Zach watched the road with only half of an eye, most of his attention focused on the rearview mirror and his nine year old nephew in the backseat. As he watched, Cody looked out of the side window and then turned back to the front, biting his lip.
Zach glanced across the front seat to the other member of his precious little family and jerked his head back to indicate the backseat. Shaun nodded and turned around as far as his seatbelt would allow. "Hey, buddy, how you doing back there?" he asked.
Cody shrugged, prompting Zach to shoot Shaun another worried look. Zach cleared his throat. "You know it's okay to be excited. Seeing your mom is a big deal," he said.
Shaun jumped in. "And it's okay to be nervous." Zach frowned over at his husband but didn't comment out loud. Cody did tend to get nervous and moody during his rare visits with his mother, but Zach liked to pretend otherwise. "You remember what's going to happen, right?" Shaun asked.
Cody nodded. "Jeanne's going to sign some papers saying that I get to stay with you and Uncle Zach forever, so we'll be a real family."
"We're already a real family," Shaun corrected. "This just makes it official. So we don't have any more problems like when you broke your arm at recess last year."
Zach's grip tightened on the steering wheel, and Shaun took Zach's right hand in his own, lacing their fingers together while Cody summed up the whole horrible experience, "And the hospital was full of bigoted jerks."
Zach stifled a laugh at Shaun's answering grimace. Shaun could hardly scold their nephew for echoing back the (mostly unfair) words that Shaun had used a year ago in a fit of anger, fear, and hurt feelings.
It had been far from funny at the time. Zach had been on a week long art retreat with some friends from school, completely unreachable; and, it had taken Shaun two days to get a hold of Jeanne and fly her down to LA to sign Cody out of the hospital.
When Zach had gotten home, he had been bewildered to find his sister sound asleep in Cody's bed and the rest of his family sleeping fitfully in the master bedroom. Cody had been wrapped up tight in Shaun's arms, like he was still five years old and afraid of the monster in the closet.
Only this time it was Shaun who was afraid to let go for fear of the monsters stealing Cody away.
Zach had been devastated that his family had been in crisis the whole time he'd been painting and drinking and laughing with his friends. It was a miracle the hospital had kept Cody so long - giving Shaun time to find a legal guardian - and hadn't just stuck him in a foster home. As much as it pained him to admit it, they had gotten lucky.
Shaun, who didn't sleep well without Zach anyway, had woken up almost as soon as Zach stepped into the room, and he'd spent the better part of the night telling Zach about the whole ordeal with Cody cradled between them, hands joined across Cody's chest, mindful of his cast-wrapped arm.
"I think you should adopt Cody," Jeanine had said when Zach, Shaun and Cody had dragged themselves out of their nest and into the kitchen the morning after Zach's return.
"What?" Zach asked, not fully awake and still reeling from the near disaster he'd put Shaun and Cody through.
"It's best for everyone," Jeanne continued as if Zach hadn't spoken. "I can't miss work every time you're too busy playing in the woods to watch over Cody properly."
Zach didn't even have time to process what his sister was saying before Shaun stepped between them. "Thank you for coming," Shaun said, voice careful in the way that Zach knew meant he was trying not to yell. "But I'm going to have to ask you to leave my house now."
Jeanne's eyes slid toward Shaun and then back to Zach. "Zach…"
Shaun was having none of it. "I believe you already have your plane ticket. We'll call you later. For now, please say goodbye to Cody and give our family some time to think."
Cody, who had been glued to Zach's side since they woke up, peeled himself off of Zach and gave his mother a one armed hug. "Bye, Jeanne," he said and released her. Zach saw Shaun give Cody a pointed look and their nephew added, "Thank you for coming."
"Of course, Codes," Jeanne said, "Anytime." No one commented on the blatant lie and Jeanne left quickly.
Later, after hearing Cody's stories and signing his cast, after watching movies cuddled up together on the couch, after bedtime rituals and kisses goodnight, Shaun took Zach to bed.
"Well?" Zach had asked, head tucked into Shaun's neck.
Shaun didn't need to ask what Zach was talking about. "Yes. Of course, yes. It's what we've wanted, and it would give you the rights and power you need to properly care for him," Shaun had said.
"Us," Zach had corrected. "It would give us those rights. I'm not doing this without you."
Shaun pulled away enough to smile at Zach. "Are you asking me to have your baby?" he teased.
Zach smiled back. "No. I'm asking you to be my husband."
That was the start of the long journey that had led them to this moment - pulling up to the courthouse to meet Jeanne and legalize their family.
"Does this mean Jeanne won't be my mom anymore?" Cody asked as the three of them climbed out of the car.
"Of course not, Codes, your mom will always be your mom." Zach answered. "This just means that you'll be our responsibility now. You remember how we talked about responsibility?"
Cody nodded solemnly. "Like doing my homework before dinner and taking Bear out after school."
Shaun smiled and squeezed Zach's hand, so full of pride Zach could almost see it pouring off of him. "That's right. And this will make taking care of you our responsibility instead of your moms."
"Mom doesn't want to take care of me?" Cody's question was curious without a trace of the bitterness that Zach was feeling on his behalf.
"This is your mom taking care of you, okay? She loves you a lot and wants what's best for you. She agrees that this is what's best for you," Shaun answered, giving Zach time to get himself under control.
"Me too," Cody agreed. "I like being your responsibility."
Shaun threw his head back and laughed, sending joy singing through Zach's heart. "Us too, Codes, you're our favorite responsibility."
Shaun's happiness was contagious, and Zach and Cody found themselves smiling and laughing to as they made their way into the building.
"Hey Zach, Cody," Jeanne greeted from a chair inside the judge's chambers, standing up to hug them both briefly. "Shaun," she added with a barely polite nod.
"Jeanne," Shaun said, never losing his grin, "we're going to have some surf and turf on the beach later - celebrate a little. Would you like to join us?"
To no one's surprise Jeanne was already shaking her head. "I have to get back. Alan's waiting for me in the truck." With a quick glance at the judge she added, "Can I get some gas money? It's a long trip. I'll pay you back."
Zach looked to Shaun, forcing Jeanne to defer to his husband. Zach could have given her the cash himself, but he was feeling a little resentful at the ease with which Jeanne could give up the most wonderful little boy in the world. Making Jeanne humble herself in front of his husband was a petty revenge.
Shaun peeled some money out of his wallet and, in a flurry of goodbyes, Jeanne was gone. All Zach and Shaun had to do now was sign some papers, right next to where Jeanne had already scrawled her signature, and they would be Cody's parents in every sense of the word.
Shaun signed first, boldly and without hesitation, but Zach stared at the paper in front of him, clutching the pen tightly in his hand.
He'd been thinking about this day for more than a year now. He'd imagined the pain and heartache he'd feel on Jeanne and Cody's behalf. He'd imagined the nerves and relief at everything finally being settled. But now that it was finally here, looking down at the paper with Shaun's palm flat on his back and Cody trying to worm his way between them, all he could feel was unadulterated joy and the same sense of completion he felt every time Shaun held him, every time Cody smiled, every time someone told him he had a beautiful family.
Zach signed with what Shaun called his 'artist flair.' The judge looked over the papers carefully and then initialed them as well before looking up with a smile.
"Everything's in order. Congratulations," she said with a wink, "it's a boy."
Shaun laughed behind him, and Zach couldn't fight back his own grin. "And you didn't even have to give up your girlish figure," Zach teased.
Shaun snorted and pulled him in for a kiss more appropriate for the bedroom than a courthouse. Zach opened for him easily, but pulled away quickly when Cody interrupted with a heartfelt, "Ewwww."
"That's it," Shaun said, swooping down to tickle Cody, "I'm kissing you goodbye in front of the school everyday for a week.
Cody giggled and struggled out of Shaun's grasp. He turned to Zach, still smiling. "So," Cody said, "can I call you Dad now?"
Zach's mouth twitched up in another smile. "If you want." Which was silly, of course he wanted, Cody had been trying to call him Dad since he'd learned to talk.
Cody beamed at him. "Hi, Dad," he said.
Zach pulled him in for a hug, "Hi, Codes."
Cody turned to look thoughtfully at Shaun. "What do I call you?"
Shaun looked helplessly at Zach. Somehow, in the hours of conversations they'd had on the subject, this had never come up "Well, there's pop, pops, papa, daddio, hey you..." Shaun winked. "…goofy, smarty pants, weirdo, genius…"
Cody laughed brightly, but Shaun turned serious. "Or you can keep calling me Uncle Shaun. Whatever you're comfortable with Cody. I love you very much: you don't have to call me anything special."
Cody, with all the unlimited wisdom of his nine years, said, "But you are special. We couldn't be a family without you." He closed his eyes and mouthed some words soundlessly to himself. He opened them again and said, "I think I like Pop. Is that okay?"
Shaun, apparently too overcome to form words, nodded with suspiciously wet eyes.
"Hi, Pop," Cody said, wrapping his arms around Shaun's waist.
"Hey, Codes," Shaun answered gruffly. And even though he had been too big for it for a few years, Shaun leaned down to pick up their son.
"What's that thing they say to make it official?" Cody asked his fathers.
"They lived happily ever after?" Shaun, ever the writer, guessed.
"No, the thing they said at the wedding, to announce that you're going to be together forever," Cody said.
The judge, who'd been watching them with a fond smile the whole time, knew exactly what Cody meant. She cleared her throat to get their attention and said, "By the power vested in my by the state of California, I now pronounce you fathers and son."