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Chapter 5

Ben worked on planning and preparations during the days leading up to Thanksgiving.

JD spent most of his time at the kitchen table, typing on his laptop. But when Ben could think of something for him to do, JD was always happy to lend a hand.

Finally, Thanksgiving day arrived and Ben woke early to get the turkey into the oven.

Most of the morning was spent making finger foods to be put out at various times throughout the day. JD delighted in making the wide variety of Hors d'Oeuvres that Ben had chosen.

Cliff had spent the morning making sure that they had plenty of good movies and music to choose from to keep them entertained, as well as making sure that they had an ice chest loaded with beer, sodas and bottled water.

A knock on the door made everyone look up. It was time for the holiday to begin.

* * * * *

"Hello. You must be Zeb. I'm Cliff."

"Yes. I hope it's okay that I'm here." Zeb said nervously to the man he'd never met before.

"Of course. Please come in. Can I take that?" Cliff asked as he looked at the covered container in Zeb's hands.

"Yeah. It's an angelfood cake. I hope that's alright." Zeb said quickly.

"I'm sure everyone will enjoy it." Cliff said happily as he took the cake from Zeb.

"Ben and JD are in the kitchen, if you'd like to visit with them. It's right through there." Cliff said as he pointed.

"Thank you." Zeb said quietly, then hurried out of the room.

* * * * *

"Hi Zeb! I'm glad you could make it." Ben said happily.

"Thank you again for inviting me." Zeb said nervously.

"JD, would you like to get something out for Zeb to snack on?" Ben asked casually as he peeled sweet potatoes.

"That's okay. I don't need anything." Zeb hurried to say.

"It's going to be a while before we have dinner, so we made plenty of food to snack on to get us by until then. It's no trouble, it's already prepared." Ben said casually.

JD proudly placed a platter with a variety of different cheese and cracker combinations on the kitchen table, by Zeb.

"Do you need any help in here?" Cliff asked as he walked into the kitchen.

"No. JD's just about finished with the salad and I'll be done with the sweet potatoes in a few minutes. We shouldn't have much else to do until just before dinner." Ben said happily.

"Then why don't I show Zeb around while you guys are finishing up?" Cliff asked pleasantly.

"Sounds good." Ben said with a smile, then leaned in and gave Cliff a quick kiss.

Zeb gasped at the sight, then looked around in panic.

"Is something wrong?" Ben asked cautiously.

"You're homosexuals?" Zeb asked in a small, panicked voice.

"Yes." Ben said slowly, then quietly added, "It never occurred to me to mention it. I hope that's not a problem."

Zeb jumped slightly at the feeling of little arms wrapping around his waist. JD's large hopeful eyes were staring up at him, begging him not to leave.

"Zeb, I promise, you're just invited for dinner. We're not going to do anything to you." Ben said gently.

Zeb looked at JD for a moment longer, then reluctantly raised his eyes to look at Cliff and Ben.

"I'm sorry if I insulted you." Zeb said quietly. "I didn't mean to."

"That's alright. I just hope this won't make you too uncomfortable." Ben said with concern.

"I think, that if you'll be patient with me, I'll be okay, in time." Zeb said slowly.

"We can do that." Cliff said gently. "What do you say, Zeb? Would you like a tour of the place?"

"Yes. Thank you." Zeb said timidly.

JD looked at Ben with imploring eyes.

Ben didn't even have to guess at what JD was asking, he just nodded his agreement, then watched Cliff lead Zeb and JD to the basement stairway.

* * * * *

"We've got it!" Cliff called in response to the knocking on the door.

Ben finished wiping down the countertops, then glanced at the unfinished salad on the island.

He decided to wait for a few minutes and see if JD wanted to work on it again.

As he surveyed the kitchen, he felt confident about his dinner preparations. Everything was done that needed to be done. He would be able to spend time with their guests until just before dinner.

On impulse, Ben took one of the baking sheets of prepared hot Hors d'Oeuvres out of the refrigerator and slid it into the oven.

* * * * *

"Wil! Come in, how are you doing today?" Cliff asked happily.

"I'm doing great. I'm really happy to be invited." Wil said honestly.

"I'm glad. But I hope you know that since you're family, you don't need an invitation. You're always welcome here." Cliff said seriously, then put out a hand and continued, "Here, let me take that from you."

"Ben said I could bring dessert, so I brought Devil's Food cake." Wil said casually, then noticed the stranger timidly standing behind Cliff.

"Zeb, this is Ben's cousin, Wil." Cliff said pleasantly, then continued, "Wil, this is Zeb, a friend of JD and Ben's."

"It's nice to meet you." Wil said as he looked into Zeb's brown eyes.

It took Zeb a moment, but he finally shook Wil's offered hand and slightly smiled in greeting.

"Let's go check on Ben in the kitchen. From the way he was talking, he should be just about finished with cooking for a while."

JD looked at Cliff suddenly, then dashed away.

Zeb and Wil both gave Cliff identical looks of question.

"I think that means that he forgot to do something in the kitchen." Cliff said honestly, then added, "Let's go through the dining room so I can put this cake with the other desserts."

* * * * *

"Hey Wil, how are you doing?" Ben asked happily.

"I'm just SO happy to be here. I can't even tell you how happy I am." Wil said honestly.

Ben chuckled, then said, "I'm going to have to meet Todd's nieces, someday. They sound really 'special'."

"Special?" Wil said and seemed to consider before continuing, "Yeah, I guess they're special in a demented sociopathic sense of the word."

"JD and I have a few minutes left before we're finished in here. But after that, we have the entire afternoon free to watch movies, play pool, play video games... I think we even have a few board games around here somewhere, if you'd be interested in that." Ben said casually.

"I almost forgot..." Wil said seriously as he turned to face the boy at the island, "Thank you, JD. Thank you very much for inviting me."

JD smiled warmly.

"Before we start anything else, would anyone like a drink?" Cliff asked then gestured to the ice cooler.

Ben chuckled and said, "That's right. Where are my manners?"

Wil walked to the chest and dug around in the ice for a moment before coming up with a beer for himself.

"What would you like, Zeb?" Wil asked casually.

"I'll have to see what the choices are." Zeb said timidly.

Wil stood aside and held the lid of the ice chest open so Zeb could be free to explore.

Ben noticed the gesture and exchanged a concerned look with Cliff.

An uncertain look was Cliff's only response.

JD got down off his chair, then walked to Ben and took him by the hand.

"Are you done?" Ben asked with a smile, then followed JD to the island.

The large and elaborate salad was nothing short of a masterpiece.

"That's absolutely perfect." Ben said as he gave JD a hug.

"Hey, yeah! Good work, JD!" Wil said as he walked to the island.

"JD made this all by himself?" Zeb asked with surprise.

"That's right. He's really an excellent chef." Cliff said proudly.

"And this Thanksgiving dinner would have been a whole lot harder without his help." Ben said frankly.

JD shyly buried his face into Ben's side to hide his embarrassment.

"Would anyone like to go to the game room for a few games of pool?" Cliff asked pleasantly, to take a little of the focus off the embarrassed boy.

Ben glanced at the timer by the stove, then said, "Hold on for just a minute."

Before Cliff could ask, Ben opened the oven and took out a baking sheet.

"JD, would you get a spatula and help me?" Ben asked as he walked to the island.

He flopped a potholder onto the island, then rested the hot baking pan on top of it.

JD scooted his chair so that he was at Ben's side.

"I'll get a plate." Ben said quietly, then dashed to the cupboard.

Cliff, Wil and Zeb watched as JD expertly transferred the little pastries from the baking sheet to the plate.

"Those look wonderful." Cliff said hungrily.

"I'm glad, because we made them for you to enjoy." Ben said happily, then added, "Help yourself, just be careful. They're still pretty hot."

JD rushed to the kitchen table and came back with a handful of paper napkins.

"Thank you, JD." Cliff said before taking one of the pastries from the plate.

"What are they?" Zeb asked cautiously.

"Puffed pastry, filled with garlic and herb feta cheese and green onions." Ben said simply.

Cliff took a cautious bite, then said, "Oh... oh, that's good."

"I'm glad you like it. And we still have some cheese and crackers for those not feeling as adventurous." Ben said as he relocated the platter of cheese and crackers from the kitchen table.

"Ben, this is really good." Wil said appreciatively.

"Well, JD made them. All I did was put them in the oven when the doorbell rang." Ben said frankly.

"I think JD needs to come over to my house sometime. I don't know if our stove has ever been turned on." Wil said frankly.

Ben smiled, then noticed the puzzled expression on Zeb's face.

"Are you okay?" Ben asked gently.

"This is the best thing that I've ever tasted." Zeb said in wonder.

Cliff and Wil shared a smile at the comment as Ben said, "I hope you'll find some other things that you like even better before the day's over."

"Is everyone ready for the game room, now?" Cliff asked hopefully.

Everyone made sounds of agreement.

"JD, let's grab the snacks and take them down with us." Ben said quietly.

JD took the cheese and crackers as Ben took the pastries.

* * * * *

Once they reached the game room, Wil drew Ben to the video game area where they ended up talking at least as much as game playing.

JD immediately went to Zeb and tried to guide him to the pool table.

"I'm sorry. I don't know how to play that." Zeb admitted shyly.

JD looked up at Cliff hopefully.

"Well, there's only one way to change that." Cliff said seriously. "If you want to play a game with JD, I'll show you what to do."

"We won't be... gambling, will we?" Zeb asked cautiously.

"No. We play strictly for fun." Cliff said gently.

"Then I suppose there wouldn't be any harm." Zeb said nervously.

"Please try to relax, Zeb. Today is all about relaxing with friends and having fun." Cliff said quietly.

"I didn't realize it before, but I guess I'm not very good at doing that." Zeb said shyly.

"Just like with pool, you'll improve with practice." Cliff said assuringly, then added, "It looks like JD's ready to break."

* * * * *

After a few games to get Zeb familiar, Cliff finally teamed up with him to play against Wil and JD.

It took a while, but Zeb finally got comfortable enough to relax and enjoy himself.

Ben watched them play and would occasionally slip away and check on things upstairs, only to return with another platter or tray of snacks for everyone to enjoy.

Even though they had been in the game room for hours, it only felt like a short time, and everyone was surprised when Ben called them upstairs for dinner.

Cliff made sure everyone found their way upstairs and was as in awe as any of his guests at the beautiful display of food that filled their table.

"Before we begin, I just want to say one quick thing." Cliff said as he stood. "This is Thanksgiving, the day that we remember what we're thankful for. I'm thankful for a lot of things, but most of all, I'm thankful for all of you, our friends and family. That's it! Let's eat!"

Chuckles spread around the room as everyone started filling their plates.

"What is this?" Wil asked curiously as he looked at one of the dishes.

"Cranberry dressing. It's one of those things you'll either love or hate. There's no middle ground." Ben said frankly.

"Thanks for the warning." Wil said with a chuckle and took one small spoonful.

"What's wrong, Zeb? Don't you see anything that you like?" Cliff asked when he noticed Zeb's empty plate.

"My family... we never celebrated this holiday. I don't know what most of these things are." Zeb said hesitantly.

"Well, then just try things. If you don't like something, we won't be offended. If you find something you do like, have seconds, there's plenty." Cliff said frankly.

Zeb seemed hesitant, but finally started taking small portions, so he could try things.

"So, does your family not celebrate holidays for religious reasons?" Wil asked curiously.

"Yes." Zeb said quietly.

Wil waited for a moment to see if Zeb were going to expound on his answer, but finally just let it lay.

"Ben, this has to be the best turkey I've ever tasted. It's absolutely perfect." Cliff said happily.

"I'm glad you like it." Ben said timidly.

"Hey, you're right! This is really good!" Wil said with surprise.

"Thanks." Ben said with a chuckle.

"How are you doing, Zeb?" Cliff asked cautiously.

"So far, everything that I've tried has been very good." Zeb said shyly.

"You can see how much food we have here. Please, eat as much as you like." Cliff said seriously.

"Yes. Thank you, I will." Zeb said quietly.

"JD, how are things going with you?" Cliff asked with a smile, already knowing the answer.

A quick smile was as much of a response as JD could give before going back to his eating.

"How about you, Wil?" Cliff asked curiously.

"Are you kidding! This is awesome!" Wil said happily.

"Awesome." Cliff said with a proud look at Ben.

"I couldn't have done it without my helper." Ben said with a glance at JD.

* * * * *

"I couldn't eat another bite." Wil said as he slowly stood from the table.

"I don't think I've ever eaten that much before." Cliff said as he joined him.

"You guys go on into the living room, and JD and I will catch up to you in a few minutes." Ben said as he started gathering serving dishes.

JD got up from his place at the table, then looked at Ben curiously.

"What?" Ben asked cautiously.

JD walked to the sideboard and looked at the pies and cakes.

"You've got to be kidding! If I eat another bite I'll split right open." Ben said with a chuckle.

JD looked at the cakes, then at Ben again.

"We're going to go into the living room to watch some television. In a while, after dinner's settled, we'll have dessert." Ben said seriously.

JD seemed to be considering for a moment, then went back to work, clearing the table.

* * * * *

"Shouldn't we help them clean up?" Zeb asked as they walked into the living room.

"Trust me, the most help we can give them is to stay out of their way." Cliff said frankly. "Ben and JD have their own little system for cleaning up after dinner."

"JD's really amazing." Wil said distantly.

"I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees it." Cliff chuckled, then made a sweeping gesture to offer his guests seats.

Zeb took a seat in a well cushioned chair as Wil settled in at one end of the couch.

"Does anyone like football?" Cliff asked as he picked up the remote.

"No!" Wil barked, then said more quietly, "I'm sorry, I just really can't stand sports."

"I don't like sports, either." Zeb said supportively, more to Wil than to Cliff.

"Fine by me." Cliff said casually.

Wil seemed to be relieved that no one was going to make a big deal about it.

"I went through the movies and found a few that we might enjoy." Cliff said as he picked up a stack of DVDs. "I don't know what you guys like, but I think I've covered all the bases."

"Nice selection." Wil said as he looked through the stack of movies, then stretched to hand the stack to Zeb.

"My family... we didn't watch television or movies. So I don't know about any of these." Zeb said shyly, "I'm sure that if you pick something you like, I'll enjoy it, too."

"You haven't seen any of these?" Wil asked in amazement.

Zeb reluctantly shook his head.

"What do you think we should start with?" Cliff asked uncertainly.

"Wizard of Oz." Wil said immediately.

"Wizard... is it about witchcraft?" Zeb asked nervously.

"It has witches and wizards in it, but it's all in a fantasy world." Cliff said seriously. "As long as you're able to distinguish fantasy from reality, this isn't anything that can harm you."

Zeb thought about Cliff's words for a moment, then quietly said, "You must think I'm some kind of ignorant child."

"Not at all." Wil said quickly to reassure him. "We think that you were probably raised by some very strict parents who were very sure of their religious beliefs."

Zeb's eyes went wide in wonder.

"There's nothing wrong with that." Wil said, as he looked at Zeb seriously. "And as long as you don't try to tell us what we should believe, we won't try to tell you what you should believe."

"And if you're not comfortable watching this movie, then we'll find something else. We just want everyone to be comfortable and enjoy themselves today." Cliff said honestly.

"It seems that you understand me better than I could have hoped." Zeb said quietly, "So, if you think that this wizard movie is something worth watching, I will try to keep an open mind."

"Okay. But if you're uncomfortable, just tell me and we can stop the movie at any time. No one will be upset with you." Cliff said gently.

"Thank you for being so nice to me." Zeb said quietly. "No one has been so kind to me since I've been away from my family."

"Are you Amish?" Wil asked hesitantly.

Zeb was surprised by the question, but then a look of understanding came into his expression, "No. But from what little I know of the Amish people, I suppose there are some similarities in the way I was raised."

"So you had electricity and cars." Will guessed.

"Yes." Zeb said with a smile, then added, "But my parents wouldn't allow us to have a television, or go to movies. The only friends I was allowed to have were those that they chose for me."

"What about at school? They couldn't control who you were friends with there. Could they?" Wil asked quietly.

"I was home schooled. So were most of the children of our church." Zeb said regretfully.

"It sounds like a pretty lonely life." Wil said sympathetically.

Zeb slowly nodded.

"Are we ready to start the movie?" Ben asked as he and JD walked into the living room.

"We were just waiting on you two." Cliff said with a tender smile, feeling that Ben had come in at the perfect time.

JD went immediately to the coffee table and opened the netbook that he was carrying.

"He doesn't like TV or movies." Ben explained quietly. "Rather than him being alone in another room while Cliff and I watch movies, JD is welcome to stay in here with us and read or write or play with his toys."

"So we still get to spend time together, even though we're not all doing the same thing." Cliff added as he loaded the DVD into the player.

"That sounds like a great way of doing it." Wil said with a smile at JD.

"It only happens about once a week. Usually, we're all doing something together like reading or playing pool." Ben said frankly.

"Everyone ready?" Cliff asked as he looked around. "Then it's time for the movie."

* * * * *

Wil, Ben and Cliff were entertained more by watching Zeb's reaction to the movie than by the movie itself.

Every time something would happen on the screen, Zeb's expressions revealed exactly how he felt about it.

He cowered when Dorothy was afraid, laughed when Dorothy was happy and openly cried on more than one occasion.

By the end of the movie, all the men had felt as emotionally drained as if they had visited Oz themselves.

"So, what did you think of the movie?" Wil finally asked.

"That was... It was so beautiful! It was amazing!" Zeb said joyously.

"I'm really glad you liked it." Wil said honestly.

"When I've saved enough money, I need to buy a television. That was incredible!" Zeb said with an ear-to-ear grin.

"JD, will you please go start the coffee? I think it's just about time for dessert." Ben said quietly.

All conversation in the room stopped when Ben said 'the word'.

He looked around, then said, "It's waiting for you in the dining room."

All the men immediately stood and filed out of the room.

* * * * *

"Wil, can you help me in the kitchen for a second?" Ben called from the kitchen doorway.

After a moment to put down his dessert plate, Wil walked into the kitchen.

"Even though I know better in my head, my heart is forcing me to butt into something that's none of my business." Ben said cautiously.

"Yeah. That settles it. You're family." Wil said with a chuckle, "What's up?"

"It's about Zeb." Ben said as he looked into Wil's eyes.

"What about him?" Wil asked, feigning ignorance.

"You know." Ben said firmly.

Finally, Wil dropped the act and quietly said, "Yeah. I know."

"He's an innocent. If you'd seen the way he reacted when he found out that Cliff and I are gay, you'd know not to even think about going there." Ben said frankly.

"I'm not! He's just so... lost. I can't help but want to help him discover the world that he's been denied all his life and shelter him from some of the realities he can't possibly understand, yet." Wil said imploringly.

"I feel the same way." Ben said gently, then added, "But I just get the feeling that the way you're looking at Zeb is as something potentially more than friends."

Wil shook his head, then said, "I understand what you're saying and why you're worried, but I'm not going to make a move on him. I promise."

"Thanks. But that's not the promise that I want you to make." Ben said quietly.

Wil looked at Ben inquisitively.

"I'd rather you promise that you won't make a move on him... until he's ready." Ben finished with a smile.

Wil grinned, then said, "Yeah. I might actually be able to keep that promise."

"Good. Besides, there's a chance that he's totally straight and wouldn't be interested, anyway." Ben said casually.

"Yeah. I know. And even if he isn't totally straight, the church could still have messed with his mind enough that it'll never happen." Wil said regretfully.

"Just take it slow." Ben said gently.

"I will." Wil said with a smile. "Thanks, Ben."

* * * * *

"I can't believe how late it is." Ben said as he closed the front door. "As soon as your Pappa gets back from dropping off Wil and Zeb, I think we all need to go to bed."

JD looked up at Ben with tired but happy eyes, then hugged him gently around the waist and rested his head against his stomach.

"I know, Little Man. Me too." Ben said tiredly, "But it was a good day. All the food turned out. Everyone had a good time. I couldn't have wished for anything more."

"I tell you what, why don't you skip the bath, tonight and just brush your teeth and go right to bed?" Ben said gently. "I'll be in in a minute to give you a kiss goodnight."

JD looked up at Ben, then slowly nodded.

"I love you." Ben whispered, then bent down to give JD a quick kiss on the cheek.

JD returned the kiss, then shuffled away, toward the bathroom.

Ben watched him go as he sighed to himself in contentment.

* * * * *

"So, do you have any plans for tonight?" Cliff asked casually, knowing instinctively that Ben was already awake.

"I hadn't really thought about it. Did you have something in mind?" Ben asked, as he turned in the bed.

"Not exactly. I just feel like, after yesterday, I'd like to get out of the house and do something." Cliff said frankly.

"I don't know about that. After that thing at the library, I'm really worried about taking JD out in public." Ben said frankly.

"I know. And I think keeping him at home for the past week has been just what he needed, to recover from that. But he also needs to be challenged from time to time. If we don't find a way to acclimate him to being around people... around women, he's going to have a very lonely future." Cliff said honestly, then added, "And the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be for him."

"So, what do you want to do?" Ben asked hesitantly.

"I thought we could go downtown and do a little Christmas window shopping." Cliff said simply.

"On Black Friday? It's going to be a madhouse!" Ben said anxiously.

"Exactly." Cliff said seriously. "It's my hope that JD will see the forest instead of the trees. With so many people, all at once, he may not react the way he would if he were face-to-face with just one person."

"Well, you're the doctor." Ben said hesitantly.

"Yes. I am." Cliff said gently. "But that doesn't matter, right now. You're the one who spends the most time with JD. You've had a better chance than I have to get to know him and to understand his personality. I'm not saying that this is what we should do. I'm offering my opinion and asking for yours."

Ben smiled, then leaned in to give Cliff a quick kiss.

When the kiss ended, Cliff pulled back slightly and asked, "So, what do you think?"

"I think we should give it a try." Ben said decisively. "As long as one of us is holding JD and he knows that we'll take him home if it gets to be too much, I think it may be okay."

"We can tell JD over breakfast and see how he reacts." Cliff said thoughtfully, then smiled as he added, "I think I'd like to make breakfast this morning."

"If you have JD help you, get him to do the eggs. He's really proud of them." Ben said seriously.

"He has good reason to be." Cliff agreed. "But I'm in a mood for scrambled eggs and cheese."

"As long as you clean the skillet." Ben said seriously.

"Don't I always?" Cliff asked with a smile.

Ben arched an eyebrow and waited.

"I forgot one time!" Cliff finally admitted.

"Forgot? More like hid the skillet in the oven!" Ben said frankly.

"I must have been running short on time." Cliff said, thoughtfully.

"Running short on ambition is more like it." Ben said sternly, but was unable to keep a smile from breaking through.

"Come on. I want to get breakfast started before JD beats me to it." Cliff said as he sat up.

* * * * *

"Good morning, JD. I didn't realize you were awake." Cliff said as he entered the kitchen.

JD looked up from his netbook and smiled briefly.

"I decided to make breakfast this morning. How does cheesy scrambled eggs and toast sound?" Cliff asked cheerfully.

JD smiled as he got up from his place at the table and walked to Cliff's side.

"Do you want to help?" Cliff asked quietly.

A smile was JD's answer.

"Why don't you chop up some onions and bell peppers for me. I should be ready for them by the time you're done." Cliff said as he got to work.

* * * * *

Ben walked slowly into the kitchen and directly to the coffee maker.

"Thanks for starting the coffee, JD." Ben said, as he poured himself a cup.

JD flashed him a quick smile, then went back to work.

Ben saw the netbook sitting on the table and paused for a moment before taking a sip of coffee.

He smiled and set his coffee on the table before walking away with purpose.

* * * * *

Ben returned to the kitchen with his laptop and set it up next to JD's netbook.

As Cliff and JD worked on preparing their breakfast, Ben booted up the laptop and checked his email.

"Did you have some work to do?" Cliff asked curiously as he scrambled the eggs in a bowl.

"Not really." Ben said casually. "But I thought I'd get the laptop set up so that I can join JD in a writing session if inspiration should strike.

"So the difference between this and work would be..." Cliff asked playfully.

"The difference would be that I'm writing for fun. Just because I feel like it." Ben said frankly.

"So, will you be working on one of your paleo-theosophical books?" Cliff asked, then poured the egg mixture into the hot skillet.

Ben chuckled at the question, then said, "I haven't decided, yet. I may decide to do something else for a change. Maybe I'll write a story about a hunky doctor and his compelling, yet strangely quiet, son."

"It sounds like a best seller, to me." Cliff said happily as he stirred the eggs around, then quickly said, "Okay JD, I'm ready for you."

Ben watched as JD hurried to the stove, carrying a bowl of chopped peppers and onions.

Cliff took the bowl and dumped the contents into the skillet, then gave it a quick stir.

JD seemed surprised by the action.

"And now, the cheese." Cliff said as he took handfuls of shredded cheese and dropped it on top of the egg mixture.

He stirred the eggs a few times, then put a lid on the large skillet and moved it off the burner.

"Now it's time to make toast, get drinks and set the table." Cliff said to JD with a smile.

JD scooted his chair from the island to the counter by the refrigerator where the toaster was.

"I guess that means that I'm setting the table." Cliff chuckled.

"You can reach things a lot better than he can." Ben said frankly.

"Good point." Cliff said casually, then said to JD, "Watch your head, little man, I'm going to need in that cupboard."

JD backed out of the way and allowed Cliff to get the cupboard door opened.

Cliff moved in and gave JD a quick snuggle before grabbing some plates.

"I hope you're not planning on having that laptop on the table during breakfast." Cliff said, as he placed the stack of plates on the table.

"No. Of course not." Ben said as he put the lid of his laptop down. "I just wanted to get it set up in case inspiration struck suddenly."

"Is there an inspiration storm brewing that I should know about?" Cliff asked playfully.

"The forecast is uncertain at this point." Ben said with a smile, then added, "It could happen."

Cliff heard the toaster pop up and watched as JD took the toast out and put more bread in.

"Would you like some milk or juice with breakfast?" Cliff asked as he set the plates around the table.

"No. Coffee's fine." Ben said gently.

Cliff nodded, then hurried back to the cupboard.

* * * * *

When everyone was settled in around the table, Cliff raised the top of the skillet with a flourish, presenting his scrambled eggs for their approval.

Ben chuckled at the theatrics, but finally said, "Very nice."

"Thank you." Cliff said appreciatively, then extended a hand, silently asking for Ben's plate.

Ben handed it to him and watched as Cliff added a generous helping of scrambled eggs.

Rather than hand the plate back to Ben, Cliff handed it to JD and asked, "Would you like to give your Daddy some toast?"

JD accepted the plate, then added toast before passing it on to Ben.

"Thank you." Ben said to JD, then turned to Cliff and said, "And thank you."

Cliff graciously nodded as he took JD's plate and gave him a good portion of eggs.

He then filled his own plate and held it out toward JD and said, "Toast me, Little Man."

JD giggled, then added two pieces of toast to Cliff's plate.

* * * * *

After a few minutes of eating, Cliff casually said, "Your Daddy and I were talking this morning and thought that it might be a good day to go window shopping downtown."

JD looked at Cliff curiously, obviously not understanding the term.

"We'll just walk around and go from shop to shop looking at things. We may decide to buy something, but will probably just look around and get ideas for Christmas." Cliff explained gently.

JD seemed to get the meaning of what Cliff was trying to say.

"I just wanted to let you know now, so that it won't be a surprise to you later." Cliff said cautiously.

He watched JD's expression carefully, but didn't see any anxiety in the boy's expression.

"And if you let us know if you see something that you'd like, we might even be able to get you a new toy." Ben added helpfully. "Your toy box still has plenty of room left in it."

JD turned his attention to Ben and smiled.

Cliff noticed that it wasn't happy as much as tender. If he had to put a caption on that expression, it would be 'I love you for loving me'.

* * * * *

Cliff spent most of the morning reading, while listening to the sound of 'dueling laptops' on either side of him.

Every now and then he would look at Ben and JD to find them wearing matching expressions of concentration as they typed on their respective keyboards.

When it was time for lunch, Ben announced that they were going to have Thanksgiving leftovers.

Cliff wasn't thrilled by the announcement, having had more than his fill the night before, but it turned out that Ben and JD made some very tasty turkey salad sandwiches. JD's choice to make the sandwiches on buns that had been toasted in his electric skillet turned out to make them even better.

During the afternoon, Cliff put on the television and lazily half-watched a football game while his men continued their writing.

All-in-all, it was a perfectly comfortable and relaxing day.

* * * * *

"Remember, JD, all you have to do is squeeze me to let me know how you're feeling. If it gets too bad for you to manage, we'll take you home." Cliff said assuringly as they walked from their parking place.

JD cuddled close to Cliff and seemed to be at peace.

There was a bit of a chill in the air, but the atmosphere was energized with all the holiday shoppers out and about.

Ben seemed to have been drawn into their excitement as he led the way from one storefront to the next.

Occasionally, they would go into a shop, but for the most part, they were just ambling along without any particular destination in mind.

Cliff noticed something different in Ben's movements that caught his attention.

Ben had moved away from the storefront that they were approaching and seemed to be slowing down.

Cliff looked past him and saw a woman staring at them.

She was dressed in a black leather skirt and a red and black bustier. Her hair was an overprocessed, bleached blonde Mohawk and every inch of her exposed skin was covered with tattoos. She had a series of hoop earrings in diminishing sizes where one eyebrow would have been. Beyond that, she seemed to have at least one of every other type of piercing imaginable covering her face.

All of that was just a backdrop, however. The thing that caused Cliff to stop dead in his tracks was the sight of her eyes. They were an arresting, icy steel blue/gray.

She took a step toward them, and Ben reacted immediately, blocking her from getting anywhere near JD.

Cliff looked down with concern and found JD looking at her curiously. His grip hadn't tightened and he didn't show any obvious signs of being afraid.

"Is he one of you?" she asked Ben, and both men were caught off guard by her Irish accent.

"He's our son." Ben said cautiously, then glanced back to see how JD was doing.

The woman broke into a bright smile at his words and it was a duplicate of JD's smile.

"They told me, when he was birthed to me, that he could be one of you. He could, if I made him right." she rambled.

"Who are they?" Ben asked cautiously, then noticed that Cliff had taken out his cell phone.

He sternly shook his head at Cliff, then turned his attention back to the woman.

"The aethers! They whisper on the wind, they do. The aethers don't speak to your kind of folk. But they tells me that if I made him right, he could be one of you lot that live in homes and has cars and such like. People like me, we can't be that way. We're cursed, we are."

"Cursed by who?" Ben asked slowly, as he noticed that she had begun to sweat.

"That you'd be asking!" she said with a snort. "The aethers don't share such things with the likes of me. But him... they tells me that if I make him perfect, even for a second, he can be freed from the curse."

"How did you make him perfect?" Cliff asked, still holding the phone opened in his hand.

"First, I gave him the markings, but only the best. I learned the art, I did, and when I could create beauty, I gave that to him." She said seriously, then faltered as she admitted, "But the aethers don't care about skin and such. To be perfect for them, you have to have the answer inside."

"The answer to what?" Ben asked cautiously, thinking that he already knew.

"The answer to this!" She said expressively as she gestured around them, then looked Ben in the eyes and asked, "Why?"

"So, did you find the answer?" Ben asked slowly.

She shook her head in frustration, apparently at the inability to make herself understood. "I can't go to the place where the answer is. I'm tainted. The curse calls us toward the answer, but the taint prevents us from ever reaching it."

Ben glanced back to see how JD was doing. He seemed to be almost in a trance, but he wasn't catatonic. He was paying his full attention to the woman before them.

"But him, he never made the choices, he doesn't wear the taint. So I took him there, I did. I took him to the place that none of the rest of us can go." She said in a voice that seemed to be starting to quiver.

"How? How did you take him there?" Cliff asked firmly.

"The drugs that make you crave and crawl. They taint you. But the others, they open you up. They clear your mind and allow you to truly see." She said distantly.

"Psychotropic drugs." Cliff said gravely.

"But they's not enough. They open your eyes, they do. But they won't take you there. The yogis, they know. So do them witch doctors and them that walks on coals. They know what will take you there." she said with certainty.

"So you suspended him on hooks." Cliff said quietly as he felt a tear falling down his cheek.

"That I did!" She said proudly. "I opened him up so he could see, then I set him loose to find it. It took me years to find the right way. That last day, I gave him the drugs that took his mind to the edge, then I used the hooks to take his body to the edge. There was nothing else for me to do. After that, he would either be perfect and free from my curse, or he would be dead."

"So you left him?" Ben asked in a whisper.

"That I did!" she said firmly. "I left him and called the police to come and find him. If he was to live free of the curse, he couldn't be with me. I could bring the curse down on him again. It's easy for you and your kind to become one of us. Becoming one of you is near to impossible."

Before Ben or Cliff could ask anything more, the woman turned to JD and asked, "Did you learn the answer?"

JD slowly nodded his head, and carefully took one of his gloved hands and extended it to her in invitation.

Cliff automatically tightened his hold on JD, determined that the woman wouldn't have any chance of stealing him away.

She hesitantly placed her right hand into his outstretched gloved hand and waited expectantly.

Ben was having to fight back his parental instincts to keep from pushing the woman away from his son.

Cliff could feel that JD's other hand that was wrapped around him was holding on firmly. From the tension in the little boy's body, he could tell that JD was afraid, but at the same time he was willingly holding the woman's hand.

JD looked at the back of her fingers, which were tattooed with vine patterns that terminated at the silver painted fingernails. He took hold of her index finger and drew it to his lips and lightly kissed the fingertip.

He looked into her eyes and quietly said, "A kiss will make it all better."

JD released the finger, then went back to holding tightly to Cliff.

The woman looked at her fingertip with puzzlement, then whispered, "Thank you."

Ben looked at JD with concern, but could tell that he wasn't having a problem. He was simply soaking in the feeling of safety and security of being in his Pappa's arms.

The woman now had sweat running off her and was looking around nervously, as though she were about to dash away.

As she seemed about to leave, Ben hurried to ask, "What's his name?"

She stopped and looked at Ben thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "You know, I don't think he ever told me. I've always just called him 'Spider'."

Before Ben could ask any more questions, she hurried away and was swallowed up by a crowd of Christmas shoppers.

Cliff quickly dialed his cell phone with his thumb as he said, "I'll take a cab. Go ahead and take JD home while I file a police report."

"Is that really necessary?" Ben asked cautiously.

"She's a child abuse suspect, so, as a doctor, I'm required by law to report it." Cliff said seriously, then quietly added, "Think about what she did to JD. Think about what you saw in those pictures. Do you want her on the loose so she can try to 'perfect' some other child?"

"You're right, of course. I'll see you back at the house." Ben said with resignation as he took JD from Cliff's arms.

"I'll be home as soon as I can." Cliff said gently, then pressed the 'send' on his phone to initiate the call.

Ben looked down at JD and found him staring off into the distance.

He couldn't fault the boy for that. After the encounter, he felt like he could use a few minutes to sit quietly and process what had just happened.

* * * * *

JD was silent on the drive home, and only seemed to be marginally aware of his surroundings.

He wasn't in a catatonic state like had happened before, JD seemed to be distracted and lost within himself.

Ben guided JD into the house and sat him down on the couch in the living room.

JD went along willingly and didn't give any indication that he was even aware of his surroundings.

"I'm going to call Ron, you know, Mr. Cooper." Ben said quietly as he sat in the armchair. "I think that you might need some help understanding what just happened... In fact, I might need some help understanding it."

Ben waited to see if JD were going to give any reaction.

As he reached for the phone, JD slowly turned his head to reveal those big blue/grey eyes filled with tears.

Ben went to his knees before JD and whispered, "You're safe here. She can't hurt you anymore. You know that, right?"

"Don't cry, Daddy." JD said in a voice that held the slightest hint of an Irish accent.

Those words pushed Ben past the limit of his self control and he openly cried as he pulled JD into a firm hug.

JD returned the hug as he cried into Ben's shoulder.

* * * * *

As their tears finally subsided, Ben finally moved from kneeling on the floor to sit beside JD.

"She's nuts, isn't she?" JD asked with watery eyes that were still red from crying.

"Yes. I think she is." Ben said gently.

"But she loves me." JD said hesitantly. "That's why she did this to me. Because she loves me. She wanted to make me beautiful and perfect so I could be something better than what she is."

"Yes. I think that's true." Ben said with a watery smile.

"Am I beautiful?" JD asked cautiously.

"Absolutely." Ben said without hesitation, then added, "And perfect, too."

JD smiled at the answer and hugged Ben tightly.

Ben returned the hug gently and held JD close.

He felt the boy relax in his arms and realized that JD had fallen asleep.

* * * * *

"How's he doing?" Cliff asked with concern as he walked into the living room.

"I think he's emotionally exhausted, but otherwise, he seems to be doing fine." Ben said quietly, then asked, "How did things go with the police?"

"They knew exactly who I was talking about from the description. They're looking for her now, they seem confident that they'll find her before very long." Cliff said assuringly.

"What about JD? Were they able to get any information about him, now that they know her identity?" Ben asked hopefully.

"Not so far." Cliff said with resignation. "Her name is Megara Delaney. She showed up in town about two years ago. She's been picked up a few times for public intoxication and disorderly conduct, but nothing serious. They were able to trace her movements for the past five years or so, up and down the East coast from police reports, but there was no indication that she had a child."

"So, he may not 'officially' exist?" Ben asked hesitantly.

"It's beginning to look that way." Cliff said seriously.

After a long silence, Ben quietly asked, "In your medical opinion, is there any conceivable way that she would ever be a fit mother?"

"No." Cliff said frankly. "I could tell just by looking, that she's suffering from the effects of long term drug abuse. Even if we leave that aside, she's stark raving mad."

Ben nodded, then looked at Cliff with question.

"We need to see what the police come up with..." Cliff said carefully. "...But as soon as things have settled down, I'll get my lawyer working on it."

"Good." Ben whispered, "He deserves a real family."

"He already has one." Cliff said as he looked at the sleeping boy with a tender smile, "All that's left is for a judge to say the words over us, to make it official."

"I'm so happy to hear you say that. I know we haven't discussed it before..." Ben began to say, but was interrupted.

"I know. I love him too." Cliff said gently.

"I love you too, Pappa." JD mumbled in his sleep.

Ben pulled Cliff to his side as his big strong partner, Dr. Clifton Grant, was reduced to tears.

The End of Part 1

Editor's Notes: Don't you dare stop there.

Seriously, I know this is a very good stopping point, but I can't imagine ending the story just when we get to see that Spider/JD can answer some questions.

I mean, we still don't know what JD is writing on his netbook, to start with.

In short, I love this story,

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher

Proof Reader's Notes: Are you kidding us or what? I want to know more about Spider! I am hooked, line and sinker on this story you can't pull the plug. What is Spider writing? What do the tattoo's represent? Why was he not terrified of his mom, but extremely terrified of the librarian?

Robert / Privatecomm983