Open Wound

The Requiem Series: Book Two

After the angel that threatened his life, Sean faced his frightening alter, Vexis, who haunted his dreams. With the help of Byleth, Zagan, and Darokin, he thinks his troubles are finally behind him. Little does he know that PTSD is a beast lying dormant in waiting to emerge. It ends up influencing everything, including the way he perceives reality.Vexis was the reason Sean remained in a trauma loop for so long, but something changes within them as they decide to finally work with him; they want to help him heal from trauma after years of prolonging it. Being a sadist who is unable to feel love, it results in a twisted and sexual masochistic relationship that Sean becomes addicted to.As Vexis takes Sean through various liminal space voids and dark memories — theirs included — they reveal that they are something much more frightening and ancient than an angel or a demon.Can Vexis really be trusted? Or are they opening Sean's wounds to let something sinister slip inside...

Content Warning; this story contains heavy and difficult subjects, such as domestic abuse (including a non-descriptive mention of past sexual assault) and general abuse, dubious consent, transphobia, self-harm, suicide, violence, derealization/depersonalization, and trauma symbolism. There is also explicit sexual content involving sadomasochism and bondage.

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WAS IT MERELY SLEEP, or was it the death I craved?All around me there was darkness, and the sound of a faint ticking met my ears as whispering emanated from the distance. In every dream thus far when I’d died, I either woke up or everything faded to white. In a haunting memory of one particular death dream, I was shot, and although I didn’t remember feeling the true pain of the impact, I blinked and was on the ground. It was night in a downtown apartment and the attacker had fled. Slowly, everything faded to white, and I lay there on my stomach just staring into a white abyss.As I died in the dream, I felt the release. It was orgasmic but without the heat and a racing heart. It was also gentle, and my astral body lifted while my physical form remained on the ground of the white abyss, just staring into nothing. It had been silent. I wasn’t scared then.But this was no dream.In the darkness where I currently existed, I felt much more alive than in any lucid dream I’d had. The ground was soft, despite feeling like I was floating. When I reached out, I was able to push myself up until I stood in my worn black and white Converse and looked into the stygian darkness. I opened my mouth to speak, but I was lost for words. I might have mistaken the void for the coldness of space itself, but out there among the planets and the stars, there wouldn’t be the incessant ticking of a clock that was just loud enough to drive me mad.I walked forward with uncertainty. I knew I wasn’t dead because my heart beat as it always had, and I breathed normally despite the heavy atmosphere. It was as if everything had been compressed to exist in a way that was just necessary. Nothing more and nothing less.A warped whisper circled my head and I stopped. Searching the darkness brought no answers, and I stepped in whatever direction I’d been facing. It was then that I saw it with its dull lamplight that barely illuminated its black robe. It seemed to bleed into the darkness as it crept closer, the ticking coming with it. I shivered. The temperature grew colder with every step of the figure until it came close enough for me to make out its ancient and damaged skull of a head.I had rarely felt fear like that before. With the figure’s bony face settling mere inches from my own, the dark recesses in the skull’s eye sockets appeared to have no end. It was as if the thing was made of the void itself, and the two existed in tandem — together and never without the other.“Are you Death?” I managed to finally mumble. A vein in my neck pulsated. My limbs grew cold from the wintry frost surrounding us.The being emitted a rattling moan before lifting the dim candle-lit lamp. With its other thin, pale hand covered in parchment-like skin, it reached beneath the neck of its black shroud to produce a tarnished silver pocket watch. It pressed the top button and the face flicked open to reveal a slowly ticking hand.It stopped.I choked and my eyes widened. My lungs refused to expand and I broke out into a fit of coughing, suffocating as my knees grew weak and I fell to the soft ground. I looked up at the figure staring down at me with the watch still in its grasp. My vision didn’t blacken around the edges. I didn’t appear to be losing consciousness. Yet, I was drowning.A memory. Drowning. Water. So much salty water. Cold. Dark. Lonesome.Finally, the clock began to tick once more. The wave of air that expanded my lungs made me dizzy, but I was able to stand again as I faced the figure. I realized that the clock ticked backward at a slow pace.“You’ve been here before,” the figure whispered.A sickening nostalgia overwhelmed me. In my periphery, something in the abyss moved and I jerked my head in its direction. I only saw a flash before it was gone. A human-shaped shadow figure with eyes. There it was again. I looked to my right. No, it was behind me. Ah, yes, I knew it all too well. Its eyes were the only feature by which I could identify it; sad, bloodshot eyes that used to follow me in waking life.I fought off the chill and clenched my jaw. The sound of a baby crying in the distance met my ears. “An infant?” I asked the bony figure.It moved its head slightly to the side as if amused. “You belong here.”“Did I die?” Hope welled up within me.The figure opened its bony mouth to answer, but it became distracted by something from above. It emitted another haunting death rattle as it stared to its upward right and lowered the lamp.Water sloshing. Beeping from a heart monitor. Flat line — coming back again. I closed my eyes as the air around me became wet, and soon my clothing and hair clung to me smelling of the sea’s musk.The figure rested its hollowed eye sockets on me once more. Despite its inability to reflect emotion, I felt the weight of its gaze. It held the watch before me that ticked counter-clockwise. “Void walker,” it whispered with a diseased rattle.“Am I dead? Tell me, please!” I lost my composure and reached for the watch, and upon seeing my reflection in the tarnished silver, I sputtered a tearless sob. My skin had become pasty, my eyes now the light gray of the recently deceased. The long purple hair I’d dyed some time ago had begun to fade, and my features were clammy and thin. I looked once more at the hands moving in reverse. My emotions went flat. Was time moving backward? “Is this death?”The watch vanished in my hands as the entity backed away. The darkness claimed its own as bleak shadow-like tendrils guided the being back gently, and as slowly as it came, it returned. I found myself alone again with no answers, but a force pulled backward. The void pushed me toward it as I fought, and I grabbed at the ground only to find the consistency of soft dirt as it crumbled between my fingers. The swishing that was present before grew louder. It sounded more like hurried whispers as I tried to make out any possible words.Dread overwhelmed me. The sound of a door unlocking in the near distance sent panic rushing through my veins, and my nails clawed at the dirt as I slid back toward whatever existed beyond the darkness. As I lost the fight, I was ripped through a threshold into the light.

* This chapter contains sexual content.

SEAN PULLED THE COMFORTER over his head and rolled over in bed. Zagan snuggled behind him and Byleth stood with his arms crossed at the end. It was another rough day and Sean had reached another limit.Vexis leaned against the wall that formed the alcove the bed sat in. They argued with the others as Sean became more and more aware of the creeping burn that foretold of his forbidden love. His love for the things that scared and hurt him, and the very thought of being caressed by that darkness increased the trans man’s pulse. He knew what he needed to feel better; the horrible poison he could no longer live without.Vexis looked down at Sean and scoffed. “You get off on that? You’re actually getting off on that idea? That’s fucking gross.”Byleth scowled. “Why are you even here? Why don’t you just leave right now?”Vexis glared right back and Zagan agreed with Byleth. Sean wanted to dive deeper into the blankets.“Maybe they should go,” Zagan warned. “Sean doesn’t need to indulge in anything harmful.”Vexis’ face shifted with irritation, and Sean knew all too well the horrors that were coming. Their smile changed from Cheshire back to normal, and their eyes warped into black voids with a small red light in the distance. It shifted again and their eyes widened to a frightening degree to match that of his manic shadow man as their form grew unstable, and their smile stretched impossibly wide as their voice wavered like it was underwater.Vexis hissed in a static malice, “If you really want me to go, I’ll go. I don’t know why I put up with your shit, I don’t even like talking to you. I don’t even know why I care. I’m only here for Sean anyway, and half the time I question that. I don’t care about any of you.”Sean finally looked up and spotted Vexis as they turned to leave. “No, please don’t go. Please stay, Vex.”Zagan hesitated before speaking. “Are you sure, love? They’re just going to make things worse.”“Yes, I’m sure,” Sean pressed. “We were starting to do well together, remember?” His arousal increased as the darkness seeped from Vexis, who took notice as they became quietly interested.Vexis laughed cruelly. “You’re getting off over me? I may have screwed with your nightmares and taken advantage of your perverted trauma response, but that’s your thing, not mine.”“I know,” Sean ground out. “But I can’t help it. I’m just… a masochist, I guess. One you created.”“That’s apparent,” Vexis sneered. “Find someone else to entertain your gross fantasies with. I put up with them for long enough, and they don’t benefit me anymore.”Zagan kissed the back of his lover’s head and rubbed his side. “I can help, babe. Want me to?”Sean looked at Vexis again, who had crossed their arms in a closed-off gesture. “Would you consider it? To go further than the dreams?” he asked. “With me? Even if it has to be mean-spirited?”Vexis fell silent and stared at the weakening form on the bed with icy gray eyes. Their gaze haunted and chilled Sean to the core despite the toxic arousal boiling there. He knew he was messing with danger, and the danger became even more real as Vexis stared at him through those feral eyes. The shadows around them toyed with coming out, and they finally did in Vexis’ face as they warped into something terrifying, something that defied logic — something they knew would trigger Sean’s fear.That maddening grin. The shroud over their face. Sean pulled the blanket over his head again to avoid the memories of who Vexis once was.“Great, you triggered him,” Zagan spat.Vexis shrugged. “You know what you’re messing with here. Why poke the bear?”Byleth growled. His attempt to control his emotions wavered. “Out. Leave. Now.”Sean knew the fallen king held back what he really wanted to say. It was obvious in the way Byleth choked back his words, and it reminded him of how much Byleth still cared for him. A fallen angel king was willing to show restraint for a lowly human like him.“Vexis, please,” Sean tried again. He looked up at them to see shadow-like tendrils dancing around them. The darkness was out, just as Sean wanted. “One time to get it out of my system. I feel like it’s safe to do this with you now.”Byleth blurted a loud, sarcastic laugh. “Safe? Safe. Okay. You think this motherfucker is safe.” He ran a hand down his face and looked away. He couldn’t watch Sean like this, especially after all they’d been through. It didn’t matter that Vexis was split from him now and had conceded to their loss. They were still an unknown and they had been detrimental to Sean’s health.Vexis narrowed their eyes at Sean, completely ignoring the others. They’d caught a glimpse of his thoughts — Sean’s disgusting fantasies. “Stop thinking about that,” they said. “It’s gross. No.”Something wavered. It was minuscule, but it was there. A moment of question.Sean was already self-destructive, so it didn’t really matter to him if he pissed them off. “Just one time? I know you’ve never gone that far with me before, but we can take it a step further, right? I feel like we’ve come to a truce.” It was a trauma response and Sean knew it. Vexis had manipulated his dreams to use his sexual trauma against him, and when he finally stood up and faced them, which made the dreams stop completely, the loss of the burning dark dreams haunted Sean. They had created a toxic pattern in his body.The potent mix of fear and arousal had been unlike anything else.Vexis clenched their jaw and closed their eyes. They squeezed thin arms crossed tight around their body as if they were fighting a powerful recoil, and they ground their teeth. Finally, they spoke through a tightly clenched jaw. “I might…” The last word warped into a muddled wave. “I might consider… something.”Sean waited patiently as Vexis struggled with speech.Their eye twitched. “If… if they leave,” Vexis continued.“We aren’t leaving you alone with them, Sean,” Zagan warned.Byleth agreed. “I don’t trust them, period. After everything we’ve been through with them, you don’t think they won’t just take advantage of you again?”“Everything you’ve been through with me?” Vexis hissed. “This is between me and Sean.”Sean looked at Byleth with resolve. “I trust them now. We’ve done a lot of work to get here.”Byleth’s eyes widened and he threw up his hands, gesturing to Zagan in the process. “Fine. If you trust them, you trust them.”Zagan slid out of bed reluctantly. “I don’t feel good about this, but if it’s what you want, you know where we are.”Darokin, who had been silent the whole time, shot Vexis a look of warning before eyeing Sean. “If you need us, dearest, please do say something.”Sean’s heart pounded audibly in the room that became eerily silent. He looked up at Vexis who had been standing rigid against the wall.A moment went by in that deafening quiet. The bright sun shone in despite both windows’ blinds being drawn shut, and it felt like a strange transitional moment. Nothing would be the same again afterward.Vexis carefully reached down to their black pleated skirt and squeezed the hem. Their other pale hand crept down to grab the other side. “No one gets any word of this, alright?”Sean tried to slow his pounding heart. He felt mad for being so on edge with excitement at such a dangerous game, but maybe that was the answer: It was dangerous. It reminded him of the nightmares that had coaxed out that intoxicating heat through the dread. Vexis had been good at mixing fear with arousal, and unfortunately, it left its mark.Vexis pulled up their skirt and nudged their underwear to squeeze around their small thighs. Sean looked away on impulse. It was definitely weird and he knew it would get weirder. He wasn’t sure what else he’d expected to see under there, but they weren’t exactly human, either.Vexis approached the bedside and ran sharp nails down Sean’s skin beneath his sweater. They left a trail of pain in their wake — beautiful pain. “I’m asexual, you know that,” Vexis said.“I know. I’m not forcing you to do anything you don’t want to.”Vexis’ face warped slightly. “There will be none of your usual shit. No sex or anything like that.”Sean nodded. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to.”He glanced at Vexis’ exposed lower half again. Zagan and Byleth were usually ready to go at a moment’s notice, but their energies meshed well with his. Byleth and Zagan naturally oozed sex and it called out to his hypersexuality in a way that felt safe and comforting.Vexis, on the other hand, oozed the vast darkness of the void, and everything in it was threatening. The thought caused Sean’s blood pressure to rise, and he tried his best to calm down. His heart pulsed low in his stomach, which was a bad sign. It meant exhaustion, and his body was already working harder than it needed to keep him from losing his mind. Chronic stress hadn’t done him any favors, and it brought with it chronic illnesses that made it difficult to even get out of bed some days. That day had been one of them.Sean took in Vexis’ form as they observed his body. Their hair was the long and faded purple he’d come to know, their eyes still a pale gray that gave him chills any time he looked into them. They were dressed in an oversized red sweater, and their pleated black skirt looked indecent as it revealed a part of them they couldn’t have cared less about. Sean noticed their body had finally responded to what was happening.He had no clue what Vexis had in store for the afternoon. They were a sadist at their core, and while it was something Sean had begun to crave, he couldn’t get it from anyone else. Zagan was too gentle and refused to go further. He simply couldn’t do more because of his love for his partner. Byleth wasn’t into the sadomasochistic stuff and neither was Darokin. It left Sean with one option to get the real thing, and it made him dizzy with anticipation. It was a toxic addiction he hadn’t found anyone to fulfill safely, but Vexis had been the one who brought it out of the worst parts of him.Sean wanted to hope that Vexis wouldn’t do the same that his abusers had done in the past, but in all truth, he didn’t really fear it.An amused smile spread across Vexis’ dark expression. “I really don’t give a fuck if you look,” they said, “but I’m sorry to say this isn’t my thing, so don’t expect much.” They backed away to take in all of Sean as he removed his sweatpants. “I know what you really want me to do, and I guess I don’t care about that.” They watched with interest as Sean became shy once more despite his request. “It’s degrading enough for you, so I can tolerate it.”Sean clenched a fist and squeezed his eyes shut. Slow breaths weren’t possible. He couldn’t calm down.He glanced over at Vexis, who had become noticeably more excited. Their hand slid down their stomach before pausing. “You love enduring pain as much as I love giving it.”Sean held his breath as they hovered over his body that suddenly felt so small. He knew how horrible they could be and the kind of pain they were capable of without a second thought. They didn’t have limits and there were no safewords. They didn’t care how much damage they did, just as long as there was a memory of it on Sean’s skin.A tendril extended from the dark aura around them and didn’t hesitate before whipping down onto Sean’s body. A whimper cut off as it came down again and again; the blunt impact was enough to leave bruises.Vexis spoke over the lashings. “How does that make you feel? Little painslut. Little pervert.”Sean couldn’t speak. He was too afraid of what shameful sounds would come out of his mouth.Vexis noticed and chuckled. “I guess you’re lucky. This is doing it for me.” The lashings ceased and they were more than ready to entertain what they hadn’t considered before. It was all a disgusting, messy act to them, and they’d never engaged in anything like it for as long as they could remember in their spotty memories. Something about Sean was different, however. Vexis was also painfully aware of the effect of occupying his mind for so long with him. Certain things tended to bleed over whether Vexis wanted them to or not.Sean couldn’t wrap his mind around what had transpired in such a short time. The Vexis he knew before was so drastically different now, but they remained the same in many ways. They enjoyed causing him pain, but it was controlled now where it had been careless and with the intent of causing actual irreparable harm before.“What, are you being a little bitch or are you just mute?” Vexis teased before approaching the nervous body on the bed. They grabbed a fistful of Sean’s hair and lifted, and he squinted in pain. “What do you have to say?”“I want you to…” Sean tried to swallow the lump in his throat. His body was on overdrive and he didn’t know how much more stimulation he could take before he decided to shut down. It challenged his burnout to its limits; his body had given warning signs for a week to chill out and rest, but as always, he simply ignored it.Vexis glared down at Sean. There wasn’t malice behind it, but rather a dark playfulness. “To what?” they asked.“Touch me,” Sean mumbled as his head pounded with his heart. The exhaustion wasn’t entirely from his own recent breakdown. Mixing with Vexis’ energy in that way seemed to feed some sort of beast inside him that he hadn’t realized was there. They were the keeper of his traumas, shadows, and worst memories and fears, and Sean knew his body was merely trying to send all of the usual warning signals. Red flags. Danger.Yet, the fire inside him grew, and he craved the horrible things that would surely come. He knew well enough that Vexis couldn’t harm him beyond repair. Vexis needed him to exist.Vexis dropped Sean’s head and slid their fingers down his black boxer briefs, and then paused. The struggle had returned.“Maybe if you crawl into bed with me it would be easier?” Sean asked.They shook their head. “No, we aren’t doing any of that.”Sean sighed. “Seriously, Vex. It will be easier—”“Don’t say my name right now,” they warned as they became visibly angry, and their face warped in that frightening way that was the stuff of nightmares.“I’m sorry,” Sean pleaded as they rounded the bed and jumped in beside him anyway. “If I cover up, would it be better?”“Shut up,” they hissed as their hand resumed the path it had been on before.While on his back Sean could see everything, it was harder on his heart that threatened to break through his rib cage. It didn’t help that Vexis’ energy was so damn suffocating. Being that closely connected with them felt more and more like a curse.They noticed Sean’s discomfort and pushed him over. “On your side. I don’t want you looking at me.”He complied, and Vexis quickly took the plunge. Their fingers slipped past Sean’s underwear and he squeezed his thighs together. He wouldn’t last long.As Vexis shifted, it became clear that they weren’t immune to the beast either, and it caused their dark aura to quiver as they put their sole focus on finishing quickly.Before Sean could speak, they growled, “No, there’s nothing. We speak of nothing.”He sighed when they paused. “Do you want to enjoy this too?” he asked before being rendered speechless as they became aggressive, and Sean’s entire body locked up as he let out a sound of surprise. He dared to say Vexis’ name as it echoed off the white walls.“No.” Vexis grabbed Sean’s hair as they set their mouth close to his ear. They growled in a warped, deep voice. “Do not say my name. Keep your mouth shut.”Sean took a deep breath as the white-hot pain in his scalp faded. “Have you ever done this before?”“No, I haven’t. Nor have I ever wanted to.”Nausea suddenly turned Sean’s stomach, but the disconnect confused him. It wasn’t his. It seeped strongly from Vexis, and for a moment he considered making it all stop. Before he could say anything, they pressed tight against his back. They had become swept up in their body’s natural response.Sean swallowed down the nausea and dared to try once more. “You can connect with me like the others do. You can feel what I’m feeling and you’ll enjoy it, if you want to.”

Vexis remained silent, but a significant change in the energy surrounding them caused the sickness to recede. Their breath came short and they sank into the blissful feelings that finally penetrated the walls they’d carefully built, and Sean knew they’d finally given in. As the two moved together, the heat crept higher and higher until it threatened to burst. It wasn’t long before Sean uttered Vexis’ name again as his body bloomed with euphoria.Vexis tried to speak through clenched teeth, muttering for him to shut up, and they placed a hand over Sean’s mouth before they lost control. They cursed loudly as their body rode the waves of something completely foreign, and they loathed the loss of control that came with it.A powerful high washed over Sean at the same time, and he realized that Vexis hadn’t stopped to ruin it like he’d feared. They continued to coax out what became almost unbearable, which drew out their own high, and by the time it calmed down, silence fell over the room once more.Just as soon, Vexis slid to the foot of the bed and jumped off, and then quickly slipped into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. The sink came on full force. “I can’t believe I…” They paused. Sean watched as they scrubbed their hands like a murderer trying to be rid of blood stains that would forever taint them. The usual warping came and went, but they’d become more frantic than angry. “This does not take away my asexuality. So don’t get any ideas!”Sean sat up and winced as he was reminded of the small bruises on his side. “Of course. It doesn’t erase who you are. An asexual person can have sex and still be—”Vexis shot him a murderous glare. “We did not have sex!” The word struggled to leave their lips. “If you breathe a word of this to anyone I will torture you in ways that aren’t pleasant.”Sean pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know very well they’re not dumb. They know what we were doing.”Vexis stopped needlessly scrubbing and redressed properly before leaning against the bathroom arch. They were less frantic and their eyes darted around the room with paranoia. It felt like whiplash to watch their emotions change so erratically, and Sean felt guilty for the times others had to watch him respond the same way.“Yeah,” they scoffed. “Yeah, why the fuck does it matter? I don’t care about any of them or what they think. I say who I am and nothing anyone else says will change that.” They paused before their eyes grew wide with a warning that made Sean’s skin crawl. “The finer details stay between us.”“Really?” He sighed in frustration. They were so confusing. “I thought you didn’t care.” He made his way to the bathroom, and by the time he reached the sink, Byleth and Zagan had returned. Vexis was nowhere to be found.“Everything alright?” Byleth asked, but it was obvious.Sean smiled. “Fine. Like I said, nothing bad happened.”Zagan smiled too. “I was worried, but I trusted your judgment. I had a feeling it would be okay.”Byleth looked at him incredulously. “You literally said you didn’t trust Vexis.”Zagan shrugged and pulled a cigarette out. “If I really felt like they were still a true danger, I would not have left the room.”Sean finished up and slipped into his pajamas, and then walked to the front room to sit at the computer. He felt renewed. The darkness that had always haunted him before was still there, but that time, he’d tamed it with the help of Vexis.He opened a document and began to write, but Vexis appeared beside him with a dark mist surrounding them. “No intricate details,” they hissed.“Come on,” Sean groaned. “I thought you didn’t care? Why do you care what anyone thinks? You are who you are, right?”Vexis paused, fell into thought, and then gestured to go ahead. “Whatever. Not like you’ll listen to me anyway.” They disappeared once more.Sean realized he’d fallen in love with Vexis’ darkness that afternoon, and even if it kept him in a melancholic mood for the foreseeable future, he wanted to feel their special kind of pain again. He wanted their dark tendrils to coax him to bliss over and over until he was a complete mess gasping for air. It seemed that Vexis was fine feeding that beast, and the two had finally come to a kind of truce that day.

* This chapter contains mild sexual content.

SEAN CLIMBED OUT OF the shower with a head full of buzzing thoughts. He’d spent too much time focusing on his naked body and hiding from it, and as water washed away the shame of arousal from the day previous, he realized something had to be done.“What about Vex?” The words left his lips before he realized just how obvious the answer was.Byleth furrowed his brow as Sean combed his wet hair. The fallen king’s golden horns shone in the bathroom light where they curled up from shoulder-length blond hair. “I don’t know, sugar. I don’t feel good about you spending more time with them.”Zagan slipped his hands into his pockets as he leaned against the bathroom arch. “I’m a bit worried about how much you’ve been thinking about them,” he said.Sean slipped into a purple tie-dye sweater and paused. He hadn’t realized it, but Vexis had been on his mind more than usual lately. “I’m not going to leave you guys for Vex, you know,” he assured both Byleth and Zagan, but they chuckled in response.“We know,” Byleth teased. “That’s not what we’re worried about. Did you forget just who Vexis was before you discovered their identity? And that wasn’t so long ago.”“Within the last year,” Zagan agreed. He ran a hand through his black half-shaved hair. “How do we know they’re safe now? That we can trust them?”Vexis’ voice broke over the conversation as it echoed from the aether. “I won’t hurt him in ways he doesn’t want, okay? If he goes, I go, so of course I’m not going to destroy him.”Byleth narrowed his eyes as he looked toward the ceiling. “And we’re just supposed to take you at your word? Are you forgetting what you did to him?”Sean leaned over the sink. It was scary, but it had to be the answer. He was sure of it and he had to finally say it out loud. “I need Vexis to heal.”Byleth and Zagan looked at him incredulously. Zagan was the first to speak as his voice wavered with sadness. “What about us, babe?”Sean closed his eyes. Things were going to get difficult, and he suspected it. He knew why, and they had every right to be suspicious of Vexis, but things had changed. “I know how it sounds, but you’ve got me wrong. You guys are doing your best and I don’t want you to go anywhere—”“We won’t.” Byleth snorted. “But what are you getting at?”Sean looked into his reflection in the mirror, and for a moment, he didn’t feel repulsed by his own reflection. He turned his head to view different angles as soon as he realized it, attempting to find an image that didn’t make him feel hideous. It was low self-esteem and nothing more, but there were too many factors that Sean could remember enforcing the gnawing feeling of self-disgust.The way his mother brought up who he was pre-transition, and commented on how beautiful he used to be, caused an identity crisis more than once. Her co-worker said he looked better as a girl when she showed old pictures. People on social media dropped off when he transitioned throughout the years, and he’d lost friends for other reasons.Some guys he’d been friends with had asked about intimate details, like body parts, and if he’d keep his vagina after he came out. It was all they cared about, they didn’t want to know who he really was beneath their superficial lust. One even said he was too pretty to do that to himself. That was all before he’d started testosterone and got top surgery.How could he argue with all of that? Being ugly on the inside and outside was what he feared most, and so much confirmed it. There had to be some way to fix it. Somehow.Sean finally stood straight and looked at Byleth and Zagan. Darokin had joined them and stood in the dark doorway to the bedroom. “I think Vexis holds the key to fixing my trauma and my sense of self,” Sean said, finally.“I agree,” Darokin confirmed, much to everyone’s surprise.Sean turned to look up at him. “Really?”Byleth sighed. It was the first time he’d appeared so drained. For a being that rarely, if ever, experienced physical fatigue, it appeared he wasn’t immune to the emotional kind. After all the years he’d spent looking after Sean, including the time they spent apart, the fallen king learned to deal with the exhaustion that came with the dedication. “Yeah… yeah, I agree.”Zagan appeared ready to argue, but he sobered when he observed the collective silence. He finally nodded with reluctance. “You might be right.”“Don’t act like it’s a fucking funeral,” Vexis spat from the aether.“It’ll only be a thing for a little while,” Sean said. “But you guys are more than welcome to check in. I don’t want you to go anywhere.”“You keep worrying about that.” Byleth smiled. “Like I said, we aren’t going anywhere, sweetie. If this is what you need, maybe we can be chaperones or something.”Vexis’ distaste for Byleth’s words became clear as the bathroom grew darker. “No. You stay out of it or it isn’t happening.”The fallen angel massaged his temples. “Fine, fine. Whatever. I’m feeling a little better about it since yesterday.”“I am too, as much as I hate to admit it,” Zagan agreed. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket. “Just think of us like your safeword, okay?”Vexis chimed in from the aether again. “Sean doesn’t need a safeword! We’re either in this to do it or we aren’t.”“Vex is right.” Sean turned to face everyone in the room. “This has to be between us. They’ve got all the answers, and I imagine they’ll get me through the rough stuff since they need me around.”“Yes, agreed,” Darokin said. “I will admit my hesitancy at first, but upon further reflection, I believe this will lead to better things for you.” The brown demon moved further into the bathroom. His silver horns reflected the light, and for a moment they looked metallic. “As we have said before, we will not leave you. We are but a call away when you are alone with Vexis.”Sean nodded. “Can I speak to Vex alone tonight?”“Sure, love.” Zagan approached him to kiss his forehead. “Just yell if you need us.”Sean hugged his partner before he was left alone. After turning off the light, he made his way into the front room to sit by the window for a moment of quiet. Things were about to get rough again for certain, so any peaceful moments he could manage were all that more valuable. He would need them to keep himself from breaking, and he knew Vexis would take him to the breaking point.The back road was barely visible in the night, but heavy snowfall gave it shape in the dark. It covered the ground in a thin white blanket, and Sean recalled a journal entry he’d written about winter. He’d had a dream a while ago in which he found a brief note pertaining to snow, and it said something like, ‘It’s lost in the snow. It’s out there in the cold.’Its meaning remained a mystery, and it was one of the rare times he brought something back from a dream that had been legible. Sean had explored many terrifying theories about its meaning, such as his life being a death dream while his body rested somewhere in a vast field of snow, slowly dying as it froze to death.Vexis interrupted his morbid thoughts, but it was for the best. “Hey, normally I’d encourage that thought process, but you need to quit it.” They crossed their arms as they looked down at Sean, who had become anxious. It still unnerved him greatly that they were able to dig into his brain.He turned to face them and looked up from where he sat on the floor. Vexis was calm, which was more likely to be the case without the others around. They didn’t like Byleth, Darokin, or Zagan at all, although Sean hoped they’d all get along eventually. Vexis had caused a lot of mental anguish — even encouraged self-harm — for a lot of years, so it wouldn’t be so easy to gain any sort of trust.Vexis had tormented Sean often and in his nightmares for quite some time, and they had the ability to call upon his trauma shadow man, as well as anything else that shook him to his core. They enjoyed sending Sean into trauma spirals the most, and when he was a child, they encouraged troubling thoughts, to put it mildly.Now, they just stood there with their arms at their sides. There wasn’t an aura of malice like there had once been. If the day before was any indication, they had changed in some way and it felt genuine.“Hey, about yesterday,” Sean started before Vexis held up a hand.“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just figure this new shit out.” They fell onto a velvet green sofa and watched as Sean sat in his computer chair. “Don’t ask me how it changed,” they continued. “It’s not like I care in a sense of sentimentality or anything like that. As I already said, I grew bored with the torture. It’s only fun for so many years before it gets boring as hell. Yesterday…” Vexis paused and chewed on their red sweater sleeve. “I think I figured out a way to make things bearable. And honestly, I’m just tired of seeing you be a whiny bitch all the time.”“Ouch, jeez.” Sean narrowed his eyes. “I realize you’re mean, but what I have in mind is for you to help me recover.”The sound of a siren outside made his hair stand on end and his eyes darted to the window. His body shifted into high alert mode and he clamped his hands over his ears. Loud noises were one of Sean’s worst enemies, but he’d been on edge since witnessing an argument outside that afternoon between a couple. Angry voices made the world stop spinning, and he became like a rabbit who had heard the distant bark of a hound.Vexis snorted a laugh. “You’re freaking out again? All because some people acted like idiots?”“I can’t help it!” Sean rubbed his head as a headache threatened. “When you’re on edge all the time because of muscle memory, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. It reminded me of…” He wanted to say the name — his ex’s name. The prick who was part of the reason for the PTSD diagnosis he received as a teenager.“Say it,” Vexis commanded. They leaned forward and stared into Sean’s eyes. “Say the name. You’ve had dreams about sticking it to him lately, and that’s new for you. You’re getting ready to climb over the hill, so take that next step.”“I’ve said his name before.” Sean rubbed his cheeks and neck nervously as a dull ache spread through his arms and fingers. Fibromyalgia reared its ugly head again, and it was horrible timing. “I’ve written it, anyway. I just don’t want the hallucinations to come back. When I saw him so clearly, after I had a falling out with some friends…” He paused. “No, I was awful. I deserved that.”Vexis stood and crossed their arms. “Say his name. Forget the people who leave you behind. They don’t matter anymore. They don’t give a shit about you, so don’t give a shit about them. You’re just wasting your energy.”Sean looked up at Vexis. The powerful fatigue that had robbed him of the better part of a week washed over him. “Let’s just move on from that. There’s nothing good to come from saying his name. It might just cause more dreams.”Vexis’ eye twitched. “Do you want me to help you or not? If so, then listen to me. When I tell you to do something, do it.”Sean took a deep breath. “Alright. I’ll say it out loud.” His tongue felt like lead as his vocal cords became paralyzed. Saying the forbidden name felt like giving it power, but maybe Vexis had a point. Maybe it was the best way.“Say the damn name,” Vexis demanded.“Jesse.” He blurted it before he could second guess it any longer. It sent a shock of powerful emotions through Sean’s body that weren’t easily defined. “The asshole who taught me that love was painful.”A dark smile crossed Vexis’ face and their eyes widened as their otherworldly nature took over. “Good. Yes, that’s it. Feel the pain. Say it again.”“Vexis…” Sean clenched his jaw. “You’re not screwing with me, are you?”“Say his name!”“Jesse.”“It’s just a sound.” Vexis circled his chair as their shadows dimmed the room. “Say it again.”A lump formed in Sean’s throat as tears threatened. Crying had become difficult in recent years and he never seemed to be able to do it anymore when he needed to. It simply left him on the precipice of the release it would bring. “It’s a sound to you, maybe,” he said with a broken voice. “To me, it’s years of pain and self-hatred and violation.”Vexis’ eye twitched again and they came around the chair to stare Sean in the eyes. Their face slowly warped into their usual unstable shadow form, and it was enough to send a chill up his spine that forced him to close his eyes.“Stop it,” Sean managed through clenched teeth.A thin, pale hand grabbed his jaw and jerked his face up to stare into an unwavering dark gaze. “If you say a word enough times, it becomes a mere sound on your lips and nothing more. It’s a trick of the mind, you idiot. Say it.”“Jesse.” Tears finally fell as the dam opened. Sean said the name again.Vexis smiled wickedly and backed away to watch him unfold. “And this…” They gestured to their face. “This is all just a direct link to your biggest fears. Your psychosis that only comes out to play when you’re so triggered you don’t even feel human anymore. Remember that?” A phantom barbed crown appeared around Vexis’ head where blood began to drip. It mirrored one of the drawings Sean had done during one of his worst dissociative nights — when he didn’t even feel real.The events of the past few years alone had made him question reality more than he ever had. With the lucid nightmares and everything about Lilith coming to light, he often struggled to believe it hadn’t just been a fever dream. It didn’t matter how long Byleth and the others had been around, he was merely human, and the human mind could only grasp so much supernature before the questions began.“Stop it!” Sean pinched the bridge of his nose. “How is this supposed to help me?”Vexis waved the barbed crown away and stepped back. When they had his attention with silence, they circled their wrist and the room slowly darkened with a deep crimson light. It was reminiscent of the erotic dreams they’d cursed Sean with before. “Arousal and fear. That’s what gets you. Don’t tell me you don’t like to hurt while you’re burning inside.”Sean swallowed the saliva that had gathered in his mouth. His breathing came quick as his eyes darted around the room, and he was reminded of a not-so-distant past that caused him momentary doubt. Could Vexis really be trusted? Was it safe now? “What are you trying to do?”Their smile grew wider and they smoothed some of their long purple hair behind an ear. “I’m not returning to my old ways, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m reconditioning your brain. What you fear? It’s not to be feared at all. I think you know that, too. You fell in love with your darkness some time ago, and I was there to see it. While it disgusted me, as did you, I was a witness to your hidden thoughts.”They paused as Sean turned red. “Oh yes, I was there, you little freak,” Vexis continued. “You lusted after your sleep paralysis entity. You’d fuck your shadow man if it came on to you, wouldn’t you?”Sean grew angry. His fragile trust waned even further. “I’m going to call for Zagan.”Vexis approached him, grabbed a fistful of dark blonde hair, and jerked his head up. Their shadows and tendrils quivered in excitement as Sean hissed in pain. “My point,” they said, “since you’re being absent-minded, is that you are how you are and there is no changing it. The things you feel are what you feel, even if they’re fucked up. But you know what that means in the grand scheme of things? Nothing.”Sean watched as Vexis’ aura changed. It was surprising to see them so worked up after claiming disgust at anything resembling arousal, but it seemed both of them were ever changing around each other. What affected one affected the other, and that realization scared Sean more than any physical pain Vexis would bestow. “I thought you didn’t get turned on,” he said.Vexis laughed darkly as they kept their hold on Sean’s hair. “You can accept how you are or you can hate it. I had to do the same before I met you.”“You’ve always been sadistic though. You love it.” Sean swallowed hard as a fire coaxed from deep in his stomach.

Vexis’ tendrils quivered again as the light in the now crimson room dimmed further. “I simply realized that I could either reject the inevitable, or work with what I had.”Sean began to sweat nervously as Vexis’ darkness approached. “And?” he said. “You still got tired of it.”Vexis’ tendrils slowed their swaying and their face returned to normal. “And I realized we’re more alike than you’d care to admit.”The words hit Sean in the gut, and he leaned back as Vexis released their grip. Before he could manage a thought, Vexis’ fingers reached out to wrap around his neck. Their hand fit perfectly, and Sean lifted his chin. “I’m not a sadist like you,” he said defiantly. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. That weird shit in my head when I was a child was just—”“Me, yes.” Vexis’ grip grew more firm, and Sean braced for a loss of air as their hand squeezed tighter. “But we won’t get into that right now. You’re not ready to be broken on that level yet.” They chuckled and released Sean’s neck as they stepped back to make way for something approaching from the shadows. “For now, I want you to indulge your forbidden fantasies.”“What purpose will that serve?” Sean’s heart hammered with renewed anxiety as several shadowy hands slithered in from the darkness, and they surrounded him on all sides. He wanted to run, to wave away the terrifying illusion Vexis had concocted, but he remained frozen with uncertainty. He had to trust them. He had to trust his gut.“You’ll learn not to fear it, you idiot.” Vexis tapped a finger on their lips as they watched with amusement. “Now, give into it. Show me the wanton, self-destructive boy you really are.”Sean recoiled from the wild look in their eyes. The shadowy hands came close enough to brush against his skin, and he forgot to breathe as their cool spectral fingers teased over his clothing. Feather light. Swaying like worms crawling out of dirt.His heart leaped into his throat as he steeled his resolve, closed his eyes, and let the feeling of several hands crawl across his skin.An amused hum came from Vexis’ direction as arousal finally washed over Sean, and he fell deeper into the pleasure that brewed in his veins. Fear slowly left him as the hands fanned the fire, and he squeezed the arms of his chair as one slipped between his legs. He opened his mouth in a silent song, drowning in the potent mix of warring emotions that pulled him back from fight or flight when the shock overcame him.“You really are a whore, aren’t you?” Vexis teased. “No need to answer, I know you love it.”Sean opened his eyes and stared heavy-lidded at the taunting form standing before him. “No name-calling, alright? It’s a sore spot.” He shivered as goosebumps crawled up his arms.“Then embrace your dark side,” Vexis said as their otherworldly shifting became more chaotic, and their aura pulsed.Sean watched in a dreamlike state as the hands coaxing him further and further to the edge left no inch of his body untouched. One slipped between his lips as another became entangled in his hair, and although his body began to shake with underlying anxiety, something else pushed him closer to the edge until he felt he would break. A tear seeped from the corner of his eye as he came to terms with the fact that he liked feeling that way.Thinking back to the burning, red-hot dreams Vexis used to manipulate him brought on new emotions, and as the environment around him took on the same imagery, Sean realized just how deeply entrenched his trauma was with his desires. At times, they were one in the same as they made him question his own validity, and he wanted to scream because it was mad to seek out that which hurt him in the first place.He finally whimpered into the crimson darkness, and the muffled sound of Vexis’ taunting laughter brought him back from the high that made him ashamed afterward. Especially when it came from something so wicked.Sean finally jerked fully lucid as the sound of a shutter clicking met his ears. The shadowy hands quickly withdrew and he sat up where he’d slouched in the chair, only to see Vexis holding his phone and pointing the lens directly at him. He hugged himself and wanted nothing more than to hide. “What the hell, Vexis! Don’t do that.”They chuckled and approached Sean, and then turned the phone so he could see. The camera had captured him just as he’d found his release. “That’s who you are,” Vexis teased. “That’s who you are deep inside, and you need to accept that. Your sexuality is linked with darkness, and your desires are equally as dark.”“I thought you were repulsed by that sort of thing,” Sean said and swiped the phone from them, but he paused as they hissed.“Don’t delete it.” Vexis spoke slowly in a deep, dangerous tone, and Sean lifted his thumb from the erase option. “Now, what do you say?”Sean glanced up at them. The living room had returned to normal, although Vexis’ shadow form partly lingered. He was as confused as ever. “I… don’t know?”Vexis’ eyes widened and they tilted their head. “Don’t make me repeat myself. I’m trying to help you. What do you say?”Sean spoke slowly with hesitation. “Thank… thank you?”That seemed to be the right answer, and Vexis was once again the more human-looking version of themself Sean had come to know. They sighed deeply and closed their eyes before opening them to look down at the embarrassed form in the chair.“So your new game interests me. I’m less bored than I was, and being bored for an entire human lifetime is fucking annoying. But the point here was to indulge you in your sick fantasies because, in the end, this is who you are, and you can embrace it or torture yourself over it. And while I live for torture, your brand of self-deprecation became grating and repetitive.”A knife formed from a shadow in Vexis’ hand, and they ran their tongue along the blade until it bled. The wound healed instantly.“I said you were more like me than you realized, specifically your dark side,” they continued. The knife disappeared and they returned to the couch. “That is much more interesting to me than seeing you cower in a corner because you saw a scary shadow man.”“So basically, your goal is to bring out that part of me,” Sean said. His anxiety grew at the prospect. That wasn’t part of the plan. “Isn’t that a bad idea?”“There’s nothing wrong with embracing a bit of darkness,” Vexis said. “You have too much empathy, you’ll never turn into me if that’s what you’re afraid of. You’ll just learn to love the things you fear, find a home with them that’s comfortable, and you’ll also learn to stand up for yourself. Then we can share ideas on how to punish people you dislike.”“No.” Sean stood from the chair and walked into the kitchen to get a bottle of water. His throat had gone dry and he had to ground himself back in reality again. “I don’t want to do that.”Vexis huffed in annoyance and the knife was back in their hands as Sean returned. They twirled it on the tip of their finger. “Fine, that was going too far for your sensibilities. It would be nice to see you tell a motherfucker off who deserves it, though. That requires confidence, and by working with me, that’s what you’ll get.”Vexis paused and fell into thought before looking over at Sean. “Not caring about what others think, and just saying what you want to say, is confidence. Yesterday I said I was who I said I was regardless of what others think. And that’s true. So learn that. You are who you are, darkness and all, masochistic fetishes and all, and you need to accept it.”They waved the knife away and crossed their legs. “Or we can go back to our old relationship where I scare you into a catatonic state every night.”Goosebumps formed on Sean’s arms for a different reason that time. “No, anything but that. Please.” He took a swig of water. Maybe Vexis had a point and it would work out after all. He just had to hang on to what little self-awareness he had and things would be fine. “I’ll work with you.”A Cheshire grin formed on Vexis’ otherwise calm face. “Good. We’ll have to dredge up all of that lovely darkness within you, including your trauma, for this to succeed. You’ll need to face it and say ‘fuck you’ to all of it. Are you ready?”“I still don’t know why you’re doing this,” Sean said as distrust crept back again. It had all changed so quickly, and there was no reason to believe Vexis would keep their word. Yet, they’d engaged in behavior they said they never would, so was that enough of a sign?Vexis clenched their jaw. “I get it, you don’t fully trust me, but what other option do you have? Your sweet vampire husband may hold the key to some of your trauma as well, but he won’t let you access it. Even Darokin tried to let you confront it, but he stopped your journey before it went too far. I will let you see it. I will let you confront it. I really don’t care what happens as long as you let out your dark side to overcome it.”Sean couldn’t help the snorted laugh that came out. Vexis lifted a brow in question, but he managed through nearly spitting out water, “You’re lonely, aren’t you? You couldn’t have the life you wanted — namely mine — so now you’re trying to mold me in other ways so you have someone around you can tolerate to make the best of it.”Vexis narrowed their eyes. “The fuck are you going on about?”An inkling of happiness seeped into Sean’s otherwise persistent depression. “You spent a lot of time alone, right?” he asked. “Longer than I’ve been alive? And when we merged, or whatever happened when you came to me, you only had me. I remember years ago, as I grew older, you started to speak to me a little more as who you really were, but you still hid from me. I just figured you were done being alone.” Sympathy sobered his happiness. “Did you really like existing as a ghost in the back of my mind?”Vexis clenched their teeth and looked out of the large window to see the snow falling. They found peace in the winter, too. “Maybe we’ll do more work tomorrow.” They looked at Sean again. “It’s only going to get worse, and I’ll indulge your masochism in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine. Are you game?”Sean smiled and nodded. “Yes, I’m all in, but if it gets too bad, can we—”“No.” Vexis eyed him with warning. “I don’t half-ass anything. You’re either in or you’re out. No safewords here. No chaperones like the others wanted to be. Do you want to be fixed or not?”Fixed? It sounded strange to use such a word. Could someone be fixed? Or merely reborn. Maybe Sean would be reborn. Start anew? “I don’t know if I can be ‘fixed,’ but I’ll cooperate.”Vexis nodded curtly and then disappeared.

I GROANED AS I LIFTED MYSELF from cold, grungy tiles. My head filled with pressure and motion sickness threatened to empty my stomach if I’d had anything in it. As my vision became clear, I stumbled to stand and looked around.The walls were off-white with age, and a light bulb was just bright enough to illuminate a stairway to my right. Looking forward, an archway stood beside a small white wooden door, and what lay beyond was quite dark. The room was mostly empty, save for a musty rug by the front door.I approached a window and slid ratty lace curtains aside. A deep orange light bled into the room, painting my pale face with warmth. The sun was setting behind a small broken town in the distance, and the large cavities in the walls revealed whatever had been inside them. A long and winding path led from a small fenced-in yard to the town, and a swing set with one broken seat sat out front with a gathering of weeds.I took a deep breath and sloshed as I moved in my sneakers. Drenched with sea water still, I tried the front door and it creaked open. I stood on the porch to take in the orange sky and the setting sun. Any semblance of a breeze was absent and all was silent, save for the distant swishing that didn’t move the trees or clouds. No insects flew about, nor was there a sign of any animal in existence. I turned to the swing set and dropped onto the single intact seat.It was strange, but I felt like I’d been there before. There was also the looming dread that I shouldn’t be there at all, and it settled in my bones in a way that brought back the cold from the void. A deep melancholy blanketed me with comfort, and I looked into the distance with heavy eyes. It appeared that no one was outside amongst the broken buildings, nor did there seem to be any sign of life. And the house I’d just left — it was such a strange place for it to be all on its own as if it was displaced. Like everything was patched together at the last moment, or from a dream that tried to recreate some semblance of human existence, but it merely warped it as dreams often do.I left the yard and ventured down the path. It became clear that I was there to stay, wherever it may have been. It certainly felt old and stale, like moldy bread. It smelled just as musty as my favorite pillow when I was…When I was… a child? No, false memories.I broke into a jog as I followed the path into the town. I looked into the broken floors to see a few black mannequins standing before a bookcase or a quiet television. A few more stood frozen before a vendor that appeared to sell skateboards and oversized t-shirts, and they were all dressed in styles I hadn’t seen in years. I approached a male mannequin that wore black track pants and a red long-sleeved tee. I grabbed the clothes and noticed the figure’s anatomy, growing uneasy as I reached out to touch its face.Skin. It felt like dry skin.I jerked back after venturing to the thing’s mouth. There was no mistaking it. It had once been human.

* This chapter contains sexual content.

SEAN LOOKED OUT OF the small window in the front door, and everything was cast in blue light. The sun had finally sunk below the horizon an hour previous, and all that was left were the few distant lights on the back road. The occasional car passed through, but it had snowed so heavily the previous night that not many braved the weather.He zipped his black coat, slipped a purple hood over his head, grabbed his keys so he didn’t lock himself out again, and opened the door.The frigid cold smoothed over Sean’s face as he walked away from the warmth of the living room. He circled around to the backyard and slipped his hands into his pockets. All around drifted whispers of the subtle ghostly winds of winter, and he watched the barren trees as they remained still. Maybe a deer would eventually come from their depths.“As peaceful as that would be,” Vexis said, “that’s not what we’re out here for.” They hadn’t bothered with any kind of protective clothing. They wore their usual outfit, and it made Sean cold to look at them. Then again, they didn’t really need such trivial things. “Tell me why you came out here in the dark,” they continued.Sean glanced over at Vexis, who was the same height as him. They stared into the trees as well, but the two of them saw different worlds. “You know why I came out here,” he said.Vexis closed their eyes to take in the ambiance but blurted a laugh that interrupted the silence. “My mere presence gets you going now? Shameful.”Sean took a deep breath to gather his composure. It was a pain to be so connected with someone that nothing was private anymore. “You’re not doing a good job of helping me, you know,” he said. “Shaming me won’t fix me.”Vexis walked their fingers up his arm in a taunting way, and although Sean wore a thick coat, his skin burned beneath them. Vexis stood before him and grasped his coat zipper. “Maybe you should stop caring about what I think of you. Did you ever have that cross your mind? When someone says something insulting, just tell them to get the fuck over it.”Sean swallowed nervously as Vexis slid the zipper down and spread it open. He shivered from the cold. “I can’t stand out here in just a hoodie.”Vexis smiled and slipped the coat from his shoulders, and then backed away to watch with interest. “The cold won’t hurt you. Not at this temperature anyway. I’ve traversed a winter you couldn’t dream of and survived it, and it was nothing compared to this.”Sean huffed. “Yeah, well, you’re not exactly human, are you? You’re…” He paused. What, exactly, were they?The smile that spread across Vexis’ face chilled Sean more than the winter night. “I’m… what? Tell me what you think I am. Or are you too afraid to say it?”Sean shivered again. “I don’t know, exactly. A few years ago, I thought you were just some kind of nightmare entity who wanted to torture me. And long before that, you made me think things that weren’t like me at all.” He paused. Vexis’ eyes looked like that of a feral animal, one that would strike at any moment. He truly was frightened of them still. “And then you opened up to me. You revealed the human-like form you use now, and that you’re the keeper of my shadow man and everything that haunts memories I can’t recall.”“You’re avoiding the question, obviously,” Vexis teased. Their lips parted slightly as they scrutinized Sean’s rigid form. His fear was a delicacy to them as it always had been. “What do you think I am? I know you suspect something greater — worse — than your initial guess.”“Are we really going to go over this now? After we’ve started this process I can’t back out of?” Sean reached for his coat to zip it on impulse but felt like a fool when his hands grasped at the purple hoodie. The wind grew louder, but he didn’t feel it. It didn’t sway the trees nor did it appear to exist anywhere but in his head.“I’m exactly what you fear.” Vexis approached Sean and came nose-to-nose. Their cold breath drifted across his lips, and they teased a kiss they truly didn’t want to give. They smiled cruelly when he tried to chase it and remained just far enough away for a broken promise. “Where do you think I’m from?” they asked quietly. “And my body…” Vexis took Sean’s hand in theirs.He stuttered like a fool before regaining the ability to speak. As if talking normally was inappropriate, he whispered over their lips. “Your skin’s only cold because you’re out here without a coat.”“I don’t get cold,” Vexis cooed. “It’s as comforting to me as a warm fire is to you. And you have a fire brewing deep inside you right now. You’re no longer shivering from the cold but from fear.” Vexis’ eyes grew paler than the moon, and Sean realized just how lifeless they appeared. It was as if they were a walking, breathing corpse that had never held any warmth. No ounce of kindness emanated from them, and the shadows that darkened the room they entered were a piece of their true home.“Some kind of void. That’s where you said you’re from,” Sean managed. Vexis’ mouth was still too close. They were just toying with him to coax out those forbidden feelings again, and as much as he didn’t want to give in, Vexis knew just how to manipulate him. Those dark tendrils reached into the depths of his mind to pull out the fiery coping mechanism, and they let it run free as Sean’s body fought with being upset and wanting to devour the monster in front of him.“You think I’m a monster?” Vexis laughed. “Close to the truth, maybe.”“Get out of my head,” Sean ground out. Their hand crept down his sweater and then beneath it, and the ice-cold flesh that touched his stomach caused an involuntary shudder.“You know that isn’t possible,” Vexis said. “We’re too intertwined.” They tilted their head and emitted a quiet, ethereal hiss. “You think I’ll eventually kiss you? Is that what you want? A kiss from me to give you some kind of comfort?”Sean tried to take the plunge again, but Vexis pulled back with a cruel laugh and backed away. He felt naked before them with the burn they’d left despite their coldness. It turned into anger that threatened tears. “So I want you to comfort me sometimes,” Sean said as his voice wavered. “So I fantasize about you kissing me, even out here in the freezing fucking snow.”“In love with something that harms you, it’s so like you,” Vexis said and raised a hand. A note flicked into existence in their grasp. They held it between two fingers and waved it before their shivering companion. “You know what this is?”Dread overwhelmed Sean and he stepped back. His head turned in every direction in fear that Vexis would reveal a horrifying truth — a truth that he’d convinced himself was an irrational fear and not a truth at all. He couldn’t lose that comfort out there in the snow with that damned haunting note threatening his sanity. Anxiety gripped his heart as he stumbled over his coat. “Please, don’t show me that. You know it terrifies me.” He couldn’t stop the tears that wanted to fall. At least Vexis had accomplished one thing so far. Sean was finally able to cry freely.Vexis’ eyes widened and they extended their hand to give him the accursed paper. “‘It’s out there, in the snow. It’s lost in the cold.’ That’s it, isn’t it? What do you think is lost?”Sean froze as the symptoms of derealization hit like a tidal wave. Everything grew dim and he tried to control his breathing, but his body felt so far away from where he stood. He held his hands before him like they were something foreign and grew dizzy. “Vex, I’m going to pass out.”“No you’re not,” they said as they approached Sean once more. They placed the note on his cold lips, and then laid a small, light kiss upon it. “That’s as good as you’re getting, unless you want me to vomit.” A cold hand snaked down his body and slid beneath his pants. “Have you ever had a ‘little death’ while dissociating? Maybe that will feel closer to the actual thing.”“Vex, no. I can’t. Please don’t.” Sean tried to back away but any attempt nearly caused him to fall. He grabbed onto their shoulders as they toyed with him below, and in his peripheral vision a familiar shadow figure appeared. Sean dug his fingers into Vexis as a powerful fear intensified his symptoms. At the same time, arousal built as they coaxed him further and further away from reality with their cold fingers.Vexis glanced to the side and smiled. “You know it very well. Remember what I said yesterday? How you’d fuck your shadow man if it came on to you?”A floating sensation lifted Sean’s soul as he held onto Vexis, and he hadn’t realized they’d become his only support to remain standing. His eyes squeezed shut to avoid looking at the trauma shadow approaching, but they shot open once more as Vexis’ fingers finally took the plunge. “Wait, it hurts when I…”“Are you in pain now?” they teased as they continued. “I didn’t think so. So, tell me, what was your theory about that note again?”Sean breathed hard against Vexis’ shoulder as he watched the shadow approach. An odd static flickered around it like a bad signal. “Just finish this and I’ll tell you.”“No, that’s not how this works.” Vexis withdrew their hand and flicked it in disgust. “Stand up straight and confront your shadow man. Ask it what its theory is.”“It’ll be the same as mine, won’t it?” Sean regained footing at last and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m afraid I’m right. I’m afraid the irrational bullshit is true.”“That you died and this life isn’t real?” Vexis laughed and stepped aside to allow the shadow man to approach him, and as the entity did, Sean could smell and hear the old TV static emanating from its form. He grew nauseous.The shadowed figure Sean had come to fear so intensely stood mere inches from him, and he knew he couldn’t avoid it that time. It usually went away when he finally looked it dead in the eye, but now, it remained as vivid as ever, and all he could see were the large eyes that stared into his soul. They were its only defining feature.Sean closed his eyes, but a hand touched his shoulder that felt like a small electric current, and he jolted back to the waking nightmare. “Have I?” he said louder than he meant to. “Am I really just dead somewhere and this is all a death dream?”The shadow man continued to stare as a whisper came from its absent mouth. “The answers are never so simple. Come.”Sean grew confused as the shadow man turned and began to walk toward the trees, and when he glanced at Vexis, they gestured to follow.He lost track of how long they walked through the snow, and thankfully, he’d been mindful to bring his coat. If Sean really wanted to end up dead, hypothermia was a good way to go about it. Warm again, he looked up toward the inky blue sky as a full moon shone overhead. He’d nearly forgotten about it. It was a perfect night for whatever Vexis, and now the shadow man, had in store.Sean looked ahead to see Vexis behind the shadow man, and he was thankful for the lack of foliage. Otherwise, it would have been pitch-black darkness.Finally, they stopped. They’d all gone deep into the trees by that point, and neither the time nor the location were clear. Sean spun in every direction as his eyes adjusted to the dark. The snow all around helped with its strange blue glow, and he reached for his phone to get his bearings.It was gone. He’d forgotten it inside.“Your phone is only a distraction,” Vexis said as they turned around to face him. “The whole point of bringing you away from civilization, and disconnecting you, was so no one could hear you scream.”“What are you going to do?” Sean backed against a tree, but anxiety made his legs useless as they wobbled. The shadow man and Vexis both approached him and a whimper escaped his throat.“What do you want me to do?” he stammered as a panic attack shook his body. He trembled so hard the tree in his grasp quivered. “I’ll say — I’ll say anything or do whatever you want me to. Did I screw up? I can be brave. I promise I won’t scream. Unless you want me to scream—”Vexis slapped a hand over Sean’s mouth, and they slid behind him to sandwich him between them and the shadow man. They set their lips close to his ear to tease, whispering just like the shadow man had. “I want you to enjoy yourself for once. I realize it isn’t ideal, but we’re going to scratch every last itch of your depravities in the days to come. This is only the tip of the iceberg.” Vexis licked his ear. “Be afraid all you want. Be a sissy and cry and scream, but ultimately, when I’m done with you, you’ll thank me.”Sean looked at the shadow man who warped. “Please don’t hurt me,” he begged.The shadow man came clear again as its body became a black silhouette of a man with a cow skull and horns, and Sean recognized it from one of the sleep paralysis dreams he could remember. It was the same form that had pinned him in bed a year ago, and Zagan and Byleth had been there to pull him out of it. It had been one of Vexis’ dreams where they’d tried to trap him there, or just to scare the hell out of him.“I will have you,” the shadow man said seductively.Sean turned his head to the side as it pressed against his body. Vexis’ hands began to wander, and he tried to push them off but they hissed in frustration, “This isn’t anything you don’t want, so stop fighting it!”“Are you the one who haunts my nightmares now?” Sean asked the shadow man.“I am the one who lurks in your shadows. I call to you from where hidden memories lie.”“Tell it what to do,” Vexis said. Their hands slid up Sean’s sweater onto bare skin and they dug their nails in. “Tell it to get fucked. Tell it to fuck you.” They laughed. “Command it! You have the power to do so. After all, it’s part of what’s inside you.”“How do I know you’re not just controlling it?” Sean whimpered as the shadow man pressed its body against his, and although it appeared to be ghostly, it was oddly solid against him. Just as cold as the snow around them.Vexis continued to drag their nails across Sean’s sensitive skin. They would surely leave marks. “Because I told you,” they said, “I’m done with that. I’d much rather see you take control of it. If you haven’t been listening, I had said I wanted you to embrace the ways that you and I are alike.”Sean gasped as teeth sank into his neck, and he moaned in pain as Vexis sucked hard. “I want it to go away.”Vexis pulled back and licked their lips. “Too bad I can’t draw blood that way without really hurting you. One thing I envy your vampire husband for.”Their nails dug deeper into Sean’s skin, and the rush that came with it started to have its intended effect.“When you learn to embrace the trauma shadows instead of fearing them,” Vexis continued, “you’ll see what it feels like to feel powerful. To command the shadows and walk fearlessly into the void is something not many humans are capable of, but you…” Vexis set their mouth by his ear again. “You are capable of it. If you want to be anything resembling a companion to me, then you’ll command the shadow man as you see fit. Go on, tell it you want it to touch you.”Sean’s heart raced as he observed the staticky form standing before him. It didn’t look as scary as its previous form, and he was able to discern the outline of a masculine body rather than the vague blob of a human shape it was before. It flickered.“I want you to…” His mouth had gone dry. “I want you to touch me.”The shadow man slipped a hand along the side of Sean’s face, and he eyed where its mouth should have been. “I have the answers you seek,” it taunted.Vexis halted their teasing. “I’m not sure you want to do what you’re thinking,” they said with a smile.Breathing became difficult as Sean licked his lips. Could he? Should he? He inched forward to close the remaining distance between them, and the shadow man followed suit.Vexis accepted his decision and continued from where they’d left off before the shadow man appeared. A shock of pleasure sent Sean reeling as his lips met with a faint resemblance of a mouth, and a cold tongue slipped between his teeth. What was best described as nothing other than the vastness of space filled his body, and despite the heat building low in his stomach as Vexis worked their fingers, Sean envisioned his skin turning blue.

Vivid images of his body lying in the snow, motionless, flooded his mind, and he tried to block it out as the shadow man moved against his quivering body. Hands that seemed far away tugged Sean’s pants down, and the shadow man lifted him like he weighed nothing.Something cold slid into him, and he rode the waves of pleasure and fear as the void filled him, just like it had attempted to do in a sleep paralysis dream not so long ago. The shadow man had seduced him then too, and he didn’t get to experience the pleasure before he awoke. Vexis had distracted him from what they now tried to show.The shadow man, by itself, had never hurt Sean. It merely frightened him because he’d made it frightening. The years of trauma had formed into that… thing that defied all reason, and because it held no specific image, Sean hadn’t known what it was.It was simply the darkness inside him caused by all of the years of pain, and he had the power to shape it just like Vexis had done. Why couldn’t he shape and command something that was a part of him?When Sean broke free of the shadow man’s forbidden kiss, the terrifying visions went with it and he no longer saw his dead body lying in the snow. He became wrapped in a dark embrace as the shadow man moved inside him, and instead of screaming, he emitted a shameful sound.Vexis’ distant laugh echoed as their tendrils surrounded Sean, and their hand coaxed him further and further to the precipice. He leaned into Vexis as he commanded the shadow man to continue, and for a moment, he became his former self, the hypersexual mess who knew only one way to cope and hide the pain.So much sex and so much irresponsibility. Having an appetite stronger than that of his exes only frustrated him, and he’d turned into a needy, whiny pain in the ass. The only men that were good to him had to suffer his mental scars with him as he begged for their every last second. Sean wanted them to only want him, and he often went out of his way to ensure that would happen. He’d teased them like a succubus as he coped with the underlying fear of sex while craving it all the same.He felt gross. He hated his body. He didn’t feel attractive. But he needed that specific high. It made everything feel okay again.Sean cried out as the little death finally washed over him, and the shadow man ceased. It withdrew just as quickly, and Sean again stood in the wintry wilderness with Vexis, who coaxed him back down from the high that had taken him away. The void was no more, and his shadow man had left them.He realized what he’d done and wiggled free of Vexis, who watched him with amusement. They broke into cruel laughter, and Sean redressed himself to regain some warmth from the renewed chill. “Don’t laugh at me.”“I’m laughing with you, idiot.” Vexis wiped tears from their eyes. “You actually did it. You actually fucked your shadow man. I knew it.”Sean hugged himself and looked away. Burning shame hit full force. “What else were you trying to accomplish while touching me like that?”“Don’t back down now, you were in full command,” Vexis said with a smile. “For that inkling of a moment, you didn’t care. You didn’t have fear. How did it feel?”“That wasn’t really me.” Sean looked at the ground and bit his lip. “It’s the hypersexual stuff. It’s not who I really am.”“It’s who you became.” Vexis quirked a brow. “Hypersexuality is a trauma response, it doesn’t change your sexual orientation. You are who you say you are, and my point was that your shadow man does what you want it to. Get it?”Sean nodded. “I have control.”“Genius.” Vexis rolled their eyes. “It’s that easy. Granted, we have many more difficult things to confront, but you’d get nowhere if you held on to your fear for your shadow man. It’s the symbolism for all of those messed up memories, and you’ll be seeing more of it.”Sean shivered as the cold registered once more. It was the obvious direction of things. Confronting the vague embodiment of past trauma would at least get one major thing out of the way. Now, it wouldn’t be such a distraction with what was to come. It was the unknown — the mysterious bogeyman carrying everything he didn’t want to confront, and it always kept the truth out of reach. It wouldn’t block his progress anymore.Sean paused before turning to walk back. “While we were…” He struggled with the embarrassing words. “While we were in the void and I, um, kissed it…”“You saw something scary, didn’t you?” Vexis gestured for Sean to follow them back to the house. “I told you it wasn’t wise. If you hadn’t been in such an interesting position, you wouldn’t have known the difference between existential delusion and reality.”“So it was false?” Sean said with desperate hope. “The vision was just a fear manifested?”His heart felt lighter.“What did the note mean, then?”Vexis turned to look at him, their eyes widening. “What you lost out there in the cold wasn’t your physical body. You’re very much alive.”Sean furrowed his brow. “Then what did I lose?”Vexis smiled and turned to continue walking. “We might get to that eventually, if you’re ever ready for that answer.”Sean took a deep breath and resigned to the long walk home. At least Zagan, Byleth, and Darokin would be there to comfort him. Hopefully they didn’t get too angry at Vexis for that night’s adventure.