The first time he saw the thing that had come from the prison world, he made himself look long and hard at every shuffling step, every drip of black and every grotesquely bent limb.
There was a boy, barely out of training, named Jackson Overland Frost. Kozmotis had made himself learn about him, talked to those who knew him, learned who he had been.
He makes himself remember all of it, while he forces himself to look at the walking body, dripping black from its mouth and blazing eyes like it isn't large enough to hold all the fearlings inside of it.
This is Kozmotis' fault, and he won't let himself look away from his greatest failure. He should have been the guard. He was supposed to be the guard, and it had been his brilliant plan to post an army there instead. It had seemed sensible, he told himself, to keep a rotating garrison there instead of one man.
It had been called brilliant at the time. Now he can admit it was pure cowardice.
Jackson Frost had been a cheerful young man, a lover of pranks, and always laughing. His friends said he was always there with a joke and a smile, always knew what to say to brighten the mood. Everyone either loved or hated him.
The creature before his army has long limbs, small joints and large hands a feet. It's the body of a young man who was almost, but not quite finished growing. The ink stained hair is tousled and wind swept, the torso lean and toned.
Jackson's eyes, Kozmotis learned, had been brown.
The fearlings glare out through black pits for eyes, gouged out and brilliant with a horrid, sick yellow light.
Jackson is gone, his body the host to the plagues of the universe. And Kozmotis knows he could have prevented this. So he makes himself meet the glowing eyes that drip black tar, ignores the automatic terror crawling up his spine as he lifts his golden scythe.
"I'm so sorry." He whispers, then calls for the attack.
The second time they meet, his army is decimated and he's flying out from the moon shaped starship orbiting a young planet. The Tsar and Tsarina are gone, the Empire has fallen.
It's another mistake. His fault for thinking that the fearlings trapped in a body would act similarly to the fearlings on their own. His fault for not realizing they were sentient until it was too late.
The Thing is more solid now, no longer a walking blot of dark with eyes and limbs. It's settled into the body, staining the skin grey and laughing through a ripped throat as the bright light that had been Sanderson's ship plummets to the planet below. It looks over as Kozmotis flings himself at it, spear up and ready.
"General! Sso n ICe of you to joi n usssssssss!" Their teeth are sharp and white, flashing like knives as they smile at him. The voice is warped, but its normal besides that. The low, gravelled voice of a young man who was on the threshold of the rest of his life.
It's injured. A gold splatter spreading from the shoulder that Sandy hit before it threw him down. They smile and laugh but it's tainted with pain.
He tightens his grip on the spear, holds onto it as it plunges into the thin chest. He keeps holding on as it screams and they both fall.
Right before he blacks out, he looks up and meets a pair of wide golden brown eyes, brimming with pain and terror.
The next time they meet is after Kozmotis has spent countless centuries in self imposed isolation. While Sandy and the young Lunanoff sank themselves into the minds of the young world, tending the new humans and carefully preening them for a new Golden Age, Kozmotis kept himself away in the most desolate part of Antarctica he could find. The cold didn’t bother him, and he secretly found that the constantly screaming wind suited him. If it was dramatic, then no one was there to see it and judge him except for Sandy, who was more and more occupied with his dream weaving anyway.
Kozmotis is left to his hermit state for the most part. Left with his regret and the nightmares of blood and screaming and failure. Letting the Earth grow and develop around him while he replays the fall of his army, of his world.
All of it, every nightmare, is centered on the face of the young man that could have been Jackson Overland Frost. Kozmotis has caused many deaths, has led many to their end. But none have haunted him like the young trainee who should never have been allowed near the prison world, let alone stationed with the garrison there.
Unfortunately, Sandy does not let him completely stew in his own misery, and has taken up the habit of kidnapping Kozmotis away to his own golden island in regular attempts to make the taller man become more involved in this new world.
“Sanderson for the last time, I don’t want any part in it.” He returns Sandy’s glower, standing stiff on the golden beach and resolutely ignoring the giggling mermaids out past the surf. “I’ve done enough in my time. Let this world grow without me reaching in and mucking things up.”
He’s sure there’s a response. Sure that Sandy has some very choice things to say that will be various attempts at inspirational but will instead, fall more into the lines of depressing. He misses it at the sound of sliding shadows and the hoarse voice of a young man on the threshold of the rest of his life.
“Sandy! Hey I got this idea, you and me tackle the same town at the same time! I wanna see what happens when someones got the black AND gold sand on the- hey there, who’s this guy?”
The air is out of his lungs before he turns, and his lungs turn to stone when he actually does look. It’s the creature. The thing that was once Jackson Overland Frost. It’s skin a lighter, but still a smudged grey that shifts strangely under the sun, it’s hair still wild and coal black. It reclines up in the air, as if on some floating invisible couch and grins with razor teeth and flashing gold and silver eyes from within the shadows of a black hood. There’s a long spear resting within the crook of it’s arm, as if it’s something always carried around.
Kozmotis’ blood turns solid when he recognizes the shape of his old spear.
Their eyes meet and for the first time since his fall, Kozmotis feels panic grab at his insides and yank, freezing him to the spot.
The Thing’s eyes widen, then spark, glowing while it’s pupil’s expand and the grin grows sharper.
“Oh.” It breathes.
The shadows rush, pool together and reform in front of Kozmotis, who shakes and feels the air growing thin and thick at the same time in his lungs and knows he should be attacking should be doing SOMETHING as the Thing wearing the face that used to be Jackson Overland Frost leans in and smiles at him with vibrating excitement.
“You are absolutely terrified of me.” It purrs. “Isn’t that something?”
His head is ringing his feet are lead his heart is trying to claw out from his ribs-
“Not of what I am though. Hm. Not exactly.” It leans closer, heating the air around Kozmotis, ignoring Sanderson frantically waving his hands as It peers in like it’s reading something. “Nooo, no not of what I am. It’s me. Actually me.”
The smile is razors the voice is too calm everything about it is too calm and sharp and WRONG and it shouldn’t be here it shouldn’t EXIST he saw it fall hadn’t seen or heard of It since then-
A searing hand touches his face, light, mocking and teasing and burning a brand into his skin while the monster smiles up at him and bats It’s eyelashes in exaggeration. “Careful now, a guy might get the wrong idea, with you throwing all that focused fear around.”
Kozmotis yanks back, air stuttering in his lungs he needs to do something everything is wrong everything is wrong how-
The thing laughs, bright and harsh. “Sandy can I keep this one? Don’t give me that look, you don’t FEEL this! If I kept this guy around I’d be fed for years!”
He hasn’t needed to call on the light in a long time. He had wondered if he had forgotten that skill. But the shining scythe forms in his hand as soon as he thinks of it. The weight of it is warm and thrumming like an old friend against his palms, an extension of himself as he snarls and swings at the monster.
Who jumps back with a surprised laugh, absolutely delighted, laughing louder when a golden whip snaps around the scythe and yanks it from Kozmotis’ hands.
“Sanderson! What are you doing!?” The golden sand winds around his middle, yanking him down and he can’t go down no he can’t let himself be trapped and helpless on the sand like this not in front of the thing not when he can still try to get it try to bring peace to the thing that used to be Jackson.
The sun gets blocked, replaced by a wide smile and bright eyes leaning over him. “Hello. I’m Jack.”
Jack. Jackson. No it can’t have a name now it doesn’t have names it doesn’t smile brightly it doesn’t-
Sanderson pops into his view, waving the thing calling itself Jack away frantically and helping Kozmotis up. The sand whip is pulled off of him with a warning look from Sanderson.
-It’s not the same. You’ve missed a lot. He’s more who he used to be now, he’s in control. The two of us keep the balance here.-
His hands are still shaking, everything is shaking when he looks up. The thing is watching the two of them carefully, leaning casually on it’s stolen spear, though the look it’s giving Kozmotis and Sandy is sharp and assessing, taking in what’s happening and narrowing it’s eyes in thought.
The thing is still as stone. Not even the wind ruffling through it’s hair as it watches Sanderson and Kozmotis. It’s like it forgot how to be alive.
It notices Kozmotis watching it and the sharp stillness breaks, cracking into a lazy grin full of normal teeth. “You can call me the Nightmare King.” It drawls.
The fourth meeting isn’t too long afterwards and is in Kozmotis’ home. It begins when the shadows rush him and throw him into the walls, pinning him down and making his mind shut down with terror.
“You’re afraid of me.” It says, walking towards him, saying it like an accusation. “But it wasn’t a fear of what I am. Everyone is a little afraid when they see me. It’s my job.”
It stops in front of him, it’s face is completely hidden in the shadows of it’s hood, except for the eyes glaring up at him. “You recognized me. How?”
It didn’t remember. It didn’t know. He doesn’t know how to answer. Can’t think of what to say when the thing that had destroyed everything Kozmotis fought for is staring up at him with gold eyes full of accusation and desperation.
“And you can understand Sandy.” It says, snapping it’s fingers like it just remembered. “I was the only one who could talk to Sandy.”
He swallows, blinks as he stares into the things eyes.
Not the thing.
This was Jack.
“We’re from the same place.” Kozmotis says, voice weak. Jack’s eyes brighten, shine with something hollow and hungry and he steps closer while the shadows pull away from Kozmotis.
“You know what I was. You know what happened.” It’s not a question. Kozmotis nods.
Jack is almost vibrating in front of him and pulls his hood down. The face is young and ancient, the smooth features of a young man with incandescent eyes that burn Kozmotis away while a grey hand reaches up and fists into the front of Kozmotis’ shirt, tangling with the material and forcing him to look his failure in the eye.
“Tell me.” Jack says.
“I can’t.” Kozmotis whispers. “I can’t. It’s my fault. Ask Sandy, he-”
“Sandy won’t tell me!” Jack shakes him, voice a harsh snarl and teeth sharpening. “He won’t tell me anything! You know! Tell me what happened! Tell me what I was!”
There isn’t a monster in front of him. There’s a lost boy, something ancient and young and desperate clinging to his front and baring razor teeth at him. His hands are shaking when they wrap around the fist gripping his shirt. “Forgive me. It was my fault I could have stopped it, I could have-”
“Tell me.” Jack hisses.
By the end of it his voice his hoarse and broken, hitching on short choking breaths. Jack still grips his shirt, though his eyes are distant and wide, unseeing as they stare at the wall behind Kozmotis.
There are other meetings.
Other times when Jack will pop in for no reason, start fights just because. He pushes at Kozmotis until he gets a reaction and tries to pull as much information from him as he can.
He’ll grab Kozmotis by the shoulders and reach in with his eyes, yank up the memories and terrors and will ignore the begging as he searches through them for answers. Will ignore the hands gripping bruises into his wrist as he sees himself destroying worlds and empires.
“How many people, do you think, live on one planet?”
He knows why Jack is asking. He recognizes the glazed, haunted look.
“Depending on the planet? Countless billions.”
Jack blinks and goes still, loses the life in him and turns into something that is more quiet and unmoving than rock. Kozmotis doesn’t try to pull him from it. He just watches and still wonders what Jack would have been like if he had been allowed to stay Jackson Overland Frost.
Kozmotis has lost count of how many meetings there have been. Enough to fill decades by the time Jack sinks sharp teeth against his lips and brands his fingertips into Kozmotis’ cheekbones. It’s desperate, like all their other meetings, coppery with blood and stealing the air from his lungs.
“You’re terrified.” Jack breathes into his mouth. Tongue flicking out to taste the cut on Kozmotis’ bottom lip.
“Yes.” Kozmotis sighs, less than a breath of a word before he pushes bruises into Jack’s arms with his hands and bites into that razor filled smile.
He wants to beg forgiveness. Wants to sink himself into Jack until he can forget that he could have stopped this from happening. He had been in control and had allowed Jack to turn into whatever he is now.
Jack catches his begging between his teeth, drowns his guilt with the taste of skin and the slide of hot sweat where their bodies meet.
It’s not quite forgiveness, but it’s close enough for now.
The shadows are velvet and silk against his skin. Slithering over him and making him shake where he kneels on the floor in accepting terror.
The fear is far from the only thing making him shake. There’s dark over his eyes and dark holding his arms behind his back. Jack’s fingertips leave a scorching trail over his skin and ignore the erection that passed the point of painful two hours ago.
“Almost.” Jack promises, voice reverent when Kozmotis cries out at the sharp pain of teeth sinking into his shoulder. He can feel the heat from Jack sitting astride his lap, feel feverish skin on his thighs and can taste gunpowder sweat when he leans forward and presses his face into Jack’s neck.
He doesn’t beg. He never begs. It’s not from pride, it’s so far from pride. He doesn’t beg because he knows that he earns what ever Jack decides to give him. He doesn’t have the right to beg.
“Almost.” Jack whispers again, wrapping a hot hand around Kozmotis’ cock and pressing searing lips comfortingly to his sweat slicked temple when he sobs at the contact. A shadow wraps around the base, squeezing just enough to stop him from coming and leave him heaving and shaking against the small, warm body.
Jack keeps the torture up for another half hour. Sitting naked and warm on Kozmoti’s legs while he wraps an arm around broad shoulders and nuzzles lovingly into black hair, stroking and teasing the straining erection between them.
Kozmotis sobs and shakes, feeling hands leave burning marks on him while he whimpers a thousand apologies into the hollow at the base of Jacks throat.
“It’s ok. I forgive you.” Jack murmurs, releasing the shadow and holding Kozmotis close while he comes and screams until his voice cracks.
“So, you got the Guardian call huh?”
Jack leans back against Kozmotis’ chest, playing with a bit of shadow between his fingers. Kozmotis shrugs.
“You gonna accept it?”
He had already thought about it, had agonized and tried to ignore the pull he felt in his chest. He was getting tired of fighting, of forcing himself to live on his own with nothing but his past. “I think so. Yes.”
Jack twists his head around to grin up at him. “Good! I was gonna smack you if you said no. Figured out your center then? What is it? I bet it’s grouch. Definitely grouch.” Jack nods firmly to himself, fully decided on the matter.
He snorts and looks down at the ink black hair tucked under his chin. It’s easy now, to look at Jack and not think about who he could have been as Jackson Overland Frost. He just sees Jack as he is. As the Jack of now.
The guilt doesn’t claw him, doesn’t rip up his insides. He hasn’t quite forgiven himself. Not yet.
But he’s getting there.
“I think I’ve figured it out.” He says, resting his head back onto the black hair.