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Chapter 3

"Good morning, love. Have you been awake long?"

"Not too long. I've just been thinking."

"What about?"

"What would you think about inviting Todd over for dinner tonight?"

"Yeah. That sounds nice."

"Good. Then call me if he's coming so I'll know how many I'm cooking for."

"Why don't you invite him?"

"Because he's your friend."

"Todd is OUR friend."

"He's only my friend because he's your friend."

"I thought you liked Todd."

"I do. He's friendly and laid back and lots of fun to be around."

"So why don't you think of him as your friend?"

"Because my friends tend to be self-obsessed, needy, and usually bipolar."

"What does that say about me?"

"Not as much as it says about me. Will you invite him over?"

"Sure. I'll call him when I go to lunch."

"I bet you wake him up."

"No bet. That's pretty much a sure thing with Todd."

"Yeah. I remember you saying that he doesn't like to emerge from his cocoon before the crack of noon."

"So why do you want me to invite Todd over?"

"So JD can meet him."


"And what?"

"And... why do you want JD to meet Todd? Not that I'm against the idea, I'd just like to know what you're up to."

"Because Todd has some really nice tattoos. I thought that if JD is around someone else who has tattoos, maybe he'll develop a little better attitude toward them, and by association, himself. You know, give him a sense of normalcy about his appearance."

"But if Todd reminds JD of whoever tattooed him, it might frighten him and make things worse."

"I suppose that's possible, but I really think that it's the right thing to do. JD has been making incredible progress, and I think it's probably good for him to keep challenging his boundaries. I'm afraid that the longer JD lives with a poor self-image, the harder it will be for him to see the beautiful person that he is."

"Well, if it were anyone but Todd, I might be worried about it. But he's so good natured, I can't imagine him scaring anyone."

"I think so, too."

"Guess what time it is."

"Is it time for you to go to work, already?"

"Actually, no. I asked Brynna not to schedule anyone before nine for me today. I talked to Raj about it yesterday before I left, so he knows I'm going to be late."

"So what time is it?"

"Time for me to show you just how much I love you."

"Mmm... I like that answer."

* * * * *

Ben booted up his computer, then just sat and sipped coffee while he contemplated how wonderful his life had become. He was still riding a euphoric wave from the enthusiastic lovemaking earlier.

He felt so incredibly blessed. On top of having the opportunity to raise and care for a wonderful little boy with a tremendous heart, he also had been gifted with a lover who would do something so incredibly romantic, for no other reason but the love they share.

Finally, Ben turned his attention, at least a little, to the screen in front of him and began checking his email.

There wasn't anything of consequence, so he closed down the email program and opened the word processor.

As it came to life, his eyes were drawn to the little laptop off to the side.

Tears welled in his eyes as he remembered JD hunting and pecking on the little keyboard. When he and Cliff had talked about the possibility of becoming foster parents, he had fallen in love with the idea. But the reality was so much more than he ever imagined. The realization washed over him that by writing, JD was saying, in his own way, that he wanted to follow in Ben's footsteps... in essence, JD was silently saying, 'I want to be like my Daddy'.

A tear fell down Ben's cheek at the enormity of what he and Cliff were doing. This wasn't babysitting, just keeping JD fed, clothed, and relatively happy. They WERE JD's parents. His eventual success or failure was, in large part, theirs to determine. And considering how many cards JD already had dealt against him, he would need every advantage they could give him.

Ben stood and forced himself not to pursue that train of thought. He glanced at the little laptop computer again, then walked to the living room to retrieve the typing tutor program, where he had left it the night before.

* * * * *

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?" Ben asked gently to the sleep rumpled little boy in his doorway.

JD absently scrubbed at one eye, then looked at Ben and shyly smiled.

"Good." Ben said with a chuckle at the reaction. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry... for waffles."

JD put his arms up, and was wearing a full smile.

"And I think waffles require smokie sausages." Ben said as he picked JD up and gave him a firm hug.

"If you want, you can make the batter."

* * * * *

After breakfast was finished, Ben introduced JD to the typing tutor program.

It only took a minute or so of trying to type before JD went to his room and got his new fingerless gloves.

Ben watched with pride as JD worked on the typing tutor with single-minded determination.

* * * * *

After a few hours of performing file maintenance and doing back-ups, Ben found himself without any outstanding tasks. He knew from experience that his editor would be emailing him with requests for clarification or to verify his references, but that probably wouldn't happen for a few days. He might even make it to Monday before his publisher needed anything from him for this phase of the book.

"JD, why don't you find a good stopping point, then come into the kitchen and help me make some sandwiches?" Ben asked casually.

JD glanced up from the computer for an instant, but immediately turned his attention back to the screen and started typing.

Ben smiled for a moment, then slowly walked out of the room.

* * * * *

As Ben expected, he hadn't even had time to get everything out of the refrigerator before JD was in the kitchen, at his side.

"Well, since you came up with such a good sandwich yesterday, I thought I'd put you in charge of sandwich making, today." Ben said as he placed the sandwich supplies on the island.

"While you're doing that, I'll find the picnic basket and try to get everything else we need together." Ben said with a smile.

JD looked at Ben curiously.

"Just make the sandwiches, and you'll see, in a few minutes." Ben said happily before walking into the pantry.

JD looked after him for a moment, then went to work assembling sandwiches for both of them.

* * * * *

"Go get your truck. You're going to need it." Ben said as he finished packing the last of their picnic supplies into the basket.

JD gave Ben another curious look, then hurried to his room.

Ben checked to see that his cell phone was turned on, then he picked up the basket and waited for JD to return.

JD skidded into the room with the yellow dump truck held in both arms.

"Off we go, then." Ben said, then led the way to the back door.

JD followed cautiously.

"Remember us telling you that we have a big yard? Well, here it is." Ben said as they stepped out into the sparkling sunlight.

JD looked around in wonder.

The main feature of the back yard was a modest sized, but very nice swimming pool.

As JD looked around he could see that the back yard seemed to go on and on.

"Come on." Ben said, then offered his hand.

It took a moment for JD to overcome his surprise, but he finally took the hand and held it firmly.

"It's so nice this morning, I was thinking that a picnic in the back yard would be just perfect. We can't stay inside all the time." Ben said as they walked at a casual pace.

After passing the pool, they walked for a minute or so before they reached the edge of the mowed lawn. Beyond that point, everything was wild.

"I know it doesn't look like it, but this is a path." Ben said as he pushed some weeds aside and flattened them as he walked on them.

"Just up ahead is a nice clearing, and I think it's going to be the perfect place for our picnic." Ben said happily.

JD's head was swiveling in every direction as he tried to take in all the sights.

"Here we are." Ben said as they reached an outcropping of rocks.

"And do you see down there?" Ben said in a grim voice. "I think we need someone with a dump truck to cart away some of those loose rocks."

JD looked up at Ben with amusement dancing in his eyes.

"Go on. I'm just going to lay things out, then maybe I'll read for a while." Ben said as he took one step up and was on top of the flat rock.

* * * * *

JD did, indeed, haul away many, many of the crumbled rocks.

Ben watched, appreciating the tranquility of their surroundings and the unparalleled joy of watching a happy child at play.

Eventually, JD stopped playing and climbed the rock to sit by Ben.

Without a word, Ben laid out their meal.

They both sat silently and ate, enjoying the sparkling sunlight and the slightest breeze.

When the food was finished, JD remained at Ben's side and eventually fell asleep with a tiny smile on his face.

Ben couldn't resist the urge, and placed a feather-light kiss on the top of his head, before settling back to watch JD sleep.

* * * * *

"I'm taking lunch." Cliff called toward the receptionist's station from his doorway.

Brynna nodded that she had heard him, then went back to typing something on her computer.

Cliff walked to his desk, then dialed the number of one of his best friends.

"What the fuck do you want?" An angry voice muttered, barely coherently.

"Most people say 'hello'." Cliff quipped with a smile.

"Do you know what time it is?"

"12:45 in the afternoon. Did I wake you?" Cliff asked playfully.

"What was your first fuckin' clue?"

"I just wanted to call to invite you over for dinner tonight. If I waited any later, you might make other plans." Cliff said frankly.


"Yeah. Good morning, sunshine." Cliff said with an irritating amount of cheer.

There was a growl on the other end of the line.

"So, can you make it? My house, at six?" Cliff asked hopefully.

"Um... what's the occasion?" Todd asked slowly, finally starting to sound more awake.

"Ben and I have been given the honor and privilege of being foster parents to a wonderful little, seven year old boy." Cliff said happily.

"Wait! Seriously?" Todd said quickly. "You got a kid?"

"That's right. And I was hoping that you could come over tonight and meet him." Cliff said warmly.

"Yeah. Absolutely. I can't wait!" Todd said happily.

"Okay, we'll be expecting you at six." Cliff said with a gentle smile, knowing that Todd was sincerely happy for them.

"Oh, um. Wait." Todd said slowly, "Would it be okay if I brought someone with me?"

"A new boyfriend?" Cliff asked with surprise.

"No. Nothing like that, he's straight... well, mostly."

"Mostly?" Cliff asked with amusement.

"It's a long story that I'll let him tell you if he wants to. Let's just say, we're not dating. But he's a great guy and I like having him around." Todd said frankly.

"He sounds like someone I'd like to meet. Feel free to bring him along." Cliff said with a smile.

"I'll see you at six. Thanks for the invite." Todd said sincerely.

"Of course, but I hope you know that you're always welcome at our house." Cliff said honestly.

"Yeah, I know. But still... thanks."

"I'll see you at six." Cliff said with a tender smile.

"See ya then." Todd said before hanging up.

* * * * *

Ben's cell phone ringing woke JD from his light sleep.

After checking the caller ID, Ben quietly said, "Hi, love."

"How are my two favorite people in the world doing today?" Cliff asked gently.

"We were just having a picnic on the big rock in the back yard." Ben said with a tender look at JD.

"Sounds nice." Cliff said with a smile, then added, "I just wanted to let you know that Todd said he'd come, and he's bringing someone with him."

"A date?" Ben asked with surprise.

"He says no. They're just friends." Cliff said consideringly.

"Friends is nice." Ben said with a smile.

"I was thinking that since it's such a gorgeous day out, what would you think about steaks on the grill?" Cliff asked curiously.

Ben thought for a moment, then said, "It is a perfect day for it, but... I'll need to go to the store."

"Oh. I hadn't thought of that." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"How about I see what I can do? If we end up having tuna casserole, it's not going to ruin the evening." Ben said frankly.

"I guess not." Cliff said with a smile. "I should be home on time."

"I hope so, because if we're having steaks, I'm going to be counting on you to cook them."

"It's a deal." Cliff chuckled.

"I'll see you soon." Ben said warmly.

"I love you." Cliff whispered.

"I love you too." Ben whispered in return.

"Before you go, let me talk to JD." Cliff said quickly.

"He doesn't talk." Ben said with a grin as he motioned for JD to 'come here'.

"Smart ass, just put him on." Cliff chuckled.

"Your pappa wants to talk to you." Ben said with a smile, then stopped and puzzled over his choice of words.

JD cautiously held the phone to his ear.

Ben watched as JD's eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face.

A moment later, JD handed the phone back to him.

"See you soon, bye." Ben said gently.


* * * * *

"Well, JD, I don't know if you heard what we were talking about, but we need to go to the grocery store. I only need a few things, so it's just going to take a few minutes. But if we don't go, we won't be able to have steaks or salad tonight." Ben said as he watched for JD's reaction.

"When we get there, just hold on to me tight and close your eyes if you need to. I promise that I won't let anything happen to you." Ben said as he gathered the remnants of their picnic.

"Don't forget your truck." Ben said as he picked up the picnic basket.

JD hurried down off the rock and quickly grabbed his dump truck.

* * * * *

"See, this isn't too bad." Ben said as he carried JD through the store.

JD was holding on tightly, but didn't seem to be having too much trouble.

After picking out some nice steaks and plenty of vegetables for salad, Ben braced himself for trying to get JD through the checkout.

When he got to the front of the store, he was relieved to find that they had a male cashier on duty.

Even though his checkout line was a little longer than some others, Ben was happy to wait.

A few women in the other lines looked curiously at JD, recognizing that he was terrified, but thankfully, none of them approached.

When Ben and JD finally got to the checkout, the cashier quietly asked, "Is he alright?"

Ben could see the concern in the young man's eyes, so he quietly said, "JD is afraid of women."

The cashier looked Ben in the eyes and wearily said, "Work in a grocery store for a while, you will be too."

Ben gave a sympathetic nod, then started bagging groceries with one hand.

"Do you need some help with that?" A teenage girl asked as she approached.

As much as Ben wanted to say 'yes', so she would carry the bags out to the car for him, he could tell from JD's death grip on him that there was just no way.

"No thank you. I can get it." Ben said politely.

The girl looked at him uncertainly, but eventually moved to the next checkstand to help that customer.

"I can help you with that, if you'd like." The cashier said gently.

Ben looked up and noticed that the checkstand's light was turned off and there was no one behind him in line.

"Thanks. I'd appreciate that." Ben said gratefully, then looked to see the cashier's name on his nametag.

Ben read it, then read it again.

"Zeb?" He finally asked. He just couldn't help it.

The cashier looked up, then recognizing Ben's puzzled expression he said, "Short for Zebediah."

"I'm sorry." Ben said with a wince.

"Me too." Zeb said with a weary chuckle, then loaded the last bag into the shopping cart.

* * * * *

When they reached the car, Ben opened the trunk as Zeb positioned the cart so that it wouldn't roll away.

"You know, when I was his age, I was scared of just about everything." Zeb said conversationally.

"Really? How did you overcome it?" Ben asked curiously.

Zeb directed his response more toward JD than to Ben, "The person I loved most in the world, my Uncle Jonah, told me that being scared is natural. It's okay to be scared. But sometimes you need to make yourself go ahead and do things, even if you're scared of them."

"I think that's some very good advice." Ben said sincerely, "Thank you for sharing it with us, Zeb."

JD chanced a look up from Ben's chest and met Zeb's curious gaze, then hesitantly smiled.

"I hope it helps." Zeb said with an ear-to-ear grin. "I'd better get back in there before the dragon lady notices that I've left the lair."

"Thanks for helping us." Ben said with a smile.

"I'm glad to do it for a kindred spirit." Zeb said with a tender smile at JD, before heading back into the store.

Ben watched Zeb go, then quietly said to JD, "It looks like you made a new friend."

* * * * *

As soon as Ben got the groceries into the kitchen, he immediately went to work on making marinade for the meat.

"This would be better if I'd known yesterday so the steaks could have soaked all night. But this should still be good." Ben said as he quickly added ingredients to a mixing bowl, then furiously whisked them together.

As Ben was getting shallow pans out of the cabinets, JD pulled a chair over to the counter so he could watch what Ben was doing.

"This is marinade. It adds flavor to the meat and makes it a little more tender." Ben explained as he carefully positioned the steaks in the pans.

"Once this is done, there's nothing else to do for a while." Ben said as he poured the marinade over each steak.

"So you'll have time to work on your typing tutor, read, write or play with your truck, whatever you want to do." Ben said as he pulled out some plastic wrap to cover the pans.

JD seemed to be at a loss and just stood there, staring.

"Whatever you decide, I'll be in on the computer for a few minutes. I had a few ideas while we were on our picnic and I'd like to get them down while I still remember them." Ben said quickly as he cleared space for the steaks in the refrigerator.

JD finally seemed to come to a decision, then got down off his chair and scooted it back to the kitchen table.

"But just so you know, I'm going to be counting on you for help with dinner. So you need to be ready for work." Ben said frankly.

JD gave Ben a quick grin before walking out of the room.

* * * * *

As Ben finished cataloging the last of his ideas, he glanced over to see JD working studiously on his typing tutor program.

He watched as JD followed the prompts and tried to gain speed. The program was giving him simple three letter words at the moment, and JD was doing extremely well.

Ben looked at the clock and decided that it was just about time for them to begin the dinner preparations.

"When you're at a good stopping point, come into the kitchen. We're having company tonight, and there's a lot to do." Ben said as he stood.

JD glanced at Ben and nodded quickly before turning his full attention back to the screen.

Ben wanted to hug the boy, he could tell from JD's ready responses that he was so close to where he needed to be. Just a little bit closer and he would be speaking. Ben was sure of it.

But he knew that drawing attention to it wouldn't help anything, and might very well chase JD back into his self-imposed isolation. So Ben held his tongue and went into the kitchen to begin preparing dinner.

* * * * *

When JD walked into the kitchen, he found Ben with a big bowl full of fresh green beans.

Ben noticed him watching and said, "I've got this. There's a bag of baking potatoes by the sink. Would you wash them, please?"

JD gave a quick smile, then hurried to the kitchen table to grab a chair.

"When you're done with that, we're also going to need a salad. We should have everything you'll need." Ben said as he broke the stems off the green beans.

Ben jumped when a little pair of arms wrapped around him.

Before he could react, JD was on his way back to the sink to do his work.

* * * * *

"Honey, I'm home!" Cliff called as he walked into the kitchen.

"I'm so glad that you are!" Ben said as he stepped away from the stove long enough to give Cliff a firm and heartfelt kiss.

"So how was your day?" Cliff asked curiously as he noticed that JD was diligently working on a large salad.

"We went to the store and JD was great. He didn't have any problems at all." Ben said proudly. "And, as you can see, he's been helping me in the kitchen and is making another of his vegetable masterpieces."

"From the looks of that salad, we may not even need steaks." Cliff said in an impressed voice.

"I'm sure Todd won't see it that way." Ben said with a chuckle.

"Probably not." Cliff said with a grin. "It looks like JD is nearly finished with the salad, though. Are you going to need his help with anything else?"

Ben thought for a moment, then said, "No. The potatoes are baking, so all I really have left is the green beans."

"JD, when you're finished there, why don't you come out back and help me with the grill?" Cliff asked hopefully.

A look of surprise was JD's first reaction, then a smile.

"Good. I'll be waiting on you." Cliff said, then walked out the back door.

"Pay attention to what he tells you. Cliff may not be able to make good fried eggs, but he can grill a really good steak." Ben said as he waited for his kettle of water to boil.

JD hopped down off his chair, then walked to Ben and took his hand.

"Did you need something?" Ben asked curiously.

JD pulled Ben over to the island and waited for his reaction.

"That salad looks great. I think everyone will enjoy it." Ben said, then squatted down to give JD a quick hug.

"Now I think you should go out back and learn all of Cliff's steak grilling secrets." Ben said before giving JD a quick kiss on the cheek.

JD smiled, then hurried out the back door.

Ben stood slowly, then walked to the window over the sink to watch Cliff and JD at the bar-b-que grill.

* * * * *

Just as Ben was starting to take the green beans out of the boiling water, the doorbell rang.

He ran to the back door and called out, "I think they're here. Can you get the door?"

Before he could receive an answer, he hurried back to the stove, hoping the green beans hadn't crossed the invisible line from blanched into boiled.

"We've got it." Cliff said as he walked into the house with JD on his hip.

Ben smiled at the sight, then worked to skim the last few green beans out of the boiling water.

* * * * *

"Hi Todd, come in." Cliff said happily as he opened the door wide and stood aside.

"Cliff, I'd like for you to meet my roommate, Wil." Todd said happily.

"It's nice to meet you, Wil. Why don't you guys come into the kitchen so we can do the formal introductions with Ben." Cliff said as he closed the door.

Todd and Wil waited for Cliff to lead the way.

* * * * *

"Hi Ben." Todd said as he walked into the kitchen.

"That's as formal as Todd gets." Cliff said conspiratorially to Wil.

"I can do formal." Todd said with playful indignation. "Dr. Clifton Grant, M.D. and Mr. Benjamin Stone, may I introduce you to Mr. William Hale, a good friend and aspiring bartender."

"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance." Cliff said with a gentlemanly bow.

"It's very nice to meet you, too." Wil said with a chuckle.

"And, may I introduce you to the newest member of our family, JD." Cliff said proudly as he held JD in his arms.

"Hey, little guy." Todd said with a smile.

JD buried his face into Cliff's shoulder.

"He's a little shy about meeting new people." Cliff said tenderly.

"Yeah. So's Wil." Todd said frankly, garnering a reproachful look from Wil.

"Well, if we're going to have steaks tonight, then I need to get out back and start cooking." Cliff said frankly.

"Could you use some company?" Todd asked casually.

"Sure." Cliff said as he headed for the back door.

* * * * *

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Wil asked quietly.

"Yeah. You can set the table if you like." Ben said casually. "Plates and glasses are here, and the silverware's in that drawer."

Wil went to the cabinet, then quietly asked, "Did Todd say that your last name was Stone?"

"Yeah." Ben said, over his shoulder.

"Are you from Orlando?" Wil asked cautiously as he carried plates to the dining room.

"Yes. I am." Ben said slowly, as Wil walked back into the room.

"My mom's maiden name is Stone." Wil said as he looked Ben in the eyes.

"Oh. Well, I haven't really kept in touch with the family very much..." Ben trailed off.

"Me either, for about a year now." Wil said regretfully, then carried drinking glasses into the next room.

Ben could see how much that admission hurt Wil.

Ben worked for a moment, chopping some cloves of garlic, then after Wil returned, he cautiously asked, "Do you have someone in your family named Ellen Stone?"

"Yes! She's my great grandmother!" Wil said happily.

"If I'm remembering right, Ellen was married to Harold Stone. Is that right?" Ben asked as he turned his attention back to his skillet.

"Yeah. Grandpa Harry." Wil said quickly.

"My great grandfather was Kendrick Stone, Harold's brother. We called him Grandpa Rick." Ben said in an absent tone.

"Did he pass away?" Wil asked cautiously.

"I'm sure he must have, by now." Ben said, then heaved a sigh. "I've sort of been exiled from the family, for being gay. None of them will talk to me or have anything at all to do with me. So I have no idea what's happened with the family in the past few years."

"Oh. I'm sorry." Wil said quietly.

Ben shrugged, then said, "You get used to it, and besides, now I'm starting my own family."

"Yeah. You got a cute kid." Wil said with an honest smile.

"So, did you also get kicked out of your family for being gay?" Ben finally asked. From Wil's earlier reaction, it seemed that Wil might be receptive to talking about it.

"Yes and no." Wil said slowly. "Yes, I got kicked out of my family, but no, it wasn't for being gay. When I came out to my parents, they weren't, like, happy or anything, but... they could've been a lot worse."

"I'm glad to hear that." Ben said sincerely.

"Of course, after I went through all the hell of coming out to them, I met this girl and... well, it turns out that I'm not as gay as I thought I was." Wil finished with an ironic chuckle.

"I bet your parents were happy about that." Ben said with a smile.

"Oh my God! You should have seen the way they treated her. The girl who made their son straight! It ended up that they loved her a whole lot more than I did." Wil finished with a weary smile.

"I'm sorry it didn't work out." Ben said quietly.

Wil shrugged, then as he was gathering silverware out of the drawer, he absently said, "It'll happen someday."

"So are you looking for Mr. Right or Mrs. Right?" Ben asked curiously.

"Either. I'm not picky." Wil said with a grin, then walked into the dining room to put out silverware.

Ben turned his attention back to his skillet and thought about asking Wil about what happened to cause his parents to break ties with him. In the end, he decided that it would be better to change the subject and let Wil bring it up if he felt like talking about it.

When Wil returned from the dining room , Ben cautiously asked, "Do you have a cousin, Marc?"

"Uncle Marc." Wil corrected quickly. "Yeah, do you know him?"

"He spent the summer at my house one year, back when we were teenagers. That was back when our families still got along." Ben said, then added the green beans to the hot skillet, making an impressive cloud of steam.

"He's one of my favorite uncles. I haven't talked to him for quite a while." Wil said a bit sadly.

"He's the only member of your family that I had a chance to get to know. But I really liked him." Ben said frankly, then started stirring the green beans around in the skillet.

"Is there anything else that I can do?" Wil asked as he looked around.

"Not right this minute." Ben said thoughtfully, then quickly added, "But there is something that I should probably warn you about.

"What's that?" Wil asked curiously.

"Well, one of the reasons that we invited Todd over tonight was so that JD could see his tattoos. I just wanted to give you a little advance warning in case JD doesn't react well." Ben said honestly.

"If he might have a problem with it, then why..." Wil trailed off in confusion.

Ben moved the skillet off the burner, then quietly said, "The reason JD is wearing a turtle neck shirt and gloves is because he has tattoos covering nearly his entire body. He keeps them hidden all the time and I'm hoping that seeing someone like Todd who is a nice person and is proud of his tattoos will help JD feel better about his own."

Wil slowly nodded, then said, "Maybe it will be a good thing for him. As role models go, you could do a lot worse than Todd."

Ben smiled and nodded his agreement.

* * * * *

"There's beer in the cooler." Cliff said as he gestured to the ice cooler by the back door.

"Maybe just one." Todd said with a grin.

"I really had to twist your arm." Cliff chuckled.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Todd asked as he retrieved a beer.

"No. I have my assistant chef right here. So I think I'm good to go." Cliff said as he opened the grill.

There was a hiss and sizzle as Cliff quickly placed the first steak.

Todd moved to his side and noticed that JD was watching Cliff's every move.

"Ben was thinking that JD might be interested in seeing your tattoos." Cliff said casually as he continued to load the grill with meat.

"Do you want to see, little guy?" Todd asked, happily.

Without waiting for an answer, Todd quickly skinned his long sleeved T-Shirt off over his head.

JD stared at the lattice of the interwoven tribal tattoo that covered half of Todd's torso, from shoulder to hip on one side, leaving the other side untouched.

"That's some nice work. How far down does it go?" Cliff asked curiously.

"About half-way down my thigh. I was going to do more, but I really like the way it turned out. I think I'm done for a while." Todd said honestly.

Cliff carefully lifted the edge of one of the steaks to see the underside, then started turning them all over.

JD watched what Cliff was doing, but every few seconds, his attention would return to Todd's tattoos.

"Man, those steaks smell good." Todd said with a hungry grin.

"Well, about two more minutes and they'll be done. Would you go in and get a platter from Ben? I forgot to bring one." Cliff asked hopefully.

"Yeah. I'll be back in a second." Todd said as he walked toward the house, pulling his shirt back on as he went.

Cliff glanced over to see JD staring at Todd walking away.

"See? Todd has tattoos and we don't treat him any different from anyone else." Cliff said toward the grill.

A moment later he glanced back at JD to find him staring at the back door of the house.

* * * * *

"JD made the salad." Ben announced as everyone took their seats around the dining room table.

"I thought Cliff was joking when he called JD his assistant chef." Todd said in an impressed voice. "Hey, little guy, this looks really nice."

JD smiled at the compliment.

"Everyone, dig in. We don't stand on ceremony here." Cliff announced to the table.

"Everything looks great." Wil said as he put some butter on his baked potato.

"On behalf of my helper, thank you." Ben said with a grin at JD.

"Do you want some sour cream for your potato?" Cliff asked as he placed the dish of sour cream by JD's plate.

JD scooted it away, then took a scoop of butter.

"Wil and I were talking in the kitchen and found out that we're related." Ben said casually.

"Really?" Cliff asked with surprise.

"Yeah. I guess we're... would it be second cousins?" Wil asked thoughtfully.

"Yes, something like that. I never was very good at genealogy." Ben said consideringly.

"Cliff, these steaks are great." Todd said in a low, appreciative voice.

"Thank you. But my steaks are only good. It's Ben's marinade that makes them great." Cliff said honestly.

"What do you use?" Todd asked curiously before taking another bite.

"It's just thrown together. Steak sauce, soy sauce, honey... you know, like that." Ben said casually.

"Well, if I ever decide to cook steaks for someone, I'll need to get you to tell me how to make it." Todd said honestly.

"I'll be happy to talk you through it." Ben said with a smile.

JD tapped Cliff on the arm, then pointed toward the bowl of salad.

"Sure." Cliff said gently, then picked up the salad and placed it by JD's plate so he could serve himself.

"He doesn't talk?" Wil asked curiously.

Cliff and Ben shared a look, before Cliff quietly answered, "No. At least, not yet."

Wil could tell that they would all be a lot more comfortable if he didn't pursue that topic of conversation.

"When I visit my sister, her kids are like little banshees. I don't mind at all if JD likes to be quiet." Todd said with a grin at the boy.

Wil vigorously nodded his whole-hearted agreement.

JD gave Todd a warm smile.

Cliff and Ben gave a collective sigh of relief that JD didn't react badly to the topic being brought up.

* * * * *

"Would anyone be interested in a game of pool?" Cliff asked when everyone was finished eating.

"You know it!" Todd said cheerfully.

"Do you have to work tonight?" Ben asked curiously.

"Naw. We're both off. It hardly pays for the bar to be open on week nights. They don't need us until the weekend." Todd said casually.

"But we do a week's worth of work on those three nights." Wil said frankly.

"I bet." Cliff said with a chuckle, then gestured for everyone to follow.

"We'll be down in a minute." Ben said quietly.

Cliff nodded, then led Todd and Wil toward the basement stairs.

* * * * *

"JD, would you help me clear the table? I want to get the leftovers put away." Ben asked hopefully.

Without hesitation, JD started gathering the dishes and carrying them into the kitchen.

Ben was about to tell him to just stack the dishes in the sink and that they could do them later, but realized that considering JD's size, it was easier for him to scrape the dishes and load them directly into the dishwasher.

While JD was doing that, Ben made sure the few leftovers were all put away.

* * * * *

"JD, why don't you come over here so I can show you how to play pool?" Cliff asked with a smile.

After a moment of hesitation, JD walked to Cliff's side.

"Go ahead, Todd. When it's my turn, I'll show JD what to do." Cliff said happily.

Todd nodded, then took his shot.

"Nice break." Cliff said in an impressed voice, then said to JD, "He got a stripe and a solid in on the break, so he can choose which balls he wants to go for."

"I'll take the little ones." Todd said, then placed the striped ball back on the table.

"That means he wants solids." Cliff explained quietly.

Todd missed the shot and stepped away from the table.

"Do you see the way the balls are laid out on the table? I need to see which striped balls are lined up to give me the best shot." Cliff said, then let JD down off his hip.

Cliff moved around the table, then pointed at the twelve ball and said, "This looks like my best shot."

"Here, little guy. Let me help you see." Todd said, then lifted JD to give him a better view of the table.

Cliff smiled at the sight, then said, "I'm going to try to knock the cue ball into the twelve ball so the twelve goes into that corner. Watch."

JD watched carefully as Cliff lined up the shot and sank the twelve ball in one easy move.

"Now the cue ball is in a different place, so I have to see where my next best shot is from here." Cliff explained as he walked around the table.

Ben and Wil watched with matching smiles at JD's look of intense concentration.

"Hey, Wil. Would you mind being the designated driver tonight?" Todd asked hopefully as he lowered JD to the floor.

"Sure. No problem." Wil said casually.

"Good. Then I'm going to get a beer. Does anyone else want one?" Todd asked as he looked around.

Ben shook his head as Cliff said, "I could use one."

"JD can take my turn if I'm not back in time." Todd said before walking up the stairs.

A look of surprise was JD's first reaction, followed by a look of question directed at Cliff.

"It's just a game. Don't stress out about it." Cliff said before leaning in to take his next shot.

He missed the shot then smiled at JD. "It looks like it's your turn."

"I'll help him." Ben said quietly as he walked up to the table.

He picked JD up and pointed out the available shots for the solid colored balls.

"You don't want to knock in the eight ball. That ends the game. But the rest of the solids are yours to choose from." Ben said gently, then lowered JD to stand on his own.

Cliff handed him a cue stick, then stood aside as JD lined up his shot.

It took a little stretching, but JD was able to move into position and get a good angle.

"Hold on." Cliff said quickly. "Let me show you how to hold the cue."

Cliff leaned over JD and guided him into the correct position.

After a moment of intense concentration, JD cautiously tapped the cue ball, moving it about two inches.

"You need to hit it a little harder." Cliff said as he picked up the ball and put it back in it's original place. "Try again."

JD once again lined up the shot, then hit the cue ball more firmly.

There was a satisfying 'snick' as the cue ball impacted its intended target, but the four ball went nowhere near the pocket JD was aiming for.

"That was good." Cliff said happily. "With a little practice, you'll be a pool shark in no time."

"Good try." Ben agreed with a smile.

"Here you go." Todd said as he handed Cliff a can of beer.

"Thanks." Cliff said happily, then said, "JD took your shot, he didn't make it, but he came really close."

"I'm sure I couldn't have done any better myself." Todd said warmly.

"It looks like these guys are going to be at it for a while." Ben said quietly to Wil, "Would you like to check out our video game collection?"

"Sure!" Wil said with a huge smile.

"Come on over here." Ben said as he guided Wil to the other side of the room.

* * * * *

"What shot do you think I should take?" Cliff asked as he held JD on his side.

After a moment to consider, JD pointed to the nine ball, then to the side pocket.

Cliff thought about it for a moment, then said, "It's worth a try."

He lowered JD to the floor, then walked around the table to make his shot.

Todd sat his beer aside, then skinned his T-Shirt off over his head as he said, "I thought basements were supposed to be cold."

"When we had the basement finished, we made sure that it was well insulated so it would be a decent temperature in here." Cliff said casually. "I guess the heat of so many bodies is making it warm, but it's not bad."

Todd picked up his beer, then gave JD a quick smile.

Cliff took his shot, but didn't make it in.

"Nice try." Todd said as he walked to the table.

Cliff stood beside JD and watched as Todd lined up his next shot.

He glanced down and could see that JD had his full attention on Todd's tattoos.

Todd made the shot and Cliff responded, "Nice."

"JD, do you want to take my next shot? I'm thirsty." Todd asked as he stepped up to JD and handed him his cue.

After a moment of hesitation, JD took the cue and walked slowly to the table.

Cliff noticed that JD kept stealing glances at Todd, and looked uncertain.

Finally, JD sat the cue aside for a moment and pulled off his gloves.

Cliff smiled at the action.

JD then picked up the cue and walked to the table to line up his shot, looking to be every bit the pool playing professional.

He seemed to be about to take his shot when, instead, he sat the cue aside again.

Cliff watched curiously, then his eyes went wide when he saw JD starting to pull his shirt up.

He wanted to call Ben so he could witness the bold step that JD was taking, but didn't want to spook the boy.

Slowly, JD skinned the turtle neck shirt off over his head, then looked around nervously.

"Holy fuck!" Todd gasped when he saw the tattoos.

Cliff felt panic rise up inside him, not knowing what he could do to protect JD from having his self image crushed after making such a bold move.

"Todd!" Cliff said sharply, wanting to get his attention, but not scare JD.

It took a moment, but Todd finally looked up.

Cliff gave Todd an urgent look, then looked with concern at JD.

Todd gave a nod of comprehension, then looked JD in the eyes as he said, "That's some beautiful work."

JD seemed to be frozen in place and Cliff was worried that this all might have been a horrible mistake.

"Do you mind if I look?" Todd asked gently as he slowly walked to JD.

Cliff gave a silent sigh of relief as he watched Todd go to his knees so he could look at JD's tattoos and ridged scars more closely.

"This is some incredible work." Todd muttered in true appreciation.

JD was watching Todd's expression carefully and finally seemed to relax.

Cliff took a step closer, wanting to see for himself.

When he had looked at the photographs, he could only see what horrible things had been done to a young child. But seeing JD before him, in the flesh, he could begin to appreciate the artistic beauty in the designs.

If JD were going to be permanently marked, at least it wasn't with something pornographic or satanic. The spiked designs were unconventional, but definitely beautiful.

Todd cautiously reached up and trailed his finger across one of the ridges that ran down the middle of one of the large barbed patterns.

JD wriggled away from the touch and seemed to be fighting back a giggle.

"Tickles, huh?" Todd asked with a smile.

JD held still as Todd continued to examine the intricate designs.

Cliff looked carefully at JD's expression to find that he seemed to be enjoying the attention.

"Wil! Come over here, you've got to see this." Todd suddenly called toward the video game area.

JD looked nervous, so Cliff put a hand on his shoulder to reassure him.

"Try to relax. Todd's right, you look great." Cliff said gently.

JD looked up at him uncertainly, but after examining his expression, broke into a nervous smile.

Wil and Ben walked around the pool table and froze at the sight.

"Isn't this some amazing work?" Todd asked seriously. "Look at this, here."

After a moment to get over the shock, Wil walked to Todd's side and looked at the pattern he was indicating.

"God! The detail work is incredible." Wil said in amazement.

JD seemed to relax a little bit more, turning slightly when Todd or Wil needed a better view.

Cliff felt an arm come around his waist and was happy to return the hug.

"I hate the pain he must have gone through, but I agree that the tattoos are very well done." Cliff said quietly.

"I only care that JD was comfortable enough to take off his shirt. I was afraid that he would spend the rest of his life ashamed of his body and trying to keep it covered." Ben said as he held Cliff firmly.

"I doubt that he'll be running around shirtless anytime soon, but maybe after this, he'll feel comfortable enough to wear a regular T-Shirt or at least take off the gloves while he's at home.

"Just as long as he's happy." Ben said as he watched their guests fawning over JD.

"How do you think that would look on me, on my bicep?" Wil asked as he pointed at a design on JD's forearm.

"As long as you wrap it around a little, like they did on JD, I think it would look great." Todd said seriously.

"JD, do you think you could come with me when I get my tattoo done, just long enough so I can show the guy what I want?" Wil asked hopefully.

JD looked at Wil with surprise, then at Cliff with question.

"Just let me know when you want to do it and we'll meet you there. I don't want JD to be around while it's being done." Cliff said frankly.

Wil rolled his eyes and said, "Of course not. I just don't want it to get messed up because the guy doesn't understand what I want. I mean, if he makes a mistake, it's kinda forever."

"Fair enough. As long as JD doesn't mind, I'll be happy to take him down there." Cliff said with a smile.

"Thanks." Wil said shyly.

"JD, it's your shot." Todd said as he pointed at the forgotten pool table.

After a moment of looking around, JD picked up the pool cue and lined up his shot.

He didn't drop the ball, but he came much closer to his target this time.

"That was a really good try." Todd said as he gave JD a quick squeeze on the shoulder.

JD smiled up at him, then at Ben and Cliff who were still holding each other.

Cliff gave Ben a quick kiss before stepping forward to take his shot.

* * * * *

The pool games continued on longer than any of them would have predicted. Wil and Ben joined the game and part of the fun seemed to be what kind of creative excuses they could come up with to allow JD to take their turn.

Finally JD's repeated yawns announced to everyone that it was time to call it a night.

After going upstairs, Ben put a hand on Wil's shoulder to draw him aside.

"I'm glad that after all these years, I've finally found someone that I can call my family." Ben said quietly.

"Yeah. I'm glad too." Wil said shyly. "And I'm really glad that you turned out not to be a total asshole. I mean, being a Stone..."

"I understand." Ben said with a chuckle, then quietly said, "Just remember that we're family. Blood family. So I want you to keep in touch. And if you ever need anything at all, I want you to call me."

"Thanks Ben." Wil said as he gave Ben a quick hug. "And you can call me, too. I'm at Todd's, so I know you have the number."

"I'll do that." Ben said happily and finally released Wil from the hug.

"You ready to go?" Todd asked from the front door.

"Ready when you are." Wil said cheerfully.

Todd tossed his keys to Wil, then walked out the door.

Cliff, Ben and JD waved from the doorway and watched them go.

"So, little man, did you have a good time tonight?" Cliff asked as he squatted at JD's side.

A firm hug was JD's immediate answer.

"Why don't you go and take your bath while your Pappa and I tidy things up?" Ben asked gently.

JD looked up at him and nodded, before hurrying away.

"Did you see that?" Cliff asked in wonder.

"Yes." Ben said with a smile that threatened to bubble over into tears. "I've seen him do that two other times when he was busy and distracted. But that's the first time I've seen him consciously give a direct answer to a direct question."

"It looks like your instincts about Todd were right. I'm so glad you thought of that." Cliff said tenderly.

"I don't know that it's going to make any difference in the long run, but at least we gave it a try." Ben said thoughtfully.

"It's progress." Cliff said as he held Ben close to his side, "Whether it turns out to be big or small, it's definitely progress."

"Come on Pappa, let's get this place cleaned up so we can get our son tucked into bed." Ben said playfully.

"Whatever you say, Daddy."

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes: Still another very eventful chapter.

Progress is, indeed, being made. A little boy who's life had been a living hell has begun to heal, and thrive, with his new family, a family of wonderful people who love him deeply, after only a very short time. There is still a long way to go before he is completely healed, but he has a will to survive, and I am sure there are lots of good things to come.

Thank you MM for another story that keeps us coming back for more and more.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher
Proof Readers Notes: Slowly, but surely JD is coming out of his shell.

Thank you MM for a content rich, wholesome, and love filled story.

Robert AKA Privatecomm983