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Chapter 1

"Gentlemen, thank you for being so patient." Mrs. Usher said as she walked briskly into the room and settled behind her desk before either man could react.

"That wasn't a problem; we had plenty of paperwork to keep us busy. Your secretary has been piling it on us for nearly an hour." One of the men said frankly.

"But we'll be happy to wait as long as you want, if this means that you're finally going to allow us to be foster parents." The other quickly added.

"Dr. Grant, Mr. Stone, before we go any further, I'm afraid that I must be frank with you." Mrs. Usher said gravely, as she looked at the two men seated before her.

"Please feel free to call us Cliff and Ben."

She paused for a moment before saying, "Regardless of whatever public opinion is saying this week, or what new social revolutions are going on outside this institution, I feel that my job is the same as it ever was. That being, to do my best to match each child that has been given into my care with a family that can love and nurture them, so they can become well rounded, stable adults."

"And you assume that we can't do that, because we're gay." Dr. Grant said dispassionately.

"All things being equal... yes, that would be my opinion." Mrs. Usher said seriously, then sighed and quietly added, "But as it turns out, all things are not equal."

Both men waited for her to expound on her vague statement.

"Gentlemen, the child that I'm considering placing in your care has some special needs that you appear to be uniquely suited to deal with."

"Can I assume that means that you're giving us a gay child?" Ben asked cautiously.

"No... Well, at least, not that I'm aware." Mrs. Usher said to Ben, then turned her attention to Cliff and said, "The child that I'm thinking of, his name is JD, has been through a level of abuse that... let's just say that I've seen more than my share in the past twenty-five years, and when I saw what had been done to him, I was shocked."

"Excuse me for asking, but does this mean that the child needs some sort of ongoing medical care that the department of social services is unwilling to provide?" Cliff asked carefully.

"If that were the case, would you refuse to take him?" Mrs. Usher countered.

After a moment, Cliff reluctantly said, "No, of course not. I just wanted to be clear about what was expected of us and why we were chosen."

"Good. I'm glad to hear that you wouldn't refuse him for being 'less than perfect'. And to answer your original question, to the best of my knowledge, JD isn't in any need of medical attention. What is expected of you is to help JD to have a happy childhood, and eventually grow into a successful adult. And as to why you were chosen... well, there are a few reasons."

Cliff and Ben waited expectantly.

"Dr. Grant, since you are a pediatrician, I am sure that you have experience dealing with distressed children, and also have practice at keeping a bit of professional detachment when dealing with certain things. I believe you will need both of those skills quite a bit in the coming weeks, should you commit to this course of action." Mrs. Usher said ominously, then turned her gaze to Cliff's partner.

"And Mr. Stone, I am given to understand that you are a novelist and work primarily from your home. Is that correct?"

"Yes, Ma'am." Ben said cautiously.

"I believe that, at least in the beginning, JD is going to need a level of attention that parents working outside the home would be unable to provide." Mrs. Usher said carefully.

"So you chose us because I understand children and Ben works from home?" Cliff asked suspiciously, not believing that those were her only criteria.

"Yes. And there is also the fact that JD is absolutely terrified of women." Mrs. Usher said quietly. "If I were to walk into the room where JD is, right now, he would, in all likelihood, cease all movement and become nearly catatonic. If I were to approach him or speak to him, he would withdraw to a point where it might be days before he returned to anything resembling his normal behavior."

"If he can't stand to be around women, how does he function?" Ben asked slowly.

"It's been difficult. We do our best to keep him isolated from the female members of the staff, but that isn't easy." Mrs. Usher admitted with resignation. "Right now, for instance, the other children his age are playing outside, but JD is in the library, reading. There's no way we can shuffle the staff around all day, to accommodate one child."

"I bet it's going to be a relief to get him placed so things can get back to normal." Cliff said seriously.

"Perhaps." Mrs. Usher conceded, "But my primary concern is that JD find a stable home where he can begin to grow and develop. All we're able to do for him here is maintain him. In short, we don't have what he needs."

"Which is?" Ben prompted.

"To put it simply, a family." Mrs. Usher said bluntly. "He needs the type of individual attention that is very difficult to provide in an institutional setting."

"So, is that it? I mean, he's afraid of women. Is that his only problem?" Cliff asked cautiously, feeling that Mrs. Usher was purposely leaving out some important details.

"JD is very nearly uncommunicative. On a good day, he'll find ways to make us aware of his needs, mostly through gestures." Mrs. Usher said quietly.

"So he's physically able to speak, but unwilling?" Cliff asked carefully.

"Yes. Physically, he is able. Emotionally, he is either unwilling or unable. He's been traumatized to a point that... well, our staff psychologist has worked with JD at some length, but he hasn't been able to make any significant progress. It's our hope that in a home environment, JD may be able to become secure enough to open up and start communicating."

"Do you think we can handle it?" Cliff asked his partner quietly.

"Absolutely. I haven't even seen him and I already know that I'd never be able to forgive myself if I backed out." Ben said with an anguished look into his lover's eyes.

"Then you're decided?" Mrs. Usher asked hopefully.

"Yes. We'll do it." Cliff said, as he looked her in the eyes.

"There's one last thing, before I take you to meet him." Mrs. Usher said as she pulled a file folder from the bottom drawer of her desk. "I feel that it's necessary for you to see these, so you'll have at least some idea of what JD is dealing with."

Cliff and Ben both sat forward as she opened the folder. After a pause, she turned it on her desk and scooted it forward, so they could both see.

"Holy God!" Ben exclaimed as his eyes filled with tears. "He's just a baby!"

"At the time these were taken, we estimated that he was six years old. He's spent a lot of time in the hospital since then. He's seven now." Mrs. Usher said quietly.

"How is he even alive after this?" Cliff asked in disbelief.

"The police officers that took these photos believed him to be dead when they found him. These were the crime scene photos they took while they waited for the coroner to arrive. I hear that the coroner nearly fainted when he realized that JD was alive."

"But how could anyone... my God! He's hanging from meat hooks..." Ben asked as he desperately wiped the tears from his eyes.

"The damage was, indeed, significant, but, somehow, no vital organs were pierced." Mrs. Usher said as she averted her eyes from the graphic photos. "It appears that someone purposefully, and very skillfully, suspended him on those hooks. We can only speculate as to why."

"Are these patterns painted on him some type of religious design?" Cliff asked quietly.

"Perhaps. But the police detectives haven't been able to match them to any existing religious cult." Mrs. Usher said professionally, then added hesitantly, "But it's not paint; those are tattoos."

"But... they're covering nearly his whole body." Ben said in a pleading voice, almost begging her to say it wasn't true.

"Yes. He always wears long sleeved, turtle neck shirts, and gloves, to hide them." Mrs. Usher said in a voice that betrayed a little of her welling emotions.

"Something about the tattoos looks strange... what are these ridges?" Cliff asked as he pointed at one of the more detailed photographs.

"The police report calls it ritual scarification. The skin has been repeatedly cut, spread apart, and burned, to cause that type of scarring. The detectives that I spoke with say that this level of scarring would have taken years to achieve." Mrs. Usher said quietly.

"This poor little boy must have been tortured every day of his entire life." Cliff said as he looked at one picture after another.

"We may never know that for sure. JD refuses to answer any questions about anything that happened to him before he arrived here. He just shuts down when he's asked." Mrs. Usher said in a voice that revealed her own emotions were about to get out of control.

"If I were him, I don't think I'd want to remember it either." Cliff said absently as he carefully examined the photos.

"It's possible that he doesn't remember anything. Although his medical tests don't show any brain damage, it's possible that some of the drugs in his system when he was found did something to his memory. The lab tests weren't able to identify them all. I suppose it's also possible that all the memories are still there, but he's repressing them out of some sort of survival instinct. I certainly wouldn't blame him for that."

"Oh my God!" Ben gasped as Cliff turned over a photograph and revealed the next one in the stack.

Mrs. Usher glanced at the picture before saying, "Of course, all the piercings and such have been removed. The doctors say that he has healed without complication and shouldn't have any lasting effects from the damage to his genitals." Mrs. Usher said, then discreetly used a tissue to wipe the tears from her eyes.

"Were there any indications of sexual abuse... I mean, besides this?" Cliff asked reluctantly.

"No. It appears that whatever prompted this... mutilation, wasn't sexual in nature. The police are still operating under the theory that it's some sort of religious rite." Mrs. Usher said as she gathered the pictures back into the folder. "If you're still sure that you want JD to come and live with you, I'll take you to him now."

"Absolutely." Ben said immediately, then hesitated and quietly continued, "But before we meet him, I would like to know one thing."

"What is that, Mr. Stone?"

"What does JD stand for?"

"John Doe." Mrs. Usher said, as she looked him in the eyes. "He either doesn't remember, or won't tell us his real name and the police still have no clue as to his true identity."

* * * * *

"This is our library. I can't go any further, or JD will see me and have a bad reaction. Just go in and talk to him. Mr. Cooper, our staff psychologist, will join you in a few minutes and take you to JD's room to gather his things." Mrs. Usher said as she peeked into the room through the window.

"Thank you for doing this, Mrs. Usher. I can tell that you'd be more comfortable placing JD with a straight couple. I really appreciate that you're going against what you've believed for years, just to do the right thing for him." Ben said gently.

"Please don't think too poorly of me, Mr. Stone. It's not that I believe that gay people are somehow unworthy of having children. It's just been my experience that same sex couples tend to have less stable home lives than traditional heterosexual couples. But I suppose with all the divorce and single parents these days, there may not be much of a difference anymore. I hope for JD's sake that you two will be the exception to what I've always believed is the rule."

"We'll do our best." Cliff said, then motioned for Ben to walk with him into the library.

* * * * *

"Can I help you, gentlemen?" The middle aged librarian asked as Cliff and Ben walked in.

"We're just here to talk to JD." Ben said simply.

"Are you police?" The librarian asked cautiously.

Cliff smiled, then said, "No. We're going to be JD's foster parents."

"You? Both of you?" the librarian asked incredulously.

Cliff and Ben both slowly nodded.

"Usher is going to let a gay couple be foster parents?" the librarian asked in shock.

"Is that a problem?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"Not at all! Maybe the dark ages are finally coming to an end. I never thought I'd live to see it." He said happily.

"I think we're kind of a test case for her. So we'll do our best to make it so others can get the chance." Ben said with a gentle smile.

"If you need anything... ANYTHING to help JD, just call me. My name's Andy." The librarian said seriously.

"It's nice to meet you, Andy. If anything comes up, we'll give you a call." Ben promised.

"JD likes to read. Make sure you take him to the bookstore and library often." Andy said firmly, then gently added, "I think it's the only escape he has."

"We'll be sure that he has plenty of reading material." Cliff assured.

"Now, if you'll excuse us, we're going to meet our son." Ben said with a watery smile.

* * * * *

"JD?" Ben said gently, "May we sit with you?"

The little boy glanced from one man to the other, then went back to reading his book without acknowledging them.

Ben was startled by JD's arresting blue/gray eyes. The boy was small and had neatly trimmed dark brown hair, but all his features were just a backdrop, framing those large, intense eyes that looked like cold steel.

"I'm Cliff, and this is Ben. We'd like very much to take you to our home so you could live with us. We've heard that you don't like to talk much. But we need for you to find some way to let us know if that would be okay with you." Cliff said carefully.

JD looked up from his book, at Cliff, impassively.

"Like I said, my name is Cliff. I'm a pediatrician... that's a doctor especially for kids." Cliff said as he tried to get some sense of what JD was thinking or feeling.

After a moment to consider, JD turned to Ben and seemed to be waiting.

"I'm Ben and I'm a writer. The librarian said that you like to read, so it sounds like we could be a pretty good team." Ben said with a smile.

JD looked at Ben for a moment longer, then turned his full attention back to his book.

Ben flashed a desperate look at his lover, hoping that Cliff had found something in their interaction that would give them reason to hope.

Both Cliff and Ben watched as JD turned the page of his book and continued to read.

"If there's anything you want to know about us, just find a way to let us know what it is and we'll tell you." Ben said anxiously.

JD didn't give any reaction and seemed to be devoting his full attention to his book.

* * * * *

"How are things going in here?" A young looking man in his late twenties asked pleasantly as he approached the table.

"Okay, I think." Ben said hesitantly.

"We were just asking JD if he'd like to come live with us." Cliff added cautiously.

"Well, it looks like JD is engrossed in his book, right now, so why don't we talk while we wait for him to finish the chapter?" The man asked cheerfully.

"Are you Mr. Cooper?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Yes. I see that my reputation precedes me. I bet JD's been saying all kinds of nice things about me." Mr. Cooper said with a grin.

"Not to us." Cliff said honestly.

"Mrs. Usher said that you'd be joining us." Ben added quietly.

"I should have guessed. By the way, the grown ups are welcomed to call me Ron, " He said with a smile. "So what kind of a place is JD going to be moving to? I'd like to have some idea of where he's going. Wait! Let me guess.... a tiny one-bedroom apartment with a single naked light bulb for both heat and light."

"It's a little bit nicer than that." Ben said with a chuckle. "We have a three bedroom house, north of town."

"Three bedrooms? I see two of you... do you have any plans for the third bedroom?" Ron asked in a leading tone.

"Well, actually, that's why we're here. We're looking for just the right person to fill it. We thought JD might be a perfect fit." Cliff said playfully.

Ron glanced to see if JD were going to give any reaction.

After a moment, Ron asked, "So this house of yours, is it surrounded by pavement, like this place?"

"Oh no. We have a great big yard with lots of trees." Cliff said cheerfully.

"And a pool." Ben added helpfully.

"A pool... table?" Ron asked with a grin.

"Well, yes, we do have one of those in the basement. But I was talking about the swimming pool in the back yard." Ben said with a smile.

"I see... Your place sounds a lot nicer than mine. I tell you what, if JD doesn't want to go with you, can I come?" Ron asked with exaggerated hopeful wide eyes.

"Well, I don't know... JD is our first choice." Ben said in a wavering tone.

JD slowly closed his book, then stood and walked away from the table.

"Too much?" Cliff asked with concern.

"Just watch." Ron said with a sly smile, then tilted his head in JD's direction.

The three men watched as JD took the book to the librarian to turn it in.

A moment later, JD walked back to the table and picked up his backpack.

Ben and Cliff looked at each other, then at Ron, with question.

"I think that means that he's ready to go and just waiting on you two." Ron said with a grin.

"Well, I think one of you guys should lead the way. I don't know my way around here." Cliff said with a loving smile at the boy beside him.

"I can never remember which kid goes in which room. JD, why don't you show us the way?" Ron said cheerfully.

JD glanced at the three men, then started toward the door.

* * * * *

Cliff and Ben were impressed with the tidy bedroom. There were two sets of bunk beds, two tall dressers lining the walls and a large circular table with four chairs off to the side, just under a window. There was enough open floorspace to make the room feel spacious and comfortable.

"JD, why don't you get your things together while I show our guests around?" Ron asked pleasantly.

Even though he didn't give any indication of hearing Ron's words, JD walked to one of the dressers and started to gather his clothes.

"This is really nice. Somehow I thought it would be more... I don't know... depressing." Ben said honestly.

"It's not always a happy place, but we do our best to try to keep things upbeat." Ron said with a smile, then looked curiously at what JD was doing as he continued. "As childcare facilities go, this is one of the better ones."

Cliff and Ben watched as JD took a small pile of folded clothes and placed them on one of the beds.

"What do you suppose that's about?" Cliff asked curiously.

"I think JD is wanting to leave some things behind, for his roommates." Ron said and suddenly seemed to be fighting back tears.

"What is it?" Ben asked gently.

"With everything these kids have been through... sometimes it just amazes me how people who have so little can give so freely." Ron said as he got himself back under control.

They watched as JD hoisted himself up so he could place another bundle of clothes on the top bunk.

"I suppose there's some business we should discuss before it's time for you to go." Ron said as he tore his gaze away from JD.

"Mrs. Usher's secretary already had us fill out a ton of paperwork. As far as I know, everything's done." Cliff said seriously.

"I'm talking about JD's therapy appointments. Since he's in foster care, you can bring him back here to meet with me, if you want. But if that's going to be too far out of your way, I can recommend some state certified psychologists in your area." Ron said professionally. "After he's had some time to settle in, call me and we'll work it out."

"My office is only about five blocks from here. We should be able to make it work." Cliff said frankly.

"Are you talking about the Professional Building on Bleaker?" Ron asked curiously.

"Yes. I've been there for about two years." Cliff said seriously.

"I seem to remember something in your file saying that you're a pediatrician." Ron confirmed.

"Yes. That's right." Cliff said cautiously.

"I didn't realize we had a pediatrician that close. Would you mind if I made some inquiries about getting you listed as one of our certified physicians?" Ron asked hopefully.

"What would that entail?" Cliff asked slowly.

"We'd bring you kids, you'd treat them, the state would pay for it. We already have two or three physicians listed, so you wouldn't be getting the whole lot. But there have been times when it would have been nice to have a doctor a little bit closer by." Ron said frankly.

"Go ahead and make your inquiries. When I can see your proposal in writing, I'll be able to give you a more definite answer." Cliff said seriously.

"I'll get the wheels in motion right away, then. Expect to be hearing from me sometime in the next week or so." Ron said with a smile.

"Guys." Ben said to draw their attention, then gestured toward the door.

JD was standing by the door with a small cloth duffel bag in his hand and his backpack slung on his back.

"I guess this means that he's ready to go." Ron said with a tender smile at the boy.

"Can we call you if we run into problems? I foresee some communication issues in our future." Cliff said frankly.

"Sure, here's my card. Please feel free to call me at any time." Ron said as he handed his business card to Cliff.

"Are you all ready to go?" Ben asked as he walked to JD's side.

Without looking back, JD walked out the door.

"Good luck." Ron said as he watched Cliff and Ben follow the boy into the hall.

* * * * *

"We're going to need to get him a booster seat." Cliff said as he checked to see that JD was secured.

"Isn't he kind of old to need a car seat?" Ben asked hesitantly.

"What I'm talking about is a booster. It just raises him up so the seatbelt fits him correctly, so that in the event of an accident he'll be properly restrained." Cliff said seriously.

"This is one of those pediatrician things, isn't it?" Ben asked with a grin.

"Not just pediatricians. I'm sure anyone who's ever had to rescue or treat a child who wasn't properly restrained in a vehicle accident would tell you the same thing. For just a few dollars and a few minutes of your time, you can significantly increase your child's chances of surviving an accident." Cliff said frankly.

"I'll pick one up tomorrow." Ben said quietly.

"It would probably be out of your way. I can get one on the way home from work." Cliff said casually.

"How are you doing back there?" Ben asked as he turned to look into the back seat.

JD didn't give any indication that he had heard the question as he looked out the window.

"Is it autism?" Ben asked quietly, hoping that JD wouldn't overhear.

"There's a whole range of criteria to make that determination." Cliff answered slowly, "But my gut is telling me 'no'."

Ben looked at his partner hopefully, waiting for more of an explanation.

"I think Mrs. Usher may be right. Even though JD has some of the classic autistic 'tells', I believe that what we're seeing is his natural defensive reaction to an unimaginable trauma." Cliff said carefully.

"What can we do to help him?" Ben asked quietly.

"Be strong, and let him know that we care." Cliff said with a slight shrug as he drove. "Give him the safety and security that he should have had all his life."

"Are you sure about doing this?" Ben asked with concern.

"Now you ask." Cliff responded with a cheeky grin, then at the look of concern in Ben's eyes he confidently whispered, "Yeah. I'm sure."

* * * * *

"Here we are!" Ben said happily.

"Do you want to see your new home?" Cliff asked with a smile into the back seat.

JD didn't reveal any emotion, but opened his car door and picked up his luggage.

"It's just about dinner time; why don't we show JD his room and give him some time to unpack while dinner is cooking?" Ben asked cheerfully.

"Sounds good. Then, after dinner, we can give JD the grand tour." Cliff said happily as he unlocked the front door.

* * * * *

"Well, this is it. I hope you like it here." Cliff said as he led the way into the entry hall.

JD slowly looked around and seemed to be getting pale.

"I bet all of this is kind of overwhelming. Come on, and I'll show you your room." Cliff said as he started walking.

Ben noticed the wide eyed expression on JD's face and was worried for a moment that the little boy might pass out.

"Are you okay?" Ben whispered as he knelt at the boy's side and gently put an arm around him.

Cliff stopped at the hallway and watched as JD turned and returned Ben's hug with all his might.

"It's okay, JD. You're safe here." Ben whispered.

"Why don't you show JD to his room while I get dinner started." Cliff said warmly at the sight.

JD suddenly pulled away from Ben, then ran to Cliff and hugged him firmly around the waist.

"Or... we could both show him his room." Ben said as he slowly stood.

"I like that plan even better." Cliff said, then coaxed JD to release his hold.

"Come on up here where I can hug you back." Cliff said, then hoisted the boy up onto his hip.

After a moment to find his grip, JD nestled into Cliff's shoulder and hugged him.

"I think that if you wanted, we could make this a three-way hug." Cliff said to Ben with a grin.

"That would be great, as long as JD doesn't mind." Ben said as he approached.

JD continued to hold onto Cliff with his right arm, but freed his left and held it out to Ben, inviting him into the hug.

"Thanks, JD." Ben said, then moved in to hug both his lover and his new son.

* * * * *

The trio maintained their hugging formation down the hall and through the door to JD's room.

"Well, JD, here we are. This is your room." Cliff said happily.

He felt the boy's hug suddenly go slack.

"Let's let him explore." Cliff whispered, then gently placed JD on the floor.

"He dropped his duffel bag in the entry hall. I'll go get it." Ben said before rushing out of the room.

JD slowly wandered, carefully touching everything with his gloved hands, as if, by touching, he was convincing himself that it was real.

Ben returned and stopped in the doorway to watch the silent boy exploring his new surroundings.

"JD, you can stay in here and unpack your things if you want. Or you can come with us and keep us company while we make dinner." Cliff said gently.

After a moment, JD stopped his roaming and turned to face Cliff.

"What do you think that means?" Cliff asked Ben curiously.

JD put his arms up and waited.

"Either he's signalling a touchdown or he wants to be picked up." Ben said with a smile.

"I can do that." Cliff said happily, then hoisted the boy onto his hip again. "We're off to the kitchen."

* * * * *

As they entered the kitchen, Cliff carefully lowered JD to the floor and allowed him to stand. "I was thinking about doing some spaghetti with meatballs. Is everyone okay with that?"

JD didn't give any sign of hearing the question, but instead, walked to the refrigerator and started looking through the shelves and drawers.

"Maybe he doesn't like spaghetti." Ben offered cautiously.

"No. I think spaghetti is universally 'kid approved'. Let's just wait and see what he's doing." Cliff said carefully.

Cliff and Ben watched as JD started carrying vegetables to the counter by the sink.

"I think he wants to help us make dinner." Ben said in realization.

"What a wonderful idea! Our first meal as a family will be prepared by the whole family." Cliff said with a grand smile.

"How about I get to work on the pasta and sauce, so you're free to work on the meatballs?" Ben asked thoughtfully.

"If you'll also take on the garlic bread, you've got a deal." Cliff said with a grin.

"Did you pick up any French bread?" Ben asked curiously.

"Even better. I bought a loaf of garlic bread. Just heat and serve. But I'd rather not have to deal with it while I'm up to my elbows in ground meat." Cliff said frankly.

Both men turned at the sound of a chair being scooted across the kitchen floor.

JD climbed up on the chair, then removed his gloves and began to wash the vegetables under the tap.

"We'd better get to work or JD is going to be ready to eat before we've even started." Ben said with a loving smile at the boy.

* * * * *

Both men kept careful watch on the young boy and had matching expressions of indecision and concern when they saw him take a paring knife from the knife rack to cut up the vegetables.

Since JD seemed to know what he was doing, they let him do as he wanted, but both were devoting more attention to what JD was doing than to what they were each working on.

When JD stopped moving for what seemed a moment too long, Ben casually walked over to investigate.

JD was looking at his finger, which had a small dot of blood on it. He seemed to be transfixed by the sight.

"Oh, you cut yourself. Come over here, so we can take care of that." Ben said as he lifted the boy onto his hip and walked him to the sink.

"And WHO is the pediatrician here?" Cliff asked playfully.

"Hmmm... let me see. That would be the guy with his hands in a bowl of ground meat." Ben said, giggling. "Don't worry about this, love. Let me handle your light work."

Ben sat JD on the kitchen counter beside the sink as he turned on the cold water tap.

"We're just going to rinse this off for a few seconds and see if it stops bleeding on its own." Ben said, as he held the boy's finger under the running water.

After a few seconds, Ben turned off the water and examined the finger carefully.

Ben noticed the barbed wire pattern tattooed on the back of each finger, but forced himself to focus on JD's index finger, which had stopped bleeding and seemed none the worse for wear.

"It looks like it stopped all on its own." Ben said happily, then guided JD's finger to his lips and said, "A kiss will make it all better."

JD watched curiously as Ben made a show of kissing his injured finger.

"There, you should be good as new." Ben said happily, then gave JD a quick kiss on the cheek before placing him gently on the floor.

JD stared at his finger for a moment, then brought up his other hand and felt his cheek.

"Do you need any help with that salad you're making?" Ben asked gently.

JD blinked, then walked to the island where he had been working and climbed back onto his chair.

"You should have gone into medicine. You've got a healing touch." Cliff said warmly, as he placed formed meatballs on a baking sheet.

* * * * *

"Would you look at this salad? I might think about becoming a vegetarian with food that looks this good." Cliff said as he took his place at the dinner table.

"I'll make sure to keep everything we need for salad in store." Ben said with a warm smile.

"Is everything ready?" Cliff asked as he looked around.

"I'm just waiting on the garlic bread to be finished. Go ahead and start dishing it up and the bread should be done when you're ready to eat." Ben said as he used salad tongs to get himself a decent-sized portion of salad.

JD was sitting and watching them, not making any move to serve himself.

"Hey, JD. You live here now. This food is for all of us, so dig in. If you want something you can't reach, just point." Cliff said as he served himself some spaghetti.

"That looks kind of messy. Maybe we should do it for him." Ben said thoughtfully.

"The only way he'll figure out how to serve himself spaghetti without making a mess is by trial and error. If he spills a little, we'll clean it up." Cliff said without concern. "Here you go, JD. We've got plenty, so take as much as you want."

After a moment to consider, JD carefully used the serving spoon and fork to guide a portion of spaghetti onto his plate.

"Hey, he did that better than you did!" Ben said with a chuckle.

"Beginner's luck." Cliff said with a barely restrained grin.

"Here's some extra sauce to top it off with and some meatballs." Cliff said as he moved the bowl of meatballs and sauce where JD could reach them easily.

JD looked at the bowl of sauce, then at Cliff with indecision.

"There's plenty. Just take as much as you want." Cliff said assuringly.

After a moment of hesitation, JD carefully moved two meatballs to his plate, then looked at Cliff with question.

"If you still want another one when you've finished that, you can help yourself to more." Cliff assured.

JD seemed to accept the statement, then spooned some extra sauce over his spaghetti and meatballs.

"I have some Parmesan cheese if you'd like some. Just crank the handle like this and it will shred it onto your food." Ben said, then demonstrated on his own plate.

After he had finished, he placed the cheese grater on the table in front of JD.

"I think the garlic bread should be ready now. I'll be right back." Ben said happily as he quickly walked into the kitchen.

Cliff watched as JD carefully shredded cheese onto his spaghetti. His attention was once again drawn to the gloves that the boy was wearing.

"You know, JD. Here at home with us, you don't have to hide yourself." Cliff said gently.

JD stopped all movement, but didn't look at Cliff.

"It's entirely up to you, but if you ever decide that you don't want to wear your gloves, or if you'd like to wear a short sleeve shirt, Ben and I won't mind at all." Cliff said carefully.

"Garlic bread's ready." Ben said happily as he placed a platter filled with sliced garlic bread in the center of the table.

Cliff watched as JD slowly placed the cheese grater beside his plate.

"Here's a garlic bread for you, JD. You don't have to eat it if you don't like it." Ben said and placed a slice of the crunchy garlic bread on the edge of JD's plate.

After a moment of hesitation, JD slowly started to eat his meal.

"Hey, JD. This salad is wonderful. Thank you for making it for us." Ben said happily.

JD didn't give any obvious reaction, but Cliff noticed that his movements seemed to relax a little bit.

* * * * *

"Well, that was a fantastic meal. What would you guys think if we went ahead and had the grand tour now, then come back and do dishes after?" Ben asked cheerfully.

"That sounds good to me. I think I could use a little walk around after all that food. What about you, JD? Would you like to see your new home?" Cliff asked hopefully.

JD got out of his chair and stood, he seemed to be waiting for what was going to happen next.

"Well, you've already seen the kitchen and dining room, so how about we start with the bedrooms?" Cliff suggested helpfully.

JD turned to face Cliff, then put his arms up.

"Touchdown!" Ben said with a grin.

"Do you want to carry him? I'd hate for you to feel deprived." Cliff said with a smile at his partner.

"He's looking at you. I can only assume that means that you're our designated child carrier,." Ben said playfully, then added, "I'm sure I'll get my turn while you're at work tomorrow."

"Fair enough." Cliff said, then walked to JD and picked him up.

Before he had taken two steps, JD had one of his hands extended to Ben, inviting him into the hug.

"Thank you, JD. I'd be happy to join you." Ben said warmly and put an arm around Cliff and JD.

* * * * *

"Well, this is my bedroom." Ben said as they entered. "I usually sleep with Cliff, but sometimes, if I'm working late, or if one of us is having trouble sleeping, I'll sleep in here."

"I think he's noticed your library." Cliff said as he watched the young boy looking at the massive bookcase filling one entire wall of the room.

Cliff gently put JD down and watched as he walked to the bookcase to feel the books with his gloved hand.

"Oh, that's right. I almost forgot to mention, Andy, your librarian friend, told us that you like to read." Ben said happily. "You're welcome to come in here and help yourself to any books that you want, whenever you're in the mood to read something."

JD turned and looked at Cliff and Ben with a disbelieving, yet hopeful, look in his eyes.

"Really. Anytime you feel like reading, be it day or night, you can come in here and choose any book you want." Ben said quietly, warmed to his soul to see the smallest trace of a smile come across the somber boy's face.

Ben was surprised when JD ran to him and hugged him tightly around the waist.

He chuckled a little, then gently said, "If there's anything else you need, to be happy here, just find a way to let us know."

Cliff watched the scene with a tender smile and felt for the first time since meeting JD, that they might actually be able to get through to him.

There was hope.

* * * * *

"Nothing much to see, here." Cliff said as he carried JD into the next room. "This is our bedroom. Bed, dresser, exercise bike/clothes hanger."

"If you wake up in the middle of the night and want to find us, this is where we'll be." Ben added gently.

"But what if we're..." Cliff trailed off, then glanced at Ben urgently.

"We'll tackle that if it becomes a problem. For now, JD needs to know where to find us if he gets scared." Ben said firmly.

Cliff thought for a moment, then nodded his agreement.

"Let's go down to the game room." Ben said with a grin at JD. "You're going to love this."

* * * * *

Cliff let JD down and watched as he explored the finished basement.

"The TV over there is for video games. Over here we have the pool table and dart board." Ben said as he gestured around.

"Maybe we should hold off on the darts for a while." Cliff said seriously.

"No playing with the darts unless one of us is with you." Ben said toward JD, who was still exploring the room.

JD walked to the video game area of the basement, then looked curiously at two overstuffed recliners, off to the side.

"That's our reading nook." Ben explained happily. "Some nights are just perfect for sitting in a comfortable chair and reading the night away."

JD looked at Ben and actually gave a small, hesitant smile of anticipation.

"I think that tonight might just be one of those nights." Cliff said tenderly when he saw the reaction.

"Dishes first." Ben said decisively, breaking the spell.

"Do we have to?" Cliff whined playfully.

"Yes. We do." Ben said firmly, then gestured toward the stairs. "No fun until after the chores are done."

To their surprise, JD walked up the stairs ahead of them.

* * * * *

By the time they had reached the top of the stairs, JD already had a chair pulled up in front of the sink and hot water running.

"We have a dishwasher, JD. You don't have to do that." Ben said quickly.

JD turned and looked at Ben curiously.

"If you'll scrape the plates off and hand them to me, I'll load them into the dishwasher. While we're doing that, Cliff can deal with any leftovers and then give me the pots and pans." Ben said as he opened the dishwasher.

JD picked up a plate and looked at it, then at Ben curiously.

"Here's a rubber spatula. You can use it to scrape the loose stuff off the plate and into the trash, right there. Then hand it to me." Ben said as he pointed.

JD scraped a few stray spaghetti noodles off the plate, then handed it to Ben.

"That's just right." Ben said happily. "Just keep doing that until I have all the dishes."

JD took the next plate and seemed to be a little more sure of himself as he scraped it off.

"It looks like we'll have enough meatballs left over for some meatball subs." Cliff said with a grin.

"Sounds good to me. What do you think, JD? Would you like some meatball submarine sandwiches later this week?" Ben asked happily.

JD didn't react, but continued to hand dishes to Ben.

"Here, I'm done with this." Cliff said as he held out the bowl from the meatballs and sauce.

Before Ben could take it, JD snatched the bowl from Cliff's hand and started to scrape the excess sauce out of it.

"He takes his work seriously." Cliff said with a chuckle.

"A good work ethic is important." Ben said with a tender smile. "And I think that anyone who works this hard deserves to be rewarded."

"How do you mean?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Well, I think that if JD helps us out with cooking and cleaning, he should get an allowance." Ben said before accepting a handful of silverware from JD.

"Good idea. But if he does anything above and beyond normal chores, he'll need to be paid extra. I don't want JD to ever think that he's only here to work for us." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"Agreed." Ben said as he glanced at the sink and noticed that they had finished all the dishes. "But I think we're just about done with the chores, for now."

"JD, if you'll wipe down the sink area. Ben can get the dining room and I'll take care of the stove." Cliff said with a smile.

"I'm on it." Ben said as he closed the dishwasher, and started it going.

JD took off his gloves, then rinsed out a dishrag and started to wipe down the counter tops around the sink.

"The kitchen looks as good as new." Cliff said happily as he finished wiping down the stove.

"The dining room is good too." Ben said as he walked back into the kitchen.

"Well then, what do we have planned for the rest of the evening?" Cliff asked curiously.

"I get the feeling that JD would enjoy some time to read." Ben said with a tender smile at the young boy. "JD, why don't you go into my room and pick out a book for yourself? Then we can go down to the basement and enjoy a few hours of relaxing."

JD gave Ben a quick smile, then walked quickly out of the kitchen.

Cliff looked at Ben with concern.

"I think he's happy here." Ben said honestly, answering the unasked question.

"It's so hard to tell." Cliff said anxiously.

"Come on, love. Let's spend some quality time with our son." Ben said with a watery smile as he draped an arm around his partner.

* * * * *

"I didn't think of it before, but we may need to get some new furniture." Ben said as he reached the bottom of the stairs.

"What were you thinking of?" Cliff asked curiously.

"We only have two comfortable chairs, and three avid readers." Ben said frankly.

"Oh. I see what you mean." Cliff said thoughtfully, then added, "We'll figure something out."

The sound of footsteps on the stairs drew their attention.

"What did you find to read?" Ben asked as he walked to meet JD at the foot of the stairs.

After a moment, JD cautiously held out the book so Ben could take it.

"Meta-Mythological Dynasties?" Ben said with a chuckle of surprise.

JD looked up at him with a hint of anxiety in his eyes.

"Don't worry, JD, I've already said that you can read anything that you like. I'm just surprised by your choice." Ben said as he handed the book back. "Come on, let's go get comfortable."

"Isn't that one of yours?" Cliff asked as he followed Ben and JD into the 'reading nook'.

"Yeah. I wrote that about... four years ago, I think." Ben said as he settled into one of the plush recliners. "Come on up here, little man. We've got more butts than chairs. So we're going to have to double up."

JD looked at him curiously, but went along willingly as Ben drew him into the chair.

"Hey! Look at that, you two fit in there just perfectly." Cliff said with a tender smile.

"I kind of thought that we would." Ben said as he reached across JD to get the book he had been reading.

JD had already opened his book and was reading with his nose about six inches from the page.

"It's bad for your eyes to read in the dark." Cliff said as he turned on the reading light between the chairs.

JD looked up with surprise, then smiled at Cliff.

"You're welcome." Cliff said with a grin, then settled into his own chair.

* * * * *

They had been reading quietly for a while when Ben felt a little hand tapping on his arm.

"Did you need something, JD?" Ben asked curiously.

JD shifted the book off his lap to where Ben could see it more easily, then pointed at a passage of text.

"Oh, yeah. That's kind of difficult to explain. Basically, Khaos was the essence of disorder before anything that could be considered 'real' existed. When Kosmos formed, he took the stuff that was floating randomly and without purpose and began to organize it and give it form. What this is really saying is that Khaos continues on, trying to undo the work of his younger brother and return the universe to the empty, peaceful place that it once was." Ben said carefully.

JD sat quietly for a moment, then slowly shifted the book back to his own lap.

"Isn't that a little bit advanced for a seven year old?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"Probably, but if he's enjoying it, what's the harm?" Ben asked with a one armed shrug.

"I'm just worried about him reading something that might further traumatize him." Cliff said frankly.

"I can't think of anything in my library that should bother him. I'm fairly selective about what I read." Ben said thoughtfully. "There may be a few books with adult themes, but I'm pretty sure that all of those are positive and healthy examples of loving relationships."

Cliff looked at the little boy, snuggled into Ben's side, reading as though nothing else in the world existed to him.

"And just so you know, JD's not the first one to ask me about that passage of text. I've had four or five other people ask me about the same thing." Ben said frankly, then quietly added, "Of course, they were all college students."

"I don't know how we would go about testing him for his reading level. But it looks like he may be off the chart." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"I think it's a few years before they test for that in school. Most seven year olds are just learning the absolute basics about reading. They probably couldn't read a 'real' book if they tried." Ben said as he watched JD turn the page.

"From what I've seen, most high school graduates these days couldn't either." Cliff said frankly.

Ben nodded his agreement, then went back to reading his own book.

* * * * *

"Well, it's been a long, exciting day, JD needs to get his sleep, and I have to work in the morning." Cliff said as he slipped a bookmark into his book before setting it aside.

"I think I might have dozed off for a minute or two while I was reading." Ben said with a chuckle.

"How about you, JD? Are you about ready for bed?" Cliff asked as he slowly stood.

JD flipped to the next page in his book, then held it out for Ben to see.

"Good idea. Finish that chapter, then we'll get ready for bed." Ben said gently.

"I'm heading up. I'll make sure everything's closed up." Cliff said as he started walking toward the stairs.

"I didn't realize it was so late. Why don't you go on to bed and let me take care of it. You have to be up early." Ben said sympathetically.

"I won't give you any argument. I feel like I'll be asleep before my head hits the pillow." Cliff said, then trudged up the stairs.

Ben reached to the side table beside the chair and grabbed a bookmark. Before he could put it in his book, he stopped and reached back for a second one.

Just as he was placing the first bookmark into his book, JD looked up from his own book and closed it with his finger holding his place.

"Here you go." Ben said as he offered the second bookmark.

JD smiled as he accepted the bookmark, then carefully marked his place before closing the book all the way.

"You can leave your book right here, if you want." Ben said as he sat his book aside.

JD held the book tight against his chest, looking as if he would fight if Ben tried to take it away.

"It's fine if you want to take it with you. I was just thinking that Cliff and I do most of our reading down here, since it's such a comfortable spot and it has the right lighting." Ben said as he coaxed JD to get out of the chair.

JD stood, still holding the book close to him and looking cautious.

Ben smiled as he stood, then said, "I promise, JD. I'm not going to try to take it away from you."

After a moment, JD seemed to relax a little, so Ben said, "Let's go up and get ready for bed."

* * * * *

"I guess since you're seven years old, that you don't need for me to bathe you or anything like that." Ben said as they walked toward JD's room. "Let's get your bedclothes together, then I'll show you where to find everything that you'll need in the bathroom."

JD walked into his room and reverently placed the book on his bed.

"Do you have pajamas or anything like that with you?" Ben asked as he waited by the door.

JD opened his duffel bag and pulled out a pair of what looked to be very well worn sweat pants and a sweat shirt.

"Those look comfortable, but I think you're about due for some new ones." Ben said casually. "I tell you what, I have some work that I have to get done in the morning, but maybe I'll take you shopping in the afternoon and we'll get you a few things."

JD took a small vinyl pouch out of his duffel bag, then walked to stand by Ben.

"If you're ready, I'll show you where to get cleaned up."

* * * * *

"Towels, soap, shampoo. It's all pretty easy to find, I think." Ben said casually as he walked around the bathroom. "You have a shower stall or a bathtub to choose from. Since we aren't in any hurry, you can shower or bathe, whichever you feel like."

JD was walking around the bathroom and Ben couldn't tell from his expression if he was even hearing what he was being told.

"Do you have a toothbrush?" Ben asked curiously.

JD took his vinyl case to the vanity by the sink and opened it to reveal a small toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste.

"Well, it looks like you have everything you need, then. I'm going to be in my room, just across the hall, if you need anything." Ben said seriously.

JD looked up at Ben with those large blue/gray eyes, and Ben couldn't even begin to guess at what was going on in his mind.

"When you're done with your bath, I'll come in and say 'goodnight'." Ben said gently before closing the door.

* * * * *

After a few minutes of quiet, Ben heard the sound of the shower starting up.

"Bubble bath." Ben said aloud as he added it to his shopping list.

He didn't have any experience raising children, but he remembered being a child and had always enjoyed playing in a tub full of frothy bubbles.

With a smile, he also added 'bath toys' to his list.

After a few minutes of wandering thoughts, Ben turned his attention back to his list of tasks for the coming day.

He had recently finished writing his latest book and was doing a last review before sending it off to his publisher.

Although it would take some time to read through the whole thing, he would be able to set it aside and attend to JD if he needed anything. In fact, with JD's passion for reading, he might very well be able to make it through the entire manuscript without interruption.

He heard the shower stop and listened carefully, worried that JD might have some sort of problem in the unfamiliar bathroom.

The boy was so quiet that Ben couldn't guess at what he was doing until he heard the sound of the water running in the sink.

"Good boy." Ben muttered, knowing that JD was brushing his teeth.

A few minutes later, he heard the bathroom door open and the sound of little bare feet walking quietly across the hall.

Ben slowly got up from his chair with a smile on his face.

'Our son.' He thought to himself, once again amazed at the wonderful gift they had been given.

* * * * *

"Are you all ready for bed?" Ben asked gently as he walked into JD's room.

JD looked at Ben suddenly, then hopped on the bed and rushed to hide his hands and bare feet under the edge of the blanket.

"It's okay, JD. I know all about the tattoos." Ben said as he walked slowly into the room. "I can understand if you're shy about them. But if you're worried about what I'll do if I see them, you don't need to be."

The expression in JD's eyes was uncertainty with a tinge of fear.

"JD, Mrs. Usher told us all about you before we ever agreed to be your foster parents. We chose you just the way you are." Ben said with a gentle smile.

There was a moment when JD seemed to be considering the words, then he relaxed a little.

"Now, snuggle down into the blankets and get comfortable. It's time for sleep." Ben said gently.

JD took the book off his bed and placed it carefully on the bedside stand.

"I'll probably be awake before you are, tomorrow. I have some work to do in the morning, so you'll be able to find me in my room. That's the one right next door." Ben said as he pointed at the wall. "Just come in and get me when you wake up."

A blank stare was JD's only response.

"We'll be in Cliff's room at the end of the hall if you need us for anything at all during the night." Ben said gently as he brushed a few strands of damp hair off JD's forehead.

As Ben was about to get up, JD hesitantly pulled one of his hands from under the blanket and held out his hand with his index finger extended, like he wanted Ben to look at it.

Ben took the offered hand, then looked at the finger carefully.

JD's tiny cut from earlier wasn't even visible.

Ben was about to say as much when he saw the expectation in JD's eyes.

In a flash of insight, Ben knew what JD wanted.

He took the finger to his lips and kissed it, then leaned in and gave JD a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"Goodnight, JD. Have a good sleep."

JD seemed to be frozen in place for a moment, then he lunged forward and gave Ben a fierce hug.

Ben chuckled at the reaction, and returned the hug more gently.

"Remember, if you need me, I'm just at the end of the hall." Ben whispered.

JD finally released the hug and settled back onto the bed.

After a moment, Ben stood and walked to the door.

As he turned off the light, he whispered, "I love you, JD."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes: I really enjoyed this heartwarming story, so far. Several people seem to have had their hearts warmed, in this chapter. Even the prissy Mrs. Usher is doing what might have been totally unthinkable, only a few years ago. It is, also, nice to see a child protection worker who cares enough about her young charges' welfare to see to it that the child gets a chance to live a good and happy life, free from fear.

I don't know how long it will take before JD will be able or willing to speak, but he is showing signs of accepting the love that Cliff and Ben are giving him, and that is certainly a good beginning.

I am looking forward to many more chapters of the new and wonderful story from MultiMapper.

Thank you MM for another wonderful story, that is sure to grab the hearts and minds of many readers.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher