The night is a quiet one, training wrapping up early than usual because Haschwalth wants to make sure he has time to return to his Majesty’s side for the evening. Cang Du is grateful for that. The Iron is a powerful Schrift but after continuous and jarring strikes, he thought the metal of his skin would crack and Bazz-B has grown a fondness for seeing how hot he can burn Cang Du’s skin before it starts to become uncomfortable. It becomes a race against time to turn as much of himself into steel as he can to stop Bazz from burning the skin next to the metal. It is not a race Cang Du likes to run.
Tonight, he walks through the streets of their shadow city and breathes in the night air and the reishi and feels it curl slow and sure through his veins. For a long moment, he has no idea where he is wandering too. His legs are tired and his limbs are heavy and nothing sounds quite as good to him as sleep does right now. An ambrosia for the fatigue that wraps around him when he has spent far too long inside of the wrong skin.
He finds himself wandering to the garden where he knows As Nodt prays, instead.
Perhaps it is the fact the two of them are quiet and keep to themselves when they are left to their own devices. Cang Du watches him, sometimes, lingers behind the shrubbery and the flowers and watches him kneel in the softness of the grass, hands pressed together, head turned toward the moon glittering silver above his head. His cape billows around him, glowing in the light, pale white and almost too bright to look upon. In contrast, his black hair is a violent strike against his coat, against the moonlight.
From there, Cang Du can see his eyes are closed. He can trace the shape of As Nodt’s mask fixed to his jaw, hiding the shape of his mouth and nose beneath.
He wonders who As Nodt prays to. When he was a child, Cang Du believed in nothing but sheer survival, clawing his way through life as best as he could. When Yhwach found him barely alive in an alleyway, he was brought here, but the life before that… Cang Du still remembers it, though the years have long since passed.
Maybe he bears a grudge. Maybe the quintessential everything of the shinigami is what rankles him so, the memories of military boots and guns and running from grown men who would have hunted him down and dragged him into slavery if they could catch him. Knowing his city better than them was the only thing that kept him alive.
No one has ever gotten As Nodt’s story from him; most of them are too afraid of him. Nothing about him seemed frightening when they first met him. Cang Du remembers being unimpressed with the gaunt man who stood at Yhwach’s elbow during their introduction until he had seen the horror of the Fear, the power that coiled around As Nodt like living shadows, seeping into the bones of his enemies until they lost their will to survive.
Fear could do strange things to people. Maybe Cang Du should be afraid of him.
Instead, for the first time in many nights, he steps into the garden and picks his way through the foliage to where As kneels and prays silently with his eyes closed.
Interrupting would be rude, so he sits on a stone bench and waits, wondering if As’s lips are moving beneath the mask, if he simply cannot see them. He looks peaceful like this and Cang Du wonders what faith he has in the world outside of this one, if it is possible to have faith in anything when he has witnessed firsthand the crushing power of Yhwach’s might.
Maybe he prays to Yhwach. Cang Du holds no such beliefs himself.
When As lowers his hands to his lap, his head bowed and his eyes still closed, Cang Du realizes he has been spotted. “How may I help you this evening?”
Some of the other Sternritter— Askin, Bazz, Candice— claimed that what made As truly frightening was how soft-spoken he was. Even without the mask muffling his words and making them come out softer, As has never raised his voice until he steps into his Vollstandig. When he speaks, he does so softly and carefully, choosing his words with a precision that Cang Du envies. He says whatever comes to mind first.
“I saw you praying.” He tugs at the edge of his hood, watches As Nodt tilt his head just slightly. “I was wondering who it is you pray to when you’re out here.”
“Ah.” As Nodt sits back on his heels and lifts his head, and Cang Du watches his eyes slowly blink open, large and dark in his pale, pale face. “Who do you believe I pray to?”
The question has Cang Du’s eyes drifting over As’s shoulder, toward the ivory tower not far from here, the twisting path of stone that leads to the throne room. “His Majesty?”
“Was that a question?” As asks, though not unkindly.
Cang Du snorts and nods his head; that was fair. “It was. I can’t imagine who you pray to. I wasn’t religious in life. Such things escape me. But it interested me, just the same.”
“I suppose some habits die hard. I was a religious man in my prior life and it seems strange to let go of that now… Perhaps I should be comforted because his Majesty exists.” As lifts one of his hands, as if examining the dark polish painted over his nails, a remnant of the time he spends with Giselle during the day. “He is a living God, is he not? So perhaps that lends credibility that the being I am speaking to might be just as real after all.”
“The Christian God?” Cang Du tilts his head thoughtfully. He’d known of Christianity in life, but not well. Not enough to make any judgments on it in a meaningful fashion.
As drops his hand back down into his lap. “I don’t think even I know anymore, Cang Du.”
The sound of his name leaving As’s lips has him shifting his gaze toward the man once more, and Cang Du opens his mouth to speak and then shuts it again. Has no idea what he wants to say or what he came here to say. “You spend a lot of time on your own, huh?”
“It is much the same as with Nianzol. Those of us who have peculiar gifts or odd features are feared even by Sternritter stronger than us.” As looks at him dead-on and Cang Du feels a shiver roll down his spine, captured in those dark eyes. “He is not overly strange in nature, and his power is not horrific. Ah, but he has two tongues, does he not?”
Cang Du smiles faintly at the question. “I’ve made the odd joke or two about that. He stays close to his Majesty. Do you think his Majesty ever makes use of—”
“What a blasphemous question you pose.” As tilts his head back toward the sky, and Cang Du wonders if he is smiling beneath the mask. Or frowning at him, perhaps.
“What can I say? I live for blasphemy.” He looks down at his own hands, watches steel creep up his skin from beneath his gloves, converging the bare skin of his forearm before it hits the bottom of his sleeve. “I guess that depends, though. I don’t know if I think his Majesty constitutes being a God. Perhaps he’s only a very strong person. It’s hard to say. What does being the son of the Soul King really make you?”
As closes his eyes and Cang Du thinks it appears as though he is basking in the moonlight, wonders if As can feel it the same way others can feel sunlight. “I could not tell you. Such a history does not belong to me. I was a common man in my former life.”
“A religious man.” To that, As nods. “What did you believe in that life, then?”
“I believed in heaven and I believed in hell. I believed that someone could be good enough to move on to heaven, but that being sent to hell… Would be worse than any livable pain.” As’s hands drift up, crossing over his chest to grip his own arms, thin even through the double layer of his cape and the coat beneath. “And I suffered enough in life.”
Now, that is something that resonates. “You too, huh? Sounds like we all went through some shit to get here. So do you think this place is heaven or hell?”
“It’s neither. This world… Is purgatory.” As laughs as if this joke is funny and Cang Du feels a smile touch his face even though he is not quite sure what purgatory entails; the sound of As’s laughter is infectious. “We suffer with the hope that our suffering will lead to our salvation. What if it only leads to our damnation after all?”
Cang Du whistles. “Now you’re the one talking serious blasphemy. I’m impressed.”
“His Majesty does not have possession of the Almighty when night falls, so I do not fear him hearing me. I do not believe Haschwalth cares so much.” When As stands, Cang Du finds himself standing as well; he’s likely overstayed his welcome here.
“I should go.” He gestures toward the way he came and As tilts his head in that direction, tracing that invisible path with his eyes. “It’s late. We should all be resting for tomorrow.”
As sighs and nods, his hands drifting upward toward the leather of his mask. “I suppose.”
Perhaps Cang Du stares, unmoving, as As reaches for the buckles behind his head that keep the mask in place. He watches nimble fingers undo them with quick dexterity but before he can see As’s true face, he turns his head, fingers sweeping through his long hair, drawing it over his shoulder to hide his profile from view. Cang Du is not sure why he is so disappointed or what draws him forward, walking toward his fellow Sternritter.
“Do not.” As’s voice is stern. “You know what lies beneath the mask, Cang Du.”
He slows at those words, his brows drawing together. “No, I don’t. None of us have ever seen you with it off unless you’re in your Vollstandig form. Then it just comes off.”
“You have seen me with the mask off, then, have you not?” Without the leather to muffle him, As’s voice is even softer than it was, low and careful. Telling him to stay away.
Every Sternritter has seen the Fear. Part of their job in becoming elite soldiers is to learn each other’s powers, how to compliment them, training against one another in an even combat because otherwise Yhwach would be disappointed in them. Doing just that much had been difficult, had taken Haschwalth talking to him personally to request the Sternritter be allowed to train with the reassurance none of them would hurt one another in a permanent fashion. They needed to be able to spar to increase their power and capabilities, and that meant using their powers on others to work on these traits.
Cang Du still remembers the first time he had seen Tatarforas, scrambling away from the scene as quickly as possible even though his complete lack of self-preservation implored him to stay and watch. Few Vollstandig changed the form of their user in a truly visible way, and As’s was horrifying. Even his wings were strange, ropes of barbed wire.
“Your mouth.” He shuts his own as soon as the words leave his lips.
Perhaps he assumed it was part of the Vollstandig itself, which seemed to accentuate as many horrible things about As as humanly possible. Teeth always bared in a vengeful sneer; had Cang Du never been able to make the connection? Had any of the others?
“Correct.” As chuckles softly. “You may go now. It was an interesting conversation. Perhaps one day I will have an answer for you when you ask me who I pray to.”
“Let me see your face.” Cang Du advances on him without a second thought.
Though As’s power is enough to keep most of the Sternritter at bay, Cang Du had learned that letting the Iron expand across the entirety of his face— namely his eyes— could protect him from Tatarforas if he was quick and careful to keep his eyes shut until it had. It enabled the two of them to fight one another, something that did not quite go well for him, but he was able to avoid As’s reishi thorns when most of the others could not.
He was not afraid of As Nodt. He should have been, of course. But Cang Du is well-known among his own for being a fool, someone willing to test the boundaries far too much.
His hand closes around As’s shoulder, slender beneath his fingers. Without his Schrift in action, As is hardly intimidating. The man is small, no taller than the women of the Sternritter and a head shorter than Cang Du. With his slender build, he never would have won in a physical fight. Unless he planned on attacking— and no one could without risking the rage of his Majesty— Cang Du has nothing to fear from him.
“Well,” As murmurs, “I suppose you’ve already seen the worst of it, haven’t you?”
The flesh around his teeth is a rough and raw texture that makes Cang Du wince, but his hand does not slide from As’s shoulder when those dark eyes are on him once more. Soft hair brushes against the exposed skin of his forearm and he feels stupid for having to inhale at the texture, imagines yanking a glove off with his teeth to touch that long hair directly, see if it feels like the shadows they spill in and out of on a normal basis.
“It looks like it hurts,” he says, and As blinks at him. His eyes are too dark, but they reflect the moon over Cang Du’s shoulder and that… Is beautiful. “Does it hurt?”
“It can. The mask is to make sure it hurts significantly less than usual, but it is difficult to sleep in.” As lifts a hand, rubs at the line of his jaw with careful fingers. His fingernails reflect the moonlight, too. “It also tends to make my jaw sore after several hours.”
“Here.” Cang Du is an idiot, brushes As’s hand aside and yanks his glove off with his teeth.
He has to take care of his body to support the Iron at all and the muscles in his forearms stand out, the muscles in his wrists. Carefully, he takes As’s jaw in hand, feeling out the sore spots, the tense spots in the muscles, kneading them as carefully and gently as possible, smiling when As relaxes, his eyes fluttering shut, dark lashes lying against his cheekbones. And he tells himself the perpetual smile is not frightening— Or at least not as frightening as it could be, and that is half the battle as far as he is concerned.
“Feel better?” Cang Du hazards, brushing a strand of dark hair away from As’s mouth.
“Much better.” And he can see the way As’s tongue moves with those words, the way it flicks against the roof of his mouth just a little to create the shape of the sentiment.
Screw him, he lives here. He could be walking around the Wandenreich with his tail firmly between his legs and his head bowed and his hands always ready to spark into flames because he cannot possibly fathom how his level-headed former friend walked toward power and away from weakness. He could be hiding away in a laboratory, stretching the experimentation on corpses instead of just talking to someone he considers a close friend. He could be hiding in Yhwach’s literal shadow at any given moment.
When those dark lashes flutter open once more, it is because Cang Du’s hand has stopped moving, because his fingers have framed the shape of As’s jaw and lingered there, daring him to open his eyes. Daring him to see if he can sense the change in the air.
As tilts his head and smiles properly, and it makes his eyes crinkle and makes the hairs on the back of Cang Du’s neck prickle. “You are full of surprises tonight, I see. Is this why you found me? Or did you truly want to ask such inane questions of me?”
“Maybe I wanted to hear the sound of your voice.” Maybe I wanted to know if the God you pray to would damn you for eternity if I thought of touching you like this.
“Well.” As’s fingers are slender compared to his own, curling around his wrist, cool skin and the soft fabric of his glove. “You had me talking more than I have in quite some time.”
“A victory.” Cang Du lifts his chin the best he can considering how he has to tilt his head down to look into As’s eyes at this angle. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
As hums softly. “I wouldn’t know if it were possible. I am willing to experiment, though.”
Cang Du’s hand slides higher up into the darkness of his hair and he bows his head, steps closer to lessen the distance between them. Is distantly aware of As’s hands on his chest, fingers splaying across the width of it as he leans up on his toes. The texture is strange and he tries not to think too hard about it, keeping his eyes open. Watching As’s lashes create dark shadows on his skin, seeing his face smooth out, relaxed and peaceful.
He looks like he did when he was praying.
Cang Du closes his eyes.