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the landscape after cruelty

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My dragonfly,
my black-eyed fire, the knives in the kitchen are singing
for blood, but we are the crossroads, my little outlaw,
and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty

—Richard Siken, from Snow and Dirty Rain

Autumn 2006

Kent comes to the Q with a dark grin and a chip on his shoulder about nearly everything. He skates hard and plays hard. He makes eye contact with the Coaches when they're talking about how to improve your game. He talks to the other players, but his eyes slide over them like they aren't important.

Kent knows Jack Zimmermann by reputation and hearsay. He doesn't know that Jack is an alpha. But the scent hits him on the face the first time they meet, and Kent nearly doubles over, choking.

On the ice, they're fire. Kent could smell Jack half a mile away–knowing where he is on the ice is easy. Their passes connect like lightning. It's brilliant, and it lights Kent up inside, makes him feel more alive.

When his heat comes early, it almost isn't a surprise. But he's in a locker room full of alphas and betas, and that isn’t–good. Not good at all, or safe. He walks out quickly, trying not to draw attention to himself. Thinks about going to the trainers, but he knows what they think about omegas and playing and weakness. He knows they’ll tell the Coaches.

So he ducks into an empty room and tries to think.

He’s just got the beginnings of a plan when Jack walks in, and the scent of him punches Kent in the gut, killing any plan he might’ve had. He doesn’t even knock. Kent wants to scream at him to get out. He wants to curl his entire body into Jack and let him have everything. He wants–

“Come with me,” Jack says briefly.

“Where?” Kent pants. The scent curls in his nostrils, apples and maple sugar and ice. Metal. He can’t think.

“I’m taking you home,” Jack says. “We can figure out what to do about your heat over there.”

“Why are you helping me?” Kent demands, paranoia rushing in. He’s never been able to just let himself be helped. He can’t stop thinking that Jack is only doing this out of misguided chivalry or pity–and Kent can’t stand to be thought of as weak or helpless in any way. If Jack thinks he’s weak–

“Because you’re the only guy on this ice worth playing with.” He grins weakly at Kent as he says it, like he’s embarrassed, but even that can’t stop the tide of heat engulfing Kent. Jack Zimmermann thinks he’s worth playing with. Jack Zimmermann thinks he’s the only person on the ice worth playing with.

Kent stops asking questions after that.

Winter 2011

Shitty's a beta. Kent knows this. He can't not–he's been sharing a room with Shitty for well over a month. He also knows that he trusts Shitty to help him through his heats more than he trusts, say, Jack, at this point.

It's not that Jack wouldn't help him. He's a good guy, and he'd try to help. But it's been years since Kent bared his throat to Jack and Jack said No thanks.

Kent should be over it by now

The fact that he followed Jack to Samwell, deferred his draft by years just to be in the same room as Jack, says otherwise.

But Samwell proved to be its own reward. It pulled Kent in, made him assistant manager to the Men's Hockey Team, let him study math and economics and statistics.

It gave Kent his first A on a test. He'd coasted through high school on B's and C's and the very occasional B+, but he'd never gotten an A. Kent has that email printed out and tacked to the wall as a proof of what he is capable of.

Jack studies history, and takes photos, and plays hockey. Kent tells himself he isn't jealous. That he chose not to go back to hockey in college. He wanted a break. He wanted this. Some days, it's nearly enough. 

Jack practices with Kent. Kent goes to training camps for the Aces over the summer. Jack doesn't get scouted, and Kent tells him that it's okay, that he has years and years of playing hockey left. Kent wants to mean it without misgivings, but he worries about Jack. He worries about the way Jack thinks about hockey. Like there's never been anything else and never will be.

Jack hates that Kent worries about him. It's not your place to worry about me, he shouted at Kent, one evening after practice, when the locker room was empty. Somebody has to worry about you, Kent had snapped. Somebody has to tell you when you're fucking up. Your dad sure doesn't. And then they hadn't spoken for a month, except at their private practice. Typical, really. You fight and you fight, and then you play hockey. And that's all there is.

Anyway, Shitty’s a beta, and a supremely decent guy otherwise, and Kent trusts him.

So Kent goes to him.

“Hey, how's it going,” he says, sitting down at the Haus kitchen table. Shitty is at work making weed brownies.

Kent has never gone through a heat high. He thinks he'd like to. Maybe Shitty would make it okay. Fun.

“Hey, man,” Shitty says. (Kenny knows his first name, but Shitty made him swear on the draft that he wouldn't tell nobody. Kent takes his promises seriously, even if Jack doesn't.)

Kent watches him for several minutes, and then he goes, “Do you ever have sex?”

“Yeah,” Shitty says, looking directly at Kent. There's a pause, and then: “I've had sex with Lardo, a few times.”

“No one else?” Kent asks. He's a little bit surprised, and also not. Shitty is a lot more intense than he lets on, and he's also fiercely loyal.

Shitty slumps a little bit. “No one else.”

“Do you want to?” Kent asks.

Shitty gives him a tired grin, half-turning to let Kent see it. “You offering?”

“Yes,” Kent says, a little bit too loud. So he's nervous. Sue him.

It's not every day you ask your ex-boyfriend's best bro to fuck you through your heat.

“I'm a beta,” Shitty says, like Kent might not know this.

“I know,” Kent says. “Believe me, I wouldn't ask if you weren't.”

Shitty knows a lot about people. He knows, for example, that Kent plays fast and loose with his dynamic. He probably doesn't know that Jack is willing to, as well. Kent is tired of keeping Jack's secrets, but he keeps them anyway.

Kent is tired of being the only person who really knows Jack, but he stays anyway.

When it gets too much, he tells himself, You can always leave. The Aces are waiting for you. You could just pack your bags and start driving. But he never goes, never walks out on Jack. Kent has lost count of the of times Jack's walked out on him. Jack would probably deserve it.

Shitty says yes and the uglier parts of Kent say things like, You knew he'd agree, who wouldn't want to fuck you?  They say You don't deserve to be helped.

Jack is going to therapy these days. He doesn't know that Kent is going too.

Autumn 2013

The first time Kent meets Bitty, he thinks, No. Not this, not again.

Bitty is a whirlwind, checking problems and pies and the camera equipment he's weirdly cagey about. And he's Jack's type to a T: blond and sweet and built smaller than Jack. Smaller than Kent, even.

Bitty catches on quickly to currents and tensions. Once, when Kent flinched away from Jack’s glare, his eyes landed on Bitty’s sharp frown and murderous eyes. It took him a week to realise they were directed at Jack.

Bitty takes over the kitchen, bakes like that’s what his hands are for. Like somewhere he learnt that if you feed people, they’ll be less inclined to leave. He plays hockey, and he falls down. He gets back up.

He calls his mom, and he calls his dad Coach. Kent thinks about Jack calling his dad Mr Zimmermann and nothing else.

Kent looks at Bitty, and he thinks about Bitty, and he offers to teach Bitty how to take a check and how to pass French. Kent’s French is okay. It isn't as good as Jack's for sure, and sometimes Kent has to take Bitty to Ransom for the advanced stuff. He tells himself it's for the best that Bitty stays away from Jack. He tells himself he's looking out for Bitty. Most of the time,

it's true.

Bitty is an omega, which is expected but still disappointing. Kent wants an alpha he can trust. He wanted Bitty to be that alpha. But he’s not, and Kent doesn’t mind even a little bit. Until then he walks Bitty to class.

When Bitty comes out to him, something goes loose and soft in Kent's chest. He ignores it. He hugs Bitty, and takes him out for celebratory coffee at Annie's. He tells himself that just because Eric is sweet and cute and has baker’s hands, doesn't mean that he's a good decision.

He doesn't listen to himself. Instead he asks Eric if he wants to start spending heats together.

Eric does.

Eric takes care of Kent. Eric bakes for him, and calls him a good boy in a Southern accent, and whispers how glad Eric is to have him, while Kent is in bed with him.

He doesn't always wait until they've had sex. Kent is weak for it.

It's been so long since he's slept with somebody who likes him.

Kent takes care of Eric, or at least he tries. He drags Eric away from the kitchen when he's been stress baking for too long, and he hugs Bitty when he cries after getting off the phone with his mom. He does his best to be there for Eric when Eric needs it. Eric tries to do the same.

Shitty slept with Kent because Kent asked. It wasn't awkward, and sometimes it was even fun. But one day Jack walked in on them, and then he didn't speak to either of them for a week, and Shitty looked so miserable and guilty that Kent called it off. He was tired by then, anyway, of the way Shitty looked at the tattoo on Kent's ribs. Like it was something to be sad about.

Kent puts on concealer before he goes to Bitty’s room. He never showers with Eric, and makes up wild stories about how dangerous shower sex is.

Sometimes Bitty curls into Kent's side after they have sex. He traces his fingers over Kent's collarbones. Kent doesn't know what to make of that. He doesn't know where in his life Eric Bittle fits.

Bitty complains constantly to Kent about Jack. He bitches about the way Jack talks down to him, and Kent's heart aches. He talks about his grandmother, and growing up in Georgia, and how his mom married his dad when he was eleven. Kent listens, and he watches Bitty carefully around Jack even though he knows they won't fall for each other. Jack is as stubborn as he ever was, and he's probably managed to delude himself into thinking that's a good thing.

Kent worries about Eric, but he forgets to worry about Jack. He forgets that Eric is Jack's type, and that Eric is proud and cold when he wants to be, and Jack likes that.You do know he's gay, right, Kent tells Jack one day after practice. Jack has spent the entire time yelling at Bitty. It's how he flirts.

Bitty thinks Jack is an asshole. He isn't wrong. Jack thinks Kent is an asshole.

Kent very deliberately fails to tell Bitty about Jack's dysfunctional flirting. It's mean and Bitty does not deserve to think his Captain hates him, but Kent is tired too. He's long since given up on the idea of revenge, but a dish best served cold and all that.

Summer 2013

Holster takes Kent apart with razor focus. Kent isn't expecting it, can't ever brace himself for Holster's rough, thorough kisses, for the way he bites at Kent's skin when they're together. Kent wants it to last longer. He wants Adam to ask him to stay.

Eventually Kent stops hoping he would.

Sometimes they talk hockey while they're catching their breath. Kent can read the ice better than Holster can, has an instinct and a method, honed by years of playing and years of stats and physics at college.

That's when Kent starts to think about leaving. He came to college so that he wouldn’t just have to be the guy who went first in the draft. He spent so many years building himself around hockey that he forgot he was more. He doesn’t want to get sucked back into that particular pigeonhole, not when he’s finally breaking free. He's tired of people who think he's only good for hockey.

Some part of Kent notes that he's better at everything then Adam. It's not fair. Adam has an injury, of course Kent plays better hockey than him. But Kent is better at economics too. He knows, because they're in the same class.

Kent doesn't know if Holster hates him for being better than him at things they both do. But he thinks about the bruises Adam leaves on him. Maybe he just wants to leave a trace on a body that’s going to go farther than his own. It’s so human that Kent’s heart aches.

Or maybe Kent is just reading too much into things. He's been known to do that, after all.

Autumn 2014

Lardo taught Kent how to hold a brush. She taught him how to make pots and how to shape clay with his hands. Sometimes she asks him about him and Jack.

Ulterior motives, Kent thinks. He doesn't say it out loud. Lardo isn't like that. She's smart, but she isn't a dissembler. Not the way Bitty is. Not the way Nursey is.

They've been co-managers for almost a term. Kent likes that he got a promotion. Kent likes managing things. Lardo is good at the inter-personal stuff. She leaves the timelines and the hotel bookings to Kent. He likes that they both have parts of their job that they're good at. He likes how they work together.

He reminds himself of all of this when Lardo says, “So, you and Jack, huh?”

Lardo is so bad at subtlety. That's what makes it so surprising that she and Shitty haven't gotten together yet. But she's not sentimental either, and Shitty doesn't notice the way the fridge is always stocked with his favourite brand of cheap beer. Even though there are other brands with the same price tag. Even though he never goes grocery shopping (because they always go on Thursdays and Shitty has an asshole professor who tests them every Friday).

Out loud Kent says, “Me and Jack, yeah.”

“Were you two–together? Before?”

Kent lies down on the floor. If he puts his ear to the ground, he can hear the soft creaking of the Haus.

Sometimes Kent thinks that it isn't possible for anybody to love something as much as Kent loves the Haus. That it shouldn't be possible. Surely it's wrong, surely there's a line somewhere that says, Beyond this your love is wrong.

For Kent, all lines are drawn in sand. Most of them he can't even see.

So many things in Kent are broken, or lost, or wounded. What's another, when Kent has long since stopped keeping track.

“Not in the way you think,” he tells Lardo. He doesn't know what she's thinking, but he knows it isn't right.

There's no way anybody else can know the way things were between them. The sex, the cuddling, the way Jack was certain that he would go first. How Kent watched Jack swallow pill after pill, and didn't dare tell anybody. How scared they both were, and how desperate to hide it from everybody, even each other.

Kent knew that Jack was scared. Jack didn't know Kent was too. Jack did not see the way Kent sat up night hoping and praying that Jack did go first, because he didn't know what would happen otherwise but he knew it couldn't be good.

Kent was right.

The day Kent was drafted, he stopped believing in god. He's never regretted it. God never did anything for Kent that he couldn't do himself.

“What was it like?” Lardo asks.

And Kent wants to tell her. He's kept Jack's secrets for years, surely it can't hurt to let go of this one. Just this one time, with a person they both trust. Kent wants to tell her. He opens his mouth.

“I promised not to tell,” he says lamely.

Lardo doesn't question this. Kent wants her to. Kent wants to like girls, just so Lardo could fuck him. He trusts her, and she's an alpha, and she'd be so good to him. She'd be so kind. Kent wants.

(Much later it occurs to him that wanting to sleep with a girl is the same as wanting to sleep with a girl. )

“Do you still like him?” she asks, impervious to Kent's crises.

“Yes,” Kent whispers. “I don't want to get over him either.”

“But he hurts you,” Lardo says. “Why do you want to be in love with a guy who isn't good to you at all?”

“Because,” Kent says. “Because. It's easy. The devil I know, and all that.”

Lardo nods. “That makes sense.”

There's a long pause. Kent presses his cheek to the floor. Lardo unscrews a tube of blue paint.

“You deserve better,” Lardo tells him, turning back to canvas, adding a long cobalt streak that will soon resolve itself into a sky. “You really do. You deserve somebody who would–who would be grateful to be with you.”

“Grateful to whom?” Kent asks. He's so tired, and dead certain that he doesn't deserve better. It would serve him right to stay in love with Jack for the rest of his life while Jack moved on and found everything he ever wanted.

Lardo gives him this look. It's not pity, because Kent knows what that looks like. It isn't sympathy. It's something so deep and vast that it makes Kent's breath hitch.

:::

Later on Lardo takes him out to dinner and tells him she loves him. Kent touches her hair with the tips of his fingers. They aren't alone; it's raining and there are joggers and pedestrians under the awning of the shop with them, but Kent feels like he's alone. Like it's just the two of them, and the rain, and the softness of Lardo's hair and her big dark eyes, saying I love you. I'm here for you.

Winter/Summer 2014

Nursey runs his fingers through Kent's hair. Nursey’s casual about touching him, even in public. Kent leans into Nursey’s hands, thinking all the while about Lardo's smaller ones. How strong and delicate Lardo is.

It's so strange, Kent thinks, the first time Derek kisses him. Derek is drunk, and his stomach when he takes his shirt off is soft with fat. He's pretty as hell, and Kent likes it, but then he catches sight of the beginnings of Derek's tattoo sleeve, and thinks unintentionally of the branches and roots that cradled Lardo's breasts and back and shoulders. It's not something he can imagine Derek getting. Too much vulnerability, when Derek looks at the world like he's at war with it all the time.

Kent wants him to relax. He can't stop thinking about how Lardo would be so good at putting Derek at ease right now. It wouldn't take much, probably, weed or kisses or a friendly argument about something that goes over Kent's head. He wants to listen to Derek talk. He's not sure he wants Derek to fuck him, but Derek is nosing at Kent's collarbones and Kent gives in, gives in all the time.

It's good. It's so good, and Kent doesn't regret it, except for how afterwards Derek won't look at him. Derek doesn't touch him again. Just like Jack, really.

He just wanted Lardo and Derek to talk to each other.

:::

Later on Kent finds Will. Dex is fixing the roof, and he isn't wearing a shirt, and Kent can see his freckles from the ground. It's so hot, and Dex must be roasting himself up there, but Kent can understand why he does it. He's seen the way Dex looks at the Haus. Kent understands.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” Kent calls up.

Dex nods.

Kent makes him lemonade, puts in soda and honey instead of water and sugar. It's Bitty's honey, but Kent thinks he won't mind. It's not like he'll know who took it, anyway.

Kent wonders when he started creeping around the Haus. He thinks it was about the same time that Lardo left, and took Shitty with her. But he can't be sure.

Dex thanks him for the lemonade. Kent tosses up a tube of sunscreen. Dex frowns.

Later that day Dex comes to his room, knocks on the door even though it's open. Kent is doing homework. It's a thing he does now.

“Can I help you?” he asks Will.

Dex shuts the door behind him. “How do you get somebody to sleep with you?” he says. It's angry and awkward and it comes out wrong. Dex doesn't mean it like that. And even if he does, Kent leaves his door open for a reason. He's never been about only helping the people he judges worthy of help.

He isn't Jack.

“Do you have a crush?” Kent says instead, and Dex starts to look less angry and more miserable.

“You don't have to tell me who it is,” Kent says gently. He sits up, placing a palm on Will’s knee.

Dex makes a soft sound. Kent thinks, Oh.

He waits in silence for Dex to say something. Will breaks forty seconds later, which is kind of pathetic when Kent thinks about it. But then, Jack could keep a bitter silence for weeks. Kent has high standards for bitter silences now.

“I think I'm in love with Derek,” Dex says. Which is short and straight to the point. Kent appreciates that.

“And you don't think he likes you back, because–” Kent prompts.

“He's gay,” Dex mutters. “He likes alphas.”

Kent sits back. He thinks about the way Derek treated him after they had sex that one time. It makes a twisted sort of sense. That perhaps Nursey came to Samwell so that he could be himself and suddenly discovered that shit was a lot more complicated than he'd thought.

Kent envies Bitty, because Eric does not doubt what he is.

“It may be a lot more...fluid than you think.” Kent said slowly.

“What do you know?” Dex said sulkily. “He hates me.”

“He hates you because you're a privileged dick,” Kent says. “Not because you're an omega. And this is tough on him too.”

Dex flinches. “How did you know?”

“Know what? That you're a privileged douche? It's pretty obvious, you know.”

Dex grimaces. “Not that. About me being an omega.”

Kent stares at him. “You wouldn't be angsting about this if you were an alpha.”

“You don't seem surprised,” Dex says lamely. He’s so bad at this. Kent feels bad for him. “About me being. You know.”

“It's not wrong,” Kent says. “To be an omega. Believe me, I am one.”

“Tell that to everybody back home,” Dex mutters, and suddenly Kent sees a little bit of what's going on.

Kent thinks about the spiderwebs in Lardo's room. This is a little bit like that, maybe. Tangled and dusty and complicated and just. Sad, really.

Kent wants to fix this for Dex. He wants to tell Derek to sort his shit out so that he can get to the fun part of this, like fucking Will.

Fucking Will. He reminds Kent of himself, when he was younger and angrier. Angry at Jack and angry at the world and angry at himself for not being enough.

Kent would have sex with Will if he asked, if he wanted to. Dex would like it, probably. Kent's good at making it good. But he doesn't think Dex wants that. Dex wants Nursey, and he wants somebody to see him for what he is.

Which is, like. Fair.

“Maybe you should show him,” Kent says abruptly. “Show him that you mean this, that you want this and you're willing to work for it. Show him you're in.”

A second too late Kent thinks about how that's really, exceptionally bad advice. Derek would not be kind to a vulnerable Will. But he can't take it back now.

Autumn 2015

“I want help,” Jack says. He's standing in Kent's doorway, and goddammit this is not one of the reasons Kent leaves it open.

“With what,” he says flatly.

“My thesis,” Jack says. He won't meet Kent's eyes. “I need a topic.”

But Jack wants help, and he's come to Kent for it.

Kent wonders if his kindness can stretch to include Jack. He guesses he'll find out. He guesses they both will.

“What about your thesis?” Kent asks.

“I need a topic.”

“Your period is world war two, right?” Jack nods. He looks surprised. That Kent knows? That's ridiculous, Kent keeps track of everybody in the team. Majors, allergies, comfort foods.

Kent tries to think. “Do you want to–combine stuff? Like photography and history?”

“Maybe,” Jack frowns. “I can't think of a topic that would let me combine things.”

“Sit down,” Kent says. “Help me out here, okay?”

“Okay,” Jack says.

:::

the rain came pouring down
when I was drowning
that's when I could finally breathe
and one morning gone was any trace of you
I think I am finally clean

Summer 2016

There is a tall, snapback-wearing, bewildered-looking guy in Kent's rink. Well, it's the team's, but whatever. Details.

“Can I help you?” Kent calls out, walking briskly towards him.

The guy turns around. Up close, Kent can smell his confusion. Which is weird–Kent hasn't been able to scent an emotion since Jack in the Q. Which was almost six years ago, now.

It's been a while, Kent thinks. What a strange thought–of course it's been a while. But it feels significant.

“I–yeah,” the guy says. “I was supposed to coach a hockey team? Um, the thirteen year olds? That's what my schedule said.”

The hockey rink us empty except for the two of them. Kent feels bad for the guy. He checks his clipboard.

“I don't have a slot for 13 year olds today,” Kent said finally. “I do have one for tomorrow, though. At this time.” He looks up the guy, who just looks embarrassed now. Kent takes pity on him. He looks like a lost labrador.

“Tell you what,” Kent says. “I've got a thing to do here, and it'll take about ten minutes. If you're willing to wait that long, I can take you to Annie's. You look like you could use a pick-me-up.”

The guy smiles at him. “Is it that obvious?”

Kent pats him on the shoulder. “You have dark circles, dude.” He nods at the stands. “Just sit there. I'll be back soon.”

“Thanks,” the guy looks relieved. “I'm Jeff, by the way.”

Kent is already walking away before he realises that he was supposed to tell Jeff his own name. He backtracks rapidly, ashamed of his own rudeness. “I'm Kent,” he says hastily, trying not to meet Jeff's eyes. He's pretty certain he's being laughed at.

Oddly, it doesn't feel as bad as it should.

:::

Jeff is a biology major, with a minor in sports psychology. He has two older brothers and one younger sister. His favourite hockey team is the Montreal Canadiens, and he takes Kent's chirping with a friendly grin and many attempts to give it back. He's an alpha. He broke his knee playing NHL hockey, and decided to retire early and go to college. He wants a dog. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he's conversational and excited to be at college.

Kent learns all of this on the way to Annie's. It's a comfortable walk despite the cold and the crowds of freshmen Kent sneers at. Jeff has a deep, rough laugh, and more than once he puts his hands on Kent to steer him away from a puddle. Kent resists the urge to lean into Jeff, and walks more carefully. Not as carefully as he can, though.

So he's a little bit weak for a hot nontrad ex-hockey player. Who isn't, given the chance.

Kent wants to talk to Lardo about this. He hasn't felt this kind of buttery, soft warmth in his stomach in years. It feels like a thawing. It feels nice.

:::

Kent returns to the Haus smiling like an idiot.