It starts with a stupid article on some random blog that's picked up by the more mainstream sites. Zero only hears about it in passing via Twitter; some overzealous fan who thinks he has time to read every link they send (he learnt the hard way that it's better to just avoid clicking altogether).
Still, this one makes him pause. The headline screams Zero's Parents Speak Out! - the kind of fodder that the news outlets have been dying for ever since he kissed Jude after that game. The only reason why they haven't printed his full name is because he's got a lawyer working twenty-four/seven to ensure that no one knows the one thing about him that he's not willing to reveal.
He can be Gideon with Jude, but that's it. There has to be some distinction between who he is to everyone else. That's how he keeps it all in. The memories, the self-doubt, the truth. All of that flies off Zero , like a rebound shot swooping through the net. Too fast to make a difference. Hard enough that he can paint on a smile whenever he needs to without worrying about it cracking into pieces.
With that in mind, he clicks on the article. This time, it's Carla, his foster mother, that's crawled out of the woodwork.
‘We used to take him to practice after school and scrounge up enough to make sure that he had the right gear. My husband even coached him for a while.’
Zero rolls his eyes. Sure they did.
‘Ever since he went pro, he’s never gotten in touch with us. At this point, we know as much about him as you do.
At that point, he clicks out of it and barely refrains from throwing the iPad across the room.
“We could sue them for slander,” Jude suggests when he meets with Zero later. They're grabbing dinner at what's supposed to be a quiet restaurant, but he's pretty sure they won't make it through their meal without interruption.
Zero quirks up an eyebrow. “And then they'll sell a story about that. It's a never-ending cycle of bullshit.”
He picks up his water glass and takes a sip. He wishes that it was something stronger.
Jude frowns, his shoulders stiff as he levels Zero with a searching gaze. “You mean this isn't the first time?”
Zero mentally berates himself for slipping up. When he first went pro, one of the first things his agent told him was to make sure that his reputation was clean. That meant sending Leo and Carla a hefty chunk every month until he realised that bad publicity wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
“With Leo and Carla, it's never the first time,” he mutters, fists clenched as he pulls them down onto his lap.
Jude's eyes soften and Zero clears his throat. He ignores the burgeoning tightness in his chest. He doesn't want this to turn into a huge deal where they spend an hour dissecting his feelings.
“It doesn't matter anyway. They can say what they want. It's not like people haven't heard worse.”
If Jude knows that he's lying, he doesn't call him out on it.
Zero gets the call just after practice and answers before he realises it's an unknown number. He's feeling hot and uncomfortable even with the quick shower he took and that sensation only grows when he hears who the caller is.
“You know, you're just as ungrateful as you were the day you left.” Leo's voice is just as scratchy as it always was.
“How did you get this number?” Zero’s eyes narrow as he heads towards the exit, his jaw clenching before any response comes.
“I'm a resourceful guy,” Leo retorts with a bitter laugh. Zero can almost picture the way his large ruddy face twists into that ugly sneer of his; his eyes red due to the excessive alcohol consumption, words slurred and barely coherent. He remembers everything like it was yesterday.
“What do you want?” Zero asks. He reaches his car, but doesn't get in. He leans against the driver's seat, briefly nodding towards a passing group of players who are carpooling home.
“Tell your friend to back off,” Leo says. “We've got enough problems on our plate without some jackass trying to ruin it all. I doubt that the IRS give a damn about a hard-working man like me.”
Jude, Zero thinks, because there's only one person that would do that for him.
He doesn't even acknowledge the hard-working comment.
“What problems would those be?” Zero says, “You certainly don't have a problem with selling lies about me.”
“You're out there making big bucks after everything we did for you,” Leo says in a tone laced with cold bitterness. “What's it to you?”
Zero opens his mouth to answer, but he pauses when he realises that people like Leo don't change. All of the verbal abuse, the neglect and general maltreatment - it all means nothing to him.
“Keep my name out of your mouth,” Zero tells him before he hangs up.
His eyes flutter closed and he exhales slowly, unable to ignore the way his heart is beating rapidly in his chest.
“Got a call from Leo,” Zero tells Jude later at the Playground. Jelena is hosting some kind of event and as Captain, he has to be here. Given the buzz around him at the moment, he'd rather have stayed home, but he's not about to give anyone a reason to say that he's not a good sport.
Jude downs his drink in one go, but Zero sees the way his shoulders tense up.
“What did he say?” Jude says with his eyes facing downward.
The question of why Jude didn't tell Zero he was going to contact Leo doesn't need to be answered. He knows why. Zero probably would have gotten pissed off, and informed Jude that he doesn't need protecting.
The only thing is that Zero is slowly checking out of the building and all that's left is who he really is. The armour he usually wears is tainted and he doesn't know how to fix it.
Zero raises an eyebrow when he realises that Jude's still not looking at him. “That I should tell you to back off.”
Guilt flashes across Jude's face and he finally looks up and says, “I'm not sorry for going to see him. Not when everything they're saying upsets you.”
The lie is automatic. “They didn't... I'm not upset.”
Zero trails off when he realises that he can't even find the words.
The lie is automatic but unconvincing.
Jude gives him a knowing look and leans in so that he's closer. “You might be able to fool everyone else, but you're not fooling me. I get it, remember? I know it's not the same but Oscar treated me like shit for months and I let him. You didn't have a choice. You finally get away and now all of a sudden you're being forced to confront the past. That's gotta suck.”
Zero snorts quietly and slides down in his seat a little. “It's not even what they're saying, it's just that I'm linked to them at all. They're not my parents - in any capacity - and I guess I wish I could have that on the record.”
Jude's eyes narrow in thought. “Technically, you could. But it would involve divulging personal information. You'd have to choose between being Zero or Gideon.”
Zero's considered that. So far Leo and Carla's ability to hurt him publicly hinges on his image and lack of available private information. It's why the media is happy to print whatever bullshit Leo feeds them. If he took that away from them and told everyone what really happened, that would be it. No more using him as their meal ticket.
“How fast can we get me in front of a camera?”
Oddly enough, Jude is more nervous than he is when they're waiting for Zero to tape his interview. He's pacing up and down fidgeting with his phone and murmuring under his breath. At first Zero's worried about him, but after five minutes it gets irritating.
“Would you just say what's on your mind already?” he snaps, wincing afterward when he hears how harsh his tone is.
Jude blinks a few times before he looks down at Zero, eyes wide with confusion before they clear up and he sighs gently. “I know that we've talked about this but I don't want you to regret it later.”
He's thinking about Oscar, Zero can tell. Jude's made the comparison a few times even though they're not the same. Oscar is a good for nothing asshole, but Zero thinks that if he'd been around, he would have done even more damage. Jude will never understand that, nor will he ever go against Oscar publicly. The misplaced guilt would eat him alive. Jude's still caught up in what could have been but Zero's long past that point.
“I'm not going to regret anything,” Zero says, his voice firm and steady. If anything, he should have done this a long time ago. The thought of Leo and Carla still being allowed to foster kids makes him sick.
All he's been able to think about are all of the times he and his foster siblings were called worthless whenever Leo drank (and when he didn't) and life became a never-ending stream of trying to avoid the punches.
He thinks about escaping to the basketball courts because there was nowhere else to go.
He thinks about all of the people he's let down.
“C’mere,” Jude says suddenly, throwing Zero out of his thoughts. Zero doesn't argue, just unfolds his legs and stands up, meeting Jude halfway in the small dressing room.
“I think you're doing the right thing.”
Jude presses a chaste kiss to Zero's lips and encloses him in a brief hug. Zero closes his eyes and breathes in gently before he steps back. In a minute, he's going to paste on his public mask, the smooth, rigid exterior that he uses to hide the real him, but right now he smiles at Jude softly, just enough to show that he's okay.
“Thanks for being here,” he says.
Jude rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Where else am I going to be?”
Zero's phone doesn't stop ringing after the interview airs. He ignores each call and informs Pete that he won't be at the next practise. Pete tells him to take his time and Zero turns off his phone and tosses it somewhere. Part of him never wants to turn it on again.
It's not that he's upset or wallowing in the past, he's just tired.
Jude offers to stay at home with him but Zero waves him off. He needs time to be alone and recover from all of the shit that Leo and Carla have managed to put him through once again.
When there's a knock on the door sometime after midday, he's not expecting it to be Jelena and a bottle of vodka.
“What do you want?” he asks after he's let her in. They're not exactly friends. The only reason why he was able to do the interview is because Jude is in charge of making sure that Zero doesn't screw up. He sees Jelena even less than he saw Oscar.
“I saw your interview and…” Jelena trails off, her green eyes uncharacteristically gentle. “Let's just say that I understand what you went through.”
Zero's not surprised.
Jelena has always had daddy issues all over her, he's just surprised that she's telling him. It's not like they care about each other ; hell, he certainly wasn't a model boyfriend. When he was dating her, she'd hinted vaguely at family issues but he's man enough to admit that he was never really interested.
“What was your deal?” he asks her when she doesn't offer any more words.
Jelena looks up at him, her gaze vacant as she stares at a spot behind him. “I grew up watching my dad punch the living daylights out of my mother. And then I had to sit back and pretend it never happened when she stayed with him.”
Zero bites back the urge to say I'm sorry. He shakes his head and says, “No one should have to see that.”
“I know,” Jelena tells him. “And I'm in the process of letting it go. You and I and similar, Zero. We hide behind personas because we don't like who we really are. And we don't like who we really are because there's been so much messed up crap in our lives.
“However, I learned the hard way that keeping onto it doesn't work. You have to find a way to get past it. To accept that what happened is a part of your life but it doesn't define you.”
Once she's finished speaking, all Zero can do is stare at her speechlessly. The only pep talk he's gotten from her in the last six months consisted of the words ‘ go fuck yourself ’.
“Who are you and what have you done with the real Jelena?”
Jelena shoots him a dark look, but there's a hint of a smile on her face. “You're the captain of the team and our best player. I need you to be on top of things. Plus, Jude is worried about you and I need him to be on top of things. This is me killing two birds with one stone.”
Zero shakes his head with amusement. “One might think that you actually have a heart.”
Jelena folds her arms. “You know, I have a lot more dirt on you than any of those journalist hacks. Don't make me use it.”
Zero huffs out a laugh but he ignores her comment in favour of saying, “Jude is worried about me?”
Jelena lets out an exasperated sigh. “Yes. I overheard him telling Lionel that he's worried that this is the beginning of some downward spiral. Please don't be that cliché. We have sponsorship deals to maintain.”
Zero glances down the bottle of Grey Goose on the coffee table. “You heard the words downward spiral and you brought me vodka ?”
“I'm nothing if not a supportive team owner,” Jelena retorts, her tone passive enough that Zero can't be sure that she's not joking.
“I'll tell Jude that you stopped by,” Zero says when she starts making her way toward the front door.
“Just make sure you're at the next practise,” Jelena says, leaving before Zero can form a response.
Jude finds Zero sitting on the couch aimlessly flipping through channels. He's been doing that for three hours, ever since he happened to catch a rerun of his interview and got so choked up that he couldn't see straight for half an hour.
He thinks about what Jelena said about the past being a part of his life.
Is it so bad that he wishes he could erase it? Scrub it clean and just have something normal.
Is that so wrong?
“ You look like shit,” Jude says just before he pulls off his jacket.
Zero barely manages to muster up a smile when Jude loosens his tie and settles next to him on the couch. After a moment, he shifts so that his head is resting on Jude's shoulder. Jude's arm snakes around him and Zero finds himself being pulled in. It feels nice. Safe. The kind of thing of thing that he's never really felt before. He's never had a situation where there's someone worth coming home to or someone worth being home for.
“I feel better now that you're here.”
Jude's slow to respond but when he does it's quiet but confident: “I'm not going anywhere.”
There are never any guarantees in life, and it's impossible to see what the next day holds, but perhaps that isn't a bad thing.
Tomorrow he's probably going to dust himself off and slip back into the mask that he calls Zero. Every question is going to have an answer and all concern will be shunned because he doesn't need it.
However, right now, with Jude by his side, there's only one person that he wants to be - himself .