Icicles

Author:  Orrymain and special guest co-author, Lil Bear!
Category:  Slash, Drama, Romance, Holiday, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - December 25, 2012
Spoilers:  None
Size:  74kb
Written:  December 22-25,29-31, 2011, January 1-3,6-8, 2012
Summary:  Reflections of the holiday season and a cozy late night for lovers are the subject of this Christmas tale.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) I want to welcome Lil Bear as a co-author.  This is her very first co-author story with me and, in fact, her first published story anywhere.  I'm very proud of what she has done to make this tale a success!
2) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
3) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Mama Bear, Ali, Alverine!

Icicles
by Orrymain and Lil Bear

With smiles on their faces and goodness in their hearts as they'd snuggled in for a good night's sleep, the Jackson-O'Neill kids and their pets were now sound asleep.  Only Jack and Daniel remained up at this late hour.  They'd cleaned a bit after the celebration of the holiday, but not much.  That could wait for the light of day.

Looking extremely handsome and sexy, Daniel had on a navy blue turtleneck with his jeans, while Jack was wearing a similar styled burgundy sweater.  Both pieces of clothing had some Christmas glitter around the neck and on the chest area.  Jack's cowlick was out of control, as it had been for most of the day, but Daniel's slightly longer hair was still looking fine.

A log fire was still burning in the fireplace, the snaps and crackles of the fire fitting in nicely with the festive music that played softly on the stereo.  Right now, Nat King Cole's “The Christmas Song” was playing.

A few minutes earlier, a slight noise had come over the intercom, so Jack had gone upstairs to check on baby JD, who was just days shy of his first birthday. Meanwhile, Daniel had decided to take action with one of the gifts bestowed on him and his husband this holiday season.

“That's pretty,” Jack observed as he returned and saw Daniel out on the back patio deck.  He walked out, instantly aware of the chilling temperature that was below freezing.  He moved forward and put his arms around his Love.  “Perfect spot.”

“They remind me of icicles,” Daniel replied as he sank back into his husband's embrace and brought his hands to rest atop Jack's and caress gently against the skin.

Jack stared at the newly received and just hung wind chimes.  It was a Christmas gift from the Shanihans, who were approaching their second wedding anniversary in only a couple of weeks.  Sam had worked on the mechanism, a solar powered element that caused the pointy, crystal-like chimes to light up.  Pete handcrafted the chimes and arranged them so that each one had its place and could be easily viewed.

There were a total of sixteen chimes, four longer ones and twelve of varying lengths.  It was an obvious symbolic representation of the Jackson-O'Neill family.  The longer ones were to add some design to the set.  Sam and Pete decided to have those symbolize Jack, Daniel, and their two beagles as the cornerstones of the Jackson-O'Neill clan.

Not to leave anyone out, there was a second set of chimes representing the family's animal kingdom that was gifted to the family.  Before going to sleep, the children had decided that set would look great in the gazebo, so as soon as possible, the zoo set would be hung there for all to admire.

“Bij and Katie are full of themselves,” Jack mused.

Daniel chuckled, “Well, wouldn't you feel special if you were the only two included in both sets of chimes?”

With a snarky type of chuckle, Jack replied, “Even Shanahan isn't sure if they are human beings or dogs.”

With a smile on his face, Daniel sighed contentedly.  It had been a perfect holiday celebration.  Life was good, and he felt so incredibly happy.  He focused on the hanging pieces, each in a color that was a favorite of the being it represented.  There were a few repeats, but no one minded, especially since the shades of the hues varied a bit on the similar chimes.  Each chime even had the name of the person it represented engraved in a gold emblem that circled it at the top.

In a mixture of happiness and longing, Jack sighed, “I can't believe Carter thought to do that.”

Daniel knew exactly what his husband was referring to.  Sam and Pete had not just worked on this design, but they'd obviously put a ton of thought into it.  That was obvious from the upper portion of the wind chimes.

A double halo topped the hanging chimes.  The top part extended over the lower one by roughly an inch-and-a-half.  Color wise, the top piece was a lovely sea green, while the lower halo was an earthly brown hue.  These were angelic colors that spoke of protectiveness and things close to nature.  Beneath them were two very soft bells and then nestled under that were the hanging chimes.  Just like the chime engravings, the halos also were adorned with names.

“Kayla's watching over all of us,” Daniel responded about the top halo that bore the parental name of 'Mom' in honor of Kayla Armentrout, the birth mother of the Munchkins and the Spitfires.  “So is our son,” he added about Charlie.

“Yeah,” Jack agreed.  “They're both here.”

The stereo began to play yet another holiday tune, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as sung by Josh Groban and Brian McKnight.

“That's ... timing,” Daniel noted with an nod to the coincidence.

“Ya think?”

Daniel nodded and affirmed, “Yeah, I think.  The more I think I'm a scientist, the more I realize I'm ... just a man first, and amazing things just ... they just keep happening to us, and no amount of science can explain it.”

Jack said nothing.  He was enjoying this time with his husband, just being happy for their family being together, while also remembering Kayla and Charlie, who had both died and yet were very much a part of their ongoing life.  He wasn't a scientist, but he was a military man who thought with logic and was more often skeptical of everything and everyone.  Yet, like Daniel, he'd come to realize that there were just some things he'd never understand, including the occasional physical signs that Kayla and Charlie were participating in the mortal lives of their family.  Even now, it was a bit much for Jack to contemplate, so he decided to focus on something he could understand.

“Angel, how about some hot chocolate?”

“Oh, that sounds good.”

“I'll get it started,” Jack promised, letting go and heading toward the sliding patio door.  He turned back and, in a somewhat pleading tone, added, “Danny, get in the house.  You can gawk where it's warm.”

“I'm not gawking, I'm ... admiring.”

Jack gave his partner a smile and continued on to the kitchen, though he glanced back to ensure his lover was following.

Daniel was cold, so he really had no desire to argue.  He returned to the warmth of the house, locking the door afterward.  However, he took a stance inside that gave him a solid view of the lit chimes.

~That was a great of Sam's, to rig it so the chimes lit up at night,~ Daniel mused.  His eyes took in the entire scope of the set, but then settled in on the red one.  He chuckled quietly as he thought about his youngest daughter.  ~She complains about being called Red, and she says she doesn't have a favorite color, especially not red, but Jenny was sure proud of her red chime tonight.~

//Flashback//
“It's pretty, Uncle Pete,” Jenny spoke enthusiastically.

“Yer not mad at me for showing off your beautiful red hair?”

Jenny swayed back and forth slightly, her Annie-like red dress moving freely in the air.

“Na-uh.  There's lots of good red things like ... lic'rice!” the five-year-old opined.

“And fire engines,” Jenny's twin Spitfire, Ricky, pointed out.

“Don't forget tomatoes.”

Those assembled stared at David, who shrugged and explained, “I like tomatoes,” after which a round of light chuckles could be heard.

“Ladybugs,” Brianna added, wanting to say something unique and not generic like cars or boats.

“Cardinal birds,” Little Danny stated while tapping on the individual chimes and listening intently to the unique sound each made.

“And Santa's suit,” Lulu added with a bob of her head.
//End of Flashback//

“Santa's suit,” Daniel echoed very quietly.  “I was worried there for a minute, Little Bit,” he admitted to himself.

Staring at Lulu's bright pink chime as it pinged lightly against Chenoa's golden yellow chime, the archaeologist recalled a conversation he'd accidentally overheard the week before between eight-year-old Lulu and seven-year-old Chenoa. For a moment, he'd wondered if Lulu had become an unbeliever.

//Flashback//
The dancers were in their studio, practicing a special number they wanted to perform on Christmas Eve for their family.

“I like that,” Chenoa announced when the two girls finished their final tap move.

“Me, too,” Lulu agreed.  “Noa, we have to change fast.  Daddy's taking us shopping for presents.”

Chenoa sat down on the mat to change her shoes.  A frown was on her face, and she began to fret some.

“What's wrong?”

After a sigh, Chenoa beckoned, “Lulu, tell me true, is there *really* a Santa Claus?”

--

Just about to enter the dance studio to remind the girls about their shopping trip, Daniel's heart pounded in his chest as the query thundered in his mind.  While he knew the kids would start to question the reality of characters like Santa Claus at some point, he was inwardly hoping they would keep the magic for a bit longer.  Part of that was due to his own childhood miseries.  He stopped at the edge of the doorway, trying to decide whether or not to jump in.

--

“Noa, of course, Santa is real,” Lulu answered.

“Are you sure?”

“I'm positive,” the ballet aficionado insisted.  She grew even more serious as she looked straight into her sister's eyes.  “When I was with Daddy Kevin,” she began about the abuser who was once her foster father, “he told me Santa was just a big joke and that no one would ever love me because I was such a bad girl.”

Angrily, Chenoa got up onto her knees as she called out, “Lulu!”  With more love than could be imagined, she threw her arms around her sister and declared, “I love you so much.  That man was very bad.”

“I know that now,” Lulu responded, vulnerability still evident in her shaky voice.  “That's how I know, Noa, because of you, and Dad and Daddy, and the Munchkins, and the Spitfires, and the Mavericks, and the other Mouseketeers ... and Bij' and Katie,” she giggled, “and Calico ...”

Chenoa sat back down to finish her shoe change, laughing alongside her sister.

“Daddy, our daddy, he says sometimes bad things happen, but it's not our fault, so I think Daddy Kevin was the bad person, and he lied about Santa.  Noa, I think Santa helped God bring Dad home when he lost his memory.”

“Me, too,” Chenoa whispered as if it were a secret.

“Besides, he always eats our cookies and drinks the milk,” Lulu stated definitively.

“Yeah, you're right.  Santa's real,” Chenoa decided confidently.

--

Daniel breathed in with relief.  He was also taken aback with some emotion.  How he hated Lulu's abuser.  He could forgive a lot, but not harming an innocent child as Lulu's foster father had done to her.  For now, Daniel was glad Lulu still believed as she had lost so much of her childhood already.  He wanted her to be a kid for as long as possible.  Collecting himself, he entered the studio.

“Hey!”

“Hi, Daddy,” both girls called out with happy smiles on their faces.

“You ready to hit the mall?”

“Daddy, will one of Santa's mall helpers be there?” Chenoa questioned.

“Probably,” Daniel responded.

Jack and Daniel had used the cover story with their children that Santa had 'mall helpers' who were at the malls with Santa's proxy and okay to speak on his behalf.  This was because there were so many places all around the globe where children wanted to speak to him.  To make sure all the children were heard, Santa enlisted men to dress up like him and be his helpers.  However, even though Santa wasn't necessarily there in person, he could see and hear all, and sometimes, it really was Santa.  He was magical after all and could easily appear with many different faces just to keep kids on their toes.  They just never knew when the Santa they were talking to was actually Santa or one of his mall helpers.

“I have something new to add to my wish list,” Chenoa informed her father.

Somewhat bashfully, Lulu confided, “Me, too, Daddy, but I don't want to sound selfish, but I really do need it.”

“You can ask Santa and see what he says.”

With complete sincerity, Lulu replied, “Santa will understand.  He told me once that he would always pay special attention to what I asked for because Daddy Kevin had kept me away from him.”

“Santa has a big heart, Li'l Bit,” Daniel spoke with emotion, recalling that conversation from last year.  “He loves all children.”
//End of Flashback//

Daniel cleared his throat as his mind walked away from the conversation.  Lulu still believed, and so did Chenoa.  At the moment, that was what counted.  He did suspect that next year, he and Jack would have to have a discussion with the girls, particularly Lulu.

~We'll play it by ear.  Maybe she'll get one more year of belief.~

For a minute, Daniel closed his eyes and replayed the special dance that Chenoa and Lulu had performed for the family on Christmas Eve.  It was full of love and charm.  There had been one little goof, though.

//Flashback//
The entire family was in the recreation room watching their favorite dancers performing a special holiday routine.  As often was the case, the dance was a mixture of Chenoa's favorite tap style and Lulu's preferred ballet style.  It made for some very interesting dances, especially when infused with touches of jazz and lyrical steps.

Toward the end of the number, the girls were doing a move known as the grande battemante.  This ballet movement increased in difficulty with the maturity of the dancers.  At one point, Chenoa brought her right leg up as her left arm swung up into the air.  It was supposed to be a slow, fluid progression, but the tap dancer lost her timing and then her balance.  When she brought her leg back down, intending to sweep it along the floor and then back up behind her, it went too fast and she ended up falling flat on her abdomen.

“Oops,” Daniel remarked with concern from the sofa.

Jack started to get up until Daniel  held him back.

“Daniel, she fell.”

“She wants to be a dancer, Babe.”

“She fell,” the worried general repeated.

“She'll get back up,” Daniel asserted confidently, just like you'd expect one of your recruits to do.  ~I hope.~

The girls had occasionally made mistakes in their dances.  After all, they were learning.  This was the worst of the slip-ups, though, which is why the parents were a bit concerned.

Seeing her sister's fall, Lulu altered her bit to include a tricky tap move she knew she hadn't yet mastered.  Sure enough, she stumbled over her feet and ended up on the hard floor.

An embarrassed Chenoa looked over at her sister and saw the smile on Lulu's face.  In seconds, both girls were laughing, and that prompted their family members to laugh, too.

Getting up, Chenoa looked at her audience, extended out her arms, shrugged, and quipped, “Well, I guess this proves I'm really not Shirley Temple.”

The joke brought more chuckles from her family.  From the day they'd first met their little dove, Jack and Daniel had commented on the girl's curly golden hair that was so reminiscent of a young Shirley Temple, who was arguably the world's best, or at least cutest, little tap dancer in the movies.  The comparison was common knowledge within the family.

“Hey!” Jack called out.  “Shirley fell, but she always got up.”

“She did?” Daniel whispered to his husband.

“She must have.  She was a kid, too.”

“Good point.”

“It happens,” Jack replied, a smile never leaving his face.

Chenoa's grin was huge, and her embarrassment was long gone.  She ran over to the stereo and reset the music to the halfway mark.

Returning to the appropriate spot, Chenoa turned to Lulu and instructed eagerly, “From the shin sham.”

Lulu nodded and quickly took her position.  Waiting for the correct beat, she began to move in time to the music.

Together, the girls completed the dance, and this time, Chenoa made it through the grande battemante without incident.

With the routine finished, everyone stood up, cheering and applauding.  There were even a couple of barks and meows in praise.

“No Shirley Temple,” Jack stated sarcastically.  “She's better!”

“She has the heart of a dancer, Jack,” Daniel responded.  “So does Lulu.”

“Ya got that right, Danny,” Jack agreed excitedly.

Happily, Daniel whistled and cheered even louder, feeling proud of Chenoa's resolve as well as Lulu's support of her sister.
//End of Flashback//

~The heart of a dancer.  They both have it,~ Daniel reiterated in his mind.

Soon, the father's eye wandered away from the dancers' chimes and honed in on the purple chime that was a couple of chimes to the right of Lulu's.  David was on a purple kick lately.  He was wearing purple shirts and even purple socks.  Daniel wasn't sure why the hue was all the rage with the eleven-year-old, but it didn't really matter. He was just glad the fad hadn't ended before the gift exchange, considering that purple handkerchiefs and a purple lamp shade had been part of the boy's presents.

Momentarily, Daniel's mind centered in on a special father-son scene from the night before Christmas Eve.  Jack had taken David up to the roof deck where they set up their telescopes side by side and spent some time stargazing together.

//Flashback//
“Wow, Dad, it does look like a Christmas present,” David observed in amazement.

“In the sky?” Daniel questioned curiously as he climbed up to the Aerie, following Chenoa onto the deck.

“There's a present in the stars?” Chenoa asked, having loved astronomy from her earliest remembrance of Jack talking to her about the constellations.

“As sure as there are beautiful doves in the world,” Jack promised, walking over and picking up Chenoa to give her a kiss and a hug.  “Want to see?”

“Can I?”

“Show her, Son,” Jack requested, giving David a chance to show off what he'd just learned while also allowing himself the opportunity to covertly squeeze Daniel's derriere.

“Look, Noa,” David began as he helped his sister to focus through the powerful telescope.  “See the four stars and those three others in a straight line?  They're the bow.”

--

“It's really Orion,” Jack whispered to his Love.  “But he's used to represent different things in various cultures.”

--

“David, that looks like Orion, too,” Chenoa expressed in confusion.

“It is, Sis.  Hey, way to go on recognizing Orion.”

With a huge grin, the little girl moved back, looked at her brother, and explained, “Dad showed Orion to me once.  I remember because of the two star shoulders.”

The young boy was so impressed with his sister.  He often showed her the stars, but he didn't realize she'd retained the knowledge, as she apparently had done.

“Noa, want to see the holy manger in the sky?”

“It's up there?”

“Dad just showed me,” David affirmed as he leaned over and forward to set up the scope so that he could show the heavenly manger to his little sister.  “Here it is.”

--

“The manger?” Daniel questioned curiously.

“It's to the east of Orion's belt that represents the Three Kings.”

“The Magi?”

Jack shrugged and expounded, “It's all in the interpretation.  Cancer is pretty much devoid of space without any bright stars.  If you look at it right, you see a couple of donkeys eating.”

“A bit of a stretch?”

“A bit, but sometimes you can be too literal.  We need imagination.”

“No arguments from me,” Daniel agreed.  “Is Rudolph up there?”

“Only if you live at the North Pole,” Jack teased, loving the smile that appeared on his husband's face.  Turning his attention back to the children, he called out, “Hey, let me show you the shepherd's star.”

Daniel smiled some more.  He actually knew Jack was referring to the planet Venus.  They'd talked about it once.  He wanted to stay and be a part of this little group for the rest of the astronomy lesson, but he needed to get back into the house to check on the rest of the brood.  Reluctantly, he climbed back down from the Aerie to the regular roof deck and walked back inside the house.
//End of Flashback//

~They do love the stars,~ Daniel thought about David and Chenoa.  ~I'm glad.  It makes Jack happy, too.~

“Danny, want marshmallows?” Jack called out from the kitchen.

“Would it be hot chocolate without them?” was the linguist's response.

“Forget I asked.”

“Did you ask something?”

“Nope,” Jack laughed from the kitchen, unable to see his lover, but hearing the happy tone of his voice.  ~Gotta love a happy Danny.~

Daniel moved his head in a circle, exercising it for a moment.  He closed his eyes as well, just refreshing his mind and body for a few seconds.  Then he looked out again at the chimes, smiling at the orange one that represented Ricky.  He couldn't help himself, laughing out loud when he thought about part of the Spitfire's conversation with Santa at one of the local malls.

//Flashback//
“Now, Ricky, Santa needs to know if you've been a good boy this year.”

“But I thought you knew everything, Santa,” came Ricky's sincere reply.

“Of course, I do.  Santa has his own Naughty and Nice Department.  They work around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every week of every year.”

“Then you know, Santa, that I've been a very good boy this year.  I even let Jen wash my blanket,” Ricky announced as he proudly held up the old blue blanket he often carried with him.

“Yes, I can see that,” the man dressed as Santa noted as he pushed his head back slightly to avoid being hit by the obviously worn object.

“Santa, I've been such a good boy that I think I should get only good presents this year.”

“You mean you've gotten bad presents before?”  When the boy nodded, the man in the red suit inquired, “What is a bad present?”

“Cloooothes!  Ewe!  Santa, who wants clothes for Christmas?  I want toys!  Lots and lots and *lots* of toys.”

--

As he waited a few feet away, Daniel couldn't help but hear the laughter from some of the other parents, not to mention the applause of some of the kids.  It was clear that clothes were gift non grata for children.

~Note to self: save the clothes for New Year's Eve.~
//End of Flashback//

The reality was that all of the children had received some clothes, but they had hardly been deprived of toys, either.  They never were.  If anything, they were overindulged.

~We say we're going to limit it every year, but we never do.  Gawd, we're so bad.~

Hearing Jack clattering away in the kitchen, Daniel was taken back in time to another sound of clattering.  It was over three years ago.  As his mind drifted, Daniel's focus shifted to the midnight blue chime.

//Flashback//
Daniel was coming down the stairs, having just checked on the twins who were napping, when he heard clanking and banging noises.  He followed the sound to the kitchen, where he found Jonny seated on the floor, surrounded by several pots and pans.  The Munchkin was holding a spoon in each hand.

“Jonny, what are you doing?” Daniel questioned as he took in the sight while also wondering just how the Munchkin had managed to get the items on the floor in the first place.  ~Don't ask: covert.~

“M'king 'usic,” the boy answered confidently just before he pounded on the nearest two pots.

“Oh, I see,” Daniel returned as he kneeled down beside the toddler.  As he gently took the spoons from the small boy, he smiled and suggested, “Let's do this later.”

Immediately, Jonny protested, “Daddy, I make 'usic.”

“Yes, I ... I heard,” Daniel replied with just a slight hesitation.  “Uh, Son, the twins are sleeping, and if you keep making ... music, you'll wake them up.”

“But ...”  Seeing his father's expression, the aspiring Air Force officer decided he had better quit while he was ahead.  ~Crap!~

“I'll tell you what.  When the twins wake up, the four of us can make music together,” Daniel promised.

“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” Jonny cheered, his thunderous approval going silent in a flash as his hands slapped over his mouth.  “S'ry.”

“It's okay.  For now, let's go play with something quieter,” Daniel urged firmly.

“We play Can'y Lan'?” the young boy asked hopefully.

“Sure,” Daniel agreed.

“Wish Lit' Danny 'n' Ash home so c'uld play, too.”

“Me, too, but they'll be back later when Dad finishes his errands.”

Happily, the father and son played a few games of Candy Land before the twins awoke.  Then, true to his word, Daniel and three of his children made music with metal instruments in the kitchen.
//End of Flashback//

The clattering in the kitchen was turning into mumbling.  All Daniel could make out was something about big marshmallows being better than the small ones.

~Okay, Love,~ Daniel mused mentally.

For whatever reason, Daniel next gazed at the white chime that had Aislinn's name embossed on it.  Sam had chosen white for the youngest Munchkin to match the girl's pet rabbit, Bagel.  That reminded Daniel of a special conversation he had had with his original miracle, as he sometimes referred to Aislinn, not too long ago.

//Flashback//
After having a discussion with Brianna in her bedroom, Daniel was on his way to the master bedroom.  As he passed the girls' room, he overheard Aislinn giggling.

~Giggling while cleaning?~ Daniel pondered.   ~Maybe I should check this out.~

Daniel was especially curious since his daughter had procrastinated in her chores and had been sent to her room to clean the entire room, including Jenny's portion.

~Punishment is a real ...~ Daniel stopped his thought and mused, ~Language, Jackson.~

When he glanced inside the unusually messy room, Daniel saw the youngest Munchkin standing in front of the rabbit's cage and holding her pet.  Bagel, the bunny Paul Davis had given her roughly a year-and-a-half ago, had her front paws on the girl's chest, licking her nose.

As Daniel walked in, he tripped over a shoe that was lying in the middle of the floor.  His somewhat sideways momentum took him toward Jenny's bed.

“Daddy are you okay?” Aislinn asked as she rushed over to her younger father's side.

“Yeah, I'm fine,” Daniel replied in a muffle since his face was buried in Jenny's pillow.

“I know I should be cleaning my room, but Bagel was thumping for attention,” Aislinn explained.  She placed Bagel on the bed next to Daniel's head so she could pick up the shoe.  As she walked away, she heard her daddy let loose with a laugh of his own.  After picking up the shoe, she turned around to see Bagel licking her daddy's nose.  “She really loves to give kisses,” the seven-year-old stated while putting the shoe in its proper place.

“I can see that,” the archaeologist responded as he sat upright on the bed.

“I'm sorry about the shoe, Daddy.”

“That's okay, Sweetie.  I can see that when Bagel wants attention, she finds a way to get it,” Daniel noted just as Bagel jumped onto his lap and put her paws on his chest in a demand to be patted.

“Daddy, Bagel wants a friend.  She gets lonely,” Aislinn told her father.

“Ash, you know how Dad feels about adding to the zoo,” Daniel reminded, while patting the soft white bunny.

“I know Dad always says no more pets, but then we get another one, and he loves it, even though he never admits it,” the triplet returned, verbalizing what everyone in the house knew.

“True, but most of the pets just sort of become members of the family.  We don't go out in search of them.  They find us,” the father rationalized.  ~Geez, do they find us.~

“I know, but Bagel is really lonely, Daddy,” the girl pointed out, a sadness in her voice.

His daughter's tone and expression had Daniel thinking about going to the nearest pet store and buying the white rabbit a companion right away, but then flashes of Jack's grizzly bear persona appearing at the sight of a new rabbit went through his mind, stopping short any further ideas of getting Bagel a playmate.

“We'll see,” was all Daniel said.

Before returning to her cleaning task, Aislinn enjoyed time with her daddy as the two spent the next half hour playing with the rabbit.
//End of Flashback//
 
The image fading for now, Daniel felt contented at the recollection.  He'd had a lot of fun that day, playing with Aislinn and Bagel.  He also knew in his heart that he would treasure every memory he had of his beloved husband and children for forever and a day.  He let out a tiny yawn before his thoughts of forever and his family led him to look at Jennifer's pink chime.

~Jen loves being a girl, but I never thought she'd intentionally choose pink as her color.~

Chuckling as he shook his head, the archaeologist went back in time a few weeks as he recalled learning about her color choice.

//Flashback//
Completing his round of goodnights for the evening, Daniel tapped lightly on Jennifer's bedroom door that was slightly ajar and entered.  He immediately noticed the girl of seventeen years was texting on her cell phone.

“Still more to say to Sheila?” the archaeologist inquired, his reference to Jennifer's best friend.

“No.  Actually, I'm letting Aunt Sam know what color I want for this secret project of hers.”  Jennifer looked up as her father sat down on the edge of the bed.  “Do you know what it is, Daddy?”

The truth was that Sam had been talking with Jack and Daniel earlier in the day about the children and colors.  Jennifer walked in on the conversation, and eventually Sam admitted she was working on something special for the family for Christmas.  In the course of that discussion, she'd asked Jennifer what color she would like to have representing her.

“Not a clue,” Daniel answered.  “It's, uh, driving Dad up the wall.”

“That's probably why she won't tell you what the secret present is.”

“Probably,” Daniel agreed with a small smirk.  “So, your favorite then?”

“Nope.  I'm popping for pink.”

“Pink?” the father echoed in total surprise.  “Isn't that a bit ... cliché?”

“Funny, Daddy.”  Amused at her daddy's imitation of her older father, Jennifer chuckled as she sent her text and then acknowledged that he was right. “It's absolutely cliché, Daddy, but I decided that a secret gift that I knew nothing about was the perfect time to be cliché.”

“That's very ... something of you,” Daniel chuckled.

“I think it's being a girl, and since I am a girl, pink works.”  With a devilish expression, Jennifer admitted, “Besides, Jeff bet me ten dollars that I wouldn't do it.”

“Oh!”
//End of Flashback//

Shaking his head, Daniel still found the conversation amusing.  However, his daughter had been very happy when she saw the light pink chime glowing with what looked like pink hearts at the center.  She'd told Daniel that it made her feel good inside.

“I need to follow my intuition more, Daddy,” Jennifer had stated.  “It's beautiful.”

From the kitchen, the lost-in-thought man heard a query, though he wasn't sure this second what it was.

“What did you say?” Daniel called out, walking to the edge of the counter where he could see his lover standing near the oven on the far side of the kitchen.

“Soft pretzels?  Cookies?  Cake?  Chips?  Me?” the general questioned with a gleam in his eye.

“Oh, well, there's only one choice.”

Jack's grin grew.

“Pretzels, of course.”

Jack's grin collapsed, as did other parts of his body.

Daniel laughed, “We'll get to ... you know, later.”  With his husband's facial expression happy once again, Daniel amended his choice.  “Babe, whatever you want is fine.  My only craving is for the hot chocolate ... and you.”

“That's more like it,” Jack was heard saying in a pleased mumble.

The archaeologist was about to return to his view of the wind chimes when he heard the familiar sound of floppy ears being shaken back in forth.

“Hey, Bij.  Decide to take a stroll?”

“Woof,” was the small acknowledgement, after which the beagle stretched, rolled over, ran twice around the living room, and then pranced over to Daniel.

With dog paws on his knees, Daniel kneeled down and playfully patted the beloved canine.  A doggie kiss later, he watched Bijou go back upstairs to spend more time with the children.

“Actually, that was a good idea.”  Daniel stood up and raised his hands to stretch, flexing his muscles as he moved from side to side.  Not in the mood for a run, though, he resumed his spot in front of the glass door.  Immediately, he saw the gold and silver chimes that represented the two beagles.  The gold one was for Bijou and the silver for Katie.  ~Pete picked the right colors: precious metals as priceless as our girls.~

Daniel's heart brought forth the memory of an afternoon he had spent alone with the beagles before the human children had even been a consideration.  He smiled as he reflected on the day.

//Flashback//
“I'll be fine while you're gone, Jack.  I'll get some of the yard work done in the backyard that we have been putting off,” Daniel told his lover.

“Okay, Angel,” Jack replied, giving his Heart a kiss and then leaving to run his errands that he expected would take most of the afternoon to complete.

~Might as well start with the leaves,~ Daniel decided.  ~We've ignored them way too long.~

The fact was Jack and Daniel hadn't done any outdoor chores, including raking, in several weeks.  As a result, the archaeologist had his work cut out for him.  In fact, he had what his lover would call a huge, honkin' pile of leaves stacked for bagging roughly sixty minutes later.

Just as the hardworking man put the rake down to take a quick break before starting the bagging process, Bijou and Katie came running around the corner and began dashing across the yard.

“Hey, Girls!” Daniel called out, smiling happily at the youthful dogs.  ~They are so cute.  I just love ... oh, no.~

The mama beagle and her puppy were playing tag with each other, darting all over the huge backyard.  This was fine with the lawn worker until he watched the girls approach the gathered leaves, gathering speed as they did so.

“Bbb...Bij...oh, never mind.”

As the dogs had reached the pile of leaves, Bijou tackled Katie, resulting in both of them rolling through the once pristine pile of fall foliage.  The more they played, the more the leaves scattered everywhere.

For all intents and purposes, Daniel was back where he'd started an hour ago.

“Bij, Katie, I love you so much, but was that really necessary?  I mean, uh, the leaves?”

“Woof!  Woof!,” the excited and completely unworried girls answered in unison.

“Come here,” Daniel beckoned as he knelt down on his haunches.

The girls eagerly jumped on their human simultaneously, knocking him over and into the flatter and longer pile of leaves.  Katie pounced on his chest, lying down and giving him a few licks on the chin, while Bijou placed herself next to his head and licked his forehead.

“Okay, okay,” Daniel chuckled, petting both dogs.  “You're right.  It was absolutely necessary.  Besides, I still have three hours before Jack is supposed to be back.”

Happily wagging their tails, the beagles got up and stood at Daniel's side.  Their expressions were pleading and hopeful.

“What?” Daniel queried.  “Oh, do you wanna play?”

Katie barked twice and then ran into the doghouse.  Seconds later, she returned, carrying two rope toys in her mouth.  Excitedly, she set them down at Daniel's feet and then backed up next to her mother.  In anticipation of winning their human over, both sat down like perfect pets.

“Why not?  Like I said, I have three hours,” Daniel agreed, knowing he couldn't resist the sad puppy dog look the beagles often used to get him to have fun.  ~Who can resist pouts like that?~

The archeologist spent the next ninety minutes playing in the backyard with his canine children, after which they took a little dog nap together.

--

When Jack finally returned home, Daniel was raking the yard again.

“Hey, I thought you would have been done with this hours ago,” Jack teased his soulmate.

“I decided to do it twice.”

“Huh?”

With a chuckle, Daniel clarified, “I would have been done if the girls hadn't demanded playtime, after destroying my beautiful leaf stack.”

As he continued his raking, Daniel told Jack what had transpired while he'd been gone.

“I'll change and give you a hand,” Jack offered, disappearing into the house with the beagles trailing behind him.

--

When the general returned, twenty minutes had elapsed.

“I thought you were going to help me,” Daniel whined, pointing at his now completed, for the second time, stack of leaves.

“Phone call,” Jack explained.

In a flash of lightning, the beagles dashed by Jack and jumped off the wood deck and onto the lawn.  Before Daniel could call out to them, his latest pristine pile was once again a long, flat road with leaves scattered everywhere.

Jack smacked his lips and cocked his head as he walked over to his soulmate to share in the man's agony.

“Well, Dannyboy, looks like you have some more raking to do,” the silver-haired man quipped as he patted Daniel on the chest a couple times.  Turning, he looked over at the seemingly giggling dogs and called out, “Come on, girls.  Let's go get a treat.”
//End of Flashback//

~A treat?~ Daniel retorted sarcastically in his mind.  ~That's okay.  I had a great time.~  He had so many memories of fun times with the beagles.  They really were like his children, which he knew didn't make sense to some people.  ~Their loss,~ he thought about those who didn't understand the bond with the dogs.

With a sigh of goodness, the observer's eyes went to the chime assigned to Brianna, the family's dolphin lover, which is why her special piece was gray with a lighter shade of gray at the bottom to represent the mammal she appreciated so much.  In reflection, he let out yet another sigh.

//Flashback//
It was a Saturday afternoon, and the only members of the Jackson-O'Neill family who were home were Daniel and Brianna.  Everyone else had other obligations for the day.  Jack had taken JD with him to run some errands, and the other kids were either visiting with members of their extended family or on play dates with friends.

Father and daughter were in the living room, sitting on the couch while watching television, when suddenly Brianna had an idea.

“Daddy, how about we make some cookies or something?” the tomboy asked with a bright and eager expression.

“I could go for that, as long as it's a chocolate something,” Daniel answered as he shut off the TV.

Smiles on their faces, the two stood up and headed to the kitchen.

“I really want cookies,” Brianna remarked as they walked.  “Hey, let's use the cookie cutters.  The brood loves shaped cookies.”

“Good idea, Bri,” Daniel responded, stopping in front of the cabinet that held the bakeware needed to bake the cookies.  “I guess that means we can't eat them all ourselves.”

“Daddy!” Brianna rebuked before letting out a laugh.  She walked over to the drawer and pulled out several cookie cutters.  Among them was one shaped as a dolphin that had been a 'just because' gift from Jennifer.  This would be the first time she to actually use it.  ~I wonder where she found this?~

As they talked, Daniel and Brianna decided to make several dozen cookies, enough for the family and several of their neighbors.  It would be their own 'just because' gift to all.  Thus, they pulled out a couple of large mixing bowls and were side by side as they prepared the batches of cookie dough.

All of a sudden, Brianna's enthusiasm got the best of her.  As she mixed the batter, a big glob accidentally flew out of the bowl and headed for the floor, landing on Daniel's brand new shoes.

“That wasn't supposed to happen, Daddy,” Brianna spoke, a hesitation in her voice.  For a moment, she panicked, knowing her father's shoes were new.  Yes, they were just sneakers for lounging and relaxing purposes, but they were still just out of the box.  “I'm really sorry.”  Then she saw the wicked smile and the deviousness in her daddy's eyes.  ~Ut oh.~

“No problem, Princess,” Daniel stated, his blue eyes alight with mischief.  ~Jack always says I need to be spontaneous and ... play.~

With that, it was on, it being the big flour war.  Daniel grabbed a handful of the white substance and shampooed his daughter's hair with it.

Brianna's revenge was simply to toss a big mass of flour toward her father.

It was one blow after another for a good twelve minutes, after which the kitchen looked like it had just snowed inside.  As for Daniel and Brianna, they were covered from head to toe in flour, both laughing so hard both could barely breathe.

“You know, Bri, I think Dad and I did this once a ... a long time ago.”

“Was it as much fun as we just had?”

Daniel grinned mischievously, his mind going back to a rather seductive ending to that flour fight.

Quickly, the tomboy raised her hand and halted, “Wait, don't tell me.  I have young ears.”

After catching their breath, the two were still giggling as they cleaned up the mess.

“I'm just glad the zoo didn't get involved in this,” Daniel stated while using the central vacuum to suck up the flour that was spread all over the floor.

“Oh my gosh!” Brianna laughed as images of floured dogs, cats, and even a lizard ran through her mind.

====

When the kitchen was back in shape, Daniel and Brianna finally finished the cookie dough preparation.

“Let's get these in the oven and then I think we'd both better change our clothes,” Daniel suggested, seeing his daughter's nod.

====

After changing, Daniel made a phone call to check in with his foster sister, Suzanna, and then returned to the kitchen.

“What timing!” the archaeologist declared, hearing the oven alarm going off  just as he rejoined Brianna in the kitchen.

“I love the smell of fresh baked cookies,” Brianna remarked, grabbing an oven mitt as she prepared to remove the first batch of treats.

“Me, too.”

When the cookies were baked and cooled, Daniel and Brianna decorated them with frosting, sprinkles, and other novelties.

~Yum~  In her mind, Brianna's dolphin cookies were especially tasty.  “The dolphin ones are definitely the best, Daddy,” Brianna noted confidently.

“Really?  Same ingredients as my cookies.  Since we used the same ingredients to make them all, they should all taste the same,” Daniel reasoned with the rationality of an adult.

“But these are dolphins, Daddy,” Brianna returned using the logic of a young person with an emotional attachment.

“Oh,” was Daniel's response as he took another bite of his rabbit-shaped cookie and realized his error.  “You're right, Bri.”
//End of Flashback//
 
Daniel chuckled as he came back to the present.  That had been another cherished time with one of his children.  He also found himself wondering what the house would look like if the entire family ever engaged in a full-tilt flour war.

~It would probably look like our backyard right now,~ Daniel thought as he watched the light snow beginning to fall.

The archaeologist's eyes drifted to the next colored chime and the memory it evoked.  Actually, it was another dual colored object, black on one side and white on the other.

~He does love black and white photography,~ Daniel opined about the logic behind this specific chime that represented Jeff.  He mused silently that the family never had to worry about having events recorded for all time, not with Jeff and his camera around.  ~I can't believe we survived the Christmas portrait this year.~

//Flashback//
“Jonny, put Bogey back in his cage.  We'll do the zoo shot later,” Jeff ordered his brother.

“Bogey wants to be in all of them,” Jonny insisted on behalf of his pet lizard.

“Jonathan!” Jack exclaimed.

“Ut oh,” Jonny expressed with a bowed head.  ~General eyes already?  We're in trouble.~

Jeff leaned over slightly to get a look at his family through the camera lens.  He adjusted the placement of the tripod a bit, wanting to have the best possible angle for the picture.  He was on the lawn, facing the back patio where his parents and siblings had been positioned on the wooden deck.  On the grass was JD, seated securely in his high chair that had been decorated to look like a chimney.

Positioned like bookends behind the almost one-year-old and standing on the second step, were Jenny and Ricky, who was licking one of his fingers.

~Wait a minute,~ Jeff told himself as he focused.  Straightening, he called out, “Dad, Ricky's all red.”

From his spot at the rear of the brood, Jack looked around, took note of the problem, and promised, “I'm on it.”

“Don't touch me!” Jenny cried out at her giggling brother as he bumped into her on purpose.

“What is that?” Jack asked as he stepped down and approached the child.

“Strawberries,” the boy replied proudly, pulling more out from his pocket.

While his elder father handled the problem, Jeff let out a groan and then went back to adjusting his camera's point of view.  He groaned even louder at the latest antics.

“Jenny, stop doing the devil fingers on Ash,” the photographer ordered the spirited Spitfire.

The Munchkins were lined up on the first step.  The currently absent Jonny was to be on one end with Little Danny on the other and Aislinn in between.  Jenny's spot on the higher step was between Jonny and Aislinn, while the strawberry loving Ricky would be a couple of steps away so that he would be visible between Aislinn and Little Danny.  JD's chimney in front completed the triangle for the youngest children.

“It's not the devil.  We've been studying Indians, and I am giving her a finger feather.”

Up on the deck, Daniel blinked a couple of times as he tried to figure out where on earth Jenny had come up with that one.  Aislinn was laughing, so apparently, the girls understood it.  He considered saying something, but opted to maintain his spot.  He and Jack were waiting for Jeff's final decision on where they were to stand in the photograph.

“David, what are you doing?  I need you to stay in place.”

“I'm just stretching, Jeff.  Jonny's not even back yet.”

“Yes, I am,” the oldest Munchkin refuted, smiling as he took his spot at the end of the step.

David squirmed a little, but then settled down and began a conversation with the others on his row.  Brianna was on his far right with Lulu and Chenoa standing between the two.

“Jen, can't you talk to Sheila later?” Jeff complained, seeing his sister with the phone to her ear.

“Just tell me when you're ready,” the teenager responded.

“Jennifer,” Daniel warned sternly, his voice and intent coming through loudly from his position on the deck.

“Call you later, Sheila.  Gotta go,” Jennifer sighed, disconnecting the call and slipping the phone into her pocket.  ~Don't want to lose cell phone privileges again.~

Jennifer was standing on the grass.  As Jeff faced her now, she was on the left side, posed next to the railing.  When it was time for the picture to snap, Jeff would take the opposite position on the right side on the steps.

“Daddy, I think you should come down and stand next to Jen, and I'll have Dad stand on my left.”

“So you want Daddy on my right?”

“Yes, please.  Daddy!”

“On my way,” the archaeologist acknowledged, working his way down to the grass.

Finally, Jack and Ricky returned, all signs of strawberries vanquished for the time being.

Jeff was almost ready.  He took another moment to check faces.

“Little Danny, what are you doing?”

“Reciting pharaohs,” the studious youngster answered.  “Daddy, who was after Neheb?”

“Neheb?” Daniel echoed, taking a second to process the name of the Egyptian king who was mentioned on the Palermo Stone as having ruled over Lower Egypt. “Wazner,” he answered.

“I didn't think Judge Wapner went back that far,” Jack teased about the original judge to preside over television's, The People's Court.

“Who?” Daniel and several of the children asked.

“Never mind,” Jack dismissed.  ~I keep forgetting I'm the only ancient member of this family.~

“Son, focus on the picture,” Daniel instructed his namesake.

“Yes, Daddy.”  Smiling forward, the boy genius added, “I'm sorry, Jeff.”

“That's okay.  Everyone look at the camera with your best smiles.  I'm going to take a final look and then we'll go for it.”  The positions were perfect, and Jeff was ready to set the timer.  Then he made the mistake of glancing to his left.  That's when he saw the expressions of sadness.  Some things would never change.  “Okay, girls.  Bij, you go with Dad, and Katie, let Daddy pick you up.”

Happy beagles pranced over to their favorite humans and were eagerly picked up and embraced.

“No one move.  On the count of three ...”

Jeff hurried to his spot, smiled, and waited for the sound of the snap.
//End of Flashback//

~I don't know why anyone ever tries to take an important picture without Bij and Katie in it.  They're as much a part of the brood as any of the children.~  Daniel looked over at the counter where the printed photograph, now framed, currently set.  ~Good job, Son,~ he praised the amateur photographer.

The sound of a light purr drew Daniel's attention.  He picked up Mittens, caressing her for a minute or so until she jumped out of his arms and disappeared up the stairs.  He smiled.  Mittens was the first cat of the family, found by Little Danny in the park one day.

~Sproglet: caregiver for the animals.~

The thought prompted the archaeologist to gaze upon the bright yellow chime. Sam had chosen it as a surprise for the boy after discovering that yellow was Karissa Lewis' favorite color.  The middle Munchkin had a huge crush on the J-O employee, a fact that almost everyone who knew the Jackson-O'Neills was well aware of.

At the moment, though, Daniel's mind wasn't on his son's crush, but on his love of all things animal.

//Flashback//
Daniel and his namesake were in the backyard playing catch when all of a sudden, Little Danny dropped the ball and his glove and ran over to one of the trees that occupied the yard.

“Little Danny?” Daniel called out in confusion.  He observed the Munchkin as the boy kneeled down and appeared to be studying something.  ~I wonder if that is what I look like when I'm studying 'a rock' as Jack puts it.~

The archaeologist jogged over to his son and bent down to get a close look at whatever had captured the boy's attention.  There on the ground was a baby squirrel.

“Daddy, I just saw him fall to the ground,” the worried child said with tears in his eyes.

Daniel focused on the animal, even as his hands landed protectively on his son's shoulders.  There was some fur, but not a lot yet, indicating this animal was still very young.  That also meant there were probably other baby squirrels still in the nest that must be in the tall tree.  Somehow, this one must have fallen out.

“Look!  His mommy and daddy want him back,” the child sniffled while pointing upwards at two squirrels that were in the tree.  To the youngster, these were the parent squirrels, chattering away with worry about their fallen child.  “We have to help him, Daddy.”

Daniel glanced up and could see the adult squirrels flitting about on the branches above.  He knew that one was probably the mother, but he also knew that male squirrels leave their mates behind to tend to the young.  At this point, though, he didn't see any need to interfere with his son's perceptions.

“Little Danny, go in the garage and get my outdoor work gloves, please.”

Quickly, the Munchkin did as he was told.  He returned as fast as he could, handing Daniel the gloves at the same time his knees hit the grass to resume his kneeling position.

“Is he hurt, Daddy?”

“I'm not sure,” Daniel responded as he put on the gloves and then gently picked up the baby squirrel.  Carefully checking the creature over, he opined, “I think he's just scared, or maybe he just has a slight concussion.”

“Aunt Janet says you know more about concussions than she does.”

Daniel's head turned sharply in the boy's direction in reaction to the comment.  He thought for a moment and then cocked his head slightly.

“She might be right,” the man sighed as he tried to count how many times he had actually had concussions.  ~Can't do it: too many.~

“Daddy, he has a black dot on top of its head,” Little Danny observed.

“Yes, he does.  That is unusual,” Daniel noted, seeing the squirrel moving a little. “I think he's just a little frightened being down here without his mom,” Daniel evaluated from his limited knowledge on the subject.

“We gotta put him back,” the young animal lover firmly stated, feeling better and less upset now that he knew the baby squirrel hadn't been physically injured in his fall.

Daniel looked up, trying to gauge how far up the tree the nest was located.  He was aware that squirrels like to make their nests high enough to protect them from predators, yet not so high that winds can damage it.

~There it is, between those two branches,~ Daniel discovered as he looked up.  ~Good choice, Mama Squirrel.~

“Do you see their nest, Daddy?”

“Yes, I think so,” Daniel answered.  “Okay, uh, I'm going to put the squirrel back on the ground for a moment and go get the ladder.”  He faced the boy, looking straight into his eyes.  “Little Danny, you are *not* to touch this squirrel while I'm gone.  I need you to promise me.”

“I promise,” Little Danny vowed.

Daniel stood, smiling as he heard Little Danny talking softly to the baby animal, reassuring the scared animal that it would be back with his parents soon.  That's also when he realized that he was taking a bit too much of a chance with the Munchkin.  It had nothing to do with trust and promises and everything to do with love, compassion, and the overall softness of the little boy's heart and soul.

Stopping, Daniel returned to his previous spot and instructed, “Little Danny, I think I might need some help.  Go in the house and ask Jeff to bring me the extension ladder.”

“I'll hurry,” the boy responded, getting up and sprinting inside the home.

Looking at the animal, Daniel sighed, “I'm sure you're fine, but my son is a little too caring for his own good sometimes.  I know.  That's what my husband says about me, but I have to protect him in case I'm wrong about you.”  He heard squeals of objection from above and even a tiny sound from the baby.  Glancing up at the presumed parents, he added, “Okay, I'm right, but I still have to protect my baby like you protect yours.”

====

Within a couple of minutes, Jeff appeared with the ladder and Little Danny in tow.

“Rescuing a squirrel?” the teenager inquired of Daniel.

“Saving a life,” Little Danny answered for his father.

With a smile, Daniel instructed Jeff to stay by Little Danny, a slight nod and sharp look conveying the real message to the older sibling.  Then he set up the ladder, extending it upward quite a ways, and was thankful it was tall enough to reach the nest.

As he glanced over, Daniel saw the Munchkin reaching out for the squirrel and Jeff interfering to stop it.

“I was just going to pat him, Jeff.”

Daniel interjected, “Son, it's not a good idea to touch the squirrel with your bare hands.”

“How come?” a confused Little Danny queried.

“Well, if the parents smell human scent on the baby, they may throw him out of the nest.  That's one of the reasons why I used the gloves to pick him up.  That way, only the smell of nature is on the baby,” Daniel explained.

“I don't understand, Daddy,” the curious and concerned child admitted.  “Why would they do that?  He's their baby.  Don't they love him?”

“Of course, they do, but that's just how nature works.  I'm not totally sure why, but I suppose it's because animals have a fear of humans and if they smell it on their offspring, they get scared.”

“I guess that makes sense.  People do a lot of mean things to animals,” Little Danny lamented sadly.

“Daddy, do you still need me?” Jeff asked.  “I have a lot of studying to do for exams next week.”

“No, go ahead,” Daniel permitted. “Thanks for your help.”

Jeff waved an acknowledgement with his hand and returned to his room, while Daniel and Little Danny remained to take care of the squirrel.

Cautiously, Daniel picked up the young animal and then slowly climbed up the ladder.  Eventually, he reached the nest.  Sure enough, the nest held three other squealing baby squirrels.  Carefully, he placed the baby next to his siblings.

“You'll be okay now,” Daniel told the squirrel.

When his feet touched down on the lawn, Daniel slid the ladder back to its storage length and then leaned it against the tree horizontally.  Within a few seconds of doing that, the adult squirrels began chattering again as they checked on their returned baby.

“See, Daddy, they *are* happy to have their baby back,” Little Danny expressed with a smile.  “They do love him.”

“Yes, they are happy he's back, and ... yes, they do love him,” Daniel confirmed.  ~It's another happy ending.  Gawd, I love those.~

With the squirrel family reunited and after returning the ladder to its proper spot, Daniel and his son happily returned to their game of catch.
//End of Flashback//

The family of squirrels still lived in the backyard, and Daniel and Little Danny had even built them a special feeder.  All of the children had been educated about squirrels, too, thanks to a homeschooling lesson on the lives and times of squirrels.  In addition, all of the critters had been given special names by the middle Munchkin as well.  Daniel shook his head in amusement since the animals were named after J-O Enterprises' employees.  In fact, the one that had fallen was christened Karissa, even though they had no idea if it was a boy or a girl.

~He fell in love with that baby squirrel as quickly as he did with Karissa,~ Daniel mused.  ~Actually, I've never known him not to love an animal, not even the cricket Jonny stuck in his chocolate ice cream that time.~

There was now just one other chime belonging to the brood that Daniel had not focused on, yet it was just as wondrous as all of the others.  In fact, as the centerpiece of the chimes, it actually hung the lowest on its chain, though the chime itself was the smallest of all.  This was JD's chime, and it was transparent, illuminated with a bright light that twinkled.

The twinkling reminded Daniel of earlier in the holiday season when the family was decorating the house.  Not for the first time, he'd witnessed Jonny giving his littlest brother some advice.

//Flashback//
Seated on one of the large floor pillows in the recreation room, Jonny faced JD with a box of festive decorations between them.

“We have to get the house all pretty for Santa Claus,” Jonny stated.  “I know,” he sighed.  “Pretty is a girl's thing, but sometimes a boy has to live with it.”

JD let out a giggle, though from his spot on the ladder, looking down, Daniel thought the baby was more likely laughing at Calico, who was playing with a ball of red ribbon.  She was rolling around on her back, the ribbon wrapping around her as if she were the present.  In fact, the archaeologist figured he'd better take some precautionary action before calamity occurred.

“Lulu, you better help Calico before someone mistakes her for a gift and sticks her under the tree.”

~What does he mean?~  Looking over, Lulu saw what was happening.  Chuckling, she called out, “You're funny, Daddy.”

With a smile, Daniel returned a happy, “Thank you.”

Meanwhile, Jonny was oblivious to Calico's adventures and was still explaining Christmas decorations to JD.

“This is that fluffy garland stuff.  It goes around the tree because ... ah ... because ... well ... just because.”

JD's hands reached out for some of the garland, which Jonny let him take.  While JD examined the silver material, the Munchkin centered in on other objects in the box.  That is, until a booming voice was heard.

“Jonathan!  Your brother!”

Jonny recognized the voice of his older father and quickly looked over.

“Ut oh!” the Munchkin responded, quickly getting up and removing the garland that had enwrapped the baby, much as the ribbon had encircled Calico a few minutes earlier.  “JD, the garland goes around the tree, not you.”  He groaned before adding, “You're not a tree; you're a baby.”  He leaned over and whispered, “You're gonna get me in trouble.  I'm supposed to keep you safe.  You know I'll always do that, but when I give you something to hold, just hold it, and don't play with it, 'kay?”

Another giggle was JD's response, which Jonny took as a promise to behave.

Still on the ladder hanging decorations, Daniel observed the scene in silent amusement.  He was sure JD's giggle was far from a promise to behave.  It didn't take long for him to be proven right.

“JD!” Jonny whined, quickly taking the string of blue beads from his brother that were twisted all around the baby's body.  “These go 'round the tree, too, not around you.”

Giggling, JD began to put some of the beads in his mouth when he felt the hands of his brother interfering.

“JD!” the Munchkin grizzled.  “These are decorations, not food,” Jonny corrected. Hearing another giggle, he accused, “Okay, you're just playing with me, huh?”

“Problems?” Jack asked from across the room.

“Being a big brother is hard work, Dad.”

Jack chuckled, “Ya think?”

“I *think*,” Jonny affirmed emphatically, his head bobbing up and down.

JD's giggles grew, and he clapped with his hands.

~Oh, yeah.  Those giggles are definitely *not* promises,~ Daniel thought from his perch on the ladder.
//End of Flashback//

~And he wasn't done,~ Daniel recalled.  ~Before the afternoon was over, JD had dressed Katie with Jonny's Santa hat and mittens, sat on Jonny's lizard ornament, and completed a sneak attack on Jonny with a bowl of pudding.~

As Daniel chuckled out loud, Jack approached and asked, “What's so funny?”

“JD's finger painting of Jonny's butt when we were decorating the house,” Daniel replied.

“Somehow I don't think JD was interested in learning about why we decorate the house,” Jack mused.

“Uh, no.  I think he was more interested in getting the best of his big brother.”

“I'd say he succeeded.”

“Definitely,” Daniel agreed.  “Mmm.  I smell hot chocolate.”

“And treats,” Jack added, leading his husband over to the fireplace where he'd already placed their holiday goodies.  “You were so deep in thought, Angel, that you didn't even hear me come in.”

“I guess I was just counting my blessings.”

Jack kissed his Love before the two settled in on the comforter that the older man had placed there during Daniel's inner reflections.

“This is perfect,” Daniel crooned, his body nestled next to Jack's.

“We made it through another Christmas.”

“I keep thinking it can't get any better, Jack, but it does.”

“That's because we're lucky to have you in our lives,” Jack stated with sincerity.

“I'm lucky to have you.”

A few tender kisses and gazes of forever later, Jack and Daniel enjoyed their hot chocolate and various snack foods, while the toasty fire kept them warm and feeling cozy.

“Carter and Shanahan outdid themselves with those chimes,” Jack remarked as he looked back over his shoulder at the hanging object.

“It's a memory maker,” Daniel asserted, images of all the scenes he'd thought about while his Love had been preparing the ingredients for this special moment.

“Let's make some more memories,” Jack suggested, kissing his Heart once again.  “I love you, Angel, to the moon and back and beyond.”  With sparkling eyes, he spoke as romantically as ever, “La Mio Bello Stella Cadente.”

With moist eyes, Jack's beautiful falling star replied, “I love you, my strong, sweet, and sexy Silver Fox, for always and forever.”

“And forever and always.”

Outside, the couple's wind chimes sang in response to the movement of the chilling air, while inside, their bodies responded to the sweet aura of an eternal love.  In the beauty and safety of Colorado Springs, it was the perfect ending to the perfect Christmas, and all of the Jackson-O'Neills hoped there would be many, many more.

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