Jack is already having a mediocre night when he stumbles across Kent Parson backed up against a corridor wall at the godawful hotel that’s hosting the awards this year. He doesn’t recognize the man who’s boxed him in, at first, only that he’s got half a foot on Kent, easy, and the line of his jacket does nothing to disguise the hulking build of an enforcer, even at the end of a season.
Bryant. Colin Bryant, Jack recalls, hazily. Bryant is holding onto Kent’s wrists with both hands, one braced against the wall near Kent’s hip, and the other pinned up next to his ear. Kent isn’t fighting it: he’s gone soft and pliant, swayed forward as much as he’s able, doesn’t look like he can hold himself up. His eyes are barely half-open, and his mouth, for that matter. He’s not down all the way, not really, but he’s submitting pretty, the invitation clear, just enough to show how easy he’ll go down if someone’s willing to put him there. Bryant is leaning in, drinking it in, saying something in his ear that Jack can’t make out from here, but he can see Kent’s throat stretched out, see as he swallows, see as Bryant leans in a little further, and puts his mouth to the spot where neck meets jaw.
It’s obscene. It’s a risk— even though Kent is, even though he’s out now, has been since Jack unwittingly left open the door for their past to come spilling out after. The way Kent is sloppy with it, the glisten of Bryant’s saliva slicked onto his jaw, the little soundless pants Kent is gasping out, the way Jack knows his wrists are going to bruise from it later.
He tears himself away. He can’t watch anymore. If he keeps watching, he’s going to—
Going to do nothing. He’s going to walk away. He is walking away, each step methodical after the last, and then he’s stepping into the men’s room, bending over the sink, splashing cold water onto his face like he’s finishing up a hard set at the gym. Something feral and angry is clawing at the walls of his stomach, tearing jagged rends in his lungs. He’s bitten a chunk of the inside of his lip; there’s blood flushing his mouth. It’s not helping him hold himself together.
He’s heard about this. Nostalgic backlash, or bond ghosts, or whatever they’re calling it these days. When you break off a bond, but you still feel the ghost of the emotions you had: your brain chemistry throws out echoes because your nerves still remember those pathways, even if the endpoint is gone.
It doesn’t matter, he tells himself, lecturing the pale boy in the mirror. It’s only sense memory. A pathway that hasn’t faded yet. He doesn’t feel anything for Kent Parson, not anymore. It’s not surprising that other people, Colin Bryant, whoever else, would look at what was on offer and want a sample. Jack’s under no illusions that Kent hasn’t kept busy, looking the way he looks, and the rest of the package besides.
It’s just that he had to see it, he tells himself. First time seeing your ex desperate and gasping for a different guy, it’s not surprising that— that it was a surprise. That Jack was shocked, seeing it. Now that he’s seen it once, it won’t be a surprise if it happens again.
(When he goes back to the reception, he keeps an eye on the door. Kent and Bryant don’t come back, though, and Jack finally gives up trying to make small talk, and spends the night twisting, shivering and wide-awake on the hotel’s scratchy monogrammed sheets.)