthur.
He wonders if telling him would make anything simpler. Arthur would exploit his weakness in ways he doesn't even have the strength to imagine, but maybe that would really be simpler. Easier. Maybe he would just… stop existing? And then again, what’s the point of living an eternity alone?
“For God’s sake, France, stop staring at me and just sign those damn papers.” Arthur looks angry and smug at the same time and Francis really, fucking hate himself.
He can’t control his feelings and sometimes he’s not sure he can control anything else.
War comes, faster than before, bloodier than before, and Francis is once again alone. A first war comes and then another one, and even in his sanest state of mind Francis can't tell which one is worst.
His tattoo changes once again, subtly and almost indiscernibly: the thorns slowly cover everything else and keep on growing on his back. The skull is still there, the roses are still there, the lion is still there — until the crown disappears.
He notices too late, when the crown is already been gone for a while, and for weeks he can’t muster enough strength to wonder what that could possibly mean.
Then again, there are days in which he can't even remember he has a soulmate.
There are things Francis can’t control. He thought he could control everything, once, when he was young and foolish and surrounded by love and affection and a family.
He knows, now, that the things he can actually control are few and so very unimportant.
America is talking incessantly since the beginning of that meeting and Francis isn't really listening — partly because he’s thinking about other things and partly because he really doesn't appreciate this whole benevolent leader of the world act that is going on. Centuries of existence have made him wary.
Francis can feel a tirelessly gaze fixed upon him from the other side of the room and it doesn't matter how much he tries to ignore it, the lump in his throat doesn’t go away.
Germany has been looking at him since the beginning of the meeting, probably thinking he’s doing an impeccable job at being subtle. Francis can feel his hands shaking and he quickly hides them under the table.
Germany shouldn’t be there. There are at least three people who shouldn’t be in that room with them, but at least two of them don’t have the nerve to stare at him.
Francis can feel his control slipping away. He’s already struggling to breathe and he doesn’t even dare close his eyes because he already knows what would happen — he knows the bitter taste of his memories and the screams and the blood and the loud noises.
There are so many things he can’t control, but the way others see him is not one of them. The perceptions of the whole world is not one of them. He still does have the upper hand, they never stopped and never will stop thinking about him as a spineless idiot and this? This, he can work with.
“This meeting is so boring. I’m gonna go outside and find a nice glass of wine and possibly my will to continue,” he doesn’t really wait for an answer — he certainly isn’t asking for permission — and just leaves the room.
He knows they won’t follow him. He knows they’ll continue their meeting and probably roll their eyes at his bratty, childish behavior. He knows he’ll be scolded and he doesn't really care.
The wall is solid and hard and real against his back.
Francis breathes in and breathes out, pushes his shoulders against the wall and tries to ground his body. Francis breathes in and breathes out and doesn't really notice when Arthur leaves the room and stands in front of him.
“Are you okay?”
“What? Me? Of course, why wouldn’t I?” he tries to smile and to fake it but Arthur isn’t that blind.
“You are so fucking stupid, Francis,” but that sentence doesn't even have the smallest amount of annoyance in it. “I don’t want them there, too. I know you feel the same way. I know... I know it’s hard.”
Arthur sits next to him and puts his jacket on Francis’ shoulder like that’s a common thing between them. Francis doesn’t really know how to react but he sure knows he’s looking foolish — with his eyes wide open and his dumb silence.
“It’s okay, I won't tell anyone. Come find me if this happens again. You shouldn’t do this alone.”
Eventually, things get better.
It takes years but his nightmares stop and the loneliness he felt almost goes away. Antonio comes back from his own dark place and they’re able to put aside everything that happened between them and just be brothers again. He manages to talk to Ludwig and put aside their shared past, too. Callum is once again by his side and everything feels almost perfect again.
Except the loneliness doesn't really go away.
Francis still looks at his back in the mirror every morning, still brushes the tattoo with his fingertips, still feels that hole inside of his chest.
One day the thorns on his back start gradually retreating, becoming less and less in number. The lion now roars in all its glory and the roses aren’t weighed down anymore.
Francis still doesn't understand what all of this means.