Let the Sun Shine In

Author:  Orrymain and special guest co-author, Robert!
Category:  Slash, Angst, Drama, Humor, Romance, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - April 10 - July 6, 2011
Spoilers:  None
Size:  658kb
...Chapter One - 102kb
...Chapter Two - 137kb
...Chapter Three - 84kb
...chapter Four - 90kb
...chapter Five - 161kb
...Chapter Six - 84kb
Written:  June 27-29, July 1-5,8,12,23-24, August 12-13, September 21-24,27-30, October 5,7,15,26, November 3,7,11,14-15,17-18,28, December 1-16,22, 2006, January 6-7,11, February 5-6,10,18,24, March 8-13,17-18,21-31, April 1,4,7-8,14,23, May 5-7,17,22-25,29-31, June 2-3,9,16-30, July 1-2, 2007 Revised for consistency: September 7, 2007, January 15, 2008
Summary:  Jack and Daniel hope to surprise someone special, but they are surprised themselves when they discover one of their children has an amazing talent.
Disclaimer:  Usual disclaimers -- not mine, wish they were, especially Daniel, and Jack, too, but they aren't.  A gal can dream though!
Notes:  
1) Sometimes, Jack and Daniel speak almost telepathically.  Their “silent” words to each other are indicated by asterisks instead of quotes, such as **Jack, we can't.**
2) Silent, unspoken thoughts by various characters are indicated with ~ in front and behind them, such as ~Where am I?~
3) This fic stands alone, but it does reference my past fic(s), “Blowout,” “Let's Go Fly a Kite,” "The Little Ones," “Unexpected Miracle,” “It's Raining ... Kids?”
4) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Linda, Claudia, Gail, Jodi, QuinGem, Melissa, Sara!

Let the Sun Shine In
by Orrymain and Robert

====
--Chapter One
====

The afternoon happenings were interrupted by a car door slamming and the sound of little feet pounding up the driveway, followed by a child's happy laughter.

**Danny, he's home!** Jack exclaimed, using the couple's special non-verbal communication skills.

Eager to see the returnee, Daniel walked swiftly from the backyard, around to the front, just in time to see the homecoming take place.

“There's our little vacationer!” Jack called out as he walked down the steps of the porch, bending down and opening his arms to welcome home their youngest son.

Seeing his oldest father cleaning the front window, Ricky had jumped out of the car as soon as he'd been unfastened from his seat.  He was so focused on Jack that he hadn't seen Daniel approaching from the side.

The three-and-a-half-year-old youngster had just spent a full week with his Grandpa George.  It was clear from the little boy's rosy cheeks and happy expression that he'd enjoyed spending some quality one-on-one time with his grandfather.

A few times during the past several days, Jack and Daniel had covertly checked up on the boy, mostly because they'd just missed their son, rather than out of any real concern for his welfare.  After all, they always knew he was in very capable hands whenever he was with General Hammond.

“We had fun, Dad!” the happy boy announced, his smile huge as he spoke.

“You did?” Jack questioned cheerfully, smiling at both Ricky and a relaxed-looking Hammond, who was still by his vehicle.

Nodding, Ricky excitedly rambled, “We wen' fishin' 'n' dancin' 'n' shoppin' 'n' to the zoo 'n' to the park 'n' to Mrs. Crenshaw's 'n' ...”

~Whoa!  He's talking a mile a minute, and ... wait, who's that?~ Jack wondered.  Interrupting the long list of activities being recalled, he asked, “Who's Mrs. Crenshaw?”

Just like before, without taking many breaths, Ricky enthusiastically responded,  “She nice lady.  Baked Grandpa cake 'n' cookies 'n' fudge 'n' pie 'n' ...”

“Okay, okay, I get the idea,” Jack chuckled.  ~Grandpa, you old dog, you've been holding out on us.~

“And Grandpa read me stories 'n' we draw 'n' we ...” Ricky continued, joyously recounting the fun-filled days of the past week.

As he listened, Jack looked over his son's shoulder and smiled, seeing Daniel standing there.  He'd just walked up, carrying Ricky's suitcase over from Hammond's vehicle.

“Don't I get a hello?” Daniel asked with a loving smile.

“Daddy!  Had fun with Grandpa,” Ricky said, turning around and reaching up with his arms.

Daniel put the luggage down and picked up his son, saying, “I'm glad.”  As he squeezed the boy tightly with a loving hug, he added, “We missed you.”  ~Gawd, it was so quiet without him.~

“Miss you, too, Daddy, but you 'n' Dad keeped all your eyes on me with Grandpa,” Ricky admonished lightly.

“Uh, wh...what?”

“You watch, but it okay.  We fish and ...” Ricky continued more slowly, as Jack and Daniel exchanged a guilty look.

**I guess Jonny isn't the only one learning covert ops, Jack,** Daniel surmised.

Jack looked sheepishly at Hammond, who had walked up with Daniel, then shrugged.  He picked up the suitcase, carrying it inside.

As Daniel carried Ricky into the living room, Jack nodded for Hammond to come inside as well.

Neither Jack nor Daniel wanted to verbally admit to Ricky that they had sneaked a few peeks at him during the week, although it appeared the observant child had seen them.  They wondered if Hammond had seen them, too, but both decided to let the subject drop and were pleased when the lieutenant general also chose to move forward in the conversation.

“Sure sounds like he had a good time, Sir,” Jack noted as they walked in.

“He wasn't the only one, Jack.  That little guy sure kept this old man hopping, and it was worth every minute of it,” Hammond replied.

There hadn't been any special reason for Ricky's stay with Hammond, except that one day he had climbed up onto Jack and Daniel's bed and announced, “I wanna go on 'cation to Grandpa's.”

//Flashback//
The still-sleeping fathers yawned, nodded, and muttered something that sounded like, “Sure, fine, yeah, okay,” so the little boy climbed off the bed, went to the phone downstairs, and called General George Hammond, who, fortunately, was already up.

Ricky and his ten siblings now knew all the important phone numbers -- their home, the Mountain, Sam's, Sara's, Janet's, and, of course, Grandpa George's.  Some had also memorized Cassandra's, the J-O Enterprise office, and a couple of cell phone numbers, including Jennifer's.  Just in case, they were all on speed dial on all the family phones as well.

“Grandpa, I take 'cation with you, 'kay?” Ricky asked eagerly.

“A vacation?”  Hammond sat back in his armchair, folding the newspaper he'd been reading.  ~I remember going on camping trips with my grandfather.~  Smiling, the bald-headed man asked, “And where would you like to go?”

“Your house.  We play, 'kay?” Ricky asked.

“What about your brothers and sisters?” Hammond inquired, smiling at the eagerness he heard in the little boy's voice.

“They have own 'cations later,” Ricky stated confidently, knowing that his parents would make sure of it, if his brothers and sisters wanted to.  “When I come?” he asked.

Hammond chuckled, “Son, let me talk to one of your fathers.”

“'Kay.  Hold, please,” the polite boy requested, scooting off his older father's favorite chair that he'd been sitting in.

As the pajama-clad boy hurried upstairs with the cordless phone, Hammond smiled at the request.  Naturally, he assumed that Jack and Daniel knew all about it, but he needed to be sure.

“Dad, Grandpa on phone,” Ricky announced, standing beside the bed and shaking Jack, knowing his older father was always closer to coherency first in the morning, much more so than Daniel.

“What?  Oh, okay,” Jack mumbled and groaned as he fought to wake up.  For a few seconds, he attempted to free his arm from beneath Daniel, but as the younger man rolled over onto his front, he just trapped Jack's arm further and mumbled something incoherent.  He gave up and reached out with his other hand, fumbling with the phone Ricky handed him.  “Grandpa?” Jack called out, immediately realizing what he'd just said.  “Sorry, Sir,” he added quickly.  
 
“That's perfectly all right, Jack,” Hammond chuckled.

Jack blinked, wondering why Hammond sounded so far away.  Then he heard his son laughing.

~Oh, for crying out loud,~ Jack groaned while turning the phone around, having realized he'd been speaking into the receiver instead of the mouthpiece.  “Is something wrong?” he asked, catching a glimpse of the clock as he got better situated.  ~Six-friggin-thirty?~

“No, of course not, Jack.  Ricky tells me you're sending him on vacation,” the lieutenant general informed the major general.

“We are?” Jack asked, loud enough that Daniel finally opened his eyes and pushed himself up, his motion mirroring that of a push-up.

“Jack, are you awake?” Hammond questioned, observing that his friend seemed a little groggy and not quite with it.

“I am now, Sir.  What did the Ricky say?” Jack inquired more steadily.

“Dad, told him 'bout 'cation.  You 'n' Daddy say it okay,” Ricky reminded as he pushed himself against the bed slightly.

“We did?” Jack asked, seeing the boy's nod.  He took a moment and replayed the last several minutes in his mind; even so, he didn't have any recollection of the conversation he'd apparently already had.  He listened as both Ricky and Hammond talked, neither aware of the stereo effect happening in Jack's head, due to their simultaneous talking.  ~It's way too early for this.~

Meanwhile, Daniel sat up against the headboard, also trying to process the onslaught of information, while also yawning and thinking, ~Caffeine.  I need caffeine.~

“General, do you want ...”  Jack stopped, smiling down at the eavesdropping child. **Danny, how about getting the early bird here out of the way so I can see what Hammond is thinking.**

**Sure, fine, yeah, okay.  I need coffee.**

The replay of words jogged Jack's memory.  He now vaguely remembered Ricky waking them up, or trying to, and asking a question.  He had no doubt that both he and his spouse had given Ricky affirmative answers without really knowing the question.

“Come on, Ricky.  Let's go downstairs while Dad talks to Grandpa,” Daniel suggested as he slowly got out of the bed.

“But ...”

Yawning, Daniel bent over, picked up his enthusiastic child, and offered, “We'll have Froot Loops.”

“Yay!” Ricky exclaimed.

**Bribery, Daniel?**

**At six-thirty in the morning, you'd better believe it, Fly Boy, and don't even give me that look like you wouldn't do the same.**
//End of Flashback//

Once Daniel and Ricky had left the room, Jack had chuckled for a moment before continuing his chat with Hammond.  In the end, they'd agreed that Ricky could go on vacation to Hammond's house, especially since the general informed Jack that he just happened to have a week's leave coming up.  All things considered, Ricky couldn't have timed his request better.

Jack and Daniel had never figured out the reason for the request, or if it had just popped into their son's head.  It didn't really matter why Ricky had wanted to go, though it was the first time the young boy had been away from home for that long without at least one of his parents.

The only downside had occurred when some of the brood had been envious of Ricky's alone time with their grandfather.  However, with Hammond's blessings, all had been promised special time with him in the future, if they wanted it.

“He's a good boy, Jack.  I'm proud to have him as a grandson.  I'm proud to have all of the brood as my grandchildren,” Hammond stated as Ricky continued to go full steam ahead with telling Daniel about his special trip.  ~You two included.~

====

“It brings back such fond memories,” Hammond commented after enjoying dinner with the Jackson-O'Neills.  Some of the children were outside playing, while others were upstairs working on homework, leaving just the three chatting adults in the living room.  “My only regret is that when it's my turn to host the socials, I don't have the setup I'd like.  I'm envious of that hospitality room of yours.”

Jack laughed, “You could always build one, George.  I bet Byron would give you a good deal, too.”

“Byron?” the bald-headed man inquired.

“Byron Stone, the owner of Archonics, Ltd.,” Jack answered.  “That's the firm we hired to do the renovation of this place.  Alex is back from Florida now, too, and ...”

“Are you sure, Jack?” Daniel teased.  “Every time he says he's done, the project gets extended, expanded, or someone hires him for some outside job.”

Jack chuckled and explained, “Byron sent Alex to Florida to handle a job that was supposed to last for six months.  He's been there almost a year-and-a-half now.  Of course, he has other reasons to be in Florida these days.”

The silver-haired man was referring to Alex's girlfriend, Soncirria Suvulpo, otherwise known as Sunny, and the fact that the designer was also enrolled at the University of Miami's School of Architecture in an accelerated program.  Alex had purchased a second condo in Florida when it became evident that he would be splitting his time evenly between there and the Springs.

“That would be wonderful, Jack,” Hammond responded, though quickly adding, “but I just can't justify that type of remodeling.  If I had a brood like yours or socialized more regularly, that would be different, but to go to that expense for a half-dozen social occasions, at most, per year is something I can't rationalize.”

“You'd love it,” Jack said temptingly.  “You could do something on a smaller scale.”

“He's right, Sir,” Daniel interjected.  “We have a full house everyday.”

The older man semi-growled, “And it's getting fuller all the time as we let the kids bring more of their friends home to play or study.  Do it, George; you'll be glad you did.”

“I'm sure I would,” Hammond agreed.  “But if I were going to lay out that kind of capital, I think I'd do something else.”

“Something else?” Jack questioned, his curiosity sparked.

“It's a silly old dream of mine,” Hammond responded, getting a bit of a faraway look in his eyes.

“What dream would that be, Sir?” Daniel asked and then took a sip of his coffee.

A bit dreamily, Hammond answered, “This goes back a lot of years, but I have so many fond memories as a young boy spending time at the local soda shop, getting an old-fashioned ice cream.”

“Careful,” Jack teased, feigning looking around the room and listening for pattering footsteps.  “Our brood has ice cream radar.”

Hammond chuckled and said, “That's exactly it, Jack.  I'd love to have an ice cream fountain, towards the side of the house maybe; have all the trimmings -- a few barstools and a tiny table or two.  I'd dress it up like the old days, keep it well stocked, and treat the brood to all the ice cream they could eat.”

“Sir, you have no idea how much they can eat,” Daniel advised as he laughed softly.

Hammond chuckled, “Yes, Son, I do.  Those were the days -- days of innocence and lazy afternoons with friends, or my folks, having a malted.”  For a minute, he reveled in his youth.  Then, checking his watch, he noted, “I have to be at the Mountain at 0700.”

Getting up, the good-byes were said, and Hammond left for his home.

As Jack and Daniel began to clean up a bit, the younger man stated softly, “An ice cream fountain.  Our children would move there!”

“In a heartbeat,” Jack agreed.

====

Towards the end of the month, the couple were preparing dinner for their brood.  As they did so, they had begun discussing something they'd brought up several times before.

For the last couple of years, Jack and Daniel had considered surprising Lou and Carolyn Ferretti with a central vac system, similar to the one they had in their own home.  Carolyn had raved about the system on many occasions, and Lou was eager to purchase one, if the price were right.  Unfortunately, now that they had to save for their adopted daughter Trina's college fund, money was a bit on the tight side for the working-class Ferretti family.

The Jackson-O'Neills, however, were well off financially, and they believed in sharing their good fortune with their family of friends.  The Ferrettis had always been high up on that particular list.

“Jack, I think we should do it,” Daniel opined as he reached for the potholder.

“Then we're agreed,” Jack replied.  “Lou's been wanting to get it for Carolyn since we had ours installed.”

“Carolyn's eyes get so ... so ...”

“Dreamy,” Jack supplied for his lover.

“Yeah.  I can see the want in her eyes,” Daniel commented.

“Bet Lou wishes she looked at him that way,” Jack teased.

“Jack!”

“I only meant ...”

“I know what you meant, and stop it,” Daniel chastised as he pulled the huge meat loaf out of the oven.

“Women and cleaning appliances are second only to women and shoes,” Jack chirped.

“Very funny, Babe, but not all women like shoes, you know.”

“You'd never know from looking in their closets,” Jack refuted.

Daniel stopped what he was doing and looked over at his husband, asking, “And just how many woman's closets have you been looking into, anyway?”

Jack coughed, looking down as he took hold of the mixer, and replied by repeating, “Then we're agreed.”

The younger man chuckled as he returned to his preparations and inquired, “Are you going to talk to Lou about making it a loan?”

As he whipped the large bowl of steaming hot potatoes, Jack sighed, “I already have, Danny, just in passing.  He won't go for it.  Dang Italian is too proud for his own good.”

“Well, then we'll just have to figure out a way around that pride,” Daniel spoke while he began to slice the meat loaf that was now on a large platter.

“Are you suggesting we trick him?” Jack smirked, pride in his heart at his lover's apparent willingness to do whatever was necessary.

“I wouldn't put it in those words exactly, but ...”

Jack laughed, “Geez, I love the way you think.”

“Is that all you love?” Daniel asked, wiggling his hips when his lover turned to look at him.

“We'll discuss that later,” Jack whispered.  Suddenly, he turned his face towards the rec room and shouted, “BROOD, COME AND GET IT!”

“Jack, why did we spend hundreds of dollars installing an intercom system when we rarely use it?” Daniel wondered as he placed the platter with the sliced meat loaf on the table.

“Because we like to live dangerously,” Jack answered, shutting off the mixer.

“Try again,” Daniel suggested.

“Because ... we're lazy?” Jack put forth, taking the bowl and placing it on the table.  Looking at his husband and seeing the 'think again' glare, he offered, “Because *I'm* lazy?”

“Not the biggest reason, but, yeah, that'll work,” Daniel agreed.

“What do you mean by that?” Jack questioned.

Daniel smiled, saying nothing as the children began to filter into the area.  As usual, it had been a long, busy day, and the Jackson-O'Neills were definitely ready to enjoy a good meal.

Just as the brood was sitting down around the large table in the hospitality room, Daniel quietly thought in Jack's direction, **Maybe you just like to hear yourself,** knowing his lover wouldn't take up the subject in front of the brood.

**You don't play fair,** the older man shot back.

**You're bragging again, Love.  I learned from the best.**

Perplexed because he had been insulted and complimented in the same instant, Jack opted to say aloud, “Looks great, I'm starved.”

====

“Alex, can you really install the central vac in Lou's house in just a few hours?” Jack asked early the next morning.

“Yes, Jack.  From what you've described, not only is their house smaller, but it won't require a complicated hose storage system.  We can get by with a much smaller system than yours.  You're sure about the traffic pattern?” Alex Dennison, Jack and Daniel's designer, questioned.

“It's a well lived-in house, Alex,” Jack answered.  “They raised two very active girls there already and are now raising a third.  I don't think they've even moved the furniture in ten years.”

“Okay, so with the heavily-trafficked cut-pile carpet, they'll need an electric power brush.  You said Carolyn has had some challenges with her health, so by using five inlets in the house, we can get by with an eighteen-foot hose instead of the usual longer ones,” Alex stated.

“Yeah.  Carolyn's healthy as a horse these days, but Lou worries,” Jack confided.  ~Me, too.~

“Then we'll definitely go with a couple of additional inlets and the shorter hose, which will make the system easier to use and store,” Alex replied.

“Where will you put them?” Jack inquired.

“Based on what you've described, we'll place one floor level inlet in the kitchen and one in the mud-room area off the garage.  If Lou is the mechanics hobbyist you say, we should put one in the garage as well.  In fact, why don't we give him his own set of tools there so he doesn't have to lug them around,” Alex suggested.

“Or more to the point, Carolyn doesn't have to go looking for them,” Jack responded, chuckling.

Alex added, “Then we'll place inlets in the family room, the master bedroom, the dining ell, the living room, and the hall.  Do you think Carolyn would use a vacuum food sealer?”

“Like one of those on TV?”

“Sort of, but much better.  It taps into the system's tubing and folds up off the counter when it's not in use; and does it ever do a great job of sealing food!  If you had one put in, you could use it to keep your leftover ice cream fresh,” the designer chuckled.

“Alex, you've been here.  We never have left over ice cream with our brood,” Jack reminded.

After sharing a laugh at the truth of Jack's statement, Alex continued, “I don't believe in skimping on inlets when doing an install.  I usually spec one in the attic, too, so boxes can be dusted off before they are brought down, and a waist-high inlet in the laundry that allows the use of a simple, specialized tool to clean the lint filter from the dryer.  It will be custom designed for their needs, Jack.  Trust me.”

“I do trust you, Alex.  I just don't want to get 'caught in the act', so to speak,” Jack admitted.

“Not to worry, Jack,” the professional decorator promised.

“Me, worry?” Jack laughed.  “Never!  I'll give you a call to confirm once I've discussed things with Daniel, but we'll probably follow your advice.”

“Smart, Jack,” Alex quipped.

“Now there's something I'm rarely accused of,” Jack mused as their conversation turned to other topics.

====

It was a lazy May afternoon, and several members of the Jackson-O'Neill family were in the rec room, engaged in various activities.  Jack and Daniel were snuggled up together on the sofa, Jack reading an issue of Flight Magazine, while Daniel was engrossed in an article from one of his many archaeological publications.

At the front of the large room, Jennifer, Brianna, David, and Chenoa were engaged in a challenging card game.  Seated on one of the floor pillows near the wall, Ricky was drawing with his Etch-a-Sketch.  On the animal front, Mittens was playing with a catnip mouse in the middle of the room, while Katie was chewing on a nylon bone on her beanbag.

The rest of the brood and family pets were scattered throughout the home, focused on tasks of their own.

“It sure was nice of General Hammond to take the children at the last minute yesterday,” Daniel commented quietly to Jack.

“He knew we needed some time after the craziness of the last few weeks,” Jack responded.

“The general does a lot for us, Jack, and he never asks for anything in return,” the younger man pointed out.

“He's their grandfather,” Jack replied, smiling as he turned the page of his magazine.

“I wish we could do something for him,” Daniel stated.  “I mean, something that would really make a difference in his life, not just a new sweater or novel for him to read.”

Jack laughed, “Like what -- a hospitality room?”  He shook his head, adding, “Now that would be a memorable gift.”

Skipping over to another article, Jack made a couple of comments about the latest Cessna model planes.  He didn't notice Daniel had lowered his publication to his waist, his eyes focused straight ahead as he concentrated on an idea forming in his mind.

Suddenly, the archaeologist replied, “Yeah, something like that.”  He leaned forward slightly as he scooted his body around slightly to face his lover.  “Jack, why not?”

“Why not what?” Jack asked as he lowered his magazine.

“Why not build the general a hospitality room?” Daniel asked.

“Daniel, you have *got* to be out of your mind,” Jack responded, raising his magazine to continue reading.

“No, I'm not,” Daniel insisted as he reached over and gently pushed down the magazine to get his husband's attention.  “Why can't we do it?”

“Do you know how much that would cost?” Jack asked.

“Since when do we put a price tag on what we do for our family, Jack, and the general *is* family.  He's not just the children's grandfather, he's ours, too, and especially for me.  I know you had great grandparents, but all I had was Nicholas Ballard and ...” Daniel stated, his speech stern and rapid.

Putting his magazine to the side, Jack reached forward to tap the top of his lover's hand, urging, “Danny, calm down.  I know what Hammond means to you and to our brood.  I feel the same way.”

“All I'm saying is that money has never stopped us from doing anything,” Daniel replied rapidly.  “We're very lucky, Babe.  We make ridiculous government salaries for working part time at the Mountain, J-O is doing great, and the stock market has been unbelievably good to us.  Everyone close to us knows we're doing well, even with our large brood and planning for their future.”

“Danny, I'm not questioning that,” Jack interjected.

“General Hammond has a wonderful home, but he could use a hospitality room,” Daniel maintained.  “He's said so himself, but he'll never spend the money because he ... he ...”

Suddenly, Daniel stopped his speech, looking over at his children, a couple of whom were looking back at him, having observed the change in their younger father's demeanor.  He smiled reassuringly, and the children went back to their activities.

“Jack, you know what he's doing,” Daniel whispered.

“He's making sure his family will be secure,” Jack answered.

“Exactly.  He travels a bit and does things, but he wants to leave his grandchildren an inheritance, so he'll never do anything that he deems as being an extravagance when it's just for himself,” Daniel opined.

“Can't blame the man, Danny.  Tessa, Kayla, and Vanessa are great kids,” Jack commented, referring to Hammond's three granddaughters.

Daniel laughed, “Tessa and Kayla aren't kids anymore, Babe.”

Jack chuckled, “They'll always be kids to me.” More seriously, he remarked, “Hammond's not going to let us do something so extravagant for him, either. You think trying to get around Lou to install a central vac is tough? That's a breeze compared to getting Hammond to agree to let us pay for a hospitality room,” he quietly replied. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed how intently Ricky was drawing with his Etch-a-Sketch. The boy's facial expression was one of deep concentration. He'd even put down his beloved tan blanket that he'd been fidgeting with while playing with the toy. ~I've never seen him so focused on that thing before.~

“Well ... think of something!” Daniel demanded, drawing Jack's attention back to his spouse.

“What?” Jack asked incredulously.  “Danny, I'm your husband, not a miracle maker.”

“Oh, and just whom did you groom to take your place?” Daniel challenged jovially. “No notice, no warning, just 'I'm resigning as the resident miracle worker?'”

“I'm a fix-it man, Daniel, not a worker of miracles.  There's a difference, you know,” Jack claimed.

“Oh, no, there isn't,” Daniel refuted.  “In this family, the fixes *are* miracles,” he retaliated, staring down his husband.  After a minute of silence had passed, he challenged, “Well?”

“I'm thinking,” Jack said, shrugging his shoulders.  After a moment, he said, “I got nothing.”

“You're the only miracle worker I need,” Daniel replied, his eyes shining as he reached over to caress his lover's cheek.  Both husbands totally missed Jennifer and Brianna exchange a knowing look before both rolled their eyes at their parents' romantic endearments.  “You make miracles happen for me and our children every single day.  You'll think of something, just like you always do.  We need ... to be covert,” he said, tilting his head as he gave his husband a sly smile.

“Covert,” Jack echoed.  “Daniel, it's the man's friggin' house.  Have you heard of permits?  He has to agree, and he won't do it.”

Daniel thought for a moment and decided some motivation was required.  He leaned forward, giving his soulmate a very seductive and passionate kiss, something he didn't often engage in when their children were present.

“Oh, geez,” Jennifer giggled quietly with Brianna.

“Ah ... okay,” Jack said when the effect of the kiss began to settle.  “We'll find a way to give Hammond a hospitality room.”

All of a sudden, the lovers were interrupted by their youngest son, who walked up to them while holding his favorite toy.

“Dad, Daddy, Grandpa no need hos'talty room,” Ricky stated.

“He doesn't?” Jack asked.

“Na-huh,” Ricky replied.  Holding out the Etch-a-Sketch, he declared, “He needs this!”

“Oh my gawd,” Daniel heard himself say as he automatically leaned forward and carefully took hold of the prized possession.  He shook his head in surprise and asked, “Ricky, did you just draw this?”

The little boy nodded, smiling brightly.

“Son, this is *great*,” Jack praised as he took the toy from Daniel to examine the picture Ricky had made.

“Look at the detail,” Daniel noted, pointing out one specific area to his soulmate.  “I never knew you could make pictures like that.  I can't.”

“Grandpa needs this.  Place ta read inside, watch us play outside 'n' talk with Mrs. Crenshaw.  He needs *this*.  No hos'talty room,” the boy asserted, shaking his head definitively.

“A sunroom,” Daniel spoke, leaning over as close as he could against Jack to examine the drawing.

“Ricky, what makes you think Grandpa would like this?” Jack asked gently.

“He told me during 'cation,” Ricky answered.

“He did?” Daniel inquired, bending forward a little more and smiling at the boy.  “What exactly did he say?”

“He like ta read, but gets too hot outside.  He likes sun, though.  Mrs. Crenshaw does, too,” Ricky answered.

“We have *got* to find out more about this Crenshaw woman,” Jack spoke a bit protectively, causing Daniel to chuckle.

“What's going on over here?” Brianna asked curiously as she approached her parents and young brother.

“We making Grandpa new room,” Ricky answered, looking up at the blonde tomboy.

“We are?”

“Are we?” Jennifer asked as she, along with David and Chenoa, joined the other members of the family, their curiosity having gotten the better of them when their card game had ended a minute earlier.

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look, neither sure of what to say as yet.  They sat their children down and gently grilled Ricky on his sunroom sketch.  Many questions later, they realized the sunroom would be the perfect present for General Hammond.

Unknown to the lovers, while Hammond frequently sat at his kitchen table, looking out the window at the lake in the backyard, he secretly longed for a bright, more open room where he could relax, enjoy the day, watch the beauty of the lake and his grandchildren playing outside, relax in a comfortable chair while reading a good book, and visit one-on-one in a more intimate environment with friends, like the mysterious Mrs. Crenshaw.

Ricky had amazed his parents and siblings with his incredible Etch-a-Sketch drawing, which depicted a few key elements of the room.

“Jack, we have to find a way to do this,” the archaeologist opined.

“I agree this sounds perfect for Hammond, but we're still stuck with the truth,” Jack reminded.

“What truth would that be?” the younger man asked.

“The money, Daniel.  No way is he gonna go for this.  It's the expense,” Jack maintained.

“It's only money,” David interjected, dismissing the issue totally.

“A *lot* of money, Son,” Jack pointed out.  “Your grandpa is a smart man.  He knows how much this kind of thing costs, and he's also got a lot of pride.  He's not going to let us do this for him.”

“But we love him,” Brianna stated innocently.

“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed.  “Part of loving is doing things to help the people you love.  We can all help design it.”

“I 'signed it already,” Ricky reminded, pointing to his drawing.

Jennifer smiled and said, “But not the specifics, Ricky, like ... what we put in the room, the colors -- things like that.”

“Jen, he'll thank us and then say 'no',” Jack maintained.

“There has to be a way, Dad,” David insisted.

“Yeah, we have will, Dad, so there's way, right?” Ricky asked, referring back to his parents often-used phrase that where there is a will, there is a way.

“We'll go covert,” David spoke eagerly with a mischievous smile on his face.

“Are we going on a mission?” Jonny asked, running into the rec room, with Aislinn and Jenny on his heels.

“No running,” Jack chastised while marveling at Jonny's apparent built-in radar when it came to anything 'covert'.

“Sorry, Dad, but are we goin' on a mission?” the little sandy-blond haired boy asked again, his eyes wide with hope.

“Maybe.  Daddy and I need to talk about it some more,” Jack responded.

“We're going on a mission,” Daniel announced, overruling his husband's concern and earning him a glare.  “Consider it a challenge, Love,” he suggested with a grin.

“Yeahsureyabetcha,” Jack sighed, shaking his head.  “I don't know where to start.”  After his husband gave him that, 'Oh, yes, you do' look, he replied by smacking his forehead with his open palm and reaching for the cordless phone.  When the person answered the phone, he blurted out, “Alex, weneedasunroom that can bebuiltin a day, dayandahalf, tops.”  He frowned.  ~When did I start talking as fast as Danny?~

“And a fine good day to you, too, Jack,” Alex laughed over the phone.  ~It must be true that people take on characteristics of their better halves; he's sounding like Daniel.  Hmm.  I wonder if that means I'll be a beauty queen one day, and Sunny ...~  He shook his head harshly.  ~I've been working too hard,~ he reprimanded himself before getting down to business.  “I can design a sunroom, no problem, but where will you put it without messing up the backyard or the driveway, and what's the big hurry?”

Laughing, Jack apologized for being so abrupt and proceeded to explain what the family was considering for Hammond's home.

“Living dangerously, aren't you?” Alex teased.  “To think I was worried about being too gutsy when I initiated the hospitality room before Byron and I gave you back your house,” he joked, remembering how he had taken the liberty of giving the appliances in the hospitality room a trial run by preparing breakfast the morning of the walk through without checking with the owners first.  “Seriously, what if General Hammond throws a fit and tosses both of you in the brig?”

“We wouldn't be there long,” Jack mused.  “He'd crack under the pressure the brood would put on him, not to mention Sam and Janet.  ~Not to mention Teal'c~  He looked at his lover and asked, “How long would it take Hammond to let us out of the brig, a week?”

“I'd give it seventy-two hours, tops,” the younger man replied confidently.  “The pouts will get him if the hugs and tears don't.”

“We work ext'a hard,” Ricky said.

“Yeah,” Jonny agreed.  “No be in the brig more than a day.”

“I cry good,” Aislinn stated.  “Out by dinner.”

~That's our brood,~ Jack stated happily, trying not to chuckle.  “Alex, are you in?” he asked.

“Sure, I've never been in jail before, let alone a brig,” the designer quipped.

“The kids promise you'll be out in time for dinner,” Jack stated, getting big nods from the group assembled in the rec room.

“Well, then, of course, I'm in!”

====

“Jack, about the Ferretti job,” Alex spoke over the phone the next day.

“Problem?” the major general inquired.

Alex responded, “No, but there's one more extra I want to suggest -- the wet pick-up tank.  I know you like yours, and the wet tap for it could be installed under the sink, just like we did for yours.”

“I'll run it by Daniel.  We do use ours a lot.  Now, about getting you a first-hand look at the Ferretti's home ...”

“Not really necessary, Jack, not on a job this size,” Alex interrupted.  “The electrician, carpenter, plumber, and gopher for the additions to Hammond's home all have experience in vac installs and can get it done in one morning or afternoon.”

“Just one?” the general questioned.

“Jack, have I ever let you down?” Alex asked.

Laughing, Jack responded, “I'll talk to Daniel and get back to you later today, but just like before, I'm sure we'll follow your advice.”

“Another smart decision, General,” Alex chuckled.

“That's why I'm a general,” Jack joked.

“It must have its perks,” the designer replied.

“Yeah -- a great parking space,” the general teased before concluding the phone call.

====

“Jack, how did our children become ice cream fanatics?” Daniel wondered as he turned on the dishwasher, which was loaded with the dirty dishes from the day, the last being bowls that had been full of the dessert just minutes earlier.

“They were born with the ice cream gene,” the older man answered as he wiped down the counter in the hospitality room.

“There's no such thing,” Daniel refuted.

“There is in our family,” Jack insisted, his expression serious.

“Sometimes I worry about you,” the younger man mused.

“Just sometimes?” Jack asked, breaking into a smile.

As he headed over to toss a few things into the trash, Daniel replied, “You don't really want me to answer that, do you?”

“Forget I asked,” Jack agreed as he continued his chore.  A moment later, he spoke, “Danny, I've been thinking.”

“You?  Thinking?  Now there's an odd combination,” the archaeologist quipped.

“Don't get used to it,” the general laughed.  “I keep seeing Hammond's look when he was talking about that ice cream parlor of his.”

Daniel sighed, closing the lid on the trash.  He turned and leaned back against the counter, folding his arms in front of him.

“I know that look, Danny.  You've been thinking about it, too,” Jack deduced.

With a nod, Daniel affirmed, “He looked happy when he was talking about it.  I know he's going to love the sunroom, but ...”

“But you know he wants that ice cream fountain, too.”

“Exactly,” Daniel replied.  “So, what do we do?”

“We need to find out more about where he'd want the thing,” Jack said.  Walking towards his husband, he proposed, “Danny, why don't you and Jeff drop by Hammond's tomorrow on the way to or back from the game?  You could feel him out a little bit more; see if we're overreacting or ...”

“Or if we're right, and he wants the parlor as much as the sunroom.”

“That's my genius,” Jack chuckled as he took Daniel into his arms and kissed him.

“No, that's *my* genius, Babe,” Daniel refuted as his fingers toyed with the strands of silver hair at the base of his Love's neck.  “It's your idea.”

“Score one for the gipper,” Jack spoke with pride.

“I'll let you score again ... upstairs,” Daniel said with shining eyes.

“Three points for sure!” Jack agreed as the lovers headed upstairs, hoping for just thirty minutes of privacy before the next family calamity occurred.

====

A few days later, Alex called, eagerly informing, “Jack, I've figured out how to do the sunroom in a day, with no hitches or glitches.”

“Is this another case of 'Alex the wonder worker'?” Jack chuckled over the speaker phone in his study.

“You're learning, Jack,” Alex laughed in reply.  In earnest, he added, “But I honestly don't know that I'm a wonder worker.”

“You did wonders with our house two years ago.  Sometimes, Daniel and I just call you the wonder wabbit,” Jack mused, juggling three rubber balls while chatting.

As the chuckling subsided, Alex elaborated, “We're going to pre-fabricate the sunroom.”

“Great!” Jack replied.  ~Whatever that means.~

“We'll build it on the back of the property at Archonics and ...”

As Alex talked, Jack was distracted by Jeff's entrance into the study.

“Can I listen?” Jeff asked quietly.

Pressing the mute button, Jack replied, “Sure.  He's prattling on about the ... about ... something.”

Alex concluded, “The structure won't be anchored to the house, just sealed with a watertight membrane.”

“No drilling then through Hammond's walls?” Jack inquired.

“Jack, are you there?”

“I said ...” Jack began.

“The mute button, Dad,” Jeff interrupted, pointing at the phone as he laughed at his father's forgetfulness.

“Someday you'll be old, too,” Jack snarked in a deep voice as he pressed the appropriate button.  In his regular voice, he chimed, “No drilling then through Hammond's walls?”

“I thought you'd disappeared,” Alex noted about the dead silence he'd experienced for several seconds.

“Must have been your cell phone,” Jack spoke, totally covering up his faux pas.

“Oh,” the designer expressed.  Accepting the answer and then moving on, he chuckled, “You *are* getting good at this.  That's correct; it's a little precaution in case the general gets a bit testy about this stunt of ours.  It also means that technically it is not a room addition to the house, just an improvement to the property, like a gazebo.”

“Gone in a blink of an eye if he court-martials me,” Jack surmised.  ~Wish I knew what he said a minute ago.~  He made a face, and thought, ~No, I don't.~

“Exactly.  If he objects, we can remove everything quickly and without leaving a trace,” Alex confirmed.  “It will mean bringing the power from underground, since we aren't drilling through the house wall, but that shouldn't pose any problems, which reminds me, I think we should include a radiant heating system under the floor tile.  It will take enough of the chill off so that the room will be usable at least ten months of the year.”

~He just never stops thinking; kinda like Danny,~ Jack thought.  “Sounds good, Alex.  The idea is for him to enjoy it as much as possible.”  He leaned forward for just a moment as he added, “Uh, Alex, we'd like to make a few changes.”

Inwardly, the designer groaned, ~Here we go again,~ but with his best professional demeanor, he responded, “What did you have in mind, Jack?”

“Nothing as grueling as we put you through with the house,” Jack laughed.  “We've been thinking it over.  From the beginning, it was a toss-up between the sunroom and an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.”

“Ice cream parlor?” Alex questioned.

“Yeah,” Jack affirmed.  “A place to enjoy ice cream in style, like when he was a boy.”

“Mmmm,” Alex expressed thoughtfully, automatically beginning to doodle some notes and possibilities.  “You never mentioned that before.”

“The original idea was for a hospitality room, since Hammond likes ours, but then Ricky designed the sunroom, and we didn't want to disappoint him.”

“But ...” Alex prompted.

“But, Daniel and I have never been good at choosing between two options when we want both.  We can't seem to let go of Hammond's face when he was talking to us about having an ice cream parlor.”

As he continued to write down the possibilities his brain was already coming up with, Alex surmised, “So, you're talking about adding two completely separate, unrelated small additions?”

“Yes,” the general confirmed.

“Jack, I can't make an addition requiring that kind of connection to the existing house so readily removable.  There's plumbing, electrical, structural connections ...”

“Can you give us an out, if we have to remove it?” Jack interrupted.

Sighing deeply and exhaling through pursed lips, the designer answered, “No, Jack, I can't, not quickly and easily.  If we make this a prefab structure, framing it so it can be removed, and if we carefully peel the siding back so we have it to replace if we need to, which will mean using new siding as fill-in on the sides ...”

“Alex!” Jack called out.  ~Geez, he's worse than Carter sometimes.~

“It will cost a bit more, you realize.”

“I'll take that as a 'yes',” Jack responded.  ~No clue what you just prattled, something about siding, I think.  It doesn't matter; as long as it works, that's all I care about.~  “What's the difference in the siding?” he asked in an attempt to sound intelligent and like he'd been listening when he really hadn't been.

“Nothing but sun and time, Jack,” Alex replied.  “I need to know more about Hammond's house, Jack.”

“Jeff's here now, Alex,” Jack replied, motioning for the boy to sit in the chair in front of the desk.  “He knows more about the design business than I do.”

“Hi, Alex,” the teen greeted.  “I stayed with Grandpa right after my father died, so I know the house really well.”

“Do you have a firm grip on this concept of the ice cream parlor?”

“I think so.  Daddy is really good at getting someone to talk when he wants to, and the other day, when we were at Grandpa's, he brought up the discussion that they'd had about ice cream parlor before.  Daddy's *really* good , Alex.  It didn't take long before he was able to nudge Grandpa into giving more detail about what he'd like.”

//Flashback//
“It makes me smile just thinking about those old days in the soda shop,” Hammond recalled fondly as he sat at the breakfast table, Daniel and Jeff facing him as they sat on the opposite side.

“Where, uh, would you put it?” Daniel inquired casually, staring out the window at the lake.  “The fountain, not the whole shop,” he mused.

Hammond sat back thoughtfully, then pointed behind Daniel as he answered, “I suppose I'd put a small ice cream parlor out that way and put the actual ice cream fountain here, at the end of the breakfast area, facing out toward the kitchen.”

“Really?  What's back there?” the curious teen asked about the space beyond the wall.

“That used to be the laundry room and a closet, but it's just a catch-all now.  The gas, water, and electrical hookups are all there, and there's access underneath from the basement.”

“I think that could work, Grandpa,” Jeff stated, getting up and looking over the area.

The general chuckled, his right hand tapping lightly on the wooden table as he replied, “I'm too old to invest that kind of money now.  It would be nice, but no.”

“But the washer and dryer are upstairs now,” Jeff noted.

“Yes, they are,” Hammond affirmed.  “When my wife was first diagnosed with cancer, I tried to get her to take things easy.  I wanted to have the laundry sent out, but she wouldn't stand for that, so, at my insistence, we took what was a small bedroom and converted it to the laundry room and made the master bath more accessible.  It was the least I could do.”

“I wish we could have known her,” Daniel lamented sadly.

Hammond smiled as he asserted, “She would have loved you, Son, and your brood.”
//End of Flashback//

“So, what we would be adding on the exterior of the house is just another small room, with 110 volt electric, no extra water or gas hookups required, right?” the designer questioned his potential apprentice.

“Pretty much,” the teen affirmed.  “The ice cream fountain itself would be inside.”

“Okay. Thanks Jeff,” Alex acknowledged.  “Jack, you still there?”

“Unless I'm a ghost,” Jack teased.  Then he asked, “It's a go, right, Alex?”

Alex sighed a deep sigh, answering, “The fact that the hookups are there and there is a ready made space should make it reversible, not *easily*, but reversible.  Jack, you're positive he's going to like it, right?  I'm getting really uneasy about this ice cream fountain.”

“Sure as my name is Jack,” the general answered.

“Dad, I'm gonna ... go,” Jeff spoke quietly, getting up and leaving the study after his father nodded his permission.

Alex coughed, silently wondering, ~I'm sure that's a nickname, and his name is John or something.~

“Okay, when can you get here to take a look at the house?  We'll have to sneak you in,” the crafty general advised, forging ahead with the conversation.

“Jack, are you *really* sure about this?  The sunroom is bad enough, but we can do it all from the outside if we have to.  To do this other addition without General Hammond's consent ... well, I'd be putting Byron and Archonics at risk, to say nothing of my own career.  Besides, I hear prison food is terrible,” Alex stated, attempting to mask his concern about the project with a weak attempt at levity.

Jack chuckled as he reassured, “Hammond's going to be fine with it, and we'll handle all the permits.”

“You're sure?” Alex asked yet again.  ~And I *know* I don't want to ask about how he's going to get the permits.~

“We've got your back, Alex,” Jack promised.  He could sense the designer's hesitance.  ~Okay, O'Neill, you're supposed to be persuasive, so start persuading. What's his weak link?~  He smiled and continued his sure-fire pitch,  saying, “We can't pull this off without you, Alex.  *The brood* is *counting* on giving their grandfather this sunroom and ice cream parlor, and they are relying on *you* to make it happen.”  Jack brought his left hand to his mouth, curled his fingers, smugly blew on them, and rubbed them on his shirt.  ~Piece of cake.~

Well aware that he was being 'coerced' into being an accessory to this little Jackson-O’Neill scheme, Alex sighed, “Jack, I'll have to look over my schedule and call you back later.  I may need to juggle some things, or  maybe you should give me some potential dates, and we'll see what works with my present commitments.”

“Sounds good, Alex,” Jack responded.  ~Oh, yeah, that was good!~ he thought, grinning at his success in getting the designer moving forward in the conversation.  “Now about the sunroom ...”

Ricky entered the room just in time to hear his father inquire, “Will the roof of the sunroom be glass as well?”

“That's an issue that still needs to be resolved,” Alex answered.  “A conventionally framed and shingled roof is out of the question because it would have to be anchored to the house, and integrating it with the existing roof structure would not be aesthetically pleasing.  A glass roof will allow *too* much sun in and create a greenhouse, so I'm still working on that.”

“Dad,” Ricky anxiously called out.

The call distracted Jack's juggling concentration, resulting in the three brightly colored balls he'd once again been juggling landing on the floor and rolling away.

“Hold on, Alex,” Jack requested, pressing the mute button.  “What is it, Son?”

“Need talk ta Alex; tell him how make roof on Grandpa's sunroom,” Ricky explained, quickly running around the room to retrieve his father's juggling balls.

~Oookay, well, can't hurt.  Who'd have thought that anyone so young could have drawn that magnificent picture on the Etch-a-Sketch?~  Smiling at Ricky, Jack thanked him for picking up the juggling items and then pressed the mute button again.  “Alex, your latest young apprentice wants to confer with you,” he chuckled, pulling the youngster up to sit on his lap.

Jack decided to take the call off speaker, thinking it would be easier for his son to communicate using the phone's receiver.

“Hello, Ricky, how ...”

“Alex, no use glass or shi'gles for Grandpa's room; need 'dentive,” Ricky stated authoritatively as he held the phone in his hand.

~'dentive?  What is he talking about?  'dentive?~ Jack wondered silently.

“So, what do you want to do with the 'dentive, Ricky?” Alex spoke, using the exact same language as the boy had, his tone totally serious and not conveying his puzzled thoughts.  ~I'm not sure what he's thinking.  What's a 'dentive?~

“Need 'dentive; hafta put round top on square room, Alex,” Ricky explained exasperatedly.

~Round top?  'dentive?~  Alex mulled over the boy's words.  Suddenly, a huge grin spread over the man's face.  “Yes, Ricky, of course, you are right.  A *pen*dentive is just what we need.  A round dome will be the perfect roof for the sunroom.  It won't interfere with the existing roof, and it'll provide protection from the harsh heat of the sun while still admitting plenty of light.  Excellent idea, Ricky.  Let me talk to your dad again.”

Ricky shoved the receiver up into his father's face, causing the man to push himself backwards a bit.

“Thank you, Son,” the father spoke, deciding to go back to the speaker phone option since he still had an armful of Ricky.  “What's a 'dentive?”

“It's *pen*dentive, Dad,” Little Danny surprised his father by correcting.

~When did he come in here?~ Jack wondered, looking over and seeing the child prodigy standing behind his chair.

Using his photographic memory, Little Danny continued, “It was invented by the Ottoman Turks.  It's a series of four arches at right angles that form a square and allow a round dome to sit on top.”

“I couldn't have explained it better, Jack,” Alex chuckled, having overheard the explanation.

“Of course, you couldn't,” Jack said with a smile.

“Jack, Ricky really shows amazing promise in the area of architecture and design.”

“Alex, he's not even four yet,” Jack admonished.

As Ricky glared slightly at his older father, Alex firmly replied, “I know, Jack, but if it's okay with you and Daniel, I'd like to bring him over to Archonics and include him on the refinement of the design.  I'm curious to see how advanced he really is.”

“Yeah!  Can I, Dad?” Ricky chimed in eagerly, squirming in his father's lap.  He really wasn't sure what Alex had just said, but he was sure it would be fun.  “Pleeeeease!”

“Uh, I don't think that would be a problem.  I'll ask Daddy,” Jack responded to his son.  A bit louder, he told Alex, “I'll let you know after I talk with Daniel.”

“Hi, Alex!” Little Danny spoke, having recognized the voice speaking over the phone.  “Why did Dad ask about a pendentive?”

Ricky beat Alex to the punch, answering, “'Cause it's the kinda roof we gonna use for Grandpa's room.”

Jack shook his head in amazement and quipped about the family's rabbit, “I think I'll go find Bagel.  There's someone who can converse on my level -- I think.”

Alex laughed, though Little Danny and Ricky just stared at their father, who was, by right, a genius himself.

====

“Jen, I only want a small trunk or ottoman, and nothing foofy or fancy,” Jeff spoke as the two roamed a flea market on a sunny May day.  The teen boy wanted something for his room that he could keep some things in, but that he could also sit on.  “Oh, and cheap!”

Jennifer chuckled, “Cheap I understand, Jeff, and you told me that already, but 'foofy'?  Is that a technical term?”

After laughing at his sister's tease, Jeff suggested, “Jen, why don't we split up for a while?  We'll be able to see more of the booths and tables that way.”

“Sure, okay,” Jennifer agreed.  “Call if you find something,” she added, referring to their cell phones.

“Wonder what life was like before cell phones,” Jeff mused as he began to walk away.

“We'll have to ask Dad,” Jennifer responded.

“Not me, Jose!” Jeff smirked, shaking his head and waving off the notion with his right hand.

“Me, either,” Jennifer said as she headed off in another direction.

====

Minutes later, Jennifer gasped into her cell phone, “Jeff, come here!”

“Sure.  Jen, where's 'here'?” Jeff laughed.

“Oh, I'm just excited,” Jennifer explained.  “You *have* to see this.”

“I will.”

“Good.”

“Jen?”

“What?” the girl asked.

“Where are you?” Jeff laughed as he shook his head.

Laughing, Jennifer answered, “I'm right next to the yellow tent.”

“Be there in a jiff,” Jeff assured as he headed towards the area.

====

“Jen, did you find the perfect ottoman?” Jeff asked as he joined his sister.

“Ottoman?  Uh, no, but look!” Jennifer instructed, motioning at the leather chair in front of them.  “Isn't that exactly like Grandpa's?”

The two moved forward, taking a closer look.  Sure enough, the chair could be the twin of General Hammond's favorite leather chair that he had in his living room.  He loved to sit and read to the children in the cozy room, that was, in many ways, like a big study or reading room.

“Jen, if we got this, we could put both chairs in the sunroom.  It would be great for when he had company,” Jeff suggested.

“That's exactly what I'm thinking,” Jennifer spoke as she pressed the buttons on her cell phone.  Before Jack had even finished saying 'hello', the girl excitedly spoke, “Dad, Jeff and I found an exact match to Grandpa's chair; uh, except for the color, but we can fix that.”

“I didn't think they made them like that anymore,” Jack responded.  “Are you sure?”

“Dad, I swear!  We're at the flea market, but we don't have enough money to buy it.  Daddy is supposed to pick us up in an hour, but we can't fit this in the Silver Fox, anyway,” Jennifer spoke about Daniel's two-seater sports car.

“I thought he took the truck,” Jack said, getting up from the living room sofa to check the vehicles that were still outside.  “How'd you and Jeff both fit in Daddy's car?”

“We didn't, exactly,” Jennifer confessed.

“I don't want to know, do I?” Jack surmised.

“Probably not,” Jennifer acknowledged, sharing a hopeful look with her brother that their father would drop the subject.  “Dad, about the chair ...”

“I'll call Daddy and coordinate.  How much is the chair?” Jack inquired.

“We haven't dickered yet, but the price tag says one-ninety-five, so I bet you can get it down to one-fifty,” Jennifer spoke.

Jack blew on his fingertips, then ran his hand along his chest as he answered, “I'm the dickering expert -- one-twenty-five, or I'll tie my ... ah, never mind.”

“Geez, Dad.  You and Daddy need a date night ... bad!” Jennifer opined, an expression of 'ewww' and 'yuck' all over her face.

“Sorry, Jen.  I forgot who I was talking to, but you're right about Daddy and me; Friday can't get here soon enough,” Jack agreed apologetically.  “I'll call him and meet you at the flea market with the truck.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Jennifer replied, returning her phone to her pocket.  “Jeff, why do guys *always* think about sex?”

“We do not, and where did you get that idea from?” Jeff asked curiously.

“Dad and dickering,” Jennifer answered.  Seeing her brother's wide-eyed expression, she added, “Don't ask ... me, anyway.”

====

Jack hung up the phone and immediately pressed the speed dial for Daniel, all the while his mind wandering in anticipation of their date night on Friday.

“Hey, Babe,” Daniel greeted after only one ring, smiling at that woman who had just finished scanning the items he was purchasing.

“How'd you know it was me?” Jack questioned.  “You'd better had known it was me,” he added with a touch of Mr. Jealousy creeping into his voice.

“Jack, put Mr. Jealousy away.  Of course, I knew it was you.  I don't know anyone else who comes up as ‘Silver Fox’ on my cell, do you?” the archaeologist asked wryly.

“I should hope not.  You come up as ‘Space Monkey’ on mine,”  Jack admitted proudly.
 
“I know, Jack,” Daniel acknowledged with raised eyebrows.  ~You've only told me about once a week since we got the new phones.~  As he ran his debit card through the machine, he lightly bemoaned, “Along with that darn picture of a monkey in a space suit.  I’ve seen it.”

“Oh,” the older man expressed.

“Did you want something?” Daniel asked after a few seconds had gone past without his lover having said a word.

“Friday,” Jack answered without thinking.

“Friday?” Daniel questioned, wondering if he'd forgotten something.  “What’s happening Friday?”

“You, me, and hours of ‘dickering’.  Your body’s *mine*, Doctor Jackson-O'Neill.  I’m gonna make you wish it was date night, *every* night,”  Jack offered seductively.

The drugstore clerk’s head shot up as Daniel turned an intriguing shade of red.

“Danny?” Jack called out.

~Oh, gawd, she heard him,~ Daniel realized as the clerk quickly packed his items into a bag, suppressing a giggle as she bagged the tube of Astroglide.

“Daniel?” Jack called out again, having had no response.

~Gawd, let me get out of here,~ Daniel thought in desperation as the man behind him gave him an encouraging nod and motioned to the cell phone still gripped tightly in his hand.

“Earth to Space Monkey, come in Space Monkey,” Jack called out a little louder.

“One word, Jack.  Sofa,” Daniel whispered, causing the clerk to finally lose her internal battle and dissolve into a fit of giggles, as did two other people in line behind the archaeologist.

“Yeah, sofa sounds good.  We could do *a lot* on a sofa, just like we did that time when ...”

“Shut up, Jack!” Daniel interrupted hurriedly, snatching the bag of items from the hysterical clerk and running for the exit.  “I can't believe you just did that to me,” he added as he neared his shiny silver sports car.

“Did what?” Jack asked.

“Did what?  Jack, I was in the drugstore, and the clerk could hear *everything* you said, as well as some of the other people in line.  Plus, I was buying ... supplies ... for Friday.” Daniel admitted.

“Oh,” Jack sniggered.  ~Love it.  Love him!~
 
“Just remember -- paybacks.  Now, did you actually want anything, or were you purely phoning to embarrass me?” Daniel questioned as he slid into the driver’s seat of the Silver Fox.

Jack proceeded to tell Daniel all about the chair and that he'd pick up their teenagers from the flea market.

“Sounds good, Babe,” Daniel agreed.  “I've got a few more errands to run, anyway.  Sara called, too, saying that Jenny fell down this morning.”

“Is she okay?”

“Scraped knee or something.”

“Average kid stuff?” Jack questioned, a bit concerned.

“Apparently, but she was pretty upset and asking for me, so I said I'd go over there for lunch.  I’ll wait for Alex to call and then I'll swing by and pick up Ricky from Archonics before heading home.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jack agreed.  “I'll give Sara a call, too; make sure Red is all right.  By the way, Daniel?” he called out.

“Yeah?”

“How did you get both Jen and Jeff in your car?” Jack asked smugly.

“Uh ... well ... the thing is ... we ... uh ...” Daniel stammered.

“That’s what I thought,” Jack chuckled, before hanging up the phone.

Staring at his cell, Daniel muttered, “Paybacks, oh, husband of mine.  Definite paybacks.”

====

Ricky sat entranced while Alex poured over blueprints and elevations.  Alex was astonished at the young boy's grasp of architectural principles.

“You see, Ricky, the sunroom is only going to be twelve-by-twelve feet.  Any larger than that and ...”

“No fit on Grandpa's house,” the intelligent child asserted.

“That's right, but if we use the pendentive like the Ottoman Turks did, sitting on top of the wall, with the dome on top of that, well, what do you think?” the designer asked, showing the sketch to his charge.

“Too tall.  'Dentive start here?” Ricky suggested in question, pointing at the ground in the sketch.

Alex nodded half-heartedly, saying, “That helps, but to bring it down enough in height ...”

“Room too short; look too wide.  Not nice 'nuff for Grandpa,” the youngster interrupted in frustration.

~He's a little frustrated,~ Alex surmised.  Just then, the doorbell chimed, announcing the arrival of the food Alex had ordered.  ~Good timing,~ he thought.  “Time for lunch, Ricky.  We'll come back to this again after lunch.”

Lunch was from the Blue Moo, a local hamburger joint.  Alex had ordered a platter of mini-cheeseburgers, a boat of waffle-fries and deep-fried veggies, and a gallon of chocolate/vanilla swirl milkshake.  Ricky felt very grown-up because Alex hadn't ordered a separate meal for himself, but ate from the same order of food.  Their design issues left on the drafting table for the moment, the two laughed and talked about Ricky's homeschooling, his friends, his siblings, and his visit with Grandpa George.

Alex was pleasantly surprised that he could hold such an adult conversation with someone who didn't even come up to his waist.  Of course, he'd known that Little Danny was a genius, but he hadn't been aware of Ricky's level of intelligence until the sunroom job had come up.

“Sometimes, Ricky, the best thing to do with a problem is to leave it alone for a bit,” Alex stated as they went back to work.  “Now that we've had a break, let's see what we can come up with.  What's the problem with the pendentive?”

“Too tall in middle.”

“Very good,” Alex confirmed with a smile.  “What could we do about that?”

“Use smaller pendentive?” the youngster asked, beaming with pride at his correct pronunciation of the word.  ~I did it!~ he cheered inwardly.

“And?” Alex encouraged.

Ricky gasped, eyes wide, and answered, “Use *more* 'dentives!”  Small here at each side 'n' in corner; big'er here, in middle; make sides same, 'n' windows round top.  It fill in 'dentive ...”  He stopped, grumbled, then said, “s'cuse me, *pen*dentive!”

The little boy looked at Alex for his reaction to his idea.  It was hard to say who was more awestruck as both the teacher and the pupil stared with big, expressive eyes at each other.

“Ricky, you are amazing.  You did exactly what I was going to suggest with the sunroom,” Alex praised.

Alex quickly sketched a two-point perspective drawing of the proposed sunroom. Each side, or facade, was crowned with three pendentive arches. The tops of all the arches were level.  The smaller one on each side of a facade had its thick outer leg starting at the corner of the foundation.  The inner leg of the smaller arches butted up next to the larger arch in the center of the facade, rather than melding into it.  These legs ended at the top of the large rectangular windows. This left a space the thickness of the two arches between the large rectangular windows and the narrow windows, which was filled in with another tall, rectangular window called a sidelight.

Looking directly at a facade from right to left, one saw a leg at the corner stretching up and over a small semi-circular window in an arch that stopped at the top of the rectangular window beneath.  Right next to the small arch would be the large arch in the center of the facade, with their two thick legs butted together and a sidelight beneath.  The large rectangular window topped with its corresponding semi-circle occupied the center, and the remainder was a mirror image of the beginning -- sidelight underneath the butted arches, followed by the final set of arched window atop its rectangle with the outer leg of the arch plummeting to anchor itself in the foundation.

The fourth wall varied from the other three.  It had only five feet of exterior surface.  The entry door from the outside was placed there, aligned in the same plane as the French doors from the living room, giving a two-hundred-seventy-degree panoramic view of the lake and the property, as well as freeing the room from cross traffic.  The configuration of arches was adjusted to accommodate the exterior entrance.

Inverted triangles with two curved edges pointing down were created between the top of the arches and the flat beam on top, which would evenly distribute the weight of the dome.  These were decorated with fan-shaped shell motifs applied to the flat wood.

The finishing touch was a cornice molding atop the sidelights to carry the eye out from the door and keep the point where the arches butted from looking insubstantial.  A raised vertical molding on the narrow framing carried the eye to the ground.  The effect was stunning.

Ricky nodded his enthusiasm, and pointed out the tall narrow sidelights paired with the larger windows, declaring, “You use 'ladian' windows.  Look nice for Grandpa.”

Because he knew the correct term, Alex was able to grasp what Ricky meant and replied, “Yes, you're right, Ricky; those are Palladian windows.”  Seeing the little boy frown, he asked, “What's the matter?”

“No use right words, no talk right,” the little boy answered sadly.
 
Smiling, Alex quickly assured, “Ricky, you speak just fine.  You are an *amazing* lit...”  He paused, rethinking his words.  “You're an amazing young man.  There are a lot of big words to learn in architecture.”  Silently, he pondered, ~And I wonder how many you know already.  More curiously, how did you learn them in the first place?~

“Alex, tired now.  You call Dad 'n' Daddy come get me?” the little boy asked politely.

“Sure.  Come on, Little Man,” Alex said, picking up the yawning child and heading for his office, smiling as he did so.

====

“What did you do to him?” Daniel chuckled as he looked at the sleeping child on the sofa.

Daniel had arrived promptly at Archonics to pick up his son, but he was surprised to see him stretched out on the sofa in Alex's office.  The little boy was sound asleep, his mouth open, and his head resting on his hands atop one of the cushions.

“Daniel, this child *is* a prodigy, no question,” Alex stated.

“Prodigy?” Daniel questioned hesitantly.  He still had misgivings about the intelligence level of their brood.  As a genius himself, he knew all too well the difficulties it could cause with friends and peers, and he didn't want his children to suffer the same way he had.  He couldn't deny, however, that David was a clear-cut genius, and Little Danny was definitely a child prodigy, helped along by his photographic memory.  The rest of the children were all above average as well.  ~Prodigy?  I hate that word.~

Alex expounded, “I'll admit I asked a lot of leading questions, and I gave more than a few hints along the way, but he made the leaps himself.”  Looking directly at his underage protegé's father, he said slowly and deliberately, “Daniel, your son figured out how to engineer the sunroom to be proportional to Hammond's house.”

“He did?  I mean, of course, he did.  We were astounded by that sketch he drew, but ...”

“Daniel, are you upset by Ricky's abilities?” Alex questioned, surprised by the hesitation he was seeing in the archaeologist.

“No, no, definitely not ... uh, no.  It's just ... uh, well, I know how hard it is for children with labels; that's why Jack and I try to steer clear of them as much as possible.”

“He's way above average,” Alex reiterated, looking at the sleeping boy.

“Jack told me Ricky used words that neither one of us has ever used before.  We have no idea where he's learned them,” Daniel remarked.

“He really taxed that little brain of his today.  I understand your concerns,” Alex began.

“You've been there,” Daniel stated, knowing Alex was also considered to be a genius.

Nodding, Alex replied, “I am absolutely flabbergasted by what he did today.  I'm sure he was motivated because of who this is for.  He played way over his head, so to speak, so I'm not too worried about my job ... yet, anyway, but this child needs special encouragement for his gifts to reach full bloom.”

“We'll have to find out where he learned it from,” Daniel replied.

“Believe it or not, I think part of the answer may be television.  He finally told me that he watches a lot shows about home design and decor with one of your neighbors and with Jeff,” Alex advised.

“He does?” Daniel questioned, cocking his head a little as he considered that notion.  “Maybe that's it,” he somewhat agreed, still a bit distracted at the moment as he pondered the intelligence of the sleeping child.  Bringing himself back to the moment, he extended his arm to shake the designer's hand.  “I can't thank you enough, Alex.  Even with our concerns about labels and their effects, we believe in nurturing their gifts, whatever they may be.  We also realize that we can't begin to give our children all the stimulation they need to develop all of their abilities, so, we appreciate it when someone like yourself sparks something we didn't notice.  Please come to dinner soon, and be sure to bring Sunny.”

“You're welcome, Daniel.  We'll give you and Jack a call one of these days,” Alex replied as they finished shaking hands.

====

As early evening lingered on, everyone was enjoying their time in a number of relaxing ways.  For Daniel and Chenoa, that meant playing checkers in the game room.

“Daddy, I have an idea for Grandpa's new room,” Chenoa said as she moved her game piece forward.

“What is it, Princess?” Daniel asked as he 'kinged' one of the little girl's tokens.

“What if we drew flowers on the floor and signed it?  That way, Grandpa would always remember us and know we love him so much that we built him his own special room,” Chenoa put forth.

“Hmmm,” Daniel responded thoughtfully.  He stared at the board and moved his black piece diagonally.  “That sounds like a wonderful idea.  We're using tiles for the floor; that might be a good place or ... wait ... I've got it.”

“Got what, Daddy?” Aislinn asked as she walked into the game room.

“Your sister just suggested that all of you paint flowers and sign your names in Grandpa's new room, and I just remembered that we're having Alex put in a nice table between the two leather chairs.  I'm thinking that you could all somehow paint the top of the table, and we can put something protective over it.”  Daniel stood up, asking, “Ash, would you finish the game for me, if that's okay with you, Noa?”

“Sure, Daddy,” Aislinn agreed, after her sister nodded at them both, moving to take her father's seat.

“Noa, that was a wonderful idea.  I'll call Alex and see what he suggests,” Daniel stated with a smile.

“Good idea, Noa,” Aislinn added, smiling.  Looking at the game board, she asked, “What color am I?”

Beaming at the compliments, Chenoa answered, “Black.  I'm red.”

====

Even though it had been a long day, the parents wanted to do individual checks on this night, so each was going, one by one, to spend a few minutes with their children.  At the moment, Daniel was with Jeff, while Jack was with Jennifer.

Daniel laughed as Jeff finished telling him a story about something that had happened to one of his friends that morning.

“Jeff, I'd like to ask you something,” Daniel asked.

“Sure, Daddy.  Shoot!” the teenager said.

“Have you noticed anything unusual about Ricky's skills or abilities in architecture?” Daniel asked.

Jeff smiled, answering, “Just that I think he likes it.  Sometimes he sits with me when I'm reading one of the books Alex has given me.  He's asked me a few questions, but nothing that unusual.  He does like to look at the magazines.  I think he likes the pictures, and I usually have the House and Garden channel on when I'm reading or studying.”

Daniel glanced over at a pile of design magazines.  Jeff's interest in architecture had only been discovered earlier in the year.  Since then, Alex had given him a few books and gifted him with a couple of subscriptions to some industry publications.  The teenager had also used some of his savings to purchase a design program for the computer.

“Daddy, is something wrong?” Jeff asked.

Returning his focus to the teenager, Daniel shook his head as he responded, “No, not at all.  Apparently, Ricky's learned a lot from looking over your shoulder.  Uh, if he asks, it's okay to encourage him.”

“You mean it's not just the pictures?  I mean, I knew he surprised all of us with that Etch-a-Sketch drawing, but I sort of thought that was just a fluke,” Jeff admitted.

“I don't know how good of an artist he is on paper, but, apparently, he knows his stuff.  He actually figured out this entire sunroom concept with just a little nudging from Alex,” Daniel confided.  “Let's not let on how amazing this is, okay?  But ... don't assume he's not genuinely interested in whatever you're doing, either.”

“Okay, Daddy.  Wow, the little squirt must really be smart,” Jeff remarked.

Daniel hesitated, then asked, “Does that bother you, Jeff?  Do you mind that Ricky seems interested in architecture and has such a talent for it, too?”

Jeff grinned and shook his head as he answered, “Nope.  I know I'm not a genius, Daddy, and I'm fine with that.  There's more to life than books and intelligence.  Hey, maybe one day Ricky and I can go into business together -- 'The Jackson-O'Neill Brothers'.”

Daniel just smiled for a moment, then said a final, “Goodnight, Son,” before closing the door and heading down the stairway that led to the boys' room.  ~I'm so proud of him, but I don't want any of our children to have to live up to anyone's expectations but their own,~ he thought.

**Danny, are you okay?**

**Yeah.  We need to talk about Ricky before we go to sleep,** Daniel replied, pausing for a moment.

**Okay, Love.  I'm headed to Bri's room.**

**And I'm headed for David's room,** Daniel advised as he began to walk again, deciding to shortcut to the main upper level via the concealed stairwell in the rec room, rather than going the long way around to the living room.  ~Four sets of stairs -- no wonder Jack and I stay slim.  Well, that and 'you know'.~

** My two favorite words ** Jack chimed in Daniel's head.

**Quit eavesdropping, and keep your pants on,** Daniel sniggered.  *I'll* take them off when we're through with the Waltons,** he communicated, referring to their goodnight rounds.**

**Three more Waltons for me, then I'll be ready for action!**

**Just ... don't start without me,** Daniel chuckled as he walked.

**Wouldn't dream of it,** the older man responded, already feeling a little excited at the anticipation of what was to come.  ~Who needs an intercom?~ he mused, loving the convenience of their special communication.

====

“Ricky talked about his day with Alex right up until he closed his eyes,” Daniel chuckled, as he and Jack prepared for bed a bit later.

“And after,” Jack commented.  When Daniel looked at him questioningly, he explained, “He was mumbling about 'dentives' in his sleep.”

“Jack, he's ... Ricky, he's ...”

“Very smart,” Jack completed for his lover.  “We've been here before, Love.”

“I know,” Daniel admitted as he sat down on his side of the bed, watching as Jack changed into his pajamas.  “But every time we get surprised with another ... uh ...”

“Genius,” Jack completed for his lover once again.

“Yeah.  I just don't want any of them to go through what I did.  I don't want them to have to live up to expectations, Jack.  I want them to be who they want to be,” the archaeologist sighed.

“Angel, they are,” Jack spoke, sitting down next to his Love.  “Danny, Ricky has apparently been a pretty good Etch-a-Sketcher for a long time.  He didn't just sit down and draw that little masterpiece of his.”

“So ...”

“So, he never felt a need to show us until he saw a reason to,” Jack pointed out.

“Because of the sunroom,” Daniel replied.

“We're teaching our brood every day to be themselves, their best selves, whatever that is.  I think Ricky's little secret is a good sign that we're doing okay,” Jack opined.

“I hope so,” Daniel responded.  “He did like talking to Alex about it , though.”

“I'll bet it was a thrill for Alex, too,” Jack chuckled, moving to his side of the bed and getting under the covers.

“He likes to teach, but I don't think he allows himself to think about that, for some reason,” Daniel speculated, removing his glasses and placing them on the nightstand.
 
“He's already got a lot on his plate,” Jack noted.

“I'm not sure if that's the reason, or if he's hesitant to be a mentor,” Daniel replied.  “Jack, I told Jeff it was okay to encourage Ricky, but not to push it.”

Jack nodded as he settled his head on his pillow and motioned for his lover to assume his regular spot atop his chest, which Daniel was happy to do once he got under the covers.

“Noa had an idea earlier this evening when we were playing checkers,” Daniel announced and then proceeded to relay the idea to his soulmate.

“So, what did Alex say?” Jack asked curiously.

“It's a great solution, Babe,” the younger man responded.

“Alex said that?  He called you 'Babe'?” Jack's green eyed monster interrupted.

“What?  No, I wasn't quoting him.  I was just saying that what he suggested was a great solution.  Geez, Jack,” Daniel chuckled.  “Actually, it's a combination of my idea and Alex's.”

“The table?”

Daniel explained, “What we came up with was that we'd we get tiles, and the children can each paint something small and sign their names.  We'll seal the tiles together and make that the actual tabletop, covering it with a glass to protect it.  Every time their Grandpa George looks down, he'll see the brood.”

“Alex did it again,” Jack spoke in amazement.

“Well, I contributed the table idea.  He just, uh ...”

“Made it better,” Jack chuckled.

“He is a designer, Jack,” Daniel responded as he slipped his fingers inside his lover's burgundy pajamas and began to play with his chest hairs.  “I'm excited about this project, but we still haven't figured out how we're going to get the general to let us build it.”

“I'll think of something,” Jack promised.

“I'm counting on that,” Daniel spoke softly.  “Now, are you going to give me a sneak preview of what you had in mind for Friday?” he asked as he moved up for a kiss, one that led to a tender round of lovemaking.

====

“Danny, why do we bother to put on our pajamas when we go to bed when we know they're just going to come off in only a few minutes?” Jack quizzed as he slipped on the bottoms to his attire.

The younger man grinned and answered, “I like taking them off.”

Jack smiled, loving the lust in his husband's eyes, and asked, “Wanna ...”

“Yeah!”

“Gotta love round two!” Jack exclaimed.

“Uh, technically, Babe, it's round three,” Daniel corrected before undressing Jack yet again.

====

“Why is that man wearing a dress, Dad?” Jenny asked as she sat on Jack's lap.

The small redhead had a Simpson's Band-Aid on her knee from her fall at Sara's the day before.

The father and daughter were watching an episode of “M*A*S*H” on television in the living room.  Jenny's head was resting against her father's right shoulder, and she had tilted her head up to look at him as she asked the question.  To Jack's left was Bijou, stretched out against his leg and thoroughly enjoying the rubdown she was getting from Jack.

“He's trying for a Section 8,” Jack answered.

“What's that?” the red-headed girl asked.

“It's a part of the Army regulations that says if you're nutty, you can't be in the Army.  Klinger there is trying to convince everyone that he's nutty,” Jack explained.

“Is he?”

“No, and no one believes he is, either, but he keeps on trying,” Jack laughed. “I don't like that dress on him.  It doesn't flatter his face.”

Jenny laughed, and Jack gave her a kiss on her temple as the two continued to watch the show.  Halfway through, Jack moved forward, putting his daughter on the floor.

“Dad?” Jenny asked.

“Sorry, Honey.  I just had a brainwave, and I need to talk to Daddy.  You finish the show, and keep giving Bij her loving, okay,” Jack asked more as a statement.

“Brainwave?” the young girl questioned quizzically.

“Never mind,” Jack said, smiling.  ~Wasted a word twist,~ he sighed inwardly.  Quickly, he headed outside where Daniel was engaged in a game of croquet with David, Brianna, Chenoa, and Lulu.  “Danny, I've got it!” he called out excitedly.

“Got what?” Daniel asked as he watched his ball glide through the hoop.

“The answer to our problem,” Jack stated.  He smiled at the children, asking, “Who's winning?”

“I am!” David announced with pride.

“Way to go!” Jack exclaimed, messing up the boy's shaggy hair by running his hand through it.

“Which problem, Babe?” Daniel inquired as his turn came to an end.

“How to get Hammond to go along with the sunroom,” Jack answered.

“And?” the younger man prompted.

“Radar!” Jack announced, beaming and not saying anything further.

“Jack, speak English,” Daniel requested, knowing he was missing something.

Beaming, the older man revealed, “We use our own Radar to get Hammond to sign the permits.”

“What?” a very confused Daniel asked.

“I have to call Alex,” Jack stated, kissing his husband on the cheek.  Then, after seeing Brianna's next play, he called out, “Nice hit, Bri!”

~Radar?  Sometimes, Jack worries me,~ Daniel chuckled as he walked over to await his next turn.

====

The children were eager to help out as much as possible with the creation of Hammond's sunroom and ice cream parlor, each child excited about their own contributions.

“Jen, do you think Grandpa will like these?” Chenoa asked as she helped her sister organize her materials.

“Of course, he will.  He loves to fish, and fishing is part of our theme for the sunroom.  I'm really glad you're going to help me,” the older girl replied, smiling.

Jennifer had taken on the task of making the balloon shades that would be part of the new sunroom.  When full sun would make the room uncomfortably warm, the shades would block the glare.  Chenoa wasn't nearly as good at sewing as her older sister, but she was learning and enjoyed the activity quite a bit.  The two girls had gone to the fabric store with Daniel earlier and selected an all fish pattern that would blend with the overall decor of the room.  The pattern included seaweed and jellyfish that would echo the vines and flowers that were to be painted on the tile floor.

“Are you really going to let me help?” Chenoa asked.

Jennifer knelt down to look into her sister's eyes, saying, “Noa, sometimes it's not about being perfect.  We're all going to be a part of Grandpa's new room.  I'm going to do the big part, but, yes, you are going to help me, and I'm going to help you to help me.”

Chenoa grimaced, then asked, “So, do I really get to help?”

~Too complicated.~  Jennifer realized her answer had confused her sister.  Smiling, she answered, “Yes, you do!”

As Chenoa grinned, the two continued to get organized and then began their work.

====

“Grandma Sophia, I just don't know what to do about those round-top windows in Grandpa George's sunroom!” Jennifer exclaimed in frustration.

Mrs. Sophia Valissi was a trusted neighbor of the Jackson-O'Neill family. She had become a mentor to Jennifer, encouraging her advancing skills in sewing, as well as her curiosity about weaving and all things fiber related. More importantly, she had become a grandmotherly figure, and, much to the older woman's delight, Jennifer had responded positively to her request to call her 'Grandma Sophia'.

“Now, now, Dear, those balloon shades are really something to be proud of.  You really did a professional job on those,” the older woman encouraged.

“That's what Alex said,” the teen admitted.  “I think he was just being nice, though.”

“Jennifer, a man in Alex's position does not praise work unless he believes it.  To you, what you're doing is a surprise for your grandfather, but to Mr. Fancy Pants, it's a job that he's responsible for,” Mrs. Valissi stated.

Jennifer chuckled at the nickname, then replied, “I guess so.”

“Dear, you know if the shades weren't good that *I* would have told you myself, don't you?”

Jennifer smiled, knowing Mrs. Valissi had been very honest with her in their sessions together.  She nodded her agreement.

“Well, then, did you ask Alex for suggestions about the round-top windows?” the senior citizen questioned.

“No, I didn't.  I was embarrassed to admit I didn't know how to do them after he praised my work,” Jennifer confessed, blushing slightly.  Smiling at her mentor, she spoke, “Okay, I'll call him.”

When she had programmed Alex Dennison's number into her phone memory, Jennifer had no expectation that she would ever actually use it.  It had been one of those, 'oh, well, might as well' choices that had turned out to be useful.  As she pulled her cell phone out of her purse, she was grateful she'd taken the time to program it in.

“Alex Dennison,” the designer answered.

“Alex, it's Jennifer Jackson-O'Neill.  I'm really sorry to bother you; I mean, I know you're busy and everything,” the teen spoke.  ~I shouldn't have called him.~

“You're not bothering me, Jen.  How can I be of service today?” Alex asked politely.

~He sounds so gallant, and here I am wasting his time,~ Jennifer expressed silently, her body sagging slightly.  Then she felt a small jab on her arm and saw a forceful look on Mrs. Valissi's face.  There was no turning back.  After all, the designer was on the phone, waiting for her to say something.  ~Might as well get it over with.  Maybe he won't laugh at me.~  In one breath, she blurted out, “AlexIdon'tknowwhatIshoulddoabouttheroundwindowsinGrandpa'ssunroom.”

“Breathe, Jen, and then tell me the problem,” Alex requested.

~I must have sounded like an idiot,~ the teen thought.  ~Okay, breathe ... there we go ... in ... out ... in ... out ...~

“Jen?  Jennifer, are you there?”

“Oh, gee, I'm sorry.”

“Jen, you did a wonderful job with the shades.  Your sewing is definitely advanced.  Stop doubting yourself, and tell me the problem.”

~Definitely gallant,~ Jennifer thought, smiling.  “I don't like the permanently gathered shades I've looked at for that kind of window.  I want the windows to be open, you know, uncovered, when it's not too sunny, and I still want light to come through whatever we put up, and the windows will need to be washed ... sometime ...” Jennifer spoke, continuing to ramble on about the shades, sounding very much like Daniel in the middle of one of his 'passionate explorer' talks.

“Very good; you're thinking ahead, and that's very practical.”

“I guess the best thing I've seen so far is the pleated fabric shade in a half-circle,” the teenager spoke.  “It would match the shades under the balloon shades, but the half-circle ones don't move.”

“You've put some thought into this, I can tell,” the designer praised.

“I have a lot to learn,” Jennifer replied.

“And a lot of time to learn in,” the designer responded supportively.  ~Let's give her a challenge, and see how she does with that,~ he thought.  “Now, stop and think some more, Jen.  Are you the only person who has ever encountered this design challenge?”

“I suppose not.”

Alex queried, “What would the solution you are seeking look like?”

“Well, I guess it would fold up like a Chinese fan,” the teen seamstress considered, smiling at Mrs. Valissi, who was listening in on the conversation.

“Have you looked on the 'net?”

“No.  I don't think about the internet that much.  I'm surrounded by computer wizards, so I try to stay out of their domain,” Jennifer chuckled.

“Well, now that you know what you are looking for, why don't you do a little searching to see if the solution you are seeking is already out there?  Get back to me with what you find out, and we can discuss it further.”

“I will,” Jennifer replied.  “Thanks, Alex.”

“You're welcome.”

After Alex and Jennifer ended their phone conversation, the teen turned to Mrs. Valissi and requested, “Um, Grandma Sophia, can I use your computer?”

“Of course, Dear.”

Mere minutes later, the diligent young seamstress had found precisely what she wanted online.  She immediately called Alex, giving him the name, style, color, and sizes of the fan-folding pleated-fabric shades that she liked.

“These will work well, Jennifer.  I'll order the shades for the large windows in the same style,” Alex stated.  “One more item taken care of, thanks to you.  Is there anything else I can assist you with?”

“Just one more question.  Alex, do you think I need to make some sort of something out of the fabric to go on or around the round-top windows?” the girl inquired.

“That's up to you, Jen, but there are a couple of things to consider before you decide.  First, does the space need anything extra, or is a note of simplicity what is needed?  In other words, what would contribute most to the finished design?  Second, what would the occupant of the space enjoy more?” Alex mentored over the phone.

“Thanks, Alex.  That really does help,” Jennifer acknowledged, grateful for the designer's input.

“Anytime, Jen.  You have my number,” Alex reminded before heading off to a meeting with a client.

Flipping her phone shut, Jennifer sighed in relief, “Wow, I don't have to make anything for those upper windows.  I am so relieved.”

“You mean 'sew' relieved, don't you dear?” the older woman questioned with a twinkle in her eye.”

Chuckling, the two women continued with their tasks.

====
--Chapter Two
====

“You know what to do, Walter?” Jack asked Chief Master Sergeant Walter Davis at the SGC.

“Yes, Sir, but can I ask what it is I'm having the general sign?” Davis inquired curiously and a little warily.

“Something that will make him very happy, and you do want the general to be happy, dontcha?”

“Of course, Sir,” Davis replied.

“Just don't let him see the details, and make sure he signs on all the dotted lines,” Jack instructed.

“Sir, if I get caught, could I be court-martialed?” Davis asked.

Thoughtfully, Jack answered, “Probably.”

Davis stared at the major general, stunned at Jack's calm demeanor, and thought, ~Of course, he's calm, Walter; he's Jack O'Neill.  Hammond won't do anything to him.~

Taking a deep breath, Davis prepared to proceed.  It had been a very hectic morning thus far at the Mountain, with Hammond going from meeting to meeting and both reading and writing reports.  He'd already interrupted his boss six times for various reasons.

~Lucky number seven, or the end of my career,~ Davis thought as he made sure the post-it notes were in place, covering up the correct words.  All he knew was that he was supposed to get the lieutenant general to sign a slew of paperwork.  He could tell they were permits and had something to do with construction.  ~I don't want to know the details.  The less I know, the easier it will be to blame everything on General O'Neill.  Okay, here I go.~

“Sergeant, when is ...” Hammond asked as Davis entered the room.

“Ten-hundred hours, General.  Sir, I need you to sign these,” Davis spoke, placing the clipboard in front of Hammond, but not releasing it.  He continued to speak, talking rapidly as he flipped through the pages, barely waiting until Hammond had signed each one before turning to the next page.  He prayed his efforts to distract the bald-headed man weren't as obvious as they felt.  “SG-9 reports the talks are failing.  They need a decision on how far to go.”

“Can't those people decide anything for themselves?” Hammond barked, having just signed the last paper, after which Davis quickly withdrew the clipboard.  Hammond sighed, “Tell them to follow their orders, Sergeant.  What's next?”

“Doctor Lee wants to show you his progress with the device SG-2 brought back last week.”

“Just as long as he doesn't blow up the Mountain,” Hammond spoke with exaggeration as he stood and passed by Davis, heading for the door.  When he reached the doorway, he stopped suddenly and turned around.  “Sergeant, what were all those papers I just signed?”

“Just the usual, Sir.  Schedules, requisitions -- that kind of thing,” Davis answered.  ~That's not a lie.  They're just not for the schedules and requisitions you think they are.  I wonder how big and bad you have to be in Leavenworth to not end up as someone's punk?  Could I sneak my transfer orders by the Old Man the same way?  I could probably get to Elmendorf before Hammond finds out about whatever stunt General O'Neill is pulling.~

Oblivious to his master sergeant's distress, Hammond nodded, then exited the room.  Once he did, Davis slumped against the edge of the desk.

--

~There he goes.~  Outside, Jack looked around a corner, seeing Hammond disappear into the corridor.  He entered the general's office, asking, “Well?”  He watched as Davis removed the papers and handed them to him.  Jack perused the paperwork and grinned.  “Good job, Walter!  Thanks!”

“You're welcome, Sir, and I hope you'll visit me at Leavenworth when I get court-martialed for this,” Davis intoned.

“Every other Sunday,” Jack teased as he left the office.  ~Always knew he was as good as 'Radar' on 'M*A*S*H'.~

====

David examined several of the stone samples on display at the dealership.

“Dad, do we want cobblestone or flagstone?” David asked.

“You're asking me?” Jack responded.  “You're the expert, Son.”

David's contribution to Hammond's impending sunroom was to select the paving stones and the bed of gravel that would be used alongside the walkway that would lead from the door of the sunroom to where it joined with the walkway that already ran parallel to the house.

“This is more resistant to weather and erosion, and I like how it looks,” the boy stated.  “This one, Dad.”

“Let's call Alex with the details and make sure it works,” Jack suggested, pulling out his cell phone.  ~Rocks are rocks to me,~ he thought, although now that he knew more about archaeology, the thought wasn't as true as it used to be.

“Alex Dennison,” the voice stated.

“Alex, Jack and David Jackson-O'Neill.  He found his rocks,” Jack stated.

Alex chuckled, “What kind?”

“Rocks; just rocks,” Jack intoned.

“Daaaad!” the rock-loving boy chastised, reaching up for the phone.

With a slight chuckle, Jack began, “Here ...”  He grimaced just slightly when the phone was pulled out of his hand.  “... is David,” he completed quietly.

Having taken the phone from his father, David began, “Hi, Alex.  I picked a small number two river pebble, in a charcoal gray.  I like the composite pavers.  They're basically crushed granite, held together by cement.  They're fairly level, but not perfectly smooth.”

“Good choices, David.  The river pebbles will allow good drainage, and the granite will give good footing in icy weather.  It would be a good idea to lay slotted drainage pipe underneath the ground where the gravel is laid and end it with a slotted cap where the ground starts to slope towards the lake, so it won't keep settling due to erosion.  Now, how are you going to contain the gravel?” Alex questioned.

David thought for a minute, making funny faces that Jack couldn't help but laugh at.

Finally, the boy genius brightened, asking, “Can we pour a narrow band of cement on each side?”

“Of course, we can.  It can be formed with sheet metal.  Excellent, David,” Alex praised.

“Thanks, Alex,” David said excitedly.  “Here's Dad.”

“First Jeff, then Ricky, then Jen, and now David.  What are you trying to do, Alex, steal all my kids for your business?” Jack asked jokingly.

“Nah, I'll settle for the four I have now,” the man at the other end of the phone teased.  Hearing a bit of a mocking growl, he added, “Hey, Buddy, this is your project, and you wanted all the kids included.”

“Yeah, but I didn't think it would cost me four of them,” Jack laughingly whined in horror.

“My fees are steep, Jack.  What can I say?” the designer teased, inwardly enjoying all the mentoring he was doing.  ~I really do like this.~

“I'll get back to you on that, Alex.  Thanks for the help.”

“I didn't really help,” Alex admitted.  Chuckling, he added, “David found his rocks on his own.”

“Bye, Alex,” Jack said as he cut the connection.  ~And thanks for reminding me of that talk I need to have with David.  Maybe I can bribe Jeff.~

====

Plans for the sunroom and ice cream parlor were moving along nicely, and Jack and Daniel knew Alex had everything under control.  He'd welcomed all the suggestions, adding as many of them to the plans as he could.  Confident in the designer's abilities, the parents focused on their day-to-day responsibilities and their children.

Now, though, Alex was in town to attend a restaurant food and beverage service exhibition in Denver, and he was pressuring Jack and Daniel to make the final decisions on outfitting Hammond's ice cream parlor.  Since he would be making a number of purchases under Archonic's name for several clients, it would be easier to purchase the fittings for Hammond's house at the same time.

Combining business with pleasure, Alex had brought along his girlfriend, Sunny, hoping to enjoy a bit of relaxation with her.

“Alex, we just can't,” Daniel spoke as he reviewed the couple's schedule for the day.”

“Daniel, the exhibition would be an unique opportunity for you and Jack to see all the various types of fittings and gizmos in one spot.  There's a lot to choose from,” Alex urged strongly.

“We understand,” the archaeologist acknowledged.  He added, “But we have an important business lunch with a new client, and this afternoon, we have a meeting at J-O.  There's just no way we can make time to go to Denver; at least, not today.”

“Alex, hold on a minute,” Jack interrupted, pressing the mute button as he leaned forward.  “Danny, let's let the kids go.”

“The children?”

“Why not?  They've all been in on this gig from the beginning; they want Hammond's surprise to work.  They've got good taste.”

“I kn...know, but ...”

“C'mon, Angel.  We're not going to get there ourselves.  You said it yourself; there's no way we can get to Denver, today or any other day this week from what I can see.”

Daniel smiled, but he was still uncertain.

“Don't you trust our brood?” Jack challenged a bit mischievously.

“Of course, I do.”

“Besides, we've got babysitter problems we haven't figured out yet,” Jack smirked with an upraised eyebrow.

“Gawd, you're bad,” Daniel replied.

“But we're good to go, yes?”

“Gawd,” Daniel sighed, shaking his head in a combination of amazement and amusement at his lover.

“Good!” Jack replied, pressing the mute button and leaning back again.  “Alex, take the brood with you to that big show, and let them have a go at it,” he expressed over the speaker phone.

“Uh, that's our way of asking if you can babysit for a few hours,” Daniel interjected.

Jack quickly noted, “David, Ricky, and Chenoa are at homeschooling sessions, and Brianna is spending the day with a friend of ours,” as if having only seven of the eleven was some kind of enticement for the designer and beauty pageant runner-up.

As reassuringly as he could, Daniel interjected, “Jen and Jeff will help you with the rest of the brood, too.”

“Hold on a minute, please,” Alex said.

“He's asking Sunny,” Jack surmised.

“Jack, they've never had the brood before, not like this.”

“There's a first time for everything,” Jack replied.

“But ... seven of them?”

“Daniel, who are you worried about -- the kids, or Alex and Sunny?” the older man challenged.

“*All* of them,” Daniel chuckled.

“Okay, Jack, Daniel, Sunny and I will be happy to take the kids to the exhibition,” Alex announced.

For the next few minutes, Alex and Sunny agreed and were given the parameters of the shopping excursion as far as the children went.  The parents also provided some basic suggestions and a few reminders for their single friends.  When the subject had been thoroughly covered, the discussion ventured back to the ice cream parlor.

“It's for the general, and this has been his dream.  The brood are ice cream experts, so whatever they want, get,” Jack advised.

“Um, well, just make sure it's for General Hammond's benefit and not the children's,” Daniel added with a closed smile as he checked his watch.  “Can you be here in an hour?”

“We're on our way,” Alex promised.

====

Roughly an hour later, Alex and Sunny were given the keys to the SUV and temporary custody of seven of the Jackson-O’Neill litter.  This was the first time they'd had joint 'custody' of the children.  Sunny was especially glad to have Jennifer and Jeff there to help keep things under control, since she wasn't really used to all the children yet.

“This is a store?” Little Danny asked in surprise when getting out of the SUV and seeing a big building that didn't look at all like any store he'd ever been to before.

“No, it's an exhibition hall.  Different types of trade shows are held here.  Some are very specialized, like this one,” Alex explained.

“What's this one for?” Aislinn inquired, looking up at the well-dressed man.

“This exhibition is for people in the food and beverage industry, like caterers and restaurant owners, and also bakeries and ice cream parlors,” Alex answered.  “We'll go in and see all the different types of gadgets and gizmos we can get for your grandfather's ice cream fountain.”

“Little Danny loves gadgets and gizmos,” Jonny snickered.

“So do you,” Little Danny retorted.

“Do not!”

“Do, too,” Little Danny maintained, adding, “especially when you get to take them apart and put them back together.”

Jonny smiled, unable to deny the truth of the comment.
 
A wary look crossed over Alex's face, and he looked down at the troublemaking Munchkin, saying, “Yes, well, we won't be pulling apart any of the equipment we see today, will we?”

“Noooo,” Jonny answered emphatically as he looked up innocently at Alex.

~Why do I feel like I'm being had?~ Alex asked himself as he looked down at the youngster.  ~He's a Jackson-O'Neill all right -- about as innocent as ...~

Suddenly, Sunny looked down, pulling her boyfriend's attentions from his thoughts to the beautiful woman.  On one side of her, Aislinn was holding out her hand.  On the other side, Little Danny was doing the same thing.

“Did you ... need something?” Sunny asked the children.

As he held his hand out to Alex, Jonny answered, “You have to hold our hands until we get to the door.  It's a rule.”

“Yeah, big rule,” Jenny agreed, nodding as she extended out her hand to Alex.

Jennifer smiled at the two adults, knowing they were a bit taken aback by the statements.  She took Lulu's hand and began to walk through the parking lot to the exhibition hall.

“Oh, I see,” Sunny responded, smiling.  She reached down and took the children's hands.  “Shall we?”

Alex took Jenny's and Jonny's hands, and they began their adventure to get the perfect accessories for General Hammond's surprise ice cream parlor.

Behind the designer and his beautiful girlfriend, Lulu laughed.  Jennifer had one hand and Jeff the other, and they were swinging their little curly haired sister while walking to the exhibition hall.

Once inside, the children immediately noticed the mixture of delicious smells that circulated within the large structure.  Professional ranges, broilers, and all sorts of cookware were being put through their paces, and food was being prepared in front of the people passing by.  Tempting morsels were placed on tables near the aisles for passersby to sample.

“Kids, I want you all to stay with Jennifer and Jeff, so that I can do the shopping I need to do for my clients,” Alex instructed as he faced the youngest of the children, the two teenagers standing next to him.

“Alex is an important man,” Lulu whispered to Jeff, making Sunny chuckle.

Continuing to issue instructions, Alex gestured around the hall and said, “Take a look around at the different vendors, make note of what you want, and we'll place the orders before we leave.  It's okay to sample the food, but only take one of any item.  If you look around, you'll notice that there aren't many children here.  I know it doesn't hold a lot of interest for you, but if I can have about forty-five minutes to focus on the shopping I need to do for my other clients, then we can get Grandpa George's ice cream fountain outfitted in a very short time, okay?”

“Okay, Alex,” Jonny agreed, unable to hide his mischievous grin.

Getting an uneasy feeling from the oldest Munchkin, the designer turned to the teenagers and implored, “Jeff, Jen, I'm counting on you to help me out here.”

“We'll do our best,” Jennifer promised, after which Jeff nodded his agreement.

Thinking all was well, or perhaps just hoping that sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach was hunger, Alex, with Sunny at his elbow, headed off to start the shopping for his clients.

The designer's first stop was at a very upscale appliance vendor.  In fifteen minutes, he had selected a range, a refrigerator, a dishwasher, a baking oven, a wall-mounted broiler, and a customized vent hood.

Catching a glimpse of the total, Sunny commented, “I can't believe it, Alex.  I had no idea it was even possible to spend that much on appliances.  That's more than what my parents paid for their house.  I'm staggered.”

Alex laughed, “That's one of the perks of this job.  I get to spend other people's money.”

“Oh, then I'd be an expert in your field.  I'm great at spending other people's money,” Sunny jested, earning a smile from her boyfriend.

====

Elsewhere in the hall, the brood had been sampling the array of bite-size portions that were everywhere.  They'd already found several things for the new ice cream parlor and, though they still had more to shop for, they'd accomplished quite a lot in their first thirty-five minutes of shopping.

Now, though, Aislinn and Jenny were running around, grabbing as many samples as they could and then trying to evade their older siblings' attempts to rein them in.  Lulu decided to join in the fun, which meant that three young Jackson-O'Neills were running amok, while Jennifer and Jeff had little luck rounding them up.

“Ash?  Aislinn, get over here,” Jennifer ordered.

“Come caaatccch me, if you can,” Aislinn giggled.

“Ash!” the teen exclaimed.  “Jeff, do ... Jeff, where are you?” she asked, having turned around expecting to see her brother and finding him absent.

A few seconds later, Jennifer got her answer when she heard Jeff's voice.

“Lulu, I see you; now get over here!” Jeff ordered, grimacing when the curly-haired brunette laughed, did a perfect pirouette, and then disappeared behind a display.

~Now I know how Dad and Daddy feel when we all go shopping,~ Jennifer thought as she watched Lulu toying with Jeff's authority.  She had her own problems, though, and called out, “Jeff, Ash and Jenny are ... geez, where are there?” she asked, turning back around and just seeing Jenny's red hair move around a corner.

“This is more fun than an amusement park,” Aislinn chuckled as she slipped around the corner, too, and helped herself to a sample of an ice cream fudge cake.

While that was going on, Jonny had found a tray of panini, a type of Italian grilled sandwich, and sampled it.

“Little Danny, try this.  It's good,” Jonny said as he stuffed another sample into his mouth.

The same vendor that was offering the panini grills also sold other items and thus hadn't noticed Jonny's 'thieving' of the second sample since his attention was on one of the other items at the moment.

Jonny's visual sweep of the area located a Queen Mary, a large stack of heavy shelves, made of stainless steel rods and angle stock.  It was draped in a heavy white cloth.

“C'mon, Little Danny, they've got a ton of these made up.  Let's take some and crawl under here and eat them,” the sandy-blond-haired boy suggested.

“Alex said only to take one of each,” Little Danny reminded.

“They have lots,” Jonny argued, pointing at all the foodstuffs and trays in the making.

“We should pay,” Little Danny suggested, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a quarter.

“Ooookay,” Jonny whined, pulling out a quarter as well.  “Can we do it now?”

Since he was hungry, the little genius nodded.  Having formulated their plan, the two boys split up, Little Danny occupying the vendor with intelligent questions about the equipment on display while his covert ops specialist brother deftly snagged a tray of the panini cut in strips, left the fifty cents on the table where the tray had been, and then quickly ducked under the white canvas of the rolling storage cart of shelves.  Within a minute, Jonny was joined by his brother.

Chuckling as they stuffed themselves, the two male Munchkins sat on the bottom shelf of the Queen Mary, enjoying their treats.

The sandwiches were quite rich, full of prosciutto ham and mozzarella cheese, brushed with butter and grilled.  It took only a few minutes before the two boys had what Jack referred to as 'Beagle Syndrome' -- full tummies and sleepy eyes. With a yawn, they laid on their sides, with their heads toward the ends of the racks, and unintentionally dozed off.

====

“Jeff, where are they?” Jennifer asked, her voice full of concern as she looked all around for Jonny and Little Danny.

“I don't know, Sis,” Jeff answered anxiously as he rose up onto tiptoes to try and get a better view of the busy exhibition hall.

“They were over there the last time I saw them,” Lulu stated, pointing over towards the vendor with the panini samples.

It had been ten minutes since Jennifer and Jeff had finally gotten control of the mischievous sample-grabbing youngsters, and that's when they realized Jonny and Little Danny were nowhere to be found.

“Okay,” Jeff said, trying to remain calm.  “Jen, we need to find them.”

“Dad and Daddy are going to murder us,” Jennifer commented with dread.

“And then we'll murder those little rascals,” Jeff sighed.

Jennifer laughed nervously and asked, “Do you think they're just hiding?”

Jeff saw the worry in his sister's eyes and nodded, saying, “My money is on the Special Ops genius wanting to check out something, and he dragged Little Danny along.”

“Jonny can't drag Little Danny,” Aislinn stated.  “Little Danny does the front work,” she remarked with a smile on her face as she swayed from side-to-side.

Jennifer took a relaxing breath and intoned, “They're fine.  You're right, Jeff; they're just playing.  I'm gonna tan their hides myself, though.  They know better than to sneak off like this in a public place.”

Giving each other an encouraging nod, the teenagers, now keeping a tighter hold of their other charges, set out to find the missing Munchkins.

====

Alex had finished placing his orders in just under forty-five minutes, plenty of time to see what the brood had selected and place the orders to equip Grandpa George's ice cream parlor.

~Hmm.  I like the sound of that,~ the designer thought.  “Let's catch up with the brood.”

“I like shopping with you, Alex,” Sunny commented as they began walking.

“I bet you wish we were shopping for other things,” Alex replied as he took his girlfriend's hand in his.

“Other things?” Sunny asked coyly.  “You are a fast worker, aren't you?” she laughed lightly.

“In some things, Sunny,” Alex chuckled.

====

A few minutes later, Sunny called out, “There they are,” as she spotted Jeff and Jennifer ahead.  She wasn't sure whether to smile or frown when she noticed that Jennifer was holding Lulu's hand, while Jeff had one hand each of Aislinn and Jenny, both of whom seemed to be protesting the forced connection.

“Alex, Sunny,” Jennifer acknowledged as the group converged.

Counting noses, Sunny asked, “Where are Jonny and Little Danny?”

“That's the big question,” Jeff answered with a bit of urgency.

“We were on a roll, making a list with stock numbers like you asked us to, when we came to one of those areas with a ton of food samples,” Jennifer informed.  “These guys,” she said, looking down at the youngsters, “decided to play, and somewhere along the line, Jonny and Little Danny disappeared.”

“How long ago?” Alex asked, concerned.

“It's been about fifteen minutes now.  We looked everywhere in the area where we were, and then we decided we needed to find you,” the teenage girl added.

Alex checked his watch.  It would take him about twenty to thirty minutes to verify the items the children had selected, get them ordered, and have everything billed to Archonics, and there wasn't all that long left until the close of the exhibition.  Still, he knew how security conscience his clients were.  He also knew how fussy they were about who they let babysit their children.

~They're trusting me,~ Alex thought.  The ice cream parlor items would have to wait.  “We need to find the boys,” he declared.  “Show me where you last saw them.”
 
====

Jonny Jackson-O'Neill awoke with a start.  The shelf he and his brother were lying on was moving.  He was instantly alert.

Jonny whispered, “Wake up, Danny.”

“Wha...what?” Little Danny responded as he awoke.

“Shhh,” Jonny urged, bringing his hand to his lips in a shushing motion.

The younger Jackson-O'Neill triplet nearly rolled off the moving cart before he steadied himself by grabbing one of the corner support poles.

It was dark under the canvas covering the sides of the cart, but the two boys could see the concrete floor of the exhibition hall moving by them as they were moved toward their unknown destination.

“Where does this one go, Cale?” a deep male voice asked.

“What's on it?” another male voice asked in response.

“Warming dishes full of hot hors d'oeuvres, trays of cut sandwiches, and cold dishes of bite-size desserts,” Cale answered, looking at the tabletop.

“Those go to upper level, room 3C, the party room for the vendors,” the other man answered.

====

“Yes, Sir, I did see two small boys,” a man told Alex.  “The one in the blue shirt seemed interested in the panini grills and was asking questions.  I turned for a minute to attend to something, and when I looked back, not only were they both gone, but so was a large tray of sliced panini.”  He smiled in disbelief as he held out two coins in his hand and added, “I found these on the table where the tray had been.”

“You have no idea where they went?” Alex inquired.

“None,” the worker answered.
 
“They were definitely here, Alex,” Jennifer stated.  “Little Danny would insist on paying for the sandwiches.”

“Thanks,” Alex spoke, getting a nod from the man in return.  As he started to turn, he stopped and began to reach for his wallet, saying, “About the tray ...”

“Sir, everything here is free.  I hope they enjoyed it,” the man said, having held up his hand, palm towards Alex while shaking his head.  “But if they ate all of that, they may have stomach aches tonight,” he chuckled as he returned to his work.

“That's not all they'll have,” Jennifer expressed.  Seeing the looks, she added, “Red bottoms.”

“Jen, Dad and Daddy don't spank us,” Aislinn stated, looking up at her sister.

“There's a first time for everything, and, if they don't, *I* might,” the teen growled, sounding a bit like Jack.

Jeff chuckled, then put his hand on Jennifer's arm and reassured, “They're fine, Sis.”

Looking at her brother, Jennifer realized that he knew she was just frightened, not angry.  The brief silent communication calmed her.  She took a big breath and nodded, thankful for the support.

“Let's go,” Alex called out.

====

“The coast is clear.  Man went through the door,” Jonny affirmed.

“But where are we, Jonny?  Bet Alex is looking for us,” Little Danny speculated.

Jonny nodded, adding, “Jen 'n' Jeff, too!”

“Yeah.  They gonna get mad if we don't find them soon,” Little Danny noted.

“I know!” the other boy exclaimed.  “Has'ta be el'vators.  Man say there was a party.”

“Yeah,” Little Danny recalled.  “If we find the party, we find el'vators.”

“Follow me,” Jonny ordered.

The brothers crawled out from under the tarp and stretched their legs.  They were in a room that was empty except for more carts like the one they had arrived on.  A swinging door led to another room.  Peeking in the next room, they could see a kitchen, or part of one that had big sinks, huge refrigerators, large dishwashers, and what appeared to be conveyor belts that were still, at least for the moment.

“Don't like that room,” Jonny remarked, closing the door he and his brother had been looking through.  Instead, they exited to the third level hallway and started walking around, looking for a way back down to the main level.  “Hafta find the party so we can find the el'vators,” Jonny reminded his brother.

“Must be a big party; lots of food downstairs,” Little Danny noted, mistakenly assuming all the food that had been prepared downstairs was for the party.

Listening carefully, Jonny and Little Danny followed a faint sound that grew to a dull roar the closer they got to it.

“I think it's in there,” Jonny opined, pointing at the next door.

Opening the door, the wayward Munchkins saw a large room full of people laughing, talking, eating, and drinking.

“We found the party,” Little Danny pointed out unnecessarily as they walked inside.

“Well, look who's here.  Come on in!” a gaudily dressed matron who'd obviously had a few too many spoke loudly.

“Hey, Lillian, kids aren't supposed to be here,” an equally inebriated portly man in a rumpled suit spoke.

“Oh, lighten up, Fishface.  They're probably the kids of one of the vendors.  Who are you here with, Darlins?”

“We're here with Alex,” Jonny answered.

“Alex who?” one of the females asked.

“Alex Dennison,” Little Danny clarified.

“That effing queer?  He must like 'em young,” the rotund man spouted.

“Take a dirt nap, Al,” the kind-but-tipsy lady snapped.

Little Danny whispered to his brother, “He's saying bad things.”

Jonny nodded in agreement, but before he could say anything else, Lillian refocused on them and asked a question that immediately got the boys' attention.

“Would you two like some ice cream?”  When both Munchkins nodded eagerly, she chuckled, “I guess that's like asking if the Osmonds have teeth.”

Lillian was terribly impressed with her own humor, because she kept snorting all the way out the door the boys had come in and down to the serving kitchen.

As the young boys stared at the other party goers, they began to second guess their decision for ice cream.

“Jonny, Dad and Daddy might get mad we have ice cream before dinner,” Little Danny whispered.

“Only if they find out,” Jonny smirked.  “I no tell.  You?”

Little Danny shook his head, though he was already feeling guilty.  He let out a big sigh.

“Okay, we have ice cream, but we tell Dad 'n' Daddy.  They punish us with no ice cream afta dinner,” Jonny surmised.

“But we already have ice cream; I mean, we will have had ice cream.”

“Yeah,” Jonny said, grinning just like his older father often did whenever he got the best of someone.

Little Danny snickered his agreement, his guilt disappearing with each second.

“Here we go,” Lillian called out, almost tripping over a man's foot.  “Hey, stop playing footsy with my foot!” she called out in a huff.

Fortunately, the woman didn't fall and walked over to the boys holding two bowls, each half-filled with heaps of chocolate cake, topped with vanilla ice cream, while the other half was full of white cake, topped with chocolate ice cream.  Both bowls were laced with hot fudge and caramel, much to the delight of the two boys.

“So, how did you happen to end up here today with Alex?” Lillian asked.

“He brought us here, and his girlfriend, Sunny, is here, too.  She's a beauty queen,” Jonny answered before taking a big bite of his treat.

Lillian shot Al a glance that said, 'So there!'

Al just muttered, “Yeah, right,” under his breath.

Looking at the boys, Lillian inquired, “How do you know Alex?”

“Alex designed our house, made it lots bigger, but it looks like it s'posed to be that way.  We have big hospt'ly room, play room with Velossraptr, train room, secret stairs, centr'l vac...ow!”

Jonny interrupted his brother's rambling with a poke in the ribs with his elbow, warning, “Shhh, don't tell so much 'bout house; not know who listening.”

“Oops!” Little Danny expressed as he nodded in agreement.  ~Hope Dad and Daddy aren't mad at me.  I just forgot.~

Little Danny refocused on his treat, giving Lillian a simple shrug as he inexplicably stopped telling her about their home.

Before long, though, most of the adults were talking with the boys.

When someone asked about their mother, Little Danny replied, “She died, but it's okay 'cause she's in Heaven, watching over us.”

Then the two boys proceeded to tell the group about the day they sent up balloons in remembrance of all their loved ones.  There were some sniffles, some louder than necessary by some of the more drunken attendees who were overreacting, and a few remarks about what fine young men the boys were.  Although both children used the terms 'Dad' and 'Daddy', everyone present mistakenly assumed that they simply used both terms interchangeably, sometimes calling their father 'Dad' and sometimes calling him 'Daddy'.

====

After several minutes of questioning the nearby vendors, it was apparent that no one else had seen two small boys with a tray of pilfered panini.

As they stood off to the side while Alex talked to yet another vendor, Jennifer said, “Jeff, help me think this through.”

“If they weren't here, they had to leave without being seen,” Jeff remarked.

“But that just means they weren't noticed,” Jennifer replied.  After a moment of looking around the area again, she asked, “Jeff, have you seen any children here except the brood?”

“Come to think of it, I haven't,” Jeff answered, adding, “But Alex said this wasn't a place that you'd normally see children at, anyway.”

“So two four-year-old boys carrying a tray piled with panini would be noticed, right?”

“So, either they weren't noticed because they just weren't noticed or ...”

“Or they hid?” Jennifer asked, suddenly shocked with utter certainty that she had voiced the truth.  “Jonny and his covert operations,” she sighed, half disgusted and half impressed.

“We need to go back and talk to the panini guy,” Jeff said matter-of-factly.

“Let's go tell Alex,” Jennifer suggested, already walking towards Alex, Sunny, and the rest of the brood on the outing.  “Alex, Jeff and I have an idea.  We're going to go and talk to that panini vendor again, okay?”

“Okay, Jen,” Alex replied.  “I'm on my way to notify security.”

“Do you think that's necessary, Alex?” Sunny questioned.

Nodding, the good-looking man answered, “It's been long enough.  Maybe we can get a few more eyes looking for them.”

“Sunny, are you sure you're okay with the little ones?” Jennifer inquired.

“We'll be fine.  I hope you find them; we don't seem to be having any luck,” Sunny lamented.

“Thanks,” the teenage girl replied, after which she and Jeff walked away.

====

Up on the third floor, Jonny and Little Danny were enjoying the attention being lavished on them, especially by Lillian, who seemed to have a strange interest in their friend, Alex.

Lillian asked, “Is Alex living in the Springs now?”

Nodding, Little Danny answered with a full mouth, “He goooes to Flor'da'lot, though.”

“He likes Sunny; she lives in Fl'da, too,” Jonny mumbled as he chewed a piece of cake.

“Oh, really?” Al questioned snidely.  “So Miss Beauty Queen is nothing but a piece of front ...”

“Al, Shut up!” Lillian barked.  “You've had it in for Alex ever since he reported to the building commissioner in Reno that you were using substandard materials, and you lost your license.  He did it for public safety; he didn't even know you.”

“Snot-nosed little queer cost me my career!” Al spat vehemently.

Jonny's and Little Danny's heads shot up upon hearing the word 'queer'.  They stared at Al, and then at each other.

“No, Al, *you* cost you your career, and me.  You got caught skimming, and now you're stuck hawking appliances.”

“Everybody skims,” Al protested.

“No, everybody doesn't, just like not everybody goes for anything that will hold still long enough for them to ...”  Just then, Lillian looked down at the boys and decided the rest of her remark wasn't really suitable for their young ears.  “Enjoying that cake and ice cream?” she asked with a smile.

Jonny and Little Danny nodded, unable to respond verbally since their mouths were full at the moment.  They were also a bit more cautious now about talking, having heard the 'bad word' spoken from Al.

Leaning close, Lillian asked quietly, “Would you two fine young men do an old lady a big favor?”
 
Nodding, Little Danny swallowed a piece of his cake and responded, “What old lady?”

Chuckling, Lillian answered, “Flattery will get you everywhere, Darlin.”  She wrote a number on a business card, gave it to Little Danny, and requested, “Give this to Alex, and ask him to call me.  Tell him it's very important, okay?”

“'Kay,” Little Danny replied, slipping the card into his pocket.

Lillian appeared sad for a moment, but she took another drink and resumed her smiling demeanor.

“Little Danny, she knows Alex,” Jonny stated.

“Lot of people know Alex,” the other boy responded.

“I don't like how they talk; we be more careful,” the older child instructed, getting a firm nod from his brother.

====

“I told you already,” the panini vendor complained.  “I didn't see them after I turned my back on them.”

“We know,” Jennifer said.  “But this place isn't really that crowded today.”

“No, it isn't, because it's the last day, and most people have already placed their orders,” the man replied.  “All the vendors are trying to get ready to close up so they can get home.  It's been a grueling four-day show, and my feet are killing me,” he whined.  Then he grew more sympathetic and commented, “I don't know where your little brothers are, Miss.  I'm sorry.”

“I understand, and I'm really sorry to keep bothering you, but is there *anywhere* they could have possibly hidden?  Um, my brothers are really good at hiding.  They're great at playing cover... I mean, undercover games.”

“They're masters at hide and seek,” Jeff interjected.

Jennifer continued, “Isn't there anyplace you can think of.  Please, there has to be someplace two little boys could hide with a tray of sandwiches, and ...”

“And what -- hide in plain sight and walk away at the same time?” the panini man asked exasperatedly.  Suddenly his eyes popped wide in surprise, obviously having an 'aha' moment.  ~Or ... maybe.~

“What?” asked Jennifer, seeing the change in the man's expression.

“Maybe they didn't walk away.”

“I don't understand,” Jeff stated, looking at Jennifer, confusion evident on both of their faces.

“They didn't walk away, they *rolled* away,” the vendor revealed.

“Huh?” Jennifer asked.

The vendor explained, “There was a Queen Mary sitting right here, full of mini desserts, hors d'oeuvres, and appetizers.  This was the last stop.  All they needed were the paninis for a party upstairs.”

Confused, Jeff questioned, “There was a cruise ship right here?  I don't understand.”

Laughing, the man clarified, “Sorry.  Every profession has it's inside lingo.  A Queen Mary is a set of rolling shelves.  This set was covered in white canvas to keep the food fresh.  The lower shelf has enough headroom for two boys to sit, crossed legged.  They could even lie down with their heads at the ends.”  Feeling friendlier now, the man added, “By the way, my name is Carlton, Carlton West.”

“Jennifer Jackson-O'Neill, and this is my brother, Jeff,” Jennifer introduced.

“Where would the cart be now?” Jeff inquired, eager to locate their missing siblings.

Carlton answered, “It was loaded with food for a party upstairs on the third level.  Like I said, this was the last stop, and it was only here for about fifteen minutes.  The man who took the cart is an employee of the hall.  His name is Cale.”

“Do you know where we can find him now?” Jeff asked.

“Check with the catering staff,” Carlton suggested.

Carlton gave the teenagers directions to the staging area outside the kitchen and wished them good luck in finding the boys.

====

A few minutes later, Jennifer and Jeff were able to catch up with Cale.

“We'd like to talk to you about the cart you had when you stopped at the panini vendor's area.”

“It's been a long day.  All I remember is that the <expletive> thing was harder to push and steer than the others,” Cale complained disgustedly.

“That's because you had two stuffed little Munchkins as stowaways,” Jeff commented.

“Excuse me?” a confused Cale asked.

Jeff explained about the missing boys and that they suspected the Munchkins had hidden on the cart.

Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Cale became more cordial and noted, “I took the service entrance to the elevators and went up to the party level, but you have to have a key to operate them.  There's only one set of elevators, and the public access is all the way around in the front, in the lobby.”

“We have to find them,” Jennifer spoke, her face pleading for help.

“Come on,” Cale said, starting to walk.  “I'll send you up the back way; it'll save you a little time.”

“Thanks very much,” Jennifer responded appreciatively.

====

“Third floor,” Jennifer spoke.

“I can hear the music from out here,” Jeff commented.

“And they say teenagers are bad,” Jennifer teased.  “Let's ... Jeff?”

Ignoring the entrance to the party room, Jeff, instead, entered the serving kitchen, which was closer to the elevators.

“Jeff, what *are* you doing?” Jennifer inquired as she followed, glancing around at their surroundings.

“I want to see if they're still here,” Jeff answered.

Getting down on all fours, Jeff leaned forward, pulling aside the canvas tarps covering the shelves of the rolling carts.  Leaning as far forward as he could, he managed to peek under the furthest cart.

Jennifer giggled.

“What's so funny?” Jeff asked.

“Bro,” the female teen said as she attempted to steady herself.  “Say no to crack!” she blurted before giggling uncontrollably.

Jeff hurriedly stood and hitched his jeans around his slim waist, blushing, as he said, “Geez, Jen.”

“I'm sorry, but I couldn't help myself,” Jennifer apologized, although she couldn't quite totally remove the smirk from her face.

“Well, there's enough room for them in one of these things, that's for sure,” Jeff stated, wanting to put his embarrassment behind him as quickly as possible.

“It can't be very comfortable, though,” Jennifer remarked as she bent over to get a better look at the underside of the Queen Mary.

“Come on, let's hope they're in the party room, or we're back to square one,” Jeff stated, moving back into the hallway.

====

Jeff and Jennifer quickly discovered that the sought-after children were indeed in the party room, being doted on by nearly everyone there.

“Look at them, Jeff.  They're eating this up,” Jennifer commented.

“Yeah.  We're worried sick, and they're stuffing their faces,” Jeff stated.  “Let's get them!”

Jeff was ready to storm into the center of the room where Jonny and Little Danny were and tear into his truant siblings when Jennifer pulled him back and suggested, “Let's watch this for a minute.”

“Watch?”

“Dad always says not to rush in,” Jennifer smirked.

“Observe, learn, and ...”

“And get revenge at just the right moment,” Jennifer completed for her brother, a sly smile on her face now that she was no longer worried about the boys.

For the next few minutes, the teens watched in complete amazement as their two younger brothers worked the room like consummate professionals.  The entire crowd, with the exception of one disheveled drunk, was in utter thrall with the four year olds.

“Now, watch me rain on their parade,” Jennifer said as she worked her way through the crowd.

“This is good!” Jonny said, his face dirty from the combination of chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate fudge.

“Mmm-mmmm,” Little Danny agreed, his face in a similar state.

Both boys were just about to shove another big piece of cake into their mouths when they caught sight of something frightening -- their sister, standing right in front of them, arms folded, right foot tapping against the floor, and her eyes scoldingly cold.

Immediately, the boys' eyes bugged out, and then they gave each other a look that said 'grounded for life'.

Now that her brothers knew she was there, Jennifer very quietly stated, “I hope that's *really* good cake and ice cream because it's the last you'll be getting for a while.  Say 'thank you' to the person who gave it to you, and then we're leaving.”

“Jen, we ...” Little Danny began.

Jennifer shook her head, instructing, “No explanations or apologies, at least not yet, and not to me.  I'm letting our *parents* deal with you.”

Jonny and Little Danny gulped, then complied immediately, leading their older sibling to Lillian.

“We have to go now,” Jonny said, kicking the floor with his right foot as he stared down at the intricate detail on the floor tiles.

“This is our sister, Jennifer,” Little Danny introduced.

“Little tykes get away from ya, Dearie?” the woman asked, leaning over close to Jennifer and, in fact, almost falling down.

Jennifer grimaced, having gotten a big whiff of liquor, noticing that the woman was obviously three sheets to the wind.

“Apparently,” the teenager acknowledged.  Glancing down at the boys, she sighed, “Look at you two; you're filthy.”  She looked around for some napkins, then did her best to clean her little brothers' dirty hands and faces.  Looking back at Lillian, she said politely, “Um, thank you for looking after them.”

“We had fun,” Little Danny acknowledged.

“Cake was good,” Jonny added, trying to be polite and not get into more trouble.

“Bye, Dear Hearts,” Lillian called out, waving exaggeratedly at the departing children.

As the three were headed to the door where Jeff was waiting, Al invaded the attractive young woman's close personal space and said, “Hey, I admire a broad who can put a brat in his place and who knows her place.  So, my place or yours, Baby?” he asked with a leer, fogging the air with his alcoholic breath.

Not liking the look of what was happening, Jeff moved forward, reaching them just in time to have heard the 'my place or yours' proposition.

Before Jeff could say a word, though, Jennifer asked coyly, “Could I have a sip of your drink?”

“Sure, Baby, anything you want,” Al responded, his words slurred.

“Thank you,” Jennifer replied with a smile as she took possession of the beverage and promptly threw the drink in Al's face, making his eyes burn.  She shoved him backwards, having put her foot behind his so that he flipped over and landed on his backside.  She looked around at the room, then back at Al as she informed smugly, “Mister, you just willingly gave an alcoholic drink to a minor, not to mention that you propositioned me, too.  I don't think my parents are going to like that.  And, uh, don't ever try to do that to me again, or you'll hurt more in other places than your rear end.”  As the men grimaced and the women whooped, Jennifer said, “Come on, let's go,” while taking one of her younger brothers' hands in each of hers.

Jennifer cast a backward glance in Lillian's direction and saw a sad look on the woman's face.  She didn't have much time to process her feelings because she saw Jeff cross by her to where she'd just been standing.

After Jennifer's threat, Al roared and tried to get up, but couldn't because a Nike was perched on his chest.

“I think I'd stay put for a while, if I were you,” the owner of the athletic shoe offered.  “And I wouldn't even think of coming down to the main level for at least an hour.  The law is really the least of your problems.  I mean, uh, Dad got a suspended sentence the last time a man laid a hand on my sister; the time before that, well, let's just say, they never did know what happened to him.  Kapisch?”

Feeling like he'd made his point, Jeff turned and hurried to join his siblings.

“You didn't need to do that,” Jennifer said as soon as they left the room.

“He doin' his job, Jen,” Jonny said.  “Hafta protect each other.”

“He's right, but, Sis, you were great!” Jeff complimented.

“Thanks,” Jennifer said with a bashful smile.

Turning his gaze to his brothers, Jeff said, “You two are so gonna get it from Dad and Daddy.”

Jonny swallowed hard and was about to defend their antics when he saw Little Danny shake his head and say, “We save it for Dad and Daddy.”

Once inside the elevator, Jennifer knelt down and looked the two boys in the eyes as she spoke, “We were really worried, and I'm honestly surprised because you two know better.  Remember how afraid everyone was when you got lost last year?  Well, we were just as worried today.  I love you, but I'm very mad at both of you.”  She saw their faces growing longer and pulled them in for a tight hug.  “I was scared,” she admitted.  Then she added, “You don't know who those people are in that room.”

“That man said bad things, Jen,” Little Danny admitted as the hug ended.

“I don't doubt it.  We're going to tell Dad and Daddy everything,” Jennifer stated strongly.

“We know,” Jonny sighed.

Jeff looked at his sister and said, “And we are, Jen.”

“What?”

“We're going to tell them about that man, also,” Jeff stated.

“Jeff ...”

“We don't know who he is.”

“His name is Al,” Little Danny informed.

“Well, we don't know Al, but Dad and Daddy are going to want to find out,” Jeff stated, his look reminding her that the crude man had made inappropriate comments and given alcohol to an underage person and that their parents, being who they are, would probably want to check the man out further.

“Okay,” Jennifer acquiesced.

====

When the elevator opened, the boys caught sight of Alex heading right towards them.  They rushed over to greet him, big smiles on their faces.

“Hi, Alex!” both boys chimed.

Relief swept over the designer's features, only to be instantly replaced with blazing anger.

“'Hi, Alex'?  You run off, scaring everyone half-to-death; you've put the shopping for your grandfather's ice cream parlor way behind schedule; and, most of all, you broke your word, because you promised all of us, including your fathers, that you'd be on your best behavior; and all you have to say is, 'Hi, Alex'.”

The boys looked at each other, then Little Danny bowed his head sadly while Jonny shuffled with his feet, though he looked back up at the adult and stared him right in the eye.

Alex continued, “If this is your *best* behavior, I  hope I never see your worst.  'Hi, Alex', indeed,” the designer huffed.

In spite of Jonny's strong focus and Little Danny's silent contrition, Sunny could tell they were more than sad; they were devastated by the harsh rebuke.  She noticed both of them blinking back tears.

“I can't believe that I brought you here, *trusting* you to ...”

Deciding to intervene, Sunny quietly called out, “Alex,” while gently tugging on his arm.

“What?” the man asked sharply.

“May I speak with you for a moment?” Sunny requested, squeezing his arm tightly in warning and then pulling him away from the children.

“*None* of you move one inch!” Alex ordered the children as he was led away against his will.  Once they were sufficiently out of hearing range of the youngsters, he looked at his girlfriend questioningly.  “Sunny ...”

“Alex, calm down.  They're two very young children, and they made a mistake.  Why are you yelling at them like that?” Sunny asked.

“They broke their word.  You heard them promise.  A promise is a vow; it should never be broken.  You have to be able to rely on promises.  You have ...” Alex paused, his ramble coming to a close.

Sunny smiled as she held onto his forearm with one hand while rubbing it with the other.

“I was angry,” Alex admitted.

“Why?” the beauty queen prodded.

“I care about them, Sunny.  I didn't want to have to tell Jack and Daniel that ... that ...” Alex closed his eyes, letting out a tormented sigh.

“Alex, it wasn't your fault,” Sunny spoke emotionally.

“I should have been home, helping my mother.  She needed me, Sunny,” Alex lamented as he remembered back to his triplet siblings, whom he hadn't seen in years.

Unbeknownst to Alex, his younger siblings had suffered abuse from their stepfather and had tried to kill themselves, along with a young cousin.  When their mother had found out about everything that had happened, she'd had an emotional breakdown, hiding them away somewhere and eventually killing herself after virtually disavowing any knowledge that the triplets had ever existed.  No one ever knew what had become of the three children.  To this day, Alex didn't know if they were alive or dead.

“Honey, you can't keep doing this to yourself,” Sunny soothed.  “We'll find them.”

“I used to think I would,” Alex spoke almost in a whisper.

“I *know* we will.  Keep the faith, Alex, and, if you don't have any faith right now, then rely on mine, because I have all the faith in the world that they're out there, and that we can and will find them.  Okay?” Sunny asked with a tender expression on her face, her eyes soft and caring.  “Now, we're responsible for those children over there, and ... I think maybe now you realize why you were so upset.  Am I right?”

“I don't deserve you, Sunny,” Alex replied, grateful to have this first love in his life, one he was certain would be a forever love.

“No, you don't,” Sunny teased.

The two kissed briefly and then returned to the children.  Alex motioned for Jonny and Little Danny to approach, which they did.

The two boys were acting brave, but both still had watery eyes from the tongue lashing they'd received.

“Jonny, Little Danny, I apologize.  I snapped at you because I was worried.  You see, I ... well, maybe I'll tell you one day, but ..”

“Tell us what, Alex?” Little Danny inquired.

Alex could see the sincerity in Little Danny's eyes, and he took a deep breath as he thought, ~Maybe this is the right time to explain.~  Kneeling down in front of the two boys, he began, “I come from a big family, too.  One day, the triplets ...”

“Triplets?” Aislinn called out.

“Yeah, two boys and a girl, just like you three,” Alex affirmed emotionally.

Jennifer and Jeff looked at each other with concern.  They'd never seen Alex like this, and they had no idea he'd come from a big family, too.

“What happened to them?” Little Danny asked quietly.

“They got ... lost, and I wasn't there to help find them.  I never saw them again,” Alex answered.

“They still lost?” Jenny asked.

Alex nodded, his face the saddest the children had ever seen before.

Hearing a shocked gasp from many of the brood, all imagining the pain, fear, and grief they would feel if any of their siblings were to really be lost to them, he continued, “That's what I was thinking about just now, that I should have been there, just like I should have been keeping a closer eye on you and the rest of your brothers and sisters,” Alex explained.

“But you right, Alex,” Little Danny sniffled.  “We didn't mean to, but we broke our promise.  Dad 'n' Daddy punish us.”

“Yes, you did break your promise, and that was very wrong and potentially dangerous.  I hope you understand the worry you cause when you get lost like this.  I want you both to tell your fathers about what you did today because I think they need to know, but I'm sorry for snapping at you and for letting my own past affect my judgment.  I'm just so glad you're safe,” Alex expressed, surprising everyone when he drew the boys in for a long hug.

~Alex, there has to be a way to find your siblings,~ Sunny thought as she watched the scene play out in front of her.  All the children had been visibly stunned by her boyfriend's story, and all were fighting back tears.  She could see that Alex was in pain; he'd never recovered from the tragedy that had occurred.  She didn't even know all of the details, but she knew enough.  ~We'll find them.~

“Okay, now, we have to finish getting the things for your grandfather's ice cream parlor,” Alex said cheerfully, trying to lift the subdued mood a little.

“We won't go 'nwhere,” Jonny promised.

“I know you won't, Jonny,” Alex replied with a smile.  “Now, I need to inform security that you two scamps have been found, safe and sound, and then we need to get cracking on getting the equipment and supplies for the ice cream parlor.  We don't have much time before the show closes.”

Quickly, the group divided up again and hurried to find all the items that they needed.  Jennifer lagged behind for just a moment, watching Alex walk away in the other direction.

~Wow,~ the teenager expressed silently.  ~I bet that's why you like the Munchkins so much.  Now I know why you don't mind flying across the world at a moment's notice all the time -- you're running.~

“Jen, hurry up!” Jeff shouted.

“Coming,” Jennifer called out as she left her concern behind her.

====

“Here,” Jennifer said, handing Alex some brochures on which she had written the booth numbers and the prices of their selections.  “We didn't decide on the freezer for the ice cream, because, well, we just don't have a clue what to choose. We found a table and chairs, a milkshake mixer, a really neat waffle cone baker, sundae and soda glasses, a soft drink dispenser, and ... Jeff, what else?” she asked, looking at the boy.

“That light fixture that looks like ice cream cones,” Jeff answered with a smile.

“I found that!” Jenny piped up excitedly.

Lulu handed Alex a wallpaper sample and said, “We love horses, especially Noa, so I picked this out.”

Sunny looked over at the striped wallpaper that featured a pattern of carousels full of horses, smiled, and opined, “I like that, too.”

“You all did great; it looks like you thought of everything,” Alex spoke, feeling more like himself again.  “The only items I have to pay for right now are from vendors Archonics doesn't have an account with.  The rest will be combined with other orders for our other clients.  This won't take long.  Now, scoot, and we'll be along in a few minutes.”

“Come on,” Jennifer said, taking hold of Little Danny's and Aislinn's hands.

“This way,” Jeff added, holding Jonny's and Jenny's hand.  “Lulu, stay with us.”

Lulu giggled, bringing her hands to her mouth.  Her eyes were bright with amusement.

“What's so funny?” Jennifer asked as they reached the doorway where the children would wait for Alex and Sunny to pay for the items they'd purchased.

“Not enough hands.  I get to run around,” the curly-haired girl giggled, skipping around in circles gaily.

“Just don't skip away too far!” Jennifer warned.

“Not fair,” Jenny whined.

“And what does Dad always say when we complain that life isn't fair?” Jeff inquired

Jenny sighed, “No one say life fair.”

The children all chuckled as they continued to wait for Alex and Sunny.

====

At the twilight of the evening, Jack and Daniel had been home about an hour.  David's homeschooling session was over, but he'd been invited to stay for dinner and a movie with the family.  Thus, he wouldn't be home for quite a while.  Chenoa had come home, but then gone out again, having been invited to have dinner with her favorite Jaffa, Teal'c.  Ricky, too, had already returned, except Mrs. Valissi had asked him if he'd like to spend some time with her before dinner.  Since he loved both the woman and her dog, Andie, he'd readily agreed. Brianna was still out, but she wasn't expected home until late, anyway.

“Danny, the kids are back,” Jack called out, coming in from the backyard after having heard the SUV pull into the driveway.

“I hope Alex and Sunny survived,” Daniel teased as he finished stirring the ingredients of some homemade cornbread.  “There's the door,” he commented, hearing the front door open.

“They'll be full of stories ...” Jack began, intending to say more, but then hesitating when a horde of children failed to appear in front of them.

“Uh, yeah, but ...” Daniel trailed off, knowing that usually by now they would be surrounded by at least five excited children, all tripping over themselves in their eagerness to tell their fathers what they'd seen.

“They're quiet,” Jack stated, looking towards the living room.

“Too quiet,” Daniel confirmed as he wiped his hands on the towel and headed for the living room.

The Jackson-O'Neills were not known for quiet entrances, so the couple's suspicions had been raised.  They were further confirmed by the appearance of their children, all sullen, fidgeting, and looking at each other with guilty glances.

“Uh, is everything okay?” Daniel asked upon seeing the gloomy group.  **Maybe I shouldn't have asked that.**

**Yep, something happened,** Jack agreed.

Everyone seemed to be in one piece, but the archaeologist was concerned by the subdued mood of his children, who, by now, should have been hugging their fathers, talking a mile a minute, calling for the beagles and the cats, and asking for ice cream.

After Alex cleared his throat, Jennifer spoke up and said, “We did get everything for Grandpa's ice cream parlor.”

“But?” Jack asked.

“Dad, Daddy, why don't you ask Jonny and Little Danny what happened?” Jeff suggested.

The boys squirmed, Jonny looking downward as he lightly kicked the carpet and Little Danny putting his hands in his pockets as he looked over at the fish.

“Boys?” Jack prompted.

After a heavy silence, Little Danny sighed, “Dad, Daddy, we were bad; didn't mean to be.”

“Not our fault the man moved the cart,” Jonny added.

“Not polite to refuse cake,” Little Danny added rationally.

“You tell us always be polite,” Jonny said, nodding in affirmation as he looked at his brother-in-crime.

“Whoa!” Jack exclaimed.

**This is going to be a long story, Babe,** Daniel communicated.

**Yeah, I'm getting that, too.**  Looking at the two male Munchkins, he instructed, “Start at the beginning.”

“Alex and Sunny picked us up and ...” Little Danny began.

“Not *that* beginning,” Jack interrupted.

Little Danny sighed again, then nudged his brother.

“Oh, okay,” Jonny whined.  “They had food and ...”

After a halting start, the boys finally ratted themselves out, telling their parents every detail of their unanticipated adventure.  Jennifer and Jeff's part of the tale had also been included.

**Sometimes, I wish I was wrong,** Daniel relayed.

**Wrong about what?**

**This *is* a long story,** the younger man sighed mentally as the fathers continued to listen to the day's happenings.

“Is that it?” Jack inquired after the boys had finished their narration.

**Jack, let's tell them how we feel about what they did,** Daniel suggested.

Calling on his general persona, Jack just stared at the brood and, in particular, Jonny and Little Danny.

“Little Danny, he's got gen'ral eyes,” Jonny whispered, though everyone heard.

Sunny couldn't help but giggle at the comment, causing the boys to smile for a moment, thinking they may just 'get off' easy.  That is, until they looked back at their parents.

Standing right next to his husband and with his arms folded across his chest, Daniel intoned, “We're very disappointed in you two, and in the rest of you a little bit, except for Jennifer and Jeff.”

Jack added, “You promised us that you'd be on your best behavior today.”

“Sorry, Dad,” Little Danny offered.

“I'm sorry, too, Daddy,” Jonny echoed.

“We've heard that before,” Jack countered evenly.

“Last year, when you went running after the bunny at Mike's,” Daniel reminded.

“But we are ... sorry,” Little Danny sighed.

“Son, being sorry about something you've done means you don't do it again, especially when you promise us that you'll be good,” Daniel chastised.

Jack interjected, “You're both very quick to tell us that you're big boys and don't need babysitters, but you've just proven that you're not, and you do.”

“Are, too, big boys,” Jonny refuted confidently, though Jack's glare caused him to back down just a tad and lower his head.  ~Big tr'ble.~

Daniel chimed in, “A big part of growing up is telling yourself 'no' when there isn't anyone else around.  If you want to be trusted, then you have to behave in a way that earns trust.  You failed today, miserably.  Now, what do you think you need to do?”

“'Pologize to Alex and Sunny?” a red-faced Little Danny offered.

“That would be a good start,” Daniel affirmed.

Walking over to the  couple, the two youngsters apologized.  Their sad faces confirmed the contriteness of their words.

“Your apology is accepted,” Alex stated.

Sunny added, “Just don't do it again.”

“And?” Daniel prodded, his head nodding over towards the two teenagers.

Little Danny thought for a minute, then walked over to Jennifer and Jeff and said, “If we didn't run off, you never woulda met that bad man.”

“Not right then, anyway,” Jennifer acknowledged.

“I sorry, Jen; no want him hurt you,” the boy spoke apologetically, his child self definitely overshadowing his genius, as evident by his speech.

“Me, either,” Jonny agreed.

The girl's impulse was to kneel down and hug them close, but she sensed that their fathers were intentionally letting this one sting a little, a feeling that was reinforced by a look from Jack.

“It's okay,” Jennifer spoke, not wanting to sound too formal.

The boys hadn't cried since the big blowup with Alex at the exhibition hall , but their eyes were watery, upset at having disappointed their fathers and also knowing that something bad could have happened to them or their sister because of their actions.

“Now what?” Jack asked.

Jonny shuffled his feet, while hiding a sniffle, and then sighed, “We stay in our rooms; go to bed early.  No supper and ... no ice cream.”  The little boy looked deflated by his self-imposed punishment, even though he'd expected to lose his ice cream dessert tonight, anyway.  ~Don't like being in tr'ble.~

“Jonny's right.  We won't have music tonight, just go to bed,” Little Danny agreed, referring to the original family plan to have a music night together.

**It's a little early for bed, isn't it, Babe?** Daniel inquired.

**They don't think so,** Jack replied.  Verbally, he agreed with the two eldest Munchkins.  “Okay.  Go upstairs, and we'll be up in a while.”

Aislinn, Jenny, and Lulu all followed their brothers' lead, apologizing to Alex and Sunny and then heading upstairs for a long, potentially restless night in their bedrooms.

“I'm sorry they were so much trouble.  We should have realized the odds were against you,” the archaeologist apologized.

“They were being kids.  I'd hate to see them punished too much,” Alex admitted, feeling a bit guilty that, perhaps, he had contributed to the situation by not being as attentive as he should have been.

“Don't give it a thought, Alex,” Jack said, dismissing the comment.

Daniel smiled, saying, “They knew what they did.”

Jack nodded, pointing out, “Did you notice that we didn't force them into apologizing?”

“Or into going to bed early?” Daniel offered.

“Or no ice cream!” Jack lightly chuckled.  After a pause, he continued, “They created their own punishment, and we won't overrule them.”

“They'll be fine,” Daniel added.

“Wow,” Sunny responded, expressing her wonder.  “You aren't surprised or ... or ...”

“When you're a parent, Sunny, you learn to adjust to different situations.  This was a case of the kids, primarily the boys, taking advantage of ...” Jack began.

“Inexperienced babysitters?” the woman chuckled, admitting her lack of parental skills.

“Kids are their own worst critics,” Jack stated.

“And ... disappointing their siblings and ... us ... well, they don't like doing that,” Daniel explained.

Sunny smiled, taking in the knowledge being imparted to her.  She smiled at Alex, wondering if they might have children one day.

“Are you really going to send them to bed without supper?” Sunny inquired, not liking that idea at all.

“No,” Daniel stated.  “But it'll be something very bland and simple, like soup.  I'm making cornbread tonight, from scratch.  Jonny especially loves that when it's hot and buttered, so he's going to regret not having what the rest of us are.”

“So, aside from the kids running you ragged ...” Jack prodded.

“Yes, let me give you a rundown on what we achieved today, and it was a lot, despite the sideshow,” Alex mused.

====

After filling Jack and Daniel in on the items acquired for 'Project Ice Cream', Alex and Sunny began to leave, but suddenly a young voice called them back.

“Dad, Daddy,” Little Danny called out from the top of the stairs.  “Please, forgot to tell Alex somethin'.  Can I come down for minute?”

“Okay,” Daniel spoke with a nod.

“Thank you, Daddy,” Little Danny said as he walked by his parents and then looked up at the tall designer.  “Alex, I forgot to give this to you.  Lady gave it to me at ex'bition hall,” he stated, pulling out the business card that Lillian had given him.

Alex took the card and shrugged, the name on the card meaning nothing to him.  He was confused about the 'Call me' that was written on the back.

“Do you know her, Alex?” Sunny questioned.

“No.”

“No bells?” Jack asked with curious eyes.

“Not even a jingle,” Alex responded as he stared at the card.

“Maybe she wants to hire you,” Daniel suggested.

“You're famous, you know,” Jack teased.

“Right, Jack.  Thanks, Little Danny,” Alex said, putting the card in his jacket pocket.

“I go back to bed now.  Night,” Little Danny said, smiling at his parents and then heading upstairs.

“Jack, Daniel, they're really sweet kids,” Sunny commented with soft eyes.  “Maybe ... just a ... little hot cornbread for Jonny?” she asked.

Jack and Daniel smiled, knowing how hard it was to punish children, anyway.

“A little piece maybe,” Daniel acknowledged with a grin.

“Thank you,” Sunny said, leaning forward and giving Daniel a kiss on the cheek.

“Hey!” Alex objected lightly, a smile on his face.

“Don't worry, Darling.  I have something else for you ... at the condo,” Sunny promised, her entire body oozing of a sensual evening ahead.

“Bye, Jack, Daniel,” Alex spoke, clearly wanting to make a quick exit.

“Don't let us ...” Jack began.  He paused, looked at Daniel and shrugged, since their visitors were already out the door.  “I guess they had somewhere to be.”

“And something to do.”

“Daniel ...”

“Dinner, Jack.”

“But ...”

“Din-ner,” Daniel said, closing the front door, then passing by his husband and pinching his butt before returning to the kitchen.

“Hey!” Jack exclaimed, rubbing his rear end.  ~Gonna get me some Danny tonight, one way or the other,~ he vowed.

====

On their way home, after a bit of semantic foreplay, Alex and Sunny began discussing the outing with the Jackson-O'Neill brood.

“I'm glad I wasn't the one paying for all of that,” Sunny jested.  “The children really went all out with their selections for their grandfather.  Are you sure that was really okay with Jack and Daniel?”

“Sunny, the first thing I learned about Jack and Daniel, aside from them both being very stubborn, is that they go for what they want.  They may whine about the cost, but they've never yet backed away from it,” Alex replied.  “Did you see me show them the receipt?  They didn't even flinch.”

“The children are adorable, Alex,” Sunny spoke endearingly.

“Yeah, they have a way of getting under your skin, even when they play their little games,” the designer replied quietly, a haunted smile on his face as he recalled his missing siblings again.

Sunny recognized the look on her boyfriend's face.  She reached over and rubbed along his thigh for just a moment.  When he looked over at her, she smiled, confidence and love in her eyes.

“I love you, Sunny,” Alex stated sweetly.

“I love you, too, Alex,” Sunny replied.  “I can't wait to show you.”

Alex reached over and ran his hand along the side of her head, his fingers sliding through her blonde hair.  Life wasn't perfect, but since meeting this woman, it sure was close, in his opinion.

====

That night, Jack and Daniel were checking on the children.  They'd already talked with Aislinn and Jenny and were now entering the boys' room.

“Ricky, we need to talk with your brothers a bit,” Jack said as he looked at the little boy.  “Is there anything you need to talk about yourself?”

“Na-huh,” Ricky said, yawning, but still showing signs of play life in him.

“Okay, we love you,” Daniel said, walking over and giving the youngster a kiss on his forehead before taking a seat on the edge of Jonny's bed.

At the same time, Jack sat down on Little Danny's bed.  Immediately, both men had arms-full of a sorry Munchkin, affirming their apologies.

“Hey, it's okay.  We know you're sorry.  Daddy and I just wanted you to think about a couple of things,” Jack began.  Both boys looked at their older father as he continued, “It wasn't the cart operator's responsibility to check the cart to see if any little boys were hiding there, munching on free food, was it?”

“No, Dad,” both boys said at the same time, Little Danny snuggling in against Jack's shoulder.
 
“What if, instead of taking the cart upstairs, his job had been to move it onto a truck, headed for who knows where?” the older man inquired.

“Uh oh.  We'd be lost ... again,” Little Danny gasped, remembering back a year when he and Jonny had been lost in the woods.

Confidently, though, Jonny retaliated, “You'd find us, or you'd call Thor.  He likes us.  'Sides, we been lost before; know how now.”

**Know how?** Jack asked his lover incredulously.

**I guess he thinks they've got experience now at being lost,** Daniel responded, shrugging slightly.  Regrouping, he stated, “You're missing the point. Dad and I didn't find you last year.  We were fortunate that Solomon was there.  If you remember, you were cold, wet, and very hungry when he finally found you.  And ...”

“Charlie helped us,” Little Danny reminded his overly confident brother.

“But you could call Thor,” Jonny argued, not ready to give up the fight.

“Son, I'm glad you like Thor,” Jack spoke.  “He's a busy guy, though.  He's not always around.  You have to take your promises seriously, and you have to make better decisions.”

Daniel added, “We love you so much, and we're just ... scared that something might happen to you.”

“Like with Alex's family?” Little Danny asked.  Seeing his fathers’ surprised expressions, he admitted, “Alex told us ‘bout them.  He was scared we were lost f’rever like them.”

Both Jack and Daniel felt a wave of empathy for Alex at the emotional rollercoaster he must have gone through with Jonny and Little Danny going missing.

“Yeah, like Alex,” Jack confirmed solemnly.

Squeezing his young son a little tighter, Daniel stated, “Well, tomorrow's a new day, so let's try harder to obey the rules and not break our promises, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy,” Jonny sighed, giving his younger father a kiss and another hug. “And thanks for the cornbread.  It was yummy.”

“Thank Sunny the next time you see her,” Daniel responded.

“She took pity on you two,” Jack explained.

“Oh,” Little Danny expressed.  “She like Alex a lot.”

“Alex like Sunny 'lot, too,” Jonny noted.

As he stood up, Jack said, “You two can play *quietly* in your room until Ricky's bedtime.  Then it'll be lights out for all of you.  Understood?”

Two nods and a few hugs and kisses later, Jack and Daniel walked out, intending to head for Lulu's room.

“I have *biggggg* pieces of cornbread,” Ricky gloated, earning him a glare from Jonny.  “I no get lost.”

“We weren't lost!” Jonny whined.

“Daddy gave me extra piece of cornbread,” Ricky said, licking his lips.

Chuckling as they listened at the doorway, Jack whispered, “Ricky's gonna do our job for us.”

Tapping on Jack's arm to walk away, Daniel laughed, “Maybe we should have told him not ...”

“Not to gloat?  C'mon, Danny, they're kids.  Let him gloat for tonight; it'll help reinforce the lesson to Jonny and Little D.”

“Little D?”

Jack shrugged, causing the younger man to roll his eyes and protest, ~Gawd, please no.  Not another nickname.~

====

Six-year-old Lulu was alone in her bedroom since Chenoa wasn't home yet.  Having been quiet all throughout dinner, she now sat shaking under the covers, afraid of hearing those big male footsteps approach. Though she knew she was loved, today she had joined in with the Munchkins and run around, eluding her older siblings.  What had seemed fun at the time now seemed like a really stupid idea.  She had misbehaved and was sure she'd be punished.

~Dad and Daddy won't hit me,~ the curly-haired girl told herself.  Yet, her memory went back to the not-yet-distant-enough memory of her 'Daddy Kevin'.  She had hated hearing his footsteps coming down the hallway.  It meant danger.  Her foster father had hit her over and over again, often for no good reason.  She had quickly learned not to misbehave, even though it often hadn't made any difference.  With her new family, she'd been in trouble a few times, but it had been because of accidents, not deliberate acts.  ~I was bad today.  I broke my promise.~

For the first time since being adopted by Jack and Daniel, Lulu had purposely disobeyed the two men, letting herself just go with the fun of the day.  All of the brood on the shopping expedition had gotten carried away, but that was no excuse.

~Don't like footsteps,~ Lulu thought, her mind still transporting her back in time to when her so-called 'daddy' had regularly abused her.  ~No, Daddy Kevin.  I'll be good.  I won't be bad again.  I just ... I forgot.~

As her new parents walked into the room, Lulu was still caught up in her memories of another time and believing that hiding would only increase her punishment.  She jumped out from under the covers like a frightened rabbit and fell at her fathers’ feet, curled up in a fetal position.

Sobbing uncontrollably, Lulu begged, “S-s-sorry, Dad 'n' Daddy.  I'm so sorrrrrry I was such a bad girl.  Please don't hurt me; I'll be g-g-good, I promise.”

Lulu's haunting words became incoherent sobs before she'd finished her desperate plea.

Daniel felt like he'd been kicked in the gut at seeing their little girl so upset, and Jack was shocked into silence.

“Lulu, Sweetie, it's okay,” Daniel spoke hurriedly, kneeling down to reassure her.

The archaeologist was surprised when their daughter instinctively backed away, holding her hands up, crying, “I'll be good, Daddy Kevin.  I promise I will.”

“Daddy Kevin?” Jack echoed as Daniel looked up at him.  **Danny, what the devil is wrong?  She knows we would never hurt her.**

Slowly, Daniel stood.  He didn't want to move too quickly and frighten her.

**Maybe we should call Doctor Cooper,** Daniel wondered, referring to the little girl's therapist.

**I don't think we need that ... yet, anyway.  Remember that first night she was here and who she wanted with her when we took her to the doctor?** Jack asked in a leading manner.

**Jen.**

**Jen,** Jack affirmed.

**Don't leave, Jack.  She's too afraid.**

Nodding, Jack walked over to the intercom, pressed the appropriate button, and quietly called out, “Jen?”

A moment later, Jennifer's voice came over the intercom, replying, “Yeah, it's ... Dad, do I hear crying?”

“Princess, we're in Lulu's room.  Can you join us ASAP?” Jack asked, making an effort to keep his voice and demeanor calm, despite wanting to hunt down 'Daddy Kevin' and hand him over to a Goa'uld.

“Be right there, Dad,” Jennifer spoke, clicking off the remote.

Daniel knelt down again, but he didn't move forward.

“Lulu, Jennifer's coming.”

“Jen'fer?” Lulu mumbled through her tears, blinking as she began to snap back to the present.  ~That's Daddy, not ... him.~

“Hey, what's going on?” Jennifer panted, out of breath from sprinting all the way from her bedroom to Lulu's room.  Running wasn't allowed inside the home, but there was an exception to every rule, and this, the teenager knew, was one of those exceptions.  “Lulu?” she asked, shocked by what she saw.  She glanced at her parents, getting a nod of both encouragement and permission.  Slowly, she walked forward until she was within a couple of feet of the still-terrified girl.  “Little Bit, how about spending some time with your big sister?”

“Sis...ter?”

“That's me,” Jennifer confirmed.

Lulu looked up and saw Jennifer, smiling.  Her oldest sister was wearing a white, floor-length kimono, since it was actually way before her bedtime.  Through the little girl's tears, the teen looked like an angel.  In a flash, Lulu sprang up, clinging to Jennifer like a barnacle.

“Shhh, it's okay, Lulu,” Jennifer comforted.  “Let's have a girl's night in my room, okay?  We'll make some popcorn and listen to music or something.”  Feeling a nod against her body, she spoke, “I'd carry you, but you're getting so big, I'm not so sure I can carry you downstairs and back up again.”

“'Kay,” Lulu acknowledged quietly, her voice barely audible.

“Night, Dad.  Night, Daddy,” Jennifer spoke sweetly, a confident smile on her face.

“Night, Jen,” both men stated in unison, watching as Jennifer led Lulu into the hallway.

As the two girls turned the corner, Jennifer looked back and held up a thumb and index finger in a circle.  She gave a wink and a nod, as if to say 'everything will be okay'.

“Jack?” Daniel spoke vulnerably.

At the hitch in his husband's voice, Jack's anger dissipated as he rushed to comfort his soulmate.

“She'll be okay,” Jack assured, running his hands up and down the younger man's tense arms.  “Danny, her therapist told us this might happen sometimes,” he reminded.

“It was like she was back there, with him,” Daniel observed, disturbed by what he'd witnessed.

“She was, for a minute.  I saw her blink when you were talking to her, though.  She snapped back then,” the older man commented.

“Is she ... I mean, she's not ...”

“Danny, she's not afraid of us.  We have to remember what we've been told,” Jack interjected.

“She's come so far, but ... I guess it hasn't really been that long,” Daniel replied.  “It just seems like ... like ...”

“Like we've always had her,” Jack completed for his husband.  “Jen will get her through the night, and how about tomorrow, we have a bit of fathers and daughter time -- talk, cuddle.  Then, if it's necessary, we'll take her in to see the doctor.”

“We need to tell Corinne about this, anyway,” Daniel pointed out.

“Yeah; yeah, we do, but, Angel, remember, she *is* making progress.  This is the first time she's done anything like this.”

Daniel nodded, agreeing to the comment and the plan.  He, too, had confidence in their teenage daughter's ability to make sure there wasn't anything deeper bothering Lulu than what they believed.  If Lulu wasn't okay, or if something more was lurking inside her, the parents would take her to see her therapist as soon as possible.

“Let's go downstairs and wait for the rest of the brood to get home,” Jack suggested and then kissed his soulmate.

“Okay,” the younger man agreed, letting out an audible breath as he tried to keep himself from worrying.  “Uh, wait.  We need to call Megan.  We have a big calendar tomorrow.”

“You're right.  Let's take a look at the schedule and decide what we're going to move around,” Jack said, leading his husband to the den before going downstairs to wait for Brianna, David, and Chenoa to get home.

====

The next morning, Daniel gently nudged his teenage daughter awake.  When she opened her eyes, he put a finger to his lips and motioned for her to come downstairs.  The teen nodded groggily and disentangled herself from the peacefully sleeping Lulu while Daniel left the room.

The teenager slipped on her robe, smiling at her little sister as she did so.

~Sleep tight, little ballerina,~ Jennifer sighed contentedly.  ~You're safe now.~

====

In the kitchen, Jennifer found her two fathers and Jeff, sitting around the table, with a stack of Daniel's special Rice Krispies waffles in the center, along with a small pitcher of freshly made chunky strawberry/pineapple topping.  There was also a scrambled egg casserole and a carafe of her favorite hot cranberry tea.

“Wow!  I thought I was sleepy, but my tummy's changed my mind!” Jennifer mused.

“Sit down, Jen, and let's eat,” Jeff encouraged.

“We figured you might have some unpleasant things to tell us,” Daniel explained.

“Yeah, and nothing goes with unpleasantness like good food,” Jack quipped.

“Jack, that makes no sense,” the younger man replied.

“That's okay, Daddy.  I know what he means,” Jennifer said as she sat down and prepared to eat.

“That's what scares me, Sweetie.  I understand, too,” Daniel chuckled.

The teens chuckled as well, but Jack just glared in mocking contempt.

“Jack,” Daniel prompted with a nod.

“Jeff, we wanted you be included this morning because you help take care of the brood.  We've talked to you about Lulu's past, but we felt if you really knew what she went through, it would make it easier for you to be understanding.  It's ugly; there's no other way to describe it,” Jack explained.

“Mmm,” Jennifer murmured as she closed her eyes and inhaled the flavor and aroma of the tasty waffle treat, more tuned in to her hunger at the moment than the words being spoken.  “I hope I get a husband who cooks as well as you, Daddy.”

Jack glared at the thought of anyone touching his daughter, even in the bonds of matrimony.

Daniel just rolled his eyes and decided to move things forward saying, “It's bright and early, but I'm not sure how long we'll have until the little ones get up, so ...”

“Oh, well ...” Jennifer began.  “It's that man again.”

“Her last adoptive father?” Jeff asked.

“I wouldn't use that term to describe Kevin Guyer,” Jack groused about the abusive man.

“Anyway ...” Jennifer spoke as she proceeded to relay what Lulu had told her.  “It was horrible, Daddy.  He'd punish her for anything at all, or nothing, as it often was, just because he was in a bad mood.  Half the time, he wouldn't even tell her what she'd done.  He'd send her to her bed to wait for him.”

“Waiting to be punished can be worse than the punishment itself,” Daniel bemoaned, an old foster parent memory of his own surfacing.

Jack noticed his husband's reaction, but Daniel shook his head, indicating he was fine.  Besides, they needed to focus on their daughter right now.  Jack took his lover's hand, anyway, stroking his thumb over Daniel's knuckles as they listened to their eldest daughter.

Jennifer continued, “She would wait, and wait, and wait, not knowing if he would beat her, or ...” she stopped, her fork clanging against her plate.

“We know, Jen,” Daniel said softly, reaching across and brushing her hand lovingly for a moment.

“She ... was a...abused like that?” Jeff asked.  He'd wondered, but he'd hoped his suspicions were wrong.  ~I'd like to ...~

Jeff's vengeful thoughts were halted when Daniel nodded and confirmed, “Yes, Jeff.”

“I understand now why she acts the way she does sometimes,” Jeff spoke, not wanting to say anything more.

The female teen let out a sigh, saying, “It's just so sad.  Okay, anyway, she didn't know if he'd hit her, or touch her, or both.  Sometimes, he'd get drunk and forget about her completely.  If her foster mother came home, Lulu would cling to her, but was afraid to tell her about what Kevin was doing.  She didn't know if that would make her mad, or ... well, Lulu thought everything was her fault, anyway.  She never said anything to the foster people because she was too afraid, and Kevin kept blaming her for everything under the sun.  Lulu began to believe the lies he told her.”

“That everything bad was her fault?” Jeff asked.

“Yes.”

“Jack, calm down,” Daniel ordered.

“Daniel, I haven't said a friggin' word,” Jack responded.

“I know, but you're boiling, and you're cutting off the circulation in my hand.  This is all past history.  Yes, it affects our daughter now, but she's getting better.  She doesn't need any of us being angry.  She needs us to ...”

“Be calm and supportive,” Jack sighed, nodding in awareness of the message his husband was conveying.  He drew a deep breath, then instructed, “Go on, Jen.”

“Well, one day,” Jennifer began, “Kevin got angry at her.  He hit her, but he was drinking.  I guess he knew he was about to pass out because he told her to go to her room and stay there.  He said that when he woke up from his nap that he was going to teach her a lesson and then ...”  She paused, shaking her head.  Then she closed her eyes and stated, “He promised her that they'd, and I quote, 'make up and have some fun'.  Disgusting.”

“Jen ...” Daniel hesitantly prompted.

“That was the day she left, Daddy.  She'd lived in fear for so long, but she couldn't stay there anymore.  She was more afraid of staying than leaving.  She wasn't sure she'd make it through a day, but she didn't care, either.  Her only concern was for Calico,” Jennifer sighed, talking about the young girl's pet cat.  “She was afraid Kevin would hurt Calico, or worse.  She considered going back, but was positive that if she did, Kevin would kill her.  She prayed Calico would run away, too, and someone nice would take her in.”

“Cats,” Jack tried to tease.  He looked over at the feline, who was happily eating her food, blissfully unaware of the serious conversation going on around her.  “She was Lulu's only friend.”

“Well, you know the rest of the story.  She made her way to the zoo and ...”

“Became one of Little Danny's strays,” Jack stated.  “Best stray he ever found,” he added with a smile.

“I thought it was Jonny who actually found her,” Jeff stated.

“Technically,” Daniel confirmed, adding, “But it was a joint mission to get her home.”

“With Ash's help, too,” Jack added.

“Jen, what about last night?  What prompted the flashback?” Daniel questioned.

“I think it was because she'd gone to her room and was waiting to find out how she'd be punished.  She was afraid because she knew what she was doing when she broke ranks and joined in racing around the exhibition hall.  She never understood what she was being punished for when she was trying to be so good, but, yesterday, she knew she was being disobedient,” Jennifer explained.

“OH, FOR CRYIN' OUT LOUD!” Jack spat as he threw his napkin on the table.  “SHE WAS JUST BEIN' A KID!”

“Shhh, Jack, we don't want to wake the rest of the brood,” Daniel warned.  “Jen, we didn't know what we were placing on your shoulders when we asked you to take over for us with Lulu.  We're sorry, Honey.”

Jennifer smiled sadly and expounded, “It's hard to even think of someone like Kevin as a person.  I don't understand how anyone could do that to a child, but I think it's a good thing you asked me to take Lulu to my room last night.  She wasn't seeing you and Dad, she was seeing 'Daddy Kevin', only double.  After she got all of that horrible stuff out, she said she loved both of you and wanted to see you, but she snuggled up next to me and went right to sleep.  She didn't wake up at all.”

“How much sleep did you get?” Daniel asked with a knowing smile.

“Not much.  I wanted to be awake if she started to have a nightmare or something,” Jennifer admitted.  “I waited to go to sleep until I was pretty certain she wasn't going to wake up, until morning, that is.”

“Thanks, Jen,” Jack said.  “You know, Daniel, we're walking a fine line here.”  Seeing Daniel's puzzled expression, he continued, “A part of me is glad Lulu got caught up in the moment with her siblings, but we can't reward her for disobeying.”

Catching Jack's train of thought, Daniel replied, “And we can't treat her differently, or the brood will figure out that all they have to do is con Lulu into going along, and they'll get off easy.”

Jack nodded in agreement as the parents considered the situation.

Jennifer interjected, “You two aren't so different from my, I mean, our mom and dad.  Punishment isn't supposed to be abusive, and if Lulu is starting to learn that, then she's come a long way, right?”

“Jen's right,” Jeff chimed.  “Yesterday was a perfect example.  The boys made a mistake and had to rat themselves out, and then they had to figure out what they needed to do to make amends.  Lulu's smart.  She's taking all this in.  She's never seen any of us be hit, made fun of, or belittled.  She's learning what punishment should be, what it needs to be.  She'll be fine, eventually.”

“She's a Jackson-O'Neill,” Jennifer added proudly.

“Our very wise children,” Daniel spoke with a smile.

Jennifer interjected, “Actually, Daddy, I was thinking how nice it was just now that you and Dad were talking like that in front of us, like we're ... I don't know.”

“I do,” Jeff responded.  “Like we're grown up.”

“Not quite, Son, but certainly getting there, and we're both very proud of you both for how you are with your younger siblings,” Jack spoke.

“Very much so,” Daniel agreed.

Just then Lulu shuffled into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and yawning.

Quietly, Jack looked at Jennifer and asked, “Is that it?”

“Pretty much,” the teen said as she nodded.

“Hey, Little Bit,” Jack greeted carefully as he turned his attention to the young girl.

“I'm hungry,” Lulu said with another yawn as she ambled up to her older father for a good morning hug.

“We can fix that,” Jack replied, hugging the little girl close.

Lulu moved over to Daniel and gave him a hug.  She smiled when he picked her up, setting her on his lap.

“How are you this morning, Lulu?” Daniel asked, his hand combing through the girl's curly locks.

“Hungry,” Lulu repeated, resting her head against Daniel's shoulder.

**It's like she doesn't remember last night,** Jack communicated.

**Maybe she doesn't,** Daniel agreed.

“Daddy, I'm not afraid of you,” the little girl said suddenly.  “I thought Kevin was here last night.  He wasn't here, was he?” Lulu asked cautiously.

Lulu's parents were happy that their young daughter had just said 'Kevin' again and not 'Daddy Kevin'. It had only been recently, during the family's Safety Faire, that she'd finally disassociated Kevin Guyer from the term 'Daddy'. Hearing her use the term again during her temporary regression had been difficult.

“No, Princess,” Daniel answered.  “Mister Guyer is in prison, and he's going to be there a long, long time.”

“I don't want to see him again,” Lulu stated.

“He won't come near you ever again,” Daniel promised.

“Never?” Lulu asked quietly.

“Never, ever, forever never,” Daniel assured, reminding himself of Jack, but thinking that, at the moment, it was probably a good thing.

~Need to make sure of that,~ Jack thought to himself.  ~Maybe I call Carlton,~ he pondered about one of his old Special Ops contacts.

“Is Noa home?” Lulu asked.

“She's upstairs in your room.  She missed you last night,” Daniel replied, smiling at his little girl.

“I'd better go wake her up.  She's probably hungry, too,” Lulu spoke excitedly as she climbed down from her younger father's lap.  She started to run out of the kitchen, but then stopped.  Looking back, she asked, “Dad, Daddy?  Would it be all right for us to go out for a day, just the three of us?”

Jack and Daniel both moved swiftly to their daughter, and each drew her in for a group hug as Jack replied, “Of course we can, Little Bit.  You just let us know what you'd like to do.”

“Okay,” Lulu answered.  “I'd like to go to the zoo,” she requested hesitantly.

“The zoo?” Jack echoed, glancing at Daniel who seemed to share his confusion.

“I want to go back to where Jonny and Little Danny found me and made everything better,” she added, a tear rolling down her cheek.  “I love you.”

“We love you, too, Princess, so very much,” Daniel choked out, squeezing his little girl tightly.

“We don't need to go to the zoo, Sweetie, unless you want to see the animals,” Jack explained.  “We'll always keep you safe and do our best to make everything better.  So, we'll do something really fun on our special day out okay?  You think about it, and let us know.”

“Lulu, if you do want to go to the zoo, we can,” Daniel added.  “But we don't have to.”

Smiling, Lulu nodded, then asked, “Daddy, can Noa and I have Belgian waffles like you like for breakfast?”

“Coming right up,” Daniel affirmed with another smile.

“Thank you, Daddy.  Jen, can Noa and I sleep with you tonight?” Lulu surprised her older sister in asking.

“Uh, well ...”  Jennifer looked at her fathers, who both shrugged noncommittally.  “Sure, Lulu.  We'll have another girls' night.”

Smiling brightly, Lulu headed for the stairs and her bedroom.

“Why do you think she wants to do that?” Jennifer questioned her parents.

“Maybe she just likes spending time with you, Sis,” Jeff offered.

“Maybe she needs to be secure for one more night,” Daniel suggested.

“We'll play dress-up.  Girls love that,” Jennifer mused, yawning again herself.  “Mmm,” she said, looking at her waffles.  “More, please?”

“Danny, Love, your cooking is a success,” Jack teased.

“That's because it's not charcoal-style, Babe,” Daniel jested.

“Very funny,” Jack retorted as the family turned to a more lighthearted discussion as their breakfast continued.

====

June had arrived, and it was promising to be a busy summer.  Lulu was doing well, and her therapist had assured the girl's concerned parents that she'd actually made progress because of what had happened.

“She's acting like a healthy and happy child.  Even with that brief setback, that's a good sign that we're moving forward with our goals,” Doctor Corinne Cooper had told Jack and Daniel, who both felt much better as a result.

At the moment, Daniel was on the phone with one of the J-O Enterprises employees when Jack walked into the den and sat down in the recliner.  The two shared a smile as the archaeologist concluded his call.

“Does he get the idea now?” Jack asked, having deduced who the call was to and the reason for it.

“I think so.  The clients come first, and we do what we have to,” Daniel spoke about a mishap that had happened between one of their clients and this employee, who was actually one of their summertime college interns.

“Good.  I talked to Alex,” Jack informed.

“Any problems?” Daniel questioned as he made a notation about the conversation he'd just had.

“Nope.  He really wants to do the Ferretti gig the same time we do the Hammond stuff,” Jack stated.

“Can we do that?” Daniel questioned, putting down his pen and twirling his chair around to face Jack more directly.

Jack shrugged, answering, “He says it's more economical to install the central vac at the same time.”

“They don't live close to each other, Jack.  The general and Lou are in different parts of the city.”

“That's what I said,” Jack smirked.  “He told me it was inconsequential,” he whined with attitude, feeling a bit like a child who'd been scolded.

“Oh,” Daniel responded, thinking about it.  “So, what's the plan?”

“Something about the electrician and the ... yadda, yadda ... not having enough to do, or something.  He wants them around, but he's afraid they'll get into trouble, if he doesn't keep them busy.”

“Jack, he didn't say that,” Daniel chastised, his eyes accusing his lover of a little fib.

Jack chuckled, “Guess not, but I do remember he said they're getting paid whether they work or not, so they might as well work.”

“That does make sense, Babe.”

“We only need a few hours, Danny,” Jack said, leaning forward in his chair.  “The question is, will we be able to get Lou and Carolyn out of the house long enough to pull this off.”

“You're a general, General,” Daniel reminded with a conniving look.

“Daniel, are you suggesting I *rig* Lou's schedule?”

Daniel just laughed as he swiveled his chair back around to the his desk.

“Well, maybe I can ... arrange something,” Jack mumbled.  “But I can't do anything about Carolyn.”

“Positive thinking, Jack,” the archaeologist urged as he pulled up a survey report that had just arrived in his email.

“Speaking of good vibrations ...”

Daniel squinted, wondering how positive thinking equated good vibrations in his husband's mind, but he said nothing as Jack spoke.

“I think I interrupted something between Alex and Sunny when I called,” the older man stated.

“I'm sure you did,” Daniel agreed.  “Everyone is doing something every second of their lives.”

“That's *not* what I meant,” the older man groused.

“I know, but what makes you think they were, uh ...”

“He practically admitted they weren't quite at the ... um ...”

“Gawd, Jack,” Daniel expressed, deciding to concentrate on the report.

“It wasn't even the admission; it was how he said it,” Jack commented.

“And how did he do that?” Daniel asked.

“It had something to do with him stuttering and stammering,” Jack laughed.

“Alex?  Stuttering and stammering?”

“Exactly!” Jack exclaimed as he stood up.  Out loud, he expressed a thought he'd had during the conversation.  “Danny, I didn't know you could hear someone blush, but I did.”

“No way,” Daniel refuted.

“Way.”

“Not possible.”

“It is, and I'm living proof,” Jack claimed.  He walked forward and whispered into his lover's ear.  Then he turned and headed for door, stopping when he got there.  “Careful, Angel.  I *hear* you blushing!”

After Jack left, Daniel dropped his head to the desktop.  He knew his face was red, and he conceded his lover was right -- he'd just heard himself blush, after all.  He also knew a certain body part had grown hard.

~I may kill him, after I ...~

Powering off the computer, Daniel hurried out of the den, laughing when he bumped right into his Love's waiting arms.

“I figure we have twenty-three minutes,” Jack said.  “Is that enough time?”

“Shut up, and let's go,” Daniel ordered, pulling on Jack's belt as he hurried to their bedroom for a quickie round of lovemaking.

====

The next time Jack and Daniel spoke with Alex, things weren't quite so 'up' for the family.  Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the couple's busy month hadn't gone as smoothly as they would have liked.

“We're all sick around here, Alex,” Jack announced over the phone.  “It's better if we have our meeting now.  Is that okay?”

“Sure, Jack.  I hope everyone feels better soon,” Alex responded while grinning to himself.  As he pulled out his notes, the designer imagined the Jackson-O'Neill house as a hospital ward with Jack and Daniel as two very frazzled nurses.  It provided him with an amusing visual.  ~It's not that I want them to be sick, but ...~

“Me, too,” Daniel responded, marveling at all the illnesses and injuries that had befallen the family during the month of June, which wasn't even half over yet.

“Here's the deal,” Alex began.  “I've located a quality concrete that will harden to a strength of two-thousand pounds per square inch in just an hour.  It's great stuff.  The only down side is that it cannot be acid stained and washed until two weeks later.”

“Alex, I know you,” Jack said.  “You've found a way around that because you *know* we need this done in one shot.”

Alex chuckled and acknowledged, “Yes, I have.  The finished surface of the floor will be pre-cast concrete tiles, which will have been stamped with large clay polymer stamps cut from the kids' drawings.  The acid staining can be done on the individual tiles, with the brood wearing plastic rain suits and goggles.  It'll work, Jack, Daniel.”

“Sounds good,” Jack replied.  “We think Hammond will be out of town in early July.  Can you mark that down as a tentative, and then I'll contact you when I'm able to confirm the dates?”

“I'll contact the crews,” Alex confirmed.  “What about the Ferrettis?”

“Still working on that one,” Jack answered.

“You're a general, Jack,” Alex chuckled.

“That's what my husband said,” the general acknowledged, looking at his smiling soulmate.

“Guess you'd better get hopping,” Daniel joked.

“Now, he's confusing me with Bagel,” Jack sighed.

“A bagel?” Alex questioned, confused.  “Oh, your rabbit.”

“Just call me General Bagel,” Jack teased before continuing with their conversation.

====

“The little ones are really looking forward to this,” Daniel commented as he, Alex, Jennifer, and Jeff were in the Jackson-O'Neill garage, making preparations for the special project.

“Just remember, only one of them should paint at a time, Daniel,” Alex warned.  “This isn't a strong acid, but you still need to be careful.”

“You don't have to worry about that,” the archaeologist replied.

Nodding, Alex explained, “To be consistent, each child needs to paint their flower all the way through.  The tiles will have to be kept in their numbered sequence so the flowers will match because the stamped designs run past the edges of the tile. After all the painting is done, the tiles will need to be sealed.”

The painting of the tiles, it was eventually decided, would be the contribution of the Munchkins, the twins, Chenoa, and Lulu.  However, all eleven children would sign their names on a tile for the tabletop, which Daniel and Alex had previously come up with.

A curious Jeff inquired, “Alex, how's this going to look when they're done?”

The designer responded, “The outer border of the twelve-by-twelve room will be a row of plain half-width tiles.  The next row will be the ones we're getting ready to paint, and the next row will be plain, except for a few blossoms that 'spill over' to keep it from looking too designed.  The center will be a five-by-five-foot design with flowers and vines,” he continued, pointing to a full-size printed grid that was seven rows wide and seven columns tall, numbered one through forty-nine.  “That will leave one row of tile unaccounted for, and the edges next to the rug will be painted with a design that will look like a fringe.”

“So it'll look like a tile rug,” Jennifer spoke enthusiastically as she envisioned the completed project.

“That's right,” Alex confirmed.

====

“Yes!” Jack exclaimed as he got into truck.  Putting on his headset, he pressed the appropriate number on the phone and then headed on his way to his next stop.  ~Answer the ph...~

“Is that my Silver Fox?”

“Are you my Angel?”

Daniel chuckled and asked, “What's up, Babe ... and careful, I'm on speaker.”

Realizing he needed to leave the seductive innuendo for another time, Jack got right to the point, saying, “Danny, I just left Lou's, and guess what?”

“What?” Daniel asked.

“Lou is taking Carolyn and Trina to visit the girls back East.  They'll be gone that last week of June, home on the evening of the second.”

“Which means we'll have two days to get the central vacuum installed.”

“Yep!” Jack exclaimed, pleased with himself.

“Jack, there's just one thing,” Daniel replied.  “I'm not sure about the scheduling, and I don't feel comfortable not being at Lou's when the work is done.  I mean, uh, it's a little different from the general's and what we're doing there.”

Jack thought for a moment and, just as he turned right at the light, he grinned, saying, “Danny, I've got it!”

“Is it contagious?” Daniel joked.

“You're on a roll today, Love,” Jack replied.

At the same time, both said, “Jelly roll.”

After a moment of shared laughter, the older man explained, “I'm headed for the Mountain now to take care of that situation for Hammond.  I'll talk to Teal'c and ask him to play watchdog over the workers whatever day Alex sends them.”

“Jack, that would be great, but we don't know what day that will be.  What if Teal'c gets scheduled to go ... out of town, or something?”

“Daniel, as you and Alex keep reminding me, I'm ...”

“... you're ...” Daniel said at the exact same time.

“... a general,” both men laughed.

====

As the end of the month approached, the family was anticipating the upcoming construction project.  As they enjoyed dinner one evening, Jack and Daniel found themselves bombarded with questions and desires to be a part of the construction, first-hand, by their children.

“Daddy, will there be tractors at Grandpa's house?” David asked.

“Maybe they'll have a big c'pillar,” Ricky commented.

“I can help,” Brianna commented.  Seeing the looks she got, especially from Jeff, she added, “I'm just as strong as you are, Jeffrey.  Just because you're a boy doesn't mean I can't do everything as good as you.”

“Yeah!” Jenny seconded.

“Just don't talk about hormones,” Jack mumbled.

“What was that, Dad?” Brianna inquired, not having heard the comment.

“I said ...”

“Jack!” Daniel warned with stern eyes.

“Nothing,” Jack spoke as he stuffed his mouth with a stuffed pepper.  ~Seems appropriate somehow,~ he thought.

“Are construction workers cute, Daddy?” Aislinn asked, her face shining.

Daniel dropped his fork and quickly brought his napkin to his mouth, while Jennifer laughed openly.

“I'll bet some of them are, Ash,” Jennifer answered for her speechless younger father.

“I wanna watch jackhammers,” Jonny said.

On and on the comments, requests, and questions went, all of which led up to the children indicating their clear desire to want to be there during the entire construction event.  It also left their parents in a quandary.

====

“Danny, we have enough to worry about without the brood running amok,” Jack complained during the lovers' latest discussion about whether or not the brood should be allowed to go to Hammond's during the construction.  “I don't want to let them down, but we haven't screened these guys like we did with the ones who worked on our place.”

“Jack, Alex hired the workers, and he knows our standards,” Daniel replied.  “I'm sure none of them are Lex Luthor in disguise,” he smirked.

“Lex Luthor?” Jack chuckled, taking his Love into his arms.  “Danny, do you know how it makes me feel when you use TV like that?”

“Down, Boy,” the younger man replied, sensing the growing eroticism in his husband.

“It's just ... I like it.”

“That's because you're a big kid,” Daniel teased.

“Getting bigger by the second,” Jack whispered, arching his eyebrows a few times.

Daniel chuckled, pushing his lover away.

“Daniel!”

“Babe, we don't have time, and we need to resolve this issue,” Daniel reminded.  “I really don't think the best place for the children is a construction site, which is what the general's house will be for a few days, especially considering everything that's happened this month,” he sighed.  Not a single member of the family had escaped some kind of illness or injury in the month of June.  Even many of their pets had gone through some kind of calamity.  “They're excited, though, and they want to be a part of their grandfather's surprise.”

“Yeah, the little rugrats don't want to be left out,” Jack agreed.

“They like Alex, too, and they don't get to see him very often,” Daniel put forth with a quick cock of his head.

“I don't think Alex wants them all there, even though he likes the brood,” Jack responded.  “They've got a tight schedule to keep.”

“And it's dangerous, Jack.  You know we can't trust the little ones.  They're too curious to be walking around a construction site without wanting to ... uh ...”

“Investigate?” Jack asked, his eyes shining with the mischief that he knew their children would get into.  He chuckled, “Jonny would have his nose in everything.”

“Just like his father,” Daniel noted dryly, earning him a tiny scowl from said father.  After a chuckle, he got back to their dilemma.  “So ... they don't go?” he asked and stated at the same time.

“They don't go,” Jack spoke more authoritatively.  “We'll make sure they're on hand for the unveiling when Hammond gets home, though.”

“I agree, Babe, but we need to tell them now and not at the last minute,” the younger man opined.

“We still have two days,” Jack responded.  Seeing his lover's glare, he suggested, “There's always tomorrow.”  He coughed and looked away upon seeing Daniel's intense stare.  “Rec room -- ten minutes.  After we disappoint them, we can feed them ice cream.”

“Stress reduction through ice cream therapy?” Daniel chuckled.

“Whatever works, Love,” the older man quipped as he exited the privacy of their master bedroom to gather the children together.

~Ice cream: a dessert to most; to our brood, it's the highest form of bribery, or torture, whatever the case may be,~ the archaeologist mused as he followed his spouse out of the room.

====

A few minutes later, all eleven children, surrounded by various family pets, and their two fathers were in the large recreation room.

**We *have* to be united on this, Jack.  I hate to disappoint them, but...**

**Who are the parents here, Daniel?  Not every decision is up for a vote,** Jack responded a bit snarkily.  “Okay, Brood,” he began.

“What's up, Dad?” Brianna inquired curiously as she plopped down in the middle of one of the sofa sectionals.

“Somehow, you guys have all gotten the idea that you are going to be at Grandpa George's when the sunroom is built,” Jack answered.  ~Don't look, O'Neill, not at their faces.~

Seeing his husband pause, Daniel explained, “It's going to be very crowded at Grandpa's.  Because we want to make sure the project is completed before he gets home, Alex is using three times the normal number of construction people. Everything has to happen at a certain moment.”

“But ...” David began, anticipating what was about to be said.

“David, it would be too dangerous to have you guys there,” Jack interjected.  “The crews will be there to work, not to watch out for children.”  Sad faces began to get the best of the older man.  **Danny, help me out here.  I'm caving under the combined force of all those pouts.**

Daniel quickly ran the fingers of his right hand across his chin as he took one step forward and stated, “Day one is foundation day.  It's not going to be all that much fun watching people dig.”  ~I can't believe I just said that.~  He saw Jack's look of surprise and thought, ~Apparently, Jack can't believe I just said that, either.~  Regrouping, he continued, “That's mostly what will happen on the first day.  It might be interesting at first, but you'd be bored and looking for something to do within an hour.”

“What about the second day?” David asked, logically.

“Yeah, what about the second day, Dad?” Jonny asked, supported by the chorus of his siblings.

“Yeah, Daddy?” Jack asked mockingly.  Getting another glare from his lover, he explained, “I was only teasing.  Kids, listen up.  You can't be there.”

“Why?” Lulu asked, wanting to see the ice cream room added more than the sunroom.

“Be...”

“Jack!” Daniel warned.  “Let's look at this rationally.  I'll run down the sequence of events as Alex laid it out for us a week or two ago.  Maybe that'll help you to understand why it's not a good idea for you to be there while the building is going on.”

//Flashback//
“So, what's the schedule, Alex?” Jack asked over the speakerphone in the den.

This was actually the couple's second attempt to have this conversation with the designer.  Their first one had been interrupted by one of the many family illnesses that had plagued the brood since the calendar had turned to June.

Alex began, “In our earlier conversation, we covered day one and why the only power digging we can do is the trenching for the footers.  It's too tight, and power equipment would cause more damage than we have time to fix.”

“That's a lot of digging by hand,” Jack pointed out, hoping there would be an alternative.

“Not when you think about the things that were dug by hand in the past, Jack. Pompeii, the Great Pyramids ...” Daniel began.

“Guys, time out,” Alex interrupted, not wanting to get further sidetracked.  “The ground is going to be roto-tilled to expedite the digging by hand.  Day two is the raising of the structures, including the roof on the ice cream parlor and having the dome lowered onto the sunroom; that will require a cherry picker.  You said you wanted one of you to be there at all times while work was being done.  You'll need to arrange it so that one of you is there during the night of the second day ...”

“WHAT?” Jack asked, incredulously, almost jumping out of his chair.  “Why do we have to do that?”

“Because the rough grading will have to be done *by hand* after the structures are put up.  We *have* to, or we won't have enough time to make sure everything is cleaned up and looking like the general's house has always had a sunroom and ice cream parlor,” the designer explained.

“But ...” Jack began to argue.

“This was *your* timetable, not mine, Jack.”

“He's right, Jack,” Daniel reminded quietly.  “We haven't allowed a lot of time for this ... surprise.”

“Have you changed your minds about getting this all done before General Hammond returns?” Alex inquired, already knowing the answer, but asking the question to drive home his point.

Once Jack realized the question was not rhetorical, he answered, “No, not at all. Full steam ahead, whatever it takes.  We'll figure out something.”

“Good,” Alex responded.  “Because while the rough grading is taking place outside, inside, the walls will be primed and painted, and the radiant electric heating laid in the sunroom and the ice cream parlor.  Plus, the demolition for the ice cream fountain will be completed, and the installations have to begin, starting with cabinets.  Finally, as the sun comes up on day three, the crews will start laying the floor tile in both rooms.  If everything goes on schedule, they should finish around 10 a.m.”
//End of Flashback//

Daniel looked at the brood, who were all quiet as they processed the complex time outline.

“All that in the first two days?” Brianna asked, astonished.

“Wow!  I want to see it, Dad, Daddy.  We stay put; not be trouble,” Jonny offered.

“Oh, really?” Jack quizzed skeptically.  “I have two things to say to you about that -- last summer at Mike's and the great panini caper at the exhibition hall.”  When Jonny suddenly found his shoes fascinating, Jack chuckled slightly, then smirked, “We'll need some help moving the gravel into the walkway, and I *know* you'll all want to help with that.”

The children grumbled slightly, glancing unhappily at one another as they dealt with the decree that had just been handed down by their parents.

**Danny, I sense a mutiny,** Jack opined.

**It's the right choice, Jack.  I couldn't take any more injuries,** Daniel admitted.

**They aren't happy,** the older parent responded, looking out over the muttering group.

**It'll be okay, as long as you go first,** Daniel quipped mentally.

**What?**

**When we walk the plank, Babe.  You go first,** Daniel teased, imagining his lover as a swashbuckling pirate.  ~If I die, I want to get one more look at his six,~ he thought, knowing that was a comment more likely to have been thought by his husband than by himself.  ~But he's so sexy.~

**Very funny,** Jack retorted dryly.

**I thought so,** the archaeologist admitted, not letting on about his reasons for having his husband walk the dreaded plank first.

“Now, who wants ice cream?” Jack asked his children, not wanting to ponder the plank anymore.

Eleven faces smiled and answered, “Me!”

~Gotta love it when a plan comes together,~ the general silently cheered as he smiled at the children, whose muttering turned into requests for favorite flavors.

“They're good at this,” Jennifer whispered to her brother.

“Family meetings?” Jeff guessed.

“No,” Jennifer responded.  With a sly look, she answered, “Bribery.”  Chuckling, she got up and headed towards her parents.  “Need help?”

====

As the younger children prepared for bed that night, Ricky slipped out of the room he shared with his brothers and made his way down the main staircase, listening for any adults who might interfere with his plan.  Seeing and hearing that the coast was clear, he sprinted down the entrance hall and into the recreation room.  He exited the large room at the door in the corner and proceeded up the stairs leading to Jeff's room.  Hearing the TV, he walked through the open door.
 
“Hey, Squirt!  What are you doing here?” the teenager asked as he twirled a basketball in his hands while sitting up against the headboard of his bed.

Ricky climbed up onto Jeff's bed and announced, “I wanna see them dig up yard for Grandpa's room.  I zin'd it.  Alex said so.  No stay here.  I like to watch use tools.”

~You and me both, Squirt~ the teen thought.

“Two for the price of one,” Jack teased as he and Daniel entered the room as they did their nightly rounds.

“Lose one?” Jeff jested in response.  Quickly, he added, “We were just having some quality brother time.”

“That's important,” Jack agreed as he caught the ball Jeff tossed his way.  “Catch, Son,” he urged as he gently glided the ball towards Ricky.

Daniel chuckled as he watched the two play for a minute.  He had gone around to the other side of Jeff's bed to give them all more room.

“Put a little more 'oomph' into it, Ricky,” Jeff instructed as he helped his brother toss the basketball back to their older father.  Then, quietly, he motioned towards Daniel, who immediately sat down on the bed.  “I need to talk to you and Dad after the younger kids are tucked in.”

“Meet us downstairs in thirty minutes,” Daniel whispered without taking his eyes off the younger boy.  Watching Ricky catch the ball without falling down, he cheered, “Way to go, Ricky!”

====

“What's on your mind, Jeff?” Jack asked, as he, Daniel, and Jeff sat around the kitchen table a while later.

“I know you don't want us in the way, but I'd really like to see Grandpa's room put together from the ground up.  Ricky would, too,” Jeff revealed.  “That's why he came to see me.”

“I figured there was more to that visit than brotherly bonding,” Jack responded.

“Dad, I'd watch him closely, and I know he wouldn't be bored.”  The teenager looked at both of his parents, seeing the uncertainty in their eyes.  “Daddy, think of it as a field trip for us.  What better way to learn about architecture and building than to see it in action?”

“What do you think?” Daniel asked, looking at his husband.

“What about the rest of the brood?” Jack questioned in reply.

Daniel licked his lips for a moment as he looked at their eager teenager, then suggested, “Okay, Jeff.  If you want to make this educational, let's do that.”

“Danny?”

“We'll turn it into a lesson, Jack.  We'll include some history of building construction, architecture styles, terminology, and ... well, I don't know what else ... yet.”

Jack grinned and commented, “My genius.”

“Daddy, what is going to happen on the third day?” the male teen asked.  “You didn't finish telling us.”

“I didn't?”

“Ice cream distraction,” Jack reminded.

“Oh, yeah,” Daniel chuckled.  Still amused, he answered, “That's when you and your brothers and sisters get to pitch in and move the gravel into the pathway and help the landscapers make sure the yard is as pristine as it was before any of this work took place.”

“Pristine?” the teen chuckled.

“That's Alex's word,” Jack chuckled.  More seriously, he added, “Most of the crews will be gone by then, so it's a good time for the brood to help out a little.”

“What about inside?” a very curious Jeff persisted.

The archaeologist replied, “Alex could answer that better than I could, Jeff, but I think he said as soon as the grout is set that it, and the tile, need to be sealed, which means no walking on it for the rest of the day.”

“So the fourth and last day is Monday,” Jack noted.

Nodding, Daniel added, “Landscaping will be completed, and we'll have to make sure we haven't left anything dirty.”

Jack added, “By 1700 because that's when Grandpa will be coming home.”

“That's the Fourth of July,” Jeff pointed out, getting two nods from his parents.

“What if he comes home early?” Daniel questioned.

“Mister Negative,” the older man snarked as he glared, causing his soulmate to chuckle.  “What?” Jack barked.

“Jack, do you have any idea how many times you've had that same expression whenever we were on a mission, and Sam broached the possibility of something not working?”

“Danny, that's because it *will* work,” Jack insisted, a confident smile on his face.

“So, General Hammond will be home at ...”

“... 1700, and not a minute sooner,” Jack completed.  ~I've got it covered, Dannyboy,~ he thought.  With a sigh, he added, ~I hope.~

“We're actually very lucky to have that much time,” Daniel noted.

“Why, Daddy?” Jeff asked.

“Originally, Grandpa's trip was going to be for one day, Friday, but then his friend asked him to come up for a visit.  He was going to spend the weekend and come home come home Sunday afternoon, but it's been awhile since he's seen this man, so he decided to spend Sunday night there, too,” Daniel explained.

“Which gives *us* an extra day,” Jack stated happily.  “Alex let us know that four days to pull this off was insane, but three days was impossible, even for him.”

“But he was going to do it, anyway, right?” Jeff questioned, looking back and forth at his fathers.

Jack just laughed and stated, “I counted on his not wanting to let you guys down, and I was right.”

“But it's a weekend, and a holiday weekend to boot,” Jeff mentioned.  “Isn't this going to cost an awful lot of money?”

Jack leaned forward, gripping his son's arm tightly, and replied, “You and your brothers and sisters don't really want allowances or to go to college, do you?”

Seeing his father's look of mock desperation, Jeff snickered and then broke out into laughter, answering, “No, I guess not.”

====

Just as the parents suspected, when the brood was given the option of attending the entire building process as long as they had lessons on the topics, most of them dropped out immediately.  David, Jonny, and Little Danny, however, remained adamant about going to Hammond's.

“Remember Plan B,” Jack encouraged.

“What's that?” Jonny questioned.

Smugly, Jack answered, “Plan B -- a trip to the zoo with Aunt Sara on Friday, an afternoon with Teal'c on Saturday, and playtime with Aunt Janet and her medical gizmos on Sunday.”

All three boys were lulled into the idea of doing Plan B, and their parents were confident they'd opt for that over extra homeschooling studies.

“Piece of cake, Danny,” Jack whispered outside of the kids' hearing range.

“It's a close call, Jack,” the archaeologist countered, glancing over at the boys and still not sure about their decision.

“Close only counts in horseshoes, Angel,” Jack replied.

“A cliché, Babe?”

“A truth, Daniel.”

As the two chuckled, Jonny walked up and said, “I wanna play with Teal'c, not study.  I go with Plan B.”

“Anything you say,” Jack replied.  He smiled at David and Little Danny, positive the two would make the same decision.  “Plan B?”

“Na-huh,” Little Danny answered.  ~Love the animals, but love Grandpa more and want to see his room built.~

“We want to go and watch,” David stated.

Jack was deflated, but there was nothing he could do except say 'okay'.

“Not close enough, Babe,” Daniel quipped as he walked away, leaving Jack to ponder where he'd gone wrong.

**It could have been a worse disaster, you know,** Jack tried to argue in his defense, using their silent communication.

Daniel chuckled, **I know, Babe - Jonny *and* Little Danny together at Grandpa's with all kinds of construction equipment.**

**They just know how to have fun,** Jack replied.

**Yes, I know.  They learned it from their dad, the big kid!**

Hearing Daniel's laughter from the other room, Jack just shrugged and went about his business.

====
--Chapter Three
====

The first of July dawned, and, as scheduled, General Hammond walked out of his home bright and early to depart on his trip.

“Airman,” Hammond greeted the driver, Les Andrews.

“General Hammond,” Andrews responded, taking the luggage and putting it in the trunk of the car.

“It's going to be a scorcher today,” Hammond opined, looking upward.

“How can you tell, General?” the driver asked, looking at the still-darkened sky.

“Trust me,” Hammond said slyly, getting into the back seat of the vehicle.  ~There will be fireworks in that meeting today that would burn the cement,~ he mused silently about the planned meeting with the President and the Joint Chiefs later that morning.  ~I'm glad I decided to accept John's invitation.  I regret not having the usual Fourth of July bash, but I could use some time away.  It was a good decision,~ he reaffirmed, knowing it was definitely the ideal opportunity to visit with his friend in Maryland and enjoy some quality fishing time.

As the driver started the car again, Hammond thought, ~But I wonder why Jack and Daniel weren't disappointed.  They love my Fourth barbecues.  When I told them I'd be gone another day, Jack almost ... they're up to something.~  For a moment, the crafty general considered halting the trip to the airport, but then he sat back and thought, ~George, relax.  They've got their own lives to live.  Maybe they've just been coming out of obligation.  Time to turn over the holiday traditions to the youngsters.~

Originally, the general was to be gone for just two or three days, tops.  Thus, his news about staying out of town for almost four full days had been welcomed by the Jackson-O'Neills and their designer.  They didn't want to take any shortcuts in the building and installation of the sunroom and ice cream parlor, and the added length of Hammond's trip would ensure they'd be successful.

As soon as the driver began to pull away from the lieutenant general's lakeside home, Hammond stopped pondering the July holiday and made a call to his eldest granddaughter, Tessa.  She was a young woman in college now, very independent and headstrong, but she was also one of the funniest people he knew, full of laughter and, somehow, always getting in the middle of things.  She never failed to bring a smile to the bald-headed man's face, which is exactly what she was doing now as she relayed her latest humorous tale.

The drive to the military airport was otherwise uneventful, Hammond focused on the upcoming meeting and then on his welcomed downtime with a dear friend.  It would be nice to forget all about the SGC and just focus on nothing but old war stories and lots of bass.

“Thank you, Airman,” Hammond spoke, briefcase in hand, as he exited the vehicle.

Les nodded, then closed the car door behind the general.  He watched dutifully as Hammond boarded the jet.  Then he got into the car and pulled out his cell phone, pressing his speed dial to make a call to Cheyenne Mountain and report the general's departure.

“What's up, Walt?” the airman asked.  “Why'd you want to know the minute he left?”

“I see nothing, and I know nothing,” Davis answered cryptically.

“Higher ups?”

“You could say that,” Davis affirmed.  Hold on a second, Les,” Davis requested.  He then placed a call to another number, one given to him by Jack.  When the man answered, he spoke, “The Eagle has flown the coop.”

“Understood,” Alex Dennison responded, trying not to laugh.  ~That Jack is one crazy man.~  From his spot in a parking lot close to Hammond's residence where he and several workers, along with their equipment were standing by, he put his cell phone away and called out, “Okay, time to roll.”

--

Davis disconnected that call and returned to his the other line, stating, “By the way, I've been slacking off at the gym lately.  You wanna join me after work tonight?”  ~Court-martial and sentencing will take about six weeks after he gets back.  I know someone in the JAG office; maybe he can push that back to eight weeks, maybe ten; give me enough time to bulk up a bit before I go to Leavenworth.  Why did I let myself get talked into this stunt?~ the master sergeant worried.  ~Who do they think I am, anyway -- Radar O'Reilly?~

“Sure, Walt,” Les agreed and then continued to make plans with Davis.

====

Meanwhile, just as Hammond was leaving his home, in another part of Colorado Springs, Ricky knocked on his parents' bedroom door as soon as the alarm started ringing.
 
~Why can't we break ground at noon?~ Daniel silently lamented.
 
Having overheard his husband's thought, Jack chimed, “Because this was our idea, and we can't allow construction to take place without being there.  C'mon, Sleepyhead.”

“No fair,” the tired scientist whined with a yawn.  “You've always been a morning person, and you spent your life in the military.  It's full of morning people.”

“I think of myself as a morning, noon, and night person,” Jack offered smugly.

“You do have a point.  We went to bed early to make sure we got enough sleep, but we didn't sleep much,” the younger man recalled with a bit of a sappy look.

“Do I detect regrets?”

“Nope, not a single one.  Caffeine, need caffeine,” Daniel stated.

Again, a knock on the door was heard.

“Oops,” Daniel expressed with a chuckle.  “I forgot why I woke up at this horrible hour.  Come in.”

“Daaaaaad!  Daddyyyyyyy!” Ricky called out, leaping onto the bed and squeezing in between his two fathers.

“I brought coffee,” Jeff sang as he entered, waving the tray alluringly in front of his parents.

“Ah, bless you, my son!” Jack exclaimed.  “Enter the sanctum!”

“Sanctum?” Daniel questioned as he sat up and put on his glasses.

“Our inner sanctum of love and happiness,” Jack replied, leaning over a giggling Ricky for a kiss.

“Children and caffeine present,” Jeff reminded, walking over to the bed with two steaming mugs of coffee.
 
“Amen,” Daniel chimed, taking one of the mugs and smelling its aroma.  He closed his eyes and muttered, “The next best thing to ...”

“Daniel!  Children!” Jack chastised.

Daniel's eyes widened as they flew open.  He smiled at Ricky, who was totally focused on him and the cup of coffee.

“Ah, the next best thing to our children,” Daniel said.

Jeff looked away, trying not to react, while Ricky totally bought the 'cover-up' line.  Still, he was curious about something else, too.

“Daddy, I have the next best thing, too?” Ricky asked eagerly.

Daniel sprayed his mouthful of coffee and coughed a couple of times, not having expected that particular query.

“Danny?” Jack asked as he rubbed his lover's back.

“Fine,” Daniel responded tightly.  “Fine.  I'm fine.”  He nodded as he brushed his pajama top dry with his right hand.  Then, looking down at the little boy, he answered, “I don't think so, Ricky; at least, not for a few years yet.”

Sitting on the end of the bed, Jeff leaned over and mussed his youngest brother's hair, commenting, “You're hyper enough, Squirt!”

“I can't believe you're my children,” Daniel quipped, adding, “Wide awake and dressed at ... ga...geez, five-thirty in the morning.”

“This one was wide awake before the alarm went off,” Jeff teased about his brother, who had slept in his room that night so as to not wake Jonny so early.  Jonny actually had the boys' room all to himself during the night as Little Danny had opted to bunk with David, since they were getting up early as well.  “He was dressed before I got out of bed.”

“Did *you* get much sleep?” Daniel asked, yawning yet again.
 
“Yeah, once I stopped thinking that I was entitled to half of the bed and just stayed an inch from the edge,” the teenager chuckled.

“Okay, Daddy and I will get dressed and meet you downstairs.  Try to be as quiet as you can,” Jack requested.  “The girls will want to go out, Jeff, and don't forget to unplug the coffeemaker.”

“Already covered, Dad.  It's rinsed out, and the thermos is full.”

Daniel shot his oldest son a look of intense gratitude as he thought, ~Yeah, I feel better now.  That's definitely my son.~

====

“Jen, Sara should be here by nine.  If you have any problems, just ...”

“Daddy, I've been doing this for a while now,” Jennifer reminded as she settled on the couch, Mittens the cat pouncing on her as she curled up.  “We'll be fine.  The brood won't wake up for another hour at least.”

“Okay, Princess,” Daniel acknowledged, leaning down and placing a kiss on the girl's forehead while patting Mittens for a moment.

“The girls?” Jack asked as he pulled out his keys.

“Upstairs with Lulu and Noa,” Jeff reported.

“David and Little Danny change ...” the older man began, twisting around to look for the youngsters.

“Here we are!” David exclaimed as he and Little Danny came downstairs together.

“Anyone want to ride with me in the Silver Fox?” Daniel asked.

“Me!” Little Danny said excitedly.  “I like the Silver Fox.”

“Me, too,” Daniel responded with a shy smile, glancing over at his lover with sparkling eyes.

====

After hitting the drive through at McDonald's, Jack's truck following Daniel's sporty car, the six Jackson-O'Neill males headed for Hammond's house.  Just as they had arrived in Hammond's neighborhood and were about to pull over to wait, Walter Davis called and confirmed that General Hammond was now airborne.

“Remember, Ricky, to stay with Jeff at all times.  No running off or getting curious and getting too close to the crews, right?” Jack reminded, giving his last-minute instructions to Jeff, David, and Ricky.

“I promise,” Ricky pledged.

“Me, too,” David added, smiling at their older father.

“Thanks for letting us come along,” Jeff stated.

“You're welcome,” Jack replied.

--

Following behind, Daniel had a similar discussion with his namesake.

“You have to do whatever we say, when we say it, just like when we're on a dig,” the archaeologist stated.  “There will be a lot of people around and a lot of dangerous equipment.  Stay with Jeff, if we're not around.”

“I wear my alarm watch, Daddy,” Little Danny proudly stated, holding up the watch that could sound a loud warning if he got into a dangerous situation.

“Good idea, Son,” Daniel acknowledged, smiling.

“This will be fun,” the curious boy commented eagerly.

~We'll see how much fun you think it is when you get the homework that goes along with this field trip,~ Daniel smirked.

Just then, Daniel's cell phone rang.

“What is it, Babe?” the young man asked upon answering the phone.

“We need to park on the street to keep the driveway clear,” Jack advised.

“Makes sense to me,” Daniel concurred.

“There's Alex's car,” Jack observed as he pulled the truck to a stop.  “Go between me and the Jag,” he requested, knowing that would be the safest spot for Daniel's expensive car.

“I'll slide right in.  It'll be a perfect fit.  Just in and ...”

“Daniel -- children!”

“Oh, yeah!” the younger man mused, glancing at his son in the passenger seat, who, fortunately, was fascinated by the equipment he could see and hadn't been paying attention to the innuendo-full conversation.

The archaeologist disconnected the call and focused on parking the Silver Fox.

“Nicely done,” Jack praised a minute later as his husband joined him after parking the vehicle.

“Thank you,” Daniel chuckled.  “Let's go find Alex.  Children ...”

“We know,” Ricky stated.  “Stay close.”

“Hands!” Jeff requested, his hands instantly snapped up, one by Ricky and one by Little Danny.

Daniel smiled at David, who gave his younger father a look.  The archaeologist chuckled, patting the boy on the shoulder as the family headed up the street.

~He's grown up,~ Daniel acknowledged silently, though somewhat lamenting the little child that once needed his hand held, too.

Halfway to Hammond's yard, Alex greeted the family warmly, saying, “We're ready to go.”  He added, “Thanks for the heads up,” referring to Walter Davis' earlier call signaling that the coast was now clear for the work to begin.  “Knowing the coop was clear gave us a chance to get set up and get the equipment in place.  We need this early start even with that extra day we now have.”

“Just got the call confirming he's flapping his wings, so roll on,” Jack replied.

“Flapping his wings?” Daniel questioned.

“Airborne, Daniel,” Jack clarified.

“Right,” the younger man responded dryly.  ~It's going to be a long day.~

Getting a nod from Jeff, who released his hand, Ricky rushed over to the young designer and greeted him enthusiastically.

Alex picked up the boy and asked, “So, are you ready to see your first building go up?”

“I 'cited!” Ricky confirmed, bobbing his head up and down several times.

Ricky was as enthused as Jack and Daniel had ever seen him.  He had questions for Alex, intelligent questions, about how the site was to be excavated and leveled, how the concrete was prepared, and how the sunroom walls would be anchored to the slab.

“He's read everything, well, he's asked me to read him everything I could find about pouring concrete slabs,” Jeff informed their friend.

“He'll pick up a lot today.” Alex opined.

“Remember the rules,” Jack reminded one more time before he and Daniel headed for the back of the house.

There, the workmen were waiting to dig for the slab, and the power trencher for the footers stood at the ready, waiting for the hour to come when the noise ordinance would no longer apply, and they could begin the heavy part of their work.

“I just hope he doesn't get the wrong idea,” Alex mused while Ricky looked over his shoulder at the house.

In response to Jeff's quizzical look, the designer remarked, “You do realize that most people would not attempt to do something like this without the homeowner's consent and co-operation?”

“Grandpa will love it,” Jeff responded, smiling.  Then he stopped and asked, “You don't think he'll be mad, do you?”

“I certainly hope not, Jeff, because if he is, I am in deep ...” Alex paused, remembering Ricky was in his arms, “... yogurt.”

“Nah!” Jeff chuckled.  “Dad doesn't like yogurt.”

====

Alex and the Jackson-O'Neills were together again at the back of Hammond's house.  Jeff had retrieved his deluxe professional digital camera.  He planned on documenting the entire building process for his grandfather and had already begun by taking 'before' shots of the exterior of the house, the equipment, and even the workmen who were waiting to begin the project in earnest.

“I like it here,” Daniel opined, looking over at the lake.

“It's like being at the cabin,” Jack observed.

“Good times,” Daniel spoke softly, feeling his lover's arm wrap around his shoulder.  He glanced over and whispered, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Jeff observed a nasty look on one worker's face, but all the others seemed oblivious as they concentrated on their jobs.  He made a mental note of the worker, just in case anything unfortunate were to occur during the weekend.

Just as the workers were about to start digging, Ricky excitedly asked his mentor, “Can Jeff take picture?”

“Of what, Ricky?” Alex asked.

“Me and sh'vel.  I dig for Granpa's new room!” the boy exclaimed.

“Okay.  Let me call the guys off for a minute,” Alex requested.  “Jeff, make it fast.”

“Sure thing, Alex,” Jeff stated, watching as Alex waved off the work crew.  ~This will be so cute.~

Getting the all-clear from Alex, Jeff walked over to where the digging would begin, took a shovel, and sank it halfway into the grassy ground at a low angle.

“Come here, Squirt,” the teen called out to his brother.  He helped Ricky take a stance like he was digging.  “Look at the camera, Ricky, and smile.”

Jeff hurried back to his picture-taking position and nodded.  Ricky smiled like he had just been given a new puppy.

“He's so happy, Jack,” Daniel observed, feeling the boy's happiness from where he stood.

“Um, excuse me,” Jeff called out to one of the workers.  “Would you mind being in one of the photos with my brother?”

“Why not?  I'm getting paid, anyway,” the workman quipped with a shrug as he moved into place.

Soon, the photographer had all kinds of photos with his little brother.  He took one of Ricky and Alex, another of Ricky and their parents, and then he set the timer on the camera and took a unique shot -- one of himself and Alex, standing side by side, with Ricky perched on their shoulders.  The little boy was smiling and waving at the camera.

It was the last shot that captured the parent's attention, especially after both looked over at David and Little Danny and spied the anticipation that covered their faces.

“Jack?”

“Yeah, I know,” the older man sighed.

“Alex is going to kill us,” Daniel noted.

“Why?  Why am I going to kill you?” the suddenly anxiety-ridden designer asked, having just approached the couple.

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look, both hesitating.

“One of you talk, and talk fast,” Alex commanded, though he was sure he didn't really want to know.

“Alex, that was a great shot of you, Jeff, and Ricky,” Daniel began.  “Actually, uh, all the shots have been great.”

“And?” Alex asked hesitantly.  He saw Daniel's smile and Jack's expression of, 'c'mon, you know'.  “We don't have time for this,” he reminded sternly.

“Alex, we want to frame that last picture.  It's ... adorable,” Daniel pointed out, then nodded over towards Jeff, who was now surrounded by David and Little Danny, both wanting to have their pictures taken, too.

Alex sighed, shaking his head as he said, “This is going to put us back.”

“We can't very well tell the kids we didn't have time for this,” Jack responded.  “They'll mutiny.”  He saw Alex look at him blankly.  “Alex, trust me.  You *don't* want to be on the brood's bad side.”

“It's *not* fun,” Daniel stated emphatically.

“They'll blame us, but they'll take it out on you,” Jack stated, exaggerating slightly but saying it for strategical reasons.  ~We're on the offense, and our offense can beat any defense,~ he smugly thought.

“There's not enough friggin' ice cream in the world to make up for their being excluded from groundbreaking pictures,” Daniel said, arching his eyebrows.

“Ice cream,” Alex spoke with exasperation.

Jack looked dumbfounded at his lover, because he could count the number of times he had heard Daniel use that word on one hand.

Seeing the look, Daniel laughed, “What?  You think you own the rights to the 'f' word?”

“You've changed, Daniel,” Jack charged.

“Alex?” Daniel called out.

“Like I have a choice?” Alex asked, turning around and walking away.  “Crew, attention!”

Jack laughed, then said, “I'll call Sara and see if she can swing by the house a little earlier to get the brood.”

====

“Danny, Sara was too quick for us,” Jack said, rejoining his lover, who was chatting with their four sons at the moment.

“Be right back,” Daniel told the children and then walked over to his husband.  “What do you mean?”

“She picked them up early.  Something about a surprise shopping spree,” Jack stated.

“Shopping spree?  Where?” Daniel asked.

“Estate sales,” Jack chuckled.  “Apparently, there are a couple of whoppers happening today, and Sara loves estate sales almost as much as anything else you can name.”

“Oh,” Daniel replied, amused slightly.

Jack noted, “That leaves Jen at the house.”

“Uh, I'll go get her.  We can't leave her out,” Daniel asserted.  “Sara is ...”

“Bringing the brood by in about thirty minutes,” Jack answered.

“Okay, Jeff, pictures all around.  Let's get David's and Little Danny's done now while Daddy goes after Jen.”

“But I want Daddy in the picture, too, just like Ricky's,” David spoke dejectedly.

Jack and Daniel exchanged another look, and this time Jack cocked his head and sighed, “In for a penny ...”

“In for a pound,” Daniel agreed.  “Alex will kill us, but ...”

“It won't be for the first time,” Jack chuckled.  “I'll ask Sara to double back.  That'll still be quicker than one of us going after Jen.”

As Jack made the call, Daniel encouraged, “Okay, let's get started.”

====

“That's right, Jen.  He said to be sure to bring you along,” Sara spoke as she drove the SUV toward Hammond's house.

“I wonder why,” Jennifer replied.  “They didn't want us around.”

“It's not that, Jen,” Sara stated.  “It's just a dangerous place with all the work going on.”

“Zoo will be fun, Jen,” Chenoa interjected.  “You should come with us.”

“Thanks, Noa, but I have some things to do,” Jennifer responded.  ~And I want to talk to Peter without being interrupted,~ the teen thought about the mysterious Peter Hamilton, a boy she liked but whom she'd kept away from her parents so far.  “Didn't they say anything, Aunt Sara?”

Turning a corner, Sara checked for traffic and responded, “No.  Jack just said to come by for a few minutes and that it was important.”

“I hope nothing's wrong with the sunroom,” Lulu stated.

“I'm sure everything's okay,” Sara assured.

“Are you going to take me home afterwards, Aunt Sara?” the teen asked.

“No, Daniel has business at J-O, so he'll bring you home,” the blonde answered.

“I wonder what's going on,” Jennifer continued to ponder.

Shrugging in unison, the two women each acknowledged that, with Jack and Daniel, you just went along and figured everything out later.

====

The arriving brood were thrilled at the idea of having their photos taken during the groundbreaking.  Jeff snapped several photos of each child -- alone, with various siblings, with their parents, with Alex, and with Brent, the original worker who had posed with Ricky and seemed to be getting a kick out of being paid for being a 'play model for the kiddies'.  Jeff used the timer to take photos that included himself, as well.

Off to the side, a seasoned construction foreman and a young designer watched the proceedings with restrained amusement.

“I realize they're paying a fortune for this gig, Alex, but I thought time was the top priority,” the veteran worker opined.

“It is, but nothing is more important to the clients than their children.  I guess the first shot with Ricky was just an impulse thing and then ...”

“And then they couldn't let the other kiddies be left out in the cold,” the foreman surmised, getting an odd look from Alex in return.  He shrugged and said, “Being the father of three myself, Alex, I can understand.  My Mrs. would tan my hide if I showed up with a photo of Benny at something like this, but excluded the other two.  Not to mention the other two would make my life miserable until I took them to Disneyland or somethin'.”

“Sounds like you understand.”

“Yeah, but this isn't a regular gig, Alex, and this pressure is tearing up my stomach.”

“Here,” the designer offered, peeling back the wrapper on a new roll of antacid tablets.  “And take these, too,” he offered, shaking two migraine-strength pain relievers out of a small pocket-sized bottle into his companion's hand.

Chuckling, the foreman replied, “You've done work for them before, then?”

“Oh, yeah,” the younger of the duo intoned before swallowing his self-prescribed analgesics.  “I'd appreciate it if you bought these brands.  I own stock in them now.”

Laughing, the foreman followed his boss's example, then returned his attention to the happy family's photo shoot that was still in progress nearby.

Jeff was still snapping photos of the children, putting them in various groups.  It seemed the Munchkins wanted one together, as did the twins and the Mouseketeers.  The combinations seemed to be endless.

“Man, ya gotta love digital,” the teenager said with a big smile on his face, knowing that had he brought his standard camera, he wouldn't have had enough film on him to take all the photographs he was now.

“But how do you get all those pictures on that itty bitty card?” Jack asked about the memory card he had witnessed his son putting into the digital camera earlier.

“We could call Sam, Jack, and ask her,” Sara interjected, a smug smile on her face.

“Sara, are you trying to start a fight?” Jack quizzed.

“With you, Jack?  Me?” Sara asked, putting her hands to her chest and smiling mischievously.  “Would I do that?”

“You used to, when you wanted your way with ... things,” Jack coughed, glancing over at his husband and giving him a nervous smile.

Daniel laughed, shaking his head as he looked down at the ground.

“Hair not perfect,” Jenny whined when her turn came around, interrupting the adults' conversation.  “No fair not telling us,” she pouted.

“Yeah,” Aislinn agreed, though she was smiling.

The little charmer was a beautiful little girl, and her parents knew, though they tried not to think about it, that she was gonna be the proverbial 'man magnet' with her looks, charm, and intelligence.

“That's why we didn't tell you, Red.  We didn't have time to give you star billing with all the trimmings.  Tell me, where would we have put your dressing trailer?” Jack teased, scooping up his daughter.

“Dad!” the girl continued to whine.

Jack gave her a kiss and said, “You're my favorite redhead daughter.”

“I'm your *only* red-head daughter,” the little girl whined.

“That's beside the point,” the general laughed, giving Jenny a smooch before he put her down.

“Jenny,” Daniel said, kneeling down to be eye-level with her.  “You're beautiful just the way you are.  I love you.”

Jenny grinned and gave her younger father a big hug before running into position and saying, “Ready now, Jeff.”

“How'd you do that?” Jack whispered.

“You teased, I pleased,” Daniel responded pointedly.

“She knows I love her.”

“Of course, she does, but this is about a girl having her picture taken.  She doesn't want to know you love her, Babe, she wants to know she's beautiful,” Daniel related as he nodded his approval to their youngest daughter.

“When you did you get to be so smart?”

“According to my father, the day I was conceived.  He started reading 'King Solomon's Mines' to me then, and the rest is history,” Daniel answered matter-of-factly.  He clapped at Jenny's latest pose and moved forward, suggesting, “Jenny, right profile.”

Smiling, the girl turned to her right and struck another pose for her older picture-taking brother.

Jack watched, completely stunned by the most recent conversation with his lover.

~When did he get to be so cocky?~ the older man wondered.  Then he laughed.  ~Way to go, Love,~ happy that the man who owned his heart had come so far from the shy, insecure geek he'd first met years ago.  Then he smiled wickedly and shouted, “Jenny, cock your head to the right a little, and stand like this,” he added, sticking his foot out to the right with his hand on his hip.  When she'd done it, he called out, “That's our beauty!”

The redhead grinned again, causing her father to grin as well, until he looked to the left and caught a glare from his lover.

**Just following your lead, Love,** Jack quipped via their non-verbal communication.

**Right, Jack,** Daniel replied, rolling his eyes.

Little did Jack know that Sara also had her camera at the ready, originally for their trip to the zoo, and she had taken the opportunity to snap a picture of Jack, just as he had demonstrated the ‘pose’ for Jenny.

~Priceless,~ the blonde thought, winking at Daniel.

====

With the family photo shoot completed and Sara and her charges now enjoying the zoo, things were finally progressing at the Hammond residence.  Daniel had left about 10:30 a.m., taking Jennifer home and then driving to J-O Enterprises, located a mere ten minutes from the Jackson-O'Neill house.

For a while, Jack had chatted with Mrs. Roswell, one of Hammond's neighbors.  All the neighbors were accustomed to seeing members of the Jackson-O'Neill family come and go, whether Hammond was there or not.  They remembered the clan from their extended stay with the general while their own remodeling was taking place in 2009, so the unexpected activity hadn't concerned any of them.

Without revealing the extent of what was being done, Jack let the neighbor know that the children wanted to surprise their grandfather with something special and that was why there was so many workers milling about.  He passed along just enough information so that they neighbor wouldn't be alarmed at seeing strangers in the area.  He also knew Mrs. Roswell would pass on the information to the other neighbors.

Around back, the digging that had fascinated all of the children was losing its charm for two of them.  While Jeff and Ricky were pointing at things and wearing curious expressions, David and Little Danny were standing around with their hands in their pockets.

“What do they find so fascinating?” David asked Little Danny.

The boy genius shrugged and said, “No art'facts.  Need bones or something, David.”

“Or rocks.  Did you know ...” the boy began, telling his brother about Precambrian rocks that he'd just read about.

--

Across the yard, Jeff and Ricky were still glued to the activity taking place, though Jeff had just taken notice of David's and Little Danny's gloomy faces.

“Look at those two, Squirt,” Jeff said to his littlest brother, perched on his shoulders.  “They don't look like they're having much fun.”

“But we are!” Ricky exclaimed.

“Yeah.  Man, isn't this cool, Ricky?” Jeff asked enthusiastically.
 
The youngest Jackson-O'Neill agreed, “It way cool; lotsa stuff ta watch.”

====

A few minutes later, Little Danny sighed and glanced at his older brother.  He could tell David wasn't very excited, either, by what they were seeing.

“David?”

“What?”

“I'm bored,” Little Danny admitted.

“Don't tell Dad, or we'll get in trouble,” David replied.

“I thought we'd find art'facts.  I like digging when we find art'facts,” the younger genius commented.

“Me, too,” David agreed.

“I wish we'd gone with Aunt Sara to the zoo,” Little Danny lamented.
 
“Me, too,” David agreed again.  “I really thought this would be like an archaeological dig, but it's not.  They're not digging to find stuff, they're just digging because the ground is in the way.”

“Yeah,” Little Danny said, sinking to the grass and sitting Indian-style, resting his elbows on his knees and planting his sad face in the palms of his hands.  “They have lotsa fun animals at the zoo.”

David sat down, too, and nodded his head in agreement.

====

As 11 a.m. struck, the work crew had placed the pre-cast footers, as well as back-filled the trenches with gravel and tamped dirt over the top.  The ground for the slab had been excavated, and the form was set.  The men were about to pour the concrete, as Jeff and Ricky watched, totally intrigued.

David and Little Danny continued to be less enthused, though they did like watching the concrete being poured into the slab.  It didn't take long, though.

“Wish we could help,” David stated.

“Yeah,” Little Danny agreed as they watched the workers continue their labors.

====

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, four workmen pulled into the Ferretti driveway.  Their truck was loaded with the materials for a central vac installation, something in which all four were experienced.

“Joe, this shouldn't take long at all,” one man remarked to another.  “We've done much bigger places than this in four hours.”

“Yeah, we have, Tim, but we still need to do our diagrams, and lay out the steps in sequence.  Every client is important, and Alex keeps us busy working, so let's just do it by the numbers, like we always do,” Joe replied.

~Well said, Joe,~ Aiden, the foreman, thought as he walked to the porch.  Reaching the front door, he rang the bell and was astonished to see a dark mountain of a man wearing a scowl open the door.  “Are you Mister Ferretti, Sir?” he asked.

“I am not.  I am here in case I may in some way expedite your work.  Begin at once, and do not delay,” Teal'c responded, his expression stern.

“Yes, Sir.  Of course, Sir,” Aiden spoke a bit nervously.  “We'll need access to the garage.”

“I shall open the door,” Teal'c responded with a slight nod of his head.

Heading back to the truck, Aiden kept twisting around to look towards the doorway.  His distraction was evident to his co-workers.

“Something wrong, Aiden?” Len, the fourth worker present inquired.  “You look like you're spooked about something.”

“I'm fine, Len.  I just wasn't expecting the guard dog to answer the door,” Aiden answered, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Whaaat?” Len asked, surprised by the response.  ~Aiden never gets spooked.~

Aiden replied, “Let's just do this one as quickly as possible and get out of here.”

“Sure, whatever you say,” Len agreed, looking over at Joe, who just shrugged.

====

Ten minutes later, Joe was in the attic, laying out the trunk line of tubing and the accompanying romex and relay wires, while next to him, Tim was on the walkie-talkie with Len, who was marking openings for inlets in the walls.

Aiden was in the garage, having already mounted the wall bracket for the power unit.  He was installing a fifteen-amp receptacle to plug it in when a voice made him jump a foot.

“May I offer you assistance?” the Jaffa asked.

“Ah, sure.  Could you pull that unit out of the box and set it on the bracket I just put up?” Aiden asked, willing to take the help if it meant getting the job done that much quicker.

“As you wish,” Teal'c agreed.

Teal'c ripped the carton along the corners as if it were tissue paper and pulled the motor unit and its attached canister out so quickly that it looked like a locomotive flying upwards.

~Holy schniekes!~ Aiden said to himself.  ~Geez, but he's big.  Don't wanna mess with him; nope, sure don't.~  Before he could say a word, the unit was suspended from the wall.  “Thanks, ah ... what's your name?”

“Murray,” Teal'c answered, using the name Jack had given him years ago when dealing with strangers on Earth.

“Murray,” Aiden echoed quizzically.  ~Sure doesn't look like a Murray to me.  I guess that 'what's in a name' thing is true.~  “Well, ah, thanks, Murray.  You've got the moves, I'll say that.”

“You are welcome.  May I assist you further?”

“Yeah, sure,” Aiden answered.  “Can you get rid of that container for me?”

Aiden watched, bug-eyed, as the tall, muscular man proceeded to tear the thick cardboard into smaller and smaller pieces, like it was newspaper, and then throw it in the trash can.

~No, don't wanna mess with him at all.  Nice doggie~

“Please inform me if I may further expedite your task,” Teal'c requested when he was done.

“Sure thing ... Murray,” Aiden agreed, swallowing hard afterwards.  “You know, I used to watch a show with a character named Murray on it.  He was bald, though.  Have you ever considered shaving your head?”  ~Uh-oh, what'd I say?~

“Do not waste time,” Teal'c ordered, having no desire to talk about ever being bald again.

As the large man turned to leave the garage, Aiden was certain he heard him growl.

~Oops.  Focus, Aiden, focus.  You definitely do not want any call backs on this one.  He must be sensitive about ... something.~

====

Not long thereafter, Aiden joined Len in the house to work on installing and wiring inlets, leaving Joe and Tim in the attic to feed the tubing and wire down to them.

“Len, make sure it's perfect the first time,” Aiden requested.

“I hear you.  Don't want to have to come back here.  That guy is different,” Len commented, having had his own conversation earlier with the alien.

“It's like he's from another planet or something,” Aiden responded.

Having overheard the conversation, Teal'c smirked as he headed back towards the garage.  He was going back and forth between the house and the garage, watching the progress of the installation.  He noted the workers were focused on their tasks, except for brief glances over towards him whenever they realized he was watching.  Then they'd smile nervously and sometimes wave.

~O'Neill will be pleased,~ the Jaffa thought to himself.

====

At the Hammond residence, the work was continuing with diligence.  With the slab poured, the anchor bolts were carefully placed into their pre-marked positions, making sure they stood up perfectly straight above the level of the wet concrete.  The electrical wires in their underground sheathing were protruding, ready to be connected to the outlets, light fixtures, and ceiling fan after the walls went up.

Little Danny sighed, “Jonny would like this.”

David agreed, saying, “He likes to see how things fit together.”

“Jenny, too,” the younger boy pointed out, then let out a long, drawn-out sigh.

“This isn't like when we can help Dad or Daddy fix something at home,” the older boy observed.

“Yeah, there they let us hold a flashlight,” Little Danny stated longingly.

“Or screw stuff in.”

--

Across the yard, Jeff and Ricky were intrigued by the anchor bolts and protruding wire.

“It's neat how they know where to place those ahead of time,” Jeff marveled.  “If they're off, I wonder what they'd do?”

“Me 'n' Alex 'zined it, not be off,” the young child smirked as he grinned at his older brother.

“You're a Jackson-O'Neill all right,” the teen laughed, mussing his younger brother's hair.

--

Back on the other side of the yard, the other male duo was focused on their siblings because it took their minds off their own boredom.

“What's the big deal?  It's just wire and bolts sticking up out of some soupy mess that's going to get hard like a rock,” David stated dryly as he shook his head.  “I don't get it.”

All of a sudden David's head popped up, and his eyes shone with the light of realization.

“What, David?” Little Danny asked, curious as to what had taken his brother's attention.

“You like Alex, right?” David queried.

“Sure!  Alex is cool, even if he doesn't like rocks,” Little Danny responded, his inflection revealing his incredulity that anyone could not be interested in geology and archaeology.

“Well, I just realized something.  If everyone liked the same stuff we like, nobody would ever build anything because they'd all be digging, looking for artifacts!” David spoke perceptively.

“No buildings and no cars?” Little Danny pondered.

“No doctors or vets either,” David continued.

Little Danny felt his eyes well up at the thought of not having Pam Lawrence to take their beloved beagles and cats to when they were ailing or hurt.

“And there'd be no new places to dig, because they'd all be dug up long before we were born,” David mused.

“Not like that; not like that at all,” the younger male surmised.

Nodding, David opined, “I'm glad there are people like Alex and Jeff and Ricky.”

“Me, too,” Little Danny agreed, but quickly added, “Just glad it be them and not us.”

“I'm with you,” David said emphatically.

Having had their little epiphany, David and Little Danny realized they were not going to find the rest of the day interesting at all and added depression to their boredom.

--

From another part of the yard, Jack observed both sets of boys.  One duo was fascinated, totally delighted by everything happening around them.  The other pair seemed to come to life when engaged in a conversation for a minute or two, but then when their attention returned to the construction activity, they looked glum.  He shook his head and pulled out his cell phone.

“Daniel Jackson-O'Neill.”

“So formal?” Jack asked.

Daniel chuckled, “Sorry, Babe; didn't check the ID.”

“Busy?”

“Swamped.  Why?” the archaeologist inquired from his desk at their company office.

“Your protegés,” Jack stated.

“Aaaah ... David and Little Danny?” the younger man questioned.

“Bored stiff, Angel,” the general chuckled.

“Jack, if it was really necessary I could come get them, or we could ask Mrs. Valissi or the Svensons to pick them up or let Jennifer use their car, but how are they going to learn to weigh their decisions if we give them an easy out all the time?  We talked with them at length about this, and they chose to go, so ...”

“So deal?” Jack completed for his husband.

“I think so.  Do you disagree?” Daniel asked.

“No, not really.  I just ...”

“... identify with them!” Daniel chuckled.  “Make them stay, Babe.  That's how they'll learn to think out their decisions as they grow up.”

“You're right.”

“Aren't I always?” Daniel chuckled.

“Cocky, now, are ya, Doctor Big Shot?” Jack questioned in an amused manner.

“Not yet, but ask me again tonight,” the younger man responded seductively.

====

“Some of it was interesting, I suppose,” David whispered to Little Danny, neither of them having moved.

“Yeah, some of it,” the young boy acknowledged.  “I still wish we'd gone to the zoo with Aunt Sara.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“We could be home, too, with Jen,” Little Danny lamented.  “I wish we were with Jen.”

Suddenly, they heard a happy word.

“Lunchtime!” Alex called out as the van from the Blue Moo pulled up, delivering boxes of bacon cheeseburgers, chicken tenders, waffle fries, onion rings, battered, deep fried veggies, and gallons of milkshakes and soft drinks.

Feeding the crews on site allowed lunch to be leisurely, without it taking too long.

“Lunch!” Little Danny exclaimed, viewing the eating of a meal as if it were an Egyptian pyramid to explore.

“Food!” David exclaimed equally excitedly.

“Dad, can we go eat with Alex?” Jeff asked.

Hearing Jeff's question, Jack looked over at the designer, who was talking with the foreman.  He considered saying 'no', but opted to tell the boys that they could ask Alex if it was okay for them to sit with him.  He also told them to let the man enjoy his food and not deluge him with questions.  He chuckled as the kids hurried over to Alex.

~Like Alex stands a chance of eating one bite without questions,~ Jack mused as he pulled out his cell phone that was ringing.  ~Whoa!  Why is *she* calling me?~ he thought, surprised by the caller ID that was showing.  ~Wrong number?~  Then he chuckled, ~Or maybe she needs advice on who to date.~

====

“Why so quiet?” Alex asked as he looked at the boys sitting with him.

“Dad said let you eat,” Ricky answered.

Jeff just smiled as he worked hard to curtail several questions he had brewing within him.

“I wouldn't want you to burst,” Alex joked.  “It's okay.  Go ahead.  Ask away,” the man instructed.

Eagerly, Jeff jumped in, asking, “Alex, how is it possible to do all of this so quickly?  It's almost like watching one of those movies from the twenties; everything is speeded-up.”

“You're not that far off, Jeff.  What has to happen before you watch that speeded-up movie?” the designer asked the teen.

Jeff thought for a moment and answered, “I think it has to be filmed in normal time.”

“Exactly!” Alex confirmed.  “This was all done previously on Archonic's property, Jeff -- the trenches, the footers, the slab, putting the walls up and the dome on -- all of it.  It was a  dress rehearsal, if you will, a filming in real-time that allows the speeded-up version to be played today.”

“That's unusual, right?” Jeff queried.

“You have a gift for understatement,” Alex replied with a deadpanned expression and tone of voice.  Resuming his normal demeanor, he continued, “Most people would never do something like this, but, in case you haven't figured it out, your dads are not most people.  Do you have any idea how many bags of quick-curing concrete I mixed up and poured, just to see which one would be the best one to use?”

Shaking his head, Jeff responded, “No, I don't”

“Neither do I.  I lost count sometime after, I don't know, twenty, I guess,” the man sighed.  “But it was crucial to find the one that would not only cure quickly, but with the required strength that would allow the tiles to be set quickly without losing surface integrity.  I lifted small samples still curing into a small freezer to see how they would respond to sudden drops in temperature.”

“Wow.  I had no idea,” Jeff admitted, taking a deep breath as he processed the information.

“It's all about what the job requires, and this job required a concrete with these characteristics,” Alex concluded.  He glanced over at David and Little Danny, seeing both boys engulfing their food like a valued prize.  ~Wonder why they tagged along?  I don't think they're having a very good time.~

“What did you do with all the leftover concrete?” Jeff inquired.

Laughing as he refocused on Jeff and Ricky, Alex replied, “Since I had it on hand, and leaving it sitting around in opened bags was only going to let it harden into useless rocks as it absorbed moisture, I had it poured into identical samples.  We put them together in sets, along with my temperature and stress data, and gave them to our two major concrete contractors.  They were impressed, to say the least.”

“What's 'tegr'ty?” Ricky asked as he swallowed a bite of his cheeseburger.

“He speaks,” Alex chuckled.

“Hun'ry,” Ricky said, holding up his partially devoured cheeseburger.

“Watching is hard work, Alex,” Jeff teased with a straight face, his head bobbing up and down a couple of times.

Not looking up and with his mouth full, Little Danny mumbled, “Integrity means 'an unreduced or unbroken completeness or totality', or 'moral soundness'.”  It helped to have a photographic memory as the young prodigy did.  “It also means ...”

Smiling, the designer answered, interrupting Little Danny to answer Ricky's question himself, saying, “That's correct, Little Danny, but, in this case, integrity means solid, with no weak spots.”

While Little Danny just nodded and continued eating, Ricky nodded thoughtfully, processing what he had heard.

“Don't sprain your brain, Squirt!” Jeff laughed.  “Most designers don't do this much hands on, do they?”

“No, they sure don't.  I certainly don't, but your two dads are special to me because their house, excuse me, your house was my first major project when I moved here.  They took a chance on me, and, as a result, Byron entrusted me with some pretty big stuff.”

“My ears are burning,” Jack mused as he sat down next to Ricky.  He reached over and playfully mussed the boy's hair as he asked, “How ya doin', Son?”

“Hun'ry,” Ricky repeated as he chewed on some French fries.

“One at a time,” Jack admonished.

“Soo'y,” Ricky replied.

“And don't talk with your mouth full,” the father chastised.

“Soo...” the young boy gulped as he swallowed his food.  “Sorry, Dad.”

“And you two slow down,” Jack admonished David and Little Danny.  He'd been watching as he'd talked with the unexpected caller and had noted that they were almost totally focused on nothing but their food.  “You're supposed to eat the food, not inhale it.”

“Sorry,” the two boys responded together.

“What are we talking about?” Jack asked the others as he bit into his food.

“How lucky we got in having four days instead of three to do Grandpa's house,” Jeff answered.  Looking at Alex, he questioned, “How would you have managed with only three days?”

“Skipped the sealing of the tile until a later date and treaded very carefully on the newly set tile.  That would not have been preferable, but ...”

“Whatever the job takes, right?” Jeff chuckled.

“You're learning, Jeff, you're learning.”

“Were there any glitches in getting the trial run completed?” Jeff inquired.

Just then, Jack's cell phone rang again.  He noted that it was Megan and excused himself, not wanting to interfere with the conversation.  He'd been expecting the call and knew it would require a few minutes of concentrated time since it dealt with a financial problem with one of J-O Enterprises' clients, whom he'd been working with a great deal.

~Couldn't it have waited until after I had eaten?~ the general whined as he moved to a more secluded area.

Meanwhile, Alex responded to Jeff's question and, seeing the curious faces of both brothers, he explained, “Okay, here's what happened.  The four walls were constructed inside the pole barn, waiting to be put up on the slab, only the first crew took them out and left them outside the afternoon before.  I told them to put them back, but one accidentally got left out all night.”

“Not good?” Ricky asked.

“Not good,” Alex confirmed.  “It lay out all night half on the ground and half on sheets of plywood and was only partly covered with a tarp.  The moisture sensors on the dry ground made sure the automatic sprinkler system gave the grass a long, slow, thorough soaking that night, and the sun came out bright and early.  By the time we tried to put the sunroom up on the slab, that one wall was nearly an inch too wide and over half an inch too tall on one side.  The window frames were warped out of kilter, and the arches were no longer perfect.”  Alex sighed, “It was a wreck because there wasn't enough time to have all the components re-made.”

“What did you do?” Jeff asked.

“How you fix it, Alex?” Ricky questioned at the same time.

“The first thing I did was fire that crew.”

Ricky gasped, “Dad 'n' Daddy say hafta try harder when make 's'take.  Ev'one need second chance.”

Surreptitiously, Alex smiled at the boy and said, “This was their second chance, Ricky.  They'd made some other ... mistakes in the past, and this was one too many.”

“Oh.  They not learn,” the boy commented, as if chastising the long-fired workmen.

“No, they didn't,” Alex confirmed.

Ricky refocused on his cheeseburger, his stomach eager for another meaty morsel.

Surreptitiously, after signaling Jeff's attention, Alex hurriedly made the gesture of someone sucking hard on a tightly held joint.  Jeff nodded his understanding that the crew Alex had terminated were using marijuana on the job, and that was the reason for their lack of focus.

After another moment, the designer continued, “The second thing I did was have it placed in the finishing room with controlled humidity and temperature.  It took up most of the room, so I had to clear out practically everything else that was there.  To be honest, I was afraid if I took it apart, the wall would never go back together.”

“It not fall apart,” Ricky stated with certainty.

“No, it didn't,” Alex confirmed, adding, “Thanks to the enormous clamps we bought when I took this job and some huge cement blocks I put on top of the wall for over ten days.  Thankfully, the combination literally forced the wall back into shape.  I held my breath, but the room went together without any more trouble. Then, we took the room apart and put the damaged wall back into 'traction', where it will remain until it's brought to the site and the sunroom is assembled tomorrow.”

Jeff let out a long low whistle and remarked, “Geez, Alex, that's amazing.”

The designer chuckled and said, “Sometimes knowledge is gained the hard way, Jeff.  Let's see how the ice cream parlor slab is coming.”

“I'll be there in a minute,” Jeff stated.  “I want to make sure Dad gets his food.  He's a real grizzly when lunch-deprived,” he joked.

Alex and Ricky walked away, but Jeff noticed his other two brothers were engaged in a game of tic-tac-toe, using a napkin to play on.  He chuckled, realizing just how bored the two boys really were.

====

Finally, not quite two-and-a-half hours after they had arrived, the truck was backing out of the Ferretti's driveway.

“Do not pass go, and don't you dare pass the first bar you come to,” Aiden ordered Joe, who was driving.

“Shouldn't we call Alex and let him know we're finished?” Joe inquired.

“We will, after the second round,” Aiden responded.  “We're waaay ahead of schedule.”

====

The slab for the ice cream parlor was substantially smaller because the finished space would be only six feet, eight inches by twelve feet, just enough for two small tables with four chairs each.

“That's not a very big room, Alex,” Jeff commented.

 “No Jeff, it isn't,” the designer confirmed.  “It's just eighty square feet, just enough to do the job.”

“An extra foot in depth would have been nice.”

“Yes, it would, but a natural gas supply line runs right here,” the designer pointed out, moving his arm back and forth in an arc to show what he was talking about. “To get a variance takes time, time we didn't have, so, since the space would be adequate ...” Alex shrugged, adding, “There are less obvious considerations, too, like heating.”

Seeing Jeff and Ricky both looking puzzled, Alex explained, “Here, let me show you something.”  He pulled out a small notepad and calculator and punched in a few simple math problems.  “Does that help?”

Within a minute, Jeff nodded his understanding, saying, “I see.  The ratio of exterior wall space to enclosed floor space is high, so it will suck more heat than the same size room, or even a larger room with less exterior wall space.  What's the solution?”

“Several things,” Alex stated.  “First ...”  He paused, smiling slyly at the young teen.  “Wait a minute.  You've been picking my brain for months now, so let's see what you can come up with.  What's the first thing we need to do?”

“Well, we need to define the objective, and then we need to list all the factors that work in our favor and also those factors that work against us.  We need to see if any of what we come up with fall into both lists,” Jeff stated confidently.

“And then?”

Jeff gulped, thought for a moment, and then answered, “We need to see how they all interact and what the net effect is.  Basically, we need to look at the big picture and evaluate how it all adds up within the design criteria and the budget.”

“Excellent.  Go on,” the designer urged with an expressionless face.

Jeff continued, “The windows all around the room are a given because of the view to the lake, so high efficiency windows are good.  The winter sun is at a lower angle and will help warm the room.  In the summer, we need to block or control the sun even more than in winter.”

“You're doing fine so far,” Alex encouraged.

“What else is there?” Jeff asked, puzzled.

“I'd make you work a little harder, but we need to wrap this up for today,” Alex responded.  “Here's the deal.  We have to keep the room from causing huge temperature variances in the rest of the house without having the furnace or the A/C running all the time.  So, care to elaborate a bit on the finer points?”

Nodding, Jeff replied, “Well, you made the walls under the windows higher, so there's more insulation.  You specified soapstone tile, which will absorb heat and release it slowly.  That should do it.”

“It's nice to know my job is safe, for now,” Alex kidded.

“Huh?” Jeff responded.

“You still have a few things to learn,” Alex said with a smile.  “You mentioned sun control, but how, and with what?”

“Blinds for the inside, and outside ... um ... well, I'm ... I'm not sure, Alex,” the teenager admitted.

“Awnings -- cool canvas awnings that retract flat against the outside,” the designer pointed out.  No one has ever beaten them for sun control.”

“That's it, right?” Jeff questioned.

“Just about, but ask yourself this.  Are there any free sources of heat?”

An excited Ricky jumped up and down excitedly, saying, “I know; I know, Alex.”

“Yes, Ricky?” Alex turned, focusing intently on the eager child.

“In ice cream place, if my feet cold, I stand close to window where pick out ice cream 'n' feet get warm,” Ricky explained as best he could.

“Way to go, Little Man.” Alex congratulated, giving Ricky the 'high five'.  “The freezer compressor produces a significant amount of heat.”

“And because the room is small, it will make a big difference,” Jeff reasoned.  “But how do you get the heat into the parlor?”

“C'mon Jeff, it's not that hard.  Most people just don't think of it,” Alex encouraged.

“Well, there's a basement underneath the house, and the freezer is only a few feet from the room, so I guess you could pipe the waste heat the compressor gives off through a short run of insulated duct work and out into the room using a wall register with a shut-off so it can be vented into the basement in the summer,” Jeff guessed.

“Now, you're thinking outside the box,” Alex responded.  “That's what separates the great designers from the mediocre ones.  Some of the most famous names in my profession are well-known because they command a high price and work only with the wealthy, but they would consider figuring out how to use the waste heat from a freezer beneath their dignity.  The need for good design is not restricted to the wealthy, Jeff, and it takes more than rich clients to make a really good designer ...”

At that point, which was roughly forty minutes after the Ferretti work crew had left the Italian's home, Alex's cell phone rang, interrupting his teaching session with the young Jackson-O'Neills.

“You guys are finished already?  I'm impressed,” Alex replied to Aiden upon hearing the job was completed.  “Did you remember to install the wet-tap for the wet-pickup unit?  How about the inlets for the attic, the garage, the lint-trap cleaner, the vacuum sealer ...”

“All of it, Mister Dennison,” Aiden assured.  “We tested the system for leaks, and it's good to go.  We're going to stop and grab a bite to eat.”

“Well, you've certainly earned it.  Everything is fine here, but your part really begins tomorrow,” the designer instructed.

“Sure thing, Mister Dennison.  Goodnight,” Aiden replied.  After hanging up, he nodded to the waitress and said, “Miss?  Another pitcher, please.”

--

“So, what was I saying?” Alex asked Jeff as he returned to their conversation.

“Schooooool's out ... for summer!” Jack sang, stomping his foot and banging his head as he strummed an imaginary guitar while coming around the side of the house.  He looked stunned as he saw the strange looks being aimed at him by Alex and Jeff.  “What?” he asked, coming to a stop a few yards away.  “Don't you know Alice Cooper?  Geez, you have no respect for history.”

“Who's Alice Cooper?  Was she an old girlfriend of yours, Jack?” Alex asked innocently.

“Never mind,” Jack replied dryly.

“Daaaad!” Ricky exclaimed, racing towards his father and holding up his arms.

Jack bent down and scooped up the eager child, saying, “Time to go home.”

“It's been a long day, Jack, but Jeff and Little Man here were apt apprentices today,” Alex commented with a bit of wry amusement.

~Little Man.  Hmm, I like that, even if I didn't think of it,~ Jack thought about the nickname Alex had just used for the young boy.  “David, Little Danny, get off your duffs, and move it!” Jack called out, shaking his head.

The two boys got up slowly.  They'd been moping around since lunchtime.  They weren't disruptive, but they'd been told to move several times, and they certainly weren't happy to be there, something that was excruciatingly obvious from their downtrodden expressions.

“This was an excellent first day, Jack.  We're ready for tomorrow,” the designer reported happily.  “What time are you planning on getting here in the morning?”

Jack sighed, “I'm not sure.  Danny has J-O business tomorrow that can't wait, and I have to be at the Mountain all day,” Jack commented.  Turning from Alex to his oldest son, he informed, “Jeff, we have timing conflicts, so I'm not sure yet if we'll be able to get you here or not.”

“I understand, Dad,” Jeff replied understandingly, though clearly disappointed.

“But wanna watch work, Dad,” Ricky expressed eagerly.  “'N Ricky real good today,” the boy added.  He looked at the family friend and encouraged, “Wasn't I, Alex?”

“He did exactly what I told him to, Jack.  You saw that,” Alex spoke with a nod.

~Test worked,~ Jack thought, knowing he'd intentionally stayed more in the background to make sure the boys handled themselves responsibly.  “Keep it up, Son!”

The boy nodded as he placed his head against his father's shoulder and asked, “So Ricky come back 'morrow?”

“We'll have to see,” Jack answered.  “But if we can arrange it, Ri...the Little Man here is to be on his very best behavior.”

“Promise!” the young child pledged, crossing his heart.

“Alex, I almost forgot,” Jack stated.  “The foreman wants to talk to you, and we're gonna get out of here now.”

As Alex nodded, Jeff asked, “Just a couple more shots, okay, Dad?”

“Five minutes, Jeff, and we're gone,” Jack agreed.

“Jeff, please tell the foreman I'll be along in just a moment,” Alex requested.  Turning to Jack, he said, “The site should be secure tonight, but if you want ...”

“No, thanks, Alex.  Tomorrow night here will be enough.  As long as the tools are locked up tight, everything should be fine.”

Alex nodded and walked away, and as he did, Ricky yawned.

“Long day?”

“Learn lot, but no un'erstand lot, too,” Ricky admitted.

“You seemed a little quiet to me,” the father observed.

“Listen good, like you do, Dad.  Learn lots by list'ning,” the wise youngster commented.

~How'd he figure that out?~

“Jeff smart like Alex, Dad,” Ricky remarked.

“So are you, Ricky, but what I want to know is, did you have fun?” Jack asked, concerned the little tyke might feel too much pressure from being around both Alex and Jeff.

“Lots fun, Dad.  Have lotsa ques'ons for Jeff.  I sleep in his room 'gain tonight?” Ricky requested.

“If Jeff is okay with it, you can,” Jack answered, smiling when the boy yawned again and settled his head snuggly against his father's neck.  ~Nothing in the world beats this feeling,~ he thought about the love and trust his little boy was giving him.  He looked around, “Hey, didn't I tell you guys to get over here already?  Doesn't it say 'Dad' on my forehead?”

“Sorry,” Little Danny apologized as he hurried over, followed by David.

“We were just talking,” David said.

“About what?”

“Just stuff,” the boy replied.

~Yeah, like how bored you are.  You won't make this mistake again,~ Jack smirked inwardly.

====

Jack and Daniel had just been home long enough to greet their children, take care of a few important tasks, and start on dinner, when the Jackson-O'Neill zoo entourage entered the house at a decibel level just shy of a dull roar.

**Now, *that's* an entrance!** Jack exclaimed, comparing the happy, chattering return to that of the brood's less-than-joyful return from the exhibition with Alex and Sunny.

The two fathers hugged their children, then told them to wash up because dinner would be in a few minutes.  After that, they thanked Sara for her help with the kids and then Daniel walked her to her car while Jack returned to their dinner preparations.
 
“I'm guessing Little Danny and David regretted not coming with the rest of the children to the zoo.  Am I right?” Sara questioned as she and Daniel stepped outside.

“What makes you say that?” Daniel chuckled as he opened Sara's car door.

“Oh, just that they had such long faces, and they kept asking how the zoo trip was,” Sara clarified.  “The photo shoot was fun today.”

“Oh, yeah.  There'll be some real keepers there,” Daniel agreed.

“By the way, Daniel, I thought you might like this,” Sara whispered as she surreptitiously handed Daniel an envelope.

Opening it and seeing the photograph of Jack's ‘pose’ from earlier in the day, Daniel couldn't help but laugh out loud.  Sara had captured it perfectly.

“I thought you could use it for paybacks,” Sara offered with a grin.

“How did you know I was searching for a good payback?” Daniel asked, surprised.

“Daniel, I'm surprised at you,” Sara chuckled as she affixed her seatbelt.  “Have you forgotten that I was married to Jack once upon a time.  Paybacks for those little smirks and pranks of his are essential to survival.”

His hands on the door, the archaeologist agreed, “Good point!”

“Night, Daniel,” Sara said, smiling.

“Night, Sara, and thanks again,” Daniel replied, smiling as he shut the door and watched the blonde drive away.  He walked back inside the house, made a quick jaunt upstairs to secure his 'payback', and then entered the kitchen, smiling at his husband, the chef.  “Gotta love slow cookers and warming drawers, Babe.”

“I'll warm your drawers tonight,” Jack promised, sharing a quick kiss with his Love.

“Later,” the younger man reminded.

“I said tonight, didn't I?”

Laughing, Daniel responded, “Just making sure we're on the same page.”

“Always,” Jack asserted, giving his husband a pat on his rear end before heading for the refrigerator.

====

At the dinner table, all of the children were talking excitedly about their day, except for David and Little Danny.  Noticing this and wanting to include her brothers, Brianna asked them how they liked watching the sunroom go up.  Her well-meaning query was met with silence.

“David, Danny, Brianna asked you a question.  Don't you think it's rude to ignore her?” Daniel asked rather pointedly.

“Sorry, Bri,” Little Danny apologized without answering the question.

David sighed, then answered, “We were bored.”

“Ooooh!” the tomboy exclaimed.  “So, what did you do?”

“We just sat,” Little Danny sighed unhappily.

“Like bumps on a log,” Jack pointed out, giving both youngsters a tiny glare.  “I hope you both know you did it to yourselves.”

“We hated it,” David admitted.

“Doofus,” Chenoa giggled.

“Double doofus,” Lulu agreed, nodding.

“Shoulda listened to me!” Jonny instructed commandingly.

“Yeah, and go to the zoo instead of spending a booooooring day there,” Aislinn teased.

“Bor-ing,” Jenny stated.  “Bor-ing ... with a cap'al ... B ..” the little girl frowned.

“...o-r-i-n-g,” Ricky whispered.

“I know how to spell it,” Jenny whined.  “How you spell doofus?”

“D ...” Chenoa began.

“Oh, I don't think so,” Daniel interrupted.  “Time out, all of you,” he ordered strongly.  “Everybody put your silverware down.  I want your undivided attention.”

Jack wanted to chuckle, seeing Katie drop her dog bone that she had been chewing on a few feet away, but he knew he had to pay attention on what was sure to be a lecture.  He'd like to not focus on it, but the problem was, if Daniel hadn't interrupted, he would have.

Turning to Chenoa, the younger father said, “Your brothers, Jeff and Ricky, liked watching the construction go up.  They were fascinated by it.  Does that make *them* doofuses?”

“No, Daddy, it doesn't,” Chenoa agreed contritely.

“But that's what you implied when you called David a doofus, and because Little Danny was bored, too, you were calling him a doofus, too, even though you only said it to David.”

“Oh, I didn't think about that,” Chenoa admitted.  “I'm sorry, Jeff, Ricky, Little Danny, and David.”

David shot a smirk at his sister that said, 'Ha, so there'”

“And,” Daniel continued, “David, that still doesn't negate the bad choice that both you and Little Danny made.  Though Dad and I did our best to discourage you, you both insisted you wanted to go.  You ignored our advice.  Now, we could have forced the issue, but then you just would have blamed us, accused us of keeping you from doing something fun.  So, we let you go.”

“Boys, the key to making a bad decision is how you deal with it,” the older man interjected.

“Exactly,” Daniel agreed.  Making eye contact with each and every child at the table, he spoke with quiet conviction, “Listen to me, all of you.  There is nothing wrong with making a choice to do something familiar because you know you will enjoy it.  There is also nothing wrong with making a choice to try something new that you are less certain of, especially if the thing you haven't tried will not be readily available to experience again, and the familiar option will be, repeatedly.

“Dad and I didn't think most of you would enjoy watching the foundation being dug.  Jeff and Ricky *asked* to go and were willing to do extra study to be able to go.  However, *all* of you had the option to make the same choice, once it was open to Jeff and Ricky.  It didn't turn out so well for David and Little Danny.”  Making sure to look at the two he'd just mentioned, Daniel continued, “It might have turned out better for the two of you if you'd bothered to ask your two brothers, who were enjoying themselves, just what was so interesting.  You might have learned something.  Instead, you decided to have a pity party ...”

“And sit like bumps on a log,” Jack reiterated.

“And play tic-tac-toe on napkins,” Jeff interjected, then coughed lightly when he saw a few questioning looks tossed his way.

“... And be bored,” Daniel concluded the list.  “There were so many things you could have done, but, no, you pouted and chose to ... to be ...”

“... bumps on a log,” both parents said in unison.

Jack added, “You were unresponsive at Grandpa's house.  We had to tell you to move several times.  Whenever I looked over at you, all I saw were frowns.  What happened to supporting your brothers?  How do you think they felt, seeing you looking like that?”

“Bad,” Little Danny sighed.  “I'm sorry.”

“Me, too,” David spoke.

**Jack, I don't think Jeff and Ricky noticed the little ... bumpers.**

**Not much, anyway, but David and Little Danny don't know that,** Jack smirked.

Daniel continued, “We're not saying any of this to upset you, but, rather, to encourage you, especially you who are older, to *think* about the choices you make, how you let those choices affect you, and what you say.  Don't react, respond.”

“All this because I asked you guys how you enjoyed your day,” Brianna chuckled.

“And good for you, Bri.  You wanted to include your brothers in the conversation,” Jack chimed in.  Looking at Daniel, he said, “When we go on vacation, Daddy and I make a point of each of us picking out something new for the two of us to try.  Sometimes it's wonderful, sometimes it's so-so, but we always have fun because we're with each other.  Right, Daniel?”

“Right, Jack,” Daniel agreed.  

“So, we're all going to make an effort to be supportive of each other's choices, right?” Jack asked, his glance going from child to child.  “And to not beat ourselves, or each other, over the head when we make a choice that we don't enjoy as much as we thought we would, yes?” he questioned, waiting for the brood to nod in response.  “And, finally, when we find ourselves having made a choice that is less-than-perfect, we'll make the best of it becaaaause ...” he prodded, cupping his ear.

“Because we're Jackson-O'Neills, and together we're unbeatable!” the brood shouted.

Nodding, Jack smiled and said, “Don't worry about finishing your plates.  We'll give Bij, Katie, Mittens, and Calico a treat, tonight.  Daniel, everyone will have room for an extra scoop!”

“Yay!” was the singular response.

====

While Jack and Daniel were helping their children learn a valuable lesson, several miles away, the Ferrettis were just returning home from their visit with their oldest children.  As soon as their car pulled into the garage, the central vac power unit that had been secretly installed during their absence was clearly visible on the back wall.

“Oh, Lou, Honey,” Carolyn gasped happily, starting to cry as she gave him a hug while still in the car.  “Thank you.”

“You're welcome, Biscuit,” Lou responded, using one of his nicknames for his wife.  “But ... it wasn't me.”

“What is it, Mom?” Trina asked, not sure what her adoptive parents were talking about.

“It's a central vac,” Lou answered as the family got out of the car and examined the central vac unit.

Entering their home, the Ferrettis did a quick walk through and realized the depth of the unexpected gift, comprehending just how much easier life would be.

“Lou, you really didn't do this?” Carolyn inquired.

Shaking his head, the military officer answered, “Not me.”

“Who then?” Carolyn inquired.

The two looked at each other and then, at the same time, surmised, “Jack and Daniel!”

“They're loaded,” Trina remarked, a small part of her wishing she had some of their money.  Then she looked at her parents and smiled.  “Mom, Dad, I'm rich, too, because I have you.”

After a moment of hugs and love, they concentrated again on their new acquisition.

“The sneaks!” Lou exclaimed about the Jackson-O'Neills with a smile.  ~Can't let them get away with this, but look at her.~

“I love it, Lou, but it's too much,” Carolyn spoke, fully aware of the price of a central vac.  She'd researched this herself over the past couple of years, and there was no way they could let the Jackson-O'Neills pay for the unit and installation.  ~We just can't.  It's not right.~

“We can't accept this, Carolyn,” Lou spoke, as if hearing his wife's thoughts. “I'm going to call them.”
 
====

During the Jackson-O'Neill's ice cream ritual, the phone rang.  Jack grinned as he picked up the phone, having recognized the caller-ID.

~Sure am glad Alex insisted on doing the install on day one, Lou.  You guys are home a day early,~ Jack thought as he answered the phone.  He continued to smile as Lou quickly thanked him and Daniel for their surprise, though he insisted they couldn't accept the all-too-kind gift.

Jack mused, “What're you going to do, Lou, tear it out?”

“Pal, it's a generous thing, but it's too expensive.  We can't let you do this,” Lou sighed, grateful for having good friends like Jack and Daniel who would even attempt such a thing.

“Lou, we go way back,” Jack spoke seriously, his tone unusually solemn.  “You were there on Abydos that first time and endured my stupidity, and you never once ratted me out.  You've been one of the few people I always knew I could rely on, and I have relied on you for so many things we can't even discuss over the phone, not to mention that you put up the entire family, pets and all, for nearly three weeks while General Hammond's house was being repaired and ours was undergoing renovation.  I owe you a lot more than a central vac.”

“And you saved my life, Jack,” Lou retaliated in admiration.

“And you came looking for me when I was lost in that avalanche,” Jack shot back. “Plus all the help you've given us with the brood, especially that time when Jonny and Little Danny were lost.”  He paused, then said, “Lou, listen to me.  The vac will make Carolyn's life easier.  Danny and I *want* to do this.  Please, let us.  It'll make us happy to make her life a little easier.”

It wasn't often that Lou Ferretti heard Jack Jackson-O'Neill speak so tenderly from his heart.  They had saved each other's lives, and they were the closest of friends.  He knew, too, that his loving wife would be spared from some heavy work with the addition of the central vac to their home.  She was completely healthy now, but he couldn't help but live with residual worry that she might one day get sick again.  Still, there was his pride to be considered.

“Can we at least pay you back?” Lou asked.

“You already have, Lou, by being one of the best friends a man could have,” Jack proclaimed.  He sighed, “Lou, put away the pride, just this once.  Come on,” he urged, knowing the struggle his friend was going through at the moment.

Hearing the heartfelt genuine emotion in his friend's voice, Lou just nodded, unable to speak, which was something unusual for the rugged military man.

“Jack, you've moved my husband to silence,” Carolyn spoke, having taken the phone from him.  “Thank you so much for this wonderful surprise.”

“I'm afraid you will have to pay for it, Carolyn,” Jack stated.

“We'll be happy to work out a payment schedule,” the woman replied.

“Excellent!  That'll be your famous Italian Five-Star meal, with all the works -- the one you pull out for the special occasions,” Jack spoke, his mouth watering just thinking about it.  ~Carolyn, you're the best cook I know.~

Carolyn laughed shyly and responded, “I'll call you next week, and we'll set up a good evening for all of us.  We insist.”

--

“Daddy, I love you,” Jennifer spoke, giving her father a kiss.

“What was that for?”

“I know I'm a challenge sometimes, but I just think I have the two best parents in the entire wor...universe,” the teen smiled, looking over and listening to her older father as he continued to chat with the Ferrettis on the phone.

====

“We're crazy for doing all of this,” Daniel commented as he prepared for bed.

“Crazy is our middle name,” Jack laughed as he removed his socks.  “Speaking of crazy, you'll never guess who called me today,” he said, relaying the cell phone conversation from that morning.

====
--Chapter Four
====

As Friday night, the first of July, came to a close, Jack and Daniel were preparing for bed.  They'd just finished talking about an interesting cell phone conversation Jack had had earlier in the day.  Now, Jack headed for the bathroom as Daniel struggled with his pajamas.

“Need a hand, Love?” Jack chuckled.

“You want to help me *in* to my pajamas?” Daniel asked incredulously.  “That’s a first,” he added with a grin.

“I only want to help you into them, so I can help you out of them later,” Jack clarified with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

“Ah, well, in that case ...” Daniel laughed as he turned his back to his husband and seductively divested himself of the offending pajamas.  “Paybacks, Babe,” he whispered as he brushed his naked body past an open-mouthed Jack to get to the bathroom.

“No fair, Danny,” the silver-haired man whined.

As they stood side by side at the sink, Daniel began, “You know, I feel kinda bad that Ricky and Jeff can't go tomorrow, Jack.  They're so enthusiastic, and they were really good today, especially Ricky.”

“They know we'd let them go if we could find a way,” Jack responded distractedly. ~Geez, how does he expect me to have a sensible conversation with him looking like that?~ he lamented.

“Yeah, I suppose,” Daniel agreed.  He smirked, seeing his lover’s evident discomfort out of the corner of his eye.  ~He's so easy!~

“For crying out loud, Danny!  You're doing that on purpose,” Jack exclaimed as Daniel ran a wet wash cloth over his chest and down his legs.

“What?” Daniel questioned as innocently as he could.  ~Easy as pie, even.~

“That’s it!  Come here,” Jack ordered, quickly removing his own pajamas and taking Daniel into his arms.  “Geez, you're beautiful,” he muttered as their passionate kisses increased.

“Oh, gawd, Jack,” Daniel gasped at the pleasure he was feeling.  “We're supposed to be getting an early night,” he reminded, unconvincingly.

“Whatever,” Jack replied, his breathing heavy.  He practically carried Daniel over to the shower, and they continued their impromptu lovemaking under the warm cascading water, making full use of their customized dispenser on the wall.  ~You gotta love Alex's ingenuity,~ he praised, before getting back to more pressing needs.

====

As the clock reached midnight, the soulmates climbed into bed.  The house was peacefully quiet as the married couple settled into their usual sleeping positions, with Jack as a safe and secure pillow and Daniel as a warm and comforting blanket.

Happily, Daniel whispered, “I love moments like this.”

“Yeah,” Jack agreed as the 'wings' of his pillow gently caressed the smooth back of his human blanket.  “Love you, Angel.”

“Love you, too, Jack, forever and always.”

“Always and forever,” Jack crooned peacefully as he held his Love, a smile on his face.

====

Roughly a half-hour later, after the two satiated lovers had drifted off to sleep, their phone rang, interrupting their contented slumber.

“Hello,” Jack spoke, his arms full of a very sleepy archaeologist, and his mouth already feeling like it was stuffed full of cotton.

“Jack, it's Alex, and I apologize for calling so late.  Sounds like I woke you up,” the designer laughed.

“You're laughing?” Jack questioned, one hand holding the phone and the other rubbing his forehead.

~Huh?  Laughing?~  Daniel's eyelids blinked open.  He'd already been deep into sleep, and the ring itself hadn't fully awakened him.  Now, though, the sound of his Love's voice had permeated his brain.  ~Phone.  Ring.  Talk ... oh, yeah.  Up wake.  Uh, wake up.~

“To be honest, Jack, I have to admit that a part of me feels like I just got some revenge,” Alex confided, still clearly amused at having caught the general asleep.

“Very funny, Alex,” Jack grumbled.

Hearing the name, Daniel, finally completely roused from his sleep state, stuck his head up from his Jack pillow and asked, “Is something wrong?”

“I don't know yet,” the older man answered quietly.  “Alex, what's the reason for this revenge?”

“In reviewing the plans for tomorrow, I've decided to take a company vehicle to Hammond's home.  I want to have a backup supply of materials -- an extra cordless drill, saw, sander, battery packs, paint, primer, brushes, a few bags of top soil ...”

“Alex!” Jack snapped.  “The point?”

~Yeah, definitely sweet revenge,~ Alex mused silently, having given the long list intentionally, knowing that it would drive his client mildly crazy.  “I also remembered what you said about your schedules and that, as a result, Jeff and Ricky wouldn't be able to observe the construction.”

“Yeah, our schedules are too tight.  We hated to disappoint them, but, um ... <yawn> ... sorry ... we couldn't do it,” Jack spoke.

“If you and Daniel are okay with it, I'm willing to come by bright and early and pick them up.  I'll even take them by McDonald's.  Isn't that where the Little Man likes to eat?”

“Alex, *all* children ten and under like to eat there,” Jack remarked.  As he wet his lips for a second, he asked, “Are you sure?”

“Sure about what?” Daniel asked curiously, speaking at the same time Alex was talking over the phone.

“They're eager, and they're interested, Jack.  I'd like to encourage their imaginations.”

“Hold on,” Jack said, putting the phone down and then relaying the proposal to his husband.  They had a couple of concerns, mainly in making sure Ricky was looked after, but Alex promised he'd pay close attention.  “Okay, Alex, we'll let the boys know.  What time?”

“Six-thirty in the a.m.,” the designer answered.

“0630 hours.  Affirm.  Thanks.”

Chuckling at his lover's military response, Daniel offered, “I'll go tell them,” getting up and putting on his robe while his lover hung up the phone.

Nodding, Jack smacked his lips, readjusted the comforter, and promptly closed his eyes again, mumbling, “Yes, go tell them.  You go.”

The younger man chuckled, thinking, ~And he says I'm addicted to sleep.~

====

Daniel woke Ricky, picking him up and carrying him out of the room so he could tell him about Alex's offer without waking Jonny and Little Danny.  After telling the youngster the news, he was rewarded with a huge hug.  Then the two went to Jeff's room, waking him up and relaying the same information.

“Looks like we're on, Squirt!” Jeff said enthusiastically.

“Jeff, there is one very important thing,” Daniel said, looking over at an excited but yawning Ricky.

The fifteen-year-old youth looked at his young brother , too, and replied, “Daddy, I know.  I'll keep him close; I promise.  He's the priority.”

“There's going to be a lot of work going on, and there may be people we don't know there.  I'm trusting both of you to do *exactly* what Alex says, *when* he says it; and, Ricky, you need to do whatever Jeff tells you to do without argument.  You, Jeff, need to remember that construction and photography are hobbies and interests ...”

“But my brother is my brother.  I understand, Daddy.”

“Okay.  Jeff, please make sure you take one of the booster seats for Ricky.  I doubt Archonics' vehicles are prepped for young children,” Daniel remarked.

“Is that extra one still in the hallway downstairs?” the teen asked.

“Yes, it is,” Daniel confirmed.

“Daddy, I sleep here 'gain?”

“Jeff?”

“Sure, Squirt.  Hunker down,” the teen offered, patting the spot next to him.

“Okay.  You guys have fun.  Set your alarm because we won't be up that early.  Have a good time.”

Daniel gave Ricky a hug and patted Jeff on his shoulder before walking out.  He felt good about the promises they made, and he was counting on Alex to make sure they didn't abandon those promises.

====

“Everything okay?” Jack asked as Daniel returned to their bedroom.

“I thought you'd be long gone,” the younger man commented.

“I missed you,” Jack spoke.

“Oh, well, that's good,” Daniel said with a smile.  “Uh, anyway, yeah, they're really excited.  It's nice of Alex to take them,” he stated, taking off his robe.  “Jonny and Little Danny will be happy to sleep in, I think.”

“Like Daddy, like sons,” Jack teased.  ~Hmm.  Too far away.~  “Come here, Angel,” he beckoned, pulling down the comforter on Daniel's side of the bed and opening his arms.  “I can't sleep without my Danny blanket.”

“How could I refuse an invitation like that?” Daniel questioned with a smile, climbing into bed.  “Just need to plump my pillow,” he added dramatically, lightly thumping his husband’s chest.

“Hey!  Cut that out, and do a little more of this,” Jack said, pulling Daniel upwards for a passionate kiss.

“Oh, yeah, that's affirm,” Daniel moaned before the soulmates kissed again.

====

The next morning, Ricky opened his eyes and looked around the room, orienting himself and trying to remember where he was.  With an energetic bang, it all came to the front of his mind.

“Jeff?  Time to get up yet?” the young boy asked his older brother.

“Huh?” Jeff mumbled as he cracked one eye open and looked at the alarm.  ~Five-fifteen?  Geez; still have forty-five minutes to sleep.~  Licking his lips as he struggled to find his voice, he answered, “Not quite, Ricky.”

“It okay, Jeff.  I draw with my Etch-a-Sketch.”

“Okay,” the teen agreed as he closed his eyes and quickly went back to sleep.

====

Slumber was nice and refreshing, yet, somehow, Jeff was reluctantly pulled back into the world of the 'awake' by a pair of young brown eyes boring holes in his head.

“Www...whaat?  What are you doing?” Jeff asked with a yawn.  “I thought you were drawing?”

“Did.  Ready to go now.  Wanna see new room go up,” the little boy commented.

“Okay, okay,” Jeff chuckled, glancing at the clock.  “The alarm's about to go off, anyway.  Get dressed, and we'll wait for Alex downstairs.”

Ricky jumped over Jeff, accidentally stepping on the teen's abdomen.

“Ow!”

“Oops!  Sorry, Jeff,” the boy spoke.

“That's okay.  Um, don't wake up Jonny and Little Danny.  Be very quiet.”

“I will!” Ricky assured as he hurried out of the room, forgetting the family rule about no running in the house.

~Good thing Dad and Daddy aren't up,~ Jeff chuckled.

====

“Thanks, Alex,” both Jeff and Ricky greeted as they settled into their seats in the gray SUV.

“Is that hooked up right?” Alex asked Jeff about the booster seat that Ricky was required, by law, to sit in.

“Yeah.  I'm an expert on these things now,” Jeff laughed.

On the way to McDonald's, the two brothers told Alex how much they were looking forward to seeing the sunroom erected and how interesting yesterday had been.

“You sure like learning about architecture, don't you?” Jeff asked his brother at one point.

Nodding as he took a bite of his breakfast sandwich, Ricky answered, “Yesterday fun ta watch men make stuff.”

“That was fun,” the teen agreed as he recalled the speedy progress made during yesterday's construction.  “Today should be even more fun.”

Remembering his older father's admonition about talking with his mouth full, the younger boy just nodded excitedly as he continued to eat his meal.

“Fun?” Alex laughed.  ~Yeah, it's fun, but only after the heart attacks are over.~

====

Breakfast concluded, Alex and his two charges were driving to the Hammond residence.  As it often was these days, the topic was the construction.

“Aren't we ahead of schedule?” Jeff asked.

“Amazingly, yes, and that means the tile can be set today, and the sealant can dry overnight, so the inside work I had scheduled for tonight can be put off until tomorrow, and we can focus just on the outside,” Alex answered.

“Alex, sch'ial change lots?” Ricky asked.

~Sch'ial?  Oh, schedule,~ Alex translated silently.  “Sometimes, Ricky.  Usually, though, it's the other way around, and we end up behind schedule.  What's great about this, is that if the ice cream parlor goes up this quickly, the pressure to get everything done on time will be much less.”

====

Meanwhile, at the Jackson-O'Neill house, Jack and Daniel had taken their morning showers and prepared breakfast for their children.  With everyone's stomachs full, the family began moving forward with their day.

“Babe, do we have time?” Daniel asked, glancing at his watch while the children dispersed.

“Yeah, I think so.  This should only take five minutes,” Jack noted, walking to the intercom and using it to contact Jennifer, asking the teenager to go to the den.

“She'll be surprised,” the younger man remarked as the couple headed upstairs.

“Big time,” Jack agreed.

====

“Here I am,” Jennifer called out, entering the den a minute later.  “What's up?”
 
“Sit down, Jen,” Jack said quietly.

~What did I do now?~ the teen thought glumly.
 
“I got a phone call from Sheila yesterday.”

“Sheila?  She ... called you?” Jennifer spoke in surprise, sitting up a little straighter in her chair.

“That would be correct,” Jack confirmed.  “It seems there's a little luncheon at Cucina Mexina tomorrow.”

“Something, uh, we haven't heard anything about,” Daniel interjected.

“I swear, Dad, Daddy, I did *not* put her up to it.  I *told* her I was grounded and ...”
 
While still being a remarkable help and strength to her parents, especially by assisting with her brothers and sisters, Jennifer, herself, was going through a bit of a difficult time this summer.  Part of the June illnesses and injuries that had plagued the family had been the teen having a case of mononucleosis.  She had tried to hide her weariness and fatigue because she hadn't wanted to admit to the truth -- that she had kissed the mysterious Peter Hamilton.

Jack and Daniel hadn't met the boy and knew little about him.  More to the point, though, their daughter had been less than forthcoming about Peter and her relationship with him.  Thus, she was grounded and going through a loss of privileges, including the use of her cell phone, unless okayed by her parents for one reason or another.
 
“We know, Jen,” Daniel interjected.  “What we don't know is why you didn't tell us about the lunch.”
 
“Well, I figured you'd say 'no way!' the teen shrugged.  “I mean, you're letting me help with Grandpa's project, and I figured ... well, I figured you'd ...”

“Say 'no',” Daniel stated with a nod.

Jack just shook his head and motioned for his lover to continue.

“Jen, what your answer tells us is that you still haven't learned anything. Your assumptions about what we would do and say are what led you to being grounded in the first place.”
 
“But I'm not going.  I'm keeping to my punishment,” Jennifer countered.  “And I knew I was grounded, so what was the point in asking you?”

Daniel sighed, “Jen, your punishment is not to hurt you, or to be mean to you.  It's to hopefully get you to think about what got you into the situation you're in -- lack of communication and lack of trust.”

“Jen,” Jack said, softly.  “Have we ever given any of you kids a reprieve, or an exception during a grounding?”

“Well, yes, lots of times, now that I think about it,” Jennifer admitted thoughtfully.

“You're not telling us about the invitation to lunch with Sheila reveals a lot about your perceptions,” Daniel elucidated.  “One, you don't think your punishment is reasonable.”

Jack interrupted, “Remember, *you* are the one who made it snowball by not talking to us and taking your anger out on Bri.”

“Right,” Daniel agreed.  “Two, you still don't think we'll listen to you with an open heart and mind, that we don't care about what is important to you.”

“That might be the hardest one for us to accept,” Jack spoke.

“Not might, is,” Daniel corrected.  He continued, “Three, you think you're not being, and will not be treated, as fairly as your brothers and sisters.  Of course, all of this is based upon the assumption that Sheila is still your friend and that you really *want* to go to lunch with her and Amber.  If not, well, you didn't mention it because it's of no consequence to you.”

The teenager sat in thoughtful silence, not sure what to say, knowing she'd made another mistake.  She'd been making a lot of mistakes recently.

Hunching forward, his elbows on his knees and looking at his eldest daughter, Jack smiled and asked, “Jennifer, would you like to go to lunch with your friends tomorrow?”

Hardly daring to hope, the teen nodded and answered, “Yes, Dad, Daddy, I would very much like to go to lunch with Sheila and Amber.”

The older father replied, “If you can arrange transportation, that means if Sheila or her parents can pick you up from Grandpa's, you have our permission to go.”

Knowing Sheila would be borrowing her mother's car anyway and that her mom would most certainly allow her to both pick up and take her home, Jennifer leaped for joy and hugged both her fathers repeatedly.

Daniel said, “Before you go, Jen, there's just one more thing.  Contrary to what you might think, our home is not a prison.  Don't let a punishment for something you've done in the past prevent you from coming to us about something in the present.  Remember, we're here for you, for all of you.”

“I'll try not to forget that again,” Jennifer acknowledged.  As she got up to go and call her best friend, she mused cheerfully, ~The things a best friend will do.~

“We did the right thing, Jack,” Daniel affirmed.

“Yep.  I wish she hadn't been so dang surprised.”

“She's a teenager, Babe, and she's at that stage when she's just ...”

“Rebelling?” Jack answered.

Daniel chuckled, “It could be worse.  Did you hear about Archie's daughter?”

Jack grimaced and said, “Poor Arch.  All those tattoos ...”

“The nose piercing ...”

“And the bellybutton,” Jack sighed.

“Orange hair with purple streaks,” Daniel pointed out.

“Which wouldn't be bad if she combed it once in a while,” Jack opined.

“But that's all surface.  It's her attitude ...”

“Yeah, I know,” Jack acknowledged.  “She acts like Arch and Mary are dirt.”

“Jen's not like that.  She's just ...”

“Growing up, and we have a lot of space for her to do that in,” Jack said with a smile.

“All the space she needs,” Daniel agreed, kissing his soulmate.  “Oops, gotta go.”

“Crap, me, too!” Jack said, standing up.

“At least the brood should have fun with Teal’c this afternoon,” Daniel laughed as he reached the door.

“Big time,” Jack chuckled.  “He said he was gonna show them how to cook a special Chulakian dish so they could make it for us.”

“Oh, gawd,” Daniel expressed, shaking his head and dreading the dinner to come.

====

A few minutes later, as Jennifer and Sheila were rejoicing at the impending reunion, Sheila recounted her conversation with Jack the day before.

//Flashback//
“Hello.”

“Hello, General Jackson-O'Neill.  This is Sheila, Jen's friend.  How are you?”

Jack chuckled at the formality, but answered calmly, “Just fine, Sheila, and you?”

“Fine, Sir, except I really miss Jen, and I'd like to ask you a favor, if I might.”

Again, Jack chuckled at the teenager's politeness.  Sheila had always been polite, but she seemed to be working very hard to be extra courteous in their conversation thus far.

“I'm all ears,” Jack responded.

“Well, I understand she's grounded, but Amber and I just got back from vacations with our families.  We're going to have a sort of catch up lunch at Cucina Mexina on Sunday.  Is there any way you and Doctor Jackson-O'Neill would let Jen join us?  Please?  It would mean a lot to me, and Amber.  Uh, please!”

“Jen hasn't mentioned anything about this lunch to us, Sheila.”  Jack heard the sigh, and it disturbed him.  “Sheila?”

“I asked her to ask, Sir, but she was convinced it wouldn't matter.  She's afraid it might affect other things ... I think.  Well, I'm really not sure why she won't ask ... Sir.”

~She sounds so Carterish,~ Jack mused to himself.  “She did?  Sheila, we'll discuss it.  Thanks for calling.”
//End of Flashback//

“Whoa, Girlfriend, I owe you, big time.”

“Yeah, you do, but we can talk about that later,” Sheila responded happily.

“Listen, I better get off the phone,” Jennifer spoke.  “I don't want to blow this by talking too long.  I just hope I don't wake up and find out it's a dream.”

“See you tomorrow,” Sheila said, about to disconnect the call when she heard her friend say something else.

“Sheila, tell your mom 'thanks' for letting you play chauffeur,” Jennifer requested.

“Will do!” Sheila laughed as she finally hung up.

====

It was about 12:30 p.m. when Jeff and Ricky watched as the large flatbed backed into the yard.  A dozen burly men unloaded four walls, one of which was partially a large open frame, which would be next to the house to keep the room in a perfect square.  The exterior portion of this wall contained the outside entrance.  The holes in the base plates of the walls went right over the anchor bolts sticking up out of the slab.  The pre-drilled holes lined up at the corners perfectly.

Jeff was moving quickly with his camera, trying to capture as many images as possible of the process.  Fortunately for him, the walls were held up for a trial fitting and needed to be swapped, so he was able to capture the wall being raised from both inside and out.

“Alex, I wanna see,” Ricky complained, smiling when the designer lifted him as high as he could.

“Ricky, you'll be able see much more from the pictures Jeff is taking.  I will, too. How about we look at them together at my office, just the three of us?”

“Can we?  Really?” the young eyes danced with anticipation.

“If your parents say it's okay, but I don't think they'll have any objections, Little Man.”

====

“Alex, thanks for holding him while I took those shots,” Jeff spoke when he returned.  He'd asked Alex to keep an eye on the boy for a while, so that he'd have the freedom to move around and snap the images he wanted.  “I know you have other things you need to do.”

“I'll tack the bab...uh, Little Man-watching charges onto the bill.”

Jeff chuckled, then looked over at the walls that would soon be his grandfather's sunroom and asked, “So, that's it?  Thirty minutes, and it's over with?”

“The dome will be lifted in place later,” Alex responded.  “Right now, as soon as this flatbed pulls out, another is waiting to be unloaded.”

“Ice cream parlor?”

“Yup,” Alex confirmed.

====

Watching the proceedings in the background, Daniel was too fascinated to notice his husband had arrived just in time to see the sunroom erected.  Equally entranced by the rapid assembly of the structure, Jack hadn't made his presence known right away.

“Ahem,” Jack sounded as he cleared his throat.

Daniel spun around, looking as guilty as a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and sheepishly questioned, “What are you doing here?”

“The very same thing you're doing evidently -- shirking my duties for a good two hours to sneak off and check on the wellbeing of our children.”

The younger man shrugged, saying, “I had to be sure they were okay, so I had Megan rearrange one of the meetings, but, uh, I have to get going in about two minutes.”

“I'm taking a long lunch -- they'll never know I'm gone,” Jack said.

“Jack!”

“Don't yell at me; you're here, too, lurking in the shadows.”

“You just came to see the room erected,” Daniel countered quietly.

“Erected -- my favorite verb,” Jack smirked.

“Really?  I prefer the noun myself,” Daniel teased.  “But I can last longer than thirty minutes.”

“Can you, now, Good Sir?” Jack laughed.  “Mayhap I shall offer thee the chance to make good thy boast tonight.”

“'Tis no boast, Varlet, thou shalt beg for mercy, 'ere the night is o'er,” Daniel responded in kind, smiling seductively at his loveable scoundrel of a husband.

Jack chuckled, then glanced over towards where the children were and commented, “They don't even know we're here.”

Their privacy protected, Jack slid his arms around his lover’s waist.  He leaned in and kissed Daniel soundly, taking the younger man’s breath away with an O’Neill special.

“Mmmm,” Daniel moaned.

--

Meanwhile, over by the new sunroom, Ricky looked puzzled and made his way over to his older brother.

“Jeff?”

“Yeah, Squirt,” Jeff answered, kneeling down in front of Ricky.

“Why Dad 'n' Daddy over there kissing b'hind tree?” Ricky whispered with a giggle, covertly gesturing to where their fathers were currently lip-locked, partly hidden by foliage.

“Ah, I was wondering if you'd noticed that, Squirt,” Jeff chuckled.  “You know Dad and Daddy.  They probably just came to check up on us,” he offered.

“Yep,” Alex laughed as he joined them. “But they seem to have gotten a little ... sidetracked.  Come on.  That's another rule to remember with clients; you didn't see a thing!” he laughed as they all got back to work.

--

Back behind the tree, Jack pulled back and expressed, “Wow, it was definitely worth coming here for that.”

“Yeah,” Daniel agreed, waiting for his brain cells to kick in again. “We really need to get back to work though.  Are you sure nobody saw us?”

“Positive, Danny.  I’m Special Ops trained, you know.”

“Right, so we'd better…”

“... go,” the couple spoke, quietly leaving, having seen that their children were doing well under the watchful eye of Alex.

====

By 3 p.m., the translucent dome at Hammond's house was being lifted by a cherry picker and set into place.  Before the clock struck four, both additions were structurally complete and finished on the outside.  The wait for the cherry picker did not slow the breakneck pace of the construction, however.  Inside, as soon as the ice cream parlor was erected, the electric crew began stringing wiring, followed by the insulation crew stuffing the spaces between the studs.

As soon as a four-foot section was completed, two drywall men immediately covered up the insulation with the yet-to-be-finished interior surface.  The ice cream parlor's windows were set atop forty-two inch high walls.  The border with the carousel horses at the top of the walls and Lulu's carousel horse wallpaper below the windows would be put up on the last day with the rest of the finishing touches.

At the same time the ice cream parlor was being completed, the same process was taking place in the sunroom.  The riser walls were to be finished with wood paneling and molding, and the pre-finished panels were ready and waiting for the drywall to go up.  These walls were only eighteen inches high, just enough to raise the windows for optimal viewing of the lake and to keep ground level cold air from seeping in.

As the cherry picker pulled away at 4:15 p.m., the tiles were being set in both rooms on the bed of mortar that held the radiant heating in place.  The tiles for both rooms had been laid out ahead of time, and the floor marked as soon as the slabs had cured.  Then each tile was removed and carefully stacked.  The measuring, cutting, trimming, and fitting of all the tiles had already been done.  It was simply a matter of placing them with the proper spacing on top of their bed of mortar and immediately applying the grout.

The fountain area was also being prepped for the installation of all its fittings and fixtures, but as soon as the drywall was up, all other work inside had to cease for the remainder of the day.  The construction dust had to settle so that a tack cloth could remove it right before the wet sealant was applied.  It, too, was prepped and ready to be rolled on as soon as the tile men were finished.

“Wow, Alex, it's amazing how much has been done in just two days.” Jeff marveled.

“It's not typical, believe me,” Alex replied wistfully.  “I don't think even your fathers, as much as I like them, could convince me to try another stunt like this.  I just hope General Hammond really, really likes what we're doing here.”

“He will,” Jeff spoke with confidence.  “Besides, what could go wrong?”

~He's so young.  Well, now isn't the time to go into it~ Alex thought.  ~Either I'll take him to lunch after this is all over, or it will give us something to talk about during his visits to me in prison.  I hope he visits.  'What could go wrong?' he asks.  Oy vey!~

//Flashback//
As spring morphed into summer, Alex worked on various projects, not the least of which was his rather dicey project for the Jackson-O'Neills.  One day, Byron Stone, owner of Archonics, Ltd., called the designer into his office.

~Great, here it comes.  Years of studying and hard work down the drain.  He's going to fire me, and it's going to get around how I ... fudged for Jack and Daniel, risking the company.  I'll have to sell the Jag, the condo ...~

“Alex!” Byron barked to get the designer's attention when the well-dressed man entered his office but seemed lost in his own world.

“Sorry, Byron.  I was just thinking about, uh, Sunny,” Alex responded.  ~Yeah, wondering if she'll visit me in prison.  Do they incarcerate civilians at Cheyenne Mountain?~

A huge grin broke out over the business owner's face as he teased, “Well, I'm glad something besides work can hold your attention.”  ~Who wouldn't be distracted by her; she *is* a looker.  Alex sure fooled me, though.  I thought for sure he was on the 'other side of the pasture'.  Hey, as long as he's happy.  As soon as I'm sure this isn't just a passing phase, and he really can balance his work and his personal life, it'll be time to talk partnership with him.~

Clueless about Byron's internal thoughts, Alex tried to look calm and confident, but he was actually about as nervous as he'd ever been.

“Alex, I wanted to let you know that we got the Hilton job.  The clients loved our bid and said, as do most of our clients, that you seemed to know what they wanted better than they did,” Byron stated.

“That's great, Byron.  I've talked with Boyd about overseeing that project since I won't be able to get to Berlin on their time table,” Alex replied.

“Yes, they're fine with that.  I'm very pleased, Alex.  We're becoming international in scope, bidding on projects just like this one that never would have come our way, if not for you.  I am grateful, even if that started because we are 'that firm where Alex Dennison works',” the senior architect chuckled.

“Thank you, Byron,” Alex replied.  “I like to think I'm contributing to the success of the company.”  ~Maybe he doesn't know yet~ the designer thought, relief flooding through him.

“One question, though,” Byron continued.  “Why is there a slab curing on our back lot?  Before you answer that, I also noticed some walls being built in our shop, apparently for a sunroom.  I was told it was one of your projects, but I don't seem to have any notations on either of these in our project files.  What's the story?”

“Uh, well, Byron, you see, I have been, ah, experimenting with pre-cast footers and some fast curing concrete in case we have to get a job done in a super big hurry sometime, uh, like maybe, before a hurricane,” the sought-after professional exaggerated.  ~Yeah, right, like he's going to believe that.~

Byron stared at the tall designer.  He continued to stare, causing Alex to get very nervous.  Finally, Byron tapped the tips of his fingers on his desk and then sat back.

“Alex, this hypothetical hurricane.  It wouldn't happen to have two names, would it?  Like say, Jack and Daniel?”

~Busted!~  “Actually, Sir, it would, it does, I mean ...”

~He's at a loss for words; that's not a good sign,~ the owner thought, though he suspected he knew the situation.

“Byron, I can explain,” Alex sighed, looking about as defeated as Byron had ever seen him.

Interrupting, the business owner spoke, “Alex, let me tell you a story from 'back in the day' before I started my own firm.  I became really close friends with a client who did a lot of business with us.  He came to me one day and said he needed a huge favor.  He was short on cash and couldn't cover the check he had written to us.  He admitted to me he had paid off a huge gambling debt, and he had several checks coming in over the next two weeks that would more than cover everything.  I agreed, on one condition -- that he go to Gamblers Anonymous.  He balked, but in the end, he did go, because I threatened to take his check to the bank right then and attempt to cash it.”

“How did you pull it off and hide the funds?” Alex asked, amazed at this revelation from his boss.

“One of the oldest tricks in the book.  I mailed our suppliers checks to each other in the wrong envelopes, with incorrect zip codes.  By the time the checks were returned to us, and re-mailed, the money was in our client's account.  I was lucky, no, I was darn lucky.  It worked out, but, technically, what I did was launder money.  The moral of the story, Alex, is that no matter how much we like our clients, there are limits as to what we can and should do.”

“I understand.”

With a nod, Byron asked, “Now, I don't really want to know what this is all about, do I?”

“Not really, Sir,” the still-nervous man admitted.

“I hope you know what you're doing, Alex.”

The employee nodded, thinking, ~Me too, Byron, me too.~

“Let me know when the hurricane warning has passed,” Byron requested.

“Of course,” Alex acknowledged, after which he left the office, relieved to still be employed.  ~But I'm walking a tightrope here.~
//End of Flashback//

“Alex, are you all right?” Jeff asked, gently poking the man in the arm to get his attention.

“Huh?  Oh, uh, sorry, Jeff, Ricky,” the designer apologized, looking around and reorienting himself.

“Where'd you go?  Man, you were out of it!” Jeff observed.

“Oh, uh, just recalling a conversation I had with Byron.”

“About Grandpa's ice cream parlor and sunroom?” the teen asked.

“Yes, but it was a confidential conversation,” the designer replied.

“Okay,” Jeff acknowledged, looking away, more curious now than he was before.

“Let me expand on what I mentioned earlier.  One of the things you have to learn is to keep your mouth shut about your clients' lives.  No matter how juicy the gossip, you have to keep it to yourself,” Alex advised.

Sensing the boy's curiosity, Alex looked at Ricky and suggested, “Ricky, would you go get my notebook that I left on the table over there?”

“'Kay, Alex,” the happy youngster agreed as he scurried off.

With the young ears no longer in listening range, Alex elaborated, “Jeff, as designers, we shape the spaces that people live in, work in, sleep in, get naked in, and do private things in.  We are often privy to information that the spouse doesn't even know -- a lover on the side, insider trading, a drug habit.  It boggles the mind.  You have to take the matter of client confidentiality seriously, if you want to be successful.”

“I think I understand.”

“You will after you've been in the business awhile.  You get used to seeing that people's private lives are often very different than the persona they try to project.”

“I guess everyone has their secrets,” Jeff commented.

“Yes, Jeff, all of us have our secrets.”

“Here it is, Alex,” Ricky stated cheerfully, handing the notebook over to the designer.

“Thanks, Ricky.”

====

“This is amazing,” Jeff commented as he looked at the two completely enclosed rooms that were rough-finished and ready for completion.  “I can't believe they got it done in just one day.”  Thoughtfully, the budding architect looked at his designer mentor and inquired, “How much does it cost to do something like this?”

“A lot,” Alex admitted.  “Probably a lot more than what you're thinking.  On a regular construction job, the general contractor hires the subs, who, in turn, hire the workmen whose wages vary from two dollars an hour above minimum wage, all the way to experienced journeymen who command a much higher price.  It's not necessary to have skilled journeymen doing every bit of work, usually, because the work proceeds at a much slower pace, which allows the sub contractors to train apprentices and to correct minor mistakes as they happen.  It *has* to work this way, Jeff, otherwise no one would ever make the transition from greenhorn to apprentice to journeyman to master of a trade.”

“But this isn't a regular job, right?” Jeff questioned intuitively.

“Correct,” Alex confirmed.  “What we've done here is make sure nearly everyone on the job site is an experienced journeyman.  There's nothing here that would require a master of their trade, but we're compressing the job time by employing more people and working on two rooms simultaneously.  One task proceeds on the heels of another.  These guys and gals know exactly what is required and when.  There is no OJT here.  Even the gofers are experienced.”

“Really?” the teen questioned.

“What's O...O...what you said?” Ricky questioned.

Alex smiled and answered, “OJT is an acronym for 'on the job training'.”

“Oh,” Ricky responded.  He frowned, then asked, “What's that?”

“It means learning at the same time you're working,” Alex answered.

Seeing his brother nod in understanding, Jeff asked, “Why do the gofers have to be experienced, though?”

“A good gofer can greatly increase productivity,” Alex responded.

“Yeah?” Jeff inquired.

Ricky frowned again, looking all around where they were.  As Alex was about to answer the teen's question, his curiosity got the better of him.

“Ricky, what are you looking for?”

“Gophers.  No see gophers, Alex.”  Still with a frown, he added, “Grandpa no have gophers.”

Jeff laughed loudly and began to tickle his brother, causing the young boy to squirm and giggle a lot.

“Not a real gopher, Ricky,” Jeff clarified, picking up the boy and holding him.

“Not real?” Ricky asked.  “No un'erstand.”

“Gopher's just a nickname for someone who runs errands and things, like ...” Jeff paused, searching his mind for an example.  ~Oh.~  “Remember the other day when you, David, Jonny, Jenny, and Noa were playing Air Force?”  When the little boy nodded, Jeff continued, “David and Jonny were the leaders, the generals, strategizing, setting up their plans for battle, and then they told you to get the camo kit?”

“Yeah.”

“Then a while later, they told you to get the food ammo?” Jeff questioned.

Ricky laughed, “Daddy made popcorn.  It ammo.”

“Popcorn was ammunition?” Alex interjected.  “How do you use popcorn in guns?”

“We no play guns,” Ricky spoke as seriously as Alex had ever seen him, shaking his head vehemently at the same time.

“Uh, yeah, it's kinda complicated,” Jeff added.

“No comp'tited,” Ricky refuted.  “Charlie die 'cause he play with gun.  No want Dad sad.  We no play guns.”

“Charlie was Dad and Aunt Sara's son, when they were married.  He got a hold of Dad's gun and he ... he shot himself.”

“Yes, I know.  Your father told me about that during the renovation of the house,” Alex sighed.  “I'm very sorry,” he spoke, sadness in his tone and in his expression.

“No be sad.  Charlie watch us now,” Ricky said, smiling.  “No play guns, though.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Alex agreed.

“Anyway,” Jeff began, trying to move forward and not get caught up in a sad family remembrance.  “When you got the camo kit and the ammo, you were the gofer, getting up and getting what the others needed.  Understand?”

“Why it called gopher though?  Gopher no get for Mittens?” Ricky questioned.

“Why don't you ask Daddy about that one; he's the linguist,” Jeff suggested.

Ricky nodded, saying, “Me airman; they give orders.”  Then he thought hard for a moment and asked, “Airman gophers?”

“Geez, why don't you ask Dad about that one,” Jeff answered.  “But you understand now?”

As Ricky nodded, Jeff put the boy back down on the ground and looked to the designer and questioned again, “Alex, how can the gofers increase productivity?”

Alex smiled, answering, “If he or she is smart enough to anticipate what is needed, to keep track of where each project is and when things need to be done, it's such a huge help.  The products arrive on time, the correct SKU is delivered, favorite suppliers are a phone call away, reminders of upcoming important social events and obligations are given in plenty of time.  All of it.”

“At Archonics, do you have a gofer, Alex?” Jeff asked in a leading manner.

“No I don't, Jeff.”

“Do you want one?” Jeff questioned, eagerness flowing from every pore of the teen's skin.

“I take it that you'd want the position if it I did?” the designer queried.

“In a friggin' heartbeat!” Jeff exploded, then held both hands over his mouth. “Oops.  I didn't mean to say that.  Well, yeah, I did, just without the 'f' word.  I'm sorry.  Please don't tell Dad, and, for cryin' out loud, whatever you do, please, please, *please* don't tell Daddy!”

Alex chuckled and replied, “I have more important things to do than tattle on my client's children.  If I decide I need a gofer and my boss approves it, I'll speak with your fathers about you working for me, maybe part-time.”

“Alex, you're the best!  Thank you.  Thank you so much!” the teenager spoke excitedly.

====

“What we doin', Daddy?” Jenny asked her younger father as they drove up to a hardware store.

“We need a new hose, Jenny.  It won't take long,” Daniel said, checking his watch.

The father knew they only had a few minutes before he needed to be home to relieve Teal'c after his afternoon of culinary teaching.  Jenny, however, had chosen to spend the afternoon with a friend, so Daniel had just picked her up when he remembered the need for the hose.

“What wrong with old one?” Jenny asked as Daniel helped her out of her booster seat.

“I think the squirrels got to it, or something.  It has some holes in it,” Daniel answered.

“Use duct tape!” Jenny exclaimed.

~She's been watching 'MacGyver' again,~ Daniel mused.  “Too many holes.  Let's go,” he said, taking her hand as he clicked the remote to lock and alarm the vehicle.

Inside, Daniel and Jenny headed for the garden department, but just as he spotted the hoses, the archaeologist heard a gasp and felt his hand being tugged.

“Daddy, look!  We get for Grandpa's room, 'kay?”

“Jenny, we have everything we need,” Daniel refuted.

“But I like it!” the little girl stated emphatically, staring her father down.  Then she smiled shyly, or was that slyly, and pleaded, “Pleeeeeeeease!”

~I'm being conned,~ Daniel chuckled as he knelt down to be eye-level with his daughter.  “Why?”

“I like turtles,” the redhead stated.

“Oh,” Daniel expressed, smiling.  ~Since when?  I've never heard her mention one word about turtles before.~  “And?”

Jenny put her right forefinger to her lip, looked off in the distance, and swayed back and forth as she thought, and thought.



Daniel tried not to laugh, realizing the little girl was working hard to come up with a reason.  He was about to speak when Jenny gasped again, an answer apparently having come to her.

~Gawd, this is cute,~ Daniel couldn't help but think.

“'Cause Grandpa might wanna talk to someone, and no one might be there, 'n' if he does, then he can talk to Peanut Brittle.”

“Pea-nut Brit-tle?” Daniel questioned, saying the name very slowly, his eyes widening as he did so.

“Turtle have hard shell, like peanut brittle,” the little girl claimed.  “I like peanut brittle.  We get some?” she asked, looking around to see if there was a food section at the hardware store.

~How do they think of these things?~ Daniel wondered.  “Uh, maybe the next time we go to the grocery store,” he answered.

“Daddy, Peanut Brittle have light,” Jenny stated, pointing to the box and the flowery light.

Daniel stood and looked closer at the box, reading the specifics.  The almost nine-inch-high stone turtle was friendly looking and certainly fit in with the lakeside property, regardless of the sunroom being built.

“Pleeeeeeease,” Jenny begged again, tugging on Daniel's pants.  “I buy.”

Daniel looked down at his daughter, impressed by the intensity of her eyes.

“You want to use your allowance to buy it?  It would take a lot of it,” Daniel advised firmly.

“It my present to Grandpa.  'Kay?”

Nodding, Daniel smiled and offered, “We'll split the cost.”

“Yeeeaaaah!” Jenny cheered, hugging the display turtle.  “One day we get real Peanut Brittle for us, too.”

~Ut oh.~  Daniel grabbed Jenny's hand and said, “No turtles, Jenny.  They wouldn't survive in our backyard.  They need a special environment, but we can get this ... Peanut Brittle for Grandpa's walkway, okay?” he asked.

The twin thought about her father's comment for a moment, then grinned and nodded happily.

“Good.  Let me find the right hose, and then we'll come back and get ... Peanut Brittle.”

Daniel chuckled, watching as Jenny skipped ahead to where the hoses were.  He glanced over at the stone turtle that was on display, thinking it would be a cute addition to their surprise for the general.

~But no real turtles.  Jack would have a cow!~  As he walked forward, he laughed, ~And then Jonny would want a real cow.  Poor Jack; we'd have to buy a farm.  It would never end.~

====

At 6:20 p.m., Jack pulled into Hammond's driveway.  As he got out of his truck, his cell phone rang.

“Hi, Angel ... Yeah, I just got here ... a turtle?” Jack laughed as he listened to the details about Peanut Brittle.  “I'll tell Alex ... uh-huh ... We'll be home in time for dinner.  Love you,” he said, then closed his phone and put it back in his pocket.  ~Wow, they sure got a lot done today,~ he thought as he walked quietly towards the construction area and saw the erected buildings.

“Daaaaddddd,” a little voice yelled, as the owner of that voice ran towards his older father, with Jeff following at a normal walking pace.

Jack almost scolded the small boy for running, but his youngest son was running across the grassy area of the yard where no construction equipment was laid out to cause an accident, so he decided against the correction.

~Kids need to run.  Besides, this is what life is all about.  Look at that smile!~  Jack squatted down and opened his arms.  A little tornado flew into them so fast that he lost his balance and fell backwards, the whirlwind landing on his chest, causing the father and both of his sons to share a moment of laughter.  “Missed me?” he chuckled as he sat up, sitting Ricky on his lap.

“Yeah, Dad, we saw ...” Ricky began.

For the next several minutes, Ricky listed, at lightning speed, everything that he and his older brother had seen that day.  Jack and Jeff listened attentively, smiling at each other, Jack thinking how reminiscent the boy's rambling was of Daniel talking about artifacts and Jeff amazed at how accurate the rambling was.

“Glad you're having fun,” Jack spoke.  “I need to talk to Alex for a minute,” he announced as he moved Ricky off his lap and stood up.  “Be right back,” he said, heading over to speak with the designer, leaving Ricky with Jeff.

====

“Just bring the turtle with you tomorrow,” Alex responded, after hearing what Jack had to say about the stone-lit accessory.  “We'll find the best place for it to go.”

“Not a problem,” Jack stated.  “If it doesn't fit in with the sunroom or the walkway, Daniel said he thought it could go anywhere in the back.”

“Jenny wants it in the walkway, right?” Alex sought to verify.

“According to Daniel, yes,” Jack answered.

“We'll find a place; can't disappoint Jenny.  She'd scowl,” Alex commented.

“Jenny scowls?”

“Jack, she's very determined.  If *I* can see that, surely you must as well.”

Jack cocked his head, replying a bit nonsensically, “That's why she's a redhead.” Giving Alex a nod, he added, “Thanks.”

“Jack, I have some good news for you, too,” Alex spoke.

“I *love* good news,” Jack responded.

“We're sufficiently ahead of schedule that I think if the second shift accomplishes as much as I think they will by nine or ten this evening, we can send them home, and you won't have to stay.”

“Sweet!”

Originally, after having dinner with their family, Jack and Jeff were going to return to Hammond's and spend the night there since the workers were to continue operations throughout the night.  Now, it was possible the overnight stay wouldn't be necessary.  Jack already had everything the two would need in his truck, so he was prepared either way.

====

“Jeff!  Ricky!  Time to go home!” Jack called out a few minutes before seven.  He'd given the boys a few more minutes for their 'fun', but it was definitely time to get going now.  “Dinner will be ready by the time we get there.”  ~Although, I can't guarantee it'll be any good.  I hope Teal’c hasn't put anything weird in it.~

Even though Ricky had taken a nap earlier, it had still been a very long day for the three-year-old, especially with all the excitement of watching his design become reality.  He hated to leave, but he was tired.

“Dad, would it be okay if I stayed?” Jeff asked.  “The sunset gives a different atmosphere to the pictures.”

Jack looked at his eldest son and smiled.  The young man in front of him was a tremendous help to his two fathers and was so very responsible with his younger siblings.  Daniel and he had remarked on more than one occasion that Jeff had taken to life in the Jackson-O'Neill zoo with more enthusiasm than they could have expected, considering that he was originally an only child.  All of this flashed through Jack's mind in a second.  He knew that staying and taking pictures would be combining two keen interests -- architecture and photography -- for his son.

“Okay,” Jack spoke.  “I'll bring you some dinner when I come back.”

“Me, too?” Ricky asked, though it was as much of an enthusiastic request as might occur at another time.

“No, Son, you need to come home with me, eat something besides fast food for dinner, and take a bath before bed,” Jack stated.

Ricky started to balk, more by rote than a genuine complaint.

“Hey,” Jeff called out, motioning for the boy to come to him.  Ricky ran the few steps to him eagerly, and the teen picked up the youngster, hugging him.  “Don't worry, Squirt,” he said.  “I'll take pictures of everything, and we'll see them all with Alex at his office.”  He saw his brother smile and continued, “You have to get some sleep so you can come back tomorrow.”  When Ricky nodded, Jeff handed the boy over to their father, saying, “Here you go, Dad, one Little Man Ricky Jackson-O'Neill.”

“Thank you, Son,” Jack said as he took possession of his son.  “Have fun, and I'll be back in a couple of hours,” Jack commented.  “You do have your cell?”

“Right here!” Jeff answered, tapping his pocket.

“Good.”  Looking at Ricky, the father asked, “Ride or walk?”

“Riiiiide!” the boy said enthusiastically, having already forgotten his small pout.

~He's so tired.~  Laughing, Jack raised the boy to his shoulders, saying, “Up we go!”

“Wow, Dad.  Now, I see ev'thing,” Ricky stated happily.

Jack continued to laugh, “I always knew I'd make a good horse.”

“Giddy-up, Dad!” Ricky ordered, bouncing on his father's shoulders.

Jeff chuckled as he watched the two disappear from sight.  Then he surveyed the area, trying to decide where he wanted to begin his photography session.

====

“Dad, you been gopher?” Ricky asked from his seat in Jack's Ford truck.

The question had come out of nowhere.  The father and son had been talking about the construction for the first part of the ride.  Then the conversation switched to whether purple, pink, or brown was the best color for a cat; and after that, Jack had asked the boy if he wanted to give Daniel anything special for the younger father's upcoming birthday.  Then, boom, a question about being a gopher.

“I'm a man, Son, not a gopher.”

“Not an'mal, Dad.  No un'erstand name, but Jeff 'n' Alex say need gophers do good job at Grandpa's house,” Ricky clarified.

Jack kept his eyes on the road, still working a bit to figure out what his son was talking about.

“People gophers, like me when playing Air Force 'n' David 'n' Jonny made me get stuff for them,” Ricky expounded.

“Right.  I knew what you meant,” Jack said, coughing when Ricky just stared at him.  “Have I been a gofer?  Sure, everyone is at some point in their life.”

“But you gen'ral.”

“And before that I was colonel, and a very long time before that, I was an airman,” Jack pointed out.

“Airman gophers?” the boy questioned.

“Darn tootin',” Jack answered with a grin.  In a split second, though, his grin faded.

~Jack.~

~Daniel, shut up.~

~Jack, I'm in your mind, which is kinda scary.  Now you know better than to say something like that to our son.  Correct it, Jack -- now,~ the mental Daniel ordered.

~You aren't real.  I'm not really talking to Danny.  I'm ... talking to myself,~ Jack maintained.

~Maybe, but you'll tell me, er, Danny, tonight, and you'll just have to look wishy washy tomorrow when you have to tell Ricky the truth.  Besides, it could be a coooold night, if you keep going like you are,~ the mental Daniel pointed out.

~Good point,~ Jack acknowledged.  Glancing at the young boy, he corrected, “To tell you the truth, Ricky, airman can be gofers, but they also do very important jobs.  They're learning, too, and, if they pay attention, they can end up generals.”

“Like you!” Ricky exclaimed proudly.

“I learned,” Jack replied.

“That why I gopher for David 'n' Jonny?”

“Ah, that's because you're the youngest, Ricky, and that's just the way it goes, but you'll grow out of it.”

“I no always be youngest?”

Jack laughed, saying, “Nope,” as he stopped at a stoplight.

Ricky grinned in anticipation and then moved on to another topic, asking, “Dad, why red mean 'stop'?  How come it not mean 'go'?”

~I hate rules,~ Jack bemoaned as he smiled at his inquisitive son.

====

“Wow, you know, that's pretty good,” Jack mumbled around his mouthful of Chulakian stew.  “Beats MREs.”

Ten young voices all called out in unison, “Dad, don't talk with your mouth full!” and then broke out into laughter.

“Sorry,” Jack muttered sheepishly.  “So, did you have a good afternoon with Teal'c?”

Both Jennifer, who had been with Mrs. Valissi for the afternoon, and Jenny, who had been with a friend, listened as their siblings gushed about the experience.

“Yeah, it was great,” David replied.

“Learned a lot,” Jonny noted eagerly.

Aislinn frowned and gave a mock shudder as she commented, “Glad he let us miss out on the fish eyes though.”

Lulu grimaced and added, “Especially 'cause they're supposed to be crushed.”

“Eeewwwww!” Jenny exclaimed.  “Glad I was playing with Maggie,” she added with relief.

Seeing his husband’s face go a little pale, Daniel clarified, “But, you didn't put that ... stuff in ... in this ... right?”

“No,” Jonny answered.  “It would have been cool, but Little Danny didn't want to crush eye balls.”

“We didn't, either,” Chenoa and Lulu added together, chuckling at their identical remarks.

“Good!  Ah ... that’s good,” Jack said, as he struggled to swallow his last mouthful.  ~I really don't want to chance this.  Who knows what the big guy did when they weren't looking.~

**Smile, Babe.  They worked hard on this,** Daniel communicated.

**Trying, Love, but are you sure Teal'c didn't sneak in the eyes?**

**I prefer not to think about it,** the archaeologist admitted.  While the children were still giggling, Daniel attempted to change the subject and asked, “So, how’s the sunroom looking?”

“Ricky, you wanna field this one?” Jack asked.

“Yeah!  It great.  We get ev'thing almost done.  Just inside dec'rating left,” Ricky answered excitedly, although he was clearly one very tired little boy.

“You mean both rooms are finished?” Brianna asked in open-mouthed astonishment.  “I can't wait to see it!”

“That was really fast.  I'd like to see it, too,” David remarked.

At that moment, the phone rang.  It was Alex, letting Jack know that things were still going well, and, barring a catastrophe, the overnight stay would definitely not be required.  The general returned to the dinner table and passed on the news to his family.

Hearing the news, the idea bulb clicked in Brianna's brain, and she asked, “Dad, can I go with you to pick up Jeff?  I really want to see the how much they've done.”

“Yeah, me, too,” David added.  “Please?”

“How about ...”

“Whoa!” Jack called out, interrupting requests from several of the younger children.

Jack looked at Daniel, who shrugged and said, “Bri, David, you two can go, but the rest of you need to get to bed.  You've all had a busy day, and dinner was late tonight, anyway.”

“No arguments,” Jack added, agreeing with the decision.

====

Not long thereafter, it was time for Jack to return to Hammond's.  Most of the kids were already upstairs, getting ready for bed.

“I'll do goodnight rounds solo tonight.  You can check in on the brood when you get back,” Daniel suggested as he let Bijou and Katie out the patio door.

Jack saw Brianna and David lingering by the kitchen counter and requested, “Grab the food for Jeff, and wait for me at the door.”  After the two kids eagerly did as requested, he said, “Danny, Jeff suggested Ricky stay with him again tonight.  Any objections?”

“No, of course not,” Daniel responded.  “This has really been a big adventure for him, Jack.  I knew he was looking forward to seeing the construction in progress, but I had no idea that he would maintain this degree of attentiveness,” he remarked  “He's three, and his attention span is longer than some of the PhD's I work with.”  **Oops, I said that out loud, didn't I?**

“Yup, you sure did, Angel,” Jack chuckled.  “Hey, how'd it go with the client?”

“Perfect.  Denny went the extra mile in apologizing, and Mister Delgado was courteous and accepted it graciously.  He's willing to let Denny continue and learn from the situation.”

“Ten percent off?” Jack asked.

“I was going to ask you about that,” Daniel admitted.

“But you already offered it, right?”

Daniel smiled and shrugged, saying, “It's a goodwill thing.”

“I could use some goodwill,” Jack requested, pulling his lover into his arms for a kiss.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too, but that's all the ... goodwill you're getting until later tonight,” the younger man spoke.  “Well, except for this,” he said, leaning forward and kissing his husband passionately.

“Goodwill is good,” Jack laughed.

“Go!” Daniel ordered, laughing as he gently pushed his lover away.

Jack grinned, and two sets of shining eyes spoke a thousand words of love in two seconds before he turned and headed for the entranceway.

====

Ricky rubbed his eyes as he lay on Jeff's bed, yawning.  He was so tired; yet, he wished he could stay awake and just think about all the fun he'd had today.

“Close your eyes, Son,” Daniel urged soothingly as he sat on the side of the bed, smiling at the young boy he loved so very much.

“Daddy ... <yawn> ... why gopher take orders?”

“Uh, what?”

Ricky told his younger father about the gopher conversations he'd had earlier in the day.

“Oh, well, generally, a g-o-p-h-e-r,” Daniel began, spelling out the word, “is an animal.  Nowadays, a lot of people use the wrong spelling; well, it's not really wrong, it's just ... not the preferred spelling.  I guess it's technically okay to spell it either way, but you really should be correct.”  Seeing Ricky frown, Daniel chuckled, “But that's neither here nor there at the moment.  What you're asking about is a gofer, g-o-f-e-r, and it's considered slang more than anything else.  Uh, I ask you to *go for* my pen that I left on the table, or Dad asks you to *go for* his Flight Magazine that he left in the study.”

“Oooooh, so not an'mal, just nickname?” Ricky asked, then promptly yawned three times, the last one so big that Daniel knew their dentist would have been in seventh heaven to have seen it during their last appointment.

“Actually, it's a pun, a sort of ... having fun with the animal gopher by calling people gophers.  That's probably why a lot of people spell it like it's the animal, but using the animal spelling for an errand runner, which is what a gofer is, is really a variant of gofer; that is, g-o-f-e-r,” Daniel explained as Ricky turned to lay on his side while he listened and learned.

“G-o-fffff...<yawn>.”

“...e-r,” Daniel completed.  “Sometimes the word refers to someone low on the totem pole, as Dad would say.  Uh, at J-O, we have summer interns working for us right now.  I guess you could say they are gofers because they do a lot of the menial or tedious tasks that need to be ...”  Daniel paused as he gazed down at the youngster.  He smiled as he watched the boy for a moment, his hand rubbing gently against the boy's arm.  Still smiling, he pulled the cover up a little higher, making sure it was snug.  Then Daniel stood up, leaned over, and placed a kiss on his sleeping son's forehead.  “I love you, Ricky.  Sweet dreams.”

====

In the truck, David and Brianna were talking excitedly about how quickly the two rooms had taken shape and how they couldn't wait for their grandfather to get home to see their surprise.

“Don't say that in front of Alex,” Jack chuckled.  “He's freaked out enough about getting everything finished on schedule.”

“But he'll get it all done, right?” David asked.

“Son, if anyone can, it's Alex.” Jack opined as he pulled the truck into Hammond's drive.

====

As 9 p.m. neared, the second shift landscaping crew was concentrating on the grading of the yard, moving the ground into place for the final leveling and planting the next day.  Jeff had been taking pictures ever since Jack and Ricky left at seven.  The sun had set about eight-thirty, but the crews were using solar-powered lights that had been charged during the day to continue their tasks.  They were easy to use, convenient, and didn't disturb the neighbors.

“Jeff!” Jack called out, getting the amateur photographer's attention as he, Brianna, and David approached.

“I'm glad to see you guys; I'm starved,” the male teen said to his sister as he took the insulated carrier from her.

“I figured you would be,” Jack replied.

“I wasn't sure you'd still bring me something since we don't have to stay,” Jeff said, his expression relaying that he was a bit disappointed at the turn of events.  “I'll dig into this in a minute, but I'd like to get a couple more shots first.  Come on.”

~Starved, but not enough to pull him away from photography,~ Jack noted as he watched his oldest son.

Jeff placed Brianna and David in front, while he had Jack and himself flank Alex on each side.  Using the remote he held in his hand, he took several shots of the five of them in different poses.

“Okay, that's enough pictures for today,” the young photographer said as he collapsed the tripod and stowed his gear in the large satchel.

The group headed over for an outside table and sat down.  Jack kept an eye on the workers, while Brianna and David were taking everything in.  As for Alex, he was reviewing a checklist, not wanting to miss anything at this crucial stage of the game.

“How's the food?” Jack asked his oldest son a minute later.

“I was just about to ask you about it,” Jeff said, having opened the container and sniffed a forkful of food.  “Um, Dad, what is it?”

“Don't ask.  Teal'c helped the kids make it.  Actually, it’s not half bad,” Jack answered as Jeff bravely took his first bite.

“Can we see the inside, Alex?” David asked eagerly.

“Only if you don't step on the tile.  The sealer hasn't finished curing yet,” Alex responded.

====

Ten minutes later, as Jack and Alex lagged behind a bit, Jeff led his brother and sister inside the house.  He stopped, urging them to look outward.  Standing at the edge of the living room, looking out into the newly enclosed space, the girl and boy were astonished.

The convolutions of the interior matched those of the exterior, the eight-by-eight inch columns that formed the corner supports were the legs of the pendentive arches.  The windows were mounted midway in the depth of those corner supports, creating a two-inch recess, or reveal, both inside and outside.  The shell-like medallions were in the same position all the way around the top, nestled in between the arches and the beam that lay atop the arches.  What distinguished the interior and exterior facades was the finish: outside it matched the color of the house, while inside, it was a rich, deep finish that exuded comfort and repose.

“Not bad,” Brianna commented.

“Not bad?” Alex whispered to Jack.

“She's hard to impress,” the general responded.

“Obviously,” the designer sighed as the two men walked a bit closer to the three children.

Jeff then explained that the ice cream parlor needed more finish work on the inside, because the walls beneath the windows were taller and were finished with drywall, which still needed to be primed and wallpapered.

The fountain itself was a shell, clean and white, with wires and pipes sticking through the walls and up through the floor.  The rest of the downstairs had big boxes stacked throughout, containing the appliances, apparatus, and equipment for the fountain.

“This time tomorrow, the ice cream fountain will be installed and fully operational,” Alex interjected brightly.  “So far, we're on track.”  ~And I hope it stays that way.~

Motioning for Jack to stay behind for a minute as the three Jackson-O'Neill children walked into the living room, the designer approached and, as he gestured with his hand in a sweeping motion indicating the fountain and parlor spaces, he sighed, “Jack, I know you've answered this a dozen times, but are you really sure General Hammond will be okay with all this?  I'm ... well, I'm ...”

“Over your head?  Out on a limb?  Up to your butt in alligators?” Jack chuckled, seeing the designer's pale expression.  Holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender, the general replied, “Do you want out?”  ~Like you could at this point.  You're up to your neck already.~  He smiled and said, “We couldn't blame you.”  ~But the brood could, and would.~

“No, I don't want to back out.  I'm already too committed.  The only way to prevent Byron from firing me is for this job to be absolutely flawless.  General Hammond needs to *love* this fountain, Jack.”

“He'll love it as much as he loves square dancing,” Jack replied.

“What?” Alex questioned with a raised voice.

Jack put his hand on the designer's shoulder and calmed, “Relax, Alex.  Hammond loves square dancing.”

“You're sure?”  Seeing his client's confident expression, along with a touch of 'stop asking me that', Alex sighed, “Ignore me, Jack.  I have a huge case of the jitters.  I think I'll go burn off some of this nervous energy behind a shovel,” Alex rambled anxiously as he began to roll up his sleeves.

“The 'Great Alex Dennison' performing manual labor?” Jack questioned in mock horror.  “What is the world coming to?”

“At least no one will see me,” Alex replied as he walked outside.

Jack laughed, then he smirked, ~That's what you think.~  Grinning, he headed into the living room and called out, “Jeff, I have a photo assignment for you!”

====

“This is what I call a real photo op,” Jeff chimed as he began snapping several photos of an Alex, who, shovel in hand, was hard at work.

“What?” the designer called out, looking up in surprise.

“Don't worry, Alex.  We'll keep it out of the newspapers,” Jack shouted.  ~Maybe.~

Deciding that he really didn't care at this point, Alex decided to oblige, posing willingly for the teenage photographer.

“Good thing you're capturing the moment for posterity, Jeff, because no one would believe it,” Alex spoke after several shots had been taken.  “Byron may want an eight-by-ten for the office,” he quipped.  Suddenly, he straightened, saying, “Maybe this isn't such a good idea.”

“Don't be a snub-nose,” Jack teased.  “Dig.”

“Yes, General,” Alex responded with military crispness and then saluted for a moment before continuing his work.

Pausing a few moments later, Jeff instructed, “Alex, take off your shirt, like you're really into it.”  After Alex did as requested, Jeff had another idea and called out, “Wait a second.  Don't move.  We'll do a special shot for Sunny.”  Walking over to his subject, he tugged on the waistband of the designer's trousers until they were on the precipice of decency and pulled the top of his boxers out, just a bit on one side.

“*What* are you doing?” a concerned Alex asked.

“Patience.”  Holding the camera and backing up, Jeff coaxed, “Give me 'that' smile, Alex.  You know what she wants.  Give it to her.  Come on, Buddy.  Yeah, that's it!  She's gonna love it!”

“Dad, why is Jeff talking like that?” David asked.

“Well, he's just ...”

Brianna let out a snort and cried out, “Jeff, little ears over here.”

“What?  Oh, geez, I'm sorry, Dad.”

“Hey!” Jack barked in amusement.

“I don't have little ears,” David denied, subconsciously reaching up and feeling one of his ears.  “I know what he's doing.”

“Then why'd you ask?” Brianna challenged.

“Because ... because ...”

“Well?” the tomboy asked smugly.

“I'm not a baby,” David argued.

“Bri,” Jack warned, motioning with his head for the girl to walk away.  Then, he looked down at the boy and asked, “Son?”

“I know, Dad.  I just don't want to say it,” David replied bashfully.

“Why'd you ask?” Jack questioned.

David shrugged, finally saying, “Dad, how do you know when you like a girl?”

“When you want to dip her pigtails in ink,” Jack answered playfully.

“Huh?” David responded, totally confused.

Jack patted the boy's back and led him over to a couple of chairs, sitting down and motioning for David to do the same.

“Is there someone you like?”

“No, but I was just curious.  I mean, Alex used to be so serious.  He'd never do that,” David said, pointing at the man, who had taken another near-exotic pose at Jeff's behest.  “He really likes Sunny.”

“Yes, he does.  Sunny has made Alex realize that there's more to life than building sunrooms and ice cream parlors.  He's learned to laugh and stretch the boundaries ... for her, because of her,” Jack answered.  He cocked his head, studying the boy who had turned ten in April.  “David, there's nothing we can't talk about.”

“I know, Dad,” the boy replied without hesitation.  He smiled weakly and revealed, “Robbie Doopser likes boys.  He told us at Kevin's party.”

“Robbie Doopser?  The little linebacker?” Jack asked.

“Yeah, him.”

“How does that make you feel?” the father asked.  He looked up and saw Brianna walking over.  He shook his head, undetected by his young son.  ~Private time,~ he thought, smiling when Brianna again got the message and turned around.

“I don't care, not really.  It's his choice,” David answered.

“Has he said or done anything you didn't want him to?” Jack asked gently.  “Do you like him?” he dared to ask.

“He likes science like I do, but ...”

“But that's it?”

David nodded, then sighed, “He said he likes me, Dad, but I don't ... I mean, I don't think I ... I don't want ...”

Jack gently rubbed the boy's back as he said, “David, you have a lot of growing up to do, and whatever choice you make in your sexuality is your choice.  What you need to remember is that you don't need to make that choice now.  What did you say to Robbie?”

“That he's my friend,” David answered simply.

“Was he okay with that?”

“I think so,” the boy answered.  “Dad, what if I do like boys ... that way.”

“Then you have choices to make in your life, and whatever those choices are, Daddy and I will always be here for you.  Do you think you like boys ... that way?”

“No, not really.  I'm just curious, that's all.  I've never had a friend who liked boys before,” David pointed out.

“At least not one brave enough to admit it,” Jack stated.

“Dad, when did you realize that you liked boys?” David asked bravely.

Jack wasn't surprised by the question from his son.  He and Daniel had had a similar conversation with Jennifer a while back.  The diligent couple believed in the importance of always being honest with their brood about their relationship together, but both parents knew that didn't necessarily mean that all their children fully understood it.

As the kids grew a little older, losing their childlike innocence and having their curiosity peeked by friends and peers, Jack and Daniel knew they'd all be asking the same question someday.

Taking a deep breath, Jack replied, “Well, I didn't like boys, not like that, and I still don't.”

“I don't understand.  You're married to Daddy.”

“Yes, I am.  What I'm trying to say David, is that I went out with a few girls in high school and in college, and then I fell in love with Aunt Sara.  We got married and had Charlie, and I was very happy.  I'd never liked boys; never thought of them that way.” Jack clarified.  “When I met Daddy, all I can say is that I believe with all my heart that we're meant to be together.  I fell in love with Daddy without even considering what his gender was; it just didn't matter.  When I say I don't like boys like that, I mean it.  I’ve never once looked at another man besides Daddy.”

“Oh, I understand now.  It's Daddy you love, not boys in general,” David reiterated happily, beginning to understand, even further, just how special his parents were and how happy he was to be a part of their family.

“Bingo!” Jack affirmed.  He smiled and put his arm round David's shoulders.  “So, what did the rest of your friends say?” he asked curiously.

“Most of them don't care, but a couple are calling Robbie names now and won't play with him anymore.  They call us names now, too, because we play with him,” David confided.

“Does that bother you?”

“Not much, Dad.  I mean, we've been through that.  I've heard all those names before, and I know they're only words, and they're doing it because they're really just scared, or ignorant, or both.  It's just that it's not fun to be teased, either,” David admitted truthfully.

“It never is,” Jack replied.  “So, you and Robbie are okay?”

“I think so.  Dad, I got nervous the other day just because he fell on me when we were playing.  I felt bad because I thought ... geez, Dad, I just felt bad.”

“David, what you're going through is natural.  Be honest, with Robbie, with your other friends, with Daddy and me, and, most of all, with yourself.  If you have questions, come to us.  Remember what I said, you have lots of time to figure out what you really want,” Jack stated calmly.

The boy confided, “I felt guilty because at first I didn't want to play with him.  I was afraid he would like me that way, and that felt ... weird.  Then I remembered that he's no different than the rest of us.  He just likes boys.  I just don't want him to like me that way, but he said he does, and it made me nervous.”

“As long as he abides by your rules, Son, be his friend.  He'll get interested in someone else.  If, though, he does or says things that make you uncomfortable, if he ignores your requests, then you need to back away until the time comes when Robbie can accept 'no' for an answer,” Jack advised.

David smiled and said, “I feel better now, Dad.  Thanks.”

“Anytime, Son,” Jack said, smiling and hugging the boy close for a second.

His happy demeanor back, David got up and called out, “Maybe you should make some of those for the girls at your school, Jeff.”

“No, I don't think so,” Jack interjected, shaking his head, much to Jeff's delight.

Brianna walked over to her dad and said, “Is David okay?”

“He's just fine.  Growing pains,” the father answered.

The tomboy gave her father a look and smiled, then teased, “How come you weren't concerned about me seeing Alex like that?”

“Bri, you see worse than that at the mall,” Jack replied.

Chuckling, the girl agreed, “Geez, you're right.  Besides, it's going to take more than a good-looker to get my attention.”

Jack stared at his daughter, who ran forward to join Jeff, David, and Alex.  He grimaced.

~I was sure I wouldn't have to worry about Bri for at least another decade,~ Jack fretted.

====

After the mini-shoot was over, Alex worked for a bit longer until he had his anxiety under control.  Having rearranged his clothing, he then reviewed the day's progress with Jack and outlined the next day's schedule.  As he did so, the landscapers finished their task, stowed their tools, and began to check out for the night.

“Alex, we're outta here for tonight,” Jack stated.

“I'll make sure everything is locked up and secured before I leave, Jack.”

“Okay,” Jack said, looking around and seeing that things looked pretty secure already.  “We should be here between 1000 and 1100 hours,” he informed about the plans for Sunday.  “I know Jeff and Ricky will probably want to get here earlier, but I'm not sure we'll be able to work that out.”

“I can swing by and pick them up, if you like,” Alex offered.

“You sure?  I know they'd love that, but that's another out-of-the-way trip,” Jack responded.

“The truth is, Jack, it's nice ...” Alex paused, looking over at the children.

“... being a mentor?” Jack asked with a sly smile on his face.

“Jeff and Ricky are eager; that's hard to find.  If you can't work it out, call me, and I'll pick them up,” Alex stated again.

Jack nodded, gave Alex a pat on the arm, and then headed for where his children were standing.  Jeff was still gathering his camera equipment to take home with him.

“Where did you learn to talk like a photographer?” Jack asked as the boy picked up his loaded duffel bag of equipment.

“From TV, of course,” Jeff laughed.  “I've never done that before, but it was a blast.”

====

On the trip home, David asked, “Dad, can I go with Jeff and Ricky in the morning?”

“What?” Jack asked skeptically.  “As I recall, Son, you were bored stiff on Friday and made everyone miserable.”

“I know,” the boy sighed.  “But it's different now.  On Friday, there was just a bunch of dirt, but now they're really working.  I want to see what they do.  I won't be bored.  I promise.”

“Jeff?”

“I don't mind,” the teenager answered.

“Okay, well, we don't know the game plan yet for the morning, and I'll have to talk to Daddy and see what he thinks.”

“Okay,” David responded, hoping the decision went his way.

“Just remember, Son,” Jack began, looking in the rear view mirror at the pre-teen, “if we let you go, you'd better not disappoint us.”

“I won't, Dad,” David promised, getting a nod from his father.

====

Sitting in the den, Daniel asked, “Do you think he's okay?”

“I think he's just fine,” Jack responded, having just told Daniel all about Robbie Doopser and his impact on their son, David.

“What do you think?” Daniel inquired.

“What do you think?” Jack queried.

“I asked you first.”

“You're the expert,” the older man proclaimed.

“Excuse me?” Daniel responded, his eyebrows arching.  “As I recall, *you* came after me.  *I* was married, happily, or ... so I thought,” he pointed out, smiling.

Answering seriously, Jack opined, “I don't think he is, but Robbie coming out made him think about it.  They're so young, Danny,” he observed.  “Isn't that too young to come out?”

Daniel shrugged, answering, “Noa's crush on Teal'c began the day they met.  She wasn't even two.  Little Danny fell for Karissa the first time he saw her.”

“You don't know that.  He couldn't talk yet.”

“It was the way he giggled,” Daniel teased.  “The point is, I'm not sure there is such a thing as too young, especially not in today's world.  I do feel good that he talked to you about it, and, Jack, I think we need to reinforce that -- not what you said, but the talking part.”

Nodding, Jack agreed, “I did try to stress that.  Robbie's an okay kid.  I think they'll be fine.”

“We need to watch for signs, Jack, for a little while, to make sure David doesn't get pressured into something that he doesn't want.”

“A same-sex relationship?”

“Babe, you know I don't care what he chooses.  I don't care what any of our children decide they want to be or do, as long as it makes them happy.  The only thing that makes me hesitant is that, being so young, with us as his parents, David might ...”

“Reverse pressure,” Jack surmised.  “Because we're together, he might go out of his way to prove that's okay by ...”

“Getting involved in a same-sex relationship himself when he ...”

“... when he doesn't really want to,” Jack completed.

“Exactly,” Daniel affirmed.

“You're right again, Angel.  We'll keep an eye out for a while and make sure the discussion doors are open,” Jack stated.  “Danny, did you call Alex while I was in the shower?”

“Yep, and David was thrilled when I told him he could go.”

“A chance for redemption,” Jack mused.

“And I told the boys to make sure they're punctual since Alex needs to be there on time,” Daniel stated.

“Jeff and David?” Jack questioned.

“And Ricky,” Daniel responded.  “He woke up when Jeff got into bed.  They were in the middle of a big question and answer session when I walked in to tell Jeff the timetable,” Daniel explained.  All of a sudden, he chuckled, “Is Alex really that scared that the general will go after him and Archonics legally?”

“Geez, Danny, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.  Mister 'Don't-Get-Me-Dirty' had his shirt off and was sweating buckets from all that work.  When Jeff makes the prints, you'll see what I mean,” Jack answered.

“I wish he knew what we knew,” Daniel spoke quietly.

“And what's that?”

“That General Hammond would never take retribution out on him,” the younger man answered.  Seeing Jack's stare, Daniel continued, “He'd court-martial you, fire me, and ...”  Suddenly, he laughed.  “Jack, he loves our children.”

Jack smiled, saying, “That's our wildcard, Angel.  He'll melt like buttah!”

====
--Chapter Five
====

Bright and early Sunday morning, Jeff was once again awakened by Ricky.

~Geez, it's just barely after five,~ the teen bewailed internally.  Jeff looked at the eager boy smiling at him.  ~It's hard to sleep when you're as excited as he is about something like this.~  He smiled back.  Though the youngster had been sound asleep when Jeff had climbed into bed the night before, he suddenly woke up and had asked his older brother a number of questions about the construction.  It had been after eleven before Ricky fell back asleep, right in the middle of Jeff's answer to a question.  “Okay, Squirt.  What do you say we have Froot Loops?”

“Yay!” came the expected response.

“Rise and shine,” Jeff mused as he pulled off the covers.  “I'd better make sure David is up.”

“'Kay, Jeff,” Ricky said as he got off the bed.

====

Fifteen minutes later, in the kitchen, Jeff was pouring cereal when David walked in, fully dressed and ready to go.

“How does ... <yawn> ... anyone ... <yawn> ... get up this early?” the boy asked.

“Stop ... <yawn> ... yawning like that.  It's contagious,” Jeff responded.

“It gonna be fun today,” Ricky declared.

“Grandpa isn't going to believe it when he gets back,” David opined as he dug into his bowl of cereal.

Amused, Jeff sat down to eat and replied, “I feel like we're on some Special Ops mission.”

“We are!” Ricky chimed, then reached over for a glass of milk.

“Just as long as we don't get court-martialed,” David laughed just before biting into an orange.

The boys all chuckled as they continued to eat their breakfast.

====

“Alex, good morning,” an attractive brunette greeted, walking to the Archonics' van as soon as she saw it pulling up.

“Excuse me for a few minutes,” Alex requested of the youngsters as he got out of the vehicle.  “Stay nearby.”

“Who Alex talkin' to?” Ricky asked as he observed Alex and the brunette chatting at the front of the house.

“Don't you remember her, Squirt?  The 'dirt lady',” Jeff mused.

Ricky smiled, replying, “Oh, yeah!”

The well-proportioned brunette, Melanie Allison, was the landscaper who had worked on the Jackson-O'Neill's backyard in 2009, once the renovation had been completed on their house.

After a couple of minutes, Alex waved the boys over, saying, “Jeff, David, Ricky, you remember Melanie?”

“Sure, we do,” Jeff spoke for himself and his two brothers.

“We love our backyard,” David interjected.

“That's music to any designer's ears.  I'm glad you like it,” the smiling landscaper responded.  “Alex, catch up with me a bit later.”

As Melanie turned and walked away, three sets of male eyes followed the tight, short tan skirt and sling back pumps.

“What you looking at?” Ricky questioned, tugging at Jeff's arm.

“Ah, we were just, um, admiring the view,” the teenager stammered.  “Right, Alex?”

“Sure, Jeff.  I mean, yes, Ricky, we were enjoying the view,” Alex acknowledged, suppressing a giggle and looking slightly flushed.  “Come on, Little Man, let's take a look at the backyard,” he suggested, offering his arms to pick him up.

“I don't think you were talking about the backyard,” David smirked.  Seeing his brother's surprised expression, he added, “I know about the birds and the bees, you know.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jeff chuckled.

“I like birds 'n' bees, too,” Ricky stated.

Alex and Jeff shared a look, then laughed.

“Me, too, Ricky,” Alex replied.

====

In the backyard, there were two teams of people, one digger, planter, and leveler per team.

As Alex put Ricky down, he said, “Little Man, you have been absolutely awesome these past two days, but you're going to have to stick close to Jeff and David today.  There's a lot going on, both inside and out, and I need to oversee it all, so I won't be as available as I have been to answer questions.”

Ricky bowed his head, his disappointment evident.  From the corner of his eye, he could see his brother starting to unpack his camera equipment.

Quickly, Alex assured, “But it's just this one day, and tomorrow won't be quite so hectic.  Don't forget, you, me, and Jeff are going to see all of this in my office, as soon as Jeff has all the pictures done, okay?”

Ricky nodded his assent, but he wasn't certain what made today so different from yesterday or the day before.  He wasn't happy.  Alex was going to be busy, and Jeff would be taking more photos with so much happening.  The sad youngster wanted to be held up high on Jeff's shoulders, or Alex's, or his father's, like he had been for a good portion of the last two days.  He had especially enjoyed the quality one-on-one time he'd spent with his older brother.

Alex assumed, mistakenly, that because of Ricky's demonstration of his intellect that day at Archonics, the boy's conceptualization of priority and sequence was equal to his knowledge of architectural principles and terminology.  Unfortunately, Jeff wasn't aware of the impact on his little brother, either.

====

The work being carried out on Hammond's property was as precise and as frantic as that of an ant farm.  Alex pointed out the smoothness of the dug areas.  The large clods of dirt had been broken up, and all but the tiniest rocks and stones removed.  The final leveling was being done with fresh topsoil before the small decorative shrubbery was to be planted, which would then receive more topsoil.

The in-ground light fixtures were of two types: twelve-volt, run off a transformer spaced along the gravel walkways and concrete walk, and two-twenty-volt washing up the exterior walls of both additions.  These latter lights would allow the rooms to be used at night without the harsh 'black mirror' effect that made the occupants visible to anyone outside, while leaving them blind as to who or what was outside.  With the inside and outside both lit up, anyone in the room could see out into the yard.

Finally, the fresh sod was waiting, rolled up in wet burlap to be unrolled and fitted, like a live green carpet, before being tamped into place and given a good soaking.  The narrow bands of concrete were poured, ready to retain the number two river pebble still piled nearly forty feet away.  The plan was for the Jackson-O'Neill brood to have the pile moved into place before day's end.

“By the way,” Alex said to the three brothers.  “Melanie doesn't really know that General Hammond has no clue about what we're doing.”

Alex groaned, not really sure how to say what he wanted to.  Actually, he did, but he wasn't really sure what he should say to the trio.

“Don't worry, Alex.  Dad and Daddy have already told us not to talk to anyone about the project,” Jeff replied.

“Yes, well, I need to protect her,” Alex spoke.

“Why?” Ricky asked innocently.

Alex looked at Jeff with pleading eyes.

Jeff knelt down and explained, “Squirt, you know how sometimes Dad and Daddy go over the line to get what they want?”

Ricky thought for a moment, then answered, “Like when they wanted ta get Jenny her chess set and da man wouldn't sell last one 'cause it was in the window?”

Jeff chuckled, “It was the very last miniature set of that kind, and Jenny really wanted it.  They wanted it personalized, you know, putting her name on it, and that would take extra time to do.  If the man didn't sell them the display model -- the one in the window -- then they couldn't have acquired one in time for Jenny's birthday.”

“My birthday, too,” Ricky said with a grin.

“That's why your twins,” the teenager teased.  “So, Dad and Daddy offered the man more money for it, double even.  That's when he got greedy.  He decided to ask for four times as much money.  That didn't go over so well with Dad and Daddy.”

Alex found himself curious by the story and, almost before he knew it, asked, “What did they do?”

Snorting at the look on the designer's face, Jeff swallowed, then looked down, shaking his head, and finally answered, “Dad displayed the stars and put on the glare.”

Ricky looked up at Alex and explained, “Dad has gen'ral eyes.  They scary.”

“And Jenny got her chess set, at its regular price,” Jeff mused.

“What they doing now, Jeff?” Ricky asked, returning to the Hammond project.

“Well, this is a surprise for Grandpa, right?”  Jeff asked, waiting for a nod from Ricky before continuing.  “Naturally, not everyone knows exactly what we're doing or why.  So, since Alex is in on the secret, he knows, but he's being a good Jackson-O'Neill operative and not telling anyone anything that they don't need ...”

Ricky gasped with understanding, almost jumping up and down as he said, “I know!  Need to know!  Dat lady doesn't need to know!”

“Bingo!” Jeff confirmed with a grin, patting the boy's shoulders and then standing back up.

“Well done, Jeff,” Alex praised with a grateful expression.

David just chuckled, having listened to the entire exchange with a bit of amusement.

“You guys stick together until the rest of your family gets here,” Alex instructed.  “I have other jobs to discuss with Melanie as soon as I check on things inside.”

Picking up the thread of conversation from the day before, Jeff asked, “Alex, I know you're busy, but before you go.  There really is no solid connection between the sunroom and the house?”  Having examined the sunroom's connection to the house from the outside and now the inside, Jeff had questioned his mentor just to confirm what he had observed.  ~Better make sure I'm not missing something here.~

“None at all,” Alex said proudly.  “The two outer surfaces of the timbers and the sheathing on the house were painted with a clear, waterproof sealant, then the sheathing and the faces of the timbers touching the house were painted with a liquid membrane, which will never totally dry, leaving it flexible.  The schematics and the building permits will be on file at city hall so the assessor's office can see that this room is a totally free standing structure and cannot legally be considered additional living space.  Thus, it can't be taxed as such.”

“Wow.  That's cool,” the teen expressed.  “What about the parlor?”

“It's a different story because there was no timber structure to replace the connections to the house.  It had to be a regular addition.”

“Thanks,” Jeff said with a nod as Alex walked away.

====

Inside, the fountain installation was proceeding quickly.  The crew had mapped out everything in sequence and in detail.  They'd rehearsed the installation many times, right up to the start of the project.

“Mister Dennison, we're just about finished here,” Aiden spoke.  He continued giving an update on the connections and site cleanup.  Towards the end, he admitted, “I was pretty tired of rehearsing this installation, but it sure did make it a snap.  Can't say I'd want to do this for every job, but sure can't argue with the bonus you swung for us, either.  Thanks.”

“You're welcome, Aiden, and just call me Alex.  We've worked together on too many projects to stick with formality.”

“Yes, Sir.”  Aiden smiled, correcting himself with, “Yes, Alex.”

The designer instructed, “I'd like you and Tim to stay and help with wiring up the flood lights and low voltage.  Everyone else should be out of here by noon, if not sooner.”

“Will do, Alex,” Aiden said, turning and walking back to his work.

====

The alarm clocks on both sides of the king-size bed rang insistently, causing both occupants to groan and wish, at least for the moment, that they'd never hatched a plan to build two additions onto General Hammond's home in just four days.

“Time to get up, Danny,” Jack prodded, lightly shaking his blanket-cocooned husband to help wake him up.

Daniel was using Jack's chest as a pillow and had securely entwined their legs together during the night, so his lover couldn't move until he did.

“Mmmm, I’m already *up*,” Daniel responded sleepily, placing light kisses along Jack's shoulder.

“Uh, let me rephrase that; time to get out of bed.”

“Oh,” Daniel sighed.  “No fair, Jack,” he whined, his words muffled as he buried his face further against his lover’s chest.

“I know,” Jack sympathized, kissing Daniel’s temple.  He glanced at the clock, adding enticingly, “Tell you what.  Get out of bed now, and we'll have time for a quick shower, if you know what I mean.”

“I like the way you think,” Daniel praised.  “You get up first, and start the shower,” he added, yawning.

“No, *you* first,” Jack insisted.

“No,” Daniel refused, yawning again.

The older man threatened lightly, “Okay, but if I get up first and you fall back to sleep, I'm starting and ‘finishing’ without you.”

“You don't play fair,” Daniel whined as he threw the covers off and groggily sat up in bed, feeling with his feet for the slippers he knew had to be there.

Now free of his Danny blanket, Jack made his way around the bed and pulled his husband up into a standing position.  After a quick kiss, he headed into the bathroom and turned on the water, setting the massage flow to their favorite setting.

Daniel's eyes were still closed as he shuffled into the bathroom just a few seconds later and lamented, “I hate getting up early.”

“I’ll make it worth your while, Angel,” Jack whispered seductively, the steam from the shower already filling the room.

====

Roughly thirty minutes later, as a still yawning Daniel finished getting dressed, Jack entered the bedroom with a large mug of coffee for his caffeine-deprived spouse.

“The brood’s up and about, Love,” Jack informed, wondering if his lover's smile could get any bigger on seeing the mug of coffee.  Chuckling, he added, “Danny, you know that I'm on call today, with Hammond being gone.  Only SG-14 is still off-world, and they want to wrap things up, but they don't want to upset that new bunch of vampires they made friends with, either.”

Taking a sip of his much needed addiction, Daniel said, “Jack, they call themselves the, uh, 'v' mYthrop'san'.  In their language, it means 'keepers of the waters'.”  Daniel lost his train of thought and stopped mid-sentence, adding, “What was your point about being on call?”

“Drink some more coffee, Angel.  The ole brain cells haven't quite connected yet,” Jack teased.

“Very funny,” Daniel muttered sarcastically, as he sipped some more of his favorite morning ‘pick-me-up’.  ~Well, second favorite,~ he chuckled to himself.

“My point was that I don't think it's a good idea to take just the SUV, in case I have to go to the Mountain.  That would leave you stranded at Hammond's with all the kids.”

“Not tactically sound, is it?” Daniel mused as his husband groaned.

“Landry's running the show for the next couple of days, but he might need me,” Jack spoke, referring to General Hank Landry who sometimes subbed for General Hammond when Jack wasn't available.

In this case, while Jack had been in charge on Friday and Saturday, Landry had been asked to report to Cheyenne Mountain for Sunday and Monday only, with Hammond returning to the base on Tuesday.  Hammond believed the request for Landry's services was because Jack wanted to spend time with his family over the July Fourth holiday.  He had no idea that the real reason Jack had requested Landry's assistance was to free the silver-haired man up for duty with the surprise sunroom and ice cream parlor.

“Jack, the man is a general.  I think he can handle the SGC for forty-eight hours, don't you?”

“He's good; heck, I like him, but ...”

Daniel interrupted his lover as he snickered, “Because you beat him at chess.”

Jack cocked his head with a 'got me there' expression, then opined, “I was just thinking it was a good idea, just in case something comes up.”

With a smile, Daniel said, “I agree.  I'm also hungry,” he suggested brightly.

“Yay!  Froot Loops!” Jack exclaimed, running out the door and down the hall, scooping up a giggling Aislinn as he went.

~Gawd, he sounds just like Ricky,~ Daniel groaned.

====

“Showtime!” Jack called out.  “Let's move it, move, move it!” he added, clapping his hands as he stood at the foot of the staircase, encouraging the children to make quick time.

“Geez, Dad, we're not in the Marines,” Brianna whined as she passed by.

“And you'd never pass muster in the Air Force with that attitude either, Missy,” Jack retaliated.

“Dad thinks we're that family in that movie,” Chenoa opined.

“Which one?” Lulu asked, looking behind her as they walked down the stairs.

“Sound Something.”

“'The Sound of Music',” Jack informed his daughters.  “And if you don't get a move on, I'll bring out my whistle and dress you all in uniforms, just like the kids in the movie wore.”

“No costume, Dad,” Aislinn remarked, frowning.  “Costumes don't let us be beaut'ful,” she said, bringing her right hand up to bounce her long, shiny hair.

“Daniel?”

“Don't look at me,” Daniel replied as he stood up, having put the harnesses on the beagles.

“Did you hear what she said?” Jack asked.

“What she say?  I no hear,” Jenny spoke, hopping down the last three steps.

“Never mind,” Jack groaned.  ~No more Style Network for her,~ he determined about the fashion and beauty channel Aislinn had been watching from time to time.

“Whoa!” Jack said, reaching out and stopping Jonny's forward motion by putting his hand on the boy's shirt.  “I saw something move.”

“I move, Dad,” Jonny said.

“Why are you wearing a jacket?  It's warm outside,” Jack stated.

“Always be prepared,” the boy answered confidently and then tried to walk away.

“One minute, Scout,” Jack ordered.  “Open it.”

Jonny frowned, then let out a big sigh.  As he opened his jacket, he just barely stopped Bogey, his lizard, from jumping down to the carpet.

“Woof!” Katie warned, standing and her tail going to a point position.

“Mittens, upstairs!” Daniel ordered, moving forward to shoo the feline away as a precautionary measure.  “Thanks, Katie,” he said, patting the youngest beagle.

“Bogey.  Cage.  *Now*,” Jack ordered.

“Why Bij and Katie get to go, but not Bogey?”

“Jonathan.”

Recognizing the one-word command tone, Jonny gulped, then let out a big breath. Knowing he had no choice but to accept the ruling, he turned around and, muttering all the way, headed back upstairs to put Bogey in his home.

“And make *sure* you close the door, and *lock* it.”

“I think I'll make sure, Babe,” Daniel said, heading up the stairs.  “Mittens looked a little hungry to me.”

“Meet you out front,” Jack agreed, now that all the children, except Jonny, were waiting in the entranceway.

“Dad, you have Peanut Brittle?” Jenny asked as Jack approached.

“Peeee...oh, the turtle,” Jack responded.  “Daddy put him in the SUV, Princess.”  As Jenny grinned at the news and then began chatting with Aislinn and Little Danny about getting a real turtle one day, Jack scowled.  ~Not in my lifetime, Red.  Nope; not gonna happen.~

====

At 10 a.m., the SUV, followed by Jack's F-350, pulled up at the Hammond residence.  Eight Jackson-O'Neill children, Jack and Daniel, and the beagles all piled out of the two vehicles.  Other than Brianna and the three early arrivals, none of the children had seen the completed rooms.

Bijou and Katie scampered, sniffing every blade of grass and every place where a stranger's foot had trod.  It was a new playground for the happy beagles, whose tails were held high even as they wagged during their investigations.

“Whoa, Girls!” Jack called out, hurrying in front of the family.  “Jeff!” he shouted, seeing the teenager.

Jeff saw the beagles and nodded, quickly diverting from his current spot to stay close to them.

As the large family approached the completed additions, seven young jaws dropped and fourteen young eyes popped at the sight they beheld.  The new rooms looked as if they'd always been there.  The only telltale sign that they were new were the lines in the sod where the landscapers had finished.

The ground crew was working feverishly to complete their tasks.  The only error they made was having watered the sod too quickly, before the final electrical hookups for the outdoor lighting had been made and tested.  Now that part of the project would have to wait a few hours until the water had drained off or been absorbed.

The plan was to allow the children to 'ooh' and 'aah' over the additions for a good hour or more before the walkway was filled in.  That way, they would be ready for something new to take their attention for a while.

“Better keep the girls on their leads, Son,” Jack suggested, handing the long leads to the boy.  “You can use the tie-downs, if you want.”

“Okay, Dad,” Jeff said, taking the leads and putting them on the beagles, who already had their harnesses on.  “It's for your own good.  We aren't worried about you running off; it's just there are still strangers around.”

“Woof,” both canines responded, apparently understanding what was being communicated to them.

====

Inside the house, Brianna commented about the fine layer of dust that seemed to be everywhere.

“Just be glad we sealed all the doors upstairs with plastic and tape, as well as hanging plastic over the family and dining room doorways  and the stairwell, *and* draped *all* the furniture, upstairs and down, in plastic.”  Taking in the uncomprehending stares from the two oldest females, Alex explained, “Construction is *always* a messy, dirty business.  The dust goes *everywhere*, and all you can do is contain as much of it as possible, covering up everything, even items behind sealed doors.  Tomorrow, all the plastic will need to be removed, the floors vacuumed, and *all* the woodwork dusted.  Then the pictures, draperies, and blinds can be put back.  It will look like nothing was ever touched.”

The two girls looked horrified at the thought of so much housework.

“Girls,” Alex began.  “I am not crazy.  Believe me, this saved you work.  It would have been far worse to have left the place uncovered.  We sealed off the upstairs, so there won't be much to do there but go over it lightly.  Trust me, tomorrow, when all the dust has settled, you'll be so glad you are just rolling up and throwing away huge sheets of plastic wrap.”

“What about downstairs?” Brianna managed to get out.

“There'll be a bit more to do simply because more dust will have settled, but the biggest part will still be removing the plastic wrap.”

The two girls shared a smile, knowing they would bear the brunt of the housecleaning.  The younger children would be in too much of a hurry and scatter the dust all over again, making it harder to clean.

“Thanks, Alex.  I guess you know what you're doing, or you wouldn't have done all this,” Jennifer said, gesturing to take in the plastic hung and draped everywhere.

“Yeah, thanks, Alex,” Brianna sighed.

====

“Jen, Grandpa is really going to be bowled over by all this,” Brianna commented as the girls chatted.

The two females were still inside the house, both afraid that if they went outside, they'd be forced into some kind of manual labor.  They figured their cleaning assignment for the next day was all they wanted to handle.

“He's not going to believe it, but he's going to love it!” Jennifer replied.  Then she glanced at her watch.  “Oh; it's nearly eleven-thirty.  Sheila should be here soon.”

“Hey, Sis,” Jeff called out, having just entered the house.  “I thought you might want to move a bucket of gravel before you leave, so you can say you helped?  I'll snap a picture so you'll have the proof.”

“Sure thing, Bro,” Jennifer giggled, heading for the backyard to where the gravel was piled.

“I'm gonna stay here and hide,” Brianna teased, raising one of the draped plastic droppings and using it as a blanket as she lay on the sofa in the living room.

“Just don't get caught,” Jeff warned, trying not to laugh.

====

Outside, Jennifer looked around and saw her two fathers were busy with the rest of the brood.  She winked at her photographer brother and put her finger to her lips.  Then she stuck the shovel into the pile in front of her about two feet off the ground so that as she placed her foot on the shovel her dress rose to mid-thigh. The mischievous girl pulled the elastic neckline of her dress halfway down off of her shoulder and struck a pose.

Jeff winked back and let out a silent, ~Whoa!~ while he shook his wrist a few times.  His sister grinned even wider, which is just the response he was hoping for.  The teen snapped several shots, moving to catch a slightly different angle of his subject in each one.  He then took several more demure shots of his sister, including one of her carrying an empty bucket like it weighed a ton.

“That was fun,” Jennifer said when they were done.  “Time for me to go, though.  Sheila will be here any minute.”

“It's been a while since you've seen Sheila and Amber, hasn't it?” Jeff inquired, walking his sister to the front of the house.

“I haven't seen Amber since school let out.  They went on a lonnnnng family vacation, and then with our crazy June, Sheila and I didn't really get to go anywhere.”

Jeff nodded and joked, “But you made up for it on the phone.”

“Careful, Bro.”  After a shared laugh, she said, “Actually, we have more fun at the house just sitting out in The Pod.”  She laughed louder and remarked, “I'll never forget a couple months back when Sheila, Amber, and I were studying out there, listening to our iPods, when Dad named the porch swing 'The Pod!'”

Jeff raised his eyebrows, responding, “Is that how it got the name?  I guess I missed that.  I just figured it was Dad, being Dad.”

“It was,” the female teen giggled.  “There's Sheila!” Jennifer said, waving at her friend eagerly and then turning back to smile at Jeff.  “Remind Dad and Daddy that I should be home no later than two, okay?”

“I will.”  Jeff promised.  “Have a good time, Sis!”

====

Twenty-five minutes later, Jennifer and Sheila walked into Colorado Spring's newest restaurant, Cucina Mexina, and spied their friend, Amber, waving furiously to get their attention.  They nodded to the hostess, who then led the way to the table.

The three girls squealed with delight at their reunion and started the process of catching up from what was nearly a thirty day separation.

“Jen, I just love your outfit.  Where'd you find it?” Amber queried, the envy in her voice obvious.

“Do you really like it?” Jennifer asked in return.

“It's fabulous, Jen.  You've been to the mall without us,” Sheila said with mild chastisement in her tone, though her grin gave away her true mood.  “So come on, give.  Where'd you get it?”

The outfit the girls were referring to was a sleeveless pastel floral searsucker dress, with an elastic neckline that could be worn pulled up as a modest scoop neck, or, as Jennifer was wearing it now, pulled down below the shoulders until it was hugging the upper arms, riding just above the bosom.  The waist was also elastic, and the skirt was a cascade of gathered tiers, ending at mid-knee, with a full underskirt of white eyelet fabric.

When she had modelled it for Jack, the teen had made sure to have the skirt pulled down as long as possible, with the elastic waist riding on her hips and the scoop neck as tight around her neck as she could get it.  She had also worn a modestie, a detachable panel to fill in the scoop neck in the front.  Overall, it was a modest dress, even in the way she was wearing it now, but it was certainly a bit more eye catching than what she had modelled for her older father.

Completing the ensemble was a headband made of the same dress fabric, along with a belt and purse she had woven from strips of pastel 'pleather', or plastic leather.  Using soles and heels she had ordered from a source Mrs. Valissi had shown her, Jennifer had even made a pair of sling back pumps to match the purse and belt.

“I didn't buy it, I made it,” Jennifer revealed, beaming proudly as she spoke.

Just then their waitress introduced herself and gave menus to the diners to peruse.  For a couple of minutes, the girlfriends debated their luncheon choices, then put their menus down to continue their conversation.

“C'mon, Jen.  I know you can sew, but you're not this good,” Amber commented.  “Are you?  It's so glam!”  The girl was a clothes horse and had a lot of designer clothing.  Examining her friend's outfit, she couldn't believe it was made by Jennifer.  ~It looks as good as my best Betsey Johnson outfit.~

“No, seriously.  I made this entire outfit,” Jennifer said, looking down at her outfit.  “I haven't talked about it that much, but my mother taught me to sew.  It was something special we did together a lot.  I stopped when she died, but now I want to get back into it again.  Mrs. Valissi is helping me.”

“You like it *that* much?” Amber inquired.

Just then, the waitress returned to take their orders, hectically writing down the trio's meal choices.

As soon as the waitress walked away, Jennifer answered, “I really do.  I know I'm not very good, but I enjoy it.”  With a smile and not wanting to think about her sewing since she was somewhat insecure about it still, she asked, “Amber, how was your trip with your parents?”

“It was so cool,” Amber began.  When she was done and they'd discussed her adventures for a while, she asked, “What have you been doing this summer, Jen?”

“It's been eventful,” Jennifer answered.

“Exciting eventful?” Amber questioned.

“If you consider the entire family being sick last month.  It was crazy,” Jennifer answered.  “To be honest, I've had a few arguments with my parents lately.”

“We're teenagers, Jen; we're suppose to argue with our parents,” Sheila teased.

“Being grounded isn't any fun, though,” Jennifer admitted.

“What did you do, anyway?” Amber asked.  “Oh, I bet it's something to do with Peter!”

“Amber, I've told you before, Peter and I aren't dating, or anything.  He's just a friend, that's all.”

“Sure, Jen, but, come on.  You must have done *something* fun this summer, especially if you're grounded,” Amber maintained, chuckling afterwards.

“Lately, it's been mostly working on a surprise for my grandfather and babysitting the brood,” Jennifer replied, shrugging.

“I think you're holding out on us, Jen,” Amber accused lightly.

“Actually,” Sheila interrupted.  “I think you're family is neat.  They can't be that bad.”  Seeing Amber's look, she added, “They let Jen out to come have lunch with us, remember?”

“I know, but I still think you're brainwashed, Jen,” Amber said.  “You do more babysitting of your brothers and sisters than anyone else I know.

“I like it, and that's what you're missing, Amber.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Amber acquiesced.  Looking at the other girl, she questioned, “So, Sheila, how was your vacation with your parents?”

“It was way cool!  We ...”

The three teenagers continued their happy reunion, chatting and laughing non-stop throughout their lunch.

====

“Jack, Daniel, time to put the brood to work,” Alex stated, nodding over at the items in question.

“Brood!  Front and center!” Jack commanded, waving his hand, signaling the children to join them.

It was 12:45 p.m., and it was time to start moving the river pebbles into the walkway.

As the Jackson-O’Neill brood came running over, Jonny stood to attention as best he could and barked out, “Jonny Jackson-O'Neill reporting, General Dad, Sir!”

**Now, that’s cute,** Daniel communicated, grinning as he stood beside his husband and faced their children.

**Oh, yeah,** Jack agreed, proudly.  “Time for work, Broodsters!” he called out enthusiastically, rubbing his hands together.

“We'll have this done real fast, right, guys?” Jonny asked of his male siblings.

“Hey, we're helping, too, Jonny,” Aislinn said.  “We'll do as much as you guys, more even, right, girls?”

Brianna, Lulu, Chenoa, and Jenny all nodded vigorously.

“We'll do it together, and then we'll have ice cream,” Little Danny, the pint-sized negotiator, suggested as he tried to fend off the brewing conflict.

As they watched the scene unfold in front of them, Jack put his arm round his husband and related, **He's you all the way, Danny, the eternal optimist and diplomat.**

**We have to do something, Jack,** Daniel opined about the intense looks the boys and girls were now giving one another.

**I'm on it, Love,** Jack replied.  **Time to refocus their energies *and* maybe teach a few lessons as well.**  “Okay, Brood!” he called out cheerily, silencing the children. “Right, first of all, boys this side, girls that side,” he ordered, gesturing with his arms to either side of he and Daniel.

The children happily complied, dividing themselves into two groups.

“Now, I have a special mission for you, should you choose to accept it,” the older father began, putting as much effort into his little pep talk as he could.

Daniel smiled at the happiness radiating from all their children as Jack jovially gave out his ‘orders’.

“We're going to have a little race to see which team can move the most stones,” Jack briefed.  Amid cheers from all the children, he shushed them and continued, “There isn't room for everyone to compete, and it has to be a fair challenge, so ...”

Seeing his lover pause and looking a bit perplexed, the younger man queried, **Problem?**

**Just thinking strategy,** Jack replied as he pondered the situation and looked over the brood.  “For the competing teams; Jonny, you're with Ricky, and, Ash, you're with Jenny.  For the girls' cheering section; Bri, you're with Lulu and Noa, and for the boys' support team, Jeff, you're with David and Little Danny.”

“Sounds fair,” Daniel concurred.

For old time’s sake and with a big grin on his face, Jack added, “Daniel, you're with me.”

The younger man chuckled, “Always, Babe.”

--

“That was sweet,” Melanie commented as she stood next to Alex a few yards away.

“Yeah, it was. They really are great dads,” the designer agreed.

“Alex, shouldn't we stop this, though?  It's going to slow things down,” Melanie protested.

Alex snorted derisively, “You are most welcome to try, my dear landscaper, but didn't you learn from your own dealings with Jack and Daniel that they do what they want, when they want, and how they want?”

“Well, we had a few discussions, I admit, but we weren't on this kind of schedule,” Melanie responded.  “I take it your history with them has been a bit more challenging.”

“Oh, yeah,” the designer sighed.  “You're gonna need these,” he added, passing antacids and migraine strength pain relievers to his colleague.

“Honestly, Alex, they were great to work with when I did their yard, except for those ... discussions,” Melanie noted.  With a chuckle, she asked, “Are they really that bad?”

“You have no idea,” Alex opined and then gulped down a pill.  “Here, have another.  You'll need it.  The day's not over yet.”

Melanie stared at the suave designer, totally surprised.  It was true that she'd had some trials and tribulations during the landscaping of the Jackson-O'Neill property, but nothing like this.  Fearing Alex was dead-on with his appraisal, though, she did as instructed and downed the aspirin.

--

Jack looked around for something to use as markers and spied the landscapers' shovels waiting to be put to use by the brood.

~Perfect,~ the general thought.

Grabbing four shovels, Jack walked back to the still empty walkway and gestured for Daniel's assistance.  Using a steel measuring tape and a chalk pen Jack had borrowed from one of the workers, the two fathers marked off two three-foot lengths on the narrow bands of poured concrete and laid the handles of the shovels on top.

“Okay, here's the intel,” Jack began.  “The idea is to fill the space between the shovels with the river pebbles.  The team that finishes first, wins.”

Standing to one side, Daniel called out, “May the best team win!”

“On your marks,” Jack yelled, as ten very enthusiastic children all hurried to their respective places.

“Get set,” Daniel joined in.

Jack smiled at his husband, took his hand and, together, they both yelled, “GO!”

Holding a five gallon bucket between a Munchkin and a twin, both teams raced to the large pile of river pebbles.

Jack and Daniel studied the two pairs as they reached the charcoal gray pebbles, which was being moved into its narrow path.

Jonny was clearly the leader of the male duo, loud and infecting his younger sibling with his rambunctious exuberance.

Jenny, on the other hand, was the dominating factor of the female pair, despite her younger age.

**Jack, look at Jenny.  Look at the force of will on her face!**

**Yeah.  Jonny's determined, too!**

The other children were yelling and screaming their encouragement.  The lines were clearly drawn, and it was a true battle of the sexes.

--

“Do you drink, Alex?” Melanie inquired as they watched the game from afar.

“Do you mean in general, or while I'm working for Jack and Daniel?”

“Either/or,” the woman chuckled.

“Tonight, Cantina at Cucina Mexina, nine sharp,” Alex answered.  “I'm buying.  When this is done, we'll just have cleanup to do, along with moving the furniture, installing the blinds, that kind of thing, so just a few of the guys will be helping out.  Aiden, Tim, and some of the crew will be at the Cantina afterwards.  You're welcome, of course, but I thought you'd be finished tonight.”

“We will be,” Melanie confirmed, adding, “But if you like, you can ask if one of my crew wants to be paid for a full day at double time plus holiday pay.”

“Probably not a bad idea,” Alex opined.  “Anyone you'd suggest?”

--

Out in the yard, the two boys were filling their bucket as fast as they could, stones flying everywhere.  The girls, however, under Jenny's guidance, were moving smaller quantities full a little more slowly, but with great precision, hardly dropping a single rock.

“That's enough, Ash,” the red-haired girl said quietly.

“But it's not full,” Aislinn observed.

“Yeah, but we'll make more trips 'cause we move faster,” Jenny replied.

The slightly older girl nodded her agreement and picked up the bucket in sync with her younger sibling.

As they walked, carrying their load between them, Jenny remarked, “We do a teeny bit less next time.”

The girls emptied their bucket cleanly, without spilling any of the load outside the confines of the delineated path.

The boys dragged their full-to the-brim bucket across the lawn, gouging divots along the way.  They had just finished dumping it into their designated section of path when their female opponents had already made their way back to the big pile to refill their bucket.

Jonny and Ricky raced back to the pile only to see Aislinn put her last shovel full into the bucket before she and Jenny picked it up and walked quickly back to the path to empty it cleanly and efficiently, without effort.

The rest of the contest went in similar fashion, with the girls almost completing two loads for every one the boys carried.  With each bucket full, Jonny and Ricky unloaded, their male siblings would cheer at their apparently big lead.  Brianna, Chenoa, and Lulu supported their team's more resourceful tactics and cheered Aislinn and Jenny on.

As the contest neared its completion, Jack and Daniel stood by, their arms around each other, occasionally shouting encouragement to their children.

After completing their fifth bucket, dragging it into the center of the path, the boys had completely filled their section.  Jeff, David, and Little Danny cheered their victory as Jonny and Ricky, smiling widely, stood by, sweating, panting, and heaving for breath.

The young boys were too winded to shout, but they hoarsely whispered, “Yay!  We won!”

Aislinn and Jenny emptied their eleventh bucket almost straight after, also completely filling their section.  The girls had barely broken a sweat, but their disappointment was evident that the boys had beaten them to it.

“Okay,” Jack called out.

Just as Jack was about to declare the boys the winners, Daniel interjected, “Uh, Jack,” nodding at the debris field left behind by the boys.  **I don't think we can say this is 'done'.  I mean, uh, they've created more work.**

The older man scanned the area, comparing it to the path left by the girls, and acknowledged, **You're right, Danny.**  Grimacing slightly, he stated, “Jonny, Ricky, technically speaking, you won.  You filled your section a few seconds before the girls finished filling theirs, but look behind you.”

A glance backward revealed the pile of gravel all disheveled on the side where the boys had dug.  The lawn was torn to shreds where they had heaved their full buckets of gravel into the air, gouging the grass every time it fell to earth again.  In addition, there were lines of bare earth showing where the full buckets had simply been dragged along, scraping the grass away.

The other side where the girls were was neat and clean, with hardly any stones more than mere inches away from the pile.  The lawn showed only a slightly trampled straight path where they had walked back and forth.
 
After giving the boys a full two minutes to take in the results of their 'victory', Jack turned their attention to the part of the path they had filled.  Again, stones were everywhere, and the river pebble was piled in the center of the path.  The girls' section had very few stones outside their intended location, and the stones were almost level.  It would take very little work to finish moving the stone to its final position.

**Gawd, look at the mess Danny,** Jack whined.

**I know, Babe, but we can't really scold them; we encouraged this game.  In fact, it was your idea.  We also could have stopped them at any time when we saw the damage being done, and we didn't.**

**Yeah, I know.  So, we explain their error in terms they'll learn from?** Jack questioned.

**That's my general,** Daniel responded with a smile.

Facing the boys, Jack stated, “Jonny, Ricky, you moved more stone faster than your sisters did, but not by much.”

“And, with all that mess, you've actually created more work for us, not less,” Daniel gently pointed out.

Nodding, Jack continued, “Jonny, on any mission, you can't just focus on your end goal; you must also think about what is going to be the most efficient and effective way to complete the mission while minimizing any evidence that you were ever there.”

“And, Ricky,” Daniel began, “as a designer and architect, you have to always be aware of how cutting corners on one task to get it done quicker can adversely affect other tasks.”

“Huh?” Ricky questioned.

“Oh, doing one thing just to get it done faster can sometimes make doing other things harder.  In this case, it's possible that due to the time it will take to clean up and repair the damage you've caused, we won't get the stone moved today.”

“I'd better go and talk to Melanie about what it will cost to have the damage repaired,” Jack interjected, moving away.

“Oh, like when I clean my room by putting ev'thing unda my bed?” Ricky asked.

Daniel chuckled, “Yes, because then you have to pull it out and put it away anyway.  You've wasted time.”

“That means *we* won!” Jenny proclaimed, exchanging a high five with her teammate.

“We did good, Jenny!” Aislinn exclaimed.

“Girls win!” Chenoa boasted as all of the young females gathered round in a football-like huddle to celebrate.

Jonny kicked the ground with his foot and whined, “Not fair.”

Daniel walked over and knelt down, saying, “Jonny, remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare?  It's not just a story.  You were fast, but not efficient.  When you take on a challenge, or a mission, you have to consider all the angles.”

Jonny thought, then said, “Always have an 'or'?”

The archaeologist smiled, nodded, and responded, “Something like that.  Jenny and Ash took a minute on their first run to think about what they were doing.  You and Ricky just ploughed in.”  He laughed, “Dad hates clichés, but what you did was leaped before you looked, when you should have looked first, and then leaped.”

“We didn't think,” Ricky sighed.

Nodding, Daniel offered, “Think about when we play checkers or chess.  What have we tried to teach you?”

Jonny smiled, answering, “Think about our move, then our opponent's, then our next move.”

“Exactly.  That's what you needed to do here.  Make your game plan, just like you would when playing those games, or hockey or football.”

The oldest Munchkin took a deep breath, then bemoaned, “Aw, shucks, Ricky, I made a mistake.  We shoulda had a plan.”

“We will next time, and then we'll really win,” Ricky replied confidently.

“Can we have a rematch?” Jonny asked eagerly.

“Not today,” Daniel answered, glancing over at his lover, who was just about to face the music and put an even bigger dent in their bankbook.

--

The two design professionals watched the older father approach, with a bit of a sheepish look on his face.

Having overheard the entire exchange, Alex whispered to Melanie, “Now, watch me blow his mind,” and then took a step toward Jack, closing the distance between them.  “Jack, Melanie and I were just discussing which of her crew would like to work the holiday tomorrow.  It is the Fourth, but we'll need to make sure the yard is repaired.  Whatever we can't get done today, we'll have to make sure is finished on time.  It'll probably be easier to just cut that section out and replace it with fresh sod, wouldn't it?” he asked, facing the woman.

Melanie nodded her agreement, trying not to laugh at the deer-in-headlights look on their mutual client's face.

Jack just shrugged, nodded, and replied, “Whatever you guys think.  As long as it gets done, and you're out of here before Hammond gets back.”

Alex stared at his client and said frankly, “I'm afraid your little contest has cut into our time.  Jack, we need to have Melanie's crew move the rest of the gravel to make sure we get it done.  Any objections?”

Jack started to speak, but stopped and said hesitantly, “But we told them they could help with this.”

“Any more 'help', Jack, and we won't make it on time.”

“Okay, just get 'er done,” Jack said, nodding his agreement as he turned to go.  “I'll go tell the brood.”  He stopped for a split second and twisted around slightly, saying, “Sorry about the mess.”

The two designers stifled their giggles as their client walked away.

Melanie stated, “Alex, I'll see if I can get an extra body or two to take that overtime.  I doubt my guys will get all that stone moved on their own now.”

“Probably not,” Alex agreed.

The landscaper continued, “I'll be here for a while yet, making sure all the loose ends are tied up.  Oh, and I'm looking forward to tonight.”  She giggled as she did a little shimmy, “Move over, Jimmy Buffet, Margaritaville here I come!”

Alex laughed, shook hands with his colleague, and bid her goodbye as she turned to continue the supervision of the final phase of the landscaping.

~That was fun.~  Just then, the designer's cell phone rang.  “Alex Dennison.”

“Alex, it's Boyd Canton.”

“Yes, Boyd.  How's it going?” the designer inquired.

“Not good, Alex,” Boyd answered.  “That's why I'm calling.  We've got a crisis in Berlin, and I really need your help before things collapse.”

“Okay, give me a minute to find a spot where we can talk,” Alex replied as he headed inside the house.

====

At that precise moment in another part of Colorado Springs, having only been home a few minutes from her luncheon with Sheila and Amber, Jennifer heard a knock at the door at the Jackson-O'Neill home.  She quickly checked the monitors as the cameras did a sweep of the yard and the perimeter of the house before answering the door.  Even though she recognized the visitor, it was ingrained in the entire brood to *always* check before opening the door, especially if their parents weren't home.

“Hi, Jennifer!” Soncirria 'Sunny' Suvulpo greeted.

“Hi, Sunny.  How are you?  Come on in,” the teen invited, smiling as she opened the door wider in welcome.

“Right now, I'm puzzled,” the attractive blonde stated as she walked in.  “I'm trying to reach Alex, but all I get is his voicemail.  I've tried his cell, Archonics, and the condo.  Any clue where he might be?”

“I can help you there,” Jennifer replied.  “He's at Grandpa's.  This is the weekend we're building his surprise rooms.”

Looking upward for a moment, Sunny breathed a sigh of relief and then responded, “No wonder he hasn't had time to answer his voicemail.  I didn't realize that was this weekend.”

“I'll write down the address for you,” Jennifer offered, heading for the notepad that was on the counter by the kitchen.

“Okay,” Sunny replied a bit hesitantly.

“Here you go,” Jennifer said, handing the blonde the address.  “It'll take you about fifty minutes to get there.  Grandpa lives on the other side of the Springs.”

Fidgeting slightly as she thought over the situation, Sunny stated, “Jen, this trip is a surprise, totally last minute.  The GPS on the rental car isn't working, but I *really* wanted a corvette, so I convinced the clerk to let me rent it, anyway.  It was the only 'vette they had available.”

“Convinced?” Jennifer chuckled.

“A smile, the right inflection in my voice, making sure my curves were appropriately ... appropriate,” Sunny laughed.  “My problem is that I'm terrible with directions.  Any chance you could be my navigator and take me there?”

Jennifer sighed unhappily and answered, “I wish I could, Sunny, but I'm grounded.  I already had an unexpected reprieve, totally out of the blue, today, and I'm just afraid to push it.”

“Reprieve?”

“Yeah, I had lunch with my two best friends today, and I sure don't want to push my luck.”

“What if you called your parents and asked for their permission?” the woman inquired hopefully.

Jennifer hesitated, then suggested, “How about I call Daddy and *you* ask, so he'll know it's legit, and I didn't put you up to it?  I really need to walk the line if I don't want my sentence extended.”

Sunny chuckled, “Sure, Jen.  I understand.  I screwed up a few times myself growing up,” she said with a smile, remembering some of her own 'sentences' for misbehavior.

====

Several miles away, Daniel heard the familiar ring tone of his cell phone and immediately recognized the home number on the caller ID.

“I was just about to call you, Jen,” the archaeologist spoke as soon as he connected the call.  “How was your lunch today?” he asked.

“Oh, it was nice, Daddy.  Thanks again for letting me go.”

“You're welcome Jen.  Is everything okay at home?” Daniel inquired.

“Just fine, Daddy.  There's someone who stopped by who'd like to speak with you,” Jennifer stated, handing the cordless handset to her guest.

“Hello, Daniel.  It's Sunny.”

“Hello, uh, this is a surprise.  What can I do for you?” Daniel asked.  ~Why is she at our house,~ he wondered silently.

After Sunny had explained and made her request, she handed the phone back to her hostess.

Daniel spoke, “Jen, it's okay for you to be Sunny's navigator.  We'll see you in about an hour.”

“Thanks, Daddy.  Bye.”  Smiling, she mused, “Just call me GPS Jen Jen,” as she turned to face Sunny.  “Would you mind if I freshen my lipstick?”

Chuckling, the good-looking woman responded, “Me?  A pageant veteran and a model?  Go on, I'll see you in ten minutes.”

Hurrying up the stairs to her room, the teen thought, ~Whew!  Another ten minutes, and she would have caught me in my ratty old jeans.  Sunny always looks so put together.~  After a moment, Jennifer shook her head and chastised herself, thinking, ~Of course, she does, Silly.  She's a beauty queen.~

====

Not long thereafter, Daniel was conferring with Melanie.  Her crew was finishing up for the day, having cut the sections that were shredded by the boys' 'winning' the battle of the sexes against their female siblings, and then quickly rolled out new sod.

“The damage looked worse than it was, Daniel,” the pretty professional had stated a couple of minutes ago.  “Once we had the scattered gravel cleaned up, it was just a dozen or so strips that had to be placed.  A good soaking tonight, and it will be as good as new tomorrow.”

“I'm sorry,” Daniel responded with a shrug.  ~But, I'm not.  We had fun.~

~Somehow I don't think he's all that sorry,~ Melanie mused silently from the tiny smirk she thought she had gleaned from her client.  “Tomorrow, I'll have four of my best men here until noon.  We still have to move the remainder of the gravel into the walkway and set the pavers.”

“Okay,” Daniel acknowledged, moving away to join the children.  Not having heard his husband's voice in a while and sensing he was up to mischief, he asked, **Jack, where'd you go?**

**Miss me?**

**Always, but answer my question,** the archaeologist demanded as he did a panoramic sweep of the area, hoping to locate his lover.

**I'm out front.**

~Oh, gawd.  That's all we need,~ Daniel lamenting, knowing exactly what his lover was up to now.  **Jack, you can *not* drive the general's new car.**

**Why not?**

**Because it's new!** Daniel exclaimed, rolling his eyes at the same time.

**You got to move it into the street, so why can't I move it back when we're done?**

~And it was a good thing the general left a spare set of keys in the kitchen drawer.  We hadn't thought about that.  That's all we would have needed -- a wall or something crushing his car.~  Suddenly, Daniel realized that while he was unnecessarily dreading what was no longer a problem, his lover could potentially be crashing the brand new car.  **Jack, get back here,** he ordered, refusing to answer the question.

**Spoil sport.**

~Sometimes I think he's younger than the twins,~ Daniel thought as he stood outside the kitchen, watching the brood.  ~I love them so much,~ he thought out of the blue, content to stay inconspicuous for a minute or two.

====

Earlier, once the contest had concluded and Jack had told them they were off the hook with moving the gravel, the brood had scattered.  Most of them were in the kitchen, drinking Kool-Aid and talking animatedly about their grandfather's surprise and how much he would enjoy it.  Lulu, however, was eager to see the horse wallpaper in the ice cream parlor, so she walked the few steps to find Alex, who was talking excitedly on the phone.

At that same instant, Ricky was walking around the far end of the house, on the lake face of the new sunroom, curious to see what was going on.  He'd heard voices, but couldn't make out what they were saying.  As he drew close to the corner, the voices became clear conversation.

“Yeah, Tim, there's no power to those receptacles.”

Not seeing where the man was pointing, Ricky was unaware that he was pointing at the old, weather-beaten and rusted fixtures that had been replaced with the new ones as part of the sunroom.  The youngster hurried back to the spot where he'd seen three electrical cords lying on the ground.

There were several receptacles that were empty, each one for a different array of lights.  There were low-voltage landscape lights powered through twelve volt transformers, as well as line voltage fixtures.  A few two-hundred-twenty-volt receptacles would power security lights and enough Christmas lights to make Clark Griswold jealous.

Unwittingly, but wanting to help, Ricky picked up the incorrect transformer and plugged it into the wrong voltage current.

Jack was walking around the other side of the house on his way to the backyard when he heard the pop from the miss-matched connection and then the subsequent strangled cry of a child.  It made his heart stop.  He raced in the direction of the sound and saw Ricky lying in a crumpled heap.

Decades of survival training kicked the worried father out of the path of the Special Ops mission commander.  He gently placed the ashen child on his back and checked for breathing and heartbeat.  Both were faint and irregular.  He gave the frail boy a few breaths with artificial respiration and checked again.  Now, the heartbeat seemed a trifle stronger and the breathing a bit deeper.

**DANIEL!**

**Jack?**

**It's Ricky.  He's unconscious!** Jack exclaimed, picking up his son.

**What happened?** Daniel asked as he swallowed hard and looked around for his husband and their young son.

**I don't know.  I heard a noise, then heard him cry,** the older man responded as he carried the wilted form of their youngest son towards the front drive.

**Which hospital is closest?** Daniel inquired urgently, trying to evaluate the answer himself as he sprinted around the house.

Jack responded, **I don't know.  I'd rather take him to the Mountain; the Doc's working today.**

Although originally, Jack and Daniel had planned for the brood to spend part of Sunday with Janet, the physician had ended up having to cover for Doctor Warner, who'd fallen at his home late Friday night and suffered a few minor injuries.  He'd be fine, but was taking a week off to recuperate and relax.  As a result, the couple altered their plans, keeping the children at Hammond's for the entire day.

**Okay, okay,** Daniel replied as he reached the front.  “Jack?” he called out, crossing the yard.

“Where's the brood?” Jack questioned as he met up with his husband.

“Uh,” Daniel hesitated, his hand caressing Ricky's forehead.

“Daniel!”

“Kitchen,” the archaeologist answered, having seen and heard the children in the kitchen, where they were laughing, talking, and still enjoying some refreshments.

“Hurry!” Jack instructed as he headed for the truck.

The younger father ran inside the house, stopping himself just before he reached the kitchen.  He closed his eyes, tried to calm his breathing, and then walked inside, forcing himself to give a little smile.

“Brood, please stay here in the kitchen.  Jeff, Jeff, could you come outside, please?  Dad needs your help with something.”

“Sure, Daddy,” Jeff acknowledged, following Daniel out of the kitchen.

Little Danny watched curiously, scrunching his nose.

“You think somethin' wrong, Little Danny?” Jonny whispered.

“May...”

“Little Danny, do you want more Kool-Aid?” Brianna asked, holding the pitcher of the strawberry drink.

“Yes, please,” the middle Munchkin answered as he pushed his glass forward.

“This isn't a dig, but it sure is fun, isn't it?” the tomboy asked.

“Digs are more fun, though,” the boy responded.

“We should go on a rock exploration,” David answered.

“I think we should go shopping,” Aislinn put forth, getting cheers from her all her female siblings, except for Brianna.

====

When Jeff saw his little brother, his eyes bulged in horror.  Ricky looked so pale and small in his father’s arms.

“What happened?”

“I ...” Daniel began, though the urgency of the situation prompted Jack to cut him off.

“Jeff, you're with me on this.  Get in the truck,” Jack ordered.  “You hold Ricky, and keep him wrapped in a blanket.  He's in shock.”

The teenager nodded while choking back his tears as he positioned himself inside the vehicle.  A few tears escaped as their father placed Ricky gently in his arms.

“Jack ...” Daniel began to object, his eyes swimming with tears as he had second thoughts about their unspoken agreement that he'd stay behind with the other children.

“Danny, I think you should stay with the kids,” Jack suggested, quickly closing the gap between them and hugging his soulmate tightly.  **For the kids, Love.**

**If ...**

**If there's the *slightest* chance of anything bad ...** Jack began, as he let go and raced to the driver's side of the truck.

**Okay, just ... just hurry,** Daniel responded.  He moved forward, getting a final look at the unconscious child.  “You'll be okay, Ricky.  I love you,” he said, leaning over and kissing the boy on the cheek.  “Hold him tight, Son,” he said to Jeff as he closed the passenger door.

“I will, Daddy,” Jeff promised through the open window, tightening his grip now that his younger father had backed away.

**Hurry, Babe.**

**I will.  Danny, take care of ...**

**... the children.  I will.  Go.**

The parents had gone into non-verbal shorthand, complete sentences not needed in order for them to understand their thoughts and emotions.  Daniel hated staying behind, but it was the right thing to do, at least for the moment.

**Call me when ...** the younger man began.

**Just as soon as I know,** the older man promised as he began to drive away, wishing he could drive at top speed, but knowing he couldn't, especially since he was in a residential area.

====

Totally unaware of events unfolding at Hammond's, Sunny and Jennifer chatted idly as they headed for the lakeside home.  The two talked about girl things, exchanging life stories and sharing dating experiences.

“How long have you and Alex been dating?”

“Just a few months,” Sunny replied happily.  “It started out as more of a convenience.  He needed a date; I needed a date, but now it's blooming,” she giggled delightfully.

“Alex is such a nice guy,” Jennifer remarked.

“He is so much more than nice, Jen.  He's a true gentleman,” the beauty queen spoke.  “His mother schooled him in classic European manners.  I'm still amazed at his thoughtfulness toward me.”

“That good?”

Sunny expounded, “He treats me like a queen, Jen, and I don't mean like a beauty queen.  When we're together, he pampers me.  I've never known anyone who is the complete package, but he sure is close to being exactly that.  He's getting lots of points in that department.”

“Do you have a black book, Sunny?” Jennifer laughed.

“Better than that,” the blonde replied.  “I have the latest Blackberry.”

Having a great time getting to know each other better, the two females continued to chat about fashions, weddings, and the opposite sex.

====

Immersed in his own crisis which was taking place across the ocean, Alex had taken his cell phone into the newly constructed ice cream parlor.  Lulu absently wandered into the room as well and overheard Alex talking.

“Boyd, we discussed this before you left.  Their construction laws are more stringent than ours, and they do things differently.  We are the guests there,” Alex reminded.  He was upset and frustrated by the news he'd just been told.  “I can't leave until five tomorrow, but I'll get there as quickly as I can.”

Lulu watched curiously as Alex continued to discuss the details of the overseas trip.  The designer was getting angrier the more he thought about what was happening in Berlin, but he couldn't afford the indulgence of being mad.  He had to get control of the situation.

“Tomorrow is a paid holiday for all the workers ... Yes, you heard me, all day. Tonight, I want everyone to go out for beer n' brats, on our expense account.  Get everyone out of the work mentality and socialize a bit.  Hopefully, that will defuse some of the tension,” Alex stated.

Lulu tried to pretend she wasn't listening, but it was hard not to.

Alex continued, “Boyd, I'm confident we can iron this out.  I just need you to hold things together until I arrive ...”

At that point, Lulu's patience had run out.  She'd been examining the room and had an important question.  She was sure she only needed a minute, so she moved into the man's eyesight, hoping he'd stop talking on the phone and talk to her for a minute instead.

When Alex didn't respond to her presence, Lulu interrupted, “Alex, where's my wallpaper with the horses?”

“Oh, Honey, it was *way* too busy and didn't really look good in the room.  Not to worry, we'll find something else.  Excuse me, I really need to finish this call,” Alex informed.

Lulu nodded and turned away so that Alex wouldn't see the tears start to fall.  She was so proud of picking out that wallpaper because Chenoa, her dear sister, dance partner, and best friend loved horses, and, now, it turned out that she had picked an ugly pattern.

~Of course I picked something ugly,~ the little girl lamented.  ~I *am* ugly.~

Lulu's silent torment was interrupted by her sister.

“Don't cry, Lulu,” Chenoa comforted.  “What's wrong.”

“Alex isn't using my wallpaper; he said it's ugly,” Lulu sobbed on her sister's shoulder.

Chenoa flared with righteous indignation and led her sister to the rest of her siblings, where she declared with utter fury, “Alex made Lulu cry.”

“Why?” Little Danny asked as he hurried over to Lulu and hugged her supportively.

With Lulu crying so much she couldn't answer, Chenoa responded, “He said her horse wallpaper wasn't pretty, and he wasn't going to use it in Grandpa's room.”

Jonny appointed himself the leader, saying, “That not right.  Come on!”  The brood followed the little general as he barged into the ice cream parlor, interrupting Alex.  “Why you tell Lulu her wallpaper ugly?  Now she crying.  No one makes our sister cry!”

“Excuse me, Boyd.”  Addressing the scowling assembly surrounding him, Alex said impatiently, “Can't you see I'm on the phone?  I'll talk to you in a few minutes.”

“No!” Jonny argued.  “This more 'portant than your phone call!”

“I beg your pardon?”  Alex looked at the child in front of him with shock.  ~What is up with this?  None of them have ever behaved like this before.~

Walking away in search of a quieter spot to conclude his business, Alex entered the front hall and ducked through the plastic hanging across the doorway to the family room.  He closed the door and locked it, hoping to be able to finish the conversation and conclude the day's work.

While her siblings were staring at the door where Alex was holed up, as if their combined gaze could burn it away, Lulu saw a piece of the wallpaper, sticking out from the designer's briefcase.  It was a scrap Alex had cut off the roll to see how it looked.  She pulled it out, rolled it up like a poster, and then slipped past her siblings undetected.

The sad little girl walked through the living room and into the newly completed sunroom.  Lulu paused for a second, staring at the flowers she helped to paint on the floor tiles.  With a discontented sigh, she walked out the sunroom door and started to run, running away from the only happiness she had known since the time when she had entered foster care.

====

Daniel was about to walk inside the front door after having taken a couple of minutes to collect his thoughts.  He needed to tell the brood about Ricky, but he needed to calm himself first.

~Okay, I'm ready.~  Just as Daniel's hand touched the doorknob, his cell phone rang.  ~Gawd, so quick?~ he thought in fear, afraid the caller would be his husband with bad news.

The worried father took a calming breath when he saw the caller was Megan and answered the phone.

“Daniel, we have a hostage situation,” the Director of Operations of J-O Enterprises blurted out.

“What?” Daniel asked in surprise.

Megan elaborated, “Two of our people have been kidnapped and are being held for ransom.”

“What happened?”

“It's some religious sect that is splintered off from the major religion of the country,” Megan explained.  “They claim we're robbing them of their national treasure, their heritage; that we're stealing their children's legacy.”

“But we were assured that our presence there would not be an intrusion and that we had the support of the government.” Daniel postulated.  He added, “They co-funded the dig.”

“We do have the support of the government, Daniel, but not of this radical fringe group.  I have our team leader trying to contact the embassy there.  That's all I can tell you right now.”

Daniel replied, “I'm not in any way implying that this is your fault, Megan, but how did this radical group escape our attention?”

“Daniel, it's the Middle East,” Megan answered bluntly.  “When *isn't* some group claiming that some other group is usurping their birthright to one thing or another?  We do the best we can to cover all our bases, but ...”

“You're right, Megan.  I was asking myself as much as you.  When you know more, call me back.  We need you, and we rely on you.  Please believe that,” the archaeologist spoke a bit emotionally.

“Thanks, Daniel.  Uh, are you okay?  You sound a little ... funny,” Megan noted.

“I'll fill you in later.  Stay on top of the situation, Megan,” Daniel requested.  “You're the best.”

“Thank you, Daniel.  I'll call you back as soon as I know more,” Megan replied before hanging up.

No sooner had Daniel disconnected the phone and put it away when he got yet another phone call, this time from his foster sister, Suzanna Simpson.

“Suz, this isn't a good time.  Can I call you back?”

“Daniel, what's wrong?” the woman asked, hearing the worry in her foster brother's voice.

“Too much to go into, and the short version makes it sound worse than it is, or might be, or ... something.”

“Are the children all right?  Is it Jack?”

Daniel knew Suzanna was now upset and concerned and decided to take a couple of minutes to let her in on what was happening.

====

As his eyes welled up with tears., Jeff put his face next to Ricky's and whispered, “Sorry, Little Man.”

“Jeff, you did nothing wrong,” Jack quickly pointed out.  “You were watching as many of the brood as you could.  There was just so much going on,” he spoke with despair.  Letting out a grunt, as if to kick himself into shape for his own distractions, especially the interest in Hammond's new car, he added, “Son, don't blame yourself.  I need you to be clearheaded and sharp.  I just wish I had a siren and a flashing light on this blasted thing so we could go faster.”

“You could borrow them,” Jeff suggested.

Jack looked at his eldest son with confusion.

“Dad, all the cops in the Springs know you.  You support their fundraising events, contribute to the Pike's Peak Memorial, support 'Toys for Tots' at Christmas, and all kinds of stuff.  I bet they'd be glad to provide an escort to the Mountain,” the teen postulated.  “Then there's Andy,” Jeff grinned about the former county sheriff who had been a good friend of Jack's for many years.

“Yeah, I know, but ...” Jack responded, never really having been fond of asking for favors in response to donations that he believed in.

As they pulled up to a stoplight, though, Jeff spotted a black and white police cruiser in the parking lot of a diner.  Two officers were walking toward it.

Before Jack could stop him, Jeff shouted, “Officer, officer!  Over here!  We need help.”

The two uniformed men sprinted over and looked in the passenger window, seeing the small boy lying in the teen's lap.

“I'm sure you know my Dad, General Jack Jackson-O'Neill.  My little brother is hurt; he's unconscious.  Can you help us get him to Cheyenne Mountain where our doctor is waiting for us?”

As Jack sighed, though not interrupting, the first policeman responded, “Jack O'Neill?  The one whose always donating to the homeless and children's shelters?”

“That's my dad.  Please!” Jeff pleaded.

With a nod, the officer replied, “It'll be my honor, General.  Just keep up, and we'll lead the way.”

“Thanks,” Jack called out as the officers scrambled to their car, one of them calling in their status on his radio.

With that, the police cruiser's lights and siren began to announce the emergency as it moved from the diner parking lot to the street.  The traffic light had changed, and Jack had had to move with traffic, but as the black and white chariot of mercy pulled ahead of him, he stepped on the accelerator.  Cars, trucks, and buses pulled aside as the police car, followed closely by the vehicle containing three of the Jackson-O'Neill men, sped lawfully down city streets and highways.  The siren was music to Jack's ears, knowing each wail was winging his youngest child closer to the capable and caring hands of Janet.

As Jack said aloud to the heavens, “Thank you, thank you.  Just let him be all right,” he kept on pace with the fast-moving police car.

====

Tired of waiting for the designer, Jonny decided to take matters to the top and went searching for his parents to speak to them on Lulu's behalf.  He was full of righteous indignation and wanted to see Alex get his comeuppance.  Just as he reached the front door, Daniel, having just completed his phone call with Suzanna, opened it and walked inside.

“Daddy, Alex ...”

Unfortunately, Daniel's cell phone rang yet again, interrupting Jonny's complaint before he'd even gotten started.  Once again, the caller was Megan.

The younger father looked at his son and said, “I'm sorry, Jonny, this is *extremely* important.  I *have* to take this call.  Go back with your brothers and sisters, and I'll join you when I'm done.”

“But ...”

“Jonny, please,” Daniel stated again, this time with more force in both his voice and his eyes.

Jonny turned to go back inside, grumbling, “'Dults should have all their cell phones taken 'way.”

“Yes, Megan?” Daniel said breathlessly, opening the door and going back outside just in case the children were listening and he might have to say something they didn't need to hear.

“Daniel, I contacted Abayomi,” Megan explained, referring to Abayomi Sharif, founder of Passion Incorporated, which was J-O Enterprise's best client.  “My hunch was right, and he was able to cut through the red tape.  I have him and the attaché to the consulate on the line and can conference you in.”

“Fast thinking, Megan,” Daniel praised for the woman's combined good thinking and fast work.  “Remind me to give you another raise.  Go ahead, and patch them through,” he instructed.

“I'll remember that about the raise,” Megan chuckled.  “Patching.”

====

As Daniel's conversation with someone thousands of miles away began in a foreign tongue, Alex was still speaking to Boyd Canton in Berlin, making arrangements for a conference room and interpreters.  At the same time, yet another cell phone conversation was about to begin.

“Jeff, switch on the cell phone.  Put it on speaker, and get us through to Janet,” Jack instructed.

Jeff dialed the number and asked for Janet, but was told she was in a staff meeting.  He spoke urgently as he held his unconscious sibling.  The operator put the call through to the infirmary, where Airman Simon Chinker answered the phone.  The airman was new to the Mountain and wasn't being very helpful, wanting to simply take a message for the SGC Chief of Medicine.

“Do you hear that siren?  It's about fifty feet in front of us.  We're bringing my little brother to the infirmary, and ...”

“Kid, you might try one of the local hospitals.  We don't take ...”

Jack growled, then shouted, “AIRMAN, THIS IS GENERAL O'NEILL, AND IF YOU DON'T GET DOCTOR FRAISER ON THIS PHONE *NOW*, YOU'LL BE CLEANING LATRINES AT A LITTLE OUTPOST I KNOW IN ANTARCTICA.  NOW *MOVE*!”

“Yes, Sir ... Sir,” the airman stammered, his chair slamming back against the wall in his haste to stand up.

~Friggin' idiots who ...~

“Dad, he's new, right?” Jeff said, guessing at that from the lack of recognition and response to the O'Neill name.

Jack let out a huge sigh and nodded.  He knew several new airman had just been assigned to the base, but he'd yet to go over all of their jackets with General Hammond.

“General O'Neill?” a male voice spoke a few moments later.

“You are *so* not Janet Fraiser,” the general groused.

Jeff briefly reiterated who they were and what was happening, then begged, “Please don't make us stop at the security gate.  We're in Dad's truck, and ... here.”

Jack had just negotiated a quick left turn and didn't have time to deal with another airman, so he snapped, “I don't know who I'm speaking to, but you'd better have the gate cleared when we come through, cause we ain't stoppin' until we're on your side of it, got it?”

The voice on the other end said, “Relax, General, it's Casey Hemmings.  I'll call the gate, advise them of the emergency, and have Doctor Fraiser waiting.”

“Thanks, Hemmings,” Jack responded gratefully.

====

As they chatted, interspersed with Jennifer issuing directions, Sunny and Jennifer enjoyed learning more about each other.

“My mom loved it, being in pageants,” Jennifer recalled about her deceased mother.  “She never got as far as you did, though.  It sounds grueling.”

“It really is,” Sunny agreed.  “Your life isn't your own, not if you're serious about winning.  The pageants have become a *lot* more competitive since the time when your mother was competing.  I have some good memories, and a lot of things I don't have memories of because I never got to experience them.”  Glancing over at her passenger, she spoke, “You have your whole life ahead of you; just make sure you're making the decisions *you* want, Jennifer.  You need to be true to yourself, always remember that.”

“I will.  Thanks, Sunny.”  After a moment, she asked, “Do you have any regrets?”

“About living under the beauty queen microscope?” Sunny asked, chuckling and then sighing.  “I'm glad it's over.  That's why I'm here.  Now that there's a new Miss Florida out there and someone else who has to stay ready in case she stumbles, I want to do some living, Jen, without having to be perfect and pass everyone's tests on what is morally and politically correct.  I just want to be me now; just blessed me.”

“So, no regrets?”

Sunny laughed, “No regrets, Jennifer.  I'd do it all over again.”

“But you're glad it's over,” Jennifer surmised.

“But I'm glad it's over,” Sunny affirmed, a huge relief written all over her face.

“Oh, turn left here.  We're almost there.”

====

As both Daniel and Alex continued their marathon trans-Atlantic phone calls, each man trying his best to avert a crisis, Jack was at the entrance of Cheyenne Mountain, having completed the trip up the winding road.  True to Casey Hemming's word, the Ford truck was waved on by the outside gates and sped into the high-security facility.  Once inside, Janet and a medical team were standing by.

Twelve assault troops in full body armor, weapons at the ready, were in position just on the off chance this could be a potential foothold situation.

~Smart, Hemmings.  Didn't know you were that much on the ball,~ Jack thought as he brought the vehicle to a halt.

“Dad?”

“*Stay* inside the car until I tell you to come out.  This is procedure,” Jack advised as he got out.

“Jack,” General Landry called out from behind the assault troops.

“Popsicle,” Jack called out, using the code word for the day.

Landry nodded to the troops, dismissing them, just as Janet and her team moved in.

Jack opened the front passenger door, picking up Ricky and carrying him to the oncoming stretcher.

“Jeff, it's okay,” the worried father shouted back to his son, who immediately disembarked the vehicle.

As Jack and Jeff followed the emergency team, the silver-haired man nodded at Landry, who called out, “I hope he's okay, Jack.”

====

As Jack and Jeff accompanied Ricky to the infirmary at the SGC, back at the Hammond house, Daniel continued to have his hands full with the hostage crisis overseas, though he was beginning to question his progress since he'd been on hold for what seemed like an eternity.

Inside the residence, the brood counted noses and realized that they were seven and not eight.  Lulu was nowhere in sight.

Jonny said, “She has to be here.  No panic; we hafta look for her.”

It didn't take the children long to do their search.  They knew Lulu wasn't with Alex, and the stairs were sealed off with tape, as was the dining room.  That left the kitchen, which is where they were, the ice cream parlor, and the living room, with all its covered furniture and accessories, all of which provided a few makeshift hiding places.  One of those spots was occupied by a snoozing Bijou and Katie.  They searched the open areas, finding nothing.  The basement door was still locked, and the half bath was vacant.

That left the garage and the yard, or it meant Lulu was not there at all.  Since they had been told to stay inside, the brood had only looked out of the first floor windows that were not in sealed-off rooms.

Jonny checked the garage, sighing, ~No Lulu.  I think she's gone.~

====

Finally, the attaché came back to the phone and announced, “Good news!  The hostages are being released even as we speak.  They have agreed to forego any ransom, if you will leave and not return, ever.”

“That's it?” Daniel asked.

The diplomat continued, “They do not want any news coverage because they fear more 'western illegitimates' will come seeking to pillage their heritage if they know you actually found an ancient city.  They made it clear that if any of your people from J-O Enterprises return, they would not see their home again.”

“Sir, there isn't enough money in the world to bring us back.  I find it hard to believe you knew nothing about this group and the risk they posed to our staff.”

“About the rather large retainer we paid you ...” another man, representing J-O's client, began.

~We should keep it.~  Daniel sighed, “We incurred expenses, and this was not our fault.  Now, if you want to press the issue ...”

The archaeologist trailed off, letting silence be his verbal threat.

The company representative coughed, mumbled something Daniel couldn't make out to the diplomat, and then said, “Consider the retainer as payment in full, and we will not speak of this matter again.”

“Thank you,” Daniel intoned.  Getting the diplomat's attention, he said, “And thank you for your cooperation in freeing our people.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have things to do.  Goodbye.”

Just as he disconnected the call, Daniel could hear Abayomi stifle a chuckle and thought, ~I guess he approves.~

Just then, a sleek, two-door corvette pulled up in front of the house, and out popped Jennifer and Sunny.

~Jack would go nuts over that car,~ Daniel thought as he walked to meet the two females.  After exchanging subdued greetings, he nodded at the car and said, “The beauty pageant business must be doing well.”

Sunny laughed, “It's a leftover perk from my reign as 'Miss Florida Runner Up'.  I get free rentals until the end of the month.  Believe me, it's *way* above my budget.”

Daniel offered no smile in return, his mind distracted with concern for his youngest son.

~Wonder what's wrong with Daddy,~ Jennifer thought to herself, confused by her father's demeanor.

“Uh, better put up the top; it might rain,” Daniel suggested.

“In July?”

“It happens, and it looks like it's going to,” the archaeologist commented as he looked up at the skies.

“Where's Alex?”

“Ah, inside ... on the phone,” Daniel answered.

As Daniel began to move forward, Jonny bounded outside and shouted, “Daddy, Lulu ran 'way!”

~I hate this day,~ Daniel thought upon hearing the words.  Trying to be calm, he looked at his son and said, “Jonny, she wouldn't do that. I'm sure she's here ... somewhere.”  He looked around cautiously, adding, “She couldn't have gotten past Bij and Katie.”

“Uh huh.  We woke Bij 'n'' Katie when we looked in livin' room.  They're sleeping under pitchers,” the eldest Munchkin protested.

“Pictures,” Daniel corrected out of habit, shaking his head and groaning at the ridiculous timing of such a correction.  ~This sounds bad,~ he thought worriedly. Smiling reassuringly, he ruffled his son's hair and supposed, “Maybe Lulu found someplace to nap, too.”

“She has to be here, Jonny,” Jennifer added.

“Jen, we looked everywhere,” Jonny refuted.  “Lulu not here.”

“Let's go inside and have another look around,” Daniel suggested.  ~She's probably under one of the dust covers.~

As soon as he had stepped into the house, the younger father was immediately assaulted by the rest of the brood, all chattering at once.  He gathered that they were agitated, but he was only catching certain words -- 'Lulu', 'wallpaper', 'Alex' and 'cry'.

“Jen, help me look around,” Daniel requested.  “Sunny, would you keep the brood with you, please?”

“Of course, Daniel,” Sunny agreed, smiling at the children and putting her arm around Chenoa, who was beginning to lean against her for support.

====

“Anything?” Daniel asked when he met up with the teenager.

“She's not here, Daddy,” Jennifer spoke.  “I looked over, under, in, and out of everything.”

“Me, too,” Daniel sighed, having been forced to agree with Jonny that Lulu was no longer inside the Hammond home.  He considered interrupting Alex's phone call, but decided against it when, through the door, he heard the designer speaking agitatedly, just like he had been doing a few minutes ago.  Turning decisively to his children, he instructed, “Bri, you're in charge.  *Don't* leave the house.  We don't need another one of you lost.”  ~Been there, done that~

“No get lost; help find Lulu,” Jonny protested.

“Daddy, what about Jeff?  Isn't he ...” Jennifer began, looking all around for her brother.  ~And where's Ricky?~

Daniel had intended to tell the children about Ricky's accident, but with time of the essence, he decided to answer simply, “Jeff and Ricky are with Dad.  They'll be back later.  Bri, none of you are to go outside,” he repeated.  “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Just then the beagles started howling at the sunroom door, scratching to get out. Daniel knew which direction he was going to look, but he couldn't leave out the possibility that Lulu might have circled the house and headed the other way.

“Jen, you head out that way,” Daniel instructed, motioning towards the street.

“Daniel, we could take my car, stopping at intervals to get out and scour the area,” Sunny suggested, eager to find the little girl, too.

“Uh, that would be great.  Thanks, Sunny.”

“Maybe Alex could ...” the woman began to speak.

“He on big 'portant call,” Jonny spat harshly.

Daniel sighed, not having time to deal with his son's attitude at the moment, and said, “I think he may be on an overseas call; he sounds ...”

“Like nothing else exists right now but the phone glued to his ear?” Sunny asked, nodding knowingly.  As Daniel shrugged, she said, “Jen, let's start looking.”

As Jennifer and Sunny left, Daniel hooked the beagle's harnesses, which they were already wearing, to their leashes.  Just as the trio headed out the sunroom door, his cell phone rang yet again.

“Jack?”

“Ricky is about to wreck the place,” Jack chuckled.  “Janet is fighting a losing battle, but she's trying for one more needle stick.”

“So, how ...” Daniel began.

“He overheard the two electrical guys talking about the old outlets that needed to be dug up, not having any power to them.  He remembered seeing two cords unplugged, and, without asking, he just plugged a twelve-volt transformer into a two-twenty-volt receptacle.  Snap, Crackle, Pop!” Jack related, having gotten the story at the same time Janet had heard it.

“You're making jokes, so ...”

“He's gonna be a-okay.  He was hit doubly hard because of the exertion he'd just experienced, but now he's wiggling around in the bed, saying he's fine.  The Doc wants to keep him for a couple of hours, but he's wearing her down.  I don't think she's going to get her way much longer.”

“Does she ever?” the archaeologist mused half-heartedly, referring to the years worth of their having gone against Janet's medical wishes.

“Good point,” Jack agreed.

Daniel let out a subdued chuckle of relief and was about to explain what was happening with Lulu when his husband perceptively asked, “What's wrong?”

“We have a problem,” the younger man explained, relaying the brood being in an uproar, and Lulu being nowhere to be found at the moment.

“Go, Danny, and find her.  I'll get Janet to release Ricky, and we'll be along.  Tell the brood *I* said to stay put, and if any of them take off, they won't be very happy campers when I catch up with them.  Love you, Angel.”

“Later, Jack, we're going to have a little discussion about your emphasis on the word 'I' and its parental implications.”

“What?” the man without a clue asked.

“Never mind,” Daniel sighed, having no intention of re-entering the house just to tell the children that *Jack* ordered them to stay put.

~What'd I say?~ the older man wondered.

Daniel continued, “Don't speed, and don't worry.  Lulu couldn't have gone very far.  Love you,” he concluded and then snapped his cell phone shut.

====

The archaeologist began his search, Bijou and Katie leading the way.  Once clear of the house, Daniel wanted to run, shouting for his lost daughter, but he calmed himself.

~Can't run; need to be observant and make sure I don't miss anything.~

Forcing himself to steady his breathing, the vigilant father studied the grass.  There were small footprints in the fresh sod, so he followed them until they stopped at the edge of the sod.  He noticed a slight crumpling of the taller grass, which led onward around the lake.

Daniel eagerly proceeded forward, peering intently at the grass, searching for that barely perceptible trampling that only someone trained in Special Operations would notice.  The beagles were leading him forward, but he wanted verification that they were on the right track.

The footprints stopped abruptly at a garden laid with river pebble, much like what they had just put in at Hammond's.  The archaeologist swore in several non-Tau'ri languages.

“Any clue, Girls?” Daniel asked.

Bijou and Katie were doing their best, but something was interfering with their following Lulu's scent.

“I know it's hard,” Daniel acknowledged.

As he was deciding how to proceed, Daniel's cell phone rang again.

After saying their hellos, Jack said, “We're on the way back.”

“Are you on speaker?” Daniel asked.

“Nope.  He's just fine,” the older man answered, covering up the question with a bit of added information about their young son.

“Okay,” Daniel replied.

Jack wasn't using the hands-free setup for this call.  Just in case his lover had bad news, he wanted a chance to hear it first before Jeff and Ricky.  Thus, he had pulled over to the side of the road to place the call and was holding the cell phone to his ear.

“How goes the search, Angel?” Jack asked, trying to sound more cheerful than he felt, hoping his husband would tell him he had found their little girl and brought her safely back.

“I'm starting to get worried, Jack.  The trail is growing cold.  Bij and Katie seem to pick up her scent for a while, then they lose it.  She's gotten farther than I thought she could have.”

“Maybe she's with someone,” Jack suggested, not certain whether that was a good or bad thing.

“You know Lulu's too afraid of strangers to go inside anyone's house without one of us with her; ditto a car, so I still think she has to be close by.  I'm trying hard not to think the worst,” Daniel stated as he continued forward a bit, his eyes roaming in every direction for any sign of the unhappy girl.

Jack knew without his husband needing to say it that the worst meant the NID, or some of their equally nefarious foes.

“Keep looking, Danny.  Bij and Katie won't let us down, but if you haven't found her by the time we arrive, we'll call in reinforcements.”

“Right, Babe,” Daniel agreed.  “Let me talk to Ricky.”

Jack handed their youngest son the phone, who took it eagerly and began rambling, “Hi, Daddy.  I okay now.  Got to drive fast behind p'lice car, heard sirens.  Aunt Janet make me feel all better.  Where Lulu, Daddy?  Why she run 'way?  You find her fast, 'kay.  Gonna rain soon.  'N...”

The silver-haired man took the phone back and chuckled, “As we all heard, he's back to normal.”

“And I thought Little Danny was a motormouth,” the archaeologist mused for a split second.

“And we know where he got that from,” Jack teased lightly.  “The weird part is we thought he was unconscious during the trip, but he swears he heard the sirens.”

“Maybe he did,” Daniel spoke, his tone subdued.

“Danny, I know this is a ridiculous question, but are you okay?”

“Yeah, but I'm going to ... uh ...”

“Good luck,” Jack expressed.  “We'll be there soon.”

After disengaging the call, Daniel looked upward with dismay at the darkening sky.  He took a deep breath and looked at his two canine 'deputies', who whined at the first few drops of rain that fell out of the rising wind.

“I know you're not bloodhounds, but Lulu's out here somewhere, all alone.  We have to find her.  We're depending on you, and you two have never, ever let us down.  Please, do your best, okay?”

The two dogs straightened their tails and walked up and down the edge of the gravel bed, sniffing all the way.

~If I didn't know better, I'd swear they were marching.~

Suddenly, the two beagles stopped and woofed.

“But that's going along the road side of the houses, not the lake side,” Daniel protested.

Again the dogs woofed, more insistently this time, as if to say, 'Trust us'.

“Okay, I'm listening.  Let's go.”

====

Jennifer and Sunny started off in the opposite direction to Daniel.  There were cul-de-sacs surrounding the lake, each one accommodating five individual dwellings on rather generous parcels of land.  The two women exited the vehicle and searched the two properties on the one side of the street that spread into the circular dead end, and then the one on the opposite side.  The other property was the closest to Hammond's house, and Daniel would search it.  Not finding Lulu, the two females then got back in Sunny's rental car and headed to the next cul-de-sac to continue searching.

“Why do you suppose Lulu ran away?” Sunny pondered aloud.

“It could be a lot of things,” Jennifer replied.  “She had a horrible childhood,” the teen sighed.

“You make it sound like her childhood is over; she's only six,” the older of the two women observed.

Jennifer sighed, “I'm not sure that it isn't over for her.  I wonder if it's possible to ever really be carefree again after so much suffering.”  To ward off the beauty queen's questioning look, she just shook her head, opining, “You really don't want to know, trust me.  I wish I didn't know.”

Sunny nodded in understanding and replied, “I hope the poor thing is all right.  She must be scared.”

“I'm sure she is,” Jennifer responded.  “Running away when she's scared is the only way she knows how to survive.”

====

On the way back to Hammond's, Jack called home, but only got the answering machine.

~That's odd,~ Jack thought.  ~Maybe she's in the shower, or out in the yard.~  He shrugged and put the cell phone back in his pocket.  ~We'll call from Hammond's.~

“I'm hungry, Dad.  Can we stop at Mickey D's?” Ricky asked.

Jack and Jeff both rolled their eyes and laughed at the little boy.

“Dad?” Ricky asked, having gotten only laughter as an answer.

“We'll go tonight, with the whole family,” Jack responded.

“'Kay,” the boy agreed.

Jack and Jeff were concerned about Lulu, but had tried not to upset Ricky, who was exuberant after his recovery.  Finally, though, as they neared Hammond's house, the youngster had started to wind down a bit, almost drifting off to sleep in the backseat.

“You know, you're pretty good at the older brother thing,” Jack observed.  “Daddy and I are proud of you, and we appreciate all the times you step in to help out.”

Jeff smiled as he replied, “I love my mom and dad, and miss them, especially Dad because I had more time with him, but I can't imagine being anywhere else now.  I miss them; I wish they were here, but ... I don't know.”

“We're lucky, Jeff, to have you in our family.  We'd like to think your folks would be proud of what we're trying to do.”

“I know they are.  Thanks, Dad,” Jeff spoke.  “It hasn't really been that long, but I feel pretty lucky to be where I am.”

Jack smiled at the teenager, and they shared a look that helped to bond them together even more.

“We should be there in a couple of minutes, Son.”  Looking through the rearview mirror, he called out, “Ricky, you still awake?”

The boy startled awake and instantly called out, “I want fries 'n' burger 'n' ...”

“Hang on there, Squirt,” Jeff laughed.  “We're just about to get to Grandpa's.”

“Oh, but I still hungry.”

====

The worried younger father took a deep breath and looked at his surroundings in a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep.  Houses and yards circled around most of the lake.  On lakefront homes, what was the 'back' yard from the street was the 'front' because it was lake *front* property, so there were no garages or storage sheds; those were all on the road side.  Daniel walked to the edge of the gravel and peered intently at the lush grass, spotting no telltale signs that pint-size feet had recently traveled over the lawn.

Granted, Lulu wasn't very heavy, and her feet were small, but her footprints would have been recently made.  Something told Daniel to walk to the 'back' of the house facing the road.  Nothing seemed out of place, but he backed up a few paces and looked at the sparse grass, his trained eyes looking for the slightest disturbance.

~There!  What's that?~

On the ground, Daniel saw what looked like the outline of a small shoe.  He approached, hoping it was not a trick of the light.

~It *is*!~

Indeed, Daniel was looking at the edge of a right shoe print; and ahead and to the left, there was a left shoe print.  Lulu had come this way.  There had only been a few sprinkles, but dark clouds were filling the sky, and there had been a few claps of thunder.

Lulu hated thunder and was terrified of it, so Daniel knew she wouldn't stay out in the open.  He continued in the same direction, crossing two more lawns, seeing the occasional shoe print.  Up ahead, by a garage, was a garden shed.  It was sided in yellow and trimmed in white just like the house and garage.

The beagles began to tug on their leashes, wanting to run towards the shed.  Cautious relief began to flow through the archaeologist.  As he came closer, he smiled, seeing the small prints in the bare area just in front of the door.

“Okay, Girls, let's take this slowly.  We don't want to frighten her,” Daniel told the beagles.  Looking around, he didn't see cars and surmised no one was home.  Hopeful, he opened the shed door, immediately catching sight of Lulu, sitting on the floor, her knees pulled up to her chest, her head down, quietly sobbing.  In her hand, she was clinching a piece of paper.  “Mind if I come in?” he asked.

In a flash, Lulu was in her father's arms, and the tears came in a torrent.  At the same time, the beagles were woofing their success at finding the lost girl.

The younger father spoke in soothing tones and rubbed her back, saying, “It's okay now, Little Bit; you're safe.  I love you.  Let it out; it'll be all right.”  As his daughter's sobs lessened, he asked, “Are you okay?  Anything hurt?”

“Not hurt, Daddy,” Lulu answered amid her continuing cries.

“What's this?” Daniel asked about the paper.  He was surprised when the little girls tears escalated, and er hold around his neck tightened.  ~Whatever it is, it must a part of whatever has upset her.~  He let her cry, releasing the sadness she felt, and rubbed her back while gently rocking her back and forth.  When she finally settled just a bit, pulling back to look at her father, he gave her a loving kiss and requested, “Tell me what's wrong, Sweetie.”

“My fault,” Lulu spoke, looking downward.

“I doubt that.  Show me the paper,” Daniel instructed, his tone soft.

“I made a bad choice, Daddy,” Lulu cried.  “This ugly, like me,” she sobbed releasing the item into Daniel's care.

Daniel opened up the now squished paper and recognized it as the wallpaper Lulu had selected.

“I love this wallpaper, Princess, and I love you, and *you* are beautiful.  Why do you think this is ugly?”

Amid her sniffles, Lulu spoke haltingly about her conversation with Alex and the ugly wallpaper.  As he listened, Daniel's ire at the designer tossing out the design without consulting with him grew by the second, even though he wondered if there was more to the story.  Right now, though, his priority was the unhappy girl in front of him.

“Trust me.  This is a great choice.  We'll talk to Alex and find out what's going on,” the father promised.  “Lulu, we really need to get back.  Okay?” Daniel asked.

Still sniffling, Lulu nodded, though she didn't move.

“Here we go,” Daniel said as he stood up straight.  He folded up the wallpaper and put it in his pocket, after which he picked up his daughter.  He chuckled lightly, “You're getting too big for this.”

As Daniel held Lulu securely, they began to walk back towards Hammond's house, the beagles at their side, frequently looking up with worried expressions at the young girl.

“Dadddddy, he did say it ugly.  He 'pert; he know.  I just ugly and ...”

“No, no, no, Lulu, you're not.  You're a beautiful little girl, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the wallpaper you chose; but no matter what, don't ever confuse a thing with yourself.  Who you are inside is a lot more important than the design of a room.”

“Ev'ryone fi...fightin' cause of me,” Lulu sobbed.  “I donnn't want them yell at each other 'cause of me.”

“Sweetie, I'm not sure what's happened yet, but you know how we are as a family.  We protect each other, at all cost.  If your brothers and sisters got upset, it's because they love you and want to protect you.  They know what Dad and I know -- that you're wonderful and sweet and intelligent and kind and caring and definitely beautiful.  You're a Jackson-O'Neill, Lulu, and none of us would be complete without you in our lives,” Daniel spoke emotionally, hugging the girl close to emphasize his words.

“I feel better, Daddy.  I can walk now,” the little girl expressed, a tiny smile on her face as the tears subsided.

As soon as Daniel put the curly-haired girl down, the beagles gently jumped up, giving her kisses and causing her to giggle.

The sound warmed Daniel's heart.  She needed this moment to unwind a little, so he seized the opportunity to send a text message to both Jack and Sunny, letting them know Lulu was safe and with him.

When Daniel finished, Lulu put her hand in his, and they continued their trek back to Hammond's.  The small act brought a smile to the man's face.  Letting things settle, the father and daughter, along with the two happy beagles, walked quietly towards the Hammond residence, talking only occasionally and about lighthearted things, though Daniel did tell her about Ricky's mishap, assuring her that the little boy was fine and would be back soon.

====

It wasn't long before Daniel and Lulu reached the edge of Hammond's property.  The little girl was now holding Bijou's leash, while Daniel had Katie's.  Almost at the same time, Jack pulled into the driveway.

Hearing the familiar sound of her older father's truck, she called out, “Dad's back!”  “Come on, Bij!” she encouraged as she began running towards the front of the house.

Daniel almost shouted for her to stop, but he decided to let her go since Bijou was with her and the yard was free of tools and construction debris.  He merely quickened his and Katie's pace to keep up with the young girl.

Lulu rounded the corner of the garage and shouted, “Ricky!  Dad!  Jeff!”  She ran straight into Ricky's arms, and the two clasped each other tightly for a long moment before they said, “I'm glad you're okay; me, too,” in unison.

Then Ricky ran to Daniel, while Lulu ran to Jack, each adult immediately picking up the child that had rushed to them.

While the family was still exchanging hugs, an unfamiliar vehicle pulled into the driveway.  Everyone looked to see who the visitor was, and all but Daniel were surprised to see it was Sunny and Jennifer.

“Jennifer?” Jack asked almost under his breath.

**Chill, Babe.  Sunny needed directions.  I'll explain later, but I told her she could come,** Daniel informed after seeing and hearing Jack's dismay at their grounded daughter's arrival, especially in the outfit she was wearing.

**In *that* outfit, Danny?**

**Jack, later, as in la-ter.**

Letting it go, Jack greeted their teenage daughter and the good-looking blonde.  Just as he did, the rain began to fall, and he pointed towards the house, urging everyone to get inside.

====

Once inside, Jack and Daniel filled their children in on Ricky's voltage misadventure.  For a minute, the brood focused on chastising Ricky for his dumb move, but then they hugged him, happy he was okay.

Then the brood refocused their attention on why Lulu was upset and had run away.  Their voices raised, and their excitement at being back together shifted to anger at having been torn apart, all because of Alex, in their young minds, anyway.

“Hey!  If you're all talking at once, nothing will get resolved,” Jack shouted in a raised voice.

It took several attempts to get everyone quieted down, and once they did, another sad noise quieted the group to a hush.  The sound was Lulu, quietly sobbing into Jack's shoulder, the entire experience taking its toll on the sensitive child.

====

Alex snapped his cell phone shut, having just concluded his call from Berlin.  He stood up and stretched, relieved that it was finally over with.  He'd lost all track of time, and he was tired, the call having required a great amount of concentration, creative know-how, and the designer's version of subtle negotiation.

~I felt like that phone was going to meld to my ear; man, am I glad that's over!~  His mind began to refocus on the Hammond project and what had occurred before the call from Boyd.  Taking a moment to tuck in his shirt and straighten his tie, he thought, ~Better find out what all that ruckus was about.~

The designer stepped into the kitchen, noting everyone seemed to be up in arms about something.

“Is something wrong?” Alex asked.

The man was immediately the subject of hostile voices, including one he hadn't anticipated -- Jack Jackson-O'Neill.

Upset at having his daughter crying in his arms, Jack barked, “You happy, Mister Bigshot Designer, the know-it-all with all the answers?  You managed to get my little girl to cry.  What right did you have to change that wallpaper without checking with us?  You *knew* this was a surprise from our kids to their grandfather.  That's callous, Alex, and I ...”

“General Jackson-O'Neill,” an angry voice interrupted.

Jack reared his head back in surprise, seeing Sunny step in front of Alex to square off against him.  She'd been off to the side, and with all the commotion, Alex hadn't seen her in the room.

“What?” the general snapped angrily.

“Sunny?” Alex called out, totally stunned to see his girlfriend.  ~Wow!  She's so beautiful, especially when she's angry.  Look at those eyes.~

With eyes full of equal ire, Sunny challenged, “You don't scare me, Mister Bigshot General.  Compared to a pageant mom, you're a wimp!  How could *you* of all people, who pried your way into that man's ...” she pointed at Alex, “... past, even *think* that he would knowingly hurt a child in any way!”

Raising his hands, palms outward, Daniel spoke over the cacophony of voices, saying, “One at a time, please.”  With the brood staring at him, he requested, “Let's use our inside voices, okay?  Now, who can tell us the entire story ... *calmly*?”

Chenoa volunteered and related her story in full, ending by saying, “Her wallpaper wasn't ugly, was it, Daddy?”

“No, no, that's not what I said at all,” Alex interjected.

“But you made Lulu cry,” Brianna spouted.

“Yeah,” Jonny echoed.  “You made her cry!” he accused, his stance adversarial.

All at once, the children began voicing their displeasure at the designer, and they did so very loudly and animatedly.

Inwardly, Daniel was stewing at the situation, upset that Lulu was still hurting, that Ricky had been physically hurt, and that his family was so enraged at the man who was actually breaking the law to help them get their surprise for Hammond completed.  Part of him was angry, too, but the bigger part of him was sure there was an explanation.

~We're missing something,~ the archaeologist thought.

Not wanting something wonderful to turn into something horrible, Daniel was about to speak when Jennifer suddenly interjected.

“Why don't we let Alex tell his side of the story?” the young woman asked, instantly finding herself at odds with her siblings.

“Why you on Alex side?” Jonny admonished, shaking his finger at his older sister. “He need his cell phone taken 'way; no TV and no ice cream for a year!”

The rest of the children looked wide eyed with horror, as if such punishment was unthinkable.  No ice cream and no television for a year?  Then they all nodded in agreement.

“I know how he feels ... sometimes,” Jennifer said, glancing over at her older father.

“But ...” the oldest Munchkin began to argue.

“Jonny, that's enough,” Daniel interceded, the palm of his hand meeting the boy's pointed finger.  “Let's save the finger pointing for finger painting.”  He paused, looking at all of the children and intoned, “We've raised you better than this.  I'm disappointed.  If something's wrong, we'll figure it out, but we aren't going to accomplish anything by shouting over one another.  Now, you've all let your displeasure be known.  Jen is right; it's time to give Alex a chance to explain his side.”  Looking at the man in question, Daniel nodded and spoke, “Alex.”

Alex nodded in acknowledgement, grateful for the opportunity to finally get a word in, and explained, “I was on the phone, long distance, to Boyd in Berlin.  I really should be there right now supervising that job instead of here helping you build these rooms for your grandfather.  In terms of my career ...”

“Fam'ly more 'portant than your ears,” Jenny spat.

Jennifer turned around and frowned at her little sister as she chastised, “Jenny, he's trying to explain, and he didn't say his ears, he said his career.”

Jenny just sneered, giving Alex a dirty look.

** Jack, we can't let her get by with that.  Even if we're furious with Alex, we can't let Jenny use that as an excuse to be disrespectful to an adult.  If we do, we're in for a lot more trouble.**

**She's a righteous rebel, Danny.**

**Exactly my point, Jack.  We're going to have enough with her as it is, without letting this slide.  We have to say something to her.**

Nodding slightly, the older man concurred, saying, **You're right.  Go ahead; I'll back you up.**

“Jennifer Samantha Jackson-O'Neill, wipe that look off your face, and apologize to Alex,” Daniel said sternly.

Jenny looked at her younger father as if he had grown another head.  She rarely got the full name treatment, so she knew she was in big trouble.  Still, she was shocked and angry, her expression having not changed.

“I mean *now*, Jennifer.  You interrupted Mister Dennison, and you do *not* sneer at adults.  It's disrespectful.  Anger does not negate common courtesy and respect.  If you don't understand the difference, we'll explain it to you later.  Now, do as I say,” Daniel ordered.

The young girl knew her father meant business, so she put on a neutral face and said in a flat voice, “I'm sorry, Mister Dennison, for interrupting you and for being disrespectful to you.”

~She sure is fiery,~ Alex thought, seeing a bit of defiance in the headstrong girl's monotone and surprisingly well-enunciated apology.

“Jenny might have the word wrong, but she's right,” Chenoa insisted, looking up at the still-sniffling Lulu as Jack continued to hold her closely.

“Okay, let's let Alex finish, please,” Daniel spoke, looking at the children with a stern expression.

“Gen'ral eyes, like Dad,” Jonny scowled, knowing the look meant he'd better shape up in a hurry.

Daniel just shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment as he sought for peace and calm within him.  He was getting no help from his silent husband, who was taking the road of saying nothing, since anything he might say wouldn't be nice.

“Alex,” Daniel prompted again.

“I don't think any of you want to know what happened,” Sunny opined.  “Alex has always spoken so highly of you, and I thought you were people who didn't judge without knowing the facts.”

Suddenly, Jack let out an audible sigh, having realized that he was condemning Alex without knowing the facts.  He hated being upstaged by the truth, and that's exactly what had just happened.

~It's the protective father thing,~ the major general thought.  “There won't be anymore interruptions,” he spoke, his tone of voice adding to Daniel's previous admonition to the children.  “Will there?” he asked, his stare one of his best message givers.

“No, Sir,” Jonny whined.

“No, Sir,” Jenny responded, though her face was still tight with accusation.

“Alex, please,” Jack prodded with a nod.

The designer looked at his girlfriend, smiling at her for her support, and then continued, “I should be in Berlin.  My company's future is much more important than this job, *but* because your two fathers are friends and not just clients, I rearranged and pushed commitments back to help you do this.  When Lulu interrupted my conversation, I did my best to answer her question, but I could not take my attention away from the pressing business going on in Berlin.  Once I was off the phone, I came out here with the sole intention of finding out what was going on.  I want to stress that I most certainly, most emphatically did *not* tell Lulu the wallpaper she picked was ugly.”

“Lulu?” Jack asked quietly.

The little girl shook her head, whispering, “I don't remember.”

“Jack.”

The one word said a paragraph, of which the main point was not to put Lulu in the middle of a 'he said, she said', even if she was the 'she' in question.

Jack smiled at the emotional girl, assuring, “It's okay, Little Bit,” as he put her down so she could stand next to Chenoa.

Alex corrected, “What I did tell Lulu is that the wallpaper was too *busy* with the rest of the room.”  Seeing the still scornful looks, he elaborated, “We have painted stripes on the upper walls, ice cream clouds on the fabric at the windows, and rainbow licorice stripes on the seat cushions.  The horses on the paper were too small; they got lost in the room, and it didn't look good at all.”

“It's not important,” Lulu sniffled, her words barely audible and her words not convincing anyone that she really felt that way.

~I need to fix that misconception,~ the designer determined as he stepped forward three paces, then kneeled down in front of Lulu.  He smiled widely as he apologized, “Lulu, I'm very sorry that I didn't think to make sure you understood what I was saying.  Your wallpaper *is* very nice; it's just with everything else we ended up doing, it wouldn't look good.”  He reached forward with his right hand to gently caress her face, his movement slow and calm.  “Your input is *very* important.  I'm sorry I couldn't explain this to you when you asked me.  Forgive me?”

Alex felt miserable.  He was just trying to do a good job for his clients, whom he considered friends, and for the clients of Archonics, whose owner, Byron Stone, was his boss and friend.  He'd ended up leaving Boyd in the lurch, way over his head, and hurting one of the children he adored.  Jack and Daniel would probably never speak to him again.

Shyly, Lulu moved forward into Alex's arms and began to cry, “Sssorry, 'Lex, sssorry I ran away.”

“Ran away?” Alex asked in surprise, having had no idea the little girl had actually run off.

“Yeah,” Daniel affirmed quietly.  “She was very upset, and I didn't notice because I was trying to sort out a hostage situation for J-O and ...”

“Hostage?” Both Jack and Alex exclaimed loudly in unison.

Wide eyed, Daniel said, “Yeah, long story.  Everything's okay now, but ... never mind; it's neither here nor there.  Lulu ran away to a nearby garage.  I was searching for her with Bij and Katie, while Jack brought Ricky back from the infirmary after his electric shock.”

“Electric shock!” Alex exclaimed, totally floored by the alarming news.  ~What the heck's been going on?  All this while I was on the phone?  No wonder they're angry,~ Alex lamented.

“Yeah, another long story,” Jack explained.  “Needless to say, he's all right”, he stated with a smile, ruffling Ricky's hair.

Alex nodded and, turning his attention back to Lulu, he assured, “Everything is fine now, Lulu.  You have nothing to apologize for.  I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings, and I promise, we'll find some way to get horses into the ice cream parlor.  Okay?”

Lulu nodded her agreement on the designer's shoulder, and he nearly lost control at the memory of holding his younger siblings, the missing triplets, in the same way.

Sunny stood nearby, silently vowing, ~I have to find a way to help him.  This pain is too much for him, for anyone, to bear.  No wonder he buried himself in his work.~

“Alex ...” Daniel began.

“Daniel, it's okay,” Alex interrupted.

“No ... it's not,” Jack grumbled.  “When a man is wrong, he's wrong.”

“There's nothing wrong in a father protecting his daughter,” Alex assured, smiling again at Lulu before standing and returning to Sunny's side.

Extending his hand out, Jeff chimed in, “I'm sorry for the things I thought about you before you had a chance to tell your side of things.”

Alex stood, clasped Jeff's hand in return, and replied, “It's understandable, Jeff, but thank you.”
 
**Danny, I feel low enough to walk under a snake's belly with a high hat.**
 
**Don't beat yourself up, Babe,** the younger man thought in his lover's direction.  After a pulse of silence, he added, “That's *my* job.**

**You so do not play fair, Jackson.**
 
**I think you might have mentioned that a time or six, O'Neill.*

“It's dinnertime,” Jack spoke, changing the subject so that he wouldn't laugh out loud.  Looking at Alex and Sunny, he said, “There's a great burger joint nearby that serves up flavors almost as good as 31 Flavors.  What do you say?  Our treat,” he invited.

The beagles woofed to remind Jack that they were still there.

“Oops,” Daniel chuckled.

“Ah, okay, Plan B,” Jack said, smiling down at the canines.  “Since sit down food is out of the question, I'll pick up food at Wendy's ...”  He glanced at Ricky and, remembering his son's request and his promise in the truck on the way back from the Mountain, changed his mind about where to get the food.  “I'll stop at Mickey D's.  We can eat at the house and have ice cream afterwards.”

Ricky grinned at the news, and Jeff exchanged a smile with his older father, knowing why Jack had decided on McDonald's.

“Sunny?” Alex asked the blonde.

Sunny looked at Jack and Daniel, feeling a bit unsure.

“Please,” Daniel requested, smiling cordially.

After the blonde gave a nod in her boyfriend's direction, Alex responded, “You're on, Jack.  We'll meet you at the house.”

The group headed outside, smiles on their faces.

**Jack, you didn't take any orders,** Daniel stated.

**No need, Angel.  I know the brood's orders by heart.  I'm pretty sure Alex and Sunny will eat salads, but I'll pick up a few extra sandwiches, some chicken nuggets, and a couple of extra fries.  None of it will go to waste.**

**Yeah, that's true.**

--

“Alex, I'd really like to talk to you, but we're in separate cars,” Sunny spoke regretfully.

“Yeah, we need a few minutes.  I have an idea,” Alex said, smiling at his beautiful girlfriend.

--

As Jack and Daniel were locking up the front of the house, the children and beagles were milling around behind them.  Except for Jennifer, all were unaware that Alex and Sunny had approached from the side.

With the children within their line of sight, Daniel extended his arm, preventing his lover from walking away from the now-locked front door.

“Jack, I need to tell you about that hostage situation,” Daniel spoke.  Though he knew he didn't have time for all the details, he wanted to give Jack a quick overview in case complications arose before their employees got out of the country.  “It was pretty serious,” he began.

--

Waiting for his clients to finish their private conversation, Alex took the moment to look at his girlfriend.  He broke out in a beaming smile when he looked at the beautiful woman he called his.

“This was quite a surprise,” Alex commented contentedly as he kissed Sunny.

~That's quite a kiss,~ Jennifer opined, finding herself a bit envious of the woman.

When the kiss was over, seeing that Jack and Daniel were getting ready to leave, Alex called out, “Daniel, could you do us a favor?”

“What do you need, Alex?”

“Sunny has a rental, but I'd like her to ride with me.  Would you do us a favor and drive her car?”

“No problem,” Daniel agreed.  He looked at Jennifer and stated, “Jennifer, you can drive the SUV.  Do you have your keys?”

“I came prepared,” the teenager spoke, pulling her car keys out.  Jack and Daniel had entrusted her with the keys to the SUV, but she didn't keep those keys on her regular key ring, since she didn't often drive the large vehicle.  ~This weekend was too crazy not to carry them with me.~

“Daddy, I go with you; missed you when I see Aunt Janet,” Ricky proclaimed.

“Okay, Son,” the smiling father responded.  **I'm so glad he's okay.**

**Me, too, Angel, me too!** Jack chimed silently.

“Jonny, you're with me in the truck,” Jack said.  ~He is such a righteous hothead. Chip off the old block.  Now I know what Mom and Dad meant when they said, 'I hope you have one just like you.'  Gotta reign that in, just a wee bit.~

“Who wants to go with me?” Jennifer asked.  ~Not a lot of choices left, but we won't dwell on that.~

Bijou and Katie gave hearty “Woof woofs” and walked over to the SUV, taking their current leash holder, Brianna, with them.

Lulu and Chenoa were inseparable, and, without a word between them, walked to the family vehicle.  Aislinn and Jenny were still savoring their triumph of neatness over their male siblings technical victory in the gravel moving competition, so they joined their sisters.

Little Danny stood there, wanting to go with the beagles, Jeff, and Jonny.  It wasn't easy wanting to be with everyone.

Jonny piped up, “Little Danny, you come with us.”

~Thanks, Jonny,~ the boy in question thought, his decision suddenly made for him.

When Little Danny reached him, Jonny whispered, “You'd be outnummered.”

Little Danny scrunched his nose, looking at his brother curiously, not understanding what he meant.

Jonny groaned, “You know, alllll girls!”

“Oh,” Little Danny reacted.  Then he corrected his brother's word, saying, “Outnumbered.”

“Huh?” Jonny asked.

“Nevah mind,” the other Munchkin said.

**Danny, head count.**

**All present and accounted for.  Do you concur?**

Jack took a final look at all the vehicles, seeing Jeff, Jonny, David, and Little Danny were all standing by his truck, the girls with Jennifer, and Ricky with Daniel.  **Concur.**  “Head 'em up, and move 'em out!”

Jeff laughed, “Great!  Now Dad thinks we're cattle.”

“We'll meet you there,” Alex called out.  “I need to do a final check for the day on a few things.”

Jack nodded and waved, saying, “Don't be too long; the brood might eat your food!”

Finally, the Jackson-O'Neills headed towards their home, with Alex and Sunny to follow shortly.

====

As the vehicles pulled out with their occupants, some very diverse conversations began.

Glancing over at his son for just a second, Jack began, “Jonny, I know you were upset with Alex, but you were out of line today.  Both Daddy and Alex had very important calls today.  Daddy was on that hostage call that was literally a matter of life and death for two of our people at J-O.”

Both sets of Munchkin eyes bulged, and two small gasps broke the air in the truck.

“Are they okay?” Little Danny asked.  “'Rissa not there?” he gasped in alarm, referring to Karissa Lewis, whom he'd had a crush since the beginning of his conscious memory.

“Sproglet, Karissa is safe.  She wasn't on the assignment,” Jack spoke gently, smiling at the look of relief on the Munchkin's face and the really big breath the boy had taken in response to hearing the news that his 'love' was okay.  He continued, “Everyone else is fine, too, because Daddy and Abayomi were able to talk to the people who were upset.  Alex, meanwhile, was resolving a situation that could cost his company millions of dollars.  Do you know where Alex would be right now if he weren't here helping with Grandpa's surprise?”

Jonny shook his head, uncertain of where the conversation was going.

The father continued, “Then you weren't listening to Alex when he was explaining what happened.  He'd be in Berlin.”

“Oh,” Jonny replied, still upset but trying to hide it since he didn't want to lose out on his happy meal.

“Alex is doing us a big, big favor by being here, because all of us wanted to do this for Grandpa.  He put us ahead of other things that really should have come first,” Jack reminded.

“But he made Lulu cry!” Jonny said defiantly.

“Did he, Jonny?  Did he really make her cry, or did he just not understand what her reaction would be?  What could you have done to make sure Lulu didn't run away?” Jack questioned, waiting to give the children a chance to think out the situation.

Puzzled by his father's words, Jonny just shrugged.

“We could have told Lulu to wait, and we would ask you 'n' Daddy 'bout her wallpaper,” Little Danny offered.

“We should have told Lulu we love her, and her wallpaper is pretty,” Jonny suggested a few seconds later.

“Good, both of you, very good.  What else?” Jack questioned.

“If we stayed all together, we could have made sure Lulu not feel bad and want to run away,” Jonny said.

“Yes,” Jack responded as he nodded.  “Lulu didn't want to be angry.  She needed comfort and reassurance.  Your wanting to see Alex punished didn't help her at all.”

“We all jumped to conclusions,” Jeff said, not wanting to point fingers in any direction.  You know, even with all the pressures on him to get everything done the last few days, he's been great to both me and Ricky, taking time to answer our questions and explain everything.”  He sighed, “He's really a nice man.”

“And he let us have our race and didn't yell or anything when Jonny and Ricky made more work for the landscapers,” David added.

~Of course, he didn't yell.  I'm the one that has to pay for that damage,~ Jack inwardly griped.  ~But it was worth it to see the kids run that race.~  “David's right,” he responded.  “We owe Alex a lot for putting this little operation of ours at the top of his priority list,” he stated.

“Okay, Alex is a nice man,” Jonny sighed, giving in and releasing his anger.

“Yes, he is, Jonny.  You might want to tell him that,” Jack suggested.

“Maybe we all should tell him that,” Jeff added.

====

“Daddy?” Ricky called out.

Daniel looked over at his youngest son, happy and grateful that he was his normal, healthy, exuberant self.

“I sorry I plugged in the wrong cord.  I think I help the 'lectric men.”

“I know you're sorry, Ricky, but you only thought you understood what the electricians were talking about.  We're very lucky you weren't seriously hurt today.  You have to learn to ask questions before jumping in and doing things that you don't really understand, yet.”

Ricky nodded in agreement and asked, “I sleep in Jeff's room 'gain?  I have lots more questions.”

“We'll see.  You're having a lot of fun watching the construction, aren't you?”

Nodding vigorously, the budding builder agreed, “Yeah.  Like to see rooms go up. Like talking with Jeff.  Alex say Jeff and me can see all pictures at his office, 'kay?”

Smiling, Daniel replied, “I'm sure that can be arranged.”

====

Having walked around Hammond's house, Alex noted the awnings were put up, the gravel was all moved, and the paving stones had been set.  The last electrical hookups were done, as well as smoothing over the holes where the old receptacles had been.

“Looks great, Aiden.  If you and Tim, and Gus from Melanie's crew can be here by eight just to make sure we have everything covered, I'll see to it you get paid holiday pay, plus double-time-and-a-half for four hours.  I just can't afford anything to be less that perfect on this one.”

“No problem,” Aiden replied.

Alex nodded and said, “See you guys at Cucina Mexina at nine.”

Nodding in agreement at their good fortune, the two men picked up the last of their tools and headed for their truck.

====

Once on their way to the Jackson-O'Neill home, Alex exclaimed, “Whoa!  That was some performance back there, Sunshine!”

“I just couldn't let them gang up on you like that, Alex,” Sunny said consolingly.

“Well, thanks,” Alex said, giving his girlfriend a tender look.  Then he chuckled, “They sure are united as a group.  You'd never guess that six of them are adopted.  It's quite a coincidence none of them have any siblings that aren't with them.  If they did, I'm sure Jack and Daniel would have tracked them down and brought them home, too.”

~I sure wish we could track down your brothers and sister,~ Sunny sighed, wishing her desire could be turned into a reality.

====

Out of the all female contingent of the SUV, Brianna was the first one to speak, saying, “That Sunny is something else; never would have thought she had it in her to stand up to Dad like that.”

“Brave,” Aislinn said, nodding.

“Bri, just because you don't like dresses and getting 'all girlied up', as you put it, doesn't make every woman who does vain, silly, and stupid,” Jennifer admonished.

“She talk bad to Dad,” Jenny said.

“No, she didn't, Jenny,” Jennifer corrected gently.  “Dad admitted he was out of line.  We all were.”  She sighed, “We decided everything was Alex's fault, that he had made Lulu cry before we heard his side of the story.  Sometimes, Jenny, it's not about who's right and who's wrong; it's about just getting to the truth.  No matter how much you want to be right, you have to be willing to admit you're wrong when you are.”

“Look who's talking,” Brianna responded, giving her sister a pointed look.

“I know,” Jennifer replied as she glanced at the rearview mirror for a couple of seconds, checking the traffic behind the SUV.  “I'm not saying I'm the model of behavior.”

“Then what are you saying?” the tomboy asked.

“I'm just saying we made assumptions.  Lulu ran away because she was sure Alex said something that he didn't.  Ricky gave himself a bad shock because he was sure he understood something he overheard.  Assumptions can be dangerous, and none of the assumptions made lately have helped a thing.”

====

Alex and Sunny pulled up to the Jackson-O'Neill home about five minutes later than everyone else, except for Jack, who was still picking up the food from McDonald's.

The couple walked up to the door, but before they could knock, Daniel opened the door and said sincerely, “We're glad you decided to join us.  Please, come on in.” Once inside the entranceway, he shook the designer's hand and said, “I'm sorry we accused you without giving you the benefit of the doubt and the chance to explain what had happened.  We know you wouldn't hurt one of our children.”

“Thank you, Daniel,” Alex spoke appreciatively.

“Sunny, here are your keys.”

“Thanks, Daniel,” Sunny said, taking the keys and putting them into her Isabella Fiore hobo tote bag  purse, an item which had been one of her prizes in a beauty pageant.

Following their younger father's example, everyone, including Jenny, gave the couple a warm welcome and a heartfelt apology.

Lulu stood back, waiting for everyone else to finish greeting the couple.

“Don't be shy, Lulu,” Alex stated.  “We need to talk about the horses on the walls of the ice cream parlor.  I know you liked the wallpaper.”  He smiled, saying, “I was thinking we could take some of the prettiest horses and make them bigger. Would you like that?”  Though the little girl nodded, Alex could tell she was holding back.  “It's okay.  You can tell me what it is you want.”

Kneeling down, Alex beckoned the little girl closer.

When she was right next to him, Lulu whispered, “Noa asked if we could have pictures of real horses.”

“Do you have any pictures of real horses?”
 
Nodding, Lulu said, “Jeff has pictures of the horses Noa and Angela ride.”

“Well, then, I'll talk to Jeff and see if we can do something to make the real horses and the carousel horses play together, okay?”

Beaming broadly, Lulu ran to find her sister to tell her the good news.

“I heard my name.  Is that good or bad?” Jeff asked, smiling as he entered the front hall from the rec room.

“I thought you were with Jack?” the confused designer questioned, looking around and wondering if he'd missed seeing the general.

“We were, but someone needed to make a pit stop *desperately*, so Dad just dropped us off,” the teen stated, smiling at the oldest Munchkin, who was glaring at him.

“Doesn't McDonald's have a bathroom?” Alex chuckled.

“Dad has a thing with drive-throughs,” the teen replied.

“He just didn't want me to play,” Jonny whined, wishing they could have taken some time to play at the special play area inside Mickey D's.

“I understand,” Alex spoke.  Moving onward with the conversation, he stated, “Lulu says she and Noa want to have pictures of both real and carousel horses together, and you have pictures of the horses Noa and her friend ride.”

“Sure do, on my computer upstairs.”

“I don't want to impose on you, Jeff, but I need to get this done as quickly as possible, if it's going to get done before General Hammond gets home.  Besides, I'd really like to enjoy a couple of hours tonight at Cucina Mexina, which can only happen if I can get this done first,” the designer explained.

“No problem.  Let's go up to my room, and I'll fire up the scanner,” Jeff invited.  “I actually just finished uploading the photos I took today, too, so everything is there.”

“That was quick,” Alex chuckled.

“I'm anxious to review them.  I'm on a deadline, remember?” the teen reminded lightheartedly.

“Yeah, me, too,” Alex responded with a smile.

The designer looked at his girlfriend, realizing she might be put out by his little side trip.  After all, she came to visit him, and the only time they'd had alone was during the car ride to the Jackson-O'Neill residence.

Sunny smiled and said, “Go on.  I know you'll be much better company tonight if you can get this done.”  Leaning into her boyfriend, the stunning beauty gave him a warm kiss.  “I'll be down here when you get done.”

~Whoa!  You are one lucky dude, Alex,~ Jeff thought a bit enviously.

“You must have a lot of memory on your computer,” Alex spoke as he and Jeff headed for his room.

“Yeah, upgraded recently.”

====

At the foot of the stairs that led to Jeff's bedroom, Alex pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number.

“Hello, Vic?  It's Alex.  I am *so* glad you answered.  I'm really in a tight spot ... Yeah, I know, so what else is new, right?”  Listening intently, the designer nodded and said, “Uh huh ... uh-huh ... right.  Well, not much, actually.  It's a small room, and it only goes up the wall halfway.”

--

“Luuuucy, I'm home!” Jack called out excitedly as he entered the house, carrying several large sacks of McDonald's food.  Greeting everyone, he motioned them into the hospitality room.  Looking all around, he asked, “Where are Jeff and Alex?”

“Jeff's helping Alex with the horses,” Lulu answered enthusiastically.

Jack smiled and replied, “Good.  Lil' Bit, would you go tell them the food is here?”

“Okay, Dad,” Lulu agreed, a smile on her face as she headed for her older brother's room.

--

Having scanned the images of the carousel horses and imported the pictures of the horses from the stable, Jeff and Alex were busy composing the scenes that would be printed as wallpaper for the ice cream parlor, while Alex spoke with Vic on the phone.

The timing couldn't have been worse when Lulu reached the open door of Jeff's room because that's exactly when Alex spoke, “You'll have it in a few minutes, Vic. Remember to cut the horses in two with the railroading -- the entire scene.  Yeah, that'll be great.  Just Fed-X it to this address.  I owe you big time.”

Snapping his phone shut, the designer turned his full attention to the computer, tweaking the images before e-mailing them to the man who would copy and print them onto wallpaper.

Neither Jeff nor Alex had noticed the little girl, who had just turned around to go back downstairs, too shocked to react at what she thought she heard.

As the designer and his protégé continued, absorbed in their work, Jack spoke over the intercom, “Hey, if you don't want this, I'm going to give it to Bijou and Katie as a treat!”

Jeff jumped up and pushed the button on the speaker, responding, “On our way, Dad!”

“That's it, Jeff.  Take a look,” Alex stated as he pressed 'send'.

The male teen viewed their combined handiwork.  The carousel horses frolicked with the real horses in the lush fields, like they were all old friends.

Smiling, Jeff commented, “That'll make Lulu very happy,” as he reached over and powered down the computer.  “We'd better go before Dad gets serious about treating the girls,” he laughed.

====

Everyone was more than hungry, and all of the extra food Jack had purchased was eaten without diminishing a single appetite for ice cream.

**Look at them, Jack.  They might eat like there's no tomorrow, but they're exhausted.  I don't think we'll have any trouble getting them to bed tonight.**

**It has been a day, and then some: the work, the contest, Ricky's accident, Lulu's running away, the brood's upset, the hostage crisis.  I'm even too tired to 'you know' tonight,** Jack replied as he took another bite of his bacon cheeseburger.

**Okay, who are you and what have you done with my husband?** Daniel teased. **I can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times you've been too sick or too tired to ...**

**Sorry, Angel, but I am, at least without a nap first.**

**I'm not sure I'm up for it, either,** Daniel admitted.  **There's always tomorrow morning.**

**It's a date,** Jack agreed as he slowly and purposefully devoured a long French Fry, one inch at a time, loving how he had his lover's full attention.

**Jack!**

Jack chuckled, but, fortunately, it fit right into a joke that Aislinn was telling.

====

“Thanks for joining us, and we really are sorry about ...” Daniel began as he escorted Alex and Sunny to the door.

“Daniel, it's over.  Let's just call it a learning experience for all of us.  Besides, it was a good day,” Alex said, smiling at his girlfriend.  “Sunny's here; any day that Sunny is here is a good day.”

“Oh, Alex,” Sunny responded with a happy smile.

“See you tomorrow,” Alex spoke as he and Sunny headed for their vehicles.

Daniel locked the door and then returned to the recreation room and his family.  The children were definitely on their last legs.

Just a minute later, Jonny was the first to nod off, his ice cream dish still in his lap.

“I'll take him,” Jennifer volunteered.  She took Jonny's bowl and set it down for the beagles to lick.  “You're getting big,” she chuckled as she picked him up to carry him upstairs.

Aislinn and Jenny were next to succumb to sleep.  Jeff scooped up Jenny, while Jack took Aislinn.

“Danny ...” Jack said, looking over at the younger man's namesake.

“Gone,” Daniel mused as he walked over, took the boy's bowl from his lap, and then picked up Little Danny.

“Dropping like flies,” Brianna mused.  Yawning, she added, “I think I'll just go to bed and watch television for a little bit.”

“I'm going to read,” David stated as he, too, headed for the stairs.

Chenoa put her bowl in the dishwasher and said, “Come on, Lulu.  We'll ask Dad and Daddy if we can watch 'National Velvet' in our room.”

“Can we watch 'The Little Mermaid' instead?” Lulu asked, wanting to get lost in something lighthearted and magical.

Shrugging, Chenoa answered, “Sure.  We can make up a new dance to 'Under the Sea'.”

“I just wanna watch it,” Lulu responded in a subdued tone as she put her dish in the dishwasher, next to her sister's.

“Okay,” Chenoa agreed.

Just then, Jack returned to the rec room, chuckling at Ricky, who had fallen over on his side and was sleeping, his mouth wide open.  After giving his permission to the girls to watch the Disney movie, knowing they'd probably last just long enough to see the first song, he picked up the male twin and carried him upstairs.

As Jack and Daniel met up again in their bedroom, Daniel announced, “Jack, I'm just gonna call Suz quickly.  She called earlier, but *everything* was going on, so we couldn't talk very long.  I was able to explain a few things, but I said I'd call her back.  She's probably worried.”

“Okay Love.  I'm headed straight for bed,” Jack responded and then yawned.

“I won't be long, Babe,” Daniel assured.

Just twenty minutes later, every Jackson-O'Neill was sound asleep, except one.

====

Daniel woke up and looked around the room, orienting himself.  The clock said 11 p.m.  His husband was dancing with the sandman.  He yawned and then answered a call of nature.  When he came out of the bathroom, he decided to check on the children, since they hadn't done their usual nightly rounds earlier.  Putting on his robe and tying the sash, he left the master bedroom.

Padding down the short distance to what used to be, and soon would be again, at least in part, the nursery, Daniel heard faint sobbing.  Peeking in the room shared by Chenoa and Lulu, he could tell it was Lulu who was in distress.

“Shhh!” Daniel urged quietly, not wanting to wake Chenoa.  Walking over to Lulu, he picked her up and carried her downstairs to the living room.  Setting the girl down, he knelt and held her close.  “It's okay, Little Bit.  You can let it out now.”

Lulu clung to Daniel as the sobs wracked her little body.  The young father had no idea why his daughter was crying, but he knew he couldn't find out anything until she was able to speak, so he just rubbed her back and cradled her head against his shoulder until he felt her sobs subside.

“Can you tell me what's wrong?” Daniel asked gently.  ~She looks like she's been crying since she went to bed,~ he noted, seeing her reddened face and puffy eyes.

Nodding, Lulu wiped the tears away with her hand and said, “Alex is having pichures of horses runned over in half by trains for my wa'per, all over the room.  I heard him say it to someone over the phone named Vic.  Why he doing that, Daddy?  Why kill my horsies?” the upset girl asked, sounding at least two years younger than she was, and maybe even three.

Daniel blinked and asked Lulu to repeat exactly what she had just said.  The words hadn't made sense and were run together.  The little girl became agitated again as she did as requested.  Whatever she'd heard, Lulu was obviously convinced that the designer was having wallpaper printed up that would depict horses being cut in half by railroad trains running over them.

~Sorry, Alex, but she's too upset to ignore,~ the archaeologist thought.  “Lulu, I'm going to call Alex and find out what's happening.”  As he stood up to get the nearby phone, Lulu clung to her father's leg.  He smiled at her and let her walk with him to the phone.  He dialed the number.  “It's going to be okay,” he whispered as the phone rang.

“You're up late, Daniel,” Alex said, recognizing the number on the caller ID.  ~What now?~

“Yeah, uh, Alex, Lulu is clinging to me, sobbing that you have conspired with a man named Vic to plaster images of horses being severed by trains all over the ice cream parlor.  She's really upset, and I have no idea what she's talking about.  I was ...”

“Daniel, I think I know what happened.  She probably overheard me talking to a friend of mine, Vic, who is custom printing the wallpaper, even as we speak.”

“That doesn't help me, Alex,” Daniel said, watching as Lulu wound herself up for another crying jag, gripping his leg even harder.  “Alex, she's been crying for hours.  Can you explain this to her?”

Alex sighed, “Daniel, how about if I swing by for about five minutes?  We're just ready to leave the restaurant.”

“Thanks, Alex.  We'll see you shortly,” Daniel spoke as he disconnected the call and put the phone back in its cradle.

Alex looked at his girlfriend and spoke, “Sunny, Lulu misunderstood something ...”

“Again?” Sunny asked.  “That poor thing.  This really means a lot to her, doesn't it, Alex?”

“It means a lot to the family.  I told Daniel I'd drop by, so since we're in different cars anyway, why don't you head to the condo, and I'll be there as soon as I can?”

“Don't be too long, Darling,” Sunny said as she laid a big kiss on her handsome boyfriend.

“I won't; definitely won't be long,” Alex replied.

--

Meanwhile, Daniel knelt down and said, “Lulu, Alex is going to come over and tell us about it, Lulu.”

“Railroads shouldn't cut my horses, Daddy,” the little girl sniffled.

“Oh, Little Bit,” Daniel said, scooping the girl up into his arms.  He considered going upstairs to change and tell Jack what was happening, but he didn't want to wake him. Then he became concerned they might disturb some of the others with the increased activity downstairs, so he grabbed a blanket from the front closet to wrap around Lulu and took her outside.  “It's a nice night, so we'll wait out here.”

The father and daughter sat down, Lulu wrapping her arms around Daniel's and sobbing into it.

====

Alex's fancy Jaguar, which he'd just acquired after trading in his Ferrari, coasted to a stop at the curb.   The designer jumped out and walked quickly to the front porch, smiling when he saw Daniel and Lulu sitting there, waiting.  He also saw the curly-haired girl grip Daniel's arm tighter as he approached.  Somehow, everything had gotten very messed up again.

“Hi, Daniel,” Alex spoke softly, getting a nod from the young father.

“Sorry, we didn't dress, but ...”

“That's okay,” Alex responded.  “I won't tell Jack if you won't,” he chuckled.

Daniel smiled, but only briefly, his focus on his daughter, who was still clinging to him.

Alex sat down on his haunches and spoke quietly, “Lulu, I'm guessing you heard me talking to Vic on the phone tonight while we were working in Jeff's room on the wallpaper pictures.  Am I right?”

The tear-stained face nodded, barely.

The designer continued, “And you heard me tell him to cut the image in two all the way around the room with the railroading, right?”

Another slight nod from the girl was given, along with a heavy sigh.

“Lulu, what you heard isn't what you think it is.  Railroading just means the image ... what I mean is, the picture of the horses is printed on the paper so it unrolls and goes all the way around the room, instead of ...”  Alex stopped.  Everyone was tired, even him.  Today had been a long one, and tomorrow was just hours away.  “Honey, I promise you from the depths of my heart that your horses, every single one of them, are going to be happy and in one piece.  You'll see that in the morning.  There are no trains on your wallpaper.”

“No trains?” Lulu asked vulnerably.

“No,” Alex said, shaking his head.

“And the horsies will be free?” Lulu asked.

~Free?~ Alex questioned internally.  ~That's an odd term to use here.~  He looked at Daniel, who looked like he understood it totally.  ~I have a hunch this little one's past wasn't pretty.~  “Lulu, free, happy, playful, totally intact -- I *swear* it!”

“Cross your heart?” the little girl asked meekly.

“Cross my heart,” Alex responded, crossing his heart as he smiled.

Lulu looked up at her father and saw his supportive nod.  She finally let go of Daniel and leaned forward to hug the tired designer.

“I'm so sorry you misunderstood,” Alex said, releasing the girl and standing up straight.

“Just as long as they're free and not hit ... by the trains,” Lulu added, looking down as she stood up.

Daniel stood and picked up Lulu, who snuggled into him.

“Daniel, if you want to know the details tonight, I ...”

“Alex, I wouldn't remember it.  We trust you.  You can rail...” Daniel stopped, not wanting to chance upsetting his daughter again.  “Explain it to us tomorrow, and thanks for coming over.”

“Okay,” Alex agreed.  “Goodnight,” he said as he headed back for the Jaguar.

“Feel better?” Daniel asked the little girl.

“Yes,” Lulu nodded.  “Daddy, will you watch 'The Little Mermaid' with me?”

~She'll be out in ten minutes,~ Daniel thought.  “Okay, Sweetie,” he said as they walked back inside their home.

====

~Okay, it took twenty minutes, but she was upset,~ Daniel thought as he tucked Lulu in, pulling the covers up taut.  He smiled and placed a kiss on her forehead.  “I love you, Lulu.”

After checking on Chenoa and the rest of the children as he had originally planned, Daniel returned to the master bedroom.

“Danny, where you been?” Jack mumbled as Daniel got under the covers and took his position atop his lover's chest.

“Jack, you need to know something, but ... <yawn> ... the short version is that Lulu was crying because she overheard Alex order her horse wallpaper.  It's going to be railroaded, or something,” Daniel spoke.

“Railroaded?” a groggy Jack questioned.  “What the crap does that mean?”

“I don't know, Babe, but Alex dropped by, swore that it wasn't what it sounds like, and said he'd explain it in detail tomorrow.  You just need to know how upset Lulu was.  She was clinging to me and talking like one of the twins.”

“That bad?”

“Worse,” Daniel said.

“But it's okay now?”

“Alex promised,” Daniel replied, yawning again.

“Okay, then,” Jack said.

“Love you,” Daniel said in a yawn as he closed his eyes.

“Love you, too, Angel,” Jack said, letting out his own yawn.

Two minutes later, Jack and Daniel were sound asleep, neither understanding railroading, but both trusting that Alex would keep his promise, and all would be well.

====
--Chapter Six
====

Jeff woke for the fourth day in a row to a pair of small, but shining brown eyes peering down at him.

“Hey, Squirt.  Didn't Dad and Daddy put you to bed in your room last night?  And why are you dressed already?”

“I woke up; got dressed by self.  Big boy now,” Ricky explained in his toddler speak, his shoulders back and posture erect to demonstrate his point.

“Yes, I can see that,” the teen chuckled as he sat up.

“I go with you 'n' Jen to Grandpa's.

“I don't know, Ricky.  We've got a lot to do today before everyone else gets there, and Alex isn't the one picking us up today,” Jeff replied.

“He's not?”

“Nope.  Two of the landscapers are driving the company van with the furniture in it.  They're going to pick us up.”

“I go with you two,” the little boy maintained brightly.

“The van's going to be pretty crowded,” Jeff responded, trying to discourage his brother a bit.

“I not take up lotta room,” Ricky responded.  “I little.”

“But I thought you were a big boy now,” Jeff retorted, laughing when Ricky looked at him indignantly.  The teen laughed, “I'm just kidding, but I think Dad and Daddy are planning on you going with them and the rest of the brood later this morning.”

“But I like bein' with you, Jeff.  You my only brother who un'erstands arch...archi... uh...buildins 'n' stuff.  I wanna go with you.”

Seeing his brother doing a darn good Danny-like pout, Jeff acquiesced, “Okay, I'll ask the folks, but if they say 'no', it's no.”

“They say 'yes',” Ricky spoke confidently as he smiled.

“I'll get dressed, and then we'll have breakfast,” the teen stated as he got up out of the bed.

====

In the kitchen, Jennifer was eating a bowl of bran flakes when Jeff and Ricky walked in.

“Morning, Sis,” Jeff greeted.

“Mornin', Sis,” Ricky expressed, trying to copy his brother's movement and speech perfectly.

Jennifer chuckled, then replied, “Morning, Bro ... and Bro!”

“Ricky, do you want Froot Loops?” Jeff asked as he headed for the cupboards.

“Yeah!” the boy said as he sat down at the kitchen table across from his sister.

“Do the Munchkins and the twins even believe there's any other cereal in the world?” Jennifer laughed at the same time the little boy had answered enthusiastically.

“There are other kinds of cereal?” Jeff asked, his eyes wide with mock disbelief.

“Jeff!” the girl admonished in fun.

“Dad's trained them well,” the male teenager replied as he took out the box of cereal.  “Calico, you don't get any,” he told the cat that had just jumped up on the counter and brushed against his arm that held the Jackson-O'Neill preferred cereal.

The cat glared at Jeff and spoke, “Meeeeeow.”

Jennifer chuckled, “Better give her a few, Jeff, or she'll go tattle to Dad.”

“She's a cat!”

“Mew!” Calico sounded, the abbreviated 'meow' sending a harsh message.

“Okay, okay, have some,” Jeff agreed, emptying a few bites into the cat's bowl.

Ricky laughed, watching Calico devour the Froot Loops.

“Callie loopy for Loops,” the little boy said.

“Crazy cat,” Jeff remarked as he proceeded to get bowls and utensils out for their quick breakfast.

====

Upstairs, Daniel's eyelids fluttered open.  He looked over at the clock, then raised his head to glance at his sleeping husband.  He sighed, lowering his head and letting it rest on Jack's chest.  He loved his Jack-pillow, especially at moments like this, when neither was wearing a pajama top, so it was skin against skin.  There was nothing sexual about it; at least, not at the moment. Rather, it was just the feeling of their very strong connection.  Jack's heartbeat still made Daniel feel safe.  He lay there, drifting in serenity, for an unknown length of time, until, finally, he was on the verge of losing consciousness.

~Can't do it,~ the archaeologist thought, stopping himself from going back to sleep, though he really was tempted to do so.  ~Just move your leg; that's it; one body part at a time.~  Carefully, Daniel arose without waking his lover.  He was headed for the bathroom when he became aware of the light on the nightstand going on.  ~Huh?~  Turning around, he saw Jack yawning as he sat up in bed.  “I was just ...”

“I know what you were just,” Jack spoke, his voice low and husky since he'd just wakened.  As he got up, he bent over to stretch his body awake, touching his toes three times.  Then he walked over to the dresser and opened up a jar that had petty change in it.  Pulling out a quarter, he said, “Heads or tails?”

“What?” the confused younger man answered.  “Weren't you asleep?”

“Weren't you?” Jack asked pointedly.  “Danny, we're both up for the same reason.  Unfortunately, it's not the kind of 'up' that ...”

“Jack, it's too early,” Daniel sighed, stifling a yawn.

“I repeat, Love, heads or tails?”

Staring at his lover, Daniel instructed, “Toss it.”  As the coin flew into the air, he called out, “Heads.”

“Some men have all the luck,” Jack spoke.

“Luck ... can make a man ... lucky,” Daniel smirked.

Seeing a promise in the cerulean blue eyes he adored more than any other, the older man smiled and repeated, “Like I said, Angel, some men have all the luck, and, geez, I *am* a lucky man!”

====

Glancing at his watch, Jeff stood up and said, “We'd better get going.  They should be here soon.”  He carried his dirty dishes to the dishwasher, placing them inside.  Turning around, he saw his little brother, staring at him with such hopeful eyes.  “Okay, Squirt.  I'll go wake up Dad and ...”

“Oh, no you won't,” Jack interjected.  He was still in his pajamas, but had his robe on now, though his bare chest was visible through the emerald green item since the sash was only loosely tied.  “I thought I'd find you down here,” he said, looking at Ricky.

“Dad, wanna go with ...”

“I know what you want,” Jack spoke, giving off an aura of toughness, which immediately brought the boy's smile to a sad halt.  “Which is why I'm about to take a shower, so we can go and watch!”

Ricky grinned as wide as anyone had ever seen before.  He jumped up and down a couple of times and clapped his approval.

“Son, wait in the living room *quietly* until I get dressed, okay?”

“Okay, Dad!” the boy exclaimed happily and then sprinted into the living room.

“Jeff, Jen, we'll be about fifteen minutes behind you,” Jack stated.

“He could go with us, Dad,” Jeff spoke.

“I know.”

“You and Daddy are being overprotective, you know,” Jennifer dared to point out.

“We know,” Jack acknowledged, yawning and scratching the silver hairs on the top of his head.  “The truth is no one will sleep if he stays here because he's so excited, and Daddy and I won't sleep if he goes.”

“Is Daddy up?” Jennifer asked.

“I wish,” Jack sighed, looking away from the teenagers for a second.

“Dad!” Jennifer exclaimed, her face alight with mischievous thoughts.

“I only meant I'm tired,” the silver-haired man sighed.

“What time are you, I mean, what time will Daddy and the others be coming?” the teenager teased.

“Grounded!” Jack chuckled.  “They'll be there around eleven,” he stated.

“Jeff, it's about time.  We'd better go outside and wait for the van,” Jennifer suggested, not wanting the drivers to honk and disturb their family or others in the neighborhood.

“Uh, Jen ...”

“Dad, if we don't recognize them, we'll check their IDs,” Jennifer groaned, shaking her head as she and her teenage brother walked out of the kitchen.  “Way overprotective!”

~Better that than ...~ Jack made a funny noise, stopping his doom-like thought.  He walked into the living room, smiling at Ricky, who was tapping the sofa cushions with his hands while his legs bounced up and down.  ~Eager; definitely eager.~

====

“That must be them,” a man spoke, pointing at the two teenagers, who were now walking towards the van.

“Why are we picking up a couple of kids, anyway?” Doyle Kincaid, the driver of the van, spoke as the vehicle came to a complete stop at the edge of the driveway.

“Because it was on the sheet,” the passenger replied, holding up the paper with their work order for the day.  “See, pick up Jennifer and Jeff Jackson-O'Neill at ..”

“I know that,” Doyle interrupted, obviously agitated at having to go out of their way to pick up the teenagers.  “What are we -- a frickin' taxi cab?”  As the teenagers arrived at the driver's door, the driver changed his tune, at least on the surface, and smiled.  “Hop on in, Kids,” he spoke, his thick Brooklyn accent immediately identifiable.

“Uh, well, we need to see your ID,” Jennifer sighed.  Looking at her brother, she whispered, “Why couldn't it be two of the men we already met?”

“Just our luck, Sis.”

“Kids, we're on a schedule here.  Get in,” the other man instructed.

“We need to see your IDs,” Jennifer repeated more forcefully.

“Why?” Doyle snarked.  “Can't you see we're in the Archonics' van?”

“Look, it's a reasonable request,” Jeff responded.

“My ID's in the back with my bag,” Doyle objected, having no intention of taking more time to dig out his ID badge.

“Sorry, but we need to see it,” Jennifer insisted.

“You can be sorry, and stay here.  We have to get going,” the driver snapped, indicating he was ready to drive away.

“Jeff, call Alex,” Jennifer instructed.  “He can call Melanie.  We'll let them know these two refused to show their IDs.  In fact, isn't that a requirement for working on the project, that ID had to be visible at all times?” she questioned, looking to see if the second man had his ID on, which he didn't.

“Sure is, Sis.  The folks insisted on that,” Jeff confirmed with a bit of a cocky smile on his face.

“Alex and Melanie?” the driver questioned quietly, looking at the other man in surprise.  “They know Mister Dennison and Miss Allison by their first names?”

Having heard the driver, Jennifer rolled her eyes and stated, “Alex isn't going to be happy.”

“Doyle, now that I think on it, she's right.  It's ... yeaporooni, it's right here,” the man spoke.  “It says, 'Be prepared to show Jennifer and Jeff your IDs and pass a third-degree questioning before they get into the van.”

“Now that's an exaggeration,” Jeff refuted.  “We just need to know where you were born, the name of your first child, and who won the 1956 World Series.”  Seeing the two strange stares, he sighed, “Just kidding.”

“Paranoid parents and uppity kids,” Doyle whined.

“Okay, that's it,” Jennifer said, taking Jeff's phone and pressing the button.

“Hold on, Missy.  We'll ...”

“My name is Jennifer, and this is Jeff, and you show us your IDs *now*, or we will make this phone call and then we'll get our dad, *the general*, and then you'll be looking for new jobs.”

Jeff was trying not to laugh at his sister's exchange with the two.  He was loving it.  Silly or not, they had rules to follow, and both of them would be grounded for life if they didn't follow them.

“Fine!” Doyle snapped, opening the door and heading to the back of the van to get his ID.

====

Ricky was sitting on the couch playing with Calico as he waited for his older father to shower and dress.  As they played, the youngest twin told the cat about the sunroom and ice cream parlor.

“Meow,” Calico said as Ricky patted her head.

“You're right; Grandpa is going to love it,” Ricky responded.

“Ricky,” Jack called out as he came down the stairs several minutes later.

“Dad!” Ricky exclaimed excitedly as he ran into his older father's arms.

“Ready to go?” Jack asked, scooping up his youngest son.

“Yep.  I been ready f'ever,” Ricky answered, placing his small hands on either side of his father's face and squeezing his cheeks together, giggling at the funny face it made.

Blowing a raspberry, Jack laughed and added, “Okay, well, let me grab some toast so I don't wither away into nothing, and then we'll go.”

“YAY!” Ricky shouted.

“Shhhhh, you don't want to wake up the rest of the zoo,” Jack chastised gently, putting Ricky down.

“Sorry,” Ricky mouthed silently.  “Yay!” he repeated in a whisper, throwing his arms up over his head in a silent cheer.  “What wither mean?”

“It means if your old man doesn't get something to eat, I'll turn into nothing but bones.”

“You got lotsa meat, Dad,” Ricky giggled, reaching upward and punching lightly against Jack's abdomen.

“Are you saying your dad is fat?”

Ricky giggled, causing Jack to groan.  Reaching down, he picked the boy up, tucked him under his left arm, and carried him horizontally into the kitchen, causing the boy to laugh even more.

“Everyone's a critic,” Jack droned.

“It okay,” Ricky laughed as he looked up from his spot over the carpet.  “You prime beef.”

The silver-haired man laughed, “Sirloin, all the way.”

The father and son continued to laugh, playing an old game started long ago that never grew old for either of them.

====

About five minutes later, after Jack quickly ate a piece of toast and gulped down a few quick sips of coffee, the dynamic duo locked the front door and walked to Jack's truck.

Putting Ricky into his car seat, Jack asked, “So, you looking forward to today?”

It was approximately half an hour later that Ricky finally began to slow down his animated explanation of just how excited he really was.

Jack certainly didn't understand everything Ricky was saying, but he was used to that, being married to Daniel, not to mention Little Danny's 'prattling', as well.  He just loved listening to his children, especially if it was for something they felt passionate about.  He also treasured spending one-on-one time with each of the brood.  After Ricky's accident the day before, he felt particularly protective of him today.

As Ricky took a breath, Jack interrupted, “Hey, Ricky, we'll be there soon.  How about you sing a song with your old man?”

“Yay!” Ricky exclaimed excitedly, his intellectual side giving way to his pure child.

Grinning widely, Jack began, “One little, two little, three little Indians ...”

As the father and son drove the last few minutes to Hammond's, Jack reveled in the joy he felt at just being with his little boy.

====

Meanwhile, the van pulled into the driveway at General Hammond's home at 7:30 a.m., following on the bumper of Alex's Jaguar and the equipment vehicle that Aiden, Tim, and Gus had arrived in.

“Jen, Jeff, good morning,” Alex greeted as the two teenagers disembarked the company vehicle.

“Hi, Alex.  Hey, Sunny!  I didn't know you were coming today,” Jennifer spoke, smiling.

“I decided to make myself useful,” the blonde spoke.

“I'll gather everyone together and ...”

“Uh, Alex, I don't want to make an issue of anything,” Jennifer said.  “I think it's a little silly myself, but Dad and Daddy are pretty ... uh, well ...”

“Jen, what is it?” Alex questioned.

“They weren't wearing their IDs, and they gave us a really hard time about showing them,” Jennifer spoke.  “If it was just us, I wouldn't say anything, but they're going to be around the brood, and ...”

“Thank you, Jen.  I'll speak with Melanie,” Alex said.  Then he called out, “Gus, Tim, Aiden, come here, please.”  When the three approached, he said, “Start reviewing the work from yesterday, and make sure everything is up to par and that nothing has been missed.  Use the check sheet as a backup.”

“Sure, Alex,” Tim responded as the three walked away.

“Do you want us to unload the van, Mister Dennison?” Doyle asked.

“Jeff, Jennifer, wait for me at the front door, please,” Alex requested.  “You two stay right here.  I have to make a phone call.”

--

As the teenagers walked towards the house, Jeff spoke, “They're in trouble.”

“Jeff, do you think I was wrong to tell Alex?”

“Sis, we can take care of ourselves, but if these guys are willing to waste five or ten minutes arguing with us about their IDs, then how can we know what they'd do with the brood?  We're responsible for them.”

“That's how I feel.  I mean, Dad and Daddy are way over cautious about this stuff, but, at the same, they trust us to ...”

“Be as overly cautious as they are, Jen.  We don't have a choice.  We have to keep our promises to Dad and Daddy, or we'll lose their trust.”

--

“Thanks, Mel,” Alex stated, flipping the lid on his cell phone and walking back to the company van.  “A cab will be here for you two in about fifteen minutes.  You're dismissed from this project.”

“What?” the two men questioned excitedly.

“We have procedures.  Not only did you fail to follow them, you disobeyed direct orders on the work order.  There's no room for that kind of attitude on the projects I oversee.  You've just lost a giant paycheck.”

“You can't do that!” Doyle argued.

“Yes, I can.  It's in the contract, and your employer agrees with me.  Don't move from this spot.  If you set one foot on this property, I'll have you arrested,” Alex warned and then walked away, ignoring the worker's grumblings.

====

“Did you fire them?” Jeff asked as Alex joined he and Jennifer at the front door.

“They aren't my men to fire, but I did dismiss them from this project.  Jen, I know you're probably questioning your decision, but don't.  I work for a variety of clients, and many of them require very unique and sensitive requirements.  I don't allow anyone on my team who can't follow those requirements one-hundred percent.”

“Okay, thanks,” the female teen replied, feeling a little better about her 'tattling' as she thought of it.

“Don't we need them, though?” Jeff wondered.

“Actually, I don't think we do.  Melanie is lining up a couple of replacements, and she'll send them over if I tell her it's necessary.”

“Are you sure she'll be able to find someone?” Jennifer asked.  “It is a holiday.”

Alex grinned, answering, “At what we're paying, the workers are lined up for this gig.  Now, we need to focus.  The first thing we have to do is get the house opened up, even before we unload the van.”

“Why?” the teenagers chorused.

“The tile sealer will have filled the house with fumes overnight.  Burning candles for a couple of hours will help clean the air inside,” the designer explained.  “Trust me, you don't want the headache.  It's like a hangover, but you didn't even have any fun the night before.”

Jennifer shrugged, giving Alex a funny look, while Jeff just smiled casually.

“I forgot.  Well, you'll have to trust me on the hangover comparison,” the man added.  “Someday, you'll know first hand that I'm right.”

“Not if Dad has anything to say about it,” Jeff responded, getting a nod of agreement from his sister.

====

After opening all the windows and doors and lighting several candles, Alex and the two teenagers returned outside to unload the van.  They'd barely opened the van doors when Jack and Ricky arrived.

“What's in the boxes?” Jennifer asked just as Ricky ran over to his older siblings and hugged them like he hadn't seen them in a month.

Alex answered, “Your balloon shades.  After I hung, steamed, and dressed them out, I packed them carefully.  Jen, you really did an awesome job with these.”

“Mrs. Valissi guided me through it,” Jennifer said, certain that the praise really belonged to her mentor.

“I see a lot of promise in your work.  Are you interested in sewing as a career, or maybe a sideline?”

“A ... career?” a stunned Jennifer questioned.

Shrugging, the teen answered, “I've never really thought about it.”

“You should,” Alex stated.  “Jeff, why don't you take this one?” he said, handing the boy a box.  “Tell Sunny she can start unpacking the boxes while we unload,” he requested.  “I'm gonna get us some help.  Jack,” he prodded, motioning for him to walk with him.

“Ricky,” Jack called out.

While Jennifer and Jeff took the first boxes of the balloon shades inside, Alex and Jack walked around the back, with Ricky staying within the older father's line of sight.

“What's up?” the general inquired, knowing the designer wanted to speak to him alone.

“I dismissed the van drivers.  Nothing happened, but I thought you'd want to know,” Alex said, filling Jack in as they walked.

Having heard what happened, Jack smiled and said, “Thanks for letting me know.”

“Jen feels a little guilty, but I think she might feel funnier if you make a big deal out of it,” Alex opined.

“No need to say a word, Alex,” Jack responded, a pleased expression on his face.  “I know what I need to know.”  ~Good job, Jen.  Thank you.~

“Guys,” Alex beckoned, motioning over Gus, Tim, and Aiden.  “I'd like your help unloading the van.”

====

With everyone's help, the contents of the van were unloaded and placed in the sunroom in just over ten minutes.  The three workers then returned to their inspection of the previous day's work.

In the sunroom, Alex got out his cordless drill and stood on a ladder with a small laser measuring device.  He quickly marked and drilled the holes for the mounting brackets for the light filtering pleated shades and the light blocking balloon shades.  In no time at all, the shades were all hung.

Jack, meanwhile, stood shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wishing he could be here and at home at the same time.

“Whoa, Sis, these are awesome,” Jeff complimented as he took in the completed items.

“Thank you, Jeff,” the girl responded politely.

“Jen, I don't think you're seeing what we are,” Alex stated, sensing that the teenager wasn't really believing the praise she'd been receiving.  “Take a step or two back, and look at the pattern.  What do you see?”

The sunroom had three windows, a wide one in the middle and a narrow one on each side.  The fabric had a pattern of aquatic marine life, in a range of pastel to medium hues.

Jennifer studied the hanging billows for a moment before she said, “I think the pattern flows across the windows, like it's moving.  I don't remember doing that.”

The designer commented, “You aligned each set of balloon shades so the pattern was straight across, but it wasn't at the same height on each set of windows.”

“I didn't have enough fabric,” Jennifer explained.  “The store didn't have that much of what I needed.”

“I'm not chastising you, Jen,” Alex clarified.  “See how the pattern flows down and to the left, or up and to the right.  It's better than I could have hoped.”

“But I didn't do it on purpose.”

“Jen, never pass up an opportunity to take credit for something you did well, even if it was serendipitous.  You'll discover that in life, regardless of the task, you'll have to take the fall for a lot of things that aren't your fault, so if you do something, and it's better than anyone expected, take a bow.  After all, it's your work.  It's not like you're taking credit for someone else's work.  Let's get the furniture placed.”

~Good advice,~ Jack thought.  ~Sometimes you really amaze me, Dennison. Thanks for giving Jen's self-confidence a boost.~

“What's 'and dip it in us'?” Ricky asked.

To the sound of laughter, Alex answered, “It's ser-en-dip-i-tous, Ricky, and it means 'the finding of good or agreeable things not sought for'.  It's like when you're just walking along and see a quarter at your feet.  You didn't plan on it, weren't looking for it, but there it is, and it's a good thing.”

“Oh,” the boy responded, looking down and hoping to find a quarter.

As Alex and Jeff continued to work, Jennifer paused to observe her father, who seemed intent on observing Ricky.

As Ricky fidgeted, Jack watched while thinking, ~He's fine.  There's no electrical work being done, and all the heavy equipment is gone, but ...~

“Dad, Dad, DAD!”

“Huh?  Oh, sorry, Jen,” Jack apologized.  “What did you need?  I was just ...”

“Wishing you could go home because Daddy hates waking up alone and also so he doesn't wake up with eight kids to get ready and fix breakfast for with no help?”

“Well, ah, yes,” Jack admitted.

“Dad, Jeff and I know you're worried about Ricky, but we can keep an eye on him until you guys get here later.  Really, it's okay.”

~What would Danny think?~ Jack wondered, wanting to take Jennifer up on her offer.  “Will you keep him within six feet of one of you at all times?”

“Of course, we will.  Jeff and I both feel terrible about what happened yesterday. If I had been here maybe ...”

“Stop!” Jack commanded with a wave of his hand.  “You can't blame yourself for living your life, Jen.  No parent can hover over their children every minute ...”  Taking a breath and seeing Jennifer grin, Jack thought back over what he'd just said.  Sheepishly he added, “Which is exactly what I'm doing, isn't it?”

Jennifer nodded slowly, her grin still evident as she spoke, “Well, yes.”

~She's already reminded me this morning that she's responsible with the brood.  That's never been questioned, anyway.~  Jack smiled back and purposefully announced, “Right.  I'm going home and trusting the two of you to watch your brother *tenaciously*.”

Still smiling, Jennifer agreed, “Absolutely.”

“Ricky,” the father called out.  “Front and center.”

Ricky skipped happily over to where Jack and his oldest sister were standing and answered, “Yes, Dad?”

“You want to stay and watch?” Jack asked.  Seeing the boy's eager nod, Jack questioned, “And do you want to go with Jeff to see all the pictures with Alex?”

Ricky jumped up and down with eagerness, answering, “Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then you have to stay in the same room with either Jeff or Jen until I get back with Daddy and the rest of the brood.  Understood?  No wandering off by yourself, not even for a minute.”

“I be good, Dad,” Ricky said, moving over to Jennifer and clinging to her.  “I promise.”

“Don't overdo it, Ricky,” Jennifer chuckled.

The youngster chuckled as he let go of his sister.

“That's my boy,” Jack laughed, ruffling the child's hair.

“I'm counting on you and your brother,” Jack stated.

“You mean me?” Jeff asked as he joined the group.  “What's happening?”

“I told Dad we'd keep Ricky with us so he could go home and help Daddy with the brood,” Jennifer informed.

“Sure.  We'll keep a close eye on the Little Man here,” Jeff promised, smiling down at the boy.

“Okay, see you around eleven,” Jack said, smiling at the children before leaving the home.  ~I'm sure Danny would agree with me.~  Glancing back at the three children, he sighed, ~I hope.~

====

Making sure Ricky was within their view, Jennifer and Jeff proceeded to help Alex and Sunny place the chairs where they belonged, removing the dust sheets that had been protecting them.

“Oh, they are beautiful.  Jeff, look at them.  I can't tell which one is Grandpa's chair and which one we got at the flea market!” Jennifer exclaimed.

“And look at this,” the designer requested as he snapped the sheet off of another piece of upholstery.

Both Jeff and Jennifer gasped as a matching ottoman was revealed, covered in the same soft sage suede-like fabric.

“Is this durable?” Sunny asked, touching the luxurious fabric.

“Yes, it wears like iron,” Alex reassured her.  “Just a few more pieces to place.”

Working carefully, the group put the other items that belonged in the room in place.  Along with the round table with the tiles covered with a glass top, there was a wicker settee, an end table made of fishing tackle boxes, a floor lamp, a table lamp, two reading lamps, and a few pieces of wall decor.

“The photo album can go right here on this table, Jeff,” Alex stated.  After a pause, he asked, “How's that coming along?”

“I'm frustrated, Alex,” the teen admitted.

“Jeff, you and I would pour over every shot, but most people won't.  This is a photo essay, not a design project.  It's about the gift that all of you have created. You don't need to include every shot.  Choose the ones that convey the feeling of the moment, and use just enough of the technical shots to keep the progress moving forward.  You can always put together a more technically oriented album which could be used as part of a design project.  It would be sure to earn an 'A' if you decide to go to design school.”

“Really?” Jeff responded.

“Definitely,” Alex affirmed.  “I can help you do that at a later date, if you're interested.”

Jeff had taken some shots that were taken after various events had taken place to fill in the continuity.  For example, Jack and David at the gravel pit had been photographed long after the day the stone was selected.  A shot of Jennifer outside the fabric store was included, but none of the details of the selection and purchase.  Mrs. Valissi working with Jennifer and Chenoa on the balloon shades was a bit of a stretch, since the three of them never worked together, but Alex was encouraging Jeff to use a bit of artistic license.

At that moment, the doorbell rang.  It was Fed-X with the wallpaper delivery.

Taking possession of the delivery, Alex said aloud, with great satisfaction, “This is it -- the last thing to be done before we start the clean-up.”

====

Less than an hour after the wallpaper was delivered across town, Jack slipped inside his home to find everyone was still sleeping, except for a yawning Bijou and Katie, who walked to the patio door in the living room to be let out.  He petted the girls for a minute or two, then headed back upstairs, chuckling when he realized his sleeping soulmate hadn't moved an inch since his departure.

The general considered going downstairs and starting breakfast, since it was now a few minutes before nine, but he decided against it, thinking, ~Nah.  I'll take every minute I can get.  We'll do Froot Loops and Pop Tarts.  Brilliant, O'Neill!~

Smiling, Jack slipped off his jeans and shirt and climbed back into bed, taking his place as Daniel's pillow.

“Pillow,” Daniel said, smacking his lips happily.

Jack laughed, “Jeff and Jen promised to watch Ricky.”

“Huh?”

“The Little Man?” Jack replied.  “Jeff and Jen said they'd keep a close watch on him until we get there.”

“Mmmm ... good,” Daniel said, still asleep, even though he had spoken.

“I'll tell you later,” the older man chuckled as he placed a kiss on Daniel's forehead and closed his eyes, not really expecting to get anymore sleep, but wanting the simple enjoyment of holding his husband in his arms for a few minutes more.

====

With four people helping, the wallpaper went up quickly.  The effect was breathtaking.  It was a mural that wrapped around the room, on the lower half of the walls.  Horses, real and imaginary, frolicked and played in a beautiful green pasture.

“Lulu like it lots,” Ricky asserted.  “Ya done good, Alex,” the he praised, offering the designer a high-five.

The man responded in kind, laughing, “No doubt where he picked that up.”

Standing nearby, Sunny looked on in amazement, shaking her head and thinking how cute Alex and Ricky were together.

Just then, Tim walked in and reported, “Alex, we've practically combed the yard on our hands and knees.  There's no debris; we've checked and rechecked all of the electrical connections, and they're working perfectly; and we've picked up all of our tools.  We're all done, unless you have something else for us to do.”

“Great, Tim,” Alex responded.  “You and Aiden are free to go.  I need to Gus to drive the van back to Archonics, though.”

Tim added, “One thing, though.  The sod will need to be soaked again tonight.”

“Noted.  I'll walk with you to the truck,” Alex said, wanting the chance to thank all three of the workers for a job well done.

====

“Jenny, wear this one,” Jack stated, holding up a multi-colored striped shirt.

“No, Dad.  I want my firecracker shirt,” Jenny said as she continued to look through her drawers.

“A shirt is a shirt,” Jack replied.

“It's firecracker day, and I want to wear my firecracker shirt!” the little girl maintained, not even looking at her older father as she had spoken.

“Jenny ...”

“Jack,” Daniel interjected, having walked into the girls' room and overheard the last couple of exchanges.  “Why don't you just help her?  We're already late.”

“Speaking of being late, I have an idea,” Jack responded.

“Really?” Daniel questioned incredulously.

“I do have ideas, Love.”

“On occasion,” Daniel conceded.

“Mister Wise Guy,” Jack retorted.

“Jenny, you have to put all those away before we leave,” Daniel called out, seeing the twin had started completely unloading her dresser drawers.

“Gonna find it.  Have to wear it today,” Jenny insisted, determined to find her shirt with the firecracker emblem on it.

“What's your idea?”

“I don't think I'm going to tell you,” Jack answered coyly.

“Jack, grow up,” Daniel ordered.  “We don't have time for games.”

“Just a little one?”

“Jaaaaack!”

“Let's barbecue!” Jack suggested, deciding his lover wasn't in a game-playing mood.

“Excuse me?”

“Danny, it's the Fourth of July.  Hammond's barbecues are a tradition.  This year, it'll just be family,” Jack put forth, his tone soft at the mention of the celebration just being family.

“I like that idea, Babe,” Daniel spoke, leaning over and giving his lover a reward -- a tender kiss on the lips.  “We'll have to stop by the store on the way, though.”

“We'll be a little more late, but it's worth it,” Jack stated.

“Agreed.”

“Find it!” Jenny said, holding up her shirt.

Just then, Aislinn burst into the room and called out, “Daaad.  I need help.”

“What is it, Ash, and can it wait until later?  We're gonna be late for Grandpa's as it is,” Jack stated.

“No,” Aislinn announced with her hands on her hips.  “It really important,” she said, walking over and starting to pull on her older father's hand.

“Okay, okay,” Jack acquiesced.  “Where are we going?”

“Big bathroom.  Stuff in there,” the youngest Munchkin answered, still tugging on Jack's hand.

“Sweet,” Jack intoned, looking at his lover for a moment before giving in to the force of nature known as Aislinn.

“A little more later than that even,” Daniel sighed, seeing his husband disappear out the door with Aislinn and looking down to see just about every piece of clothing Jenny owned now lying on the floor.

“I'll help you,” Daniel said as he moved forward to assist Jenny in putting her clothes back in their designated places.

====

Having had a later start than anticipated, thanks in part to Jenny's quest for her shirt, Aislinn's important request, and the unplanned shopping trip for groceries, the Jackson-O'Neill family finally pulled up in the SUV shortly after noon.  An anxious Lulu was the first to get out of the vehicle, with Chenoa following closely.

“Bri, David, help with the groceries,” Jack requested while Daniel helped the younger children out of the vehicle.

With the family all gathering at the front door, Alex smiled at Lulu and asked, “Trust me?”

Lulu bit her lip, looked at her younger father, who nodded, then said, “Yes.”

“Good,” Alex said with a smile.  “Close your eyes.”

As Jack, Brianna, and David put the groceries away, Alex took Lulu's hand and led her to the ice cream parlor.  Daniel and the rest of the brood, including the two beagles, followed a few steps behind.

Inside the ice cream parlor, Jennifer, Jeff, and Ricky waited for their family, though they were unaware of the drama from the night before.  Walking in, Alex motioned for them to be quiet.  Then he knelt down to look at the little girl with the closed eyes.

“I would never ever do anything to hurt you, Lulu.  I hope you like this,” Alex spoke.  “Open your eyes.”

Jeff and Jennifer looked at each other, wondering what they'd missed, especially when they saw the expression on their younger father's face.

When she opened her eyes, Lulu squealed with delight and danced around the room.

“Noa, look at the horses!  They're beautiful!”

Lulu ran to Chenoa, and the two hugged.  They walked around the room, holding hands and touching every horse.

At that moment, Jack entered the parlor, taking in the sight.  He was happy to see his and Daniel's two curly-haired darlings squealing with sheer joy at the wallpaper.  He shared a smile with his lover, both happy to see the happiness on Lulu's face.

“You know, this looks really good.  You'd never know it was run over by trains,” Jack opined.

“What?” Alex asked.  “Jack, whatever gave you that idea?”

“Danny said you told Lulu the wallpaper was rail loaded,” Jack answered.

Alex sighed, shaking his head.

“Sorry, Alex, I didn't really have a chance to explain anything to Jack this morning.  We had a small emergency with Ash.”

“It was a big emergency!” Aislinn objected.

“You said you wanted your hair braided,” Jack told their daughter.

“Daaaaddy!”

“Jack, she did, but you have to admit ...”

“Daniel, have you ever braided our daughter's hair before?”

“Never again, Dad!” Aislinn exclaimed, hurrying over to join the two curly-haired girls.

“Let's just say it wasn't Jack's finest moment,” Daniel remarked, holding his hand up to stop his husband from saying anything else.  “The point is, Alex, that I haven't had an opportunity to talk in detail with Jack about last night and what happened with Lulu.”

“I understand,” Alex replied.  “Jack, the term is rail*roaded*, and it means the image is printed sideways on the paper, or woven sideways on fabric.  Your sofa fabric is railroaded.”

“But you told us the sofa fabric was run over by trucks to make it look good, so how am I supposed to know you wouldn't run over wallpaper with a train?” Jack asked quizzically, his expression as serious as if he'd asked a question about world peace.

“To know him is to love him,” Daniel quipped, giving his lover a whimsical smile before walking away.

As Jack smiled, Alex shook his head and went over to talk with Jennifer and Jeff.

“Grrrrr,” Bijou said.

Jack looked down at the two beagles and asked, “Don't you love me?”

“Woof!” Bijou answered, wagging her tail.

“I knew I could count on you!”

“Hey, this looks great,” Brianna remarked as she and David joined the rest of the family in the ice cream parlor.

“Awesome!” David agreed.

====

With Jennifer and Jeff watching the brood and the two canines in the living room, Alex, Jack, Daniel, and Sunny did a final inspection of the new additions, inside and out, making sure nothing had been missed and that everything was in place.

“I need to get going,” Alex advised just as his cell phone rang.  “It's Boyd Canton in Berlin, so I have to take this.  Excuse me for a minute,” he requested as he walked a few feet away.

“He's come a long way,” Daniel commented.

Sunny looked at Daniel and asked, “What do you mean?”

“Addiction,” Jack interjected, earning him a funny look from the Florida native.

“What Jack means is that Alex used to be addicted to his cell phone,” Daniel spoke.

“When we first met Alex, we didn't know where his ear ended and the cell phone began,” the older man quipped.  “I'm not sure he didn't have the phone sewn to his ear.”

“He's a lot better now,” Daniel opined as both he and Jack chuckled, both recalling those early days in their friendship with the designer.

“Oh.  I wonder why,” the blonde stated innocently.

Jack smirked, “Five-feet-eleven inches of ...”

“Jack, careful,” Daniel spoke.

Sunny smiled, realizing what Jack was saying, and stated, “Gentlemen, I promise to do my best to continue to help cure Alex of his ... addiction.”

“Of course, you will,” Jack replied, mischievous thoughts in his eyes.  “And I'm sure that you already have, too.”

Just then, the trio's attention returned to Alex when they heard him comment, “You sound a touch inebriated, Boyd ... “What?  I don't need to come over there ... Listen, I'd like to believe that, Boyd because I am beat, but what about all the misunderstanding ... Really ... Uh-huh ... Well, I'll tell you what.  I'll give you some time to sleep it off, and we'll talk tomorrow ... No, it's not that I don't ... right ... <laughter> ... No, Boyd, I'm not discounting your ability to negotiate.  I just didn't know that Heinlich was quite that powerful ... <laughter>  ... Okay, get some rest, and call me tomorrow, and then we'll decide if I need to come over or not.”

As Alex disconnected the call, Jack chuckled, “Sounds like your man used an age-old tactic to smooth things over.”

“Beer, and lots of it,” Alex chuckled.  “We'll see if it holds, and I hope it will.  I'd rather spend the next couple of days with Sunny than with Boyd in Berlin,” he said, walking to his girlfriend and taking her hands in his.

From his position just behind Sunny, Jack replied, “I can understand why,” while making the shape of a well-figured woman with his two hands.

“Jaaack!” Daniel chastised, slapping his lover on the arm.

“Did I miss something?” Sunny asked, a sly smile on her face when she turned back to look at the general.

“Just a brief appearance of my husband's inner brat,” Daniel spoke as Jack just grinned innocently.

“I consider myself a lucky man.  Sunny is intelligent, and she's beautiful.  What more could a man ask for?” Alex spoke as he looked lovingly at the woman whose hands he was now caressing.

“Oh, Alex,” Sunny expressed, a loving smile on her face just as the two shared a brief kiss.

Getting back to business once the kiss was over, Alex stated, “Since my schedule has just changed, I can stick around for a few more minutes and make sure everyone knows what to do.  As we've just reviewed, the professional work is done.”

“So, what's left?” Jack asked.

Alex grinned and answered, “Women's work.”

Daniel shook his head and walked away, saying, “I don't know either of you!”

“You said that for Daniel's benefit, right?” Jack asked.

“It had better not be for my benefit,” Sunny interjected.

“Hey, a designer is entitled to have some fun, especially after almost seeing a multi-million dollar deal go up in smoke.”

====

“Okay, Alex, we know it's our turn,” Brianna sighed when she saw the designer returning with her parents and Sunny.  ~I'm really not looking forward to this at all.~

Daniel interjected, “It won't take long if we all pitch in, and we all will, right?”

The brood looked at each other with dread, but Jennifer responded, “No, thanks, Daddy.  Alex already explained that the plastic has to be removed very carefully and thrown away so the dust doesn't get all stirred up again.  It'll be easier if Bri and I just do it.”

“Okay, we'll keep the brood outside, and when you're ready, we'll all help with the vacuuming and dusting,” the younger father offered.

“And we need to put the pictures and mirrors back up,” Jennifer spoke.  “Oh, and we have to unwrap the drapes and re-hang those, too.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jack agreed, motioning for the brood to go outside.

“Any questions before we take off?” Alex questioned.  Hearing none, he expressed, “Good luck,” waving his good-bye to the family as he and Sunny began to walk towards the front door.

“Alex, thank you for my wallpaper.  It's so pretty!” Lulu called out.

“So, are you, Lulu,” Alex replied as he turned back for a moment to face the girl, getting the biggest grin from the little girl that he'd seen to date.  ~There's a story there.  Learn from this, Dennison.  Take the time; don't assume.  The miscommunication wasn't all her fault.~

“Thanks again, Alex, for the late night visit,” Daniel called out, appreciation etched all over his face.

Alex nodded, then said, “Oh, wait.  Jack, Daniel, we need to arrange a date for Jeff and Ricky to come by Archonics and watch a slideshow of Jeff's photos.”

“Yeah, Dad, Daddy; hafta make a date,” Ricky agreed.

“It might have to be next week, Alex,” Daniel replied.

“I'll give you a call later in the week, and we'll arrange a time,” Alex responded.

“That'll give me time to think about this as a design project, Alex,” Jeff offered.  “I can still bring all the photos, but we can start with the presentation, if that would be okay.”

“Good thinking, Jeff.  We'll review ...”

“Alex, it's time to go,” Sunny smiled seductively, giving Jack a covert glance, receiving an approving nod in return.  “And they have work to do before General Hammond gets back.”

“Yes, of course.  Bye!” Alex called out willingly.

After Alex left, Jeff spoke up, offering, “Jen, would it help if I got up on the ladder to get the plastic over the stairwell down?”

“Sure would, Bro,” Jennifer responded.

“Great.  Besides, I want to snap a few shots of our 'cleanup crew',” Jeff chuckled.  ~Have to make sure the album is complete; and the design project, too.~

“Don't think you're going to escape the eye of the camera, big brother!” Brianna teased.

“Be careful, Son,” Jack intoned as he followed the rest of the family outside.  “If you need us, call.”

====

In the backyard, the children and the dogs began to play, enjoying the warm July weather.  Jack and Daniel, meanwhile, sat down on the lawn, keeping an eager eye on the youngsters while they talked.

“Jack, why is it nothing we do ever stays simple?” the archaeologist asked suddenly.  “I mean, this started out so simple, and it just kept ... growing.”

Jack pondered the question for a moment, then answered, “Maybe because 'simple' has never been a word to describe us, individually, as a couple, or as a family.”

Somewhat amazed, Daniel stared at his husband for a few seconds and then opined, “That's very astute, Babe.”

“Thank you, Love,” Jack chuckled.  “Ricky, not so close to the lake!” he called out after seeing Bijou step between the boy and the water.  Settling back, he commented, “I seem to recall a conversation in the rec room a few months ago about going on a covert mission to build our grandfather a sunroom, based on a drawing our architecturally-gifted son drew on his Etch-a-Sketch.  As I recall, the deal was sealed with a kiss that turned my knees to Jell-O.”

“Guilty as charged,” Daniel gloated smugly.

“Ricky surprised me, Danny.  Where'd he keep all that talent hidden, and how come we didn't notice?” Jack wondered.

“I don't know, but now that we do know he has this interest and a gift to draw, we need to encourage him to get the most out of them.”

“Agreed.”

“We'll have to do some research and find a way to nurture Ricky's interest and abilities,” Daniel stated.  He glanced at his husband and added, “And we'll invest in hair-braiding lessons for you, while we're at it.”

Jack groaned, falling back to the grass.

Daniel laughed, knowing his lover would never live down the mess he'd made of Aislinn's long hair while trying to braid it.

Laying down beside his lover, Daniel chuckled to himself, ~Mmm, and that's not the only thing you'll never live down.~

“I heard that, Daniel,” Jack announced, turning his head to face Daniel, a hint of worry in his tone.  “What else am I never gonna live down?”

“Oh, I don't know ...” Daniel teased.

“Danny,” Jack admonished.

“I'll never talk, O’Neill.”

“Danny!” Jack warned, readying his fingers for his infamous tickle torture.

“Don't you dare,” Daniel laughed, trying to get up.

Pulling him back to the ground, Jack began a round of tickling; his husband laughing heartily and begging for mercy.

“Tell me,” Jack demanded.

In between tickles and laughing, Daniel managed to admit, “Take a look ... at the ... picture on the ... wall ... in the ice cream parlor ... Jack!  Stooppppp.”

“What picture?”

“The picture ... Sara took when you ... posed ... for Jenny.”

“When?”

“Fri...Friday.”

“Why you little ...” Jack laughed, increasing his persuasive tickling.

“Pay...backs, Love,” Daniel choked out, his laughter preventing any more speech.

Just as Jack extracted the information from Daniel, eight children came bounding over, attracted by the raucous joviality of their parents.  Little Danny, Aislinn, Ricky, and Lulu leaped onto Jack, all giggling as they tried to ‘rescue’ their Daddy. On the other hand, Jonny, Jenny, David, and Chenoa all joined in the tickling assault on their younger father.

Hearing the commotion and peering out the window, Jennifer, Jeff, and Brianna looked at each other.

“We're so lucky,” Jeff said, smiling, knowing that he and five of his siblings would have had very different lives, if not for Jack and Daniel.

“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed.  “Come on.  I think Daddy needs some help!” she laughed, as the three ran outside for some family fun.

====
 
“Time to get back to it,” Jennifer announced a few minutes later.  “But that was fun,” she admitted.

“Yep,” Jeff said, quickly tickling his sister for a few seconds.

“Jeff!”

“Sorry, Sis, but I couldn't resist,” the boy admitted.  “Come on, Bri.”

The tomboy sighed, “Work, work, work.  That's all we do is work.”

As the family laughed, the two teenagers and the pre-teen returned inside the house to continue their cleaning efforts.

====

Jeff, Jennifer, and Brianna worked quickly but efficiently at their tasks.  Finally, the plastic was down and trashed.

“Okay, now we can put the brood to work,” Jennifer spoke.  “I just didn't want them pulling down the plastic.”
 
“Can you say, 'dust storm'?” Brianna quipped, rolling her eyes.

The three laughed as they again headed outside to get their siblings.

====

“Okay, we'll do this in teams,” Jack stated, organizing the final jobs to be completed.

“Who does what, General Dad, Sir?” Brianna chuckled.

“I see lots of KP in a certain tomboy's future,” the older father quipped.

“Ouch,” Brianna responded, backing up in silence.

“This is how I see it,” Jack began.

David, Aislinn, and Jonny, were Duster One, while Brianna, Little Danny, and Jenny were Duster Two, each team assigned to a specific area to dust.

Jeff and Jennifer were Sucker One, Jeff in charge of moving the furniture back and forth while Jennifer vacuumed.

Lulu, Chenoa, and Ricky were Gofer One, Two, and Three, respectively, bringing everyone clean dust cloths, spray polish, glass cleaner, nails, picture hangers, drapery hooks, or whatever was needed in the cleaning and re-hanging process.

The children had great fun with their team names, and all the joking and teasing made the time fly by.

Jack and Daniel were the re-hanging and supervising crew, otherwise known as the 'If We Say It, You'd Better Do It' team.

Finally, at 4 p.m., the work was finished.  After putting the supplies away and snapping the last few photos to document the event, everyone sat down to await General Hammond's return, except for Jack, who started a charcoal fire in the grill, and Jeff, who assembled the last few pages of the photo record of the building of their grandfather's surprise.

The teenager was frustrated.  Each page moved the progress of the construction along, but the whole album was lacking.  With minutes left, the budding photographer trusted his artistic insight and pared down the technical shots to a bare minimum, using them as punctuation, filling the pages with photos that shone with heart and soul and humor.  The teen smiled with satisfaction at his transformed work.

====

“Danny, it's time to hide the SUV,” Jack stated, returning from igniting the charcoal for the barbecue.

“Why?  Jack, he's going to smell the charcoal,” the archaeologist noted rationally.

“Yeah, but he won't know it's us.  It's the Fourth of July; everyone's having a barbecue today.  The air has been full of lighter fluid and searing beef since we got here.”

“I guess you're right.”

“We want this to be a total surprise, right?” Jack questioned.  “So why take chances?”

“Good point,” Daniel acknowledged.

“Is the album done, Jeff?” Chenoa asked, drawing the attention of her parents.

“Almost, Noa.  I just need a few more minutes,” Jeff said.

While the family gathered round, watching Jeff complete his project, Jack moved the SUV a couple of blocks away, not wanting Hammond to see it.

====

“Grandpa is going to love it,” Brianna opined with confidence as most of the family waited in the backyard several minutes later.

Jeff was still finishing up the photographic portion of their surprise, while David was playing 'lookout' from a spot in the front of the house.

“I sure hope so,” Daniel responded.  Now that the pressure of completing the project was over, he was beginning to feel a bit leery about their subterfuge at getting the building permits signed and sneaking around behind the general's back.  “Boy, do I hope so,” he repeated.

“Relax, Danny.  He'll be thrilled,” Jack assured, having just checked the barbecue again.  “And if he's not, we'll just stand behind the kids.”  Seeing his lover turn and glare, he added, “I'm only kidding.”

“Right, Jack.”

“Done!” Jeff exclaimed, referring to the album, as he walked outside.

“Where is it?” Brianna asked anxiously.

“In the house, but Grandpa gets to see it first,” Jeff responded protectively.

The entire family was anxious for the lieutenant general's return from his trip to D.C. and his visit with his old friend.  The charcoal was about ready for the food, and the photo album was completed.  All they needed now was Hammond.

“He's here!” David shouted, running into the backyard where the family was assembled.

“Places, Kids!” Jack called out.

Quickly, the entire family hurried inside the house and took up their pre-planned positions which kept them hidden.

“And everyone be quiet,” Daniel reminded.  “Bij, Katie, remember the plan!”

“Woof!” Katie responded, her reply quiet as she scampered over by Little Danny.

====

A minute or so later, George Hammond stepped out of the car and thanked his driver.

~Do I smell charcoal?~ the general asked himself.  ~Of course you do, George.  It's the Fourth of July.  I wonder what Jack and Daniel are doing?  There's still plenty of daylight left.  I could call them and ...~  He paused his thoughts as he headed up his driveway.  ~No, you can't expect them to pack up eleven kids and drive over here at a moment's notice.  Sure makes my mouth water, though.  Maybe next year.~

“Those Jackson-O'Neill children are really something, George,” a neighbor called out as she waved.

“Hello, Helen.  Yes, they are,” Hammond concurred, silently thinking it had been an odd greeting.

“You're a lucky man.  I wish my grandchildren would be so giving,” Helen shouted out.  “Oh, there's my phone.  Welcome home!”

Hammond nodded, feeling very confused by the discussion.

~What did she mean by that?  Maybe I've been out in the sun too much,~ the bald-headed man decided.  ~Or maybe Helen has.~  He headed for the front door, unlocked it, and walked inside, placing his luggage in the entranceway.  ~I could use something cool to drink.~  He walked into his kitchen, casually looking outside at the lake, thinking how nice and cool the water must be.  ~Maybe I'll take a swim later.~

All of a sudden, Hammond stopped, looking over to his right.  Without getting his drink, he walked slowly, going past the tiny breakfast table, until he crossed into what had years ago been the laundry room.  The space was now a small, but authentically equipped ice cream fountain.  The small freezer, with a curved sliding glass cover, held twelve flavors, just like a regular fountain would.  Four stools stood at attention by a countertop, waiting eagerly to be occupied by someone craving a treat.

“What's this?” Hammond asked aloud, looking toward the lake into the small room addition that held two small tables with chairs, and a decor that featured gaily colored fabrics and frolicking horses.  “What the ...”

“Woof!” the eldest beagle called out as she and her puppy moved out into sight.

Shocked, Hammond turned around, seeing Bijou and Katie, sitting and wagging their tails.  He stared at them.

“Woof!  Wooooof!” Katie added excitedly.

“Bijou?  Katie?” Hammond asked.

“SURPRISE!” the entire Jackson-O'Neill family called out in almost near unison as they emerged from their hiding places.

“What's going on?” Hammond inquired, automatically smiling at the brood who were hurrying to him, embracing him with hugs and kisses.

“We missed you,” Jenny stated as she hugged Hammond's leg.

“I missed you, too, Sweetheart,” the stunned man spoke.

“Hello, Sir,” Daniel greeted with a shy smile.

“General!” Jack called out, his prideful smirk unmistakable.

“Come on, Grandpa,” Ricky urged, grabbing Hammond's right hand just as Lulu took his left.  “You hafta see what we build for you.”

“I've seen it, Son,” Hammond said, speaking of the ice cream room.

“Not that, that!” Ricky said, pointing around the corner.

Unsure of what was happening, Hammond let himself be led to his new sunroom.  Stunned at the sight, he just stood rooted to the spot, not sure of what to say.

The room was a study in harmonious contrast, both spacious and cozy at the same time.  The floor was painted in pastel flowers, large and bold, that bordered the perimeter of the room.  The center looked like a floral rug, fringe included.

“Is that my old beat up chair, and where'd that one come from?” the surprised man asked.  “I didn't think there was another one out there like Old Henry,” which was the name Hammond had affectionately given his old, comfortable chair.

“Jeff and I found the second chair; we had it reupholstered,” Jennifer spoke.

“Sit in it, Grandpa,” Jeff encouraged.

The new fabric was supple and soft.  The general felt the support of new springs and cushioning on the perfectly comfortable chair.  A reading lamp stood by each chair, and a small table lamp set on top of a table, the glass top showing all the hand painted and signed tiles the children had made with love.

An ornate ceiling fan whirled quietly, showing off a magnificent light fixture.  Overhead was a large, translucent dome, admitting filtered light.  It was beautiful, more than the man could have imagined.

“It's from all of us, Grandpa,” Aislinn stated as she climbed up on Hammond's lap.  “See what we painted?” she asked, pointing both at the tile on the floor and the table.

“Jen and I made the shades,” Chenoa announced proudly.

“I designed it!” Ricky stated, a gigantic grin on his face.  “Daddy had my picture framed.  See!” the boy said, pointing at the reproduction of his Etch-A-Sketch creation that now hung on the wall.

“I picked out the stones for the walkway, Grandpa,” David stated enthusiastically.

“Walkway?” the lieutenant general questioned.

“Outside, Grandpa,” David answered.  “Come see,” the boy requested, grabbing one of the man's hands, while Aislinn climbed down and grabbed the other to lead their grandfather outside.

For the next fifteen minutes, the brood ranted and raved about the new sunroom, showing Hammond everything there was to see.  Their smiles were big, and it was obvious, they were pleased about how it had turned out.  Every child had had some part of the creation.

“Woof!” Bijou called out, her nose pointing towards the paw prints that were part of the tile floor, just before the door.

Hammond laughed, saying, “Thank you, Bijou, and you, too, Katie, for contributing.”

The two beagles pranced around as if the room had been entirely their doing.

“Grandpa, do you like Peanut Brittle?” Jenny asked.

“Yes, I enjoy good peanut brittle for a treat,” the man answered.

“Not food, Grandpa.  Peanut Brittle, your turtle,” the redhead said, pointing to the stone turtle that had been placed just where the walkway met the door of the sunroom, making it look like the object was welcoming visitors.

“Uh, she saw the turtle at the store when we were shopping and insisted we get it.  She paid for him herself, using her allowance,” Daniel spoke quietly.  “Well, half, anyway.”

“Where'd the name come from?”

“I have no idea,” Daniel answered with a shrug and a smile.
 
“I *love* Peanut Brittle,” Hammond answered emphatically as he looked at Jenny, earning him a giant smile from the young girl.

“Children, thank you.  I need to speak with your parents for a few minutes,” Hammond said, walking into the living room and motioning for the children to remain in the sunroom.

**Stay firm, Love,** Jack urged.

**We broke the law, Jack,** Daniel reminded.

**But he loves us,** the older man replied via their special non-verbal communication.

**He loves our children,** Daniel stated.

**We can use them for cover,** Jack teased.

**Right.**

Daniel decided it wasn't cowardly to stand slightly behind Jack, just prudent.  After all, Jack was the one who was Special Ops.

As one, Jack and Daniel both took an instinctive step back as Hammond came towards them.

“Jack, Daniel, what in tarnation is this about?” Hammond inquired when the three were alone.

“Love,” Jack answered promptly, completely taking the homeowner by surprise.

“He's right, Sir,” Daniel replied, stepping out from behind his husband.  “It's about love and family.  See, after my parents died, I never had much of that.  Then I got very, very lucky, and I found Jack.  Somehow, and I'll never understand how or why, but, somehow, we've acquired this wonderful family.  We have eleven terrific children, and they are so full of love.  The thing is, General, the one thing Jack and I couldn't give them, biologically, were grandparents, but ... there came that love again.”

“Son ...” Hammond began, intending to waylay the emotional speech.

Daniel shook his head, surprised at the depth of what he was feeling at the moment.  He knew that he needed to say this, at least once, to the man standing in front of him.

“General Hammond, Nicholas Ballard was never my grandfather,” the archaeologist spoke.  “He was a name on a ... a ... a family tree, but his limb on the tree is severely cracked, and ... but there's another limb on that family tree now.  It's strong and vibrant, and ever since I returned from Abydos, that's the one that's shown me who and what a grandfather should be.  I ... I think of you as my grandfather, just as much as our children think of you as their grandfather.  Sir, I don't think Jack or I could ever have imagined how much a part of our lives you'd be when we asked you to be the grandfather to our children.  I'm not sure we knew just how important you'd be to them, but when the Munchkins were born, you were right there, holding them, loving them.  You became their grandfather, and none of our children would know what to do, if they didn't have you to turn to for all the things that a grandfather does.  Love, General.  We, uh ... we love you and ... and ...”

Jack rubbed his husband's back, knowing Daniel was unsuccessfully trying not to cry.  Despite the younger man's best efforts, though, tears were rolling down his cheeks.

“General,” Jack said, picking up their story.  “We broke the law.  We take full responsibility for breaking into your home and doing some remodeling, but we wanted to give you something that you'd never give yourself.  Ricky created the sunroom.  He said he got the idea when he spent the week here; and you told us about the ice cream fountain dream.  We couldn't decide which to do, so we did both.  The kids worked hard on this.  Alex Dennison provided the crew, but those rooms were built with the love of our children, for you, their grandfather.  It's from us, too,” he declared, putting his arm around Daniel's waist and pulling him close.  “Danny's right.  We love you, Sir, and we wanted to say thank you.”

“For all the love and support you've given us, including what you did at our second wedding.  I don't think we've ever told you how much that meant to us, General,” Daniel pointed out.  “You risked your own career for us.”

“Long story short, George,” Jack spoke, “the answer is love.”

Hammond stood, transfixed by the emotional words of the two men.  They'd had a lot of heart-to-hearts over the years, but this was really the first time that they'd expressed their feelings in such a raw and emotional way.

“Uh, Sir, the charcoals are hot, and it is the Fourth of July,” Jack stated after a couple of minutes had passed in silence.

“Jack, Daniel, I insist on paying you back,” Hammond finally spoke.

“No, Sir ...” Jack began, but quickly had his words waved off by Hammond.

“First payment is the brood for the rest of the day and the evening.  I missed them on my trip, and I want to visit with them,” Hammond said, happy to see the smiles on his friends' faces.  He began to head back towards the new rooms when he stopped.  He turned around and swallowed hard.  “I love you both, too, very much.”  He chuckled warmly, “And that crazy brood out there, like the dickens!”

Without another word, the proud man turned and disappeared from Jack's and Daniel's sight.  The lovers faced each other for a moment, and then Daniel lay his head on his husband's shoulder while Jack rubbed his side.

“Love,” Jack said.

“Love,” Daniel whispered.

The soulmates walked to the edge of the sunroom, seeing Hammond grinning widely as he was surrounded by the children.

“Who wants ice cream?” the grandfather asked.

“We do!” each and every Jackson-O'Neill child responded, eagerly following Hammond from the sunroom back to the ice cream parlor.

“Love,” Jack and Daniel echoed at the same time before joining their family.

“Jack, we haven't had the steaks yet,” Daniel pointed out.

“Well, Angel, as we've often said, we rarely do anything normal.  So, this year, we have ice cream first and then the steaks and burgers.”

“I'm betting we have ice cream again, too,” Daniel chuckled.

====

Late that night, after a round of warm good-byes and heartfelt hugs, a happy, but very weary General Hammond sighed deeply and sank into one of his old, but renewed chairs, soft, supple, and supportive.  He lightly ran his fingers over the suede-like fabric, marvelling at the tactile comfort.  He looked around the newly constructed room, his eyes lingering on every detail.

~It's more than I could have imagined.  How did they manage to do this so quickly?  The scoundrels must have planned this for months.  I wish I could have been here to see it.~

No sooner had that thought flashed through his mind when the general spotted the photo album on the table next to his chair.  Jeff had briefly mentioned preparing the album during the initial tour of the room, but with all the celebrating, Hammond hadn't actually had a chance to look at it.

The grandfather picked up the album and read the title, “A Dream Becomes Real, from the Brood to Grandpa.”

The first picture was of Ricky sitting with his Etch-a-Sketch in his lap, looking at the camera, smiling and waving into the lens.

Tears came to George Hammond's eyes as he turned the pages, taking in each section of the construction project.  He knew that he loved the Jackson-O'Neill children just as much as he loved his 'actual' grandchildren.  As Jack and Daniel had said earlier, everything was about love and family, and there was no doubting the love he felt for the entire Jackson-O'Neill family.

====

“Alex, we weren't expecting you today,” Jack commented as he welcomed the designer into his country-style home a couple of days later.  “Is anything wrong?”

Alex chuckled, “Jack, why do you always think the worst?”

“Danny asks me that all the time,” Jack laughed as he led the way into the living room.

“What could be wrong?  I escaped prosecution and incarceration from two unwitting, and, at the time, unwilling clients for unlawful entry and tampering with personal property.  It's made me consider another career path,” Alex smirked.

~He's gotten snarky!~  Jack was too stunned to say anything.  When he found his tongue a minute later, he protested, “Gonna leave the design biz?”

“Who said anything about quitting design?” Alex responded coyly.  “I just said a different career path.  I liked surprising the Ferrettis and General Hammond.  I could be a super hero.  'The Phantom Decorator' has kind of a nice ring to it, don't you think?”

“In lavender tights, no doubt,” Jack offered.  “I can see you now, finding bargains at the speed of light with your 'garage sale vision'.”

“Oh, no, Jack.  Lavender against my skin tone?  Never!”

Shaking his head to clear the visual of the olive-skinned man in light purple spandex, Jack laughed as they entered the living room and questioned,  “What's in the box?”

“Something for Ricky.  Is he home?” Alex inquired.

Jack went to the intercom and pressed the button to the boys' room, calling out, “Ricky, you have company.”

As they waited, Jack looked back at Alex and said, “Alex, Daniel and I really do appreciate the faith you put in us, in our choices and in how we surprised our friends.”

“I'd be lying, Jack, if I said I haven't been nervous about it,” Alex responded seriously.  “I wouldn't have done it for anyone else, and, to be honest, I probably won't ever do it again.”

Jack nodded, adding, “Well, thank you.  If it had gone sour, trust me, we would have made sure you didn't take the fall.”

Alex stared deeply into his client's eyes and replied, “I believe that, Jack.”

“Good,” the general acknowledged.

In a flash, Ricky had bolted down the stairs, shouting, “Company?  For me?  Someone's here just for me, Dad?”

“Hi, Ricky,” Alex greeted with a smile as the boy panted for breath, his excitement obvious.

“Hi, Alex.  You want me?  Just me?” Ricky asked, thrilled to have his own special company.

“That's correct.”

“We look at pictures today?” the boy asked.

“Not today, Ricky, but I'm hoping we can do that this weekend,” Alex replied.

“Actually, Danny and I are going out of town,” Jack spoke.

“So, not a good time?”

“So, probably a great time.  Call the house.  We're still working on who is gonna look after the brood, but someone will be here, and we'll make sure they know it's okay for Jeff and Ricky to visit with you at Archonics for a while,” Jack stated.

“Great!” Alex exclaimed.  Looking back at the youngster, he asked, “Can we sit down?”

“Over here,” Ricky said, running excitedly to the sofa.

Quietly, Jack chuckled and sat down on the stairs.  He was amused at how excited the little boy was at having his own company.

~But later, we're going to have a reminder conversation about running in the house,~ the concerned parent decided.

“Ricky, that drawing you made on your Etch-a-Sketch for your grandpa's new sunroom was excellent.  You have a great talent that I'd like to encourage.  You told me once that you love to draw and make things.  Is that right?” Alex asked, still holding the large box in his hand.

“It's fun, Alex.”

Nodding, the designer said, “Then this is for you.”

Ricky's mouth opened wide at the thought that he was getting a present just for having fun drawing on his Etch-a-Sketch.  He stood up and began to unwrap the large box, which was way too big for him to hold and open if he remained sitting.

**Danny, you might want to see this,** Jack communicated to his lover, who was working in the den.  **Alex is here.  He's brought a present for Ricky.  From his reaction, you'd think it was Christmas.**

**On my way,** Daniel responded, closing his file and quickly going downstairs.  He greeted Alex and then, after sitting down on the stairs next to his husband, commented, “Look at his face, Jack.”

“He's one happy kid right now, and we still don't know what's in the box,” Jack quietly responded.

With Alex's help, the first part of the surprise was revealed -- a wooden blocks and marbles master maze set.  It was a very expensive toy.

“With this set, Ricky, you can create hundreds of unique working marble mazes.  The blocks are made of different materials, including maple, ash, beech, and walnut,” Alex remarked.

“Wow!  Thanks, Alex!” Ricky exclaimed as he studied the box.

“There's more,” Alex said, nodding towards the original, large box he had carried in.

Ricky reached in, pulling out another box.  This one was full of books -- “Housebuilding for Children,” “Building,” “Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test,” and “ Draw 50 Buildings and Other Structures.”

“Wow!” Ricky exclaimed again as he began to peruse the books.

“These books will help you learn how to make things.  You can even build a bridge out of a cereal box,” Alex commented.

“Dad, can I have your Froot Loops box?” the little boy asked.

“As soon as the Loops are gone, it's yours,” Jack promised.

Ricky grinned and looked back at Alex, saying, “Thank you, Alex.”

“There's one more thing,” Alex stated.

“There is?” a near-breathless Ricky asked, wondering if it was his birthday or something.  He removed the last package and opened it.  “What is it?”

Alex said, “It's a software program.  Your parents can show you how to use it, but you can draw on the computer and learn at the same time.  You can even print the pictures you create.”

**I foresee our refrigerator covered with pictures,** Jack relayed to his husband with a smile of pride at their youngest son's talent.

**Ricky has a great talent, Babe.  It'll encourage him if we display what he creates.**  Daniel smiled, then mused, **Of course, we may need to get another refrigerator.  We're running out of room as it is.**

**I can't wait to see what our budding architect comes up with.**

**If he does become an architect, that'll be great, but whatever he decides he wants to do with his life, these gifts will help him be as creative as he can be in whatever profession he chooses,** Daniel communicated seriously.

“Thank you, Alex.  Is it Christmas?” Ricky asked.

“Everyday is Christmas somewhere,” Alex replied with a warm smile.

“Alex, you shouldn't have,” Daniel stated, smiling at the little boy's happiness.

“Isn't that a case of the pot calling the kettle black, Daniel?” Alex chuckled.  “Ricky here has a great talent.  I just want him to have the tools to learn with, if he wants to,” he put forth.

“Daddy, will you help me?” Ricky asked as he sprinted over to show Daniel the software.

“Of course, I will.  Uh, adults can learn this, too, I hope?” the archaeologist chuckled.

“It's safe for adults,” Alex mused with a smile.  “I have a meeting, but I wanted to drop these things off for Ricky.”  Standing, he walked over to the child and placed his hand atop his head, saying, “You really did a good job with the sunroom, Little Man.  I'm very impressed.”

Ricky's grin was huge, his happiness emanating from him in leaps and bounds.

“Thanks, Alex,” Jack spoke with enormous sincerity.

“Alex!” Little Danny called out, entering the room, his eyes growing at the sight of all the presents.  “Wow!  You got cool stuff, Ricky!”

“Wanna help me with the marble maze set?” Ricky asked, making both of his fathers very proud indeed.

**Danny, we've gotta be doing something right when our three-year-old son wants to share a new toy he hasn't even taken out of the box yet with his older brother.**

**Agreed, Love,** Daniel replied with a smile.

“Hi, Little Danny,” Alex greeted.  “See you guys later.  Oh, and Jack?  I loved the picture in the ice cream parlor,” he added, laughing.

Jack glared at Alex, who simply smiled and headed out, leaving the parents alone with their boys and Ricky's new presents.

“Never gonna live it down,” Daniel sing-songed, as he moved over toward their two sons, leaving a growling grizzly bear by the door.

====

That night, Jack and Daniel were lying in bed, quietly holding on to each other as they reviewed the last week and the months leading to it.

“We're living an amazing life, Jack,” Daniel intoned as he played with the hairs of his husband's chest.

“It's the best, Angel,” the older man agreed as his fingers ran gently along Daniel's arm.  “Hammond was speechless the other day.”

“He never argued,” Daniel spoke.

“He sure got a kick out of Walter tricking him into signing the papers,” Jack mused.  “But he got an even bigger kick out of playing soda jerk.  He wore that white paper hat and apron like it was his uniform.”

“We took a big risk, Babe,” the younger man opined and then nuzzled in a bit closer to his Love.

“And spent a gigantic chunk of our savings,” Jack reminded.

Daniel looked into his lover's eyes and challenged, “What means more, Jack -- Lou and Carolyn having it just a little easier and General Hammond being able to live out a little dream, or having money sitting in a bank that we'd end up using to give ourselves more things that in the end we really don't need?”

“Danny, there's no contest,” Jack answered with a smile.  “Money isn't what we need.”

“It's, uh, helpful, but, what matters is ...”

“Love,” both men spoke at the same time and then shared a kiss.

As the younger man settled back atop his lover, Jack spoke, “I love you, Angel, to the moon and the stars and back again.”

“I love you, too, Jack, so very, very much,” Daniel replied.

It may have been the middle of the night, but for Jack and Daniel, the sun was shining, for their lives were full of wonderful people and endless and eternal love.

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