Catalyst

Francis was not himself when he appeared at Arthur's door, eyes staring at the cracks in the stone step, at the rusting railing, at the peeling red paint of the door but not at Arthur, anywhere but Arthur. The sun slanted through slate gray clouds behind him, casting his face in shadow. A haunted face.

He stood, shoulders slumped, crusted in every type of filth, eyes such a dark blue that they burned. He looked small and pitiful, standing before Arthur without his usual bright smile. Without his sexuality drawn around him like a protective cloak. And Arthur was forcibly reminded of the small child he used to be. Weak and tender.

Arthur couldn't imagine the hell, not for a moment, that Francis had been through, and cursed himself for even attempting relaxation, rest that he couldn't achieve for the ache in his bones, with a cup of tea.

"Come in." he whispered gently, standing aside. Francis didn't move himself, just stared at the hardwood floors, hands curled loosely at his sides, his bottom lip was worried and bitten, dry and chapped. Without another word, Arthur took him by the hand, felt a thrill of joy when slim fingers tightened around his, and pulled him into the house.

"Let's get you cleaned up." He spoke as though to a child, leading him into the bath room. Slowly, so slowly because he didn't want to startle him, he pulled off the filthy uniform. Francis remained limp and weak in his hands, allowing the jacket to come off and be tossed asides, allowing his pants to be pulled off. He was dirty even underneath the clothes.

Arthur left Francis standing there, bending over the tub to test the heat of the water and feeling worry twist in his gut the longer they stood in silence. Francis wasn't looking at him. His blue gaze, sometimes light and sometimes dark and sometimes swirling, didn't burn over his body. Francis wasn't himself.

Francis was a ghost.

"In you get." Arthur murmured, helping Francis into the tub of warm water where he sat, staring at the polished white porcelain and the seashells on the tiles but not at Arthur. Never at Arthur. So Arthur grabbed a wash cloth, and started at the feet.

Bleeding blistered bruised feet. He wiped the grime off, moved higher, dipping the cloth back into the water. Francis's legs, long pretty and pale skinned legs were blackened with the bruises and the cuts and Arthur was tempted to ask "what did you do, swim across the channel?" but said nothing, because Francis wasn't looking at him. Francis didn't see him.

Francis sat dull and lifeless, allowing Arthur to smooth water over his arms, across his chest, revealing scars that would certainly scar. Revealing wounds that cute deeper than they should. Revealing wounds that would haunt Francis for as long as he lived.

Gently, so gently because he didn't want to cause any more pain, Arthur wiped the mud from his brow. Across the bridge of his nose, around the curve of his unnaturally pale cheek.

He flinched when Francis finally looked at him, so broken and so small and so old that Arthur just wanted to hold him tight and promise that he would be his knight in black armor, just like when he had been a child.

"Petit lapin." Francis whispered so needily, with such forced desire that it made Arthur's heart break. He leaned forward, lips parted in open invitation, eyes glowing the blue of the Seine, swirling with pain and anguish and sadness. Arthur took the invitation, dropping the wash cloth to the water to tangle his fingers in Francis's dirty hair, pressing their lips together and pulling him close.

Francis broke then, and the tiniest cry escaped his lips. And another. And another still until the tears wouldn't stop and his pathetic whimpers echoed in the tiled room. Arthur could do nothing except hush him, rock him back and forth as Francis had for him when he was a child, whisper comforting words in his ear and kiss the top of his dirty head.

"Hush now, poppet, it'll be over by Christmas." He had to believe that, because one more moment with the Francis who was not his Francis, and he would break. "It'll be all over by Christmas."

He wanted to go back to a time when Francis had been a demon, when he had been an empire, when the world hadn't been so helplessly complicated. Because it wasn't right, soothing the man who had kissed away his tears for centuries. It wasn't right seeing him cry.

Things seemed so irreversibly changed now.

Owari