Christmas Druthers

Author: Orrymain
Category: Slash, Drama, Romance, Holiday, Established Relationship
Pairing: Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating: PG-13
Season: Beyond the Series – December 8-9, 2020
Spoilers: None
Size: 344kb
Written: December 20-23, 2020
Summary: As the holidays inch onward, Aislinn leads the way towards a magical Christmas Day in spite of COVID-19.
Disclaimer: Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't. A gal can dream though!
Notes:
1) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
2) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my other fic(s): “Our Little Miracle” and “Coming Together”

Christmas Druthers
by Orrymain

Breakfast was finished and the Jackson-O’Neill family was scattered throughout the house doing whatever needed to done. It was just after 9:15 when Aislinn began puttering around the living room. The area was her assigned cleaning chore, so she dusted and vacuumed, an easy task with the central vac. She rearranged some of the photos on the mantel, something the family did from time to time, and made sure the books in the shelves were neatly in place. Then she checked on the fish, their large aquarium giving the various little lives inside plenty of room to maneuver.

~Oops.~

Aislinn noticed that one of the rocks was out of place. She didn’t want to fix it, though, because she didn’t think the fish had been fed yet and if she disturbed their habitat, it might get them anxious, thinking it was food time. Instead, Aislinn grabbed a post-it note on which she reminded Ricky, who was in charge of feeding most of the zoo this week, to rotate the rock to its correct position, and placed it in an appropriate spot.

Then Aislinn paced. She kept walking around the room, much as her daddy often did in times of pressure or crisis. Her mind was racing with negative thoughts and ideas, and she felt disturbed and out of sorts. Suddenly, she stopped herself and turned so that the fireplace was behind her and the sofa back a few feet in front of her. In an instant, she plopped down onto the carpet and put herself into a familiar lotus position. Her legs were crossed with each foot atop the opposite thigh and each heel close to her abdomen. Her back was straight, and her arms fully extended to her sides with the palms of her hands upwards. The latter hand position was something she preferred to do as in her mind, she was offering up her soul for peace.

The teen took several long, deep breaths and then closed her eyelids. She allowed her mind to drift, shoving away any darkness that threatened to interrupt her meditation. She didn’t try to turn off her mind; rather, she wanted to focus on her breathing. One thing new to her from researching meditation is that she didn’t attempt to rid herself of bad thoughts, but instead tried to understand them and simply come to terms with them, ultimately putting them in their proper place.

~Gom.~ Internally, Aislinn reminded herself to allow for familiarization and not shoo away the bad thoughts. Gom was the word for that idea. ~Remember gom,~ she told herself. ~I understand the world is what it is. I’m strong. I have support. I acknowledge you, world. I accept you, but you will not rule me.~

Aislinn took another breath and keyed in on her muscles.

~In. Out. Slow. Breathe. Peace is here.~ Her mind began to leave the darkness of reality and traveled to a beautiful image. It made her smile. ~Mommy, you’re so lovely. I miss you so much. I read your book again. I’ve read it so many times. I wish you were here to watch me grow up and help me.~

Aislinn’s face was totally relaxed. She kept the corners of her face slightly upward and her jaw open as she pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Her eyelids were softly covering her eyes. She’d made the mistake of squeezing them shut a couple of times before and learned that the squeezing action made it harder to be calm and tranquil.

~Oh. What’s this?~ the teenager wondered as her mind drifted. “Hello, whatever you are. Welcome.~

The image began to form more fully and caused her to giggle. She saw her brother, Jonny, with a rope in his hand. Then she heard her voice, only it wasn’t how she sounded today.

“Jonny, what you doing?”

“Ropin’!”

“Dad ‘n Daddy told you no do that ‘gain.”

Jonny shrugged and continued his task, putting the rope around his grandfather as he sat, sleeping and snoring, in his chair.

At peace, the meditating Aislinn observed, ~I can’t tell how old we were then. We’re not toddlers, but clearly we hadn’t developed our language skills that much yet. Listen to Grandpa snore. He must have had a long day at work.~

“Jonny, you no get ice cream tonight when they find out,” Aislinn reminded her brother about their parents’ likely reaction to the boy’s actions.

Jonny thought for a moment and his sister didn’t need ESP to know what he was thinking. Ice cream was the best thing ever to him. Still, he’d gone too far to stop and kept going.

“Roped him,” Jonny boasted.

“Hear car,” Aislinn reported.

Eyes wide, Jonny worked fast to remove the rope and quickly hid it beneath a sofa pillow just as the door opened.

“You bett’r tell them, Jonny.”

“Na huh. Want ice cream.”

More words were spoken, but the picture from her youth faded away. For a few minutes, random seconds of life floated through Aislinn’s mind, but nothing settled until a feeling of disbelief hit the girl.

~Oh gawd, I think … I think that’s me. Is that you, little me? Gosh, I’m a baby. I can’t be remembering me being a baby. Oh, well, hello little me. I’m glad to see you, even if you’re just a meditative dream or my imagination. Look at Daddy, looking down at me. Wow, what blue eyes. His smile: oh, my heart. I … I feel such love. Look, he’s giving me a bath and talking to me. No baby talk, just a father sharing thoughts with his daughter. Now he’s counting my fingers and toes. I’m perfect? Far from it, Daddy, but I’m glad you think so, or thought so.~

Aislinn heard herself laugh, but she wasn’t sure if she actually laughed out loud or if it was all in her mind.

~What a beautiful … whatever that is. Peace, serenity, love.~

With that, Aislinn slowly opened her eyes. She was smiling and felt good. Happiness flowed through her being. She began to process her experience and with a very small gasp of realization, knew exactly what those images were telling her. Before she could act, though, she felt movement. Looking down, she chuckled, completely surprised at what she saw.

“Ptolemy, when did you join me?”

The family’s majestic hyacinth macaw was in Aislinn’s lap, resting serenely.

“I didn’t feel you at all, Ptolemy. How’d you get in my lap with me all crossed up like a pretzel as Dad says? It doesn’t matter. I’m glad you’re here. Polly, what do you think? Can I do it?”

Ptolemy let out a positive squawk to the girl’s vague’s question and added, “Ash good.”

Chuckling, Aislinn responded, “Thank you, and I hope that means my idea won’t upset anybody, but I have to do it. I just have to.” She sighed. “Ptolemy, am I doing the right thing?”

“Ash right. Ash good. Right.”

Aislinn laughed louder and leaned over to put her head against the bird’s body.

“I love you, Ptolemy,” the girl spoke, raising her head just slightly. With a grin, she leaned forward and kissed the colorful bird on the beak. “Thank you.”

“Squaaaaawk!” was the gushing reply.

“Okay, fly away. I have something I need to do.”

Ptolemy did as told and flew off towards the study, which Aislinn assumed meant she was going to bug her dad for awhile. Since Ptolemy was apparently loose, she decided to first check the patio door to make sure it was locked. The creature was only allowed to fly freely around the house when it was totally locked up. That accomplished, Aislinn took another big, calming breath and went to the intercom.

Selecting the button that would carry her voice throughout the entire house, Aislinn spoke, “Hey, everyone. Can you join me for a quick family meeting? I hope I’m not interrupting anything. I’m in the living room. Thanks.”

The teen waited and before long, family started to appear. The first one to arrive was her dad, Ptolemy perched on his left shoulder.

“Maybe we should put this thing away,” Jack snapped, though in truth he adored Ptolemy and treasured the affection she held for him.

“I’ll do it, Dad,” Jonny offered as he entered from the kitchen.

“Thanks, Son.”

“We’re here,” Lulu announced as she and Chenoa approached, both wearing their practice dance attire since they were rehearsing a dance number for the family’s upcoming play.

“Getting the little Whos in Whoville ready?” Jack asked with a smile.

“Cindy Lou Who approves,” Chenoa teased in reply, a reference to a memorable character from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which was the play the family was going to perform and send out to family and friends later in the month.

“Are we here?” Daniel queried as he took the last few steps down the stairs.

“Not yet,” Jack answered.

Next to arrive was David and Little Danny, who had been conversing in the older boy’s room about all things rock. Ricky and Jenny were the next to enter the living room.

With a mouthful of muffin, Jenny revealed playfully, “Spitfires present and accounted for.”

“You’re eating Muffin!” Little Danny joked in reference to the large dinosaur at the corner of the game room.

Finally swallowing the last bite, Jenny clarified, “Actually, I was sitting with Muffin, watching Ricky play pinball games, when I looked up at Muffin. All of a sudden, I was hungry and all I wanted to eat was a muffin.”

The group laughed and then David inquired, “How’d you do, Ricky?”

“I won!”

“Way to go, Bro,” Jonny praised. “Ptolemy is secure,” he noted for the sake of his parents, who nodded in response.

“Okay, well, I won once and lost twice,” Ricky admitted.

“That’s still great,” Jonny praised.

“Yeah, some of our pinball games are really tough,” Little Danny reminded.

Ricky smiled, not feeling so bad now.

“Where’s JD?” Aislinn asked as she looked all around the living room.

“Oops,” Daniel expressed with softness and a bit of embarrassment. “I let him play with the trains for a while.”

“He’s probably lost at railroad yard,” Jack joked. “David?”

David, who was standing near the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen nook, nodded in understanding. He turned and headed towards the train room where he retrieved JD and returned to the family.

“He didn’t even hear me when I walked in,” David told everyone. “I had to call his name three times.”

“Daddy, can I play with your trains some more? Egyptian was winning!”

“You were racing our trains?” Jack queried with a sour expression.

“Pretending, Dad. Daddy said I could run the trains slowly a few times, but the rest I had to do in my mind.” Shaking his head adamantly, the youngest brood member added contritely, “I didn’t break the rules. I promised, Daddy.”

“Son, I apologize,” Jack said. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you or assumed the worst. I know you wouldn’t break the rules of the train room. It’s this COVID fever,” he sighed with regret. Enthusiastically, he put forth, “How about the three of us have a race later today?”

JD jumped up and down in excitement and exclaimed, “Oh boy!” He looked over at Jonny and almost sang, “I get to race the trains with Dad and Daddy.”

Jonny grinned and replied, “Good luck, JD, but watch out for those two. They like to win.”

“Careful,” Jack warned out of the side of his mouth.

“Sorry, I’m late. I was on the phone and I tried to get off, really I did, but it took forever. Did I miss the meeting?” Brianna inquired.

“We haven’t started yet.” A gasp escaped Aislinn’s mouth. “Oh, geez. Does anyone have their phone with them?”

“I do,” Jonny answered as he reached into his pocket for his smartphone. He saw the scowl. “Honestly, Dad, I have a reason for keeping my phone with me right now. Trust me?”

Jack allowed for a pause, but then he smiled and acknowledged, “I trust you to follow the rules, just like I trust JD.” He saw Jonny was pleased with his response. “Just don’t push it,” he advised with a pointed look.

“I won’t.”

The parents established at the very beginning certain rules for their children who were given cell phones. The main one was never bring the phone to the table. Another was not to let the phones become appendages. There was a use for mobile phones, but in the Jackson-O’Neill household, phones were only a tool and not to be pulled out at every ring.

Aislinn used the phone to call Jennifer, who lived with her family in the small house just behind and slightly to the left of her parents’ home.

“Jen, do you have a minute?” Aislinn asked.

“Sure do. What do you need?”

“I called a family meeting and I really want you and Jeff to hear. Hold, while I see if Jeff’s available?”

“I’m right here.”

A moment later, Aislinn reached her brother, who now lived next door in the house once owned by Sophia Valissi Hammond. Jeff’s family was growing. He and wife Chely now had two children, just months apart from each other, and a dog.

“Ash! What’s happening?” Jeff questioned.

“Family meeting. Can you listen in?”

“Of course. Can you hold one sec? Chely wanted me to help her with something. Let me see if she can wait a few minutes.”

“Okay. Waiting.”

While they waited on Jeff, the family took their seats. Jack sat in his favorite chair with Daniel actually sitting on the carpet right in front of his husband so that he was able to lean back against Jack’s legs if he chose to do so. The sofa quickly filled up, causing some laughter since the kids were obviously bigger now and it was harder to scrunch together. Still, Jonny, Little Danny, Chenoa, and Lulu found soft seats there. Ricky and Jenny went the easier route of pushing aside the coffee table and sitting Indian-style in front of those on the sofa. Brianna chose to sit on the arm of the sofa on its right side, leaving David to join the Spitfires, though he let his legs sprawl out in front of him while he leaned back carefully against the left side of the sofa.

“Daddy!” JD whined, not knowing where to go.

“Sit with me,” Daniel requested, the happy youngster taking a position similar to his daddy’s, only on Daniel’s lap.

“We’re good to go,” Jeff called out.

“Um, okay, well, Little Danny, will you hold the phone?” Aislinn requested, handing the Munchkin Jonny’s phone.

With the family assembled, Aislinn stood opposite the sofa and fireplace and took a deep breath. She was about to speak when two loud, angry barks were heard.

Chuckles were heard as Bijou and Katie entered, each jumping up onto a human seated on the sofa.

“Grrrr,” Bijou growled in the meeting’s leader’s direction.

“I’m sorry, Bijou. I didn’t mean to ignore you and Katie. I guess you are part of this. Forgive me?”

“Arf,” Bijou responded while settling into a more relaxed position.

“Thanks,” Aislinn acknowledged.

Again, Aislinn’s statement was interrupted, this time by a curious JD.

“Dad, Daddy, what’s Santa going to do this Christmas?” the boy questioned. ~Maybe it’s all pretend.~

“What do you mean?”

“The world is sick with COVID. Won’t Santa get sick if he delivers presents and goes down the chimneys and touches things like plates when food is left for him? And what about the reindeer?”

“JD, Santa is immune to COVID and all nasty diseases,” Jack asserted. ~Sure glad I just read a story about this.~

“He’ll be perfectly safe,” Daniel added. “We’ve been told that a lot of exceptions are being made.”

“Hey, I’ve heard that, too,” Jeff interjected from his house. “You know how people have to quarantine for days and weeks when going from state to state or country to country? Just about every state and country have granted Santa permission to travel.”

“They have?” JD examined, wondering if he was being teased. “Are you sure?”

“Sure they have, Bro,” Jeff affirmed. “Like Dad and Daddy said, Santa is immune. He won’t get sick and he can’t be a carrier.”

“What if he’s not immune and brings our the presents? Maybe the elves aren’t immune? Or the reindeer.”

“JD, Santa has sent an email to parents all around the world,” Daniel told the child. “He told us that while he’s immune, he doesn’t want to take any chances with the elves and reindeer. He said that while he doesn’t normally admit it, the North Pole is the most techy savvy place in the world. He explained that this year only he’s going to, uh, teleport around the world. He’ll leave the presents in the chimneys or wherever it’s safe, and he asked parents to get up a little earlier and take the presents to put around the Christmas trees.”

“To be his helpers?”

“Exactly,” the archaeologist affirmed.

“How will he get his milk and cookies?”

The question threw Jack and Daniel, but it was the new father of two who came to the rescue.

Over the phone, Jeff responded, “JD, a lot of parents have decided to leave the milk and cookies up on the roof and those who can’t do that will leave it outside, somewhere safe. Santa likes the idea and said to tell children not to worry. He’ll find the milk and cookies, no matter where they are.”

“Wow. Okay,” JD responded. ~Maybe they just want me to feel better in case Santa doesn’t come. Carl says Santa isn’t real. He’s wrong.~ He took a breath. ~I think he’s wrong.~

“Now that that’s settled ... Ash,” Daniel prompted with a slight nod.

Not wasting any time, Aislinn declared, “I’ve made a decision. This has been a super hard year for all of us.” She couldn’t help but look over at David, whose best friend’s father died in April from COVID-19. She swallowed and fidgeted with her hands for a few seconds. “We’ve pretty much spent the year inside this house. We’ve gone out a few times, back when they claimed it was safe, but,” looking at her parents, “you never believed it, and we believe you, which was smart because we stayed home and when we did go out, we always socially distanced and wore our masks. We walked away from those who didn’t. Mostly, we’ve stayed here, not just for ourselves. We were worried about Bijou and Katie and the cats for awhile, but mostly, we were worried about ...” Again, she looked at her parents and altered her comment a bit. “We’d rather die of boredom than bring that nasty virus into our home, and to you.”

“It’s the right choice, Ash,” Jonny called out in support of his fellow Munchkin.

“No regrets,” Jenny added, also wanting to assure her sister that the whole family had been and still was in agreement.

“The thing is,” Aislinn began as her eyes moved from sibling to sibling, “I miss my friends. I miss Aunt Sam and Uncle Pete, Aunt Janet and Teal’c, Aunt Sara and Uncle Mark, Uncle Lou Aunt Carolyn: I miss them all. Most importantly and urgently to my heart, I miss Grandpa and Grandma. I miss them so much.”

As Aislinn sniffled and began to cry, Little Danny placed Katie on Chenoa’s lap and handed Jonny’s phone to his brother, quickly stood, and walked to his sister’s side. He pulled her close to him and whispered that everything was going to be okay.

“It’s going to be a year. Do you realize that?” a vulnerable Aislinn asked her family. “Assuming the vaccines work and are distributed to us at some point, it’ll be a full year since we’ve seen Grandpa and Grandma. I miss Grandpa’s touches, his hugs, his kisses, his old war stories, having ice cream with him in the ice cream parlor we built for him, and us.”

Jonny couldn’t remain seated and watch Aislinn’s cheeks grow wetter by the second. Her voice was now strained and sometimes garbled by her emotions. In a flash, he passed on his phone to Lulu and went to stand on the other side of the youngest Munchkin and placed a kiss on her cheek. Both he and Little Danny had their hands on her arms, giving her strength.

Meanwhile, some chatter was stirring.

“I miss sitting on his lap,” Chenoa confided. “I’m too big now, but I still miss it.”

“He promised to tell me some stories about Grandma,” Jenny informed her family. “I mean, his first wife. Grandma Sophia said it was okay because she still likes to talk about her first husband sometimes, too. Anyway, we were going to sit in the sun room, have some pie, and he would tell me about her. Then COVID hit.”

“I want to stay with Grandpa and Grandma.” JD turned his head to see his parents’ faces. “Remember, Dad and Daddy?”

“That’s right,” Jack verified. “The plan was for you to spend a week with them.”

“Grandma said she’d serve me breakfast in bed every day, with waffles and eggs and orange juice and sausage and bacon and fresh fruit and her special oatmeal and stuff I’m not sure what it is,” JD elaborated. He pause and clarified, “Not at the same time, but I’d get breakfast in bed every day for a week.”

“It’ll happen, Son,” Jack promised. “We just have to wait this thing out.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing,” Aislinn interjected plaintively. “I don’t want to wait anymore.”

“More words, Ash,” Daniel urged, fully aware the teenager hadn’t yet shared her decision.

“I’ve thought about this a lot,” the girl continued. “All I want for Christmas, seriously, the only thing, is a few hours with Grandpa and Grandma on Christmas Day. I want to isolate myself completely so I can see them. I can,” still sniffling, “sleep in Jeff’s old room or the Bird’s Nest.”

Jenny hopped up, running forward to stand immediately in front of her sister, and reaching out to hold Aislinn’s arms while asserting, “No, you won’t. I’m going to isolate with you so I can see Grandpa and Grandma, too.”

“Me, too,” Chenoa called out, motioning for Katie to take Little Danny’s previous spot on the sofa. “That’s the only present I need this year.”

Jonny and Little Danny looked at each other as they continued to support their triplet sister and, in unison, announced, “We’re in.”

Jenny looked back at her twin brother who nodded, prompting the girl to declare, “Ricky’s in, too.”

“Who needs to go out?” Brianna offered more as a statement than a query. “We need to see them. I wish we could see everyone, but we can’t. Seeing Grandpa and Grandma, even if it’s only for a brief visit, will be worth cutting ourselves off from the outside world.”

“We’re already cut off,” David intoned. “Ash is right. We’ve stayed in more than others. I don’t think it will be much harder to be just a little more … cut off.” He lowered his head, the young man of nineteen still reeling from John Miller’s passing and the effect the death was having on his best friend, Calvin. “I think I need to see them.”

“Why are all of you looking at me?” JD queried.

“Are you willing to isolate with us, JD?” Jonny inquired. “We’re the brood, you know, and there’s nothing more powerful than us sticking together.”

“It means not going outside this house at all, for two weeks,” Little Danny elaborated.

“And if you, and all of us, do that, we get to see our grandparents on Christmas,” Brianna pointed out.

“What do you think?” Daniel asked the boy.

JD’s response was a demanding, “Stop staring at me,” to his brothers and sisters, but he followed that with a grin. “I’m part of the brood. We in together.”

Now the eyes were focused on Jack and Daniel. It was the silver-haired man who initiated movement of Daniel and JD until he could stand. He quickly felt his lover at his side. The two shared a look. Words were unnecessary, even their silent mental ones.

“Kids, this will be more difficult than you think, but if you’re serious, we lockdown, one-hundred percent. I will not allow us to risk the lives of Grandpa and Grandma. This means we shut down any and all deliveries, including mail. We’ll just have to catch up after Christmas.” Looking at Daniel, he said, “I’ll handle the postal service and other deliveries.”

“I’ll make sure the bills are paid and appropriate notifications are made to our extended family,” Daniel replied, referring to those mentioned by Aislinn earlier and some other friends the family stayed in touch with, especially during the holidays. ~I’m glad Suz opted to stay in South Carolina this Christmas,~ he thought about his foster sister who briefly considered a trip to Colorado Springs for the season.~

From there, without actually saying he and Daniel agreed to the isolation, Jack began with the planning. He’d already calculated the dates in his mind. Fourteen full days to end on Christmas Eve would do it.

“We have two days to make sure we’re ready to shut it down.”

“Uh, Dad, I think we should give it that extra day, as a precaution,” Aislinn suggested.

“Very well,” the retired general agreed. “We have one day to acquire any supplies, including food, that we may need. David, I’d like you and Ricky to take an inventory of all zoo needs: food, toys, and medication.” He looked at Jonny and asked, “Is Bogey still on that calcium supplement?”

Jonny’s pet lizard currently suffered from a calcium deficiency and was being administered calcium gluconate for a short period of time.

“Pam said for another week, and then she thinks he’ll be fine.”

Continuing with his orders, Jack instructed, “David, Ricky, make sure Bogey has a supply of that calcium stuff. Jonny, call Pam. Let her know our plans, the status of the medication, and …”

“… and what to do after next week is up because we won’t be able to bring him to the vet.”

“Yes,” Jack acknowledged. “Sport, we may have to ask Aunt Sam or Aunt Sara to take Bogey for the next couple of weeks.”

“I know,” Jonny sighed. “We don’t want Bogey to suffer. I’ll call Pam and see what she says, and if she says he can’t wait, I’ll call Aunt Sam and go from there.”

Jack nodded his approval and continued, “Bri, Noa, Lulu: do an inventory of the kitchen and hospitality room. Remember, we need food and supplies for fifteen days. Make a list for shopping, but be smart. I don’t want perishables that will expire. That includes milk.”

“Yes, Dad,” Brianna responded on behalf of her inventory team.

“Ash and Jenny, you two know the secrets, so check out the pantry and all the stash points in and outside of this house. If there’s food outside the kitchen and hospitality room, I want to know what it is, how much there is, and where it is.”

“Should we coordinate with the inventory team?” Jenny questioned.

“Absolutely,” Jack answered. He looked over at his namesake again. “Jonny, I’d like you to survey the outside of the house, front and back, including the animal habitats like the barn and turtle pen. If anything might be iffy to survive a hard rain or potential snowstorm, tell us.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“And I’ll call Grandpa and ask him if we can come,” Aislinn put forth.

“Ash, you know what?” Chenoa called out. “Grandpa and Grandma have been stuck even more than us in their house for months. Do you think they’d want to come here instead of us going there?”

“Brilliant idea,” Jack praised. “Ask him, Ash.”

“Noa, are you sure you’re okay with this?” Aislinn probed quietly. “I mean, your nursing.”

“I’m far from a nurse, Ash, but Aunt Janet’s been telling me I could take time away for a while. She’s worried I’m putting in too much time, so it’ll be okay,” Chenoa replied, the Curly Top having been a nursing aide to Janet throughout the COVID crisis. “I’ll call Aunt Janet tonight.”

“Okay then,” Jack spoke, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s do it.”

Jonny and Little Danny remained at their sister’s side as the others set about to do their tasks.

“Thanks, guys,” Aislinn said with a small smile. “I knew I could count on both of you.”

“Always, Ash,” Jonny replied. “We’re the Munchkins.”

“We love you,” Little Danny assured.

“I love you both, too.”

“We have things to do, Munchkins. Let’s get to it,” the not-so-little general ordered as the three separated and headed to complete their assignments.

====

With Daniel still making phone calls to advise those close to the family of the isolation plans, the children gathered to give their reports. As they came together, Jack noticed a missing child: Lulu.

“Where’s Li’l Bit?” the father asked of the brood.

“She’s on the phone with Chloe,” Chenoa reported. “Lulu’s trying to convince her to take dance classes when COVID is over.” With a smile, the young girl added, “Chloe’s pretty good, especially with contemporary.”

Jack simply nodded, not knowing much about the styles of dance, except for tap and ballet which his Curly Tops specialized in.

“Listen up: quick!” Jack commanded. “Let’s not forget Lulu’s birthday. We don’t want it to get overlooked because of this craziness.”

“Wow,” Jonny expressed in awe as he thought about the occasion which was only three days away. “She’s going to be sixteen.”

“That’s major,” Aislinn opined.

“Big time major,” Jack agreed, “so do whatever you can and if you need an emergency run today, let me or Daddy know. We’ll find a way to get you out of the house or try to get help with whatever you want to be here before shutdown. Okay?”

“Don’t worry, Dad. We won’t let Lulu’s birthday be another victim of COVID,” David promised. “It’s not going to happen.”

Jack like what he heard so it was time to move on with the reason for the assembly.

“Kids, report.”

“There’s a spot in the barn, two slats actually, that are loose. We should fix those,” Jonny told his dad. “I saw a bulge in the top left of the barn roof, too, but I couldn’t tell how serious it was. Also, a couple of the connections to the reindeer look iffy to me, and I think you should check that out, too, but that’s all that stood out to me.”

“Bogey?” Jack prompted.

“Pam said to be safe that we should have Bogey visit an aunt,” the teen sighed. “Aunt Sam said she’d watch him and make sure Bogey saw Pam next week.”

“Good.”

“Here’s the grocery list,” Brianna stated, handing the list to Jack, who did a quick review.

“Looks about right. Anyone want to review this?” Jack asked the children who were giving their reports.

“We trust the inventory group,” Ricky answered on behalf of the brood.

“If they missed anything or we use more than we should, we’ll live. It won’t kill us if we run out of milk or something,” David offered a bit more seriously than he might have if COVID wasn’t ruling the world at the moment.

“You’re right, Son,” Jack spoke. “Next?”

“We do need a few animal supplies,” Ricky advised. “We made a list.”

“Good. What’s next?” He looked over at the youngest Munchkin. “Ash?”

“Sorry, everyone.” After a sigh, she said, “Here’s the pantry inventory, which I already showed the inventory team so they could use it for the grocery list, but here are the … stashes.”

Jack wanted to laugh. Not a brood member didn’t have guilty eyes. There were definitely hidden food supplies around the house, favorite foods the children wanted to keep for themselves.

~Reminds me of Danny and his junk food stash at the Mountain. Twinkies: lots and lots of Twinkies,~ Jack mused. “Okay, let’s set the goals for tomorrow and who is going to do what.

“Oh, first, I did talk to Grandpa and Grandma,” Aislinn advised. “They are super excited and they want to come here.”

“So cool,” Jack expressed with satisfaction.

After that, the family proceeded to work out who would do what on their last day of non-isolation.

====

“Still up?” Daniel asked that night when he entered the girls’ room as part of his nightly rounds. He looked over and saw Jenny’s empty bed. “Whe…”

The query was interrupted with, “Jenny’s still in the shower.”

“The older you girls get, the longer the showers are,” Daniel teased.

“We have to be beautiful,” Aislinn counter-teased, shaking her head so that her long, brown hair tossed from side-to-side.

“I’m proud of you,” the father announced as he sat on the side of her bed.

“I just want to see them so bad.”

“I know.”

“Daddy, can I ask you something?”

“Anything, anytime.”

Aislinn practically jumped up, sitting on her knees which she used to scoot up close to Daniel.

“Daddy, when I was a baby, did you ever … did you call me perfect?”

“Uh, I … I’m sure I did.”

“No, I mean.” Aislinn settled herself and explained, “When I was meditating, I remembered being a baby. Is that possible, or was I daydreaming or something?”

“Actually, some people remember being born.”

“Really?”

“I knew a high school administrator who told me they remembered the entire birthing process. They said they were happy wherever they were before and didn’t want to be born. She swore there were angels around her and she kept saying she wanted to stay with them. She even said they promised they’d be with her forever. She was born and remembered crying, so unhappy at not being wherever she had been; maybe the womb. I don’t know.”

“Do you believer her, Daddy?”

“She’s not the only one, Ash. Our minds are very powerful. Some of us recall our first five years and others don’t remember anything until they start going to school. I don’t doubt it, but I don’t know.”

“I saw you, Daddy. You were pouring water on me, very carefully.”

“Giving you a bath?”

“I guess so. I remember wishing I were in Mommy’s tummy, but I saw your face, looking at me and talking to me, I stopped wishing after that. I felt so loved.”

“You know you are.”

“You told me I was perfect and your miracle. You counted my fingers and my toes, and I felt so safe.” Aislinn moved forward, throwing her arms around her father. “I love so much, Daddy. Thank you for having me and all of us.”

“I love you, too, Sweetie, and, believe me, I wouldn’t change a thing. You and your brothers and sisters are the best of Dad and me. We’re … blessed.”

“I had another memory, of Jonny and me with Grandpa when we were younger. I couldn’t figure out our age, and I don’t know where Little Danny was. It was like a scene, a little piece of a puzzle, Daddy.”

“Do you remember what you did?”

“Jonny roped Grandpa,” Aislinn chuckled. “He had a big rope and he tied it around Grandpa as he slept in his chair. It was at his house, Daddy, but all I remember is telling Jonny not to do it and that he wouldn’t get ice cream if he got caught.” She thought harder. “I think he said he’d get his ice cream because you and Dad wouldn’t know. He said I wouldn’t tattle on him. That’s all I remember.”

“I do recall this day. You were three or four. Someone, I don’t remember who, wanted Little Danny to play with their son, but I don’t think they wanted to deal with all three of you. Dad and I decided to drop you and Jonny off with Grandpa while we spent some time together at the park.” He laughed, “All we did was worry.”

“Why?”

“You weren’t used to being apart yet, and it wasn’t something we worked on until you were older. You Munchkins just loved being together, and you disliked being separated.”

“I vaguely remember that.”

“Ash, you tattled.”

“I did not.” Aislinn stared at her father in utter disbelief. “Daddy, I wouldn’t.”

“But you did. You were angry at Jonny for not telling us about roping Grandpa, so you told us.”

“Oh.”

“But Dad gave you a little grief for it,” Daniel continued. “He told you that tattling wasn’t a nice thing, unless it was something we really needed to know. Tattling because you’re angry at someone wasn’t nice.” He smiled. “You never tattled again unless someone was in danger or doing something truly harmful in some way.”

“I don’t remember that at all, but I’m glad I learned something. Um, did we get ice cream?”

Daniel laughed, “You did, all of you.”

“I’m glad,” Aislinn said as she leaned back, her legs scooting under the covers as she let out with a giant yawn. “So what I remembered was real.”

“Apparently.”

With a smile, Daniel held her right hand, counting each finger, and then he took her left hand and did the same. He stood, pulled up the covers at the foot of the bed, and counted the toes on his daughter’s feet.

“Ten fingers and ten toes: perfection,” Daniel claimed with misting eyes before kissing the Munchkin tenderly.

“Good night, Daddy.”

“Good night, our original miracle,” Daniel replied.

Jenny’s goodnight would have to come later, since she’d yet to return from her shower.

====

The next day, the family was busy taking care of all the things that would help make their fifteen days of isolation safe.

Jack and David were on the roof of the barn, having already repaired the slats inside the unit and the electrical connections of the outdoor displays.

“Man, it’s a good thing Jonny saw this,” David stated, shaking his head at the bulging roof.

“I had no idea this was so bad,” Jack agreed.

“Did you know it was here?”

“Right before COVID took over, I noticed just a slight dip. It wasn’t anything like this.” Jack groaned. “I should have fixed it then; would have been simpler.”

“At least Jonny caught it. One big snowstorm and …”

“Snowy ponies,” Jack jested about the families two Shetland ponies, Hot and Chocolate, who resided in the small barn and stable area.

“It would have made for a good photo op,” the young man mused with a smile.

“It’s good to see you smiling again, Son. I know you’ve had a tough time since John died.”

“It’s mostly Calvin and Mrs. Miller,” David acknowledged. “Mrs. Miller has been a rock since she came to terms with Mister Miller’s death, but I’m not sure about Calvin, Dad. He acts like he’s okay, but I’m not so sure.”

“Death is hard to handle, David. People grieve in different ways and it takes time; for some, a lot of time. You just be there.”

“I’m trying,” David said before placing a new board over the now-open section of the roof. “How’s this?”

“Watch your thumbs,” Jack warned as he began nailing the board in place.

The father and son successfully placed three boards on the roof. There was still some shoring up to do of the area, however.

“Dad, do you need me to finish helping with this?” David inquired. “I can stay if you need me, but I have to get those pet supplies.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Jack assured. “We need those supplies.”

“Okay, I’ll see you later. I don’t think it will take me too long to get everything,” David proclaimed, standing and starting a careful descent off the roof.

“Thanks for the help, Sport.”

David looked back and smiled. The nickname still filled him with warmth, no matter how many of the Jackson-O’Neill boys shared it. It was special, and they all knew it. It was just what he needed what now, too.

~He knows that, too. That’s why he’s such a great dad,~ David thought as he climbed down the ladder and headed out to get all the pet needs for isolation.

====

Elsewhere, Brianna was facing a new challenge. It wasn’t really a challenge, but she felt odd and wondered if the store clerk would think something was wrong. She, Little Danny, and Jenny were grocery shopping at the family’s favorite store. They were well known to the store manager and associates. In fact, in order to speed things up, there were many times when the staff working the checkout stands would open a new stand just for the Jackson-O’Neills, who when shopping for more than a week’s worth of groceries were known to have full carts for every family member.

“Done,” Jenny said as she reached Brianna’s location in the produce aisle. “I found everything.”

“Good. Where’s Little Danny?”

“Right here,” the male called out as he walked another few feet to reach his sisters.

“Okay, I’m done, too, so let’s go.”

Seeing the three children, the manager called out, “Brianna,” and motioned for her to go to the checkout unit where he was standing. The light to the stand was off and as the three approached, the manager unhitched the chain that indicated the spot was closed.

“Thank you,” Brianna replied.

“My pleasure. Abir will assist you.”

The manager walked away as Abir smiled, took his place, and greeted, “How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks,” Brianna replied nervously.

“Are you okay, Bri?” Jenny queried with a crunched-up nose.

“Yeah.”

“Only three carts today?” Abir observed.

“It’s mostly a stock-up trip,” Brianna explained.

“About right for the Jackson-O’Neills. How are your parents doing?”

“Great,” Brianna answered, following it up with a deep breath and then looking all around the store.

Abir completed running all the items through the scanner. While doing so, three grocery carryout workers were bagging the purchases. All of this was behind a transparent screen that separated the essential workers from the shoppers.

“That’ll be five-hundred seventy-six dollars and thirty cents.”

Brianna gulped, smiled half-heartedly, and ran a credit card through the card scanner. It was immediately approved, but she knew from shopping with her parents what came next.

“Can I see the card, please, Brianna,” Abir requested.

Taking another breath, Brianna held up to the plexi-screen the reason for her nervousness: her dad’s credit card.

Abir reviewed the card. He looked at Brianna and smiled. He looked one more time at the rectangular object. Then he nodded.

~It is the general’s card.~ Abir acknowledged, recognizing it from previous use at the store. ~He is not a young man; probably staying at home because of COVID. Brianna is not a child. I will not interfere with their day; I am sure the manager would agree.~ Separating the paper from the register, Abir said, “Thank you. Here is your receipt.”

Brianna sighed a sound of relief and led the way towards the exit. As she did, the store manager returned to the stand.

“Any problems, Abir?”

“No, Sir. Brianna did use her father’s credit card, but it approved right away and for what they said, their shopping seemed right.”

“How much?”

Abir gave his boss the total and added, “I didn’t think you’d want me to delay their purchase.”

“You’re right. The Jackson-O’Neills are our best customers. Those kids are a pain when they all shop together, but they’re good kids. I wish I could get my kids to behave like they do.” The manager nodded at Abir and reaffirmed, “You handled it just right.”

“Thank you.”

Now outside the store, watching as the carryout workers put the groceries into the SUV, Little Danny asked, “Bri, why were you so nervous in there?”

“Little Danny, have you ever used Dad’s credit card?”

“Once or twice.”

“For almost six-hundred dollars?”

Little Danny bobbed his head up and down a couple of times as understanding grew within him.

“No. I would have been nervous, too.”

“They would have just called Dad,” Jenny interjected. “It would have been okay anyway.”

“Jenny, wait until it’s your turn to buy groceries like this, or some other purchase with one of our parent’s credit cards. It’ll churn your stomach.”

“I guess so,” Jenny responded with a shrug. “Thanks, guys,” she called out to the three workers, who were heading back to the store.

“Yeah, thanks,” Brianna and Little Danny both added in scattered moments.

====

With the repairs in progress and the groceries being purchased, Jonny reluctantly headed to the Shanahan residence, using the gate that separated his yard from theirs. His pet lizard was running about in his traveling cage, uncertain what was happening.

“He gets the medication at night. It’s all on the instructions I wrote out,” Jonny advised his aunt.

“Don’t worry, Jonny. If I can handle Pete, four kids, and a dog, I can handle Bogey for two weeks,” Sam assured. “If you guys need anything, you know you can call us, anytime, and we can figure out how to get it to you without violating isolation.”

“I’ll tell Dad and Daddy.” Jonny’s sigh was deep and full of regret. “Bye, Bogey. Don’t be mad. This is for your own good. Bye.”

Sam watched Jonny exit her home as if he was on a death march, his head hung low, his hands in his pockets, and his strides small and slow. She shook her head in partial amusement.

“Okay, Bogey. Let’s find you someplace where you won’t be bothered by a barking dog and very loud children.”

====

“Repairs are done,” Jack announced sometime later when walking inside the house and seeing Daniel with envelopes in his hand. “Bills?”

“And other things that needed to be attended to,” the archaeologist responded. “I’m just heading out to mail them. Uh, you did stop the mail?”

“Yep. Today was our last day.”

“And the newspapers?”

“Angel, do you want to do it all again yourself?”

“Sorry, Jack,” Daniel sighed. “I just don’t want us to forget anything.”

“No worries, Angel. We’re getting it done.”

“Help, please,” Jenny called out as she struggled to fully open the front door. “Groceries are here.”

“So is a relieved Bri,” Little Danny chimed. “You should have seen her paying for the groceries with your card, Dad.”

“Nervous?”

“Beyond,” Little Danny claimed.

Carrying two bags, Brianna refuted, “I wasn’t that bad, but do you know how much this stuff cost?”

“I estimated it to be between five-fifty and six,” Jack answered, elaborating, “depending on any extras you picked up.”

“Wow, he’s good,” Jenny whispered to Little Danny.

“Keep that in mind, Red, if I ever let you use my credit card,” Jack warned with big and probing eyes.

“Hey, I need help with pet supplies,” David said, walking into the house and seeing others there with grocery bags. His estimate for his shopping trip had been spot on as he was quickly able to acquire the family's pet needs and arrive at home just minutes after Bri’s team return. “Maybe we should call out the troops.”

“Good idea.” Jack turned, let out with a wail of a whistle, and shouted, “Everyone down here now to help with groceries and pet stuff. Move it!”

“Jack …”

“Don’t say it, Danny. I know. We have an intercom.”

“Sometimes, I wonder why we got it.”

“So we kids could communicate since we don’t scream like Dad,” Aislinn chuckled as she approached from the hallway. She smiled. “Sorry, Dad, but …”

“Yeah, yeah. Go grab some groceries, Princess,” the older father ordered.

====

Shortly after lunch was finished and the family was once again scattered throughout the home, a welcome voice was heard shouting from the living room.

“Jen?” Daniel called out, walking in from the recreation room, the largest room in the house where the family spent a lot of time with their animals, watching TV, putting on stage productions, and playing games at the large circular game table.

“Surprise!” Jennifer exclaimed. As the family gathered, the young woman was full of smiles. “I need some help,” she requested, motioning to the patio that was full of wrapped presents.

In short order, the family had the gifts inside.

Jack stared at one more item on the wooden patio deck. He picked it up and walked inside.

“Jen?” Jack questioned, raising up the suitcase.

“That’s my surprise,” Jennifer responded. “Guess who’s staying for dinner … and breakfast and lunch until Christmas?”

“Really?” Aislinn asked with glee.

“Really!”

“What about your husband and child?” Daniel inquired.

“They are the best,” Jennifer stated. “Peter has a message for you.”

Jennifer pulled out her smartphone and began the video.

“Merry Christmas family,” Peter began. “I want you to know I love Jen very much and always want her happiness before everything else. This year, I wanted to give her something special for Christmas, an experience. I thought we might go to Aspen to ski or maybe take in a white Christmas in Vermont. Then she told me about your isolation plans and why you were doing it. I knew what to give her at that moment: you and her grandparents. You know how close she’s always been to Grandma, and she loves her grandpa to pieces. What better gift could I give my beautiful wife and the mother of my child than time with her family, a family so dear and near to her. So, we’ll be spending time with my parents. They are thrilled, believe me. I’m not sure if we’ll spend the whole time there, but Christmas week for sure. I’m always here if you need any help with anything. Be safe out there, and have a terrific holiday. Jen, I love you. Merry Christmas, Sweetheart.”

“Isn’t he wonderful?” Jennifer sighed enthusiastically. “He sprang this on me right after breakfast and then all we’ve done is make sure the gifts were wrapped. We did some shopping, too. He would have come here, too, to say hello, but he’s been out and about more and didn’t want to be the spoiler in all of this. He’s wonderful,” she repeated with shining eyes.

“This is going to be so fun,” Jenny said happily.

“Is my old room still available?” Jennifer asked.

“No, stay with us, at least for tonight,” Aislinn suggested. “We can have an all-night girls’ gossip party.

All of the girls were joyful in anticipation.

“Hey, what about us? Jen is our sister, too,” Jonny whined.

“Sorry, Jon…” Aislinn paused as her brain took a sudden turn. “I’ve got a incredibly delicious idea.”

“What?” Brianna prompted.

“Let’s have a slumber party, in the rec room, like when we were kids,” the middle Munchkin put forth.

“Wow, yes!” Lulu exclaimed. “Oh, say yes, Jen.”

“Yes!” Jennifer heard the familiar clearing of the throat. “Unless you have an objection, Dad.”

“Who me? Object? To eleven kids and who knows how many pets running around the rec room at all sorts of hours? Why would I say no?”

“No reason,” Jennifer replied with a smile.

“We can, can’t we, Dad? Daddy?” Chenoa pleaded.

Jack and Daniel stared at each other with intensity, causing some worry for their brood, but then they both smiled.

“Have fun, kids.”

“Yes!” came a bunch of happy shouts.

Everyone knew they would have a great evening. Now, though, they helped Jennifer settle back into her old room above the garage and then placed her gifts around the Christmas tree.

====

“Who’s on the dinner detail?” Jennifer asked later that afternoon.

“Little Danny and JD,” Brianna informed her older sister.

“Can I help?” Jennifer queried. “I’m so use to making dinner every night now, that I’m not sure what to do with myself if I don’t,” she chuckled lightly.

“You can even be in charge, if you want,” a pleased Little Danny responded.

“We’ll all work together,” Brianna interjected.

The children shared a gleeful laugh. They knew it wouldn’t stay like this, but tonight, they all truly wanted to do everything together.

A knock on the door and a loud, “Help!” interrupted the conversation.

Jack led the way and opened the door, quickly probing, “Jeff, what are you doing here, and what’s all that?”

“That is Christmas, from my family to … my family,” the young man mused. “Guys, help bring in the gifts.”

The brood quickly brought in the presents and began placing them amid the ones already there.

Once again, Jack stared at a single item on the front porch.

“Um, I’m staying, if you’ll let me,” Jeff told his inquisitive yet silent father.

“Staying?”

Pulling up his stuffed backpack, Jeff entered the living room and informed, “Chely threw me out.”

“Threw you out?” was the stunned response of several brood members.

Suddenly, Jeff grinned and expounded, “For two weeks, until Christmas.” He laughed at the relief of the faces he saw and explained, “Chely heard part of the family meeting and, well, she decided this is where I needed to be. There is a little more to it.”

“Like?” Daniel prompted.

“Bianca was supposed to go to college in New York last September, but due to COVID, she stayed home. She’ll finally be going next September. Chely is always talking about not knowing her sister. When Bianca was younger, they had that typical annoying relationship. You know, Bianca was always trailing after her. Chely is afraid she’ll never really know her sister. They haven’t spent much time together in the past few years, but the Tillisons told Chely that Bianca is staying home for Christmas and has said she misses her big sister. So, Chely kicked me out so she could spend time with the babies at her parents’ house and hopefully bond more with her little sister.”

“I understand that perfectly,” Jennifer interjected, looking down and smiling at JD, who was the main reason why she chose to attend college locally rather than go to an out-of-state school.

“The other factor in the decision is that the Tillisons decided to attempt a full Hanukkah celebration this year. You know Chely wants our children to understand their heritage from her side of the family, even though they are being raised Christian and not Jewish. She thinks this a good chance of them to experience it, even if they are only babies. I think she really wants to go through it herself, since her parents didn’t actively practice their religion while she was growing up.”

“And Hannukkah begins tomorrow,” Daniel noted.

“Perfect timing,” Jeff put forth.

“So, Chely and the babies will be with her folks …” Daniel began.

“And you’ll be here with us,” Jack concluded.

“And able to see Grandpa and Grandma on Christmas and still spend time with Chely and the babies that day, too.”

“Sounds like a plan, Son.” Jack hugged the oldest brood child and said happily, “Welcome home!”

“Thanks, Dad.” Jeff paused for a second before adding, “There is one more thing.” Hearing the knock on the door, he continued, “And I think that’s it.”

With smiles all around, the opened door revealed Jeff’s puppy, a gift from Little Danny with an assist from Chely for Jeff’s birthday in 2020.

“Chipper needs to stay with us,” Jeff revealed while picking up the still-small canine. “We’ll have great fun here, Chipper.”

The puppy’s name was derivation of the phrase “chip off the old block.” Jeff felt like he was a chip off his old blocks aka: Jack and Daniel since he was married with two babies, so Chipper just seemed to fit since the dog was the first animal to belong to one of Jack and Daniel’s children.

“Bij, Katie: show Chipper a good time, okay?”

Two happy barks responded and, as soon as Jeff put Chipper down, the beagles led the way to their dog door, showing Chipper one of the most important places for dogs within the family home.

“They’ll have a blast,” Jack opined.

“I hope so,” Jeff replied. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“With our zoo? What’s one more?” the general teased. “Hey, how’d he get on the porch?”

“Chely didn’t want to risk contact, so she watched from the house. Her mom is visiting to help her pack, so she’s watching the babies so Chely could see when the gifts were brought inside the house. Then she tied up Chipper on the porch and rang the bell. Since I knew what she was doing it, we knew Chipper would be save for a few seconds.”

“It worked,” Jack stated.

“It worked,” Jeff echoed.

====

Late that night, the children, all twelve of them, were in the rec room. Bijou, Katie, and Chipper were hanging out with the kids, too, as were the two family cats. Everyone was in their pajamas. On the floor were several air mattresses and a few sleeping rolls. The kids not using the mattresses or sleeping rolls had spots picked out on the sofa or on comforters on the floor. The chatter was constant and loud, even with holiday music filling the house.

Nearby in the living room, Jack and Daniel were talking, happy when the three dogs sauntered in for a bit.

“They want some quiet,” Jack mused.

An outburst of noise prompted Jack and Daniel to walk through the kitchen to get a look at what was going on with their brood. Staying back, they saw a full blown pillow fight happening.

“Daniel?”

“Yes?”

“You do see that the kids are destroying the rec room?”

Nodding, Daniel replied, “We’ll need to buy replacement pillows.”

“Looks like the upholstery is going down.”

“It’s time to recover the sofa anyway,” Daniel put forth. “Oops! There goes the vase.”

“Jen’s on it.”

“Still protecting the others.”

“Punishment?”

Daniel turned to face his husband, the most incredulous look on his face as he challenged, “You’re kidding me, right?”

“Totally kidding,” Jack replied, fudging the truth a little.

“I’d pay for this myself,” Daniel offered. “Listen to them, Jack: all that laughter. It’s like they were little again.”

“I’d pay for it, too,” Jack agreed as he put his arm around his lover. “I miss the craziness.”

“Me, too.”

“It’s … it’s probably the last time,” Daniel sighed, thinking the odds on this type of togetherness happening again, with all twelve of the children present, was slim.

“I don’t like to think about that,” Jack replied. “It could happen again.”

“It could,” Daniel agreed half-heartedly.

“Maybe next time will be with the grandkids,” Jack offered, loving the smile that idea put on his Love’s face.

“Maybe.” Daniel motioned with his head towards the living room. “Babe.”

With full understanding, Jack nodded and began to turn.

The parents left the area. They didn’t want to be seen and stop the insanity of the moment. Their brood was having an awesome time. They wouldn’t stop it, not even if the rec room really was destroyed.

Back in the living room, Jack drew Daniel near and began to dance a slow waltz.

“Uh, this isn’t really the right pace for the music,” the archaeologist noted as the song “Winter Wonderland” played over the stereo system.

“We’re dancing to the music of our hearts.”

“Gawd, you’re so romantic when you want to be.”

The dance was temporarily interrupted by the sound of a loud clash. They heard Lulu shouting, “Oh no” followed in short order by Jennifer saying, “She’s okay, Lulu.”

The parents were curious, especially when the upsetting screech of Calico was heard. Seconds later, Calico ran from the rec room, going full steam through the kitchen, until she paused upon seeing the adults. She let out a nasty hiss and then scurried up the stairs as fast as she good.

“I don’t think she’s happy,” Daniel remarked about the feline.

“Nope, don’t think so,” Jack concurred. “Do you think anyone was hurt? Should we …?”

“No, Jen’s taking care of it, whatever it is.” Daniel added, “I hope.”

“They probably got carried away with the pillow fight and …”

“And what?”
“My guess is someone swatted Callie by mistake and she went flying across the room.”

“Another vase?”

“Probably eased her fall?” Jack suggested uncertainly, his statement ending up being a question.

“Well ...”

“Well. Back to business,” Jack demanded as he began dancing with his Love again.

The song changed, but the couple didn’t notice as each became lost in the other.

Gazing into the eyes of his soulmate, Jack proclaimed, “You’re still the most beautiful being in the universe.”

With a smile, Daniel shifted a bit, his hands playing with the collar of Jack’s burgundy turtleneck, and spoke softly, “And you still drive me crazy when you wear anything maroon.”

Grinning, Jack suggested, “Danny, why don’t let the kids destroy the house while we go upstairs and …”

“And … you know?”

“Big time you know,” Jack said.

“I love you, my handsome Silver Fox.”

“And I love you, Angel.”

With big time lovemaking on their minds, Jack and Daniel headed upstairs to partake in their nation of two. Before they reached their bedroom, though, Daniel spoke a simple word.

“Jack.”

“Danny, she’s okay.”

“She’s scared. Let’s make sure Lulu’s bedroom door is open so Calico can get to her comfort spot.”

“Under the bed?”

“We should make sure she’s not hurt, too.”

“We’re not gonna … until … are we?”

“No, we’re not,” Daniel confirmed firmly.

“Let’s go.”

The two men went down the hallway, through the jog to the other side of their house. They looked around as they walked, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cat, but as they reached the room shared by Chenoa and Lulu, they hadn’t seen or heard any sign of her.

“Door’s open,” Jack announced loudly.

“Calico, everything’s okay,” Daniel called out to empty space. “The children were only playing. They didn’t mean to do whatever they did. They love you. We love you.”

“Ditto,” Jack echoed to apparent nothingness. “Now get in here and hide.”

“He means go to your favorite spot and rest. It’s safe and quiet there. Everything will be back to normal in the morning.”

Just then, a head appeared at the end of the hallway, peeking around the corner where the library was located.

With a smile, Daniel went to his haunches and held out his hands.

“Everything’s okay, Callico. We love you. Please come here so I can make sure you aren’t hurt. Please?”

Callico slowly walked down the hallway, her eyes not wavering from the adults, until she reached Daniel.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, Calico, but we’ll find out. The most important thing, though, is that you are okay.” Daniel was doing his best to check for cuts or broken bones. He carefully ran his hands all over the cat’s body to see if she was sensitive to any touch or reacted from pain at any point in her body. “You seem okay. Are you okay?”

“Meow,” was the response, a quiet whisper-like sound as if to say she wasn’t physically hurt.

“Okay. Well, if you want to go hang out in your spot, the door is open. You know where to find us if you need us.”

Another “meow” sounded, after which Callico disappeared into the bedroom.

“She may not come out for two days,” Jack offered.

Standing, Daniel’s reply was a curious, “I wonder where she was before we saw her?”

“Don’t know; don’t care,” Jack returned. “Let’s play.”

Once again, the lovers headed for their bedroom. When they walked through the door, a surprise awaited them.

“Well, I was tired of that comforter anyway,” Daniel claimed as he walked forward and picked up a piece of the now shredded bedding.

“Geez, I think maybe the kids really did send her flying,” Jack put forth with a cock of his head. “I’ll get our other one out of the closet.”

“Actually, we don’t really need it yet.”

Jack grinned, pulled off the pieces of comforter onto the floor, and then locked the door to their master bedroom. At last, the soulmates engaged in their nation of two as if it were the first time.

Meanwhile, the brood continued their silliness, oblivious to the absence of their parents.

As for the zoo, the ones still present eventually escaped to more quieter areas of the home, with even Mittens joining Callico beneath Lulu’s bed, while the ones in cages gave thanks for their habitats. Only Ptolemy had to endure the sound of happy children at play, but she simply perched herself on a favorite branch and watched.

“She’s gonna be a stool macaw,” Jonny quipped about the idea that the bird would tell their parents everything the next day.

“Better she tattle than us,” Aislinn teased, getting chuckles in response, though only she knew the hidden meaning of her statement.

For the Jackson-O’Neills of Colorado Springs, the next two weeks would be a challenge, but the reward for their actions would be wondrous, and in truth, it already was. The children didn’t envision being together like this again. It was a blessing, an unexpected early benefit to isolating. Yes, in spite of COVID, life was good for Jack and Daniel and their brood plus zoo.

~~Finis - Finished - Done - The End - But is it ever Really?~~

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