Their conversations always start on a friendly note. Zero asks Jude how he is. Jude says he's fine and drops some unsubtle comment about what Zero's been up to, a simple 'I've been keeping an eye on you' without saying the words.
Inevitably, Zero takes it further and dares himself to trace a pattern on Jude's skin. To taste his lips if he can get away with it, diving in for more and revelling in the intoxicating sensations. Each time he tells himself it's enough the lie stings, twisting up his insides and leaving him broken and empty.
Like clockwork they hit the same stumbling block they always do.
“Why are you always pushing me away?” Jude asks him, his eyes looking straight ahead at the television screen where the same reel of the Los Angeles Devils' game highlights is playing on a loop. "Why don't you want me to see who you really are?"
It's been two months since Jude put an end to whatever they were. Since Zero stood there and confessed the one part of himself he'd kept away and Jude left because it wasn't enough.
It's been three weeks since they last slipped up. One minute, they were arguing in the hallway, the next Zero was dragging him into the locker room. It was hard, fast and dirty and afterwards, they stood under the hot stream of water side by side, unable to look at each other.
"This isn't a Disney movie, Jude," Zero says without any preamble, draining his champagne to stave off the bitterness on his tongue. "There is no happy ever after. Why can't you be happy right now? You know. Enjoy the moment."
He knows he's pushing his luck. The only reason they're here is for the L.A. Devils' anniversary party. This is the only time Jude gives him the time of day. When they're at the arena or working within their official capacities. These are the moments Zero secretly longs for, and then he goes home and pretends it doesn't scare him.
He pretends that Jude isn't the only person who's made him feel alive in years.
"I'm sitting at a bar with a guy who doesn't want me," Jude knocks back the remnants of his whiskey, adding, "And I'm celebrating a team owned by man - my father - who thinks so little of me that he told me I'm not his son. What's there to be happy about?"
Zero thumbs his ear, buying time to come up with the right answer. Words that won't hurt Jude more than he has already.
"I never said I didn't want you."
Jude's hand curls into a fist, pressing down so hard his neatly trimmed nails are biting into the flesh of his palm. His shoulders rise to form a rigid line and the tension is palpable, practically bleeding off him in waves.
It doesn't take much to see Jude isn't dealing with things well. The uncertainty surrounding Oscar and the troubled relationship he has with his mother let alone whatever this is between them.
"Let's get out of here," Zero says. "We'll go to my place."
"Gideon, I'm not... I'm not going anywhere with you."
"You obviously don't want to be here and I can't leave you on your own."
"Why not?" Jude's voice is a flat monotone like he's so empty he can't even fake it anymore. "Everyone else does."
Zero reaches out, slowly curling his hand around Jude's arm. "I'm not everyone else. I care about you. Whether you believe it or not."
Time seems to stop when Jude turns to face him, meeting his eyes and staring at him long enough that anyone looking at them would just know.
"I know you do, Zero. I...I don't blame you. At least I don't want to. I just can't do this."
"I'm not asking you to do anything, Jude. I'm just here to listen. If you want to talk."
"Are you?" Jude's laughter is bitter, like a pill brushing against his tongue. "Do you want to sit here and listen to me wonder why I'm so awful that no one wants to take a chance on me? Or how my most important client right now is an eighteen-year-old kid who thinks he's the next Michael Jordan and acts like it too. Maybe you want to hear about how my mom thinks I've betrayed her by coming to work here in L.A."
Zero presses his lips together briefly, releasing them with a soft exhale. "Jude, I've always listened to you. You're the only person I listen to. That's not going to change just because we're not…"
He stops midway, wetting his lips and fingering his champagne flute and wishing it wasn't empty. He can't help feeling flustered because he's never been able to define what they are. The truth is Zero doesn't know what they're doing. Hooking up, having a good time, messing around - it's obvious now that it was more than that. He wouldn't be here if it wasn't. He wouldn't be drawn to Jude even after he called things off.
It scares him.
Zero does the rejecting not anyone else, and here he is circling the one person who had the guts to lay their heart on the line and leave before he could stomp all over it.
"It has changed, Zero...I understand. I know what you would be sacrificing, and that... You've worked too hard. This isn't about you . It's about me. I can't be in the shadows anymore, can't feel like I'm not good enough for one more person."
Before Zero can respond, one of the other Devils players stops by their spot at the bar and slaps Zero on the back, nodding at Jude when he introduces them. After a quick conversation about an after-party, they're left alone again. Jude's head is lowered, and he's focusing on the napkin he's carefully shredding into tiny pieces.
"Let's go to my place," Zero says. The location is deliberate. For all of their time together, it was always Jude's small apartment they were confined to. Even after Oscar found out Jude was with a guy, going back there just seemed right. It was their place.
His condo is neutral. Somewhere they can talk without being haunted by the memories.
"What for?" Jude sounds resigned like he's this close to giving in.
Jude takes one look at Zero's condo and his eyes narrow. "Is this really your place?"
"What?" Zero looks around for good measure, checking nothing is out of place. "Yeah, of course."
"It seems so…" Jude trails off and chews at his lip like he's in though. "Empty. It's like no one lives here."
"I guess I haven't gotten around to settling in. I always felt more comfortable at your place, anyway. With you."
Jude flinches, releasing a breathy exhale while his shoulders shudder like he's been burned. "Don't."
"Don't what?" Zero shoves down his fear and forces himself not to falter.
Jude eyes him carefully, mouth twitching like he's fighting the words threatening to spill out. "Don't say things like that. Things that make me feel like you want this. Us."
"I chased after you. I told you my real name. You know how I feel. You just want me to stand up and tell the entire world who I am and I'm not ready, Jude."
"...I understand, Zero. I get it." Jude swallows audibly and sits down on the edge of one of the brown leather club chairs situated in the living room. "I know it seems like I'm blaming you, but as I said after the championship game, it's just how the chips have fallen. That's what I'm so mad at. I've finally found someone who makes me feel like... like I'm special, and... I can't have you. Not the way I want."
"So, what do we do?" Zero asks. "Where do we go from here?"
"I don't know."
The words seem to echo, curling around the tendrils of Zero's soul and nestling there. He feels empty and powerless in the face of Jude's emotional onslaught. Jude sounds so lost that Zero knows he's going to have to let him go. Not forever, but for right now. If walking away is what Jude needs to do to not sound so...desolate, he's not going to stop him.
"I am sorry, Jude…" Zero pauses, knowing his apology won't make things any better. "I wish I was enough for you."
Jude covers his mouth with his palm and lets it slide down his face like he's trying to push away his hurt. His head shifts upwards to meet Zero's eyes.
"Why would you say that?"
Zero carefully put together resolve snaps, leaving him with nothing but raw emotion. His truth spills out before he can put a lid on it, the ugly reason why he's never had any faith in his role in their relationship.
"I've been through a lot in life, Jude. A lot of disappointment. A lot of unfulfilled expectations, and…I know I'm not perfect. I'm not. I'm never going to be the person you want me to be because he doesn't exist."
Jude is constantly searching for things he'll never find, his father's approval, or a fairytale romance that takes away his pain. A position with the Devils hierarchy to alleviate his inadequacy. He's constantly front pedalling towards rocky destinations and ending up punctured. Left on the side of the road wondering why he couldn't travel.
"You don't get it, do you?" Jude says. "I know you're not perfect. More than anyone probably. I know all the shady things you've done, every way you've tried to manoeuvre your way to the top. I know that you hide behind the bravado because you don't want anyone to see how messed up you are."
"--no, let me finish so that we can both go on with our lives. This didn't begin with a hook-up for me, Zero. It was never about sex...it was more than that, and I don't think you're there yet."
It's there in that moment that Zero indubitably understands what Jude is saying - he loves him. He's in love with Zero, and he's protecting himself as best he can.
The second thing he concludes is that... Jude's going to walk away again, and he's going to let him.
Not because he doesn't care about him, or because he's afraid, but because he doesn't know the first thing about love.
All he knows how to do is wreck things and he's not going to do that to Jude - so he lets him go.
It doesn't last.
Knowing that Jude loves him becomes something of a... fixation. It's all he thinks about, it consumes him, ravages his mind and it hits him one morning when he's in a meeting with his new agent, some smarmy asshole called Lucas, he misses Jude. The way he rolls his eyes at Zero's stuffiness, or the resigned sigh when Zero's demands are beyond what's necessary. The way he smiles in his sleep, and how beautiful he looks in the morning when the sunlight bathes him in a golden glow.
I love him too, he thinks, and he's so startled that he walks out of the meeting, not stopping when Lucas calls him back. It's not Lucas that he wants in his corner. It's Jude.
It's always been Jude.