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in this together

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Jude looked at the shattered glass on the floor, then up at the frame that used to hold the likeness of Jelena. He was still in shock that Oscar was out, that he was out, and that Zero had been traded . . . . Zero! Jude pulled himself together enough to go after Zero. He started off walking, then broke into a jog, in the direction Zero had gone. When he caught sight of him, Jude called out, “Zero, wait!”

Zero kept walking, giving no sign that he’d even heard Jude. His hands were in fists at his sides, and his shoulders were pulled in, as if he was protecting himself from another blow.

“Zero!” Jude called again, then, “Gideon!”

Zero came to a sudden halt, his top half still moving forward slightly, as if he hadn’t told his feet to stop. It looked like he was debating whether he should keep moving, and then he just . . . deflated. Zero turned his head to look at Jude, and Jude could see the maelstrom of emotions swirling in his eyes, and the tight clench of his jaw as he tried to keep a tight rein on them.

“Hey,” Jude said when he reached Zero’s side. He curled his fingers around Zero’s wrist and pulled his arm towards him. It was like trying to move a block of wood. “Hey,” Jude said again. “We’ll figure something out.”

Zero looked away from Jude and shook his head, as if he’d already given up on himself, on them. Jude knew that had more to do with Zero than with him, but it still hurt. He took Zero’s fist into his other hand and gently worked his fingers open. “We’re still in this together, right?”

Jude slipped his fingers between Zero’s and raised their joined hands. “Right? Team Zero?”

Zero’s lips twitched, and he ducked his head, as if he didn’t think he should be allowed to smile right then. “Team Zude,” he said.

“Zude?”

“Yeah.” Zero shrugged, downplaying the importance of what he was saying. “If Derek and Ahsha can be ‘Dersha’, we can be Zude. I mean, if we’re in this together.”

“Team Zude,” Jude repeated. “I like the sound of that.”

Zero looked at Jude through his eyelashes. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jude said.

Zero leaned over and kissed Jude hard on the mouth. He let himself smile, but it didn’t erase completely the tight lines at the corners of his eyes.

Jude squeezed Zero’s hand, and Zero squeezed back. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

“Where are we going?” Zero said, falling into step with Jude.

“I don’t know, yet,” Jude said. “Somewhere that isn’t here.”

“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know that, either.” Jude squeezed Zero’s hand again. “But we’ll figure it out.”

Jude wanted to tell Zero to trust him, the words were right on the tip of his tongue, but he knew that trust came hard to Zero, so he held them back. Zero surprised Jude by saying, “You always do.”

We always do,” Jude said, warmed by Zero’s faith in him. Now he just had to figure out what the hell they were going to do.

Zero didn’t protest when Jude led him to the passenger side of the Porsche Zero had bought for him. Jude stood with his hand on the door until Zero was in the seat and buckling up, then he closed it and walked around to the driver’s side.

Jude waited until they were out of the parking lot before he called Lionel and put the phone on speaker. Her voice was strained when she answered, but Jude didn’t think anything of it. “Lionel!” Jude said. “What the hell happened?”

“How did you hear about it already?” Lionel said.

“I was at the Arena,” Jude said. “Jelena told Zero.”

“Jelena knows? How would Jelena know?”

Jude heard a voice in the background. “Is that Pete Davenport? What’s going on? Lionel?”

Lionel coughed. “I thought you said you’d already heard about it.”

“About Oscar being out and Jelena threatening to trade Zero,” Jude said.

Lionel started laughing, and then choking. Pete said, “Lionel, here, drink some water.” Jude glanced at Zero, who shrugged. He had no idea what was going on with Lionel, either.

“Lionel,” Jude said. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” Lionel said. “I will be. Stop fussing, Pete. You know,” she said, talking to Jude again, “if we weren’t all going down with him, I’d love the front row seat we have to Jelena taking Oscar down.”

“Mmm,” Jude said. “Do you know how she managed it?”

“She’s got the minority shareholders on her side,” Pete said. He’d obviously taken the phone away from Lionel, because Jude could hear her in the background telling Pete to give it back. Then Pete told them what had happened to Lionel, and that they’d had to break a window to escape the garage. After asking if she was alright again, and urging Pete to call an ambulance for her, Jude disconnected the call and drove in silence. He punched the steering wheel. Zero glanced over at him, but remained silent.

“This is all Oscar’s fault,” Jude said. Oscar had committed bribery, corruption, game fixing, and murder. It was little wonder he couldn’t be the father Jude had wanted.

Jude didn’t know where he was going, but he just kept driving. He took the 101 to Mulholland Drive and pulled over at the Hollywood Bowl Scenic Overlook. It gave Jude a rush of mean pleasure to look down on Hollywood and know that Oscar had been denied the arena there.

“What are you thinking?” Zero said.

Jude knew he wasn’t talking about Oscar and the Hollywood Arena. “Jelena controls the Devils because she took all of the minority shareholders away from Oscar. She only has a majority so long as that coalition holds together.”

“We’re going to make sure it doesn’t,” Zero said.

“Yes. All we need to do is take one of them away from her and the whole thing crumbles.”

“Okay,” Zero said. “So how do you plan to do that?”

“Talk to them,” Jude said. “Make sure that they understand that Jelena isn’t making decisions that are in the best interest of the team, and that we, they, can’t afford to lose you. Find out if there’s something they want more than they want to stick it to Oscar on this matter.”

“That’s going to take time we don’t have,” Zero said. “Jelena said she’s already made the trade.”

“Even Jelena can’t move that fast,” Jude said. “It needs to go before the Board for a vote, and it’ll take time to find a team that not only wants you, but is able to take on the remainder of your thirty million dollar contract. Small market teams don’t have that much money lying around, and even the large market teams have already spent most of their money by now. Not only that, but it takes time to put a deal together. These things don’t happen overnight.”

“You really think that’ll work?”

Jude felt lighter than he had since Zero had broken the news to him. Part of it had to do with having a plan, but the rest of it was just how much faith Zero had in him. “I do. Those shareholders may have promised her their support against Oscar, but trading you is another matter entirely. Not all of them will be on board with that. And if we can’t persuade one of them to drop their support, well, I’m sure at least one of them has a skeleton or two in their closet.”

Zero gave Jude a look that was both surprised and impressed. “What do we do first?”

“We need to go back to the arena,” Jude said, heading back to where he’d parked the car.

“For what?”

“All the information I have on the shareholders is on my laptop, which I left behind.”

Jude pulled back onto Mulholland Drive and headed for the 101.

“What if Jelena’s locked us out already?”

“She can’t,” Jude said. “She hasn’t fired me yet, though that’s no guarantee she hasn’t revoked my access, but she can’t revoke yours yet. She can’t afford to not have you playing.”

“What if you’re wrong?” Zero said. “She’s already told me she’s trading me, and she already knows I’d throw a game for less.”

Jude gave Zero a look. “Then we sneak in. I used to do it all the time.”

Zero gave Jude an impressed raise of his eyebrows. “You rebel, you.”

Jude laughed, then sobered. “I just hope she hasn’t gotten into my office and scrubbed my laptop.”

“The information would be publicly available, right?”

“Yes,” Jude said, “but that would take time; this is easier and quicker.”

Jude fell silent as he ran through the names of the shareholders and what he could remember about them.

“What are you thinking now?” Zero said.

“I was just trying to determine which if the shareholders would be our best bet.”

“In your head,” Zero said in disbelief.

“Yes?”

“Wait, you know their names?”

“Yes.”

“And enough about them to create, what, a top three list in your head?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do we need the laptop?”

“Because I don’t remember everything that’s in my files,” Jude said.

Zero tilted his head. “You’ve got files on them?”

Jude refused to be embarrassed about that. “I always wanted to be part of the Devils organization.”

“And one way you did that was to create files on the shareholders. Sure,” Zero said.

“All the employees, actually. As well as the players. And the dancers,” Jude admitted.

Zero gave Jude a considering look. “You’re an anal retentive nerd,” he finally said. “But you’re my anal retentive nerd.”

Jude grinned. He still wasn’t used to be called Zero’s anything. He didn’t think he’d ever get used to it, or tired of hearing it.

~*~

No one stopped them when they pulled into the parking lot, or when they entered the building, though Zero did stop Jude from using his card and held his own under the reader. “Plausible deniability,” he said.

They made it up to Jude’s office without being seen. They stepped inside and closed the door before turning on the light. Jude packed the laptop into his briefcase, and then took a moment to look over his desk and think about what other files he might want to take with him tonight in case he was locked out tomorrow and couldn’t come back. There was only one.

Zero gave him a questioning look.

“Your file,” Jude said.

“You’ve got a file on me?”

“I started it when I was with the agency,” Jude said. “I kept copies of everything in case I needed the information at my fingertips.”

Jude released the folder when Zero reached for it. He forced himself not to squirm as Zero flipped it open.

“There’s Devils paperwork in here, too,” Zero said. “Scouting report . . . .”

Jude took the file back, closing the folder before Zero could list everything in the file. “I may have updated it when I became EVP,” he said, sliding the folder into his briefcase alongside the laptop.

“You kept the file even though you weren’t my agent anymore,” Zero said.

“I still worked for the agency,” Jude said. “The information might’ve been important.”

“You could’ve turned it back over to the agency when you stopped being my agent, or when you became EVP,” Zero pointed out reasonably.

Jude hated it when Zero used that reasonable tone, because it usually meant that he was going to say something very unreasonable next.

“No, I couldn’t have,” Jude said.

“Because then they would’ve known how much of a stalker you were?”

“It wasn’t stalking; it was . . . doing a thorough job.”

“This might be our last chance to have sex in your office,” Zero said.

And there it was. “We don’t have time for that right now . . . I mean, we’re not having sex in my office. Ever.”

Zero smirked. “You’re right, we don’t have time right now, but it’s something to look forward to.”

Before Jude could reply, Zero kissed him. It was over too quickly, but it still made Jude forget what they’d been talking about. “We should, um, get out of here before someone sees us.”

Just then they heard a loud bang that could’ve been a door slamming shut. Jude and Zero looked at each other. “Is someone else here?” Zero asked.

Jude shook his head. “The offices are usually empty this time of night, and there were no lights on when we got here.”

Jude cautiously opened the door to his office and peered out into the hallway. There was light coming from an office at the other end of the hall. He pulled his head back in and closed the door before speaking in a low voice. “Weren’t the doors to Oscar’s office closed when we got here?”

“Yeah, why?”

“They’re open now, and the light’s on.”

Zero swore under his breath. “Jelena, claiming the throne, no doubt.”

“We can take the stairs at this end of the hall,” Jude said.

Zero nodded his agreement. Jude grabbed his briefcase and turned off the light before poking his head back out. When he saw no one, and was sure that no one would see them, he stepped out of the office, with Zero at his back. They were making their way silently down the hallway to the stairs when Jude heard another sound. He stopped.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yes,” Zero said. “Keep going.”

“It sounded like someone was hurt.”

“Couldn’t happen to a more deserving person,” Zero said bitterly.

“What if it’s not Jelena? What if it’s someone else? What if it’s Lionel?”

“You just talked to Lionel,” Zero said. “She’s at Oscar’s house.”

“Lionel never stays where you put her,” Jude said. “What if she thought there was something in the office that could help her, help us?” He shoved the briefcase into Zero’s chest and Zero reflexively grabbed it. “I’ve got to check; I’ll be right back.”

“The hell you will,” Zero muttered under his breath, and Jude could feel his presence right behind him as he turned and made his way back the way they’d just come. One step away from the open doorway to Oscar’s office, Jude paused to gather his bearings, and then he poked his head around the doorframe.

Jelena, who’d been looking down the length of her body at the blood pooling between her fingers, raised her eyes to the doorway when she saw or sensed movement there. Her eyes held fear, but there was also anger, and defiance, and hate, which appeared to be giving her strength.

“Oh my god,” Jude said, when his mind finally made sense of the scene before him. He took a step into the office on automatic. He knew he had to do something, but his brain didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. The sight of Jelena lying on the floor, bleeding, sent him into a shocked daze he didn’t pull out of until Jelena made another sound of pain, and then bit her lip as if even now she hated to show any weakness.

Jude scanned the room for something he could use to staunch the blood flow, and when he didn’t see anything more useful than a couch pillow and Jelena’s purse, he quickly took off his suit jacket. Jude slipped the phone out of the inside pocket and tossed it to Zero, who caught it one-handed.

“Call 911,” Jude said as he went to his knees, folding the jacket up and pressing it to the wound right over Jelena’s own hand.

“Do we have to?” Zero said dispassionately. “If we let her bleed out it would solve all our problems.”

“Yes, we have to,” Jude said, without giving a moment’s consideration to Zero’s suggestion. No more than a second, anyway.

“I’d do that to you,” Jelena said in a pained hiss.

“Shut up,” Jude said. “Save your strength. And also, stop antagonizing the only person in the room with a hand free to call an ambulance.”

Jelena’s eyes rolled to Jude. “This doesn’t change anything; I’m still going to trade him. And fire you.”

“I know,” Jude said.

“If it was only Oscar, I’d keep you around just to piss him off.” Jelena coughed and her face paled with the pain of it.

“Jesus, stop talking,” Jude said. He tuned in to Zero for a moment, whose voice had just gone high. “No, I don’t fucking know if the shooter is still in the building! The arena’s a big place!” Their eyes met, and Zero stepped further into the room and closed both doors.

“Gone,” Jelena said weakly. “Coward.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it,” Zero said to Jelena, and then into the phone, “Yeah, she’s conscious and able to speak. For the moment.” The last carried a double meaning that Jude hoped only he and Jelena were aware of. Zero lowered the phone. “Someone needs to go down and let them in.”

“Okay,” Jude said.

“I don’t want to leave you here alone. What if the shooter does come back?”

“He won’t,” Jude said with more certainty than he felt. “We’ll be fine.”

“For the record, I only care about you remaining fine,” Zero said to Jude.

Jelena found the strength to give Zero the finger with the hand that wasn’t trapped beneath Jude’s suit jacket.

Zero took out his own phone and slipped it into Jude’s shirt pocket. “I need to keep this one. Call me if you need anything.” Zero gave Jude a long look before opening the door.

Once they were alone, Jude turned his attention back to Jelena. She was looking up at him as if she was trying to figure him out. “What? No, never mind, don’t talk.”

Jelena’s eyelids fell closed and Jude panicked. He took one hand off the jacket compress and touched his fingers to her throat. Her eyes fluttered open.

“Not . . . dead . . . yet.”

Jude noticed that there was blood pooling on the floor beneath Jelena. It seemed like too much to be coming from the wound, especially with pressure on it. “Wait, are you . . . I need to check your back. This is probably gonna hurt.”

Jude tried to be careful when he slipped his hand beneath Jelena to probe her back for an exit wound, but she had to bite off a scream when he jostled her. Jude withdrew his hand and put it back onto the jacket. “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad that there’s no exit wound,” Jude said.

“Lionel,” Jelena said, and Jude’s first horrible thought was that she was accusing Lionel of shooting her. “Loyal. Why you got’ go.”

“You’re assuming I’d want to stay in LA without Zero,” Jude said, but Jelena had finally passed out.

~*~

Things seemed to move quickly after that. The police showed up to clear the arena, and the EMTs rushed in and took over Jelena’s care. Jude fell back onto the floor, out of the way, and watched them work as if he’d been dropped into some kind of nightmare. When they took Jelena away, the only things they left behind were the wrappers from the supplies they’d had to use on her, and Jude’s partially folded jacket lying in a pool of her blood.

Zero knelt down beside Jude. He rubbed a comforting hand over Jude’s shoulders. “Hey,” Zero said softly. “The police want to talk to us.”

Jude couldn’t hold back a hysterical laugh. At Zero’s worried look, he explained. “I was just thinking that this day couldn’t get any worse.”

“That was your first mistake,” Zero said. He forced a lightness into his tone, but his hand was firm on Jude’s shoulder, his thumb a warm and soothing pressure against his neck.

Jude nodded. He became aware of an officer standing in the doorway. Keeping them safe, or making sure they didn’t leave before a detective could come and speak with them?

“Where’s the briefcase?” Jude said, keeping his voice low.

“I put it in the car before they got here,” Zero said.

“Good thinking,” Jude said. He twisted to get off the floor – he didn’t want to be at a disadvantage when the detective came in – and Zero took his arm to give him a hand up. Jude leaned into Zero before speaking. “Don’t say a word if it sounds like they’re looking at us as suspects. I mean it. They can’t make us talk, and if they push we request a lawyer.”

Zero nodded, then glanced over Jude’s shoulder and slowly straightened his shoulders, pulling his head away from Jude’s. Jude turned and saw a detective approaching them. He didn’t recognize the man, but was glad to see that it wasn’t Detective Harris.

“I’m Detective Mallory,” the detective said. “I know tonight has probably been distressing for you both, but it helps if we can get as much information as soon as possible. Is it alright if I ask you some questions?”

“Yes, of course,” Jude said, not fooled by the detective’s demeanor. “Anything we can do to help.”

“Let’s start with your names,” Mallory said as he withdrew a small spiral notebook from the inside pocket of his jacket.

Jude gave the detective their names. Mallory glanced at Zero when that was the only name Jude gave him, but he didn’t remark on it, just wrote it down. Jude told the detective their connection with the Devils organization, but when he asked for contact information, Jude gave him the name of the Devils’ in-house counsel.

“We’re going to do this the hard way?” Mallory said as he wrote it down.

“Not at all,” Jude said. “We’ll do everything we can to help you find out who shot Jelena, but you’ll have to forgive us if we’re wary of the LAPD getting a little . . . enthusiastic with their investigation.”

“Why don’t you begin helping,” Mallory said, putting an emphasis on the word and showing the first signs of not being quite as friendly as he was pretending to be, “by telling me what happened tonight?”

“We were in my office,” Jude said. “We were just getting ready to leave when . . . .”

“What were you doing here so late?” Mallory said, trying to wrest back control of the questioning.

“Devils’ business,” Jude said, and then continued without giving Mallory a chance to ask any follow-up questions. “We were just getting ready to leave when we heard what sounded like a door being slammed. We didn’t think anything of it until we heard another sound, like a groan.”

“Back to the door slamming,” Mallory said. “Weren’t you surprised that anyone else was working this late?”

“Yes,” said Zero, slipping his hand into Jude’s. “Which is why we hoped no one saw us when we left.” He smirked at Jude, and even though Jude knew the inference Zero hoped the detective would draw was a complete fabrication, he couldn’t help blushing.

Mallory dropped his gaze to their joined hands. Before he could ask another question, Zero took over. “We investigated the sound, found Jelena lying on the floor trying to hold her blood inside her body.” Zero flung his free arm out to indicate the spot between the two chairs not far from where they stood. “Jude here did the Good Samaritan thing while I called 911.”

“Did Ms. Howard say anything that would help us identify the shooter?”

“Yes,” Jude said, then shook his head, “but no. She said something, just two words, but it isn’t helpful.”

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that,” Mallory said disdainfully.

“She said ‘gone’ when the 911 operator asked if the shooter was still in the building and Zero freaked out.”

“I didn’t freak out,” Zero said.

“And then ‘coward’. She didn’t elaborate. She really wasn’t able to,” Jude said, remembering Jelena’s warm blood on his hands. “She shouldn’t have been wasting her strength on talking, anyway.”

“Even if it would help us find the shooter?” Mallory said.

“Not at the expense of her own life,” Jude said.

Mallory jotted down another note in his book. “Did she say anything else?”

“Not about the shooter,” Jude said.

Mallory gave Jude a considering look. “But she spoke to you.”

“Yes.”

“And you’re refusing to tell me what she said.”

“It was personal. If Jelena chooses to tell you when she wakes up, I’ll be happy to corroborate, but until then, no, I’m not going to tell you the specifics of our conversation.”

“We could continue this downtown,” Mallory said, all pretense of good cop now gone.

“Are you charging me with something?” Jude said.

“Not yet,” Mallory said, making it sound like a threat. “But you’re a material witness . . . .”

“As we just told you, we didn’t see anything, we merely found Jelena after she was shot.” Jude turned to Zero. “I don’t suppose you called the attorney?”

It was an idle comment, meant to show the detective that Jude knew his rights, but to Jude’s surprise, Zero said, “I did one better.”

Just then there was a commotion in the hallway. “Of course you’re going to let me in to see my step-son! Do you have any idea who I am?”

Jude’s eyes widened. “You called Lionel?”

Zero’s grin reminded Jude of a shark.

~*~

Detective Mallory, as well as the poor officer standing in the hallway, never stood a chance. Lionel waltzed into the office, followed by Pete. Her already pale features went even more pale when she saw the blood.

Lionel enveloped Jude in a hug. When he reflexively raised his arms to return the hug, he saw the blood staining the cuffs of his shirt, his hands. “Leave this to me,” Lionel said quietly into Jude’s ear.

Jude could do nothing when the crime scene investigators bagged his suit jacket, but when Mallory asked for his shirt as well, Lionel very pleasantly told them that Jude would be happy to turn it over when they presented a warrant for it.

Lionel whisked them out of the arena, not even letting Jude stop to wash the blood off of his hands. “Leave as little evidence behind for them as possible.”

“You do realize that I didn’t shoot Jelena, right?” Jude said.

Lionel waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter.”

Pete, who was still trailing Lionel, sputtered.

“I meant to them,” Lionel said with a gesture that Jude thought was supposed to indicate the police. She gave Jude a look that said it was only half the truth. She really wouldn’t have cared if Jude had been the one to shoot Jelena. In fact, she might have thrown him a party.

“And how do you know all this?” Zero said.

“Remember that murder mystery I did a couple years ago?” Lionel said to Jude.

Jude remembered the movie. It had been more like eight years ago, but Jude didn’t point that out, just nodded.

“I spent some time with a police department, did some ride-alongs, watched an autopsy, things like that.”

“Threw up,” Pete added.

“I didn’t throw up,” Lionel said. “I was a complete professional.” She considered that for a moment. “Well, maybe a little bit in my mouth.”

“Your point?” Zero said impatiently.

“My point,” Lionel said sharply, “is that I learned some things about police procedure.”

They separated when they reached the cars. Jude slid into the passenger seat of his Porsche and let Zero drive. He laid his hands on his legs, palms up, and just stared at them. Zero remained silent, as if he knew that Jude needed some time to process.

Jude sighed when he got out of the car and saw Lionel pull into an open spot further down the street. “Go on ahead with the briefcase,” he told Zero over the roof of the car. “Put it in the bedroom.”

Jude walked towards Lionel and Pete, covering for Zero who grabbed the briefcase and hurried up the walkway to unlock the door. “You didn’t have to come over,” Jude said, knowing even as he spoke the words that they wouldn’t be enough to deter Lionel.

“Of course we did!” Lionel said. “I couldn’t leave you all alone to deal with this.”

“He’s not alone,” Zero said, reappearing. He put his arm around Jude’s shoulder. “Come on in and wash up, Jude.”

Jude let Zero lead him into the apartment and steer him towards the bathroom. Once he was alone, Jude just stared at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. Now that it was all over, the shakes set in.

There had been a shooter in the arena, and if they’d stepped out of his office a moment sooner, they might’ve run into him. Or her. Either one of them, or both of them, could’ve been shot. The image of Zero bleeding out and Jude pressing on the wound, trying, and failing, to keep the blood inside him, flashed through Jude’s mind and made him shudder.

Jude let the water run in the sink until it was hot, and then he scrubbed his hands. He tugged at the tie and tore at the buttons to get the blood-stained shirt off, and then scrubbed his wrists. His hands were red and raw when he was done, but Jude still didn’t feel clean.

Jude turned on the shower and fumbled with slacks and socks. He stepped into the tub and just let the warm water run over him. When he no longer felt cold to the bone, Jude soaped up a cloth and washed. He stood under the spray even after it had rinsed away all the soap, and considered spending the night in there.

Eventually he turned off the water. The door was cracked to let out the steam, his soiled clothes had been removed, and Zero sat on the closed lid of the toilet when Jude pushed back the shower curtain. Zero stood up and enveloped Jude in the bath towel he’d been holding.

“Lionel’s out there,” Zero said, as if he needed an excuse to be in the bathroom with Jude that wasn’t admitting to wanting to take care of him.

“I’ll be fine,” Jude said, and let Zero rub the cotton over his arms and back.

“I know you will,” Zero said, but he didn’t relinquish the task of drying off Jude, and even attempted to hold the sweat pants for Jude to step into. Jude drew the line at needing someone to dress him, and managed to pull on the sweats and t-shirt without help.

Lionel and Pete were arguing about something in the living room when Jude and Zero stepped out of the bathroom, but they stopped when they saw them. “Jude,” Lionel said, sounding relieved, then, “What happened tonight?”

Jude told them about hearing the gunshot and finding Jelena.

“What were you doing there so late?” Pete said. There was no accusation in it, but the question drew Jude’s attention to him.

“You backed Jelena’s power play,” Jude said. When Pete hesitated, Jude went on. “It’s the only way you’d know about the minority shareholders.”

“Yes,” Pete said. “I wanted Oscar out of the Devils organization.”

“And me,” Jude said. “And Lionel.”

“Pete?” Lionel said, sounding hurt.

“Oscar was a miserable excuse for a human being, you all know that,” Pete said. “So yes, I wanted him out. And you,” he said to Lionel. “You were going after Sloane too hard.”

Lionel looked like Pete had hit her. She gave Jude a stunned look when he said, “That’s not the point.” Jude ignored it. “Did you know that Jelena was going to trade Zero?”

“No!” Pete said. “I had no idea, and I wouldn’t have supported the move if I had known. I don’t like you very much,” he said to Zero, “but the team needs you. Especially now that we’re down Terrence.”

“Making sure that trade doesn’t happen is the only thing I care about,” Jude said.

“Jude,” Zero said, his voice cracking.

“What would you be willing do to do make sure it doesn’t?” Jude said to Pete.

“Nothing illegal,” Pete said. Jude waited, and finally Pete sighed and said, “What do you need me to do?”

“I need information,” Jude said. “And for you to keep your mouth shut about what you hear here tonight.”

Pete studied Jude, and then nodded.

Jude nodded in return, and hoped he didn’t look as relieved as he felt. He gave Zero a look, and Zero went to the bedroom to retrieve the briefcase.

“I’m going to need coffee,” Jude said.

“Don’t look at me,” Lionel said. “I don’t know how to make coffee.”

Pete sighed and headed for the kitchen. Lionel winked at Jude, though her heart wasn’t really in it, and then followed Pete.

Jude ran his hand through his hair. There was so much to do, and so little time. Jelena would not let a bullet to the stomach slow her down for long. She’d be running the Devils from her hospital bed the moment she woke up after surgery.

Jude turned towards Zero when he returned with the briefcase. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Zero said. He kept hold of the briefcase when Jude reached for it, and used it to draw Jude into an embrace.

Jude remained stiff for a moment, and then he let himself relax. He brought his free arm around Zero’s waist and buried his face in his neck.

“We’re okay,” Zero said.

Jude didn’t know whether Zero was talking about the trade, or Jude’s freak out after the fact regarding the shooter, but his response was the same either way. “I know.”

Jude didn’t pull away from Zero until Lionel returned, and even then not very far. “You alright?” he asked Lionel.

Lionel gave Jude a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m fine,” she said. “Pete started the coffee. It should be ready soon.” Her gaze fell on the briefcase between them. “What’s that?”

“This is why we went back to the arena,” Jude said.

Jude moved over to the couch with Zero, who didn’t relinquish his hold on the briefcase until they were both sitting. Lionel took one of the chairs across from them and watched with interest as Jude unlatched the briefcase. Her eyes opened wide when Jude withdrew a pad of paper and a pen he kept inside it. “You went back for a legal pad and a pen?”

Jude gave her a look, and then darted his eyes towards the kitchen. “No, but this is all I need right now,” he said without elaborating. Pete was on board with keeping Zero on the team, but Jude didn’t entirely trust him to keep his word and not tell Jelena what they were doing. He wanted to give Pete as little information as possible in case that happened. He’d already betrayed them once, and his feelings about the Kinkades, all three of them, hadn’t changed in the last few hours, Jude was sure.

Jude made a list of the minority shareholders, placing them in alphabetical order so that Pete couldn’t detect any bias in whatever importance he thought Jude placed on the various board members. “Jelena has the support of the minority shareholders, so she controls the majority of the stock. However, she can’t make a move as big as trading Zero without taking it before the Board,” he explained to Lionel.

“Zero’s not some D-League, no-name player. His trade is going to make the news, and the fact that Jelena is making a personal vendetta against Zero her first play shows that she doesn’t have the team’s best interest at heart. We can use that against her. The shareholders might be on board with ousting Oscar, but they can’t all possibly believe that trading Zero is in the best interest of the Devils.”

Jude looked over when Pete approached carrying a tray of coffee mugs, along with cream, sugar, and spoons. Jude moved all but one magazine to the bottom shelf and indicated that Pete should sit the tray on it. After doing so, Pete balanced himself on the edge of the remaining chair.

Jude fixed one of the mugs to his preference and then took a deep sip. He couldn’t hold back the sigh afterwards, but hoped it was lost in the others fixing their own coffees. “Who are Jelena’s strongest supporters on the Board?” he asked Pete.

Pete looked surprised at the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m serious,” Pete added when everyone else remained silent and stared at him. “It’s like one of those terrorist cells, where each cell only knows what it needs to in order to accomplish its assigned task. Jelena only tells you what she needs you to know in order to do what she wants you to do.”

“And what did Jelena want you to do?” Lionel asked in a tone so sweet you almost didn’t feel the venom as it entered your bloodstream.

“I just needed to back her play with the Board,” Pete said.

“And what did Sloane think about this?” Lionel said.

Pete’s silence was damning.

“Oh my,” Lionel said. “She doesn’t know.”

There was something about Pete’s expression; there was something he wasn’t telling them. “There’s more,” Jude said.

Pete looked at Jude as if he’d like to punch him again. Just like then, Jude pushed. “Does Jelena have something on you?”

“No,” Pete said. He finally reached a decision. “Sloane turned Jelena down; she didn’t trust her.”

“That’s just precious,” Lionel said.

“You did trust her?” Zero said, appalled.

“I trusted her to do what she said she’d do,” Pete said. “Get rid of Oscar.”

“And Jude,” Lionel said. “And me.”

Before the discussion could get derailed further, Jude pulled them back on track. “The board members,” he said. “If you had to guess, who were the ones the most ‘dissatisfied’ with Oscar’s management?”

“It wasn’t his management so much as the public airing of his dirty laundry,” Pete said. “He gave the Devils a black eye, and the minority shareholders agreed that a takeover from within would be better than a forced sale where they all stood to lose.”

“There wasn’t going to be a forced sale,” Lionel said. “Oscar took care of that. It’s why I got him out of jail.”

“You should’ve left him there,” Pete said.

“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Lionel said.

“Foresight should’ve been 20/20 where Oscar is concerned,” Pete rebutted. “Besides, Oscar may have managed to call off the League this time, but it’s only a matter of time before something else comes to light and the League is forced to deal with him.”

“Who?” Jude said again.

Pete turned his attention back to Jude and sighed. “This is just a guess.” Jude gave Pete a slight nod, accepting the caveat. Pete glanced at the list and read of three names. “Benjamin Harris, Susan Hastings, and Wendell Johnson.”

Jude put stars by each of their names. “What are your thoughts on the others?”

Pete shook his head. “I’ve always thought that Marcus Douglas was Oscar’s man, Thomas Heller always waits to see which way the wind is blowing, and George Pullman considers himself a lady’s man, so he might be taken in by a pretty face. But you know that Jelena wouldn’t have made her move if she wasn’t certain of her power base.”

“She didn’t expect anybody to fight back,” Jude said distractedly as he studied the list of names. “Alright,” he finally said. “Pete, I need you to approach the three shareholders you mentioned as being Jelena’s strongest supporters.” He pointed to the starred names.

“And tell them what?” Pete said.

“Tell them that you backed Jelena’s play before you knew she planned to trade Zero. Tell them it’s a bad idea. Tell them it’s personal, and not good business. I just need you to prime the pump for me. I need them to know that Coach Davenport doesn’t think the team could stand to lose Zero,” Jude said.

Jude tossed the pen onto the pad and pushed his hands through his hair.

“Are you alright?” Lionel said worriedly.

Jude dropped his hands. “Yeah, sorry.”

Zero rubbed Jude’s back, and Jude leaned into the touch.

“You need to get some rest,” Lionel said.

“Yeah, I think I do,” Jude said. “Do you want to spent the night here? The couch isn’t the most uncomfortable thing I’ve slept on.”

“No,” Lionel said quickly. “But thank you. I’m going back to the house.”

“You can’t go back there!” Jude said, though he wasn’t sure Lionel heard it over Zero and Pete saying variations of the same thing.

Zero extended a hand towards Lionel. “You can stay at my place.”

“Thank you, but no,” Lionel said. “Oscar isn’t getting rid of me this easily. I’m going to make his life a living hell.”

“As opposed to making sure he went to jail?” Jude said.

“That’s going to look like a picnic compared to what I’m going to do to him.”

Jude walked around the table to give Lionel a hug goodbye. “I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Trust me,” Lionel said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I hope so.”

Jude stood in the middle of the living room while Zero showed Lionel and Pete out. After they’d left, Zero shut and locked the door, then turned around and looked at Jude.

“What?” Jude said.

Zero raised his eyebrows. “What was that all about?”

Jude didn’t bother trying to keep it a secret from Zero; they were in this together, after all. “I needed to keep Pete busy. And distracted.”

“While you do what?” Zero said.

“While I concentrate on the board members that matter.”

“Like Marcus.”

“Like Marcus,” Jude agreed. “I’m positive that Jelena didn’t tell any of them about her plans to trade you, and I can’t imagine they’d be thrilled to lose a player of your caliber, especially since it’s personal rather than good business. We just need someone with the balls to stand up to her.”

“That doesn’t help you, though,” Zero said.

“First we make sure you stay in LA,” Jude said. “Then we worry about me.” Jude turned his head and looked at the pad and pen he’d left lying on the coffee table. He’d been putting on a show to hasten Lionel and Pete’s departure, but it hadn’t all been an act. His energy was running low, but there was so much to do . . . .

Zero caught Jude’s wrist. “Tomorrow,” he said, as if he’d read Jude’s mind. “It’s too late to call anyone tonight, and you need a clear head.”

Zero was right. Jude had been gung-ho about getting started on at least reviewing his notes on the board members, but after finding Jelena bleeding out on the floor, it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. And Zero was right about it being late, and him needing a clear head to deal with the shareholders.

“Yeah,” Jude said. “Alright.”

“Come on,” Zero said, tugging on Jude’s wrist.

Jude started to walk past the coffee table, but the briefcase propped against the couch caught his eye. “Wait. Could you put the briefcase back where you hid it before?”

“Of course,” Zero said. He released Jude’s hand to reach for the briefcase.

“I’ll just . . . .” Jude bent to set the mugs onto the tray and pick it up.

Zero gave Jude a look, but he didn’t say anything about Jude being anal, just nodded and took the briefcase into the bedroom. Jude stood and watched Zero for a moment, then shook himself out of it. He carried the tray to the kitchen and set it on the counter beside the sink. He emptied the mugs and creamer, and rinsed them out. He was staring at the sugar, wondering whether he should put it back into the container, or just dump it, when Zero stepped into the kitchen.

“Leave it,” Zero said. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

Jude would normally have insisted on washing the mugs and spoons – he hated leaving dirty dishes in the sink – but the fact that he’d been stymied by the question of what to do with the sugar decided him. “Yeah, alright.”

If Zero was concerned by Jude’s easy capitulation, he didn’t comment on it, just led Jude out of the kitchen and through the living room to the bedroom, flipping off lights as they went. They brushed their teeth and got under the covers.

Zero arranged them so that Jude’s back was against his front. Jude rested his hand on the arm curled around his middle. They didn’t spoon often – Zero was a restless sleeper and Jude ran hot – but when they did it was most often Jude curling himself around Zero. It said a lot that Zero thought Jude needed to be the little spoon this night. It said a lot more that Jude didn’t argue with him.

“Hey,” Zero said, voice low in Jude’s ear.

“What?”

“I’m glad you’re on my team.”

Jude managed a small smile, though it took him a few moments to put voice to the thought in his head. “Zude.”

“Yeah,” Zero said, sounding pleased.

The last thing Jude knew was the press of Zero’s lips to the back of his neck, and then there was nothing.