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Chapter 10

Ben awoke early, as he was sometimes known to do. Cliff was sound asleep at his side, and he was happy to find that the boys hadn't joined them during the night.

After taking a few minutes to clean up, Ben quietly made his way into the boys' room to check on them.

He was only slightly surprised to find Jody curled into a fetal ball in the closet on the floor, with JD wrapped around him.

Ben silently watched the boys sleeping for a moment, then took a blanket from the bed and draped it over them, before leaving the room.

* * * * *

"How are you doing, this morning?" Ben asked pleasantly as he sat at the kitchen table with his morning coffee.

"How are the boys?" Cliff asked as he walked to the coffee maker.

"They were fine, the last time I checked on them. They were both fast asleep in the closet on the floor." Ben said frankly.

"That won't work for the long term, but I suppose that, for now, it's best that they work out that they're in a safe place, and that a bed doesn't pose any danger for them." Cliff said as he carried his coffee to the table.

"Maybe we should look into a hammock or a bean bag chair for Jody, maybe even a sleeping bag. If he has such bad memories associated with sleeping on a bed, maybe we should provide him an alternative until the memories can have a chance to fade." Ben said thoughtfully.

Cliff slowly nodded as he thought about the suggestion, then turned at a movement in the doorway.

"Good morning, JD. How are you doing? Did you sleep well?" Ben asked softly.

"Pappa, can I tell you something?" JD asked seriously.

"Of course, you can tell me anything at all." Cliff said in the tone of a vow.

"I need to tell you something." JD said urgently as he began to back away.

"I take it that you need to speak to me privately." Cliff said slowly and glanced at Ben to see if he had any idea of what was going on.

It was obvious from the look on Ben's face that he didn't.

Cliff took one quick sip of his coffee before following JD out of the kitchen.

* * * * *

"Come here. Tell me what's got you so worried, Little Man." Cliff said gently as he coaxed JD to sit next to him on the couch.

Instead, JD climbed onto Cliff's lap and put his arms around him.

"What's worrying you this morning, Spider?" Cliff asked soothingly.

"Last night, after Jody had his bad dream, he talked to me about what happened, where he used to live." JD said quietly.

"What did he tell you?" Cliff asked softly, not wanting to take the chance of causing JD further worry, by addressing issues that JD hadn't learned about, yet.

"Jody said that Ruby, the lady that he used to live with, she kept him tied up and sometimes, she brought men home and let them... They hurt Jody. They did nasty stuff to him, and she let them. She'd beat him if he screamed or tried to stop it or run away." JD said as tears rolled down his cheeks.

"I know, Spider. That woman was a horrible person and she allowed awful things to be done to Jody. The police have her in jail now, where she can't hurt anyone else. You don't have to worry. Jody is safe, here with us." Cliff said seriously.

"That's why he's scared, isn't it? Does he think we're gonna do that stuff to him, or that we'll let someone else do that?" JD asked worriedly.

"I think that deep down inside, Jody is very afraid. And even though a part of him knows that we'd never hurt him, another part is too afraid to take a chance and believe it." Cliff quietly explained.

"What can we do so Jody won't be afraid all the time?" JD asked anxiously.

"We can love him and do what we can to make him happy." Cliff said simply.

"But we did that yesterday, and it didn't work. He's still scared." JD said seriously.

Cliff smiled at the response, then gently said, "If it doesn't work the first time, then we'll keep doing it. It's just like when you're afraid around a woman. You know we won't let her hurt you, but you still feel scared. We keep on holding you and proving to you that you're safe, and little by little, you're starting to believe it."

After a moment to think about it, JD quietly admitted, "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

"Just keep on being the great kid that you already are. I'm sure if you'll do that, Jody will eventually figure out that he's ended up in a safe place." Cliff said warmly.

A movement caused Cliff to turn, and he couldn't contain his smile when he saw Jody standing in the doorway, wearing what was obviously one of JD's turtleneck shirts and a pair of his gloves.

"Why don't you take your brother into the kitchen and say good morning to your daddy? I need to get ready for work." Cliff said gently.

JD quickly turned and saw Jody standing in the living room doorway.

"Thanks, Pappa!" JD said immediately as he hopped off Cliff's lap.

Cliff stood and quietly said, "Come here, Jody, and give me some sugar."

Jody hesitantly stepped forward, obviously not understanding what Cliff was talking about.

Cliff scooped the boy into his arms and proceeded to give him a long, heartfelt hug.

JD watched the scene with a tender smile.

* * * * *

"Can I make breakfast?" JD asked hopefully, as he looked around to see if anything were cooking.

"I thought you might want to, so I already prepped some things for you and put them on the bottom shelf in the refrigerator. I don't know what you feel like cooking, but you should have everything you need to make your Pappa's cheesy scrambled eggs. And I made sure to cut some ham steaks, if you want to fry them up." Ben said with a smile.

"Jody, do you want to help me?" JD asked hopefully.

After a moment to consider the question, Jody walked to Ben's side and thrust his arms into the air.

"Of course." Ben said warmly, and picked the boy up onto his lap.

"Will you be able to manage alright, on your own?" Ben asked as he cuddled Jody to his chest.

"Is Cheesy Scramble Eggs and ham and toast enough?" JD asked to be sure.

"That sounds perfect to me." Ben said happily.

JD walked past Ben and Jody to get a chair from the table, then scooted it to the sink so he could wash his hands in preparation for cooking.

* * * * *

"How are my favorite people in the world doing this morning?" Cliff asked cheerfully, as he walked into the kitchen.

When Jody heard his voice, he immediately turned and thrust his arms into the air.

"I see where I rate." Ben chuckled as Cliff picked up the boy from Ben's lap.

"You get the boys all day, don't begrudge me a few minutes of cuddling." Cliff said warmly as he held the boy in his arms.

Although JD was devoting an inordinate amount of attention to Jody and Cliff, he was able to manage a very satisfying breakfast.

* * * * *

"I have to put you down, now. I have to go to work." Cliff said gently to the boy in his arms.

Jody tightened his hold on Cliff and refused to let go.

"Pappa will be home later today. In fact, since you have a therapy appointment with Mr. Cooper, today, he's going to pick you up and bring you home." Ben said gently.

Jody didn't acknowledge the words and continued to hold on to Cliff with a death grip.

"I have to go now. I'll see you tonight." Cliff said gently as he finally pried Jody's arms from around him and stood him on the floor.

Ben immediately picked Jody up and held him as Cliff started for the door.

The sounds of Jody's sobs were still ringing in his ears as he got into his car.

* * * * *

It took a while for Jody to calm down, but eventually, he did.

Ben was tidying the house, doing minor cleaning chores, just to get them out of the way while JD entertained himself by working on his netbook and Jody aimlessly searched through the television channels.

Finally, chores complete, Ben announced that they needed to go to the store to pick up a few things.

Both the boys seemed unconcerned by the announcement.

"Jody, you're going to need to change into some regular clothes before you leave. That shirt and those gloves are too big for you." Ben said honestly.

"But I want to be like JD." Jody said with wide hopeful eyes.

"Then we'll go to the store and I'll get you some turtleneck shirts and gloves that are the right size for you." Ben said reasonably.

Although Jody wasn't completely onboard with the plan, with Ben's help he changed into his own clothes and they were on their way to the store.

* * * * *

As they entered the store, Ben placed Jody into the child carrier, where he fit just perfectly.

JD looked up with his wide, steel-blue eyes, as if asking, 'What about me?'"

"You can either walk beside me, or push the cart. What do you want to do?" Ben asked simply.

JD thought for a moment, then stepped to Ben's side.

As they crossed the store, approaching their first destination, they encountered a woman, looking at a display rack on one side of the center aisle.

Without a word, Ben stopped the cart and hoisted JD onto his side, then, with one hand, he proceeded to push the cart.

* * * * *

The search for turtlenecks was surprisingly easy, they had two choices, take it or leave it. Ben bought all three gray turtleneck shirts that were Jody's size. As he was about to step away, he picked up three more in JD's size.

The glove section had three pairs in Jody's size. Ben watched as the boys discussed the merits and disadvantages of each pair. Jody tried each pair on at least twice. Finally, after much soul searching, Jody was able to settle on a pair of black knit gloves with little pompom bangles on the wrists.

As soon as that was decided, JD started looking at gloves for himself. Of course, Jody felt that he was obligated to help, since JD had helped him. Ben settled in to wait, then glanced at the gloves that Jody hadn't chosen and put them in the cart.

The first two stops had seemed to take an unreasonably long time. Ben was happy to find that neither boy had any interest, whatsoever, in pants, underwear, socks or shoes. He was able to quickly and easily pick out what best fit Jody.

JD knew where they were going next before they pulled onto the aisle. A smile lit up his face and he hurried to where all the toy cars and trucks were kept.

"Would you like some toys, Jody?" Ben asked the quiet boy in the cart.

Jody looked up at him blankly, as though he didn't understand the question.

"How about I put you down so you can look around? That way, if you see something that you'd like to have, you can take a closer look at it." Ben said as he lifted the boy out of the child carrier seat on the cart.

Jody seemed to wander aimlessly, not really interested in anything he was seeing.

"Do you want a dump truck like mine? Here's one just like it." JD asked happily.

Ben wasn't sure how Jody could show less interest than he was already doing, but somehow the boy managed it.

"There are more toys on these other aisles. Maybe you'd like a different kind of toy?" Ben asked gently.

Jody walked to his side and looked up with question.

"JD, we're going to be on the next aisle if you need us." Ben said and waited for JD's nod before walking away with Jody.

* * * * *

Ben was amazed. There had to be at least two dozen different Lego sets filling the shelves before them. And, somehow, Jody picked the only one of all of them that was marketed specifically for girls.

The fact of the matter was, even if Ben had been given the honor of raising girls instead of boys, there is no way that he would ever purchase the pink princess monstrosity. However, it turned out that the shocking pink Lego shaped box, full of princesses and ponies, was the only toy that Jody had picked up to look at.

After a moment to look at the other sets, which seemed to be of the same line, but marketed for boys, Ben picked up two of them and placed them in his cart. If Jody liked his pink princess Lego set, he could have it, but at least with the additional sets, he would have a variety of other Legos to use to augment it.

"Come on, Jody. Let's go see what your brother found." Ben said softly.

Jody looked at the pink box in his hands one last time before putting it back on the shelf.

"You can have that. I told you that we were going to get you a toy today." Ben said frankly.

Jody looked up at him, and for a moment, it was as though he was shopping with JD again. Even though Jody was silent, his eyes conveyed his every emotion.

"Yes. Really. Go ahead and pick it up. I don't want to leave your brother alone for too long." Ben said with a smile.

Jody's eyes lighted with delight, then he hurried to gather the putrid pink princessy Lego set into his arms.

* * * * *

"What did you find there, Little Man?" Ben asked as he approached with Jody tagging along behind.

"It's a police car. Gerry probably drives one like this. Can I have it?" JD asked hopefully.

"Sure. Put it in the cart." Ben said warmly.

JD walked to the cart and gently placed the car right on top of the two Lego sets that Ben had chosen.

"Come on up here, Jody. We're going to go to the checkout now." Ben said before picking the boy up and placing him in the child carrier seat.

* * * * *

Checking out turned out to be quite a bit more challenging with two boys than it had been with one.

Jody behaved well enough. All his attention was focused on the pictures on the box he was holding.

JD, however, was terrified and seemed determined to choke the life out of him as he held on for dear life.

As Ben looked around, he had to admit, it did look like a feminist rally had just let out, somewhere in the back of the store.

Just as he was getting JD to release his grip enough to allow him to breathe, Jody quietly said, "I gotta go to the bathroom."

"Can you hold it until I pay for this?" Ben asked cautiously, already suspecting the answer.

Jody shook his head firmly.

Ben quickly looked around and was relieved to see that the customer restrooms were just across from the registers, not more than twenty feet away.

"JD, can you do me a big favor and take your brother to the bathroom while I pay for this?" Ben asked hopefully.

It took a moment for JD to gather his courage, but finally he nodded that he would.

"Thank you." Ben said with relief, then gave JD a quick kiss before letting him down to stand.

"I gotta go. NOW!" Jody said urgently.

"I know." Ben said as he lifted Jody out of the child seat, "Go with JD, he'll take you to the bathroom."

Ben watched the two boys hurry away, then noticed the cashier standing, waiting on him.

"Oh, I'm sorry about that." Ben hurried to say.

"It's no trouble at all. How will you be paying?" The cashier said pleasantly.

"Credit." Ben said with surprise by the cashier's kind attitude.

After Ben slid his card, and signed, he said, "I just wanted to thank you for being so patient. I really appreciate it."

"It's no problem." The cashier said warmly, then glanced around before whispering, "I'm paid by the hour."

Ben chuckled, then turned suddenly when he heard JD's voice call, "JODY!"

He wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry at the sight of the little boy trying to run to him with his pants and underwear around his ankles.

"Come here, Sweetheart." Ben chuckled as he squatted down and received the frightened little boy into his arms.

"A man came into the bathroom while we were in there and it scared him." JD said as he quickly approached.

"It's fine." Ben said as he pulled up Jody's underwear and pants. "Everything's fine."

Once Jody was all buttoned up, Ben picked him up and put him into the child seat of the cart.

Feeling the stares of everyone in Target fixed on him, he turned and asked JD, "Ready to go?"

JD moved close to his side and hugged him tightly.

Ben lifted JD onto his hip, then calmly pushed the cart out of the store.

* * * * *

It was unfathomable that when they arrived back at the house, it wasn't even noon yet. Ben wanted so badly to sit down and relax after the harrowing experience of shopping with the boys, but there were still things that needed to be done.

"Well, why don't you guys go into the living room and play with your new toys? I need to get your new clothes washed so you can wear them." Ben said pleasantly.

As he was unpacking the car, he noticed the two Lego sets that he had purchased without Jody noticing. He decided to allow Jody to enjoy his new toy for a while, then, when he had the chance to fully explore all the great things he could do with it, Ben would provide the new pieces so he could build on what he had already done.

Once the laundry was going, he glanced at the clock and decided that it was time to think about preparing lunch.

He walked to the refrigerator and immediately noticed the mini-meatloaf from the night before and thought about making meatloaf sandwiches.

As he was about to start, another use for the meatloaf came to mind and he put it back in the refrigerator.

Instead, he walked into the living room and asked, "JD, would you like to make lunch for us, today?"

"Yeah!" JD said happily.

Jody seemed to be focused on his Legos, he wasn't snapping them together, he seemed to be inspecting each piece as he took it out of it's bright pink, Lego shaped case.

Ben saw no problem with leaving him to it, and walked with JD into the kitchen.

* * * * *

Within a minute of sitting down at the kitchen table, Jody was at his side with his hands thrust into the air.

"Touchdown." Ben said warmly as he lifted Jody to sit on his lap.

"When's Pappa coming home?" Jody asked hopefully.

"Well, the day is about half over, right now. So it's just going to be a few more hours." Ben said gently.

"Is grilled cheese and ham sandwiches okay?" JD asked from the open refrigerator door.

"That sounds wonderful. I think a little of that salad from last night to go with it would be wonderful." Ben said as he continued to cuddle the boy in his arms.

"Okay. But I wanna make some special dressing to go with the salad. I think it'll go good with the ham." JD said seriously.

"I can't wait to try it." Ben said honestly.

* * * * *

JD was right.

The vinaigrette that he put together went perfectly with the sandwiches.

Ben hadn't been paying attention to what ingredients JD had used, but was sure that JD hadn't been using a recipe. The vinaigrette was just another in a long line of examples of JD's amazing talent in the kitchen.

Just as at breakfast, Jody ate his meal, perched on someone else's lap.

Ben didn't mind at all. He was enjoying the feeling of holding someone who needed and wanted him.

However, whenever JD would look across the table at them, he definitely had the look of someone who was feeling left out.

"So, I was thinking about what we could do this afternoon." Ben said slowly as he tried to remember if there were anything else needing to be done.

JD turned his attention to Ben and waited with interest.

"I was thinking that since Jody can't read, that maybe you could read some of your book to him." Ben said as he watched carefully for JD's reaction.

After a long, thoughtful moment, JD finally said, "Yeah. I think he'll like it."

"Good. I need to clean up after lunch. If you want to get your netbook, you can start and I'll be in as soon as I'm done." Ben said with a smile.

"I can help you clean up." JD said cautiously.

"No. That's okay. It'll just take a few minutes." Ben said happily as he stood Jody on his own two feet, then stood, himself.

* * * * *

"You can play with your blocks while I'm reading, if you want. It's okay." JD assured him.

Jody went back to his bright pink Lego bucket, where he had been playing before lunch and waited.

"It takes a minute for it to turn on." JD explained as he placed the netbook on the coffee table and pressed the power button.

Jody watched him a moment longer, then opened his Lego box and started to examine the individual pieces, again.

Once the little laptop was finally booted, JD opened the word processing program that he used and waited for it to come up.

When it was finally ready, JD went to the 'file' menu, then 'open'.

"Just about ready?" Ben asked as he walked in and sat on the couch, behind JD.

"Almost." JD said as his file loaded.

"Why don't you come up here by me, Spider?" Ben asked gently.

JD was surprised that Ben had used his 'love name' but happily gathered up his netbook and scooted onto the couch beside Ben.

After putting an arm loosely around JD, Ben quietly said, "I think we're all comfortable, now. Whenever you're ready."

As JD began to speak, his Irish accent was notably more prominent.

It wasn't just the action of the story, or the lyrically dramatic style of JD's writing that made the story so enthralling. The emphasis and conviction in JD's voice drew Ben in and he couldn't help but visualize the entire, epic adventure playing out before his mind's eye.

In those few, rare moments when he could focus on the present, Ben could tell that Jody was just as enthralled as he was. Although he doubted that Jody understood half of what he was hearing, he was captivated by JD's style of storytelling.

At a certain point, between epic campaigns, JD stopped and quietly said, "My throat is getting raw."

Ben quickly looked at the time, then said, "That's fine. Maybe we can do this again for a while, tomorrow. We need to get ready to go anyway."

At JD's curious look, he responded, "You and your brother are going to visit with Mr. Cooper at the home, today."

JD nodded that he understood.

"I was thinking that, if you wanted, we could make up a nice plate of food for Mr. Cooper. We could give him the last mini-meatloaf, some mashed potatoes, and a nice portion of that salad you made. And if you have any left, you could send some of that salad dressing we had at lunch." Ben said happily.

"No. It wouldn't go right. The bottle dressing we had last night goes good with meatloaf." JD said with certainty.

"You're the chef." Ben said with a smile.

"I might need your help. I need a cup or something for the salad, so he can heat the plate without it." JD said seriously, then turned to look up at Ben and said, "Even though it's small, I want to make sure that the salad is extra nice for him."

"I'm sure that he's going to appreciate it." Ben said warmly, then noticed that Jody had joined them in the kitchen.

Ben automatically picked him up and moved to the table, so he could sit and place Jody on his lap.

"Do you remember Mr. Cooper from the home?" Ben asked him gently.

Jody slowly nodded.

"I'm going to take you over to his office this afternoon so that he can talk to you."

Jody nodded again.

"When you're done talking to Mr. Cooper, your Pappa is going to stop by the home so that he can pick you up and bring you back here." Ben said as he watched for any sign that Jody was comprehending what he was saying.

The blank expression that Jody was wearing didn't give any hints, but the boy did nod, possibly to indicate that he understood.

* * * * *

Ben had suspected that Ron would be happy to receive a home cooked meal. But when JD and Jody explained that they had cooked the food themselves, Ron was smiling bigger than ever.

As much as Ben had thought that he had prepared the boys, and himself, for leaving them with Ron. The reality turned out quite differently than expected.

As the office door closed, he could see JD's sad eyes and the tear stained cheeks of Jody. Ben had to wipe a few tears away before he was ready to drive over to Cliff's office, to poke his head in to say 'hi' and to move the booster seat into his car.

* * * * *

As Mr. Murphy dictates, if you're at the house 23 hours a day, you'll get all your phone calls during the one hour that you're out.

As he walked into the house, the flashing light of a waiting message greeted him.

"For someone who works at home, you sure are hard to catch. Anyway, I've got some good news for you and your new son. Just based on the teaser, mind you, I've received a solid offer from a reputable publisher for JD's manuscript. Before you say it, I already know, it doesn't happen this fast. What can I say? Beginners luck? Whatever. This is one of the big fish and it looks like we've got him hooked. Call me." Beth Anne, his literary agent, said firmly.

It took a moment before the shock wore off, but Ben finally went to his office and dialed the number.

"Good afternoon, Mason Associates, how may I direct your call?" A pleasant voice answered.

"Hi Julie, it's Ben. Is Beth Anne still in the office?" Ben asked hopefully.

"Oh, hi Ben. Yeah. I heard the good news. I can really see you with a kid. That's great. Beth Anne's been waiting for your call. Hold on." Julie said happily.

"Thanks, Julie. I appreciate it." Ben said sincerely, and before he could respond, she put him on hold.

"How are you doing, Poppa?" Beth Anne chuckled as she answered the phone.

"Actually, I'm Daddy, Cliff's Pappa. But we're doing fine." Ben said with a smile.

"God, Ben, in case I didn't say it before, I'm really happy for you." Beth Anne said warmly.

"Thanks." Ben said timidly.

"Well, enough of the sentimental crap. Down to business." Beth Anne said firmly.

"Right." Ben chuckled, then continued, "JD is my foster son. I'm not exactly sure how the legalities work out about him earning money. I'm probably going to have to end up setting up a trust for him, but I'm going to need to be really sure that there's no way some greedy bureaucrat can dip into his college fund and wipe it out before he ever has a chance to use it."

"Honestly, I don't know how that works, either. You need to do what you do best and get in touch with a lawyer and get all anal retentive on him. Make sure all those t's are crossed and all those i's are dotted before the first dollar rolls in." Beth Anne said firmly.

"And, before we can even consider agreeing to anything, we're going to need a proof copy. I don't want JD's name going on something that some dyslexic illiterate editor has hacked to pieces." Ben said seriously.

"I've already got that covered. The proof should be delivered to you either today or tomorrow." Beth Anne assured him.

"Great. I'll get to work on the legal side of things and see how best to protect JD from unscrupulous people who want to siphon off his money. I may need for you to stall the publisher a little bit so I can get everything in line." Ben said frankly.

"That's a switch, isn't it? Us trying to get a publisher to move SLOWER?" Beth Anne chuckled.

"Kids can turn your world upside down." Ben laughed.

"I suppose you would know." Beth Anne said warmly.

"Oh, that reminds me. JD has a younger brother, now. His name is Jody." Ben said happily.

"Really? You've gone from zero to two kids in just a few weeks? How is the esteemed Dr. Grant handling that?" Beth Anne asked cautiously.

"Cliff is absolutely loving every minute of it. I've never seen him so happy." Ben said honestly, then quietly added, "Even after as long as we've been together, only now does it feel like we're something more than 'boyfriends'."

"Give that man of yours a big wet one for me. As soon as you've approved the proof and are ready to talk money, give me a call back. The ball's in your court." Beth Anne said playfully.

"Got it." Ben said seriously. Before he could say bye, she had already hung up the phone.

* * * * *

After taking a few minutes to tidy things and to check to see that they had everything that they needed, to make dinner, Ben went to his computer and started to work.

He felt guilty that he hadn't done any work the entire day, but looking back, he couldn't think of anything he could have done differently.

As Ben was getting heavily into research mode, he heard the front door open.

"Look who I've got." Cliff said as he walked into Ben's study.

Ben couldn't help but smile at the sight of the two boys clung to Cliff's sides.

"Who wants to come down here and give Daddy a kiss?" Ben asked warmly.

Both boys seemed to be considering the question carefully, but finally it was JD who released his hold on Cliff enough to be let down.

The expression on Cliff's face was a relieved 'Thank you'.

After a kiss and a long, warm hug, Ben quietly asked, "Who wants to help me make dinner?"

"Do you want to have salad?" JD asked quickly.

"Absolutely. And I was thinking that while you're doing that, I'd make some oven fried chicken and some wilted greens with bacon and garlic." Ben said with a smile.

JD crinkled his nose a little at the mention of the greens.

"I only ask that you taste them. If you don't like them, you don't have to eat them." Ben said assuringly.

"If you're having oven fried chicken, I know just what kind of salad we should have. Jody, do you want to help me?" JD asked hopefully.

"I don't know how." Jody said cautiously.

"Don't worry. I'll show you. It's easy." JD said happily.

"Okay." Jody said reluctantly.

"Why don't I let you down, so I can go and get changed?" Cliff said to Jody before putting him down to stand on his own.

"It sounds like we've got a plan. Let's do this!" Ben said as he led the boys out of the room.

* * * * *

JD carefully explained to Jody how to tear up iceberg lettuce by hand, then took a few leaves and showed him.

As soon as Jody was diligently working on the lettuce, JD went to work on prepping the rest of the vegetables.

Ben smiled as he went through the familiar routine of dredging and flouring pieces of chicken before browning them in a hot, cast iron skillet.

By the time Ben had the chicken in the oven, Jody was just about finished with the lettuce.

Ben watched as JD put his collection of prepared ingredients into the large bowl with the lettuce, then he pulled his chair over to the sink and encouraged Jody to go with him so they could both wash their hands.

Although Ben could stand and watch the boys all day, he had other things to do, so he took three different bunches of greens out of the refrigerator and started to cut off the stems.

When the boys were finished with hand washing, Ben took his turn at the sink and thoroughly washed the greens. Just as he was about to start chopping them down into smaller pieces, giggles from the island drew his attention.

He turned and couldn't help but smile at the sight of JD and Jody, up to their elbows, 'tossing' the salad.

Ben was certain that by the time the boys were done, the salad had been tossed more thoroughly than any salad had ever been tossed before. Finally, JD dragged his chair back to the sink, then helped his new brother to wash his hands.

"That was fun." Jody said as JD gently soaped his arms up to the elbows.

"Yeah. And it's not as icky as the meatloaf you made last night." JD said honestly.

Almost as soon as the hand washing was done, Cliff walked into the kitchen in his regular clothes.

Both boys ran up to him with their arms thrust high into the air.

"Touchdown." Ben laughed.

Cliff gave him a withering look, then went through the process of picking up two boys at the same time.

"What does 'touchdown' mean?" Jody asked curiously.

"It's from football. But Uncle Wil really hates it and it makes him mad, so you don't want to talk about it in front of him." JD said seriously.

"Okay. I won't. But what's football?" Jody asked, then noticed that Ben and Cliff were listening with interest.

"It's this thing so that a bunch of big guys who say they're not gay have a reason to shower together and jump on each other and slap each others butts and stuff like that." JD said slowly, making sure that Jody was comprehending his words.

Jody slowly nodded, then asked, "So what's 'touchdown'?"

JD thought for a moment and finally said, "I think that's what happens when one bunch of guys proves to another bunch how gay they're not."

Jody stared at JD thoughtfully for a moment, then looked up at Cliff and asked, "Pappa? Is that right?"

Cliff considered for a moment, then said, "Yeah. Pretty much."

"Your Pappa likes to watch football, sometimes. Maybe you'd like to sit and watch it with him." Ben provided helpfully.

"How is everything going in here? Do you need any help?" Cliff asked as he looked around.

"No. I don't think so. I'm just about done prepping these greens. I'll start them in the skillet in about ten minutes or so, just before the chicken is done." Ben said consideringly.

A knock on the door surprised them. Ben and Cliff exchanged looks to see if either of them were expecting anyone to visit.

"I think my two helpers and I will get it." Cliff finally said, and walked out of the kitchen with a boy carried on each side.

* * * * *

"Zeb! It's wonderful to see you. Please, come in." Cliff said happily.

"Thank you." Zeb said timidly, then smiled at JD and said, "It's good to see you again, JD. Do you have a new friend?"

"This is Jody. He's my new brother." JD said proudly.

"Really? Wow!"

"Jody, this is Zeb. He's our friend and he's really smart. Sometime, if you're scared about something, talk to Zeb and he'll tell you how you can do stuff anyway, even if you're scared of it." JD said seriously.

Jody looked at Zeb with wide eyes, then slowly nodded.

JD let loose his grip on Cliff and was promptly let down to stand on his own.

"Daddy's in the kitchen, making supper." JD said as he took hold of Zeb's hand and guided him to walk away.

Cliff smiled at the action and quietly followed.

* * * * *

"Daddy, Zeb's here!" JD said happily, announcing their arrival.

"Hello, Zeb. It's wonderful to see you. How are things going?" Ben asked happily.

"Actually, things are going really well. That's kind of why I'm here. I just had to tell someone about it."

"Have a seat and tell us what's going on. Can you stay for dinner?" Cliff asked as he walked to sit down at the table.

"I didn't come here for that..." Zeb hurried to explain.

"Are you hungry or not?" Ben asked bluntly.

"Well, yeah but..." Zeb started to say.

"You're staying." Ben said simply, then turned to JD and asked, "Would you mind setting the table?"

"Do you want eat in here or in the dining room?" JD asked simply.

"In here's fine." Ben said decisively.

"So, Zeb. What's your good news?" Cliff asked curiously, holding Jody on his lap.

"Oh, yeah. Well, do you remember that I was telling you about a guy at work named Rex?" Zeb asked cautiously.

"The asshole. I remember." Cliff said, then looked over at JD and winked.

"Yeah. That's him. Well, this morning, he started in on me again, just like he always does. Well, I remembered what you told me, you know, that it's not my problem, but something wrong with him."

Cliff and Ben both nodded that they remembered.

"Well, um, I don't remember exactly what it was that he said that made me finally speak up, it was something like that I was an inbred dumb hick or something like that. So, I said something like, 'I'm sorry that your life is so pathetic that you have to put down mine to feel better about yourself. But despite what you think of me, I'm happy with my life. And, you know what? Every day it just keeps getting better.'."

"What'd he have to say to that?" Cliff asked with a chuckle.

"He said that I'd think that because I'm nothing but a loser." Zeb said frankly.

"That sounds like something an asshole would say." Cliff said with a nod.

"Well, then I said, 'I'd rather be a loser than a bitter, mean-spirited winner, like you. By the way, just so there's no misunderstanding later, we're not friends. I don't like you. I may have to work with you, but other than that, don't talk to me. I don't want to have anything to do with you.'."

"I bet he didn't know what to say to that." Ben chuckled.

"I don't know. The people clapping and cheering in the breakroom was too loud for me to hear him. Anyway, after that, he left the break room and even though he was still working, I didn't see him the rest of the day." Zeb said happily.

"Way to go, Zeb. That's how you do it." Cliff said with a single nod.

"We're proud of you, Zeb. I bet that things are going to get a lot better at work for you now that you've found your voice." Ben said warmly.

"I couldn't stop smiling all day. And lots of the people I work with stopped by my register to tell me that they thought I did great." Zeb said with an ebullient smile.

Ben glanced at his skillet, then back at the table before asking, "JD, could you see that everyone has what they want to drink? I'm about to put it on the table."

JD happily got up and started getting drinks for everyone.

* * * * *

Zeb ended up staying after dinner and spending the majority of the evening with the family, just sitting in the living room and talking the night away.

It wasn't until Ben told the boys that it was time for their bath that Zeb realized how late it was and decided to leave.

Each time Ben or Cliff walked by the bathroom door, they heard splashing and giggling and were assured that the boys were having a good time.

Once the bath was finished, JD saw to it that Jody got dressed for bed.

By the time that Cliff and Ben went in to check on them, both boys were settled into bed and nearly ready to fall asleep.

"Do you guys think that you'll be able to sleep in the bed all night, tonight?" Ben asked gently.

"If Jody gets up, I'm gonna go with him to keep him safe. I think he's still partly asleep when he does that. I think it makes him feel better when I'm there, holding him." JD said honestly.

"You're probably right. But, tonight, if you think about it, bring a blanket with you." Ben said before leaning in to give JD a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"Actually, I think I'm going to put a blanket or something down in the closet floor, to give them some sort of a cushion." Cliff said decisively.

"What about that featherbed? It's on the shelf next to the washing machine?" Ben asked quickly.

"Perfect. I'll be right back." Cliff said as he hurried away.

"Pappa's going to fix a soft place for you to sleep, in case you wake up in the night and don't want to be in the bed." Ben said gently.

Jody slightly nodded, confirming that he had heard.

"You two have a good sleep." Ben said as he leaned across JD to give Jody a kiss on the cheek.

"This should work just fine." Cliff said as he carried the large, overstuffed comforter.

Ben continued to sit on the edge of the boys' bed as he watched Cliff fold the featherbed to fit the space.

"You guys have a good sleep." Cliff said warmly as he leaned in to give each boy a kiss.

"Thank you, Pappa." Jody whispered.

"Remember that you can come into our room and crawl into bed with us if you're feeling afraid during the night." Cliff said gently.

Jody slightly nodded as he closed his eyes.

Ben and Cliff walked to the door, then stopped and looked back at the two boys, who appeared to already be asleep.

* * * * *

"Did anything happen today?" Cliff asked as he settled into bed with Ben.

"I got a call from Beth Anne. She's received a solid offer for JD's manuscript." Ben said quietly.

"Oh? How much?" Cliff asked curiously.

"I didn't ask. I don't like to talk dollar amounts until we've come to terms about artistic control and things like that. It puts too much strain on my integrity." Ben said frankly.

"We'll need to see to it that CPS doesn't find a way to get their hands on JD's money." Cliff said cautiously.

"I know. I already told Beth Anne that we'd be looking into that. I'll work on it tomorrow." Ben said sleepily, then thought to ask, "Did Ron have anything to say about the boys?"

"Not really. You know how he is, he's so careful to not say anything wrong, he ends up not saying anything at all. But the general tone he gave off was that they're both doing fine. We're supposed to keep on doing what we've been doing." Cliff said slowly.

"You should have seen Jody at the store, today. He got spooked while he was in the bathroom and ended up running out with his pants down." Ben said with a smile.

"Was he okay?" Cliff asked with concern.

"He's fine. In fact, I think he was too scared to even be embarrassed." Ben said sleepily, then slowly said, "Remember to pick up Junior after work tomorrow."

"I have it written in my appointment book." Cliff said calmly.

"What do you think about what happened with Zeb?"

"I think he always had that in him. If we did anything, we just gave him permission to let it out." Cliff said warmly.

"I really like Zeb. I think that it's a shame that such a nice guy is all alone." Ben said with concern.

"Don't even think about playing matchmaker. Someone always gets hurt." Cliff said in warning.

"I don't need to play matchmaker... well, except to invite Zeb and Wil over at the same time. But that's all I'll have to do with it. Nature will take it's course." Ben said seriously.

"Unless nature doesn't go the way you want it to, then you'll intervene." Cliff said with a smile.

"I would never..." Ben started to say, then broke into giggles before shyly admitting, "...yes I would."

"I can see some issues preventing them from getting together, but if they can overcome those obstacles, I think they could work out." Cliff said thoughtfully.

"Tomorrow's likely to be a long day. We'd better get to sleep." Ben said softly.

"Love you." Cliff said as he rolled onto his side.

"Love you, too." Ben responded with a smile, then turned onto his side so he could give Cliff a quick, gentle kiss.

To Be Continued...

Editor's Notes:

Well, it was very nice to see another new chapter of this wonderful story.

I loved the explanation of football and the touchdown. It kind of reminds me of the story by Andy Griffith called "what it was was football.

Zeb is a really special person, and I think he would, indeed, get along well with Will, given half a chance.

Pink Legos? I don't think JD quite realizes how happy Jody is when he is playing with so called girls' toys.

It was very nice that after another nice chapter of Holiday Handoff, we got a new chapter of Spider, since there is a very nice connection between the two stories, just in case you missed that little tidbit.

Thank you very much, MultiMapper for another chapter and it is nice to see you able to put a lot more time into getting out new chapters.

darryl AKA The Radio Rancher