Coming Together

Author:  Orrymain
Category:  Slash, Drama, Romance, Angst, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - March 7 - April 30, 2020
Spoilers:  None
Size:  291kb
Written:  March 24-29, April 4-7,10,15-30, 2020
Summary:  As the country deals with a new disease, the Jackson-O'Neills work together to help make things easier for one and all.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) Sometimes, Jack and Daniel speak almost telepathically.  Their “silent” words to each other are indicated by asterisks instead of quotes, such as **Jack, we can't.**
2) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~

SPECIAL WARNING:  This fic could be sensitive for some as it delves heavily into the Coronavirus nightmare.  There is some sadness amid the usual J-O joy.

Coming Together
by Orrymain

Jack and Daniel watched their twelve children assemble in the recreation room.  Though married, both Jennifer and Jeff were present.  The big screen TV was lowered, a videotape ready to play.  Since Jack prepared the presentation, he opted to use the old time videotape since it was easier for him to edit.  He left the more popular DVD recording to the brood when needed.

The kids were noisy as they entered, none of them aware of what the meeting was about, though some of the older ones had a pretty good idea.  They spread out as was their norm, some on the big sofa, others on floor pillows, and a couple utilizing the game chairs to get comfortable.  As they settled, several of the family pets sauntered in and found happy spots amid their human family.

“Kids, listen up.  Questions and discussion once the tape has ended,” Jack announced as he began the video.

--

The parents observed their children with great care over the next twenty minutes. The room was silent, like a library, and all twenty-four eyes were focused tightly on the large screen before them.  Finally, the tape ended, prompting the kids to look at one another with a mixture of emotions.

“Okay.”  Daniel spoke softly as he kneeled down to be on a more even level with the brood.  “We've had a few talks about the Coronavirus recently, but nothing as serious as tonight and that's because the situation is going to get worse and we need to talk about how that's going to touch our lives.”

“Are we going to die?” eight-year-old JD asked.

“Absolutely not,” Jack piped up with confidence.  “Listen, kids especially probably won't get anything worse than a cold, if that.  Daddy and I are talking with you about this now so you're prepared and won't be scared.”

“There's no reason to be afraid, especially when we follow the guidelines that are being suggested.”

“You mean don't get paranoid,” Jenny, who was now twelve, responded.

“And don't panic,” the redhead's twin added.  

“That's right, Ricky,” Daniel affirmed.  “Knowledge is power and we're going to use that power to get through this, all of us.”

For the next little while, the two men explained how things might be changing for a period of time.  They explained how businesses could be closing down if people were told to self-isolate and why shelves at grocery stores were already empty.

“There's no reason for that,” Jennifer sighed.  “Peter went to the store yesterday and couldn't even find toilet paper.  It's insane.”

“Panic?” Ricky questioned.

“Exactly,” Daniel confirmed.  “There's nothing wrong with the nation's food and supply chain, with the supply of ... of fruits, vegetables, toiletries ... but people are already panicking.  They're buying much more than they need.”

“Don't they say to have a two-week supply of everything?” Brianna asked.

“Some do,” Jack answered.  “Some say one week is plenty.  However, some folks are buying excessively, *big* rolls of TP and multiples.”

“We don't even do that,” Jeff commented, chuckling when he added, “At least, we didn't when I lived here.”

“We still don't,” Jack replied.

“There is another part of this,” Daniel stated, looking at his children.  “Think it out.  What could be a natural result if we suddenly all stay home?”

“The supply chain,” Little Danny responded within seconds.  “Daddy's right.  You guys know what toilet paper is like at schools, restaurants, and businesses.”

“It's sure not as nice as what we have at home,” Jenny opined.

“That's Daddy's point,” Little Danny responded.  “There are two supply chains, one for commercial purposes and one for the home.”

“That's right, Little Danny,” Daniel confirmed.  “Don't be surprised if this situation worsens with time and includes meat, produce, and other goods.  Remember, there are supply chains that exist for school meals, food pantries, and other situations where, well, what if the schools close down?  How can food pantries store milk?  Most don't have enough refrigeration units to store anything long term, which means all of those chains can become broken ...”

“... and shortages get crazier,” Brianna moaned.  “Can't they figure that out and fix it quickly?”

“We're talking the government, Bri,” Jack stated dryly.

“Oh, sorry,” the tomboy sighed and shrugged in acceptance.

“They'll fix it, but probably not until it's created a huge mess.  Just be prepared and realize the empty store shelves aren't that way solely because of hoarding,” Daniel advised his family.

The lovers also talked about social distancing.  They'd already heard a lot about it because of events in China where the disease originated.

“Uh, social distancing is a bit of a misnomer,” Daniel told the brood.  His arms crossed over his chest, he continued, “Being social isn't dependent on being up close.  Tell me ways you can be social with others without standing right next to them.”

“The phone,” Jennifer piped up, laughing when she saw her dad's 'oh brother' type of response.

“That's affirm,” Jack mused.

“The computer,” Little Danny offered.

“... especially those chat rooms and talk sites you don't like us going to most of the time,” Chenoa elaborated.

“Waving and talking, like from our front yard to the people across the street,” David stated.

“Letters and e-mails,” Brianna interjected.  “You know, most of my friends don't send cards or letters.  They're, like, foreign to them, but I know a lot of adults who get all, I don't know ...  Cards mean a lot to them.”

“Like the people in the nursing homes we go to,” Aislinn agreed.  “For some of them, cards are all they get.  They hold on to them pretty tight sometimes.”

“Dance,” Lulu put forward simply.  She stood and pieced together a few of her favorite ballet moves.  “Dance says more than words.”

“You're right, Princess,” Jack concurred with a nod a quick wiping of his eye to prevent a tear from falling.

“Okay, so you can see there are many ways to stay social, so the more correct term would be physical distancing,” the linguist informed.  “Colorado hasn't yet initiated an official distancing policy.”

“We're lagging,” Jack interjected.  “This is important,” he said, moving closer to the brood and getting down on his haunches.  He wanted to be looking the brood in their eyes, not staring down at them from his standing position.  “The federal government isn't paying attention to the world situation.  That so-called President only cares about his image and TV ratings.  He should be leading, not out playing golf.”

“Jack!”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm digressing,” the frustrated citizen conceded.  “States have rights, but we have no friggin' idea when or what our state leaders will do.  That said, I repeat.  America is lagging.  Now pay very close attention to my words, and they are Daddy's words, too.  The Jackson-O'Neills will not be lagging behind. We included what was happening in China in the video because this disease is global.  It's going to spread from country to country, and it's going to kill.  This means we have to be good citizens now.  We'll listen to our leaders and pay attention to what the medical experts are saying.  That said, we control our own actions and we're going to be smart, starting now, regardless of what others may think or do.”

--

Questions and answers asked and given, the children were encouraged to share their thoughts frequently with their parents and siblings.  They all had a lot to think about.  The parents were honest with their brood, conceding Jack was in the age group considered to be most at risk from this new and admittedly scary virus, while Daniel was a few years under that curve.

“What about the zoo?” a concerned Little Danny queried as he held Katie close to him.

“Son, get on that computer.  What we know for sure about this thing right now is virtually squat.”

“I'm going to call Pam,” the Munchkin said, referring to the family vet.

“Good idea,” Daniel replied.  “Let us know what you find out.  The zoo needs to be protected and safe, too.”

The family also speculated that school closures would be happening soon and while the Jackson-O'Neills were homeschooled, it would impact many of their friends and kids in the neighborhood.  There was also conversation about sheltering in place where people across the country would be asked and/or ordered to stay home.  It was hard to say exactly what could happen and when and if a certain edict would occur in their part of Colorado.

“Dad, what about ...” Jennifer paused, her eyes drifting over to JD.  “Never mind.”

“No,” Daniel responded, walking over to JD and kneeling down in front of him.  “Your sister wants to ask about Cassie and her family.  Are you big boy enough to hear, or would you like to go to your room?”

His eyes blinking as he thought, JD answered, “If it was really bad, you'd tell me.”

“Yes, we would.”

“Is Tommy okay?” the youngster asked about his best friend, who was Cassie's first-born child.

“He's fine,” Daniel assured with a smile and gentle rubbing of JD's left upper arm.

Cassie, Janet's daughter, and her husband, Dominic Luca,now had several children.  Immediately after Jennifer wed Peter Hamilton, Dominic was transferred to London, England.  Shortly after that, the family moved to Milan, Italy where Dominic's company wanted to open a new office as they expanded their global operations.

Standing, Daniel promised, “We're doing our best to keep in touch with Cassie and Dom, but when we can't, Aunt Janet is keeping us apprised of their situation.  We will let you know if there is something to tell.”

“One more thing,” Jack stated with some hesitation.  He said simply, “Grandpa and Grandma.”

The children grew even more solemn as they looked at one another.

“Listen,” Daniel urged.  “We've talked about those of us who are older being more at risk than other age groups.  The older we get, the more our auto immune systems wear out.  I know how hard this will be, but until the crisis passes, you'll have to communicate with Grandpa and Grandma on the phone or over the computer.”

“Webcams permitted,” Jack pointed out.  “No restrictions.”

That nugget gave the children some relief as they could contact their grandparents anytime they wanted to and without getting permission first.  There wouldn't be any time limitations, either.

“Uh, remember,  you have to be careful around Dad, too,” Daniel asserted.  “And me,” he sighed.

“There'll be lots of handwashing going on around here.  Okay, scoot.  We can talk more later, if you want.”

As the brood began to head out, Jenny suddenly turned back and announced, “Brood, meeting!  Meet me in the treehouse in five minutes.”

Jennifer looked over at Jeff, a query in her eyes.

“I don't know about you, but I'm making a quick call to Chely.  I'm not about to be drummed out of the brood just because I'm married and a dad now.”

Jennifer laughed as she pulled out her phone and agreed, “Yeah, I'll just let Peter know he's on his own for a bit longer.”  She looked over at her parents and shrugged, “How bad can it be?”

“Well, uh, the nation is on the verge of a nightmare,” Daniel replied.

“And I'm guessing your brothers and sisters are going to figure out a cure in all of a half-hour or so,” Jack quipped.

“Just how you raised them to be,” the young woman remarked with a coy smile.

“She's right, Babe,” Daniel began.  “We did this to ourselves.”

Jack mused, a pleased expression on his face, “Yeah, we sure did.”

====

“Meeting called to order,” Jonny announced.  Just as it was at the earliest brood meetings, the now-thirteen-year-old was still the undisputed head of the brood.  It had nothing to do with his age and everything to do with his ongoing status as the little, or no-longer-little, general.  “Jenny, the floor is yours.”

“If things are going to get as bad as Dad and Daddy say, and you know they will, then we have to start now,” the redhead opined.

“Start what now?” JD asked.

“Helping,” Little Danny responded.  “Jenny's right.  We have to figure out how to make everything better for .... well, for everyone.”

“We need to do this strategically,” Jonny urged.  “Noa, the blackboard.”

The curly blonde gave a nod, stood up, and went to the far side of the treehouse where she uncovered a large blackboard and pulled it out closer to her siblings.  She retrieved a piece of chalk and readied herself.

“Go!” the fourteen-year-old commanded.

The brainstorming began in earnest with Chenoa writing down all the ideas tossed out by the brood.  Later, the suggestions were prioritized and discussed in more detail.

After two hours, Jeff startled and admitted, “Hey, guys, I need to get home. Chel's gonna kill me.”

“Oh, me, too.  Please understand,” Jennifer pleaded.

“It's okay,” David responded.  “We have things under control.  Besides, Dad and Daddy are probably panicked about what we're doing up here.”

A full-fledged adult himself and just shy of his nineteenth birthday, David understood more than ever the obligations and needs of the two oldest brood members.

“And we're not supposed to be panicked,” Lulu, age fifteen, teased.

“Everyone think more about our plan.  We'll have to work fast.  Meeting adjourned,” Jonny called out.

====

Meanwhile, Jack and Daniel were spending some one-on-one, or perhaps it was better defined as two-on-two time, with their beagles, Bijou and Katie.  They were on the bed in the master bedroom with the humans sitting and the canines on their backs while enjoying enthusiastic tummy rubs.

“Danny, do you think it's odd that Jen and Jeff are working so hard to be with the others during these brood meetings and such?”

“No, not really,” Daniel responded as he went nose-to-nose with Katie for a second and received a heartfelt kiss in return, causing him to laugh.  “They don't want to be shut out.”

“Are you saying they would be if they weren't here all the time?”

“Jack, do you remember why Jen chose to go college in the Springs and not somewhere else?”

With a smile, the general recalled, “JD.  She wanted him to know her and not be some adult with a name.”

“Exactly, and he does.  By the same token, she still wants to be involved, and so does Jeff.  This family, our brood, Jack, they gain strength from one another.  They need each other.”

“I'm not arguing, just noticing.”

“They're both very lucky,” Daniel opined.

“Of course, they are,” Jack affirmed.  “Ah, why?”

Chuckling in amusement at his lover, Daniel explained, “Peter and Chely, both of whom understand and allow their spouses to remain involved.”

“Choiceless,” Jack teased.

“Really?  Peter surprised Jen by making a deal to move into the house behind us and it was Chely who first talked with Sophia about renting or buying her house.”

“You have a point there, Dannyboy.”

“Thank you.”

Daniel picked up Bijou to have some fun with her, allowing Katie to jump on Jack and literally thrust him backward.  Like Daniel, she loved resting on Jack's chest.

“Time for dinner,” Jack remarked even as he continued to play with the youngest beagle.  “Think Jen and Jeff will be joining us?”

“Not if they're smart.”

“They are.  They've probably left by now, but maybe we should check on that meeting and give them an out, if they need one.”

The couple spent a few more minutes before ending the special playtime and heading for the meeting.  Fortunately, the children had already disbanded and David, Lulu, and Jenny were already prepping dinner.

====

After dinner, several of the kids played games in the rec room while some tended to chores and others spent time with the zoo.  Then the call went out.

“Okay, kids.  It's nine on the clock.  Thirteen and under, it's time to hit the hay,” Jack informed.  “Fourteen and over, time to wind down.  Hit your rooms and relax for a while.”

The children began to say their goodnights and head upstairs when Jonny called out, “Wait.”

The response was instant, all of the kids seemingly aware of what would happen next, even though nothing was planned or even discussed.

Jack and Daniel watched as their brood sat down reverently in the living room.  They formed a semi-circle and then, against family rules, Aislinn pulled out her smartphone and initiated a call.  Before the parents could say a word, David also pulled out his phone and started a call.

“I'm here,“ Jennifer answered with a worn out voice.  “It's been a day, but I'm here.”

“Hey, Sis!  Chely and I are here, too,” Jeff announced.  “Brood, it's okay for Chely to join us, isn't it?”

“Sure,” Jonny answered.  “Peter can, too, if he wants.”

“He's with ...”

“We can hear,” Chenoa chuckled.

“Did I mention it's been a day?” Jennifer retorted.

“Well, we're glad you're all with us,” Little Danny replied.

**Any clue what this is about?** Jack asked his Love.

**Maybe.**  Daniel could feel his husband's questioning stare.  **I think maybe it has something to do with a, a Higher Power.**

Sure enough, Lulu began with, “Dear Lord, we're the Jackson-O'Neill brood and we've come together to ask a favor.”

The parents listened, proud when their children asked, not for a cure and not for an easy fix to the Coronavirus, but for help in their quest to help others.

“Let us be strong and capable and do the things Dad and Daddy have taught us,” Jonny requested.

“We'll make it through, but we need help and guidance in helping others not as fortunate as we are to make it through, too,” Little Danny asserted quietly.

The conversation with their Higher Power lasted a few more minutes before Chenoa concluded, “Thanks for Your help.  Oh, and please keep Dad and Daddy safe.  We'd appreciate it very much.”

“Amen,” Jennifer whispered over the phone.  “Thanks, guys, for letting me part of this.”

“That goes for Chely and me, too,” Jeff added.

The kids said goodnights to their older siblings before heading upstairs, some of them holding hands as they took each step upward.

“How'd we raise them that well, Danny?”

“Actually, Babe, I'm not sure it was us.  I, uh, think we've had a lot of help ... from people up there,” Daniel answered as he gave a nod upward before focusing on the family photographs that lined their mantel.  He smiled at the images of Kayla Armentrout, the Morgans, the Hunters,  and others.  “We had some help.”

Jack nodded in agreement and headed for the kitchen.  It was beer time and time to reflect on all good things Jackson-O'Neill.

====

Late that night, the lovers were snuggled together in their large bed.  Daniel's head was resting against his Love's chest while Jack's arm held Daniel in a warm and secure fashion with the left hand gently caressing the younger man's smooth skin.

Daniel was almost asleep with his eyelids closed.  His mind was free, just floating as it prepared for a night's rest.

“We're going to get through this,” the retired general opined in a more uncertain voice than normal.

“Wha....what?”

“We're going to get through this,” Jack repeated.  “Hey, you were a primitive caveman once.”

Growing more awake by the second, Daniel noted, “You had your brains nearly sucked out once.”

“*And* I turned into an old man,” Jack recalled.  “You almost died of that scourge.”

“Don't forget my brain tumors and your truck accident.”

“Angel?”

“Yes?”

“We're going to get through this.”

“Yes, Jack, we are.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, so much,” Daniel declared as he once again allowed his eyelids to shut.

Sensing an unclear future, but confident in their union, the soulmates entered peaceful slumbers until a new day dawned.

====

“How are we going to get enough of what we need?” Aislinn asked her siblings when they gathered after breakfast the next morning.

“Yeah, we don't want to be like hoarders,” Chenoa added.

“We have to use our resources,” Jonny put forth.  “Here, I made a list and what to ask for,” he said as he distributed eight pieces of paper, one to each of the children present to assist with this first part of the brood's plan.  “Remember, this is for the most needy.  We can't let them down and we have to get the supplies gathered in the next couple of days.”  Sounding every bit like the little general, he concluded, “Don't be deterred.”

Soon, all eight children were separated by several feet as they spoke with their designated contacts.

“Grandpa, you hafta help us help them.  We can't do it without you.  You know people,” JD insisted as he sat on the floor in his corner of the room.

--

“Uncle Lou, I know you know covert,” Jenny stated confidently over the phone.  “I'll bet you know where there is a lot of overstock, don't you, Uncle Lou?” she cajoled with a smile that transmitted itself over the phone frequency.

--

“Dad, you're a general!” Jonny nearly barked.  “Those privates are still afraid of you.  Ten minutes, and we'd have a truck-full of what we need.  They'd get ... creative.”

“Son, are you suggesting I threaten brave young recruits to ... steal from the military?

“Not steal, just prevent waste from happening.  They'd feel good afterward.”

“You do realize that General Landry, not me, is in charge of the Stargate?”

Jonny became pensive and then grinned as he responded, “Yes, and he knows you outrank him, three stars to two.”

Jack shook his head in amazement, let out a sound that couldn't be identified, and left the room.

~Got him!~ Jonny exclaimed to himself, totally confident his dad was on board with the plan.

====

Jeff's twenty-fourth birthday was celebrated on Monday evening, but in line with the times, it was a quieter event than it would have been otherwise.  Chely made a special dinner of her husband's favorite food items that they shared in private before the entire J-O family, including the Hamiltons and the Hammonds, came over for dessert and some birthday fun.  Though invited, everyone understood when the grandparents opted to stay home.  At their ages, it was the smart thing to do.  That said, Chely had a tablet open and ready to go so that the oldsters could be part of the activity via webcam.

“Little Danny,” Chely encouraged.  “I think you'd better give Jeff your present now.”

“Now?”

“*Accidents* do happen,” the married woman spoke strongly, her eyes pleading with the teen.

Little Danny laughed and said, “I'll be right back.”

As his brother disappeared beyond his sight and yet remained in his house, Jeff inquired, “Where's he going?”

“To get your present,” Chely answered with a sly smile.

A few seconds later, Little Danny returned, an adorable bundle in his arms.

“What?” a stunned Jeff asked.

“Happy Birthday, Jeff.  I hope you like her.  She was lost, or abandoned, and Pam told me about her when we were talking about the zoo.  She needed a home and Chely said you had one for her.”

Jeff took hold of the puppy and began to play with her.

“Oops,” Jeff mused.  “Now I understand what Chel meant by accidents.  Be back in a sec,” he chuckled handing off the excited puppy to Little Danny.

“Thanks, Chely, for taking in the puppy.”

“Families should have dogs.  She's part of the family now.”

The family had a great time as the party continued and yet they all wondered about the future and how their next birthdays might be celebrated in more limited ways.  They especially grieved at not having the in-person cheer of their grandparents.  The good news was that those thoughts didn't last long, especially when a new puppy was there to bring on laughter and joy.

“Now I have Chely, the first of our brood, and a one-puppy zoo,” Jeff boasted with pride.

“You have a long way to go to catch up with us,” Jonny joked, “but I know you can do it.”

“Oh my,” an exhausted Chely replied at the thought of having twelve children and a house full of pets.  Then she grinned.  “You never know.”

“I need to stay employed,” Jeff retorted as he took hold of the puppy again.  “You need a name.”

The remark set off a slew of ideas, so much so that Jeff's head was reeling.  He didn't mind.  While his birthday wasn't the event it normally was, it was still perfect in his eyes.  He had a beautiful wife and baby and now he had a sweet puppy to make everything even better, not to mention his parents and siblings.  What more could he ask for?

====

The next day, the Jackson-O'Neills were gathered in a familiar spot alongside a river access.  Years earlier, Jack stayed among a group of homeless people in this place.  He was hurt and suffering from amnesia.  The people took care of him and since that experience, the family made it a point to visit the encampment and bring food and necessities to these people who had fallen on difficult times.

Today, the children spaced out bags of supplies.  As they did, Jack addressed the homeless, a few of whom he recognized as having assisted him during that nightmare which still resonated in his mind.

“Folks, the bags all have the same things in them.  The kids worked very hard to get what you need quickly.”

“It's not just food,” Daniel interjected.  “There's toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes.”

“We included a basic paper about what this Coronavirus is about,” Jennifer stated, having been the one to cull the information and present it as succinctly and easy-to-understand as possible.  She was aware that many of the homeless didn't have a clue what the virus was or why things were changing when they hit the streets of Colorado Springs.  “Please read it.  This is very important.”

“Look, most of you know my kids,” Jack began.  “Right now, they want nothing more than to run up to all of you, give you hugs, and visit, like always, but this disease is no joke.  As parents, we can't risk their lives, or yours.  Kids can be carriers of the virus and no one knows yet how to prevent or cure it.”

“We hope this helps all of you,” Daniel concluded, his sincerity exuding from his soul.  “We wish it could be more.”

Soon, the family departed, waving at their friends, their hearts full of hope that the next time they visited the area, only good news would be heard.

====

Barely home, the family was still entering the house when Aislinn called out, “Meeting for Plan B.  Ten minutes in the projects room.”

“Projects room?”Daniel whispered as he shut the front door.

“Making things to give away?” Jack suggested.

The archaeologist shrugged and headed towards JD, who looked at Aislinn pleadingly.

“Daddy and I are going bug hunting in the backyard, Ash.”

“That's okay, JD.  I'll tell you about our meeting later.  Don't worry about it.  Just have fun with Daddy.”

None of the kids would ever stop one of them from spending time with one or both of their parents.  Those were always special times which grew eternal memories.  She smiled reassuringly at her little brother before going upstairs for a few minutes.

====

In the projects room where the family did most of their arts and crafts, the brood began their meeting.

“Okay, we have to be really careful,” Aislinn advised.  With a sad sigh, she noted, “They won't let us go in and visit them,” she said as she referred to the patients at their favorite nursing home.  “How are we going to communicate with them?”

“Mrs. Janssen doesn't have a smartphone,” Chenoa pointed out.

“A lot of them don't,” David pointed out.

Suddenly, Ricky sat up straight and gasped.  His eyes grew wide and his mouth opened as a big smile formed on his face.  In an instant, his cheeks grew rosy.

“I know!” came the enthusiastic proclamation.

Ricky pushed back his stool and hurried over to a corner of the room where various supplies were kept.  He immediately pulled out a large poster board and a big black marker.

The Spitfire held up the items as he faced his siblings and shouted, “We write our messages on this!”

The kids nodded, smiled, and responded with praise as each of them picked up their own poster boards and markers.

“Make sure to write real big,” Little Danny suggested.  “What about JD?”

“I'm on it,” Aislinn replied.  “I'm saving a board for him.  He'll want to make a big message for Mister Cooper.”

Jenny chuckled, “Poor Mister Stevens can't see anything that isn't the size of giant headline, either.”

The kids worked tenaciously at making their signs until Brianna commented off-handedly, “It's a shame we can't personalize these.”

“Why can't we?” Jonny questioned with an uplifted voice.  “That's a great idea, Bri.  It would make all of them feel special.”

“Thanks, Bro, but we don't know the names of everyone there.  I really wish we knew for our little gifts we want to send.”

“We need Intel,” Jonny insisted.  “Little Danny, this is your assignment.”

“But ....”

“Mrs. Wilson likes you,” the little general put forward.

“But ...”

“It's for the patients,” Jonny reminded.

“But ....”

“Little Danny, just do it!”

The middle Munchkin sighed in acceptance.  He didn't know how to get the names of any new patients at the nursing home because of privacy laws.  While he did have a good rapport with Mrs. Wilson, he knew she was a strict follower of the rules.  Little Danny pondered the situation with all of his brain power even as he continued work on his sign.

====

“Jen, thanks for coming,” Chenoa greeted when the oldest of the brood joined her siblings in the projects room.

“Thanks, Sis.  What's the problem?” the young woman queried, a response to the request from Chenoa that her presence was needed.

“What small thing can we give the people in the nursing homes?” Jenny asked.  “We know it has to be small.”

“We want to give them something that says we love them and we want them to see it and smile,” Ricky added.

“We'd rather spend time with them, eat lunch with them, or sing and tell jokes,” Little Danny lamented, “but we can't do any of that right now.  We can't do the things that really matter to them.”

“Or us,” JD, who joined the group after his bug adventure with Daniel ended, added with wisdom beyond his years.  “Mister Cooper's been helping me with a toy puzzle.  It's really hard.  I wish he could show me again how to do it.”

“What can we do, Jen?” Jonny asked, his eyes moist at the emotion he was feeling.  ~Stop that, Jonny.  You have to be strong,~ he told himself as he echoed thoughts that he was sure his dad would be thinking.  Then he heard himself think, ~That's bull and you know it.~  He smiled.  ~Thanks, Daddy.  I can be strong and still feel sad.~

 “Do what you just said.  Guys, make a CD or DVD ... or a cassette tape for folks like Mrs. Crumholtz.  Sing, tell your jokes, read them a story,  like a play, just like we've done as a family hundreds of times.”

“Yeah,” Jonny agreed.  “Gee, you're smart, Jen.”

“It was your idea, Jonny,” Jennifer maintained.  “You know how to do this.  We have all the production equipment, including a stage.”

“But not a lot of time,” Aislinn reminded the group.

“Hey, Jeff has the transcripts from every production we've ever done.  Give him a call.  You know he'd love to be part of this,” the married-mother-of-one suggested.

“Thanks, Jen,” Chenoa spoke as she stood and gave her sister a hug.  “I knew you'd have the answer for us.”

A quick call to Jeff had the project going strong.  The big brother promised to get a new production together within forty-eight hours.

In the meantime, the kids decided they would present a DVD with a portable DVD player for each of the residents in the nursing home they most often visited.  They were aware that many of the patients were older and without digital equipment of their own.  It was important to the brood that the patients be able to enjoy the DVD at their leisure and not have to rely on nurses or assistants to help them.  While a few would have issues with this, due to mobility or mental problems, the vast majority could easily operate a simple portable cassette or DVD player.

More assignments were handed out as the brood worked to make their gift of love available.  More was needed than DVD players.  The kids also wanted to send a little box of toiletries, snacks, and perhaps even small plants to each patient.  They were going to need small boxes, gift cards, and bags.  They would need gloves to put everything together, something they were hearing more about these days.  They had to do everything they could to ensure there was none-to-little contact between them and their special presents.

--

“Dad!” JD called out as he ran into the study.

“Whoa there, Sport!  What's on fire?”

“No fire, Dad,” JD responded.  “Where are our gloves?”

“Gloves?”

“The ones we use when we paint or clean the floors.  Dad, we need lots of gloves, but I only found four pairs.  We need gloves,” the despairing child reported.

“JD, don't worry.  This family buys in bulk.  We have boxes of gloves in the storage room upstairs.”

“We do?” the now happy and bright-eyed boy queried.

Getting up from his chair, the father affirmed, “We do.  Follow me.”

“Yes, Sir,” the joyful child responded, giving his father a sloppy salute.

Jack laughed as he led the way out of his study in order to retrieve the necessary supplies.

--

“Hi, Megan,” Jonny greeted over the phone.  “Is Yazid home?  It's really important.”

Yazid Awad, Megan's husband, was a wealthy man in his own right, but he was, as he had been for many years, the top aide to global businessman, Abayomi Sharif.  Jonny knew his friend had contacts around the world and made seemingly impossible things happen for his boss and always in a timely fashion.

Finally, Yazid came onto the phone and apologized for the delay.  He'd been in a conference with Abayomi.

“Yazid, we need help.”

Jonny explained what the brood wanted to do for their friends in the nursing home.

“Little Danny's talked to Mrs. Wilson a lot.  She wants to help, but has to obey the law, so we have to guess on numbers,” Jonny informed the wealthy man who lived in Virginia where Megan ran the east coast offices of J-O Enterprises.  “The last time we were there, they had fifty-two patients.  There were a few empty beds, but,” a woeful sigh was released, “Mister Marshall and Mrs. Granger were  both not doing very well.  They might be dead now.”

“Jonny, what do you need?”

The brood leader explained that while neither ordering the desired DVD and cassette players nor the money needed to pay for the devices was an issue, shipping was and they were having problems getting around it.

“Even Amazon says it will take a month,” Jonny lamented.  “Yazid, is there anything you can do to get us what we need this week?  Please!”

“Jonny, you leave it to me.”

“Dad and Daddy will send you the money for the shipping.  Just tell them how much, okay?”

“Of course.”

--

“Mrs. Johnson, that's terrific!” Lulu exclaimed.  “You can leave them outside your door and we'll pick them up.  Thank you!”

“No, Dear, thank you.  I've been giving away our flowers every day.  It will be nice to know the plants are going where they will bring joy.”

====

After getting JD and the brood a plentiful supply of gloves, Jack returned to his study.  He paid some bills and glanced through an astronomy magazine, but his mind was elsewhere.  He picked up the phone and initiated a call to Cassandra Luca in Italy.

Janet's daughter loved hearing from Jack and the two played catchup for a few minutes before the general arrived at the point of his phone call.

“Cass, say the word, and we'll get you and the family out of there.”

Cassie brought up the embassy, which prompted Jack to tell her to “forget them” should they in any way be hesitant or unable to get the family out of Italy.

“I have people on standby,” Jack told the young woman.

“Thanks, Uncle Jack.  You're a peach,” Cassie said, laughing at the same time from her intentional phrasing.

The chat continued for a few more minutes before concluding.

“You remember what I said.  Just say the word.”

“I love you, Uncle Jack.  Say 'hi' to Uncle Daniel and the brood for me.  Oh, and the girls, or they won't talk to me whenever I do come home.”

“I will.  Love you, too.”

“Cassie?” Daniel queried as he entered the study.

“How'd you know?”

“I just did.  Did you make the offer ... again?”

“I did,” Jack sighed.  He stood up and headed for the door, but he stopped in front of and just to his husband's right.  “Daniel, if she wants out and they won't let her out, I'm going in.  Any problems with that?”

“No.  It's, uh, one of the reasons why I love you so much.  Family first.”

“Dom tested positive.”

“Shibatwray,” Daniel swore quietly in Abydonian.

“She was going to say the word until they found out.  She won't leave him now and she wants the kids to be close.”

“That's understandable.”

“Not for her, for Dom,” Jack clarified.  “He's a little depressed and feeling guilty for putting his family in the middle of this mess.”

“He has no reason to feel guilty.  He went where the company transferred him; they've been enjoying their time there.”

“Danny, pretend you're Dom,” Jack requested.  “You're the guilt king.”

Daniel shrugged in admission, but maintained, “Maybe I'll give him a call.  Maybe I can help ease some of that guilt.”

“I think that's a superb idea,” a pleased Jack replied.  “Cass thinks having the kids there so he can at least see them and talk to them through windows and doorways will help Dom, too.”

“She's probably right.”

“I'll go, if I have to, Danny.”

“I know.”

“We're going to get through this.”

“I know that, too.”

“Share an apple?”

Daniel smiled and nodded his head, after which he and his Love walked to the kitchen to retrieve their snack and enjoy a few minutes alone together while their children were occupied with their nursing home project.

====

Late that night, after the brood settled into their nightly slumber, Jack headed for the kitchen with the intention of grabbing a beer.  He really didn't imbibe that often anymore, but these were crazy times and, all things considered, he was indulging himself slightly more than normal.  Besides, he was frustrated.

The governor declared a state of emergency earlier in the day and that upset the general.  It wasn't the issuance of the declaration that ed Jack, but simply that they were in this situation in the first place.  He was mentally badmouthing the federal government for their lack of action while seeking out a brew to help him get over it and relax.

However, a sight on the lawn in the backyard grabbed his attention.  In his view was his lover, sitting Indian-style midway on the grass.  Daniel was facing the house, his head bowed.

With an unhappy groan, Jack went outside and sat down slightly beside, but just a tad in front of his husband.

“Danny?”

“We have to do it, Jack, and we can't wait any longer.  We can't wait for an official stay-at-home order from the governor.”

~Think, O'Neill.  What's he talking about?  Okay, just go along for a minute.  No one speaks Daniel like you,~ Jack told himself.  “You're right.”

“We *have* to do what's right for them, Jack.”

~Ah, there's a them,~ the general noted as his brain attempted to surmise the topic at hand.  “We will.”

“It might ...”

~Got it~  Now that he figured out the subject, Jack interrupted, “Danny, we're going to protect our own in every way possible.”  He moved closer and gently cupped his soulmate's face.  “Angel, listen to me.  If we have to start over, and I mean completely over, we will.”

“The house office,” Daniel whispered.

“Well, it's more like an office office now, thanks to Alex, but, yes, that's where we'll start again, if things come to that,” Jack stated confidently.  “We've been good to our people, and they've been very loyal to us.  If the worst happens, they're going to be right there.  We'll build it up, again, and this time, I might even know what I'm doing.”

Daniel couldn't help but laugh a little.  His partner went from having almost no tolerance for archaeology and scientific endeavors to being a full-fledged archaeologist, even though he didn't have the paper degree.  It was a transformation that took years, and it was one of the most valued and awesome things in Daniel's life.

“You're right, Babe.  We can start over; stay small, if we want.”

“Whatever we decide.”

“We can't wait, Jack.”

“First thing in the morning, Angel,” Jack agreed.

The older man kissed the younger as they moved back onto the grass where they enjoyed a short but satisfying make-out session before going inside and up to their master bedroom.

====

The next morning, Jack and Daniel stood in the den and faced the computer, its advanced software programs operating so that they could be seen while also seeing their employees for the course of the teleconference.  Karissa Lewis was center stage in the main office located in Colorado Springs, while Megan Awad stood alongside her Virginia office coworkers.  Then there was Ty Harper, their  machinery and equipment expert, and his staff which maintained the storage and inventory in Texas.  All three leaders were part of the original group hired by the owners when J-O Enterprises began.

“Gang, listen up,” Jack began.

“This is a difficult time for our country and for all of us,” Daniel spoke quietly.  “It may be different in each of our states, but the Coronavirus is going to touch all of us, some sooner, others later ... but Jack and I believe it will spread as the leading scientists are saying.”

“This isn't easy for us, but we consider all of you our family and that's why we're taking action now, ahead of our governor, for one,” Jack firmly stated.  “Ás of now, J-O Enterprises is closed for business.  Megan, Karissa, bring our people home ... *now*.  No excuses.  We want them on the next planes out.  We don't care squat about equipment left behind.  We want our family safe.”

“Yes, Sir,” Megan could be heard while Karissa was busy writing notes about what she would have to do to get some of the employees back to America from jobs being worked on in remote places in Peru, Mexico, Egypt, and parts of the U.S.

“Everyone, you will be paid, in full, for as long as we can.  Benefits continue, as normal.  For the interns and part-time employees, this includes you, too,” Daniel advised.  “Megan, Karissa, Ty, you all know how we operate.  Please make sure our helpers, our valuable assets, understand that we are here for them.  Anyone who needs help, please let us know.”

“We ask all of you to do just one thing for your pay,” Jack stated, looking every bit like the three-star general he was, “stay home; shelter-in-place.  That's your job until this crisis is over.  Do that for us, and we'll keep you afloat as long as J-O exists.  What we don't want to see or hear about are selfish and ungrateful people who hang out in large groups, who go in bunches to the beaches and parks, and who don't follow the physical distancing guidelines of six feet or more and lots of handwashing.  We're sure none of you are included in that description, but be advised that what I just said is now in your job description, so be safe; keep your families and neighbors safe; and help all of us to get through this.”

“Megan and Karissa, explain our situation to our clients.  If they are insistent, issue full refunds.  We don't want to argue.  Just .... just give them their money back, if that will make them happy.  If they are willing to reschedule, we'll be happy to do that, but we can't promise when we'll be up and running again, maybe July, or maybe later.  We'll work with them, if they'll work with us.”

“Karissa, we'll contact Abayomi ourselves,” Jack advised, not wanting the news of an aborted job being relayed by anyone other than he or his husband.  “Okay, folks, that's it.  Everyone go home, follow the guidelines, wash those hands, stay six feet apart, and don't do anything you know you shouldn't be doing.  Salaries will be paid on the regular schedule.  Stay in touch with your team leaders.  If you want to finish up projects that you can *at home*, please do.  Daniel and I are always available.”  The general sighed and then smiled, a soft, lamentable yet hopeful smile.  “Megan, Karissa, Ty, head 'em up and move 'em out.  J-O Enterprises is shut down as of now.  Go home.”

“Take care,” Daniel eked out. grateful when the transmissions ended.  “Jack.”

The silver-haired man embraced his Love, holding him securely and whispered, “We'll get through this, Danny.  We're going to get through this.”

====

That night, the parents lost themselves in a spontaneous taping of some of the best bits performed by the family on their stage in the recreation room.  Jeff filmed it all and due to the time factor, it was a one-take performance, which meant there were a few bloopers.  No one minded.  In fact, the consensus was that the goofs made everything even more fun.

====

“:Mrs. Wilson!” came the shout from Little Danny Jackson-O'Neill as he waved wildly to get her attention.

The woman who was in charge of the nursing home facility recognized the teenager and smiled in his direction as she closed her car door.

“Hi, Mrs. Wilson,” the boy greeted, somewhat out of breath from his run from the family SUV to the woman's parking space.  “Please, can I speak with you for a minute.  Please!”

Behind the brilliant youngster, Mrs. Wilson saw the entire Jackson-O'Neill family, all spaced six-feet apart, all wearing masks, all with gloves on their hands, and all holding a collection of signs, boxes, and bags.

The woman could no longer resist.  She had spoken with Little Danny on numerous occasions and understood what was needed.  The family simply wanted to make sure that even the newest residents of the nursing home were given personalized gifts and they also did not want to upset anyone by providing a gift to someone no longer there, either because they moved to another spot or perhaps for a more grim reason.

“Did you a bring a list?”

“Right here,” Little Danny answered as he held out the paper.

Mrs. Wilson reviewed it carefully before informing the family of three residents who were now at home with their families, four new patients, and, with a heavy heart, about Mister Marshall, who had indeed died recently.  One other patient was transitioned to a hospital due to heart issues.

“Thank you,” Little Danny responded appreciatively.  He explained what were in the gift boxes and bags and all about the DVD and cassette devices.  “If you give us ten minutes to make the updates, can we give you the gifts?”

“On one condition.”  Mrs. Wilson could not help herself.  “I need a hug, but I know we can't.”

“We'll make an appointment for a hug when things are better,” the Munchkin offered.

“Yes, we'll do that.  Thank you for caring.  So many of our residents are alone and those with family, we can't even let them in to see their loved ones.  Thank you, Little Danny.”  She looked beyond the teen. “Thank you, all of you!”

Trying to hide the tears in her eyes, Mrs. Wilson entered the nursing home and prepared a few members of the staff to help with accepting the tokens from the family.  She also did her best to get every resident able to the large windows at the front of the building.  She wanted all of them to see the signs of love.

====

“Dad thinks it's coming sooner rather than later,” Brianna warned a few of her siblings early the next morning as they hung out in the game room.  Now seven months away from turning twenty, the dolphin-loving tomboy had recently spoken to her parents about the situation facing the school system.  It was national news that almost every school in several states including California were already shut down.  “Some states are saying school might not resume until next year.”

“Wow,” Little Danny sighed.  ~I can't imagine not having some kind of school or education for months.~  Suddenly, he perked up.  “Jenny, this was your idea when we had our first brood meeting about all of this.  It's time we move forward with it.”

“But how?”

“Well,” the middle Munchkin began, “if the kids can't go to school, we bring school to them.”

Jonny stood up and said, “I'll get the rest of the brood.  Lulu, you'll take the minutes.”

“Okay, Jonny,” the young dancer acknowledged.  She rose and, as she headed for the stairs, added, “I'll be right back.”

“I'd better let Ptolemy out for her flight time,” Little Danny told the others.

“Fifteen minutes,” Jonny suggested for when the kids would gather together again since it was obvious that some had things to do first.  ~Gotta do the chores to keep the folks happy,~ he reminded himself, ~not to mention the zoo.  They get ornery if not fed on time.~

====

“Not all the parents will let their kids come over,” David mentioned when the latest planning session was in process.  “If we really go as far out into the neighborhood as we've been discussing, a lot of the families don't know us, or not very well.”

“I know,” Aislinn let out with a reluctant but accepting breath.  “We have to convince them, though.”

“Dad's a general,” Jonny offered, believing that fact alone should convince anyone of their good intentions.  “And Daddy is Daddy.  Everyone loves him.”

The kids shared a happy smile.  Their parents were the greatest.  They'd find a way to help the abandoned students, as many as they could anyway.

“Brood, I need you to listen to me,” Jennifer beckoned.  “What you want to do is amazing.  You need to be realistic, though.  First, you're going to have to convince Dad and Daddy to let you go to all of these houses.  Second, for the people we don't know or don't know well, you're going to have to work hard to make them believe you can help educate their kids and that they can trust us.  Third, Dad's in the high risk group.  He's going to have to stay clear of anyone who comes over.  Remember, the odds on him giving the virus to the kids is slim, but they could more easily transmit it to him.  Fourth, you said you wanted to go online.  Now you know that's going to be an obstacle for you to get through with our parents; and what about those who don't have computers or tablets?”

“We have resources,” Jonny insisted.  He paused to face his oldest sister.  “Jen, we know you're right.  This is going to be hard work and we can't act like we know it all because we don't.  We're just lucky.  We can help, Jen, and that's what Dad and Daddy have taught us to do, to help, when we can.”

The young woman nodded and then spoke, “Guys, I have to get home, but you let me know what you need and I'll be here.  I promise.”

“Thanks, Jen,” a chorus of voices rang out.

“Here are your assignments,” Jonny instructed as he passed out papers with the names of people to contact.  “We need their help.  Do your best.”

====

JD had what was probably the easiest assignment.  He entered the den and quickly utilized the information that Jonny and Little Danny told him after the latest brood meeting.

“Daddy, J-O has its own stockpile, just like the government does, right?”

Surprised by the question, Daniel turned his chair away from his desk so he could face his son and confirmed, “Uh, yes, we do.”  More dryly, he probed, “Why?”

“J-O has lots of backup tablets and some old puters, too, right?”

His eyes rolling off to the right indicating his continued confusion, the archaeologist affirmed, “Right.”  After a pause, he inquired, “Why?”

JD grinned and answered, “We need them, Daddy.  How many do we have in the company stockpile?”

“JD, those are company property.”

“We're the company, aren't we?  You always said it was ours, all of ours.  Well, we need tablets and we'll take the old puters, too.  Please, Daddy.  We need them tomorrow, okay?  Can we go get them?”

“Okay, yes, J-O Enterprises is *our* company, but you haven't told me yet why you need the tablets.”

“To help the kids when we have school,” JD explained as he headed towards the door while feeling he'd accomplished his mission.

“JD?”

“Yes, Daddy,” the youngster acknowledged before leaving the room.

“The last time I counted, we have thirty tablets not in circulation and just five computers still working, but not in use.”

“I'll tell Jonny.  Um, Daddy, what's circ...circcu...”

“Circulation,” Daniel responded.  “That means no one is using the tablets so you can have them.”

“Oh, good.  Thanks, Daddy.”

“You're welcome.”  Daniel waited a moment and then communicated mentally, **Jack, if you're not involved in something, we need to talk.**

**Jonny just hit me with it.  Danny, they want to hold school in our backyard.**

**My place or yours?**

**Yours is safer.  Let me finish up with Jonny and I'll be right up.**

**Jack, what does he want from you?**

**Permission to knock on strangers' doors, with the proper backup, of course.**

**Of course.**

====

“Uncle Pete, you don't have to say anything,” Lulu assured.  “You only have to stand with us to show we're safe.  You know what I mean.”

“I don't know, Lulu.  I'm all for what you kids want to do, but I'm a cop ...”

“... which is why it's important you're with us.  If parents know you believe in us, they will, too.”

“You got it.  When do you need me?”

--

“Mrs. Hawkins?  Hi, I'm Jenny Jackson-O'Neill.  Do you remember me?  I'm the redheaded cheerleader ... <chuckle> ... yeah, they let me cheer at your school sometimes.”  The girl took a breath and went straight to the point.  “Mrs. Hawkins, one of your students, Holly Duncan, told me you're the best teacher at the school and that you might be willing to help us.”

For the next few minutes, Jenny told the teacher about her family and their idea.

“No, you don't have to come over and teach, unless you want to do so, but we could use your help in a couple of ways.”  After the woman asked how, Jenny answered, “If a student needs help with something we don't understand, can we call you for help?  We don't want to be the reason why a student gets stuck.”  Another pause and response caused Jenny to grin.  “Oh, thank you.  Um, would you be willing to walk part of the neighborhood with us and speak with parents?  Holly said a lot of her friends are worried and we don't know a lot of them.  It might help if the parents knew you supported our idea and would be available to help.”

Jenny's heart beat with joy.  She listened intently to the teacher and could sense her enthusiasm.

~This is going to work,~ the girl told herself.

--

“Daddy, how much do tablets cost?” Ricky inquired as he walked inside the den.  “Oops.  I'm sorry.  I didn't know you were on the phone.”

“Bill, can you hold on a minute,” Daniel requested.  “Why?” he asked his son.

“We need some more for school.  We've been talking with the kids and a lot of them don't have a PC.  Do we have enough money to buy some?” Ricky queried.  “We can use our savings,” he offered on behalf of the entire brood.

“We'll talk about it later.”  With Ricky gone, Daniel returned to his phone call.  “I'm sorry about the interruption.”

“Not a problem, Daniel.  What's going on there?”

Daniel told the businessman what the brood was trying to do before going back to their previous conversation.

“I may be able to help, Daniel.  Give me a day or two.”

Bill's comment didn't really sink in, prompting Daniel to simply continue with their conversation, picking it up before Ricky's appearance.  

====

“I'm starved,” Aislinn commented to Little Danny as they walked into the hospitality room with Bijou and Katie on their heels.

“Lunch will solve that problem.”

“They must be hungry, too,” Aislinn laughed.

“Here, girls,” Little Danny called out.  He reached inside one of the biscuit containers in the house and pulled out large treats for each dog.  “Enjoy.”

The happy beagles left the hospitality room to eat their biscuits and relax.

The teens began to pull out the equipment and ingredients needed to prepare the noon meal.  Their assigned helper, JD, was delayed due to a surprise phone call from his best friend, Tommy Luca, in Italy.

“They're so funny,” Aislinn spoke about the canines as she took hold of a knife and began to slice some carrots.

“We're lucky to have them,” Little Danny said from his heart while opening the lettuce bin and shredding the leafs into smaller pieces.

“Dad always says they aren't dogs.  He thinks they're aliens.”

Letting go of some lettuce into a big bowl, Little Danny chuckled, “Maybe they are.  They understand us very well and it feels like they really are communicating sometimes; I mean, beyond the barks and wagging tails.”

A bit more seriously, Aislinn noted, “You know, Little Danny, they look so young.  How old are they now?  We're almost fourteen.”

“I've never thought about it,” the middle Munchkin admitted.  “They don't look like other dogs their age, though.  They must be fifteen or sixteen at least.  We could ask Dad and Daddy.”

Aislinn turned to face her brother and responded, “I don't want to, Little Danny.  I don't care how old they are or if they're really aliens.  I just love them.”

“Me, too.  Maybe there's a beagle planet out there somewhere,” the boy mused.

“That would be awesome,” Aislinn replied, dropping some carrots into the big bowl and mixing it with the lettuce.  ~Um.  Just a few more and then the cabbage.~

“When's lunch?” was heard, the query made by Jack at the edge of the room where he just witnessed Little Danny handing a cabbage to his sister.

“Fifteen minutes,” Little Danny answered.

Jack nodded, gave the kids a smile, and walked away.  He joined Daniel in the kitchen where the archaeologist was getting a cup of coffee.

“What's so funny?” Daniel questioned upon seeing a grin on his lover's face.

“Ash and Little Danny.  Have you ever noticed that when two or more of the Munchkins are on chef duty that they seem to work in perfect unison?”

“I have.  They, uh, seem to know what they need to do and do it as a unit.”

“I was watching them preparing the salad.  There wasn't any 'I'll do this' or 'I'll get that', but they just did it.  Little Danny tore up some lettuce, Aislinn cut some carrots, and they alternated putting the stuff in the bowl.”

“Easier mixing,” Daniel suggested as the couple left the kitchen for the living room.  “The twins do it, too, but not all the time and sometimes not quite in sync.”

“Girls, how about a quick walk around the block?”  Jack saw the beagles sit in their normal spots, tails wagging and eyes wide open, ready for their harnesses to be put on their bodies.  “It's gotta be quick sniffs; lunch is almost ready.”

“Woof,” was the response of agreement from both dogs.  “Do you want to come?”

“Uh, not this time,” Daniel answered.  “I want to finish an article I was reading before we eat.”

“Okay.  Be back in a jiffy; love you,” Jack said and leaned over for a quick kiss on the lips.

“I love you, too.  Don't get lost.”

Jack laughed as he readied the beagles and headed outside for a fast walk.

====

Two mornings later, on St. Patrick's Day, Jack returned to his home after a brisk jog.  He was sweaty and ready for a big Irish brunch.  Entering the living room, the general was stopped by shock and the quick realization that his holiday merriment was fading.

“*Daniel*!  Daniel!”

“Uh, here,” the archaeologist responded with one of those closed smiles that drove his lover crazy.

“Daniel, I can't see the fireplace.”

“I know.”

“I can't even see our couch.”

“I know.”

“Daniel, your blasted fish have disappeared.”

“No, no they haven't.  They're, they're there, behind the last row.”

“Daniel, what the heck is this?”

“Well, they're Chromebooks.”

“I can see that from the markings on the boxes.  *Why* are they here?” Jack barked.

“As best as I can figure out, Bill Thompson wanted to help out the brood.  There's a note.  He said he gathered up what he could from his stores in Colorado and hoped there was enough.”

“Enough?  How many?”

“The inventory listed about ... six hundred.”

“Six-hundred?  Daniel, we can't have six-hundred kids in our backyard.”

“I know.  I told the brood that.”

“And?”

“And they thought about dividing it up and having groups of children coming each day.”

“We can't have a hundred kids per day, either.”

“I told them that,” the younger man replied.

“And?”

“They considered breaking it out over seven days, *but* I told them that wouldn't work either *and* then they decided to go online.”

“Daniel, our kids are not getting connected to some cloud server where every enemy we've ever had can see them.”

“I told them that, too.”

“Look, I know the bubble's been popping over the years, but I won't give in on this,” the general maintained sternly.

“They know.”

“And?”

“They decided to get an expert we couldn't argue with to set up their own network.”

“An ex...”  Jack cocked his head and shook it.  “Carter?”

“Little Danny was chosen to be their representative,” Daniel told his lover.

Jack reared his head back before spouting, “Daniel, he may not be that adorable five-year-old boy anymore, but he's a handsome teen who can still do the pout better than anyone alive, except for you.”

Daniel simply sighed without giving any further response.

“Danny, where are the kids?”

“Well, they sent JD as backup.”

“Heaven help her,” Jack spoke out of the side of his mouth.  “Where's the brood?”

With his own patented closed smile, the archaeologist answered, “Backing up Little Danny and JD.”

“Crap!”  Jack let out a tiny growl.  “Ten kids, all staring her down.”

“Not exactly.”

“What's that mean?”  The answer to his question came to Jack before his Love could utter a sound.  “*All* of them?”

“Including the babies.”

“Daniel, I had to order Carter to get a life.  It took over a decade, but now she's a baby geek.  Danny, she's in the freakin' PTA, for crying out loud.  All twelve kids *and* the grandbabies?  How's she going to resist that?”

“She's not, Sir,” came the sound from a very familiar voice.  Sam Carter-Shanahan stood a good six-feet away from the kids.  “I need one of those,” she told the general with a nod towards the stacks of Chromebooks.”

“Good luck, Carter.”

“No rush, Aunt Sam, but sooner is better than not sooner,” Ricky told the blonde.

“Thank you, Ricky.”

Sam took hold of a box, smiled at her friends, and walked towards the patio door.

“Wait,” Jack called out.  “Kids, upstairs.”  He observed their hesitation and assured, “It's okay.  I'm not upset any of you or with Aunt Sam.  I just want to speak with her for a minute, in private, with Danny.”  The general repeated with force, “Kids, upstairs ... *now*.

The brood nodded their goodbyes to the blonde and headed upstairs.  Even Jennifer and Jeff, both holding their babies, stayed with their siblings.

Jack looked at Sam and probed with more of an assumption than a query, “You think we should pop what's left of the bubble, right?”

“Sir, you and Daniel had every right to raise those kids how you did.  They faced danger, real danger, from the moment they were born.  Gee, Jen had to face off a Goa'uld, trapped with him, in Egypt.  They fought off the Trust and, well, Sir, I don't even want to think about all they've seen at their young ages.”

“The point?” Jack asked.

“I don't blame you and Daniel for keeping that bubble surrounding them for so long.”

“But?”

“Jack,” Sam began while walking two paces towards the man, “they aren't kids anymore.  Okay, not all of them are of age yet, but they get it.  They understand that bubble and why it's there.  They fully get why you and Daniel have been so extremely overprotective.  Sir, this house is a fortress.  They get it.  They've used the security system.  They just aren't kids anymore.  They have friends, outside from the family.  It's not that you need to pop the bubble, you just need to let them go; let them grow up.  They have no desire to let you down.  That would crush them, but you need to let them know you trust them to make good choices.  See, they actually know that, but do you ... know that, that you trust them?  That you've raised them to be the exceptional young people they are today?”

There was a heavy silence.  Jack briefly glanced at his husband, whose head was bowed with his arms folded across his chest.  It was a familiar look that told him all he needed to know.

Sam added, “The truth, Sir, is that most of our enemies are ...”

“... dead?”

“Or otherwise detained.”

“For crying out loud, did you have to say that?  Crap, I feel old.”

“Sir, I should confess something.”

“Scary!”

“I ... created a program.  It was when I knew the Stargate wasn't my life anymore.  They kept asking me to put in more time, but ...”

“You're a PTA mom now,” Jack replied quietly.

“My husband is always afraid I'll go back.  I see his face when he knows who I'm talking to on the phone.  Sir, one day, Pete is going to understand that I made my choice, years ago.  I don't mind helping, but my life is over there.”  Sam twisted around and pointed towards her house that was behind and to the right of the Jackson-O'Neill home.  You know, I love the PTA.  That's crazy, I know.”

“No, it's probably one of the sanest parts of your life,” the general opined.

“Anyway, the program tracks every alien, fake government official, and enemy, that I know of, who might come after SG-1 or the kids.  If activity shows up, I'm alerted.”

“By the SGC?”

“No, it's a special, covert program,” Sam admitted.  “Thor helped me with it.  You do know that we have a lot of very good friends out there, friends who watch sometimes.”

“Thor,” Jack sighed, but not in a negative way.

“And the Nox.”

“The Nox?”

“They don't like to interfere, but they like us, Sir.  They have hope for us.”

“Hope,” Jack echoed with a smile.  “I have hope for us, too.”  He let out another deeper sigh that processed the entire discussion and then, motioning at the box in her hand, said softly, “Carter, don't worry about that.”

“Sir, the danger is still there; it's just from ...”

“... regular old everyday hackers and sickophiles.”

Sam smiled, nodded, and responded, “I can do this with my eyes closed.  I'll do what I'd do for my own kids, and, um, well, the truth is I think of your kids as my kids.”

“They are,” Jack affirmed strongly.  “They're ours, Kayla's, yours, Doc's, and Sara's, not to mention those great people.”

Sam's head bobbed up and down as she reviewed the photos on the mantel.

“By the way, how is Sara doing?”

“Isolation is driving her nuts, but the family's good, and safe.”  Feeling more upbeat, the former SG-1 leader asked, “How are the kids?”

“The twins are having a party, non-stop, Susie just loves listening to music, crazy stuff, but it's a joy to watch her listening, and Kevin.”

“What is it?” Daniel inquired.

“I'm a little worried about Kevin.”

“He's come so far, as you know, but he doesn't understand why, after all the push and excitement over the years for him to be social, that now he has to be satisfied at home, with us, all the time.  He's lonely, I think.  If it weren't for Gili,” she noted about their Bermese Mountain Dog, “well, I don't know.”

“If you want, I could try talking to him.  That's up to you and Shanahan,” Jack stated.

“I'm not sure it's talking he needs, not exactly.”

“Sam,” Daniel interjected.  “Kevin loves the pyramids.  He loves Egypt.  Jack, we could do a quick play.  Jeff could put one together in no time.  You could be a Pharaoh.”

“Oh, he'd love that,” Sam opined.  “He's always enjoyed the productions put on by the brood.  Do you think they'd help?”

“Sure, we would,” came the enthusiastic response from Ricky, who quickly covered his mouth with his hands and shrugged in apology.

“Spies, Carter.  Our brood is a bunch of eavesdropping buttinskis,” Jack put forth, his facial expression informing the children peering down from their spots on the stairs that there would be consequences for the infraction.

“Let me know what you need from me,” Sam told the family.  “Thank you,” she practically whispered from emotion.  “I'll have this done by tonight.”

“Carter, all we need from you, is you.”

Without a verbal response, Sam exited the home.

“Come on, Dad,” Aislinn encouraged.  “You promised us a real Paddy's Day brunch.”

“We'll help,” Brianna cajoled, motioning for some of the other kids to follow her towards the hospitality room.

“You talked me into it,” Jack responded with a vocal flare.  He smiled at Daniel, who walked to him, shared a too-short tender kiss with him and then joined the brood as they walked. “I'll be handing out lots of orders.  Follow them strictly.”

“Yes, Sir,” was the massively spoken reply.

====

The next day, the family listened to the news and heard the announcement that schools were being closed until at least April 17.

Before the reporter even finished the story, Jenny put down the pillow she was holding in her hands and ordered, “Brood, we have work to do.  Someone call Jen and Jeff and tell them to bring their calendars.  Let's go.”

Like the pied piper, the Spitfire led the way to the treehouse where she was certain no one would be distracted and they would not be disturbed.  Soon, the eldest of the brood arrived, neither having heard the latest news as yet.

“Now I know why you wanted me to bring my calendar,” Jennifer remarked, pulling it out of her pocket, upon hearing about the shutdown.

“What's the plan?” Jeff asked.

“We need teams of three to go to every home in our neighborhood as long as the Chromebooks hold out,” Jenny answered.

“One of the three will need to be an adult,” Jonny added.  “Dad and Daddy will count you guys as adults ...”

“... reluctantly,” Brianna joked, enjoying the laughter of the group.  ~I'm not an adult in their eyes yet myself,~ she bemoaned within her soul.

Jonny continued, “But we'll need others, too.”

“Uncle Lou,” Chenoa suggested.

The names flowed.  There wasn't a shortage when it came to trusted family friends who would assist the kids.

“We have to get this done now.  Does anyone have any conflicts before we start? Jenny asked.

“Does a whiny husband count?” Jennifer mused.  “No, it's okay.  Peter's a little house crazy right now,” she explained.

For the rest of the afternoon, the brood devoted themselves to setting up the schedule trios and estimating how long it might take to canvass the neighborhood.

====

“Are they still up there?” Jack inquired when he joined Daniel in the living room.

Putting down the archaeology magazine he was reading, Daniel confirmed Jack's guess with a nod.

“Jen and Jeff?”

“Present,” Daniel answered.

“Do we need to be concerned?”

Daniel chuckled, “Babe, you know full well they're working on their school plans.”

“It must be important to them.”

“You know it is.”

“Yep, I do, but my stomach is starting to growl,” the military officer whined.

“I'll take care of that.”

Seeing his lover stand, Jack asked hopefully, “You're going to cook?”

“I'm going to order pizza, several,” Daniel responded with a smile.

“I love how you think,” Jack teased.

With a broad grin, the archaeologist picked up the phone and made the order.

====

Once the pizza arrived, the kids were ordered to the large dining table in the hospitality room.  Spouses and babies joined the family as well.  It was a lively and hearty hour as they spent time together, especially since Jack ordered that there would be zero conversation about the school plans or even the Coronavirus.

After dinner and ice cream, though, the kids were eager to get their educational program going and, more immediately, their parents on board with their schedule.

“Dad, Daddy, can you join us for a quick meeting?  It should only take a few minutes,” Little Danny requested of his parents as they returned to the living room.

“Sure,” Daniel agreed.

Jack chimed, “What can we do for you?”

“We made a list of groups for when we canvas the neighborhood,” Jonny explained.  “We put an adult with two of us all the time because we know we'll be going to homes where we don't know the people.  Would you look at our tentative schedule and give your okay, or not.”

Automatically, Jack grabbed the multi-page schedule and let his eyes roam the top page.  Then he blinked and glanced over at his soulmate.  He didn't like this.  He didn't like it all, but letting go had to start somewhere.

Standing, the general called out, “Thor, get your little ...”  The man actually chuckled.  Thor was no longer a little gray butt.  He looked human, as did all of the Asgard, thanks to JD.  More calmly, he called out, “Thor?  Have a sec?”

“O'Neill, you bellowed.”

“I did.  Sorry.”

“How may I be of assistance?”

“Hi, Uncle Thor,” JD greeted.  “I think Dad wants you to watch us and make sure we're safe.”

“Look, I'm just trying ...”  Jack paused and let out a deep breath.  “The kids are going to places we don't know well.  They're involving adults, but I think they're old enough and definitely responsible enough to do this on their own.  I'd just like to make sure they don't run into trouble.”

Even Thor saw the change in the retired general.  Looking at the children, he also noted their shocked expressions.  This was a major transition for the family.

“Brood, does this involve the situation you spoke to me about previously?”

There were a few gulps and looks of nervousness among the children as their eyes evaded any looks from Jack and Daniel.  Then Jonny took the lead.

“Yes, Thor,” the strong teen answered.

Accepting the answer, the alien spoke, “If you wish, O'Neill, the Asgard will maintain visual contact with the brood while they go to these places on their own. We will not interfere unless it becomes necessary.  We will keep them safe for you.”

“Dad, you're really going to let us go alone?” Jonny queried in disbelief.

“Groups of three, and you know the right groups to do,” came Jack's stern reply.

“Thank you, Thor,” Jonny stated on behalf of his siblings.  “JD will let you know our schedule when we get it finalized.”

“Very well.”

With that, the Asgard leader disappeared.

“Okay, start talking,” Jáck ordered.

Silence, lots of fidgeting, and some shrugs filled the room until, once again, the oldest Munchkin stepped forward with authority and admitted, “We just wanted to keep Grandpa and Grandma safe.”

“And our friends at the homeless camp by the river,” Ricky added.

“And the ones at the nursing home, especially those without family,” Aislinn put forth.

“And you,” JD added quietly.

“But we were afraid,” Little Danny continued with his own quiet tone.

“Afraid?” Daniel echoed with concern, confusion, and curiosity.

“Well, this is a brand new disease, Daddy.  No one really knows about it.  I mean, uh, every day there is something new the scientists have learned.  The Asgard don't know about it and neither do the Nox.  We love the Asgard and the Nox.  They are family.  How could we risk their lives for ...”

Little Danny bowed his head as a tear or two began to fall.

In an instant, Aislinn threw her arms around him and elaborated, “We just couldn't ask them to help us, not knowing how scary the Coronavirus is and how it might hurt them, or even an empty planet.”

“We couldn't do it,” Chenoa whispered.

Jack let out a big whiff of air as he processed what he had just heard.  He looked at Daniel, who was trying to keep his own emotions in check and simply shook his head at his husband.

The general took a deep breath and said, “Thanks for filling us in.  We love you.”  After a pause to regroup a bit, he moved the conversation forward as he stated, “Kids, you're not kids anymore, not little kids, except for JD. You know the rules and Daddy and I trust you.  This school thing is your project, your idea.  Make it work.  We're here if you need us.”

Jack nodded at Daniel and then the parents left the room.

--

The lovers walked outside onto the deck to enjoy some night air.  It was slightly windy at the moment and still a tolerable fifty-three degrees.  Silently, Daniel mused at the weather.  There was time anything under seventy was freezing in his mind.  All that changed when he met the man he was now standing beside.

“I know that wasn't easy for you, Jack, but it was the right thing to do.”

“Tell me it was easier for you.”

“I wish I could, but we'll survive and so will our children,” Daniel avowed.

“I hope you're right, Angel.”

“Me, too.”

--

Back in the rec room, the children were staring at one another in amazement.

“Wow,” Aislinn remarked.  “We really must be growing up.”

“We know that,” Jonny responded.

“Yeah, we do, but I wasn't sure Dad and Daddy did.”

“They know,” Brianna interjected.  “The thing is that they're having to grow up, too.  It's hard to let go when you love so much.”

Quietly, the tomboy left the room.

“Bri, are you okay?” Aislinn called out.

Brianna was already out of the room and didn't hear, or perhaps didn't choose to respond to, the question.

“Do you think she and Con had a fight?” Jonny questioned as he thought about youthful farmer, Conway Bell, who was his sister's long-distance boyfriend.

“No, no fight,”Aislinn sighed.  Resetting her emotions with a bob of her head and a deep breath, she suggested, “We'd better get back to work.  We have a lot of homes to visit.”

====

For the next few days, groups of three pounded the pavement and visited every home they could.  They used referrals from friends in the area with the only limitation being the six-hundred Chromebooks.  The tablets donated by J-O Enterprises were being kept as backups, either for defective units or kids who might just show up from homes they did not get a response from while canvassing the neighborhood.

One of the first encounters at a stranger's house several blocks from the Jackson-O'Neill residence involved the team of Lulu, Little Danny, and Ricky.  The residents were Lamar Compton, a landscaper, his wife, Patricia, who was a nurse, and their children, Etta and Caitlyn, ages eight and six respectively.  They also had two cats and some goldfish.

“You're kids and you want to teach our kids?” Lamar questioned with skepticism.

“We're kids who want to help kids,” Little Danny corrected.  “See, we love to learn and we've discovered that we can learn a lot from each other.”

“We love to play,” Ricky interjected, “but learning can be playful.”

“We have this for you,” Lulu said as she offered a small packet to the parents.  “In there, you'll see how we plan to do our backyard.  Every kid will stay six feet away from each other.  We'll have cleaning supplies and strict rules for each work area.  If you have anything you want to know, you can call our parents and even come visit, as long as you also follow all of the guidelines to keep everyone safe.”

“There are references, too,” Ricky noted.  “All of those people know our family really well and said you can call them.  Um, well, you can't call the last one, but he wrote a letter.”

Disbelievingly, Lamar scoffed at the comment, but he still flipped through to the last page.  His head flew upward as he stared at the trio before him.  His eyes still focused on the kids, he showed his wife the paper.

“President Hayes?” the mother queried with a high voice.

“Now you know why he didn't want us to give out his phone number,” a somewhat proud Ricky stated.

“He is a good friend of ours,” Little Danny assured.  “My brother, Jonny, asked him if he'd be a reference for us and he sent us this to copy for everyone.”

The once doubtful parents were on their way to being convinced.  Not only was a United States' President on the reference list, but there were also doctors, nurses, educators, firefighters, police employees, and service people from every branch of the Armed Forces.  Even some well-known local religious leaders such as Sister Conchetta were among the names listed.

“Will you let your kids participate?” Lulu asked with a pretty smile.  “Please?”

“Of course,” Patricia replied, her words accompanied by her husband's head nod.

“Thanks.  Do you need Chromebooks?”

“Oh, so you want us to buy computers now,” Lamar scowled, certain he'd just been taken in by the children.

“No, Sir,” Little Danny responded firmly.

“Look, if we had money ...” the man began in anger.

“Oh, please wait, okay?” Lulu requested.  “I'll just be a minute.”  The teenager turned and sprinted to a truck that was parked a few houses away.  “Uncle Lou, I need two computers, please.”

“On the spot,” Lou Ferretti acknowledged.  He could see the two adults peering at him from their front porch.  ~Don't mess it up; the kids will kill me.~

With gloves on, Lou took some disinfecting wipes with him as he carried the boxes to the home.

“Pardon me,” Lou spoke.  “Where do you want them?”

The parents moved back, ensuring they were an appropriate distance from the stranger and motioned towards a chair on their porch.  They watched Lou as he used the wipes on the boxes.

“These are brand new,” Ricky pointed out.  “We'd appreciate it if you'd start them up and make sure everything is working.”

“It's all in the packet, including how to contact us,” Little Danny expounded.  “We have our own network set up.  It's very private and secure.  We also have special e-mail addresses and phone numbers so you and your kids can reach us easily.”

“Our Aunt Sam is a whiz at techy stuff.  She's on the reference list, um, well, her husband, our uncle, is.  He's a detective,” the proud Spitfire announced.

“Thank you,” came the soft reply from the mother.

“I'm sorry for what I was thinking,” the proud yet frightened father apologized.

“It's okay, Mister Compton.  These are hard times, but we're going to be okay.  All of us,” Little Danny asserted.

This is how it went at many homes, though not all had happy endings.  Still, the brood persisted and soon, all six-hundred computers were distributed, their network was tested successfully, the backyard sectioned out appropriately for no more than ten students at a time, and a decent schedule that allowed some kids to attend classes in person and others to join in over the network was developed.

====

There was another benefit to the canvassing of the neighborhood, though not everyone would call it that.  Jennifer did, though.

On one of the first homes Jennifer visited with David and Chenoa belonged to Eunice Otis.  She was traditionally a happy woman, living her retirement years in peace.  She didn't know the Jackson-O'Neills, but she'd seen them out and about in the neighborhood over the years.  The family recognized her, too, and always waved and exchanged pleasantries, but they didn't know her name.

This particular day, though, things changed.

“Oh, we're sorry for disturbing you,” David said.  “We were looking for homes with kids who might want to keep learning as part of our educational network.”

Eunice smiled, but with sadness replied, “No kids here, young man.  My husband and I were never lucky.  We tried, but the Good Lord had other plans for us.”

“I'm sorry,” Chenoa sighed.

“You're a cute thing.  You remind me of Shirley Temple as a young girl.”

“I hear that a lot.”  Chenoa thought, ~I wonder.~  With a smile, she said, “Watch this,” after which she performed a short routine from one of Temple's films.

The woman laughed and brought her hands to her face while exclaiming, “That's wonderful.  Oh, such memories of yesterday.  Thank you, Honey.”

“I'm Chenoa.  This is David, and she's Jennifer.  We're the Jackson-O'Neills,” Chenoa stated.

“We're some of them, anyway,” Jennifer interjected.  “There's twelve of us.”

“And a full house of pets,” David added.

“I've seen you for years on walks or at the grocery store.  I remember those three little ones.”

“The Munchkins,” David surmised.

“Munchkins?” the senior citizen inquired.

“Dad loves nicknames.  He named the triplets the Munchkins and Daddy went along.”

Jennifer stared more intently at the older Coloradan, studying her facial lines and wondering how she would react to the dad and daddy revelation.

~If she's seen us, maybe she already knows.~

“Your parents seem like nice men.  I seem to recall one of them doing cheers with a little girl.”

“That's Jenny, one of the twins,” Chenoa advised with another smile.

“I thought that was amazing, a grown man doing cheers on the lawn with his daughter for all to see.  That's a lot of love,” the gray-haired woman opined.

“Our parents are like that,” Jennifer confirmed.  “Um, Ma'am, do you need anything?”

“I wouldn't want to impose.”

“You wouldn't be.  Please, what do you need?” Jennifer inquired.

“My husband's been gone for a year now, and I do fine.  I do.  I have the extra aches and pains now; my memory fails here and there; but this is the kicker, though it's not much of one now.”

Raising her lounger, the woman revealed her left leg in a cast.

“Ouch!” Chenoa responded.

“I can't go to store now, and I only need a few things.  I'm on a pension and can't afford those delivery fees.  I'd go myself, but this leg ...”

“Ma'am ...”

“My name is Eunice, Eunice Otis.”

“Mrs. Otis ...”

“Eunice.”

Jennifer nodded and continued, “Eunice, we'll go shopping for you.  Tell us what you need.”

“Well ...”

Jennifer noted the hesitation and spoke, “Eunice, we're friends now and there's one thing you need to know about Jackson-O'Neills.  We help.  We love to help.”

David pointed out, “And we don't go away easily.”

“We stick to people like glue, if they need us, and if they'll let us help.  Please let us help you,” Chenoa requested.

“Jennifer, my car is almost empty and I've been housebound for weeks.  I'm afraid it won't start.”

Laughing, Jennifer assured, “We'll get it going, Eunice.  Maybe I'll get Jenny to give us a hand.  She's our brood car expert.”

“Brood?”

“That's what we call ourselves, the brood,” Jennifer explained.  “So, um, if it's okay with you, we need to finish canvassing this block.  Would it be okay if I came back around four?”

“That would be fine.  Thank you, Dear.”

Goodbyes spoken, the kids left the home.

“Jen.”

“What, Noa?”

“She was crying.”

“I know.”

David noted, “Sometimes people cry when they get help.”

“I'm glad we're helping her,” Chenoa put forth.

“Me, too,” both Jennifer and David said at the same time.

Jennifer, feeling peaceful and worthwhile, urged, “Okay, Mouseketeers, focus.  We need to get this job done.”

Not only was Eunice a new family friend, but what happened at her home happened at others as well.  The trio discovered how special it was to help older residents with even the smallest of things.  They added several phone numbers to their contacts on their smartphones and vowed to stay in touch with their new friends regularly.  It was an unexpected perk to making the rounds in search of students for the network.
 
====

“But I have a lot to do,” Jenny argued early on Sunday morning.

“Jenny, the family has had this chess tournament on the calendar for a month now.  If you bail out, you let everyone down.”

“Okay, but I ...”

“... have a lot of things to do,” Jack said in unison with the ardent redhead and then nodded a signal to start the proceedings.

“The rules,” David began.  “The usual.  Nothing special.  Two games will be ongoing at the same time, one with Dad and Daddy's chess set and one with Little Danny's set.  Who plays who is set by the draw.”  He held up the velvet bag that contained wooden tiles, each with a name of family members on it.  “No time limit.  When a game ends, two new names will be drawn and those competitors have five minutes to report to the table.”  He became more serious.  “Some of us are better than others at chess, but please remember our family rule for tournaments.”

“No one lets anyone else win.  We play our best and the winners are the ones who on this day played the best.  No exceptions,” Little Danny declared.

“Draw,” Jack ordered.

“The draw begins,” David responded immediately.  “Game one features,” he laughed at the tile, “Daddy.”  He drew a second tile.  “And Jonny.”  He paused and continued, “Game two will be ... Ash and ... Jenny.”

Over at the side of the room, Little Danny laughed and whispered to his Munchkin sister, “This is going to be fun.”

“Why?” Aislinn questioned.

“She has a lot of things to do,” the teen mused.

“She'll cream me,” Aislinn sighed.

“Probably.”

Aislinn groaned and walked to the table and, when Jenny approached, said, “Don't worry, Sis.  I'm ready to be abused.”

Jenny smiled and replied, “It's just I have a lot of things to do.”

At the first table, Jonny stood across from his father, reached out, and shook his hand.

“I thought shaking hands was on the don't do list,” Daniel remarked.

“We're family.  Daddy, good luck, but you're going down.”

“I'll consider myself warned.”

“Time starts now.  Good luck everyone,” David spoke over the various ongoing conversations in the room.

At the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen nook were an assortment of snacks and goodies for those present to partake of throughout the day.  A number of finger sandwiches were prepared, along with chilled beverages. No big meals were planned for the day.  It was all chess.

As time passed, family members came and went.  If not engaged in a game, the kids were free to do whatever they wanted, so who was present and watching a specific match changed with every hour.

“Checkmate,” Jenny stated.  “Sorry, Ash.”

“It's okay, Jenny.  Wow, that was, what, thirty moves?”

“I didn't count, but thanks for the game.”

Aislinn picked up the velvet bag and with the intercom open to the entire house announced, “At table two, the next contestants will be,” she pulled out a tile, “Jeff,” she retrieved a second tile, “and JD.”  She chuckled, “Good luck guys.  Five minutes.”

====

Receiving a text from Ricky, Jeff and his family quickly headed next door to the Jackson-O'Neill home.  After very fast greetings, Jeff went to the table where JD was waiting.

“Good luck, JD.”

“I'm not very good.”

“Neither am I.  I'd rather play checkers.”

“Me, too.”

From the fish tank area, Brianna cajoled, “Let's have a checkers tournament one day.  I'm better at that, too.”

“Works for me,” Chenoa giggled while eating a pretzel.

“Are we late?” Jennifer asked as she opened the patio door with her husband, Peter, behind her.  Their young one was in Peter's arms.  Seeing the activity and the ongoing games, she sighed, “We're late.”

“Just a bit, but you weren't called, so it's okay,” Jack teased as he took hold of his first grandchild.

The Hamiltons joined the family, awaiting Jennifer's match.  Peter eventually found himself sitting near the fireplace, little one in his hold.  Next to him was Chely with her baby.

“Do you play chess?” Chely asked.

“No.”

“Oh,” the woman laughed.  “We'd make horrible backups then.”

“You don't play?” Peter inquired.

“A little, but not like the brood.  Well, Jeff really isn't very good, either.  He prefers checkers, and so do I.”

“So does Jen, but she loves this family stuff.  She'd never miss a game tourney if she could help it.”

“That's the same for Jeff.  You don't mind?”

“No.  You?”

“Nope, or I wouldn't have moved next door.  The Jackson-O'Neills are pretty special.  They let Jeff and me have our privacy.  That's why it works.”

Nodding, Peter agreed, “I know it's been hard on them, Jen's parents, sometimes, but they haven't interfered or anything, unless asked.  Yeah, I don't mind.  Jen's happy and we do have our own lives.”

====

Just when Jeff defeated JD in their match, Daniel called out, “Checkmate.”

“Crap,” Jonny groaned.  “I thought I was going to win this time.”

“Jonny, you almost did,” Daniel claimed.  “Listen, this was the longest game we've ever played.  You made some challenging moves.  I'm proud of you.”

Jonny's smile was huge.  He knew his daddy wouldn't lie to him, so he felt like he was right.  He was getting better at chess.

“Thanks, Daddy.”  Jonny stood up and again extended his hand.  “Good match.  Next time, I'm going to get you.”

“Maybe.  We'll see,” Daniel replied as he shook his son's hand.

Jonny took hold of the game bag and, with the intercom opened, announced, “Next players at table one:  Dad and ... Brianna, and over at table two:  David and ... Jen!  Good luck to all.  Five minutes.”

====

“Don't worry, Dad.  I'm ready to lose,” Brianna stated as she took her seat.

“There's always a first time.”

“I doubt it.  Besides, Con's supposed to call in a little while, so if you can make it quick ...”

Jack saw the coy, guiltless smile of his daughter and returned, “As you wish.”

At the next table, David smiled at his eldest sister.

“Keep the smiles to yourself, little brother.  I know you think I'm easy, and I am, but, geez, pretend a little, will ya?” Jennifer quipped.

“You get the first move,” David spoke, sounding very much like the spider speaking to the fly.

Jennifer sighed, “Here goes nothing.”

====

No surprise to anyone, Jack defeated Brianna in forty-five moves while David took care of Jennifer in just thirty moves.  The next competitors were Little Danny versus Ricky and Lulu versus Chenoa.

“Be gentle,” Ricky told his brother.

Meanwhile, Lulu and Chenoa were both laughing wildly.

“What's so funny?” Jonny inquired.

Laughing to the point of not being able to breathe, Lulu gasped, “We're probably the only match where no one knows who will win.”

“We're both equally bad players,” Chenoa elaborated.

No one could argue, so match play was ordered to begin.

====

Ricky never considered himself to be a good player, but he was proud of some of his moves.  He grinned and jumped for joy when Little Danny accomplished his checkmate.

“Ricky?” Jack called out at the boy's odd reaction.

“Dad, did you see?  It took Little Danny seventy-five moves to beat me.  *Seventy-five*!”

“You made it very hard, Ricky.  You made a lot of great moves,” Little Danny praised.  “I wasn't sure I was going to win.”

“I was, but seventy-five moves.  Wow, I did do good.”

====

At the same time, Lulu and Chenoa continued their match.  They were even players, so the game proceeded slowly.  It felt like it would never end.

“Hey, where are all the sandwiches?” Brianna questioned after her call with her boyfriend ended.

“Stress,” Jack explained, a sandwich in his hand as he stared over at the ongoing game play.

“I'll make some more,” Brianna replied, shaking her head.

“Thanks,” Jack responded.  “Nice move,” he told Lulu about her latest shifting of a game piece.

Two minutes later, both girls let out big sighs.  It wasn't planned, but their match wasn't making much headway for either of them.

“Dad, Daddy, can we just flip a coin, please?” Lulu asked.

“Yeah, I'm tired,” Chenoa admitted.  “Please.”

“Danny?” Jack queried.

With a nod, Daniel responded, “If that's what you want to do,” to the Curly Tops.

“We're slowing up the tournament, Daddy.  We don't care which one of us wins.  We just want to have fun,” Lulu stated.

Seeing the two girls were in agreement, Jack asked loudly so all the nearby kids would hear, “Any objections to a coin toss to determine the winner of the match between Lulu and Chenoa?”

Numerous nays were heard, so a coin was tossed and Lulu was declared the match winner.

“Thanks, guys,” Lulu said while hugging Chenoa.

David took the reins again and reminded, “In Round two, six players will face off  in three games.  Anyone disagree that Daddy is the top seed and would therefore get the by for the second round?”  With no objections heard, David continued, “Game table one's contestants will be,” he pulled out both tiles at the same time, “Jenny and Lulu.  At table two, Dad and Jeff.”

The laughter could not be stopped.

“Jenny, it's okay,” Lulu spoke as she took her seat.

“It's just I have a lot of things to do,” the Spitfire explained.

At the next table, Jeff just laughed.

“Don't make assumptions,” Jack advised.

“Dad, if I win, I'll know I'm asleep.”

The matches began and both ended at about the same time, though Jenny took care of her opponent faster than Jack did his.

The third match of this round was between David and Little Danny.  It was the opposite of Lulu's match with Chenoa.  Most thought Little Danny would win, but there was no guarantee.  David was a darn good player as well.  One slip up or mistake could determine the winner.

“Geez, I'm biting my nails,” Aislinn laughed.

“I have things to do, but my feet are frozen and I can't move,” Jenny lamented, unable to pull herself away.

“Checkmate!”

Running into the living room with chips in her mouth, Brianna mumbled, “Who was that?  Who won?”

“Little Danny” came the responses from several.

“Well done,” David said as he congratulated his sibling.

“Thanks.  That was a tough match.”

“Rematch?”

“For sure,” the Munchkin agreed.

====

After a fifteen-minute break, the last round began.  At table one, it was Jack versus Daniel and at table two, Little Danny and Jenny went head to head.

The matches went on for over ninety minutes, which was the average match time for these skilled opponents.

“Uh, checkmate,” a smiling Daniel announced.

“Cocky.”

“Not right now,” Daniel heard himself say and instantly regretted it, especially when he heard the chuckles of his older children.  ~Shibatwray!~

The focus went to game table two where Jenny glanced at her watch and gasped, “I don't have time for this.  I have things to do.”

Less than three minutes later, the family was surprised when they heard, “Checkmate” and it came from the Spitfire.

“Jenny, that was awesome,” Little Danny praised.

“I just have a lot of things to do.  I'm sorry.”

“Don't be.  You played the best game.”

“Ready, Daddy?” Jenny asked.

“No break?” the father returned.

“I have a lot of things to do.”

“Right.”  Daniel shrugged.  “Let's start the match.”

====

Everyone thought this match would go on even longer than Jenny's face off with Little Danny.  This meant the room was stunned when, in fifty-five moves, Jenny exclaimed, “Checkmate!  I won!  I beat Daddy!”

Jenny was ecstatic, Daniel's mouth was agape, Jack's mouth was frozen, unable to bite into his latest finger sandwich, and the kids were cheering and making all kinds of noise from their surprise.

“Sweetie, congratulations,” Daniel said.  “I'm ... impressed.  I mean, uh, wow, amazing.  That was, it was ... wow.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” Jenny replied as her younger father embraced her.  She calmed a bit and became softer in tone of speech.  “Daddy, I'm sorry.”  She looked at her siblings and sighed.  “I'm really sorry, but I have a lot of things to do.  I'm so sorry.”  Jenny backed away and said, “Please excuse me.  The tournament was lots of fun, but I have a lot of things to do for the network before tomorrow.”

The family began to scatter to other parts of the house.

“Whoa, wait up,” Jack called out.  “I heard rumblings of a desire for a checkers tourney sometime.  Are you guys wanting that?”

“Sure, Dad,” Brianna replied alongside similar affirmatives from those present.

“Okie dokie.  We'll select a date at an upcoming family meeting.  Dismissed.”

The kids laughed at their general dad as they exited the area.  Some of them followed Jenny to see if they could help her.

Still in the living room, Little Danny walked up to his astounded parents and stated, “I tried to tell you.”

“Yes, you did, many times,” Daniel agreed as he visualized many times when, over the years, his son told the couple that Jenny was the best chest player in the family.

“If she's been that good all along, why hasn't she been in the top before?” Jack questioned.

“She doesn't want to be,” Little Danny answered.  “Dad, Jenny's like you.  She's an observer.  With the Spitfires only a year younger than us Munchkins, she could watch and stay in the background.  She's happy with that.”

“Are you saying she didn't win on purpose?” the general asked.

“No, that's not it,” Little Danny responded.  “Jenny's never lost on purpose, not ever.  She always does her best, but I've always known she had a higher level.”  He shrugged.  “I don't know how to explain it, but today she had things to do, things important to her, so she accessed that higher level and, well, she creamed us, all of us.”

“Son, do you remember when you were a little boy?” Daniel asked, not waiting for a response.  “Dad and I were amazed with your intelligence, but it wasn't how smart you were then, it was how you went back and forth from sounding like a genius to acting like a typical five-year-old.  Do you recall any of that?”

“Not really, but if I understand what you're saying, I switched my speech maybe to match the situation.”

“Bingo,” Jack acknowledged.  “One minute you were quoting the encyclopedia word for word and the next you were speaking in childese, broken words and phrases that had to be pieced together.”

“Well, that's how Jenny is, I guess.  I was how I needed to be at various times, and she's done the same thing.  Maybe, like me, she doesn't even realize it.”

“I think he's right,” Daniel asserted to his lover.

“Anything we should do?”

Daniel looked to his namesake for his opinion, so Little Danny piped up, “I'd just let her be who she is.  She's doing great.”

“And so are you,” the archaeologist complimented.

Little Danny smiled in return and then left his parents alone in the living room.

“Okay then,” Jack stated.

“Okay,” Daniel replied.

“Sandwich?”

“Jack, how many of those have you eaten?”

“I lost count.”

“Typical,” Daniel teased as he headed for the kitchen.

“Hey, I'm a healthy senior.  I need my protein!” Jack argued as he followed after his soulmate.

====

The Jackson-O'Neill educational network opened up on Monday the 23rd of March and to no one's surprise who knew the brood, the online learning was in high gear by the middle of the week.  The kids were in touch with several teachers who assisted them when requested, but for the most part, it was just as Little Danny asserted.  It was kids learning by learning from other kids.

There was an unexpected fun side to the in-person sessions, too, and it began on the very first day.

“What's that?” Dick Porterhouse, age nine, asked as he pointed to something flying around the house.

“Oh,” Little Danny laughed.  “That's Ptolemy.  She's our hyacinth macaw.”

“What's that?” Dick repeated, though this latter query had more meaning behind it.

“Is that a bird?” Kelsey Byron questioned.

“She's beautiful,” Darcy Kenyon opined, her voice meek and mild, but her eyes wide and bright as she gazed through the window to watch the magnificent bird.

“Little Danny, you're on,” Jonny told his brother.  “Jenny, open up the network for a spontaneous bird lesson.” He turned to look at those in the backyard and announced, “Remember, six feet.  If you want, you can watch on your Chromebooks, or you can watch through our windows.”

“Jonny, I'll bring Ptolemy into the living room.  It'll be easier for them to see her through the patio.”

“Do you want to bring her outside””

With a negative sigh, Little Danny answered, “No.  Pam says we just don't know enough about if and how animals are reacting to the virus.  We shouldn't take a chance.”

“Got it.”

In short order, Little Danny provided an interesting lesson on macaws while also dabbing on this bird's unique name.  It was no surprise to anyone when, over time, the word spread and several kids reported that when times were back to normal, they'd be getting macaws of their own.

Another unexpected activity was triggered when Kevin Shanahan, son of Pete and Sam, said they should do the play for the kids.  The play was the small production Jack and the brood had done to make Kevin feel better in the early days of the self-isolation practices.  The play reached the autistic boy and helped him to get through difficult days.  He was still having a hard time, but he could watch the taped show anytime he wanted to since Jeff recorded it for him.  Now, Kevin wanted to be part of the show, perhaps playing the Pharaoh's son.

In extremely short order, the Jackson-O'Neills included a short writing class for several kids in which a new play was written within days.  Jeff helped out by teaching production elements to interested students, though he had to be creative in order to maintain the distance apart requirements.

Late Friday afternoon, though, the Egyptian play was performed.  Though they would have liked to let the students act the parts, the Jackson-O'Neills could not allow it.  Safety came first and there was no way to do the play justice without having some up-close action that would violate the distance rules.  For now, the performing of the show would stay in the family, which included Kevin Shanahan.  Regardless, the content was a big hit with many in the neighborhood who tuned in over the J-O network.

====

In the middle of that night, Daniel woke up alone.  He could sense his lover and walked downstairs where he found Jack staring out into the backyard.

“Is something wrong?”

“Everything's wrong, Danny.  The ridiculousness astounds me,” Jack responded.

“Care to talk about it?”

“It's totally out of our control,” the older man remarked.  He looked at Daniel and gave a tiny smile, one that showed he really was okay.  “Did you know the Academy had all but the senior class move off the grounds?”

“No, I don't think so.”

“They spread the seniors out and let them stay.  Two of them committed suicide recently.”

“Suicide?” Daniel replied in complete surprise.  “Why?”

“No one's talking,” Jack answered.  “But here's the kicker.  Danny, because those cadets killed themselves and because some complained about not being able to have a big grad party, the Brass gave in.  Do you believe that?”

Daniel was about to say something when his husband's venting became more volatile.

“Daniel, those are cadets graduating into military service.  They need discipline.  How are they supposed to be their best, do their best, and follow friggin' orders if they think a whine will get them what they want?  For crying out loud, they could still graduate, like all the other students in Colorado, without a big party.”

“Party?”

“They're easing up the physical distancing, too. I'm telling you, someone has lost their mind.  Whoever it was should be relegated to the Academy, as a cadet!”

“It's not smart.”

“That's a good description of the idiot who made the order,” Jack sighed.

“Hey, how about we go for a swim?”

“A swim?”

“You could beat up the water, pretend it's ... whoever it was.  Then we could snuggle and talk about ... snuggling.”

Jack chuckled, put his arm around Daniel, and replied, “Deal.”

====

At dinnertime on Saturday, the Jackson-O'Neills were enjoying chicken and a host of vegetables served by Brianna, Lulu, and JD, who was now in the regular rotation of cook preparation workers in the family.

Interrupting the chatter at the table, Jenny sighed, a big, deep, lament of her internal thoughts.  She was frowning and, with her elbows uncustomarily on the tabletop, put her hands to her cheeks.

**It's coming,** Jack communicated to his soulmate.

**Probably.**

**Aren't you glad?  Danny, we're going to have to intervene if she doesn't figure this out for herself.**

**I know.  Let her say it.**  Finally, the quiet was broken.  “Sweetie, is something wrong?” Daniel inquired with a fork full of beans in his right hand.

“We can't keep doing school.  I mean, having the kids come over.”

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look that was a combination of relief and sadness.  Things were worsening with the Coronavirus, which now had a shorter moniker, COVID-19.  Many states were not allowing groups of ten to gather anymore.  In fact, they'd been meaning to talk to Jenny about altering the family's educational network when the governor put the entire state on lockdown earlier in the week.  There were no longer supposed to be any gathering of groups and that included the ten children who came to class during the week.

“I'm sorry, Jenny,” Daniel expressed, sighing as he put his fork down and let the beans fall back into the stack on his plate.

Trying to be a cheerleader, Jack put forth, “Hey, Red, you still have the network and the kids are *loving* it.”

“I know, Dad.  It's just ... well, we've helped a lot of kids and, well, it's easier in person.”

“It's the right thing, Jenny,” Ricky assured, reaching over and patting her on the back.

Jenny nodded and said, “I'll send out an announcement to everyone over the network tonight.  It'll be okay.”

“It will, Sis,” Jonny affirmed before stuffing his mouth with a big piece of chicken breast.

**Close call,** Jack relayed.

**I'm glad we allowed her the time to make the decision on her own.**

**Odd no one brought it up when it was announced; they're all watching part of the news these days.**

**It's not odd, Jack.  They all heard about the stay-at-home order and what it meant officially.  They just didn't want to hurt Jenny.**

**It had to be her decision,** Jack conceded.

**Yes.**

“Kids, how about a movie tonight?  Let's have a party, popcorn and all.”

Everyone cheered, including Jenny, though the parents could see how disheartened she was feeling.

**I wish ...**

“Me, too, Angel.**

====

March was over and April was on its opening day.  It was the first time in his life that Jack didn't play some kind of April Fool's prank on someone.  Somehow, though, it didn't feel right.  He noticed that no one else in his family did, either, nor did anyone ever look or feel suspicious of an event.

~2020: the year without an April Fool's Day,~ Jack solemnly thought.

Currently, the general was listening to opera while seated in his favorite chair in the living room.  He noticed Ricky loitering nearby and wondered if his son's musical interest now included opera.

~Nah.  Not his thing,~ Jack noted.  ~Something, though.  He wants something.~

The father decided not to say anything.  He'd let his son come to him when the boy was ready.

Time passed, one aria replacing another, until finally, Ricky sighed and walked to the front of the chair.  His eyes made full-on contact with Jack's.

Just as the general was about to make a comment, the pre-teen surprised him by sitting down on his lap and putting his arms around him.

“Hey, Sport.  Everything okay?”

“A kid can hug his dad if he wants to, can't he?”

“Absolutely.”

“Even now?”

More somberly, Jack agreed, “Even now.”

“Dad, did you see that story on TV about the grandmother who died in the nursing home?”

Jack wished he could say 'no' to the question.  He also wished it had been the only story on the news like that. To be honest, he wasn't sure which story his son was referring to in his query.

“I've seen a couple.”

“This one had a boy ... um, I guess, he was a man really, like Jeff's age, and he was sad and crying because his grandmother died, and she was alone.  They wouldn't let him say goodbye to her or anything.”

“This virus has us all uncertain.”

“Ðad, I think we have to hug sometimes, no matter what.”

“I'm with you there, Ricky.”

“... even if I'm not a little boy anymore?  I mean, a boy is never too old to hug his dad, right?”

“Never,” Jack eked out emotionally.

“Good.”

As quickly as Ricky had flung himself onto his father, he was now standing and walking away; that is, until Daniel entered the room.

“Hi, Ricky,” the archaeologist greeted.

“Hi, Daddy,” Ricky returned.  “I have chores to do.”

“Okay.”

Ricky took two steps and then turned, surprising Daniel when he enveloped him in a big hug.

“Are you okay?”

“A boy is never too old to hug his dad or his daddy.  Dad says so.”

“Oh, well, uh, okay.  I say so, too.”

“Good.  I love you, Daddy.”

As the youngster headed up the stairs, Daniel called out, “I love you, too.”  He turned to look at his soulmate, who was in the process of standing.  “What was that?”

“You heard him.”

“Jack,” Daniel chastised.  “You know what I mean.”

“I do,” Jack conceded.  “I'm not really sure.  It's the distance thing, I think.  He misses the physical closeness, the pats on the back and the messing around with the football, or whatever.”

“We have to make safe choices.”

“He knows that, Angel.  He just doesn't want anything to change and, like it or not, this world is changing.”

“You're right.  Jack, in this family, hugs are always allowed.”

“You'd better believe it,” Jack replied, smiling as he brought his Love in for a warm and tender hug.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too, so much.”

====

That evening, the children were anxious for no apparent reason other than having their routines knocked off kilter.

“I need something to do,” Chenoa admitted.

“Me, too,” Aislinn agreed as she began a brisk walk to the front door.  She opened it and stepped outside.  Going further and looking around, she waved at some others she saw up and down the block, all looking a bit bored in her opinion.  With a spark to her heart, Aislinn ran back inside and ordered, “Little Danny, get your guitar.  Jonny, get the bodhran.  Brood, just ... get anything musical you can bring outside.  Dad, Daddy, come on!”

A few minutes later, the family was on their front lawn, almost everyone with some type of instrument in their hands.

“Okay, Ash.  Why are we out here like this?” Jack inquired.

“Because we're going to sing and play.”

“Of course,” Jack responded.  “Princess, what's going on in that pretty little head of yours?”

“Dad, look around.  Everyone is bored.  They need people.  *We* need people, to wave to and shout at and, and ...”

“... to sing with,” Daniel offered with understanding.

“Yes, like this.”

Aislinn walked to the sidewalk, smiled at the neighbors who were outside, and then began to sing a song she'd just heard for the first time recently.  It was all about rising up and being unafraid.  When she finished, tears flowing down her cheeks, the girl noticed her outdoor audience had grown greatly.  The applause was huge and came from beyond her block.

“Come on, Everybody.  Let's sing!” Aislinn encouraged at the top of her voice.

For the next half hour, the folks of the neighborhood sang everything from a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to the patriotic “America the Beautiful.”  They even sang “Happy Birthday” to a little girl down the street.

“Ash, that was a brilliant idea,” Jonny praised as the kids headed inside.  “Let's do it again.”

“Dad, Daddy?” the girl asked eagerly.

“Works for me,” Jack responded.

“Me, too.”

“Kids, let's think of some songs most people know,” Aislinn suggested.

The parents, arm in arm, watched as the brood took off to some part of the house to discuss what was apparently going to become a regular musical activity, at least for a while.

Indeed, the parents were right, and they became even happier when other adults and children joined in.  What made that even more exciting was when they could not even see those making musical sounds.

The next evening when after a song ended, a banjo was heard.  The pace was slow, the song unrecognizable.  Then it stopped for what seemed liked minutes, though it was but a few seconds.  The neighborhood was entranced.  Then, suddenly, the banjo took off in a tune that was familiar to all.  People began to sing and sway to the sound of the banjo.  “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the country tune that had everyone unified.

“When the heck did he learn how to play the banjo?” Jack asked his family as he looked upon the neighbor with an apparently hidden talent.

“He's always played the banjo, Dad,” David answered about John Miller, husband to Mitzi and father of their three children.

“Who knew!” an impressed Jack remarked, adding his applauding hands to the others when the song was concluded.

John Miller returned the wave of his neighbors before shyly returning inside his home.

“Danny, we need to get to know John better.”

“Dinner, when things are better,” Daniel suggested.

“I had no friggin' idea the man had a musical bone in his body.  Geez.”  Jack glanced at David and teased, “Why didn't you say something?”

David simply shrugged, thinking it was funny.  His best friend was the Millers' son, Calvin.  To David, the banjo playing was not unique.  After all, he'd been at the home many times over the years when Mister Miller played the banjo.

~And the harmonica.  I wonder if Dad knows about that?~

====

Breakfast was over and JD was given permission to go out front and talk with a couple of friends, lawn-to-lawn, of course.  Jack kept an eye out as he cleaned the front windows.

Barely ten minutes passed when JD ran swiftly inside the house and exclaimed, “Girls!  Sisters!  Where are you?”

“JD, slow down,” Jack ordered, stopping his cleaning temporarily, his eyes an indication that he didn't like the speed at which his young son was running around the house.

“But...”

“JD, use the intercom, or walk slowly.”

With a sigh, the boy walked to the intercom, glared at his dad, and spoke, “Female brood, no, anyone.  We need teddy bears.  Come see me, please.  And don't run.  Dad has general eyes.”

“I'm glad you noticed.”

It wasn't long before the available kids joined their brother in the living room.  All were curious about the teddy bear cry.

JD explained what he'd heard from a friend of his while he was outside in the front yard.  The five-year-old boy told JD that he and his mom were on a teddy bear hunt when they went for walks.  He had no clue who started it or why, but kids were on the lookout for all kinds of teddy bears displayed in front windows while out.  It was fun and they were making it a game to see who could find the most teddy bears.

“I've got one,” Aislinn said as she hurried to her room.

Before long, the Jackson-O'Neills had an assortment of teddy bears placed in windows all along the front of their house.

--

“The little kids must love this,” Brianna remarked to Jennifer, who came over to see the teddy bear alignment for herself before doing some necessary grocery shopping.

“I believe it.”

====

When the noon news aired, some of the children were watching television with their parents in order to get an update on the COVID-19 situation.  It was only getting worse.  Then they heard about the governor's latest order for Coloradans.  Everyone was now required to wear a face mask or some type of face covering when going outside.

“Finally ahead of the curve,” Jack commented.

“Huh?” Jonny responded.

“We should have been wearing masks for weeks,” the father opined.

“Let's have a mask party,” Chenoa suggested.

“What's that?” Jenny asked.

Excitedly, Chenoa jumped up, hurried to the intercom, and suggested, “Brood, we have to wear masks outside now and the governor wants them to be cool.  I do, too, so let's have a mask party.  Everyone pick out some old tee shirts or scarves or anything and we can masks that are fun.  Dad and Daddy will order pizza and we'll have a party while making our masks.  Noa out.”

“Pizza?” Jack queried.

“You love pizza, Dad, and so do we.  It's perfect for our party,” the Curly Top insisted.

“Noa, it's a great idea,” Jonny seconded.  “Can we?” the teen asked the parents.

“We can,” Daniel replied.

“We will,” Jack added.  “One mask party begins at dinnertime.  Great idea, Noa.”

“Thanks,” the young dancer acknowledged with a bright smile.

====

The mask party was going on strong with in-laws and grandchildren present when Ricky returned from a trip to his room, a colorful gift bag in his hand.

“Bri?”

“Yeah?”

“I bought this already for your birthday, but I thought you might like it now.  It's okay if you don't, though.”

Taking hold of the bag, the tomboy assured, “Ricky, I'm sure I'll love it, whatever it is, but you don't have to give it to me now.”

Brianna's birthday was over a month away, so it seemed early for a present.

“Yes, I do.  You'll see,” Ricky told the girl and then motioned at the bag for her to open it.

“Oh, Ricky, it's awesome,” Bríanna touted excitedly.  “I do love it!”

“I know it's a baby blanket, but it has dolphins on it, and I thought you might ...”

“Ricky, it'll make a great mask; great *masks* actually.  Thank you, little brother.”

Ricky beamed.  He'd worried that the cloth blanket intended for a baby might be a silly gift for his big sister, but the dolphin images really appealed to him.  He felt good inside that Brianna loved his gift and would be something positive for her.

Multiple masks were made for each member of the family and a special container selected and put into place for discarding of masks upon re-entry into the home.  All masks would be worn just once and then washed daily, a chore that would be rotated among the entire family.

“These are so cool,” Jennifer praised, smiling at her birth sister with pride.  “Way to go, Noa!”

====

Several days passed, the news about the virus worsening even as Americans were praised for following the guidelines.  A great many were staying in their homes except for essential outings, which was flattening the curve of the disease.  Colorado extended its stay-at-home order through April 26th, so nothing was going to change much in the near future.

Jack was still grumbling about the lack of response of the federal government, while Daniel simply strove to keep his lover and family happy during troubled times.  He actually felt the same way Jack did, but there was nothing they could do to change it, so Daniel opted to focus on what they could control, their thoughts and actions.

The brood continued with their activities, rarely complaining about the changes in their lives.  The educational network was going well, the almost nightly musical events on the lawn were joyful, and the Teddy Bear hunts continued with young kids and old ones loving their bear sightings.

Class was over for the day, giving Jenny time to speak with her sister about something that was bothering her.

“Ash, do you know what's wrong with Darcy?” Jenny asked.

“No, but she's sure being quiet this week.”

“I wish she had more friends.”

“Me, too.  I don't get it, Jenny.  She's a sweet girl.  Why is she so shy?”

Jenny shrugged and continued on with her day, while Aislinn sat down on her bed and tried to puzzle through the mystery of Darcy Kenyon.

Darcy Kenyon was a bit young to be good friends with Aislinn and Jenny, but the six-year-old newcomer to Colorado Springs simply wasn't making friends.  The Jackson-O'Neill girls decided to take Darcy under their wings and help her transition to their neighborhood.

All that was really known about Darcy was that she loved pretty things, like butterflies, colorful art, and birds.  Thus, it didn't surprise them that Darcy was so enamored with Ptolemy.  The blue-eyed blonde came to town with her father, Niles Kenyon.  He appeared to be a hardworking handyman who did everything from plumbing and landscaping to small construction jobs and even auto repairs.

No one knew where Darcy's mother was.  When Jenny asked Darcy about her mom once, the little girl broke out into tears and ran into her bedroom.  Jenny never asked her again.

Aislinn sighed, wishing she knew more.  She was worried about her young friend and truly wanted to help her.

====

The next day, Aislinn went to the Kenyon home.  From several feet away, Mister Kenyon greeted her politely and let her go inside while he continued to install an alarm system.

“Darcy ...”

“Hello.”

Aislinn saw the teary face and went to her friend, putting her arm around her.

“Darcy, what's wrong?  Please tell me.”  Aislinn gasped internally.  ~Oops, this is definitely not six feet.  I'm sorry, but I can't let you be so unhappy all alone.~

After a lot of sniffles, Darcy finally eked out, “She looks like Ruxxie.”

“Ruxxie?  Who looks like Ruxxie?”

Darcy slowly stood up and walked a few feet away.  She was sobbing and rubbing her eyes in a futile attempt to stop her tears.

“Daddy took me on teddy bear hunt.”

“I bet that was fun.”

“He didn't see her.  I made sure he didn't.”

“Why?” the confused Aislinn questioned.  ~Okay, what do I know?  She's upset.  It began earlier this week, and it has to do with a teddy bear ... I think.~

Aislinn joined the little girl, taking Darcy into her arms.  She wanted to make the child feel safe and not alone.

“Darcy, who is Ruxxie?”

Again, the girl pulled away, but this time, still sniffling, she went to the nightstand by her bed and opened a drawer.  Slowly, she pulled out a book.

~The Bible?~

Darcy opened it and pulled out a picture, handing it to Aislinn.

“Who is this?” Aislinn asked about a little girl holding a teddy bear.

“That's my mother with Ruxxie.  See, Mommy's mom got a present on her birthday once.  It was called Teddy Ruxpin.”

“I've heard of those bears.  They were really popular once.”

Nodding, Darcy elaborated, “When Mommy was real little, Grandma told her that Ruxxie would be hers when she was old enough to take care of her.  When Mommy was five, Grandma gave it to her.  When I was born, Mommy said the, she said, she ...”

“Darcy, it's okay,” Aislinn assured, holding the sobbing girl again, though it wasn't helping that now she, too, was crying.

“Ruxxie was going to be mine when I was five.  Mommy took real good care of her, and I promised I would, too, but ...”

“What happened, Darcy?”

“The night before my birthday, Mommy wasn't feeling well.  Daddy went out to get her some ice cream, her favorite kind.  Then there was a fire.”  In a big gasp and huge release of tears, Darcy let out, “Mommy died and so did Ruxxie.”

“Ruxxie died?”

“She burned all up, like Mommy.  Daddy tried and tried to get her out, but he couldn't.  He got burned, too.  Ashhhhh.”

“Oh, Darcy, I'm so sorry.  It's okay.  My mommy died, too, when I was a baby.  I'm so sorry.”

“I didn't want Daddy to see the Ruxxie in the window.  She's just like Mommy's.  I would have taken such good care of her.  Ash, I miss Mommy so much.”

====

The next day, with the newly found freedom awarded the brood by their parents, Aislinn left the house to go on her own teddy bear hunt.  She was determined to give Darcy some peace and she had figured out one way to accomplish her goal.  There were alternatives, if necessary, but she was hoping for a special outcome.

Walking block by block, the teenager finally found a Teddy Ruxpin in a window.  It was a well taken care of, cute bear.  She didn't know the home offhand, but hoped it was someone who was part of the J-O educational network.

Sure enough, upon knocking on the front door, Aislinn recognized Susan Newsome, a teenager participating in the unofficial school sessions held by the Jackson-O'Neill family.

“Susan, is that your Teddy Ruxpin in the window?”

“It's my mother's,” Susan responded.  “She loves that thing.  I'm not really into stuffed animals.”

“Is your mother home?  I need to speak with her.  It's pretty important.”

“Aislinn, is that you?” a woman asked, walking to stand behind her daughter.  “I recognize you from classes.”

“Yes, Ma'am.  Do you have a moment?”

“From six feet away,” the woman mused.

“Mrs. Newsome, is that an original Teddy Ruxpin bear?”

“It sure is.  My parents gave it to me for Christmas one year.  You have no idea what they went through to get it.”

“You must love that bear a lot,” Aislinn replied somberly.

“I do, but even more, I love knowing what my parents did to get Teddy for me.  I've read stories about it.  Everyone wanted a Teddy Ruxpin, but it was in short supply.”

“I've read that, too.”

The woman detected some sadness in the teenager's voice.

“Aislinn ...”

“You can call me Ash.”

“Ash, why are you so interested in my Teddy Ruxpin?”

“Well, do you know Darcy Kenyon?”

“No ... oh, let's see, is she Niles' daughter?  He fixed a plumbing problem I had a while ago.”

“Yes.”  Gaining her strength, Aislinn told Susan's mother all she knew about the death of Darcy's mom and the importance of Teddy Ruxpin.  “I have no right to ask, Mrs. Newsome, and I know I could buy a modern version of the bear, but I just thought, well, uh, I thought ...”

Mrs. Newsome wished physical distancing rules were a thing of the past.  In front of her was a caring teen, on a mission to make a little girl's life a bit more tolerable.  She wanted to open her door and embrace Aislinn, but she knew that wouldn't be a wise thing to do at this instant.

“I'd love to hug you,” the woman admitted.

“My brother is making an appointment with the woman who runs a nursing home for a hug.  We could do that.”

“We can and we will.”  Emotionally, the mother of one said, “Dear, Teddy is yours to give to Darcy.  I always wished Susan would appreciate him, but even as a baby, she didn't take to stuffed anythings.  Tell Darcy I'd be proud to have her care for Teddy.”  As Aislinn nodded, Nora Newsome went inside her house and retrieved the bear.  She gave her Teddy a last hug and whispered, “This little girl named Darcy needs you.  Love her as I've loved you.”

“Your mom is so nice,” Aislinn told Susan as she waited.

“It's just a bear,” Susan replied with a shrug of indifference.

“She's still doing a very nice thing, though.”

“That's my mom,” the girl said with a smile and genuine emotion.

The mother returned to Aislinn, smiled, and held out Teddy in her hands while saying, “I have a lot of Teddy's accessories.  I'll gather them up and make arrangements with her father to get them to her.”

“Thank you so much,” Aislinn said, still sniffling and feeling very grateful.

“It's been a pleasure to meet you, Ash.  Thank you for being such a beautiful human being.”

Not knowing what to say in return, the Munchkin smiled and slowly backed away  until she reached the sidewalk.  She paused, waved, and whispered a “goodbye” before heading home.

====

“Daddy, I need to ask you something,” Aislinn stated upon returning home and finding her father sitting outside on the porch.

“Okay.”

“This is Teddy Ruxpin,” Aislinn told her daddy.  “Darcy Kenyon's mother is dead.”

Daniel reached out and took his daughter's hand.  He sensed there was a story to be told.

“Sweetie, take your time.  I'm here.”

Aislinn nodded, worked to regain control over her emotions, and finally told her daddy what she'd learned about Darcy and her talk with Nora Newsome.

“Daddy, I need to ask the brood, too, but I was wondering, well, I mean, Mommy's messages to us, there's one, I mean, it always makes me feel safe and like she's here, you know?”

“Yes, I know,” Daniel responded, gently caressing the sniffling teen's hand as she fought to get out her request.

“Would Mommy mind if I shared her, just a piece of her, with Darcy?  She doesn't have anyone else, Daddy.”

This time, Daniel rose and brought his daughter, bear and all, into his arms as he promised, “Mommy would be proud and happy to help Darcy.  You know that already.”

“So it's okay, to copy a piece of that message?”

“Follow your heart, Sweetie.  That was always Mommy's message.”

Aislinn nodded and said, “I have to talk to the brood now.  She's their Mommy, too.”

“I'm proud of you, Ash.  Kayla,” Daniel sighed pleasantly, “she's proud of you, too.  I'm positive about that.”

“Thanks, Daddy.”  As she walked inside the house, Aislinn saw her dad approaching.  She looked back and requested, “Daddy, will you tell Dad and make sure he's okay with it, too?  I don't think I can talk with the brood and Dad, too.”

“I'll talk to Dad.”

“Thanks.”

“Why is she crying?” Jack questioned, full of concern for his fleeing daughter.

“Jack.”

“Daniel.”

“Ash is going to change the world someday.  I'm not sure how, or where, or when, or even why, but our daughter is going to do something very special.”

“Okay, I'll buy that, but why is she crying?”

“Because she just made the world a better place for Darcy Kenyon.”

“Danny ...”

“Join me on the porch step, Babe, and I'll fill you on a very special something Ash did today.”

====

The next day, Aislinn took Teddy Ruxpin and presented the bear to Darcy.  The little girl burst into happier tears than before as she embraced her new Ruxxie.  She took Ruxxie to her father, who shed tears of his own before holding his daughter close to him.  He looked at Aislinn and whispered a heartfelt “thank you” as well.

Aislinn spoke with Mister Kenyon privately to explain about the DVD she was giving Darcy.  She wanted his permission before taking such a bold step with the young girl.

“I just thought it might help her.  My brothers and sisters agreed that Mommy wouldn't mind.  She'd never want to replace your wife, Sir.  I just know that her words have helped me.  Would it be okay if my mom tried to help your daughter, too?”

The man took hold of the object and put it in a player.  He watched only a part of it.

“Ash, you're a wonderful girl.  This is ... it's welcome.  Thank you.”

Aislinn learned more of the Kenyon story before leaving and it made her feel even more blessed for her own home life.  Mostly, though, she hoped that Darcy could move forward now and leave that which was unhappy in her past behind her.

====

Days passed with the family keeping busy at home.  Easter arrived on schedule, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions.  The day was highlighted by a modified Easter Egg hunt and the usual big feast.  For some of the brood, though, something else began to brew that Sunday.

Aislinn was putting the dinner dishes into the dishwasher.  When she looked up, she noticed her parents, standing and talking.  She couldn't help but smile within her soul when she saw her dad gently caress her daddy's cheek.  Their hands were touching and then they kissed.  The loving scene led her to do a mental calendar check.

“Bri, do you know how long it's been since Dad and Daddy had a date night?”

Still putting away leftovers, Brianna thought for a moment and answered, “Gee, I'm not sure, Ash.  It's been a while.”

“We've all been home since early March and I know they didn't go anywhere for a few weeks before that.”

“Who didn't go anywhere?” Jenny asked as she entered the hospitality room.  “Need any help?”

“We have it covered,” Brianna answered.  “And Dad and Daddy.  Do you remember their last date?”

“Nope.”  Jenny frowned as she realized the passage of time that had gone by since a date night had taken place.  She knew date nights were very important to her parents.  “That's not good.”

“We're feeling sorry for ourselves,” Aislinn sighed.  “We need to think about Dad and Daddy for awhile.”

“They can't go anywhere,” Jenny pointed out disappointingly.

“Yes, they can,” Brianna refuted with a grin.  “Get everyone together, quietly, before bedtime.  I have a plan.”

====

On Thursday evening, Jack was checking out the TV guide and found something he thought would be fun for all.

“Danny, Kids, Zoo, get in here,” the general called out from the rec room where the large screen television was lowered for easy viewing.

“What do you want, Dad?” Ricky asked, being the first person to enter the area.

“We're going to have a sing-a-long.”

“What?” David asked with an amused smile as he trailed behind the Munchkins walking into room.

“Disney's having a special.  I thought we'd check it out, put aside the worries of the day, and have a heck of a lot of fun.  How about it?”

“Popcorn,” Jenny suggested.

“Soda, too,” Little Danny requested.

“Bri's brownies,” JD said hopefully, licking his lips and rubbing his abdomen in expectation.

“It starts in fifteen minutes, so get settled,” Jack urged.

Fairly quickly, the family actually switched to their nighttime attire, be it pajamas, nightgowns, or sweats.  A variety of goods from the aforementioned popcorn to potato chips and candies were plated or bowled and available for all.  The kids took their places on the sofa next to their parents or on the floor pillows or ottomans.  Much of the zoo sauntered in as well.  By showtime, the Jackson-O'Neills were ready to sing and party.

“He's good,” Jenny commented about Derek Hough who led off the entertainment by dancing and singing to “Be My Guest.”

As the family sang along, Jack suddenly sprang up and reached out for Chenoa's hand.

“Come on, Noa.  Dance with your old man.”

Chenoa grinned and hopped up to dance a robust series of moves with her dad.  They sang loudly and moved in exuberance.  Jack was being as silly as possible and the tap dancer simply followed his lead until both collapsed down onto the sofa at the song's end.

“That was fun, Dad,” a still-laughing Chenoa gasped.

“Thank you for the dance,” Jack spoke before leaning over to give the girl a kiss.

The next song was performed by Josh Groban, a favorite of the Jackson-O'Neills.  They sang along as the lyrics appeared on the screen.

“I heard a story from a long time ago that his dog had his own seat on his travel bus,” Little Danny mentioned part way through the song.

“I heard that, too,” Brianna replied.  “Get this.  The dog had his own television set, tuned to Animal Planet.”

“That's why we like him,” Ricky teased.

“His good voice helps,” Lulu put forth.

“And his good looks,” Aislinn giggled.

“In her room until she's thirty,” Jack mumbled to his husband.

“I heard that,” the pretty teenager responded.

“Good,” Jack snapped and then smiled.

The chatter transitioned into vocals as the lyrics to “You've Got a Friend” appeared on the screen.  In addition, the children found themselves seeking out their pets, caressing, huddling, and otherwise giving them love as they sang.

As the show continued, the family found themselves silenced, simply listening to the song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”  It reached down into their souls and touched upon the reality of the day.  No one talked about it.  They let their emotions flow through them and then readied for whatever was next.

Snacks were enjoyed, jokes told, and songs sung to as the night moved forward.

When Donny Osmond sang a song with some kids, Aislinn commented, “I know that song.”

“You know all the songs,” Jonny teased.  “I know it, too.”

“Then what is it?” the youngest Munchkin challenged.

“It's called 'I'll Make a Man Out of You' and it's from 'Mulan',” Jonny answered proudly.

“I'm impressed,” Aislinn praised.

“You made us watch it all the time when we were little,” Jonny groaned.

“It's a good movie.”

“I didn't say it wasn't, just that we had to watch it over and over and over and over ...”

“Jonny, you liked it, too.”

“There's that,” the boy admitted, sounding very much like his dad.

“Are they his kids?” JD asked no one in particular while being totally oblivious to his siblings' conversation.

“Na-huh,” Aislinn responded.  “He has full-grown sons.”

“They're calling him grandpa,” Brianna noted with a scrunched face.  “He doesn't seem that old.”

The parents exchanged a look and shared question about just how old their children thought they were.  Donny Osmond was once a teen idol, but that was a long time ago.

“Sing,” Jack ordered dryly, shaking his head to fend off any idea of advanced age.

Everyone complied.  When Jordan Fisher led the sing-a-long to “Under the Sea,” the entire family stood up and danced along, just like some kids were doing on the screen.  They laughed, moved around in crazy moves, and laughed some more.  When the performance ended, they were disappointed; that is until Tori Kelly began to sing “Colors of the Wind.”

The brood settled down into their seats again and let their bodies sway as they sang along with great seriousness to the song.

“This was a great idea, Babe,” Daniel praised.  “We needed this.”

“I'll bet the ratings are sky high,” Jack returned.  “They should be.”

Thomas Rhett had a couple of kids with him as he performed, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”.  Once again, the family let their voices join the singer's.  Then there was an unexpected interruption.

“Ricky!” Jenny exclaimed.

“Welcome to the club,” Jonny teased.

“What happened to my voice?” the Spitfire whined.

“It's only temporary,” Daniel promised as he leaned forward to pat his son's back. “Your older brothers have all gone through it.”

“I know,” the boy sighed, recalling the cracking, squeaking, and squealing that occurred during those times.

“Do you recall what it means; the cause?” Daniel asked the pre-teen.

“My larynx is growing and so are my vocal cords and stuff,” Ricky answered.

“Not stuff,” Daniel returned.

“Ricky, your vocal cords lengthen and thicken.  That's what Daddy means,” Little Danny communicated.

“Exactly,” Daniel confirmed.

“I know,” Ricky sighed.  “I hope it doesn't take long.”

“Son, your brothers got through it in a few months each.  You'll probably be the same,” Jack opined.

“I hope so,” came the reply and another sigh from the youngster impacted by the change.

“You're growing up, Ricky.  You should be happy about that,” Jenny said in an encouraging way.

“Ricky, puberty can be very difficult,” Daniel began.  “In fact, I believe it's one of the most difficult times we go through in life, for both boys and girls.  I also believe we're all lucky here because we have the support and understanding of one another.  So, when it feels tough or you get embarrassed in front of others, which you really shouldn't ever have to be, you can turn to us: talk, vent, or get distracted.  This, too, shall pass, but we're here when you need us.”

“It's a normal part of life, Son,” Jack added.

“Okay.”

The family's attention returned to the show which came to a close as Michael Buble and Demi Lovato sang, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”  Without speaking, the family stretched out to hold hands once again.  Everyone sang with earnest.  Their hearts were full of thankfulness for this night and the time they shared.

The two-hour event ended, but Jack and Daniel allowed the children to remain and enjoy more snacks and lighthearted conversation, making it a real family night and much more enjoyable than many nights had been since the Coronavirus hit the country.

**How'd you know this would be such a success?** Daniel asked his lover while the party continued.

**It's like you always say, Danny.  I'm a kid at heart.**

Daniel chuckled, the sound fitting in with the other festive noises so the kids thought nothing of it.  Regardless, thanks to Disney, this Thursday evening was very special to the Jackson-O'Neill family.

====

Time flew by with the brood occupied with various projects, including Brianna's plans for their parents as well as ideas suggested by others outside the family.

Young Darcy was socializing more now and making friends her own age.  Oftentimes, her Ruxxie was at her side or nearby to watch over her.  One day, she heard about something from her dad, who saw an interesting story on social media.

“Darc, look at this,” the father called out with a grin.  “We could do that.  How about I track down some chalk?”

“That would be so fun, Daddy.  I could draw Ruxxie on our driveway.”

Later on, Darcy told her new friends about the idea of chalk art on their driveways and sidewalks.  The concept was a big hit in the neighborhood and almost every day new chalk art was visible.  It made outdoor jogs, dog walks, and bike rides more enjoyable.

====

It was Friday, Jack and Daniel's normal date night.  It was put in place years ago after the Munchkins were born and it felt like there was never any time for the soulmates to be alone.  While things prohibited the event from happening now and then, for the most part, Jack and Daniel kept to their nights out religiously.  Though the children didn't seem to think about it until Easter, the lovers did frequently.  They tried to create moments for themselves while sheltering in place with a household of kids and pets.  It wasn't easy, but they had their moments, just not full date nights.

“This will take precise timing,” Brianna reminded her siblings.  “It only takes one mess up to ruin the surprise.”

“It's gonna be hard,” Ricky opined.

“Very hard,” Aislinn agreed.  “But we can do it.  We're the brood and Dad and Daddy deserve this.”

“David, Jonny, are you ready?” the tomboy asked.

David held up some papers and a book and replied, “All set.”

“Me, too,” Jonny added while also holding a book.

“Go to it and remember, David, get Daddy in his den and, Jonny, keep Dad in the study.  Don't let them leave.”  Brianna turned to face two of the other children.  “Ricky, you're assigned to the den.  Noa, you have the study.  Eavesdrop and if you get any hint Dad or Daddy is walking out, get backup in a hurry.”

~I hope I don't fall asleep,~ a weary Chenoa thought as she suppressed a yawn.

“Go on,” Brianna urged.  “Ash, is Jen ready?”

Aislinn checked her smartphone and answered, “She's waiting for my text and will meet us at the back gate.”

“Good.  How about Jeff?  He's going to need as much time as we can give him.”

“He's waiting for my call,” Lulu responded.  “We're ready to do whatever he needs us to do,” she added, referring to the brood assigned to scenic duty.

With a smile, Brianna spoke, “We have a lot to do.  Let's go.”

====

At the moment, both parents were going over expenses in Jack's study when David entered the room.

“Sorry.”  To himself, David thought, ~But not really.~

“What's up?” Jack inquired.

“Um, Daddy, I'm having some problems with this paper I'm working on.  I could really use your help.”

“We can finish this later?” Daniel asked his husband, who nodded.  “Where to?”

“How about the den?  We can have privacy there.”

“Sure,” Daniel replied, standing and walking out with his son.

Only seconds passed when Jonny walked in and asked, “Can I close the door?  I don't want anyone to hear me.”

“Go ahead,” the father responded.

“I have some questions about this,” Jonny announced, holding up his ROTC manual.

“We need the door closed for this?”

“Dad, I'm the little general.  I'm supposed to understand all of this.  It would be embarrassing if the brood knew I didn't.”

“Oooookay.  What has you stumped?” Jack asked as he leaned back in his chair.  ~He's up to something.  I don't know what, but this old man is being played.  Okie dokie, I'll play along, for now.~

====

“Jonny, it's simple,” Jack began his latest answer.  “But first, I want a banana.”

“A banana?  It'll ruin dinner.  Come on, Dad, answer my question.”

~Yep, something is going on for sure.  I wonder how Danny's doing.~

--

In the den, Daniel was talking a mile a minute as he conversed with David about ancient cultures.

~I think I got the easy assignment,~ David mused as he listened and made notes from time to time.  ~Maybe I should really write a paper about this.~

====

Three hours passed.  Multiple attempts were made by both parents to pause the talks for refreshments or other reasons.  Every attempt was thwarted by the boys, leaving the couple extremely suspicious.  Neither knew the reason for the distraction, but in truth, they didn't care.  Daniel was enjoying his time with David discussing a subject both loved and Jack was having a good time seeing how long Jonny could pull off his dumb game about the ROTC manual, something the father knew the boy was intimately acquainted with and had been for a while.

That said, Jack was hungry and tired of sitting.  He stood up, causing Jonny to stand as well and actually move to block Jack from moving.

“You can't, Dad.”

“Why not?”

“I need help.”

“Later.”

Outside the door, Chenoa yawned, but she perked up when hearing her dad threatening to leave.  With haste, she went to the hospitality room.

“Code Red.  Dad's coming,” Chenoa warned.

“It's okay, Noa.  We're ready,” Aislinn replied.

“Get Daddy,” Brianna requested.

====

“Here we go,” Brianna said, taking a deep breath.

“How do I look?” Aislinn questioned as she looked down at her black dress and white chevron apron.

“Like a waitress,” the tomboy responded with a smile.  “And me?”

Aislinn reached up to adjust her sister's hat, took one more full body look, and replied, “Like a professional cook.”

~I just hope my food doesn't send them to the hospital.~  Brianna groaned and let out a reluctant laugh, thinking she looked silly in the all white attire with big top hat.  “Come on.”

The two females went to the living room where their parents were being held at bay by David, Jonny, Chenoa, and Ricky.

“Go,” Brianna ordered her four siblings.

“Go?” Jack echoed with skepticism.

“Bye!” came a chorus of salutations as the four left the house.

“Bye?” Daniel repeated as a question and not a word of departure.

“Follow us, please,” Aislinn told the couple.  She led the way to the recreation room and then stopped and turned to face her followers.  She smiled and spoke in French, “Welcome to Chez Amour.  I am Aislinn and I'll be your server today.  This is your cook, Chef Bri.”

The lovers were stunned.  As they looked around, the rec room was totally transformed to resemble a Parisian restaurant.  There was even French music playing in the background.  The stage on which the family often performed was the center of the restaurant with backdrops and props all in keeping with the theme.

Speaking only in French, Aislinn requested, “Please take your seats.”  As her parents did as instructed, she retrieved menus that were prepared by Jenny.  She handed one to each of her parents.  “This is the menu.  Your choices are ...” she laughed, “only what's on the menu.”

Brianna spoke in English, “Before Ash brings out the appetizer, we need to explain a few things.  Recently, Ash realized that you guys haven't had a date night in a long time, so the brood decided we needed to give you one.  Everyone helped out in one way or another so tonight is from all of us.”

“With love,” Aislinn added in her native tongue.  “All of the kids are with Jen, Jeff, or Aunt Sam.  Bij and Katie were given the option to stay or go, and they decided to visit Gili, so they're at Aunt Sam's.  Chef Bri and I will be here for dinner, but once dessert is served, we'll be going, too.  Also, you should know that the brood won't return until 1100 hours tomorrow.”

“We ask just one thing,” Brianna stated.  “We don't want you to talk about us at all tonight or talk about COVID-19.  It's a different time, a time when the world was carefree.  We ask you to honor our request, so that this date night is an awesome escape from this mess the world is in, even if it's just an escape of a few hours.”

“Okay,” Daniel agreed, feeling he needed to verbally agree to the request.

“Deal,” Jack promised, excited about the turn of events and impressed the kids went to so much effort to create a special evening for he and his soulmate.

Back to speaking French, Aislinn announced, “Chef Bri has worked very hard on tonight's meal.  We hope you'll enjoy it.”

Brianna and Aislinn headed for the hospitality room, leaving the parents alone.

“How about this?” Jack asked, raising his right hand to indicate the decor and turning his head slightly to take in more of his surroundings.

“It's, uh, pretty incredible.”

Reviewing the menu, the older man inquired, “Danny, do you like this French stuff?  I've never had any of it.”

“You'll love it, especially the ...”

“Don't say it,” Jack interrupted.  “I've eaten snails, but not cooked and not at any restaurant.”

Daniel chuckled, “You'll like them, cooked, I mean.”

“Yep, I'll love it all.”

“Me, too.”

====

The elaborate meal included several foods, mainly because Brianna was afraid she wouldn't prepare them satisfactory.  She decided to have small portions versus a big course of one item that might not taste up to par.  Thus, throughout the dinner service, Jack and Daniel were treated with dishes such as Escargots au Beurre Persillé (herb buttered snails), Carbonnade Flamande (beef cooked in ale with a gingerbread spread and mustard), Gratin Dauphinois (potatoes), and Bouillabaisse (soup).  Tarte tatin (caramelized apple pie) and Macarons were given for dessert.

The children departed after serving dessert, leaving the parents alone, except, of course, for a variety of family pets who were scattered throughout the large residence.

“Well?” Daniel prompted as he tasted a Macaron.

“Danny, this has been great.  This took longer than the last couple of hours,” Jack opined.

“Definitely.”  Daniel sighed.  “I have to say it, Babe.  Bri worked very hard on this and it shows.”

“Snails,” Jack commented, his mind going back to more unpleasant times in his life.  “Who knew they could taste like this?”

“The French,” Daniel teased.

Eventually, the soulmates made their way to the living room.

“Wood in the fireplace,” Jack observed.

“That works.”

For the first time in a long while, the soulmates sat in front of the fireplace and enjoyed a cozy fire.

====

“Oh no!” Aislinn exclaimed.

“Ash, are you okay?” Sam questioned.

“We forgot to tell Dad and Daddy about the snack trays,” the Munchkin lamented.

“I'm sure they'll see it.”

“No, they aren't visible; well, not all of it.”

“Ash, if we go tell them, that'll interrupt their date.  Besides, we don't know what they might be doing,” Brianna responded with eyes that indicated her meaning.

“Crap!” the disappointed teenager snapped.  “Sorry, Bri, but we worked so hard.  I wanted it to be perfect.”

“Woof!” Bijou called out.  “Woof, Woof Woof, Woof!

“Bij, that's a great idea,” Aislinn replied.  “Have them open the kitchen refrigerator door, the first upper cabinet on the left of the fridge, and, this is really important, they have to go to Hernando's to the bar.”

“Woooof,” Bijou acknowledged, her tail wagging.  She looked at Sam and questioned, “Woof?”

“I'll turn off the alarm.  You can go right through the dog gate,” Sam replied, heading for the system controls.  ~Ut oh.  I'm speaking beagle now.  Maybe they are aliens like the general jokes.~

====

Snuggling and speaking sweet nothings to each other, Jack and Daniel suddenly sensed an intrusion.  They turned their heads towards the hallway and saw just the head with sorrowful eyes of their adored mother beagle.

A very soft, “Woof,” sounded, a small apology made by Bijou to her humans as she entered the living room with several small, slow steps.  More intensely, she let out, “Woof,” and then hurried to the kitchen.  She turned and insisted, “Woof!  *Woof!*.”

“Okay, okay,” Jack responded.  “Danny ...”

“She's telling us something.”

“We'd better check it out.”

The soulmates stood and followed Bijou into the kitchen.

“Give us a hint,” Jack told the dog.

Bijou ran to the refrigerator and pressed her right paw against the door.

“Aha,” Jack replied, opening the appliance door and seeing a covered tray.  He removed it and pulled off the protective top.  “Hey, some of our favorite goodies.”

“Thank you, Bijou.”

The canine sighed, or so it sounded to the human beings.  She barked again.

“There's more, Jack.”

Bijou stood on her hind paws, her front paws against the cabinet.

“Which one?” the general pondered.

“Look how she's stretching her body,” Daniel noted.  “I think it's the top cabinet she wants us to open.”

“Okay,” Jack replied.  “Excuse me, Bij,” he said as he went to that spot and opened the door.  “Bingo.”

Daniel smiled at another tray, this one of non-refrigerated items, like crackers.

“Good job, Bij,” Jack praised.

The mama beagle knew her hardest task was up next.  She barked several times, spun around in circles, and then moved away from the kitchen.

“Jack, there's more.”

“Either that or she's auditioning for the doggie ballet,” Jack quipped.  “We're on it, Bij.  Lead the way.”

Relieved, Bijou headed to Hernando's Hideaway, a place commonly referred to as a man cave.  It was a bi-level structure added to the home a few years ago and it was a place for Jack and Daniel only.  Access was through French doors in the game room.

“This is interesting,” Jack grumbled. a reference to the possibility that the kids broke a major rule regarding Hernando's.

“Let's just see what this reveals,” Daniel returned as he entered the special room.

The children had orders to never enter the hideaway.  It was set up and intended for their parents only.  It gave them a private place to be together and entertain friends when they didn't want to worry about kids being around.  Obviously, one of them disobeyed the rules for whatever was inside.

Bijou and Katie were, however, privy to the man cave.  Oftentimes, one or both of the lovers let the dogs come with them, curling up side-by-side while watching a movie or just relaxing.  Thus, Bijou was able to lead the men right to the area where they needed to be.

“I'm lost,” Jack admitted.

Bijou woofed again and tried to indicate the necessary move, but it wasn't easy because of all the equipment by the bar that was part of the room.

“Jack, look.”

With wider eyes, Jack noticed the bucket, full of ice, and with a bottle in the center.  He pulled it out and handed it to Daniel.

“St. Julien's,” Daniel noted with a pleased affect.  “Perfectly chilled,” he opined as he held the bottle with the rare vintage he loved so much.  “Anything else?” he asked the beagle.

“Woof woof,” was the calm reply.

Bijou jumped on Jack, who leaned over and was given a happy lick.  She did the same with Daniel, who had to readjust his position in order to get a kiss from the dog, but he did, and she did.  With that, she exited the hideaway and returned to Sam's house.

“Did you do it, Bijou?” Aislinn asked.

“Woof.”

Aislinn laughed.

“What's funny?” Sam questioned.

“She said it was a piece of cake,” Aislinn answered while still laughing.

====

Enjoying their unique gift, Jack and Daniel put aside all reality for the next few hours.  Their nation of two was alive and well as they took heart in being together.

“La Mio Bello Stella Cadente,” Jack crooned to his beautiful falling star.

“I love how you say that.”

“I love saying it.”

“Jack, I am curious about something,” Daniel began.  He drew a quick breath.  “Uh, exactly how is it that the two snack trays had all our favorites on them?”

“Lucky guess.”

“And the St. Julien's?”

“Danny, the whole world knows you're in love Julie,” Jack quipped about the 1959 Chateau Beychevelle wine.

“Jack!”  With a pointed stare, Daniel questioned, “The Big Hunk?  What are the odds on all of this being assembled for us?  It's not coincidence.”

“Okay, I maybe, possibly, might have mentioned it to one of those people we're not supposed to talk about tonight.”

“Why would you be discussing our love life?”

“I'm not sure, but that's why I still say we should lock her in her room until she's thirty.  She's flirty and she has a way of making you tell.”

“Let me guess.  She smiled and asked.”

“Something like that,” Jack conceded.  “Angel?”

“Yes?”

“Let's get back to our date night.”

“I'll agree to that.”

The lovers shared a laugh and returned to kissing which led to more lovemaking in front of their trusty fireplace.

====

When the kids returned in the morning, there were smiles all around, but nothing much was said except for a quick question about the wine.

“Jeff did it, Dad.  We asked him to and figured it would be okay since he helped to build your man cave and is old now,” Ricky explained.

“He means now that Jeff's an adult, like Jen,” Jenny translated for her twin.

“The wine was important,” Aislinn put forth quietly.  “Please don't be angry.  It had to be perfect.”

“It was,” Daniel replied without hesitation as he walked to the Munchkin for an embrace.

“Absolutely perfect,” Jack affirmed with a smile.  “We were totally impressed.  Thanks, kids.”

From there, the family scattered and went about their day beginning with a light lunch without cooks.  It was a MYOS day where everyone was responsible for making their own sandwiches whenever they were hungry.  Jack made his right away and then decided to read a chapter or two in the book he was reading.  Daniel actually returned to his den and was followed by David, who wanted to talk some more about the subject from the prior day.

As for the others, Brianna went upstairs to the Bird's Nest to have some quiet time, while Lulu entered the dance studio to practice her ballet.  Chenoa, still tired, opted to take a nap.  Jonny chose to call his girlfriend, Little Danny decided to write a few cards to people he'd hadn't seen in person lately, and Aislinn went to the music room and continued working on a song she was composing.  Jenny, Ricky, and JD felt playful and ended up in the game room where the Spitfires challenged each other to air hockey and JD played one of the arcade games.

Bijou and Katie simply relaxed in their living room beanbag until the family either needed them or more activity drew their interests.

====

~Another Saturday,~ Jack thought as the day ebbed onward.  He finished off his latest novel and remarked, “I never thought I'd say this, but I think I'm tired of reading.”

His right hand holding the book, Jack's left hand was engaged in caressing Bijou's body.  The mama beagle had left her beanbag earlier for a cozier location.  She was now secure in Jack's lap and enjoying the rubdown.

Little Danny, seated on the sofa, chuckled, “It won't last, Dad.”

“You haven't been writing much to Aunt Catherine,” Jack noted.

The teen looked down at his card intended to be a message of love and support to Catherine Littlefield.

“Dad, can I ask you something?”

“Anything.”

“They keep talking about normal on the news, but I don't think it's ever going to be the same.  I mean, the family has a lot of plans for summer, but I don't know that we'll be able to now.  I don't know how we can ...”

The boy quieted and looked off to his right, away from his father's probing eyes.

“Danny, are you scared?”

The son hadn't expected that question and it caused his head to turn and face his father in surprise.

Bijou sensed the seriousness of the conversation and jumped off Jack's lap.  She walked over to her beanbag and plopped down next to her daughter.  After the soothing attention she received from her human, she was ready for a nap.

With Bijou no longer in his hold, Jack leaned forward, putting his hands together as he advised, “Son, it's okay to be scared.  We're *all* scared, but let's talk about normal.  Daddy and I don't like labels.  You know that.”

“Everything is changing,” Little Danny commented.  “Jonny, Ash, and I chipped in and bought Bri tickets to a couple of Rockies games for her birthday.”  He sighed thoughtfully.  “Celtic Woman is coming to Denver in May.”

~I know where this one's heading.  I helped with this little surprise.~

“Jenny and Ricky bought Ash front row tickets for the concert,” Little Danny noted somberly.  “They said they got her the best seat in the house.”

~They did and a chance at a meet and greet,~ Jack acknowledged in his mind.

“Her favorite, Chloe, is back with the group for a while.  Ash would really love going to that concert, Dad.”

~He's right.  I remember how she'd sing along with that gal and she could barely talk.  Or maybe the music taught her to talk,~ Jack mused.

“JD's the worst.  I mean, our trip to Disneyland.  Dad, it was going to be so cool.  He's old enough now to really enjoy it.”  The teen let out a sad breath and expressed with great lament, “He's never going to know Disneyland like we did, is he?”  The question was rhetorical, which both conversationalists understood.  “The world is going to change, Dad.  Nothing's going to be the same.”

“Yeah,” Jack acknowledged with a bob of his head.  More brightly with an uplifted tone, he asked, “Who says change is a bad thing?”  He saw the boy's eyes widen a tad and his mouth open a bit as the query was considered.  “Change can be exciting.  Hey, you've got the archaeology bug, but how much of a anthropologist are you?”

Slowly, a smile formed on the teenager's face.

“I love it all, Dad, and I believe we can learn from the past.”

“Even the immediate past?”

“Yes.”

“Even if that means realizing it's a past that has to stay there, replaced by something new?”

Nodding, Little Danny responded, “We have to take what we know with us and make a present and future that is better than before.”

“Okay, then, Sport,” Jack replied.  “Normal is only a word.  Don't let a word, one word, get you down.  If I ever learned a thing from Daddy watching him work, it's that societies change.  It's how they change, how the people worked together, or not, to handle that change that more times than not dictated that society's continued existence, or not.”

“Thanks, Dad.”  The Munchkin sat silently for a moment as he took in the brief discussion.  Then he picked up the card, stood, and said, “I'm going to finish this outside.”

“Okay.”  Before his son could close the patio door, Jack twisted his body to the left.  “Danny.”  The boy turned.  “We *are* going to Disneyland once they re-open and it's safe.  We *are* going to make sure JD has the time of his life with Mickey, the rides, and all that goes with it.  Maybe it won't be exactly the same, but we, all of us, are going to do our best to give him the experience we love.”

“I can't wait.  Thanks again, Dad,” Little Danny spoke as he closed the door and sought out a private spot to write his card.

As the door closed, Daniel entered the room and could sense he'd missed something.

“Is he okay?” the archaeologist asked about his namesake.

“He's fine.  Danny, the kids aren't kids anymore, except for JD.”

“They're growing up,” Daniel agreed.

“Yeah, but they're way smart and maybe too in tune with the world, whether or not we like that.”

“I thought we were okay with all of that now.”

“We are.”

“Okay,” a somewhat confused Daniel replied.

“Sorry, Love.  The conversation caught me off guard,” Jack admitted.  “Hey, how about a walk around the block?  We can check out the latest chalk drawings and look for bears.”

Daniel mused, “I don't have to look for bears.  I usually have one in front of me.”  He laughed a bit and then answered, “Sure.  Now's a good time, too.  It might rain later.”

“What's a little rain?” Jack quipped as he headed for the front door, followed by a smiling Daniel.
 
====

“Hey, Babe,” Daniel greeted his lover up on the aerie that night.

“Look at those stars, Danny,” Jack expressed in awe as he leaned lightly against the rail.  “I can't remember the last time the night was this clear.”

“No cars,” Daniel explained from his spot to the side of the amazed man.

“Yeah, if there were ever proof of climate change, of man's incessant use of gas, this is it.”

“It's like this all over the world,” Daniel stated.  “They've been showing photos on the news.  Smog is gone and the difference is obvious.”

“Yep,” a refreshed Jack agreed.  He turned to face his soulmate.  “Danny, I've been thinking.”

“I know.”

“It was that talk with Little Danny.”

“I thought it might be.”

“Normal is normal.  It's whatever we have at the time,” Jack began.  “Listen, when we were kids, we had a normal: Mom, Dad, and not a care in the world.  That was normal.  Then we got older and my normal was different than yours.”

“But whatever it was, it was still our normal,” Ðaniel elaborated.

“Yep, and all through life, that normal changed.  Look at me.  I was a military 'do-it' guy, married to a woman, and set in my ways.  I had the American dream.  Then I didn't, nor did I care.  My son was dead, my wife was gone, and I wanted to be.  Now look at me.  I'm happily married, to a man, with a dozen kids, a zoo that is fantabulous, and I'm practically a friggin' archaeologist.  Daniel, my normal today is barely related to my normal twenty years ago.”

“So ...”

“So normal is nothing but a word.  It's a label, and we both know how we feel about those.”

“So ...”

“So, we're going to be okay with whatever tomorrow brings.”

“Yes, and you've been telling me that for weeks now.”

“Yeah, but now I believe it,” Jack confessed.

“I do, too, and I believe in you, Babe.  You taught me years ago that as long as we're together, we'll be fine, and that's the truth, our truth.”

“Yeahsureyabetcha!” Jack chimed before shifting from talking to kissing, something he greatly preferred over the former.

====

The next afternoon, Jack was in the barn checking on Hot and Chocolate, the family's Shetland Ponies.  With Chenoa extra busy these days as she assisted Janet at the Academy hospital and the SGC, everyone was helping out with the small animals.

“Spoiled: that's what you two are nowadays,” Jack teased the ponies as he finished brushing Hot.  “Enjoy it while it lasts.  Whenever we get out of this mess, the kids are going to want to enjoy freedom.  They're house crazy.”  He let out a groan.  “We all are.”

When he was done, Jack headed outside and into the backyard.  An unexpected sight caused him to pause and reflect for a moment.

Aislinn was seated on a swing, going back and forth slowly even as her feet made little steps on the ground in the process.  Her long brown hair was waving a bit with the breeze, but what got to the father was that he couldn't see her beautiful blue eyes.  That was because her head was down.

~Problem.~  Jack walked to the swing set and sat down on the swing next to his Munchkin.  “Hey there.”

“Hi, Dad,” Aislinn responded with a small voice and without lifting her head.  “Dad, why are some people so mean?”

“That's a big question.”

“I just don't understand.  If you heard me calling people names, you'd never let me out of the house.”

“There's that possibility,” Jack agreed.

“If I came in and told you that someone up the block was making fun of me, calling me names or something, you'd do something.  I'm not sure what, but you wouldn't let me go near them again.”

“Probably.”

“Wasn't David bullied when he was younger?”  Aislinn didn't wait for a confirmation.  “You withdrew him from the school.  Bullying isn't acceptable.  Isn't that what you and Daddy taught us?”

“Yes.”

“I don't understand,” Aislinn repeated.  “How can the President be a big bully?  He's supposed to be a leader and guide us.  Why did people vote for someone who only cares about himself?  I don't get it, Dad.  I just don't.”

“He's a good talker.”

The speaker wasn't Jack, but Little Danny who just sauntered over to join Jack and Aislinn.  He was worried about his sister, especially since only a few minutes earlier she was staring blankly at her computer monitor, reading tweets on Twitter and watching news stories on websites.  She actually asked him to turn off her PC for her.

“A *smooth* talker,” Jack clarified.

“He turns things around and tries to intimidate people,” Little Danny opined.

“That's what I mean,” Aislinn stated.  “He's a bully.”  She wiped away a tear as her emotions deepened, but smiled for a brief moment when her brother kneeled down and took her hand.  “Why are people protesting, Little Danny?”

“I think it's political, Ash.  I'll bet a lot of them don't even live here.”

That day, many people showed up in Denver to protest the stay-at-home order, claiming their rights were being squashed.  They wanted the state re-opened and to get back to work.

“Little Danny could be right.”

“Right or wrong, Dad, did you see them?  They weren't wearing masks and they were standing next to each other, not six feet apart.  Those people are spreading the virus.  They might get sick, or maybe their family members, or,” Aislinn gasped, her strong feelings threatening to overtake her, “maybe someone they don't know: a grocery clerk, the mail person, or, I don't know, anyone on the street.  They could walk by Grandpa's house, say hello, and give him the virus.  I heard one of them say that staying at home was worse than the virus.  What's worse than dying?” She sniffled again.  “They're being so selfish.  I just don't understand.”

Little Danny squeezed Aislinn's hand a bit more in support and softly replied, “Ash, I don't know why people are the way they are, either.  There are mean people who do horrible things.  Others, I think, are just misled.  I'm not sure why.”

“Smooth talkers convince them that what they have to offer will get them something better,” Jack suggested.  “Human nature, kids.”

“Dad, I'm going to delete my Twitter account, okay?”

“That's up to you, Princess,” the father replied.  ~Good idea.  I didn't want any of you on it in the first place.  This letting go thing is dang hard.~

“Um, I want to delete my history.  I mean, I don't want any of it to ever show up for me again.”

“It's not all bad, Ash,” Little Danny put forth.

“I know you like the animal links and stuff, Little Danny.  You don't have to stop using Twitter because I do.”

“Why no more Twitter?” Jonny asked, having noticed his family outside and becoming curious.

“People are mean, Jonny; they break my heart,” Aislinn explained, her voice squeaking a tad from the feelings she still couldn't suppress.

“Don't read the mean people tweets; ban them from your feed,” Jonny put forward.

“But replies come through.  I just don't want the negativity anymore, Jonny.  Mommy wouldn't like it, and I don't, either.  Don't you guys do it because of me, but I'm deleting my account and erasing my history.  That's okay, Dad, right?  I know you and Daddy check our computers sometimes.  I want you to know why my history is gone.”

“It's okay, Ash,” the father permitted.

“Me, too, Dad,” Little Danny stated while still holding his sister's hand.  ~She's really upset about this.  She's trembling.~

Jonny took a deep breath.  He loved Twitter, but he also knew Aislinn was right.  He didn't have a problem ignoring the mean tweets, but they were there.

“Me, too.”

“Jonny, you don't have to,” Aislinn said again.

“Solidarity,” Jonny explained simply.  “We are the Munchkins and we stand together.”

“We do,” Little Danny agreed.  “Ash, do you want to do it now?  We'll go with you and then do ours.”

Aislinn nodded as her brother gently helped her off the swing.  They embraced.

“Thanks, Little Danny.”  Aislinn turned around and hugged Jonny.  “You, too, Jonny.  You're both the best Munchkins ever!”

Jack watched as Jonny and Little Danny walked with Aislinn towards the house.  They were protecting her and sacrificing something they didn't object to as severely as she did, but they were doing it from a place of love.

“Anyone remember I'm here?” Jack quipped.  He heard a cluck and turned his head.  “Thank you, Peanut Brittle,” he told the family's Galápagos tortoise.  ~Forgotten by Munchkins, remembered by a blasted turtle who's going to outlive me by years.~

After taking a refreshing breath, Jack headed for the house and whatever was next in the day.

====

“Danny,” Jack called out as he entered the garage where Daniel was starting a wash.  “Need help?”

“Great timing, Babe,” the archaeologist replied.  “I'm done.”

Jack grinned and advised, “The Munchkins are off Twitter.”

“That didn't take long.  Little Danny?”

“Actually, Ash.  She's extremely upset, Angel, at mean tweets, especially the bullying ones coming by the so-called President.  You should know she's been catching news bits about all these protests, too.  She doesn't understand why people want to risk their lives by stopping traffic and standing side-by-side on Capitol steps.”

“Should I go talk with her?”

“Later.  The Munchkins are all in agreement.  Jonny called it solidarity.”

“So, they're quitting Twitter as a trio.”

“Yep.  I can't say I'm unhappy about that.”

“Neither can I.”  Daniel paused.  “She's getting more sensitive, Jack.  Everything is so deep for her.  I think it has to do with Kayla.”

“Kayla, you, Little Danny,” Jack returned.  “She has a good heart and the more she sees of the real world, the more she's uncertain.”

“She'll figure it out.”

“You sound sure.”

“I am.  Jack, Ash and Little Danny are both very sensitive to the world, but they're both stronger than they know yet.  They just need to find the balance between the ideal and not-so-ideal.  That takes time.”

“You're right.”

“I know,” Daniel teased.

“I checked the news out again before coming in here,” Jack advised.

“And?”

“Some nurses protested the protesters,” the general noted with a prideful smile.  “They blocked the protesters from protesting.  Now that's cool.”

“What's cool?” Jennifer asked upon entering the garage.  “Peter's on baby duty for a few, so I thought I'd come over and see everyone.”

“You know about the protest,” Jack stated, seeing his daughter nod.  “Some of nurses walked out into the street and blocked the protesters' cars.  They just stood there and held their ground.”

“That is cool, Dad.  We should do something for them.”

“They need support,” Daniel put forward.

“They do.”  In an instant, the young woman grinned at an idea.  “I have a ton of jarred food.”

“Are you sure you have enough to go around?” the archaeologist inquired.

“Daddy, all I've done during the last couple of months is bottle and quilt.  I don't have enough for a whole hospital, but I have enough to let them know we care.”

“Have enough of what?” Jenny questioned when she joined her family.  “I thought I saw you, Jen.  I wanted to talk with you about a new dress.”

“Sure, Jenny.”

The trio filled Jenny in, causing the Spitfire to enthusiastically say, “Jen, I love your peaches.  Don't forget to bring us some.”

“Okay.”

“I want to help, too.  I can go with you when you take the jars.”

“Oh, I don't know,” the eldest brood member responded.

Jenny stared at her parents and, in a stance of insistence, argued, “Saying thank you to front line workers is essential.  Besides, they're probably hungry and need food; *and* Jen needs help with all those jars.”

“She has a point, Jack.”

“Three kids, maybe four,” Jack agreed.  “Jen, they'll all want to go.  Put out feelers and pick a few, but that's it.”

“Yes, Dad,” Jennifer acknowledged.  She looked over at the redhead.  “Okay, Jenny, tell me about this dress.”

The two girls left the garage, both engaged in an intense conversation about a new outfit Jenny wanted Jennifer to make for her.

“I need coffee, *lots* of coffee.”

“Works for me,” Jack responded, turning and heading back inside the home alongside his soulmate.

====

Shortly before dinner, a thrilled JD ran into the living room and proudly held out his latest accomplishment as he exclaimed, “I did it!  Look, Dad, I did it.  I wasn't able to for a long time, but I tried and tried again.  I did it!  Mister Cooper's gonna be real happy.”

Jack sighed while trying to smile.  He saw the joy in his son's face and didn't want it to go away.  Part of him wished he'd never left the barn and was still hanging out with the Shetlands.  He'd much rather be brushing the ponies or cleaning out the muck than having to deal with the reality of the moment.  While he said nothing, the rest of the family, sans Daniel who was finishing up a phone call in the den, praised the child.

“Mister Cooper said his sons had a hard time getting their Rubik's Cubes to work.  Maybe I can help teach them now,” JÐ proclaimed, not processing the fact that the Cooper boys were grown men with boys of their own.

Jacob Cooper was one of the residents of the nursing home the family most often visited.  The eighty-six-year-old man was widowed and the father of four sons, all of whom were busy with their own families in other states.  He'd taken to JD the first time they met, three years ago.  He smiled brightly and waved with all his energy recently at the special sign JD held up when the brood visited the facility.

“Can I call him, Dad?” JD asked energetically.  “It's not too late.”

“Son,” Jack spoke quietly.  “Mister Cooper passed away yesterday of COVID-19.  I'm sorry.”

The boy climbed up on his father's lap, put his arms around his neck, and began to cry.

“I'm sorry,' Jack repeated, a sentiment echoed by the boy's siblings.  “I know he appreciated how much you cared about him.”

Át that moment, Daniel entered the living room and was instantly concerned.

“Jack?”

Jack looked over at his husband while maintaining a supportive grip on JD and explained, “Mrs. Wilson called earlier.  There have been a few deaths and she received permission from the families to let us know.”

“Who else died?” Aislinn asked, some fear in her heart that her special nursing home friends might no longer be living.

“Miss Quarkwin, Mrs. Silverman, Mister Cummings, and Mister Cooper,” Jack answered.

The children felt sad and their hearts went out to JD for his sadness.  They were relieved a little, too, though they weren't able to admit it.  All deaths were a tragedy, but while they knew the ones who passed, none of them were patients with whom they were especially close.  That feeling of relief brought on guilt that was enhanced during this time of sheltering in place.  It was too much for them to handle, so they suppressed it and focused on JD.

“Of the virus?” Daniel inquired.  “All of them?”

“Yes,” Jack acknowledged.  “They've had an outbreak.  They think one of the staff brought it in.  They're in complete shutdown mode now.”

“Jack!”

“What do you suggest?”

“I don't know, but something.”

“Can we help?” David inquired.  “I mean, will money help, or do they need a building?”

“We can help,” Aislinn stated almost in a gasp.

“We have to help,” Chenoa added, recently returned from her volunteer nursing duties.  “What do they need?”

“A new building, with equipment, untouched by humans, not to mention clones so they have proper staffing,” Jack quipped offhandedly.

“Thor,” JD sniffled as he pulled back.  He wiped his eyes with his hands and eked out, “Thor can help us.”

“Jack?” Daniel questioned.

“Daniel, we can't just have a building appear, and where the heck do we get the equipment?”

“Aunt Janet would know,” Chenoa suggested.

“Kids, this PPE as they call it is hard to find.”

“I'll bet Thor could get what we need, just for the residents,” Jonny insisted.

“We have money.  We can buy it,” Ricky put forth.

“Dad, Daddy, is there a way to make this work?” Brianna queried.  “I wish we could do something to help everyone, but that's not realistic, but if we can help these folks, at least we've done something, even if it's with the assistance of aliens.”

“I'll call Aunt Janet.  She might have some ideas,” Chenoa said as she stood up and headed for her bedroom.

“Let us know,” Jack called out.

“Dad?”

“What, Son?” the man quietly responded to JD.

“Was he alone?”

With a hard swallow, the father pulled the boy close as he answered, “I don't know, JD.”

“He didn't like being alone.  I'm going to miss him.”

“We all are.”

“Dad?”

“What?”

“I think Mister Cooper helped me solve the Rubik's Cube.  It wasn't me who did it; it was him.”

JD climbed off his dad's lap, walked slowly by Daniel, and headed upstairs.  He was followed by both Bijou and Katie who looked at their humans with an apparent promise to look after the youngster and bring him comfort.

“I'll call Jen,” Brianna told her siblings, getting up and leaving the room.

“I'll take Jeff,” David added, following Brianna out of the area.

“I'd better tell Grandpa and Grandma,” Aislinn said as she stood up.  “Dad, Daddy, I know you don't like to take advantage of Thor, or the Nox, or anyone, but maybe it would be okay for them to help us, just a little?”

Not waiting for a response, the Munchkin walked away.

“Who has PPE?” Ricky asked about the hard-to-get personal protective equipment.

“The problem, Ricky, is that hospitals are trying to get PPE,” Daniel replied.  “We don't want to compete with them.”

“Why not?” a defiant Jenny questioned.  “Dad, Daddy, the people in the nursing homes have a right to be safeguarded, and so do the medical people taking care of them.  If we can get some because we have resources or money, why can't we help them?  Why?”  Not getting a response, she moved forward, her hands on her hips, as she repeated sternly, “Why?”

“I, uh ... I don't think we have an answer to that, Jenny,” Daniel replied.  “Jack?”

“If we don't help, Dad, then who will?” Lulu asked pointedly.

“That's a good question, Li'l Bit,” Jack admitted.  He sighed.  “Okay, what do we need?”

“We need Aunt Janet,” Jonny stated.

“She's very busy,” Daniel noted.

“Aunt Janet didn't answer her phone.  She's so tired lately,” Chenoa told her family as she returned to the living room.

“Well ...”  Jack stood.  “It's time to put our mouths where our feet are.  *Thor!*

“O'Neill.”

“We need the Doc, here, now, unless she's in surgery or something.  Can you arrange that ASAP?”

With a nod, the Asgard image disappeared.

“Kids, this could take ...”

“Or not,” Daniel teased.  “Hi, Janet.”

“What am I doing here?” the redheaded physician asked as she yawned.

“Doc, we need you, and we need you now,” Jack answered.  “Sit; let's have a talk.”

====

Early Monday morning on the Hamilton driveway, Jennifer and her helpers, all wearing face masks and gloves, loaded several boxes full of jarred peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, and peppers inside her vehicle.

“I'm hungry,” Jonny remarked after pushing in the last box.  “Jen, you brought us some, didn't you?”

“Don't worry, Jonny.  I have some jars for the family inside.  We can get those when we get back from Denver.”

Jennifer, using her immediate family's SUV, drove to Denver and stopped at the hospital she believed the protesting nurses worked at.  She and the kids exited the vehicle and from the appropriate distance told a security guard why they were there.

Hearing the conversation, passing nurses stopped and smiled gratefully at the Jackson-O'Neills.

“That's Jennifer, our sister,” Jenny announced.  “She's been growing things in our garden for years.”

“She has her own garden now, too,” Lulu added.

“The peaches are yummmmmmmy,” Jenny praised enthusiastically.  ~I'm gonna eat some as soon as we get home.”

The kids put the boxes on the walkway and returned to the SUV.  Nurses were happy to be remembered and each took some jars filled with their favorite fruits and vegetables.

“Thank you for helping everyone.  We care!” Lulu shouted just as Jennifer drove away.  “That was nice, Jen.”

“Yeah.  It feels good to do something like this,” Jennifer replied.  ~Canning is fun, too.  Maybe I can make more for later.~

====

Another birthday was being celebrated that evening.  Like Jeff's was in early March, this mid-April event was more muted than was preferred.  The tablets with webcams were out in full force.  Naturally, there was the Hammond Cam, but there was also the Jeff Cam, needed because Chely wasn't feeling up to par and all felt they should keep their distance until her doctor determined the cause.  She had an appointment with her doctor in the morning.  Unfortunately, there was also need for a Jen Cam because Peter was under the weather.  It wasn't the virus, but he did have the regular flu and didn't want to pass it on to anyone.

Still, David took pleasure in his nineteenth birthday.  More than the gifts, though, he was relishing his family.  He still had memories of his birth parents and mourned their premature passing and at this time of a great pandemic, he found himself treasuring time with his loved ones more than ever.  The same was true for good friends like Calvin Miller.  He truly missed their time together.  Talking on the phone was good, but he missed playing hoops and air hockey with him, as well as the usual goofing around that young men of their ages were known for doing.

The party was strong, though, with the family doing their best to pretend it was a big gala.  The conversation was loud and lighthearted and some of the kids even wore birthday hats and blew kazoos from time to time.

The presentation of gifts was more unusual than normal, except for the quilt Jennifer made for the young man.  It was one of just a few things actually in a box that David received.  Instead, he received a very special dance recital from Lulu and Chenoa, the theme of which was discovery.  Jenny's gift was a promise to do the oil change the next time it was needed for his 1987 Jeep Wrangler.  He hated doing oil changes and always paid to have professionals do them, but she loved working on cars which was why she chose this present for her brother.

The gift that spawned the most reaction from the group was Ricky's.  The Spitfire handed over a handmade certificate promising to help with the architecture and interior design of David's first home.

“Thanks, Bro, but what if you change your mind and become a firefighter or something?”

“Then I'll get Alex or Jeff to do it,” Ricky responded as seriously as anyone ever could.

The good-natured laughter continued for a bit as David took in other non-tangible gifts, all necessitated by having to stay at home and online ordering deliveries taking longer than usual.  Even Daniel's present was nothing that could be held in the hand, but it would be forever held in his son's heart.

“David, I've spoken with some friends and acquaintances of mine, all experts in either petrology and lithology,” Daniel began.

David perked, his interest piqued since those were his college majors.

“They've agreed to meet with you to talk about, well, whatever you want; you know, all that stuff that drives your dad batty.”  An abundance of chuckles filled the room, along with a growl of a human grizzly bear.  “Depending on timing, it could be in person or virtual.  They've all given some dates for you to choose from when they're available to speak with you.”

“Awesome!  Wow!  Thanks, Daddy,” the eager college student responded as he hugged his daddy.

All in all, the celebration was a success, even without the presence of the entire family or a normal gift-opening segment.  Everyone loved stuffing their faces with good food and moving to the music.  As time passed, there were no signs of the party ending soon.

“More cake?” Aislinn offered as she walked around with a platter full of chocolate cake slices.

Without warning, everything paused.  Jack looked at Daniel, who returned the look with his mouth slightly open.  Aislinn put down the platter while Brianna turned off the music playing in the background, though she wasn't sure why.  The chatter stopped with the silence filled only by the sound of breathing.  All eyes were focused on the birthday boy, David, as he stared downward, his right hand opening and letting his phone drop to the carpet.

“David,” Jack called out gently.  “What's wrong, Son?”

His voice cracking, David answered, “Mister Miller died today.  He had the sniffles and then he just ... he died.  He's dead, Dad.  He's dead.”

Jack embraced his trembling son with Daniel by their sides and the kids surrounding them.  There was nothing for anyone to say, so no one said a word.  They simply stood nearby; they were there.

“I have to go,” David said when he pulled back from his dad.

“We know,” Daniel responded.

“I should probably stay there for a couple of weeks; the quarantine,” David spoke, knowing that Mitzi Miller and her children might be positive for the virus and about to start quarantining as well.

“Son, this is your home,” Jack reminded.  “You're a man now.  You do what you think is best, but this is home.”

“It's always home,” Ðaniel maintained.  “If you need anything, you let us know.  Call or come home.”

“Tell Mitzi how sorry we are and to call, anytime, day or night.”

“She knows that, Dad.  Thanks, Daddy,” David replied.

Quickly, David went upstairs and packed his duffel bag with the necessities.  At least the Miller home was just a few houses away.  He returned downstairs to his teary-eyed siblings.

“I love you guys,” David expressed, hearing similar declarations from each of the brood as they hugged.  “Don't stop the party because I'm gone.”

“It won't be much of a party without you, David,” Chenoa replied softly.

David gave his birth sister another hug and then shared a three-way embrace with his parents.

“Call,” Daniel requested.

“Shout,” Jack tried to tease.  “We'll hear you.”

“I will,” David promised before leaving the home to be with his best friend and his family at this saddened time.

====

With the resolve of the brood as strong as ever, the quest to create and staff a fully equipped nursing home to replace the one their friends were in, the Jackson-O'Neills and friends focused on their solution at every possible moment.  Though David was missed, the brood knew he'd help out when asked and no one blamed him for wanting to be of assistance to Mitzi Miller.

“Carolyn, you and I both know caregivers who would love to help us.  I need names,” Janet told Doctor Carolyn Lam over the phone.

--

“Winston,” Jack spoke with some amusement at the realtor's first name, “Who else is going to buy that dilapidated old building, especially in the middle of this outbreak?  ... Yeah, so I get it for a song.  At least that song keeps you in groceries for a long, long time.”

--

Staring at the computer, Daniel took a deep breath.  This was harder than he thought, but he kept hearing the words of his children.  They weren't buying PPE to put on a play or keep in the garage.  They were buying the items to keep medical personnel safe and also the nursing home residents.  He entered the bid at the very last moment, outdoing other bidders.  He made the payment right away.

“Thor, now, please.”

In a flash, the hologram Thor appeared.  It was the only way the alien could show himself on Earth until more was known about the virus, which unbeknownst to the Jackson-O'Neills, the Asgard and other alien worlds were researching, now that they were aware of its existence.

“This is the address.”

“You are certain they may try to deceive you?” the Asgard asked.

“I'm afraid they might.  There have been a lot of stories about sellers taking higher bids after a sale has gone through.”

“One moment.”

The alien was gone in a flash.  Daniel waited a bit nervously until Thor reappeared.

“What happened, Thor?”

“Your PPE has arrived.  I must go.”

“But ...”  Daniel sighed at the disappearing flash.  ~What did he do?  Just take it?  Did he talk to them?  Leave a receipt?~

The archaeologist decided not to worry about how Thor handled the situation.  What mattered was that they had the PPE needed for the new nursing home.

--

“Uncle Pete, it's just a few police cars,” Jenny called out from a distance of six-feet.

“Jenny, we're the police, not an ambulance service.”

“We can't tie up all of the ambulances in Colorado Springs,” Jenny argued.  “A lot of the residents can walk just fine.  We need police, to serve and protect.”

Pete chuckled, “Okay, Jenny.  How many and when?”

--

“Wow!” Jonny exclaimed as he stared at the information on his monitor about the nursing home the family loved so much.  ~It's privately owned.  We can buy it!  No explanations for anything.~  He snickered, ~Covert rules.~

--

~I can do this,~ Lulu told herself as she stared at her phone.  “No, I can't,” she sighed as she plopped down onto her bed.

Yes, you can.

Lulu groaned.  She'd just imagined Jonny's voice.  The Munchkin was nowhere near the girl's room.

~Okay.  What do I know?  We're all trying hard to help our nursing home friends. Jonny found out the home is owned by a person, not a corporation.  Dad and Daddy could buy the building, just like they did the new one, but we don't know anything about nursing homes and it doesn't fit in with archaeology.  Geez, what am I telling myself?~

Lulu tossed her hands out, shook her head, and let her body dance while still on the bed.  It was a way of de-stressing.

~Be calm.  We need an investor and Jonny thinks I can convince him.  Why?  I'm just me.~

He likes your giggle.

~Oh, for crying out loud,~ Lulu shouted in her mind at yet another imagined Jonny remark.  ~Okay, just do it.~

Lulu took a deep breath and dialed a number she'd never called before in her life.

“Mister Sharif, please.  It's,” she gulped in timidity, “Lulu Jackson-O'Neill.”  Lulu waited, her breathing becoming more labored.  “Oh, hello.  I'm sorry to disturb you.”

“Lulu, you and your family never disturb.  How can I help you?” came the firm but friendly response from Abayomi Sharif, the owner of Passion Incorporated.  A multi-millionaire when becoming the first client of J-O Enterprises, the foreigner was now a billionaire.  ~Such a sweet girl; hope she giggles.~

“It's about a nursing home.  Would you like to buy one?” Lulu asked nervously, giggling at the same time while grabbing her abdomen.  ~Gawd, I'm going to throw up.~

“You have a marvelous giggle, Lulu,” the man laughed.  “Tell me about it.”

Several minutes later, Lulu walked in a near trance to the boys' room.  She stood at the door and slid down to the floor.

“Sis, are you okay?” Jonny asked as he ran to her aid.

“Jonny, don't ever ask me to do that again!”

“What did he say?”

Lulu grinned and took a deep breath.

--

“Mister Lapierre, would you like to head up a rush job for my family?” Little Danny asked the father of his girlfriend, Carrie, over the phone.

“A job?”

“Yes.  We have to fix up an old medical facility and get it ready to open soon as a nursing home.”

“That's a tall order these days, Little Danny,” Stuart Lapierre, a longtime construction worker, opined.

“We need your help.  Dad and Daddy said to tell you the pay would be worth it, and we need others.  It would be your job.  Please, will you help?”

The man was smiling as he heard the young man's plea.  He knew if the job had anything to do with the Jackson-O'Neills that the pay would be beyond good.  His smile, though, was due to Little Danny's tone.  He knew it well.  The family was obviously involved in doing something special and they were asking him to be a part of it.

“Son, these are hard times.  I'm happy to help out and I know just who to bring with me.  Details.”

Now it was the boy's turn to smile, and it was a two-fold smile.  First, he liked the way Carrie's dad thought of him, like a son.  It made him feel good.  Second, he'd accomplished his task.  Everything was taking shape.
 
====

“Now?” Jack asked, staring up at his lover who stood in the doorway between the study and hallway.

“Lulu's practicing in the dance studio, so ...”

“Now it is,” the general agreed as he stood and walked with Daniel upstairs to the bedroom shared by the Curly Tops, Chenoa and Lulu.  “You think she'll spill?”

“She wants to, but we shouldn't press her.  Let's remind her we're here and leave it up to her.”

“Nudge, it is,” Jack agreed.  “I hope she spills.”

“Me, too.”

“She's already on overload.”

“I know, but if it were either one of us, we'd push for the same thing,” Daniel pointed out.

“It might be too much, Danny.  She could burn out.”

“Maybe, but if she does, she'd know she tried and she has all of us for support.”

~Sometimes I wish I'd win one of these discussions.~  Jack nodded as the couple reached their destination.  He tapped lightly on the open door and called out, “Noa, busy?”

“I was just reading one of my nursing books,” Chenoa answered.

“You really like volunteering,” Daniel put forth.

“I love it, Daddy.  I know it's only been a year, but what a year,” the little dove responded with a grin.

“Noa, is there something you want to talk to us about?” Daniel prodded.

“You always know,” the curly blonde mused as she closed her book and sat it down on the bed.  “I don't know how to ask or even what to ask, exactly.”

“One word at a time,” Jack suggested while sitting down on Lulu's bed.  He patted the spot next to him while looking at Daniel and said, 'Join me,” which the archaeologist did.

“Dad, Daddy, I've barely started my nursing studies, but I've worked so hard at the hospital and Aunt Janet has taught me a lot, probably some things I shouldn't know yet, but she has.”

Jack knew what that meant.  He equated it to getting his driver's license.  When being examined for driver's education, it was clear to the instructor Jack had driven before.  Indeed, his father taught him to drive in his freshman year of high school.  By the time he was old enough to participate in driver education in school, he was already an experienced kid behind the wheel. He was certain now that Janet was probably teaching Chenoa things that third-year nursing students were learning, and Chenoa was only volunteering at this point.

Chenoa glanced at her fathers before pausing and looking down anxiously.

“One word at a time, Princess,” Jack encouraged.

“I know everything is scary right now.  I *know* that, but the hospital staff is tired.  They're working so hard.  Dad, Daddy, I'm not a nurse, not even close, but I know a few things and I can help, a little.  Aunt Janet needs me.  She's told me so.”

“What are you asking us, Noa?” Daniel queried softly.

“Can I work with Aunt Janet, more than I am now?”

“You mean with COVID-19 patients?” Jack probed with more concern than he wanted to admit.

“Yes, at the Academy hospital or maybe the SGC.  Will you let me?”  Chenoa paused.  “I don't want to hurt anyone,” she whispered with a bowed head.

Daniel walked over and sat down next to Chenoa.  He put his arm around her, pulling her close.

“Noa, you aren't going to hurt anyone.  This virus came out of nowhere.  As long as you follow the guidelines as best you can ... well, that's all we can ask.”

“But if I help Aunt Janet, maybe I'll bring the virus home, to you or Dad or ...”

WIth the tears starting to fall, Jack quickly joined his husband and daughter on the other bed.  He caressed Chenoa's back and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“Noa, that's not going to happen,” Jack stated strongly, “but if it does, it does.  Look, we all do our best and then we deal with the outcomes.  We do not want to stifle your progress.”

“Stifle?” the linguist questioned.

“Stifle,” the general repeated.  “You want to help, help.”

“Are you sure?”

“You call Aunt Janet and tell her you have our permission,” Jack replied.

The three talked a bit longer until the parents left the room.

“I'm surprised,” Daniel admitted as he walked down the hallway.

“It took everything I had, Angel, but she's an angel, too, and she's been wanting to do more.”

“It's a good thing Janet gave us a reluctant heads up.”

“That's for sure,” Jack agreed.  “I wonder what's happening at the Mountain?  We should have quizzed the Doc more.”

“I doubt a regular hospital would let Noa do more than she is now because of her age.”

“Liability,” the general acknowledged.  Doc has more control at the Academy Hospital or at the Mountain.”

“Or at the Mountain,” Daniel repeated thoughtfully, well aware that anything at Cheyenne Mountain could have its own risks.  Still, he added, “We have to let her try.”

“We could lock her in her room,” Jack suggested, following it up with a shrug.  “It was just a thought.”

“Janet will do her best.”

“No guarantees, Danny.”

“We trust Janet, right,” Daniel commented in a statement, not a question.

“We do, implicitly,” Jack acknowledged.  “Okay, we're letting our little Shirley Temple tend to the wounded.  She'll make them smile.”

“She will, but at what cost to her?” Daniel put forward with a hesitant sigh.

“She wants to be a nurse and in the past year, she's proven her dedication to becoming one.  We have to believe in her and in the Doc.”

“Jack?” the archaeologist said as he stopped walking, creating a situation where the two men continued their talk while standing still midway on the stairs.

“What?”

“Didn't we already discuss this?”

“Ad nauseam, for days,” Jack sighed.

“Why are we repeating ourselves?”

“Because our lovely young daughter is acting like a compassionate grownup and is about to put herself in daily danger and while we're allowing it, we don't like it.”

“Oh.  Well, okay, let's move on.”

“Moving on.  Chinese or Italian?”

“Both.”

“I love how you think, Danny.”

“I know,” Daniel responded, grinning as dinner preparations began.

====

The next morning at breakfast, Chenoa told her siblings about her plans to work with Janet.  In actuality, everyone already knew what she wanted.  They just didn't know she'd finally spoken with their parents about it.

“I'm really excited, but I'm scared, too, about being with so many COVID patients and maybe bringing home the virus,” the Curly Top admitted.

There were bobs of heads in understanding and some general talk that it would be okay when Ricky piped up, “Hey, the cabana!”

“What about it?” Jenny asked her twin.

“Noa, when you get home, you can go around the back, come in that way to the cabana.”

Catching on, the aspiring nurse replied, “I can take a shower there first before talking to anyone.”

Excitedly, Lulu offered, “We'll make sure you always have a change of clothing.  It'll be waiting for you in one of the changing rooms.”

“We can even put in a special hamper, just for Noa's things,” Aislinn suggested.

“We want to help, too,” Ricky groaned, referring to the boys.

“Ricky, we girls know about clothing.”

Jonny sternly interjected, “I have it.  When Noa's done using the special hamper, we boys will take out her old clothes and wash and dry them.  Dad, will her clothes be okay when we launder them?”

“Yes,” Jack answered.  “From all reports, the high heat from washing disinfects everything, so there are no worries about contact with other clothes once cleaned.  Noa, it will be extra important for you to make sure that whatever you wear can take washing in high temps.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Sport, that was a super idea.  Thank you,” the general told Ricky.

“We can put more hand sanitizer around the house, too,” Brianna suggested.  “You know, all of us can easily get to it before coming inside or touching anything.”

“Yeah, like the dispenser we put on the front porch already,” Jenny agreed before biting into a piece of sausage.

“We can put dispensers by the gate and back patio,” Little Danny spoke.

“That will be helpful,” Daniel acknowledged in between sips of hot coffee.

“Thank you,” Chenoa remarked, her heart beating a bit faster than usual as she wiped away a few tears with a napkin.  “I know I'm putting all of us in more risk, but I just have to help Aunt Janet.  People need me.  I'm sorry.”

That was all it took.  Every knife, fork, and spoon in use dropped to the table as every member of the family stood and went to their sister to give her hugs and supportive pats and touches.

“Noa, this family is very proud of you and what you're doing.  We'll be okay,” Daniel promised the blonde.  “Look at all the ideas we've come up with already to make us as safe as possible, and we've only been talking about it for a few minutes.  Sweetie, we love you, we love your desire and need to help others, and we love that you're so worried about how that might impact us, but we don't want you to worry.  We want you to focus on helping others, on doing whatever Aunt Janet needs you to do.  Please don't waste your energy with negative feelings.  Think positively, and we'll all work hard to get through this safely.  Okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“No more tears, Noa,” Jonny interjected.  “I'm hungry!”

Everyone laughed and returned to their seats.  They were a strong collective, the Jackson-O'Neills, full of love and support for one another, no matter what.

====

Later that day, the brood were gathered around the television listening to the daily press conference.  It didn't go well, not for the President and not for Aislinn who silently became very upset and anxious.  She said nothing aloud and ignored the probing from her siblings about anything being wrong.  Inside, though, the teen was in distress and it was getting ready to explode.

====

The next day, the kids watched a news channel while they worked on projects or activities in the rec room.  A story came on with video from earlier in the day when the President was questioned about his comments during the previous day's press briefing.

Suddenly, Aislinn's heart beat fast and furious.  Her eyes watered and her blood pressure rose.  Her face reddened.  She couldn't hold it in any longer.

“No!” the teen exclaimed, standing up and staring at the screen as if it were an enemy.  “He's evil,” she cried.  “Did you hear that?  I just don't understand.”

“Ash?” Daniel called out as he entered the room, having heard his daughter's cry.

“He lied, Daddy, and someone's going to die.  I mean, yesterday he told people to ingest disinfectants.  Do you believe that?  The first thing we learn when we're little is not to drink or get into the chemicals.  That's why we have child locks for cabinets.  He's the friggin' President, Daddy, and he's telling the world to take poison. Someone will believe him.  Someone may be dead already, but they'll cover it up.”

The youngest Munchkin, Jack and Daniel's original miracle, was more exasperated than ever before.  Her normal bubbling and sweet persona now buried beneath her tribulation and anger.

“How could he say that and how could he say he was just being sarcastic?  I *saw* him and I *heard* his words.  He was serious.  He spoke to the doctors and they had to react.  It wasn't a joke.  I don't understand how he could be so insensitive.  I don't understand,” Aislinn cried.

The girl was gasping, her need for oxygen conflicting with her need to vent.  Some of the children started to speak, but Daniel held out his hand and shook his head.  A quiet but stern, “No,” was ordered.

“He tells his supporters to freakin' liberate their states, to protest?  They're just endangering themselves and others.  States are re-opening against his own dang guidelines and he doesn't care.  He has no heart.  People are dying because of him.  He's just ... evil,” the Munchkin sobbed.  “I can't watch this anymore.  I just can't.”

Aislinn ran out of the room, immediately followed by her fellow Munchkins and the others.

“Stop,” Daniel called out, signaling for the children to return.  He was too late to stop Jonny and Little Danny, though.  “Everyone just ... sit down, please.”

Sadly, the kids did as told.  Some were crying simply because Aislinn was crying.  Some only wanted to her to feel better so they could feel better, too.

“She's in the Bird's Nest,” Jonny reported when he and his brother returned.

“She told us to go away,” Little Danny added despondently.

“Boys, please sit down,” Daniel requested.  He walked so that he was standing in front of the brood.  “Listen, Ash is going through a tough time right now.  Give her some time to think it out.  She ... she needs space and to learn how to deal with this.”  He repeated, “Give her time and let her talk when she's ready to talk.  Please don't push her.”

“She's right, Daddy,” Little Danny commented.

“Well, right or wrong, this is about figuring out to live in a world where we can't control everything.  Believe me, I understand how she feels.”

“So do I,” Lulu interjected.

“Are you sure you want to continue to watch the briefings?  Dad and I have our concerns about that, even more so now.”

“It's the news,” Ricky rationalized verbally.

“You have the freedom now to watch pretty much what you want where news is concerned, so it is your choice, but if Ash chooses not to watch, it might be nice if she had some support.”

“Don't worry, Daddy.  We won't let her be alone,” Jenny promised.

“Thank you.”

“I'll play with her.”

The voice was a surprise to the archaeologist.

JD's head suddenly appeared from the furthest side of the long sofa.  He held a Lego toy in his hands.

“JD?  Why are you in here?” Daniel asked.  He was a tad upset over seeing the youngster and all the kids knew it.  “Brood?”

“We didn't know he was here,” Jenny claimed.

“Honest!” Ricky affirmed, crossing his heart and raising his right hand as if to swear to it.

“JD, you're too young to be listening to some of this.”

“But they all want to listen and I have no one to play with,” the child sighed.

“I'll tell you what,” Daniel began.  “If this happens again, you find Dad or I and play with us.”

“Really?” the boy asked, his whole body straightening with excitement.

“Really.”

“Cool!  I like Dad and Daddy playtime.”

The kids laughed and then Jonny said, “Daddy, we'll make sure he's not around if we turn on something he's not ready to watch yet.”

“It won't happen again,” Little Danny assured.

“Okay, well, just go on with whatever you were doing.  Like I said, give Ash some time.  It's okay for her to need to be by herself for a while.  Remember, Dad and I are always available, if you need us.”

Daniel started to walk away when he heard JD call out.

“Daddy, play with me.”

“Now?”

“They're still watching that man you don't want me to watch.”

“Uh, yes, they are,” Daniel noted as he heard the volume return to the screen.  “Okay, JD, what would you like to do?”

“Make Lego men.”

“Let's go,” Daniel replied, taking his son's hand to go up to his room where he abundance of Legos were available to be molded into men.

====

It was another hour or so before Jack returned from running essential errands.

“Where's Daddy?” the general asked Lulu and Jenny, who were chatting near the kitchen nook.

“I'm not sure,” Jenny answered.  “The last time I saw him he was with JD building Lego men.

“Thanks.”  Jack went upstairs and passed the den on his way to JD's room.  ~Whoa.~  He realized his lover was in the den.  “I thought you were building an army of Lego men.”

“Hi, Babe,” Daniel greeted, rising and giving his soulmate a kiss.  “I, uh, was, for a while.  Jack, we need to talk.  Will you close the door, please.”

“Serious,” Jack surmised as he closed the doors and then sat down in the chair near his Love's desk.

“Yes, very.  It's Ash.  No, it's all of them.”

“Tell me.”

Daniel informed Jack about the incident and how distraught Aislinn was due to the press briefing and the subsequent questioning from news people.

“She's been like this recently,” the silver-haired man noted.

“And we've talked about that.  Jack, we can't ignore how this change of life, of routine, is affecting the brood.  I think we need to pay more attention to their emotions.”

“Except for Ash, they've been fine.”

“Have they?  Are they?”  Daniel started to take a big breath, but began talking instead.  “Look at Ash.  We know she's sensitive, but we've always assumed life might hit Little Danny the hardest.  We were wrong, or we were right, but this pandemic has altered the way the children handle situations.”

Leaning forward, Jack questioned, “What exactly are you worried about?”

“I wouldn't say worried as much as I'd say concerned.”

“What's the difference?”

“Fret versus wary.”

“I'll buy that.”

“Anyway,” Daniel continued.  “I'm thinking about those two cadets and several other teenagers who have taken their lives during this crisis.”

“Daniel!”

“Jack!  I recall one of the mom's talking about her sweet teenaged daughter who was happy and very active.  She loved sports, but staying at home, losing the ability to workout and practice with other athletes, not being able to hang out with her friends, it took a toll and she took her life.”

“Our kids are not suicidal.”

“Neither was that teenager.”

Jack sighed, “What do you want us to do?”

“Talk and listen,” Daniel answered.

“Don't we do that every single day?”

“We do, but think about it, Jack.  Seriously, think about it.  Because we're all here, almost all the time, we've become lax, against our own wishes.  We think we hear and see all of it, so we aren't questioning, not like we were before the shutdown of our so-called normal lives.  Look at Ash.”

“Okay.  How do you want to go about it?”

“Both of us with each of the children as naturally as possible.  Let's get them aside, one at a time, but not one after another.”

“Okay.”  Jack paused.  “What about JD?”

“We talk to him, too.  Jack, we were playing Legos because before then JD hid in the rec room just to be with the others when they watched the news.  He's never done that before.  He loves playing with the zoo or discovering the outdoors on his own.  This was new.  He didn't want to be alone.”

“Danny, you're right, about JD, Ash, and all of it.  I won't be a father in denial.”

“And that means our children will get through this.”

“They're keeping it inside: that's what you're saying.”

“Protecting one another.”

Jack leaned back and let out a deep, pondering sigh.

“Like I said, Angel, you're right.”

“I don't care about being right.  I only want to make sure our brood gets through this crisis in good health, both physically and mentally.”

“Amen.”

====

Jack and Daniel hoped to begin their individual chats with the brood after breakfast.  However, when they entered the rec room, a full blown therapy session was already in place.  Even Jennifer and Jeff were present.  Aislinn, however, was in the Bird's Nest, where she'd stayed most of the time since her outcry the day before.

“It is frustrating, but you have to be tough,” Jonny opined.

“Dad was tough and he wasn't really who he wanted to be,” Jenny claimed.

“We can't hide our emotions,” Little Danny advised.  “I ... well, I keep saying positive things because I want everyone to feel good.”

“Sometimes, I don't feel good at all,” Lulu admitted.  “Too many people are dying and too many people don't seem to realize the danger.”

“Maybe we have to stop protecting each other so much,” Jonny sighed.

“We're the brood.  We can be honest,” Ricky stated.

“I'm scared,” Chenoa responded, deciding her brother was correct in his words.

“Why?” Lulu asked.

“Noa, you won't bring home the virus.  I have faith in what we're doing to keep you and us safe,” Brianna put forward confidently.

“It's not that,” Chenoa sighed.  “What if I can't handle it?  What if I let you guys and Aunt Janet down?  What if I can't really help anyone?”

“Oh, Noa, let those fears go,” Jennifer urged as she put her arm around her sister and pulled her in tight.  “You are very capable and Aunt Janet told me you're being a big help to her.  She doesn't have to worry about things being done right because you're there, doing it right.”

“But the patients ...”

“Noa, Aunt Janet told me you make the patients happier.  You're very attentive and she said she's seen you tapping for them.  It makes the sick feel better, maybe for just a minute, but it's a minute,” Jennifer spoke with encouragement.  “Believe in yourself like all of us believe in you.”

“I miss Grandpa,” JD admitted.  “I want to sit on his lap and listen to his stories.”

“He tells you stories all the time,” Jonny asserted.

“Not the same.  I can't sit on his lap and feel his hugs on a computer,” the child said softly and tried to stop a tear from falling.  “I hurt,” he sniffled, “on the inside.”

Both of the kids seated next to the boy comforted him.  Jenny rubbed his back, while Chenoa took hold of his right hand.

“I know how you feel, JD,” Chenoa said.

“Do you hurt inside?”

Nodding, Chenoa responded, “Yes, I do.  I miss our grandparents very much.”

“I worry about the animals a lot.  I mean, I'm scared for everyone, too, but sometimes people ignore the animals at times like this,” Little Danny confided.

“Pam said they'll be okay,” Jeff interjected.

“I know, Jeff, but they don't really know that much about the virus.  Maybe it can hurt the animals in ways they don't know yet.”

“Little Danny, we would have heard something by now if the animals were getting sick or anything,” Jonny replied.  “They're saying now COVID-19 has been around for longer than they thought, maybe back to November.  If animals were really in danger, we'd know.”

“I know.”  Little Danny nodded, but it was hard for him to let go of his concern.  “I just don't want them to be ignored, if something does happen.”

“What about Ash?  She's so quiet right now,” Jenny lamented.

“Kids,” Jack called out, causing the brood to notice the presence of their parents.  “Ash will be okay.  She has to learn what I did once, to put the bad in one place and go on with the good.”

“Uh, Dad and I would like to speak with each of you privately over the next couple of days about how our lives have changed and, more importantly, how you feel about it.  We want, no, we need you to be completely honest with us and yourselves.  This is a difficult time and we need to talk about our emotions, positive and negative.  So, please take some time to yourselves to reflect on what you're feeling.”

“No right or wrong; no saying something because you're part of the rough and tough brood,” Jack declared.  “It's all about you.  Be conceited.  Be open.  Be truthful.  Vent.  Don't keep it in, whatever it is.”

The kids nodded.  When their parents left them alone, their discussion continued with more confessions.  They learned it felt good to talk about their feelings, though it was hard to admit certain things.  Silently, the brood looked forward to speaking with their dad and daddy.  Maybe that would give them a bit more peace inside, enough to get through the worst of the pandemic and deal with whatever was next.  All in all, that's what they wanted, peace and optimism that was real.

====

Monday afternoon saw some of the children hanging out in the recreation room, as were their parents.  Jack and Daniel were seated on the sofa without an inch between them.  Brianna was also on the couch, about a yard away.  Her feet were on an ottoman and her laptop open and playing a video.  Hence, the earbuds in her ears.

Over at the game table, Lulu, Jonny, Little Danny, and Aislinn were playing cards and talking about lighthearted subjects.  Aislinn was finally feeling better.  She spoke with her dad and her daddy about life and her feelings, as she did with several of her siblings.  The conversations were assisting her in keeping a calmer existence.

“Daniel ...”

“You're on, Flyboy.”

Jack and Daniel stood and began walking away.

Pulling out the earbuds, Brianna called out, “Hey, where are you going?”

“To give the Egyptian Express a burial,” Jack laughed.

“I don't think so,” Daniel refuted.  “It's Lucky '97 that isn't going to be so lucky.”

“Care to bet?”

Remembering they were surrounded by members of the brood, Daniel told his husband, “Maybe.  We can discuss it later.”

Now standing near the game table, Jack inquired, “How ya doin', Princess?”

“I'm okay.  Thanks, Dad,” Aislinn answered.  “You don't have to worry about me all the time.”

“You're our daughter.  We have a right to worry,” Jack returned with a smile and a hint of amusement in his tone.

“There's just stuff that I don't like to think about, but it's part of my world.  It gets confusing.”

All of a sudden, Little Danny stood up.  He pulled back his chair and started to walk away, only he stopped and took several steps back to the chair.

~Geez, he's just like Danny,~ SG-1's premier commanding officer recalled.  ~He used to do that all the time.~

“Ash, I have to get something.  Give me five minutes, okay.  Uh, stay here.  You, too, please,” Little Danny spoke, his eyes going from his sister to his parents as he spoke.

“Shall we sit?” Jack asked his lover.

“Sure.”

The parents joined the kids at the game table.

“I wonder what he's getting?” Daniel pondered verbally.

“I think I know,” Jonny responded.

“Care to share?” asked the general.

“It's for Little Danny to share, Dad,” Jonny answered seriously.

“Okay then.”  Jack picked up the deck of the cards and announced, “The game is Fish.”

Everyone at the table laughed, including Aislinn, which brightened the day for both of her parents.

Brianna was still on the sofa, her earbuds back in place as her video dealing with dolphin research continued.

====

“Ash.”

The pretty teen looked up upon hearing Little Danny's voice.  He was carrying something in his hands.  It looked to be a frame of some sorts, but what was in it was hidden against the boy's chest.

“A long time ago, when I was little, real little; maybe it was when I was reading the encyclopedias, but I don't really remember when exactly, but I found this, somewhere.  Growing up, I had a hard time, sometimes, because I didn't know why people wanted to kill my turkeys, or why one kid bullied another, or why Lulu's foster dad would beat her.  Why were there wars and why were families hungry and why would anyone throw a dog out of a car?  I didn't know how to live with all that, except my mind would go to this, and it helped, so I hope it helps you, just a little, maybe.”

**Danny, that boy is the splittin' everything of you.  I challenge any English teacher to punctuate what he just said.**

**Shut up, Jack.**

**I love you, too, Angel.**

Little Danny handed the framed phrase to his sister and explained, “It was written by Reinhold Neibuhr around 1930, I think.  He was a theologian.  There's more to the prayer, and there are a lot of variations and versions, but it's the first part that has always touched me.”

Aislinn took a look at the printed words and read them aloud very softly:

“O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,
The courage to change what can be changed,
and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”

“We can't change everything we don't like, Ash, even if it's bad stuff,” Little Danny remarked, “but we can use what we've learned from Dad and Daddy to change what we can, but then we have to use our hearts and common sense to know what is changeable and what isn't.  I'm not making any sense.”

“Oh, Little Danny, it makes perfect sense.  Thank you,” Aislinn spoke as she stood up and shared a hug.  “You're the best!”  She pulled back, a big smile on her face.  “Would you help me find a place to put this?”

“Sure,” the teen agreed.

“I'll help, too,” Jonny added.

“Can I help, too?” Lulu asked.

“The more the merrier,” Aislinn answered, sounding more like her old self than any other time recently.

“Well,” Jack began.  “We're alone again.”

“Naturally,” Daniel replied.  “Weren't we about to ...”

“Oh, yeah,” the Silver Fox responded.  “One takedown of the Egyptian Express coming right up.”

“In your dreams, Jack.  The Express is going to push back your '97 to at least '65.”

Laughing, the lovers headed for the train room where the challenge would begin and a bet placed.  This was the type of competition both thrived on and which always brought extra excitement to their eternal love affair.

====

When evening came and the family was readying for dinner, Daniel's brain erupted with an idea he couldn't ignore.

“Excuse me,” he told anyone around him in the living room.  “I have to make a phone call.

The archaeologist opted to make his call from his soulmate's study.  He stood while waiting for the call to be answered.

“Janet, hi,” Daniel greeted.  He engaged in some general chit chat for a minute or two, and the two friends discussed Chenoa and how she was doing in her expanded and more involved duties at the physician's side.  Then he got to his point.  “Uh, how's Teal'c?  Is he around?”

Daniel was surprised to hear the big guy was on Chulak.  He knew his friend went to his home planet in February for political business, but he assumed Teal'c was back by now.

“We decided he should stay, not knowing if it would be safe for him to return,” Janet explained.  “He was going to have to go back to Chulak again in a few weeks and I,” she sighed, not finishing her sentence.

“You're the doctor.”

“The doctor who doesn't know what sleep is anymore.”  Janet sighed again.  “I miss him to pieces, Daniel, but if he were here, I probably wouldn't see him anyway.”

“Why didn't you tell us?”

“Daniel, we're all too busy to think about ourselves right now.  You would have felt sorry for me, but I'm too busy and too tired to have you feel sorry for me.”

“Janet, are you okay?”

The woman laughed, “Oh, I don't know what I just said.  I know I should have told you, but what would have been the point?  You can't come over and dump heaps of pizza in my body and even if you could, I'd fall asleep after one bite.  Forgive me and don't you dare feel guilty.  Doctor's orders.”

“Okay,” Daniel agreed.  “So Teal'c's on Chulak.”

“Did you need something?” Janet chuckled at her friend's statement.

“Well, yes, and maybe you can help me.”

“I'll try.”

Daniel nodded, an automatic reaction even though he wasn't in Janet's presence.  He expounded on his needs and smiled when the redhead told him she could be of assistance.

With the call completed, Daniel walked swiftly into the living room and advised, “I have an errand to run.  Don't wait for me to have dinner.”

“Danny?”

“Everything's fine,” Daniel assured.  “Oh, I'm taking your truck.”

“Danny, what ...” Jack's words weren't heard as his lover exited the house.  “Okay.”

The kids who were present simply shrugged at their curious dad and went about their business.  They were hungry and eager for dinnertime to arrive.

====

By the time the younger father returned home, dinner was over and most of the children were upstairs.  He brought in a couple of boxes which explained the need for Jack's truck.  The question now was where to set up the items in the box.  He needed an appropriate location and while he considered an intimate space like the Bird's Nest, he thought it was too small to be safe.

~The guest room,~ Daniel told himself.

“Daniel, what's going on?”

“Grab a box.”

Soon, Jack realized what his Love had in mind and inquired, “Do you think it will work?”

“Well, it did with you and if you can learn, so can Ash.”

Jack chuckled.  He never believed in this stuff, until Daniel taught him after his truck accident that left him paralyzed for a time.

With everything in place, Jack left his husband in the guest room and walked upstairs to locate Aislinn.  Once found, he asked her to go downstairs to the guest room.

Confused but obedient, the teenager did as told.

====

Aislinn knocked lightly on the guest room door.

“Daddy?”

“Come in, Ash.”

Aislinn opened the door and her eyes immediately took in the unusual sight.  She scanned the room while slowly closing the door.  It was dark, but the room was lit.

“Wow, this is a lot of candles.”

“Come here,” Daniel requested as he sat Indian-style near the head of the bed with his arms stretched outward and his palms upward.

Aislinn sat on the bed, mimicking her father's position.

“Ash, did you know that Teal'c used to require what we call meditation?”

“He still meditates, doesn't he?”

“Yes, but in the beginning, he and other Jaffa had to kel'no'reem to stay alive.  Once the symbiotes were removed, they could just sleep, like us, but most of them do meditate.  I remember entering Teal'c's quarters at the Mountain one night and being awed by the abundance of candles he used.  He invited me to join him, so I did, many times over the years.  There's a lot to be learned in the silent and private union between a person and the universe, or even just in your soul.”

“Are we going to mediate?”

“Well, it's helped me sometimes, and it's even helped Dad at the worst of times.  I thought maybe now it might help you, when you feel lost and alone or angry about those things you can't change.  Would you like to try it?”

“Yes,” Aislinn answered, her response joined by the bobbing of her head.  “Teach me, Daddy.”

“Okay, let's begin.”

Aislinn smiled and closed her eyes, following her daddy's every instruction.  She wanted tranquility and resolution to her conflict.  Between the sharing of feelings, the Serenity Prayer, and meditation, she hoped to have it.

====

After lunch the next day, the phone rang.  It was Pam Lawrence asking Jack if the kids watched the news that morning.

“Not today, not that I know of,” Jack responded.  “They've cut back on depressing.”

“Is he around?”

“Something wrong?  Pam, the dogs?”

“Let me talk with Little Danny and then he can explain.”

~I don't like the sound of this,~ Jack thought.  Louder than ever, he shouted, *Little Danny, front and center*.”

The teenager hurried into the living room, surprised when he has handed the phone by his dad, who instructed sternly, “Keep me up to date.  Understood?”

Confused and very worried, Little Danny nodded and took the phone.  As Jack left the area, the teen spoke with Pam.  He asked a lot of questions and received her assurance she would let him know if anything changed or if the situation worsened.  He thanked her and then walked to the entranceway.  His mind was all over the place, but as he stared through the windows, he centered himself.  He went to the intercom and pressed the “whole house” button, so that he would be heard in every room of the residence.

“Bijou, Katie, Mittens, and Calico.  Please come to the living room.  Thank you.”

--

In JD's room, Daniel asked, “Did Little Danny just call a zoo meeting?”

“Na-huh,” JD replied.  “He didn't ask for Bogey or Cream Cheese or ...”

“I get it,” Daniel interrupted with a smile.

--

In the kitchen, Jack thought, ~Odd, very odd, and I don't like it.~

--

“Jonny, have we ever had a dog and cat meeting?” Ricky inquired as the two cleaned their room.

“Not that I remember.  Maybe we should check it out, covertly.”

--

Amazingly, the four animals entered the living room.  They saw Little Danny, sitting on the carpet, his legs crossed in front of him.

“Thanks for coming.  We have to have a talk, a very important one.”

With the family slowly gathering and peeking inside the room from various areas, the pets all approached Little Danny and sat down in front of him.

“There's a pug in North Carolina.  That's a state that's pretty far away, but that's neither here nor there.  Anyway, he's a cute dog and he and his family, his humans, went for testing, and they all have the Coronavirus, all of them.  The mom, dad, kid, and the pug.

“The dog is okay.  He was sick for a few days.  He didn't want to eat and had a weird cough that was really odd for him, but he's okay now.

“Mom and Dad are both front line workers.  Their son and pets are kinda like us, I think,” he laughed, “he said they lick each other and the dogs eat their plates with leftovers.  Well, they don't eat the plates, they lick them and get whatever leftovers they can  The pug sleeps in their beds.  I'm not sure if the other dog does or not.”

Little Danny took a breath and noticed the animals were paying close attention to him.

“The other good news is that the family's cat and other dog did not have the virus, so what does this mean?”  The Munchkin paused while ensuring his emotions were kept in check.  “It means we have to work a bit harder from now on to keep you as safe as we are.  No socializing with any strays that may pass our way, and that includes those cats that like to walk across the fence and tease you,” he said pointedly in the direction of the beagles.  “We don't have a lot of company these days, but if we do, you all need to keep your distance.  I'm not sure about cats.  I mean, maybe you guys shouldn't play or talk for a little bit?”

Mittens looked at Calico and meowed.  Calico gave a brief movement of her head that was unclear in meaning to the human in front of her.  Bijou and Katie automatically shifted to their left, not wanting to harm their feline friends.  However, Mittens took the situation into her control.  She purposely shoved her body between the two canines.  She leaned on each one as she purred.

As if in defiance of Little Danny, Mittens stared at him and let out a stern, “Meeeeeeow!”

Calico added a meow of her own as if to say, “What she said.”

The teenager smiled and replied, “I thought so.  That's how we are, the brood and Dad and Daddy.  No one and no disease can keep us apart.  We want you to be healthy.  Pam isn't worried.  She wants you to know she thinks you'll be safe as long as our family stays safe.  It will be okay.  We're going to get through this together.  Be smart.  Be safe.  I love you.  Hugs?”

Sure enough, all four critters engaged in a round of hugs and kisses, none afraid of what their germs might cause or what some mysterious disease might do.  They were strong with love and that, combined with common sense, would keep them healthy.  That's what they believed, humans, canines, and felines.

====

Awhile later, Jack and Daniel decided to talk for a while in the gazebo.  After all, it was a nice afternoon with temps in the high seventies.

“Look,” Jack said to his Love.

Daniel looked over and saw Little Danny and several of his siblings playing with the beagles.

“They are gonna be two very spoiled dogs by the time this is over,” the general opined.

“Well, it gives the brood someone else to worry about and reminds them to appreciate the zoo.  I mean, it's not that they don't.”

“I got this.  They love the zoo,” Jack stated, “but there's also the human nature condition that says to some extent, the brood takes the zoo for granted.  Further, fussing over the dogs and the cats for a while will distract them from the stuff they don't like.  Am I close?”

“Very,” Daniel acknowledged with a smile.

From there, the conversation verged in and out from the kids to the virus and anything and everything that popped into their minds.

“David called earlier when you were on the phone with Abayomi,” Jack commented.  “He's fine.  No one has any symptoms and Mitzi, especially, won't come out the bedroom.”

“Two weeks in a bedroom.”

“Hey, I could go for that,” the older man teased with a hunger and leer in his eyes.

--

“The big guy is still on Chulak?  Geez, where have we been?”

“On Earth, staying at home and very much to ourselves,” Daniel answered.

“Danny, did you hear about that pen pal program some nursing home started?”

“No, but it, uh, sounds interesting.”

“Writing is good.  Little Danny told me he enjoyed sending out those cards to Ernest and Catherine and other folks.  What do you think if we put it out there for the kids?”

“I think that would be a good idea.”

“We'll bring it up at the next family meeting,” Jack suggested.

“Babe, I think we should do more than that.”

“Such as?”

“Follow Little Danny's lead and write notes to people we haven't seen or even talked to in a while.  There are people in our lives who end up on the sidelines because they don't live close by or we're just too busy, and I'm not blaming us.  Sometimes, it's them and their busy lives, so it's no one's fault, but maybe we should spend an hour writing a few cards, letting people we do care about know we're thinking about them.”

“I'm game.  Your PC or mine?”

“Neither.  We write, like Little Danny did.”

“Hand cramp, but I'm game.”

--

“One step forward, two steps back,” Jack groaned.

“Who?”

“Our governor.  Look, he's done some good stuff.  The masks: that was good.  Joining up with California and other western states: that's good, too.”

“But?”

“But re-opening what he's re-opening next week is ridiculous.  It's too soon.”

“We knew it was coming.”

“Backward.”

Daniel nodded, but moved on his mind.  This was an unchangeable item.

“Don't dwell, eh?” Jack inquired.

“Don't dwell,” Daniel confirmed.

--

“Jenny's a little sad,” Daniel noted as he watched some birds in a tree.

“The district's remote learning is up and running,” Jack stated.

“I told her she could plan sessions for when the, uh, what to call it, the semester ends online.  There really is a lot her educational network could offer in between remote sessions, or whatever they ultimately do with the school system..”

“Did she go for it?”

“It's being pondered,” Daniel replied.  “I don't think she'll let it go.  She really likes it.”

“Maybe she'll be a teacher.”

“Maybe.  I'm not sure she knows what she wants to do when she's older.  Any ideas?”

“Not a clue.”

--

“Victoria Falls.”

“What?” Daniel questioned.

“We should go there.”

“To Victoria Falls.”

“It's between Zambia and Zimbabwe,” Jack noted.

“I know where it is, Jack.  Why there?”

“I've been looking at some pictures of the waterfall.  They call it 'the smoke that thunders'.  I'd like to see that.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Well, we have four wedding anniversaries, plus a special get-together night, to choose from.  Once the COVID-19 situation works itself out, we can go.”

“It's a date.”

The lovers grinned, the idea of a romantic getaway swirling through their minds and hearts.  It was like now, the two of them, just being together, united in their life partnership and needing nothing more.

====

Thousands of people across America were dead from COVID-19 and there were a number of well publicized outbreaks in nursing homes throughout the country.  The Jackson-O'Neills couldn't help them all, but the day arrived when they were helping one, one entire nursing home, that is.

As is turned out, Abayomi was happy to help.  Medical facilities were not one of his passions, but the Jackson-O'Neills were.  He purchased both the old and new facilities and invested a huge sum for beds and other items.  He was certain he could sell both places in the future, though he made a solemn promise to the brood that he would ensure the safety of the residents for years to come.  His word was all the family needed to have confidence in the plan.

The other plus to having Abayomi as the primary investor was that not only did he have money to spare, but he had power.  He knew a lot of people who could get things done today that would take most people weeks, if not months, to complete. The nursing home situation was urgent, so double and then triple overtime was employed to fix up and convert what was to be the new nursing home facility in record time.

Stuart Lapierre and his team updated the new facility to the desires of his boss, which was either Jack and Daniel or Abayomi, whom he never met but talked to over the phone.  He wasn't sure who was the boss, but he did as instructed by all of them.

Physical distancing was considered in the new layout, as was a wing that would be used as a quarantine area when needed.  As a result, rooms were larger than those in the average nursing home and, with a designated place for those with the virus or any other contagious ailment, containment was possible, altering the odds of mass disease breakouts that a normal facility faced.

Equipment, including the PPE purchased by the family, was put in place.  A newly hired staff, all recommendations of either Janet's or Carolyn's, were ready to go.  The old staff was in quarantine and were welcome to join the new environment once cleared as free from the virus.

Inspections passed at a hastened rate, thanks to contacts in high places, and the new facility was given the okay to open.

Finally, the patients were transferred, some in ambulances others in police cars, and a few in military transports secured by Jonny in a talk with General Landry.

Standing outside her car, her body several feet from that of Daniel, Mrs. Wilson watched as the final transfer was completed.

“I'm not sure what you did, Doctor Jackson-O'Neill,” the woman spoke, “or how you did it, but this is a miracle.”

“We just wanted to help.”

“Help?  Doctor, you just saved a lot of lives.  I hope you know that.”  The woman smiled and promised, “After my quarantine, I hope you'll take me back.  I really do care about our residents and I think we can keep them safe now.”

“Marie's expecting you, Mrs. Wilson,” Daniel assured.  “What happened wasn't your fault.  No one saw this coming.”

“Thank you.”

As the woman exited the parking lot, Daniel texted the new manager of the nursing home, Marie Hill, a nurse he'd met at Cheyenne Mountain years ago.  She agreed to help out with the new facility, partly because she was ready for a change in her career and partly because Daniel was the one offering her the job.  He held a special place in her heart.

“Please be sure to welcome Mrs. Wilson back after quarantine.  More later.”

In reality, all of the prior staff were invited to return.  None of them were to blame for the situation that occurred.  From their personal investigation of the workers, done with the usual assistance of Sam, Jack and Daniel determined the personnel were earnest workers who tried to make the best of a tragic circumstance.  They hoped the entire roster would return, giving the new facility more-than-adequate nursing care, which was one of the family's goals.

====

Later that night, a plate of nachos in his hand, Jack sat down next to his lover on their roof deck, and opined, “I can't believe Lulu made that call.  She's still shaking.”

“Well, that was the assignment Jonny gave her.”

“He knew she could do it.”

“She didn't”

“But she did it.”

“Yes, she did,” Daniel acknowledged with a smile.  “Jack, do you know why Abayomi is so taken with Lulu?”

“He likes Shirley Temple movies?” Jack mused.

“He does, but do you know why?”

“Okay, I'll bite.  Why?”

“He had a daughter.  He showed me her picture once.  She had hair similar to Lulu's, black and curly, and he told me her laugh made him feel good inside.”

“What happened?”

“All I know is she died.  He never said how, but she was just twelve.”

Jack bowed his head, memories of the loss of his first son, Charlie, vivid in his mind.

“Abayomi said that Lulu has the same purity of his daughter's laugh.  She reminds him of the goodness he felt inside when his daughter laughed.”  Daniel looked off into the distance.  “I'd forgotten about it until now.”

“I'm glad you told me.”

The quiet of the night overtook the couple for several minutes.  Each had things on their mind, but it was Daniel who Jack was chiefly curious about.

“Pennies or a gold mine?” Jack inquired about his husband's thoughts.

“Jack, getting the facility ready has me thinking.”

“Always dangerous, but always worthwhile,” Jack teased while snacking on his Mexican delight.

“Jack, we both know that this virus has changed things.  The ... new norm is developing, but no one knows what that is yet.”

“I'm with you so far.”

“We have a decision to make.”

“Listening, and eating,” the old man chuckled.

“The new norm is going to be different and we have to think ahead for J-O.”

Jack's hand dropped down, his tortilla chip settling on the plate.  He looked at Daniel and nodded.

“Yeah.  Big money.”

“We need to decide,” Daniel put forth.  “We already decided we aren't going to stop salaries or benefits, but we need to re-structure.”

“You mean we need to renovate our still-new and beautiful offices, all of them,” Jack deduced.

“Exactly.  Babe, we need physical distancing.  We need to re-think how we operate on a regular basis.  We need ...”

“We need Alex,” Jack interjected as he thought about their architect and interior designer, Alex Dennison.

“Yes, but we also need to alter our requirements.”

“More words.”

“Bibi called this morning,” Daniel informed about original J-O Enterprises' employee, Bibreanay Appleton.

“How's she doing?”

“Good.  She's, uh, tired of her house.  She said she's done Spring cleaning at least three times.  She has boxes of things to take to Goodwill.”

“A plus of being home: cleaning it,” Jack joked.

“She also said it's been easier with the family with her being home.”

“Ah, your point.”

“Yes.  I think we should allow some of our staff to work at home, at least part of the time.”  Daniel shifted, his body leaning forward a bit even as he turned to face his life partner.  “Babe, we have to redo the office to allow for physical distancing. We do have a lot of space, but it isn't necessary for everyone to be there every day.  We could make their lives easier by allowing them to work from home some of the time.  That would also ease up problems the cafeteria.  I mean, uh, we need to change the gym layout, too, and maybe we should even re-think the parking area.”

“We may need to reopen the hoffice,” Jack mumbled while eating as he thought about the money involved with the renovations.

“It's hooked up, small, but, maybe, if necessary.”

“One problem,” Jack said blandly.

“What's that?”

“We sold it.”  His silver hair making him as handsome as ever, Jack loved seeing his soulmate laugh at his joke.  He decided to carry on with the humor.  “It's still there.  We'll buy it again.”

The younger man laughed more.  After all, while the couple did consider selling the combined house and office, they never actually did.  Their goal after the new office was completed was to ensure the safety of the neighborhood where the hoffice was located.  These days, the place was only used on an occasional basis, but it was still there and available.

“We could.”

Jack grinned that Daniel was playing along, but then turned back towards reality as he offered, “Or we could make changes and make what we have work.”

“We could,” Daniel agreed, his laughter ebbing as he, too, returned to actual life and not the mental game playing of moments before.  “It's a lot of money, Jack, and we won't know where we stand for a while, but if we wait, we're going to be in a cluster of businesses, all out to do the same thing.  We need Alex now, Jack, and we need to start planning about the future.”

“Testing employees?”

“The federal government isn't going to be much help.”

Jack let out a snort, a total disbelief that the current administration would do anything helpful during the crisis.

“We'll need to plan on testing and having a plan and a backup plan if employees test positive for COVID-19.”

“Three buildings: that's a lot, Danny.”

“That's why we have a decision to make, and, Jack, I think maybe we need to consult with the brood.”

“Yeah, we would do something like that.”

“It's who we are and it's who they are.  I think they have a right to be part of the process since this could alter their lives.”

“Daniel, I know what they're going to say.”

“Me, too.”

“Then why do we have to ask?”

With a smile, Daniel answered, “Because it's who we are.”

“Danny, in this rush to open up the states, I think they're going to do it when it's not safe,” Jack opined.  “What do you think about us putting it all on the line and sticking to our guns?”

Daniel drew a breath and replied, “I won't risk our family, not our immediate family, our extended family, or our business family.  I couldn't live with myself if we opened up too early and someone got sick.”  He paused and shook his head.  “No, Jack, I can't do it.  We put it all on the line and stick to our guns.”

“No matter the cost?”

“The cost can't be higher than someone's life.”

Jack nodded in agreement and for a short while, the couple sat in silence, each bearing the reality of their decision within their souls.

“Angel, Ash asked me a question recently,” Jack advised, moving on to another subject.

“Which was?”

“How to compartmentalize the stuff I bury.”

“Oh.  What did you tell her?”

“To just let go of the crap and hang on to the precious.”

“Did that work?”

“Yep, or so she said.”

“She's been more herself the last day or two,” Daniel noted.  “I think the prayer Little Danny gave her has helped her find peace.  She,  uh, is learning to compartmentalize for her mental health.”

“Whatever works,” Jack responded.  “Little Danny.”

“Well, I'm glad he finally shared with us.  I've always wondered how he survived the realities of the world. I wasn't sure he could when he was young.”

“Words on a piece of paper: amazing what they can do.”

“And you.”

“Me?”

“Babe, they've heard me talk about it and you, too, how you put things into little boxes in your brain.  They all know you did things you don't want to talk about, and they know you've dealt with it by having those boxes.  Jack, you showed them that it can be done.  You are living proof that the bad things in the world can be compartmentalized, letting you live with the good things.  You've set the example, and our children are following in step, when necessary.”

With mock shock but some genuine surprise, Jack returned, “*I've* kept Little Danny sane all these years?”

Daniel laughed softly as he affirmed, “Yes, Jack, you have, and I thank you for it.”

“You're welcome,” was the semi-joking reply, which was followed by a quick joining of the lips.  “Those talks with the kids have helped all of them.  I know you don't want me to say this, Love, but I repeat, you were right.  They needed to share; so did we.”

“Apparently,” the archaeologist acknowledged.  “Jonny feeling lonely,” Daniel sighed.

“It took a lot to get that out of him, but I'm glad he fessed up.”

“It takes family *and* friends for well-rounded health,” Daniel reminded.  “The brood buried themselves in projects, important ones, caring ones, ones they needed to do, but they hid behind those activities and pretended everything was okay.”

“But it wasn't, and it took Ash's explosion to get us to realize that.”

“They didn't realize it until then, either.  They're not always trying to be strong for one another now; they're just trying to be there, to hear and understand.”

“I can't believe I'm going to say this, but talking it through, not just with Jonny, but all the kids, is making a difference.”

“There's nothing wrong with talking.”

Jack laughed and kissed his husband.  It was time for something lighter.

“Nacho?” Jack offered, holding out his plate.

“Jack, there's a half a chip left.”

“It's good.”

“Eat it yourself.”

“Why, thank you.”

“You're welcome,” Daniel mused as he leaned back into his original position against the wall.  “By the way, I love you.”

“I love you, too, Angel, always and forever.”

“Forever and always, Babe, forever and always.”

====

The recreation room was full with the entire Jackson-O'Neill family present, including in-laws Peter Hamilton and a totally healthy Chely Jackson-O'Neill, each holding their respective babies while their spouses participated without distraction in the family discussion.

It was the last day of April and answers to the Coronavirus were still scarce, though professionals were working feverishly to find a cure and a vaccine.  Almost fifteen-thousand people in Colorado tested positive by this date and over seven-hundred were dead.  Some states were in various phases of re-opening while others were firmly locked into their stay-at-home orders.

As for Colorado, the stay-at-home ordered expired and was replaced by what the governor called “guidance” in lieu of an order.  This safer-at-home system retained physical distancing and other guidelines, but, as Jack and Daniel suspected would happen, allowed some non-essential businesses to open via curbside pickups or with only half of their personnel.  People could now gather in groups of under ten.  For the lovers, it was all happening too fast, which was why their course of action would be slower, regardless of the costs, assuming the children agreed.

People were feeling a combination of optimism, anxiousness, and uncertainty, but the good news received a bit earlier from Janet was making this family thankful.  Dominic was doing well, both physically and mentally.  He still had five more days of quarantine to live through, but everyone was visualizing a safe outcome for the hardworking man.

While David was not present, he was tuned in via webcam while alone in a bedroom of the Miller residence.  He regretted not being home with his family, but he was glad he chose to spend some time helping friends after the unexpected death of John Miller.  Two days after the man's passing, Mitzi tested positive for the Coronavirus.  She was self-isolating in her master bedroom which had a full bath attached.  She didn't mind the time alone as she couldn't imagine getting through a day without her late husband.  This gave her time to grieve and adapt.

Still, Mitzi Miller was concerned about her children and David and refused to let any of them near her.  Talks were done via an open doorway with her far back from the entranceway and the others not allowed to cross the threshold.  She even had Calvin bring in the family's portable dishwasher so she could wash her dishes after eating.  The kids would bring the meals on a tray to her bedroom and she would retrieve it after they walked away.  It was important to her to take every precaution possible in protecting the young people in her home.

Right now, though, the focus was on J-O Enterprises and just how far the Jackson-O'Neills would go to keep it as open and safe as possible.  Their children present, Jack and Daniel laid out their plans and goals for the future.

“So that's it,” Daniel concluded.  “As you know, Dad and I decided not to re-open J-O as yet.  We just don't believe it's safe, so we're going to wait and continue with what we've been doing, especially since we want to do this renovation of the buildings first.”

“Which brings us to the point of this meeting,” Jack pointed out.

Daniel continued, “The decision now is to risk it all and go all in, or play it safe and hope for the best.”

“Kids, J-O is part of you, all of you, whether you end up working for the company or become famous singers and dancers and nurses, or whatever you end up being, but what happens to J-O impacts your financial future.  When we risk, we could lose and losing now could mean big changes that you aren't used to dealing with in your young lives.  What's your pleasure?”

Lulu was first to speak when she giggled and said, “Dad, do you remember the first time I called you Dad?”

“I had a heart attack,” Jack answered, dramatically putting his hands to his chest.

“I had nothing when I did that.  Now I have everything because I have you and Daddy, and Jonny, and everyone.  I have Calico and I have myself.  The money doesn't mean anything to me.  I know what's it like to have nothing.  I have everything because I have a name, Jackson-O'Neill.”

Soft praises and nods went out from those gathered.

“I know you think we don't understand,” Jenny stated.  “You've kept money from us for a long time.  I mean, you never made money an issue.  We know we have it, but none of us really know about it, like how much or anything.  Well, maybe Jen and Jeff know, but the rest of us don't, and it's okay.  We are *not* spoiled.  Dad, Daddy, we love J-O, but we love each other more.”

“You're not spoiled,” Jack agreed.  “You know, after Aunt Sara and I divorced, I bought a bike and this house; oh, a new telescope.  That was all I needed.  After that, I just deposited the checks and went about my business.”

“I was broke for a, a long, *long* time,” Daniel told the kids.  “Then I found myself as the, uh, well ...”

“Daddy was the highest ranking civilian at the Mountain, so high that he ran the place sometimes.”

“I did not.”

“Did so.”

“Not.”

“Daniel, you outranked the military types several times.  Whether or not you chose to take advantage of those situations was your business, but like it or not, you were in charge.”

“I guess I was in charge, a few times, but the point is that once I finally was paid, I rented a nice apartment and acquired a few things, but after that, I deposited the checks.  There was another piece to this.  Jack?” Daniel prompted.

“Daddy and I played the stock market,” Jack told the kids.

“Actually,  we played each other.”

“It was a game: which one of us could outdo the other with the stocks we decided to invest in.  We made bets.”

“Jack!”

“But we won't discuss that part of this.  The point, as Daddy says, is that the money just grew and then we started J-O, and wham-bam, it grew some more.”

“A lot more.”

“So we're rich?” Jenny asked, expecting an honest answer.

“Until now, Sweetie, we haven't had to worry about our futures,” Daniel answered, not wanting to use the word 'rich' no matter how obvious it might be.

“But that could change,” Jack noted dryly.  “Kids, we don't know what the new norm will be or how J-O will fit into that new world.  We're being as loyal as we can to our employees, but now we have this decision to make.  Our money could disappear; less extras for us all; but the house is secure.  What say you?”

Silence loomed until Jonny stood up and groaned, “Oh, for crying out loud.”  Addressing his siblings, he asked, “What's the family motto?”

In unison, the brood responded, “Together, we can do anything.  We're unbeatable!”

Jonny looked his parents and insisted, “There's your answer.  Discussion over.  Ice cream!”

Jack and Daniel watched with pride and joy as their children headed for the hospitality room to serve up giant portions of their favorite dessert.

“You're not surprised, are you?” Jennifer asked her parents.  “You raised us.  We're you.  The brood is doing what you would do because it's who we are.  If we could never afford ice cream again, we'd be fine because no matter what, we'd have each other.”

“Yeah, thanks, Sweetie.”

Jeff smiled at the conversation and after Jennifer exited the area questioned, “Dad, Daddy, do you want me to talk with Alex about the changes?  We're having a Skype call in the morning.”

“Good idea, Son.  You talk with the boss,” Jack agreed while standing.  “Come on, Love.  Ice cream!”

“Hey, Dad,” Jeff called out, prompting his parents to turn back and face him.  “Um, since you like to bet, how would you like to place a wager that Alex has already thought about this?”

“Alex?” Jack laughed, his head rearing back briefly.  “By now, Alex probably has the blueprints done and construction crews on standby.  Bet?  No way!”

“Darn.  That probably would have paid for the baby's college education,” Jeff lamented humorously.

“We're already paying for twelve, count 'em, twelve of those.  You figure out how to pay for your one.”

“Two.”

“Two?” Daniel echoed with raised eyebrows.

“Chely's pregnant, but don't tell anyone.  She wants to keep it quiet for a while.”

“That's great, Jeff,” Daniel said as he and Jack moved forward to hug the young man.

“Uh, I told Jen, so she knows,” Jeff admitted.  “She probably told Bri ...”

“... which means we're probably the last to know,” Jack teased.

“Or not,” Daniel spoke with a grin.

Jeff laughed and headed for the hospitality room with his parents.  Things were in limbo, lives were being lost, but another baby was on the horizon and he was happy about that.

No one knew what the future would hold.  A new normal was coming, but what exactly would that be?  With the approval of their children, Jack and Daniel were going full tilt with their plan to be at the forefront of the upcoming norm, but doing so on their own timeline while also maintaining salaries and benefits for employees in three states would come with risk.  Investing in groundbreaking alterations of three buildings added to the financial gamble.  How would it all turn out?

Jack and Daniel didn't have the answer, but they had each other, their brood, and their zoo.  They also had the shared knowledge that they'd be okay, whether there was money in the bank or not.  After all, they were surrounded by love and that's all they really ever needed.

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

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