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Zero's been dating Jude for six months when he finally hears the dreaded words.

“My mom wants to meet you.”

Considering that this is his first real relationship, he's not a meet the parents kind of guy. He's fails to see why they have to complicate things by throwing parents into the mix. Oscar doesn't really count; the few times Zero's seen him in passing he's gotten a nod and a short greeting. There's never anything about Jude, but that's a completely different story.

“I said that my mom wants to meet you,” Jude informs him again as if he's unsure whether Zero heard him the first time.

Zero is sure that the response Jude is looking for is probably not the ‘ hell fucking no’ that runs through his mind.

Instead he settles on, “That's nice, but I'm busy.”

Jude frowns. “I didn't say when she wanted to meet you.”

Zero shrugs and adds, “Well, I'm booked solid for the next... year or so.”

Jude's face changes from confused to annoyed, his eyes narrowing closely the way they do when he thinks that Zero isn't taking him seriously. “I'm your boss, remember? I know what your schedule is and I have the authority to change it.”

Zero eyes him carefully. “I'd like to see how that works. ‘Sorry, Zero can't attend this very important meeting because he has to meet my mom’.

Jude opens his mouth to reply, but it snaps shut reluctantly when he realises that there's no real comeback to be made. That being said, they both know that if Jude pushes hard enough Zero will fold like a messily constructed beer tower.

He gives up on scrolling through emails that he probably won't read, opens up his Solitaire app and waits.

Sure enough, Jude doesn't back down.

“Look, I've put it off for as long as possible, but we've been together officially for six months, and you know, my mom's the kind of person that likes to put timelines together.”

Zero looks up from his game and frowns because that last part didn't really connect with the first.

“What exactly are you saying?” he asks. For Jude to be acting all worked up about a visit that isn't underway yet there must be some kind of issue.

Jude looks away. “I'm saying that she already has a bad impression of you.”

Zero puts his phone down because this conversation obviously requires his undivided attention. “And you still want me to meet her?”

“She wants to meet you ,” Jude says with exasperation. “It'll happen regardless of whether or not you're ready for it.”

Zero’s eyes flick back down to his phone screen. He clicks on the ace of hearts and thinks, we'll see about that..

~

It happens roughly two weeks after their initial conversation. Jude lets him know that his mother is flying in the next day and spends an hour trying to prepare him. He should probably be taking notes but instead he's flipping through an old copy of Sports Illustrated and trying to appear as indifferent as possible.

Apparently, Oscar and Jude's mom, Anna, couldn't be more different.

While Oscar was a hands off father, his mom was kind of--

“Overbearing? Strict? Controlling?”

Jude glares at Zero who’s admittedly interrupted for the third time. This conversation is starting to get tiresome.

“My mother is like a rollercoaster and fireball rolled into one.”

Zero barely looks away from the magazine he's definitely not reading. “Sounds dangerous.”

“Look, she gets into town next week and the best way to handle this is for you to do everything I say.”

“Isn't that the opposite of what we should do?” Zero says, finally deciding that Jude's frantic worrying has gone too far. “She should learn who I really am and not some shiny version that we come up with.”

Jude stares at him. “We're talking about a woman who didn't speak to me for three months after I told her that I wasn't going to journalism school.”

Zero rolls his eyes and tosses the magazine away. “Maybe you need to stop dancing around her feelings and show her what's what for once.”

Jude knows that Zero's never had a conventional parent/child relationship, but it's obvious that he doesn't really get it. For Zero, it's always going to be screw everyone else. Bending over backwards to impress anyone is the last thing he wants to do.

“It would mean a lot to me if you at least tried, Gideon,” Jude says, obviously deciding to take a more sentimental approach. “Oscar doesn't want anything to do with me and I've made my peace with that, but my mom's blessing would be good. It would be normal.

Normal.

There's that word again, the hallmark of Jude's unnecessary fixation on having some kind of cookie cutter perfect life.

Zero mutters something under his breath before he concedes the point with a reluctantly. “Fine. I'll be on my best behaviour.”

~

Zero's never been one to fixate on first impressions, but if there was one person he'd like to make a good one with is Jude's mom. For all of the guff and bravado, it would suck if she hates him - he's seen that particular Lifetime movie and he wants no part of it.

Obviously, he goes ahead and makes a terrible first impression.

It's late.

Not late late, but in the sense that he's not in the mood for visitors. It's just after eight pm and Jude's probably still at the arena. The person ringing the bell incessantly is already getting on his nerves so it's a toss up between leaving them out there and seeing who it is and buzzing them before waiting the five minutes it takes to get from the gates to the house.

(It sounded a lot more glamorous when the realtor sold it to him.)

“Yes?” he snaps when he finally goes to answer.

The voice is unfamiliar but it still fills him with dread. “This is Anna Kinkade, I'm looking for my son, Jude.”

Shit, he thinks before he hurriedly replies with, “Uh, sure, come right in.”

He looks down at himself and realises that shirtlessness and ratty sweatpants aren't really the best meeting the parents look. However, by the time he gets upstairs, she'll have reached the door. His housekeeper is long gone because Jude thought they didn't need one on call twenty four seven.

Clearly he was wrong about that.

With a heavy sigh, he grabs one of the hoodies hanging on the coat rack and slides it on. He glances over at the framed pictures of himself in the hallway and he already knows that this isn't going to end well.

~

“It was the most awkward hour of my life ever,” Zero is saying later when Jude's mom is checked into her hotel and far, far away from him. “She kept adding this weird emphasis to my name.”

Jude snorts dryly. “Yeah, she's not really sold on the whole mononym thing.”

“She hates me.”

Despite all of Jude's descriptions, Zero wasn't expecting the interrogation he got when she stepped into the house. There was a question for each framed photo of him on the wall (and he's starting to think that he should replace them with pictures of fruit bowls). Zero is usually a confident guy, but in the hour he spent with her he felt like he was ant-sized.

Jude looks at him oddly. “She doesn't hate you, she just...disapproves of our relationship. She thinks that you're stringing me along and that you'll be up and running whenever the next shiny cheerleader comes along.”

Zero lifts up his head from where it was placed on the pillow. “This is the first I'm hearing of this.”

Having a bad impression is a lot different from thinking that he's using Jude.

“Yeah, because I know how weird you get when you feel like you need to prove a point or impress someone. I was there for the whole Jelena thing, remember? The last thing I need is for you to try to win my mom over with money.

Zero doesn't deny that he's the kind of person who uses his wealth to influence how people perceive him. “Money talks, that's just a fact.”

“Gideon, my mom thinks that you're a playboy who's only using me for one thing,” Jude tells him gently. “Buying her a Tiffany bracelet won't change that.”

Zero perks up at the mention of Tiffany because if there's one thing he's good at, it's schmoozing people. At the end of the day, Jude's mom is a human like everyone else.

Jude pushes him over so that he's lying down and then looks him in the eye as he says, “Please promise me that you’re not going to go crazy and try to win her over with expensive jewelry.”

“I’ll think about it,” Zero replies, suddenly distracted by Jude's close proximity. He pulls Jude down on top of him and proceeds to not think about it while he's pressing his lips against Jude's.

~

Zero doesn't listen to Jude.

Not only that, he drags him along to the jewelry store.

“What part of money isn't going to appease my mom didn't you get?” Jude gripes when Zero instructs the saleslady to show them yet another bracelet.

Zero turns to grin at him. “Money appeases everybody, Jude. That's just how the world works.”

He doesn't see the big deal in buying something nice for someone who's a major part of Jude's life. Jude wanted normal - this is what it looks like.

“She was married to a millionaire and she got a hefty divorce settlement,” Jude points out with his arms folded. It's almost like he's in business mode and that just won't do.

“That doesn't mean I can't get her a gift,” Zero says. He's in Jude's space and kissing him before either of them can say more.

By the time the saleslady clears her throat to get their attention, Jude's protests have died down.

~

“You bought me a bracelet,” Call Me Anna/Jude's mom says when Zero presents her with the gift. He's proud of himself; he thinks it's a nice design, sufficiently expensive. There's no way that she's going to be unhappy with it. Jude shakes his head warily. He doesn't offer any comment.

“I picked it out myself,” Zero says with a grin. Jude gives him an exasperated look and turns back to his mom. It's obvious that he's trying to gauge her reaction, but Zero thinks he's got this.

Anna attempts to smile but it's more of a grimace. “I can't accept it, Zero. Maybe save it for your next…”

Jude clears his throat loudly and Anna trails off, leaving no question about what she was going to say.

Zero starts to think that his confidence was misplaced after all.

They share a look and Zero watches their silent communication with curiosity. It's obvious that they're close, even if they're not exactly getting on at the moment. There's a familiarity, and Jude resembles her more than he does Oscar. He's got her eyes and he's tall like she is. Seeing them together almost makes Zero long for something he's never realised that he missed.

Misses.

It's that thought that has him trying to move the conversation along. This isn't about him, not really.

“So, Jude mentioned that you're a…” Zero cuts himself off when he realises that Jude either hasn't told him or he's forgotten.

“I was an editor for the Times many years ago,” she informs him. “These days I freelance. Journalism isn't what it was, but hey, we're always going to need it.”

“I could do without it personally,” Zero replies, eyes narrowing as he recalls the latest hatchet piece about himself. “They tend to print lies.”

Anna tilts her head slightly. “About you?”

Zero frowns. “Well, not exactly, bu--”

“How long are you in town, Mom?” Jude interjects before Zero can dig even deeper.

Zero signals to the waiter for another drink. Clearly, it's going to be a long night.

Anna shrugs. “I have some things I need to take care of but I'm flexible. I'd love a chance to get to know... Zero over here.”

Zero smiles at her but inside he's wondering what he ever did in a past life.

~

Zero's still awful at tennis, but he plays two matches against Anna at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. He loses both and when he offers to buy her lunch after, he's disappointed when she says yes. They haven't spoken much since Jude left to meet Jelena but Zero feels dragged down by the weight of her disapproval all the same. He's not used to caring about what people think of him.

“So, you're serious about my son,” she starts conversationally, after she's taken several small bites of her salad. “He lives in your house, you're building another house together. You're the star couple in town. You're the captain of the team. A far cry from the guy that couldn't explain why he was suddenly caught up in a prostitution scandal.”

Zero's read all of the stories printed about him and even though most of them are bullshit, there's enough truth for people to have an idea of what he's like. Or rather, what they think he's like.

Unfortunately for Anna, he's not going to sit here and listen to her throw assertions at him. He gets enough of that from those half-witted pundits who think they can play ball better than him.

Zero shakes his head bitterly. “Look. You don't have to like me. Trust me, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. So, how about we have a nice lunch and tell Jude that we had a great time.”

She peers at him over her club soda. “Do you make a habit of lying to Jude?”

Zero takes a deep breath and exhales harshly - it's going to be a long day.

~

“Lunch was a disaster,” Zero finds himself telling Jude. “But we're going to play mini-golf tomorrow. Apparently you and her have a bunch of touristy stuff you planned to do. Which is funny because I know that you know that you wouldn't have been available to do most of this stuff.”

Jude doesn't conceal the guilty expression on his face. “Look, the more time you both spend together, the better. Trust me.”

It's not Jude that Zero doesn't trust.

~

Mini-golf turns out to be even worse than tennis, although, this time he beats her. It’s not until the beginning of the drive home that she decides to be difficult. For second there, he thought that maybe she was human after all. It just so happens that her personality transplant was only temporary.

“What's your real name?” she asks when he's just buckled his seatbelt.

“Why would I tell you?” he retorts with a dark chuckle, before he leans back to reverse out of his parking spot. “You don't like me remember?”

He turns back around and glances over at her. Anna places her hands in her lap and smooths them over her tan coloured skirt.

“I don't like what you represent. Basketball. Fame. Money. I recall Pete Davenport and Chase Vincent running around with anything that moved regardless of whether or not they had partners. That's the life. Nothing’s changed.”

Zero can understand that she's worried about her son, but she's been extremely harsh with him since they met. It seems as if she expects him to be all hugs and smiles in the face of her sourness.

It's just too bad that he stopped taking bullshit from anybody a long time ago.

“Anyone ever tell you that you're kind of judgemental?” Zero asks while he's making his way down the driveway. “It's a pity that none of your mind games are going to work on me.”

Anna watches him closely before turning to look out of the window. “I'm not playing mind games, I'm just trying to figure you out.”

Zero rolls his eyes. “There's not much to figure out.”

She hums quietly but doesn't respond; it feels like an insult all the same.

~

Jude joins them the next day, first for a walkthrough of the new house and then for breakfast. Zero's not really feeling the hard hat and safety jacket look, so he falls back while Jude speaks to the construction workers.

Anna seems just as bored as he is and they find themselves walking next to each other.

“I've never actually bought a house that wasn't already built ,” he muses, hoping that this conversation is safe ground. “All of this is kind of... well, time consuming.”

Anna smiles wryly. “I have to admit that building a house that required this much work is the last thing I'd do. Jude seems happy, though.”

Zero glances over at her. “I think he likes the idea of creating something from scratch. Something that isn't tainted.”

“What about you?” Her green eyes pierce into his and Zero starts to feel uncomfortable.

He looks away. “For me, this is about new beginnings. It's about finally letting go of the past.”

“What is it that you need to let go of?”

Stuff ,” Zero remarks before he turns to leave, not wanting to get into his life story with her. “Tell Jude that I'll be waiting outside.”

~

Breakfast is slightly less awkward with Jude acting as a buffer.

“What made you choose L.A?” Anna asks Zero when they get onto the topic of basketball. Zero leans back in his seat and thinks about the first time he saw Jude back in Cleveland. He remembers laughing at Jude's wide-eyed, boyish expression and being slightly insulted that they sent a junior agent to convince him to come to L.A.  However, he also recalls being impressed with said junior agent when he laid everything out and boldly declared that Zero would be the next major star of the Los Angeles Devils. Only someone with a heart of stone would be immune to that kind of sales pitch.

“Your son was a huge part of it,” he tells her after sharing a brief smile with Jude. “And I could see that the team has potential.”

“That and the thirty million dollars that they offered you,” Anna says smoothly. “I imagine that was a major selling point.”

Zero narrows his eyes; he probably walked right into that one. “I guess so.”

Jude clears his throat and utters a succinct, “ Mom .”

There's a warning evident in Jude's tone and Anna smiles placatingly before she turns back to Zero. “You don't talk about your family much, or your other friends. Is everything okay?”

Zero barely refrains from rolling his eyes. Obviously, she's trying to rile him up, but the best way to win this game is to refuse to play it at all.

Jude looks like he wants to say something, but he just pokes at his pancakes sullenly.

"Jude is my family," Zero says as a matter of factly, his voice low and cold. "I don't need anyone else."

Anna raises an eyebrow at his harsh tone but she's undeterred. "What happened to your parents?"

Zero can see the way Jude’s eyes widen with fear and that’s what pushes him to be honest; the last thing he wants to do is cause any unnecessary tension. Perhaps telling Anna the truth will make her lay off him.

"My mom left when I was five, my dad was a useless asshole that I didn't know and my foster parents stopped caring the day that they stopped getting checks for me. Is that what you want to hear?"

Anna looks stunned and Zero starts to feel boxed in, like his air supply is about to run out. It's only the warmth in Jude's sympathetic eyes that keep him in his seat. Perhaps he should feel annoyed that Jude hasn't stepped in, but part of him thinks that this is a good thing. It's good that Jude has someone that cares this much. Even if it's to his own detriment.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Anna replies. Tellingly, there’s no hint of apology in her voice.

Suddenly, Zero’s had enough.

"I gotta go. Practise is an hour."

Neither of them call him back when he leaves.

~

Later that evening, Jude spends twenty minutes apologising for his mom's behaviour during dinner.

"Don't worry about it," Zero says as he pokes at his food idly. He's not perfect and Anna isn't some impressionable teenage girl. If she's going to accept him, it'll be on her terms and not his. He knows that.

“Your mom is important to you and I have a... reputation, it's natural for her to be apprehensive. Especially with someone like me.”

Jude places his fork down gently and says, “Yeah, but she's supposed to trust that I know what I'm doing.”

“Like you knew what you were doing with Oscar?”

Zero knows that's the wrong thing before he says it but it comes out anyway.

Jude's jaw clenches and his shoulders tense into a rigid line. “Forgive me for thinking that my father gave a damn about me.”

“All I'm saying is that, Oscar's the kind of guy that'll never change and it's going to take more than your say so for your mom to think anything different about me,” Zero explains carefully. “Maybe she never will.”

“You're nothing like Oscar,” Jude says, but it sounds hollow, like an automatic rebuttal that Jude felt like he had to make.

“We both know that's not true,” he says because maybe that's the point. He's been trying so hard to impress Anna that he's forgotten about being himself. He might not be a regular saint, but Jude makes him want to be a better person.

That has to count for something.

~

Anna meets them at the arena the next day. According to Jude, today's the day that she gets a tour and a meet and greet with the rest of the players.

Of course, Jude is inevitably dragged away to some meeting and Zero's stuck introducing her to everyone. Most of the players offer her affable smiles and cordial greetings even though they seem disinterested overall.

When he gets to Jelena, things take an awkward turn.

“Zero, I need to talk to you about your penchant for retweeting fans,” Jelena says when she spots him in the hallway, her heels clicking loudly as she makes her way over to him.

They generally tolerate each other, although, Zero's usually polite enough to start his conversations with a greeting. Jelena never bothers.

“Don't. If you desperately need the validation, run it by PR first, or even better - Jude. He's supposed to keep you from doing stupid things.”

“Anna, this is Jelena, Jelena, this is Anna Kinkade.” Zero makes the introductions in lieu of responding. It's not like he gives a damn about whatever tweet she's talking about.

Jelena frowns as if she’s just noticed that there’s someone else there. “Kinkade? As in Jude's mother?”

“That's me,” Anna says, in the same tone she uses whenever she has a disparaging remark to make. “And you're Jelena Howard. The dancer who makes a habit of publicly humiliating her flavour of the month. I heard that you're dating that sportscaster now? The one who was caught cheating on his wife.”

Jelena’s green eyes flash angrily and Zero is torn between diffusing the situation and getting some popcorn.

“For your information, I'm the team owner, and my personal life doesn't concern anyone,” Jelena says sharply. “Especially someone who was dumb enough to marry Oscar Kinkade.”

Zero wonders if it's bad that he's enjoying this.

Anna makes a point of looking over at Zero before she says, “You've done some pretty dumb things yourself from what I hear.”

Ouch , Zero thinks, even though he doesn't mind that Anna is using him to stick it to Jelena.

“I think we should get going,” Zero says quickly because the last thing they need is for Jelena to make Jude's mother her next target. If there's one thing that he knows, it's that she's relentlessly petty.

Anna shrugs and follows him when he starts walking.

“I didn't mean that,” she says after a few seconds. “That you're stupid or anything like that, I just wanted to rile her up.”

Zero laughs mirthlessly. “Jelena Howard is not the kind of person that you rile up. Trust me.”

Anna smiles sardonically. “We have a long way to go before I trust you.”

~

“Jude, your mother is an extremely difficult person to like,” Lionel is saying when Zero gets back from an interview with ESPN. He hangs his jacket up and makes his way into the family room. Lionel's on the couch while Jude's standing behind it awkwardly.

His eyes light up when he sees Zero.

“Zero, you're here!” he calls in a tone that says kill me now. “You can keep Lionel company while I grab a shower.”

He's out of the room and up the stairs before Zero can say a word.

“Smooth,” Lionel mutters sarcastically. She takes a long sip of her wine and Zero plays back the snippet of the conversation that he walked in on.

“Let me guess, Anna adores you too,” Zero asks her when he sits down next to her.  Usually, he’d find something better to do, but he’s happy to finally have someone to bitch about Anna with.

Lionel rolls her eyes. “That woman has a chip on her shoulder the size of Thor. No, wait - Godzilla. Thor’s too cute to be a pain in the ass.”

“Chris Hemsworth once spilled a drink on me at a party and, contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t that much of a gentleman about it,” Zero says, just because it seems like a fitting anecdote.

Lionel scoffs and eyes him knowingly. “It was probably your fault.”

It was, but that’s not even the point.

Zero’s starting to think that Jude’s the only person who has anything nice to say about him.

He decides to go back to the topic at hand.

“Why are you even surprised that she doesn’t like you - you did spring Oscar from jail just to serve your own interests,” Zero points out. “Surely you weren't expecting a fruit basket?”

“Oh, please,” Lionel snaps. “Anyway, you should be more worried than I am. You have a future monster -in law. She was talking about moving here to be close to Jude.”

Zero can't think of anything more horrifying.

“That's cool,” he says out loud because he’s got a reputation to uphold. He's not going reveal Anna's presence is bothering him.

Lionel eyes him coldly. “No, it isn't. You need to play the victim card. Anything that shows her that you have real feelings and that you're not just using her son for sex. Cry if you have to.”

Zero shakes his head warily. “I'm not going to do that. I’ll leave the theatrics to you. You are the expert after all.”

“Fine. When she moves in with you and Jude, remember that we had this conversation.”

~

With Lionel's words in mind, Zero takes Anna out for dinner. Jude insists on coming along just to ‘ break the ice , but Zero's got this. With Lionel's help, he's perfected his only partially made up life story down to a tee.  He goes with what he let slip earlier and spins a tale about his foster parents and college life, all while ignoring the slightly bemused expression on Jude’s face.

By the time they're ordering dessert, he's sure that it's worked.

At least until Jude goes to the bathroom and Anna gives him a knowing look.

“Was any of what you just said real?”

Zero hesitates a touch too long and has no choice but to answer honestly. “Most of it was. I might have embellished here and there.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

Anna snorts and lowers her chin. “Why do you keep trying to convince me that you're not the asshole that I think you are.”

“I wish I knew that answer to that,” Zero says. He turns away, unable to shake the feeling that she’s looking down on him somehow. “I'm not the kind of person who makes bullshit up just to prove a point.”

Anna raises an eyebrow, shaking her head as her fingers tap on the table quietly. She appears to be annoyed and Zero knows that he’s fucked up this time.

“Fine, maybe I am someone who makes bullshit up, but not to prove a point,” he corrects himself hastily.

“Why then?” This time she leans forward, her nose wrinkling slightly in anticipation of his answer.

Zero looks at her dead on and says, “Most people aren't interested in hearing the truth and most of them don't deserve it. Why open yourself up to someone who doesn't care?”

Anna gives him an understanding nod and her tone gentle when she says, “I suppose you have a point.”

“A point about what?” Jude says, brow furrowed when he takes his seat. He looks at Zero, but Zero just shakes his head slightly.

Anna looks up at him, her mouth upturned at the corners as she says, “We were just discussing the food, dear.”

Zero wonders why she didn’t just tell Jude the truth.

~

Two days later, they do breakfast together again and Zero starts to wonder if anyone would mind if he decided to live in isolation for the next three days. At this point he’s all breakfasted out. He’s done with the lunches, the trips, the awkward dinners and whatever horrors that he’s been through since Jude announced that his mother was arriving.

Things are so bad that when he bumps into Oscar at a fundraiser he can't help making conversation. Jude's somewhere talking to another board member and Anna is back at her hotel, so there's no one to stop his temporary insanity.

When Oscar not-so-subtly enquires about Anna, Zero finds himself begging him to take her off their hands. Oscar looks uncomfortable at the mere thought, although Zero’s believes that’s mostly his residual bigotry over the fact that his son is dating another man.

There’s a few minutes of Oscar avoiding his gaze before he finally says, “I would help you with Jude's mother, but we all know how I deal with my problems. I would hate for anything to jeopardise Jude’s role with the Devils.”

The ugly sneer on his face goes hand in hand with his square shoulders and the overall message received is that Oscar is still Grade A douchebag.

Zero backs away at that point because he doesn't want to become an accessory to a murder that he accidentally solicited. Nor does he want to give Oscar anything to hold over Jude.

Compared to Oscar, Anna is a freaking pussycat.

“It must be hard watching your son do a better job running the team than you ever did,” Zero says in a low tone. “It must be hard watching Jude run the team period. This is what you get for underestimating him.”

He walks away before Oscar can respond.

~

In the end, all that's left is honesty. Zero could pretend that he's not bothered by the situation and he could wait it out. Deal with Anna on day to day basis. He could, but but he's not going to.

Instead, he decides to be real.

“Your mother is driving me insane,” he tells Jude, not caring that she's right there. She's always there, which is weird. She's a grown woman who lived in Los Angeles for a relative amount of time, she should definitely have someone else that she can annoy from time to time.

Jude’s eyes are wide as he turns away, but it’s telling that he doesn’t say anything.

“You're driving me insane,” he adds when Anna jerks her head back, her mouth falling open like she’s actually surprised . “I'm done trying to impress you or coming up with different stories that'll make you finally look at me like I'm not a morally reprehensible human being. No, I’m not perfect, but neither are you. Nobody’s perfect.”

Anna’s face relaxes halfway through his rant and Zero feels anger swirling in his chest.

“Gideon, look--”

Zero halts Jude with a raised hand. “Don't call me that, not right now.”

It’s too late, though, because Anna doesn't even flinch, she just says, “So you do have a real name.”

It's more of a statement than a question and Zero just looks at her.

“Are you done busting my balls now?”

“For now,” she says. “I don't know why but I’m actually starting to like you.”

Zero stares at her. Clearly they've transported into the freaking Twilight Zone.

“I'd like to see how you behave around the people you don't like,” he says.

Jude snorts and eyes Zero quickly before he turns to Anna. “Mom, seriously , I didn’t say anything before because I thought you’d...stop being difficult, but this whole overprotective bear mode thing you’ve got going on is bullshit.”

“Jude!” Anna gasps, her eyes wide as her hand flies up to her chest dramatically. Zero wonders if she’s never heard her son utter a bad word before. It would be hilarious if he didn’t want to upturn the table and run away screaming.

“No, and I should have said something in front of Zero before because apparently telling you to lay off in private didn’t work.”

Zero feels a weird flutter in his stomach at that. Jude never mentioned that he said anything and he didn’t expect him to. Hearing that Jude has his back makes the anger subside.

He doesn’t need Anna’s approval to know that what he has with Jude is special. Jude loves him for who he is and that's all that matters. That's all that's ever going to matter.

“I’m sorry that you feel like I’m being harsh,” Anna is saying when Zero peels his eyes away from Jude’s long enough to remember that he's in the middle of another excruciating family meal. “I just want what’s best for you.”

Jude’s anger hasn't subsided, although, it's obvious that he's trying to keep his tone measured. “I know that, Mom, but I know what I’m doing, okay? So just knock it off.”

Anna raises her hands in mock defeat. “From this moment onwards, Zero is an honorary Kinkade.”

Jude lets out a deep, weighted sigh but he doesn’t respond. Neither does Zero because he’s too busy thanking whatever force is out there for sparing him from any more torture.

Unfortunately, Anna has other ideas. “Wait a minute, I just realised that I don’t know your last name…”

Zero runs a hand over his face and does his best not to scream.

~

Jude gets caught up in a last minute meeting with Marcus Douglas so Zero ends up being the one to drive Anna to the airport for her return flight. Despite their minor breakthrough the previous evening, it's a tense journey. There’s minimal talking and the silence unnerves him. It feels like she’s assessing him quietly and uncovering all of his secrets with the power of her ever present judgmental gaze.

It’s also highly possible that he’s being dramatic about everything, but in light of the circumstances, no one can blame him.

“Thank you,” she says when he finally pulls into the parking lot at the airport.

The anticipation of sweet freedom dances around in his mind and he feels annoyed that she's chosen this moment to break her silence.

“For what?” Zero asks just for the sake of politeness.

She looks at him and for the first time, there's this weird, soft expression in her eyes.

“You know how Jude feels about his father,” she says slowly while looking down at her kneaded hands. “Even after everything he went through as a child, he still did whatever he could to gain that man's approval. If you hadn't had come around when you had, I'm not sure what he would have done. Or what he wouldn’t have done.”

Zero wants to point out that he didn't exactly stop Jude from helping Lionel get Oscar out of jail but he doesn't.

If believing that helps Anna accept his presence in her son’s life then that’s fine with him.

Still, he feels this need to be honest about the situation.

“I was his friend first and no matter what happens, I'm alway s going to be his friend, but I’m man enough to admit that I can't protect him from Oscar. It’s up to Jude if he wants to have anything to do with him. Right now, he doesn’t, but I can’t say that won’t change.”

“You don't have to protect him,” she says quietly, leaning in before she adds, “All you need to do is be there for him and from what I can see, you are. So, thank you.”

“It's nothing,” Zero says half-heartedly, because it's either that or saying ‘ are you thanking me for fucking your son?’ and that would undo all of the ass-kissing he’s been doing over the past week.

“It’s not nothing, Zero,” she says. “If it’s a toss up between you and Lionel Davenport, you win every day.”

“Lionel’s… Lionel ,” Zero replies for the lack of anything better to say. His brain is so overwhelmed by the thought of her finally leaving that he can no longer formulate words.

There’s a reproachful look on her face as she purses her lips together and shakes her head. “She’s certifiable. Who breaks out a murderer just to gain control of a basketball team?”

“Hollywood tends to breed weirdos,” Zero tells her, suddenly feeling at ease with the subject change. “I once dated an actress who only ate white coloured foods. I think there’s something in the water.”

She gives him a strange look but there’s an amused glint in her eyes.

“Tell Jude that I’ll call him when my plane lands. It was nice meeting you, Gideon.”

He tries to ignore the way he feels when she says his name and smiles up at her.

“You too.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a terrible liar?” Anna asks him as she opens the passenger door. She gets out before he can answer, and with an eyeroll, he moves to follow her so that he can get her bags out of the trunk, wave her off, go home and actually feel comfortable enough to lounge in his sweatpants.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” he says after he’s retrieved her bags. It figures that she would make their goodbye as awkward as possible.

She smiles darkly. “If you’re going to lie, you might as well be good at it. Like when I said that it was nice meeting you.”

Zero can’t keep in his impatient snort. “You mean how you tried to intimidate me by using my real name?”

Her resulting expression is part impressed and part annoyed, but Zero is entirely fed up.

“Look, we might not get along but can’t we just pretend? It’s so much easier.”

“The last time I had to pretend to get along with someone, I almost took their eye out with an eight hundred dollar piece of silverware,” Anna replies with a mischievous grin.

Zero takes a step back and throws his hands up in defeat. “It was just a suggestion.”

After the resulting back and forth draws to a halt, he helps her with her luggage and waves her off at the check-in gate. He just about makes it back to his car in time to sweet talk the attendant into not giving him a ticket.

“Throwing parents into the mix was definitely a bad idea,” he says to himself as he pulls out of the spot.

He’s just glad that it’s all over.

~

Jude has this annoying habit of not being able to focus on anything when there’s something on his mind.

Case in point, Zero’s interested in getting laid (with the knowledge that Jude’s mom isn’t going to show up announced like she did nothing less than four times). Meanwhile, Jude’s interested in giving him a debrief on a situation that he’d rather forget.

“All in all, her visit wasn’t that bad,” Jude says, completely ignoring the way that Zero’s attached to his neck. “It wasn’t great but I thought it would be worse.”

Zero pulls away, stifling a groan because obviously this conversation is going to happen before any action does.

“She hates me,” he points out, rolling his shoulders gently because just thinking about it is making him tense up. “And the feeling is almost mutual.”

“Almost?”

“Well, she’s responsible for you being in the world and she hasn’t killed anyone,” Zero says, “That scores her a couple of points.

“Our lives are kind of messed up aren’t they?” Jude eyes illuminated with a twinkle of mischief

“Understatement,” Zero says, inching closer towards Jude before he adds, “Still...you know what would make our lives even better?”

Jude gives him a knowing look. “What would?”

Zero licks his lips and leans in, lowering his voice as he says, “ Sex.

It’s not his smoothest line, but this time the only thing Jude is focused on is him and that's all that matters.

fin