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Chapter 7

"You don't look like you're enjoying it." JD said anxiously.

"Well, while I'm reading it, it doesn't seem like natural speech." Ben said slowly.

"What do you mean?" JD asked curiously.

"Like this part..." Ben said seriously, then began to read aloud, "Veterans of the two great wars stood by malingering and harrumphing..."

"That's because you're reading it wrong." JD interrupted. "This is supposed to be an epic. It's got to be grand and lyrical or it'll just sound stupid."

"Then maybe you could read it to me the right way so I can understand." Ben said simply.

JD moved closer so he could see the screen, then after a moment, he started in a low dramatic voice, with his accent slightly more pronounced, "Veterans of the two great wars stood by malingering and harrumphing, not caring a whit or a nonce of the politics of the day."

Then his voice rose in pitch and volume as he continued, "But all the while they sharpened their swords, preparing for the day when their services would once again be valued. For they knew, all too well, that moments of peace are purchased with blood."

Then JD broke into full volume with an accent as thick and sweet as honey, "And on that gruesome day of blood and fear, those who disregarded the veterans as wastrels and vagrants, looked upon them with new eyes filled with hope, seeing their salvation."

JD's voice dropped back to its original low volume as he finished, "And those good men went off to fight yet again, perchance to die, their services paid in full with the looks of reverence of their kin and clan filling their hearts as they trundled off to war."

JD waited for a moment for a reaction, then quietly asked, "What do you think?"

Ben blinked, then absently said, "I'll tell you as soon as the shivers stop going up and down my spine."

JD smiled at the reaction, then sat back to allow Ben to continue reading.

* * * * *

As JD watched Ben anxiously, he noticed tears beginning to form in Ben's eyes.

"Is something wrong?" JD asked with concern as he automatically moved closer to Ben to hug him.

"Fvuva." Ben said as he reached around JD to get a tissue.

JD glanced at the screen to see where Ben was in the story, then turned and picked up the box of tissues as he said in a heavily accented voice, "I'm thinking you'll be needing the whole thing."

Ben wiped his eyes and spared JD a glance before going back to reading.

* * * * *

Ben had stopped reading and was sitting, staring blindly at the screen. As he slowly began to come back to himself, he realized that JD was holding him firmly.

"Thank you, JD." Ben whispered, then slid an arm around JD's back so he could return the hug.

"Why did you stop reading? Don't you like it?" JD asked quietly.

Ben didn't even have to think about it. "It was wonderful."

JD smiled at his father's words.

"When I was young, probably just a little bit older than you are, I discovered my first book about mythology." Ben said distantly. "Reading it was like being transported to another world. That little paperback book changed my life. It made me who I am today."

After a moment to consider, JD nodded his understanding.

"Your story made me feel that way again." Ben said honestly as he looked into JD's eyes.

JD broke into a huge smile as he understood what Ben was saying.

Ben pulled JD closer, feeling that he didn't have adequate words to convey his appreciation of JD's story.

"The reason I stopped reading is because I think I need some time to process what I've just read. Your writing is so... substantial. It's impossible for me to read it quickly." Ben said carefully, wanting to convey his meaning without sounding like he was being overly critical.

"Yeah. That's the kind of books that I like to read. The ones that make you think." JD said seriously.

"Sometimes I get criticism about my writing being too 'high brow' and I'm accused of being unnecessarily wordy." Ben said conversationally.

"Do you think I should try to dumb it down?" JD asked hesitantly.

"No." Ben said immediately. "Absolutely not."

JD looked at him curiously, obviously wanting more of an answer.

"Your writing is perfect just the way it is. You wouldn't be doing your readers any favors by changing your style of writing." Ben said honestly.

JD pulled Ben into a firm hug and rested his head against Ben's shoulder.

* * * * *

After long, relaxing minutes of holding and being held, Ben quietly asked, "So, JD, where did your interest in mythology come from?"

"I read a lot of mythology while I was in the hospital. At first it was really hard to understand, but after a while they were some of my favorite kinds of books. Most of the other books that they had were little kid books and were really boring." JD finished with a wrinkled nose.

Ben smiled at the words, but remained silent.

"I hadn't read any mythology for a while until I got here and started reading 'Meta-Mythological Dynasties'." JD said thoughtfully.

"But that's a really advanced book." Ben said carefully.

"It's like it was written just for me." JD said frankly. "I've been reading lots and lots of books, and most of them you have to read and read and read through lots of boring stuff before you find anything that makes you think. I like the books like yours that you have to think about to really understand them."

"I guess that makes us even, then." Ben said with a smile.

JD looked at him with question.

"If my book inspired you, then we're even, because your book has certainly inspired me." Ben said happily.

"Then you'd better hurry up and write your next one, because I already can't wait to read it." JD said with a grin.

"I'll see what I can do. But for right now, I think we should take a break and have lunch." Ben said as he closed his laptop.

"Can we have a picnic today?" JD asked hopefully.

Ben seemed to be about to agree, then thought better of it.

"I think that before we make any plans, I should call Mr. Cooper at the home and let him know that you're able to talk." Ben said reluctantly.

"I should still be able to talk on Thursday. I can just tell him then." JD said simply.

Ben smiled, but said, "I really need to call him, now. In fact, he's probably going to be upset with me for not calling him as soon as you spoke."

"I won't tell him, if you don't want me to." JD said frankly.

"It's important that you're always honest with Mr. Cooper. He's your psychologist, and it's his job to help you figure things out. If you don't tell him the truth, or if you hold back from telling him things, then he may do the wrong things to try and help you, because he doesn't have good information on which to base his decisions." Ben said seriously.

JD thought about Ben's words and finally nodded his agreement.

* * * * *

Ben found Ron's business card and dialed the number as JD watched him carefully.

"Ron Cooper." Ron answered quickly.

"Hi, Ron, this is Ben Stone. Is this a good time?" Ben asked cautiously, caught off guard by Ron's abrupt greeting.

"There's no such thing today." Ron said in a weary voice, then continued, "What can I do for you, Ben?"

"Are you sitting down?" Ben asked slowly.

"Just tell me." Ron whimpered.

"Friday night we took JD downtown to do some window shopping." Ben said carefully.

"Oh, no. How bad was his reaction?" Ron asked, obviously bracing himself to receive bad news.

"Actually, I would have to say that he did pretty well, until... we ran into his mother." Ben said reluctantly.

There was a moment of silence before Ron finally asked, "How is he?"

"I don't really know what happened, or why. But I guess the shock of seeing her snapped him out of whatever it was that kept him from talking." Ben said frankly.

Another moment of silence fell as Ron digested the statement.

Finally Ben added, "JD can talk."

"WHAT?!" Ron barked.

Ben took the phone away from his ear for a moment, then carefully brought it closer as he said, "Since the encounter with his mother, JD's been able to talk normally."

"You need to bring him down here right away! I need to..." Ron said before drifting away.

"When do you want us to be there?" Ben asked cautiously.

"Wait. I'm booked solid today. Thanksgiving was really rough on the kids this year. I'm up to my ears in depressed children. I want to be able to sit down with JD and have a long talk with him, but the earliest I could do that is... well, I'll have to stay late." Ron said regretfully.

Ben thought for a moment, then smiled as he had an idea.

"What would you think about coming over here for dinner when you get off work?" Ben asked hopefully. "That way you could talk with JD as much as you want and you can also get a good home cooked meal."

After a long moment of silence, Ron said, "A home cooked meal sounds really, REALLY nice."

"Great! Then just come right over as soon as you get off work and we'll be expecting you." Ben said happily.

"I don't get through until five; That's not going to be a problem for you, is it?" Ron asked cautiously.

"Not at all. That's when Cliff gets off, too. So it's not going to be any inconvenience at all." Ben said honestly, then thought to ask, "Do you need directions?"

"No. I'm familiar with the area. I'll be there just as soon as I'm finished here." Ron said in a voice that sounded like he was smiling, then Ben noticed a low sound in the background.

As he listened more carefully, he realized that it was the sound of someone crying.

"I've got to go. I'll see you in a few hours." Ron said quickly.

"Yeah. We'll see you then." Ben said sympathetically.

* * * * *

"Hi, Brynna, is Cliff available to talk?" Ben asked hopefully.

"He's in with a patient right now. I'd guess he'll be in there for about five more minutes." Brynna said frankly.

"Would you just let him know that we're going to have company coming over for dinner tonight? I don't want him to be surprised." Ben said honestly.

"Yeah. I'll tell him." Brynna said distractedly, then added, "Gotta go. Madhouse."

"Bye." Ben said with a chuckle, then hung up the phone.

* * * * *

"Instead of a picnic, how would you feel about a trip to McDonalds?" Ben asked JD with a smile. "I can carry you in to get our order, then we can eat at one of the tables outside... that's kind of like a picnic, isn't it?"

JD looked uncertain.

"After McDonalds, we could go to the store and get something nice for dinner since Mr. Cooper is coming over." Ben added carefully.

Finally, JD reluctantly nodded.

"We can get you extra French fries." Ben said in a wheedling tone.

Slowly, JD broke into a smile and nodded in earnest.

* * * * *

The McDonald's visit went off without a hitch, and the trip to the store was actually kind of pleasant since JD was able to give his opinion on the food choices. Together they decided on what would be a very nice dinner for Ron's visit.

Ben noticed an uncharacteristic sadness in Zeb's eyes as he worked, ringing up the customers in front of them.

"Do you work ALL the time?" Ben asked playfully as he and JD finally made it to the front of the line.

"It seems that way sometimes. But it looks good on the paycheck, so I don't complain." Zeb said with an honest smile as he automatically turned off his light. Then he asked, "How are you doing today, JD?"

"I'm good." JD said with a cheerful smile.

Zeb's eyes went wide, then he looked at Ben with question. He stood staring for just a moment, then seemed to realize where he was and started to ring up their groceries again.

"It's a long story, but you already know the best part." Ben said with a loving look at the boy in his arms.

"This is wonderful! I'm really happy for you." Zeb said with a broad smile, then said to JD, "It's great to be able to talk with you."

JD shyly buried his face into Ben's chest.

Ben chuckled at the action, then said, "He's not quite a chatterbox, yet, but we're working on it."

"$56.20." Zeb said as he bagged the last of their groceries.

Ben swiped his debit card, then as soon as he had his receipt in hand, he followed Zeb to the door.

* * * * *

"How are things with you, Zeb?" Ben asked curiously, getting a sense that all was not well from his expression earlier.

"I'm having some problems." Zeb said evasively, then quietly added, "I'll figure it out."

"Why don't you come over to dinner tonight and we can talk about it. Sometimes an outside point of view helps." Ben said frankly as they walked across the parking lot.

"I wish I could, but I just started work a few minutes ago. I won't be getting off until nine tonight." Zeb said unenthusiastically.

"What about tomorrow?" Ben asked curiously as he opened the trunk of his car.

"Yeah. I'm working early tomorrow, so I could make it. When do you want me to be there?" Zeb asked with a smile as he automatically loaded the groceries into the trunk.

"Well, dinner will be around 5:30 or 6:00, but if you showed up early, we could talk for a while first." Ben said casually.

Zeb's smile became one of fondness as he said, "Yeah. That sounds nice. Thanks, Ben."

"We'll see you then." Ben said happily as he closed the trunk.

"I'll see you tomorrow, JD." Zeb said as he waved.

JD enthusiastically waved in return.

* * * * *

After bringing in the groceries, Ben noticed that there was a message waiting for him on the answering machine.

"Dr. Grant, this is Detective Carson, we spoke Friday night. I just wanted to let you know that you can rest easy, we have Ms. Delaney in custody. We'll get back with you if we need a further statement after we've questioned her. Have a good day." The woman's voice said professionally.

"Did you hear that?" Ben asked over his shoulder.

"I hope they can help her." JD said quietly.

"I'm sure they will." Ben said as he walked over to pull JD into a hug.

"She hurt me so much... shouldn't I hate her?" JD asked quietly.

"No." Ben said gently as he squatted to be closer to JD's eye level. "If you did hate her, I'd be doing everything I could to make you see that she's mentally ill and not responsible for her actions. What you're feeling is just right and I'm very proud of you."

JD slowly moved in to give Ben a hug.

Ben returned the hug, then stood with JD still in his arms.

"As much as I would love to spend the entire afternoon hugging you, we need to get cooking if we're going to have the fancy dinner that you planned." Ben said gently.

"I just said that we should have shrimp." JD objected.

"And that you know how to make breaded fish fillets." Ben said with a smile.

"I do!" JD said quickly.

"And that with fish, that we would NEED to have French fries." Ben chuckled.

"Well, you can't have a fish dinner without chips." JD said frankly.

"And, of course, fish and chips absolutely has to have coleslaw, real home made coleslaw, to go with it,." Ben said warmly.

"Do you think we should have something else?" JD asked curiously.

"No. I'm not disagreeing with your choices, I'm just saying that you chose everything that we're having for dinner tonight. You planned the meal." Ben said frankly.

JD thought for a moment, then shyly giggled as he said, "Yeah. I guess I did."

"It sounds like a great meal to me, and besides, I think your Pappa will be very happy to find out that we're having something besides leftover turkey." Ben said with a smile.

JD giggled again and nodded.

"Let's get started. We've got quite a bit to do." Ben said as he carried JD into the kitchen.

* * * * *

"How are my two favorite people in the world doing today?" Cliff asked as he walked into the kitchen.

"Pappa!" JD said joyfully as he ran to Cliff with his arms thrust into the air.

"How's my little Spider?" Cliff asked as he picked up the boy and gave him a firm hug.

"Daddy read some of my story and really liked it and we went to the store and saw Zeb and then we came home and we're making dinner and I think you're really gonna like it." JD said as he hugged Cliff tightly.

Ben noticed the tears of joy welled in Cliff's eyes. He was too choked up to do more than smile at his partner and share a loving gaze.

After a long moment of cuddling, JD kissed Cliff on the cheek, then released his hug, signalling that he was ready to be let down.

"Brynna said that you called and said that we were going to have a dinner guest. Can I assume that Zeb is going to be joining us tonight?" Cliff asked as he lowered JD to the floor.

"We invited him, but he had to work." Ben said as he peeked into the oven. He then added, "I called Ron and let him know about JD's progress. He really wanted to talk to JD, but was booked solid, so I invited him to dinner so that they could talk."

"Are we having fish?" Cliff asked as he looked around.

"Yes. I hope that's alright." Ben said as he turned away from the stove.

"That's perfect!" Cliff said with a smile. "What would you think about the Vinho Verde to go with it?"

Ben considered for a moment, then said, "Yeah. That sounds really nice."

Cliff leaned in to give Ben a quick but firm kiss, then hurried off to their small wine storage area in the basement.

* * * * *

When the doorbell rang, JD and Ben looked up in unison.

"Do you want to greet our guest? He's here to see you, after all." Ben said gently.

JD hopped down off his chair at the island, then ran to answer the door, calling, "I got it!" as he went.

As Cliff walked up the basement stairs, he said, "I never imagined that life could be so wonderful."

Ben smiled at the words as he nodded.

* * * * *

Ron glanced around at the neatly kept lawn as he waited for the door to be answered.

"Hi, Mr. Cooper." JD said with a broad smile as he opened the front door.

"Hello, JD." Ron said in a somewhat shocked voice.

Although he had intellectually known that JD could speak, he still hadn't been fully prepared to hear his voice.

Before he could react, JD said, "Please, come in."

"Thank you." Ron said in a hesitant voice as he watched JD carefully.

As soon as Ron was inside, JD closed the door and said, "Daddy and Pappa are in the kitchen."

"How are you doing, JD?" Ron asked as he looked at the boy with concern.

JD smiled at him and said, "I'm really good."

Ron looked carefully at JD's expression, trying to put his finger on what seemed to be different about him.

"Come on." JD urged as he offered Ron his gloved hand.

With a smile, Ron accepted the boy's hand and allowed himself to be led into the kitchen.

* * * * *

"How are you doing, Ron? Did you have any trouble finding the place?" Cliff asked as Ron and JD walked into the kitchen.

"No problem at all. Thank you for inviting me." Ron said as he looked around.

"We should have done it sooner." Ben said frankly.

"Can I get you anything to drink?" Cliff asked as he watched JD walk to the island and climb onto a chair.

Ron followed Cliff's gaze, then absently said, "No, thank you. I'm fine."

"The fish is just about ready, how's that coleslaw coming?" Ben asked as he peeked into the oven again.

"Almost done." JD said as he stirred a lemon colored mixture in a bowl.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Cliff asked curiously.

"I think we've got it covered. We should be ready to sit down to dinner in just a few minutes." Ben said frankly.

"I'll pour the wine, then." Cliff said, then turned to Ron and asked, "I hope you don't mind a little wine with dinner."

"No. I don't mind at all." Ron said as he watched what JD was doing.

* * * * *

JD scooted his chair over to the sink, then took off his gloves and rolled up his sleeves to the elbow before thoroughly washing his hands.

Ron watched curiously, noticing that JD didn't seem to be at all anxious about his exposed skin as he scooted the chair back over to the island.

JD noticed Ron watching him and said, "This is the really gooey part."

Ron didn't understand what he meant, but when JD started to pour the thick lemon colored mixture into a large bowl of cabbage Ron got the idea.

JD scraped the last of the slimy mixture out of the mixing bowl with the side of his hand, then dived in with both hands, half-way up to his elbows, to mix the cabbage and dressing to make coleslaw.

"Yep. That's how you do it." Ben said with a grin as he paused to watch JD mixing the large bowl of slaw.

"Are the chips done?" JD asked without slowing his mixing effort.

Ben peeked into the oven, then said, "About a minute left."

* * * * *

JD pulled his hands out of the coleslaw, then looked at the sink, seemingly unsure of how to get over there to wash his hands without making a mess.

"Could you use some help?" Ron asked as he stepped forward.

"Yeah." JD said with a shy giggle.

Ron picked JD up off the chair and quickly carried him over and sat him on the countertop by the sink.

"Thanks." JD said as he began to wash his hands.

"JD, when you're done washing up, would you take Mr. Cooper into the dining room?" Ben asked as he pulled first one, then another cookie sheet out of the oven.

"Yeah." JD said happily as he dried his hands on a dishtowel.

Ron noticed that JD rolled down his sleeves and put on his gloves before hopping down off the kitchen counter.

"Come on. It's in here." JD said as he offered his gloved hand to Ron to guide him.

* * * * *

"We don't stand on ceremony here, just dig in. We have plenty." Cliff said as he began to fill his plate.

"This looks really good." Ron said in an impressed voice, then added, "When you said a home cooked meal, I imagined... well, not this, anyway."

Cliff chuckled, then said, "Ben and JD tend to take 'home cooking' to a whole new level. Both of them are really excellent chefs."

"In fact, JD is the one who planned out the meal. So I was his assistant chef." Ben said as he looked at JD with pride.

"Everything looks great." Ron said honestly, then took a bite of his fish.

"JD made most of it. I just tended it once it was cooking." Ben said honestly.

"Except the chips. I was gonna deep fry them." JD said frankly.

"I think they're healthier when they're oven fried." Ben said simply.

"I don't know about healthy, but they're good." JD said with a smile, then took a bite of one of the thick cut french fries.

"This fish is fantastic!" Ron said in amazement.

"That's JD's breading." Ben said with a nod.

Ron savored the taste of the fish for a moment, then took a sip of his wine.

Cliff smiled at the curious look that came over Ron's face as he sniffed the wine, then took another tentative sip.

"That's a Portuguese wine called Vinho Verde." Ben said informatively.

"I never could find a good wine to go with fish, then Ben introduced me to this." Cliff said as he raised his glass.

"I would've picked beer." JD said frankly.

Everyone looked at JD with surprise at the statement.

JD noticed their surprised looks and timidly added, "To go with this kind of a meal."

After a moment, Ron nodded thoughtfully and said, "A nice dark beer would go well with this."

JD smiled at the fact that Ron had taken his opinion seriously.

"We really appreciate you coming all the way out here to talk with JD after the long day you've had." Ben said honestly.

"It's no problem. When one of the kids is hurting, it really tears me up inside. I've been told my entire career that you're not supposed to get personally involved with the clients... but I just can't be that way. I can't help it. I care what happens to them. Coming out here and seeing JD doing so well has made the whole day worth it." Ron finished with a smile at JD.

"Well, when we're finished with dinner, you and JD can sit down and talk about things. I'm sure you have a few questions for him." Cliff said to Ron, but was watching JD's reaction carefully.

"I think my first objective will be to find out what triggered JD's remarkable recovery. I'm sure knowing that will help us progress most effectively." Ron said thoughtfully.

"Before, it's like I was just a thing that had to be put somewhere that someone had to take care of. When Daddy and Pappa showed up and said that they wanted me, that's what made the difference." JD said introspectively. Then he looked up and quietly added, "For the first time since I woke up in the hospital, I wanted to get better."

Ron stared at JD with surprise.

Cliff noticed and playfully asked, "Do you have any other objectives? It looks like we could breeze through them tonight."

Ron smiled, then said, "No. I think we'll be talking about this objective a little bit more before we're finished."

"Do you like banana cream pie?" JD asked Ron quickly.

Ron looked at him curiously, mostly due to the abrupt change in topic, before answering, "Yes, I do. Very much."

"Good. That's what I bought for dessert and JD was worried that you might not like it." Ben said with a smile at JD.

"I like just about anything... except my own cooking." Ron finished sheepishly.

"Is that why you were so excited about a home cooked meal?" Ben asked curiously.

Ron slowly nodded, then said, "I live alone, so it's not really worth it for me to cook very much. I have mostly microwavable things and I eat out a lot."

"I remember how that is." Cliff said frankly.

"What did you do for Thanksgiving?" Ben asked curiously.

"I volunteered to work at the home so the staff with families could take the day off." Ron said uncomfortably.

"So you don't have any family?" Cliff asked curiously.

"My parents died when I was ten." Ron said slowly, then quietly added, "I spent my teenage years being shuffled from one foster home to another. When I was about fourteen, I was sent to see a counselor for depression. He helped me in a lot of ways. I guess that's why I ended up deciding to be a counselor."

"I'm glad you were able to find someone who cared." Cliff said sincerely.

"It was dumb luck, really." Ron said distantly. "Like JD, until I met Dave, I didn't really care if I felt better or not. I saw myself as being of less value, less than a real person. Finding a person who cares is what makes all the difference."

After a long silent moment, Ben said, "I think it may be more than that."

Ron looked at him curiously.

"You cared for JD. It was obvious from the way that you called to check on him in the mornings before you started work." Ben said thoughtfully.

"He did?" JD asked with surprise.

"Yes. Ron's been calling every few days to see how you're doing." Ben said with a tender smile at the boy, then to the rest of the group, he continued, "But I think what made the difference for JD was to know that he was wanted. It wasn't just to know that we cared or were worried about his well being, but that we actually wanted him to be a part of our family."

JD got out of his chair and walked around the table to stand by Ron. After a moment of hesitation, JD put his arms around Ron and hugged him firmly.

"Thanks for caring about me. I thought you were just doing your job, like everyone else." JD said quietly.

Ron returned JD's hug with one arm and quietly responded, "I really do care about you, JD. So remember that if you ever need to talk about anything."

JD nodded as he renewed his hug with Ron.

"If everyone has had their fill of dinner, how about we have our coffee and dessert in the living room?" Ben asked with a tender smile at the scene before him.

JD released Ron from the hug and hurried to his place at the table and began gathering dishes.

"Leave that for now and we'll take care of it later." Ben said gently, then added, "Would you like to show Ron into the living room?"

"Can I show Mr. Cooper my room first?" JD asked hopefully.

"I think that's a great idea." Ben said happily, then added, "I'll meet you in the living room just as soon as the coffee's finished."

"C'mon, Mr. Cooper. Daddy and Pappa bought me some really great toys!" JD said as he took Ron's hand to draw him away.

Ben and Cliff shared a smile as they got up from the dining room table to walk together into the kitchen.

* * * * *

Ben was just setting out the coffee and plates of pie when Ron and JD walked into the living room.

"Are we expecting an emergency?" Cliff asked playfully when he noticed that Ron was carrying JD's firetruck.

"It's always best to be prepared." Ron responded with a smile as he glanced at the boy beside him.

"I was showing Mr. Cooper my toys and he said that we could play while we talk if I wanted." JD said happily as he hugged his yellow dump truck tightly.

"Well, if it's okay with you guys, we can have our dessert now, then Cliff and I can go do the dishes and give you two a chance to talk privately." Ben said as he tried to restrain his loving smile at JD.

"Yeah! I've been wanting some of that pie since before we left the store!" JD said frankly.

All the adults shared an amused look at the boy's words.

* * * * *

Ben and Cliff cleared the table and took care of the dishes in virtual silence.

Once their chores were done, they took seats at the kitchen table and watched the doorway with concern.

A few times while they waited, either Ben or Cliff would seem to be about to say something, but in the end, silence reigned.

Both men looked up in unison as Ron walked into the kitchen.

"May I?" Ron asked as he indicated a chair.

"Please do." Ben said immediately.

"JD said that he'd wait in the living room while I spoke with you." Ron said as he took his seat, then chuckled slightly as he said, "I just can't believe how relaxed that JD is here, with you two. It's like seeing a completely different child than the one I saw at the home."

"So, in your professional opinion, how is he?" Cliff asked apprehensively.

Ron considered for a moment, then responded, "When I arrived, JD was the perfect host when he invited me into your home. Then I got to see him participating in family activities, by that, I mean his cooking. At dinner I witnessed him engaging in conversation as an equal participant. Then, after dessert in the living room, I was able to observe JD's method of play, which was joyful and perfectly normal for a boy of his age."

Cliff and Ben waited in equal breathless states for Ron's conclusion.

"Based on those observations, to which you were also witness, I think I can safely say that JD seems to be functioning in a very positive and healthy way." Ron said seriously, then concluded with a smile.

"I sense a 'but' about to be dropped on us." Cliff said hesitantly.

Ron regretfully nodded and said, "But... when you consider all that JD has been through and the remarkable recovery he appears to have made, I think it's safe to assume that he's going to have ongoing issues; his fear of women, for example."

Cliff slowly nodded his agreement.

"But, I think that the longer JD lives in this environment of safety and security, the better he'll be able to work through his problems when they do eventually surface." Ron said carefully.

"Is there anything that you recommend that we should do, or not do, to help JD?" Ben asked cautiously.

"No. Whatever you're doing seems to be working just fine." Ron said seriously, then added, "Just a word of warning, though."

Ben and Cliff both looked at him anxiously, hanging on his every word.

"Don't let the events in his past and his fragile state become the most important things in your lives." Ron said as he looked from man to man. "I'm not saying that you'd do that, but sometimes parents, especially new ones, have a tendency to focus on an obstacle to the exclusion of all else. Acknowledge it, make allowances for it when you need to, but don't let it become the fulcrum of your family dynamic."

Ben and Cliff both slowly nodded that they understood what Ron was saying.

"I haven't really had a chance to sit down with both of you at once before; do you have any questions for me?" Ron asked curiously.

"Well..." Ben said, then looked at Cliff apprehensively for a moment before continuing, "We haven't discussed this in any detail, but, I'm pretty sure we feel the same way about it."

"Would you like for me to give you a minute?" Ron asked cautiously.

"No. I guess I just need to say it." Ben said nervously, "In your personal and professional opinion, what would you think about us adopting JD?"

Ron noticed that the look of surprise on Cliff's face melted into pure love.

After a moment to consider his words carefully, Ron slowly said, "Personally, and speaking as an orphan who grew up in the system, I'd have to say that the whole idea of being adopted is like a dream come true. However, speaking professionally, I've seen the adoption process turn the dream into an absolute nightmare."

Cliff and Ben both waited for Ron to explain.

"I'm going to give it to you in a nutshell, since JD's waiting on us." Ron said in prelude. "Although I would certainly support you and I believe that Mrs. Usher would also, it's likely that CPS would recommend against your adoption without ever saying that it's because you're a gay couple. And if Senator Johnston has his way, CPS won't even have a say in it."

"Leaving that aside, these things can drag out for months or years. During that time, JD would have to go through interviews with multiple doctors, psychologists, case workers and the like; many of them women. I really don't want to discourage you, but please think very carefully before you take this step. Even the strongest and most stable families can be severely impacted by the financial and legal burdens of adoption."

"I didn't realize that there was so much involved." Ben said distantly.

"When it comes to adoption, it's never simple. But I think that in your case, you'll really need to do a cost/benefit analysis before you make any decisions. Talk to a good lawyer..." Ron said, then looked upward as he asked, "Is that an oxymoron?"

Cliff and Ben smiled at the question.

"Anyway, my advice is to talk to a lawyer, maybe talk to a few parents who have been through the process, and ask a lot of questions. If you decide to do it, go in with your eyes open, armed with knowledge and realistic expectations." Ron said seriously.

"But if we do decide to do this, could JD handle it?" Ben asked cautiously.

"I can promise you that it won't be easy for him, but to get him adopted... I feel safe saying that whatever you have to go through, he'll tell you that it's worth it." Ron finished gently. "If you choose to do this, we'll find a way to get him through it."

"I think you've given us a lot to think about." Cliff said quietly. "I'm going to do like you said and start talking to people."

"Remember that JD needs time to adjust to his new home and adapt to having a sense of security." Ron said seriously, "There's no rush to get this done."

Ben and Cliff both nodded their understanding.

"I'm going to go in and say 'goodbye' to JD." Ron said as he stood, then playfully added, "I need to be going, I can't be out late on a school night."

"Thanks for coming by to check on JD." Ben said as he and Cliff walked with Ron to the door.

"I couldn't help it. I love that kid." Ron said, then walked into the living room.

* * * * *

After Ron left, Cliff and Ben decided to spend some time with JD to make sure that Ron's visit hadn't bothered him.

JD was happily playing with his dump truck and fire truck, then stopped and looked over his shoulder and found his parents watching him.

"Is something wrong?" JD asked cautiously.

"No. Everything's fine." Ben said gently, then patted the cushion beside him and said, "Why don't you come over here and sit with us for a minute?"

JD looked from Ben to Cliff, then slowly walked to take a seat on the couch between them.

After a moment, JD hesitantly asked, "Did I say something wrong to Mr. Cooper? I did just what you said and told him the truth."

"No. That's exactly what you were supposed to do." Ben said gently. "And Ron didn't talk to us about what you told him. He's your counselor, he won't tell us anything that you said."

"We just wanted to make sure that your talk with Mr. Cooper didn't bother you." Cliff said seriously. "I think you know that you can talk to us at any time, but we wanted to sit down with you now in case anything is bothering you."

JD thought for a moment, then looked from Ben to Cliff before shaking his head.

"Good enough." Cliff said with a chuckle and pulled JD in for a quick hug.

"I think we've had enough seriousness for tonight. It's still a while before bed. What do you feel like doing?" Ben asked as he enjoyed the sight of Cliff holding JD so tenderly.

"I think I'd like to read my story again so I can get ready to start on my next one." JD said as he snuggled into Cliff's side.

"You know, I think I've had enough processing time. I'm ready to read some more." Ben said gently.

"Well, if it won't distract you too badly, I've had a really tough day and I'd like to veg out in front of the TV for a while." Cliff said frankly.

"That sounds perfect." Ben said with a loving smile as he started to stand.

"Yeah. I like it when we're all together." JD said as he also stood.

"I'll get our laptops." Ben said as he started walking toward the door.

"Thanks, Daddy. I'm gonna get Pappa a beer." JD said as he headed toward the kitchen.

Cliff watched his two favorite people in the world walk out of the room, then picked up the remote.

* * * * *

The next day seemed somewhat unusual in it's absolute normalcy.

Ben woke early and was already working on the outline for his next book when JD scuffed into his bedroom.

Before long, JD was sitting at the desk, working on his own story.

They were both so caught up in their writing that Ben almost forgot that Zeb was coming over for dinner.

When he reminded JD, they decided to put their heads together and come up with a really special meal for their friend.

* * * * *

The sound of the doorbell ringing caused Ben and JD to look up in unison.

"That should be Zeb, do you want to get it?" Ben asked from the stove.

"Yeah. The salad is done." JD said happily as he hopped down from the chair.

As JD hurried to answer the door, Ben walked to the island to see JD's latest vegetable masterpiece.

He shook his head as he returned to the stove. JD had once again taken a simple salad and made it into a work of art.

After tasting the soup he was making, he heard JD leading Zeb into the kitchen.

"Thanks for inviting me over to dinner. I didn't want to show up empty handed, so I brought a peanut butter cake, I hope that's okay." Zeb said hesitantly.

"That's perfect. All I had was the last few pieces of pie from Thanksgiving. Thanks to you, everyone is going to be able to have dessert tonight." Ben said happily as he accepted the chocolate iced cake.

Zeb smiled at the fact that his contribution to the meal was appreciated.

"Have a seat at the table. Cliff won't be home for a little bit and this soup needs to cook for a while." Ben said as he tidied things up.

"It sure smells good." Zeb said as he took his seat.

"I hope you like it. I haven't made this soup since college, but it was always one of my favorites." Ben said as he walked to the table to take a seat.

"Wow. You went to college." Zeb said in wonder. "I can't even imagine what that must have been like."

"I think it's a different experience for everyone. It was a really important time in my life. It was thanks to my time in college that I was able to take a look at myself and discover who I really am." Ben said distantly.

"Do you mean that that's when you figured out that you were gay?" Zeb asked cautiously.

"Not exactly." Ben said with a smile. "I knew that I was gay before college, but I had never really accepted it. I guess what it boils down to is that I looked at all the pieces of my life and figured out how they fit together. My being gay was one of those pieces, but there were also several others."

"That sounds like something I could use." Zeb said quietly.

"The good news is that a college isn't required for you to do something like that. Just some time and some determination is all it takes... and having a few friends doesn't hurt." Ben finished with a smile.

Zeb nodded that he had heard.

"What's bothering you, Zeb?" Ben asked with concern.

"It's really nothing. It's just this guy, at work, named Rex. He's usually working about the same time that I am and he's always picking on me and embarrassing me." Zeb said darkly.

"How are my two favorite people in the world today?" Cliff called out as he walked into the kitchen.

"Pappa!" JD crowed as he ran to hug Cliff.

"We're doing fine. Come in and sit down. Zeb was just telling us about a problem that he's having at work." Ben said as he stood and gave Cliff a quick peck of a kiss.

"Yeah. There's this guy named Rex and he's a real asshole." JD said frankly.

Ben hid his smile and turned away to keep from laughing.

After a moment to collect himself, Cliff gently said, "I'd prefer it if you didn't use that word. It makes you sound like a gutter punk."

JD thought for a moment, then said, "Okay."

Cliff gave JD a quick kiss, then put him down so he could take his seat at the table.

"Zeb was just saying that this Rex person was picking on him and intentionally embarrassing him." Ben said, still smiling a little at JD's antics.

"He just says and does things to humiliate me, usually in front of everyone when we're in the break room." Zeb explained.

After a moment of thought, Cliff quietly said, "Zeb, would you please take off your shirt?"

Zeb looked at him curiously for a moment, but finally complied; his pale skin giving testament to his modesty.

"I think that's why Rex is giving you trouble. He could never do what you just did." Cliff said seriously.

"He can't take off his shirt?" Zeb asked incredulously.

"You didn't ask for me to explain. You trusted me to know what I was talking about. I think Rex looks at you and sees something that he can never be and it's eating him alive." Cliff said frankly.

"What does he see?" Zeb asked cautiously and seemed to be afraid of the answer.

"That you're innocent, trusting and a genuinely good person." Cliff said simply.

"Most people at work treat me like I'm a stupid kid. But the way you say it, it sounds like a good thing." Zeb said uncertainly.

"It is. I think that your parents must have raised you right, with strong values, for you to turn out to be such an upstanding person." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"But, they taught me that homosexuals are sinners that are condemned to hell." Zeb said anxiously.

"So maybe they weren't right about every single thing that they believed. That doesn't mean that they weren't right about anything." Cliff said frankly.

Zeb contemplated the words as Ben, Cliff and JD watched silently. Finally he seemed to remember where he was.

"You can put your shirt back on." Ben said quietly.

"Oh, yeah." Zeb said and scrambled to pull on his shirt.

"So, I don't know what to tell you about Rex, but maybe understanding why he's such an asshole will make it easier for you to deal with him." Cliff said frankly, then winked at JD, eliciting a giggle from the boy.

"I really think it will. It'll make it easier to ignore his insults knowing that he's being that way because of something that's wrong with him, not something wrong with me." Zeb said thoughtfully.

"Yes. That's a great way of looking at it." Ben said happily, then announced. "And if my assistant chef is ready, dinner is served."

"Do you want us to go into the dining room?" Cliff asked curiously.

"No. Stay right where you are." Ben said as he walked to the stove.

* * * * *

"I give up. What is it?" Cliff asked after his second spoon of soup.

"Tortilla soup." Ben said with a grin.

"It's wonderful." Cliff said with a smile.

"Daddy showed me how to make it." JD said happily.

"It really is good. Is it hard to make?" Zeb asked curiously.

"No. It's real easy." JD answered before Ben could reply. "If you want, I can make a copy of Daddy's recipe for you."

"I've been meaning to ask." Ben said thoughtfully, as he looked at JD, "Most kids your age can't read more than a few simple words. Where did you learn to read so well?"

"In the hospital." JD said simply. "Since I didn't talk and didn't like TV, some of the nurses and some of the other kids helped me learn how to read. Then, once I knew how to read a little, I started reading all the time; all day, every day."

"I seem to recall Ron saying that you were in the hospital for over a year, is that right?" Cliff asked curiously.

JD shrugged and said, "Ten days or a thousand, there's no difference when they're all exactly the same."

"I guess being in the hospital, there wasn't much to mark the time." Ben said distantly.

JD shook his head, then turned his attention back to his meal.

"This salad is great. Did you make it, JD?" Zeb asked with a smile.

"Yeah. When Daddy said that he was gonna make Tortilla Soup, I decided to make a Mexican Salad. Lock taught me how to make it." JD said happily.

"Well, it's great." Zeb said as he smiled at JD.

* * * * *

"I know you've probably told this story a lot already, but how did you start talking again?" Zeb asked curiously as they ate.

"I did it because of you." JD said simply.

Ben and Cliff shared a curious look at JD's statement.

"What did I do?" Zeb asked hesitantly.

"Well, a bunch of stuff happened a long time ago, and because of it, when I woke up in the hospital, I couldn't talk. Daddy and Pappa loved me anyway, but no matter how much I tried, I just couldn't figure out how to make words again. Then on Friday, Daddy and Pappa took me downtown to do some shopping and, um... stuff happened and I was scared. All I would have had to do was squeeze Pappa and he would've brought me home. But instead, I remembered what you told me about doing stuff even when you're scared of it. Because I didn't give into it and chicken out, now I can talk." JD finished with a smile of accomplishment.

"I'm glad it helped." Zeb said weakly as he looked at Ben and Cliff curiously.

"I was there and saw the whole thing and I doubt that I could have explained it any better." Ben said with a chuckle.

Cliff looked around the table and noticed that everyone was just about finished with their meal. "JD, why don't you take Zeb into the living room while your Daddy and I clear the table. We'll be in in just a minute."

"Okay, Pappa." JD said happily as he got up from his chair.

* * * * *

"Do you like to read?" JD asked as he walked with Zeb into the living room.

"Not really. My parents used to make me read things all the time. Now that I don't live with them anymore, it's nice not to have to." Zeb said timidly.

"Sometimes Pappa likes to watch TV when he gets home from work. I don't watch TV, but Pappa could probably show you where the really good TV shows are, if you asked him." JD said happily.

"Why don't you like to watch TV?" Zeb asked curiously.

As he was asking the question, Cliff and Ben walked into the living room.

JD thought about the question for a moment, then walked out of the room.

"Did I upset him?" Zeb asked quietly.

"I don't think so." Ben said as he glanced down the hallway to see what JD was doing.

A moment later, JD walked into the living room with a book.

"When you remember stuff, you remember it like it was written down, like in this book. Okay?" JD asked uncertainly.

"Um, yeah. Sure. I guess." Zeb said hesitantly.

"Well, for me, it's like all the pages fell out of the book. And when they were put back in, some of the pages are missing and the rest didn't get put back in the right place." JD said slowly.

"I don't understand." Zeb said apologetically.

"I was telling you that Lock taught me how to make a Mexican Salad. I can't remember when that happened, I mean, what happened before it and what happened next. I remember things, but they don't fit together." JD said with frustration.

"So why does that make you not want to watch TV?" Zeb asked curiously.

Cliff and Ben were standing silently, waiting for JD's answer.

"When you watch TV, the scenes change. You're watching one thing, then it flips over to another thing, then back to the first thing, then there are commercials and it makes me feel like I do when I'm trying to remember. It feels really bad and scary, so I don't like to look at the TV very much." JD said honestly, then looked at his parents and softly added, "I really wanted to watch movies with you. But I just couldn't make myself do it."

"That's okay, son. We're not upset that you didn't watch TV with us. If we knew that it bothered you, we wouldn't have even asked." Cliff said as he moved forward and pulled JD into his arms.

"I like that you asked. It's nice to be wanted. I'm just sorry that I can't be like other kids." JD said, then hugged Cliff tightly.

"You can do things that other kids your age haven't even thought of. So don't think for one minute that you're less than them because you can't watch TV. Besides, they call it the 'idiot box' for a reason." Cliff finished with a chuckle.

"Zeb, would you help me with the dessert? I think these guys could use a minute." Ben asked with a smile.

"Sure, Ben." Zeb said with a matching smile as he followed.

* * * * *

After Zeb left and JD had gone through his nightly bath routine, Cliff and Ben stood in JD's doorway and watched by the light from the hallway as JD slept.

Both men were emotionally raw after the events of the past few days, and yet, given the choice, neither would change a single thing that had happened.

"He's happy. He's healthy. And even though Ron said that he's going to have challenges to face, I have a feeling that the worst is behind us." Ben said as he held close to Cliff's side.

"It looks like it's going to be smooth sailing from here on out." Cliff said as he returned Ben's hug.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

Those are three of my favourite words to see, at the end of a chapter that I really enjoyed.

In fact, with a MultiMapper story, I am always hoping to see those words, once we get to the end of a chapter.

I think there should be some sort of law that says that MultiMapper isn't allowed to write a one chapter story.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher
Guest Reader's Notes:

Wonderful chapter. Having answered all but one question, I was relieved to see, 'To Be Continued,' and not, 'The End.'

MultiMapper may not think he is an Evil Author, but, 'it's going to be smooth sailing from here on out,' is a cliff hanger of epic proportions!

Str8mayb aka THE Evil Author and Master of Misdirection
Other Guest Reader's Notes:

I agree with Str8Mayb -- it *is* a great chapter, and one I really want to see continue.

And his other point too. You know in TV or a movie, where they do what's called 'panning in for a two shot'? Two people are talking, and the camera view focuses in on the two of them so they pretty much fill the screen, and one delivers a line like the 'smooth sailing' one? And you just know that something is going to come zooming in from off camera to disrupt the scene? Yep. That's one heap big cliff hanger! (I wonder if their seafood dinner included calamari... "grin")

- 'D' of D&B