Life Really Sucks

Author:  Orrymain and special guest co-author, Robert!
Category: Slash, Humor, Drama, Romance, Established Relationship
Pairing: Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - January 18, 2011
Spoilers:  None
Size:  160kb
Written:  July 16,19-21,26-27, August 1,4,7-14,16,20,27, September 2,3, 2005  Revised for consistency:  September 4,13,24, 2007
Summary:  A promotion, a mystery, a visit from a friend, and a madhouse gone wild!  In other words, just another day at the Jackson-O'Neill's!
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) Jack and Daniel's designer decided he wanted to dabble in writing, too, so I'm pleased to have Robert co-author this fic with me!
2) Waffle Rock is in Jennings Randolph Lake in West Virginia.  More information on it can be found at http://www.s8int.com/page24.html.
3) 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.**
4) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
5) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my past fics, “A Christmas Miracle,” “Munchkin Mardi Gras,” “Yes!” and “Blowout”
6) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Allexandrya, Tamara, QuinGem, Claudia, Linda, Carol!

Life Really Sucks
by Orrymain and Robert

The Jackson-O'Neill household had enjoyed nearly a week of downtime since the advent of the new year.  Jack had been lost in an avalanche for most of December and suffered amnesia as a result of a blow to his head.  He had found his way home on Christmas Eve, dazed, dehydrated, and devoid of any conscious knowledge of his life with Daniel; that is, until he saw him.

In that brief moment, memories had begun to flood back, and the Jackson-O'Neills were reunited.  Unfortunately, Jack's injuries had meant spending some time recuperating in the SGC infirmary under the tender care of Little Napoleon, better known as Doctor Janet Fraiser, so the children insisted that their Christmas celebration be postponed until New Year's Eve.

On that special night, not only had Christmas been held, but Jack and Daniel spoke vows of love and devotion during an impromptu third wedding celebration, held in their backyard under a light snowfall.

After that, the family had enjoyed a few days of rest and recuperation during which neither Jack nor Daniel went to the SGC, and all homeschooling lessons for their children were suspended for a week.  This caused both Jennifer and Jeff to be a bit jealous of their siblings since both had chosen to continue in regular high school where classes continued daily.  The usually tight schedule of mealtimes and bedtimes had been completely disregarded as everyone simply basked in the joy and relief of having their beloved Jack, husband and father, home once more.

Still, all good things must end, and so, the very next Monday, homeschooling resumed. Even now, on the eighteenth of January, the family was still readjusting a bit to their normal routine, all very thankful to be healthy and together.

“So what we're going to do, David,” Jack stated, “is discuss all aspects of colonial life, even, something as simple sounding as herbs and how they were used.”

“Herbs, as in spices, Dad?” the boy asked as the two sat in the gazebo outside.  “Why?”

“Survival, Son,” Jack explained simply.  “The more you know, the better your odds if you're put in a precarious situation.”

“Because of herbs?” David asked, his nose scrunched in disbelief.

Jack smiled and challenged the boy asking, “Did you know that rosemary was thought to calm hyperactive children?  Or that colonists used sage to color gray hair?  Have you heard of mullein?”

David nodded and answered, “Yes, it's that stuff on the side of roads or on gravel.”

“Among other places.  It's been used in alternative medicine for years, but in colonial times, they used it as a bandage.”

“Really?”

Jack nodded and continued, “We're going to talk a lot about life in those times, but we're not going to be memorizing a lot of dates.”

“Oh, good,” David said with a smile.

“You'll learn the important ones, David, but what I am hoping is that you'll get a feel for how it was back then and how they made use of things like herbs and spices in their everyday lives.  You might be surprised how that knowledge might help you one day.”

“Where do we start?” David asked, eager to take on the challenge his father had presented to him.

“What we're going to do first is ...”  At that moment, Jack's cell phone rang.  “Excuse me, Son.  It's Grandpa,” Jack said, seeing the caller ID; then he answered the phone.  “General? ... we're homeschooling this morning and ... Holy Hannah, at last? ... Do you know how much I pushed for that when I was sitting in your chair? ... That's great, Sir ... Yeah, we'll make arrangements and be there as soon as we can.”

“What's going on, Dad?” David asked eagerly.

“Good stuff, Son.  Class is dismissed!” Jack said with a grin, knowing that would please the boy.

“Oh, boy!” David explained as he stood up.  “Can I go play in the game room?”

“Just don't try and feed the dinosaur,” Jack chirped as he packed up his lesson plan and study aids.  “David, grab the Munchkins and take them with you.  I'll talk to Daddy.”

“Okay,” David yelled back excitedly as he hurried inside the house.

~This will wait a day.~  Jack walked into the house and was met by his inquisitive lover.  ~He's so cute when he's confused.~

“Uh, Jack?”  Daniel looked over towards the game room.  “Why did our son just come running through the house, appropriate the Munchkins from their reading lesson, and take them into the game room?”

“Time to party, Angel,” Jack responded happily.

“What?”

“You'll never believe it!” Jack stated as he placed his teaching materials on the counter.

“Oh, I don't know.  I've seen a lot, Jack,” Daniel remarked.

“You sure have,” Jack responded, winking.

“Jack!”

“What?” Jack responded with a shrug and look of innocence on his face.

“You're incorrigible,” Daniel said softly.

“Which is why you love me, and you know it,” Jack said as he took Daniel into his arms.

“Gawd, yes,” Daniel admitted as the two kissed tenderly, little sounds of content escaping from their throats.  “So, uh, why did our children just stage a rebellion?” he asked.

“No rebellion, but you'll never believe it!” Jack replied.

“Jack, I'd believe almost anything.  Now tell me!” Daniel said, walking away from his husband to make sure Jack didn't distract him anymore than he usually did simply by looking seductively sexy.

Still smiling, Jack answered, “The Doc's promotion finally came through, and Hammond wants us there when he springs it on her.”

“That's great news, Babe, but what about the brood?” Daniel asked as he picked up the books and supplies he'd been using for the reading lesson.

“Good question.  Carter and Teal'c will both want to be there.  Sara isn't feeling up to it right now.  Megan has her hands full with running J-O.  There's too much going on to pull her away.  Karissa is in Chicago doing the prelim meeting with the Mobius Group.”

Daniel lost touch with his surroundings as he remembered the phone conversation he'd had with the head of Mobius.  They were an archaeological group that used psychics to determine where to dig.  They had had some remarkable successes, but were not well-received in their professional community.  Before the phone call, Daniel had read the book, 'The Alexandria Project' and found himself sympathizing with the group, having encountered the lack of open-minded inquiry in Academia himself.

Daniel's ridicule by his peers was, in fact, the group's motivation for contacting him.  Mobius had fallen on hard times over thirty years ago and dissolved in a pool of financial troubles.  Now, a few people with similar outlooks and proclaimed abilities were trying to resurrect the Mobius name and concept under more professional management.  They were very hopeful of working in concert with J-O Enterprises for the benefit of both.  They felt Daniel would be receptive to a point of view which varied from the norm.  Jack was his usual skeptical self, but Daniel had insisted that they at least deserved a fair hearing.

“Earth to Daniel!  Earth to Daniel!” Jack said, bringing his husband out of his reverie.  “Where'd you go?”

“Well, uh ...”

“Ah, yes, I mentioned Karissa and ...” Jack began, quickly guessing what had distracted his soulmate.

“Yeah,” Daniel admitted sheepishly.  “I'm curious to see what Karissa thinks.”

“Me, too, Angel, but right now we have more pressing concerns, like what to do with the kids while we're gone?  We can't pull Jen or Jeff out of school, not when they have exams this week, and I'm not comfortable leaving them alone.”

Daniel shook his head adamantly as he agreed, “No, definitely not.  Brianna's just ten.  She's too young to leave home in charge of the brood for so long.”

“Maybe if it was just her, David, and Noa, but ...” Jack started, trailing off when Daniel agreed with him.

“Maybe,” Daniel sighed affirmatively.  “Carolyn?”

“I talked with Lou last night; Carolyn and Trina are visiting Carolyn's sister for a week.  Trina was all excited.”

“No school,” Daniel chuckled.

Jack nodded and continued his search of babysitters, saying, “Cassie's in Salt Lake City with Dom; Mrs. Valissi is in Florida with Evan and Robert; and the Paynes are in Palm Springs.  Danny, I'm stumped.”

“Thor?” questioned Daniel in desperation.

“He'd never forgive us, if he survived,” Jack quipped.

“You go, Jack, and I'll stay with the brood,” Daniel suggested.  “You're military, and it'll mean more to Janet to have you there, looking all suave and distinguished in your blues.”

“Danny, stop looking at me like that or ...”

“Oh, gawd, it's just you know how I .. I mean ...” Daniel began, trailing off as he became more flustered with each spoken word.

Jack chuckled and took his blues-loving husband in his arms, after which he kissed him soundly.

“I love doing that,” Jack said.

Daniel moaned and then sighed, “And I love it when you do that.”

“I'll do it some more later,” Jack promised.  “Anyway, the Doc adores you.  She'll want both of us there for the ceremony and the reception.  What I'd like to know is why this was so rushed,” he remarked.

“I have no idea,” Daniel responded.  “You're the one who talked to the general.  Why didn't you ask him?”

Jack laughed, “It was his tone of voice; more of a 'just get here' thing.”

“So what are we going to do - take them with us?” Daniel asked about the children.

Jack headed for the door and replied, “I'm going to see if I can bribe Christa and Jacob,” Jack said, referring to the Svensons, an older couple that lived across the street from them.  “If they say 'yes', I'll bribe the brood with an afternoon of ice cream, pizza, and PlayStation, and I'll slip Brianna and David a few bucks for being extra vigilant and helping out.”

“My genius,” Daniel chuckled.

“Go on, Love; get showered and dressed while I go across the street,” Jack ordered.

“I thought I was the dictator?” Daniel asked teasingly.

Jack laughed, “We share in everything!”

“That we do, Babe!” Daniel agreed as he headed up the stairs.

Still chuckling slightly, Jack opened the front door and saw one very surprised Alex Dennison reaching for the door knocker.

Expecting to hear, “What are you doing here?” the designer was surprised when Jack grinned wickedly, shook his hand, and said, “Hey, great to see you, Alex.  Come on in.”

Alex stared at his former client in confusion as he walked into the house, crossing through the entranceway and going into the living room.

“Hi, Jack.  I was in town for a few days, so ... Jack, why are you grinning?”

“Alex, what's your schedule like today?”

“My schedule?” Alex asked in surprise.  “Well, I just got in last night.  I was supposed to meet with Byron today, but he's a tad under the weather, so I actually have the day clear.  Uh, why?  Or should I ask?”

Jack's wicked grin had turned positively evil.  He rubbed his hands together as he approached Alex, and then he turned the inventive designer around.  With one hand on Alex's back and another on his arm, Jack led him towards the patio door.

“Look at those adorable children,” Jack said, motioning outside where a number of the children were playing.

“Jack ...”

“Beautiful, aren't they?  Well-behaved little wonders, and they love you, Alex.  They *love* you,” Jack said enticingly.

“What do you want, Jack?” Alex asked suspiciously.

“A babysitter.”

“Jack ...”

“It'll just be for an hour or two.”  ~Or three or four,~ Jack thought silently, not wanting to scare Alex into running out the door.  “The Doc, uh, that's Janet Fraiser.  You remember Janet?  Cute little redhead that reminds you of a Napoleonic dictator?  Lots of spunk?”

“Of course, I remember her,” Alex replied.  “She loved the hospitality room and talked to me about it for a while.”

“Right, well, the Doc's being promoted *now*, and Danny and I need you, Alex.  Think of those poor little ones.  Look at them, Alex ... so loving ...”

“Jack, fine!”

Jack grinned and patted the suave young man on the back.

“I knew I could count on you.  The rest of the kids are in the game room.  Danny's upstairs.  I have to shower and change.  Be down in a few!”  Jack hurried to the stairs, but shouted back, “You won't regret this, Alex,” just before disappearing from Alex's view.

“All you had to do was ask, Jack,” Alex said softly, turning back to watch the playing children.  He walked over to the game room and peeked inside quietly.  ~The Munchkins have grown,~ Alex thought melancholically, remembering his younger siblings who had disappeared.  ~I wonder where they are; *if* they are.~  Alex shook his head vehemently.  ~No time for that, Alex.  You just agreed to babysit nine ... NINE?  Oh, my, eleven if you count the teenagers when they get home from school.  I'm insane!~

====

Jack bounded into the master bedroom, feeling chipper.

“Danny, Love, our problems are ... whoa!  Hmm!” Jack hummed, eyeing his sexy and desirable lover appreciatively.

“Jack, behave.  We don't have time for any distractions.  What did the Svensons say?” a naked Daniel asked as he stepped into the bedroom from their bathroom.

“Uh ...”

“Jack!” Daniel said, quickly putting on his underwear, to help his husband focus on their discussion and not Daniel's lower regions.

“Alex is here!” Jack announced as he began to undress.

“Alex?” Daniel asked, his eyes expressing his curiosity.

“Yeah, you remember Alex?  The guy who helped us renovate this magic kingdom of ours.  Jen's 'Italian Stallion'.”

Daniel laughed, “When did she say that?”

Jack chuckled, “I overheard her talking to Sheila on the phone.  I almost shot Alex on the spot!”

“Jack!”

Jack laughed, “That was right when we met him.  You were right.  She was just ...”

“Being a teenager with big eyes.  She did the same thing with Yazid,” Daniel commented about Yazid Awad, the executive assistant to the owner of Passion Incorporated, which had given Jack and Daniel's company a bunch of business over the years.

“Do you have to keep reminding me of that?” Jack lightly barked.

Zipping up his pants, Daniel laughed, “You know, we need to be thinking about what to do if Megan ...”

“Daniel, don't say it,” Jack admonished with a slight grimace.

“They've been dating for a couple of years now, Jack.  It's been long distance, but ...”

“Yeah, I know,” Jack sighed as he headed for the shower.  “She's all dazed and in La-La Land when she talks about him.”

Daniel chuckled as Jack began his shower, silently wondering, ~Gawd, what *will* we do if Megan marries Yazid?  We depend on her so much.  Oh, gawd!~

“DANIEL, STOP THINKING ABOUT IT!”

“Yes, Sir, General, Sir,” Daniel laughed as he continued to dress.

====

Jack emerged from the bathroom as Daniel finished straightening his tie.  This time it was Daniel struggling to control himself as his husband quickly put on his clothes.

“See you downstairs, Love,” Daniel told his sexy lover.

“Are you going to give the kids their instructions?” Jack asked, wanting to make sure one of them had a private chat with their innovative and energetic brood.

“Do you mean am I going to bribe Bri and David?  Oh, yeah,” Daniel teased.  “I hope Alex doesn't feel like we're taking advantage of him.”

“He loves kids, Danny.  I'll call Jen from the car and let her know what the plan is.  Why don't you tell Alex we'd love for him to stay for dinner, but once Jen is home, he's off the hook.”

“That'll work,” Daniel said with a smile.  Daniel disappeared out the bedroom door as Jack smoothed out his dress blues.  ~Can't watch him in that uniform; makes me want to tear it off!~

Jack grinned, knowing why his husband didn't stay to watch him straighten and adjust his uniform.

~How'd I get so lucky?~  Looking upward and winking, the Air Force general gave the heavens a thumbs up and silently said, “Thanks!”

====

“Alex, it's good to see you again,” Daniel said, shaking the designer's hand.

“You, too, Daniel.”

“Look, uh, I know Jack probably roped you into this babysitting gig, but we're really in a bind,” Daniel admitted.

“Please don't worry about.  I'm sure I can handle it.  Remember, I'm from a large family myself,” Alex commented.

Daniel nodded and added, “Uh, we'll be home before dinnertime, and we'd love it if you'd stay and eat with us; but regardless, once Jennifer gets home, she'll take over the babysitting duties.”

Alex nodded his understanding, after which Daniel gathered up Brianna and David for a private chat.

“Wow!  Ten whole dollars?” Brianna asked.

“No, five for you, and five for David,” Daniel clarified.  “All you have to do is make sure Jonny doesn't try to make Alex the captured whatever and that Jenny doesn't decide to take his watch apart ... you get the idea?”

“You want Alex to survive,” Brianna laughed.

“Survive and be in one piece.”  Daniel looked at David and warned, “No microwave ovens experiments.”

“Daddy!” David said, rolling his eyes.

Daniel chuckled, “We're not asking you to babysit, but we'd like you to make sure the brood doesn't make Alex regret his decision to babysit.  Once Jen gets home, she'll take over like usual, and Jeff will help her.  I want you two to help them, if needed.  Understand?”

“Yep,” Brianna answered.

“Yes, Sir,” David said at the same time.

“Good,” Daniel said, hugging the two and then moving to talk to the other children.

====

The couple took Daniel's silver Shelby-American car simply because with their brood, they seldom had a chance to enjoy it together anymore.  Neither of them would trade their busy crazy lives with their eleven children for anything, but it was nice to enjoy the expensive sports car for a short while and pretend they were footloose and fancy free.

Jack pulled out his cell phone and called their oldest daughter's cell phone to leave a message on her voicemail.

“Jen, Honey, it's Dad.  I know you're in class right now, but this is the only time we'll have to make a call for a while.  Aunt Janet is getting promoted today!  Dynamite, yes? ... <chuckle> ...  It's last minute, but Daddy and I have to be there; in fact, we're on our way to the Mountain right now.  Here's why I'm calling.  Alex Dennison is in town, and he's watching the brood -- *all* of 'em, Jen -- by himself.  Once you and Jeff get home, we really need you to watch your brothers and sisters until we get home.  So, please go right home from school and take over.  Tell Jeff to help out.  By the time you get home, it should only be an hour or so before we'll be back.  Thanks, Jen, and we'll see you at home later.”

“Do you think Alex will survive until Jen gets home?” Daniel asked when Jack disconnected the call.

“Did you bribe the kids?” Jack asked.

Daniel laughed, “David and Bri, yes.  I think they'll be able to hold out until Jen gets home.  I hope.  I gave Alex a few suggestions, too, on easy ways to occupy the children.”

“Cartoons?  Ice cream?” Jack laughed.

“I gave him a list,” Daniel chuckled.

====

In the recreation room of the Jackson-O'Neill residence, the brood was just starting to watch one of their favorite “Harry Potter” movies on DVD. Daniel had mentioned that it would probably keep all of the children captivated for a while.

Alex looked at his watch and thought, ~By the time the movie is over, Jen should be home.  This should be a snap!~

====

Jack and Daniel pulled into the first security point at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex.  It was clear something extra was going on from the increased number of airman on guard.

Once through the gate, the couple drove inside the Mountain to the parking lot.

“Jack, look,” Daniel urged, seeing an unusually large number of official-looking vehicles parked together.

“Heavy duty brass,” Jack commented, noting the drivers that stood with the vehicles.

“Any idea why they're here?” Daniel asked as he pulled into his parking space.

“They're having that shindig tonight for a couple of the medal honorees.  The Brass are probably paying Hammond a courtesy call.”

“All of them?”

Jack shrugged, teasing, “Maybe it's a foothold situation.”

Daniel ignored the not-so-funny joke.

“Babe, how'd you get out of going to that medals ceremony tonight, anyway?” Daniel asked as he got out of the car.

“Bab-ies,” Jack smiled.  “Eleven kids come in handy!”

Daniel shook his head in amazement.  Although his husband hated paperwork, running a close second to that was any military get-together that included politicians, such as would occur that evening.  

====

Inside, Jack and Daniel discovered that the largest assembly hall available in the non-classified section of the facility had been prepared for the reception.  Naturally, many of the attendees knew nothing of the existence of Stargate Command or of the lower levels of the Mountain that were used by the SGC.

An airman approached the pair and said, “Please come with me.  General Hammond is waiting.”

The lovers exchanged a curious look and then did as requested.  Oddly, the airman didn't lead them to Hammond's office, but down to Level 18 and into Daniel's office.  With a nod from the three-star general, the airman returned to his duties.

Once inside Daniel's office, the couple began to speak, but Hammond silenced them with a wave of his hand.  He motioned to the two doors, so Jack and Daniel each went to a door and secured the office.

“Sir?  What's, uh, going on?” Daniel asked, folding his arms across his chest.

“On my request this morning, Colonel Carter did what I told her was a routine sweep of your office, Doctor Jackson.  I'm satisfied we can talk openly here.”

Jack and Daniel exchanged another look, but this one wasn't curious; it was concerned.

“General, what's going on?” Jack asked.
 
“My apologies, Gentlemen, for the cloak and dagger, but something isn't quite right.”

“What do you mean?” Daniel asked.

“Jack, you know we've been working hard to get this promotion to go through for Doctor Fraiser.  At the same time, I've been trying to get her recognized for what happened on P29-R49.”

“R49,” Jack sighed.  “I wasn't there, but everything I heard said it was gruesome.”

“Gruesome is too polite of a word, Jack,” Hammond explained.  “Doctor Fraiser went way beyond the call of duty in tending to the wounded there.  In the middle of battle with the planet's inhabitants, she twice put herself in harm's way to rescue two airman who had been downed.  In spite of the increased threat, she held her ground until reserves could be brought in and bring the teams back safely through the Gate.  Her actions were beyond exemplary; they were the epitome of heroism.”

“We agree, but what does that have to do with whatever is going on?” Jack asked.

“I don't know,” Hammond sighed.  “Jack, Doctor Fraiser's promotion has been stalled for years, and my efforts to get her a medal had been dismissed, until two weeks ago.”

“What happened then?” Daniel asked.

“I was informed that the promotion would probably go through, but not until next year.  Then, this morning, out of the blue, I was told that not only would Doctor Fraiser be promoted, but that certain higher ups would be present for the ceremony.”

“Well, that's not that unusual, is it ... General?” the archaeologist asked.

“No, Daniel, except that after I phoned you, I received more orders.  Not only is Doctor Fraiser being promoted, but she's being given the Bronze Star.”

“The Bronze?” Jack echoed, glancing at Daniel.  “She deserves it, Sir, but, uh, did you apply for that one?”

“No, and that's why we're *not* having this discussion,” Hammond explained.

“Not having?” both Jack and Daniel said.

Seeing Hammond's stare, Jack said, “Yes, Sir.  I'm just here, playing with this rock.”  He picked up an artifact that was stone-size and began bobbing it up and down in his hand.  “Yes, Sir, just ...”

“Jack!” Daniel warned.

“And like always, Daniel is here whining at me,” Jack teased.

“Whining?”

“See!” Jack exclaimed with a smile.  Growing serious again, Jack said, “So what is it you're not telling us?”

“Pardon the expression, Jack,” Hammond began, “but there's something fishy going on.  Fraiser's award is not being handed out this evening with the others.  Right now, the assembly hall is being prepped for a ceremony.  We have several high-ranking officials already here and more are en route.  The Governor is coming, and it may not stop there.”

“Janet will be surprised,” Daniel remarked.

“Especially when Cassandra walks in,” Hammond revealed.

“Cassie?” both Jack and Daniel asked.

“They've sent a plane to Salt Lake City for her.  She should be here within the hour.  The ceremony will not begin, so I've been told, until she has arrived.”

Jack cocked his head in wonderment and asked, “We sent a plane to pick up Cass?”  ~That's odd.~

“That's my point, Jack.  Everything about this shindig is wrong.  No prior announcements, the separation of Fraiser's award presentation, sending a plane for her daughter.  For Pete's sake, Jack, Doctor Fraiser was in surgery until shortly before I phoned you.  She had no clue about any of this.”

“Why, uh, the urgency?” Daniel asked.

“If I knew that, Doctor Jackson, we would not be *not* having this discussion.”

“I see.  Well, I don't see, but I see,” Daniel said, closing his eyes for a second as he processed his nonsensical response.

“What do you want us to do, Sir?” Jack inquired.

Hammond sighed, “Keep your eyes and ears open.  Every hair on my head is telling me something's going on.”  Seeing Jack's smirky stare, Hammond added, “Every hair that used to be there.”

“So mix, mingle, and, uh, spy?” Daniel quipped.

“And watch out for Janet and Cassandra,” Hammond said.  He shook his head, saying, “This is so far outside of protocol, Gentlemen, that I'm deeply concerned.”

With a final look at Jack and Daniel, Hammond exited Daniel's office.

“Jack, he's really worried,” Daniel observed.

“Yeah.”

“Jack?” Daniel asked probingly.

“Danny,” Jack said, going over to a stool and sitting down.  He stared at the artifact, twisting it around in his hand.  “I think Hammond's right.  The Doc deserves the Bronze, but something's happening.  I wonder if Paul Davis still has his contacts.”

Daniel smiled.  At the request of Colonel Reynolds and Major Davis, Jack had helped to have the former Pentagon liaison reassigned to Cheyenne Mountain.  He actually still had many of the same responsibilities, though now he went through the Stargate more often on negotiating missions, since this had become his primary duty.  Still, he communicated regularly with his replacement in Washington, and, in a pinch, helped out with issues concerning the Brass, sometimes going to the capitol to assist with various matters and concerns.  Now, Jack wondered if Paul's contacts could help them uncover the current mystery, if there really was one.

====

“Hey, Jen, have you seen the new Owen Wilson flick?”

“No, not yet, Sheila.  Oh, I have messages,” Jennifer noted as she looked at her cell phone.

School had ended, and the teenager was walking the corridors with her friends Sheila and Yvonne.

“Jen, what about Peter?  Is it true he ...” Yvonne began, referring to the latest rumors circulating through the school about the twosome.

The message began to play, and the teenager heard, “Jen, Honey, it's Dad.  I know you're in class right now, but this ...”

“Gawd, it's so embarrassing, Vonnie.  None of that is true, not that I wouldn't want it to be.  But, I swear,  he hasn't kissed me ... yet,” Jennifer said with a grin.  “Oh, gee, what did Dad say?”

Jennifer heard, “Alex Dennison is in town ...”

“Oh, Alex!  Isn't he that dreamboat you mentioned before?” Sheila asked.

Jennifer smiled brightly and said, “I called him the Italian Stallion once, and Dad just about had a cow.  He's really cool, but he's no Peter,” Jennifer admitted, sighing at the mere thought of her mysterious boyfriend.

“... and we'll see you at home later.”

“Oh, guess they were just checking in.  Must not have been anything important,” Jennifer commented as she closed her cell phone.  “Guys, really, I swear, Peter doesn't even know I'm alive yet.  He's so sophisticated, and, wow, isn't his car da bomb?”

Oblivious to her father's message, Jennifer continued gossiping with her friends.

====

“Janet sure looks happy,” Daniel commented after the ceremony.

“She's a colonel at last,” Jack said, though his tone wasn't as happy as Daniel would have anticipated.

“What's wrong?”

“A lot of things.  Let's start with how this thing is organized.  Why not give the Doc the promotion and the medal at the same time?  Why separate it like they're doing?  But the main thing ...”  Jack paused as he considered what he'd just witnessed.  “Danny, did I hear wrong, or did they just promote the Doc to a full colonel?”

The lights flashed in Daniel's mind, and then he responded, “Yeah.  They skipped a rank.”

“It's not the first time, but did you see Hammond's face when he read the orders?” Jack asked, frowning as they watched the Brass swarming around the SGC's Chief Medical Officer.

“He didn't know,” Daniel said, the realization having just hit him.

“No, he didn't; and why ...”  Jack's question was cut off when Paul Davis walked over.  “Davis,” Jack said, sipping his drink.

Davis looked around the room and commented softly, “As I'm sure you know, General, this is highly unusual.”

“Ya think?”

“Paul,” Daniel began, “do you ...”

“No, Daniel, I don't,” Paul replied abruptly, shaking his head to cut off any questions for the moments, “but it is way outside of protocol.”  Paul looked around the room and quietly added, “Certainly not the way to avoid suspicion is it?  Excuse me.”

“Jack, did he just warn us?” Daniel asked as Paul walked away.

“I think so.  We'd better sit down for the medal ceremony,” Jack said, his gut wincing from the way the entire affair was being conducted.  “Looks like they're almost ready to start again.”

“Uh, Jack, maybe we shouldn't sit together,” Daniel suggested as he looked around the room some more, taking note of the Brass huddled around both Janet and Cassandra.

“Why not?” Jack bristled.

“In the first place, this room is stacked with Brass, most of whom I've never even heard of, let alone seen, and that means they probably don't know about our, uh, special dispensation, so to speak; and, General Hammond asked us to mix.  I also think we might find out more if we split up.”

“Danny, if nothing else, we're teammates,” Jack refuted.

“Jack, if there is something we need to find out, we don't need to be the center of attention.  We can compare notes on the way home.”

“Dang it, Daniel, there are moments when I wish you hadn't paid quite so much attention in 'Covert Ops Class',” Jack whined quietly.  “But you're right.  It's not like Hammond to be kept so completely in the dark, especially with his connection to President Hayes, which means there's a possibility Hayes is being left out of the loop, too.”

“Hey, I do some of my best work in the dark, and if you're a good little spy, I'll prove it to you later,” Daniel smirked as he moved away, joining Paul Davis as he chatted with one of the men assigned to one of the big wigs attending the event.

**Angel, be careful.**

**You, too, Babe**

Jack sighed, silently thinking, ~Sometimes life really sucks when he's right.~

As he listened and took part in the conversation, Daniel felt a bit of regret.  There was always someone with a hidden agenda or someone brokering power and influence for personal gain.  Not for the first time, the archaeologist wished that everyone on Earth could know about the threat of the Goa'uld and Replicators, not so he and the others could be recognized, but so that everyone would realize how darn lucky they all were to still be here, living, breathing, and going about their lives.

~I hope we're just imagining things,~ Daniel thought.

====

There was a full house milling around in the assembly hall.  With very few exceptions, these people were totally oblivious to the existence of the ancient ring that made interstellar travel as simple as crossing the street.  For that reason, Janet's heroic actions would be altered somewhat to allow for her recognition.  Instead of her bravery having occurred on another planet, publicly, it occurred in another country during a classified operation.

**Jack, I can't figure out why they are recognizing Janet separately.  It's only going to stir-up interest in what goes on here.  Not only that, but this, uh, is strange.  The press is here.**

**I don't like it, either, Danny.**  Jack sighed and opined, **Somebody with one heck of a lot of power, more power than sense, has pulled this off.  This doesn't just smell, it reeks.**

**I feel like a reporter,** Daniel communicated from across the room.

**Why?**

**Because I want to know the five W's -- who, what, when, where, and why. Okay, so, uh, I know the where, but the who is questionable; and I'm not convinced that what is happening is really what we are being told is happening.  I mean, uh, clearly, General Hammond didn't know the real 'what'.  When, is, of course, now, or is it?  I mean if we don't really know what is happening, then we can't know for sure when it's happening.  The why is a cover-up, though we don't know the rea...**

**Daniel, I love you, but you're giving me a headache.**

**Sorry, Babe!**

====

Jeff smiled as he walked in the door of his house.  Hearing noises from the rec room, he decided to check it out.  He was immediately aware that a movie was on, the large plasma screen having been lowered.  Happily watching the film were all of his siblings, sans Jennifer.

“Alex?” Jeff called out, surprised to the see Alex Dennison standing at the back of the large room.

“Jeff, how are you?” the designer greeted Jeff when the boy approached.

“What a ...” Jeff began to ask, curious why Alex was visiting.

“Jeff!” a bunch of his siblings said as the movie credits started, and they became aware their brother was home from school.

“Hey, Brood!” the teen greeted.

“Can we go outside and play?” Jonny asked.

Jeff shrugged, not seeing any reason why they shouldn't, though he was also a bit surprised Jonny wasn't running upstairs to ask Jack.

“Sure, I'll tell Dad where you are,” Jeff replied, thinking that after he had talked to Alex for a moment, he'd find their father and relay the information.

In a flash, Jonny, Little Danny, and Aislinn headed for the patio doors with their two beagles close behind.

“Gonna play with Muffin,” Jenny announced to anyone who was interested before turning and heading for the game room where the huge stuffed dinosaur stood.

“I'll be upstairs.  Homework,” Brianna said with rolled eyes about her history assignment that Daniel had given her.

“Noa, let's practice our dancing,” Lulu suggested.

“Okay,” Chenoa responded, following her sister into the dance studio.

“Jeff ...” Alex began, intending to discuss the babysitting tenure.

“Whoa!” Jeff exclaimed as he was almost run into.  “David, watch where you're going, and remember, no running in the house.”

“Sorry, Jeff.  I'm just in a hurry; have a project I need to research.”

“No, running!” Jeff reminded.

~He's not Jennifer, but it looks like he has the babysitting under control,~ Alex silently thought.

Suddenly, the once children-laden rec room contained only three people -- Alex, Jeff, and Ricky.

“Those children are always an adventure,” Alex remarked.  “I'm glad I dropped by today.”

Jeff chuckled, “They are ...”  He turned in response to hearing a door being shut.  “Jen's home.”

~Free at last,~ Alex thought, knowing now that with Jennifer home, he was officially freed from responsibility.

“Hey, Sis,” David said.

“David, no running!” Jennifer stated, loud enough for Alex and Jeff to overhear.

“I'm not; I'm just hurrying,” David argued.

“Hurry more slowly, please,” Jennifer admonished.  “Where are ... oh, I see them,” Jennifer said, referring to the Munchkins, who were in plain view in the backyard.  “Go ahead, David, but ... oh, geez, there's the phone again,” the typical teen responded to her cell phone alert.  ~I hope it's Peter.~  “David,  you dropped something,” Jennifer shouted up the stairs just as she answered the phone call and turned to go to her bedroom.

~Jennifer sounds like she's already taken charge.  Okay, Alex, you're off duty.  Maybe I'll go home and start working on the Ricnor design,~ Alex thought.

~Sounds like Jen is handling the kids.  Dad must be upstairs,~ Jeff deduced, having seen the truck in the driveway.  ~Daddy must be out,~ he thought since the silver sports car was gone.

There was a silence, filled with a strange eeriness in the air in the rec room.

“Well, I guess I'll go put my stuff away,” Jeff commented as he removed his backpack.

As the boy started to turn, Alex asked, “Jeff, how are you doing?”

Jeff turned back around, placing his pack on one of the ottomans.  He gave a hesitant smile.

Alex had met Jeff very briefly a couple of days before Thanksgiving and then again on 'Gobble Day', as Jack often calls it, itself when the designer joined the Jackson-O'Neills for the holiday.

The designer had spent the entire day at the home, but “anything house-related” had been outlawed in conversation by the lovers.  As a result, Alex had spent a lot of time playing with the children, especially the Munchkins for whom he had a special affection.

During the holiday, Alex had chatted a little bit with all three of the newcomers to the family -- Jeff, Brianna, and Lulu.  In the course of conversation, he'd learned that Jeff's father had recently been killed in action.

Recalling their short discussion on Thanksgiving, Jeff instantly knew what Alex's question was really asking.

~You mean has it stopped hurting?  Or how can I be happy here when Dad hasn't been dead six-months yet?~  Jeff looked at Alex and began, “I'm fine, but sometimes ... oh, forget it.  You wouldn't understand.”  He turned around again, intending to pick up his backpack and go to his room.  ~He doesn't have a clue what I'm going through.~

“I know there's nothing I can say to make you feel better,” Alex responded.  “Everybody tries, but words are only words, and, in the end, there isn't a word in the world, or anything for that matter, that can make up for your loss.”

Somewhere in the midst of Alex's words, the sincerity in his voice caused Jeff to turn back around, and when he did, he thought he detected a look of raw pain for just a second.

“Um, Alex,” Jeff began quietly, “do you know what I'm talking about?”

Alex let out a regretful sigh of acknowledgement.  He nodded as he answered, “Unfortunately, Jeff, I do know.”

“I'm sorry,” Jeff said, not aware of any of Alex's history.

“Yeah, me, too.  I lost my parents, my stepfather, and ...  well, it's a long story and not a happy one,” Alex explained, hoping Jeff wouldn't pry.  ~It still hurts to talk about it.  It's the unknown.  Where are they?  Are they alive?  Mom, how could you have done that?  Why didn't you wait for me to get home?~

In one momentary flash, Alex had stirred up the agonizing memory of his mother's suicide and the disappearance of his younger siblings, triplets, all of which had happened while he was on vacation.  To this day, Alex didn't know whether the two boys and one girl were alive or dead.  All the answers had gone to the grave with his mother.

“It sounds like you know where I'm coming from,” Jeff stated.

“I wish I didn't,” Alex sighed.  “What happened with my family was the kind of thing that elicits a lot of sympathy.  To tell you the truth, Jeff, most of the time I wish people would keep their sympathy to themselves.”

“I know what you mean.  I'm still mourning my father, and at the same time, I'm part of this new, wonderful family.  It's not easy to balance the two,” Jeff admitted.  “Everyone wants to make me feel better.”

Alex let out an understanding snort as he said, “I do empathize;  I know how it is to have some well-meaning person sound like they are going to break into the theme song from 'Annie' at any moment.”

Jeff chuckled slightly, and said, “Yeah, the 'Pollyanna' ...” the teenager began as he looked around to see Ricky off by himself sketching on his Etch-a-Sketch.  He leaned toward the designer and said, “... 'crap' can get a little annoying.  My friends' mothers are always telling me about how life goes on and all of that.  I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I wonder what they'd say if they had just buried a child.”

There was an awkward, yet strangely companionable silence for a minute or two.  Alex studied the recreation room, pleased with the outcome, while Jeff wondered why Jack had left the visitor downstairs on his own for so long.

~Maybe Dad's on the phone.  I should probably entertain Alex until Dad comes back downstairs.~  Jeff started the conversation again by asking, “So you designed the house for Da...Jack and Dan... oh, heck, for Dad and Daddy?”

“Yes, I did.  Byron Stone had just hired me, and your parents were my first clients in this area.  And, Jeff, men who grow up south of the Mason-Dixon line refer to their fathers as 'Daddy' all their lives.  It's an acceptable term of endearment, so you have no reason to be embarrassed about it.”

“I'm not, not really.  It's just what we were just talking about,” Jeff responded quietly.

“Your father?”

“Yeah, sometimes when I'm thinking about him, it feels a little like I'm betraying him or, geez, trying to replace him.  I know I'm not, but ...”

Jeff ceased his words, taking a big breath as he looked away.

“I understand.  Do you like the house?” Alex asked, sensing the teenage boy was ready to move on to something less emotional to talk about.

“I love it,” Jeff responded, smiling.  “This room, especially, is way cool.  I love the floor and the high ceiling, and it's ... it's just so big!”

“The footprint of this room is actually larger than the lower floor of the original structure, not including any of the projections.  The small rooms in that wing,” Alex said, pointing to the far side of the house where the large projection toward the street contained several smaller rooms, “were to have originally been here, inside the rec room footprint.”

“But you changed it?” Jeff asked curiously.

“And your fathers agreed.”

“How come?”

Alex explained, “For several reasons.  One, it made this room large enough to hold the entire family and their friends, and there were only eight Jackson-O'Neill children then.  Two, it isolated the special purpose rooms. Three, it gave the house balanced symmetry.  The quiet room matches the study, the large projection matches the garage, and your room matches Jennifer's.  And four, it gave the game room, which did not have a name at that time, access to the rec room and the small hall to the special rooms.”

“Wow.  Uh, Alex, Dad showed me all of that, but can I ask you some technical questions about the house?  I've been curious about some things and ...”

“Fire away,” Alex interrupted with a smile.  ~The Ricnor design can wait a few minutes.~

“Well, why did they use columns to add those rooms to the back instead of just going out over the dining and living rooms?” Jeff asked about the remodeling project that had been done before the Munchkins' birth.

“Zoning restrictions, Jeff.  Look up and down the streets in this entire neighborhood, and you'll see that there are no full two-story houses.  There is a limit as to how much of the lower floor can have heated living space above it.”

“So that's why the long sloping roof to the front?” Jeff inquired, genuinely curious about the home's construction.

“Yes, exactly.  If you want to take a closer look, I could explain more,” Alex offered.

“Great!” Jeff exclaimed.

====

Upstairs, in the sanctuary of her room isolated above the garage, Jennifer was gleefully chatting away on her cell phone, certain her siblings were under the watchful eye of her fathers, or at least one of them.  She had vaguely noticed that Daniel's 1999 Shelby-American was gone and that there was an oddly-familiar European sports car parked on the street, but she had been too lost in her dreamy world of Peter Hamilton to think any more about it.  Besides, Jeff was home, and all seemed well in Jennifer's world.

“Jen,” Brianna said, tapping on her door.

Jennifer glared, asking, “What?”

“Do you know anything about the War of 1812?” Brianna asked, hoping to get some help with her assignment.

“Bri, you have to do your own homework.  Use your computer.”  Pressing the mute button, Jennifer added, “Besides, Amber has some dish on Peter.  I'll tell you later.”

“Okay, Jen.”

Brianna turned and walked back down the stairs, hearing Jennifer return to her cell phone conversation.  As she crossed the living room to get to the stairs, she saw Alex and Jeff.

“Do you believe it?” Brianna whined.  “I asked Jen about the War of 1812, and she told me to look it up myself.  What kind of help is that?”

“Sounds like good help, Bri,” Jeff answered.  “There's a lot of websites with detailed information and ...”

“I know; I already heard the lecture.  Back to the salt mines,” Brianna complained as she went up the stairs.  ~This was the easiest five bucks I've ever made,~ the young girl thought, happy that her siblings had all been occupied until Jennifer returned home, and Alex seemed none the worse from the experience.

The short conversation reassured Jeff and Alex that Jennifer was watching the brood and had everything under control.

For Jeff, it was a logical assumption since Jennifer was more or less always looking out for her siblings when their parents were otherwise occupied.  He was certain Jennifer was simply changing her clothes or getting a book and would be back downstairs momentarily.

For Alex, it was a simple fact.  He had been told that once Jennifer walked in the door, he was off the hook.

====

In the backyard, the Munchkins were happily playing with the beagles.  Of course, the fact that it was cold and damp outside made the excursion even more fun.  They didn't notice the worried expression in Bijou's eyes.  If dogs could frown, the mama beagle would certainly be doing so.

The triplets decided to play a game called, 'Boom', the idea being who could fall down the most without getting dirty.  It was a silly game, but they were laughing and giggling as they rolled on the snow-covered grass.  When that turned out not to be much of a challenge, they moved to Katie's play yard, pushing aside the snow that had fallen earlier so they could play 'Boom' in the almost mud-like dirt.  It worked, their light-colored clothing quickly becoming layered with the dirt of Katie's dig site.

Finally, though, 'Boom' had lost its appeal, and the Munchkins admitted that they were getting a little cold.  Silently, they each wondered why Jennifer hadn't interrupted their play session.  Jennifer was fairly lenient, but even at their age, the Munchkins knew they were getting away with something.

Aislinn suggested, “We all dirty; let's go get clean!”

“Okay,” the two brothers responded.

Traipsing through the living room, oblivious to the dirty footprints they were leaving, the Munchkins and beagles went down the hallway, passed the study, and then went out into the garage.  Their timing was perfect as that was the exact moment when Jeff and Alex had just stepped out into the front yard.

In the garage, Little Danny saw all the clothes in the 'to be washed' bins.

“Dad 'n' Daddy have lots wash to do.”

“We'll help!” Jonny suggested.  “Hafta clean these 'nway,” the oldest of the triplets said as he pulled off his dirty brown shirt.

In agreement, the Munchkins disrobed and not only put their clothes into the washer, but also began to put all the other clothes in, too.

“Wait!” Aislinn ordered.  “Hafta wash whites 'gether.  Sort colors.  We wash, we do it right,” she commanded.

“Okay,” Jonny relented, pulling out some of the clothes.  Carefully, the children sorted out the colors.  They then loaded all the whites into one of the washers, and into the second, they put the reds, purples, and pinks.  “This okay, Ash?” Jonny asked.

“It good.  Now we need soap,” the youngest Munchkin advised.

“I get it,” Little Danny said, scooting a chair over to where the various supplies were.  “Need help, Jonny.  Too heavy.”

Jonny scooted a chair over and stood on it, and together, the brothers successfully pulled out the large bottle of liquid detergent.  They only wobbled once, each looking at the other and smiling when they hadn't fallen.

“Which hole we put it into?” Jonny asked his sister.

“Need clean the best,” Aislinn answered.  “Fill all of them,” the little girl suggested, referring to the multiple compartmented slide-out trays in the washers.

The trays held dispensers for different products that would release during the various cycles of the washing machine, one each for detergent being used during the pre-wash, detergent used during the main wash, fabric softener, and bleach.

“Okay, I turn on now,” Jonny said, pressing the buttons that turned on the washers, something he knew how to do simply from watching Jack, Daniel, Jennifer, and Jeff on various occasions.

The now-naked triplets looked around the garage.

“What we do now?” Aislinn asked.

Little Danny answered, “These already clean.  Let's sort them, put things 'gether.  Dad 'n' Daddy be proud of us.”

Smiling and eager to surprise and please their fathers, the birthday suit-clad children began to sort several bins full of already-washed linens, towels, and clothing, though most were items belonging to their parents, along with a few of Jennifer's outfits.

====

Outside the front of the house, Alex was pointing out the long dormer which ran almost the entire length of the house, stopping six feet from the very end, explaining that it allowed full-height ceilings in the baths without the need for a full two-story structure.

“That's where the storage closet is, right?” Jeff inquired, pointing to the last six feet of the new addition.
 
“Yes, it is,” replied Alex.

“And the curved part of the roof is the Bird's Nest, and it sits over the plasma TV, right?”

“Exactly,” Alex responded, impressed with Jeff's interest in the home thus far.  “That curved part of the roof is called an eyebrow dormer.  It was a last minute addition.  I don't want to break the train of thought right now, but remind me later to tell you a story about how this and several other features of the house came to be, if you're interested, that is.”

Jeff nodded and then asked inquisitively, “So the bedrooms project over the porch at the back?”

“Correctomundo, my architecturally astute young friend,” Alex answered jovially.

“So does that help meet the limitation of heated square footage over the lower floor?” Jeff surprised Alex in asking.

“Absolutely.  If you were on Jeopardy right now, you would be kicking butt!” Alex laughed.

“Thanks,” Jeff said, glad Alex didn't think he was stupid or anything.  Just as he was about to ask Alex to answer the heating question, the teen noticed Ricky was tagging behind them.  “Hey, Squirt, what are you doing out here?  You're not supposed to be out front alone.”  Jeff scooped up his youngest brother and chastised, “Dad would be very unhappy if he had caught you following us.”

Ricky snickered for a reason Jeff didn't understand, but the youngest Jackson-O'Neill son didn't give Jeff a chance to process that when he replied, “Not 'lone - with you and Alex.”

“Wise guy!  We're going back into the house now, though.  Come on, and don't leave your Etch-a-Sketch outside,” Jeff warned as he put Ricky down and waited while the little boy retrieved the drawing toy before heading for the front door.  To Alex, the boy said, “I don't think we should stay out front with him.  We'd better go back inside.”

“Sure, Jeff,” Alex quickly agreed.

====

In the dance studio, Lulu and Chenoa were practicing their tap dance steps.  Lulu was more interested in ballet, but Chenoa preferred tap.  Since both loved to dance, each was now enrolled in a dance class that served as a basic introduction to all kinds of dance.  Later on, if they wanted, Jack and Daniel had told them that they could take more specialized courses, but right now the parents wanted to make sure the children had a basic idea of all the possibilities that were out there.

Suddenly, Chenoa stopped and looked like she'd just lost her prized possession, Uni the unicorn, a stuffed animal her mother had made for her shortly before her death.  While it was true that Chenoa had misplaced Uni again, that wasn't the reason for her look of panic.

“Noa, what's wrong?” Lulu asked.

“Ice cream!”

“Not now.  Dad and Daddy would be mad,” Lulu explained.

“No, Lulu.  Dad tell us have to clean rooms upstairs.  He say no clean, no ice cream.”

Lulu gasped, having forgotten Jack's edict from earlier in the morning.

“We better clean our rooms, Noa!”

“Yeah.  We dance later.  Have to make sure we have ice cream!” Chenoa said, turning off their music.

“Yeah!” Lulu agreed, leading her sister out of the dance studio.

As they hurried out, the two girls saw Alex and Jeff, chatting in the rec room. The two males smiled and waved at the fleeing girls.

“I wonder why they're in such a hurry,” Alex harmlessly commented.

Jeff shrugged and continued his quizzing of the designer, saying, “Alex, when I first walked in here, I was sure there'd be an echo.  I mean a really big echo, but there isn't.”

Alex smiled with pride as he explained, “The floor is set on top of insulated sound board.  The curved wall at the side of the room deadens sound due to its shape and the acoustic fabric.  See the ceiling?”  Alex waited as Jeff looked up at the intersecting wood beams creating four-foot squares.  “A building has to support its own weight as well as all the equipment, furnishings, and people.  The beams are not solid wood; if they were, their weight would need columns to support them.  Inside is an engineered truss, a piece of very strong plywood, capped top and bottom with a piece of solid wood with a groove to hold it in place.  Think of it as an I-beam made of wood.  On each side of the plywood is a thickness of Styrofoam, which is covered with a thin type of manufactured board called luan, which Jack refers to as 'luau'.”

“That sounds like Dad,” the teen mused.

Alex continued, “Over the luan, on the sides and bottom of the beams, is the veneer which makes it look like solid wood.  The sound has more surfaces than a flat ceiling to bounce off of, and the sound-deadening material keeps it from echoing.”

“Wow, that's amazing.  With all the brood, we can make a lot of noise,” Jeff commented.  “It works, Alex.”

Alex chuckled as the two continued to talk about some other aspects of the house.

After several minutes, Alex asked, “You sure I'm not boring you with all this technical lingo?”  ~There's no end to his questions, but I really don't mind.~

“Not at all.  I really do find it fascinating.”  Jeff raised his shoulders a bit bashfully.  “You know, I didn't realize I had so many questions, but the more we talk, the more I'm curious about.  Alex, where does the light come from?”

“This could have been a very dark room, but these circular glass plates are covers over large-diameter tubes with a mirror-like reflective finish.  There are sectioned connecting pieces, like round furnace ducts that can swivel to accommodate any angle.”

“Cool, but how do they fit in?  Where do they go, the tubes, I mean?” Jeff inquired.

Alex chuckled, “Have you always had an interest in architecture?”

“I don't know.  I mean, I guess I have, but I've never really thought about it. I've always liked to look at beautiful and unusual buildings.  I have a book of Frank Lloyd Wright's work.  Dad took me to New York once, and we went to the Guggenheim Museum, the AT&T Building, and the Chrysler Building, as well as the Empire State Building, but I guess I never realized how deeply I was interested until now.  Maybe that's because there's never been anyone around who could knowledgeably answer my questions.”

“You know something?” Alex asked as he, too, became aware of something new.  “I never realized how much I enjoyed sharing my knowledge.  A large part of what I do is educate my clients, so I guess this has been a bit of an epiphany for both of us.”

“A what?”

“An epiphany is a sudden realization that shifts or changes your perceptions of something in a profound way.  In a religious context, it means the day the Three Wise Men found their way to baby Jesus.  Your realization that you are keenly interested in the design and construction of buildings could be considered an epiphany.”

“I've always wondered what to do with my life, that is, if the rock star or the pro basketball thing doesn't work out.”  Jeff chuckled, “Maybe this has potential.”

“Maybe it does.  I'd be happy to talk to you more about it, but to answer your question, the tubes are enclosed in drywall and are set in the corners of the walk-in closets.”  Sensing the next question or three, Alex continued, “The incoming light is controlled by an iris in the end of each tube, like the shutter on a camera, powered by small twelve-volt motors.  The ends protruding through the roof look like large white mushrooms.  They capture the light from all directions and funnel it into the house.  Jack and Daniel decided to put them throughout the house to utilize as much natural light as possible.”

“Awesome,” Jeff said.

====

~Okay, that's enough!~

Brianna closed her text book and tossed down her pen.  She'd already finished her computer research and had answered two-thirds of the questions on the worksheet Daniel had asked her to complete.

Leaving her room, she walked down the corridor and noticed Jenny taking a nap on her bed.

~Guess she got tired of playing with Muffin.  Muffin!  Geez, what a name for a dinosaur.  Man, if that thing were real, it would have severe identity problems.~

Walking through to the original part of the house, Brianna turned down the hallway, planning on seeing what her younger sisters were up to.

~No way!  I'm not trading one chore for another.~  Seeing Chenoa and Lulu busy cleaning their room, Brianna moved forward to David's room.  “Hey, Bro, whatcha' doing?”

“Reading about Waffle Rock,” David answered.

“There's a rock that's a waffle?”

“Funny, Bri.  It's a real rock in West Virginia.  The underside of it has caused a big debate.  Some people think it's proof of aliens having been on Earth.”

Brianna chuckled as she sat down on the bed, saying, “You know, a few months ago, I might have really laughed at that, but now ...”

David smiled and continued, “Yeah, there's this giant radiation burn under the rock; kinda like grids, so that's why some believe it a space ship could have landed on it, but geologists claim it's just a natural rock formation.  The only problem with that statement is that there's only been one other waffle rock-like formation discovered, and that was also in West Virginia.”

Brianna shrugged and commented, “So the Asgard like West Virgina!”  Standing, she said, “Come on, David.  Enough of science.  Let's go play!”

“You just don't want to do Daddy's history assignment,” David teased.

“The War of 1812 was one thing, David, but who cares *why* we purchased Louisiana?  We purchased it!  Let's go play!” Brianna urged eagerly.

David laughed and powered off his computer.  The two were laughing loudly as they went downstairs.

“I wonder what Jen is doing?” Brianna commented.  “Wait a second, David,” she said, moving into the hallway.  Yelling up the stairs that led to Jennifer's bedroom, the girl called out, “Jen, what are you ...”

“I'm on the phone, Bri.  Later!”

The next sound Brianna heard was Jennifer's door closing.

With a shrug, Brianna returned to the living room, and then she and David went outside, undetected by Alex and Jeff who were still rambling on about the house and its architecture.

====

“Do you have any more questions, Jeff?” asked Alex, beginning to relish his impromptu role as teacher and mentor.

“Actually, yes.  I'm curious about how you heat and cool a place this large. The bills must be high.  I, uh, don't know because I've never asked Dad and Daddy about it, but, well, this is a really nice house -- a really nice and big house.”

Alex smiled as he responded, “Yes, it is, but with foresight, a good architect can help alleviate pesky problems like high electric and gas bills.”  Jeff looked a little confused, so Alex made a suggestion.  “The mechanical room is accessible only from the outside.  If we go look at it, I can explain a lot of things about that to you.”

“Great!  I have my key right here,” Jeff pointed out, knowing that the house key opened the lock on the mechanical room door as well.

The two started to go outside when Jeff stopped suddenly.  Sure enough, when he turned back, Ricky was on their tails.  The teen laughed and quickly went to the front hall closet and grabbed Ricky's ski parka.

“This time, Squirt, you're going to have your coat on.  Dad's not gonna get mad at me for you catching a cold.”

Ricky snickered again as he put down his Etch-a-Sketch and extended his arms for his older brother to help him with putting on the chill-chasing garment.

~I wonder what's so funny,~ Jeff thought.

====

As they headed out the back, Jeff stopped and admired the porch area that had a seven-foot deep overhang with two facing swings.  It was in the backyard, just outside the rec room.

“This is one of my favorite places,” Jeff revealed as he noticed something new.  “Hey, you even put two solar tubes out here.”

“Yes, as well a few recessed lights,” the good-looking designer replied.

“Why?”

“Inquiring minds want to know!” Alex teased in response.

“Am I asking too many questions?” asked Jeff a bit anxiously.  ~I'm having a great time; I'd hate to get on his nerves.~

“No, Jeff, it's okay.  In fact, it's more than just okay.  I've just never encountered anyone your age with this much interest in designing.  Most people have questions about one particular aspect of design, but you seem to have a real thirst to know how it all fits together.”

As the two talked, Ricky climbed up onto one of the swings and continued to sketch on his drawing toy.

“Yeah.  It's funny, Alex, because I've been curious about the house from the moment I first saw it, but I swear I didn't know how curious until today.”

Alex smiled and looked around for a second before he continued, “There are so many elements that come together to create a home or a room, and they all have to work together.  Many architects think considering where the pots and pans will go is beneath them; by the same token, many famous decorators don't trouble themselves with energy efficiency or practicality when they make their choices.  It *all* matters, at least in my philosophy of design it does.”  Alex chuckled, gratefulness in his tone, as he added, “And my employer agrees, or he wouldn't have hired me.  Oh, uh, sorry for rambling.”

“But it's interesting, Alex.  I'd like to know more.  Actually, I'd like to learn everything I can.”  Jeff shrugged.  ~Gee, this is exciting.~  “We'd better keep going.  I don't want Ricky to catch a cold.  Come on, Squirt,” Jeff said, motioning for the boy to climb down and follow them.

Walking around the outside of the house, they passed the back of the game room and circled the cabana, a projection off the corner of the game room that housed a full bath, two changing rooms and a double shower.

“That was a great idea,” remarked Jeff, pointing at the extension.  He chuckled, “I didn't even know it was there the first few times I was here.”

Alex stared at the structure and glanced back and forth between it and Jeff as he asked, “Would you believe your fathers added the pool to their plans with no thought of proximity to a bath?”

“Like pool,” Ricky commented.

“You like the igloo,” Jeff teased.  Ricky smiled and leaned in close to his big brother, so Jeff picked him up.  Returning his focus to Alex, Jeff grinned curiously.  “Is that part of that story you promised to tell me?”

“Indeed, it is; indeed it is,” Alex chuckled as they arrived at their destination.

Reaching the door that accessed the mechanical room, Jeff transferred Ricky to Alex's arms and fished out his house key from his pocket.  The door had a deadbolt lock up high enough that only an adult or older teenager could reach it and turn the key.  Jack and Daniel didn't want the hassle of having a special key and possibly losing it, so they opted to have the deadbolt up high and use the same key as all the other doors.

Opening the door and stepping inside, Jeff offered to take Ricky, but the toddler seemed happy to remain in Alex's arms.

“Okay, this is a totally non-fossil fuel-based system,” Alex explained.  “All of the exhaust air in the house, with the exception of the range exhausts, is ducted into here - the dryers, the bath fans, the air handling system - all of it.  The heat that would otherwise be wasted is recovered and transferred to the incoming air.  The system is reversed in hot weather to pump accumulated heat out of the house.  There is a geothermal furnace that performs a similar process with heat from the ground.  The ground has a constant temperature of fifty-five degrees below the frost line.  Both systems will function together, if needed, to provide sufficient heat.  It would be an extremely cold winter if more were required.”

“But if it did stay that cold for say, two months?” Jeff prodded.

“There are a pair of extremely efficient gas furnaces that would kick in ... here,” Alex answered, pointing to a panel in the center of the apparatus.

“Well, uh, what about cooling?” Jeff inquired curiously.

“This is a total departure from refrigerant-based cooling, Jeff,” Alex responded.  “It uses evaporation as a cooling principle, taking the air after it's been cooled by the waste heat removal and geothermal cooling systems and then further cooling and dehumidifying it.  It's an incredibly energy-efficient system.”

“Sounds like it, Alex, but, if this is so great ... uh, I mean, it is great, but why doesn't everyone use this?” Jeff wondered.

“Economies of scale.  There would have to be more demand for it, which would mean more educated consumers.  People would have to be willing to spend more up front to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and refrigerants.  Too much resistance from the utility companies.  It's complicated,” Alex sighed.
 
Jeff nodded in understanding, then commented, “I don't see a water heater, and yet we never run out of hot water.”

“There are six on-demand water heaters that provide endless hot water.  The longest run of hot water delivery pipe is just over twenty feet.  The water supply that was the McLamore's was increased, so three showers can be taken at the same time, or both washers can run, or two dishwashers.  You get the idea.”

“Wow, this is so cool, but what's that?” Jeff asked Alex as he pointed to a series of three unknown objects connected by white tubing.

“That's the central vac.  That big blue compressor like thing is the vacuum unit.  The first barrel is the large debris trap, and the second one is the cyclonic dust trap.  Both of them use a standard trash can liner for easy emptying.  In a house this size, I just can't imagine using portable vacuums.”

“Those floor level inlets are cool,” Jeff commented enthusiastically.  “We use them all the time.”  Looking around to see if he missed anything, Jeff exclaimed, “Look at the size of those breaker boxes!”

“The original house has one-hundred amp service while the upgraded service here in the new part has two-hundred.”

“That's a lot of jiggly juice,” Jeff teased.

“Jiggly juice,” Ricky echoed, giggling.

“Cut it out, Squirt,” Jeff said, reaching over to tap on Ricky's shoulder.

Alex continued, “There's also the back-up generator for emergencies; that's the red one over in that corner.”

“My brain is fried,” Jeff laughed.  “Thanks, Alex, for explaining all of this.”

====

In the garage, the naked Munchkins were fidgeting.

“How long 'till it done, Ash?” Little Danny asked, scratching his arm.

“Don't know,” the little girl answered as she shrugged.

The children had sorted all the items into piles of like-items and were now seated on the cold garage floor.  Jonny was patting Bijou while Aislinn was playing with Katie's ears.

“Could dry clothes with your ears, Katie,” Aislinn told her.

Katie just rolled over and wiggled her back against the cold floor.

“What we gonna do?” Jonny whined, bored with just sitting around.

“I know,” Aislinn brightened.  “We sorted; now we need to fold towels and things.  Dad and Daddy be even more proud of us.”

“Okay,” the boy Munchkins agreed.

Carefully, they unfolded some chairs and pushed them to the large table that was used for sorting at the center of the garage.  Each set of stacked laundry units had a table that pulled out and then flipped open with a fold-down trestle for support, but Jack and Daniel had never gotten used to using them. Working together, the naked Munchkins moved the bins and unloaded the previously cleaned items onto the table.  One by one, they began folding the items, working together on the bigger towels and sheets.

“This Jen's.  Fit me better.  Put it in my stack,” Aislinn said about one of Jennifer's halter tops, items worn mostly when Jack wasn't around to yell at her for showing off her assets at too early of an age.  “It cover all of me.”

====

Walking back the way they came, having locked up the mechanical room, Jeff, Ricky, and Alex waved to Brianna and David, who were playing outside.

“Hi!” David called out, waving back.

“Make us a snowman,” Jeff called out, since it was beginning to snow again.

After the trio went inside, David asked his sister, “Bri, are you a good switch hitter?”

“I do okay at it.  Why?  Do you need help?” Brianna asked as she put a final touch on their tiny snow castle that the two had built in a corner of the yard.

“I need help with everything,” David chuckled.  Quickly, though, he added, “I'm a lot better than I used to be.  Dad told me to just try my best and to concentrate on one thing at a time.  That's why I asked.  I've never really tried to switch hit before.”

“Well, here,” Brianna said, looking around.  “Get one of those dead limbs over there, and I'll put together a ball.  We'll practice a little.”

“Cool!” David exclaimed, walking over to find a suitable limb from the tiny ones that had broken and fallen from one of their trees.

====

“Jack, any idea about what we just experienced?” Daniel asked as he drove towards their home.

“Not a friggin' clue.  I'm happy for the Doc, Daniel, but none of this makes sense.  For a while, I wondered which Air Force this was because it sure wasn't ours,” Jack stated skeptically.

“Did you notice that one general hanging around Cassie?” a concerned Daniel asked.

“Keller was his name.  I don't know very much about him, but I didn't like his eyes on Cass throughout the whole thing.”

“Babe, there was a lot of staring going on,” Daniel stated.  “It was, uh, odd.”

“Carter and the Doc, both,” Jack noted, having observed that the two women were watched throughout the event.

“And Cassie makes three,” Daniel clarified.  He paused; then opined, “Pete noticed I think.”

“Shanahan's so happy he finally snatched the prize that he probably isn't going to rock the boat by pressing her about it.”

“Jack ...”

“All I'm saying, Daniel, is that he's all ... gooey,” Jack stated, making a funny face as he shuddered.

“You mean he's happy, like we are,” Daniel corrected with a soft, pointed smile.

“Yeah,” Jack acknowledged, smiling as well.  Getting serious again, he spoke, “Pete noticed, and not because he was jealous.”

“Did he say anything to you?”

“No,” Jack answered.  “I think he thought he was being a sappy, overly jealous, off-base, emotional ...”

“Jack, I get the idea,” Daniel interrupted.

“The point is that they were all being watched, but I don't understand why.  We need to keep our eyes and ears open.”

“Maybe Paul knows something, or maybe we're overreacting.  I mean, uh, there is that shindig tonight.”

“Geez, I'm glad we got out of that,” Jack commented.

“Me ... too,” Daniel said, staring over at the cell phone which had just started ringing.  With the phone on speaker, Daniel answered, “Daniel Jackson-O'Neill.”

“Daniel, it's Karissa.  I have a couple of minutes and thought you'd like a quick report.”

“Sure thing.  Uh, Jack's here, and the phone's on speaker.”

“Shoot, Karissa,” Jack instructed, curious to see what the woman had to say about the Mobius Group.

“It's very intriguing, and I'm impressed with the representatives I've met.  The one guy is either a genuine psychic or a really, really good fake, and he claims he's not the biggest gun in the arsenal.”  Pausing for a moment, the young woman continued, “Daniel, he told me I have a much, much younger man in love with me.  He also told me some things that really knocked my socks off, things I've never told another living soul.  Anyway, they've had some amazing successes, but I'm just not sure it's realistic to work with them at this point.  They're restructuring, and I'm not sure they'll make it in the long haul,” Karissa reported.

“Have they been forthcoming about their problems?” Daniel inquired.

“Yes, they have.  I haven't detected any deception.  They've opened up their books to me.  Daniel, Jack, that confused me a little.  They seem almost desperate to work with J-O.  It's a bit unnerving.  Why us?  There are other companies closer to them that would probably be more economical for them to align with, but their response has been that either those companies aren't interested because of how Mobius operates or ...”

Karissa trailed off, uncertain how to continue.

“Karissa, don't hold back,” Jack urged, sensing some hesitation on their employee's behalf.

“They want J-O,” Karissa stated flatly.  “I don't know that they've really given it their all with those companies.  I just feel uneasy about it; yet, they are eager, keep great records, and, Daniel, let me tell you about this one case from last year.  Remember that huge underwater find?  Well, they weren't given credit for it, but here's what happened, at least according to Mobius, and they have some pretty convincing evidence ...”

As the lovers continued their drive home, Karissa continued her report.

====

Back inside the house, Ricky took off his coat and, having returned to the rec room with Jeff and Alex, resumed his fascination with his Etch-a-Sketch.

~He sure loves that thing,~ Jeff observed.  “Alex, tell me the story of the last minute changes.”

“I will, but I never answered your question about the lighting in the overhang over the porch.  The solar tubes are just to keep it from being too dark.  The recessed lights eliminate the 'black mirror effect' at night.  If the inside recessed lights are on, turning on the lights in the overhang balance the illumination on both sides of the glass and allow you to see through it.”

Shaking his head Jeff asked, “How do you think of all this?”

“Most of it has already been thought of.  It's a matter of remembering to apply it.”

“I'll try to remember that,” Jeff said with a smile.

“Okay, so let me tell you about last-minute changes and these two characters; I mean, Jack and Daniel,” Alex chuckled.

// Flashback//
Alex waited with Byron at the door of the Jackson-O'Neill home.

“Alex, these two gentlemen have done a complete one-eighty on me.  They were so cocky and sure of themselves at the beginning.”

“The 'we can do it ourselves and don't need your opinions?' type?” Alex inquired.

“Yes, exactly.  From the start, I felt an additional pair of eyes was a good idea, but they wouldn't hear of it.  I have no idea what they want, and frankly, I'm not sure they do, either.  I hope you can help.”

“Byron, people don't know what they like; they tend to like what they know.  I'll do what I always do -- observe, observe, observe, ask questions, and gauge their responses.  My recommendations will be an amalgam of their expressed wishes and unexpressed needs.”

At that moment, Jack opened the door and ushered Byron and Alex inside.

~Happy family; always a good sign.  Cute kids.  Oh my!  Triplets.  Two boys and a girl, just like ... no time for regrets, Alex!  Oh, twins, too, and three older children besides.  I wonder what their story is - divorced, widowed?  One family sharing another family's house due to a fire?  Wait one minute!  The one little boy referred to the older guy as 'Dad', then turned around and called the younger one 'Daddy', and the look they just exchanged ... definitely a couple.  Well, good for them.~
//End of Flashback//

“So you were cool with them being a same-sex couple?” Jeff asked.

“In my line of work, I can't afford to be prejudiced, Jeff.  People are who they are.  Many of the men in the design professions have a preference for their own gender.  Some are swishy and flamboyant, some are quiet and reserved, but I have no concern for what people do behind closed doors or how they choose to live their lives.”

“So what was the first big hurdle about the house?”

“The hospitality room,” Alex answered without hesitation.  “I could see the existing kitchen and dining rooms were way too small.  Given the layout, a new, bigger kitchen wasn't really feasible, and remember, this was all completed in just over six months.  Ripping out was not an option.”

Jeff chuckled, “One of the first things I learned around here was that Dad and Daddy aren't, uh, well ...”

“Patient?” Alex asked, a smile on his face.  Seeing Jeff's shy nod, Alex continued, “The hospitality room solved a number of design issues.  I had to convince them that this was what was needed.  If they had vetoed this room, I probably would have excused myself from the job because the end result would not have been satisfactory.”

“Was it a tough sale?” Jeff asked.

“Not as hard as some other things.  Daniel actually came around before I had finished explaining the benefits.  Jack, well, he went along because Daniel liked it, but he wasn't convinced completely.”

“That doesn't sound too bad.”

“I'm just getting started.  Believe me when I say I like your fathers immensely, but they didn't have a clue as to how important it was to clear changes through us before giving orders to the construction crew.  They wanted the roof deck left intact, and the one end left open; and they also wanted Daniel's den left alone.”

“That's not possible without a long tunnel wrapping around the front or back of the house,” Jeff correctly observed.

“Try telling them that!”  Alex sighed, remembering some of the situations that had occurred.  “The obvious solution was what we did.  Jack got the second roof deck for his telescope ...”  Alex stopped seeing Jeff's bashful smile that was about to burst into a shy grin.  “What?”

“I think Dad and Daddy use the roof deck for a lot more than the telescope.”

Alex nodded as he teased, “Too much information, Jeff.”

Jeff shrugged as he smiled, then said, “Dad calls it the Aerie.”

“I didn't know that,” Alex commented.  “Probably because it's so high up.”

“Yeah, the eagles and all of that.  They take a CD player out there sometimes and play a lot of John Denver songs.”

“Rocky Mountain High,” Alex assumed.

“Yes, and a song, um, I think it's called, 'I'd Rather Be in Colorado'.  They like that one a lot.”

“I'm glad they're enjoying that second deck.”

“They really do,” Jeff assured Alex.

“Good.  Coming up with the idea for the sec...for the Aerie over the hospitality room was a bonus, so Jack wasn't terribly upset, even though he groused a bit,” Alex remarked.

====

Meanwhile, in the garage, the Munchkins were busy folding clothes as only little children could do.

“Ash, look at machines.  They really cleaning good,” Jonny said.

“Good.  Was 'fraid we didn't use enough soap!” the little girl responded.

====

“So what happened then?” Jeff asked Alex.

The teen was very curious to learn more about the renovation experience, and he was truly enjoying the conversation with the talented man in front of him.

“They decided on a pool,” Alex answered, shaking his head at the same time.

“What was bad about that?” Jeff asked, since he liked the pool just as much as Ricky did.

“Nothing, except that they made the decision without talking with me first.  It really caused a great deal of confusion at the time.”

“Oh,” Jeff said, not yet understanding.

“It was part of that big mess when they thought the contractor and Byron were checking with each other every day.”

“And they weren't?” Jeff deduced.

“No, and it took a bit of doing to work out all the details.  We let them know pretty sternly at the time that they couldn't continue making those kinds of decisions without consulting with us first.”  Alex sighed, moving his right hand to rub the back of his neck, as if the memories alone were causing the area to ache.  “They finally stopped making changes without talking to us first, but then they started asking for the moon, and I couldn't resist the challenge of giving it to them.”

“Are we getting to the good part?”

“Oh, yeah.  I tried to talk them into a second stairwell, but they were too afraid to have a second set of stairs that the five younger kids could fall down.”

“But, obviously, you succeeded in convincing them,” Jeff commented, looking over towards the hidden door.

“No, not me.  It was Jennifer,” Alex revealed.

“Jen?  Really?  You're kidding!” Jeff chuckled.

“I never did get the whole story, but your two fathers decided they wanted a second stairwell after all, and they wanted it hidden, but accessible.”

“Do you have any idea how Jen changed their minds?”

Alex shrugged, answering, “She came up with the inspiration for the hidden stairway while watching movies at a slumber party.  I swear, that's what they said.”

Curious, Jeff responded, “I'll have to ask her about it.  So was it a challenge to fit it in?”

“There was some fudging of the closets and baths to create the space for the stairwell, and the corner of the game room was cut in to allow access from that end, but that wasn't the worst of it,” Alex stated.

“What could be worse?” Jeff asked, glancing over at Ricky who was just shaking his toy to clear the image.

“No like; do bet'er,” Ricky mumbled to himself as he started a new drawing.

“You have no idea, Jeff.  Daniel had read a letter from ... uh ...”

Alex paused, wondering if he should continue.  After all, he had no idea how much had been shared with the children about the rooms in the house.

“The letter from Kayla,” Jeff completed for the designer.  “Daddy told us why he asked for the Bird's Nest.  Uh, that's what Dad calls it.”

Alex chuckled, still finding the nickname for the small space funny, though appropriate.

“Yes,” Alex answered simply.

“So you're saying that room wasn't part of the original plan?” Jeff asked.

--

In the garage, the Munchkins were delighted with their progress in folding the previously-cleaned clothes.  Convinced that their clothes dirtied just an hour ago were getting clean, they clapped with delight at the glass in the doors of the washers that were completely obscured with suds.  None of the Munchkins were aware of the twin streams of white bubbles creeping out the backs of the two machines.

--

Just then Jack and Daniel slipped in the front door and walked toward the sound of the conversation, going down the entranceway hall towards the rec room.  They assumed their children would be gathered together, but from their vantage point, all they saw were Jeff and Ricky.

**The children must be upstairs.**

**Jen's got the stereo on,** Jack communicated, hearing the music playing vaguely in the background.

Life seemed perfectly normal at this point, and the parents assumed that with the stereo on, everything must be running smoothly in their household. The lovers were about to walk into the rec room when Alex's words stopped them.

“Jeff, you don't know what a compliment that is, but, no, it was not in the original plan.  Here we were getting ready to head into the last six weeks of finishing the house.  Everything is here, and everybody is running at full throttle; all the selections had been finalized.  Every detail had been double and triple-checked.  I was just beginning to feel like we had a handle on things, and it was going to happen on schedule.”

Jeff smiled and almost laughed, “But I take it that it didn't happen that way.”

Alex sighed, “I thought I could take a deep breath and just flow with the momentum I had built when, out of the blue, Daniel reads this letter and gets a huge case of the guilts.  He comes to me with this sad, long face, asking for just one more miracle.  Remember, every inch of space was allocated.  They had driven me absolutely bonkers with one change after another, and it was over.  There was just no way.  I was contemplating backing over Daniel with the bulldozer and pleading that it was an accident!”

“Really?” Jeff asked.

“More than once,” the designer admitted, smiling.

Jeff chuckled, and said, “But you did what Daddy wanted anyway!”

“Jeff, have you seen Daniel doing that sad face ...”

“The pout,” Jeff laughed.  “Dad says it's patented.  The Munchkins and the twins have it down pat.  Watch.”  Jeff turned to Ricky, and said, “Hey, Squirt, do the 'Danny Pout' for Alex.”

Ricky put down his toy and closed his eyes.  He took a big breath, and then put on a near-perfect image of a very sad Daniel.

Alex couldn't help but laugh and nod, saying, “Yeah, something like that.”

**Gawd, Jack ...** an embarrassed Daniel thought from the edge of the hallway where he and his lover remained undetected by Alex and Jeff.

**Danny, the brood can do you almost as good as you do you!** Jack silently smirked, knowing both of them were already pushovers for their children, but when one of them did the 'Danny Pout', they were goners.

**Jack!**

“So 'The Pout' got to you?” Jeff asked, his eyes and expression daring Alex to deny it.

The designer laughed, then answered, “The truth is that I had considered making that space an attic.  It was the only possibility, and I couldn't let it go.”

“'The Pout' got you,” Jeff said pointedly, a smile on his face.

“Okay, okay,” Alex admitted, raising his palms in mock-surrender.  “I made it a challenge, pulled an all-nighter, and figured out a solution.  I was so sure they would go for it, I authorized double time and a half for four guys to build the eyebrow dormer so it was ready to be set in place the next day.”

“Wow.  It must make you feel proud to know you created this house,” Jeff remarked.

“It's more than that, Jeff.  This house was created because I was able to read and interpret your dads' wants and needs in a manner they found pleasing.  But you are correct, there is an immense satisfaction in doing an outstanding job.”

Jeff laughed, “Did you really think that about the bulldozer?”

“More than once,” Alex admitted as he chuckled.  “It was just sitting out there, beckoning me.  I was sure that not a jury in the world would convict me!”

**That's enough.  Gawd,** Daniel said, turning around and heading down the hallway.

**Danny, wait for me,** Jack shouted silently as he hurried after his lover.

====

In their bedroom, Jack and Daniel began to change their clothes.  At first, they were quiet.  Both felt bad about their eavesdropping, but more than that, they felt horrible about having given Byron and Alex such a hard time in the renovation of their home.

“Danny, were we really that bad?” Jack finally asked.

“Oh, yeah, Babe, we were definitely *that* bad,” Daniel immediately responded.  “It's a good thing we ended up with Alex.  Anyone less dedicated would have told us to take a flying leap without a parachute.  Oh, yeah, we were that bad,” Daniel repeated as he took off his suit.  “And look at our house; it's better than we could have imagined.”  He chuckled.  “That's what he said, too,” Daniel said, shaking his head in amazement.

“What?”

“That first night Alex was here, that's exactly what he promised, that our house would be better than we could ever had imagined.”

“Looks like he delivered, in spades!” Jack exclaimed as he threw on a comfortable tan shirt.  “Wish we could do something nice for him.”

“Like what?” Daniel asked as he buttoned up his brown and white shirt.

Jack pursed his lips for a second and then answered, “Oh, I don't know, maybe ice cream?”

Daniel laughed, “Ice cream?”

“Yeah, ice cream fixes everything,” Jack smirked.  “We're going to have ice cream later anyway, so let's make ice cream sundaes, and let the kids spoil their dinner.”

“We haven't decided what to have for dinner yet, and you want to spoil it with ice cream?” Daniel asked in amusement.

“Well, no sense planning dinner if we're going to spoil it, right?” Jack asked, using O'Neill-type logic that basically made sense only to a child in adult's skin.

“My husband, my twelfth child!” Daniel sighed, shaking his head.

“And you love me!” Jack said smugly.

“Gawd!” Daniel said with a laugh.  “Come on, Love.  Ice cream it is!”

“Not just ice cream, Love, sundaes; shoot the works!”

Daniel rolled his eyes and laughed, “Sundaes for dinner!”

“It doesn't get any better than that!” Jack exclaimed as they headed out of their bedroom.

“Why don't we get everything together first, and then gather the brood together?” Daniel suggested.

“Works for me.”

“I will, Babe ... later,” Daniel said seductively, earning him a pat on his behind as they hit the carpet of the living room.

====

In the backyard, with snow falling steadily but not heavily, David was desperately trying to make contact with his makeshift bat.

“Bri, I can't hit the ball.”

“Nah, it's not you, David.  It's these snowballs; they don't have any carrying power.  I know!  Wait a minute,” the short-haired blonde said as an idea came to her.

As David watched, Brianna made a special ball, putting a stone in with the snow and rubbing it tightly together into a smooth ball.

“Great idea, Bri!”

“Okay, Bro, I'm servin' you up a fast ball,” Brianna announced.

“Ready?”

“Ready, Sis,” David said as he put his makeshift bat against his shoulder and took up his stance.

====

“Alex, can I ask you a couple of questions about the game room?” Jeff asked, motioning towards the room.

“Lead on,” Alex responded.

With Ricky trailing behind, the two went into the game room to discuss more architectural issues.

====

“Ash, look at the soap!” Jonny exclaimed.

“Funny!” Little Danny commented.

Soap had begun filtering out the back of the washers and had now made its way to the front.  Giggling and having the time of their young lives, the three Munchkins began to play in the rising suds.

“I'm shampooing,” Aislinn laughed as she took the suds and placed them atop her head.

“Bubble bath!” Jonny proclaimed.

Bijou covered her eyes with her paws.

====

Down in the kitchen, Jack and Daniel pulled out all the ice cream bowls. Because ice cream was such a family ritual, the couple had finally broken down and bought two dozen matching glass bowls and ice cream spoons just so they could stop scrounging in the dishwashers and cupboards every evening.

“Where are ... oh, I hear them in the game room,” Daniel spoke, curious what had happened to Alex, Jeff, and Ricky.

“Maybe Jeff is challenging Alex to Foosball,” Jack pondered.

Daniel pulled out a large flat-bottom deep circular dish with multiple compartments. Jack had spotted it at a yard sale and snapped it up for ice cream syrups and toppings.  Jack retrieved six flavors of ice cream from the freezer compartments of the refrigerators in the kitchen and hospitality rooms.

“No sense opening new cartons till these are empty.  That shouldn't take long,” Jack chuckled.

Daniel shook his head, agreeing, “It never takes long, Babe.”

====

Upstairs, Chenoa and Lulu finished their room cleaning.

“We did good, Noa!”

“Yeah, get double scoop ice cream,” Chenoa agreed, beaming.

Just then, Jenny wandered in, having awakened from her nap.

“What you doing?” the redhead asked her sisters.

“We cleaned our room, Jenny,” Lulu answered.  “Dad told us we weren't doing a very good job.”

“He was gonna take our ice cream away,” Chenoa added.

Jenny gasped, “I forgot; won't get any!”

“We'll help you.  We have lots of time,” Chenoa suggested generously.

Jenny brightened and led her sisters back to her room.  Jenny had been part of the clean rooms reprimand.  While Aislinn always kept her part of the bedroom perfectly clean, Jenny tended to be a bit sloppy.  She was young, but Jack and Daniel still expected her toys to be kept in her personalized toy box and her pillow to be on her bed and not on the floor as they had so often found it.

Working as a team, it didn't take long to get Jenny's half of the bedroom in order.  They made a game out of it, giggling and being silly as they put things away and straightened Jenny's bed.

“Seems dumb to make bed when I go sleep in it 'gain tonight,” Jenny observed.

Chenoa shrugged and said, “Big people sometimes no make sense.”

Lulu nodded in agreement and then noticed Jenny's dresser was dusty.

“If we dust, too, maybe we'll get ice cream for breakfast!” Lulu remarked.

“Yeah!” Chenoa exclaimed, her face about as bright as it ever was, except when Teal'c was around.

Diligently, the three girls dusted the entire room and were pleased with their efforts.

“Oh, we forgot this.  I'll do it,” Lulu said, hurrying over to a large, see-through plastic cylinder that was just about as tall as she was.

Inside the cylinder were thousands of beads, some collected by the Munchkins (and their parents) at the Mardi Gras they had attended in Galveston.  Most of the beads were not fastened together but sat loose and would eventually be put together to make colorful necklaces.

Anytime Jack and Daniel were near a crafts store, more beads were purchased for the Munchkins' special project.  Every weekend, each Munchkin worked to make at least one new necklace.

Carefully, Lulu began to dust the tall object with her cloth.

====

In the garage, the still-naked Munchkins were enjoying their impromptu bubble bath as the suds became deeper, higher, and thicker.

“How much longer?” Jonny asked his sister as he lathered up Bijou in a sudsy ball.

“Almost done,” Aislinn responded.  “See all the bubbles in the 'chines?”

“Katie likes bubbles,” Little Danny observed as he made bubble balls and tossed them for Katie to catch on her nose.

====

Daniel filled the dish with various toppings -- chocolate syrup, M&Ms, caramel, Reese's Pieces, strawberries, whipped cream, vanilla wafers, chopped walnuts, chocolate sprinkles, banana slices, and, of course, hot fudge.  Carefully, he took the dish over to a TV tray already set up in the rec room.

“Okay, Danny, ice cream is here!” Jack happily announced.

“Great!” Daniel responded.

As the lovers finished their preparations, Jeff and Alex continued chatting about architecture and design in the game room.  Jeff smiled again at Ricky who was still playing happily with his Etch-a-Sketch.

“Jeff, do you hear your fathers?” Alex asked, having heard voices nearby.

“Uh, yeah.”

The three returned to the rec room and confirmed Jack and Daniel were there.

“Hi, Dad, Daddy,” Jeff greeted.  Though Ricky said 'hello', too, he still wore a grin that Jeff could only describe as mischievous.  ~I wonder what he's thinking.~

Alex greeted his hosts and said, “Excuse me, Jeff,” as he entered the hospitality room where the lovers were.

“We're having Sundae Surprise,” Jack announced.

“It's our thank you, for today, and a lot more,” Daniel added.

Alex felt the sincerity of their words and suddenly he wondered if his earlier comments to Jeff had been overheard.

“Uh, how long have you two been home?” Alex asked a tad nervously.

“Long enough,” Jack admitted.

“To be honest, Alex, I wouldn't have convicted you for using that bulldozer, either,” Daniel said with a grin, answering the designer's unspoken question about how long they'd been home.

“I must apologize,” Alex began genuinely.

“Oh, no, you don't.  Alex, you called a spade a spade, and that's just how we like it around here,” Jack stated bluntly.

“We were a pain in the butt,” Daniel admitted.

“Not exactly,” Alex said, trying to deflect the truthfulness of the statement.  Seeing the lovers accusing glares, he admitted, “Okay, yes, you were.”

As they all laughed, Jack continued, “Now, we're celebrating a beautiful house, a great family, and the man who helped turn our home into the dream house we hadn't even dared to imagine.  No arguments,” Jack concluded in his general tone of voice.

“Good enough,” Alex concurred.  “Daniel, let me carry that for you,” he offered, taking the huge scoop-shaped bucket of ice cream from him.

“Thanks, Alex.  Just put it on the other tray, next to the toppings.”

“Will do,” Alex said as he turned around.

====

“Okay, David, I think we'll get it this time,” Brianna said, after having compressed snow around several small stones to make a decent-size baseball.  “If these don't work, I'll go inside and get a baseball.”

“Okay.  I'm ready, Bri,” David told his older sister.

“Hey, batter, here it comes!”

====

In her room over the garage, Jennifer was still lost in her own world of chattering away on her cell phone, listening to one of Destiny's Child's live in concert CDs, and imagining she was dancing with Peter Hamilton.

~You're so dreamy, Peter, but do you even know I'm alive?~

====

Upstairs in Jenny's room, Lulu said, “Okay, just one more spot.  Hard to get to, but alllll...”

“Be careful, Lulu!” Chenoa warned.

“It's okay.  I can get it,” Lulu assured her sister.

====

In the garage, one washing machine had clicked into spin cycle.  The intermittent warm rinse only multiplied the volume of suds now rushing from underneath as well as behind the machine, which was no longer visible.

“Little Danny, no see you!” Aislinn exclaimed, slightly panicked.

“Where are Bij 'n' Katie?” Little Danny asked, more concerned by the fact that he was suddenly unable to see the two beagles than with the rising bubbles.

In several all-too-quick seconds, their bubble bath had turned into a flood of soap suds.

“They're okay, Little Danny,” Jonny announced as he pointed towards the garage steps.

“Woof!” Bijou warned loudly, scratching against the door.  ~Of all the times for Jack and Daniel to have closed our door!~

“Woooooof!~ Katie added.  ~They can't hear us, Mama.  Jen has that funny music on again.~

Bijou and Katie turned their attention back to the triplets and barked more urgently as the second washer clicked into spin.

“We go inside now!” Jonny ordered.  “Ash, where you go?”

Aislinn popped up from having disappeared under the suds.

“I taking a bath now so I don't have to later.”

Ever watchful, the two beagles plunged into the rapidly expanding mountains of foam to herd their charges to the door.

“We need to tell Dad 'n' Daddy,” Little Danny said.  “This not right.”

“Grrrrrrrrruffffff!” Bijou ordered, suddenly more worried than ever as the suds continued to rise.

“Okay, Bij,” Jonny said, grabbing Aislinn's hand.

“Floor all wet,” Jonny stated, not understanding that as the suds dissipated, the soap and water mixture slid to the bottom, making six small human and eight canine feet extremely slick.

Little Danny opened the door to the house.  In a dash, Bijou and Katie went running for Jack and Daniel, barking up a storm.

Katie was in the lead, dashing through the living room into the kitchen.

“Wha...what's going on?” Daniel asked from the hospitality room.

“Dan...ny ...” Jack began.

“Woooooooooooooooooooooooooof!” a dampened and sudsy Katie announced, suddenly sliding across the wooden floor of the recreation room.

“Wooooooof!” Bijou seconded, also sliding, but managing to stop before getting too far, having used the nearest sectional sofa as a bumper.

Carrying the large bowl of ice cream, Alex turned his head toward the sound of the barking dogs.  His eyes widened as he saw Katie skidding in front of him.  Quickly, he turned to avoid her, not realizing that Chenoa's prized possession, the stuffed unicorn her mother had made for her, was lying on the floor, next to one of the sectionals.

“ALEX!” Jack called out too late.

Though avoiding the skidding beagle, in a flash, Alex tripped over the unicorn, the huge container of ice cream flying out of his hands and up into the air.  The designer took a nose dive for the floor, landing over the tray of sundae condiments.  As his face became buried in hot fudge, strawberries, and more, the bowl of ice cream emptied, the contents landing on Alex's back, and the bowl landing, thankfully, to his right on the floor.

Jeff moved quickly to grab Ricky, making sure he was out of harm's way.

Jack and Daniel looked at each other in fear.  Had Alex been killed?  Injured? Paralyzed?  And why had the beagles just slid across the rec room, a soapy mess, barking in alert tones?

Before the lovers could take a breath, the Munchkins appeared, looking like three miniature Abominable snow people.  They were clearly naked, but covered with soapy suds.  With their hands extended upwards, all three were yelling for their parents.

**Jack, something is very wrong here.**

**Danny, I have a horrible feeling that something isn't right.**

The thoughts were communicated at the exact same moment, resulting in a jumbled, nonsensical moment where neither man knew what the other was thinking.

At that moment, Alex rolled over onto his back and leaned on his elbows.

Jack and Daniel walked forward several steps, staring at him.  They were torn, not knowing whether to run to the Munchkins or call an ambulance for Alex.  Lawsuit was a word that ran through both of their minds.

Alex looked around, seeing Katie to his right, shaking off her unanticipated skating across the floor.  Then she ran to Alex, as did Bijou, and the two of them began to lick the strange combinations of toppings off his face and hair.

Then Alex saw the three snow children in their sudsy birthday suits.  All of sudden, he smiled, a small sound escaping from his throat.  It grew, as did his smile.  A chuckle came out, and then, Alex let out a roar.  He laughed and laughed, his abdomen convulsing as he got lost in the hysteria of the moment.

The Munchkins giggled, too, as did Ricky, simply because everything seemed funny to him.

Jack and Daniel both breathed a sigh of relief.  Apparently, Alex was okay.  Both men smiled, until they looked at their children again.  It was a reminder that all was not well.

“Jack, we've missed something.”

“JENNIFER!” both men yelled at the same time.

At that precise moment, Murphy's Law continued its game.  It was a rapid succession of sounds, from the barking dogs, to the Munchkins shouts, continuing with ...

“I DID IT, BRIIIIIIIIIIII.  Uh-oh!” David shouted and then sighed.

What Jack and Daniel heard was the shattering of the patio door windows in the living room.  Alarmed, they started to move through the kitchen to the living room.

Then they heard over the intercom, “DAAAAADDDDDY!”

It was Chenoa, and along with her, a loud sound that neither parent could make out, but it was noisy.

Jack said, “I'll take the door.”  Looking back, he said, “Jeff, you've got the snowmen.”  He shook his head.  “Girls, you keep cleaning Alex.”  Jack shook his head again at his comment as he could see Alex, still on the ground and the beagles continuing to feast on newly chocolate-covered bananas and strawberries now stuffed with Reese's Pieces.

“Alex!”  Daniel called out.  “Don't let the dogs eat chocolate; it's unhealthy for them.”

Daniel started for the stairs but hadn't even hit the kitchen yet when Jenny and Chenoa ran into Jack, who was about two feet ahead of him.

Jennifer finally made an appearance at the other end of the kitchen, holding an iPod in her hands as she entered from the dining area.  She lowered her earpiece and turned off the music.

“Hey, what's up?” the teenager asked, being totally clueless about the mayhem that had just occurred, having somehow managed not to notice the lack of patio windows.

All the children were shouting, and the dogs had begun to bark again.  Brianna and David had run inside, both gasping at the sight of the broken glass.

Suddenly, Jack whistled loudly and then ordered, “Everyone back into the rec room.  MOVE!”

Alex was still laughing, though he was sitting up now, his legs tucked under him.  His face was still a multi-color sundae treat.

“The Munchkins are naked,” Jennifer commented as they walked into the large rec room.

“How can you tell?” Jack snapped, the triplets still covered with suds.

Suddenly, Daniel stuttered, “Uh, Ja...Jack, we're missing one.”

“What?” Jack asked, glancing at his lover for a second.

Looking over their brood, each man did a quick head count.

“Lulu!” both Jack and Daniel said at the same time.

“She's upstairs in Jenny's room,” Chenoa said quietly.  “Hiding.”

“Hiding?”  Daniel began to move.  “Jack, I'm ...”

“Go on,” Jack urged.  “Okay, SIT!”  The exasperated father really didn't know where to start, but knowing there was broken glass in the living room, he decided he should survey that situation first.  “Everyone stay here.  Do *not* move.”

“What happened, Jeff?” Jennifer asked.

Shrugging, Jeff responded, “I haven't a clue.”  Smiling at the Munchkins, he laughed, “What happened to you?”

“Bubble bath,” Aislinn answered simply.

~Bubble bath?  I'll try again later.~  “I'm going to get some towels from the cabana.  Be right back.”

“Dad told us to stay,” David reminded.

“He also told me to take care of the Munchkins,” Jeff answered.

====

Upstairs, Daniel walked the corridor, taking the jog to the new section of the house quickly.  He slowed, seeing the hallway strewn with beads.

“Oh, no,” the stunned dad said out loud.  Walking closer to the first bedroom, the one Aislinn and Jenny shared, Daniel could see that the large container that had held the beads had fallen over.  The hallway and bedroom floor were covered with thousands of beads of all colors and sizes.  “Lulu?”

Worried, Daniel looked all over the room until he found himself eye-to-wood with the closet door.

With a sigh, Daniel opened the door.  Entering the walk-in closet, the door-activated switch turning on the light automatically.  As he carefully panned the closet, he saw a couple of boxes move.  Sighing again, Daniel moved to the boxes, scooting them out.  He knelt down and smiled, glad when the young girl didn't flinch away from him.

The first couple of weeks she'd been with them, Lulu had still half expected to be hit whenever she did something wrong as had occurred at her last foster home.  Time, however, had reassured the girl that no matter what she did, Jack and Daniel would never hit her.

“Lulu?”

“I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to.  We were cleaning.  There was a spot at the bottom.  I cleaned it.  It was hard to reach, Daddy, but I did it; but when I got up, my arm hit it, and it fell over.  They hate me.  I ruined their beads.  I know they'll hate me now,” Lulu explained without taking a breath, though unable to hide her sniffles.

“Oh, Little Bit, c'mere,” Daniel urged, reaching in to pull out his crying daughter.

Lulu wrapped her arms around Daniel and sobbed into his neck.  He rocked her gently in his arms as he held her.  He placed a kiss at the side of her head and whispered over and over that everything was okay and that he loved her.

“They hate me,” Lulu sobbed again.

“No, Princess, they don't.  They're only beads, and they aren't broken.  We just need to pick them up, that's all,” Daniel assured her.

“Munchkins save beads long time, Daddy,” Lulu continued to cry.

“I know,” Daniel said as he continued to try and soothe the anxious youngster.  “Lulu, the Munchkins know you were only trying to help.”

“Bbbbbut, maybe some are lo...lost,” Lulu stuttered through her sniffles.

“No, Lulu.  They are all here, and even if some are lost, we can always replace them, but you know what we can't replace?”  Daniel felt his daughter's head move against his shoulder.  “We can't replace our Little Bit.  She's priceless, and we love her so much more than beads.  It's okay.  I promise.”

Daniel pulled them apart slightly.  He ran his hands along her cheeks, wiping away the tears.

“Sweetie, I promise, it's all right.  The Munchkins are your brothers and sister, and they love you.  Now, uh, there's kind of a mess downstairs, so how about we go see what the real calamities are?” Daniel suggested.

“What's lamities?”

Daniel chuckled as he stood, picking Lulu up as well.

“It means a big mess!”

“I make mess,” Lulu admitted.

Daniel placed another kiss on her cheek and said, “Sweetie, trust me.  I've made more messes in my life than you can even imagine.  We'll clean it up later. Okay?”

After a huge sniffle, Lulu nodded, laying her head against her father's shoulder.

~She needs lots of reassurance.~

**Danny, if you can, when you come down bring some towels.**

**Just headed down.  Why?  Oh, the Munchkins!  Will do!**

**Actually, we need them for Alex.  I just caught sight of Jeff going to the cabana, but I don't think we restocked it, did we?**

**No, they're clean, but still in the sorting bins in the garage.  On my way, Love.**

**Is she okay?** Jack asked about Lulu.

**She will be.**

====

Downstairs, having surveyed the patio door, Jack returned to the rec room.  In his arms was Mittens.

“David, please take Mittens to your room and close the door so we can make sure she's safe.  Anyone seen Calico?”

“Callie's over there,” Jenny pointed out, her hand motioning towards some of the ice cream that was on the floor.

“Brianna ...”

“Yes, Dad.”

David and Brianna took the two cats to David's room and made sure they were safe, closing the door behind them.

Meanwhile, Jack continued to sort things out.

“Alex, are you sure you're okay?” Jack asked as Alex finished wiping the ice cream toppings off his face.

“Jack, not even my pride is hurt.  I'm fine,” the designer answered.  “I'm not sure about ... this, whatever it is,” Alex said, picking up the unicorn that had been under him.

“UNI!” Chenoa exclaimed, running over and grabbing her much-loved treasure.

“You're welcome,” Alex chuckled dryly.  ~Glad to know my sundae'd body protected ... Uni from being a dessert, too.~

“Uni, you got lost again,” the curly-haired blonde said, holding the beloved object.

“Chenoa Lynn, we're going to have a long and serious chat later about leaving Uni all over the house.  Comprende?” Jack chastised sharply.

“Huh?”

“Do you understand?” Jack asked, clarifying his question.

“Yes, Dad,” Chenoa answered, clutching Uni close to her chest.

As Jack returned his attention to Alex, making sure the man was okay, Daniel walked in, David and Brianna right behind him.

“Jeff, would you ...” Daniel began, holding out the towels he'd brought with him from upstairs.

“Sure, Daddy.”

Jeff took the towels, including some that Lulu had been holding and handed some to Alex.  Since the cabana hadn't been restocked yet, there had only been a couple of towels for him to use.

“What happened to you guys, anyway?” Jeff again asked the triplets, hoping to get a more logical answer this time around.

“Bubble bath in the garage,” Jonny answered.

“But it too big for us,” Aislinn noted.

“Bubble bath?” Jack and Daniel said simultaneously, exchanging worried glances.

Daniel put Lulu down.  He looked over the Munchkins and said, “Lulu was helping Jenny to clean her room, but the bead container fell over.  Lulu thinks you hate her now because the beads are all over the floor.”

The still-wet Munchkins gasped and shook their heads.

“Lulu, you our sister,” Little Danny said, running over to the girl and hugging her.  It didn't seem to bother him that he was still naked.  “We love you.”

“I drop big bowl of Froot Loops once,” Aislinn admitted.  “Thought Dad never talk to me again.”

“That silly, Ash,” Jonny said, the last of the triplets to surround Lulu.  “Dad love you, and we love you, Lulu.  You our sister.”

“But the beads are all over.  Maybe I lost some or ...”

“They just beads.  We get more, huh, Daddy?” Jonny asked, looking over at Daniel.

“That's right.  Do you guys want to trade in Lulu?” Daniel asked, knowing the Munchkins would provide the right answer.

“DADDY, NO TRADE IN SISTERS!” Jonny shouted.

Jack heard the raised voice, looked away from Alex, and chastised, “Young man!” before Daniel could respond himself.

Seeing Jack's glare, he retracted, “Sorry, no yell, but ...”

“I know, Son,” Daniel said with a smile.  “You just keep telling Lulu that.”  Daniel looked at Jack who was now refocused on the bigger picture, satisfied that their guest was uninjured.  “I'll be right back,” Daniel sighed.  “I think there's a disaster in the garage,” he explained, knowing Jack had been talking to Alex while the Munchkins had answered the questions about the sudsy mishap.

After Daniel turned around and headed for the garage, Jack looked over at Jennifer, glaring as he asked, “Where have you been?”

“Upstairs,” the teen answered, realizing she'd missed something along the way.

“Why weren't you watching the kids?” Jack asked as calmly as he could.

“Was I supposed to?” Jennifer asked, still not totally clued in.

Jack closed his eyes and bowed his head, muttering a count from one to ten in English, Arabic, and then in Italian for good measure.  He clenched his knuckles until they were white, squeezed his eyes shut, and ground his teeth.  When he opened his eyes, the look on his face was one of icy calm.

“Jennifer Renee Morgan Jackson-O'Neill, sit down, please, and turn off the music.  I'll take that, please.  Thank you,” Jack said with seemingly genuine politeness.
 
~Oh, crap!~ Jennifer thought.  ~I've never seen him like this.  This can't be good.  Sometimes life really sucks.  Geez, I hope they at least let Sheila and Amber dress me for my coffin.~

Just then Daniel reappeared with suds all over him, from his chest down to his shoes.

“What in heaven's name ...?” Jack asked giving his husband a very puzzled look.

“Jack, the washers are belching suds.  The garage is a mess.  I stopped the machines and restarted them --pre-wash, rinse, wash, and three rinses all cold.  I hope that will get rid of the soap in the clothes and help wash it all down the drain,” Daniel explained.

Jack shook his head and responded, “Well, Jennifer and I were just about to have a little heart-to-heart chat.”

By this time, Jennifer was so scared she was almost in tears.  Hesitantly, she said, “Dad, Daddy what did I do?  Whatever it is I'm sorry.”

Jack cocked his head in confusion, and said, “Don't say a word.”  He looked over at Jeff who had finished drying off the Munchkins, each of whom now wore a towel around them.  He started to address Jeff, but stopped, choosing to make another request first.  “Chenoa, would you please take a couple of the towels and dry off Bij?  Lulu, would you dry off Katie?”

Two eager nods was the response, the two girls sitting on the floor and calling their assigned beagle to them.

“Thank you,” Daniel said, smiling down at them.  **Jack, do we know if Jennifer listened to your message?**

“Jennifer, may I see your cell phone, please?” Jack asked, his voice so calm that the teenager practically shook.

~I'll never get it back,~ Jennifer thought as she reached into her pocket.  “Here it is.”

Jack moved to stand next to Daniel.  As they studied the phone, they both frowned.

**Give it back to her.**

**Danny ...**

**Jack, until we know the entire story, please give it back to her,** Daniel silently requested.

Surprising the teenager by giving the phone back, Jack turned his attention to Jeff.

“Jeff,” Jack asked as he returned to their nightmare, “What did Jennifer say to you when she got home?”

“Uh, nothing, Sir,” Jeff reported formally, sensing this was not a time to make jokes or be evasive.

“Nothing at all?  Nothing about watching the children, nothing about Alex filling in at the last minute?” Jack asked pointedly.

Daniel caught the surprised look Jennifer gave them and the sag of her shoulders as she began putting the pieces together.

“No, Sir,” Jeff answered.  “I thought one of you was home.  When I came in, I saw Alex was here, and we started talking about the house.  He's been answering my questions about the design and structure of the house.”

Jeff looked over at Alex and smiled gratefully at the designer who had also been given some towels, including a dampened one, and was continuing to clean off the ice cream sundae that currently decorated much of his body.

“Was Jennifer home when you walked in?” Jack asked.

“No, Sir,” Jeff quickly responded.

“Jeff, what was happening when you got home?” Daniel asked.

“I think the brood had been watching a movie.  It had ended about the same time I got home.  I, um, remember that the Munchkins went outside to play, and Jenny went into the game room.  Ricky was the only one I really had a chance to talk to, though.  He was sort of hanging out with us, so I've been keeping an eye on him.”

“And the others?” Jack asked, wanting more detail about the rest of the children.

Jeff nervously continued, “Um, well, later, we saw David and Brianna playing in the backyard, and I remember a couple of streaks, uh, Chenoa and Lulu, saying 'hello' as they went upstairs.  When Jen got home, I heard music playing.  Sir, I thought you were upstairs on the phone or something since Daddy's car was gone.”

“Okay, Jeff.  Even without any knowledge that we were both gone, you had more awareness of your siblings whereabouts and acted with more responsibility than I could have expected,” Jack stated.

Daniel looked over at David and Brianna and said, “We'll deal with the windows later.  Right now, though, I'd like you to tell everyone what I told you this morning.”

David glanced hesitantly at Jennifer, knowing she was in big trouble.  Lying, though, would only get her in deeper, not to mention himself.

Truthfully, the boy replied, “You said you and Dad had to go to the Mountain because Aunt Janet got promoted.”

“She did?” Jennifer interrupted.  Seeing two death glares aimed her way, she sank back into her seat and uttered a soft, “Sorry.”

“Go on, please, David,” Daniel requested.

“You said it was sudden, and Alex was going to fill in until Jen and Jeff got home, and Bri and I should stay close by and give them whatever help they asked for.”

“Did Jen say anything to either of you when she came home?” Daniel inquired.

“No,” a trembling Brianna replied.  “I, um, went upstairs once to ask her a question about the War of 1812, but, she, was ...”  Brianna looked at Jennifer and mouthed, 'I'm sorry'.  Then she sighed, “She was on the phone and had a CD on.”

Daniel noticed her hesitation and calmly said, “Bri, you and David both will be punished for breaking the windows, but you're still our daughter, and we love you.  Your place in this family is not in question in the slightest.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” Brianna sniffled in relief.

“David, Brianna, you may go to your rooms for the time being.  No phone, no computer, and no TV until we've decided your punishments,” Daniel told them.

“David,” Jack called out.  “Keep the cats with you, please,” Jack requested in his eerily polite tone.

“Yes, Dad, Daddy,” the two pre-teens said in unison as they happily fled the rec room.

“Well, Jennifer?” Jack asked expectantly.  Her confused look told Jack what he needed to know.  “You thought we were home; isn't that correct?”

“Yes, Sir, I did,” the teen replied, still looking confused.

“Didn't you think it strange that neither of us found you like we *always* do and ask you about your day?  Don't we always give you and Jeff the rundown on the whereabouts of every family member?”

Silence loomed as Jennifer processed the information.  She'd messed up, and somehow, disaster had struck.  That was obvious by her towel-clad siblings, if nothing else.

**Jack, I'm not sure this is the right time.  I mean, uh, Alex is here, and ...**

**Daniel, having Alex here is exactly the time.  No one likes being in this situation, but knowing Alex is here might help reinforce the error of her ways.**

**Maybe, but ...**

**Do you want me to stop?**

**No, I guess not,** Daniel responded, hating everything that had happened in the last few minutes.

Jennifer was hoping her silence would lead to a quick end of the discussion, but her hopes were about to be dashed.

“So, are you suddenly stricken with laryngitis?” Jack probed.

“I didn't really notice.  Your truck was here, and the SUV, so I thought Daddy was out running errands.”

“Didn't really notice,” Jack repeated.  As if he were teaching a class, the exasperated father asked a long provisional question.  “Okay, if something were to come up, like, say, oh, Aunt Janet getting promoted, and say someone you were not expecting to be here, like, say, oh, Alex, was watching the brood until you got home, how would we let you know, since, say, we had to leave while you were in English class?”

Jennifer was surprised that her father knew which class she had when.  She was silent.

“Okie dokie, let's give the little girl a hint,” Jack said, extending out his hand.  “Your cell phone, please.”

Once again, the teen handed over the requested item.

Holding up her confiscated cell phone, Jack stated, “Jennifer Renee, I am waiting for an answer.  How would we let you know about those events and what you were to do about them?”

“Uh, you'd leave me a message on my voicemail?”  ~Like that one I got and only half listened to.  I am so dead!~

“Bingo!” Jack exclaimed, though there was nothing jovial in his tone.

With that, Jack pressed the voicemail button on the cell phone, raised the volume, and put it on speaker phone.

As the message replayed, Jennifer's face turned a heated crimson, realizing she'd been caught being negligent.  The silence was thick enough to cut with a knife.

“My message was not showing as new, so you obviously played it.  What happened?” Jack asked brusquely.

“I, uh, well, I played it back while Sheila, Yvonne, and I were still at school.  I didn't think it was anything important.”

Jack did a quick replay of his knuckle clenching, eye squeezing, tooth grinding grimace from earlier, again quietly counting to ten.  The look of utter calm returned, filling the young teen with dread.

~I wish they'd just kill me, and get it over with.~

Daniel picked up the questioning with, “Jennifer, how many times have we bothered you at school?  Seriously, count them on your fingers.”

“There was the time you came to get me to be with Lulu,” Jennifer quietly answered.

“Yes, that would be one.  And?” Jack prompted.

“I can't think of any other time, except when you told me to look for Aunt Janet after school.  She was picking me up because of ...” Jennifer paused, looking over towards the rec room where Alex was.  “Uh, you know, for that special program.”

Jack nodded, then prompted, “And?”

“I got sick that one time; that's it,” Jennifer quietly admitted.

“Jen, if you can count on one hand the number of times we've contacted you during your day at school, what would be one obvious conclusion?” Daniel asked, wanting the logic of the situation to get through to the teenager.

The teen gulped and answered, “You don't call me for no reason at all, and if you do, it's very important.”

“You're grounded,” Jack announced bluntly.  “One month, starting tonight. Daddy and I have to go out to a military reception.  You're watching the brood.”

Daniel looked as his husband in surprise, but didn't say anything.

“But you and Daddy said I could go to Sheila's tonight for the group mid-term history review,” Jennifer whined.

Seeing Jack give her his 'general' look, the teenager wished she'd stayed silent.

“You'll be doing your studying solo, tonight.  If you can't respect our schedules, then there is no reason we should respect yours, is there?” Jack challenged.

Jennifer knew she was beaten.  She hung her head and responded, “No, Sir.”

“Now, get some garden gloves from the garage, and help me pick up the broken glass in the living room.  Be careful, the floor is slick.”

“Uh, Jack, I don't think you heard what was said earlier, but the noise upstairs was the jar of beads. The girls were dusting and wanted to do a thorough job so they wouldn't miss out on ice cream, and they knocked it over.”

“Sweet!” Jack sighed.  “Well, the beads aren't a danger, and they aren't letting cold air in the house, so one catastrophe at a time.”  He looked over at the Munchkins and shook his head.  “Jeff, would you please take the little ones upstairs?  Give the Munchkins a quick bath and get them dressed; then put them and the twins in the boys' room.  Chenoa and Lulu, thank you for drying off the girls.  I'd like you to go to your room now, too.  Girls,” Jack said to Bijou and Katie, “would you mind staying with the Munchkins and the Spitfires, and, please, keep them out of trouble?”

Two agreeing 'woofs' was Jack's response, along with each dog doing a final shaking of their bodies before heading for the stairs.

“I'll get a mop and start swabbing the floor in the rec room,” Daniel said.

“And I'll need a broom after the big chunks of glass are picked up,” Jack sighed.

As the children filed out, Alex walked over to the two men who were obviously not looking forward to the tasks ahead of them and said, “Guys, forgive me for butting in, but you do realize that your central vac can do most of the cleanup for you, don't you?”

Jack and Daniel looked at the designer as if he had just proclaimed that their lawnmower could make ice cream; then, they looked at each other in complete bafflement.

**Any clue what he's talking about, Angel?**

**Absolutely none, Jack.**

Seeing their clueless faces, Alex prompted, “The manuals, Guys, remember? The boxes in the garage that said  'Central Vac' on them.”  He saw the lovers staring blankly at each other.  With a sigh, Alex asked, “What did you do with the boxes?”

“Uh, as I recall, I figured those belonged in the house so I took them upstairs and put them in the storage closet.  I, uh, guess we forgot about them after that, ” Daniel explained lamely.

Just then, Jennifer reappeared with two pairs of garden gloves and reported that she had placed the trash barrel in the living room.

Jack rubbed his face in his hands and said to himself, ~Okay, time for the general to make his appearance.~  He walked to the intercom and pressed the button that went to every room, saying, “Jeff, when the children are situated, please go to the storage closet upstairs.  Bring down all the boxes labeled 'Central Vac' from the closet upstairs.  David, Brianna, I'd like you to help your brother.  Please meet him at the storage closest.”  Smiling, Jack turned to his husband and suggested, “Daniel, let's get that opening taped off with plastic and duct tape.  Jen, start picking up the bigger pieces of glass and putting it in the trash can, and be careful.  We don't need any more mishaps.”

====

Jack and Daniel had retrieved a large roll of plastic tarp along with a roll of duct tape from the garage and sealed off the sliding glass door as best they could.

“Always gotta have a roll of duct tape and a Swiss army knife around.  I learned that from 'MacGyver',” Jack joked as he put his knife back in his pocket after using it to cut the plastic with.

After putting the leftover plastic and duct tape back into the garage, the lovers headed for the rec room.

“Brrrr,” Jack said, rubbing his upper arms.

Just then the furnace kicked in, pouring a welcome breeze of warm air out of the registers.

The two men looked in the rec room where Alex had unboxed a variety of apparatuses that looked like they meant business, including a large shiny stainless steel bucket with a hose coming out the side and another projecting out of the top.

“Let's go see what he's doing,” Daniel suggested.  Entering the rec room, the two took positions a few feet to Alex's right.  Across from them were Jeff, Brianna, and David, all of whom had brought the boxes down from the storage closet upstairs.  Jennifer quietly stood behind her parents.  “What on Earth is that?” Daniel asked curiously.

“Since you won't read the manuals, watch and learn,” Alex replied, grinning. ~Somehow, I'm not that surprised.~

The designer pulled approximately twenty feet of hose out of one of the inlets, placed a control handle in the end of it, and attached it to the hose sprouting from the top of the stainless steel bucket on wheels.  Taking the eight-foot hose on the front, he attached a handle sporting a trigger.  It extended into tubes with a clear plastic tank riding on them, terminating in an attachment that had a brush with a sponge on one side and a squeegee on the other.

Alex shouted, “Here we go!” as he touched the green button on the control handle, starting up the in-house system.

Squeezing the trigger, he let out a portion of the solution on the floor where some of the ice cream and toppings had landed.  After smearing it around for a few seconds and making what looked like an even runnier mess, he flipped the tool over and pulled the squeegee back over the melted mishmash, leaving a patch of clean, dry, floor in its wake.

Six chins dropped, and twelve eyes popped.  In ten minutes flat, the ice cream and toppings had been slurped away.

“Sweet!” Jack exclaimed.

“What else can it do?” Daniel asked, eager to have as many small miracles as he could to help clean up their disaster area of a house.

Chuckling, Alex answered, “Guys, building maintenance is one of my areas of expertise.”  Shutting the system off, he disconnected the entire assembly and asked Jeff to take it to the garage where it would be washed out later.  “How's the glass coming along?”

“We were just about to have Jen get a broom and dustpan for the smaller pieces,” Daniel answered.

“You don't need those,” Alex refuted, carrying a standard tube assembly with a suction-only floor nozzle at the end into the living room, the six Jackson-O'Neills following close behind.  “Don't worry, the tiny pieces won't damage anything,” he told them, seeing the frown on his clients' faces as he pulled the hose out of the inlet in the dining room wall.

After the handle was inserted in the hose and the unit started, it began gobbling pieces of broken glass too small to be picked up by hand as the designer-turned-cleaning maven moved it back and forth over the living room carpet.

“Alex, that's great, but let's let Jennifer have a go at it,” Jack said.

Jennifer smiled, sarcastically saying, “Thanks, Dad.”

Alex handed Jennifer the hose, and walked over to stand by the couple.

“Guys, this system is easy to use.  She's going to enjoy this, not hate it.”

“Maybe,” Jack responded.  “The point is that this mess was created by the children, and, easy or not, they need to do the cleaning where possible.”

Alex nodded and with a concurring smile added, “Don't forget the furniture, the tables, and the edges.”

The designer pointed out the small attachments which now rode piggy back on the upper end of the extension tube.

After observing the cleaning for a while, Daniel sighed in amazement.

“What?” Jack asked as he and Alex both looked over.

“Alex, that, uh, vac makes cleaning so much easier.  I know it's helped our allergies, but we had no idea it could do this.  I don't really know if we've said this often enough, or loud enough.  I mean, Jack and I aren't very ... we don't ... uh ...”

“He's trying to say thank you,” Jack completed for his husband.

“Yeah, uh, thank you,” Daniel said, smiling.  “Having those attachments on board will be great.  I usually forgot to bring them along.”

“You're welcome.  Now, if you'd just read the manuals,” Alex admonished.

“Uh, yeah,” Jack groaned.  “Manuals are like paperwork; I'm not fond of paperwork,” he admitted.

Alex chuckled, “Well, manuals are printed for a reason, Jack.  I tried to tell you both to read them.  This system is the ultimate power tool for cleaning your home.  If you know what it can do, it'll save you more time than you can imagine.”

“I guess so.  Well, when Jen is done we can move upstairs and continue,” Jack said.

“Why wait?  You can do it now,” Alex said, seeing more looks of surprise in his direction.

“We can?” Jack asked.

“We can?” echoed Daniel.

“You can,” Alex confirmed.  “Where is another handle?  You have four of them.”

“Four?” Jack questioned.

“Four?” Daniel asked at the same time.

“Four,” Alex echoed, shaking his head in disbelief.  “The system will allow you to have four inlets in use at one time.”

“Here you go, Alex,” Jeff said, having retrieved one of the handles.

“Thanks.  We need to get something out of the boxes in the rec room,” Alex said, leading the group back to the rec room.

Holding the handle and extension tube assembly he'd gotten from Jeff that was identical to the one Jennifer was using, Alex pulled a clip out of a box and installed the same small attachments as he had previously.  He flipped over the tool he had just placed at the end of the extension tube and opened a resealable pouch.  Removing a wet cloth from the pouch, Alex installed it on the bottom of the tool.  Obviously, the two items were made for each other.

The wizard of clean moved the nozzle over the wood floor quickly, disappearing debris clicking up the tube.  After one minute, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Brianna can handle this,” Jack announced.

“Okay, Brianna, for right now, would you do this part of the room?” Alex requested, pointing to a part of room that hadn't been hit by ice cream, toppings, or soap suds.

“Okay,” Brianna said with a shrug.  ~Like I have a choice?~

Giving the nozzle to the young girl, Alex gave her a couple of quick hints and then stepped back with the others to watch.

In a few minutes, Brianna had covered a fourth of the rec room floor.  The cloth was dirty and covered with pet hair, human hair, and things best not examined too closely.  The floor, which had looked clean before, was immaculate.

“Now what?  It's dirty,” Brianna noted.

“Is it?”  Flipping the cloth over and re-inserting it, Alex handed the hose back to Brianna and said, “Here you go.  There are extra cloths right there, too.”

“Don't suppose you have anything that would pick up a lot of beads and allow them to be saved?” Jack asked hopefully.

“I don't, but *you* do,” Alex replied, grinning.  “But right now, Jennifer thinks she's finished.  I need to tell her otherwise.”  Looking in the box for a large nozzle with a rotating brush, Alex pulled it out and proceeding back to the living room, Jack, Daniel, Jeff, and David on his tail.  “This is battery-powered for plush carpet.  The turbine-driven ones are fine for low-nap carpet and every day. This is for extra-deep cleaning,” he told her.  “Wait one minute.  I forgot something.”

The designer hurried back to the rec room for one more item.  He held up a small turbine brush tool for upholstery and stairs and instructed Jennifer to go over the living room again to make sure even the microscopic bits of glass were removed.

“Jen, when you are done with the living room, there are two beagles upstairs that need a bath to wash that laundry detergent film off of them,” Jack instructed the teenager.

“Yes, Dad,” the teenager responded politely.

“Okay, Jeff, in that second box, there's a clear plastic cylinder.  Would you get that please and meet us upstairs?”

As Jeff nodded and walked away, Alex and the others headed upstairs.

====

Taking a third handle and extension tube assembly, the cleaning designer collapsed the tube to its shortest length and placed it at the bottom of the clear cylinder with the control handle at the top.  Alex moved a suction-only floor nozzle over the scattered beads, and they danced their way right into the clear cylinder.

“Stop!” Daniel called out.  “David, please go get Lulu.”  He looked over at Jack and Alex and said, “I think she needs to see this.”

“Yes, Daddy?” Lulu said when she returned with David.

“Alex, please go ahead.”

“We were just cleaning up the beads, Lulu,” Alex stated.  “Like this,” he said repeating the process he'd done a minute or so earlier.

“Wow!” Lulu exclaimed.

In a few seconds, the cylinder was full.  Detaching it from its upper connection, Alex separated the cylinder halves and dumped the beads back into the big plastic jar.

“David!” Daniel said, his look indicating he was on bead cleanup.

“Okay, I got it,” David acknowledged, grabbing the hose and continuing to clean with the central unit already in use in two other rooms.

“Remember to get all the ones in the hallway,” Jack reminded.

Daniel smiled at Lulu and said, “See?  Not as big of a problem as you thought.  You can go back to your room now.”

Lulu looked over at the beads being suctioned up by the central vac and took a deep, cleansing breath.  She really did feel a tad better now.  Giving her fathers a small smile, she turned and headed back to her room.

As Lulu walked away, Jack looked at the designer and commented,  “All I can say is I am just totally blown away.  You don't know the number of times we have waited for one of us to finish cleaning to be able to use it.”

“It was in the manual, Guys, the one you said you'd read right away since you didn't have time to let me demonstrate the central vac after it was installed,” Alex lightly chastised.

“We've been busy,” Jack meekly explained.

“And you don't like paperwork, and ...”

“Manuals are paperwork,” all three men said in scattered unison as Jeff chuckled.

“Since you don't like manuals, let me show you a few more things,” Alex suggested, this time no getting any arguments in response.  “Let's go back to the rec room where the boxes are.”

====

Excluding the pieces in use, Alex divided all the tools and accessories into piles for each closet where a handle and extension tube assembly was to be stored.  He then showed the homeowners a few extra specialized pieces for reaching high and cleaning things like screens and rug fringe.  Lastly, he pulled out what looked like two T-shirts from the last box, handing one to each of the two men.

“I can't believe you didn't find these,” the designer lamented.

Daniel unfolded his shirt, and it showed a buff man in a muscle shirt using a central vac system.  The caption read, 'Real Men Vacuum!'  Jack's had a similar picture, but it said, “Life really sucks when you use a central vac, and that's a good thing!”

They shared a chuckle.

“Well, Alex, we had planned on having you stay for dinner, but now we have this shindig to go to,” Jack stated.

“No problem, Jack.  It's been a long day,” Alex acknowledged.

“It's not even close to over,” Daniel chuckled almost nervously.

Jack added, “Alex, we can't thank you enough, not just for watching the brood, but also for pitching in and showing a couple of cleaning-impaired guys how to save a whole lot of time.”

“We wish we had time to visit,” Daniel commented.  “We, uh, put you to work and haven't even had time to talk.”

“Not to worry, Daniel.  I'm too tired to be sociable.  Heck, I'm too tired to work!”

Jack and Daniel looked at each other in amazement.

~Did he say what I thought I heard him say?~ they both thought at the same time.

“No, I think I'll just take a shower and watch TV until I fall asleep,” Alex remarked.

“It was nice seeing you both,” Alex said, extending out his hand.

“You, too, Alex,” Jack responded as he shook the hand.

“Alex, I'll walk you to your car,” Daniel stated, simply wanting to get a breath of fresh air for a minute or two.

“Yeah, I'm gonna do a quick check on the garage; we'll have to clean up that mess tomorrow,” Jack stated.

====

“This was one crazy day, Daniel,” Alex commented as they walked.

“Yeah, but, uh, to be honest, it's kinda typical.  We call it a madhouse for a reason,” Daniel chuckled softly.

As they reached Alex's car, the designer said, “But you wouldn't want it any other way, would you?”

Daniel shook his head and pursed his lips in a small inward grin.

“Been there, and done that; being alone, that is.  Life really sucks when you don't have someone to love,” Daniel commented, adding, “and gawd, how good it feels to have not just that someone, but eleven beautiful little someones, not to mention the girls and the cats and the lizard and the rabbit and the fish,” Daniel completed, laughing quietly.  Sobering, he added, “And having them love you back -- priceless.”  With a breath of life, Daniel continued, “It feels good, really good.  But, uh, you know that, right?” Daniel asked.

Naturally, Daniel assumed that coming from a large family, Alex knew all about love, despite the tragedy the designer's family had endured.  Plus, he was sure the good-looking, intelligent, and highly successful young man must be involved in a relationship.

“Of course.  Yes, right.  I'll give you a call the next time I'm in town,” Alex answered a bit formally.

“Yeah.  Next time we'll try not to put you to work,” Daniel said with a smile.

“Night,” Alex said as he started his yellow Ferrari sports coupe.

“Goodnight, Alex,” Daniel said, moving back and waving.

After Alex drove off, Daniel looked up towards the heavens and smiled.

“Thank you for my loving madhouse.”  He sighed happily and headed back inside.  ~Hmm.  Alex looked a little funny there, or maybe that was just my imagination,~ Daniel thought as he locked the front door.

====

Sometime later, all the cleaning done with the exception of the garage, the children having eaten an early dinner, and decisions made on punishments, Jack and Daniel donned their attire from earlier in the day.

“Jack, whatever possessed you to say that we'd go to this shindig tonight?  I mean, uh, especially since neither Sam or Janet will be there.  You hate these things.”

Jack grunted, still not understanding why two separate events had been planned with Janet's promotion and medal ceremony being held at the SGC earlier while other recipients were being honored at a hotel that night.

“You're right, I do, but I just had to get out of the house.  Tonight will be a diversion.  Come on, Love, let's go face our own troops and give them the verdicts.”

“I hate punishing them,” Daniel sighed.

“But we're agreed?” Jack asked, seeking confirmation.

Daniel nodded and said, “Yes, we're agreed.”

====

All eleven Jackson-O'Neill children waited in the rec room until called by groups into the kitchen where Jack and Daniel sat at the table in the dining area.

David and Brianna were called in first, both nervously sitting across from their fathers, their hands clasped together atop the table.

Jack said, “You know better than to hit any objects that close to the house.  Daddy and I have discussed this, and you two will be assigned extra chores at an hourly wage until the windows are paid for.  No TV for a week, and you are on house restriction except for family outings and homeschool events.  No having any friends over.  Understood?”

“Yes, Dad,” both children stated.

“Okay,” Daniel said.  “Go back to the rec room, please, and ask the Munchkins to come in.”

====

“Munchkins,” Jack sighed. “You know better than to play in the dirt.  You also know better than to use something like the washing machines without being shown how, and without permission.  You also know it isn't normal for you to be left alone without someone checking on you.”

“Jonny, Little Danny, Aislinn, has Dad said anything that you don't agree with?”

Three sad faces shook their heads.

“Bubbles were fun,” Jonny mumbled.

Jack chose to ignore the tiny voice and stated, “Your punishment is no TV for a week.  You're grounded except for family outings and anything we do for school.  No friends will be allowed to come over, either.  One more thing -- no ice cream tonight.”

Three little gasps ensued.

~Not fair!~ Jonny silently rebelled.

~Wow, we not *that* bad!~ Aislinn quietly thought.  ~We trying to help.~

~No ice cream is corp'l punishment!~ Little Danny argued internally.

“It's not our doing, Munchkins,” Daniel said sternly though softly.  “We know you're young, but you're all very smart.  You could have gotten hurt; and think about this.  Bij and Katie are small.  What if there had been more than suds in the garage?  What if it had been water?  We'd like you to think about that.”  Daniel reached over and put his hand on Little Danny's, the boy's face suddenly full of distress.  He smiled softly.  “The girls are fine, I promise.  Now, I'd like you three to go to your rooms; you can ask the girls to go with you, if you like.”

“Not even a bite of ice cream?” Jonny whined.

“Not a whimper out of any of you,” Jack admonished in response.  “Please ask Lulu, Noa, and Jenny to come in before you go upstairs.”

====

Chenoa, Lulu, and Jenny stood in front of their two fathers who were still seated at the table.

Jack explained, “Lulu has a lot of new rules to memorize, so we're giving her a little slack, but, Chenoa, we're a little disappointed in you, standing by and watching your sister do something you know was too much for her.”

“I'm sorry,” Chenoa said with a small voice, wiping a tear from her eye.

“Princess, what do we do when something is too big or heavy for us?” Jack asked patiently as he wiped away another of her tears.

“Ask for help?” the curly-haired blonde answered shyly.

“That's right.  What if that had been a pot boiling on the stove?”

“It spill on us and burn us real bad?” Chenoa answered.

“Yes,” Jack said, scooping the three girls into his arms.  “Daddy and I couldn't stand it if something like that happened to you, any of you.”  Jack made eye contact with each of his youngest girls.  “We're going to review all the rules tomorrow, and, if you have any questions, we'll talk about it then.  Now, get ready for bed.  We'll be up in ten minutes to tuck you in.”

Quietly, the three began to march out.

“Lulu,” Daniel called out.  He walked over to her and knelt down, smiling.  “You did a wonderful cleaning job, and I'm very proud of you and Chenoa for wanting to help Jenny out with her room.”

“I'm really sorry I knocked over the bead jar,” Lulu said quietly.

“It was an accident, Little Bit,” Daniel said, caressing her face.  “We love you, all of you, very much.  Okay, go on, scoot.”

====

“Hey, Squirt,” Jeff said, kneeling down in front of Ricky as they awaited their turn at the family tribunal.  “Is that why you were grinning at me ever since I came home?”

Ricky snickered, “Dad 'n' Daddy not home.”

“Next time, do me a favor and warn your big brother before the house falls apart?”

Ricky snickered as his small body swayed back and forth.  Jeff gave him a pat on the butt and laughed.

~If I had been you, I wouldn't have told me, either!  What fun would that have been?~

Jennifer looked over at her laughing brother, who suddenly squirmed and sat down on one of the sectionals, instantly finding the ceiling fascinating.

====

“Son,” Jack said to Ricky, “you were a good boy and stayed with Jeff and Alex.  You can have some ice cream with Jeff, if you want.  I won't tell you that you can't tell the rest of the kids because it's not a secret, but if you do, it's only going to make them feel bad.”

“I no want them feel bad, Dad, but I no want ice cream.  I have ice cream tomorrow with brood.  I go bed now, too.  You tuck me in?” the little boy asked, looking at both of his fathers.

“We sure will,” Jack spoke with pride.  “We'll be up in a few minutes.”

“Okay, ” Ricky said as he started to walk out of the kitchen.

“Ricky,” Daniel called out.  When the toddler turned to face him, Daniel smiled and said, “We're very proud of you.”

With a huge smile on his face, Ricky disappeared around the corner.

====

Finally, only the two oldest children, Jennifer and Jeff, remained downstairs with Jack and Daniel.

“Jeff, the only thing I can fault you for is not paying attention to the normal pattern we've set down; specifically, one or both of us touching base with you as soon as you get home.  Even though Jennifer didn't relay our instructions, you still should have had a strong enough sense of something not being quite which should have led you to investigate our whereabouts.  You did well by taking care of Ricky, but in the future, we need you to take more initiative in communicating with us or making sure what's happening when you get home.  As for tonight, we'd like you to help Jen keep an eye on the brood; she has a history mid-term to study for,” Jack stated.

“Dad, Daddy, I'm sorry.  I should have looked for you, but I got wrapped up in asking Alex questions about the house.”

“We all make mistakes, Jeff.  It's just that this one could have been so much worse,” Jack responded.

Daniel added, “Jeff, maybe tomorrow we can review a time frame for a few things that should always be done as soon as you walk in the front door.  We trust you, Son, and we are depending on you just as much as Jennifer.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” Jeff said.

Jack nodded to let his oldest son know he was excused.

Turning to Jennifer, Jack said sternly, “I am very disappointed in you, Young Lady.  Daddy and I gratefully accept your help with the brood, but seldom depend on it like we did today; and you *are* compensated over and above your allowance for helping out.”

Daniel interjected, “We really needed you today, Jen, for a few hours, and like Dad said, you let us down.”

“Jennifer, I haven't been that angry in a very long time; I'm not sure I've ever been that angry at any of you children.  I'm going to warm up the truck,” Jack said to Daniel as he stood up, though he really just wanted a breath of fresh air.  Looking back at their daughter, he said, “You're grounded for a month, and whatever else Daniel feels is warranted.  Excuse me.”

When Jack was gone, Jennifer put her head down and sobbed, “Dad hates me.”

Daniel put his arm around his daughter, comforting her.

The concerned parent sighed and reassured, “Of course, he doesn't.  He's hurt, Jen; we both are.  You put gossip time with your girlfriends above the safety and well-being of your siblings.  I know you didn't mean to do that, but that is what it boils down to.  That cell phone is a means of keeping in touch with us.  If you see it as no more than a toy, or a gossip line, then you don't need it.”

“What else is there to my punishment?” Jennifer asked, resigned to life as a nun.  ~That's why Dad left my punishment to Daddy; I have no more life.~

Daniel sighed, “We're going to give you a chance to redeem yourself, Jennifer, by not taking away your cell phone.”  He saw Jennifer brighten and immediately shook his head, warning, “But we are going to restrict your use of it.  You'll get it from me before you leave for school and surrender it to either me or Dad when you get home.  I'll look at the timer when I get it back.  Show us that you can live without this thing glued to your ear every waking second for two weeks, and we'll consider letting you keep it.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jennifer responded meekly.

“With possible restrictions,” Daniel quickly added.

Jennifer nodded and, as if her death warrant had just been signed, she sighed, “Okay.”

“And let's see if you can be the kind of young lady your parents believe you really are.  You can sulk your way through your grounded time, if that is your choice.  Life really sucks, or, as Dad has taught all of us, there's always an 'or'.  It's up to you.  We have a lot of faith in you, Jen.  It's been shaken a little, but it's still there.  In two weeks, we'll have another talk to evaluate what, if anything, you have learned, and what, if anything, you have yet to do to convince us that you've grown from this experience.  Fair enough?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so,” a startled Jennifer said.  ~This isn't all that bad.  I can avoid the cell for a couple of weeks ... I think.~

“One more thing,” Daniel stated.  “Tomorrow, after you've given today some thought, I want you to apologize to each and every one of your brothers and sisters, because in the end, Jen, they are the ones that suffered.  None of them, not one, would be in any trouble had you simply listened to Dad's message on the cell phone.  More than that, several of them are lucky they weren't injured, including Bij and Katie.  Cause and effect, Jen.  You didn't listen; they ran free.”

“I know,” Jennifer responded contritely.

“Do you?  There's that other adage, for every action, there is a reaction, or in this case, for every inaction, there were several bad reactions.  Think about it,” Daniel advised, hoping Jennifer would walk away from their discussion and the experience with more than just feeling lousy from her punishments.

At that point, Jack returned to the kitchen, asking, “Ready to tuck everyone in?”

“Dad!”  Jennifer threw herself into Jack's arms.  “I'm so sorry I let you down,” she sniffled.  “I love you.”

Jack rubbed the small of her back and held her close, saying, “I love you, too, Princess, and so does Daddy.  That was never in question.  What is in question is your wanting more freedom when you have so little respect for our rules.”

“Dad, sometimes life really sucks when you're a teenager.”  Still in Jack's arms, the teenager turned to look at Daniel, and with a small smile said, “But there's always an 'or', isn't there?”

Jack chuckled, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and replied, “Always.  We won't be gone too long.  The numbers are on the counter.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“We love you, Jen,” Daniel reiterated just before he and Jack started to walk out, intending to go upstairs to tuck in their children.

“Um, Dad, Daddy,” Jennifer said hesitantly.  “I swear I'm not trying to get out of anything, but Cassie's wedding -- the rehearsal and ...”

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look, and then Daniel said, “Okay, Jen.  Cassie's counting on you, and so are we, so we aren't going to interfere with anything related to the wedding.  The, uh, grounding clock will start on Monday.”

“But you're still not going anywhere tonight,” Jack stated firmly.

“Thank you,” Jennifer said sincerely as she eagerly anticipated the upcoming nuptials between Cassandra and Dominic.

====

“That was hard,” Daniel commented as Jack drove the truck.

“You got that right,” Jack groaned.

“She didn't mean it,” the younger man lamented about their teenage daughter.

“I know, and nine times out of ten, Danny, I believe Jennifer will make the right choice,” Jack stated truthfully.

“She's still a teenager.  Sometimes, I think we forget that.”

“No, I don't believe that,” Jack argued, glancing at his lover for a moment.  “Daniel, we've bent over backwards to make sure Jennifer never had to be a mother.  We don't require her to do any more chores than any of her friends; we've rarely made her stay home to babysit for our convenience.  We've trusted her to make sound decisions.”

“Are you saying you don't trust her now?” Daniel asked probingly.

Jack shook his head, “No, I don't think she'll do this again.  I like what you said to her at the end.  Once she has a chance to think about how easily one of the brood could have been hurt, she'll be extremely penitent.”

“I agree,” Daniel stated.  “I don't want her use of the cell phone to get out of hand.  We've let her increase her usage, but it is out of control if she ignores our calls and takes the privilege of having the cell for granted.”

====

Fifteen minutes from their destination, Jack asked, “Danny, what's your hunch about Mobius?  Should we give them a shot?”

Daniel sighed, “I don't know, Jack.  What they have to offer is intriguing, and they've made it clear they want to work with us.  I, uh, know we haven't seen Karissa's final report, but I'm not sure we can risk allying with them right now.  I mean, J-O isn't that big.  I'm not sure we can afford to take that kind of chance.  Maybe in a year or two, but not now.  Do you agree?”

“I was hoping you'd say that.  Look, I'm open to their ideas.  You know how I feel about mumbo-jumbo, but that aside, we have a lot on our professional plate right now.  I'm right with you, Love.  Let's not burn any bridges, but let's suggest that they contact us again in, say, two years, if they're still interested.”

“I like that idea,” Daniel responded with a smile.  “Jack, I'd like to make it clear to them that we aren't saying 'no' because of their methods, no matter how unusual they are, but, uh, that we just aren't in a position to work with them at this point in time.  Are you okay with me saying that?”

“Yeah.  Sounds like a plan.  Tell them to get in touch in two years, and we'll talk again,” the older man suggested.

Daniel nodded, happy they'd come to the same feelings about the Mobius Group.

====

Seven minutes from the hotel where the Air Force gala was being held, Daniel sighed, “Babe, do you think it's possible we're being paranoid?”

“About the Doc's promotion and Bronze this afternoon?”  Glancing over at his lover and seeing Daniel's nod, Jack made a tiny noise as he cocked his head to one side for a moment.  “I'm not sure,” Jack said, making a left turn. “It sure seemed out of whack.  Even Davis thought so.”

“I know General Hammond is concerned, but maybe we're making too much out of it.  I mean, if you think about it, it was really nice that they went to the trouble to get Cassie and fly her out here.  As weird as things were, nothing ... weird happened.”

“Maybe we're all so used to cloak and dagger, Love, that we see it everywhere,” Jack remarked.

Daniel studied his lover for a moment, then said, “You don't really believe that, do you?”

“All I'm saying, Danny, is that after all these years, I've learned not to question weirdness.  Crap, that sounds weird.”

Daniel chuckled, “Well, like always, I guess we just keep our eyes and ears open and go on protecting our family, including our extended family.”

“One for all, and all for one,” Jack responded jovially, reaching out to squeeze Daniel's hand.  “Why did I say we were going to this shindig?”

“I have noooo idea,” Daniel answered in a drawn-out fashion.

Suddenly, the two smiled mischievously.

“The Hyatt?” Jack asked with lustful eyes.  “It's been a while since we went there.”

“Yeah, gawd, I remember.  We, uh ... just a minute.”  Daniel pulled out his cell phone, made a quick phone call, and then dialed home.  He informed Jennifer they'd had a change in plans and would be at the Hyatt in Denver and therefore would be home a little later than planned.  “Think you can handle that?” he asked.

“Piece of cake, Daddy.  I put on the security system a minute ago.”

“Good girl.  Uh, Teal'c will be there in about ten minutes,” Daniel informed her.

“Oh ... I mean, that's nice,” Jennifer sighed, thinking her parents no longer trusted her.

“Jen, it has nothing to do with you, but with the windows broken like that, we decided we'd feel better if someone else was there.  We want to make sure all of you are safe; and this way, you can concentrate more on your studies.  It has nothing to do with not trusting you.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do,” the teenager affirmed quietly.

“Good.  We love you, Jen,” Daniel promised.

“I love you two, too.  Have fun,” Jennifer said, rolling her eyes, knowing her parents were about to make love.

“Trust me, Jen, we will.  Call if you need us.”

====

“Five more minutes, Angel, and then ...”

“And then ...” Daniel said, his hand reaching over to rub Jack's inner thigh.  “Oh, Jack, I was thinking.  Since we need to have that back sliding-door window replaced, maybe we should get energy efficient windows for the rest of the old part of the house.”

“Same stuff as we have on the renovated side?” Jack questioned.

“Yeah.  What do you think?”

Jack nodded and answered, “Makes sense.  We can call Gordon tomorrow.”

====

Seventy minutes later, engaged in passionate lovemaking, Jack suddenly laughed as he worked his lover's length.

“Lau...laugh...laughing?” Daniel gasped in disbelief.

“Angel, sometimes life really sucks, and it isn't always bad.”

“Gawd, suc...suck a...away, Babe!”

It had been quite a day, but as always, Jack and Daniel had found the perfect way to end it -- loving and being loved in their nation of two.

~~Finis - Finished - Done - The End - But is it ever Really?~~
Feedback Welcome - click here to email the author


Office Depot Coupon Code
OfficeDepot.com Coupon Code