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Evan Lafayette had known Jude Kinkade since sixth grade.

Both had been unceremoniously dumped into a military academy in upstate New York a month into the school year. Having come in together, they were roomed together. And like any good cliché dealing with a couple of resentful pre-teens, they hated each other on sight.

Evan, with his Cajun charm, made friends easily. Jude was shy, which just made him an easy target. From the first day, they clashed, and Evan had a propensity for attracting trouble. Since they shared living quarters, when the shit hit the fan, it often spread far and wide, covering Jude. More than once they came to blows, with Jude losing handily, and Evan being declared a bully.

When the headmaster contacted Oscar Kinkade about what was happening, he’s informed the school that his son needed to toughen up.

This went on until Christmas break.

Jude and Evan were both packed and waiting on their rides to arrive. Everyone else had already left, and Jude grit his teeth not so much as looking at the taller, athletic boy next to him. Meanwhile, Evan was doing his best to ignore the stuffy asshole who couldn’t even be bothered to interact with him.

If they’d ever bothered to talk, they would’ve discovered that they weren’t so different after all.

Jude’s mom hadn’t had a problem shipping him off, because Jude wasn’t the cute little boy she could parade around. He’d morphed into a nerdy kid with thick glasses that shied away from everyone. The first time he talked back, she packed him up, told Oscar to deal with his son, and let him handle it. So Oscar had sent him to the other side of the country.

Evan’s father was not a nice man. So much so that Evan always wondered if his father hadn’t killed his mother. When the man got home each night he wanted two things – a glass of scotch and quiet. And if he couldn’t have those things, there was hell to pay. Kids don’t typically bring quiet. God knows Evan didn’t know how. Between his father’s relentless emotional abuse and constant disappointment, he’d been shipped off from his home in New Orleans. It took years before Evan understood that the simplest act of abandonment had been the only good thing his father ever did for him. He never saw the old man again – not even at his funeral.

“Hey, boys,” their schoolmaster called out. General Ray Grath, retired US Air Force, approached them slowly and sat on the steps next to them. He’d never understand parents who did this kind of thing to their kids. He could command a squadron of fighter jets but having to do shit like this always brought him to his knees.

“Your parents aren’t coming,” he softly said. And there, in those eyes, was the reaction of resignation he dreaded. That both boys were used to being treated like this infuriated the military man. Instead of bringing in help to take care of the boys over the holidays, he offered up his home instead.

“It’ll be good,” he added, noting the way the boys both hung their heads in disappointment. “I promise you, it will. We’ll have a great Christmas together.”

And he’d damn well do anything to keep that promise.

When they returned to school after that first break, everyone was surprised by the transformation. The boys had gone from beating each other up to defending each other.

And their relationship only grew as the years went on.

It was no surprise when neither young man’s parents showed up for graduation. Evan had shot up just above six feet tall, and filled out. Jude had surprised everyone by surpassing Evan. In just under a year, he’d grown six inches his sophomore year in high school, and gone through more uniforms than anyone could remember in recent history. But no parents were there to watch them walk in their dress blues to the podium.

General Grath had watched proudly as his two most troubled students walked up onto the stage together. Evan, always the popular kid, would give a speech as class president. And Jude would provide the valedictorian’s speech. It made his chest ache with pride, and on some small, petty level, he was glad their parents weren’t there. In his angrier moments he would think they didn’t deserve to be a part of this special moment.

Evan would be moving onto the Air Force Academy, where he could inflict his charm on an entirely new group of poor suckers. It turned out that once his dyslexia had been diagnosed, the young man had taken off academically – mainly thanks to Jude who worked with him relentlessly for several years developing coping skills. Jude used to quietly tell people that his best friend was “crazy smart” and not to get sucked into those bright blue eyes.

People didn’t tend to listen to Jude, though. If the General had any worries, it was that Jude would be overlooked. He’d ditched the thick glasses, and looked more athlete than not, but he would never be a charmer like Evan.

However, Jude was smart. Damn smart. He’d been offered full ride scholarships to UCLA, Berkley, Ohio State, and Stanford. Realistically, since Oscar financially cut off Jude halfway through the school year (on his 18th birthday), Jude could only afford Ohio State. He’d been offered additional scholarships for swimming. Even then, it would be hard to make ends meet.

At least Oscar had paid up tuition through the school year, but Jude had begun taking on odd jobs to pay for himself.

If the General had one major concern, it was the boy’s heart would be irrevocably broken one day. Jude never gave up hope that his parents would one day show an interest. It was that emotional dedication that scared the General, because it could one day be used against him. Then again, he wouldn’t change Jude for the world. That heart was what made him the man he was, standing at the podium.

General Grath would be sad to see the boys move on but felt proud that he’d gotten to be a part of their lives.

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Evan Lafayette strolled into the Devil’s arena like he owned the place. Dressed in camos and a form-fitting gray t-shirt, he smiled languidly at anyone who looked like they might try to stop him. He knew precisely how imposing he looked, sporting dog tags and combat boots, with a knife poised on his hip.

Good lord, this is easy, he thought, walking right past security, who just blinked at him. He literally walked around the end of the metal detectors and was almost twenty feet past everyone before it registered that the situation might not be right.

“Sir!” someone yelled, finally coming to their senses. When he didn’t stop, he finally heard feet moving towards him. Running.

“Jude Kinkade, please,” he said, turning towards the flustered security officers. “Now.”

And he smiled as one turned to do his bidding.

“Who should I say you are?” the man asked, turning back.

“Just tell him his brother’s here,” Evan said, smiling at the raised eyebrows.

Zero, having walked in behind, watching the show, admired the man in front of him, and then frowned. Jude didn’t have a brother. He was an only child.

“Realllllyyy,” Zero said, approaching, making sure to draw the word out.

Five minutes later, Jude jogged into the room looking a tad out of breath. He stopped short at the sight of the two most important men in his life in a stand-off.

Evan stood with his arms crossed, lazily leaning against the wall, his ankles crossed. Even relaxed, his well-defined muscles, military garb, aviator sunglasses, and smirk made him look dangerous.

The leaner, far more dangerous (in Jude’s opinion) Zero stood with his arms behind his back, legs shoulder-width apart, and ready to pounce at a single wrong move.

God, he loved them both.

But he hadn’t seen one in ten months.

“Evan,” Jude breathed out in relief. He launched himself at his best friend, trying to be conscious of the injury to his shoulder – the injury that had sent him home early from his latest deployment. The last two months had seen the military man more on-site at Walter Reed than not. Jude’s heart had leapt into his throat when the General had called to tell him about the mine. It had been a close call – one of many over the years.

“When did you get here?” he asked, drawing back to look at his friend. He made a waving gesture and a rude noise at the sunglasses, until Evan removed them. He needed to see his eyes – Evan sucked at lying if he had to look you in the eye.

“Got in this morning. Caught a transpo to Pendleton. On leave for a while and needed to get the hell out of Dodge.”

Jude watched Evan’s eyes, reading something else behind them, but decided to let it go.

Zero, fed up with being ignored, cleared his throat. Loudly.

“Zero, I’d like you to meet my best friend and brother, Evan Lafayette,” Jude quietly said. The brunette ducked his head shyly, and Zero realized that Jude was nervous. It kicked Zero in the gut that Jude worried about his reaction to having someone good in his life. And Zero hated Oscar for making Jude feel like he didn’t deserve nice things.

“You know, it’s days like this I want to punch Oscar so hard in the nuts he shits acorns for a year,” Zero stated, stepping forward and extending a hand. Softening, he looked at Jude and smiled. “Any friend of yours… as the saying goes.”

Evan barked a laugh, pumped Zero’s a couple times, and replied, “If you ever decide to do it, send me a video. I’m still trying to figure out how to get him in a falling plane with no ‘chute.”

Zero had to head to practice. In fact, Pete would already be pissed because he was late. So he slid up to Jude, wrapped one hand around his neck, and kissed him. Languidly. Possessively.

Jude stood dazed long enough for Zero to be gone.

“Did he just mark his territory?” Evan asked, holding the laughter back as best he could.

“Yes,” Jude sighed with fond irritation. “He does that now and again.”

For the next thirty minutes, Jude showed Evan around the place. He showed off his office, wandered him down towards the locker rooms, and eventually they made their way to the court where the team practiced. It didn’t take long before Jude noticed Evan’s slouch. Both growing up in a strict military regimen, a slouch typically only meant one thing.

“You’re exhausted,” Jude stated. “Go get some sleep.” There was no doubt that he would be staying at Jude’s. In fact, he had his own key for these visits, and that’s where he’d dropped his gear.

Evan was supremely grateful to get going, though. He still needed to perform some physical therapy and catch a nap. He hadn’t told Jude that he’d caught a red eye transpo. He’d just really needed to get out of town before the awards ceremony. Not that it mattered. The damn medal had shown up before he left anyway.

Jude just handed Evan keys to his Porsche, along with a VIP pass for tonight’s game. Then he’d told him to wear something nice, since there’s be an after-party in the Playground.

That had been hours ago, and the game was about to start. Jude stood near the entrance, keeping an eye out for his friend in one direction, and trying to catch a glimpse down the corridor for his boyfriend. He was cutting it close, as Jude like to wish Zero good luck up close and personal whenever possible.

It was with relief that he caught sight of Evan walking in. He really couldn’t help the wolf whistle.

“Too much? You told me to wear something nice,” Evan defended himself. He didn’t actually own anything nice, other than his dress blues.

“No no no,” Jude replied, admiring him. “We just don’t get a lot of people in full military regale here.”

Something looked off, though, as they walked through the corridor, down towards the locker room. They were just ducking in from the tunnels to the where the team was getting ready, when light glinted off Evan’s chest, and Jude stuck a hand on it, effectively stopping him.

“Is that new?” Jude asked, pointing out a medal adorning the left breast of his dress blues, alongside several others, including a purple heart. One day it wouldn’t surprise him to find a medal of honor on his friend’s chest.

By then, some of the players had noticed the two men and one called out, “Hey Zero, your boyfriend’s here.”

Zero sauntered over with a towel in hand, wrapped it around the back of Jude’s neck, and pulled him in for a kiss.

“For luck?” he murmured, stopping a whisper away from the other man’s lips. He glanced down in time to see Jude bite at his lower lip, and pounced. The kiss didn’t last long, but it was enough to put a definite gleam in Zero’s eyes. And a promise of more to come.

Later, as they made their way to the owner’s box to watch the game, Jude would quietly admire the medals again.

“That’s pretty impressive,” he eventually said, waving his hand in the general direction of the newest addition. “What got that for you? The mine you disarmed in Afghanistan or the family you saved outside of Baghdad?”

“Shut up, asshole,” Evan muttered. “Just doin’ my job.”

The thing about Evan was that he loved to be the center of attention… unless it mattered. Then he’d shy away, telling anyone around he was just doing his job. And it was that hidden sense of selflessness that made Jude and Evan such close friends through their childhood – that same awkwardness they both possessed, manifesting differently, yet the same.

It’s why they really listened to each other, protected each other, and loved each other.

Tonight was no different, as they stood side-by-side through most of the game.

Once settled in to watch, Evan removed his dress jacket, draped it carefully across the back of his chair, and hollered like a lunatic as he watched the game. Jude shook his head more than once, fondly watching the man who treated being a spectator like a contact sport.

Lionel watched Evan with gleeful amusement, more than once sidling over and finding a reason to touch him one way or another. Mainly is was brushing her hand here or there. Once she boldly pinched his ass while Jude choked on his soda.

Then the after party started. When the Devils lost, it was typically subdued. Not everyone attended. But when they won… the place was packed.

So it was wall-to-wall people when the interrogation started.

Apparently wherever the hell Evan had been stationed (classification way too high for anyone there to know), he hadn’t been completely cut off. He’d watched the drama known as Zero unfold publicly when he’d become a Devil. He’d also gotten Jude’s letters, including that drunken one where he admitted he was gay and for five minutes had a crush on his roommate in school. Then there was the one where Zero broke Jude’s heart because they had to hide everything. And Evan hadn’t known whether or not to cheer when Zero had kissed Jude in the middle of the arena.

And considering he was no longer on pain meds and not on alert, Evan took the opportunity to indulge in a couple shots. He’d lost his inhibitions, and his brain-to-mouth filter, apparently.

“You know, I thought you were kind of a dick when I saw all the shit you pulled on other people,” Evan informed Zero as soon as he sat down. “Didn’t realize you were into dick until you got busy with Jude here. But if you ever dick with my brother, I’ll decapitate, dismember, and castrate you, and then drop your body parts into seven different bodies of water.”

Jude, having just taken a sip of whiskey, spewed it across the bar, much to the disgust of the bartender. Coughing, he tried to apologize, but failed miserably.

A couple of players, including Derek, stopped to watch the spectacle.

It wasn’t often anyone saw Zero speechless or pale. Let alone both.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, leave him alone,” Jude chided, stepping between the two men.

After the shock of the blatant threat passed, Zero pulled Jude into his side, stepped up to Evan, and replied, “I ever do anything to hurt him and I’ll hold still while you do it.”

One of his teammates made a gagging noise.

Jude, meanwhile, glared at both of them, and unfortunately ground out, “I am not some teenager that needs their older brother to protect them.”

“Bro, I think the entire damn academy knew you were gay by our sophomore year in high school, and you didn’t figure it out until a year ago,” Evan declared.

Lionel cackled hysterically, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes.

“Oh my God, he’s got the worse gaydar of any gay man I’ve ever met,” she declared. “I mean, have you seen his sense of style?”

“What style? He was born in an oversized suit, and he’ll probably die in one.”

This led to Lionel high-fiving Evan.

Meanwhile, Jude sat down on a bar stool, trying to ignore the large crowd gathering around, and met Zero’s eyes. The mirth he found there calmed him, as did the proximity as the ball player stepped into his space and whispered, “It’s all good, babe.”

Jude wasn’t really upset. Embarrassed, yes, but that came with dating Zero. He’d developed a thick skin.

All-in-all, it was a good night. It wasn’t often that Evan and Jude found themselves in the same country, let alone the same city. While they tried not to let more than two years go without visiting each other, Evan’s career often kept him on the move. So for now, Jude was content to watch Evan and Lionel flirt, and watch Zero and Evan dance around each other, knowing they both loved him.

“You okay?” Zero asked, his breath whispering against Jude’s ear.

Jude turned his head, brushed his lips against Zero’s, and replied, “Yeah, Gideon. I’m better than okay.”

People stopped by routinely to check out the newcomer and find out what the hoopla was about. Jude could tell Zero was flagging. While post-game gatherings helped work through the last of the adrenaline, Jude had come to understand how hard Zero crashed after winding down.

He felt the minute Oscar Kinkade walked in.

It was like he sucked the fun out of the room. Any sense of humor or comfort seemed to shrivel and die, as everyone watched, hoping he didn’t come near them. Taint them with his reputation.

Even after he’d lost everything, Oscar still commanded the room.

And he zeroed right in on his son sitting at the bar, with Zero on one side and Evan on the other.

“Fuck me,” Jude muttered, watching his father approach. It appalled him that he still felt a frisson of fear at the site of the man.

Zero pulled a short laugh when he leaned in and murmured, “Be happy to.”

It distracted Jude enough so he wasn’t even looking at Oscar when he stopped in front of the group.

“Jude,” Oscar greeted with a frown on his face. With a sneer, he turned his head and said, “Zero.”

Oscar ignored Lionel altogether. He didn’t change his expression at all until he looked at Evan. Then he smiled and said, “It’s good to see you, son.”

The word “son” made Jude’s heart ache. Only Zero and Evan saw Jude flinch. Evan always considered it a testimony to Jude’s character that he never resented Evan for the way Oscar treated him. Oscar, one of only three times he set foot on school grounds, made it very clear that Evan could be held as the standard – athletic, competitive, smart, charming – while Jude was found lacking.

And it would piss Evan off for the rest of his life that the stupid fucker didn’t value the gift he had in his son.

It was what happened next, though, that solidified the friendship between Zero and Evan.

Without a word, Evan swung Jude toward him. And when his friend opened his mouth to protest, Evan kissed him in the filthiest, most arousing way humanly possible.

It lasted all of ten seconds. It seemed everyone stopped what they were doing to watch. And when he was done, Evan turned back to Oscar, whose face had turned to disgust and mottled red. Hell, the old man looked like he was on the verge of a seizure.

Good.

He leaned in with a big grin and said, “You know, they let our kind into the military now. You’re totally surrounded.”

Lionel’s mouth hung open as Oscar stormed away. So did Jude’s. And when Oscar was out of earshot, Evan said, “I’d apologize, but I really had hoped he’d have a heart attack and die. And it was worth a shot.”

Zero began laughing, doubled over, while Jude smiled and shook his head. It was Lionel that took control of the situation.

She turned to Evan and said, “You may be young, but I have plans for you.”

Then she grabbed Evan by his shirt front. He barely had time to grab his jacket and throw a smirk back at a shocked Jude and laughing Zero. He wasn’t sure if he should be scared or turned on when she tossed back, “I’m going to ride you like a stallion, big boy.”

And just like that, they were gone, leaving Zero, Jude, and a few others milling around.

“What the hell happened?” Jude asked, baffled by the turn of events.

“My take? Your brother just protected your honor,” Zero said with a smile. With a leer he leaned in and whispered, “Now let me take you home and ride you like a stallion.”

Jude was repulsed and aroused in equal parts.

On the drive home, Jude watched Gideon, who glanced over now and again and smiled at him.

Later, as they lay tired and sated, Zero heard his cell phone buzz and grabbed it to turn it off for the night. All he wanted was to lay spooned against his lover. He smiled, grateful that although they didn’t see each other often, Jude had someone else in his corner.

“Who’s that?” Jude slurred, already half-asleep.

Zero held up the text message from an unknown number. It simply read:
Pacific Ocean
Mediterranean Sea
Hudson River
Dead Sea
Guantanamo Bay
Indian Ocean
Lake Superior

“Just a friend,” Zero murmured, shutting off his phone and tossing it aside. He didn’t say whose.