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taking off the mask

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“The mask,” Ragna says suddenly, and Hakumen freezes. “Take it off.”

Hakumen is not weak like Jin, is strong and haughty and unfeeling, but he tenses and turns his body away- and Ragna can read the tiniest sliver of his little brother’s petulance in that hunched form.

“No,” his voice echoes, strange and odd and deep.

“Please.”

“It is not a pleasant sight.”

“I want to see you.” With those words, Ragna touches him. He cannot feel it, has not felt in so long that he has forgotten, but the press of Ragna’s fingers against his shoulderguard makes him want to obey.

“It is not pleasant,” he repeats, but his claws click against the mask as he searches for the clasps that hold it in place.

And it is off.

He keeps his head down, overgrown silver hair blocking his face from view still, but Ragna can catch glimpses of jaundiced skin, can see the movement in the muscles of his cheek where skin has peeled and rotted away.

“Look at me,” he says. His fingers dig into Hakumen’s chin - it is strange, waxy, part rigor mortis and part soft rot that crumbles at his touch - to force his head up.

His eyes are sunken, tired. They are so glazed over they are hardly green any longer; Ragna wonders if he can see through them at all. With how Hakumen tilts his body - shoulders facing him though he clearly wants to pull away - maybe he can’t. He meets the red eyes on his pauldrons before returning to his face.

Hakumen is not a liar. It is not pleasant.

“Does it hurt?” Ragna asks with morbid curiosity. There are places where flesh has parted from bone entirely; Ragna can see the contours of his skull by his mouth, can see exposed tooth and gum where cheek should be.

“No,” Hakumen says. “The armor is my body now, more than this corpse ever was.” As he speaks, skin and tendon strain. Something new tears and spills old, coagulated blood down his chin.

His voice is different without the echo. Smaller. Softer. It reminds Ragna of something old and brittle, something fragile and priceless that he must handle with care, like the ancient books Sister used to read from.

“Let’s clean you up.”

“That is unnecessary.”

“I want to.”

Hakumen sighs, his head sinking lower, and Ragna knows he’s won.

He lets Ragna guide him to the bathroom by the hand. Figuring out where to sit is a more difficult task. He is bigger than Ragna now (and whatever shreds of Jin left inside him protest at the wrongness of that) and so drops to sit cross-legged on the floor. Ragna only has to lean over a little to bring the washcloth to his face.

His movements are slow and careful as he scrubs away old blood and dried tears and pus. He is gentle, and does not tear any new holes in his skin.

Hakumen can not feel this, either, but he closes his unseeing eyes and pretends.

“Hey,” Ragna says. “... Jin.”

Hakumen jerks his head away with a hiss of, “Don’t call me that.” His lips crack as they pull back in a snarl.

Before Ragna can say anything else, apologize or hold him down, he’s retrieved his mask and sword from the bedroom.

That sword is pointed at his neck.

“Dark One.”

“Not yet.”

His clawed fingers curl tighter around the hilt. “You don’t get to choose when.”

“Not yet,” Ragna repeats.

As he predicted, the sword drops. Hakumen turns from him - not that it matters, not when Ragna has finally seen his face, not when he knows what is missing each time he looks at smooth, featureless steel - and marches toward the door.

There, he pauses. “Do not waste your kindness on me.”

Save it for the other me, he almost adds, but doesn’t.

Save it for the one that can still be redeemed.

“It’s not wasted,” Ragna answers, and the man Hakumen used to be would have laughed. Loud and long and joyless.

Hakumen does not laugh. Hakumen does not even reply as he vanishes into the forest, thinking, you were always too kind for your own good, and never once even tries to say Ragna’s name.