Decision Time

Author:  Orrymain
Category:  Slash, Drama, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - January 25 - June 30, 2012
Spoilers:  Rules of Engagement (teeny tiny)
Size:  106kb
Written: January 1-6, February 1,5,24,28, March 9-10, 2007 Tweaked: September 16, 2007 Revised for consistency: January 15, 2008
Summary:  Jennifer faces a turning point, one of many as she begins to leave childhood behind and faces the future as an adult.  Meanwhile, the family puts on another show.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) “Where is Love” words and music by Lionel Bart; “You Two” and Drummin' Drummin' Drummin', written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman; “Sisters”, words and music by Irving Berlin.
2) 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.**
3) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
4) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my other fic(s), “Transitions: Another Ten Months”
5) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Jodi, Linda, Claudia, Cassiopeia!

Decision Time
by Orrymain

====
--January 25, 2012
====

Lounging on the swing in the Pod, a cozy corner of the outside part of the Jackson-O'Neill house, Jennifer chuckled quietly to herself, watching several of her younger brothers and sisters playing Kick the Can in the backyard.  It was a fun game; she used to play it herself all the time, back when she was a little girl, when neither David nor Chenoa were even a gleam in the eyes of their birth parents, the Morgans.

The teenager sighed, staring down at the numerous applications she'd been reviewing for what seemed like hours.  She'd done her homework, of course, researching the various colleges she was interested in attending, and she knew all the deadlines.  Following her parents' advice, she was trying to get everything sorted as early as possible.  In just a few months, her junior year of high school would be over.  The application deadlines for the colleges she'd chosen were scattered, some being as early as June of this year and others not until the fall of the next year.

~I'm still not sure which one I really want to go to, though,~ Jennifer pondered silently, thumbing through several of the brochures.

The teen had had a difficult enough time deciding on a major before finally settling on Elementary Education, though even now, she wasn't certain that would really be her future.  It was just that she didn't know what else to do.  She had some minor interest in business, as well as in music, literature, and psychology, but none of those subjects excited her beyond dabbling.  Of course, she loved her sewing and weaving, but thought it would be a silly thing to graduate college in.  Actually, that was a lie.  She didn't think it was so silly, but she was afraid her friends would.

~I'm going to attend college and study textiles,~ Jennifer sighed inwardly.  ~Fashion: I'm going to study fashion.~  She sighed again, thinking, ~Yeah, right.  They'd think I want to be some drugged out, kooky New York or Paris designer.~  ~I want to learn about fabric and design.~ The girl grimaced at the notion, though it was her inner passion.  ~I could never be as good as Mrs. Valissi. I'm just dreaming.  Okay, I decided on teaching.  I know I can do that,~ she thought to herself determinedly.

Jennifer picked up her pen and finished filling out the last couple of applications.

====

When the teenager finished her task, she got up to go inside.  That was at the same moment when the younger kids were finishing up their Kick the Can game.

“Jen!” Chenoa called out, spotting her older sister, a bright smile on her face.

“How was the game?” Jennifer asked as her six-and-a-half-year-old sister ran to meet her.

“It was fun!” Chenoa exclaimed.  “Jen, can we go bauble shopping again?”

Jennifer laughed, stroking her hand through the girl’s curly-blonde locks.  Bauble shopping was a tradition that had begun years ago with their mother and Jennifer.  Every now and then, the mother and daughter would go to the store and look for inexpensive jewelry or trinkets, otherwise known as baubles.  They'd buy a few of the ones they liked and then sew them on their clothing.  The cheaper or gaudier the bauble, the better, because the challenge for them was to affix them to their clothing in such a way as to make the bauble look acceptable, cute even.

As a present for Christmas last year, Jennifer had taken Chenoa on their first bauble hunt.  Since Chenoa loved to sew, too, and Jennifer loved giving her lessons, it seemed a perfect Morgan tradition to revive.

“Sure, we can.  How about Saturday morning, if Dad and Daddy say it's okay?” the teen asked.

The younger girl smiled even more widely as she said, “They'll say 'yes'.  When we shop, will you tell me more about Mommy's baubles?”

Holding her papers close to her chest, Jennifer knelt down as she agreed, “Of course, I will.  After all, I learned everything I know about bauble shopping from Mommy.”

“I love you, Jen,” Chenoa replied, leaning forward and hugging her oldest sister tightly before turning around and running back over to continue playing a new game with her siblings.

Jennifer chuckled as she listened to her siblings trying to decide what game to play next.  She watched with amusement as the debate rage on.  Jonny wanted to play Mother May I, but Jenny was insisting on Red Light, Green Light.  Ricky's vote was for Hide and Seek.  As usual, Little Danny was moderating the debate.

~That's my little brother,~ Jennifer mused as the debate ended after Little Danny suggested they draw twigs because it would be fairer.  The shortest twig would be the first game they played.  The longest would be the last game, and the one in the middle would be the middle.  If they didn't have enough time to play all three, then the next time they played, they'd start with the appropriate game and continue on.  ~Daddy would be so proud.,~ she opined, smiling at the young boy's logic.

Just as she closed the patio door, the teenager heard her older father calling to her from the kitchen.

“Yes, Dad?” Jennifer responded while walking into the kitchen.

“If you have a minute, I need to talk to you,” Jack announced as he opened the large double fridge, putting away the Kool-Aid pitcher after pouring himself a glass. and taking a sip of the cool drink.  ~It's still good, even after all these years.~

“Sure.  Anything wrong?” Jennifer asked, entering the dining nook and sitting down when Jack motioned for her to take a seat there, the college applications clutched to her chest.

“Nope, nada, zilch,” Jack mused lightheartedly, sitting down himself.  “I just wanted to say thanks.”

“You're welcome,” Jennifer replied happily.  Then looking up at her father she asked, “For what?”

“With JD taking up so much of our time lately, Daddy and I really appreciate how much you've been helping out with the brood.  We've noticed, Jen, and we want you to know that,” Jack spoke appreciatively.

JD was the youngest and newest member of the family, only a mere three weeks old.  His parents hadn't even been out on a date night since his birth on New Year's Day.

“I love them, Dad.  Oh, Noa wants to go on another bauble trip.  I told her we could go on Saturday, if that's okay,” the teen requested.

“I'll double check with Daddy, but I don't see any reason why you can't.  Wanna borrow the SUV?” Jack offered.

“Yeah, maybe.  We'll see how the weather is,” Jennifer responded.  “We like to walk, and I think we can find what we need at the strip mall.”  She paused, then thought, “Or maybe not.”

Jack chuckled, “Let me know.  College applications?”

Jennifer nodded, tilting the papers down so that her father could get a closer look at them.

“Have a preference, Jen?” Jack asked, taking the applications from his eldest daughter and flipping through them, checking out the different colleges she was applying to.

“Not really,” Jennifer replied honestly.  “I'm applying to a variety of schools.  They all have different things I like about them.  I think I'll be happy at whichever one accepts me.”

“Jen, you're going to have to make a choice.”

Sighing, the girl took the papers back from her father and acknowledged, “I know, but the neat thing about waiting to be accepted is that it will limit my choices.  You know -- process of elimination.”

“Smart girl,” Jack chuckled, getting up and taking another sip of his drink.  “If you want any more advice ...”

“I know.  Thanks, Dad,” Jennifer spoke appreciatively as Jack disappeared from her sight, the fun-loving father headed outside to play a while with the children.  ~You'd like me to go to the University of Chicago, I'll bet.  You grew up in Chicago; Daddy has a PhD from there, too.  All those stories you've been telling about the 'ole windy city'.~  She chuckled, then sighed.  ~You may not come out and tell me that's where you want me to go, but it is.~

====
--One Week Later
====

“Jen, we have a lot of time before we have to decide what we're gonna do with the rest of our lives you know,” Jennifer's best friend, Sheila, spoke, putting the magazine she'd been flipping through down on the desk.

“I know, but I'd like to get it all over with,” Jennifer confessed.  “There're just so many choices.”

“I thought you already narrowed it down last week,” Sheila said as she went and sat with Jennifer on her bed, an old Britney Spears CD playing in the background.

“I have ... kind of.  I chose three colleges that I think I can get into just by breathing, four that I like for reasons other than my education, and two that I could never even have a prayer of getting into,” Jennifer answered, a bit bemused by the entire process.

“Who's paying the application fees?” Sheila questioned.

“Dad and Daddy will,” Jennifer replied confidently, thankful to her parents that they thought education was so important.  “It is a lot of money, but I'm just not sure which is best.  I don't want to choose one just for the sake of it and end up hating it.”

“Well, you could always apply to Arizona State like I am.  We could study together,” Sheila suggested, plainly excited by the idea.

“Women and Gender Studies?” Jennifer mused.  “Sheila, what are you going to do with that?”

“I don't know,” Sheila responded, shrugging.  “But it's better than just saying Liberal Arts, I guess, and it will give me something well rounded.”

Jennifer nodded, then plopped back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling as she lamented, “It just seems so far away, Sheila.  The thing is, I think I want it to stay that way.”

“You have time, Jen.  I don't think your parents want you to send those applications out until you're sure,” the other girl opined.

“No, they don't.,” Jennifer agreed.  “They aren't pushing me at all, Sheila.  It's just ...”

“Jen, do you really want to be a teacher?” the other girl asked, frowning.  ~You've never really talked about teaching until recently.~

“I'd be good at it,” Jennifer replied confidently.

“I know you would, but I'm going to ASU because I am interested in diversity.  There's more to life than Britney,” Sheila chuckled.

Jennifer laughed and, pushing her friend playfully, responded, “Don't say that, Sheila!  It's blasphemy!”

Sheila lay down next to her best friend, joining her in laughing hysterically at the remark.  After a minute or so, the girls calmed down and looked at each other, smiles on their faces.  They would always be best friends; they were sure of it.

“Jen, do you remember when we both actually liked Britney?”

Jennifer sighed, “When I was younger, I thought she was great.  Then she had her meltdown, and it's not that she had problems that upset me, but it's the things she did back then.  Her kids should have come first.  I just lost all respect for her.”

“Funny how we never really talked about that much,” the other girl remarked.

“She was our hero, and we loved her music.  I don't think we knew what to say for a while.  I kept hoping she'd get her act together, but after her divorce from Kevin, it was like she just lost it and didn't even care about her kids.”  Jennifer sat back up and commented, “This is the first time I've played this CD in, well, I don't know how long.”

“Sheez, Jen, we're being ... nostalgic, and we're still in high school!” Sheila exclaimed, covering her face with her hands.

“Sometimes, Sheila, I think growing up is the pits,” Jennifer chuckled as she grabbed the CD remote and skipped forward to the next one in the player, which was one of Beyonce's classics.  ~That's enough of nostalgia; at least, that's enough of Britney.~

“You can say that again.”

“Sometimes, Sheila, I think growing up is the pits,” Jennifer repeated.

“Geez, Jen,” Sheila expressed jovially as the girls burst into laughter again.

====
--Three Weeks Later
====

At the SGC, in a small conference room that was used mainly as an unofficial office for SG team leaders who didn't have offices assigned to them specifically, Jennifer waited for the two newest exchange program members.  She verified that the computer program was ready to go, putting the first image up on the screen.

“Miss Jackson-O'Neill,” Technical Sergeant Tracey O'Connor greeted, walking into the conference room, followed by a tall, dark haired boy and a brown haired girl, whose eyes were darting excitedly around her.

“Tracey, it's Jen, or Jennifer,” the teenager mused, not liking military formality any more than her parents did.

“Protocol,” Tracey chuckled.  “Jennifer, these are your new recruits.  Their parents are meeting with General Hammond in the briefing room.  They'll join you here when they've finished,” she spoke informatively.

“Thank you, Tracey.”  Seeing the sergeant nod and leave, the teenager smiled at her fellow teens.  “Well, then, you must be Darren Oh and Melanie Voyt.  Come on in, and have a seat.  My name is Jennifer Jackson-O'Neill, and I'm in charge of the Teen Gate Program,” Jennifer told them, shaking each of their hands in turn.

“I can't believe we're actually going to go to another planet,” Melanie expressed excitedly, totally in awe of what she'd recently learned about the Stargate.

“It's pretty incredible,” Jennifer responded, smiling.  “There's a lot to see and a lot to learn.  You've both been chosen for this because one or both of your parents are part of Stargate Command.  As such, they understand the value of learning about other cultures, and, by other cultures, I'm not talking about Italian versus Indian, or Amish versus Egyptian.  I'm talking about different worlds, light years apart, and it's not science fiction.”

Jennifer sat down at the head of the table, motioning to her two newest recruits to join her.  Reaching into a folder, she pulled out a form of basic guidelines.

“I need you to review this.  Read it very carefully, and then we'll talk about it and discuss the fun part of what you're about to experience,” Jennifer said as she handed each of the teenagers one of the forms.

====

“Great,” Jennifer said as the trio finished discussing the next to the last section of the training.  “Now to get down to the specifics.”

“It's about time,” Melanie laughed.

“Yeah,” Darren agreed.  “I'm not big on paperwork and research.”

“Oh, we've only just begun, and you'll be doing plenty of both paperwork and research.” Jennifer chuckled in reply.

“Ugh!” Darren exclaimed disgustedly, letting his head drop to the table and letting out a nasty groan, surprising Jennifer with his action and apparent attitude.  Suddenly, with his head still on the table, he looked up at Jennifer and smiled.  “Gotcha!” the boy laughed.  “My GPA is 3.92, so I do a lot of ...”

“Paperwork and research,” all three of the teenagers said, laughing.

“Humor is a good thing, Darren, most of the time,” Jennifer said.

“Most of the time?” Darren questioned, looking at Melanie with a confused look.

“Well, there are the inhabitants of a planet called Sumay.  Humor isn't exactly big there.  My dad almost caused ...” Jennifer paused, deciding she shouldn't share the story of how Jack's sometimes odd sense of humor almost severed relations between the alien world and Earth after trying to share some of the humor from 'The Simpsons' cartoon.  “Moving on, when we're done, you'll get to meet with Colonel Davis.  He's the big protocol expert on the base and, when your parents get here, you get to sign your life away.”

“We already signed confidentiality agreements.  Well, Mom and Dad did, for us,” Melanie responded, her fellow teenager nodding his agreement.

“This is a little different,” Jennifer replied.  “Colonel Davis is assisted by Teal'c.  Have you met Teal'c?”

“No, but I've head about him, from Pop,” Darren revealed.

“Well, Teal'c's a Jaffa, and he's really, really, *really* big on honor and integrity, and he helps Colonel Davis make sure that the Teen Gaters understand the spirit of the confidentiality agreement and the effects of ignoring it,” Jennifer said, bobbing her head up and down a bit as she smiled.

“Who's Colonel Davis?” Darren asked.

“He used to be the liaison between Stargate Command and the Pentagon, but he's been with the SGC for the last ... um, year, maybe two,” Jennifer said with a shrug.  “I'm not sure how long.  He's part of SG-9, but does a lot of special projects, like working with the Teen Gaters.  Actually, he just started working with me this year, so he's a rookie,” she laughed.

“Where are we going, Jenny?” Melanie asked with big, anticipating eyes.

“First, please call me Jen.”

“Sorry,” Melanie stated.  “I just love the name 'Jenny'.

“Me, too.  When I was a kid, my parents used to call me Jenny sometimes, but now I have a little sister named 'Jenny'.  Well, technically, we're both Jennifers, but to make it easier, I go by Jen and she goes by Jenny.  It's funny, but she's never ...” Jennifer trailed off, thinking, ~Geez, I sound like Daddy when he gets nervous.~  Smiling, she spoke calmly, “It's a long story, but call me Jen.”

“Okay, Jen,” both of the teens acknowledged.

Back on track, Jennifer verbally outlined, “Melanie, you'll be going to Andarynia.  It's a beautiful place, very colorful and full of life.  Darren, you're going to The Land of Light, which is one of the SGC's favorite planets.  Actually, it was one of the first ones where a long-lasting relationship was built.  Let's talk some about the Land of Light first.  It's led ...”

====

“Any questions so far?” Jennifer asked.  She'd finished talking about the Land of the Light and had moved onto Andarynia.  “Remember, this isn't a time to be shy.”

“Jen, it sounds so fascinating.  I'm going to love Andarynia,” Melanie said excitedly.

“I know you will,” Jennifer replied, pleased by the girl's enthusiasm.  “Now, they're a little more ritualistic there, so there are a few things you have to remember, especially with your wardrobe.  Once you arrive, Arelia, our liaison with the people there, will give you clothes to wear for the three days you're visiting, but it's very important that you not take anything in your backpack that would offend the people.  Um, you don't go through the Stargate in uniforms; you'll be wearing your own clothing, *but* do not wear anything black, gray, or brown.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” Jennifer repeated firmly.  “Your watch, earrings, underwear -- anything you take, ah, even the color of your backpack -- it can't be any shade of black, gray, or brown.  Remember when I said they were colorful?”

“It's pretty obvious from those photos you showed me a couple minutes ago.  Purple streets,” Melanie giggled, tickled by something she'd never seen before.

“Exactly, Melanie,” Jennifer confirmed.  “The Andaryniacs believe that colors control their world.  It's a little complicated, and that's something for you to learn while you're there, but before going, you do need to understand a few of their basic concepts so we don't offend them.  Black, gray, and brown are considered uninspiring and without depth.  The word 'depressing' isn't in their vocabulary, but that's what they mean in some ways.  This is very important, Melanie -- everything you take, *everything* has to be colorful.”

“What about white?”

“If you decide to continue with the Teen Gate Exchange Program, you'll learn that, just like here, white is often considered a pure color, so it's fine,” Jennifer spoke.  “Ivory, linen, beige -- colors like that are just fine.”

“What ...” Melanie began.

Just then the recently promoted Lieutenant Colonel Paul Davis entered the room, accompanied by Teal'c.

“Miss Jackson-O'Neill,” Paul greeted with a small smile.

“Colonel Davis,” Jennifer mused, almost breaking out into laughter at all the formality.  She made the introductions, then got up and stated, “I'll be back in a few minutes.”  As she walked by, she whispered, “Be nice, T.”

“I am always nice, JenniferJacksonO'Neill,” the Jaffa replied, his lip twitching as he stood tall and proud with his hands behind his back, looking at the SGC’s newest recruits.

====

“Welcome Back, Teen Gate Leader,” Jack quipped three days later, giving his daughter a snappy salute as he stood waiting at the foot of the ramp in the embarkation room.

“Very funny, General Dad,” Jennifer quipped in reply as she walked down the ramp, Colonel Davis at her side.

“How'd it go?” Jack asked, covertly taking a cursory look over his daughter.

Even though he trusted the people of the Land of Light, Jack was first and foremost a father and still couldn't help worrying about his eldest daughter.

“It never gets old, Dad,” Jennifer sighed happily.  “Tup'lo wants to know when you and Daddy are going to visit again.”

“We'll have to check the schedule,” Jack chuckled, pleased to see the teenager looking so happy.

“I have to go report to Gran...General Hammond,” Jennifer corrected, waving at the bald-headed man in the control room as he motioned for her to meet him in his office.

“I'll be there in a minute,” Jack stated, proudly watching her walk away.

“General, she's a natural,” Paul opined, coming to stand next to the older man.  “She handles other cultures beautifully.”

“She's always been good at that.  Thanks for filling in,” Jack stated, having been detained in meetings earlier and unable to go off-world with the teenager.

Jennifer or one of her Teen Gate leaders always accompanied first-timers off-world.  An SG team or veteran SGC member always went along as well, staying until the first-timers were comfortable in their temporary environment.
 
“It was my pleasure, Sir.  She's got good instincts, better than some team leaders I know,” Paul expressed confidentially.

In days of old, Paul Davis might not have made such a comment to General Jack Jackson-O'Neill, but they had a common bond that united them -- both were in love with men, Jack with Daniel, of course, and Paul with Colonel Marc Reynolds, the leader of SG-3.

Now, after years of an antagonistic relationship, Jack and Paul were slowly becoming friends. The two couples had even gone out together a couple of times, though Paul and Marc had to be careful not to have their secret revealed, since both were still in the military with no real plans to retire anytime soon.  

“I have no doubt,” Jack agreed, turning and heading for Hammond's office.

====

Standing in the doorway of Hammond's office, Jack couldn't help but smile inside.  He could hear the enthusiasm in his daughter's voice as she talked about the most recent trip through the Gate, and he knew she was loving the experience.

“I'll put the details in my report,” Jennifer concluded.  “Oh, I'd better go do that.” She turned to face Jack, who hadn't said a word since appearing in the doorway three minutes ago.  “Dad, can I use your office, please?”

“Sure thing, Prin...”

“Daaaaaaaaaaad!” Jennifer quietly hissed, not wanting to be called 'princess' at the SGC.

Jack coughed, attempting to hide his smile, and corrected, “Sure thing, Teen Gate Leader Jackson-O'Neill.”

====

“And send,” Jennifer stated, pressing the send button to forward her report to General Hammond.  Sitting back, the teenager sighed.  ~I'm going to miss doing this when I go to college.  It's not like I get to go through the Stargate all the time, but it is exciting.  It's ... meaningful.~

The girl sat up straight, exiting the program she'd been using and then powering down the computer.  She stood and began walking around her older father's office, her eyes drawn to the photographs of the Jackson-O’Neill family.

~Well, Dad and Daddy are going to retire next January, anyway.  I'd probably be ... fired.~

“You're reminding me of Daddy,” Jack observed, walking in and observing their daughter in deep thought, putting the papers he was carrying down on his desk.

“Dad, what's going to happen to the Teen Gate Exchange Program after you and Daddy retire?” Jennifer inquired quietly.

Walking forward as he talked, Jack answered, “Jen, it's your program.  It won't just stop because we're getting out.”

“Oh ... really?” the girl expressed with surprise and obvious relief.  ~I really thought they'd end it.~

“Jen, you started something good.  It'll go on, long after we're all gone,” Jack assured, earning him a bright smile from the teenager.  “Let's go.  We need to pick up the Munchkins before they overrun the Jefferson's place.”

The Munchkins were currently with one of their homeschooling co-op members, the Jeffersons, for a lesson on art appreciation, something Jonny hadn't been terribly thrilled about having to attend.

“Oh, Dad!”

Laughing, the father and daughter headed for the check-out gate, returning to their life in the zoo, as they often affectionately referred to the Jackson-O'Neill homestead.

====
--Eight Days Later
====

“Daddy, what's more important when choosing a college -- the scholastic opportunities or the environment?” Jennifer questioned.

It was late at night, and Daniel was making the goodnight rounds with the brood.  Jack was doing the same and had already been in with the teenager.  He was currently in with Jenny and Aislinn, spending a few minutes alone with them to see how life was treating them.

“That's not that easy to answer, Jen,” Daniel answered, sitting at the side of her bed, his left leg crooked beneath him as he sat at a slight angle.  “All I cared about was learning, but my situation was different than yours.  I don't really know how it would be to attend college and have a balanced existence.  I ... always had my nose in a book, or was working in a desperate attempt to meet tuition fees and field trip costs.”

“But what do you think?” the girl asked, desperate for her younger father's opinion.

“Well, I think you need a balanced existence, Jen, at a college that both excels in the academics of teaching, but also one that will give you what I missed.  Don't be alone, Jen.  Study.  I mean, uh, that's why you're there, except it's not that simple, either.”  Hearing Jennifer chuckle, he asked, “What?”

“Daddy, that's not helping.  You're ...”

“Prattling,” Daniel acknowledged with a nod.  His dimples showing as he bowed his head and gave a bashful smile.  Taking a breath, he continued, “At one time, Jen, my world was pretty black and white, then it gained a whole lot of color.”

“When you met Dad,” Jennifer surmised softly.

“Dad's well rounded.  He grew up in a loving family, did all the things a child is supposed to do.  He got in some trouble, he made his mother proud, he got part time jobs, he played ... he was a typical boy growing up in a good home.  He went to college, where he played even more.”  Daniel laughed, then looked over at Jennifer.  “Jen, education is important, but you need to live, too.  It's the entire experience that's important, not just your grades.  Uh, grades are important,” he amended.  “But don't lose sight of the rest of your education, the part that comes from exploring life and diversity.  I'm not helping, am I?”

“Yes, you are,” the teenager replied, leaning forward, giving Daniel a kiss on the cheek, and then hugging him.  “Daddy,” she began as she leaned back, her hands still on Daniel's shoulders.  “When I'm in college, will you pay my cell phone bill?” As they both laughed, she explained, “I think I'm going to be calling home a lot.”

“We insist on it,” Daniel promised on behalf of himself and his lover.

====
--One Month Later
====

“How's Squiggy?”

Jennifer's voice stunned David.  Reflexively, he tossed his green pet frog, given to him by his birth parents, on the bed, as if he didn't really care about it at all.

“David, you love Squiggy,” Jennifer stated as she walked in the small bedroom.  “Are you sure you want to throw him around like that?”

“He's just a stuffed animal,” David lied, feeling a light bounce on the bed when Jennifer sat down opposite him.

Picking up the critter, Jennifer played with it for a moment, then stated, “Mouseketeers.”

“What?” the young boy asked, a look of confusion on his face.

“All for one, and one for all, David.  That was the deal we made when Mom and Dad died.  You're holding out on me, Little Brother,” Jennifer accused with both her words and her eyes.

David had been dropped off from an outing with several homeschoolers an hour earlier.  From the moment he had entered the house, Jennifer had known something was wrong.  Sharing the responsibility of watching the youngest Jackson-O'Neills while their parents were gone for a couple of hours, the teen had let the soon-to-be eleven-year-old boy stew about his problem for a bit before finally deciding it was time for her to butt in.

“It's no big deal,” the boy answered with a bit of a pout, looking everywhere except at his sister.

“Why'd you throw Squiggy down like that?” Jennifer asked gently.

“He's just ...”

“David, be careful. Dad gave this to you,” Jennifer reminded with a gentle yet firm tone.

“Mom, too,” David sighed, reaching out and taking hold of the beloved green toy and giving it a fond rub on its belly. “It was a surprise post-birthday present. He gave it to me, from he and Mom.”

“Mom,” Jennifer repeated, getting up and walking over to an African sculpture David had as the centerpiece on one of his shelf displays.  She picked up the piece of Shona artwork, running her hands along the brown stone of the statue.  The carving  was of a father, mother, and their three children.  It was a gift from Daniel during their very first Christmas as Jackson-O'Neills and was intended to represent the strength and love of the Morgan parents for their children.  “It's important to remember them, David.”

“I do, Jen,” David promised as he pressed Squiggy tightly against his chest.

After putting the valuable creation back in its place, Jennifer turned around to face her brother, giving him the 'talk to me' look.

“At the playground, we met some boys.  They seemed nice.  We started talking about our favorite toys.  They all were nuts about toy guns and video games and ... stuff.  They called me 'four eyes' because of my glasses and because I said I like to read a lot.  Then they said I was a sissy because I still slept with Squiggy.” Dejectedly, he sighed, “I don't know why I told them that.  I didn't mean to.  It was before they started teasing me.  I hate them.”

Jennifer walked casually over to where her brother was sitting on the bed and then knelt down to look at him.

“This entire family loves to read, David.  Reading is fun and exciting, and we learn so much about the world, and sometimes even about ourselves,” Jennifer replied. “Geez, Bro, you've been reading since you could crawl.”

“I like to read, but why call me 'four eyes'?  A lot of people wear glasses.  Jen, remember how it was at Mrs. O'Hanlon's?” David asked, remembering the time they'd spent living at Molly O'Hanlon's shelter, a place where the boy had been taunted severely by one group of intolerant boys.  “They used to break my glasses on purpose, just because.”

“That was a long time ago, David.  They did the same thing to Daddy when he was a little boy.  You know, he told me a story about a mission SG-1 went on once.  Some alien called him his version of 'four eyes',” Jennifer chuckled.

“What did Daddy do?”

“He got a little upset, but Dad was there, and he got Daddy over the hump,” Jennifer answered.  “What do you think Daddy would tell you, if you told him about those boys today?”

“That it doesn't matter what they say or what they think,” David responded with hesitation.

“And, as usual, Daddy would be right,” Jennifer pointed out.  She reached out and caressed Squiggy for a moment.  “David, we all need something.  When you get scared, or you just want to think about our parents, you hold Squiggy.  What's so wrong with that?”

“I'm not scared at night; when he sleeps with me, it makes me feel safe,” David confided.

“I think about Mom and Dad every single night, right before I close my eyes -- every night, David,” Jennifer expressed as mist began to well in her eyes.

“You do?”

Nodding, the teenager said, “That's the great thing about Dad and Daddy.  They've never, ever let us forget, and I haven't.”

“I haven't either, Jen.  I remember lots of things,” David confessed.  “I like it when we tell stories about them.”

“So does Noa,” Jennifer added.  “She still carries Uni with her a lot,” she noted referring to the toy unicorn their mother had sewn for her not long before being killed in a car crash.  “And Ricky still loves that old tan blanket of his.  He sleeps with it every night.”

“He's still a little boy,” David refuted.

“Don't let him hear you say that.  David, Dad and Daddy will hate me for saying the word, but you're a freakin' genius.  Uh, they'll ... hate me for using both of those words,” Jennifer mused with a wry smile.  “Anyway, you've got more brains than I'll ever have, but while being ten ...”

“Almost eleven,” David reminded, his birthday just about one month away.

“Okay, eleven,” Jennifer chuckled.  “Anyway, ten, I mean eleven, seems like a lot, but you've still got a lot of growing up to do.  You have to practice what we've been taught, by all of our parents -- to stand up for ourselves, to do things in our own way, to live life by our time clock and not by anyone else's.  I'm not saying you're a little boy who has to be watched or ... I'm not saying you're a ... gawd, this is hard.”

“Three words,” the boy genius chuckled, referring to the words 'freakin', 'genius', and 'gawd'.

“Oops!” Jennifer affirmed with a laugh, raising her left hand to her mouth and patting her lips with the tips of her fingers for a couple of seconds.

“Sticks and stones,” David said, feeling a little better.  “I should have known better.  We've been called worse just for being us,” he said about the twelve children who were part of a family headed by a same-sex married couple.

“Exactly,” Jennifer agreed.

“I just had a bad day,” David sighed, imitating their older father.

“We all do sometimes.”

“Jen, I love Squiggy.  It's not like I carry him with me to the store.  I just like to remember Mom and Dad when we're alone, and he makes me feel better when I'm sad,” David confided.

“And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  There never has been, David,” Jennifer promised.

Suddenly, David hugged his sister and said, “I love you, Jen.”  Releasing her, he said, “My friends never say that.  They're always arguing with their sisters, but I love you, and I like to hug you -- sometimes,” he said, not necessarily wanting it to become a daily occurrence.

“I love you, too.  Mouseketeers forever!” Jennifer said with a grin.  “I'd better go check on the Spitfires.  They were wanting to feed Ptolemy, and I'm not sure Ptolemy was interested in eating oatmeal.”

“Ewww,” David responded with a chuckle.

Jennifer got up and walked out of the bedroom, but she paused in the hallway, looking back at her younger brother, who was now smiling at his comforting-giving stuffed animal.  She felt good, helping him.  Being the oldest of twelve children brought a lot of responsibility with it, but it also had a ton of rewards.

~The rewards make all the difference in the world, and you're definitely one of the rewards, Little Brother,~ Jennifer thought before sighing and then heading downstairs to ensure Jenny and Ricky weren't force-feeding the family's majestic Hyacinth Macaw, although she was pretty sure the headstrong bird could take care of herself.

====
--Eleven Days Later
====

“Little Danny, go wide,” Jeff directed as the Jackson-O'Neills huddled.  “On three!”

Within seconds, the brood were on the attack, facing off against the McDaniel clan.  There were seven children in the McDaniel family, ranging in age from three to eighteen, but they also had a lot of cousins.  It made for some great sporting match-ups between the two families when the cousins were in town, as they were this week.  The two families had met through a common friend, Mrs. Sophia Valissi, and become friends.

“Catch it, Son!” Jack yelled out from the sidelines.

“You're clear!  You're clear!  You're clear!” Daniel repeated, jumping up and down excitedly.

Not one of the McDaniels were covering the child prodigy as he went out.  Catching the football smoothly, Little Danny ran as fast as he could towards the goal line.

“RUN!” Jennifer shouted after tagging Calista McDaniel, who stamped her feet in frustration.

“TWO MORE YARDS!” Brianna shouted as she finished tagging Carl McDaniel, who growled at being taken out by a girl.

“MUNCHKIN POWER!  MUNCHKIN POWER!” both Jonny and Aislinn cheered as they watched, all the players having moved by or beyond them already.

“YES!” Jack shouted, jumping up once, his fisted hands punching the air to accentuate his joy.

“YES!  THAT'S MY BOY!  YES!  YES!  YES!  YES!  JACK, DID YOU SEE HIM?  DID YOU *SEE* HIM?” Daniel shouted, grabbing his lover’s arm.

“Danny, Love, you're shouting in my ear,” Jack responded quietly, rubbing his hand against his ear that was closest to his very excited husband.

The brood went wild, running up to their sibling to congratulate him on making the winning touchdown.  Jeff hoisted the boy to his shoulders as the merriment continued.

“What was that, O'Neill?  He's a ringer!” Boyle McDaniel, the father of seven accused, having crossed the meadowy field at the Garden of the Gods where the game was taking place.

Jack moved into the man's personal space and replied, “Gonna make something of it?”

“Jack ...” Daniel called out in warning.

“Daniel, I'm busy.”

“Jack,” Daniel said more forcefully, tapping on his Love's shoulder.

“What is it?” a partially annoyed Jack asked, turning his head to face the younger man.

“Allow me ... please,” the peaceful explorer, the calming negotiator, the man who hated fighting requested.

Taken aback, Jack cocked his head, and, noticing the steely glint in his husband's eyes, stepped aside.  With a sweeping motion of his left arm, he invited Daniel to take over his position.

“Thank you,” Daniel spoke and then moved into place.  His smile faded as he went to nose-to-nose with McDaniel, who was the same height as the archaeologist.  “Did you have a complaint, Boyle?”

“Your kid is a ringer!” McDaniel accused.

“He's a ringer off the ole block,” Daniel spoke colloquially.  “He's a real chimer, he is.  He rang the winning bell, that's for sure.”

“Jackson, are you drunk?” McDaniel asked.

“Drunk with a victory.”  Jamming his finger against the man's chest, Daniel maintained eye contact with the his friend as he said, “You ... <finger jab> ... are ... <finger jab> ... just ... <finger jab> ... sorry ... <finger jab> ... you ... <finger jab> ... lost ... <finger jab> ... and ... <finger jab> ... we  ... <finger jab> ... won.”

“You won with the bookworm!  Where's he been hiding that talent?” McDaniel asked.

“In books!” Daniel answered with a smirk, causing Jack to let out a chuckle.

“Bah!” McDaniel scowled.  Then he laughed, “Well done!  The burgers are on us!”

The three men broke out into laughter just as the brood returned to the sidelines.

As Boyle McDaniel walked away, Jack shouted, “We'll meet you there,” about the prearranged restaurant where the loser would pay up.

“Daddy, did you see?  Dad, I caught it!” Little Danny exclaimed joyfully, bouncing on the balls of his feet, with barely restrained excitement.

“We sure did!” Jack and Daniel responded at the same time.

As things calmed and the families cleaned up in preparation to leave, Jennifer and Jeff talked quietly together for a minute.

“I'm proud of the Sproglet.  I knew they wouldn't expect it, and I knew he could do it,” Jeff stated cheerfully.

“Me, too.  He's really growing up, all of them are,” Jennifer responded, scanning the area as she took in the view of her brothers and sisters, happily chattering to each other.  “You just never know what's going to happen next.”

“Jen, Jeff, get a move on,” Jack called out.

“Yes, Sir, General, Sir,” Jennifer teased.

“You could be daughter-martialed, you know,” the silver-gray-haired man teased.

“I'm shakin', Dad!” the teenager teased in reply.

“I'll get the cooler,” Jeff said, running over to where one of the coolers hadn't been picked up yet.

~Nope, they weren't expecting Little Danny to run his heart out, but that's what he did.  David did great, too.  He made a touchdown earlier.  I remember when that seemed like a fantasy to him, something that only other kids could do.  Now he believes in himself again, thanks to Dad and Daddy,~ the big sister thought fondly.

Feeling good about their win, Jennifer picked up the towels that had been placed on the grass and then joined her family for the walk to their SUV.

====

The next afternoon, Jennifer was taking a study break, just walking through the house leisurely.  She played with the beagles for a little while; then gave Ptolemy a treat.  Hearing a noise, she headed for the game room, watching discreetly as David and Brianna were playing air hockey, while Ricky and Jenny were engaged in a game of basketball on the small indoor hoop.

Jennifer didn't say anything.  She just watched the craziness as the children chatted and played together.  Glancing at her watch, she returned to her studies in her bedroom.  Before she started, Mittens jumped up on her desk.

“Hi, Mittens,” Jennifer greeted, picking up the purring pet and rubbing her ears gently.

The teen sat back in her desk chair as she continued to rub the feline's ears.  Soon, Jennifer was lost in her thoughts.  It wasn't until Mittens jumped down a good fifteen minutes later that the girl 'woke up' from her spell.

~Geez.  I need to get this done,~ Jennifer thought as she refocused on her homework.

====

Her homework completed, Jennifer decided to go downstairs and see if her parents needed any help with dinner.  Since they had it under control, she took another casual stroll through the house, this time ending up in the projects room where David, Jonny, and Little Danny were focusing intently on a piece of cardboard.

“Make sure the holes are even, David,” Jonny cautioned.

“I am.  Where's the glue?” David asked, looking around.

“Here it is,” Little Danny answered, picking up the bottle.

Jennifer watched curiously as the boys took a spool of thread and affixed it to the cardboard.  Then they glued a piece of paper to it.

“What are you making?” Jennifer finally asked, unable to resist her curiosity.

“A hoverboard!” three excited voices announced.

“A hoverboard?” Jennifer echoed in surprise.

“Bogey's going to ride it,” Jonny explained, pulling out his pet lizard from his pocket.

“Jonny, I don't think that's a good idea,” the teenager warned.

“But ...”

“No,” Jennifer admonished.  She walked over and took the lizard from the indignant boy.  “I'll make sure Bogey gets back to his cage.  Have fun ... hovering,” she laughed as she turned and walked out.  ~Bogey, they may be smart, but they're also a bit like those crazy mad scientists we see on the television and in the movies.  You can thank me later,~ she chuckled while heading upstairs and returning Bogey to his happy and safe habitat.

====
--One Week Later
====

“Ladies and Germs, welcome to the zoo, Jackson-O'Neill style,” Jeff spoke jovially, bowing to his attentive crowd.

The Jackson-O'Neills were putting on another show, this one a musical showcase. The brood had put on a number of productions in the past, some being plays that they'd written themselves, others more of a dance or talent show.  This particular show wasn't going to be as fancy as some of their past ones because it had been put together more quickly than the others.  Still, a collection of family, friends, and neighbors were gathered in the large recreation room for the special occasion.

The digital recorders had been strategically placed around the room and were rolling as Jeff began the program.

“I don't think you mean germs,” David interjected, running out to stand at stage left.  “A germ is a microorganism, especially when disease-producing.  It's also a bud, offshoot, or seed.”

“David,” Jeff chastised, shaking his head at his little brother.

“I'm only saying that you should have said, 'Ladies and Microorganisms.  Maybe Buds and ...”

Just then, Brianna stepped onto the corner of the stage, a long, wooden pole with a hook at the end, in her hand.  She ran the pole out in front of her younger brother and hooked him, pulling him off the stage, amid the chuckles and soft laughter from the audience.

“Smarty pants,” the tomboy said playfully as she exited the stage.

“Let's get on with the show,” Jeff suggested.  “First off, doing a song from 'Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang', that general of renown, the grizzliest of all the grizzlies, the ...”

“JUST GET ON WITH IT!” a familiar, gruff voice ordered from behind the curtain, earning plenty more laughter from the audience.

“Here they are, Dad and the Spitfires!” Jeff introduced, moving off the stage.

To the sound of applause, Jack, Ricky, and Jenny came out onto the stage as the music started.  The accompaniment was simple -- Pete Shanahan on the guitar, and Karissa Lewis on the piano that had been wheeled in from the music room for the evening.

Jack, dressed appropriately in an old gray sweatshirt, faded jeans, and an old fashioned cardigan began the scene, taking on the role of Caractacus Potts as he asked, “Do you think I'm a lunatic?  Wasting my time on a lot of silly inventions?”

As a young Jemima, Jenny wore a blonde wig and an old dress with a white apron-like jumper over the top.

“But they aren't silly; they're wonderful!” the little girl exclaimed enthusiastically.

Ricky loved this scene.  He got to wear his old clothes and even have a smidgeon of soot on his face.  He was cast as Jemima's brother, Jeremy, the two the children of eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts.

In character, Ricky added, “Nobody else could think of them!”

'Caractacus' paced in front of the children as he considered their words, and then began the true entrance to their song, saying, “That's right!  That is right.  Nobody else could think of them!  Yeah.  After all ... what makes the battle worth the fighting?  What makes the mountain worth the climb?  What makes the questions worth the asking?  The reason worth the rhyme?”

Karissa played a crescendo, and then the song began in earnest, Jack singing in a bit of mocking voice.

“To me the answer's clear;
It's having someone near; someone dear
Someone to care for; to be there for.
I have You Two!”

The Spitfires basically smiled and built a pretend fire as they listened to their father sing.  Then, Jack came over to light the pretend fire, kneeling down to throw in a fake match and to be eye level with the kids.

Together, the twins sang, “Someone to care for; to be there for.”

“I have You Two!”
Jack sang, pointing at both kids, one at a time.

Again, the kids sang in unison, “Someone to do for; muddle through for.”

“I have You Two!”
Jack crooned, tickling each of the kids lightly on their abdomens, causing them to giggle.

The three held hands and circled around as they continued to perform the song until they approached the song's end.

Sitting down at a small table, Jack placed a meager cracker on the children's plates, representing their impoverished meal.

Together, the three sang, “Could be, we three get along so famously 'cause ...”

“We two have you,”
the twins sang in harmony.

“And I have You Two,” Jack sang in reply.

“Too!” all three sang, after which they munched on their crackers.

As the audience clapped, the performers rose from their chairs.  Jack picked up the twins, giving them each a kiss on the cheek.

“And I wouldn't know what to do without you two, either,” the general stated truthfully.

“Oh, Dad!” both kids laughed, hugging their father.

--

“Okay, all you Germs ...” Jeff began after a set change, during which Karissa and Pete had played a fun musical interlude.

Just like before, David ran out onto the stage, saying, “Germ: the rudiment of a living organism; an embryo in its early stages.”  He made a funny face and then chimed, “I think we know a lot about embryos in this house.  If I were you, I'd be careful.  They say it's in the water, but ...    hey!” he objected when Brianna's hook found him yet again, pulling him out of the chuckling audience's sight.

Jeff sighed as he regained control of the room, “Germ: brothers with too much time on their hands.  Anyway, time for our next act, straight from Vaudeville, wherever that is.  Dad says that was a happy time.  I wouldn't know.  I wasn't born yet.  I had to look up Vaudeville in the dictionary.  Who's Jack Benny?” he asked the audience at large.  Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “Dad says they were friends.  I guess Dad's that old.”

“GET ON WITH THE SHOW UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE GROUNDED FOR LIFE,” that familiar grizzly voice shouted out from behind the stage.

With a nervous shrug, Jeff introduced, “With a classic rendition of 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Daddy and his cohorts in crime, otherwise known as Little Danny, David, and Brianna.”

The curtains parted, revealing a large rowboat set design.  Daniel was seated, facing the direction of the train room.  In front of him, seated facing him, was Little Danny.  On the third bench of the rowboat, behind Daniel and out of his line of sight, were David and Brianna.

At the base of the rowboat set was a blue, wavy ocean.  A golden sun was raised to appear as a backdrop for the set.

Daniel wore a black tank top and his muscles flexed as he rowed the boat with cardboard oars.  He wore his green boonie cap and sunglasses.  Little Danny was also wearing a boonie cap that matched his green and white striped shirt and green shorts, though the shorts weren't visible to the audience because of the height of the fake rowboat.  David and Brianna wore baseball caps, David's embossed with the symbol for the Denver Rockies, while Brianna's cap represented the Oakland Athletics.

At the head of the rowboat set was a yellow duck that Jeff had found at a local store.  Unbeknowst to him, it would be disappearing after the production concluded, never to be seen again by the brood, thanks to the covert plans of one rubber duck-loving general.

With Pete playing quietly on guitar, basically just strumming a beat at appropriate times, Daniel began, “Sing-along time.  Sea dogs an' land lubbers sing!”

Daniel and all three children, along with the crowd, sang one full verse of the well known tune, then a sign was put up telling the audience not to sing the next time. Instead, the scene continued.

“Mates, sing hearty.  Sir David, lead on!” the archaeologist ordered as he rowed onward.

David began, then Brianna.  On cue, Daniel chimed in.  The three were singing, the two older children swaying from right to left, their shoulders touching.

“Sing, little matey, sing!” Daniel encouraged.  “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the ...”

“But ...” Little Danny interjected.

“Ye dasn't want t' keel haul th' plank, do ye?” Daniel asked, trying to do his best to imitate an uneducated pirate.

“But ...”

“Sing, Lad, sing!” Daniel demanded.

Little Danny looked over the side of the boat, his hands gripping the edge.  He looked back at Daniel, who was rowing, singing, and barking out pirate orders.  Behind him, David and Brianna were looking up at the sun in the 'sky', singing their round of the song, big smiles on their faces.

The youngest child gulped.  His eyes widened as he looked down at the wavy, blue water.  It seemed higher now.

“Pirate Daddy, Sir?” the concerned boy tried to interrupt.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a stream,” Daniel sang, still rowing.

Little Danny sighed, looking down at his feet.

“Sing loud! Ya dasn't want t' let yer ole daddy down now, do ya? That wouldna be nice, ya know, an' we've raised wee mateys t' be nice. Now sing!” Daniel shouted, lunging forward just enough to get his namesake to startle.

Little Danny purposefully fell backwards, landing on the rubber duck and letting out a 'quack', resulting in laughter from the audience.

“Ye tryin' to mutiny?” Daniel accused, stopping his rowing for a minute.

“No, Pirate Daddy, Sir, but the water ...” Little Danny tried to say.

“Ne'er ye mind.  Yer not goin' for a swim, Laddy.  Sing!” the adult commanded.

“But ...”

“I said, sing!” Daniel ordered as he began to move the oars again.  “Row, row, row ...”

“But ...” Little Danny began again.  Seeing the glare from his pirate father, he returned to his position and mumbled, “... down the stream.”

Looking over the edge of the boat again, the youngster gasped.  The water had risen again.  He looked over at David and Brianna, both of whom were giggly as they sang.  They were also taking tin cans and pretending to fill them up with water in the rowboat.  As they sang, they released tiny blue speckles, materials used in sewing that had been purchased to mimic the sea water.

“Row, row ...” Daniel continued, starting a new round.

“But, Pirate Daddy, the boat ...”

Daniel ignored the cry from the youngster, who was now overrun with water, thanks to the velvet material being used as water raising to the level of the boat.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily ...” Daniel sang, his head held up high as it had been through the entire sequence.

“BUT, PIRATE DADDY, SIRRR...gulp, gulp, gulp, gulp,” Little Danny shouted, then garbled as he disappeared behind the blue sea.

Daniel continued, “Row, row ...”  He stopped, apparently watching his namesake drown.  He glanced over his shoulder at David, who pretended to fall backwards off the rowboat.  Then he looked at Brianna, who shrugged and squeezed her nose, raising her right arm as she acted like she was about to drown.  Daniel looked forward again, then out at the audience.  With a sigh, he sank, “Sink, sink, sink your boat, gently downnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn ...”

The audience roared as Daniel lay backwards, sinking into the supposedly rising waters.

Clapping as he walked on stage, Jeff joked, “I guess they all went down with the ship!”

--

After a juggling skit performed by Jack, David, Lulu, and Jennifer, Bijou and Katie put on their own act, 'woofing' along to the classic song, “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

“Do you think they got paid for that?” Megan Williams, the Director of Operations for J-O Enterprises, asked her fiancé, Yazid Awad, the executive assistant to Abayomi Sharif, founder of Passion Incorporated, which was J-O's number one client.

“Ten biscuits each, at least, My Beauty,” Yazid quipped.

--

Standing mid-stage, Jeff clasped a black cane with a diamond head, cunningly fashioned from a glittering foam ball purchased at the crafts store.  He rolled and loosened his shoulders several times, then let out a snort, his nose crinkling.  When he spoke, it was much like the classic gangster actor, Edward G. Robinson.

“Now yous germales and gerfemales, it's time for da next numba.  Listen up good now, yous guys.  Dis is a good one, ya see.  Yeah, yous'll wanna piece of this action, fer sure.  So, yous germales and gerfe...”

As he'd already done twice before, David interrupted his oldest brother, running out and taking a position on the left hand side of the stage.

“Gangsters don't talk very well.  Get your schnozzle outta my mug, keep your mitts off Daddy's bucket, and if one of you dames can't answer the blower, then dangle.”  David shrugged.  “It's another language.  I'll bet most of you don't know that what I just said was 'get your nose out of my face, keep your hands off Daddy's car, and if one of you woman can't answer the phone, then leave'.  See?  It's a different language.  I guess it's like rocks.  Sometimes a rock ...”

Still in character, Jeff shouted out, “How many berries da make ya shut yer pie hole?”

“A fin, Bro!” David smirked, reaching out with his arm and wiggling his fingers in want.

With a grunt, Jeff forked over a five dollar bill.  Keeping the deal, David grinned as he walked off, though he mouthed, “I'll be back,” to the chuckling assemblage.

“As I was spitting ...”

“YOU'D BETTER NOT SPIT ON THAT FLOOR, JEFFREY, OR YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT TO COLLEGE.  GET ON WITH IT!” that familiar voice shouted from somewhere backstage.

“He's loud, isn't it?”  As the group laughed and muttered words of agreement to one another, Jeff continued, “And next for your listening pleasure, a voice of hope.  Singing 'Where is Love' from 'Oliver', my sister ...”

“*Our* sister,” the entire brood shouted, almost in unison, from their scattered positions in the room.

“*Our* sister,” Jeff corrected, smiling.  “Here she is -- Aislinn!”

The lights dimmed, and Aislinn took center stage, stopping several feet from the edge of the stage.  When the applause ceased, Karissa played a few simple notes, then drew her hands back, waiting for the little girl with the golden voice to begin.

With a sad smile, Aislinn crossed her arms in front of her, a pose Daniel had taught her to help her look frightened and insecure.  Her voice began softly, almost as a whisper.

“Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree
That I've been dreaming of?”

Backstage, Jack and Daniel naturally gravitated towards each other.  They stood, arms around each other's waists, watching their original miracle perform.  They were proud and touched by the way their youngest Munchkin was able to evoke emotion in just the first few lines of the song.

On stage, Aislinn walked to her left, looking down as she continued:

“Where is she?
Who I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever know the sweet 'hello'
That's only meant for me?”

The rec room was completely silent except for the young girl's singing.  With each lyric, each movement she made, Aislinn captured their hearts.  Finally, the little girl stood center stage again, only this time she was at the very front of the stage, just a foot or two from the first row of their friends in attendance.  Now, she sang strongly, her voice louder and more confident.  There was a new determination within her as the song closed.

“Who can say where ... she may hide?
Must I travel ... far and wide?
'Til I am beside ... the someone who
I can mean ... something to ...
Where?
Where is love?”

As Karissa played the last few notes, Aislinn bowed and then brushed a tear from her eye.  The room was unbelievably still and quiet until, suddenly, the little girl looked out over the group and grinned.

The guests erupted into applause.  Lou Ferretti whistled, followed by Jeff Cornell doing the same thing.

Sam stood up, still clapping, and looked out over the group, declaring boisterously, “I'm her aunt!”

“So am I!” Janet stated proudly, standing up as well.

“Me, too!” Sara exclaimed as she applauded loudly.

Within seconds, not a single person was left sitting.  Everyone was on their feet, clapping, whistling, shouting 'Bravo', and cheering.  It was a thunderous standing ovation.

Daniel lay his head on his husband's shoulder, whispering, “She has a real gift, Jack.”

“Yeah,” was all Jack could croak out.

“Uh, I think we'll take a few minutes before we keep going,” Jeff stated, altering the program which originally didn't have an intermission in it.  He leaned over and picked up Aislinn.  “Ash, that was beautiful, just like you are.  Thank you.

--

Intermission over, the show continued.  Chenoa and Lulu performed a dance, dressed as hobos, and then Brianna and Jack did a parody of the classic Abbott and Costello comedy routine known as 'Who's on First' that left everyone in stitches.

“At least they didn't treat us to, 'Where's the Puck ...” Jeff began.

“Grounded!” Jack shouted out, which, of course, made the audience laugh.

Sighing, Jeff shrugged, then moved forward, saying, “And now a special treat, and you don't have to worry about germs with this act.”

Right on cue, David reappeared, stage left, a wide grin on his face as he spoke, “Germs: How they Spread.”  He paused, hearing the good-natured groans of his siblings.  “The chief way colds, the flu, and other illnesses spread is from us.  We're guilty.  Aunt Sam gives it to Uncle Pete, and he gives it to Karissa ...”

“He'd better not,” Sam shouted out in mock jealousy.

“Yeah!” Little Danny called out, peeking at the object of his young affections from behind the curtain and grinning when Karissa smiled back at him warmly.

“Gorgeous, I'm all yours.  No one's as beautiful as you,” Pete responded from the barstool he was sitting on.  He smiled at Karissa, who was next to him at the piano and said, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Karissa chuckled.

Undeterred by the interruption, David continued his lecture, “People give other people germs.  The pathogen travels person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes.  It's called 'droplet spread'.  It occurs when the droplets move through the air and are deposited on the mouth or nose of people nearby.  It can be ...”  A slight mumble was heard from the audience.  The sound turned to chuckles as Brianna's hook found its target once more.  “Hey!”

“Hey, hey, hey, you're a monkey,” Brianna sang playfully, pulling her brother off stage.

More seriously, Jeff continued his role of master of ceremonies, saying, “And now we put a historical feel on our show.”

The curtain opened, the stage lighting dim, darker than it had been during the beginning of Aislinn's song.  At the back of the stage, a line of Jackson-O'Neills stood tall -- Jack, Brianna, Little Danny, Lulu, Ricky, Jenny, Chenoa, Aislinn, David, and Daniel.  Quietly, they began to sing a reverent refrain.

“Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', while the enemy kept a 'comin',
Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', unafraid he held his ground,
Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', while the enemy kept a 'comin',
Drummin while the shot and shell was burstin' all around.

Drummmmmmin' ... Drummmmmmin',  He kept drummin',
Drummmmmmin' ... Drummmmmmin'.”

The chorus of Jackson-O'Neills divided in two, and, from behind them, Jonny walked forward, a drum strapped to his civil war costume.  He kept walking until he was three feet from the edge of the stage.  Jeff put a spotlight on the little boy.

Jonny tapped on his drum, the beat alluring and steady.  It was loud at first, but then he quieted the taps on the instrument and began his soliloquy.

“They call me Johnny Shiloh, but that's not really my name.  Oh, it's Johnny all right, but it's Johnny Clem, and I'm a Yankee soldier.”  Jonny struck his drum dramatically for a few moments before continuing.  “I was born in Newark, Ohio, on August 13, 1851.  My ma died when I was seven, so it was just Pa and me.  When the war came, I wanted to fight, to follow President Lincoln's call to arms.  So, I ran away from home to join the Army.  They said I was too young, but I wouldn't listen.  No one would fight better than me.”

The chorus grew louder again, singing the one line, “Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', while the enemy kept a 'comin',” and then they quieted, going back to a soft hum.

Jonny played his drum a few beats, then continued, “When the Union came to Newark, I tagged along with the 24th Ohio, but they didn't want me, so I found the 22nd Michigan.  Sure enough, I was there for their next battle, and it was a big'un -- the Battle of Shiloh.  It was a sad sight.  Bodies everywhere.  Over a hundred-thousand men fought, and twenty-four thousand of them died.  My drum was destroyed by cannon fire, but I survived.  I marched on.”

Again, the chorus grew louder singing, “Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', while the enemy kept a 'comin',” before returning to their soft hum.

Beating his drum occasionally, the oldest Munchkin spoke, “After Shiloh, the 22nd Michigan Infantry sort of adopted me.  They still wouldn't let me sign up, but they made me their mascot and drummer boy.  I even got paid -- thirteen whole dollars a month.  'Cause my drum was destroyed, they gave me a shortened rifle. I was happy 'bout that because I don't like to stand and be shot at without shooting back.  They  made me this uniform, too, which was altered from a growed up man's uniform.  In May 1863, they finally let me enlist.  They knew I'd never walk away from a battle.”

One more time, Jonny's background singers grew louder, singing, “Drummin', Drummin', Drummin', while the enemy kept a 'comin'.”  Then they quieted and began to sing the song's chorus on the darkness of the stage.

Jonny continued his review of the brave boy's life, talking about the Battle of Chickamauga, where many of his unit were captured and killed.

“No one takes me,” Jonny stated firmly.  “I jumped on a caisson, that's a four-wheeled military cart that carries two ammunition chests and a spare wheel, and rode to the front lines, where it was the bloodiest of anywhere.  A Confederate colonel yelled at me to surrender, but I got the best of him.  Dang Confederates did get me for a while, but before the battle was done, I was gone.”  With a proud smile, he added, “General George H. Thomas himself promoted me to lance corporal because of that battle.”

After another refrain by the chorus, Jonny explained, “The newspapers got wind of me, and I guess they thought what I did was special.  They called me 'Johnny Shiloh' and the 'Drummer Boy of Chickamauga'.  I became a legend, but I'm just a little boy, a little boy who played my drum and then fought in a war where brother fought against brother, and lots of Ma's cried thousands of tears.”

At that point, Little Danny left the chorus and stood even with his Munchkin sibling, though separated by a few feet.

The middle Munchkin told of Jonny's ending, relating, “Johnny Clem was discharged in 1864, but he decided to continue in the Army.  He wanted to go West Point, but he didn't have an education and couldn't pass the entrance exam, but his legend was strong.  In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him to the rank of second lieutenant.  When he retired in 1915, he was a brigadier general, though some sources say he was a major general.  He was the last living Civil War enlisted man.  He died in 1937 at eighty-five years young, and he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.”

Ricky left the chorus and moved forward, making it a trio of Jackson-O'Neill boys at the front of the stage.

The Spitfire orated, “During the Civil War, thousands of young boys served in the armies of the North and the South, some no older than our brother, David,” he said, glancing back and pointing at the boy.  “Most began as drummer boys, fifes, or buglers.  Their musical calls helped the soldiers know what to do.  Older boys were seen lots on the battlefields. This is why the Civil War is sometimes called 'The Boy’s War'.  Some died, some ran away from the war after a few months, but most did better than older people.  The boys of the boy's war were proud and loyal.”

The family chorus moved forward to line up with Little Danny, Jonny, and Ricky so they were all in a straight line.  The next part was performed in a sing-talk style, the words not totally sung, but rather spoken musically.

David began, “They say a rose that blooms in summertime, must die when winter comes ...”

Her tone more solemn, Chenoa continued, “... But the memory of its perfume lives, like the memory of those drums.”

Brianna went next, chiming, “Well now the war between blue and gray is fadin' in the past ...”

Very upbeat, Ricky concluded, “... But that courage of that Drummer Boy is somethin' that will last.”

Jonny stepped forward one foot.  He played on his drum, an intense solo as the chorus became silent.  Then Jonny stopped playing.

“My name is Johnny Shiloh.”

Jeff turned off all the lights, so that the room went completely dark.  It was so quiet that a pin dropping on the wooden floor could have been heard.  Finally, the lights came back on, and the family chorus, with Jonny in the center, were holding hands.  The room erupted with applause, and then Jack and Daniel walked from the ends of the chorus line to where Jonny was standing.  Jack picked him up.

“He's our drummer boy,” Daniel spoke proudly with a smile.

--

“And now we bring to you the musical talents of the young and the old,” Jeff began when they reached the final performance of the night.

“Hey!  Who are you calling old?” Jennifer shouted indignantly, poking her head through the curtain.

“You're older than me, Sis,” Jeff chuckled from center stage.

“Now's a good time to start forgetting that, Jeff,” the girl suggested, smiling sweetly.

“That'll cost yas a fin,” Jeff teased, going back to gangster speak.

“Up your nose with a rubber hose,” Jennifer threatened with a laugh.

“Uh, anyway, here they are, two of my favorite sisters ...”  Jeff paused, seeing the glares from his other sisters.  “They're all my favorite sisters, and here are two of them -- Aislinn and Jennifer, doing a bit from 'White Christmas'.”

Wearing frilly blue lace dresses that matched and each holding a feather fan in front of their faces, the two girls walked from the back of the stage to the front in unison.  Karissa and Pete were playing the upbeat song, smiling as they did so.  Then the two girls lowered their fans to chest level, batted their eyelashes at the audience, and began to sing:

“Sisters, sisters,
There were never such devoted sisters.
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir.
I'm here to keep my eye on her.”

Both girls pointed at the other, then turned around in a tight circle as they prepared to move on to the second verse.  It was silly and fun as they vamped in a Disneyized style, drawing laughter and whistles from their guests.

“Those who've seen us,
Know that not a thing can come between us.
Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can ...”

Suddenly, Aislinn frowned, dropping her feather fan to her waist.  She tapped her foot on the floor several times and flung the fan outward in step with each foot tap.  She stared at her teenage sister.

“What?” Jennifer asked, frowning and stopping her performance, though Karissa and Pete played on.

“I know what comes between us,” Aislinn stated.

“Ash, nothing comes between us,” Jennifer replied.

“You're in love!” Aislinn accused.

“I am not!” the older girl denied ardently.

“Yes, you are!  I've seen you!  Lots of times!”

“Okay, Ash, these are family and friends here,” Jennifer intoned, pointing out at the audience.  Whispering slightly, she said, “They're going to get the wrong idea. Now you know I'm not in love.”

“Are, too!”

“Ash, that's enough.  Put up, or shut up!  I want a name.  I *dare* you to come up with a name, just one!” Jennifer said, crossing her arms, still holding her fan in her left hand.

“Cell phone.  Talk, talk, talk, talk.  You're in love with your cell phone,” the little girl humpfed, garnering a solid laugh from the audience.  “Give Dad and Daddy back your cell phone.”

“I don't think so.”

“Then there *is* something between us, and we're not sisters!” Aislinn stated, going to her right and stubbornly walking to the end of the stage.

“It's my cell phone,” Jennifer expressed hopelessly.  Turning to face the audience, she asked, “Would you give up your cell phone?  I get important phone calls, after all.  Sheila and Amber and Mike and Carl and Rick and Joe and ...”

The group chuckled as Jennifer listed off several male names.  Then the teenager laughed, too.  She walked over to her little sister.

“Ash,” Jennifer called out quietly.  “Ash, look at me,” she requested.

Slowly, the youngest Munchkin turned around.

“No one comes between us, ever, not even a cell phone!” Jennifer proclaimed, surprising the audience when she whipped out her cell phone from her fan, where it had been hidden, and tossed it into the audience.  Right on cue with Karissa's and Pete's playing, she sang, “All kinds of weather we stick together, the same in the rain or sun.”  She stopped, urging, “Come on, Ash.”

Finally, Aislinn smiled, completing the verse by singing, “Two different faces but in tight places, we think and we act as one.”

Together, both girls laughed and exclaimed, “Ah-ha,” and then completed the song:

“Sisters!  Sisters!
Sister, don't come between me and my phone!”

Jennifer hugged Aislinn tightly, and the two bowed to the applauding crowd before going off stage.

“I hope you didn't hurt your cell phone, Jen,” Aislinn spoke.

“My cell phone?  Oh no!  Who caught it?” the teenager asked anxiously, her eyes growing wide with panic.

Aislinn chuckled as her teenage sister headed for the audience to try and find her precious cell phone.

--

“Ladies and Germs ...” Jeff began.

For the last time, David appeared on stage, saying, “Germs:  anything that provides inspiration for later work, like your applause.  If you liked our show and encourage us, we may do this again, but if you boo and hiss, we'll never invite you back.  Just kidding!  Seriously, though, did you know the word 'germ' isn't used by scientists very much anymore?  You see ... hey, watch it!” he exclaimed when Brianna's hook grabbed him waist level and yanked him off the stage once again.

As the chuckles lessened, Jeff spoke, “Thanks for coming and laughing at our craziness.  We hope you had as much fun as we did.  From our zoo to yours, ciao!”

The audience applauded loudly as the entire Jackson-O'Neill clan, including JD, being held by Daniel, appeared on stage and waved.  It was another successful production.

====

“Jen, the party was the ultimate,” Amber raved the following Monday at school.  “You should have come.”

“I couldn't.  We were doing our show,” Jennifer reminded her friend.

“I know, but, Jen, this was a real 'in' party.  College freshmen were there,” Amber crooned dreamily.

“Dad would've had a fit,” Jennifer laughed, imagining her father's face.  “It's a good thing I wasn't there.”

“Don't you wish you were?” Amber questioned curiously.

Smiling, Jennifer pondered the question for a moment before responding, “No, I don't.  I had a great time, and I did this cute little song bit with Ash.  It was fun.”

“Jen, you're getting more weird everyday,” Amber opined, shaking her head.

“Am I?”

Amber nodded, then said, “Hey, there's Ginger.  She was flirting with Adam like you wouldn't believe.  Come on.”  The girl quickened her pace, hurrying towards the popular senior student.  “Ginger, what happened when ...”

Jennifer just smiled, watching Amber disappear from her sight.  She thought again about the party she'd missed.  Sheila had already filled her in on everything that had happened yesterday.  In truth, it didn't sound like it was really that wonderful.  Besides, she really did have fun doing the family show.

~Nope, I'm not disappointed in my choice, and maybe I am getting ... weird, but I don't think we should be hanging around college freshmen like that.  Geez, don't let Dad hear me saying, er, thinking that.  I'll never live it down.~

Chuckling at her inner ramblings, the teenager headed for the cafeteria to enjoy a quiet lunch.

====
--Five Days Later
====

Mrs. Valissi entered her sewing room upstairs and placed a tray beside the hardworking Jennifer.  On it was a sandwich, some chips, and a glass of milk.  Before sitting back down at her machine, the senior citizen paused to examine the teenager's handiwork.  Pleased with the work, she nodded to herself and then sat down.

“You're making wonderful progress, Jen,” Mrs. Valissi opined.

“Thank you,” Jennifer responded as she went about her work.  She glanced over at the woman and smiled shyly.  Focusing on her project again, she asked, “Grandma Sophia, did I tell you that I'm going to be a teacher?”

Nodding, Mrs. Valissi took a sip from her tea, then affirmed, “Yes, Dear.  I believe you've mentioned that a time or two.”

“Oh,” Jennifer expressed barely audibly.

Putting her tea cup down, Mrs. Valissi inquired, “Didn't that handsome young designer ask you to do some work for him?”

“Alex?” Jennifer replied, referring to Alex Dennision, who had done the renovation of the Jackson-O'Neill home and various other projects for friends of the Jackson-O'Neills over the past few years.  “He says I'm talented.”

“He's right, you know,” Mrs. Valissi remarked casually.

“I wish I could earn a living doing something like this, but I'd never be that good,” the teenager opined.

“Jennifer, there are ways to learn.”

“From you,” Jennifer spoke gratefully.

“Thank you, Dear, but that's not what I meant,” the wise woman spoke.

“What did you mean?” Jennifer asked, stopping her sewing to turn and look at her companion.

“Jen, there are courses in school that you could study.  There's so much to learn about fabrics and textures ... and what you can do with them.”

“Yes, but it's just a hobby.  I'm not good enough for anything else.  Besides, my friends ...”  Jennifer paused, turned back to her work and spoke, “The colleges I'm thinking about going to all have great education programs, and I love working with children.  Teaching has so many possibilities to it.”

“You'll be a wonderful teacher, Jennifer,” Mrs. Valissi encouraged.  “I'm sure your friends will be happy with that choice.”

Jennifer bit her lip, but said nothing.

====

That night, Jack and Daniel made their nightly rounds, visiting for a while with each of their children.  Jennifer relished the fact that she was still included in this ritual and that her parents didn't think her too old for it.  At the moment, they were in her room, perched on the side of her bed.

“It was pretty funny,” Jennifer spoke as she finished a story about something that had happened at school that day.

“I would have paid money to have seen that,” Jack chuckled.

“Oh, Dad, Daddy, everything I read about college campuses, and my counselor, too, recommends visiting them over the summer.  I know there's ...”

Daniel interrupted, “Jen, Dad and I have already discussed this.  What we need you to do is let us know where you'd like to visit and give us a few choices of when.  One of us, if not both, can fly you there in Jo for at least a day, if not a weekend.”

“That would be awesome,” Jennifer responded with a happy smile.

“Night, Jen,” Daniel stated, getting up and placing a kiss on her forehead, a move that Jack repeated a moment later and then automatically pulled the covers up a little tighter.

“Night,” Jennifer replied as her father shut the door and she settled a bit under the covers.  ~Tucking me in; geez, Dad.~

Still, the girl smiled as she closed her eyes and quickly fell asleep.

====
--Nine Days Later
====

“Jen, hand me the c-clamp,” Sara requested, holding her hand out.

“Here you go, Aunt Sara,” Jennifer said, handing the woman the requested item.  She watched her aunt working on the Wilson's car and admired the older woman's mechanical abilities.  “So, anyway, I'm kinda stuck.”

As Sara placed the end of the c-clamp with the screw on it against the piston, she began to slowly tighten it while responding, “College essays can make the difference, Jen.  Not every college requires them, but even the ones who don't often say that if you're on the borderline, an essay could be the pivotal factor.  They need to know you and why you want to go there.  There we go,” she said, noting that the piston had moved far enough in so that she could plop in the caliper assembly over the new brake pads she'd just put in.

“I think I know what my problem is,” the teenager sighed as Sara tightened the bolts she'd removed earlier.

“Are you going to share?” Sara chuckled, glancing at the young woman.

“I'm not really sure which college I want to go to.  I have a list; I mean, I've narrowed it down, but I'm not really sold on any one in particular.  They all have pros and cons.  Actually, they're all pretty good.  I'm just ... I don't know,” the girl rambled.

“You have plenty of time, Jen.  You've started this process early enough to let you really evaluate all the possibilities.  Here's an idea -- take a good look at their education programs and see how they fit in with you.  Why do you want to be a part of *that* program?  How can *that* program benefit you?  And, ultimately, how will being a graduate of that program at that school affect your future as an educator?”

“Good questions, Aunt Sara,” Jennifer acknowledged with a smile, watching as the blonde shifted position.  “That'll help me, I'm sure.”

“Tighten those lug nuts for me, Jen,” Sara requested, now that she'd put the wheel back on.  “Make sure they're secure.”

“Okay,” the teenager said as she focused on her task.

“Jen,” Sara began, watching the teen intently.  “You'll make a fine teacher, and I'm willing to help you in any way that I can, but ... is that really what you want to do?”

“Of course, it is, Aunt Sara!  Everyone knows that,” Jennifer expressed matter-of-factly.

~Sounds a bit forced to me,~ Sara thought.  “Everyone?”

“All my friends,” the teenager explained.  “And you and Aunt Sam ... everyone.”

“Oh, I see,” Sara responded, wiping her hands on a towel.  “Jennifer, 'everyone' isn't you.”  She smiled, then continued, “Jen, I always wanted to teach; it was a burning desire I had when I was just a young girl.  I began formulating lesson plans when I was still learning in elementary school.  At every opportunity, I was playing 'school' with my friends, and I was the teacher as often as they'd let me be.”  The blonde chuckled, “I had a collection of red pens that you wouldn't believe before I even started high school.”  Sighing as she tossed the towel down, she pointed out, “I don't honestly recall you mentioning teaching until you began looking for colleges.”

“But I do want to teach,” Jennifer claimed, though her tone was a bit subdued.

“I know you can, if that's what you want.  Is it?”  Sara waved off the teenager's answer, shaking her head and holding up a hand.  “Don't answer me.  Just think about it.  Teaching *excites* me, Jennifer.  Whatever you do, it needs to *excite* you.  Your heart needs to beat quicker when you think of it.  When you do it, there needs to be a passion exploding inside of you.  Otherwise, what you'll be doing is a ... a job, not a career, and, for the rest of your life, you'll be going through life, earning a paycheck, instead of living your life and laughing at getting paid for doing something you'd do for free, if you could.

“Think about it, Jennifer, and, uh, when you do, think about yourself, not your friends.  This is *your* future, not theirs; and it's okay if you don't know what you want to do; but if that's the case, and you are uncertain, it might be a good idea to take a broader course instead of a narrower one like teaching.”  With a reassuring pat on the girl's shoulder, Sara added, “Thanks for the help with the brake pads.  After we clean up, I'll make us a snack.”

“You're welcome, Aunt Sara, and thanks,” a somewhat subdued Jennifer responded, taking a deep, audible breath as the woman walked away.  ~Growing up is a pain in the mikta.~

====
--Two Weeks Later
====

“So, Nicki told Kelly, who told Kesha, who told Valerie, who told me,” Amber relayed.  “It's definitely true.  Bill likes you,” she told Jennifer as the two girls, along with Sheila walked down the halls of their school as the lunch break commenced.

“Well, I'm not really interested in Bill,” Jennifer replied, scrunching her nose up.

“Can I have him?” Sheila asked, beaming at the prospect.

“He's all yours, Sheila,” Jennifer chuckled.  ~Besides, I ... whoa, stop that,~ the teen ordered herself, refusing to finish her thought.

“Did you hear about ...” Amber began as she continued the gossip session.

Jennifer wasn't listening, though.  Something had just caught her attention.

“Um, I need to do something.  I'll catch up with you guys in English,” Jennifer spoke, disappearing inside the Counselor's Office before either girl could utter a word.  “Mrs. Carbell, is Doctor Rush in?” she asked hopefully.

“He is.  I'll see if he has a few minutes,” Mrs. Carbell, one of the secretaries responded, getting up and heading for the man's office.

~I wonder,~ Jennifer thought as she waited.

====
--June 30, 2012
====

“Dad, Daddy, can we talk?” Jennifer asked as she stood at the doorway to the den.

The teenager had done a lot of soul searching recently and had finally come to a decision about her future that she was happy with.  She was still a little nervous telling her parents about it, though.

“Sure, Jen,” Daniel agreed from his desk chair.

The teenager entered, closing the sliding doors behind her.  She brought over a chair that was at the edge of the room so that she could sit between Daniel and Jack, who was in the recliner.

“Whazzup?” Jack teased.

“A change in plans,” Jennifer announced.  “I ... I don't want to go to Columbia or Michigan State, or any of the other colleges we've talked about before.  In fact, I ...”  She paused, taking a calming breath.  “Dad, Daddy, I don't think I want to teach.  No, I mean to say, I know I don't want to teach, at least not all the time, not as my profession.  I want to study business, and the reason I want to study business is because I'm not totally sure what I want to do, yet.  I think I want to ... sew and weave, but I'm not sure how to make a living from that, or if I'm really that good.”

Jack and Daniel were both about to speak, but their daughter had a lot to say, and she continued speaking before either of them could do more than open their mouths.  She wanted to get it all out before she lost her courage.

“I know Alex has complimented my work, that he thinks I'm good, and Mrs. Valissi says I'm good.  I know I am good, but the question is, am I good enough?  I don't know that yet, and I don't know exactly how to study that, exactly, because, well, I'm not sure exactly what my expertise would be.  I could study design or textiles or fashion.  There are options, and I know that, but what I want to do is get a handle on the business side of things while I decide or determine if I can do something that sets my heart on fire, like Aunt Sara says.”

Jack grinned.  Sara had mentioned the conversation with Jennifer, warning her ex-husband that things might not be as set in stone as he, and Daniel, had thought they were.

~She's a perceptive one,~ the general thought.

“A business concentration early on will help me in almost anything I end up doing,” Jennifer continued.  “And, um, I know everyone's been talking about me going away to college.  I guess that's what kids do, but I don't want to.”

Daniel leaned forward, confused, and wondered if their oldest daughter was about to say she wanted to postpone college for a while.  Before he could speak, though, the girl continued her elaboration.

“I want to attend the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,” Jennifer announced with a smile.  “I can study business and be at home, and I want to be at home.  Dad, Daddy, I'm not ready to leave the brood.  I'm not changing my major because of it, but I am changing colleges because of it.  You see, it may seem like a long time, in some ways, but it really hasn't been that long since you adopted us, and now I have this really wonderful family.”

The teenager discovered her eyes were watering, and, sure enough, she actually began to cry.  Quickly, her younger father handed her a box of Kleenex that was on his desk.

“Thanks, Daddy.”  Jennifer composed herself for a moment and then explained, “David and Chenoa need me here ... still.”  She smiled, saying, “They do, and I'm not sure if you realize that or not.  Everything is so wonderful for us, but we're still the Mouseketeers.  The wonderful thing about having you as our parents is that you've never stopped that.  You let us still be ... Morgans, while becoming Jackson-O'Neills.  That's such a special gift, and it means more than I'm able to ex...explain.”

Jack and Daniel shared a look.  They'd made that choice years ago, to encourage all of their adopted children to remember and honor their birth parents.  Photos of the children's lives before they became Jackson-O'Neills were all over the house, and their birth parents and, in Lulu's case, first adoptive family, were frequently mentioned.  Even their natural children were urged to honor Kayla Armentrout, their birth mother, the young woman who had been the surrogate for Jack and Daniel.  Her place in their lives would never be forgotten.

“A lot of adoptive parents wouldn't do that, so I want to make sure you know how important that's been, so I'm saying it now, and I'm telling you that the Mouseketeers still need to be together; and, on the selfish side, I don't want to miss JD growing up, not yet.  I want to see Jonny and Little Danny as they develop more.  They're so much like you two.  And Ash, she's so beautiful.  I don't want to be far away when she starts breaking those hearts.”

~I *so* don't want to think about that,~ Jack bemoaned, praying he'd survive all of his daughter's romances.

Jennifer was still speaking, saying, “Lulu needs me here, too.  We all know that, and I don't want to let her down.  I could list everyone, but the truth is ... well, the truth is I like our silly zoo.  I love Bij and Katie, and the cats, Ptolemy, Bagel, Strawberry and Shortcake, and even Bogey ... and I love our ice cream fanaticism. I like the shows we put on, the family meetings, the pillow fights.”  She bowed her head, adding, “I'm not ready to leave that.  I'm not trying to stay a child.  I'm making a choice.  I know the time is coming when that choice will be different, when it'll have to be different, but, for now, can't my choice be to ... to be a good sister?  To stay here and be with my parents and my family?  I need you, and I need them, and I can go to UCCS and study business and really decide if there's a future for me with weaving.  Maybe I will teach, but I think I need time to make sure I'm doing something I'll love forever.  Can I stay here?  Can I go to UCCS?  Please.”

“Jen, you can do anything you want to do,” Jack expressed emotionally, leaning forward and taking her hands in his.  “We don't want you to go, if you're not ready for that.”

“I'm not, Dad.  I want to watch the brood grow up some more.  JD won't even know me if I go away to college now.  I don't want that kind of relationship with him.  I want him to know me as his sister and have real things he can remember later, just like the rest of the zoo does.  If I go now, there's no chance of that.  If I wait a little while, maybe he'll remember something.”  The teenager took a much-needed breath and added, “Plus, there's the Teen Gate Exchange Program.  I feel so good about that project, and I don't want to walk away from it yet.  I didn't realize I had a choice in that.  I thought when you retired, I'd have to quit.”

“You understand that's a wrong assumption?” Daniel questioned.

“I do now,” Jennifer agreed, adding, “but I didn't until I talked to Dad about it, and then later with Grandpa.  I want to continue leading it, helping it to expand.  I can't do that if I'm in Hawaii or Boston going to school.  I need to be here.  I *want* to be here.”

Daniel reached out and caressed her cheek gently, then commented, “Jen, we're so proud of you.  You look ... happier right now then you've been in a long while.”

Jennifer bowed her head as she admitted, “I realize now that I've been doing what my friends wanted me to, not what I wanted to.  Aunt Sara made me realize that I need to follow my passion: that's weaving.  Mrs. Valissi really believes that I'm good enough; I just need to convince myself of that.  I'm trying really hard to do what's best for me so that I honor the two of you.”

“Us?” Jack asked, not really making the connection.

“Dad, I've been so worried about what everyone else thinks.  Geez, you and Daddy have spent your whole lives *not* caring what everyone else thinks.  We wouldn't be the brood, if you had cared.  I feel like an idiot,” Jennifer admitted. Quickly, though, she continued, “I want to be like both of you.  I want to make good choices, choices based on what's best for me and my loved ones, and, as long as those choices don't hurt anyone, then to heck with what *they* think.  I want to honor all my parents, by living like I was taught.  Does that make sense?”

“It makes perfect sense,” Daniel responded.  Smiling, he said, “Thank you, Jennifer.”

“You're not mad?”

“Of course not!” Jack exclaimed.

“Good, because I have all the information here.  I've done my essay, and I made a list of references in case I need them.  I don't think I will, but I don't want to take chances.  My GPA is pretty good, but I'm going to make sure I bump it up a notch before graduation.  Here's the information on their business program.  See, it ...”

For the next thirty minutes, Jennifer educated her parents on the campus of her choice and their degree programs.  She barely stopped talking long enough to breathe.  She was excited and confident.

When they were done and the teen was leaving the room, Jennifer turned at the doorway and said cheekily, “Daddy, I'm holding you to your promise of paying my cell phone bill.  My friends may be far away, and I'll have my family to keep me happy here, but I'll still need to gossip!”

When the girl walked out, the two parents stared at each other and smiled.

“Jack, do you think our daughter has any clue how much she grew up today?”

“Not a one, Danny; not a one,” Jack replied with pride.

The first half of 2012 had been an important time of decision for the oldest Jackson-O'Neill daughter, and now that she'd made some critical choices, she felt at peace, as did her parents. Though the future, like all things, was still unsure, the one thing that Jack, Daniel, and Jennifer were sure of was this: they were Jackson-O'Neills, a true family, and as long as they were together, unified by their love, nothing in the world, or the universe, could ever defeat them, not ever.

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