Disclaimer: I do not own Hetalia
The heavens' assault was relentless. Water poured out of the sky like the tears of millions of angels, mourning over the listlessness and agony that was the condition of living in a small town, outside of a small city, in an area so tame and unperturbed that, had a liberal arts university not been planted in it, it might have gone uninhabited…-
Francis Bonnefoy shook his head, wondering why it was that all his most lyrical thoughts came when a pen and paper were just out of his reach. The rain continued to beat on his head and he held his bag securely to his chest, willing the water to stay away from it even as the rest of his body was sopping. He was not about to lose another handwritten manuscript to the uncaring wiles of Mother Nature.
Finally he spotted a bright orange light glowing in the distance, one that he presumed did not come from a home or office because of its potency. Inhaling deeply, he burst forward with the little power remaining in his legs (and could feel the skin of his feet start to prune inside his wet socks) and rushed toward it.
It was a café. Shifting the wet bundle under his arm, he pulled the door open and stepped in. Instantly his frozen bones were caressed with the warmth of the large room and when he pushed the wet, limp hair away from his eyes he found that he wasn't the only one who'd found asylum in the shop.
"Got caught in the storm, huh?" A voice addressed him, and when he looked up he was face to face with an amused grin. The waitress took a step back, long brown hair fluttering behind her, and passed him a small, clean face towel.
"Merci beaucoup, mademoiselle," he smiled, taking the towel and blotting at his wet skin. "I assume I'm not the first to come in dripping with rain?"
"Not quite," she chirped. "Unfortunately for you, they took all the seats by the radiator."
Francis laughed at his own misfortune, deciding that wet clothes weren't such an awful tragedy when he was in presence of such beautiful company. After he blotted himself down sufficiently, he handed the towel back to the waitress and flashed her his signature charming, debonair smile.
"My name is Francis."
"Elizaveta," she replied, rolling her eyes. "I'm taken."
"What a shame…"
"And," Elizaveta continued, ignoring him entirely, "we've got a special today! For all our drenched customers, a small hot coffee is only ninety-nine cents."
A quick check of the menu board confirmed Francis' suspicion that ninety-nine cents was the normal price of a small hot coffee, but either way the offer sounded good to his frigid fingers.
"I'll bring it right to ya, so have a seat!" Elizaveta turned to head back to the counter, but then she stilled and leaned in. "Oh, here's a tip; take a seat by the stage. We've got a poetry reading starting up soon, and you'll want spot up front."
This time she did head for the counter, and Francis heeded her advice with a bit of excitement. He made a mental note to remember the name of this shop, whose warm orange lights and soothing vanilla scent made him feel more at home than even his own apartment did. As he sat down his bag thumped against his thigh, and he remembered at once the loose-leaf binder inside. Warding off the trepidation, he decided finding out the fate of his novella could wait.
Elizaveta placed the small coffee cup on the table, darting quickly away to tend to the customers who were just coming in (they, the lucky bastards, happened to be putting their umbrellas away in the rack, their clothing as dry as a desert). Picking up the paper cup, Francis leaned back into his set and took a whiff of the drink. Ah…
Then the lights in the café dimmed, and Francis sat up in tired half-alarm. But then the lights over the stage clicked on, and again he relaxed, taking his first sip and feeling the warmth spread to the tips of his toes.
A mousey boy stepped up to the stage. The writer in Francis immediately started taking notes: thin strawberry blond curls that hung down around his chin, long legs that were probably well toned, judging by the way they just barely made themselves known in his slightly too-loose jeans, a red pullover sweatshirt that was so large it looked as if it was eating the sinewy boy. His hands, or what could be seen of them from beneath his sleeves, had long, full fingers, and he was clutching a paper so tightly in them that the wrinkles were visible where Francis was sitting. When he finally got to center stage and looked up, Francis was surprised by how sharp his eyes were, even though they felt soft around the edges. All at once he got the sense that this boy made judgments and had angers, but internalized everything.
"You're sad because you're sad."
The boy started. The first line was powerful, finite, as though he was reminding his audience of an unfortunate truth. Something in Francis sank at the emotion and honesty the boy relayed, and he was almost surprised by the yearning that one simple line evoked in him. But Francis did not have very long to ponder on that, because after he took a deep breath the boy continued.
"It's psychic. It's the age. It's chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
Or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
You need to sleep.
He paused again for another breath, and in that stanza Francis could hear the uncertainty and nerves starting to bleed into his reading.
"Well, all children are sad
But some get over it.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
Buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget."
The boy looks up, and suddenly his eyes, so odd a shade of blue they almost appear violet, are looking right into Francis' when he recites the next piece.
Your sadness, your shadow,
Whatever it was that was done to you
The day of the lawn party
When you came inside flushed with the sun,
Your mouth sulky with sugar,
In your new dress with the ribbon
And the ice-cream smear,
And said to yourself in the bathroom…"
His breath hitched. He'd been reading too fast, speeding up as the lines of the stanza came at him, and on the last one he faltered. Breaking the eye contact, he shut his eyes and licked his lips, regaining composure.
"And said to yourself in the bathroom,
I am not the favorite child."
There was a pause, and the white noise that came from the stage lights was the only sound to be heard. No one was drinking their coffee, picking up their forks or looking through their papers. Nothing lived in the shop but the boy and his poem.
"My darling, when it comes
Right down to it,
And the light fails and the fog rolls in
And you're trapped in your overturned body
Under a blanket or burning car,
And the red flame is seeping out of you
And igniting the tarmac beside your head
Or else the floor, or else the pillow,
None of us is;
Or else we all are."
The boy bowed with his head softly, and the people of the café exploded back to life with the boom of their applause. On stage the blond was flushed, an embarrassing smile fighting his shy lips.
Francis found himself grateful that this was not one of those places where people snapped to show approval.
"Thank you," he murmured into the microphone, a lock of hair brushing against his lips and caressing his cheek as he moved to rest in its place again. "Thanks."
He fluttered off the stage awkwardly, as though his body was trying to function despite the collision of nerves and relief flowing in his legs, or so Francis imagined they would be.
As he picked up his coffee drink, Francis imagined himself holding the boy in his embrace, kissing and stroking the features the other was masking so well with his clothes and posture; a simple test Francis had devised to figure out if a person of interest was worth pursuit.
To his surprise, the image turned itself into something new; himself, the other boy (man, rather, because he had more muscle under that sweater than Francis expected) in his lap, and them two crooning whispered lines of poetry and soft alliterations as their hands made paths down each other's bodies…
Blinking in wonder, Francis turned to the bag at his side and opened it, reaching in anxiously for the pages of his story-
Not a single smudge of ink had bled. Francis' heart soared.
Francis was back in Nymphaea the very next afternoon.
Sure, he had lingered the day before and listened to the other recitations with a distant politeness. His mind had been elsewhere entirely, mostly wondering about the boy with the sad stature and even sadder soul. It puzzled him how someone so timid and unknown could entice him the way harlots and sirens only ever had.
The shop was significantly less crowded, but Francis was not surprised to see that it was still full of college students, gossiping over pretty pieces of cake. He smiled as he sauntered up to the counter, where Elizaveta was working on a fresh pot of coffee.
"Bonjour!" Francis started cheerily, and she turned around with a coffee pot in one hand. Elizaveta smiled, putting it down on the machine and leaning against the counter.
"Hello yourself, Mister Francis. Do I sense a regular customer?"
"Perhaps," he answered cryptically. "I actually came to ask you a question."
"We do have a question fee. Ninety-nine cents, and I'll even throw in a free hot coffee, just for you."
Francis rolled his eyes, smiling amusedly as he pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket. She slid a penny and his coffee across the counter, then gestured for him to take the nearby seat.
"So, what's on your mind?"
"That boy who was in here reading poetry yesterday…" he started slowly, his thumb circling around the rim of his paper cup. "Who was he?"
"The first one. Strawberry blond? A bit… mousey?"
"Ah," Elizaveta smiled as she wiped down the counter. "You mean Matt."
"Matthew Williams," she explained. "He's in here quite often when we have poetry readings, actually. Though yesterday's poem was a bit more melancholy than usual. I wonder if he's doing all right…"
Francis hummed, blowing on the drink and slurping a small sip of it. It was scalding, and his tongue was unhappy, but the burn didn't last.
"Why do you ask, anyways? Got your eye on the cutie already?"
Francis smiled deviously, dropped the penny in the tips jar, and tip his imaginary hat before moving to a seat by the window.
The next Wednesday, the next poetry reading day, Francis took the very same seat before the small stage, coffee and a slice of vanilla cream cake on the table before him. He picked at the confection, eating it in small bites so as to savor the rich, beautiful taste of it. It was no wonder this café was so popular among students.
Matthew was not the first to read this week, to Francis' immense displeasure. He had to sit through three other readings, fingers of his left hand tapping at the wooden tabletop in boredom and anticipation.
Finally the sinewy boy walked up to the microphone, and Francis could tell immediately that he was not as plagued by his emotions as he had been the previous week. His hands held the paper bearing the poem lightly, his mesmerizing violet eyes scanning over the page once before he began.
"We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.
And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.
Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain."
Throughout the reading his voice remained steady, but his eyes were far off for its entirety. As he applauded with the rest of the coffeehouse goers, Francis wondered if perhaps Matthew might be reading this poem for a special someone. The thought pained him, not so much because of an infatuation he may have been harboring, which over the course of the week was cultivated by his various waking and slumbering dreams, but because it was depressing to think that love could end up so tasteless.
It sounded too much like own Francis' life, too. That might have been what made it the most painful...
Matthew bowed his head humbly again, and a soft smile tugged at the corners of his lips, wrinkled the corners of his eyes. When he lifted his head again Francis waved at him, and gestured to the seat beside him.
Visible from the stage was Matthew's confusion. He blinked, eyebrows furrowing, and walked off to make room for the next person. He did not come to sit at Francis' table.
Francis was dejected (but what did you expect, really, you must have come off as a creep to him with your too large smile and eager gestures); he could not even focus on the next few readings as he twirled his fork absently in his fingers.
And then the reading was over. People slowly started to empty out of the shop, coffees and confections having long been finished, and that's when Francis saw him again, sitting in a corner booth. Sitting alone.
He paused and deliberated. There was no doubt that he was coming on strongly, and Francis knew from experience that most people were turned off by an obsessive pursuer. But he knew nothing about Matthew, other than those things he could tell by looking at him, and those he could surmise based on his choice in poetry. If he let this opportunity slip past, there was always the chance no other one would come up. And the thought of losing so attractive a man without even saying a word to him was difficult, no, impossible, to wrap his mind around.
Gathering his resolve, Francis walked over to the booth and cleared his throat. Unnecessarily, as Matthew had looked up once the other's shadow appeared on the table.
"Excuse me," Francis started softly, giving the other a gentle smile. He tried to hold back the charm, the flirt; it was too soon. "I hope I did not frighten you, earlier."
"O-Oh," Matthew answered just as softly, shaking his head, his curls bobbing back and forth. "No, it's fine."
Francis allowed his smile to grow.
"My name is Francis Bonnefoy. I could not help but notice, but you have a beautiful voice…"
"Matthew Williams," he answered, blushing high in his cheekbones. His well defined cheekbones, hiding under his glasses but all too noticeable, beautiful, from this close. "A-And, thank you…"
"Do you mind if I sit with you? I hope it's not terribly forward, but you seem like such interesting conversation."
And now Francis was aware that his charm was bleeding through, but he could no longer keep it at bay. How awful was it, that he wanted his boy's acceptance so much he could no longer control his greatest asset?
But Matthew did not seem affronted or distressed, only confused. His blush deepened to a bold crimson color, same as that of the wristband he was wearing, of the sweatshirt he'd had on the previous week. He smiled, shyly, adorably, and nodded.
"No, I don't mind…"
Forgetting about the coffee and cake he'd left behind on his table, Francis scooted into the booth.
Over the next two weeks, Francis met Matthew in Nymphaea six times. They shared stories over their small hot coffees and slices of cake, vanilla for Francis and maple for Matthew. Matthew learned that Francis was a creative writing major, that his mother was from Normandy and his father was from Nice, and that he loved warm blankets and couches that could swallow you.
Francis learned that Matthew was born in the backseat of his father's minivan, a short three minutes before his twin brother, as his parents were trying to return home after a trip to his Canadian family. He learned that Matthew was majoring in English literature, minoring in French literature, and that he was in college as far from his brother as he could manage, but it was only three hundred miles. He learned that Matthew turned red under his eyes first when he was embarrassed, that the color then spread down and out from there.
"Matthew," Francis started casually one afternoon. The sun was streaming in through the window beside them, illuminating their little booth. To Francis it felt as if they were in their own world; he wondered if Matthew felt that, too, or if he even wanted to.
"Hm?" the other replied, his fork in his mouth and a crumb of cake at the corner of his lip. It took a considerable amount of willpower on Francis' part not to thumb it away, or better.
"I was curious. That poem you read the first time I was in here… what inspired you to read it, exactly?"
What inspired your heartbreak?, he was asking. What led to your feeling inferior…?
"Which poem?" Matthew asked when he swallowed, setting his fork down. The way he rubbed his lips together made Francis entertain the idea that he knew which poem, and was trying to feign ignorance. Knowing that he was pushing buttons, Francis pushed ahead nonetheless.
"I am not the favorite child."
"Oh," Matthew said softly. "That poem."
He leaned back into the cushioned bench of the booth, his eyes falling shut for a moment.
"I've told you about Alfred, yes?"
"Yes. But I find it hard to believe that he is as great as you make him out to be. Or that he was the one who put you in such pain."
"He wasn't," Matthew answered simply. "At least, not directly."
He sighed, rubbing his eyes under his glasses, before beginning his story in a gentle murmur.
"All throughout high school there was a girl. Katyusha Braginskya. She was… really beautiful. Soft, feminine..." he trailed off, his cheeks becoming pink. "But she was more than just that. She was also really nice. She liked to sit in the bleachers with me and read poetry while our brothers fought it out on the football field. She liked to listen to me talk… to anyone, really. And she was always warm, always giving…"
"You were smitten," Francis supplied. He was unsurprised to find there was a smidgen of jealousy in this realization, but something about Matthew's melancholy tone made it hard to dwell on that.
"I let her go, though," the other answered. "I had a lot of chances with her, to ask her out, but I kept choking on the words and putting it off. And she kissed my cheek on graduation, too, and I still couldn't say those words."
Matthew turned his head to the window, sunlight streaming on his face and making his hair glow. He was really beautiful, Francis realized again. Even when he was hurting he was beautiful, which was a sad thought to have. Francis wondered if that thought was coming out of love, or if it was the voice of his many part heartbreaks.
"Alfred said them. The weekend before that day, we were on the phone. He told me… she's his girl now."
Oh, Matthew, Francis' heart cried.
"It was just… just another person who picked Alfred over me…"
Francis did not say a word as he slid a rough café napkin across the table. He did not make a sound of acknowledgment when he heard Matthew sniffle and saw the napkin vanish behind his long nose. He didn't say anything until Matthew turned back around, his face glowing a different sort of red.
"I must look so pathetic," he lamented. "Crying over a girl I gave up. If anything… they are really good for one another. She's kind and forgiving, and he's… well, he's dorky and sweet. They fit."
Francis did not answer immediately, as he had to fight the impulse to reach over and touch Matthew's hand, or chest, or to kiss his lips that crumb of cake was still there.
"Matthew, I would appreciate it very much if you would meet me here again this Friday."
"H-Huh? Of course I will-"
"-But, only on the condition that you will join me in calling it a date."
Matthew froze, and Francis found his breath had stopped, just for a moment.
"I'm afraid I don't… think I understand…"
Francis laughed, finally releasing that breath, and found Matthew's warm fingers opposite his on the tabletop.
"I have been trying to express an interest in you. Please tell me it did not all go over your head." Please, tell me you want this too.
It took another moment before Matthew's fingers closed around Francis', and then he smiled too.
"I didn't want to assume," he laughed breathlessly. "But it was so hard not to. You're horrible at hiding."
And Francis laughed again, squeezing Matthew's fingers.
"If any of us has the right to be complaining about the other, right now, it is me. You could have said something."
Matthew shrugged noncommittally, but his small smile was still in place. He pulled his hand back, grabbing his backpack and slinging it over a shoulder.
"See you Friday, Francis."
"I will see you then."
By the time Matthew got to the café on Friday, Francis had already claimed their small booth, and there was already a small coffee and slice of maple cake waiting for him. This was nothing new; Friday was the day Francis had no classes, and often when they agreed to meet the first to arrive would order for the other.
This time, though, his place was set beside Francis', and not opposite it.
"H-Hi," he murmured, nervously slipping into the booth beside the other. Francis was sure to maintain a space between them, even though he wanted nothing more than to have Matthew in his embrace, because he wasn't sure if that would be moving too quickly. Francis had never dated a person so calm and fragile before.
Matthew smiled, picking up his fork and twirling it in his fingers. Then, suddenly, he chuckled and shook his head.
"God, I'm more nervous than I should be, I think."
"Why?" Francis countered softly, stirring his coffee for the sole purpose of giving his fingers something to do.
Matthew shrugged a bit, putting his fork down.
"As I'm sure you've probably guessed, I haven't really gone on many dates before. Or, you know, any."
"None? I find that hard to believe."
And the truth was that Francis did find that hard to believe. Certainly, he imagined, Matthew must have been quiet throughout high school, but there was still a sensitivity and quiet happiness there that had to have attracted someone to him.
Matthew, as if realizing where Francis' thoughts were going, continued.
"Well, it's not like they hated me, I guess. Mostly I slipped under the radar, but I did find a love note in my locker once. No one ever owned up to it, though, so nothing ever came of it."
Francis frowned. "Hm. Well, I suppose in that case I will have to put you more at ease…"
With a soft smile that could be seen as teasing (but only because it was), Francis placed his open palms on Matthew's shoulders. Instantly he tensed, but as Francis shushed him softly in his ear, fingers kneading into the tired joint, Matthew's shoulders slumped just as quickly.
"F-Francis," he stammered, looking around at the other café patrons. "What if someone sees…?"
"No one will think anything of it, "Francis reassured him kindly. "But if you are truly uncomfortable, I will stop."
Matthew hesitated, worrying his bottom lip in his teeth, before sighing and pulling out from under Francis' hands. Dutifully those long fingers were pulled into Francis' lap to keep him from touching the other again.
"L-Later," Matthew promised in a hushed tone. "For now can we just… talk? I don't really know much about you."
Francis grinned, touching Matthew's forearm (he couldn't help himself, really, not when the other was so close and smelled so strongly of soap and maple and warmth-) as he picked up his coffee cup with the other hand and took a sip.
"Well, what would you like to know?"
Matthew hummed, poking at his cake and taking a small bite off the end of the slice.
"I know you're really popular, and a lot of people like you, but do you have any really close friends?"
Francis laughed. "Trust me, Matthew, I am not quite as popular as you imagine me to be. As for friends-" he continued, cutting the other off when he opened his mouth to protest. "-I have two. Gilbert Beilschmidt and Antonio Carriedo. The three of us were practically, as you might say, attached at the hip. We've been friends our entire lives; our mothers, interestingly enough, all attended the same pre-natal classes."
"Wow. Sounds like me and Al, but without the struggle of sharing everything."
"Yes, well… I wish those two could have been my brothers. It would have been well worth it, even with the fights and the sharing."
Matthew hummed, putting another bite of cake in his mouth, but it was obvious his thoughts were elsewhere. Francis sighed, taking another sip of coffee.
"Is it my turn to ask you a question, then?"
Matthew nodded, also taking a long sip of his coffee.
"Have you ever had sex?"
The coffee came spewing out into a napkin, as Matthew coughed it out in shock.
"W-What a personal question…" he managed, cheeks coloring instantly.
"You can ask me something personal next," Francis offered. Matthew frowned, wiping the coffee off his chin, and sighed.
"Of course not. I already told you I haven't ever been on a date."
Francis shrugged, though in truth he had only asked to get that reaction out of the other. "These days the latter is not a prerequisite for the former."
"W-Well, it is for me…"
"We're on a date right now."
Matthew hesitated, his violet eyes scanning Francis' own for confirmation that the innuendo was there. Francis raised an eyebrow and smirked, and Matthew looked away again.
"We are," he agreed. "It's my turn to ask a question, so… have you ever fallen in love?"
There was silence, then, before a small, delicate smile tugged at the corners of Francis' mouth.
"Trust you to realize how truly personal that question is," he conceded. "You are really something, Matthew Williams."
Matthew rolled his eyes, his cheeks still pink. "J-just answer it… please?"
"Alright. The answer is, as you probably expect, yes."
Matthew nodded, but Francis found he could not continue. Unbidden memories came from out of from the depths of his mind, of sweet smells, tender touches, and cooed sweet nothings that actually meant something.
"It was a doomed love," he what he finally said when his voice returned. "It has been over for a long time."
Matthew did not say anything right away. When he did speak, his tone was full of thought.
"The wound is still fresh, though… you still have feelings for that person. It's not over for you."
Francis shrugged. He contemplated telling Matthew about the unfortunate demise of that relationship, and about why he was so invested in it still, why there was no closure, but a first date-date hardly felt like the occasion for such a confession as 'the person I loved passed away'.
"Have you ever considered becoming a writer, Matthew? I think you would be excellent at it."
"No, I wouldn't. I've thought about and I tried it before but I just… can't make the words work. I mean, when other people write, and I read it, I get what they're saying. I can understand the emotions, the metaphors… But then when I grab and pen and start writing, everything just comes out so… literal."
"There's nothing wrong with being literal."
"It feels silly. And… childlike. I can't evoke emotions, I have to explicitly say them, and…"
Francis took another sip of his coffee, and when he put it down on the table he placed his hand on Matthew's thigh.
"Next time you write something, I think I would like very much to read it."
Matthew nodded shyly, and then Francis continued. "It is your turn to ask me something."
"Hm. Do you have any bad habits I should know about?"
Amused and pleased at that, Francis tapped his fingers against the tabletop.
"I have a habit of walking around him home without clothes on."
Francis paused to relish in the embarrassed blush that graced Matthew's cheeks, because he knew the other was not expecting that.
"Figures. Anything else?"
"I smoke," Francis confessed. "Not very often, but it is something that people may find a turn off."
Matthew's nose was wrinkled in obvious distaste. "You should quit. It's not good for your health."
Francis chuckled softly, twining his fingers with Matthew's under the warm café table. It was a promise, not to quit smoking, but to try.
And, a week later, when the young couple stood under the awning of Nymphaea, the only safe haven from the soft drizzle that filled the air around them, Matthew put his hands on Francis' forearms. Francis paused, and then, after stepping on his old cigarette butt to make sure it was out, he leaned in and took Matthew's lips in a delicate kiss.
And they kissed as the rain fell around them, Matthew tasting of maple and honey, so addicting Francis did not want to pull away until his lungs burned. He noticed with pleasure that Matthew did not seem to want to pull away, either.
And when they did finally separate their lips, their arms still full of each other, Matthew laughed and rested his head on Francis' chest.
"If we are going to do that again, you have got to quit smoking."
Francis laughed, and realized that this was love.
A/N: The two poems that Matthew read are, in order, A Sad Child by Margaret Atwood, and Coming to This by Mark Strand. Both of these writers are, quite appropriately, Canadian poets.
I tried my best to keep these two in character, but quite honestly the fic was writing itself and I just went with it. I hope the fic turned out to everyone's liking!