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Spider

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Chapter 14

Ben gasped as a sudden sense of panic startled him awake. There were a variety of things needing to be done and he couldn't help but feel that they might not be able to get them all done in time.

"Before you say it, I already know." Cliff said from beside him, with his eyes still closed.

"How long have you been awake?"

"I'm not sure if I ever went fully to sleep."

"Are you worried about accepting the responsibility of adopting Jody or is it the unorthodox way that the adoption is being done?"

Before Cliff could respond, Ben continued, "Or is it about some of the stuff that happened yesterday that you haven't told me about. Or do you think maybe he's too traumatized and that we might not be able to get him past all that was done to him?"

"E. All of the above." Cliff quietly admitted as he finally opened his eyes.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I think that I've already said everything that's important about the decision. If I chose not to do this, for whatever reason, I'd never be able to look at myself in the mirror again."

"So are you saying that even though it's really too soon for us to be making this decision, that this might be our only chance to do what's best for Jody?"

"That's the long and short of it."

"Well, if there's no other choice, then I guess that we'll just have to accept it and carry on."

"That's the plan for today. I don't know exactly what's going to happen, but we'll do everything in our power to make it so that Jody will end up being our son."

"What about JD? Isn't it going to look unfair to him that he was here first but Jody is getting adopted and he isn't?"

"As soon as we have Jody's situation settled, I'll get to work on legally adopting JD. Maybe already having an adopted son will make that easier."

"I wouldn't count on it. Remember what Ron told us about the adoption process."

"I know. But I can't imagine us going forward without doing everything in our power to adopt him. Even if it ends up taking years, we're going to do it, without a doubt."

"Then I guess that we'd better get started."

* * * * *

When Ben walked into the kitchen, he was only slightly surprised to see JD and Jody hard at work, making breakfast for the family.

"Did everyone have a good sleep?" Ben asked as he automatically gave JD a hug.

"Squid didn't wake up, even once last night." JD proudly announced.

"Good work, Squid! Give Daddy some sugar." Ben said as he moved to the island and scooped Jody up into a hug.

"Is Pappa going to have breakfast with us?" JD asked hopefully.

"He has some work to do on the computer right now, so that he'll be able to spend the rest of the day with us. But he'll come in and join us when breakfast is ready." Ben explained as he finished his hug with Jody and stood him back on his chair.

Ben then walked to the stove where JD had the electric skillet and griddle, side by side on the countertop by the stove and tried to get a sense of what he was doing.

"I'm about to start the eggs, so breakfast should be ready in about four minutes." JD said quickly, then looked toward Jody and added, "If the toast is done."

"I'm almost done with what you gave me." Jody said as he concentrated on his buttering.

Ben was certain that no toast before had ever been buttered with such dedication and determination.

"Well, if it's almost ready, I'll go get Cliff." Ben finally said with a tender smile as he started toward the door.

"Pappa needs his coffee!" JD announced in a warning tone.

"Of course. Thank you JD." Ben said with a grin as he altered his course toward the coffee maker.

* * * * *

"I can't remember why I ever settled for soggy cereal for breakfast. This is a great way to start the day." Cliff said as he took his seat at the table.

"Were you able to get everything done that you needed to?" Ben asked between bites of food.

"I've done all that I can from here. I'm sure that Raj and Brynna will be able to handle the rest. At least I didn't have many patients scheduled. I usually keep it light on Mondays to allow for extra walk-ins who were able to wait until after the weekend."

"So, what's the plan?"

"Plan? I thought you were coming up with the plan. I've just been busy getting the day off from work." Cliff said playfully, then winked at JD who was looking at him uncertainly.

"I think that since you're the one who knows all of what's going on, you'd probably better take care of it." Ben said with a grin.

"What's going on?" JD asked as he looked back and forth between his parents.

"We need to go to court in Gainesville." Cliff answered simply, then waited for JD's next question.

"Are you in trouble?"

"No. It's nothing like that. We just need to talk to the judge for a few minutes and ask him a question. Depending on his answer, he may decide to sign some paperwork for us. That's about it. Lot's of boring stuff, really." Cliff said with a nearly convincing smile.

"When Lock had to go talk to the judge, he went away and... I don't think I ever saw him again. I don't know... it's hard for me to remember which stuff happened first." JD said gravely and seemed to be struggling with his disorganized memories.

"This is a different judge and a different situation. The judge will probably just ask us a few questions and then hopefully sign some paperwork for us. That's about it." Cliff assured him.

"But before we do that, we're going to have to get you guys dressed up so that you'll be ready to meet the judge."

"Why?"

"To show respect for the judge and the court. It just lets him know that you're serious." Cliff answered with a confident smile.

"So that's why you got us new clothes yesterday?"

"You needed a few sets of nice clothes anyway, but we bought them yesterday so that you'd have them for court today." Ben explained.

"I was thinking that if we leave a little before ten, that we should have time to stop for lunch. And that gives us a little wiggle room if we run into traffic or construction or anything like that along the way." Cliff said seriously.

"Is your laptop all charged up?" Ben asked JD curiously.

"Yeah. I plugged it in before I went to bed."

Ben smiled at the reaction, then explained, "We're going to be driving for a couple hours, so I wanted to be sure that you'd be able to read or write, if you wanted to."

"But if I do that, won't Jody be bored?"

"If you notice that he's bored, maybe you could read to him."

"Can I take my Legos?" Jody asked hopefully.

"I don't think you'd have a place to set them up." Ben said with a desperate look at Cliff.

"Do we have any movies on DVD that Jody might enjoy?"

"I can think of a few. What did you have in mind?"

"We both have laptops with built-in DVD players. Since Jody enjoys watching television, that might be a good distraction for him."

"That's an excellent idea."

"Don't forget to bring headphones."

"I'll remember."

* * * * *

After a few calls to his office to assure himself that none of his patients were going to suffer due to his absence, Cliff walked into the living room to find Ben and the boys gathering what they were going to take with them.

Cliff stood wide eyed for a moment before asking, "Do I want to know what this is about?"

"Jody wanted to be dressed like JD. The turtleneck doesn't look bad with the jacket and he already agreed to take off the gloves before we go into court." Ben cheerfully explained.

Cliff looked from Jody to JD and back before saying, "Alright then, I guess we're ready to go."

* * * * *

The drive went more smoothly than one might expect with two young boys in the car.

The first few minutes were a little awkward, getting the laptop positioned so that Jody was comfortable.

The only challenge that they faced on their trip was to keep both the boys neat and clean until they reached the courthouse. In retrospect, the stop at the drive-thru just after arriving in Gainesville might not have been such a good idea, but it was lunchtime and the boys needed to eat. But taking the boys into court hungry was potentially worse.

They actually ended up arriving at the courthouse more than twenty minutes early, which worked out well since they had to pass through security with the boys. One of the security officers at the metal detector was kind enough to tell Cliff where Judge Hawkes courtroom was located, so there wasn't any further delay.

When they arrived in Judge Hawkes courtroom they found one of the double doors propped open, the court was apparently in recess for lunch. Cliff cautiously walked up to the only person in the courtroom, a uniformed police officer, and told her who he was.

"Yes. Judge Hawkes asked me to wait here for you. I'll let him know that you're here."

Before Cliff could respond, she hurried out of the room.

* * * * *

When the judge walked into the courtroom, every parental instinct that Cliff had screamed out.

The man was not happy.

"Who wants to tell me what's going on here?" The judge asked tersely as he took his customary seat behind his desk.

"Your Honor..." Cliff began to say, but was interrupted.

"Save the formality for open court. Get up here and tell me what you're expecting from me and why, because I don't care what the senator thinks I owe him. If I don't like your answer, it's not going to happen."

Cliff glanced at Ben with concern before walking across the room to stand directly in front of the bench.

"Jody is our foster son. All we're trying to do is adopt Jody and get his records sealed so that nothing from his past can come back to haunt him later in life."

The judge released a sigh of frustration before slowly saying, "I'm assuming that there's a lot more to it than that. You've got two minutes to tell me what's going on. If you haven't swayed me by then, I'm dismissing you and convening court."

"Jody's mother was a thirteen-year-old prostitute and his father is an influential government official. The prostitute's pimp has been blackmailing the sen... official, threatening to tell about Jody's existence, knowing that the video evidence and Jody's DNA could prove paternity. All we're wanting to do is protect Jody and do our best to close the door on his past. If we can adopt him, change his name and have his court records sealed, that will be the end of it." Cliff explained reasonably.

"Which one is Jody?" The judge asked as he looked across the room at the two boys, standing side by side by the door they had entered through.

"The younger one." Cliff answered quietly.

"I see." The judge said with a shake of his head, then added, "I must remember to ask how Douglas is doing at college."

Although Cliff knew to whom the judge was referring, he didn't feel that it would be appropriate for him to comment.

"I'd like to speak to Jody privately for a moment." The judge said to Cliff, then turned to his bailiff and said more loudly, "Suzanne, would you escort the younger boy to the conference room?"

Rather than answer verbally, the bailiff simply stood and walked toward Ben and the boys by the door.

JD immediately grabbed onto Ben and nearly climbed him, desperately seeking safety in his arms.

Jody was obviously frightened when the uniformed woman approached them, but the bailiff's gentle tone and soft smiles, along with Cliff's encouragement finally convinced Jody to go with her.

"I'll have a talk with the boy and we'll see what happens from there." Judge Hawkes said as he got up from the bench.

"Please be gentle with him. He's just starting to feel secure." Cliff asked earnestly.

"I do have some experience talking with traumatized children." Judge Hawkes informed him in a no nonsense tone as he walked toward the door.

Cliff slowly walked to Ben, who was still holding JD, and put his arms around them both.

* * * * *

"Jody is asking for his brother. JD, would you come with me?" The bailiff asked as she walked into the room.

JD's grip had loosened since the bailiff had left, but at her return, JD renewed his grip on Ben with surprising strength.

"When JD was younger, he was horribly abused and has since been absolutely terrified of all women." Cliff quietly explained.

"The judge wants him in the conference room. If you'll bring him, I'll keep my distance." The bailiff said simply, letting it be known with her tone that her offer was as much of a compromise as she would be willing to make.

"If you'll show me where we need to go, I'll carry him." Ben said quietly as he tried to soothe JD by slowly rubbing his back.

"They're going to start letting people into the courtroom in a few minutes. Stay back in the gallery and the judge will call on you if he needs you for anything." The bailiff said before walking toward the door.

Ben flashed a helpless look at Cliff before following.

* * * * *

"Daddy!" Jody crowed when he saw Ben walking into the conference room, carrying JD.

"How are you doing, Squid?" Ben immediately asked as he awkwardly knelt down to give Jody a hug with his free arm.

"That black man is asking me all kinds of weird questions." Jody said frankly.

Ben glanced at the judge and was relieved to see that he wasn't offended by Jody's words. "That's his job. He asks a lot of questions so that he can decide what's right and wrong. He must be really good at it if a whole bunch of people trusted him enough to elect him and make that his job."

"I do have other matters that require my attention." The judge interrupted. "If you would be so kind as to leave us alone for a moment, I will finish my interview."

"Yes, Your Honor." Ben said respectfully, then had to fight JD a little to get him to let go.

"Remember that you're the big brother. Stay here with Jody and remind him of how to be brave and face his fears." Ben said as he held JD's steel blue gaze.

"Is she going to stay?" JD asked nervously as he glanced in the direction of the bailiff.

"I'll stay right here unless the judge orders me to do otherwise." The bailiff informed him.

"Go over and talk to the judge right now. I'll be in the courtroom with your pappa when you're finished.

JD obviously didn't want to, but finally seemed to gather enough courage to take a step away.

"I'll be in the next room if you need me." Ben said to the room in general before reluctantly walking toward the door.

* * * * *

"What do you think is taking them so long?" Ben asked Cliff nervously.

"If I were going to guess, I'd say that the judge is getting filled in on JD and Jody's personal histories. That could take a few minutes."

"I just wish that there were something more that we could do."

"This is our chance to build up our strength and calm ourselves. There's a very good chance that the boys are going to need us to be strong for them. You know how JD gets after he's had a traumatic experience."

"I didn't realize that being a parent would entail quite so much helplessness."

"Remember what I do for a living, Ben. I see it every day. Believe me, it's normal."

Before they could say anything more, a uniformed officer and two professionally dressed people opened the doors of the courtroom before allowing a group of people in.

Ben and Cliff watched silently, waiting to see if any of the people entering the room were JD or Jody.

People were speaking in hushed whispers and Cliff imagined that they were speculating on what might be keeping the judge past the time he had scheduled court to reconvene.

"If you're supposed to be in courtroom 3F, you're in the right place. If not, then you'd better leave now." A woman's voice boomed from the back of the courtroom.

Both Cliff and Ben were somewhat relieved to see that it was Judge Hawkes' bailiff.

As she admonished those in attendance to turn off their electronic devices and be respectful, Cliff and Ben kept watching the door, silently willing JD and Jody to walk through.

Once the bailiff's instructions were delivered, she announced the cases that were on the docket to verify that the interested parties were present. All the while, Ben and Cliff continued to watch the door, waiting for their children to return.

Their anxiety increased as the bailiff finished speaking. The courtroom fell into silence, awaiting the judge's arrival.

* * * * *

Time seemed to stand still. Just as Ben and Cliff had nearly reached the point where they couldn't bear to wait anymore, Judge Hawkes walked into the courtroom with a boy under each arm.

When the boys spotted their parents, they broke away from the judge.

The judge had a smile on his face when he first entered, but it seemed to fade as he made his way to the bench and took his customary seat.

"All rise." The bailiff announced, then did her customary job of announcing the judge to all parties and stating for the record all the details about the court's jurisdiction.

"This court is in session. You may be seated. I have a matter to conclude just now, but while I'm doing that, would the parties for the first case on the docket make their way to the front and prepare yourselves?" Judge Hawkes asked the courtroom, then spoke specifically to Cliff and Ben and said, "Would you come up here so we can dispense with this?"

The ten or so steps across the courtroom were some of the longest and most agonizing of either of their lives.

"I'm making quite a few assumptions here, so if you notice that I've made an error or object to any of my rulings, this is your one and only chance to say so." Judge Hawkes cautioned.

It took a moment for Cliff and Ben to realize that the judge was waiting for their agreement before proceeding.

"Yes, Your Honor. We understand." Cliff finally said for both of them

"Are you ready Carlene?" Judge Hawkes asked a woman nearby.

She pressed a few buttons on the electronic equipment before her, then nodded in the judge's direction.

"First things first, pursuant to your initial request, this court is inclined to grant the adoption of the child, Jody Ford. It is so ordered." Judge Hawkes said, then tapped his gavel. Before anyone could react, the judge continued, "I expect to have papers to that effect in my possession before the close of business tomorrow, so that I can sign them."

"Yes, Your Honor." Cliff immediately agreed.

"In related business, this court is also inclined to grant the adoption of the child formally known as John Doe 256. It is so ordered. Paperwork by the close of business tomorrow." Judge Hawkes said, then tapped his gavel again.

"How did you..." Ben began to ask, but was silenced with a single glance from the judge.

"Continuing on, it is the order of this court that, to aid in the child's emotional well-being, Jody Ford have his name legally changed to match that of his adoptive father. Henceforth, the aforementioned child shall be known as Jody Grant." The judge said, then tapped his gavel once before turning to Cliff and saying, "Provide the paperwork requesting the name change with the adoption paperwork."

"Yes, Your Honor." Cliff repeated as he fought to contain his emotional reaction to the revelation that Jody had chosen to take his surname.

"It is the order of this court that the child known only as John Doe 256 have his name formally changed to match that of his adoptive father. Pursuant to the child's request, henceforth the aforementioned child shall be known as Jayden Delaney Stone." Judge Hawkes said before tapping his gavel, then he turned to Ben and said, "Paperwork before the end of business tomorrow."

"Yes, sir... Your Honor." Ben stammered.

"One final thing, it is the order of this court that any official records or paperwork dating prior to this day, December 20th, 2004 pertaining to the child now known as Jody Grant, will be sealed by this court until such time as this court deems their disclosure to be necessary." Judge Hawkes declared, then banged his gavel again.

There was a long moment of silence as everyone waited for what was going to happen next.

"Pending the receipt of the paperwork that I requested, this matter is concluded." Judge Hawkes said firmly.

"Thank you, Your Honor." Cliff said sincerely.

Judge Hawkes then turned toward the court reporter and nodded once in her direction.

She pressed a button, then nodded in response.

"Jayden, remember what I told you." Judge Hawkes said, as he stood a little to be able to look JD in the eyes.

"I will." JD promised.

"Good. Then we're done here. Go on now, I have work to do." Judge Hawkes said with a smile.

Cliff and Ben took that as their cue and led the boys out of the courtroom.

* * * * *

"Will you drive? If we're going to have any hope of having all the paperwork submitted in time, I'm going to have to call in a few favors and get things started right away." Cliff asked as they exited the building with Jody in his arms.

"How did we do?" JD asked as they walked.

"I think that you must have done such a good job at being a big brother that the judge decided that you and Jody should both be adopted so that you can be brothers for real." Ben said warmly as he put an arm around JD's shoulders.

"So are you really my daddy now?" JD asked cautiously as he craned his neck to look up at Ben.

After a moment to consider, Ben reluctantly admitted, "I think so, but I'm not exactly sure what the judge just did in there."

"If I'm understanding it right, rather than have both of us adopt both boys, like a traditional married couple, Judge Hawkes ordered that each of us is adopting one of them. I suppose that in some warped way, maybe that makes more sense to him than allowing both boys to be adopted by a gay couple." Cliff said slowly, then pointed with his free hand when he spotted their car.

"The boys are ours forever. That's what's important to me." Ben said honestly.

As Ben was getting into the driver's side, Cliff was getting his phone out and turning it on.

"How do you think the judge was able to find out their legal names?" Ben asked when they were all settled in their seats.

"He asked us." JD volunteered.

"You knew that your legal name was John Doe 256?" Ben asked warily.

"Yeah. They called me that at the hospital all the time. Well, not when they were talking to me, but usually when they were talking about me." JD answered, then added, "They never called me that at the home, though."

"Jody? Did you know that your last name was Ford?" Cliff asked curiously.

"That's what Ruby told me. She lies a lot, but that's what she said."

"I guess we just never thought to ask." Ben said speculatively.

"And remember that JD wouldn't talk at all when we first met him. There wasn't really much of an opportunity to ask." Cliff reminded him, before pressing a button and holding his phone to his ear.

Ben knew better than to continue their conversation, so he turned his focus to his driving.

* * * * *

"Brynna? Do you have a minute? I need you to look up a number for me."

"Everything turned out fine. I have a strict deadline. I'll fill you in on the details when I come into work. Can you look up the number for Lyle McBride for me?"

Ben glanced into the back seat to find the boys talking in excited hushed whispers.

"Thank you, Brynna. With any luck, Lyle will be willing to help me out. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Goodbye."

As soon as Cliff had disconnected the call to his office, he quickly dialed another number.

"Lyle, it's Dr. Grant. I know that this is kind of a lot to ask, but I'm just leaving court and the judge ordered that adoption paperwork be filed with the court before the close of business tomorrow. I was hoping that maybe you could find the time or recommend someone who could help me out."

"Actually, it's for two kids... my foster sons."

"Yes. Both of them. Before the close of business tomorrow."

"Right. Everything. All the paperwork that the judge needs to sign to close this case once and for all."

"No. Thank you for offering but the case has already been presented and the judge has already ruled. All we need is the paperwork."

"He was named Jody Ford. The judge ordered that his name be changed to Jody Grant."

"Oh yeah. He wants that paperwork too."

"I have no idea. Let me ask." Cliff said into the phone, then turned to the back seat and asked, "Jody, do you know when your birthday is?"

Jody's blank stare was all the answer that Cliff needed.

"No. He doesn't know. Can we wait on that for a while and just fill in what we already know?"

"Four hundred dollars an hour?!"

"No, no. I agree. Waiting is bad. If it's okay with you, I'm going to put us on a three-way call with someone who should have access to all of JD and Jody's official records."

"Good, then I'm going to put you on hold for about twenty dollars... I mean a few minutes then, if all goes well, I'll be back with Ron and we can get this going."

* * * * *

"Ron? Are you sitting down?"

"Well, as much as I'd love to make you guess, the meter's running. We're leaving Gainesville right now. 'Why' is a long story that I can't afford to tell you, but suffice it to say that we went to court, saw a judge, he ruled that Ben and I can... actually, have, adopted Jody and JD. So I'm calling to see if you'll agree to join a three-way call with a family law attorney that I'm acquainted with through my practice. He needs some official information about the boys that I don't have access to on the road from Gainesville to Tallahassee."

"Actually, there's two reasons for that. First, the judge ordered that we have all the necessary paperwork for the adoption and name changes submitted to the court and ready for him to sign before the close of business tomorrow."

"Second, the lawyer is charging me four hundred dollars an hour while he's waiting on hold for our three-way call to begin."

"Thank you, Ron. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"What? Oh, yes. Jayden Delaney Stone and Jody Grant."

"Stop or you're going to make me cry. At four hundred dollars an hour I can't afford unnecessary emotionalism. I mean, I literally can't afford it. Are you ready to join?"

* * * * *

"No. I guess I didn't explain that. From my understanding of the judge's decree, I alone am adopting Jody and Ben alone is adopting JD. He didn't explain his reasoning, he just made his ruling and called it settled."

"Really?"

"I guess the judge was on our side. I just kind of assumed that it some kind of backhanded way of doing the right thing for the boys while still taking a jab at us."

"Yes, Lyle, that makes perfect sense. There's no real reason to make things unnecessarily complicated."

"Ron, will you give Lyle the 'official' information about the boys? When he's ready, I'll give him the new name change information."

"No, Ron. Jody came up with that all by himself. I never even suggested it to him."

Cliff muted his phone, then turned to Ben and quietly asked, "How much of your tax information do you know off the top of your head?"

"Not much, but depending on what you want to know, I may have what you need on my laptop."

Cliff nodded, then unmuted his phone before saying, "We're in luck. If you'll tell me what you need to know from Ben, he's confident that he can probably find it for you."

"The judge already made his ruling, so do you really need all this information?'

"This is just to give lawyers a reason to be able to charge so much, isn't it?"

"Premium rate?! No! Don't do that! I'm sure that your four hundred dollars an hour rate is perfectly equitable and worth every single penny."

"I can't tell you what he said verbatim, but he essentially told us that he approved Jody Ford's adoption, then that Jody should have his name changed to match that of his adoptive father, making him Jody Grant. He also ordered that once all the paperwork has been completed, Jody's official records will be sealed."

"Do you need to know that for the paperwork?"

"Ron works for CPS and I'm Jody's foster parent, so there are certain things we would rather not disclose unless it is absolutely necessary. Given your professional experience and that information, coupled with the judge's order, you should be able to come up with one or two likely scenarios. I promise, whatever you come up with, the reality is worse."

"Yes. JD's adoption is the same except that the judge didn't order that his records be sealed."

"True. If he had records, it might be more of an issue."

"Sorry, Lyle, I keep forgetting that you don't know the history. It appears that JD didn't officially exist until he was found near death by the police. Ron can correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm under the impression that JD's age, date-of-birth, and just about anything personal about him was entirely made up on the spot by someone from CPS just to fill in some blanks."

"Thanks, Ron. If you didn't have his information, I don't know who I would have called next."

"Good. Then let's get this going. The meter's running."

* * * * *

When Cliff finally ended his call, Ben reluctantly asked, "Is everything okay?"

"There are still a lot of things that could go wrong, but with Lyle and Ron's help we might be able to get everything done in time." Cliff said uncertainly.

"Is there anything we can do right now?"

"Being on the road, what we can do is very limited." Cliff said frankly.

"I realize that. I was thinking more of what we can do when we get home." Ben said honestly.

"Can we call Zeb? I want to tell him that we got adopted!" JD asked hopefully.

"I don't have Zeb's number. I don't know if he even has a phone." Ben said honestly.

"We'll invite him over the first chance we get." Cliff assured him.

"Maybe we can stop by the store on the way home and see if he's working." Ben helpfully suggested.

"What about Wil and Todd? Can we invite them, too?" JD asked excitedly.

"Yes. I have Todd's number. I can call him right now." Cliff said warmly.

"Can we invite Mr. Cooper too?" Jody asked quietly.

"Of course we can. In fact, if you two would like, I can ask if Junior would be available when I ask Ron." Cliff said with a smile.

"Pappa? Will you ask Mr. Cooper not to tell Junior? I want it to be a surprise." JD asked hopefully.

"Well, I can't be sure if Ron already told him or not, but I'll be sure to ask him." Cliff promised, then turned his attention to his phone and said, "Todd? Do you and Wil have any plans for tonight?"

After a moment of listening, Cliff smiled and said, "Good. Then why don't you come over for dinner?"

"We'll be back in town in about an hour. I expect dinner to be at around six, so just try to arrive before then."

"Do what?"

"We don't expect it, but do what you feel that you need to."

"We'll see you then. Bye." Cliff said before hanging up the phone.

"What was that all about?" Ben asked curiously.

"Todd was just saying that he and Wil would bring some snacks or something so they wouldn't always be freeloading."

"They don't have to do that, but I can respect that they want to."

"I think that's one of the things that I like about Todd. He's so laid back and easygoing that I don't really expect him to go out of his way. But every now and then he'll do something really thoughtful to demonstrate just how much he appreciates our friendship."

"I know that you've been friends with Todd for years, but I don't remember if you've ever mentioned how you two met. I can't imagine you two travelling in the same social circles."

"We met when we discovered that we were both dating the same guy at the same time. We were both surprised and pissed off and hurt by it. We ended up going out and having a few drinks together to talk it out and ended up becoming really good friends." Cliff said with a smile of fond remembrance.

"That guy must have really been something if you and Todd were both attracted to him. I can't imagine your tastes intersecting too often."

"Javi was pretty to look at, and he knew how to pluck at your heartstrings to make you fall in love with him. But once the spell was broken, I realized that he was dead inside. It was all a game that he played for his own amusement. He didn't care what kind of emotional trauma he was causing for other people. In fact, I think he got a kick out of it."

"Do you know what happened to him?"

"I wish I could tell you some great story about karma or revenge, but from what I heard, when word got out about what he was really like, he just moved back to Orlando, where he came from." Cliff said as he dialed his phone again.

"Good riddance."

Cliff nodded, then said into the phone, "Ron? I know that I've taken up a lot of your time today, so I'll make this quick. Jody wanted me to invite you over to our house tonight as kind of a celebration. Can you come?"

"Great! The boys were also wanting to know if Junior would be available. They want to share their good news with him."

"We'll plan on him coming. Would you be sure not to tell him the good news? The boys want to tell him themselves."

"Thanks, Ron. I'll do my best not to interrupt you again." Cliff said with a smile.

"Bye."

* * * * *

"Daddy, do you know what we're going to be cooking for dinner?" JD asked from the back seat.

"I hadn't really thought about it. Did you have something in mind?"

"I thought that, if you wanted to, that Pappa could cook some steaks on the grill. I think everyone would like that."

"From what I heard on the weather, they're not sure if it's even going to hit fifty degrees today."

"Is it supposed to rain?" Cliff asked thoughtfully.

"No. It should just be a little bit windy." Ben answered.

"Well then, I suppose that if I had someone to help me, I might be able to do it." Cliff said with a smile as he glanced into the back seat.

"I'll do it!" Jody immediately crowed, much to Cliff's surprise.

"And I'll help Daddy make the side dishes. I know just what kind of salad I'd like to make." JD said happily.

"Do you think we can handle that?" Cliff asked Ben uncertainly.

"We're going to be stopping by the store to invite Zeb anyway, so I can pick up everything that we'll need while we're there."

"It sounds like we've got a plan."

* * * * *

"Are you okay, JD?" Ben asked as they walked into the grocery store.

"Why are Pappa and Jody staying in the car?"

"I think it's because they'd rather do nothing than go shopping. Some people are like that."

JD noticed a woman walking toward them and immediately buried his face in Ben's chest and held him close in a death grip.

"He's just shy." Ben explained to the woman when she noticed.

After a moment, Ben quietly said, "It's okay. She's gone."

It took a moment for JD to loosen his grip, but he finally seemed to gather his emotions.

"I really do know that not every woman's going to hurt me. It's just when I see them, I stop thinking. All I am is afraid." JD explained with difficulty.

"It's going to take time, Spider. But if you'll just remember how you were when you first came to us and compare that to how you are now, you'll see that you've already made phenomenal progress. Just keep doing your best and your pappa and I will do what we can to make sure that it's enough. You don't have to face this all by yourself."

"I love you, Daddy."

"I love you too Spider." Ben said sincerely, then asked, "Are you up to helping me plan what to have with the steaks for dinner?"

"Yeah!" JD said happily, mostly back to his usual self.

* * * * *

"Pappa? JD said that 'cause of what we said to the judge guy, that him and me aren't foster kids anymore. He said that now we're real kids."

"As far as I'm concerned, foster kids are real kids. But what JD told you was right. Now, in the eyes of the law, both you and JD are completely and entirely our children, as though you'd been born into our family."

"JD said that it'd be okay if I told the judge guy that I wanted to be your son and have your last name. That's okay, isn't it? Daddy's not gonna get mad at me for not picking his name like JD did? Is he?"

"Your daddy is as happy as he can be that JD chose to take his name. I'm just as happy and honored that you chose to take mine."

"Good. 'Cause when I grow up I wanna be just like you."

Cliff wanted to respond but found that he couldn't speak around the lump in his throat.

* * * * *

"Is that everything that we'll need?" Ben asked as he walked alongside JD, who was pushing their cart.

"Yeah. Do you think we'll have enough time to make the twice baked potatoes or should we just do regular baked potatoes and let everyone do the toppings that they want?" JD asked seriously.

"I'll leave that up to you. In fact, if you think that we have time, maybe we could do both. That way anyone who doesn't like something in the twice bakes can top their own."

"Yeah. But we might have to ask Pappa to wait for a little bit so we'll have enough time for the potatoes to bake."

"I don't expect everyone to show up at the same time, so waiting a little bit to start the meat might be a good idea."

"Yeah."

* * * * *

"Zeb!" JD said to draw his attention.

"Hello, JD. Wow! Don't you look nice." Zeb said with a quick smile, then turned his attention back to the customer in front of him.

JD waited until it was their turn at the register before responding, "Daddy and Pappa took me and Jody to Gainesville today. Can you come over to our house for dinner?"

Zeb blinked in surprise at the two seemingly unrelated things, then looked at Ben inquiringly.

"We're having kind of a celebration and the boys wanted to know if you'd like to have dinner with us."

"I'm off at five today. If that's not too late, I'd love to." Zeb answered honestly as he rang up their order.

"Five will be just fine. In fact, from the look of things, you should have a few minutes to relax with the family before dinner will be ready."

"That sounds great. I'll be there."

"Good. We'll be expecting you." Ben said as he realized that Zeb had finished ringing them up.

"Are you going to need help out to your car?" Zeb asked as he watched Ben swipe his card.

"No. I've got my helper with me. But thank you for offering." Ben said with a smile as he accepted the receipt from Zeb.

"I'll see you a little bit after five."

"Remember to bring your appetite."

"That won't be a problem."

* * * * *

"Mission accomplished. We got everything that we're going to need for dinner and Zeb said that he'd be by a little bit after five." Ben explained once he and JD were back in the car.

"Good. Considering traffic, I wouldn't expect Ron and Junior to arrive much before six. That should work out just fine."

Ben looked into the back seat, then asked JD, "How does that work for your potato plans?"

"I think I should be able to make the baked potatoes both ways."

"I'm sure that everyone will enjoy them."

* * * * *

Upon arriving at home, Ben immediately instructed the boys to go to their room and change into their regular clothes while he and Cliff took the groceries to the kitchen.

"Jody said that he wants to grow up to be just like me." Cliff quietly confided.

"I know how that feels. When JD said that he wanted to be a writer, I can't even describe what it meant to me."

"They're our sons now. We've committed ourselves to them for the rest of our lives."

"I think we did that the first moment that we met them. All we did today is make it official."

"I suppose that you're right. It's just that before, there was always the looming threat that some bureaucrat somewhere would decide that one or both of the boys would be better off somewhere else and that we'd have them torn away from us. But now... they're ours."

"Even though I don't know exactly what you did yesterday to make this possible, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Things turned out better than I could have ever imagined. I'm just going to accept it and move on."

"I think that's probably best."

"Do we need to start cooking anything right now?" JD asked as he hurried into the kitchen, dressed in his regular clothes.

"Well, considering how much we're going to have going on later, I suppose that it might be a good idea to get the potatoes baking and get the salad out of the way." Ben said thoughtfully.

"Okay! But I'm going to need Jody's help with the salad. We're a family so he's going to need to make something, too." JD said before rushing out of the kitchen.

"I suppose that I'd better go ahead and find a mallet so I'll be ready when it's my turn to help." Cliff said with a grin.

"Remember to allow a little extra time to account for Jody's 'help' on the grill." Ben said in a warning tone.

"Before the boys start working on the salad, I'm going to steal Jody away for a few minutes and show him how to prep the grill and get it heating."

"Be sure that you let him know that he's not to be using the grill without adult supervision." Ben cautioned.

"Wow. The judge's decree isn't even twenty-four hours old and you've already become an overprotective parent." Cliff said teasingly.

"Do you think that Jody should be allowed to use the grill unsupervised?" Ben asked as he turned his full attention to his mate.

"No. It's just the way that you said it sounded like an old mother hen who's been parenting for years." Cliff chuckled.

"Thank you." Ben said in a dignified tone, then went back to unpacking the groceries.

* * * * *

"Why do we have to do this?" Jody asked as he watched Cliff cleaning the grill.

"So that the grill will be clean and ready to use when we're ready to cook. Come over here and let me show you how."

Jody hesitantly stepped to be right beside Cliff.

"Watch what I'm doing and then I'll let you do a little bit."

* * * * *

"Do you need any help with anything before I start on the marinade?" Ben asked as he walked into the kitchen after changing out of his suit.

"No. Since the potatoes are baking, the salad is really all that I can do right now. But I'm glad that you're doing the marinade. I forgot all about that and your steaks are really good." JD said as he peeled carrots.

"Why don't you make the marinade this time? You've got a good palate and I think that you might be able to come up with something that everyone will enjoy." Ben said with a smile.

"Will you help me? I haven't made marinade before." JD asked hopefully.

"Of course. I'll tell you my standard base recipe, then you can add one or two complimentary flavors to make it yours."

* * * * *

"Are you going to need Jody's help with the salad?" Ben asked quietly.

"He's helping Papa with the grill, so I'll do it." JD said simply.

"That's not going to throw you behind, is it?"

"No. This will be fine. The potatoes are the only things I'm worried about."

"We've got plenty of time. You'll see."

* * * * *

At the sound of a knock on the door, JD quickly said, "That must be Zeb! I'll get it!"

Ben smiled as he watched JD hurry out of the kitchen.

As JD ran to the door, he was met by Cliff carrying Jody.

"I got it!" JD insisted as he hurried ahead of them.

Cliff slowed his pace and watched as JD opened the front door.

"Hi, Zeb! Come in!" JD said happily.

"Thanks." Zeb said timidly as JD ushered him inside.

"How are you doing today, Zeb?" Cliff asked warmly.

"Fine. Everything's been great since I stood up to Rex. It's funny how worrying about what Rex was going to do seemed to be such a big part of my day. Now it's suddenly gone and my days just seem to fly by."

"I'm sure that eventually, some other turmoil will rear it's ugly head and you'll have to fight to overcome it, too. Life's just that way." Cliff said casually as they walked.

"We got adopted!" JD blurted out as they were walking toward the kitchen.

"Really?" Zeb asked with surprise and looked at Cliff inquiringly.

Cliff thought for a moment about what to tell Zeb and finally said, "That's right. We adopted both boys. They're our sons now."

"Wow. Just like that?" Zeb asked in puzzlement as they walked into the kitchen.

"Hello, Zeb. How was work?" Ben asked cheerfully.

"It was fine... You adopted the boys today?" Zeb asked cautiously.

"Yes. We invited you over to join in our celebration." Ben said with a smile.

After a moment to digest all of what he'd been told, Zeb noticed that JD and Jody were both looking at him uncertainly.

Since Jody was still in Cliff's arms, Zeb leaned down and gave JD a firm hug as he said, "Congratulations JD. I'm really happy for you."

"Thanks. I never thought that I'd ever have real parents of my own. I thought that was something that only happened to other kids." JD said as he returned the hug.

"Well, you don't have to worry about that anymore. We're your parents now and forever." Ben said warmly.

After a moment more of hugging, Zeb released JD and noticed Jody looking on uncertainly.

Zeb wasn't sure if Jody would accept a hug from him, but walked to Cliff's side and put his arms out in offer.

Jody stretched toward Zeb and Cliff reflexively transferred the skinny boy into Zeb's waiting arms, so as not to drop him.

"I'm glad that you got adopted, Jody." Zeb said as he gently hugged the boy.

"I'm glad, too. I never had a pappa or a daddy before." Jody muttered as he expressed his joy through hugging.

* * * * *

After a few minutes of hugging, Jody squirmed in Zeb's arms and signaled that he wanted to be let down.

As soon as his feet hit the floor, Jody hurried back to Cliff and thrust his arms into the air.

Cliff indulgently smiled and picked Jody up again.

"Zeb, are you hungry? Would you like something to snack on?" Ben asked curiously.

"I wouldn't want to spoil my appetite for dinner."

"It's still going to be a while. Why don't you guys go into the living room and I'll bring you something in a few minutes?"

"I think that's his way of telling us that we're in his way. Come on." Cliff said with a grin before walking out of the kitchen with Jody in his arms.

Zeb followed without comment as JD and Ben went back to their dinner preparations.

* * * * *

Cliff sat on the couch and shifted Jody slightly so that he was resting on his lap.

They sat that way for only a moment when Jody decided to get down and go back to his Legos.

"Zeb, have you ever played with Legos before?" Jody asked curiously.

"I've seen them, but I don't think I've ever played with them. My parents didn't think that kids should have toys. They expected us to learn to use practical items from an early age, even if it was beating the bottom of a soup pot with a wooden spoon." Zeb said thoughtfully.

"Do you wanna help me play?" Jody asked hopefully.

"Sure. But you may have to show me what to do." Zeb said as he slid out of the chair to join Jody on the floor next to the coffee table.

Cliff didn't think that he'd ever seen anything so precious as Jody's expression when he realized that he was going to get to 'teach' something to someone else.

* * * * *

"I brought you some snacks." JD said a little while later as he walked into the living room.

"Is that just for Zeb, or did you bring enough for everyone?" Cliff asked curiously.

"It's for everyone. Daddy just told me to tell you not to spoil your dinner." JD said as he placed the tray on the coffee table.

"Piggy blankets!" Jody said happily as he got up off the floor.

"Be careful, Jody. They just came out of the oven. They're still hot." JD warned.

"I'll blow on them first." Jody assured him.

"Make sure you take really little bites until you're sure that they're cool enough to eat." JD instructed.

Cliff was proud of JD's protectiveness of his younger brother and his willingness to explain things.

"What's in the bowl?" Zeb asked curiously as he picked up one of the pigs-in-a-blanket.

"I made up a little honey mustard dipping sauce, just in case someone wants it." JD said simply before leaving the room.

"I can't believe how you guys eat." Zeb chuckled as he dipped the end of his snack into the dipping sauce, just enough to get the taste of it.

"I think we just probably have a different variety from what you're used to. Most likely, I'd be saying the same thing if you were the one cooking." Cliff said frankly.

"I don't really cook. I know how to fry a hamburger patty or make a sandwich, but that's about it. About once a week, I'll spend a little extra money and go out to eat... well, fast food. I can't really afford a place that uses plates. But I doubt that you'd look at my cooking as being something exotic."

"Maybe not, but from the sound of it, eating your cooking might remind me of my college days. It sounds an awful lot like what I used to do."

"I've been thinking about what you said about college. Part of me still thinks that it's an impossible dream, but I'll never know if I don't investigate the possibility." Zeb said before taking another bite of his snack.

"Things have been kind of busy since I talked to you and Junior about that, so I haven't really had the opportunity to look into it. But after tomorrow, I should be able to talk to Brynna and a few other people to try and get an idea if it's doable."

"How is Junior?"

"He's fine, as far as I know. He and Ron should be here sometime around six for dinner."

"It's funny, I look at him and it seems like he's so much younger than I am, but we're actually probably only a few months different in age."

"He's still in high school and is being provided for. You're out living on your own. It makes sense that you would feel a lot older than him."

"I guess so. But it still seems strange."

* * * * *

"I've got it!" Cliff called toward the kitchen, in response to the knock on the door.

"Are we too late?" Wil asked immediately when the door opened.

"No. In fact, we're still expecting a few more guests. Please come in."

"Where can I put these?" Wil asked as he held up two plastic wrapped plates of loaded crackers.

"Do they need to be heated or anything?"

"Nope. Summer sausage and cheese. No heating necessary."

"Then let's take them into the living room."

"Actually, they're awesome when you warm them up." Todd quickly interjected.

"True." Wil admitted.

Cliff stopped and looked at the plates of snacks for an instant before saying, "I think today is worthy of awesome. I'll take them into the kitchen if you guys want to go on into the living room."

"I need to say hi to Ben. I'll go." Wil said and started walking away before Cliff could object.

* * * * *

"Hi Ben. How are things going?" Wil asked casually. As he walked into the kitchen.

"It's been a great day so far, but now that you're here it's even better." Ben said with a grin.

"I got adopted!" JD happily announced.

"That's what I heard. I guess that makes me your... it wouldn't be uncle, would it?" Wil asked Ben slowly.

"Second or third cousin, more likely. We'll have to compare family trees sometime and figure it out."

"I never was good at that stuff. Let's just say that JD and Jody are my nephews and anyone who has a problem with it can worry about the details themselves." Wil suggested with an easygoing smile.

JD looked back and forth between Ben and Wil, trying to understand what they were talking about.

When Ben noticed, he quietly said, "Wil and I are cousins. Now that you're legally my son, that makes him your cousin, too. Todd's our friend and I think of him as being a part of our family, but Wil was born into my family."

Ben's explanation didn't seem to ease JD's confusion, but eventually he seemed to accept it and hurried to Wil to give him a hug.

"Would you take this?" Wil asked quickly as he offered the plates of snacks to Ben.

"You didn't have to bring anything." Ben said as he accepted the plates.

"Mona gave us a Hickory Farms basket for Christmas. Todd and I thought that everyone might enjoy it." Wil said as he returned JD's hug.

"I'm sure we will." Ben said with a smile.

"The guys suggested that we might heat them up a little bit, just enough to melt the cheese." Will quickly added.

"Good idea. The oven's already going, so this'll just take a minute." Ben said immediately, then began to transfer the cracker sausage and cheese combos onto a baking sheet.

"If you're my family, does that mean that your last name is Stone, too?" JD asked curiously.

"My mother was a Stone, but my last name is Hale." Wil answered gently.

"Is it because your mama's name was Stone that makes us related?" JD asked cautiously.

"Yeah. I guess that's right." Wil answered easily.

"These will be ready in a few minutes. Can I get you anything to drink?" Ben asked as he returned from the oven.

"Maybe in a little bit. But I bet that Todd's probably about ready for a beer by now." Wil said frankly.

"When isn't he?" Ben chuckled good naturedly.

Wil looked around and noticed that the ice chest wasn't set up as it had been before.

"We should still have some beer in the fridge in the basement. I haven't checked on it recently. We may need to make a run to the store for some more." Ben said thoughtfully.

"I'll go check." Wil said with a smile, then looked down to JD who was still hugging him and asked, "Do you want to help me?"

JD quickly looked around the kitchen, apparently to confirm the progress of whatever task he had been undertaking, then said, "Yeah."

* * * * *

"Beer run!" Wil announced when he walked into the living room.

"I should have thought about that when we were at the store." Cliff said with a shake of his head.

"Don't worry about it, Cliff. We've got it." Todd said as he stood.

"Do you want to ride along, Zeb?" Wil asked with a smile at him.

"I'm too young to buy beer." Zeb said quietly.

"Actually, so am I. I'm old enough to sell it, but not to buy it." Wil said simply.

Zeb nodded that he understood.

"We'll stay in the car while Todd goes in and gets it. The beer's mostly for him anyway." Wil said simply.

"Yeah. It ain't nothin but somethin to do." Todd said with an inviting smile at him.

"Can I go, too?" Jody asked hopefully.

Todd, Wil and Zeb all looked at Cliff to see his reaction.

"I think it will be good for Jody to get out of the house for a few minutes. I'll get you his booster seat." Cliff said as he also stood.

"We're just going a few blocks." Todd said cautiously.

"The boys understand that they need their booster seats whenever they ride in the car. We need to be consistent." Cliff said simply.

"Okay. Let's get it done." Todd said easily as he led the way to the door.

* * * * *

"Where did everyone go?" JD asked as he carried the warm snacks into the living room.

"To buy beer. They'll be back in a minute." Cliff answered.

"I'll take these back so I can heat them again when they get back." JD said decisively, then looked around the room once again before asking, "Where's Jody?"

"He went with them. Don't worry. He'll be right back." Cliff said with a smile.

JD seemed to be disturbed by the answer, but didn't say anything as he quietly left the living room.

* * * * *

When JD heard the door open, he hurried out of the kitchen.

Ben automatically put the snacks back into the oven to heat them slightly so the cheese would be melted.

As Todd and Wil carried the beer in, JD rushed past them and pulled Jody into a hug as he asked, "Did you have fun?"

"Zeb and Wil are nice. They talked to me while Todd went into the store." Jody said from his brother's embrace.

"It scared me when I knew that you were gone and I wasn't going to be there to protect you." JD said honestly.

"You know that if Jody's with us that we'll protect him." Wil said gently.

"Yeah. I guess I know that. But I'm his big brother. It's my job."

Wil got a pained look at the announcement and carried the beer that he was carrying toward the kitchen.

"Did I say something wrong?" JD asked curiously at Wil's reaction.

"He's a big brother, too." Todd said to JD, then turned to Cliff and added, "Zeb put the booster back in your car. Remember to lock it up."

"I will. Thanks." Cliff said as he watched Todd follow Wil.

* * * * *

Once the beer was put away and everyone was back in the living room, JD presented the snacks that Todd and Wil had brought with them.

"I love this stuff." Wil said after taking one of the crackers.

"Yeah. Even though I'd like to have it all year, having them now makes it feel like Christmas." Todd agreed.

"I think you're right." Cliff said happily.

"This is really good! How did you make it?" JD asked with surprise at the delicious flavor.

"It's just cheese, sausage and crackers... and a little spot of sweet hot mustard on each one. I just put together the things that were in the gift basket. Well, except for the strawberry candies. Todd ate all of those." Wil finished with a smile at him.

"I can't get enough of those things." Todd said unrepentantly.

"Pappa? Can we get some more of this? I want to see if I can make it as good." JD asked hopefully.

"I don't do the shopping very often. Make sure to ask your Daddy so he can pick some up when he finds a display." Cliff said warmly.

JD grabbed a cheese and cracker snack on a napkin before dashing out of the room as he called out, "Daddy! You gotta try this!"

Chuckles went around the room at JD's excitement.

"It looks like you're getting good with those Legos, Jody." Wil said as he looked at the structure Jody was building.

"Zeb's helping me!" Jody said happily.

"Could you use some more help?" Wil asked with a smile.

"Sure! I got lots and lots of Legos." Jody said eagerly.

Cliff noticed that Wil had chosen to sit on the floor beside Zeb, almost close enough to touch.

"Tell me what we're doing here and I'll do what I can to help." Wil said and his attention seemed to be more focused on Zeb than Jody.

Cliff and Todd exchanged a look, but neither said anything. Instead, Cliff turned on the TV and started searching the menu to see if anything interesting were on.

* * * * *

A knock on the door sounded and JD could be heard calling out, "I got it!"

"That should be Ron and Junior. They're our last invited guests, so now the party can really begin." Cliff explained.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

Wow, it's really nice to have another chapter of this heartwarming story.

I cried when JD and Jody explained how they each wanted to have their names changed to one of their dads. That is so neat. That way no one is left out.

How many of you had figured out, or noticed what JD stood for?

I knew it, but I can't actually remember if it has ever been mentioned in the story.

Thank you, MM for another interesting chapter. It is so nice to find out what is happening with this unusual family.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher