The Bet

Author:  Orrymain, and special guest co-author, Robert!
Category:  Slash, Humor, Drama, Romance, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - August 31 - October 27, 2012
Spoilers:  Pretense (extremely minor)
Size:  299kb
Written: November 22-27,29-30, December 8-10,13-14,16-25, 2006, January 7-8,10, February 10-11,14, March 9,19,31, April 1, September 24-29, 2007 Revised for consistency: January 15, 2008
Summary:  Jack and Daniel make an unusual bet with their brood, and it ends up nearly pulling the family apart.
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), “Lost” and “All's Fair in Love and Gelatin”
4) Thanks to my betas who always make my fics better:  Claudia, Linda, Cassiopeia, Jodi, Sara, Carol!

The Bet
by Orrymain and Robert

As the long, hot summer days ebbed into the cooler temperatures of autumn, the Jackson-O'Neill children were spending more time indoors.  Today, after finishing their homeschooling session and subsequent homework, the children were all gathered in the recreation room, watching a movie on the large screen television.

“It's so romantic,” Jennifer sighed from the floor, where she was comfortably lying on one of the floor quilts, totally lost in the love story unfolding before them.

“He's old, but handsome,” Lulu commented about the rugged-looking actor on the screen.

“I think she's pretty,” Aislinn remarked, pointing to the dark-haired actress.

“She sure is,” Jeff agreed as he tickled Jenny, who was sitting on his lap on one of the large sofas.  “I bet it took a long time to film that scene.”  He grimaced slightly as he added, “I sure feel sorry for those guys.”

“Why?” Jennifer asked curiously, glancing over at her brother.

“All dressed up like that -- yuck,” Jeff answered, making a funny face and then playing with his imaginary shirt collar, as if trying to make it more comfortable.

“Dad and Daddy would look handsome in suits like that,” Chenoa added, giggling at her eldest brother's antics.

“They're too smart to be caught dressed up like penguins,” Brianna chuckled.

“Yeah, who'd wanna do that?” Jonny asked, grimacing as an image of his parents dressed up like ‘penguins' popped into his head.

“They wear their suits,” Ricky added.

Aislinn giggled, “Daddy likes Dad in his fancy uniform.”

“And Dad likes Daddy in anything blue,” Brianna chuckled, rolling her eyes.  “How many blue combinations do you think Daddy has now?”

Laughing, Jennifer answered, “Too many to count.  He says Dad's always been that way.”

“That's why I'm wearing blue in all those baby pictures,” Little Danny sighed, stroking Katie, who was curled up beside him.

“I thought blue was your favorite color,” Jeff replied.

Unable to able to hide his grin, Little Danny admitted, “It is.”

“They should dress up like that man,” Lulu suggested, pointing to the screen.

“Yeah, they should,” Jennifer agreed, smiling to herself as she watched the black and white movie classic.

“How's it going in here?” Jack inquired as he and Daniel walked into the rec room.

Jennifer looked up at her parents and then at the men on the television screen, shaking shook her head.  Her two fathers had been doing some vehicle maintenance on Jack's truck in the driveway and were now covered with oil, grease, and grime.

The older man was wearing a tattered old tan shirt on that had at least three holes in it.  His jeans were equally ragged, multiple holes providing nice ventilation for his legs, while loose threads seemed to be hanging everywhere.  A dirty rag hung out of his rear pocket.

Daniel had on what had once been a white V-neck T-shirt, but now hardly showed any white at all.  Instead, it was a patchwork of black, gray, and brown, thanks to the black oil residue he'd picked up while working on the Ford vehicle and some brown varnish that he'd splashed on it earlier in the day when refinishing one of the benches outside.  His jeans were just as worn as his lover's.

At the moment, the couple looked about as far from dapper as men could possibly get.  The fact that both men still managed to look good even when they each resembled a grease monkey only made their children wonder how awesome they would look dressed up in their finest.

“What?” Jack asked warily, raising his hands upwards a little as he took in the stares from the children.

“Dad, Daddy,” Jennifer began as she stood up, stretching slightly.  She headed towards the filthy pair, stopping just in front of them.  She licked her lips for a moment before she continued, “Um ... I think it would be nice if we had a party.”

“I like parties,” Ricky interjected before either of his father's spoke, anticipating eating lots of desserts, if they had one.

“We have lots of parties with all the birthdays around here,” Jack responded, knowing there were parties upcoming for the triplets and the twins in September, not to mention Chenoa's and Brianna's in October.

“Not a birthday party, Dad, but just a ... a party,” the female teenager clarified, only managing to confuse her older father more.

“Why do we need to have a regular party?” Jack asked curiously as he exchanged a confused glance with his husband.

“No, Jen, wait!” Jeff interrupted.  He gently helped Jenny to her feet, making sure she was steady before standing up himself.  “There you go, Sis.”

“Jeff?” Jennifer asked, turning to look at her brother, who was walking towards her.

“Not just *a* party,” Jeff said as he stopped next to where his big sister was standing.  “*The* party.”

“Jeff, I don't know what you mean,” Jennifer replied, not understanding her brother's comment, even though he had just winked at her, so he obviously had an idea.

“That makes two of us,” Jack added, eyeing his eldest son.

“Three,” Daniel pointed out as he placed the portable baby monitor down on the small end table that sat against the wall.

“Well, I was just thinking that we've never had a really big party, not one where everyone dresses up,” Jeff spoke.

“I've got it!” Jennifer exclaimed excitedly.  “Your anniversary.”  She grinned at her brothers and sisters, who all nodded in agreement, and then looked back at her parents.  “It'll be a blast.”

“What anniversary?” Jack asked in confusion, earning him a slight jab in the abdomen from his lover.

“How many anniversaries do we have, Jack?” Daniel snarked, glaring at his husband.

“Our first wedding.  Our second wedding.  Our third wedding.  The first time we ...”

“JACK!” Daniel shouted, cutting his lover off before he could embarrass him.

“What?” the older man asked, trying to look innocent, though the gleam in his eyes gave him away.

“Ewww, Dad -- TMI,” Jennifer opined, doing a mock shiver at the same time.

“What's t... what's that?” Ricky asked, not understanding his sister's words.

“TMI, as in too much information,” Jack answered, quickly adding, “something that is kinda hard to do around here since it takes days to get to the bottom of something.  What are you all talking about?”

“We want to see you and Daddy all dressed up,” Jennifer expressed whimsically.

“We get dressed up all the time,” Jack refuted, still not fully understanding what they were talking about.

“Not like penguins,” Jeff clarified with a smile, causing his siblings to giggle.

“Daniel, you're the linguist.  What are your children talking about?” Jack asked.

“*My* children?” Daniel quizzed, raising an eyebrow.  He glanced around the room at each child's hopeful face, then shrugged as he answered, “I have no idea.”

“We wanna have a party, like that!” Chenoa announced, pointing to the screen and the fancy party scene that was still going on.

“'Sabrina'?” Jack asked.  “Classic.”  He smiled widely and quoted the line, “Today we will learn the correct way how to crack an egg.”  Seeing Daniel blink, he continued, “We must be merciful and execute it quickly, like with the guillotine.”

“Sometimes, Babe, you worry me,” Daniel replied dryly, even though he knew the lines were from the movie being viewed by their children.

“Dad, Daddy,” Jennifer called out, getting the attention of her parents, her eyes bright with excitement.  “We want you to wear your finest,” Jennifer intoned.  “You know, tuxedos, with all the extras.”

“We wanna dress up, too,” Aislinn added eagerly, the youngster already anticipating getting a new outfit for the occasion.  ~Aunt Sam will take me shopping.~

“No, we don't, Ash,” Jonny spoke, glaring at his sister in annoyance.

“We do, too,” Aislinn insisted, turning to face her brother and putting her hands on her hips as she stared at the mutinous Munchkin.

“Aaaaaaash, no wanna look like that,” Jonny maintained, throwing his arm in the direction of the screen, the disgust evident on his face.

“Well, I do, so you do, too!” the youngest Munchkin stated firmly, daring the sandy-haired boy to disagree with her.

“But ...”  Jonny gulped, seeing the determination in his sister's eyes.  “Aw, gee whiz, Ash,” he whined, scuffing his foot against the wooden floor.

“Jonny!” the little girl prodded sternly.

“Okay, I guess we do,” the oldest triplet conceded, taking a long, drawn out breath as he relented.

**Danny, I have no clue what this is about, but was that cute, or what?** Jack inquired via the couple's special non-verbal communication.

**Definitely cute, Babe, but, uh, I wouldn't tell Jonny that,** Daniel responded, trying not to chuckle at the thought of the indignant look they'd get from the eldest Munchkin if they did.

“We all think we should have a big party this year to celebrate your wedding anniversary,” Jennifer explained to her fathers.  “We can invite ... well, everyone.  We'll all get new dresses and ...”

“I'm *not* wearing a dress,” Jonny stated firmly, crossing his arms across his chest.  “Did that already; not fun,” he groaned, sounding very much like his older father.

Everyone laughed in remembrance of the time when Jonny and Little Danny had been lost in the woods during a bad thunderstorm.  They had been found by a man who had only his daughter's old clothes to keep them warm in.  It was a memory that Jonny wished would just go away, even though he really liked the man and enjoyed visiting with him.

“Jonny, the girls can get new dresses, and the boys will get new suits.  Best of all, Dad and Daddy can get tuxedos and ...” the oldest member of the brood began.

“Jennifer Renee, I don't know why you're planning this, but I don't think so,” Jack replied a bit formally in the hopes of derailing the latest idea their children were dreaming up.  He could see this becoming bigger than 'Ben Hur'.  ~Let's just nip this one in the bud, and quick.~

“Dad, we never get to see you dressed up like that,” Jennifer sighed, glancing over at the screen.  “Or us, either, for that matter.  It'll be fun!”

“I'm a soldier, Jen, not Humphrey Bogart,” Jack pointed out.  As an afterthought, he added, “Daddy is no Audrey Hepburn, either.”

“Thank you for noticing that fact, Jack ... I think,” Daniel stated wryly, blinking a couple of times as he processed the strange comment.

“But you're both so handsome,” Lulu cajoled, a conniving little smile on her face, bursting out into laughter when Jack approached, his fingers tickling her ribs.  “Daaaaad!”

“We don't need to get dressed up,” Jack maintained, hugging Lulu playfully as her laughter subsided.  He chuckled, realizing the little girl and her clothing were now smeared with grease.  ~Oops!  Bath time for you, I think.~

“But ...” a chorus of voices rang out, surprising the parents a great deal.

For the next fifteen minutes, Jack and Daniel couldn't escape the clatter of young voices, all of which now ignored the movie and followed the two men as they tried to go about their business, which, of course, made it very difficult to ignore the out-of-the-blue request.

“*All right!*” Jack barked, turning around as all eleven children were about to enter the master bedroom.  He had raised his hands in the air to not only silence the chattering brood, but to stop them from entering the bedroom, leaving them standing in the hallway.  “Here's the deal.”

“Jack!” Daniel warned, not sure what was about to happen, but already certain he wasn't going to like it.

“Don't worry, Danny.  I have it covered,” Jack assured smugly.

“That's what worries me,” the younger man retorted as he leaned against the doorframe.

Ignoring the remark, Jack continued, “Our wedding anniversary is November the sixteenth.  If *all* of you behave, and I do mean behave -- *completely* -- for the next two months, Daddy and I will dress up in monkey suits, and we'll have the party, just the way you want it.”

“Yay!” the children began to cheer.

Quickly, though, Jack bounced his raised hands, palms down, in the air a couple of times to dull the roar and asked, “Do you understand the rules?”  He looked at the quieting children and elaborated, “That means you go to bed on time, you eat all your veggies, when we say 'jump', you 'jump'.  It means no arguing over what to eat for meals, no debates over whose cartoon gets watched first, no 'Katie ate my homework' excuses for not having your lessons done.”

“Jennnn ...” Jonny began to whine.

“Shhh!” Jennifer said, looking down and shushing her brother.  “We can do that.”

“*And* it means not being late for anything, not study time, not to go run errands, not for anything.  It means when you visit your friends, we get *glowing* reports about what *angelic* children you all are.”

“Jack ...” the younger father tried to interrupt.

“Daniel, if they want this party, they have to earn it,” Jack smirked, thinking to himself he'd won this one already.

“Well, I was just going to say that if they want a big party like that, then they need to be prepared, too,” the younger man stated with a mischievous smile.  “Fittings for their own ... stuffed shirts ...”

“And dancing,” Jack noted with a grin.  “You'll need to learn how to dance, *all* of you.”

“We can help,” Chenoa responded, putting her arm around Lulu, since the two were both taking dance lessons.

“Dancing!” Jonny whined.  He looked up at his oldest sister and bemoaned, “But, Jennnn...”

“Jonny, it'll be fun, and we'll get to have a big, big, big party, with lots of cake and ice cream,” Jennifer replied enthusiastically.

“Three scoops?” the oldest Munchkin questioned, warming to the idea.

“Four!” Jennifer promised, holding up four fingers.

“Four's a lot, Jonny,” Little Danny whispered, willing to go along with the charade, provided one thing also occurred.  “Can we invite 'Rissa?” the young genius asked about the woman of his heart.

“We get to make the guest list,” Jeff stated.

“Or at least help,” Jennifer clarified, knowing her fathers would want a say in the matter.  “We get to help with everything.”

“Chores done without question, hesitation, or grumbling,” Jack added.  “If we have to tell you twice about anything, you lose.”

“And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that',” Daniel added.

“Daddy's right,” Jack quickly stepped in.  “The bet is that you behave, totally and completely.  One slip up by just one of you, and we're off the hook -- no party.”

“And you have to maintain your studies at their current level,” Daniel insisted, not wanting the distraction of a party to interfere with the brood's education.

“We need to clarify how long two months is,” Brianna stated, earning surprised looks from the entire group.  “All I meant was, are we going by date, by the number of weeks, or the number of days, or ... or what?”

“That's a good question, Bri,” Daniel praised.  “Eight full weeks, from right now until midnight on ... wait a second.”  He reached into his pocket, pulling out his PDA.  He then called up the calendar to examine the dates.  “Eight weeks from today would be October twenty-sixth.  Let's say midnight, ah, that's Friday going on Saturday, just to be specific.”

Jack just glared at the younger man and his comments.

Daniel glared back at his soulmate, saying sweetly, “You wouldn't want any loopholes, would you, Babe?”

“No, of course not, Love,” Jack responded a bit snarkily.

“Bet!” Jennifer agreed happily.

“Bet!” Jeff quickly chimed in, doing a high-five with his teenage sister.

One by one, the children agreed.  Their excitement was unmistakable.  At the same time, Jack was smugly confident that the whole thing would be forgotten by the end of the weekend.  Daniel, meanwhile, was determined to be loyal to his husband, but he already had a nagging suspicion that a line had been drawn that could end up dividing their happy family.

~And we're on the losing end,~ the archaeologist thought.

As the brood began to walk away, Jenny stopped suddenly and called out to her parents, asking, “Dad, Daddy, JD isn't included, is he?  He's too young to obey all the rules.”  She rolled her eyes slightly as she lamented, “We have lots of rules.”

“The bet was ...” Jack began.

“JD is a baby,” Daniel interrupted, giving his husband a warning stare.  “He's excluded from the bet.”

“Danny ...”

“Jack, as I've already indicated, if you're going to be crazy enough to make a bet with our children, it's going to at least be a fair one,” Daniel asserted definitively, daring his husband to disagree.

Deciding this wasn't a conversation he was going to win, Jack nodded his head in agreement.

“Thanks, Daddy,” Jenny responded.  ~He'll keep Dad in line.~

“Whoa!” Jack called out, just as the children began to walk away again.  “Little Bit ...” he called out, pointing at her dirty clothing and body.

“Oops!” Lulu exclaimed, looking down at herself for the first time since playing with her father.

“I'll take care of it,” Jennifer promised.

As the children went downstairs to formulate a 'be good for two months' plan under Jennifer's and Jeff's supervision, Jack and Daniel shared a look.

“Jack, that wasn't the smartest bet you've ever made,” the archaeologist opined.

“They'll never make it, Danny.  Our brood?  Two full months of absolute perfection?  No way!” Jack insisted, confident in his statement as he turned around, entering the master bedroom.

“Right,” Daniel replied skeptically, thinking his lover had forgotten just how stubborn their children could be.  ~Something tells me we're having a big, big, *big* party in November.~

====

“C'mon, let's go up to my room and have a meeting,” Jeff suggested enthusiastically just as the brood hit the carpet of the living room a minute later.

“We just had meeting,” Ricky replied, wanting to go and play in the game room.

“This is important, Ricky; it's about the bet and the party,” Jeff responded, waving his hand for his siblings to follow him.

“Jeff, Lulu and I will be there in a few minutes,” Jennifer said, taking Lulu's hand before they hit the bottom of the stairs.

“Okay, Sis.”

--

The rest of the children trooped upstairs to Jeff's bedroom, above the cluster of specialized rooms that projected towards the front of the house, but on the side opposite the garage.  For a while, they just talked about other things as they waited for Jennifer and Lulu to join them.

Ricky asked Jeff when Alex, their good friend and architect, was next coming to visit.  Chenoa and Lulu had already begun talking excitedly about teaching the others how to dance.  Brianna laughed as she listened to Jonny and Little Danny deep in conversation about why Bogey the lizard's poop didn't smell.  Just a 'normal' day in the Jackson-O'Neill house.

--

A few minutes later, with everyone now present and accounted for, Jennifer asked, “Why do we need a meeting, Jeff?” as she sat down on one of the beanbags, smiling when Jenny immediately climbed up onto her lap, snuggling into her eldest sister's embrace.

“I'm all clean now,” Lulu announced as she sat down.  After a quick sponging and putting on a new outfit, she was once again clean.  “Ready.”

The biggest grin spread over Jeff's face as he knelt down next to the beanbag and motioned for his siblings to huddle closely together.

Jennifer raised her eyebrows and remarked, “It's not like they can hear us.  We're not even close to their bedroom, Jeff.”

Jeff's eyes popped wide open as he nodded his head, looked over at the intercom, and mouthed, “Uh-huh.”

Knowing his parents had the capability to eavesdrop, the male teen picked up his portable MP3 player and placed it near the intercom, selecting a play list of John Phillips Sousa marches.  He smirked as he turned the volume up just loud enough to obscure conversation.  The irony was Jack had introduced Jeff to Sousa's music just a few weeks before.

“You're smart, Jeff,” Chenoa praised with a smile.

--

“Dang boy's too smart for his own good,” Jack scowled.

“No, Jack.  He's too smart for our own good.  Quit eavesdropping,” Daniel ordered.  “We agreed not to abuse the system.”

“I wanna know what they're up to,” Jack whined as he stood by the intercom.

Having heard Jeff's statement in the living room about the meeting, the older father had decided he needed to gather intel.  Unfortunately for him, his eldest son had scuppered that plan.

“We already know what they're up to, Babe.  They're planning their strategy.  Now, JD is still napping, and all of our other children are in Jeff's room, which means we have at least a half-hour of privacy.  Do you want to waste it standing there with your ear to a speaker, or ...?” the sexy archaeologist smirked, arching his eyebrows a few times.

“I'll take the 'or',” Jack agreed eagerly, foregoing any thoughts of eavesdropping in favor of making out with his husband.

Quickly turning the intercom off, Jack headed towards the younger man with a predatory gleam in his eyes.

====

“Okay, here's the thing,” Jeff began once everyone was settled down comfortably in his room.  It was a tight squeeze since the room wasn't all that big, but the brood was used to being in each other's space, so they made the most of it.  “We need a plan to pull this off.  We need to stick together and help each other.  Daddy will be okay, but you know how Dad is.  He's going to try his best to get us to slip up.”

“He wouldn't be Dad if he didn't,” Brianna mused.  “He's not one to turn down a challenge,” she smirked.

“Especially after that Iron Person contest with Aunt Sam a couple of months ago,” Jennifer giggled.

“Was that when Dad and Daddy played in the Jell-O?” Chenoa questioned.  “Bet that was funny.”

“Jen, you promised us pictures,” Brianna pointed out, unable to hide a snicker at the thought of their parents 'playing' in Jell-O.

“I think Aunt Sam's still has them.  She was going to make a scrapbook,” Jennifer chuckled.  “But ... maybe I can call Cassie and get another set,” she laughed even more.

“When I talked to her, she was still holding out for a new car,” Jeff chuckled, as did the other children in the room.  When the laughter subsided a bit, he continued, “Anyway, as I was saying, Dad's going to put temptation in our path at every turn.  We have to play it cool.  We can't let on that we know what he's doing.”

“What's temp...temp...” Ricky began, stumbling over the word.

“Temptation,” Jennifer stated.  “It means he's going to try and get us to lose the bet.  He'll ... use ice cream to trick us.”

“Ooooooh,” Ricky gasped, his eyes widening.  “I like ice cream.”

“What do you suggest?” Jennifer asked Jeff curiously, smiling slightly as she noticed her younger siblings licking their lips at the mere thought of their favorite dessert.

“First off, we need to remind ourselves why we're doing this,” Jeff answered.  “I suggest we watch 'Sabrina' once a week as a group, so we keep our focus.”

“We can imagine the dresses we'll be wearing,” Chenoa sighed dreamily, eager to get a new dress and dance with her 'beau', Teal'c

“That makes sense, Jeff,” Jennifer agreed as she nodded.  “What else?”

“We need to help one another manage our chores and homework, by remembering what needs to be done, and by when.  Dad's going to beef up the homework, you can count on it; and be prepared to eat stuff you don't like,” the oldest boy told his younger brothers and sisters.

“That's true,” Jennifer acknowledged.  Thoughtfully, she suggested, “We could make a chart of all our chores and mark them off each day.”

“That's a great idea, Jen.  We'll include our homework projects, too, and mark them off as we get them done,” Jeff added.

“Jeff, you and me, and you, Bri, and David, as the oldest, need to make it our goal to really help each other stay on top of our schoolwork,” Jennifer stated.

“I don't think Little Danny needs me to help him with his homework,” David chuckled about the child genius.

“Sometimes I might,” the humble genius responded, smiling shyly at his siblings.

“Listen, some of us are smarter in one thing than we are in another.  You'd be surprised how much an encouraging word can help,” the female teen advised.  “Besides, sometimes it's about staying on schedule, or being able to finish our own work so we can help one of the younger ones, either with homework or with their chores.”

The group nodded as a temporary silence fell.  It only lasted a few moments while the children processed their plan so far.

“We need a secret sign, so we can remind each other about the party.  We hafta be strong; not mess up,” Jonny commanded.

The youngster may not have liked the idea of the party, but he liked the idea of losing this bet even less, and if his siblings were determined to win this bet to have the party, then he was too.

“*Great* idea, Squirt!” Jeff exclaimed, tapping his closed fist on top of Jonny's, then letting Jonny tap his.

“That's it!” David exclaimed, sitting up on his knees as he made the realization. “The fist tap!  If we just barely tap our fists together, it will remind us of our goal and our pledge to one another.”

Each of the eleven Jackson-O'Neill children put their open right hands in a stack and said, “Together, we're unbeatable!” as they lifted their arms in a gesture of solidarity.

“Dad and Daddy are always teaching us to be prepared, so let's see if we can figure out all the ways Dad might try and tempt us and practice not getting caught,” Jennifer suggested.

“Ice cream,” Brianna stated, nodding.  “I'm not sure how, but he'll use ice cream.”

“My girlfriends,” Jennifer added, biting her lip she thought a moment before adding, “We're late a lot.  I'm going to start setting the timer on my watch.”

“Ricky, be careful with your Etch-a-Sketch,” Jeff stated.  “He might try and find a way to use it somehow.”

Brianna chuckled, “Dad's gonna use all of our weaknesses; that means, everything we love.  Geez, hockey.  Somehow, he's gonna try and bribe me to be bad with hockey.”

“Stay strong, Bri,” David urged, giving her a reassuring pat on the leg.

“As long as the Great Gretzky doesn't show up, I'll be fine,” the tomboy chuckled.

“Let's go one by one,” Jeff suggested as the children began to understand just how hard winning the bet was really going to be.

Huddling down, the brood talked about all the ways their older father may try to cajole them into losing the bet.  Finally, after a long discussion, they were confident that together they were unbeatable and that even Hurricane Jack wouldn't bring them to their knees.

====

“They have twenty-seven children,” Daniel noted with awe, shaking his head he imagined another fifteen kids running around the house.  ~Geez, we'd need to buy a bus just to get that many kids around.~

The couple were dressing after their quick love fest and subsequent shower, and the younger man was talking about a news story he'd seen on television the night before.

“Not natural?” Jack surmised.

“All adopted,” Daniel spoke.  “They had struggled for years to have children, but he had some problems, and she had some problems, and none of their attempts were successful.  They finally adopted a baby, then two more, and it took off from there.  Another family had sixteen, all adopted.  That's a lot of love out there,” he expressed in amazement.

“Danny, you're not suggesting ...” Jack began, turning round to face his husband.

“Wha...what?  Uh, no, I mean, no, I'm just talking about a story on the news, Babe.  I think our dozen is plenty.”

“You're sure?” the silver haired man asked, eyeing his lover curiously.

“Aren't you?” Daniel replied in question.

“Of course, I am, but I'm not the one bringing up stories about families with more than two dozen kids running around,” the older man responded.

“I'm just sharing,” Daniel explained, as he pulled one of his many blue shirts out of the drawer.

“Okay,” Jack acknowledged.

“Okay,” Daniel responded quickly.

“Okay,” Jack nodded, shaking his head as he began to turn around to head for the door.  “Twenty-seven?” he asked, unable to stop himself.

“All homeschooled,” the younger man noted.

Jack laughed, “We'd actually need a real classroom.”

“There are ways,” Daniel replied as he buttoned his shirt.

“Of course, there are.  I bet we could do it,” Jack spoke confidently, not really thinking about what he was saying.

“Of course, we could.  It's not even a bet,” the younger man opined.

“Daniel ...” Jack began, his tone suddenly more sharp.

With an innocent shrug, the archaeologist responded, “All I'm saying is it's possible.  They're doing it.”

“Daniel ...” Jack growled in annoyance.

“Jack, don't be so paranoid.  Gawd,” the archaeologist mused.  Putting his wallet into his pants, he chuckled, “It's just a news story.”  As he walked out of the bedroom, he thought, ~Geez, he's so easy to tease.~

~He sure knows how to yank my chain,~ Jack thought as he zipped up his pants.  ~He was teasing?  Wasn't he?~  Hurrying out of the bedroom, he called out, “Danny, you are just teasing, right?  Danny?  Daniel!”

====

On the fourth day of the bet, the brood once again gathered together in Jeff's room, excited at their still being engaged in the bet.  The oldest boy pulled out a chart from underneath the mattress on his bed.  Then, one by one, he marked off the chores and homework they'd completed since their first meeting on Friday night.

“Ash, you did really good last night not whining about your ice cream,” Jeff praised.

The little girl folded her arms across her chest and pouted indignantly, “It wasn't even a full scoop, Jeff!”

“Yeah, and Dad didn't give me any but'scotch topping,” Jenny complained.

“I know,” Jeff sighed, exchanging a worried look with his teenage sister.

“We're in for a battle,” Jennifer stated, looking at each of her siblings in turn. “Guys, we can stop this now, if you want.  We can forget about the party, and just let Dad win.”

“No!” Aislinn objected stubbornly.

“Dad won't win,” Jenny echoed.

“We'll stick together,” Jonny urged, rallying the brood.  “We're the brood!”

“And that means ...?” Jennifer prodded.

“Together, we're unbeatable,” the group sang, ending the mantra with the fist tap, their sign of solidarity.

Once the brood had agreed the bet was still on, Jeff continued, “Okay, so, we've done great so far, but we need to get more efficient at the housework, because Dad is going to beef up the homework.  You can bank on it.”

“What's 'fish net'?” Ricky asked.

Brianna chuckled and gently bumped her brother on the arm as she teased, “Efficient, Ricky, not fish net.”

“That's what I said -- fish'ent.”

The other kids laughed, and then Jennifer explained, “It means to do something better, in less time, so you have more time to do something else.”

“Right,” Jeff affirmed.  “And here's how we're going to do it.  I stopped by the bookstore, looking for a simple teamwork approach to housecleaning.”

“You really do want to win this bet,” Brianna asserted, surprised by the lengths her brother had gone to.

“Yes, I do, Bri.  It'll be fun to see Dad and Daddy all dressed up and to have a big party with everyone there,” Jeff agreed.  He thought for a moment and then continued, “But, even more than that, I want to prove to them that we can follow through; that we're old enough and smart enough to pull together and help each other win this bet.”

“Like Noa and I help each other with dance,” Lulu pointed out, taking her sister's hand.

“Yeah,” Chenoa agreed with a nod, smiling at the other girl.  “I'm not as good at ballet as Lulu is, but I'm better 'cause she helps me.”

“And Noa helps me with tap, because she's really good at tap,” Lulu added.

“And that's exactly what we all need to do, for one another, over the next two months,” Jennifer acknowledged.

“And this book, which the clerk told me was a classic, will help us,” Jeff stated, handing Jennifer a small paperback and then holding up another copy so everyone could see it.  “I got two so both Jen and I can refer to it at all times.”

“Back-up,” Jonny stated flatly, nodding his approval.

The book was entitled, 'Speed Cleaning' by Jeff Campbell and the Clean Team.

“You just bought it because the guy who wrote it is named Jeff,” Brianna teased.

“Well, he must be smart if he's named Jeff,” the older brother teased back.  “It's good stuff, Sis, just what we need to keep the house spotless in very little time.”

Jennifer chuckled, “Your buddies on the basketball team would get a kick out of this.”

“Jen, you wouldn't!” the teenage boy exclaimed.  ~They'd kill me.  Gee, I hope no one saw me buying them.~

“Just kidding,” Jennifer smirked with twinkling eyes.  “Of course, it might come in handy ... sometime.”

Jeff scowled at the veiled blackmail threat, but then his expression changed to a Cheshire cat grin.

Jennifer went into alert mode, sensing her brother's sudden lack of fear.

Smiling wickedly, the male teen said, “And your desertion of Beyonce for Barbra and Bette might come in handy, too.”

Jennifer paled at the reference to a few days earlier when, while thinking she was alone, she had turned on the house's music system CD player and found herself entranced by the sheer vocal dexterity of performers like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, who did nothing but stand at a microphone and sing.  While marveling at the total lack, or need, of visuals, she hadn't heard her older brother slip into the house and up to his room.

“I didn't know you were home,” Jennifer stated.

Moving the conversation forward, Jeff advised, “Here, I've made an outline and a schedule.  I'm sure we'll have to adjust it at some point.  Just remember, we need to stick together and help each other.”

The male teen smiled slyly as he glanced at his sister, who slid a fraction of an inch in her seat.

“This could work, Jeff,” Jennifer opined a moment later, trying to restore herself to her brother's good graces while she continued to peruse the book and Jeff's outline.

“It has to work, Jen; it's our only shot,” Jeff stated.

“Dad and Daddy don't have a chance,” David declared strongly.  “We're the good guys.”

“And we'll be like little hurricanes and take 'em by storm,” Jennifer mused.

“That's it!” Jonny exclaimed excitedly.  “This is 'Operation Goodstorm'.”

The eleven Jackson-O'Neill children stuck out their right arms and repeated their gesture of unity as they chatted enthusiastically about their plan to outwit their fathers and win the bet.

====

Five days into the bet, doing a routine house check, Daniel walked into the boys' room, the one shared by Jonny, Little Danny, and Ricky, and noted how clean it was.  Their toys were carefully arranged in their toy boxes, the spaces underneath their beds were free of clutter, the vanity was spotless, and even their closet was in order.

~Am I in the right room?~ the younger father asked himself in amazement, actually backing out of the room to make sure he hadn't gone into the girls' room by mistake.  ~I'm in the right room,~ he thought as he walked back in.  He shook his head as he looked at the beds.  They were so tightly made that he couldn't resist pulling a quarter out of his pocket and flipping it on Jonny's.  It bounced perfectly.  ~Jack won't believe this.  *I* don't believe this.~

====

The next day, the archaeologist again entered the boys' room.  This time, though, it was sheer curiosity.  He had just returned an extension cord that was no longer needed to the storage room when he decided to see if the boys had returned to reality yet.

Standing in the middle of the room, Daniel sighed ruefully, ~This room looks like it's ready for the photographers from Architectural Digest.  Jack's stirred up a hornet's nest with this bet.  It's going to be a long fifty days.~

As he studied the room, the archaeologist realized he found the place just a little creepy.  The only thing amiss on this day was that the computer had been left on.

~Oops!~

Daniel walked over to see what was on the computer screen.  If it was a game, the children would definitely lose the bet, since they weren't allowed to play any computer games without asking first.  They also weren't allowed to use the Internet without permission.  If it was anything else, the kids were safe as it wasn't a hard and fast rule to turn the computer off after being used.  He'd just remind them to conserve energy.

Smiling to himself, Daniel turned off the computer.  The program open had been a photo one, which was permissible, though he also knew that had his husband found it, he'd probably try and find some loophole.

~I can't do it, Jack.  I'm sorry,~ the sappy father thought after seeing what was on the screen -- a sample anniversary card from Little Danny to his parents.

All of a sudden, the boy in question hurried into the room.  He skidded to a stop, gasping when he saw his father by the computer.

“Hey, Sproglet,” Daniel called out with a loving smile.  “Good job on the cleaning.”

Little Danny's eyes were wide as dollars, and he was afraid to speak.

“Uh, the computer was on.  I turned it off for you.  It's not a stern rule, but let's try and remember to conserve energy when we can,” Daniel urged.

“Daddy, did you ...” the young boy began to ask, but was interrupted by his father.

“I do need to ask you, because I was in a hurry and forgot to check.  Were you playing any computer games or doing anything you're not allowed to do on the computer without permission?” Daniel questioned, utilizing one of Jack's famous 'little white lies'.  ~He doesn't need to know I saw it.~

“No, Daddy,” Little Danny answered truthfully.

“Okay.  Tell your brothers we're very pleased with such a clean room,” Daniel stated, gently patting the boy on the shoulder as he walked by.  As he walked out of the room, he heard a big sigh of relief from his namesake.  Chuckling, he continued on down the hallway lost in his own thoughts.  ~They really are looking forward to having a party.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.~

~That was close,~  Little Danny thought to himself with a relieved smile.  He walked over to the computer station.  He wrote a note, then put the post-it on the monitor.  “There,” he said out loud.  “Now, we won't forget,” certain that the 'Turn off computer' note would keep him from making the same mistake again.

====

Elsewhere in Colorado Springs, Sam had dropped in at one of the shelters which the Jackson-O'Neill family and friends often visited.  It's something they'd done for years, especially after the Mouseketeers had been 'discovered' at Molly O'Hanlon's shelter.  Somehow, they all found a way to give their time and energy to one of their favorite places for children without families.

“Sam, when you come back, will you take me on another ride on your motorcycle?” Shari Simkins asked hopefully.

Sam smiled and replied, “I'll ask Mrs. Pnopolis if it'll be okay.”

“Yah!” the happy nine-year-old cheered.

“See ya, Shari,” Sam said, getting her purse and heading out the door into the corridor.  She headed for the main office.  “Hi, Steve.  Is Miranda around?” she asked about the current head of the shelter.

Miranda Pnopolis was forty-five, with short brunette hair, and was very professional looking, but she also had a warm smile and a friendly demeanor that made her ideal for heading a children's shelter such as this one.

“She's in the Walrus,” Steve answered, giving the name of one of the rooms, all of which were known by various animal names.

Sam headed for the Walrus, where she talked with Miranda for several minutes about taking Shari on another bike ride.  She'd first taken the girl on her motorcycle just a week earlier, and Shari had loved it.  Miranda gave her approval, and Sam headed for the door.

Just before Sam reached the exit, a small, green ball ran across her path.  She knelt down and picked it up.  Looking around, she saw a little sandy blond-haired boy staring straight ahead.  From his size, she guessed he was about three or four.  He was rocking back and forth slightly.  A collection of toys were gathered at his feet, though at the center were a group of blocks, neatly aligned into a standing pyramid.  In fact, as she looked at the toys, she realized they were all neatly arranged into a similar shape.

Sam looked over her shoulder, wondering if there was someone behind her the child was playing with, but there wasn't anyone else nearby.

The blonde walked over to the boy, knelt down in front of him, and said, “I found this.  Is it yours?”

The youngster looked up at Sam and smiled.  He said nothing as the seconds passed, but he did keep smiling at her.

Sam was about to stand up when the boy asked, “Is it yours?”

The child took the small green ball from her hand, looked at her, and then rolled it away from him again.  Sam looked at the smiling child and shrugged.  She retrieved the ball and again gave it to the boy.  Again, he rolled the ball away.  The blonde hesitated, but she decided to get the object one more time.

Handing the ball back to the youngster, Sam joked, “Are you teaching me to fetch?”

The little boy laughed, but it was a few seconds before he next spoke, saying, “You have pretty blue eyes.”

“Thank you, and you have such handsome blond hair.  It's the perfect length,” Sam praised as she ran her hand along the side of the boy's head.

“Do you work here?” the boy asked.

“No, I'm in the Air Force,” Sam answered.

“I'm in the Air Force,” the boy echoed a few seconds later, still smiling up at her.

“Oh, well, what's your rank?” Sam questioned lightheartedly.  “I need to know if I'm supposed to be saluting you.  I'm a colonel.”

“I'm a colonel,” the boy responded, still rocking back and forth somewhat.

“Then maybe we'll see each other again,” Sam supposed gently.

“What's ... Air Force?” the small boy queried, still rocking himself, but also staring as if mesmerized by Sam's crystal blue eyes.

~Goodness.~  Sam began to speak, but was stunned by the question.  She opened her mouth, but just didn't know what to say.  She made a couple of noises as she searched for an answer.  “Well, the Air Force is a group of people who ... do a lot of things to ... help the world,” she answered.  ~Geez, that was such a bad answer.~  Smiling, she asked, “What do you do?”

After five seconds had passed, the little boy shrugged; then said, “You have pretty eyes.”

Sam blinked, not quite understanding the repetitive statement.

“Thank you.  My name is Samantha.  Everyone calls me Sam,” the colonel spoke.

“Sam's a boy's name.”

“I'm not a boy,” Sam laughed.  “What's your name?”

The boy blinked a few times as the clock ticked onward; then said, “I like circles.  Do you like circles?”

“Circles?  Um, well, sure.  It looks like you like pyramids, too,” the colonel observed about the boy's building blocks and the other similarly arranged toys.

“Pyramids good,” the boy spoke.

“I have a very good friend who loves pyramids.  He's an expert on them,” Sam revealed, thinking about Daniel.

“Pyramids good,” the boy said again, his smile becoming even brighter than before.  “I like circles.  Do you like circles?”

“Yes,” Sam reiterated with a confused smile.  Then she glanced at her watch and gasped.  “Oh, geez.  I'm late.  Maybe I'll see you again.  Bye.”

Rising, Sam turned around to leave and was surprised to see a group of six workers, including Miranda, staring at her with shocked expressions.

“Sam, can we talk?” Miranda requested, looking and sounding extremely serious.

“Miranda, I'm late for a really important ...”  Sam paused, feeling a bit disconcerted by the looks of the workers.  “What's wrong?”

Miranda led Sam into the hallway and explained, “Sam, in the last two minutes, we just learned more about Kevin than we have in months.”

“Kevin?  Is that his name?” Sam asked, looking back at the boy.

“Yes.  Kevin Concorran.  His mother had rubella while she was pregnant.  Now, we don't know for sure that's the cause, but it's something we know.”

“Miranda, I'm not following you,” Sam replied, still confused by the little boy and the reaction of the care workers.

“Kevin is autistic, and you're the first person he's responded to since he's been here,” Miranda revealed excitedly.

“I don't understand,” the blonde replied, glancing over through the door at the boy.  She walked closer, seeing him sitting in the same spot, just staring straight ahead while he rocked himself.  One of the workers was trying to talk to him, but he wasn't reacting, not at all.  “Autistic?”

Miranda walked up to stand next to Sam as they covertly spied on the youngster and spoke, “Kevin's father was never in the picture.  We don't even know who he is.  His mother tried to care for him, but she was on her own and didn't understand what was wrong with him.  She's released him to foster care, but refuses to give up her parental rights in full.”

“So, why isn't he in a foster home, or somewhere where he can get some real help?” Sam questioned, although she thought she already knew the answer.

“No one will take him.  We've tried, but he hasn't responded to anyone, and, like I said, his mother won't allow anything more than this.  Sam, we weren't even sure he could talk.  I'm ... stunned that he just spoke so well.  We had no idea.”  Almost to herself, Miranda said, “He must be high-functioning.  We *have* to find a way to get more testing done.”

“Well, I'm sure he'll be fine now,” Sam stated.  “I really need to go.”

As Sam started to walk away, Miranda called out, “He'll stay like he is if you don't come back, Sam.”

Sam paused, standing still for several seconds before slowly turning around to face Miranda.

Miranda walked closer and explained, “Kevin's mother won't allow us to do any testing.  He's in our care for the basics.  She thinks he's mentally disturbed.”

“What do you want me to do?” Sam asked, knowing she couldn't just leave.

“Talk to him some more, and let us observe,” Miranda requested.  “Sam, is that meeting you're heading off to more important than the one chance this little boy may have to get help?”

“Miranda, you just said his mother won't let you do anything.”

“Nothing official, but let me call Doctor Chipply.  If we can learn more about what Kevin knows, sees, feels, then maybe we could help him learn, instead of spending every waking minute in some stagnant world.  Please, Sam,” the woman pleaded.

“I need to make a phone call,” Sam stated, reaching into her purse and pulling out her cell phone.

====

That evening, as the Shanahans visited with the Jackson-O'Neills, Sam told the adults about her experience with the four-year-old boy.  The children were elsewhere in the house, some playing in the game room, others studying in their rooms, and a couple practicing their instruments in the music room.

“The mother doesn't want to have anything to do with him?” Daniel inquired, frowning.

“Nope, but she won't give up her rights, either.  They said she hasn't seen him in over a year,” Sam answered.

“She oughtta be shot,” Jack opined, shaking his head in disgust.

“Jack,” Daniel chastised between sips of his favorite Starbuck's brew.

“Danny, that frosts me.  Either be a parent or have the balls to give it up,” Jack spoke forcefully.  This situation reminded him too much of Nicholas Ballard, the grandfather in name only, who had refused to look after Daniel when he was a child, but wouldn't allow him to be adopted, either; thus relegating Daniel to growing up in a string of foster homes.  ~I'll never forgive him.~

“Wrong sex, Jack,” Pete mused, attempting to lighten the mood a little.

“Amen!” Jack retorted, happy the woman wasn't a member of his gender.

“So, he's bright?” the archaeologist asked.

“Daniel, Miranda told me that they had no clue he could even speak.  That just blows me away, but they discovered today that he knows speech very well.  He did something called ... uh, echolalia, repeating things that I said, and he paused a few seconds between answering me, but he looked me in the eye and talked to me.  They were beside themselves, especially that he looked at me the way he did.  Apparently, that's not normal for autistic children.”

“You going back, Gorgeous?” Pete asked his wife, rubbing her shoulder encouragingly as his arm wrapped around her.

“I think I have to.  Don't you?”

“I don't see how you couldn't,” Pete responded.  “He's a smart kid.”

“How do you know?” Sam questioned, tilting her head to look at her husband.

“He picked you to talk to.  It shows he has great taste,” Pete observed smugly, earning him a loving smile from his wife.

“Daniel, why don't you come with me one day next week to see him,” Sam suggested.

“Me?” Daniel responded in surprise.

“You're a linguist,” Sam noted.  “I know that doesn't make you an expert on autism or anything, but maybe you might see something everyone else can't; and, besides, he loves pyramids.”

“Uh, sure,” Daniel agreed readily.  “Just give me a call when you want to go.”

“Thanks.  How about more cake?” the blonde asked.  “This is great.”

“It's my secret ingredient,” Jack mused, a gleam in his eye.

“Beer?” Sam asked in horror, staring down at her plate.

“I'll never tell!” the general chuckled.

====

On Wednesday, September twelfth, as Jack and Daniel drove home from J-O Enterprises in Daniel's sporty car, the archaeologist noted, “Jack, the brood is determined to win this crazy bet of yours.”

“Our bet, Love, and don't worry about it.  They're doomed to lose,” the older man said with a grin as he checked the messages on his cell phone.

“Doomed to lose?” Daniel echoed, glancing over for one second at his husband.  “Jack, they're more focused on this than they've been on anything in a long time.”

“They're kids, Daniel,” Jack stated, as if that said all he needed to say.

“And ...?” Daniel prodded.

“Kids make mistakes.  Give it time.  I'm not worried,” Jack said, laughing at a text message.  “T just sent another Jaffa joke.  I tell ya, Danny, the Jaffa sense of humor is out of this world.”

“Like some other things I know,” Daniel sighed, shaking his head.  “Jack ... Jack!” he called out again, sensing his lover's lack of attentiveness.  “Turn that off.”

“So demanding,” Jack mused as he did as the younger man requested.

“All I'm saying is that the children want this party.  Look, I'm not so anxious to have some big affair, either, but would it really be that bad?” Daniel queried.

“Affair?” Jack questioned with greening eyes, as if only now tuning into the conversation, his mind using a different definition of the word.

“Jack, focus!”

“It's a party, not an affair,” the older man grumbled.  Before his lover could chastise him, he stated smugly, “We won't lose.”

“Right, like we didn't lose your crazy bet with Sam, huh?”

“That doesn't count,” the silver-haired fox whined.  “I would have won fair and square if not for that pesky bird's nest.”

“But you did lose, Babe,” Daniel explained slowly.  “It took me days to get all that Jell-O out of places I never thought Jell-O could get.”

Jack smiled at that mental imagery before insisting stubbornly, “We won't lose.”

“Right, but we should make some plans, just in case,” the younger man pointed out sensibly.

“Totally unnecessary,” Jack responded, slicing the air with his outstretched hand.

“Jack, if we lose this bet ...” Daniel began.

“We won't,” Jack maintained fervently, cutting off his lover.

“Okay, well, hypothetically, let's say we were going to have a party ...”

“We're not.”

“Right, but if we were, hypothetically speaking ...”

“Daniel, we aren't going to lose.  The brood can't hold out for two full months,” Jack stated.

“Humor me.  Hypothetically, *if* we had to have this party, would you want it at the house or someplace else?” the concerned archaeologist inquired.

“Hypothetically or not, we are *not* ...”

“Just answer the question!” Daniel ordered.

“We couldn't have it at the house, Daniel,” Jack stated gruffly.  “We don't have that kind of room.”

“So, hypothetically, we'd have it someplace else ... a hotel or something,” Daniel surmised.

“Or something,” Jack agreed, quickly adding, “Hypothetically, and that *isn't* going to happen.”

“Whatever you say, Babe,” Daniel replied, shaking his head at the older man's stubborness.  ~Okay, hotel then.  Let's see -- in the Springs or maybe Denver?~

====

Two weeks into the bet, the ever-practical Daniel asked, “Jack, don't you think we should price a few caterers?”  He felt his husband glare daggers at him.  “I mean, just in case.”

“I keep telling you, Danny, that there is no way in Netu that all of our children are going to be perfect for two whole months.  No way,” Jack stated smugly as he fastened the buttons on his shirt.

“It's been two weeks, Babe; fifteen days, actually,” the archaeologist spoke as he zipped up his pants.

“And I have to give them credit for getting this far,” Jack admitted.  With a hint of pride, he added, “I didn't think they'd make it two days.”

“They're giving each other a lot of support,” the younger man opined, walking over to comb his hair.

“Yeah, I almost had Jonny,” Jack chuckled.

“I meant to talk to you about that,” Daniel stated.

Amused, Jack continued, “He was *that* close.”  He held up his hand, his fingers just a hair apart as he demonstrated his words.  “He was going to make a face, I just know it.”  He shook his head, “But then David cleared his throat, and when Jonny looked in his direction, he tapped his closed fists together.  What's with that, anyway?”  He shrugged, but not waiting for a response, stated, “Then when the little rugrat looked back at me, all he did was smile and talk about how much he was looking forward to eating lima beans.”

“You know Jonny doesn't like lima beans, Jack,” Daniel sighed, a hint of chastisement in his tone.  “You could have made green beans for him, if you wanted to have lima beans yourself.”

“Daniel, it's not like eating a few lima beans will kill him,” Jack replied in his defense.  “I'm not torturing our children by exposing them to different foods.”  Ignoring his lover's challenging stare, he changed the subject just slightly as he noted, “They watched 'Sabrina' again last night.”

“Twice,” Daniel pointed out.

“Jen said next week they're going to watch the remake with Harrison Ford.  Remakes -- rarely live up to the original, but that one is close,” Jack stated.

“You'd look better in a tux than Harrison Ford, Babe,” Daniel opined as he approached his lover, his eyes smiling with love and lust.

“We are *not* going to wear tuxes, Danny.  No way,” Jack stated strongly.  “I am not a penguin.”

“Of course, you're not,” Daniel said, his facial expression hinting at his lust and desire for his husband.  The lovers kissed and were about to share another when they heard the sound of a crying baby.  “I'll take care of him,” he stated, heading for the nursery.  “I still think we should find a caterer, unless you want the hotel to handle it.”

“They'll weaken, Daniel.  I have a plan,” Jack confided.

“Yes, Jack, I'm sure you do,” Daniel chuckled as he disappeared from his lover's sight.  ~The problem is, so do our children.~  **Jack, *hypothetically*, separate caterer or the hotel's?**

**We're *not* ...**

**I said hypothetically, Jack.  Answer the question.**

**We always go first class, Daniel.  You know that,** Jack barked as he picked up the phone, about to check in with Hammond about a scheduled meeting for that morning.

**Caterer, then?  Hypothetically, of course.**

**Hypothetically.  Daniel, you're going to have one heck of an hypothetical party.**

As Daniel began to change JD, he thought, ~I have a feeling it's not going to be quite so hypothetical.  Okay, professional caterer.  Next step:  choose the hotel, hypothetically, that is.~

====

Today was Tuesday the eighteenth, and Daniel was going back and forth between homeschooling and handling business for J-O Enterprises.  Jack, meanwhile, was at the Mountain and was scheduled to be there most of the day.  Tonight, the lovers would be going to Denver for a special night out in celebration of it being the sixth anniversary of their second wedding.

At the moment, the children were on a study break while their younger father went over survey results with Karissa Lewis, one of J-O's most trusted employees, as well as being the object of Little Danny's affections.

Tomboy Brianna was outside, shooting hoops in the driveway.  She had about thirty minutes or so between lessons while Daniel was on the phone.  The sports-loving pre-teen was about to take a long shot when she heard a familiar engine pull in and stop at the very tail end of the driveway.

“Dad!” Brianna called out, approaching her father with the basketball poised between her hands.  She smiled as Jack got out of the truck.  “What are you doing home?  I thought you had to be at the Mountain all day today,” the curious girl asked.

“I did, but now I don't, and I have people taking care of things for me while I'm gone,” Jack replied whimsically.  “So, I'm playing hookey for a few hours.”

“Hookey,” Brianna chuckled while she twirled the ball in her hands.

“It's a perk of running the show where I work, just like I do at home,” the general quippd with a grin.

“I'll tell Grandpa you said that,” the blonde said in a slightly threatening tone.  “And Daddy.”

“Oh, no, you won't,” Jack chuckled lightly.

Chuckling herself, the young girl noted, “I have a feeling that Grandpa thinks he's running the Mountain.”

“Yeah, well, I let him think that,” the older father joked.

“Sure, Dad.”

With a conspiring nod, Jack requested, “Let's see you make that shot, Bri.”

Brianna obliged, bouncing the ball a few times as she returned to her original position.  She focused intently on the net as she prepared herself.  Calculatingly, the athlete bounced the ball once and then launched it from her chest in one smooth motion.  It sailed through the air and right into the hoop.

“Nothin' but net!  Way to go, Bri,” the proud father praised.

“Thanks, Dad!” Brianna replied, smiling happily as she retrieved the ball and returned to where her father stood in front of his truck.

“Hey, I was thinking you and I could go down to the shelter and get a pick-up game going.  Come see what's in the truck,” Jack requested, heading towards the back of the vehicle.

Agreeably, the girl walked to the bed of the Ford pickup and saw a new basketball hoop and backboard, along with six new basketballs.

“Let's go, Bri,” Jack urged.  “We'll make the donation and get a game going.  We'll have a ball, or six.”

This was temptation at its worst.  After hockey and dolphins, Brianna loved basketball more than anything.  Plus, from her parents, she had learned to love sharing her good fortune with others.  After all, she'd been rescued from a miserable situation herself.  Last, but not necessarily least, her older father was a true kid at heart and was always fun, and funny, to be around.  Going to the shelter with Jack was always a delight for the tomboy.

Though dying to say 'yes', the youngster bit her lip as she answered, “Dad, Daddy will be off the phone in a few minutes, and I have to be back in class.”

With a sly smile, the father replied whimsically, “As the principal of your school, I can write you a note.  I happen to know your teacher, and I can get you permission to play hookey.”  His smile was bright as he silently urged, ~Come on, Bri.~

The temptation mounted, but Brianna knew her older siblings, Jennifer and Jeff, were depending on her and David to keep extra-close tabs on the younger members of the brood today.  The teens both had big exams coming up and needed to focus on their own homework for the next couple of days.  Plus, Jeff would be home later than usual because of his commitment to the theater program where he was one of the stagehands.

~It's not like I can help Little Danny.  He's a genius,~ Brianna told herself.  She was about to agree to go with Jack, whose enticing smile was making it difficult to refuse his offer.  Then, though, she remembered her other siblings.  Lulu had progressed far in overcoming her dyslexia problems, but one of her homeschooling assignments that was due was a written report on plant species.  Lulu had already asked Brianna if she'd read it and make sure it didn't have any mistakes in it.  ~I did promise,~ the tomboy sighed.

Overall, Brianna realized that her bailing out on her siblings that afternoon might not cause them to lose the bet directly, but it could have a negative effect on their chances of winning.

Jack sensed the young girl's weakening mental state and silently thought, ~All I need is for the brood to make two or three choices that are for themselves, just long enough to throw a monkey wrench into that well-oiled machine they *think* they have going.~

“Dad, that sounds cool, but I promised I'd stay home today,” Brianna finally stated, knowing she had to honor her commitment to her brothers and sisters.  ~I won't be the weak link in the chain.~

“Promised who?” Jack asked a bit grumpily.

“Everyone,” the girl answered with a shrug.  “Munchkins, Spitfires, Mouseketeers, and Mavericks.”  ~That's not a lie,~ she thought, remembering the brood's various meetings in which they promised to support each other in their efforts to win the bet.

“Oookay.  Well, I'll tell the kids you're thinking about them,” Jack replied sadly as he walked to the truck, his head hung low.

Brianna was tempted to run after her father and shout, 'Wait, Dad! Wait for me,' but she bit her lip to fight back tears and turned away from watching the Ford pickup.

~Dang well-oiled machine,~ Jack bemoaned.

Brianna was staring at the hoop, trying not to let her disappointment get the better of her.  She didn't see Jack's truck turn around a few seconds later, so she was startled when she heard the familiar sound of the engine for the second time in fifteen minutes.  When she saw her dad motion for her to come to him, she did.

Jack again got out of the truck and suggested, “Hey, how about helping me put these things in the garage?”

“But I thought ...”

“Thinking gets people in trouble,” Jack interrupted.  “How about we plan on going one day next week, when you don't have any other plans?”  He smiled warmly while thinking, ~I couldn't do it.  I couldn't stand that hurt look in her eyes.  They'll slip up somewhere along the way without my help.~

“Okay, Dad,” Brianna agreed with a smile, hurrying to put her basketball away first so she could help her father.

~That's better.  Look at those eyes, now,~ Jack said to himself.  Nodding, he thought, ~You can win the bet, O'Neill.  They'll mess up on their own.~

====

A few days later, on the twenty-first day of the bet, Jack whined to his lover, “Daaannyyy, I can't find my favorite jeans, the ones with the frayed hems and the holes.”

“Sorry, Babe, but I don't know where they are,” Daniel responded.  “I couldn't do the laundry this week.”

“Yeah, it's been a long week,” the older man sighed about their recent hectic schedule, as he continued to tear through the 'oldies bin' in the closet in search of his beloved jeans.  It was the place where the lovers often just tossed their old, torn clothing that they used for working around the house.  ~They have to be here.~

As he slipped on his socks, Daniel corrected, “No, Jack, I mean I couldn't do the laundry because the brood beat me to it.”  ~They help with the laundry, sure, but to do a whole two weeks worth?  That disturbs me a little, because somewhere, somehow, *I* feel responsible for this.~

“You mean they put our clothes away?” Jack asked hopefully.  ~In our room without permission?  Busted!~

“Nice try, General, but, no,” Daniel replied, rolling his eyes as he stood up, slipped on his shoes, and walked a couple of steps towards his lover.  “Our clothing was in baskets, neatly folded, like it was on a department store shelf.  They had to have used that folding thingy you sent for years ago and never used.  I mean, Jack, it was picture perfect.  All of our clothes were on hangers in the front closet, looking like they had come from the dry cleaners.  *I* put everything away.  Go look in the drawers; maybe I put your jeans there without realizing it.”

Jack grumbled as he opened the dresser drawers and saw perfectly folded polo shirts, socks, sweatpants, and shirts.  Even his boxer shorts had been neatly ironed.  He returned to the closet and, this time, turned on the light, intending to see if the jeans had been 'hung' by accident.  That's when he noticed that their shirts were perfectly starched and creased, not a loose or missing button to be found, and their pants creased perfectly, including their casual wear.

~They didn't!~ Jack wailed as he rifled through the hangers, stopping when he came to a pair of jeans he didn't recognize.  Upon closer inspection after pulling them out, he saw that these were, indeed, his beloved ratty old ones, transformed.  ~They did!~

The military man couldn't believe what he was seeing.  The missing belt loops on his jeans had been replaced, and the old zipper that tended to stick because of a few missing teeth was gone, a shiny new one in its place.  The frayed hems had been neatly machine-stitched back in place with the same thread they had when they were new, and the holes had been expertly patched, hardly noticeable.  They had been starched and creased, too.  The most galling thing, however, was that their faded color was gone.  The soft time-worn blue fabric was now the deep, deep, denim hue of a pristine, factory fresh garment, eagerly awaiting its gradual transformation into a dearly beloved piece of comfortable clothing.

“You, uh, found them?” Daniel asked as he entered the edge of their walk-in closet.

Jack held up his jeans like a child holding up a broken toy, and charged, “They lose the bet for this!”

Daniel raised his eyebrows and questioned hesitantly, “Uh, why?”

“Look at these!  They're like, like *new*!” Jack spoke with disgust.

“Jack, where did you leave them?” the younger man questioned, already suspecting the answer.

“Right where they should have be...Oh, crap!” Jack snapped, realizing the sorry truth.  Beaten, he sighed, “I left them in the garage, on the floor, by the washing machines.”

Nodding, Daniel replied, “You sure did, and the brood treated them just like all the laundry -- if it's dirty, wash it, if it's torn, patch it, and if it's wrinkled, iron it.” Seeing his husband so distraught, he approached and gave him a consolatory kiss.  Then he chuckled, “Don't worry, Love.  It won't take long to break them in ... again.”

====

“I wish I could have been there, but I had to finish those translations,” Daniel spoke into his hands free cell phone as he came to a stop sign at a four-way intersection.  He waited for another vehicle to cross before continuing.  He was returning from spending the afternoon at Cheyenne Mountain.  “Do they like it?”

~Translations?  Some things never change.~  Laughing, Jack replied, “Danny, they're kids at a shelter with a hoop that didn't even have a net and could barely stay attached to the backboard.  What do you think?”

“Yeah,” a thoughtful Daniel replied.  “Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“I'm glad we do things like this, just because.  Do you know what I mean?” the former foster child asked.

“I know, Danny,” the older man replied softly.  “Hey, Bri just made a three-pointer.  That girl is one heck of an athlete.”

“Tell her 'way to go' for me,” Daniel requested.

“Will do.  Danny, I'd like us to stay for another hour or so.  Are you okay with that?” Jack asked.

Daniel could hear the kids in the background, shouting out for “General Jack” to come back and rejoin the game.  He knew his soulmate was having just as much fun as they were.

“No problem, Babe.  I'll check the mail and then get dinner started,” the younger man offered as he made another stop at a stop sign, now just three blocks from their renovated home.

“Thanks, Love,” Jack spoke appreciatively.  “Hey, we stopped in to see Kevin.”

“Any change?” Daniel inquired.

“No,” Jack answered sadly.  “We built more pyramids, or I watched him build pyramids; but I have a good feeling about the little guy.”

“Me, too,” Daniel agreed about the autistic child that Sam had met a while ago.  “Jack?”

“Yes?”

“Win one for the ... geeker!” Daniel teased.

“That was bad, Daniel.”

“Yeah, it was, wasn't it?” the scientist asked rhetorically.  “Love you.”

“Love you, too.  See you in about an hour and a half,” Jack said, disconnecting the call, flipping his cell phone shut and then rejoining the kids for more basketball.

Pulling into the driveway a minute later, Daniel looked in disbelief at the front of his home. There was not one toy, tricycle, or garden tool left out.  The stone planters had been scrubbed, their flowers and shrubs pruned.  Even the shrubbery that lined the music room was uncommonly flawless in appearance.  The driveway practically gleamed, and the grass along the edges was cut perfectly.  It looked like a photograph, an airbrushed photograph that could grace the cover of any home and garden magazine.

Christa Svenson waved to Daniel and hurried across the street, obviously eager to speak with him.

“Dear, are you moving?” the senior citizen asked, a bit out of breath.

“Uh, no.  Why do you ask?” the archaeologist inquired as he got out of his car and greeted their beloved neighbor.

“Well, I haven't seen much of the children lately, except to clean and groom the yard.  Goodness, Jeff even scrubbed the driveway earlier,” Christa spoke in amazement.  “The house looks like it's ready for a 'For Sale' sign.”

~Gawd, she's right,~ Daniel thought.  He smiled and promised, “We're not going anywhere.  We love it here.”

After a few more assurances and seeing Christa safely back to her own front door, Daniel walked back to his own yard and proceeded around to the back.  To his dismay, the backyard looked as picture perfect as the front: neatly cut lawn, manicured shrubs and flower beds, and not a single toy, not even one belonging to the beagles, was to be seen.

~Why are they doing all of the yard work?  Most of this isn't their regular responsibility.~

The archaeologist's heart was heavy as he trooped up to one of two doors opening from the rec room.  The glass was clean, perfectly clean, not a single fingerprint or dog slobber to be seen.  He postponed entering the house for a moment and walked around the side, realizing that those windows were the same, as spotless as if a professional service had done them.

~It wasn't this clean the first time I saw the place,~ Daniel thought about the home he loved so much.  Finally entering the home, he could hear the deafening silence.  It was a stark contrast to the happy noises he had overheard on the cell phone while talking with his husband a few minutes earlier.  ~Jack, this is wrong. Our house is supposed to be full of happy voices, not ... this,~ he opined about the chilling calm that filled the home.  ~Jack made the bet for the two of us, so why do I have this nagging uneasy feeling that I'm responsible for this ... this ... overclean silent sterility?~

Missing the enthusiastic welcome of 'Hi, Daddy' that accompanied the scurrying patter of happy feet, the archaeologist found his children in the game room.  Quickly enough, they greeted him with hugs and smiles, but it was slightly restrained, none of the children wanting to risk losing the bet because they ran in the house or raised their voices.

~This is definitely wrong,~ Daniel lamented.

====

That night in their room, Daniel tried for several minutes to convince his soulmate to concede the bet and have the party, but Jack balked at the thought of tossing in the towel.

“No way!” the general barked.  “It's only been twenty-five days.”

“But, Jack, the outside chores are not really their job,” Daniel complained.

“Neither is the laundry, but the more they take on, the more the pressure builds and the sooner they'll make a mistake, and then we win,” Jack boasted.  “It's short lived, so enjoy it while it lasts, Danny.  One of them will probably crack tomorrow.”  ~Especially if I give one of them a little nudge,~ he mused as he disappeared into the bathroom to take a shower.

Daniel shook his head and sat down on the bed, wondering just how much more out of hand this bet would get.  His husband was beginning to lose his perspective, and their children weren't even acting like children.  The archaeologist missed the old days of grizzly bears and whines of having to go to bed earlier than the children wanted to.

~Jack may survive it; the brood may survive it, but I'm not sure I will,~ Daniel bemoaned as he plopped back on the bed.  Just then, Katie jumped up and cozied up next to him, licking his face.  He laughed, saying, “At least you're still the same.”

====

“So ... hypo ... <kiss> ... thetic ... <kiss> ... ally ... <nibble on ear>, big band ... or ... <lick on the base of the earlobe> ... live music ... <kiss> ... or ...”

“Daniel, forget the hypowhatzit, and let's get on with it,” Jack urged as the two were engaged in some heavy foreplay.

“Ans...<kiss>...wer the ... <nibble> ... question,” Daniel insisted.

“We're gonna ... geez, Daniel, do we have to ... uh, talk about this now?” Jack gasped, his frustration at the delay in their progress mounting.  He much preferred to focus on their lovemaking than some silly party that would never come to be.  “Later!”

“Okay,” Daniel panted, backing away, leaving his much-hardened husband in the lurch.

With wide eyes, Jack exclaimed, “Danny!”

~Gawd, I hope he doesn't argue this time.  I want him.  Boy, do I want him,~ Daniel thought, his own physical state not much better than his lover's.  “Hypothetically speaking, Jack, what do you prefer for the party?  Live music?  Big band?  A disc jockey?  Country?  Opera?  Whaaaat?” he asked, his last word sounding like a demanding and desperate plea.

“Live -- big band -- the classics like Dorsey, Goodman, Glenn Miller,” Jack answered, referring to three of the most famous bands in big band history.  “Now, can weeeee...”

Happily, Jack's words were cut off when his husband pounced on him.  Foreplay was over, and the union of their bodies was progressing at full throttle.

====

“Fist taps all around,” Jeff instructed, holding out his own.

“Twenty-eight days!” Brianna exclaimed, adding her own fist to the pile.

“What's our motto?” Jennifer asked.

“Together, we're unbeatable,” the brood chorused together confidently.

“See you guys later.  Come on, Jen.  We need to go,” Jeff called out, the two getting ready to go to school.

“Have a good day,” Jennifer called out to the brood as she waved goodbye.  “Stay strong!”

“Bye!” the children waved from the entranceway and then headed for the rec room where their homeschooling session would begin in a few minutes.

====

Later that afternoon, most of the brood were with various caregivers, and the teenagers were still at their school.  Only Jonny, who was playing in the living room, Ricky, who had fallen asleep on the sofa, and JD, who was taking a nap in his crib, were at home with their parents.  At the moment, Jack was out front, doing maintenance on his Ford truck.  Daniel had just come back from a run around the neighborhood with Bijou and Katie and was taking a shower.

When the phone rang, Jonny got up from the floor in the living room.  Knowing he wasn't allowed to answer the phone without getting permission, he hurried to the front door, intending to call Jack in from the driveway.  Just as he was about to open the door, though, he realized that he'd be breaking a major rule, so he decided to get Daniel instead.  He headed upstairs, going as fast as he could without running.  He knocked on the master bedroom door, shouting out for his younger father.

“DADDY!”

“What is it?” Daniel shouted from the bathroom.

“Phone's ringing.  Dad's outside,” Jonny answered.  “Can I answer it?”

“Yes, Jonny, answer the phone, and then tell me who's on the line,” the archaeologist shouted from the shower, where he was covered in soap and lather.

Having received permission from his father, Jonny entered the room.  Walking up to the nightstand, he picked up the cordless phone and answered it.

“Jackson-O'Neill residence ... okay,” Jonny said when asked to wait a moment.  “Hi!” he greeted enthusiastically.  “He's outside ... I can't; it's a rule ... He's in the shower ... okay ... yes ... uh-huh ... okay ... we're having a party, a big party.  Do you want to come? ... na-uh.  It's Dad and Daddy's anniversary ... uh-huh ... uh-huh ... yeah ... okay ... we're sending invitations ... uh-huh ... okay ... bye!”

The oldest of the triplets hung up the phone, closing the bedroom door as he left the room.  He carefully made his way down the stairs.  As he entered the living room, Ricky stirred in his sleep.  Not wanting to wake his brother, he gathered up his soldiers, deciding to continue playing with them in his room.

--

A few minutes later, Daniel, wearing just his robe with a blue towel around his neck, his hair still wet and mussed, walked into the boys' room and asked, “Jonny, who was on the phone?”

“It was Mister President.  He said to say 'hi',” the young boy said, looking up at his father.

“The President ... of the United States?” Daniel asked, blinking several times at the information.

Jonny nodded casually, adding, “He said he'd call back when you weren't in the shower.”

~Gawd!~  Daniel couldn't help blushing as he imagined the conversation his son had had with the President.  “Oh, uh, anything else?”

“He said to tell Dad not to blow up the truck,” Jonny stated as he knocked down one toy soldier with another one.

“Oh,” the young man replied, his lip twitching slightly.  “Anything else?”

“He said, 'bye',” Jonny answered, apparently totally unphased by his presidential discussion.

“Okay,” Daniel said, walking out of the room.

“And he said to send him an invitation to the party,” Jonny added, shrugging when he realized his younger father had already left the room.  ~He'll bring a big present,~ the boy mused.

====

Thirty days into the bet, Jack walked into the den, where his husband was working.  He spotted some papers that drew his attention.

~What does that say?~  Picking up the papers, Jack leafed through them and frowned.  “Danny, what are these?”

“Just some pricing lists from the Hyatt in Denver,” Daniel answered, not even looking at his lover.

“For what?”

“A ballroom for the party, in case,” Daniel answered as he typed in a URL on the computer.  “There are some quotes from the caterers and a few big bands, too, if you want to look them over.”

“Why waste our time?” the general questioned.

“We can't leave it until the last minute, Jack,” the younger man said sensibly.  “And you said that you didn't want to have the party here, which I agree with, by the way.”

“That was a hypothetical, Daniel.”

“Yes, of course.  Well, Jack, for the hypothetical party, which hypothetically might happen, those are hypothetical quotes from hypothetical locales, along with a few hypothetical menus, and some hypothetical play lists from some hypothetical bands, in case you want to look at them ... hypothetically, of course.”

“The party will never happen, Danny,” Jack insisted, tossing the papers into the wastebasket.  “They're going to crack any day; I'm sure of it.”

~This site isn't giving me what I want,~ Daniel thought.  Leaning back in his chair, he twisted it around to look at his husband, who was now seated in the recliner, picking at his newly 'renewed' jeans.  “Jack, the children have been perfect for thirty days.  That's halfway to winning the bet, just over half, and that's speaking technically, not hypothetically.”

“And there's no way they'll be able to finish it.  No way,” the older man maintained as Mittens the cat jumped up on him.  “Oops.  Sorry, Love.  I should have closed the door,” he said, getting up and gently setting the cat into the hallway.  “Go find your purring cohort,” he said, referring to the family's other cat, Calico.

As Jack closed the door and returned to the recliner, he grimaced, pulling at his pants and mumbling indistinguishable words.

Daniel tried not to grin as he replied, “Those creamed vegetables you served last night were dirty pool, Jack.  *I* could hardly eat them, but the entire brood ate them like they were eating ice cream; speaking of which, you conveniently forgot to restock the freezer, even after I reminded you.  If you noticed, though, none of them even asked for any ice cream.”

“That was a bit spooky; very Twilight Zone-ish,” Jack commented with a shiver.  “But they'll crack, Angel.  I'm sure of it.”

“Of course, they will,” Daniel responded dryly, rolling his eyes at his husband's disbelief that their children couldn't win this bet.  He added, “And denial isn't just a river in Egypt.”

“That's my line.”

“We're married; it's both of ours,” the younger man mused.  More seriously, Daniel leaned forward and stared into chocolate brown eyes.  They were the eyes of his Heart.  “Jack, just stay focused on what really matters, okay?”

“What do you mean?” the older man asked, looking up from his jeans.

Daniel smiled and answered, “Us; our family.  That's all I'm asking.”

“Not a problem,” Jack replied.

Nodding a couple of times, the archaeologist leaned back.  He was hopeful, but part of him worried that his husband was getting lost in the bet and the notion of winning.  Sometimes, Jack being a kid at heart wasn't a good thing.  He feared this was one of those times.

“By the way, did you ever get in touch with the President?” Daniel inquired a few moments later, referring to the man's phone call from September 27.

“He's out of the country,” Jack replied.  “Apparently, it wasn't anything overly important.”

“Jonny didn't even think it was unusual,” the younger man remarked.

Jack chuckled, “Well, the brood has met the man a few times, and he sends great birthday gifts.”

“That's true,” Daniel chuckled before the lovers moved on to other conversational topics.

====

Later, Daniel retrieved the tossed papers from the wastebasket and reviewed them again.  He was walking a fine line in maintaining loyalty to his husband's wishes and not wanting to let their children down, and he knew it.

~Sorry, Babe,~ Daniel thought as he picked up the phone to make his next call to the hotel.  ~Just be careful, Jackson.  Find the solution, but don't cross the line yourself.~  As he waited for the call to connect, he rationalized, ~I'm just doing what Jack preaches -- always be prepared.~

====

With the last of the children having left with their various caregivers, and the others in school, Daniel walked from the kitchen through the dining area to the living room.  He was about to reach for the jacket he had left lying on the sofa in anticipation of leaving in a few minutes when he saw it was gone.  Sighing, he walked to the hall closet and saw his jacket, hanging perfectly straight, zipped, and buttoned.

~Twenty-four days to go,~ the archaeologist sighed again.  ~Jack, you don't even know what you've gotten us into.  I want our life back, our noisy, messy, full of joy life.~

The younger father unbuttoned and unzipped his jacket, put it on, and left the house.

====

Meanwhile, in his office at the SGC, Jack reached for a file, getting an unanticipated glimpse of his desk calendar.  His eyes focused on today's date, October 2nd, and then they darted down to October 26th, the day the bet would end. They were too close together for his liking.

~Wait a minute,~ the general harkened.  ~That's only twenty-four more days.  Geez, time has flown by.~  He paused, a frown developing on his handsome face. ~The brood's hung in there.~  The frown melted into a smile for just a moment before his thoughts continued.  ~Can't have that,~ he determined, shaking his head. ~No monkey suit for this general.  Gonna have to turn up the heat a little.  Sorry, Kids, it's for my, uh, your own good.~

Mentally, Jack reviewed the family agenda for the current week.  Slowly, an idea formed.  Finding the phone number he wanted in his PDA, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Mrs. Richardson?  Jack Jackson-O'Neill here ... just fine.  I wanted to ask you about your plans for tomorrow ...”

====

“Jack, I know what you're doing,” Daniel sighed later that day upon hearing about the plans for David to spend the next afternoon with Mrs. Richardson's son, Samuel.

“I'm not doing anything, Danny, but making sure the kids are all covered for tomorrow since we can't be here all day,” Jack responded innocently.

“Right,” Daniel acknowledged dryly, shaking his head.  ~Babe, I hope you know what you're doing.~

====

The next evening, the lovers were sitting up in bed, each reading a book, when Daniel ended their silence.  He'd arrived home later than usual, and they really hadn't caught up on all of the day's activities, especially since Jack had evaded the specific issue he really wanted to know about.

“Jack, what did Mrs. Richardson say about David when she dropped him off after his visit with her son,” Daniel asked, his tone taking a slightly sarcastic edge to it when he continued, “her son who is being homeschooled because no school in the Springs will have him?”

Jack coughed, wincing slightly at the tone as he answered, “She said David was a good influence on her Samuel.”

“Good influence?” Daniel questioned.  “You have a huge capacity for understatement, My Love.”

Jack looked at his lover with suspicion and finally surmised, “You called her!”

With an assured smile, the younger man replied, “I wanted to make sure David was doing okay.  I was prepared to intercede, if he wasn't.”

The general scowled, “Daniel, I am not throwing our children to the wolves.”

“I know that's not your intention, Jack, but right now your genius isn't exactly firing on all cylinders.”

“I'm not the genius,” Jack refuted, putting his book down on his lap.

“We won't go there,” Daniel replied.  “Let's stay on topic.”

“Yes, let's,” Jack agreed before he recalled what the original topic was.

Daniel continued, “Mrs. Richardson practically begged us to adopt Samuel.  She hinted that she'd like to leave him with us while she and Donald went on a cruise.”

“Yeah, she told me that, too,” the older man admitted.  Then he laughed, “I'd be afraid they'd run off and leave him here.”

“*You* said you didn't want David hanging around him,” the archaeologist reminded forcefully.  “Why'd you let him spend the entire day at the Richardson's?”

“David *is* a good influence, all of our kids are, and we'd be selfish to keep them all to ourselves all the time,” Jack spoke in a gallant tone.

“Jack, you can't double-talk an expert double-talker,” Daniel stated pointedly.  “You were hoping David would come home with some of Samuel's bad habits, or that, at the least, he'd be so upset that he'd whine or complain about having spent the afternoon there.  Babe, he did great.  He met your challenge.  The funny thing is, he ended up getting through to Samuel.  Mrs. Richardson is grateful.”

Jack sighed, then glanced over at his soulmate as he stated, “I am kinda proud of the little guy.”

“That little guy is growing up.  He's eleven years old.”

“Eleven?” Jack echoed in a question-like gasp.  “Where'd the time go?  Danny, do you remember him back at Molly's shelter?”

“How could I forget?” Daniel mused with a smile.  “He swore at me in Arabic.”

For a little while, the parents reminisced about their young son, laughing and enjoying both funny and poignant moments that had occurred over the years.

“Jack, you know he likes Cory, don't you?” Daniel asked as he nuzzled into his husband's hold.

Both men were still sitting up, their books now resting on their laps.  Daniel had moved over a minute earlier, during their look back in time.  Jack had instinctively put his arm around his spouse's shoulder.

“Cory Smith?” Jack asked, thinking a moment.  “Hal and Kate's daughter?”

“She'd be the one,” Daniel acknowledged about the slightly plump brown-haired girl with dazzling brown eyes and who wore glasses just like David's.

“Yeah, I've noticed.  He lights up like a Christmas tree around her; that is, until someone notices, including Cory,” Jack chuckled, remembering how the boy had blushed to the roots of his hair the previous week.  “He likes her smile.”

“Are you ready for that?” the younger man asked seriously.

“No.  You?”

“I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me,” Daniel teased.  “I'm supposed to be the rational one, the negotiator, remember?”

“You are, Angel,” Jack assured, giving his husband a kiss on the forehead.  “I suppose it's time to break down and let David have a cell phone.”

“His friends all have them, not that that is a reason to,” Daniel replied.  “He's responsible enough, Jack.  He's proven that.  Today, with Samuel, was just another example of that.”

“Yeah, no rampant cell phone bills for David, unless Cory moves out of the phone plan range,” Jack laughed.

“Speaking of cell phone bills, Babe,” Daniel began, moving out of his Love's hold.  He reached over to the nightstand where he had placed a few of the bills to review before changing over to enjoying a novel.  “You need to see this.”

“What is it?” Jack asked as he took the envelope in hand.

“Jennifer's cell phone bill.”

“That bad, huh?” Jack remarked, cringing.  ~It'll be worth it.  No monkey suit for me!~

“Read it and weep, Babe,” Daniel quipped.

Jack pulled the bill out of the opened envelope, surprised it was so thin.  He tugged on the envelope, pulling it out wide.  He looked inside, grimacing when no other papers fell out.

“Problem?” the archaeologist inquired knowingly.

“Where's the rest of it?” Jack asked, staring at his husband.

“That's it.”

“The whole thing?  It can't be,” Jack replied in disbelief, once again checking the envelope.

“Yup,” Daniel affirmed with a nod.  “It's the whole thing.”

~I don't believe it.~  Jack took the four sheets of paper, which included the change of address form and the payment stub, unfolded them, and read them one by one.  “Eighty-eight minutes of talk-time for an entire month?” he asked incredulously.  “It has to be a mistake.  This can't be our daughter's cell phone bill.  I'll bet they mixed Jennifer's up with Jeff's.”

“If you say so, Babe,” a wiser Daniel remarked.

Reaching over to the nightstand on his side of the bed, Jack picked up the phone and dialed the wireless service provider to inquire about the bill.

“Yes, that's right, Ma'am.  I want to know what the entire month of usage was for this mobile number.  It's okay if there's been a mistake.  After all, these things hap...pen ... You're sure? ... It's correct? ... Ma'am, let me give you the number again and ... but it's just eighty-eight minutes ... It can't be ... for the entire month ... Ma'am, we're talking a teenager here -- a female! ... Uh, no, no, nothing's wrong.  Thank you,” Jack said politely, before hanging up the phone and staring at the pieces of paper in his hands.

Daniel just smiled at his stunned lover, who took a moment to get his thoughts together.

Then, looking at his husband with dazed bewilderment, Jack said, “Danny, the brood is really serious about winning this bet.”

“Ya think?” Daniel said sarcastically.  ~By Jove, I think he's got it.~

“Snarky,snarky, Love!” Jack teased.  “There's just one thing, though.”

“What's that?”

“I'm really serious about winning this bet, too, and I've got the edge,” the older man stated confidently.

“The ... edge?  And, uh, what is that ... exactly?” Daniel questioned with a tiny smile.

“I'm older and wiser.”  Seeing his lover's stare, Jack elaborated, “Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.”

“Jack, you're not going to trick our children.”

“All's fair in love and war, and bets,” the older man stated with a grin.

“If you say so, Jack,” Daniel sighed, sliding down under the covers and putting his book on the nightstand.

“The tension has got to be getting to them,” Jack pointed out.  “We've got three weeks yet to go.  Piece of cake!”

“Speaking of cake, what kind would you prefer?” the younger man asked innocently.

“Danny, we are *not* having this party,” Jack said, just a trifle belligerently.  “I'm telling you, they'll never make it.”

“If you say so, but, uh, so far there hasn't been a whimper, cry, or complaint out of any of them since this bet began.  The house is spotless, and I'm not just talking about their rooms, but the game and rec rooms, and ... well, the entire house, even the yard, front, back, and sides.  It doesn't look like eleven children live here, Jack.  Geez, it doesn't look like *we* live here.  It's ... it's *too* tidy,” Daniel complained.  “Christa Svenson asked if we were moving, and when Sara stopped by to confirm Noa's riding date with Angela, she asked if we had stopped homeschooling.”  Then he sighed, “This isn't natural.  Jack, please, let's ... let's get our lives back to normal.”

“And give up the bet?” Jack asked incredulously.  ~Never!~  With a smile, he smirked, “Not to worry, Love.  Got it covered.”  ~Hmmm ... just might work.  Thanks for the idea, Danny!~

~We are so doomed,~ Daniel sighed inwardly.  ~Well, I won't disappoint our children; they'd never trust us again.  I'm sorry, Jack, but I won't let their hard work go to waste,~ he vowed.

~Ya gotta get up pretty early in the morning to get the best of Jack Jackson-O'Neill,~ Jack muttered silently.  He looked down and then over at his husband.  ~Speaking of 'up' ...~  “Oh, Danny ...”

“Jaaaaaack!  I don't ... gawd, yes!”

====

~I'm just not into being a penguin,~ Jack told the image of himself, which he saw looking back at him through the mirror.  ~They'll forgive me.~

It was the next morning, and Jack was putting into motion the plan he had concocted the night before while chatting with Daniel about their tidy household.  What he was about to do was definitely a 'black ops' scenario, but it had to be done.  He was convinced of it, even if it was just to save himself from having to endure a formal party with all the trimmings that he just didn't want.

With Daniel and several of the children out of the house, and the others occupied, Jack sneaked through the recreation room, thinking he had been totally unobserved.  Slipping into the guestroom, he dropped a sneaker onto the floor, kicked it under the bed, and quietly closed the door.

~Go ahead, and do your best.  A final inspection just to prove you've really won, and, 'Aw, what a shame, and you were so close, too.'~  Jack sighed, contemplating his rather over-the-top and not-so-nice action.  He ruthlessly quashed the guilt that was threatening to rise up in him.  ~Okay, it's not kosher, but I'll make it up to you.  We'll go to Disneyland or something.  You'll forget all about this silly party idea of yours.~

From her position under the small table near the guestroom door, Bijou growled to herself, watching as Jack closed the door behind him.

===

Later that day, Jeff walked in the front door and was greeted by a rather agitated Bijou.

“What's wrong, Girl?” the teen asked, alarmed at first that there was something seriously wrong in the house.

Bijou put her front paws up on Jeff's leg and gently tugged at his hand with her teeth; then she released his hand and walked away a few feet, turning and barking a couple of times.  It reminded Jeff of the way Lassie would always act when she wanted someone to follow her.  The mama beagle jumped up several more times, slowly trying to lead the boy towards the recreation room.

“There's something you want to show me?  Is that it?” Jeff questioned, having determined from the quietness of the house that whatever was upsetting the dog wasn't a family emergency, though he wondered if it involved Katie, Bijou's 'baby'.

The observant canine woofed and led Jeff to the guestroom, where she sat down by the closed door.

“The guestroom?  Bij, you can't go in there.  Besides, there's nothing to see,” the teenager commented, puzzled at the beagle's behavior.

Bijou refused to move, and every time Jeff looked in her direction, or spoke to her, she let out an insistent, “Woof!”

~Well, I guess it can't hurt to look inside and see what she's fussing about.  Maybe Katie went in there and closed the door by accident.~

As soon as Jeff opened the door, Bijou ran around the neatly made bed and sniffed, sticking her nose under the bed and crawling underneath it.  She emerged on the other side a moment later with one of the Munchkins' tennis shoes in her mouth.

“How the heck did that get in here?” Jeff asked as he knelt down, taking the shoe and then patting the all-too-smart beagle.

Bijou growled.

A smile crept across the teen's face as he put the pieces of the puzzle together.

“Oh!”  Jeff laughed, and his petting increased in enthusiasm.  “Good girl, Bij!”  Getting up, he said, “C'mon, you deserve a treat!”

Jeff led the canine to the kitchen, where he reached into the dogs' treat jar and pulled out not one, not two, but three treats.

“Thanks, Bij!” the teenage boy said, kneeling down and giving the mama beagle another stroke before holding out the treats.

“Woof!” the beagle acknowledged as she stuffed the three treats into her mouth and then took off to hide her private stash.

~Sneaky, sneaky, Dad,~ Jeff thought to himself.  ~I thought you'd quit doing covert missions.  Tsk!  Tsk!~

====

A short while later, in his bedroom, Jeff was telling his older sister what Bijou had found.

“Jeff, that is so unfair, and so underhanded!” a steamed Jennifer opined.  “He's a friggin' general, Jeff.  They're always on us about honesty and stuff, and look at what he did.  We should be able to punish him for ... for ... for conduct unbecoming the father of the brood!”  The exasperated teenager stared at her brother, shocked at how calm and collected he was.  “How can you be so, so, so ...”

“Confident?  Calm?  Cool?” Jeff chuckled.  “Jen, don't you know what this means? We've won.  Dad, our dad, Mister 'I Never Get Rattled', The Intimidator, the always smug and self-assured ...”

“Jeff, I know who you're talking about,” Jennifer interrupted in annoyance.  “Get to the point.”

“Jen, Dad's desperate, or he wouldn't have done something like this,” Jeff pointed out.  “It also means the beagles are on our side.  They'll keep an eye on Dad when we can't.  They're our secret weapons.”

Jennifer instantly calmed, a smile coming over her face.  She paced for a moment, then grinned as she sat down in the beanbag chair.

Jeff continued, “We have three weeks to go, and I don't think we should tell Dad we found this.  It'll be our secret, Jen, just you and me.”

“But what about Daddy?” the girl asked worriedly.

“Jen, if we tell Daddy, he'll be pissed.”  Seeing his sister give him 'the look', he made a face and said, “I know, we aren't supposed to use that word, but there are a lot worse words we could be using.  The point is, Daddy wouldn't let him in the bedroom for a month if he knew, and I don't really want them fighting.”

“Me, either.  Besides, Jeff, if the young ones knew what Dad did ...”

“They'd be devastated,” Jeff completed, getting a nod from his sister.

“Jeff, when this is all over with, Dad's gonna realize what he did, and he's going to feel like a real heel,” Jennifer stated.

“Probably,” Jeff agreed.  “Actually, it just proves parents can make dumb mistakes, too,” he chuckled.

“The bet isn't over, yet,” Jennifer noted.  “How do we make sure Dad doesn't do something like this again?”

“I have an idea, but I'll need your help,” Jeff said with a conniving grin.

“Okay, I'm listening,” Jennifer replied, leaning forward, curiosity abounding within her.

====

The next night, Friday the fifth, with just twenty-one days remaining in the bet, the Jackson O'Neill brood met in Jeff's room for another support meeting.  They didn't have to worry about eavesdropping parents on this occasion since Jack and Daniel were out for the evening.

Towards the end of their session, Jeff opined, “I think Dad is going to turn up the pressure a bit.”

“What makes you think that?” Brianna asked curiously.

“For starters, we haven't had an all family housecleaning day in awhile, and, well, I saw Dad taking inventory of the cleaning supplies this afternoon,” Jeff said, nodding.  “He had a smile on his face.”

“Oh,” Brianna sighed, shaking her head.

“Dad never smiles about cleaning the house,” David noted.

“Who does?” Lulu chuckled.

“So, don't be surprised,” the teen boy warned.  “We need to be prepared.”

“But the house is clean!” David whined.  Seeing Jennifer about to admonish him, he laughed, “Jen, we never get to whine anymore.  I was just making sure I remembered how.”

The children all laughed for several minutes before Jennifer acknowledged, “The house *is* very clean.  We've done a super job keeping our rooms in shape, and the rest of the house is practically sparkling.  I think it's cleaner than Mrs. Valissi's, and her house is always clean as a whistle.”

“We've done great!” Aislinn said, beaming with pride at their accomplishment.

“That's because every time we walk by something, we run our shirts by it.  Like this,” Jonny said, getting up and demonstrating by walking by Jeff's dresser and 'dusting' the drawers with the end of his shirt.

“Jonny,” Lulu chuckled, raising her small hands to her mouth as she let out the pleasant sound.  “I do that, too,” she admitted.

Jeff nodded, then added, “We've all done that, but ... wait a second.”  He got up and went to a drawer in which he had all kinds of odds and ends stashed.  He pulled out a slender package and opened it.  “I bought these a while ago.  Here, everyone take one so we're not using our clothes.  If Dad caught us, he would say we're abusing them.”  The male teen passed out a small microfiber cloth to each member of the brood, showing them how to fold it up so it would fit in a pocket.  Using his bathroom, he also showed them how it could be dampened and used on windows and bath fixtures, as well as for dry dusting. “Remember, top to bottom, left to right, just like the book says.”

“Jeff, you're really into this,” Jennifer laughed, surprised how efficient the younger teen was being about the whole thing.  “I think I'm worried about you.”

Jeff laughed, “Don't.  Those were on sale, and I thought they might come in handy for my photographic equipment.  Besides, it's not about the cleaning, Jen.”

“It's not?” Jennifer questioned.

“Nope, it's not,” Jeff answered, shaking his head.  “It's about staying one jump ahead of our crafty ol' dad.  We can't be the ones to escalate the competition, but we have to be prepared for Dad to step it up as we get closer to the end of the bet.”

“Huh?” Ricky questioned.

“He means we want to win,” Jonny said.

“Yeah, we want to win,” Jeff affirmed as he traded fist taps with the oldest Munchkin.

“And we have to be smarter than Dad,” Brianna added.

“We'll be ready,” Jennifer assured.

“Well, I think it's going to happen when we least want it, too,” Jeff revealed, facing his oldest sister.  With a sigh, he said, “Dad knows that you, me, David, Noa, and Bri all have plans for Columbus Day with our friends, and he thinks we'll grumble and complain if we have to cancel.”

“He's right about that,” Brianna groused, not wanting to even contemplate an interruption in her particular plans.

“Bri, focus!” Jennifer instructed firmly.

“I know.  Party, penguins ...”

“Listen up, Bri,” Jeff requested.

“I know,” Brianna sighed.  “Be prepared to be cheated out of our plans.  Smile, smile, smile.”

“Smile, though your heart is aching ...” Aislinn sang sweetly, then giggled.

“Ash, what song is that?” Brianna asked, smiling at the beautiful sound of her younger sister's voice.

Aislinn shrugged and answered, “My music teacher taught it to me.  It's a song from ancient times -- 1950-something.”

Jennifer and Jeff shared another chuckle, and then Jeff refocused the group, suggesting, “We'll make this the busiest, happiest housecleaning session ever.  Our part is easy.  We'll *breeze* through this house, and while Dad and Daddy think we're working our tails off, we'll have them climb the ladders and dust and polish all the wood beams in the recreation room.  It's never been done, ever, and they don't like us on ladders.”

“They'll be so surprised when we mention it, but they won't be able to say 'no',” Jennifer put forth.

“Exactly,” Jeff agreed, nodding.  “So, we'll move the ladders and hand them the dusters and the cloths.”

“I know!” Brianna exclaimed.  “When they're done, we'll say, 'Oops, Dad, you missed a spot'.”  Snickering, she added, “Even if there isn't one, he'll have to go back and look.”

“He won't dare say a word,” Jeff opined.

“And don't forget, we have to buff the floor, too, Jeff,” Jennifer reminded.

“With a buffer,” Jeff responded, nodding at his sister.

“But we don't have a buffer,” Brianna pointed out.

“We do now!” the two oldest members of the brood chimed.

Then Jeff explained, “Last week, the school had an auction in the gym -- old desks, old computers, old window blinds, filing cabinets, and cleaning equipment. There was this old buffer that still ran great.  It's just not as sophisticated or fast as the newer ones.  Anyway, I got it for fifteen dollars.  I figured it was a bargain, and we really do need it, but I think it's going to come in handy a bit sooner than I anticipated.”

“Dad won't know what hit him when he sees us buffing,” Brianna joked.  “We'll need to find a hard spot to reach and make sure he has to do it.”

“What's a buffer?” Jenny asked, happy to see that her twin and the Munchkins seemed to be equally confused.

“Well ...” Jennifer began.  Halfway through her explanation, she paused, staring over at Little Danny, whose head was bowed.  “Little Danny, are you okay?”

The boy nodded slowly, but didn't raise his head.

“Little Danny, what's wrong?” Jonny asked, moving over to sit next to his same-age brother.

Aislinn moved to her fellow Munchkin's side and said, “I know.”

Little Danny looked at his sister and gave her a small, sad smile as he said, “I don't understand, Ash.”

“It's a game,” Aislinn answered.

“Hey, how about filling me in?” Jennifer requested, moving over to kneel in front of the shaggy haired boy.  “What are we talking about?”

“Jen, Dad loves us.  Why would he make Bri and you and Jeff and Noa and ... and everyone unhappy?” Little Danny asked innocently, his sensitive heart not quite able to comprehend everything that was going on around him.

“Ash is right, Little Danny,” Jennifer affirmed softly, a sweet expression on her face.  “Dad does love us, lots and lots, but he made a bet with us, and, well, you know Dad.  He's ...”

“A big kid,” Aislinn stated firmly.  “That's why he's more funner than Daddy ... sometimes,” she added, nodding her head one time to emphasize the point.  She looked at the middle Munchkin and said, “Daddy always says that about Dad.  He's just playing a game with us, Little Danny.  He wants to win.”

“That's exactly it,” Jennifer confirmed.  ~We need to work on your grammar a bit, Ash, but not just this second.~  “It's Dad and Daddy versus us, but just in fun, because we want to have the party, and they don't.”

“I understand, sort of,” Little Danny responded looking a little happier.

“Dad gets carried away,” Jenny reminded, not just to the young boy, but to all of her siblings.

“Yeah, think about the hockey games!” Brianna added.

“Or that football game we played against the kids at the shelter,” David recalled.

“Oooooooh!” Little Danny exclaimed brightly.  “Dad's out of control.”

Jeff chuckled, “That's what Daddy said.”

“More than once,” Brianna laughed.

“Okay?” Jennifer asked her loving and concerned younger brother.

Smiling, Little Danny, answered, “It's okay.  Dad's being an out of control big kid, and he wants to win.”  He paused, biting his lip.  He normally didn't say things like this, but his younger father had often told him that competition could be a good thing, when handled properly.  Then, he added, “But he won't win.  We're the brood!”

“Exactly!” Jeff replied as several of the children cheered and did the fist tap.

====

“Gorgeous, am I contagious or somethin'?” Pete Shanahan asked, sitting down on the sofa in the Jackson-O'Neill living room and handing his wife a drink.

The couple were brood-sitting while Jack and Daniel enjoyed their romantic night out at a favorite place in Denver.

“No, Pete, of course not,” Sam refuted, taking a sip of the tea and smiling at its taste.

“Then why is it that every time I come over here lately, they disappear?  They're usually out here, running around and getting into mischief,” Pete pointed out.

The blonde giggled, “It's not you, Pete.  They're having another meeting.”

“You'd think they were the UNR,” the police detective replied, shaking his head.

“UNR?” Sam questioned in bewilderment.

“The United Nations of Rascals,” the jovial man laughed.

“Pete, no!” Sam chastised, just as her husband was about to put his drink down on the coffee table.  “Get a coaster.”

“Jack and Daniel don't ...”

“Pete, a coaster,” Sam ordered sternly.  “The brood wants to keep the place clean for the bet.”

“I thought we were staying neutral.”

“We are,” Sam insisted.

“Right,” Pete said, shaking his head as he found a coaster for his drink.  “How'd your visit with Kevin go today?”

“Good, I guess,” Sam replied, putting her own cup down on a coaster.  “Pete, I was thinking about asking Daniel to take Little Danny and Jonny to meet him.  I just have a feeling they might get through to Kevin.  You know how those two are.”

“Might be a good idea.  Y'know, if Jack and Daniel keep checkin' on the little guy ...”

Sam smiled, admitting, “I've thought of that, Pete, but they can't.”

“The courts should be able to do something about a deadbeat mom.  She doesn't care about that kid,” Pete commented.

“I don't understand why she won't let Kevin go,” Sam added, unable to believe that the woman didn't want the young boy, but didn't want anyone else to have him.  “What does she have to gain?”

“She's not breaking any laws, Honey, so all we can do is ...”

“Nothing,” Sam spoke with despair.  “Jack and Daniel would be good parents for Kevin, too.”

“Hey, we're wasting the ambiance,” Pete said, leaning over for a quick kiss, mainly because he didn't want his wife to be sad.

“It's not like we could do anything, Pete, not in this house,” Sam chuckled, gently brushing her knuckles across her husband's jaw.

“We could plan for later,” Pete suggested with a hungry leer that caused the blonde to blush and giggle.

====

“Was this part of your plan, General?” Daniel asked sarcastically as he was on his hands and knees, showing his husband a perfectly spotless cloth he had just wiped over a corner baseboard in the rec room.  ~This is *not* my idea of how to spend a holiday.~

“Not one complaint,” Jack answered cryptically.  Sitting up on his knees, he said, “Daniel, I think we need to have our kids checked.  They aren't ... normal.”

“Gee, Jack, I wonder why,” Daniel snarked, shaking his head and continuing to check for dust.

====

That same Monday afternoon, after the marathon housecleaning session had been completed, Jack and Daniel were sitting on the sectional sofa in the recreation room, totally exhausted.

“Danny, I'm beat!” the older man announced, groaning.

“Whose fault is that, Jack?” Daniel accused without looking at his soulmate.

Jack gave his lover a brief glare, but then looked up at the ceiling when his husband didn't look back at him.  Contemplating the now dust-free and polished wood beams, he sighed, knowing exactly whose fault it was -- his.

“They were supposed to whine and complain about the house already being clean and having other commitments today,” the general moaned.  “But the little rugrats raced to the phone to call their friends and back out of their plans when I told them it was a mandatory housecleaning day.”

“What'd you expect?” Daniel asked, still not looking at the older man.

“I just told you!” Jack barked.  Pausing a moment and letting out a growl of awareness, he then apologized, “Sorry, Love.  I honestly thought one of them would whine a little, and they'd lose the bet.  I planned on having everyone clean for an hour or so, and then having ice cream to celebrate, not having to endure a cleaning decathlon.  They ran us ragged,” he stated about the brood.  With a bit of a laugh, he added, “I never realized how big this place was now until we cleaned all of it in one day.”

“Never again!” Daniel responded with a grimace.  “I have muscles that hurt that I didn't even know I had.”

“What in Netu gave them the idea to dust and polish the wood beams?” Jack pondered, staring at the now spotless beams.

“They were the only thing left, Jack.  Everything else was spotless,” Daniel chuckled as he adjusted his position to try and get more comfortable.

Ignoring the inference that he was responsible for the immaculate condition of their house, Jack continued his line of questioning, asking, “And since when did we have a buffer?”

The younger man mused, “Jeff picked it up at a 'gym' sale at school; used his own money, too.  I tried to pay him back, but he refused.”

“It's shiny, but it's not slick.  How'd he do that?” Jack pondered, running his hand over the multi-hued wood floor.

Impatiently, Daniel whined, “I don't know, Jack, and, frankly, I don't care.”  Squinting from a ray of sunlight that bounced off the now mirror-like floor directly into his eyes, the younger father sighed, “If the house gets any cleaner, we'll be wearing sunglasses indoors.”  With an inward sigh, he thought, ~Why do I keep feeling like this is my fault?  The freakin' bet wasn't even my idea.~

--

Undetected as they spied from the kitchen, Jennifer and Jeff smiled at their lounging parents, the couple too tired to keep their own commitment to play golf with some prospective clients of J-O Enterprises.

“I heard Dad call them and cancel,” Jeff snickered quietly.

“And I heard Daddy take the phone and apologize over and over again.  He ended up begging for a raincheck,” Jennifer cackled, her hand over her mouth so she didn't alert her fathers to their presence.

“Ready for phase two, Sis?” Jeff whispered.  He laughed quietly, “Time to make Dad squirm a little.”

“You know it, Bro!” Jennifer responded as she gave her brother the 'high five'.  “No nap time for you, Dad.”

====

The teenagers rounded up the brood.  Jeff took them into the garage, where they began sorting and pre-treating the laundry.  Jennifer, meanwhile, having left the vac hose out of the closest inlet, gathered a wand, the dusting tools, cloths, and polishing rags, then grabbed a caddy of bathroom cleaning supplies.  She headed back through the house, purposefully going through the rec room.

“Jen!” Jack called in surprise.  “What are you doing?  Where are you going?” he asked as he tried to move his aching body off the couch without success.  ~Not now.  It's too soon, and definitely not with Danny right here.~

“Relax, Dad.  I'm just going to clean the guestroom.  It won't take me long.  You and Daddy just stay there.  You need your rest,” Jennifer advised, intentionally sounding a bit patronizing.  “Jeff and the rest of the brood are doing the laundry. Bijou and Katie are supervising.”

From his sprawled position on the sofa, Daniel pleaded, “Jen, Honey, you've all done such a great job.  The guestroom can wait.  It doesn't have to be done today.”

“It won't take me long, Daddy; might as well get it over and done with.  Then it will be all fresh and clean like the rest of the house, well, except for you and Dad's room, that is,” the teen smirked, unable to hide her smile.

“Ouch!” Jack quietly exclaimed.  “Talk about hitting below the belt.”

“She's right, Jack,” Daniel replied with a sigh.  “We now have the dirtiest bedroom in the house, and I'm too tired to do anything about it.”

“So am I,” Jack mumbled, watching as Jennifer disappeared into the guestroom.  ~It'll be worth it.  She'll find the shoe, and that'll be that.  No monkey suits, no party -- we'll have ice cream to celebrate!~

Quietly, the older father wondered why that suddenly didn't sound as appealing as he thought it should.

**What was that, Jack?** Daniel asked, having gotten an inkling of his lover's thoughts, though it was garbled and jumbled.  ~Celebrate cleaning?~

**Nothing, Love.**  Jack hated to admit it, but he couldn't deny it, either.  He was beginning to feel uneasy.  He knew that what he'd done, leaving the shoe out, was unfair.  More than unfair, it was just plain wrong.  He had set up his own children.  ~You're a louse, O'Neill,~ he thought.  ~They'll mess up; they don't need me to help them,~ he determined.  He looked over at his lover, noticing Daniel's eyes were closed.  “Danny?” he whispered.

Jack was relieved to realize his husband had fallen asleep.  It made it easier for him to disentangle himself and get up without having to say anything.

~Goodnight, Sweet Prince!~  The tired general paused to admire his exhausted lover.  No matter what, to Jack, nothing was more of a feast to the eyes than his Danny.  With a smile and a brief kiss on the forehead, he turned his attention to other things.  ~I just need to sneak in, grab the shoe, and get it back where it belongs before Jen sees it.  I'm Special Ops.  I can do that.  Piece of cake,~ he encouraged himself.

Standing in the doorway of the guestroom, Jack was again relieved to realize their daughter had chosen to start her cleaning in the guest bathroom.  He casually headed for the spot where he'd left the incriminating evidence when the teenager reappeared, holding an armful of towels.

~Dang it!  Can't she stay put for a few minutes?~ the major general asked himself.

“These have hung there so long they're a bit dusty.  They need to be washed,” Jennifer stated, setting them down on the bed temporarily.  “Did you need something, Dad?”

“No, no,” Jack answered, looking behind him.  “Uh, aren't you going to take those to the garage?”

“I will,” Jennifer answered with a smile.  “Or ... Dad, would you mind?” the girl asked, picking up the towels and handing them to her father.

“Sure.  I mean, no, of course not,” Jack answered, flustered by the request.  As he headed for the garage, he muttered inwardly, ~I've really lost my touch.  I need a TDY to regain my edge.~

Jack continued to gripe internally about his apparent loss of covert skills while pondering miscellaneous temporary duty (TDY) assignments he could take to sharpen up those skills.  Then again, his brood was probably the best training out there.  He just had to focus, that's all.

====

Out in the garage, the Jackson-O'Neill Laundry Team was in full swing.  Numerous piles of sorted laundry lay on the floor, while in the laundry sink, there were items pre-soaking.  The clothes baskets and hangers were at the ready.  At the large folding table, the children were busy with their lessons.

“Break time,” Jeff called out.  “The first loads are ready to be folded,” he said as he opened the first of two dryers.

Jack watched in amazement as Brianna and David folded laundry and handed it to the younger children to be stacked in the baskets.  As organized as any military mission ever was, the two middle children took hangers from their younger siblings and carefully hung each article of clothing correctly.  They were even using the appropriate type of hanger.

~O'Neill, you're a louse,~ Jack decreed.  ~Look at those kids working together.  It's a shame they'll lose, but they will.  They can't keep this up much longer.  Crap!~ he exclaimed as guilt took an even larger hold on his heart.  ~They'll lose the bet on their own, without any ... sabotage.  I've gotta get that shoe out of there.~

“Dad,” Jeff called out, startling his older father.  “Did you want to put those with the pile of towels?  They're next.”

“Uh, yeah, sure, Jeff,” Jack affirmed, hastily dropping the armful of bath linens he held on the appropriate pile and heading back inside the house, hoping to undo his dastardly deed.

~Got an attack of conscience, Old Man?  You should,~ Jeff thought wickedly.  ~I know that wasn't nice, and I'd never say it out loud, not even to Jen, but I'm just not very impressed with you at the moment, Dad.  I'm sorry.  I'll go wash my mind out with soap.~

====

As the cleaning of the guestroom progressed, Jack thought he would have time to reach under the bed and grab the sneaker he had left there, but every few seconds, his daughter would pop her head out of the bathroom with a quick question or a comment, which didn't give him enough time to get down, find the sneaker, stand up, and retreat.

~Like a dang Jack-in-the-Box,~ Jack groused inwardly as he returned to the rec room, not having any logical reason to be in the guestroom at the moment.  ~And why is she so friggin' happy to be cleaning a bathroom?~

Before long, the bathroom was cleaned, and the bed had been stripped and remade with fresh linens, leaving just the vacuuming to be done before the final dusting and polishing.

Daniel was still snoozing contentedly, while Jack was certain their daughter would find the shoe at any moment and uncover his little subterfuge.

~Maybe I could disavow any knowledge of how it got there, or maybe I could bribe Jen,~ Jack pondered as he sat on one of the sectionals, leaning forward, his hands clasped together.

The sound of the vac hose being retracted into its storage inlet brought the worried general back to reality.

“Missed a couple,” Jennifer said about some dirty linens.  “I'm going to take these to the garage.  I'll be right back.”

As soon as he was certain his daughter was far enough away, Jack was off the couch in a flash and on his hands and knees in the guestroom.

~Ouch!  Darn knees.  Moving this fast is killing me,~ Jack thought.  ~Actually, they're not as bad as I would think they'd be.~  He paused, shaking his head.  ~Concentrate O'Neill. Where is the blasted thing?  She couldn't have missed it ... unless ... unless someone else found it first, but who?~  He sat up on his knees, his eyes widening as he thought, ~She took it with her!  Crap!~

Any second now, Jack was positive that his offspring would know their Dad was a cheater.  He was equally sure his husband would file for divorce.

Hearing Jennifer humming as she was walking down the hallway and heading back to the guestroom, Jack made a dive for the guest bath, slamming the door shut behind him.

“Dad?” Jennifer called out, shrugging at the lack of response.  ~Oh, he must be hiding in the bathroom,~ she snickered as quietly as she could.  ~No, Dad, I wouldn't catch you; no real fun in that ... yet.~

After what seemed like hours to Jack, but had only been a few minutes, he flushed and then straightened his shirt and jeans before walking out.

“Almost done,” Jennifer commented about her furniture polishing efforts.

“Looks great, Honey,” the father praised, trying to detect any sign that his daughter knew of his underhanded trick.

“Thank you, Dad.  I'm so glad you suggested an all family cleaning day.  It's nice to see the house looking so good.”

“My pleasure,” Jack replied with a smile as he exited the room.  ~Okay, Jen didn't find it, so where'd it go?  It couldn't have just disappeared.~

====

“I hope you like it,” Jennifer said as she took her place at the dinner table.  “Mrs. Valissi gave me the recipe for it.”

“I'm sure it's delicious, Sweetie,” Daniel assured her as he loaded up his fork, prepared to enjoy the tasty treat.

The conversation around the table was lighthearted and ample, as was the norm, with one exception.

Jeff nodded at Jennifer, who tried not to laugh.  It was clear that their older father was distracted.

“Dad, don't you like the soup?” the female teen questioned with a frown, having observed Jack not eating, but just holding the soup spoon in his hand as he stared ahead blankly.

“Jack?” Daniel called out.

“What?” the older man responded, snapping out of his void.

“Don't you like the soup?  Maybe I put too much spice in it,” Jennifer suggested, looking down at her bowl and biting her lip.

“No, Princess, I'm sure the shoe is just fine,” Jack answered.

Jeff almost choked on the cracker he had just bitten into, and Jennifer laughed out her tiny intake of soup.  The younger children chuckled at the comment, though they were reacting to it simply because it was a funny line.

“Shoe?” Daniel questioned in confusion.

“Shoe?  What shoe?” Jack asked, not yet fully understanding the conversation.

“Jack, you just said you were sure that the shoe was fine,” Daniel answered, frowning.

“Why would I say that?”

“Yes, why would you, Dad?” Jennifer asked with feigned innocence.  “Does the soup taste that bad?”

“Soup?  Jen, the soup is fine.  I said 'soup', not 'shoe',” Jack insisted, finally snapping out of his reverie.

“You said 'shoe', Jack.”

“Did not,” the older man denied.

“Did, too,” Daniel maintained.

“Did not.”

“Yes, you did.”

“Why would I say that?” Jack asked in confusion.

“That's a very good question, Jack,” Daniel asked.  “If I decide to find out, I'll let you know ... later.  Eat your soup.”

“Yes, Dear, I mean, Danny.  Geez,” Jack rambled, shaking his head at his inability to say anything right.  ~Get a grip, O'Neill.~

Jennifer and Jeff exchanged a chuckle, and then the conversation moved forward, though Jack tried to focus mainly on not including the word 'shoe' in any other part of the dinner discussion.

====

Later that night, while making the goodnight rounds, Jack discovered the missing shoe had been returned to its normal place.

~Someone knows,~ the older man realized with dread.  ~Who?~

====

“Jack, get some sleep,” Daniel spoke in a half-yawn.

“Sleep, yeah.  I'll get some shoe,” Jack spoke distractedly.

“Good,” the younger man replied as he lost consciousness in favor of sleep.

Jack realized what he had said and was glad his lover was too tired to have caught it.  He sighed, staring up at the ceiling.  Amazingly, the ceiling began to change shape.  Now, it resembled a tiny sneaker.

~Oh, for crying out loud!  This is a waste of time.~  Unable to sleep, Jack carefully scooted out from under his soulmate's warm body, put on his sweats, and went downstairs to get a snack.  ~Comfort food,~ he chuckled about the chocolate cake he took with him into the rec room.

Jack wanted to forget about his dirty deed.  He was grateful the plan hadn't worked.  At the same time, he was worried about who had found the shoe and returned it to the closet.  It couldn't have been Daniel.  They'd have had a nasty fight, and the make-out session they'd had prior to going to sleep would never have occurred.  If one of the children had found it, they would have called out their father.  The kids were working too hard just to let it slide.

~Maybe one of the kids found it and thought they were covering up for one of their brothers?~  Jack ate another piece of the cake, chewing it slowly.  ~No, they would have told Jonny, and Jonny would tell ... whoever that he hadn't left his shoe in the guestroom.~

Frustrated, the fretting man put his plate with a half-uneaten piece of cake down next to him. He wanted an answer to the mystery, but he knew he couldn't get one without asking questions, and asking questions would lead to the truth -- that he had tried to set up his own children.

“Crap!” Jack exclaimed banging his hand down on the sofa.

“Dad lose bet,” a voice called out.

Jack looked over at the smart-alecky Hyacinth Macaw bird, named Ptolemy.  Ptolemy was a majestic creature.  She'd originally belonged to Ernest and Catherine Littlefield, but the couple had given their beloved pet to the Jackson-O'Neills before taking a long cruise and then traveling throughout Europe, where they now were.  The intelligent bird had given Jack grief from the start.

“Not in this lifetime,” Jack replied.

“Dad lose bet,” Ptolemy repeated.

Getting up and walking towards the bird's refuge, Jack queried, “Where'd you hear that?”

“Dad lose bet,” Ptolemy said yet again.

“You already said that, you dang bird,” Jack snapped.

“Queen bird; smart bird,” Ptolemy argued, proudly raising her head.

“In your own pea-brained mind, Polly,” the human argued.

“Not Polly.  Dad lose bet.”

“You're Polly, if I say you're Polly, and I say you're Polly!” Jack insisted.

“Ptolemy queen bird; Dad lose bet.”

“Will you *stop* saying that?” the silver-gray-haired general demanded.

“Dad be monkey; brood win,” Ptolemy announced.

“I am *not* a monkey!”

“I've been saying that about myself for years,” Daniel said as he joined his husband, barely managing to stifle a yawn.

“That's different,” Jack said forcefully, turning around to face his husband.

“Jack, there's no such thing as a ... gawd, a space monkey,” Daniel commented about the nickname Jack had given him many years ago.

“Yes, there is,” the older man refuted softly.  “You're it, and you always will be.  I love you ... Space Monkey.”

Daniel smiled, unable to argue about the nickname he secretly loved, even though it had never made any sense to him.

“I love you, too, Babe, but, uh, I do have one question,” Daniel stated.

“What's that?”

“Why are you arguing with Ptolemy about monkeys at four in the morning?” the younger man asked, raising his eyebrows.

Jack shrugged, looked over at the plate, and answered, “I was hungry.”

“Right,” Daniel replied.  “Let's go back to bed.”

Jack nodded, retrieved his cake, which he left in the kitchen, and then walked with his lover back to the master bedroom.  The shoe mystery would have to remain unsolved, at least for now.

====

“He's still in denial?” Sam chuckled over the phone as she spoke with Daniel the next afternoon.

“Yup,” Daniel responded.  “With just eighteen days to go, Jack still thinks one of the children will get out of line.  It's not going to happen.  They have an incredible support system going.  It's, uh ... amazing.”  After a pause, he said, “Sam, I can only do so much right now.  I need your help.”

“Sure, Daniel.  What do you need?”

“We're going to lose this bet.  When we do, we'll only have three weeks to get the party organized,” the archaeologist noted.

“That's not a lot of time,” the woman stated.

“Exactly.  I need you to make sure everyone knows about it, so they won't make plans.  Sam, if the family isn't there, the children will be disappointed.  The family *has* to be there,” Daniel stated, referring to their extended family of friends.

“But you don't want the general to know about it?” Sam asked, seeking verification that Jack wasn't to know about her actions.

“Right.  I mean, he'll just tell people to ignore it, and that'll confuse everyone.”

“I'm on it,” Sam promised.  “What else?”

“Well ...” Daniel began, his mind flashing back on a discussion he'd just had with Jennifer and Jeff on Sunday afternoon.

//Flashback//
“Daddy, can we talk?” Jennifer asked as she and Jeff entered the den, shutting the sliding doors behind them and locking them.

Daniel's eyes widened a bit as he saw the girl's actions, but he nodded, motioning for them to sit down.

As she sat in the recliner, Jennifer remarked, “Daddy, we have to make some preparations for the party.  It can't all be done after we've won the bet.”

“There wouldn't be much time, that's true,” Daniel agreed.  Then he smiled as he asked, “Pretty sure of yourselves, aren't you?”

Sitting on the floor, next to the beagles' beanbag, and patting Katie as he talked, Jeff responded, “We've got the house routines and our homework all under control.”

“I, uh ... noticed,” Daniel replied, thinking about the unusual tidiness of the house.

“Right now, it's just a matter of being alert for the curve balls Dad lobs at us,” Jeff interrupted, not wanting to be sidetracked from the much needed talk with their one father who was behaving rationally.

Seeing her father's concerned expression, Jennifer added, “Daddy, you know he's trying to win the bet.  Dad wouldn't be Dad if he didn't do everything he could to trip us up.  It's okay.  Really.”

Daniel sighed, “What about the little ones?  Look, I know you have a great group thing going here, but I don't like some of the things I'm seeing lately, and not just from Dad.”

“It's just another three weeks, Daddy,” the teenage girl rationalized.

“And we need your help,” the teen boy requested, waiting expectantly for the archaeologist to respond.

“We're just trying to cover our bases, Daddy,” Jennifer added.

“We need you for that,” Jeff said, his sister nodding in agreement.

Daniel thought for a moment, considering the situation.  He knew the children were right.  The kind of party they wanted took planning, and lots of it.  He'd already asked his lover a number of hypothetical questions to try and plan for the party.  Of course, that was more covert.  To verbally agree to help the children might be considered a betrayal by his husband.

“What did you have in mind?” the younger father inquired.

“Just this,” the female member of the duo said, handing him a sheaf of papers with names and addresses on them.  “At our last couple of meetings, we've quizzed the brood on who we should invite, and this is the list.  Jeff and I know some of your and Dad's business associates, but not all, and we don't have any of those addresses.”

“And there are probably a lot of people you'd want to invite that we don't know,” Jeff interjected.

Jennifer nodded, then pointed out, “Daddy, we can't buy paper, or go looking for the addresses we need, without violating the terms of the bet.  If, by some chance, we don't win, we ...” the female teen gestured to her brother and herself, “... are out some paper and ink.  We thought you'd help us make sure the list is right and give us the addresses we needed, and ...”

Jennifer paused, a tiny smile on her face.

Understanding his sister's hesitation, Jeff continued, “Daddy, we were hoping you'd agree to run the invitations through the postage meter at J-O; then, after we win, Dad can drive us to Denver to get these in the outgoing mail first thing Saturday morning, after we win the bet.”

“We're just trying to be prepared, like you and Dad have taught us,” Jennifer added hopefully.

Daniel leaned back in his chair thinking for a moment.  He was walking a fine line here, and he had to be careful.  Still, Jack had refused to even consider the possibility of the children winning the bet, whereas he felt it was practically a sure thing.  Being practical, he also knew that for a party like the one the children wanted, the preparations should have begun months ago.  He smiled, his heart unable to see the brood's efforts go down the drain simply because his lover was being stubborn and wouldn't agree to even discuss the special event.  After all, an event is easily cancelled, but it's not so easily arranged for.

“Agreed,” the younger father said, nodding his head.  “I can't fault your logic.  Have you made invitations?”

“We're still working on the design a little, but it won't take long to finish,” Jennifer answered for the pair.

“One thing,” Daniel noted.  “How can you do invitations without knowing the specifics?”

“Well, we thought about that, and it was David who reminded us that everything is done on the internet now,” Jennifer replied.  “What we'd like to do is put the generalities on the invitation.  You know, what it's for ...”

“The who, what, and why, Daddy,” Jeff interjected.

“And we'll tell them to check the website for the ...” Jennifer paused and chuckled, “when and where.”

“What about responding to the invitations?” Daniel questioned, wanting to make sure they had thought the entire thing through.

“Well, that involves your permission for something,” Jennifer answered a bit hesitantly.

After a long pause, where neither teenager spoke, the father finally asked, “Well, are you going to tell me?”

“We'd like to set up an email address, just for the R.S.V.P.  It could be part of the website, too,” Jennifer suggested.

“Jen, I agree the website and email is the way to go, but I'm in a tough spot here. I want to help, but I can only help so much.  Do you understand?” Daniel questioned, needing the pair to realize why he couldn't directly help them.

Jennifer and Jeff both nodded.  There was a long break in the conversation, three minds searching for an answer.

Suddenly, Jeff sat up a bit straighter and suggested, “What about Aunt Sam?  We could ...”

“No!” Daniel responded, throwing his hands up.

“No?” both teens asked sadly.

“No, I mean yes.”  The archaeologist smiled and explained, “I don't want to know the details.  I give you permission to talk with Aunt Sam and to do things within reason as a backup only.  You cannot spend or invest over fifty dollars without talking to me first, but, otherwise, you can ask Aunt Sam to help you with the website.”

“And the email address?” Jennifer asked hopefully.

“To be overseen by Aunt Sam, using all the guidelines we've always had about internet usage.  Understood?”

“Yes, Daddy,” both children agreed.

“As for the guest list, I'll look it over and make sure you have the information you need.  Remember, many of the addresses are either personal or confidential, so I'd prefer that just the two of you see them,” Daniel spoke.

“That's okay, Daddy.  The brood can help with return labels and folding the invitations, but Jeff and I will make sure we're the only ones to see the addresses,” the teenage girl promised.

“Don't go overboard, Jen.  I'll divide the list up, so you'll know which ones need to be ... protected,” Daniel stated.  “When you're done, please return the list to me.”

“We'll take good care of it, Daddy.  We promise,” Jennifer vowed with a smile.

“Jen, Jeff, I'm on the edge here with your dad.  You know that,” the archaeologist stated seriously.

“We know,” Jeff answered.  “We don't want you to do anything to help us win the bet, Daddy.  We just want to make sure that when we do win it, that the party is what we've won.  That doesn't make sense.”

Daniel laughed, “I know what you mean.”  Then he added, “Aunt Sam and Uncle Pete have plans for tonight, and tomorrow, too.  Please don't disturb them until Tuesday evening, at the earliest.”

“Plans?” Jeff asked with arched eyebrows.

“It's none of our business, Jeff,” Daniel smirked.

“Thanks, Daddy,” both teenagers replied amid laughter as they got up and left the den.

The younger father smiled at Katie, who jumped up onto his lap, happy when she felt warm and gentle fingers caressing her ear.

“Katie, I just hope Jack can be adult about ...”  Daniel stopped mid-sentence and sighed.  “Jack?  Be an adult about losing a bet?”  He sighed, smiling at the beagle who licked his hand.  “Well, I can dream, can't I?”

“Woof!” Katie answered, causing Daniel to chuckle.
//End of Flashback//

“Sure, Daniel, I'll be glad to help,” Sam agreed after hearing about her friend's conversation with the two teenagers about the invitations and the website.  “Daniel, you know that fine line you mentioned to Jen and Jeff?”

“Yes.”

“It reminds me of that fine line Lya didn't cross on Tollana,” Sam recalled with a smile about the time years ago when the Nox woman had secretly helped Teal'c cloak a weapon.  Her act bordered on betraying the Nox' neutrality stance, but it ultimately saved the Tollan from being destroyed by the Goa'uld, at least at that point in time.  “It's a little undistinguishable,” she chuckled.

“Now I know how she felt,” the archaeologist replied with a long sigh.

====

On the forty-fifth day of the bet, which was the fifteenth of October, Jack and Daniel were engaged in a tiny spat while taking care of a few things in their garage.

“Why are you so hot under the collar about this?” Jack asked with a raised voice as he searched for the flat blade screwdriver he needed for his work.

“*Why*?” Daniel asked incredulously as he stood a few feet away, his hands on his hips as he focused intently on his spouse.  “You're using our children as ... as ...”

“Daniel, I'm doing no such thing.  I'm letting them go on a play date with some friends, that's all,” the older man claimed innocently.  “There it is,” he mumbled as he found the screwdriver and turned around only to face the intense glare of his husband.

“Jack, what you're doing is not fair.  You know perfectly well that Anson and Tyler are troublemakers.  The boys have always come home from their house with dirty faces, torn clothes, and an expanded gutter vocabulary that takes us three days to undo,” the younger man argued.

“I know,” Jack admitted gleefully.  ~That's the idea.~  Seeing Daniel's frown, he coughed and walked over to the workbench he was repairing.  As he knelt down, he challenged, “And aren't you the one always saying to give people chances?  Troublemakers, Daniel?  Tsk tsk!  Besides, General Hammond insisted that I sit in on this conference call.  He pinned me down; no room to wiggle out of this one. Would you prefer to take them with you to *your* meeting?”

“I could, Jack, except for one small detail -- the prospective client *insisted* on a casual, non-business atmosphere.  You know the meeting is going to be at O'Malley's.  Wasn't Sam or Nyan ... or anyone available?” the younger man asked.

Jack looked a bit guilty for a second, then replied, “We impose on our friends enough as it is and ...”

“You didn't even check, did you?” Daniel accused.  Seeing his lover squirm, he called out more fervently, “Did you?”  He looked upward and began to turn around, disbelieving of the lengths his lover was willing to go to in order to win a bet over a party.  “This is ridiculous, Jack.  You're willing to ... to use our children as pawns just so you don't have to wear a ...”  He paused for a moment, debating on just how far he wanted to take the fight.  Finally, he continued, “... a monkey suit. Well, General, I think it's the brood making a monkey out of you right now.”

“Daniel, calm down.  It's not like I'm selling the little tykes.  They like to play over there.  They'll have a ball,” Jack argued while he turned the screwdriver to loosen the corner edge of the damaged workbench.

“Jack, didn't you just try this stunt with David and his friend, Samuel?” Daniel asked.  Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “Granted, Samuel's problem is more a lack of any attention span, combined with conflicting parental methods, but it's essentially the same situation.  You are sending our children to spend time with two boys who just don't listen.  I'm sure there's a reason for it, but we're not their parents, and we can't do much except protect our own children.”

“They aren't going to be in danger, Daniel.  The Fuesilliers are responsible people; we've checked them out.  They're just not good at discipline,” the general mused, unable to stop himself from chuckling.  ~Maybe one of these days I'll send Teal'c over there with the boys.~

“Yes, and after the last time, we agreed never again; at least, not until Anson and Tyler matured a little.”

“It'll only be for a couple of hours,” Jack reminded.  ~That's all it'll take.~

“How do you sleep at night?” Daniel questioned harshly, reaching down and pulling the workbench away for a minute.

“Thanks to you, very well,” Jack quipped, not feeling the least bit guilty, at least not about this.  He still felt bad over the shoe business, but, unlike that maneuver, this had been a legitimate tactic.  “Did you want to do this?” he asked, holding out the screwdriver.

“Screw it yourself, Jack.  Make sure your wrists work; you'll be needing them,” Daniel fired back in anger.  “Amuse yourself.  What you do out here, by yourself, is the only screwing you'll be doing tonight.”

“Touchy!  Touchy!” Jack mumbled.

“Not me, you won't,” Daniel spoke as he reached the steps that went back inside the house.  “If you ask me, Jack, the workbench is just fine.  You're the one with a screw loose.”

Jack's head whipped back, as if he'd just been punched.  He chuckled lightly as he watched his lover's sexy six go back inside the house.

“You may be angry now, My Snarky Love, but, tonight ... mmm, mmm, good!”

====

“Doctor Jackson,” General Hammond called out later that day, seeing Daniel waiting at the elevator on the eleventh floor.  The briefcase in the archaeologist's hand indicated that the man was on his way out of the SGC, or would be, as soon as the required elevator arrived that would take him topside.  “I didn't see your name on the work assignments today,” he said, just as he reached him.

“No, Sir,” Daniel responded.  “I had a meeting for J-O Enterprises, but it finished early and since I had a few minutes, I wanted to check on the negotiations with PR9-157.  The rules of that society are a bit restrictive, and I wanted to make sure there weren't any misunderstandings developing.”

“From the reports I've seen, it's progressing as well as can be expected.”

“That's what I just found out.  They can be a rather rigid society, stubborn even.  The negotiations have to be handled just right.  Anyway, I'll be here tomorrow to work more closely with SG-9,” Daniel stated.

“Speaking of stubborn,” Hammond began with a smile.

“I have a feeling you don't mean the inhabitants of 157,” Daniel surmised with a small smile.

Hammond chuckled, “Colonel Carter mentioned the party.”

“Just keep it open, Sir,” Daniel requested.

“I'll do that, Son,” the lieutenant general agreed just as the elevator doors opened.

“Are you coming by for dessert tonight, General?” the archaeologist asked as he entered the elevator.

“Wouldn't miss it,” Hammond acknowledged as the doors closed.

====

For one of the few times during the bet, the children had a normal amount of ice cream for dessert, the sole reason being General Hammond's scheduled visit with the brood after dinner that night.  In fact, Daniel had gone out of his way to make sure they had enough ice cream for the night.  If he'd had more time, he would have stocked up their now empty ice cream freezer, but he barely had time to stop at the store on the way home, so he only grabbed four half-gallons, which he knew would be gone by night's end.

The visit with Grandpa George was pleasant and enjoyable, though Daniel kept a bit of distance between himself and his lover.  He was still miffed about Jack's decision to have the male Munchkins play with Anson and Tyler.

As Hammond was leaving, Jack walked him out to his car, while Daniel and the children tended to the cleanup.

“Jack, this bet sounds ... intriguing,” Hammond commented as they reached his car.  “Aren't you the slightest bit worried that the brood will win, and you'll have to host the party of the year?”

“Nah.  It's just some silly whim the kids are temporarily hooked on.  It won't last,” Jack responded, dismissing the entire idea.  He chuckled, “Jonny hates dressing up nearly as much as I do.  There's no way he's going to hold out when it's for something he doesn't even want.”

“They sounded determined to me,” the bald-headed man noted.

“They're great kids, General, and I love them to pieces, but they'll never last a full two months.”  Jack leaned in closer to the man and whispered, “They're weakening.”

Hammond raised his eyebrows in disbelief and replied, “I've already cleared November sixteenth.  I'm sure it'll be quite a bash.”

“Unclear it, Sir.  There won't be a party,” Jack insisted stubbornly.

Looking his friend straight in the eye, Hammond stated, “Jack, these children are the progeny of two of the universe's most stubborn men.”

Jack cocked his head and was about to deny the statement when he thought of all the occasions his friend could bring up to prove just how stubborn he and Daniel were.

Hammond laughed, “I dare you are to deny it.”

“Wouldn't dream of it, Sir,” Jack admitted, grinning.

“Your children are going to win this bet,” Hammond opined.

“I beg to differ.  It's just a matter of time,” Jack replied, looking as confident as ever.

“Just remember, Jack, we are talking about your children, and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this case.”

“Yes, Sir, I mean, no, Sir,” Jack smirked.

“Goodnight, Jack.”

“Goodnight, George.”

Hammond laughed, shaking his head as he got into his car and drove away.

~You're in denial, Jack.  November 16 is staying clear,~ the leader of the SGC thought as he headed home.

“Stubborn general,” Jack quipped as his military boss disappeared down the road. As he turned around, he mused, “No wonder he's family.”

====

“Danny ... Danny ... oh, for crying out loud!” Jack exclaimed a few hours later when the couple had finally gone to bed.

“Goodnight, Jack,” Daniel stated firmly, turning away to sleep on his side, facing away from his husband.

“Stubborn geek!”

“Mule-headed general!” the archaeologist sniped back.

“I'm not a mule!”

“No, Jack, you're an ...”

“Daddy?  Dad?” a small voice called out as a hand tapped on the door.

“Come in,” Daniel instructed, sitting up in the bed.  “What is it, Princess?” he asked as Jenny walked into the room.

“Nightmare?” Jack asked their redheaded Spitfire.

The little girl nodded as she rubbed her eyes tiredly.

“Come on, Sweetie,” Daniel invited, patting the space on the bed between him and Jack.

Happily, Jenny snuggled in between her fathers, sniffling once.

“Wanna talk about it?” Jack asked, rubbing her abdomen comfortingly.

“Dreamed about big, ugly monster,” Jenny said with a yawn.

“We won't let the monsters hurt you,” Jack assured.

“Not try hurt me,” the girl said sleepily.

“Oh?” Daniel asked.  “What was it trying to do?”

“Mess up my room.  It shed dust everywhere, and it hid my blanket, and it took all my toys out of my toy box and kept putting them on the floor.  I'd put them away, and then it would take them out again.  Bad monster,” Jenny said with a yawn.

“Go to sleep, Jenny.  Daddy and I will protect you and your room against that old monster,” Jack assured.

**Jack,** Daniel's worried voice called.

**Go to sleep, Daniel.**

====

The next morning, as they dressed, Jack and Daniel discussed Jenny's nightmare.

“Daniel, I didn't cause her nightmare,” Jack argued somewhat defensively.

“I'm not saying you did, but ...”

“Then what *are* you saying?” the general challenged.

“I'm saying you, *we* need to be careful.  Jenny's nightmare shows she feels pressure.  No more housecleaning attacks, Jack.  I won't allow it,” Daniel asserted, his blue eyes boring into his lover's brown eyes.  “Do you understand me, Jack?  You don't have to say anything to our children, and I'm not asking you to end the bet, but I am saying no more sneak attacks over a speck of dust on a bedpost.”

“I've never done that,” Jack replied weakly.

“Jack,” the younger man warned.

“Daniel, it was just a little nightmare, and she told us this morning that she knew Dad and Daddy would always protect her from the monsters.  She wasn't even scared,” Jack argued.

“Which is the only reason why this bet is still on,” Daniel responded brusquely.  A bit more gently, he observed, “Babe, you're getting a little paranoid lately about losing the bet.  I'm trying my best not to interfere, but I'm telling you, Jack, right now, that I'm drawing the line.  You know where it is.  Just ... be careful.  I'm going to start breakfast,” he concluded, giving his lover one final look of warning before walking out of the bedroom.

“Speck of dust,” Jack muttered to himself.  ~There hasn't been a speck of dust around here in weeks.~  He sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed, “I'd never hurt our children.”  ~Kids have nightmares all the time.  Heck, adults do.  It's part of life and practically a requirement to be a Jackson-O'Neill.~

Feeling vindicated, in his own mind anyway, Jack continued to dress and then joined his family downstairs for breakfast.  After all, there were still two full weeks to go in the bet, and today might be the day that the brood slipped up.

====

The next day was Wednesday, and, as the bet raged on, Daniel spent nearly the entire day at J-O Enterprises in a meeting with clients.  It had been a fruitful day for the company, but he missed spending time with his family and hated having to rely on his lover to find out about the brood's day.  They'd already discussed several of the children, but there was one more aspect of the day's schedule that he was especially curious about.  After all, their fights from the last couple of days had been on the fiery side.  Of course, the make-up sex last night had made it almost worth it.

It wasn't until the couple was sitting in bed on this night, discussing the day, that the archaeologist had the chance to sate his curiosity with his general husband.

As he leaned against his lover's shoulder, Daniel asked, “How did Jonny's and Little Danny's visit with Anson and Tyler go?”

“Mrs. Fuesillier said they were 'just perfect', and they were welcome back anytime,” Jack responded casually.

~Poor Jack.~  Daniel grinned and said, “That's nice, Babe.”  Hearing only a small growl in response, he requested, “So, details.”

Jack groaned, “The boys came home as spotless as they were when they left.”

“Uuunnnd?” Daniel asked, drawing out the German word for 'and'.”

“Do you have indigestion or something?” the older man questioned grumpily, knowing full well that 'uuunnnd?' meant, 'quit stalling and spit it out before I lose my patience' in Daniel speak.

“Jack!”

“Okay, okay,” Jack sighed.  “Mrs. Fuesillier said that she had had her doubts about two men being able to effectively parent children, let alone twelve of them, but today she really had to, in her own words, 'eat crow' and admit ... then she corrected herself, *acknowledge* ... that we were two of the best parents she knew.  She was beside herself because Jonny and Little Danny had gotten Anson and Tyler to play without fighting, without bad language, and without throwing toys all around.”

“Really?” Daniel smirked, sensing there was still more to the story.

“They even included their sister and her friend.  She said it was nothing short of a miracle, and maybe we should consider going on television and doing an advice show like 'Dr. Phil' or 'Oprah'.  Are you satisfied now?” Jack asked with a sarcastic scowl.  ~I was hoping for something more like that Springer dude,~ he thought miserably.

“Well ...”

“Wait, I forgot the best part,” Jack stated sarcastically.  “When they got home Jennifer conveniently came downstairs to greet her brothers.  If I didn't know better, Danny, I'd say she didn't trust me,” he whined, sounding as if he'd been mortally wounded by the teen's actions.  “Do you believe that?”

“Gee, Jack, I wonder why that might be?” Daniel queried, rolling his eyes as he shifted over to be more on his side of the bed for a while.

~Doesn't she ever put those dang headphones on anymore?  I thought all she could do was listen to Britney,~ the older man cried silently, choosing not to answer Daniel's question.

Retrieving his journal from the nightstand, ready to write in it about the day, Daniel hid a chuckle.  He knew his husband was just dying to explode because his plan to use their neighbor's children from the next block over to sidetrack the boys into misbehaving had failed miserably.

“Danny?” Jack finally called out.

“Yes, Love?”

~Don't chicken out; it's the truth, O'Neill, and you know it.~  Jack sighed, then turned his head to face his lover.  He smiled ruefully and then praised, “We do have amazing kids.”

Chuckling, Daniel leaned forward and gave his husband a long, slow kiss, after which he remarked, “I'm glad you can still see that, Jack.  I love you.”

Then Daniel put his journal back into the drawer, deciding he would make his entry in the morning.

“Love you, too, Angel,” Jack replied as the couple settled in for a comfortable night's sleep.

====

“Daddy, do you have a minute?” Jennifer asked as she stood in the doorway of the den early Friday morning.

The teenager was getting ready to leave for school, but wanted to take this opportunity to speak with her younger father about something.

Daniel immediately had that feeling.  It was going to be another one of their hypothetical party conversations.

“Sure, Jen,” the archaeologist replied, putting down his pen and turning his chair towards the recliner, where Jennifer had sat down.

“Daddy, hypothetically,” Jennifer began, unable to hide her grin.

“No laughing, Jennifer,” Daniel said, waggling his finger in warning.

“Sorry, Daddy,” the teen chuckled.  “About a photographer ...”

“Photographer?” a surprised Daniel questioned.

“Hypothetical photographer, for the hypothetical party,” Jennifer clarified.  “See, Jeff wants to take some photos, casual shots, for the family ... hypothetically, so we're thinking we need a professional photographer to take all the formal shots.  We were thinking, hypothetically, of course, of setting up one area for formal portraits, but that's not really what I want to talk to you about.”

“It's not?”

“No, it's not,” Jennifer acknowledged more quietly.  She bowed her head and sighed a moment before looking up and reestablishing eye contact with her younger father.  “Daddy, I know we always have to be careful.  I mean, well, the Stargate, and ... the bad guys, but ... well, the brood really wants this.”

“Jen, if you win the bet, you'll have the party,” Daniel attempted to reassure her.

“No, Daddy, that's not exactly what I mean.”

“Maybe you'd better be a bit more specific then,” Daniel sighed.

Fidgeting with her hands, Jennifer said, “We want to be like everyone else, just once.”

“I don't understand.”

“It's going to sound silly, but it's what we want,” Jennifer stated.

“Jen, I can't help you, if you don't tell me what it is,” the confused father reminded her.

Nodding, Jennifer took a deep breath and stated firmly, “At the hypothetical party, we want the hypothetical photographer to take a formal shot of all of us, the brood, the girls, and you and Dad, and ... well, we want it in the paper.”  She smiled and said, “You know -- a hypothetical headline that would read, 'The Jackson-O'Neills Celebrate Another Anniversary'.  That's what we want.”

Daniel's eyes widened at the latest idea that the brood had come up with, but as his shock faded, he became very aware of his own conflicting emotions.  While he wasn't sure he wanted to be quite so public with his family life, part of him liked the idea of he and Jack finally publicly acknowledging their relationship.

“Jen ...”

“Daddy, we do almost everything normally now.  It's just ... we look out more for each other.  We're not exactly in hiding.  If someone were really after you or Dad, they'd know who we are and what we look like, so, hypothetically, since the party isn't at the house, why couldn't we have our picture in the paper ... hypothetically.”

Daniel smiled and said, “That's a good point, Jen.  The people from our past wouldn't have much trouble finding out who our children are and what you all look like.  I guess Dad and I just lean on the side of caution, and there have been other considerations, too.”

“I know, the military,” the girl responded.  “But you're retiring, for good.  I mean, Dad is ... you know what I mean.”

The father chuckled, “I know.  We haven't wanted to make it more difficult by standing out.”

“This is important, Daddy,” Jennifer maintained.

“Why?” the man asked curiously.

“Because we've worked hard to win this bet, and this hypothetical party *is* going to happen, and we want it to be everything that it would be ... for anyone.  Please, Daddy.  I know you can't answer me, but, please, will you think about it?  For real, not hypothetically.”

Daniel took his daughter's restless hands in his and smiled again as he answered, “I promise, Jen.  I'll think about it, and once the bet is decided, I'll talk to Dad about it, too.”

“Thank you, Daddy,” Jennifer said as she got up and placed a kiss on her father's cheek.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Princess,” Daniel spoke, exchanging a tender father-daughter glance with the teen before she finally turned and walked out.

Daniel sighed, trying to process this latest turn of events and pondering why a photograph in a newspaper would mean so much to the brood.

====

“Who has the girls?” Daniel asked early that evening, looking around all around the gathering of children in the driveway.

“Woof!” Bijou spoke up as she stood next to Jennifer.

“Woof!  Woof!” Katie added, enjoying a few pats as Jeff held her before placing her down on the ground beside him.

“Oh,” Daniel chuckled.

The family was about to set off on a bike ride.  The weather was fairly nice out, and it was something they liked to do from time to time.

“Danny, I've got JD,” Jack reported, securing their youngest child in his special bike seat.

Daniel did a final safety check, making sure everyone was wearing their helmets and knee pads, and then signaled for Jack to begin their trek.

“We'rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre *off* to see the Wizard ...” Jack sang, quickly being joined by several of the children.

Daniel chuckled when he finally took up the rear and joined in.  The long line of bicycles went Jack and JD, Jonny, Aislinn, Brianna, Little Danny, Jennifer with Bijou going alongside with a long lead, Chenoa, Lulu, David, Jeff with Katie on a long lead, Ricky, Jenny, and Daniel.

Jack nodded with pride as several of the neighbors waved, some of them singing along for a few lines while the family passed by.  By the time Daniel rode by, the neighbors were chuckling and just getting back to their routines.

~I feel like a caboose, who never gets to see the scenery,~ the archaeologist mused.  He didn't really mind.  He and Jack took turns playing engine and caboose, a tidbit that often turned into one of their favorite sexual games at day's end any time they went on family bike rides.  With a leer on his face, he thought, ~On second thought, that does give me a few advantages tonight.~

====

Twenty minutes into the bike ride, the chatter had turned to the proposed anniversary party.

“Dad, we can't let everything wait.  C'mon, please,” Jennifer pleaded.

“No party, Jen,” Jack called out.

“But, Dad, we need to think about the decorations.  Should we keep it plain and simple, or go with something more festive?  Or do you want a theme?” the teen girl inquired, her voice carrying all along the line of bicycles.

“Yeah, we could do a theme,” David shouted.  “Mickey and Minnie's anniversary.”

Jack slowed and came to a halt, stopping the caravan.  Pairs of feet hit the pavement, and the two beagles sat down.  He stared back at the young boy and cocked his head.

“Who you callin' Minnie?” Jack asked, using a cartoonish voice.

Several snickers were heard from the children before Jack broke out into laughter.

“Dad?” Jennifer begged.

“Jack, hypothetically speaking, if we had a party, hypothetically, what would be your preference as to the decorations?” Daniel asked as calmly and rationally as he could.  ~I really think I hate that word now.~

Jack opened his mouth to begin arguing, until he saw a certain look in his lover's eyes.

Seeing his husband aware of the look, Daniel communicated, **Hypothetically speaking, Love, if you don't answer the question ... hypothetically, then we aren't going to ride any trains tonight, hypothetical, or not.**

The children saw their father begin to frown.  They looked back at Daniel, who was smiling innocently, but expectantly.  Then they focused again on their older father.

With a grumble, the general answered, “It's a dang formal party with a big band, hypothetically, so, hypothetically, I vote for whatever goes with the big band theme ... hypothetically.”

“The Roaring Twenties?” Jeff asked.

“The forties would be fun,” Jennifer opined.

“We're not ...”

**Jack, careful!** Daniel called out loudly in their non-verbal communication.

“... staying here any longer.  Back on the yellow brick road,” Jack chimed as he turned around and continued the bike ride.

**Smart choice, Babe,** Daniel replied.

**Thank you, Minnie,** Jack said sarcastically.

**Jack?**

**Yes, Love?**

**That wasn't a smart choice,** Daniel groused.

**Doghouse?**

**Very close.**

**I'll be good,** Jack promised.

**Counting on it, Babe.  After all, it's my turn to stoke the engine,** Daniel replied, letting out a quiet chuckle as he pedaled the bike.

**Pour on the coal!** Jack replied eagerly.

====

“I need a new hammer, too,” Jack told the salesclerk at the hardware store.  It was the next day, the twentieth of October, better known as day fifty of the bet.  “Do you have any on sale?”

“Over here, Sir,” the clerk said, leading the way down the aisle.

As he followed the clerk, Jack's eyes caught hold of a special item.  He stopped, then walked over to it and studied it more closely.  He smiled as he examined the contents.

~She'd love this.  Maybe it would make up for that dang nightmare ... which I did *not* cause,~ Jack thought, picking up the item to purchase.

====

“Just put them in this pile when you're done,” Jennifer told her helpers as they worked on the invitations.

Several members of the brood had been working all morning on addressing the invites to the anniversary party.  Jennifer and Jeff had already done the ones Daniel deemed to be confidential, and now David, Lulu, and Jonny were affixing the return address labels to the family and friends ones.

“How's it coming?” the teen asked another part of the group.

“Dey keeeep 'icking to my 'ongue,” Ricky answered, his words garbled since, sure enough, a stamp was sticking to his tongue.

“Mine, too,” Little Danny laughed as he affixed a stamp neatly to the envelope before adding it to the growing pile.

Chenoa shook her head and chastised, “You should use the sponge.  Like this,” she said as she demonstrated, gently wetting a stamp and then sticking it on the envelope.  “But don't press too hard, or it ruins the address.”  She sighed, looking over at several envelope 'victims' of wet stamps.  ~Daddy says practice makes perfect.  I had lots of practice.~

“Jen, I thought Daddy was going to run these through the meter at J-O,” David wondered out loud.

“He was, but ... well, after thinking about it, I decided that wasn't fair.  I mean, it's making him take sides,” the teenager explained.

“Jen, he's Daddy, and he's part of the bet,” Brianna commented.

“Yes, he's on Dad's side, supposedly.  I think getting him to let Aunt Sam help us and then having her buy these for us was pushing it as it was,” Jennifer replied.

“Jen?”

“What, David?”

“Who paid for the stamps?” the boy asked curiously.

Jennifer coughed and said, “Jeff and I used our allowances.”

“We should pay, too,” Little Danny offered generously.

“No, it's okay.  We've already taken care of it,” Jennifer replied appreciatively.  “Besides, when we've won the bet, Dad and Daddy will pay us back.”

“Jen?” David called out again.

“What, Bro?”

“Why didn't you get sticker stamps?  I can't even remember the last time I saw a stamp that had to be licked,” David inquired, holding up one of the stamps.

The female teenager sighed, “It was a mistake.  I was distracted and pointed to the wrong sheets.  I'm sorry.”

“It's okay,” Chenoa stated.

“Dis more fun,” Ricky chuckled as he licked a stamp and then applied it to his nose.

“Ricky!” Brianna chastised as she laughed and removed the stamp.

The group continued to do their work diligently.  They'd already had one work session, and it would take several more like this one before all of the invitations would be ready to go.

“That's it for this batch, Jen,” Brianna called out.  She had been keeping the count for the current group of invitations, checking off the names from the master list as Jennifer called them out and put them into the long box they'd be kept in until mailing.

“Great!” Jennifer exclaimed, closing the box.  “This box is all done.  Let's go downstairs and see what's going on with everyone else,” she suggested.

Jennifer and the children headed downstairs when Jonny's eyes lit up with remembrance.

“Oh, yeah!” the oldest Munchkin remarked.  Quickly, he turned back around and went to Jennifer's room.  He took one of the invitations that had already been sealed, carefully stamped it, and applied the return address label.  Then he took a pen and handwrote the address, saying it out loud as he wrote it:  “Mis-ter Pres-i-dent Hay-es, White House, Wash-ing-ton D.C.”

Smiling at his handiwork, Jonny opened the box of completed invitations and put the one he'd just completed inside.  Then he closed it again and hurried downstairs to join the rest of his family.

====

“Hey, Red!  Where are you?” Jack called out when he finally got home from completing his errands later that day.

Jenny sighed.  Even this far into the bet, their dad hadn't yet figured out that the brood was on to his ploy of shouting for them as soon as he came home, hoping they would shout back and lose the bet.

~Not fair that Dad can shout, and we can't.~  “Yes, Dad?” the spirited girl replied, walking calmly into the kitchen where Jack was waiting.

“Look what I found today!” Jack exclaimed, beaming at a mysterious package.

“What is it?” Jenny inquired eagerly, standing on her tiptoes to look at the package.

Jack reached into the sack and pulled out the most adorable Osh Kosh overalls, just the right size for a pint-sized mechanic.

“Wow!”  Jenny's eyes lit up.  “For me?” she asked, her eyes hopeful.

“Too little for me, Red.  Look at this,” the father of twelve requested.

The little girl watched intently as Jack pulled out a small case and placed it on the kitchen table.  He slowly opened it to reveal a small mechanic's tool set that included socket wrenches, screwdrivers, and a mallet with standard size 'business' ends.  All had small-sized handles and lay in their compartments, just waiting for a pair of little hands to animate them and put them to use.  The little girl was breathless with excitement and dying to try them out.

“C'mon, let's go to Uncle Lou's and help him with the MonsterMobile,” Jack suggested.  “You can break these in,” he offered, gesturing to the toddler size tools and overalls.

The little Spitfire sighed deeply.  She had three days to get a report finished that she and Aislinn were co-writing.  They were both doing research, frequently sharing their notes, and they were taking turns on finishing sections, each part building on what the other had done.  If they stayed on schedule, the project would be completed in plenty of time, but if she let her part slide today, Aislinn would have to wait to do hers.  It would put them behind schedule and jeopardize the quality of their work.  Sliding performance in assignments could cause the brood to lose the bet.

“Sorry, Dad, but I have to get my report done,” Jenny sighed regretfully, looking at the tool set and overalls longingly.

“But, Honey, it's not due for three whole days.  You'll get it done,” Jack replied confidently.

“Not fair to Ash, Dad.  It's my turn, and we need to see each other's notes tonight,” the redhead refuted.

“You sure?” Jack responded.  After the girl nodded, he sighed, “Okay.  I'll keep them ready for you, so Jonny doesn't snag them before you get to use them. Anytime you're ready to go to Uncle Lou's, just let me know.”

“Okay, Dad.  I'll let you know when I can go,” Jenny replied as she turned and began to walk away, her head slightly bowed.

Jack could see the disappointment etched on the little girl's face.  She was like Jonny in that she loved to take things apart and put them back together.  She had always been interested in building and had questioned her parents about various tools almost from the time she could speak.  More than that, she loved cars and enjoyed greatly the time Jack's ex-wife Sara had spent explaining the mechanics of an engine.  Even Jennifer, who had taken Auto Shop, sometimes spent time with Jenny, helping her to learn the basics.

“Jenny, Uncle Lou's going to be home next Tuesday, too.  How about we make a date of it?  We'll even let you get under the truck for a couple of minutes when we change the oil.”

Jenny's grin as she turned around was huge.  Her eyes sparkled in excitement as she ran up to her father and hugged him.

“I love you, Dad!”

~That wasn't a run,~ Jack thought about the Spitfire's quick movement towards him.  ~She just skipped a couple of steps, that's all,~ he thought.  “I love you, too, Jenny.”

====

Two days later, Jack was in the gym at Cheyenne Mountain working off some frustration.  He'd just realized that he was only days away from losing the bet.  What had seemed like such a sure thing two months ago was now looking rather dismal for him and his blood pressure had risen dramatically.

~How can they be so unified?~ the general thought as he punched the long, leather bag.  He danced around, then punched it again.  ~They've been perfect for fifty-... fifffff... heck, over fifty days.  I am *not* going to parade around in front of Colorado Springs in a monkey suit.  Not gonna happen!~

For ten more minutes, Jack worked out, banging the punching bag with all of his might.  As he did, his mind worked on trying to find an out, any out that would prevent the dreaded party from becoming a reality and that wouldn't end with his husband filing for divorce.  Then he remembered something he'd seen advertised in the community events section of the newspaper.

~Distraction.  That's what I need -- a little distraction to get the brood off guard.  It's not hurting them.  She'll love it!~

With a smirk, Jack gave the bag one more punch, then showered and changed into his civvies.  He had to drop by and confer with the leader of SG-22 for a few minutes, but then he was free and clear of his duties at Cheyenne Mountain for the day and could concentrate on his plan.

====

“Hey, Ash!” Jack greeted.  He was picking the youngest Munchkin up from a birthday party at her friend Alise's house.  “How was the party?”

“It was fun, Dad,” Aislinn answered with a bright smile as they walked.  Jack's truck was parked down the street, since there were a number of vehicles parked in the area.  “We got goodie bags,” she added, holding up her bag of tokens and trinkets.

“Looks like you made out like a bandit,” Jack quipped.  “Ash, guess what?”

“What, Dad?”

“There's an organ recital at the Presbyterian Church.  They've brought someone special in from out of town, and it starts in thirty minutes.  Wanna go?” Jack asked.

Aislinn's passion was music.  She loved her dolls and toys, too, but music, well, it made her feel wonderful in ways that her dolls never could.  Her daddy had tried to answer her questions about what that special feeling was and why it almost always happened when she was listening to music.  He had used some big words she didn't grasp.  Even Little Danny hadn't been able to explain it to her very well, although he obviously knew the feeling she was talking about.  In the end, she decided to just enjoy the music and not worry about how or why it made her feel the way it always did.

The music lover considered Jack's invitation.  She really wanted to go, but she wasn't sure if she should or not.  She and Jenny were almost done with their report.  She just needed to add one last section, which she had planned to do as soon as she got home from the party.  Then, once Jenny was finished with her math problems, the girls were going to compare their notes, then take a final look at their outline to ensure they'd covered all the relevant points, and then write the ending together.

The young girls were proud of their work-in-progress because, except for a few questions about format, they'd done it by themselves.  Jack had assigned the report, over Daniel's protests that it was expecting too much from them.

//Flashback//
“Jack, can I have a word with you, please?” the archaeologist asked, his tone clearly indicating his displeasure with his mate.

“Anything you say, Daniel,” the older man replied, smiling at their children and then following his husband into the kitchen.

“Jack, this isn't a fair requirement, and you know it.  At this age, their reports shouldn't require a bibliography and footnotes,” Daniel argued.  “We've barely discussed that with the Munchkins, and we've never gone over it with the Spitfires.”

“I'm only asking them to look up six sources and do three footnotes, and two of them can be from one source.  They have to start doing this sometime, Daniel, if they want to succeed in college,” the older man retaliated.

“But not at the age of ...” Daniel felt a tug on his pant leg, interrupting his objections.

“Daddy, it's okay.  We'll learn how to do grownup reports,” the redhead said, having covertly followed her parents to the kitchen, as had Aislinn. “David said he'd explain about bib...bib...about those extra things to us,” she added.

Daniel looked down at their little girl and smiled.  He knew his lover couldn't see the look of fierce determination in her eyes and the set of her jaw.

~Jack, you have *no* idea, none at all,~ Daniel opined inwardly.  **She can't even say the word.**

**She'll learn.  Our kids are little brains,** Jack insisted.

**Our children are human beings, young lives we're responsible for,** the younger man argued.

“Daddy, it's okay,” Jenny assured.  “Please, Daddy, we want to!”

~She loves challenges, and I can't be the one to stop her from tackling them.~  Seeing Aislinn standing behind Jenny, Daniel questioned, “Ash, are you willing to do this, too?  It's okay to say 'no'.”

The female Munchkin replied with an unhesitating, “Yes, Jenny and I will do it together.  We make a great team!”

Daniel nodded, but then glared at his lover for a moment.

“They want to, Danny,” Jack spoke a bit mockingly.

“Okay, Jack, you win.  If they want to tackle it, they can do their report your way,” Daniel sighed.  “But,” he added quickly, “four sources, not six.  Six is way too many.”

The duo exclaimed, “Yes!” in unison and tapped their fists together.

Jack smiled smugly.  He knew his daughters could do the report, but with the extra attention it would take, they would have less time to help their siblings.  They might even get frustrated and start to whine or grumble.  It wasn't hurting them; in fact, it was good for their education.

“What?” Jack asked his husband after the girls had returned to their spot in the recreation room.

“You wouldn't hear me if I told you, Jack, but let's get one thing very clear,” Daniel began.  “This isn't going to happen again with any of our children.  I have no objection to challenges, but they have to be fair.  Not only that, but the next time you spring something like this on them in the middle of a session, you'd better be real sure of yourself.”

“Daniel ...”

“Jack, this bet is really starting to get the best of you, or should that be the worst?  I already warned you about the housecleaning business, and now I'm doing it about their learning. Keep in line, or I'll end it,” the younger man threatened sternly.

“Such a dictator,” the older man replied a bit playfully.

“No, just a father, like you.  I'd appreciate it if you'd remember that,” Daniel requested as he turned and headed back to rejoin their children.  **Jack, this is so going to bite us in the butt.  We're setting a precedent of allowing them to do things beyond their years.  Don't be surprised if they want to start dating at ten.  I hope winning this bet is worth it.**

**DANIEL!  Don't think such things in my direction! You'll be raising twelve children as a widower.**  Jack shook his head until it hurt to banish the visuals Daniel's unspoken comment had conjured.  ~Where's my P-90 to keep away those overly hormonal boys?~

Wryly Daniel shot back, ** It's just a few short years from footnotes to boyfriends, and you just jump-started the calendar, Babe.**

Jack was suddenly feeling a great deal less smug about his 'victory', his mind now imagining his daughters doing things he so wasn't ready to think about.
//End of Flashback//

Aislinn weighed the choice in her mind, to attend the organ recital with her Dad and maybe get the report done, or to go straight home and make sure it was done.

~We're almost done, and Jenny won't mind.  I'll just finish my part later,~ Aislinn decided.  “Let's go, Dad!” the little girl said, anticipation growing within her.

“Now you're talking,” Jack replied happily.  “I'll call Daddy and let him know we're taking a little detour.”

“And tell Jenny I'll help with our report when we get home,” Aislinn requested.

“Okie dokie,” Jack agreed.

--

As soon as she had climbed into the truck, Aislinn began to feel uneasy.  She felt badly about letting her brothers and sisters down.  Maybe it would make them lose the bet.  She came out of her self-berating thoughts in time to hear her parents apparently discussing the outing.

Into his cell phone, Jack insisted, “Daniel, I am not *up* to anything.  I'm just taking our daughter to an organ recital.  We'll probably stop for ice crea ... Daniel? ... Daniel? ... Danny?”  He shrugged as he flipped the cell phone closed.  “Must have dropped the connection,” he remarked with a smile as he put the phone in his pocket.

“Did you tell Jenny?” Aislinn asked, having not paid attention to the entire conversation.

“I asked Daddy to tell her, Ash.  Here we go,” Jack stated as he started the truck and headed for their musical destination.

====

“Daniel, I haven't seen you this upset in a long time,” Sam noted.  She'd come by to talk with Jennifer and Jeff about the invitations and website and found a rather irate archaeologist pacing in his den.  “Are you okay?”

“Sam, it's a silly bet, and I feel like an idiot for letting things get so out of hand.  He's lost perspective.”

“The general?” the blonde mused, trying to lighten the tension she could feel radiating from her friend.  With a shrug and a reassuring smile, she said, “Daniel, the kids are fine.  They're just as into this bet as the general is.  They want to win.”

“I know,” Daniel replied, sinking down into his desk chair.  He took a deep breath to calm himself down and then smiled, asking, “Hypothetically, Sam, how are the plans coming?”

“The hypothetical website is just about ready to go, assuming the hypothetical color scheme meets the approval of Brianna.”  Sam paused, sat down in the recliner and asked, “How about the hypothetical caterers?”

“Two are on retainer, hypothetically,” Daniel laughed.  “Gawd, Sam, I'm beginning to hate that word.  I've asked Jack a thousand hypothetical questions.  It's the only way I can get him to answer anything,” the archaeologist sighed.  “And even then I practically have to twist his arm to get a response.”

“Somehow, I don't think it's his arm you threaten to twist, Daniel,” Sam teased.
 
“Sam!” Daniel exclaimed, blushing bright red while his friend just laughed.  “I'd better see how Jenny's doing,” he said, wanting to change the subject as soon as possible.

“And I need to get home,” Sam said, standing and adjusting her purse as it hung on her shoulder.  “How are they doing on the report?”

Daniel smiled, saying, “They won't let me see, but David says they've done great.  He's, uh, been their bibliography and footnote mentor.”

“I love your kids, Daniel,” Sam chuckled as she headed towards the sliding pocket doors.

“How would you like to adopt my oldest?” the archaeologist joked.

Sam looked at Daniel's smirk; then broke out into laughter, saying, “No, thanks, Daniel.  He's all yours.”

“Coward,” Daniel teased.

====

Having arrived at the church, Aislinn was entranced by the sight of the pipe organ.  Jack smiled at his young daughter, seeing the delight in her eyes.  Holding her hand, they walked up to the front and took a close-up look at the masterful instrument.  Then they picked out some seats as close as they could get and waited for the program to begin.

After several minutes a man approached the microphone and explained the history and the mechanics of this particular organ.  After that, the organist was introduced.  He shared his musical education and background with the audience, and then he sat down and began to play.

While the organ was being played, Aislinn was enraptured by the music.  The musician's fingers flew across the keys, occasionally flashing up or sideways to change the stops in use; and while his fingers were flying, his feet were dancing across a huge array of pedals.  Others in the sanctuary noticed the little girl's rapt attention and pointed her out to others.

Jack, too, couldn't help but gaze at his daughter from time to time.  Her face was alight with joy when the music played.  Her attention to the notes and the music was absolute.  She looked peaceful and happy to the general.  She always did when she sang, too.

Each time the music stopped, though, Aislinn's thoughts focused on Jenny, who she knew was sitting alone working on *their* report.  Guilt would begin to sweep over the little girl, but then the music would start, and she would be lost again until the end of that piece.

Finally, though, Aislinn's emotions began to battle in earnest, and her stomach started to hurt fiercely, until not even the wonderful music could transport her beyond the pain.  Mercifully, there was an intermission.

Aislinn tugged at Jack's sleeve and said, “Dad, I'm ready to go home now.”

“Princess, it's not over.  The man is going to play some more.  He just had to get a drink and go to the bathroom.  He'll be back.”

“Dad, stomach hurts; wanna go home now,” Aislinn said again, not crying but letting out a solitary sniffle.

Nodding, Jack picked up his upset daughter and headed for the truck.  Once there, he unlocked the vehicle and opened the passenger door, setting the young Munchkin on the seat, facing him as he stood on the curb.

“Ash, tell me how you feel,” Jack requested.

“Stomach hurts, Dad.  I wanna go hooooome,” the young girl cried.

Jack did the normal medical checks.  Aislinn didn't have a temperature or any other symptoms, except for her stomach.  He wondered if she'd eaten something at the birthday party that might have upset her stomach.

“Let me call Doctor Sylvia and ...”

“No, Dad.  Please, I just want to go home.  I'll be okay when we get home.  Pleeeease.”

~She had to have eaten too much at the party,~ Jack deduced.  He genuinely wanted to make his little girl feel better, so he suggested, “I'll bet some ice cream would sooth that tummy ache.”

“No, Dad,” Aislinn responded.  “I wanna go home, please,” she requested yet again.

~No ice cream?  Yep, she ate too much,~ Jack surmised, knowing how dedicated his kids were to the delicacy that was ice cream, especially considering how chintzy their helpings of the treat had been recently.  “Okay, Princess.  We'll go home.  You know, I think this man will be back in a couple of months.  If we can, would you like to hear him again?”

“Yes, Dad,” Aislinn answered, though she was still holding her abdomen and was clearly upset.

Jack gave his daughter a weak smile and shut the door.  Sighing, he walked around to the driver's side and got in.  Once he made sure Aislinn was properly strapped in, he started the truck and headed for home.

====

“Hi, Daddy,” Aislinn greeted as she entered the house.  “Where's Jenny?”

“Sweetie, are you okay?” Daniel asked in concern, seeing the upset look on his daughter's face.

“I need to see Jenny.”

“She's upstairs in the library,” Daniel answered, watching carefully as the little girl quickly ascended the stairs.  “Jack?”

“Danny, you should have seen her at the church; she was spellbound by that organ,” Jack responded.

“Maybe, but she didn't look spellbound to me just now,” Daniel replied.  “In fact, she looked upset.”

“She said she had an upset stomach.  I checked her out; she's fine.  I think she just ate too much at the birthday party,” Jack informed his husband.

“Are you sure she's fine?” Daniel asked a bit agitatedly.

“Yes, I'm sure, Daniel, but we can go check on her, if you want,” Jack offered.

====

Upstairs, the two men found their daughters sitting intently at the computer in the library, pouring over their outline and their written report.

“Ash?” Daniel called out.  “Dad said you had an upset stomach.”

Aislinn looked up at her two fathers and smiled as she replied, “I'm okay now, Daddy.  Thank you, Dad, for taking me to the recital.  I'm sorry I didn't feel good and couldn't stay for the whole thing.”

“That's okay, Sweetheart,” Jack acknowledged.  “I'm sorry you were sick, but I'm glad you liked it.”

“Ash, you need to change your clothes,” Daniel instructed, hoping that his suspicions were wrong.

“Okay, Daddy.  Jenny, I'll be right back,” the Munchkin promised, getting up and walking out of the library, with Jack on her heels to make sure her dress was properly put away.

“Jenny, what did Ash say when she first came up here?” the archaeologist inquired.

“Just that she was sorry she got home late.  She's not sick, Daddy,” Jenny stated.

“Thanks, Sweetie,” Daniel replied and then slowly walked out into the hallway.

====

A few minutes later, Jack walked into the study, surprised to see Daniel there, apparently waiting for him.

With a stern expression and strong tone, Daniel approached his lover, who stood just inside the study, and stated, “Jack, that line I've mentioned before ... you're very close to crossing it.  Very close.”

“Dan...” Jack's eyes widened as he watched his soulmate disappear from his sight.  **Geez, you could at least let a person get a word in.**

**That's the problem, Jack; too many words.**

====

That evening, Daniel was heading up to Jennifer's room when he heard a tiny voice and a sniffle.

“I was selfish, Jen,” Aislinn sighed, rubbing her eyes.  “I wanted to go to the recital.  I left Jenny all alone to work on the report.  I'm a bad person,” she sniffled.

“No, Ash, you're not.  Listen, we're going to have a meeting.  Let's freshen up, and then we'll get the brood together and talk about this,” Jennifer stated.  With a loving smile she added, “But, Ash, I want you to listen to me.  You are *not* a bad person.  Come on.”

~Okay, Jack, that's it,~ Daniel shouted inwardly.  He turned and headed for the backyard, where he knew the older man was raking the leaves.  “Jack, I want to know everything that happened this afternoon from the moment you picked Ash up at the party until you two walked back in the house.”

“What's up your drawers?” Jack drawled.

“Jack, do I need to repeat the question?  I mean, uh, you do like to play the dumb general, so if you need me to spell it out for you, this time I will,” the angry archaeologist offered.

“Daniel ... sure, why not,” Jack answered, deciding that anymore questioning would just irritate his spouse further.  He told his lover every detail he could think of and then asked, “Now, what's the problem?”

“I'll let you know,” the younger man responded curtly, turning and walking back inside the house.

Jack shook his head and looked over at Bijou, who was staring at him.

“What?”

“Grrrrr,” Bijou responded, getting up and purposely running through Jack's nice big pile of leaves, causing them to fly into the air and spread all over the yard again.

“Hey!” Jack shouted as Bijou disappeared around the side of the house, going into the garage and then the house, via the dog door.  “Mutt!”  As he worked on returning the leaves to their stacked pile, he mumbled, “Everyone must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”

Mere moments had passed when the back door slammed, and Jack looked up, surprised to see his husband striding in his direction.

“That was a quick trip,” the general said playfully.

“Don't start with me, Jack, because trust me, you won't like how I finish it,” Daniel replied strongly.

“What's eating you today?” Jack asked a bit crossly.

Taking a deep breath, the archaeologist turned to his husband and answered, “An apt choice of words, Jack.  Something has been *eating* at me since the bet started, and before I make any decisions, or point any fingers, I need to find out what it is.”

“Daniel, what the blazes are you talking about?” Jack asked, getting annoyed at his husband's obtuseness.

“I'm not sure.  Let's review how this got started,” Daniel insisted.  “Do you remember saying, rather smugly I might add, 'Don't worry, Danny.  I have it covered'?”

“I wasn't smug,” Jack began protesting until he was silenced by Daniel's glare.

“I said, 'That's what worries me', and you just ignored me, telling the children that, 'Our wedding anniversary is November the sixteenth.  If *all* of you behave, and I do mean behave -- *completely* -- for the next two months, Daddy and I will dress up in monkey suits, and we'll have the party, just the way you want it'.”

“Daniel, I was there.  I know what happened,” Jack griped.

“So was I, but I'm missing something, Jack, and you're going to help me figure it out.  Now, you started outlining the bet.  Jonny whined a little and then you pointed out the finer points of the bet.”

“Danny, what's the point of this?” Jack questioned, throwing his arms up in the air.

Daniel answered, “Jus...just stay with me on this.  What happened next?  Noa ...”

“Noa and Lulu said they could help the brood learn to dance.  I said they had to do their chores without question, hesitation, or grumbling.  I told them that if we had to tell them twice about anything, they would lose,” Jack stated a bit by rote.

A sinking feeling began to take root in the pit of Daniel's stomach as he spoke slowly, “And I said, 'And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that'.”  He shook his head and walked away, pacing up and down on the other side of Jack's leaf pile, repeating the words, “And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that'.”  Finally, he came to a stop and repeated once more. “And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that'.  Oh, crap!”

Jack waved his hand in front of his husband's face and called, “Anyone home?  Danny, are you in there?  Helloooooo.”

Daniel grabbed Jack's hand and cast it aside in disgust.

“Find what you were looking for?” Jack asked exasperatedly.

“Yes, and it doesn't make me very happy.  I've been on you about playing fair and not dumping extra stuff on the brood, and it's *my* fault they've been going so far over the top with the housecleaning and the extra chores, like the laundry, the yard, and the windows; my fault, all because I thought I was being supportive of my husband.  One little sentence -- 'And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that'.  No wonder our kids have been acting like they were army recruits.  They've been afraid we would trap them with something that's not even their responsibility.  It's all my fault, Jack, mine.”

Jack's brief feelings of frustration from a minute ago ebbed away, replaced by a desire to comfort his husband.  He could see the rambling archaeologist's despair and wanted to make it go away.

“Aw, Angel, it's not that bad.  They'll lose the bet in a day or two, and things will get back to normal.”

Daniel froze and stared at his husband in disbelief. before replying harshly, “Jack, don't you ever stop?”

“What'd I say?” the older man shrugged as his lover moved away and headed inside the house.  “My family has lost their minds,” he spoke to the air before returning to his task with the leaves.

====

Having finally reached a decision, Daniel headed up the stairs to Jeff's room.  He paused, hearing the children engaged in conversation.

“Ash, I'm not mad,” Jenny said reassuringly.

“But you didn't go to Uncle Lou's when Dad temp...tem...”

“Tempted,” Jennifer completed for her upset sister.

“Yeah, tempted you, and I went to the recital,” Aislinn sniffled.  “I just wanted to see the organ so bad and hear the music.”

“Ash, it's okay.  Jenny isn't mad, and neither are we,” Jeff promised.

“But I let you down,” Aislinn stated.

“No, you didn't,” Little Danny comforted, his arm going around his sister as she sat in the middle of Jeff's bed, the entire brood, except for JD, and the beagles surrounding her with love and support.

“We finished the report, Ash.  We'll get a star for it,” Jenny said confidently.

“Two stars,” David commented.  “I read it; it's really good.”

Outside the door, Daniel was going through a combination of emotions, ranging from sadness and despair for the heartache of their daughter, their original miracle, to seething rage that Jack, and now, he realized, he, too, had caused all of this to happen.  He added guilt to that, since he had let the bet go on, even though his husband had already done several things he'd disagreed with.  Now, he found himself just as culpable.

~But no more, Jack,~ Daniel thought, tapping on the door and walking in to the surprised looks of all eleven children.

“We need to talk,” Daniel began, shutting the door and moving over to Jeff's desk, which was at the front of the room.  He sighed and turned around to face the silent brood, his arms folded across his chest.  He made eye contact with most of the children before bowing his head for a moment.  Then he took a deep breath and knelt down.  He nodded at Aislinn and requested, “Princess, come here, please.”

Her lips pursed, Aislinn scooted off the bed and walked slowly to her younger father.  She felt his warm, strong hands take hers.  It made her feel safe.  She smiled, her misting eyes managing not to release their tiny waters.

Daniel smiled as well and then spoke, “Ash, you are a beautiful little girl, and you have a heart of gold.  You are *not* a bad person.  You're ... an angel.”  He raised his left hand to run through her long, brown hair.  “We love you, so much, and we wouldn't know what to do without you.”

The archaeologist's eyes watered as he pulled his daughter into a tight hug.  He sighed, his hands rubbing her back as she sniffled.  When he pulled back, he stood up, picking Aislinn up and holding her protectively in his arms.  He stared out at the brood.

Thoughtfully, Daniel decreed, “The bet is over.  You win.  We'll have the party, just the way you want it.”

“No, Daddy, please don't,” Aislinn said, her eyes going wide.

“Daddy, no!” Jennifer exclaimed.

Within seconds, the entire brood called out their unhappiness at having the bet ended prematurely.

“Listen,” Daniel said, silencing them.  “It's gone too far.”  He looked at Aislinn, giving her a smile.  “When something we did makes you cry, it's gone beyond being a safe game.”

“No, Daddy, please,” Aislinn pleaded, setting off another round of cries from the children.

“Why?” Daniel asked them.  “You've won.”

“Daddy, don't you see?” Jennifer began.  “We want to win the bet ourselves.  Ash is fine.  Jenny's fine.  Ash just felt a little guilty.  Heck, Daddy, guilt is a family requirement, isn't it?” the teen asked with a bit of a smirk.

Jeff added, “Daddy, we've worked too hard not to win this fair and square.”

“That's the problem, Jeff,” Daniel interjected.  “Some of us aren't playing fair and square.”

“You mean Dad?” Brianna guessed.

“Yes, but not just Dad.  I've been unfair to you, too.  Not only because I let this bet go on too long, but I've contributed to this mess as well.  I just realized a few minutes ago that I said something when this bargain was first struck that was totally unfair and irresponsible.”

Eleven pairs of eyes turned to Daniel, uncomprehending.

“I said, 'And there'll be no, 'oh, you didn't say anything about that'.  No wonder you guys have been over the top with the work around here.  I never meant that you should be doing things that are not part of your regular chores.”

Jeff and Jennifer looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Geez, Daddy, do you think you could have told us sometime before now?” Jennifer laughed.

“I'm sorry that I didn't connect the dots until just now when Dad and I were talking.  I've been uneasy about this from the beginning and just realized why. I'm very sorry that I wasn't clearer.”

“Daddy, don't worry about it,” Jeff replied.  “What you said has helped us because it kept us focused.  We know Dad might use something we don't usually have to do all on our own to declare himself, uh, I mean the two of you the winner.  We do help with the laundry, and the yard, and the house.  There was never any discussion of what exactly was expected of us, so the only option was to do it all, so neither you nor Dad had any room for complaint.”

Jennifer added, “We *want* to win this bet by the rules you and Dad set down at the beginning.  Maybe they weren't perfectly fair, but we've done all right so far, and to pull the plug when we're this close,” the female teen held up a thumb and forefinger a tiny space apart, “is only going to make both Dad and us feel cheated: Dad because he'll always believe you would have won, and us because we *know* we would have.”

Jeff interjected, “Maybe the competition is a little over the top, but at least it will be over soon.  Stop it prematurely and it will never be over because Dad will never be able to let it go.”

“You know how Dad is, Daddy.  He won't let this go if it doesn't play out to the end the way it should,” Jennifer intoned.

Daniel nodded, seeing the logic of the teen's words, and responded, “But, that still doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make it any easier on me to realize what we've done to our children.”  He was grateful for the children being so kind and forgiving, but the truth was the truth.  Unfortunately, the children had made it clear that by ending the bet now, the only person who would feel better was him.  Focusing on the female Spitfire, he asked, “Jenny, what's this about Uncle Lou's?”

Jenny told Daniel about the cute little outfit and the tool set that Jack had gotten for her and how he'd asked her to go to Uncle Lou's, knowing she needed to work on the report.

“We went today and had lots of fun, but Uncle Lou had to go to work early, so Dad said we'd go again next week.  Uncle Lou even said he'd make a nameplate for my tool set,” Jenny pointed out.

Daniel moved towards the bed and the children immediately made room for him to sit down.  He maneuvered Aislinn to sit in his lap, his arms wrapping around her.  Still, he said nothing as he worked his way through a difficult decision.

“Daddy, Dad loves us,” Little Danny spoke, breaking the minute-long silence.

Daniel stared at his namesake and whispered, “Of course, he does.  You're his life.  All of you are.”

“We know that, Daddy,” Chenoa said from behind the younger father.  “We're playing a game.  We have lots of willpower.”

“Will power?” Daniel questioned silently.

“Daddy, Jen and I have asked the little ones a lot of times if they'd rather stop playing the game, but we're all having too much fun,” Jeff stated, smiling down at Lulu, who nodded her agreement.

“This is fun?” the concerned father asked motioning towards Aislinn.

“I made a bad choice, Daddy, because I love music,” Aislinn stated.

“No, Ash, it wasn't a bad choice,” Jennifer corrected.  “Staying at the recital would have meant you would have been home what ... just another hour later, and that's assuming Dad would have taken you for ice cream or something, too.  You had plenty of time.”

“Jenny had to do my part,” Aislinn spoke sadly.

“I only did three sentences, Ash,” Jenny reminded her sister, smiling reassuringly.  “We got done way early.”

Aislinn began to smile as her siblings' words finally began to take root.  She and Jenny had finished their report quickly.  She realized they were right, that even if she had been out longer, they still would have completed it on time, and it wouldn't have suffered much at all from her absence.

“We're playing a game with Dad, Daddy, and we're gonna win,” David stated firmly.

“Daddy, we know he loves us.  So do you.  This isn't about that.  It's about ... the party,” Jennifer remarked.  “We want the party, so we're playing the game, and we're going to win.”

“Yeah!” Jonny exclaimed, starting a round of fist taps with his brothers and sisters.

“Are you sure?” Daniel asked Aislinn, turning her around so he could look her in the eye.

“Dad says the man who played the organ is coming back, and when he does, we're going to go,” Aislinn answered happily.

“Don't you see, Daddy?” Brianna asked.  “He's trying to tempt us, but he's not taking anything from us.  Every time we've used our willpower, he's just arranged for us to go wherever or do whatever at another time, like when we went to the shelter.”  She saw Daniel's questioning look and added, “Yeah, he tried to get me to skip out on homework, too, but when I said I couldn't, he said we'd go the next week, and we did.”

“Dad loves us,” Ricky stated with certainty, igniting a chorus of agreement from the brood.

“Okay,” Daniel agreed.  “I guess if you can tough it out, I can, too.”

A cheer erupted, and Aislinn hugged her daddy tightly.

“I love you, Ash.  I love all of you so much,” Daniel spoke a little emotionally, after which a group hug commenced.

====

A few minutes later, Daniel left the children to continue their support meeting alone.  He had just reached the bottom of the stairs when Jennifer called out to him.

“Daddy,” the teen said as she reached the bottom step.  “I promise you that Jeff and I have kept a really close eye on the little ones the whole time; not just on them, but even Bri, too.  See, early on, Little Danny was worried, and that got Jeff and me thinking.  Even though we've been really into winning, we've had all kinds of talks with the kids, several times.  They really do understand that it's a game, and that when it's over, everything will go back to normal.”

“I appreciate your telling me this, Jen.  Little Danny was worried?” Daniel asked, his worry igniting again.

“You know how he is, Daddy.  Daddy, I swear, if he hadn't understood, we would have stopped it.  You know, the brood -- we're who we are because of you *and* Dad.  We're strong because of the two of you.  We're going to win this bet only because of what you have both taught us,” Jennifer stated poignantly.

“I'm not sure what to say to that,” the emotional father replied.

“Don't say anything, but don't worry, either,” Jennifer requested.  She cocked her head to the right and smiled as she added, “Dad could never hurt us.  I think maybe every time he tries to get tough, he puts on that ole grizzly bear thing.  He tries to be that ole general that scares everyone.  The problem is, he's not a grizzly bear with us.  He's our dad, and he loves us.  He teases, tries to distract us, but when he fails, he does it anyway -- the shelter with Bri, Jenny's tools, my new dress ...”

“What?” Daniel questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, that was a couple of weeks ago.  Actually, I think Dad thinks Jeff and I are too old to succumb to one of his bribes, and he's right, but he tried, anyway.  He offered to take me on a shopping spree one day when Lulu, Noa, and David needed me to help them with some of their chores.”

“You didn't go.”

“Of course not, but a few days later, he picked me up from school and took me shopping.  Remember, I showed you that new ...”

“Purple dress,” Daniel said, nodding.  “He just said he'd surprised you.”

“He did.  I just don't want you to worry about us, Daddy.  Besides, a couple more days, and it's over,” Jennifer stated.

“Thanks, Jen,” Daniel spoke, smiling as he took his daughter into his arms appreciatively.

“Are you okay, Daddy?” Jennifer asked when they broke apart.  “Sometimes, I think this has been the hardest on you, hypothetically, if you know what I mean.”

Chuckling, Daniel replied, “I'm fine, Jen, except for one thing.”

“What's that?”

Speaking frankly with his daughter, the archaeologist answered, “After the twenty-sixth and this freakin' bet is done, I don't ever want to hear that word again.”

Jennifer laughed, then turned to go upstairs while her father chuckled his way to the living room.

====

“Danny, you've hardly said a word since that little outburst earlier,” Jack pointed out.

Daniel was already in bed, sitting up against the headboard as he wrote in his journal.  He said nothing in response to his lover's statement, his only acknowledgement of the older man's comment being a slight shrug of his shoulders.

As he stood at the foot of the bed, staring at Daniel, Jack didn't know what to make of the situation and called out, “Danny?”

“You know something, Jack?” Daniel asked, finally looking up at his husband.  “We have amazing children, and I'm not sure we deserve them.”

“Danny?” Jack asked in confusion as he moved around the corner of the bed, sitting down on his side, facing the younger man.

“Jack, I want to finish writing in my journal.  I ... I have a lot to write about tonight.”

“Okay,” Jack responded, a bit taken aback by his lover's demeanor.

As his Silver Fox rearranged his position, preparing to go to sleep, Daniel stated, “I love you, Jack, even when your inner child is an idiot.”

“I love you, too, Danny, but I sure wish I knew what was going on in that brain of yours,” Jack replied, staring up at his lover.

“Go to sleep, Babe.  I'll tell you ... sometime,” the younger man promised.

Not pausing his writing, Daniel remained focused on his thoughts, leaving Jack confused and yet grateful.  Somehow, Jack had a feeling he'd avoided a big fight.  He just wished he knew how and why.  He also wished he could go to sleep, but tired as he was, he just couldn't get the bet out of his mind.

~Clock is ticking,~ Jack pondered as he closed his eyes, an image of a huge clock coming to his mind, its hands spinning swiftly around the clock's face until it finally blew up.  ~I have to find a way out,~ he thought.  ~Can't lose the bet.  Can't ... can't lose.~

====

The next afternoon Daniel sought out his husband, finding him in the study, where he promptly tossed a paper binder at him.
 
“What's this?” Jack asked curiously, picking the binder up from beside him.
 
“Your daughters' report. The sentence structure is simple and repetitive, but other than that, it's excellent, superb even.  I'm impressed, very impressed,” Daniel replied in an icy voice.

The archaeologist waited as Jack read the report.  He wanted to be angry, but then he could see the pride on the older man's face as he read it.

“They did good, Danny,” Jack admitted.  “Two stars worth.”

“Yeah, that's what I thought.  Did you see the footnotes?” Daniel questioned, his anger once again rising.

Jack closed the report and set it down on the desk in front of him as he acknowledged, “Five of them.”

“Five,” Daniel echoed.  “And seven sources, Jack -- *seven*!”

“I knew they could do it,” Jack spoke with in prideful voice.

“That's not the point, Jack.  I told them four sources were enough, even though you asked for six.  The seventh one probably didn't make much difference one way or the other, but ...”

“So, what's your point?” Jack asked.

“The point, my dear husband, is that your two daughters made a point of including one more source and two more footnotes than you asked for.  It's their way of saying, in a way that is acceptable, 'In your face, Dad!'.  I'm not at all sure that this whole bet isn't like the teeny little snowball at the top of the mountain.”

After a moment, Jack questioned, “Danny, you're making too much of this.  Did you give them their stars yet?”

“No.  I thought ...” Daniel began, but trailed off, shrugging.

“Thanks, Angel,” Jack said, getting up, giving his husband a quick kiss, and then heading for the game room where the girls were playing at the moment.

~Gawd, I want to be so angry at him, but I can't.  It's a game.  It's a game.  It's a game.  That's what the children say, and if they're okay with it, I need to be okay with it.  It's a game,~ Daniel told himself again as he walked out of the study and headed for the game room.  ~A game I fear we will live to rue.~

====

Early that evening, Daniel made a phone call from the den.

“Hi, Sam.”

“Daniel, hi.  I was about to give you a call,” the colonel told the archaeologist over her cell phone as she drove towards her home.

“Something up?” Daniel asked with concern.

“Miranda told me you dropped by to see Kevin again,” Sam commented.

“I wanted to check out that basketball equipment we donated recently.  We had a ... chat.”

“Did he respond to you?” Sam asked anxiously, still worried about the young boy.

“Response comes in a lot of ways, Sam.  Time is something that can't be overlooked,” the patient archaeologist reminded.  “Sam, things are a little hectic with the brood right now, but Jack and I talked about it, and we thought maybe after the holidays, we can take Jonny and Little Danny to meet Kevin.”

“Thanks,” Sam acknowledged gratefully.  With a disgusted sigh, she spoke, “The one thing I can't get over is his mother.  She won't come to see him, but she won't agree to let someone else adopt him, either.  I *know* he'd find a home.”

Daniel replied, “It's guilt, Sam.  The mother doesn't want to admit that she couldn't take care of her son.  The truth is, she could have, had she tried, but she didn't, and the one thing she can't handle is knowing that she's the one who didn't put the effort in.  That's why she won't let Kevin be adopted.”

“Ego,” Sam spoke in a miffed tone, so upset she pulled over to the side of the road.  “That's what it's about.”

“I guess you could say that.”  After a pause, he added, “We'll have to hope for the best, Sam; it's all we can do right now.”

Not wanting to think about it anymore, Sam spoke, “Daniel, I did want to let you know that everyone has the sixteenth on hold.  We all know the brood will be winning the bet.”

“I wish Jack could admit it,” Daniel sighed.

“But then he wouldn't be the general,” Sam chuckled, trying to make herself feel better.

“That's a good point, Sam.  Oops!  I hear a disaster brewing downstairs.  I'd better go.”

“See ya later,” Sam responded.

“Later,” Daniel replied, hanging up and going to check on the disaster.  He laughed, seeing his husband on his rear end in the rec room.  “Babe?”

“They shined the floor again,” Jack griped.

“Uh, Jack, the floor isn't slippery,” Daniel reminded.

“My shoes are new.”

“And your point is?” the confused archaeologist questioned.

“It's slippery when my new shoes slip on the water that I just spilled onto the non-slippery floor,” Jack clarified with a slight smirk.  “That makes it slippery.”

“Uh, okay,” Daniel responded.  “Beside being out of your mind, are you hurt?” he asked, biting his lip to stop himself from laughing.

“Just my pride, Danny,” Jack admitted.

“Good,” Daniel laughed, turning around and leaving his husband on his rear end.  ~This is crazy; it's just crazy.~

====

As the days had worn on, and the last day of the bet loomed ever closer, Jack's comfortable nights had disappeared.  Sleep was something he was getting very little of, his slumber replaced with both fretting and strategy-making.

“Jack, you're going to wear out the carpet,” Daniel sighed, stifling a yawn the next night.

“Daniel, that's a cliché, and you know how I feel about clichés,” the older man responded in annoyance.  “Besides, it's only ... crap.”

“Yes, Jack?”

“Okay, so it's 0300,” the general admitted.

“You haven't slept much the last few days, Babe.  I'm worried about you,” the younger man confided with concern.

“I'm fine,” Jack sighed as he continued to pace.

“That's my line, or ... at least, it used to be,” Daniel chuckled as he sat up and turned on the light.  “Jack, face it.  The children want us to have this party.  What's so wrong with that?”

“They want all the trimmings, too, Love, and you know how I hate dressing up,” Jack reminded with a grimace.

“Well, start getting used to it.  The bet ends in two days,” Daniel reminded, yawning afterwards.

“They'll crack, Danny.  It's just a matter of when,” Jack persisted in his delusion.

“Like you haven't said that a few dozen times over the last two months. Two days, Jack.  Uh, actually ...” Daniel paused to yawn, catching the time on the clock, “... make that forty-five hours from now; a little less to be specific.”  ~And they won't crack.  They're the most determined I've ever seen them about anything.~

“Danny, go to sleep.”

“Come to bed, Babe.  Ruining our carpet isn't going to alter the bet,” the archaeologist pointed out.

“Okay,” the older man agreed reluctantly, returning to the bed.

Daniel immediately snuggled closer, his head on Jack's chest and his leg hooked over the older man's.

“Goodnight, Jack.”

“Night, Angel,” Jack replied, his eyes glued to the ceiling as sleep continued to elude him.

====

The day was finally here.  It was 6 a.m. on Friday morning the twenty-sixth, the last day of the bet.  It was the perfect time for one last brood rally, since Jack and Daniel were sleeping in until eight or so.

All twelve children were assembled in Jeff's room for what was to be the last meeting of 'Operation Goodstorm'.  The youngest Jackson O'Neill was asleep in Jennifer's arms, his much beloved toy dog named 'Patch' clutched to his chest.  The teen wanted to make sure her littlest brother didn't awake their parents with an untimely cry, so had volunteered to tend to JD during the early morning hours. Thus, he'd already been changed, dressed, and fed by the time the children gathered together for their meeting.

The bulk of the day's homeschooling lessons would be taught by Daniel, who rarely started the sessions before nine.  In part, this stemmed from Daniel being a late sleeper.  Jack, however, was usually the opposite, but he'd had so little sleep lately that by the time he had succumbed to slumber, he was out for the count.  Fortunately, his part of the day's lesson plans wasn't scheduled until right before lunch, when he'd be overseeing a spelling test.

Just in case, though, Jeff had placed his sleep sounds machine near the intercom set on 'ocean storm'.  He knew their older father had gone a bit bonkers lately, and he just didn't trust him not to try eavesdropping on the session.

“This is it!  We've almost won, but we really need to be on our toes today,” Jeff began.

“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed.  “Dad is probably going to be a little cranky.”

“A grizzly bear,” Little Danny elaborated as he nodded.

“Exactly,” Jeff agreed.  “So, no matter what he says or does, just smile and go along with it.  Be very polite.”

“You have to say, 'Yes, Dad', and just do it,” Jennifer instructed her fellow siblings.  “If he's too far out of line, Daddy will step in, so don't worry.”

The youngsters nodded their agreement, while JD made a tiny noise in his sleep.

“Sounds like he agrees,” David chuckled.

Jennifer continued, “We've come too far to blow it now.  You guys have all been absolutely fabulous.  Don't let up.”

“The finish line is in sight,” Jeff stated.  “Do you know what the saying, 'Kill him with kindness' means?” he asked.

Immediately, two Munchkins and two Spitfires turned to face the middle Munchkin, Little Danny.

“It means when someone wants you to be mean to them, you be nice.  They don't like it when you're even nicer to them; makes them crazy,” the boy said.

“Perfect, just perfect,” Jeff praised.  “That's what we're going to do with Dad.”

Jennifer added, “Pay close attention to your studies, and ask lots of questions.  If you can stall the end of your lessons until Jeff and I are home, we can help you with your homework.”

“Right,” Jeff affirmed.  Looking at his teenage sister, he said, “Jen, we need to make sure our homework is done, too, so Dad can't accuse us of procrastinating, and disqualify us.”

“Got it covered, Bro.  I'll get as much done during lab period, lunchtime, and study hall as I can,” the girl replied.

“Questions?” Jeff asked his siblings.

“Can we have Froot Loops?” Jonny asked eagerly.

“Sounds about right,” Jeff agreed.  He and Jennifer had already agreed that to avoid cluttering up the kitchen as much as possible, they'd serve simple toaster pastries and orange juice for breakfast.  Froot Loops would fit right in.  First, though, the meeting needed to be wrapped up.  “Let's review for a minute, and then we'll go downstairs and eat,” he said as the meeting continued.

====

With the children fully dressed and eating their breakfast downstairs, Jeff tapped very lightly on the door to the master bedroom.  He wasn't expecting a response, so it wasn't a surprise when none was given.  Stealthily, he walked over to his youngest father's side of the bed and gently nudged him.

It took a couple of tries, but Daniel finally roused, taking his glasses from his son's outstretched hand and yawning.

“Jeff?” Daniel asked sleepily.

“Shhhh!” the teen urged, placing his finger to his lips and then pointing at the alarm clock as a reminder.  “You told me to wake you up, Daddy.”

“Oh, yeah,” the archaeologist whispered, glancing back over at his husband, who lay twisted in the sheets.  ~Sexy.~  Shaking his head to drain himself of the seductive thoughts running rampant through his body, he whispered, “Go on,” as he motioned for the boy to leave the room.

Once Jeff was gone, Daniel turned off his alarm and quietly got up, going to the other side of the bed and switching off Jack's alarm as well.

~Sorry, Love, but it'll be easier this way,~ Daniel thought as he stared down at Jack with a loving smile, knowing that this was probably going to the be longest day the family would endure all year.  ~Besides, you really do need to catch up on your sleep.~

After quickly washing up, shaving, brushing his teeth and combing his hair, the younger father quietly slipped into his clothes and left the bedroom.  Walking the few steps down the hall to the nursery, which was also Chenoa and Lulu's bedroom, he noticed the carpet had been recently vacuumed, including the edges, the recessed lights were free of cobwebs, and the glass door leading to the small deck off the hall was spotless.  Unable to resist the temptation to do so, he checked the baseboard and the picture frame for dust with his finger -- nothing.

Daniel chuckled, ~This could be a commercial.~  He looked over at the crib, noting it had been neatly made with fresh sheets.  The girls' beds were also perfect, as they had been for the last two months.  In addition, the closet was perfectly organized.  Even the diaper pail was empty, clean, and freshly deodorized.  ~This just isn't normal~ he bemoaned, his humor from a few minutes earlier having left him.

An inspection of the other bedrooms and rooms on the upper floor revealed the same conditions as the nursery: neatness, orderliness, and absolute cleanliness. He even inspected the clothing pantry, which technically was not a room, but it was just as neat, orderly, and pristine as the rest of the upstairs.  Even Jennifer's beloved sewing machine was in its case, under the large table, with not a stray thread or single pin to be found.

As pleased as he was with the overly clean home, Daniel was tired of it, too.  Somehow, their home just didn't feel right anymore.  He longed for an unmade bed, a toy in the hallway, and a few whiny kids complaining about having to eat all their vegetables.

~I'm glad this bet is about over.  I want my family back,~ Daniel lamented as he glanced at his watch.  ~I'd better check in with the office,~ he decided, going to the den to make his call.

====

As he headed downstairs a bit later, the archaeologist began reviewing his lesson plans for the day.  He was so focused on his thoughts that he didn't notice the teenagers waiting for him in the living room.

“Daddy!” Jennifer called out when her younger father hadn't heeded Jeff's first call to him.

“Oh, geez, I'm sorry.  I was ... never mind.  Are you ready for school?” the archaeologist inquired.

Jeff asked, “Daddy, is it okay if we drive to school in my truck today?”

Knowing full well the teens' motivation was to get home as quickly as possible to help their siblings through the last evening of the bet, Daniel agreed and then hugged them goodbye.

~They function better than any SG team I've ever worked with, including SG-1,~ Daniel chuckled about the brood.  ~Now I can eat a nice, leisurely breakfast.~

Entering the recreation room a minute later, Daniel saw his children ready and waiting for their lessons. JD was happily bouncing in his swing, under the watchful eye of David, who still loved babies more than any little boy Daniel had ever seen.

~Ah, this isn't right.~  Out of sheer curiosity, Daniel conducted a quick inspection of the hospitality room, noting that every item was spotless, including the refrigerator, sink, grill top, floor, polished table, and chairs.  He opened a cupboard, chuckling inwardly at the well-organized and ultra clean shelves.  ~When did they have time to do all this?~ the proud father wondered, since the family had enjoyed a movie night the evening before, and things hadn't been so clean when everyone had gone to bed for the night.  ~Someone got up early.~  Moving to the head of the table where his children were all seated, he asked, “What's up?  We weren't going to start until nine.”

Lulu answered honestly, “We don't want to be late and lose the bet, Daddy.”

~It's a little early, but ...~  “Can't argue with that, so let's get started.”  He walked over to the cabinet and opened it, pulling out a couple of folders and a notepad.  “Bri, I'd like you to read this article and write a quick essay about it.  I don't want you to summarize it, but what I do want to know is your reaction to it, how it makes you feel, and do you agree or disagree with the concepts presented,” he instructed, handing her a magazine that had an article on the intelligence of mammals.

“I don't care what they say, dolphins are definitely one of the smartest creatures on the planet,” Brianna responded emphatically.

“Just stick to the points the article presents,” Daniel advised.  “It's a perceptive piece.”

“David, I'd like you to take Lulu and Noa over to the game table and lead a discussion on Benjamin Franklin and his contribution to America.  You can use your history books for reference, but don't rely on them too much.  Okay?”

“Okay, Daddy,” David said, getting up and heading for the other part of the room.

“Don't be afraid to ask questions,” the father reminded the two girls as they got up and followed their brother.  “Noa, I'd like you to take notes.  You'll be giving a talk to the entire group later about what the three of you talked about.”

“'Kay,” Chenoa acknowledged.

“Munchkins and Spitfires, we're going to review our recent math lessons.  You'll be having a test next week, so now's the time to make sure you understand everything we've been studying recently.”  Daniel paused, smiled, and said, “We'll start in a few minutes.”

“Coffee,” Jonny chuckled knowingly.

Daniel smiled, admitting the truth of the comment, and said, “Just study quietly for a few minutes while Daddy ... gets his caffeine.”

====

Jack finally roused a few minutes after ten in the morning.  He yawned and considered closing his eyes and getting a few more minutes of sleep; that is, until he caught a glimpse of the clock.

“*Ten-hundred hours?*” the general barked to the empty room.  **DANIEL?**

“Uh, warning, Brood.  Dad's up,” Daniel announced with a wry smile.

“How does he always know that?” Ricky whispered to Jenny, shaking his head in awe.

“They're married.  When you're married, you know everything,” Jenny answered.

“Oh,” Ricky responded, totally accepting the statement.

--

Jack threw on his sweats and flew down the stairs, a bit perturbed that Daniel hadn't responded to their non-verbal communication.

“What's going on?” Jack snapped as he hurried into the rec room.

“Good morning, Dad,” the brood chorused from various spots in the room.

“Mornin'” Jack grumbled, turning around and heading for the kitchen, not wanting to endure such cheerfulness and deciding he needed some coffee.

“Excuse me?” Daniel questioned, perturbed when his lover kept walking.  “Okay, Jack, freeze.”

“Dad's in trouble,” Aislinn whispered to Little Danny, who nodded.

Ignoring the tiny voice, Jack turned back to face his husband and, as innocently as possible, asked, “What?”

“You know very well *what*.  If any of the children had greeted you that way, you would have declared them the losers of the bet, and rightfully so.  And where's my good morning kiss?” Daniel questioned, folding his hands over his chest and pouting slightly.

Jack shuffled back over to the table and greeted, “Good morning, Kids.”  He turned and gave Daniel a peck on the cheek, then started to walk back to the kitchen.

“I guess the honeymoon's over,” Daniel whined, earning chuckles from their children.

With a chuckle, Jack returned, took Daniel into his arms, and kissed him tenderly. It was enough to express his undying love, but not enough so that they'd get lost in their passion.  They had pre-agreed limits as to how far they'd take any form of affection, both in front of their children or in public.

Still holding onto his lover, Jack asked, “Better?”

“Much,” Daniel said as his husband backed away slightly.

“Did Jen and Jeff leave before you got up?” Jack asked, a touch of hope in his voice.

“Nice try, Babe.  No, they didn't,” Daniel answered.  “I talked to them before they left, and Jen took perfect care of JD until I got up, as promised.”

“Did they walk to school?” the older man asked, reaching down and grabbing a carrot stick from the middle of the table and starting to munch on it.
 
“No, Jack, they took Jeff's truck.”

Jack queried, “Did they ask permission?”

“Yes, Jack, they asked permission,” the younger man responded, rolling his eyes and walking over to check Jonny's just-completed math puzzle.

“They would have been late if you hadn't let them drive, right?” Jack assumed wrongly.  ~They're toast!~

Flatly, the archaeologist responded, “No, Jack, they would not have been late.”

“Well, why did they want to drive to school?” the general questioned.

“We usually don't ask Jeff why he wants to drive to school, especially if it's a Friday, which this is,” Daniel reminded.  Smiling at the oldest Munchkin, he said, “That's correct, Jonny.  How about helping Ricky with his puzzle?”

As Jonny nodded and moved over to join his younger brother, Jack was whining inwardly.

~Should've made them walk.  I would've.  Could have had forty-five minutes this afternoon to win the bet without them here to keep the rest of the brood on the straight and narrow,~ Jack thought, lost in the competition of wanting to win the bet.  ~But, hey, they haven't made it to midnight yet.  There's still time to tilt one of their halos a bit.~  He scowled and, seeing his family concentrating on their studies, decided to skip the coffee and go upstairs.  ~It'll give me time to plan.~

As Bijou and Katie followed the older man, Jonny called out, “Watch him.”

Hearing the surprising instruction, Jack turned back, seeing his namesake smiling at him innocently.

**Go!** Daniel instructed, smiling at his lover.

====

Upstairs, the military man decided to inspect the entire upper floor.

~Maybe they've messed up on their cleaning.~

Beginning with the girls' room, the one shared by Aislinn and Jenny, Jack sighed, not finding anything out of place or dirty.  He looked at the beds, and, unable to resist, flipped a quarter on the tight covers and watched it bounce.  Incredulous, he tested every bed in every room on the second level.  They all bounced quarters.

~Geez, you'd think their dad was in the military or something,~ Jack quipped.  ~Wait, he is.  I mean, I am.  Crap, I'm losing it.~  He went into the master bathroom to shower and shave, followed closely by his four-legged shadows.  “Stop right there.  Man's bathroom is not to be invaded by snoopy beagles.  Out!”

“Woof!” Bijou argued.

“Just ... sit on the bed.  What can I do in the bathroom?  Especially without Danny?” Jack smirked down at the mama beagle.

Seeming to agree with him, Bijou turned and jumped up onto the bed, followed quickly by Katie.  Both beagles remained focused on the bathroom door.

~What do they think I'm going to do, anyway?~ Jack wondered as he went about his business.  As he showered and shaved, he pondered ways in which he might get the brood to lose the bet.  He believed the teenagers to be lost causes, but the other children were all still full of potential.  ~The day isn't over yet, my pretties,~ he cackled, not really realizing just how deep into the abyss he had fallen.

====

As noon approached, the children were all enjoying a long recess.  Books were closed, and lessons were left behind as they simply played for a while.  They'd survived the spelling test, thanks to Daniel's last minute interceding, throwing out the words 'commensurate', 'disparage', ' ignominy', and 'moribund' and replacing them with the words 'out', 'of', 'his', and 'mind'.  Jack had grumbled and then ended the test.

Now, the couple were preparing lunch in the hospitality room.

“Jack, are you going to be a grouch all day?” Daniel asked, although he suspected his husband was going to be.

“I'm not a grouch,” Jack refuted, earning him a glare from his lover.  “I'm not wearing a monkey suit, and neither are you.”

“Right,” Daniel responded dryly, shaking his head as he pulled out the milk from the refrigerator.

“Their beds all bounce quarters, Daniel, all of them!” Jack exclaimed as he opened the large soup cans.

“You just now noticed?” the younger man chuckled.  “They've been like that from the beginning, Babe ... well, almost the beginning.”

“How do you know?”

“I bounced a quarter,” Daniel answered calmly.

“You never said anything,” Jack accused.

“Why would I, Jack?  You're over the edge as it is,” Daniel stated.  He muttered, “Moribund,” while shaking his head.

“It's a word,” the older man argued.

“For Jennifer and Jeff, yes, but not for the younger kids, Jack,” Daniel stated.

“Little Danny knew it,” Jack mumbled under his breath.

“Little Danny knows more words than ... never mind,” Daniel sighed.  “Anyway, it's not like I hid anything from you.  The beds are in plain sight, just like always.  Besides, I'm a civilian.”

“Technicality,” Jack mumbled.  A bit sharply, he challenged, “You're on their side, aren't you?”

“No, Jack, I'm not on their side,” Daniel replied, his tone equally as sharp as his lover's had been.  “I'm not out to ... to police our children, but I do make sure they follow the rules, just like always.  They haven't broken *any* of them, in spite of your practically provoking them and, judging by your disposition, you haven't found any ... violations, either.”

“I am *not* provoking them,” the older man maintained, pouring the soup into a large pan.

In frustration, Daniel turned around a couple of times, his hands raised upward and his head shaking.  When he came to a stop, he glared at his lover.

“Fine.  Let me also point out that their homework is excellent, even the *extra* homework you've been piling on.  It's ludicrous, Jack,” the younger man insisted.  “Let's just concede, agree to have the party, and get back to normal ... please.”

“No, Daniel.”

“Jack, we're late getting started with the party arrangements as it is.  There's ...”

“We are *not* having this party, Daniel,” Jack insisted.  “One of us has to have missed something.  They can't have been perfect for almost two whole months.”

“They can't?  I have news for you, Jack -- they have been!”

“Well, it won't last.  The pressure has got to be reeaaallly getting to them.  One of them will crack; I know it,” Jack opined, smugly.

“What pressure are you talking about?” Daniel bemoaned as he walked to the cabinet and pulled out some crackers.  “I wish you'd listen to yourself.”

“I am, Danny.  They'll crack!”

“Sure they will, Babe.  With only twelve hours left, they'll split wide open,” the younger father mocked without regret.  Pointedly, he added, “Jack, the only thing to crack around here will be the eggs for the salad.  “Excuse me,” he said as he brushed by his soulmate, opened the refrigerator, and then pulled out several eggs.

“Egg salad?  Daniel, you know I don't like egg salad.”

“Whining, Babe?  Too bad.  I ate your creamed vegetables, so you can eat my egg salad,” the younger man smirked, chuckling when he heard the growl of the grizzly bear.

====

After lunch, the children were still enjoying playtime while Daniel conducted a bit of business for J-O Enterprises.

With his husband on the phone in the den, Jack thought, ~Now's my chance.~  He approached one of the children.  “Hey, Lil Bit.”

“Hi, Dad,” Lulu said with a smile.

“Daddy told me that new dance routine is really something.  How about doing it for me now?”

“Well ...” Lulu began, but then stopped suddenly.  She had almost agreed, but then she remembered the meeting in Jeff's room early that morning and one of the very last things Jeff had said.  ~Hmmm.~

“Don't forget,” Jeff had begun.  “Dad will try to use your favorite things to keep you busy long enough that you'll forget to do something you're supposed to do.  Be strong, and whatever you do, don't let on like you know what he's doing.”

Lulu smiled angelically at her older father and replied sweetly, “I'd really like to perform it for you, Dad, but I don't want to be late for school.  Maybe I could show you later?”

“Aw, come on, Little Bit, just a few steps for your dear old Dad, who's paying for all those lessons,” Jack pleaded with an enticing grin.

Lulu began to waver until her eyes caught sight of her father's hand, which was unintentionally curved.  It wasn't a fist, but the shape was enough to remind the girl of the fist tap, one of the symbols of the brood's solidarity during the long bet.

“I'll have more time tomorrow, Dad, and then I can show you.  Oh, I know.  Noa and I will do a recital for you 'n' Daddy, 'kay?  I love you, Dad.  I'm going to go find Noa.  She's going to talk about Benjamin Franklin, and she might need my help first,” the little girl said before hurrying off to find her sister and tell her what had just happened.

~Plan L just went down the drain, and Plan N is no use now.  Dang well-oiled machine.  Okay, two no go's.  Good thing we have so many kids.  I've got at least one more shot at distraction before Danny starts up class again,~ the general decreed.

====

Having gotten permission, Ricky was sitting on the sofa in the study, looking at one of Jack's Flight Magazines.  Jack ambled over to the sofa and sat down next to the boy.

“Time to go for another ride in Jo?” Jack asked about the family plane.

“Can we?”

“Sure.  We'll arrange something before Thanksgiving,” Jack agreed, smiling.  Then he suggested, “Hey, why don't you grab your Etch-a-Sketch, and show me how to draw with it?  You know they've been making those things since I was a kid, but I never learned how to work one.”

Ricky automatically started to stand up to go and get his Etch-a-Sketch, but then he paused and thought for a second.  He, too, flashed back to this morning's meeting.  He knew how much he loved his Etch-a-Sketch, and he'd been late to family events in the past because he was playing with it.

“Lotsa time tomorrow, Dad; don't wanna be late for school,” Ricky answered.  ~I'd better go now.  Dad's too fun to be with,~ he thought as he scooted off the sofa and carefully replaced the magazine back where he'd found it before walking out of the study.

~Drats!~ Jack mentally exclaimed.  ~Plan R was a complete failure.~  He sighed, ~And I really did want to learn how he draws those sketches!~

====

From the window, Jack watched as Jeff and Jennifer pulled into the drive at 3:20 p.m., but their arrival home didn't deter him from still trying to win the bet.

~Okay, time to play tough.~  The general continued pacing the living room, waiting to dig into Jeff for not getting his permission to drive the truck.  ~Desperate times call for desperate measures.~  If nothing else, he hoped it would rattle the teen enough to make a crucial mistake.  ~I won't give in,~ Jack vowed.  ~There has to be a way.~

**Jack, chill,** Daniel projected silently from the rec room, where he was in the middle of replacing the perch in Ptolemy's large cage.

Thinking he had made his point, the younger man focused on his task and was surprised to hear Jack start to interrogate their eldest son a minute later.

“Why didn't you ask for *my* permission to drive your truck today?”

“Oh, ah, Daddy gave me his permission.  Are there new rules, Dad?” Jeff asked contritely, refusing to take the bait and become argumentative.  “In the past, it's been okay just to get permission from one of you.  I'm really sorry if I upset you, but you were asleep, and ...”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Daniel interjected, walking purposefully into the living room, with Ptolemy on his heels.  Before his lover could say a word, he ordered, “Jennifer, JD needs to be fed.  Please take care of that right away.  Jeff, the Munchkins and Spitfires are in the hobby room.  Please go and make sure they stay there; and, for the record, the rules have *not* changed.”

“What about the others?” the boy inquired.

“Lulu, Noa, and David are in the game room, and Brianna is upstairs.  Go, now, please,” Daniel requested, his stern voice telling the teens their older father may have just crossed the line, or at the very least, was on the verge of it.

“Danny ...” Jack began as the teens followed their younger father's requests.

“Jack, stop, and stop it now,” Daniel ordered.

“Stop now,” Ptolemy echoed.

“Oops.  Ptolemy, please go back in your cage,” Daniel requested, pointing back towards the rec room.

“She'll nev...er ...” Jack stopped, shocked when the intelligent bird turned and did as she was told.  ~Dang bird would never do that for me.~

Acting as though he had never been interrupted, Daniel turned back to face his lover and spoke sternly, “Jack, if you want to win this bet, you need to play by the rules to do it.  You've been deliberately trying to goad the brood into being disrespectful to one or both of us.  I haven't interfered up until now because our children have been holding their own, but if you keep this up during dinner, I'll declare the brood the winners by default due to unsportsmanlike conduct from the opponent, *and* just let me say, for all the times I have threatened to make you sleep on the couch, I've never been closer to doing it than I am right this second.”

“You wouldn't?” Jack asked incredulously.

“Try me, Babe.  Now, wash your hands, launder your attitude, and go read a magazine or something ... and leave our children alone!” Daniel ordered.  He sighed, “Look, Jack, just ... just don't try to do what I heard you thinking about.  I won't stand for that.  Our children are good; they have enough to battle in this world without you trying to get them to intentionally badmouth us.  That stops, Jack, and it stops now.”

Daniel turned and proceeded to go into the hobby room so that Jeff could put his things away and continue on with his afternoon.  Meanwhile, Jack did as he was instructed.

~Close call,~ the older man thought.  ~But I'm not admitting defeat yet.  Okay, Danny's right.  That was a bit of a low blow.  Okay, it was a dumb move, but there's still bribery!~

====

“Bri!” Jack called out enthusiastically as he searched for the tomboy.  ~Plan B always works.~

Brianna began to shout out her reply, but caught herself just in time.  With a smile, she reached for the intercom and calmly informed her father of her location.

“There you are!” Jack greeted with a smile as he entered the library, where the girl was sitting in front of a computer with two books on the table.  “Look what I have!” he exclaimed, holding out two tickets in his hands.

The young blonde gasped, knowing it had to be tickets to a charity hockey exhibition game that night.  They'd talked about going, but Jack hadn't been able to secure tickets for the sold-out event.  Just a few minutes earlier, though, Andy, who was the former Colorado Springs sheriff and was a good friend of Jack's, had dropped off two tickets to the game that night.  He had a family emergency and thus had offered Jack the tickets, certain his hockey fanatic friend would love them and be able to put them to good use.

~That ought to do it,~ Jack had thought as he had taken possession of the tickets and then sought out his 'victim'.

“Oh, wow!” Brianna responded, taking hold of the tickets as excitement swept over her.

“They're great seats, too.  Let's go.”

“Okay, I'll ...”  Brianna's smile dimmed.  “Dad, I can't.  I promised Noa and Lulu that I'd help them with their homework.”

“David can help them,” Jack suggested.

“David has to finish an essay.”

“What about Jen?”

“Dad, everyone has a jo... um, what I mean is, I promised,” Brianna said, regretfully returning the tickets to her father.  ~Almost blew it.  I hate missing the game, but the girls need my help.  I'm better at science than they are, and we have a deal.  It's almost over.~

“They're the best seats in the house, Bri,” Jack tempted, waving the tickets alluringly.  “You never know who might be there.”

“Dad, the Great Gretzky isn't going to be at the game, and you know it,” Brianna replied.  ~Trying too hard, Dad.~

“I didn't mean that,” Jack said, denying the charge.  “We'd have fun.”

“I know, but without me, the girls might not get their homework done.  Speaking of homework, I need to finish mine first.  Daddy told me I had to answer at least seven of the ten questions tonight, so I need to get back to studying.  Thanks for offering, Dad,” Brianna stated as she returned to her seat.  ~I'm sure I'll regret it later.~

“Last chance,” Jack prodded, waving the tickets enticingly.

~I might regret missing the hockey game later, but I'd regret letting down the rest of the brood more.~  Resisting the temptation to look, Brianna responded, “Later, Dad.”

~You'll regret it,~ Jack thought.  ~But I'll regret it more if one of you doesn't mess up before this dang bet is over.  I'll call Lou and see if he wants these.  Plan 'B' didn't work, so, onto plan 'D',~ he thought, hoping the young boy would finally end his torment.

====

Lou's brother-in-law was in town for a visit, so he was thrilled to have the tickets. The two dropped by and visited with Jack and Daniel for a few minutes, and then Daniel returned to the den to make a few phone calls.  Jack, meanwhile, proceeded with Plan D in the hopes David would be easier prey, finding him on the stairs leading from the living room to the upper level.

“David, how would you like to go to that astrophysics lecture with your Aunt Sam?  She's going solo tonight, and I'm sure Uncle Pete wouldn't mind if she had an escort, as long as it's you,” Jack said with a wink.

Standing on the third stair up, the boy thought about it, grinning when he saw through the ploy.  He was positive that his father was trying the old divide and conquer routine, hoping one of the children would slip up and either misbehave, or simply not be around to help out their potentially in-need siblings.

“Sorry, Dad, but I'm needed here tonight,” the eleven-year-old boy said regretfully.

~Isn't there anyone who will weaken?~ Jack thought as he left his son to his plans for the evening.

~I haven't lost, not yet, anyway,~ Jack vowed.

====

The family had dinner early that night, sitting down promptly at five o'clock.  The brood talked about their day, not mentioning the bet once.  Daniel asked the children if they had any preferences for what to do for Thanksgiving this year.  The chatty pack came up with lots of ideas, but their older father remained pretty quiet during the entire meal, his mind desperate to find a way to win the bet that wouldn't leave him alone at night on a cold sofa.

When the meal was done, Jeff offered, “Dad, Daddy, we'll do the dishes.  Ah, our report cards need to be reviewed and signed,” he said, referring to the mid-term grades given to both he and Jennifer at school that day.

Jack rolled his eyes, thinking, ~Perfect, no doubt!~

Looking up, Daniel asked, “Something wrong, Jack?”
 
“Nope, not a thing.”

“Good,” Daniel responded.  “We'll look at the report cards together, won't we, Love?”  Turning to the brood, he added, “Thanks for doing the dishes.  Dad and I really appreciate it, don't we, Jack?”

“Of course, we do, Angel.  Thank you, Kids,” Jack responded.

**Butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, Jack,** Daniel communicated at the forced comment.

“Daddy, after dishes, we'd like to do our Saturday morning chores tonight, if that's all right,” Jennifer requested.

“Tonight?  Why?” Daniel inquired.

“We'd just like to get them out of the way, and then after the kids have finished their homework, since we don't have school tomorrow, could we stay up and watch 'Sabrina'?  If you and Dad don't want to see it again, we can watch it in Jeff's room,” Jennifer suggested.

“That would be okay,” Daniel spoke, glaring at Jack until the older man nodded his agreement as well.  “Chores first; then start your homework.  If we run into time problems, we might be able to extend the deadlines.  The movie has to start by nine at the latest, or it waits for tomorrow.  Everyone in bed, under the covers by eleven-fifteen.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Jennifer acknowledged, smiling in return.  “Do you want us to tell you when we start it?”

“Uh ...” Daniel began, though he quickly closed his lips and just smiled.  “Jack?”

Jack smiled.  As upset as he was over the bet, this was Friday, and that was the couple's date night.  Somehow, though, plans hadn't been made.  Maybe they'd just go upstairs and snuggle.  At worst, they'd play a game of gin.  Then, though, he remembered the bet.  He found himself torn between wanting to cozy up with his lover and wanting to finagle a way for the kids to make a mistake and lose the bet.

“We'll let you know,” Jack found himself saying and then smiling at his spouse.  ~It's all in the timing.~

====

An hour later, with the chores done, and the children scattered in various parts of the house, Jack knew he had to move quickly.

~There's still one more chance,~ the general determined.  Smiling as innocently as he could, he entered the rec room and staked out the hopefully unsuspecting children, who were seated at the big table in the hospitality room with pencils in hand and open books strewn out all over the tabletop.  “How's it going?” he inquired casually as he approached the Munchkins and the Spitfires.

“Careful,” Jonny whispered to Little Danny, who nodded, both boys seeing through their all-too-charming father at the moment.

“How would you like to go out with your old Dad and get some ice cream?” Jack asked enticingly.

The five children looked at each other with longing.  It had been days since they had tasted ice cream, something that was normally a nightly treat; that is, until Jack kept conveniently forgetting to restock the much-desired dessert.  Then the light of realization dawned in ten little eyes: the reason they hadn't tasted ice cream was standing right in front of them, tempting them with the promise of a visit to an ice cream parlor, tempting them to put off the homework assignments that Jack had increased over Daniel's protests, and tempting them to accidentally misbehave while under the heavenly intoxication of their favorite flavors.

Jack was taken aback when the youngsters exchanged fist taps all the way around.

~What am I?  The enemy?~ Jack asked himself.  ~Self, don't answer that.~

It was Little Danny who spoke up and said, “Thanks, Dad, but we have to study so we can watch 'Sabrina' later.  If you *really* want to have ice cream with us, you can bring it home from the store, and we'll eat it here when we're done.”

~Geez, *that* one sure backfired on you, O'Neill,~ the silver-gray-haired man whined inwardly.  “Sure, Son.  I'll be right back with that ice cream,” he said, turning to walk away.  ~What else can I do?  They haven't even asked for ice cream, and when they refuse going out for it because they have to study, what else can I say, but 'what flavor would you like?'~

At the moment, Daniel was in the nursery, playing with JD, who was blissfully ignorant of the entire game being played out within his family.  Suddenly, the archaeologist heard a very loud, **DANG IT!** that coincided with the banging of the front door as it slammed shut.

**Jack?**

**Not now, Danny.  I'll be back in a bit with the friggin' ice cream!**

**Jack, do *not* yell at me, and it's about time you restocked the freezer,** Daniel admonished.

**I'm not yelling, I'm ... I'll be back,** Jack sighed, starting the truck and leaving the home.

--

“Dad's a little upset, JD, and I'm guessing it has something to do with this silly bet,” Daniel told a laughing JD.  “Yeah, it's pretty funny.  I'd better see if I can find out the cause of that last outburst.  There you go,” he said, putting a contented JD in his crib.  He smiled as the small hands immediately latched onto Patch, and the infant began chewing on the toy dog's left ear.  “I love you, JD.”

Seeking out the children, Daniel asked them what had happened.  He began with David.

David shrugged as he said, “I haven't seen Dad since dinner.”

“Thanks, David.  How's the homework?” Daniel inquired.

“I need to ask you a couple of questions later, but I want to finish the chapter first,” the boy answered.

“Okay, just let me know when, or we can do it tomorrow, if movie time starts first,” Daniel replied, heading for the library where he figured Brianna was still searching for answers.  He was right, though she had made a great deal of progress, so much so that he told her once she completed the question she was currently researching, she could finish the rest the following day.  “Are you understanding it?”

“Piece of cake, Daddy,” Brianna chuckled, though both knew it had been just a small joke.  “Number three was really difficult.  Can we review a little tomorrow?  I think I might have misunderstood something.”

“Not a problem.  Remind me, if I forget,” Daniel requested.  “Uh, Bri, have you seen Dad?”

“Just at dinner.  Is he lost?” the pre-teen chuckled.

“No, but I'm playing detective,” the younger father said, smiling and running his hand through her hair.

“Oh, well, would it help you to know that he tried to bribe me with a hockey game this afternoon?” Brianna asked.

“The one Uncle Lou is going to tonight?”

“That's the game all right,” Brianna confirmed.  “It's the pits that I had to miss it, but I couldn't give in to the bribe.”

“How's the game a bribe, Bri?” Daniel asked, curious about his daughter's take on something she would have normally jumped to do.

“Because now that I'm done with my homework; well, now that I can finish it tomorrow after this question, I'm supposed to help Noa and Lulu,” the tomboy explained.

Looking at his watch, Daniel replied, “I think they're still dancing.”

“Probably, but now I'll have a little break.  Thanks, Daddy.”

“You're welcome, Princess,” Daniel acknowledged.

“Daddy, I'm not a princess, I'm a ...”

“Princess.  Our princess.  Bri, who says a princess can't be a tomboy, or whatever she wants to be?” Daniel challenged.  “There's no rule book that says a princess has to wear a dress and sit around sewing and cooking all day.”

Brianna smiled, admitting, “Daddy, I kinda like being your princess, sometimes, anyway.”

Daniel nodded and left the girl to complete her task.  Going to the other side of the house, he found Jennifer and Jeff in Jennifer's room.  He fought back the urge to be paranoid when the two instantly stopped their chattering upon seeing him.

“Sorry, Daddy, but we've been up here for quite a while and haven't seen him since we finished the dishes after dinner,” Jeff answered with a shrug.

The curious father then went to the dance studio where Chenoa and Lulu were still practicing their newest routines.  Sooner or later, he was certain one of the children would know why Jack had left in a huff and was bringing home ice cream, even though he clearly wasn't pleased about doing so.

“We've been in here since we finished our chores and our spelling assignment,” Lulu stated.

“Yeah,” Chenoa affirmed, not being any help in Daniel's quest.  “Bri's going to help us with our other homework.”

“I know, Sweetie,” Daniel responded, knowing the little girl was worried that he'd forgotten that he'd given them permission to practice their dancing for a while.  He smiled reassuringly, knowing the homework would be done as previously promised.  “That looked really nice, Noa,” he remarked about the dance routine she was rehearsing upon his first entering the room.  “It looks hard.”

“It is, Daddy,” Chenoa agreed.  “We're learning three new moves this week, and they're all in the routine.  Daddy, we need to keep practicing.”

“Sorry, Sweetie.  You're doing great!” the proud father encouraged, smiling as he left the two artists to their dance.

As Daniel was leaving, Lulu noticed something unusual and said, “Noa, let's take a break.  Look!”

Chenoa walked with her sister to the doorway and quickly agreed.

Curiosity had gotten the better part of the children and, unbeknownst to him, Daniel now was the Jackson-O'Neill pied piper.  Jennifer, Jeff, Brianna, and David were all trailing him, each wanting to find out the answer to their younger father's question.  It wasn't until Daniel approached the Munchkins and the Spitfires that he realized that he had a line behind him, one that now included Lulu and Chenoa.

“That's cute,” Daniel chuckled.

“We just want to know, too, Daddy,” Brianna said with an intrigued smile.

“Anyone seen Dad lately?” Daniel asked, turning his attention to the five younger children.

“He ...”

Five voices all spoke excitedly about what had happened.  However, it was difficult to decipher, since the happy voices were all talking at one time.

“Whoa!” Daniel called out, sounding very much like his husband as he threw up his arms to stop the onslaught of voices.  “Can we try this again?  Little Danny, tell me what happened, please.”

“... Then he left, Daddy,” the child prodigy spoke, ending the story.

Upon hearing the tale, Brianna and David quickly told the others about their encounters with their older father and how he had tried to tempt each of them with their particular desires before dinnertime.  Lulu and Ricky then told everyone about their run-ins with Jack earlier in the day.

~Gawd, Jack,~ Daniel sighed, letting his head drop to a bowed position as he took in the various stories.  ~You have really lost it, Jack.  I swear, if this weren't within a hair's breadth of being over, I'd end it.~

Laughing, Jeff congratulated each and every one of the brood that had withstood temptation, then commented, “We're studying Faust in literature, Daddy.  Right now, Dad reminds me a little of Mephistopheles.”

“Who's Mefa stop please?” Ricky asked, scrunching his nose up at the odd name.

“Another name for the devil,” Little Danny answered promptly.

Everyone over the age of ten looked at each other with amazement.

“Is there anything he doesn't know?” Jeff whispered to Daniel, tilting his head in his younger sibling's direction.

“Not much, apparently,” Daniel responded, shaking his head.

“Dad's the devil?” Ricky asked frowning, knowing that the devil wasn't a good thing to be.

“No!” Daniel quickly refuted.  “Jeff,” he stated, the name a clear request to set the record straight.  ~Jack, as much as you might deserve it right now, I can't let it go. I have to clear it up.~

“Yes, Daddy,” Jeff acknowledged.  “Ricky, in literature, um, books, an author created a character who is, well, very crafty, very witty, and very subtle in trying to get what he wants.”

“Huh?” Ricky replied even more confused.

Jennifer chuckled, saying, “All Jeff is doing, Ricky, is saying that Dad is being a sly fox, trying to tempt us into misbehaving by offering us whatever we want.”

“I thought Dad was a silver fox?” Ricky asked innocently.

“He is, to Daddy,” the teenager affirmed, looking over at Daniel, who bowed his head slightly, trying not to blush.

“So, Dad's a silver fox and not the devil?” Ricky asked, seeking verification.

“That's right, Ricky,” Daniel stated straightforwardly.  He gave Jeff a stern look of warning and asked, “Are we clear?”

“Yes, Sir, and I'm sorry, Daddy.  It's just with the bet and everything he's doing ...” Jeff began.

“I know exactly what he's doing, but the one way, and probably the only way, you're going to lose this bet now is by disrespecting Dad.  He'd do anything in the universe for you, for all of you,” he said, looking at the entire brood.

“Are we in trouble?” Aislinn whispered to Little Danny.

“No, Ash, it's my fault,” Jeff stated.  “Daddy's right.  I was making a very bad joke about Dad being the devil, but he's not.  He's our father, and we love him.  No one's in trouble, and it won't happen again,” he promised, looking back at Daniel.

“Okay,” Daniel agreed with a nod.

“No one had to tell me Dad wasn't the devil,” Jenny stated casually.

“Oh?” Ricky asked, looking at his twin expectantly.

“He doesn't have horns.  Everyone knows the devil has horns,” Jenny spoke, nodding her head knowingly.

“Don't even think it, Son,” Daniel warned Jeff, who silently bit his tongue.  ~I know what they want to say -- that they're surprised Jack hasn't sprouted horns on his head by now.  Gawd, I'm as bad as they are.  I should have gotten on Jack about that ice cream a few days ago.  If J-O wasn't so busy right now ...~

The archaeologist's thoughts were cut off by the return of his husband, who walked into the hospitality room with just two gallons of ice cream.

**Geez, Jack, could we afford a whole two gallons?**

**Don't want to spoil them too much, Angel,** the older man replied.

Daniel couldn't quite stifle his snicker at the thought of his being an angel to Jack's devil, since in literature, Faust's soul had escaped from Mephistopheles while he was making improper advances to angels.  He bowed his head to hide his smirk and had to bite his lip to keep himself from laughing or making a snarky wisecrack.

Just then Ricky ran up with open arms and was scooped up by Jack, who had just placed the ice cream on the counter.  Ricky proceeded to examine Jack's scalp and run his fingers over it, causing the older children to look away and cough.

“What are you doing?” the father asked his son.

“Looking for horns,” Ricky answered.

Jack put his younger son down and cocked his head at the group in bewilderment. Then he looked at his husband.

“I don't want to know, do I?”

“Nope, you don't,” Daniel affirmed.  “Ice cream?” he asked the children.

Jack nodded, watching the brood dig in to enjoy their treat.  He was curious about Ricky's actions, but decided to let it go, especially since down deep, he thought he knew.

~It doesn't take a genius all the time,~ the general thought.

====

It was a pleasant twenty minutes or so as the family relished their ice cream, even though they only had two flavors, chocolate and vanilla, to choose from instead of several as was the norm.

“Sometimes, Jeff, the world *is* black and white,” Jennifer mused quietly as they stared at their choices.

Jeff chuckled in reply, “I think that's how Dad views the world right now, Jen.  We're either with him or against him.”

“We have to hold it together, Jeff.  We're too close to lose now.  It means too much,” Jennifer responded, her tone much more serious than before.

“Don't worry, Sis.  We're united.”

Jennifer nodded, her eyes shifting over to their older father, who was making a chocolate and vanilla ice cream snowman to amuse Ricky and Jenny.  She smiled.  Then she glanced over at Daniel, her smile turning to a grin when saw he was making an Egyptian ziggurat out of the ice cream for Little Danny and David.

“I bet Daddy never thought he'd be making ice cream shapes,” the teen girl said quietly to her brother.

“Probably not,” Jeff agreed as he picked up his bowl of ice cream and then headed for the table to join the others.

As the family enjoyed their treat, some of the tension that had been building between Jack and his children eased a bit, and all eleven non-infant Jackson-O'Neill children voluntarily returned to their studies once the dishes had been put into the dishwasher.

~Rats,~ Jack thought as he reviewed all the missed opportunities of the evening.  Then he saw the sweet sizzle of his lover's sexy six moving through the kitchen towards the living room.  Daniel was headed upstairs.  Suddenly, Jack's mid-section bulged.  ~Well, there are other things to do.~

====

Once it was 'safe' for him to move, Jack made sure the children knew that he was holding them to the honor system.

“Dad and Daddy will be unavailable for a while,” the older father told the brood as he found them.  “Daddy told you the rules for the night.  You're to be in bed by 2315 hours at the latest.”  Smiling, he thought, ~They could still do themselves in without any help from me.  Should have thought of the honor system thing earlier.  One of them will make a mistake, and it only takes one.~

With the children updated and notified of the expectations and the bedroom door locked, Jack sneaked up behind his husband, who was still naked after having had a quick shower and was now bent over the sink, brushing his teeth.

Daniel couldn't help but notice Jack's arousal poking through his pants as he drew up close to him.

Seductively, Jack whispered in his soulmate's ear, “I'm horny tonight.”

The comment was so unexpected that Daniel was caught completely off guard.  Unable to control his reaction, he spat toothpaste into the sink, nearly choking at the comment.

“Danny, are you all right?” Jack asked, repeating the question over and over again as he tried to work out what he'd said that had caused his lover to start choking.

Daniel spat several times, finally managing to clear his throat.  He took a gulp of water to rinse his mouth, though it proved difficult to do since he was laughing hysterically at the same time.  In fact, uncharacteristically, the amused archaeologist sank to the floor, rolling onto his back, and pounding his fists and feet on the tile floor, helplessly held in the thrall of his laughter.

In a way, Daniel's tensions and stresses over the bet were being released now.  A simple, unsuspecting comment by his lover had caused an involuntary release that was cleansing him.  He couldn't control himself as he laughed loudly at his horny husband.

“I'm glad you find my condition so amusing,” Jack retorted, not having a clue as to what had caused his husband's hysterical outburst.  “Danny, you're lying on the bathroom floor, butt naked, and looking pretty ridiculous right now.”

“I'm ... sorry,” Daniel snorted through the laughter.

“I only said I was horny.  It's not like I've ... Danny?” Jack called out in confusion, as his lover started laughing even louder.

Daniel was on his side, slapping the floor in hysterics, the reminder of the 'Dad's the devil' and Ricky looking for horns in the man's silver-gray hair jumping out at him.

“Right,” Jack sighed, leaving his lover to his laughter.  He went to the bed and plopped down on it, looking briefly at his sagging mid-section, its once stiff and hard edifice now nothing more than a limp noodle.  “That man sure knows how to ruin a good time.”

“Jack, I am sorry,” a very giggly Daniel apologized as he climbed atop his husband.  “It's just ... it's nothing.  And, uh, well, about 'Limpy' here,” he teased.  “I'm sure I can rectify that *short*ly.”

“That isn't fun...oh, Danny,” Jack gasped as his lover began an erotic foreplay that led to a passionate round of making love.

====

Feeling wonderfully satiated after their lovemaking, Daniel fell into a happy slumber, though even in his sleep, he was still emitting tiny giggles.

~I *so* don't want to know,~ a frustrated Jack thought as he got up and put on his pajamas.

Deciding he was hungry and could do with another dish of ice cream, Jack slipped on his robe and moved quietly into the hospitality room, where he served himself up a heaping dish of chocolate ice cream.  He noticed the downstairs had been appropriately shifted to 'lights out' mode.

In between bites of ice cream, Jack ambled over to the intercom and pressed the button for Jeff's room, saying, “Brood, what's your status?”

“We're in my room, Dad.  All the chores and homework are done.  We just got settled, and we're about to start the movie.  Did you need something?” Jeff inquired politely.

“No, just checking,” Jack replied.  Glancing at the clock on the wall, he sighed.  It was just before nine so they weren't disobeying Daniel's earlier instructions.  With another sigh, he ordered, “Okay, two hours plus ten from now, everyone is to be in bed.  Understood?”

Barely suppressing a chuckle, Jeff answered, “Copy that, Dad.  Lights out by 2315.  Jeff out.”

~Smart aleck,~ Jack mused as he returned to his seat.  He chuckled, thinking, ~That's my boy!~

His thoughts returning to his husband and their lovemaking, Jack smiled and let out a happy sigh before eating more bites of his frosty delight.  Then he remembered Daniel's giggles, but he was still certain he didn't want to know their cause.

The contented, albeit slightly confused, general was suddenly startled out of his wits by an avian voice loudly squawking, “Dad lose bet!”

“No way, you over-decorated pigeon!” Jack called out to Ptolemy.

“Dad lose bet!  Dad devil!  Lose bet!  Dad's the Devil!” the majestic bird retorted.

“What did you just say?” Jack questioned sternly, getting up from his chair and walking over to go nose-to-beak with his nemesis.

Obligingly, the Hyacinth McCaw repeated, “Dad lose bet!”

“No, the other thing.  Say that again,” Jack commanded.

Again, Ptolemy obliged, squawking, “Dad devil, lose bet.  Ptolemy Queen.  Dad's the devil!”

“Queen, my butt,” Jack retorted, frowning at the bird's words.

“Ptolemy queen, Dad butt,” the bird squawked.

Jack could swear the bird was smirking.  He growled at her, but she didn't flinch.

“Dad butt devil,” Ptolemy stated, combining the two comments.

Turning around to head upstairs, Jack mumbled, “Dang Bird!”

“Didn't you forget something?” Daniel asked as he met his lover in the kitchen.

As often happened, the younger man had awakened upon realizing his Jack pillow had crept away, and, on this night, with the reality of losing the bet closing in, he decided to get up and find his lover.

“What?”  Jack followed his husband's nod and sighed.  “Dishes,” he sighed.  He returned to the table, picked up his ice cream bowl, and ate the last few bites that he'd forgotten about.  After placing the dish in the dishwasher, he began, “Danny ...”

“Jack, it was a joke.  You know how Ptolemy is.  She picks up words and phrases out of context,” Daniel stated gently.  “The children were just talking about how ... crafty you've been, like the fox you are.”

“Uh, a sly fox slash devil.  The bit with Ricky checking my scalp ... for ...”

“Horns,” both Jack and Daniel spoke in unison, Jack nodding at the revelation and Daniel trying not to giggle at the memory.

“Which is why when I said I was ...”

“Horny,” both men said at the same time, though Daniel's word was somewhat giggled instead of spoken.

“Don't start, Daniel,” Jack warned.  “One hyena outburst a night is about all I can take.”

“They love you, Jack,” the younger man promised.

Jack walked up to the younger man and kissed him, after which he asked, “What about you?”

“I love you, too, even if you are taking this bet too far.  Jack, the brood is united on this.  They aren't going to ... mess up with just hours to go,” Daniel commented.  “You need to face the facts, and ...”

“This horny old fox won't concede, Daniel, even if they do think I'm the devil,” Jack interrupted, kissing his Love on the nose and then whistling as he headed towards the stairs to go back to the master bedroom.

Daniel sighed, thinking, ~Just as long as everyone remembers what's important.  I really wish J-O hadn't taken so much of my time this past week.~  He headed for the stairs, then smirked, **Babe, are you still ... horny?**

**As a toad, Love.  I'm 'up' and waiting,** Jack replied, smirking to himself.

**And I'm ... 'up' and coming ... 'up',** Daniel chuckled as he hurried back to their bedroom of love.

====

Jack's nightmare was about to become reality.  It was just ten minutes before midnight.

“Ten minutes,” the general lamented, desperation in his voice.

To the best of the older man's knowledge, the children were all asleep, having finished watching 'Sabrina' over an hour ago.  They'd been essentially perfect for two months.  Just a few minutes more, and Jack was doomed to look like a penguin against his will.

“We need a new carpet,” Daniel sighed, noting the wear in their current one after all the pacing his lover had done recently.

Round two of their Friday night date had been incredibly awesome, but then Jack had seen the clock and realized just how close the bet was to being over.  The romance had ended abruptly, and both had their pajamas back on.  Since then, for nearly forty minutes, the older man had been pacing in front of the bed.

Since he hadn't been able to get his soulmate to sit still, Daniel had decided to sit up and write in his journal.  Of course, Jack's behavior hadn't been unexpected.  The truth was, he'd been surprised that his husband had concentrated as long as he had on their date night.  It was much longer than he had expected.

~No need for both of us to kill the carpet.  I liked this carpet, too,~ the journal-writer opined.

 “Danny, I don't understand it,” Jack responded in despair as he continued walking back and forth.  ~Where'd I go wrong?  Two months!  Two full months!~ he anxiously thought as he watched the clock tick down.  ~I'm a friggin' major general, for cryin' out loud.  How could I lose to a bunch of kids, the oldest not even eighteen yet?~

Sighing, the younger man pointed out, “*You* set us up, Babe.”

“Huh?” Jack expressed, not understanding.

“Jack, what have we taught our children?  Think about it?  What is the one thing we've told them over and over again?”

“You're not talking about honesty and fair play, are you?”

Smiling and placing his journal on the nightstand, Daniel spoke gently, “Jack, either you're really tired or really dense.  Come on, Babe.  We've told them this at least a thousand times a year for the last five-plus years.”

Jack stopped walking and smacked his forehead as the light dawned, saying, “That they're Jackson O'Neills, and together, they're unbeatable!”

“'Fraid so, my Silver Fox,” Daniel confirmed with a somewhat smug smile, now that his husband had realized the truth.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Jack asked, standing in front of the bed with his hands on his hips.

“I tried, several times, hypothetically and otherwise,” the younger man sighed.

“You should have tried harder,” the older man whined, knowing the fault was really his own.

With a smirk and aware of his lover's innermost feelings, Daniel snarked, “Okay, you've got me.”

Jack stared at his lover, cocking his head slightly as he asked suspiciously, “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, you're always saying ignorance is bliss, and I was just trying to keep you happy.”

“Daniel, your inner child is a real brat,” Jack retorted, turning around and sitting on the edge of the bed, facing away from his husband.

“Isn't that what you wanted?” Daniel challenged, his dimples showing delightfully as he smiled when Jack glanced back at him questioningly.

“Yes, but now I understand that ancient Chinese proverb,” Jack began, standing back up and walking to the dresser where he picked up a beagle figurine and began fidgeting with it, “Be careful what you wish for.  You may get it.” As his lover laughed, he added, “What happened to all that goodness and spice makes everything nice part of your inner child?”

“I like this one better,” Daniel replied, his eyes shining with mischief.

“Where'd I go wrong?” Jack asked more seriously.

“Easy, Love.  Once you told them the terms of the bet, we were doomed.  It was eleven against two.”  As Daniel smiled, he saw a frown envelope his lover's sexy face.  “Jack?”

“Make that thirteen against two,” the older man answered, holding out the figurine for a moment and then putting it back down.  Once again, he sat down at the edge of the bed, his back to his husband.  “I'm convinced Bij and Katie were on their side.  I could never sneak into the house, or upstairs, without one of them alerting the kids to my whereabouts.  It was spooky,” he confided, shivering at the weirdness of the canine movements.

“They're very smart,” Daniel observed, proud of the two beagles.

“Little traitors,” Jack sniped.

“Jack!”

“I'm only kidding,” Jack stated, shifting around to look at his Heart.  “I love the little things; wouldn't know what to do without 'em.”  ~But where's the loyalty?~

“You still don't get it, though,” Daniel said, leaning forward somewhat and letting his hands dangle over his pulled-up knees.  “You never even considered the possibility that our children could win fair and square.  Now we have to plan a huge party in *three* weeks, Jack.  *Three weeks!*”

Jack groaned, twisted around one-hundred-eighty degrees, and flopped face down onto the bed.  He reached forward and grabbed a pillow, pulling it over his head to drown out his husband's voice.

~It was a dumb bet, but I was sooooo sure,~ the general thought to himself consolingly.

====

At three minutes to midnight, a soft knock on the master bedroom door was heard.

Jack turned around in bed and sat up just as Daniel invited, “Come in.”

Eleven children filed in and stood around the bed.

“YES!” Jack shouted jubilantly, pulling his fists down onto the bed.  “You lose! You are *all* out of bed after bedtime!”

“Jack, shhh!  You'll wake JD!” Daniel chastised, shaking his head at his husband's antics.

“Sorry, Danny, but they lost the bet.  I specifically told them they had to be in bed at 2315, and Jeff acknowledged it.  We win!  No monkey suits, no party!”  Then, pausing for a minute, he noticed all eleven children grinning from ear.  Turning to face his husband, he saw an equally big grin.  “Daniel?”  After a pause, he echoed, “Danny, you didn't!”

“Dad?” Jeff called out suddenly, not letting his younger father answer the question.

Just as Jack turned to face his children, a flash went off, blinding him for a few seconds.

Smiling, Jeff said, “Thanks, Dad.  Eight-by-ten glossies all around, Guys.”

“Daniel?” Jack barked.

“I told them that if they made it until five minutes of twelve, they could come in and enjoy their victory,” Daniel admitted, tilting his head in apology.

“What if we were ...” Jack's eyes bulged as his words trailed off.

“I figured you'd be too uptight,” the archaeologist smirked.

“Betrayed by my own husband,” Jack groused.  “Daniel ...”

“Jack!” Daniel warned.  **Be careful what you say in front of them.**

Flopping back onto the bed, Jack let out a loud groan, thinking, ~This was a sure thing.  I had two whole months, and I couldn't get even one of them to slip up, not once.  I should've insisted that JD be part of the bet.~  He snorted, ~Great, O'Neill, then you'd feel *really* stupid, losing to a ten-month-old infant.~

“It's midnight!” Jeff called out, prompting the children to jump up and down and cheer.

The noise was loud and joyful.  To Daniel, it was long overdue.

~That's more like it,~ Daniel opined to himself, smiling widely at the welcome sound.

“Bah humbug!” Jack griped angrily.

Jack's pity party was interrupted by his oldest daughter saying, “Come on, Dad, get up and get dressed.”

“What for?  It's after midnight.”

“Yes, it *is* after midnight, and we've won the bet, which is why you need to get dressed so we can drive to Denver and mail the invitations.  They need to make the early pick-up.  We only have three weeks for everyone to respond, you know,” Jennifer reminded.

Jack's mouth gaped open, and he tried to speak, but couldn't, so he closed it again.

After seeing his husband repeat the gesture twice more, Daniel chuckled, “Babe, you look like that guppy fish you always accuse me of being.”  Turning to the grinning brood, he got out of bed and requested, “Everybody out, so Dad can get dressed.  Everyone back to bed, except for Jen and Jeff.”  Focusing on the teens, he instructed, “You two wait downstairs in the living room.  Dad will be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.”  Looking at the younger members of the family as he ushered them out of the room, he added, “I'll make rounds after they've left.”

“Daddy's gonna kiss Dad,” Aislinn giggled.

“Get rid of the grizzly bear,” Jonny agreed with a nod.

“Daddy, you might have to kiss Dad twice,” Ricky suggested.  He looked back at his older father; then at Daniel again.  “Maybe three times even.”

Daniel chuckled, saying, “I think I can do that.”

After Ricky and the others filed into the hallway, Daniel closed the door, stopping for a moment to just enjoy the wonder of the brood.  Then he turned around and looked at his still-stunned soulmate, who continued to look like a fish.

When Jack found his tongue, he was about to lay into Daniel, but was cut off by a 'Talk to the hand' gesture.

“Get over it, Love,” Daniel began, walking over to the bed and sitting down on his side of it.  He smiled and leaned forward, kissing his husband three times.  “Ricky said I had to do that.”

“Wouldn't want to disappoint Ricky,” Jack agreed.

“No, we wouldn't.  We wouldn't want to disappoint any of our children,” Daniel said more seriously as he sat up straight again.  “Jack, we lost the bet.  Now, we have to dive into the planning of this party full-tilt.  The invitations are in a box, ready to be mailed, in the SUV.  Before you start accusing me of all kinds of things, I had to allow them to do that much, because if I hadn't, *you* would be explaining to our children that the party they worked so hard for was going to be pathetic because *you* didn't believe in them enough to even consider that they might win.”

“Daniel ...”

“Jack, think about this, and think hard,” Daniel requested, standing up and walking a couple of feet away.  He turned around to face his lover before continuing.  “Would you really want our children to know how little faith you had in them?”

“What?” Jack asked incredulously.  “Danny, I have lots of faith in our brood.”

“Usually, yes, but not recently,” Daniel challenged.  “Jack, the truth is, you really were over the top these last few weeks.  I'm not sure I could have hung in there like they did.”

“I can't believe it,” Jack bemoaned.

“Do you know what the most wonderful part of it is?” Daniel asked, his voice suddenly a bit emotional.

“Wonderful?” Jack questioned dubiously.

“Jack, they did this for us.”

“Daniel, you're out of your friggin' mind,” Jack responded, not buying it one bit.

“No, I'm not,” the younger man replied, a sappy look coming over his facial features.  “Listen to me, Babe.  Our children, those beautiful children, they endured fifty-six days of ... gawd, I don't even know what to call it, but they survived it, and they did it because they're so happy and proud of us as their parents.”

“What are you talking about?” the older man questioned.

“I didn't realize it at first; I'm not sure they did, either, but the real reason for all of this is that they want to shout to the world that we're *their* Dad and Daddy, and we're married.  Do you understand that?” Daniel asked, looking searchingly at his husband.

Jack leaned his head back slightly, suddenly very aware of a part of the bet that he'd never considered before.  All he had seen was the game, and having to wear an uncomfortable tuxedo.

The younger man continued, “Jack, anniversary celebrations are an outward sign of what is called a 'normal' marriage.  They want us in the newspaper.”  Seeing his lover's confusion, he explained, “The brood wants a professional photographer to take a family portrait at the party, and they want it printed in the paper, along with all the other announcements that get published.  Jack, don't you see?  This party is their way of showing us not just how much they love us, but how normal they consider us, just like the parents of their friends.”

“Normal?” Jack echoed.

“Well, as normal as a zoo can be,” Daniel teased.  “Now, you can drag your feet and make them regret they ever thought about having this party, or, you can get on the bandwagon.  It's up to you.”

The major general took a moment to process his lover's impassioned plea and shook his head.  He casually got off the bed and stretched.  Then he bent down and touched his toes.

“I am not fat,” Jack said out of the blue.

“What?” a confused Daniel stated as he stood up, walking to the foot of the bed and crossing his arms in front of him tightly.

“No way am I jumping on this bandwagon, Danny,” Jack stated sternly.

Daniel's face expressed utter shock and disappointment, but before he could voice his thought, Jack finished his statement.

With a huge grin, the older man stated enthusiastically, “I'm going to *lead* the friggin' parade!”

Daniel rushed into Jack's arms and said, “I love you, Jack, so much!”

“And I love you, Angel, to the moon and the stars and back again.  La mio bello stella cadante,” Jack crooned tenderly.

The soulmates held onto each other for a minute, and then they kissed again.

Finally, Daniel sighed, pulling back as he said, “Hurry up, and get dressed.  Jen and Jeff are waiting for you.”

“Why are the three of us going?  Why not just me, or you, or one or the both of them?” Jack questioned.

“I don't know, but it's something they've been saying for a while now,” Daniel answered, shrugging at the same time.  “They probably want to discuss the party.”

“They probably want to gloat,” Jack laughed.  “I would, too,” he admitted.  After a moment, he asked, “How much have you done already?”

“We lucked out.  I called at just the right time,” Daniel began.  “A cancellation occurred at the Hyatt, and the manager remembered me from our ... you know.”

“Those 'you know' getaways?” Jack smirked.

“Yeah, those.  He's doing us a favor, Babe, putting us at the head of the line.  He let me put down a minimal deposit, knowing we'd know for sure today.  I have to call him by nine to confirm.  Jack, I wasn't trying to go behind your back.  It's important that you know that,” the younger man spoke sincerely.

“I know, Angel,” Jack replied earnestly.  “What else?”

“All those hypothetical, and, by the way, that's a word that is now banned from our vocabularies, scenarios paid off.  We have an appointment to get fitted for our monkey suits tomorrow ... uh, I mean, today, in about eight-and-a-half hours.  There's more, with the caterers, the music, and the photographer, but we can go over everything when you get back.  Hurry and change before the teens think something is wrong.”  Daniel kissed his Love again and then headed for the hallway, ready to tuck the rest of the brood in.  He could sense his partner's thought and rolled his eyes.  As he closed the bedroom door behind him, his last comment to Jack was, “*No,* I am *not* getting a blue tux.”

Jack grinned and said to himself, ~We'll see about that.~  He paused, a serious undercurrent taking hold of him.  “Normal family?”  He smiled, remembering what could have been a difficult talk with the Spitfires earlier in the year.  They'd asked why they couldn't have a mother and a father like other kids, and Jack and Daniel had explained that to do that, they'd have to split up and not be together.  The Spitfires had thought about it for a moment; then insisted they'd rather have two fathers.  ~O'Neill, sometimes you're a real donkey's behind.~

Determined to lead the party parade from now on, Jack scrambled into a pair of jeans and a shirt and hurried downstairs to take the invitations to the main post office in Denver.

====

Jack glanced over at Jennifer, who was in the front seat, and then back at Jeff, seated behind her.  The silence in the SUV had been pretty thick for a few minutes.  He was beginning to suspect he knew what was wrong.  Though he felt like he should say something, he wasn't quite sure just how to get out of his predicament.

~Crap, I hate apologizing.  Double crap!  I hate being wrong,~ Jack thought as he sought for a way to open the door of communication.

Once they were on the interstate, Jennifer was the one who began the conversation, saying, “Dad, you know, you've seemed awfully tense lately.”

“Yeah,” Jeff agreed, “almost like you've been waiting for the other *shoe* to drop.”

Jack closed his eyes for a split second, then glanced at them, replying, “It was you who knew.”  After the teens nodded in silence, he asked, “Who found it?”

“Does it matter?” Jennifer asked, looking at her father.

“No.  You could have won,” Jack stated quietly.

“We did win, Dad,” Jennifer pointed out softly.
 
“Fair and square,” Jeff added, above a whisper.

“I mean, you could have won three weeks sooner,” Jack responded.

“And what kind of victory would that have been, Dad?” Jennifer asked pointedly.  “Do you think the rest of the brood would have wanted to have the party after they found out about your little prank?  How would Daddy have felt about it?”

“There's nothing like being told off by your own children,” Jack mumbled.  ~They're right, though.~

“We would have lost on purpose, rather than destroy the faith Daddy and the rest of the brood have in you,” Jeff continued.  “We couldn't have won by ratting you out.  That would have been nothing more than taking advantage of someone's mistake, committed in a weak moment.  We wanted to win by playing by the rules, or not at all.”

Jack was a jumble of mixed emotions -- relief, pride, guilt, anger, and a whole lot of shame.  His eyes watered, and he blinked to stay focused on the road.  Finally, he couldn't.

“Dad?” Jennifer asked in concern as the SUV came to a stop at the side of the highway.

“I don't deserve kids like you,” the father said, twisting around to make eye contact with his two very grown-up children.

“Probably not,” Jeff agreed, a tiny smile on his face.

“But you're stuck with us anyway,” Jennifer giggled.  “We're already hungry, Dad.  How about stopping at IHOP on the way home?”

“You got it,” Jack happily agreed.  ~This isn't the place for it, but we need to talk. Maybe at IHOP.~  As he refocused on his driving, he added,  “By the way, I love you both.”

“We love you, too,” Jennifer said.

====

Over breakfast, Jack and the teenagers discussed the planning of the party.

At one point, Jennifer urged, “Okay, Dad, spit it out.”

Jack stared at his coffee, sighing, “It's just that you guys were so forgiving about the whole dang shoe incident.  I guess I don't understand.”

“Why not, Dad?” Jeff spoke up.  “We won the bet by using what you and Daddy have taught us -- 'Know what your objective is and what it takes to achieve it, understand your adversary, and keep your plan flexible enough to respond to change effectively'.”

“And,” Jennifer continued, “we responded to your mistake the way you and Daddy have taught us to treat people when they mess up -- 'Forgive them; and remember that you're not perfect and may need their forgiveness someday'.”

“Wow.  You kids are something else,” Jack spoke in awe.  “I was so busy trying to trip you up that I didn't even recognize that you were using what we'd been teaching you all along.  You did a fine job of leading the younger children, and I am so proud of you,” Jack confessed.  “I got lost in the game; lost focus of what really matters.  I'm ashamed of myself, and that doesn't happen too often.”

“Dad, don't beat yourself up,” Jennifer replied.  “Do what you and Daddy taught us to do.  Learn, and just don't make the same mistake again.”

“My very wise children,” Jack said in amazement.  “That's Danny's influence.”

“It's *both* of you,” Jennifer insisted.  “But ... there is just one more thing.”  She glanced over at Jeff, who was seated next to her in the booth.  “About this 'whole, dang shoe incident', as you put it,” she began.

Jack waited one, two, three silent beats for his daughter to continue.

At last, the teens leaned across the table, and Jennifer whispered, “It's our secret, forever.  We decided there's no good reason to tell Daddy or any of the family, especially Teal'c.”

“Teal'c?”  The puzzled father asked, “What does he have to do with this?”

“Well, you know how he goes on and on about honor, Dad,” Jennifer explained with a bit of a smirk on her face.

“Yeah, that's true.  He'd probably force me to endure some Jaffa ritual to purify my soul,” Jack opined with a shudder, quickly adding, “For real this time.”

The general shivered as he recalled the prank played on him by the big alien when he had concocted a Tau'ri ritual to detach Daniel from their beloved but ruined old sofa.

Jeff sat up straight, and, imitating the warrior the entire family loved, intoned, “O'Neill, you are a massive accumulation of equine excrement.”

As Jack and Jennifer burst into laughter, Jeff finished off his Teal'c impersonation by bowing his head just slightly as he added, “Indeed.”

The laughter at the table was now so loud that it drew stares from other patrons, which only made them laugh louder and longer.

When it subsided, a smiling Jack again looked into the eyes of his children.  He'd never ever felt this proud, except when Daniel was at his side, speaking words of love.

~Danny.  My Angel,~ Jack sighed inwardly.  “Kids, just so you know, Daddy and I don't have secrets.  I'm going to tell him about the shoe.”

“But ...”

“It'll be okay,” Jack interrupted, sticking up one hand to stop the instant words of concern.  “Daddy has ... an amazing capacity for forgiveness.  He's an amazing man with more love, understanding, and tolerance in his fingertip that I'll ever have.  He might make me suffer a little, but he'll forgive me.”

“Are you sure you should do that?” Jennifer questioned, a tiny frown on her face.

“Jen, he knows who I am.  I'm not perfect.  I just made one whopper of a mistake, and I have to tell him,” Jack asserted.  He sighed, “Look, you're both on the verge of being adults.  Jeff, you have a girlfriend, and, Jen, you're dating a little, and there's Peter.”

“Dad, let's not talk about Peter.  We're just friends now,” Jennifer spoke about her first love, the wealthy Peter Hamilton, who was currently attending college at Oxford.

“Of course, you are,” Jack smirked.  “Anyway, the point is, when you find that one relationship that is *the* relationship, honesty and trust are more important than ever.  It wouldn't surprise me if Daddy already knew.  He knows me that well.  Kids, lies, any lies, even the little ones, they can come back and stab you in the heart.  I've learned that the hard way, and I love Daddy too much to risk everything we've worked so hard for.  Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Jennifer acknowledged.

“Me, too,” Jeff agreed.

Jack smiled, sipped a bit of his coffee, then added, “So, when I'm on the couch tonight, how about making sure I have a comfortable pillow?”

“Oh, Dad!” Jennifer laughed, as did her brother and older father.

====

At fifteen minutes after four in the morning, the SUV pulled in the drive, and the trio quietly entered the house.

Jack hugged his children close and said, “I love you, and thank you for being such good kids.  Sleep in, well, until Daddy and I have to go to our monkey suit fitting, anyway; and we *are* stocking up on ice cream today.  That's at the top of the list.”

“Night, er, morning ... I mean ...” Jennifer trailed off, chuckling as she and Jeff headed for their bedrooms.

Quietly, Jack made his way back upstairs, opting to make a side trip to the nursery to check on JD.  He smiled at the sleeping Chenoa and Lulu, who still shared the room where JD's crib was.

“Your old Dad has a lot to learn, JD.  Just be thankful you have the most perfect Daddy in all the universe,” Jack whispered as he pulled the navy blanket snug against the sleeping infant.  He smiled at the sight of Patch tucked under the boy's chin.  “Your old Dad has a lot to learn, JD. Just be thankful you have the most perfect Daddy in all the universe,” Jack whispered as he pulled the navy blanket snug against the sleeping infant. He smiled at the sight of Patch tucked under the boy's chin. ~Security,~ he mused. ~With Ricky, it was a tan blanket; with you, it's a silly old dog,~ he thought. ~Ricky still insists on keeping that old rag on his bed. At least he doesn't walk around with it all the time now.~ He sighed, ~It's okay, JD. Patch can be your friend for life, just like, for better or for worse, I'll always be Dad, and I'll always love you.~

The contemplative father walked over to the girls, kissing each of them before returning to the master bedroom, where he quietly slipped off his clothes and slid into bed naked and pushed up against his sleeping lover.

Jack placed a kiss at the base of Daniel's neck and whispered, “I love you.”

Daniel, who had been half asleep and half awake waiting for his husband's return, felt an overwhelming surge of love for the older man.

“Jack?”

“What, Love?”

“The monitor,” Daniel spoke.

“What about it?”

“It's on,” the younger man reminded.

“So?”

“So, it's on,” Daniel stated, rolling over and looking into his husband's brown eyes.  “I heard you talking to JD.”

“You did?”

“Yes, I did,” Daniel confirmed.  “Jack, I know there's something you want to tell me.”

“Yes, there is,” Jack acknowledged, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling as he talked.  “Danny, I lost control of myself with this bet.”

“I know that.”

“I did things I shouldn't have done,” Jack confessed, turning his head to face the man who owned his heart.

“Yes, I know,” the younger man acknowledged.

“Danny, I treated our kids like recruits.”

“I know that, too,” Daniel replied softly.

“It's more than just not buying ice cream,” Jack stated.  “I did something I'm ashamed of.”

“Ashamed?” Daniel asked with concern, sitting up, the blanket just covering his pajama bottoms.  “What did you do?”

Jack focused on his lover's deep blue eyes and took a breath before admitting to his sin.  He told Daniel all about the shoe, about how Jeff had found it, and even about how the kids were willing to keep the secret.  He didn't hold back one part of the story.

“They're afraid you'll toss me out on my six, which, by the way, you have a right to do.  Our kids aren't recruits,” Jack sighed.  “I love them, Danny, and I set them up.”

“But you realized you were wrong,” Daniel observed.

“I didn't want to get caught,” Jack sighed again.

“And?” Daniel prompted.

“And, yes, I knew it was wrong.  Our brood is pretty wonderful, Danny.  They really did work together as a team.  They could have won the bet by default, but they used my own words as a rationale not to,” Jack reported.

Daniel nodded, looking over at his lover when he felt Jack's hand taking one of his and squeezing it.

“I'm banking on you, Danny, that you can forgive me ... again,” Jack spoke, sitting up to be closer to Daniel.  “I was wrong, in a thousand ways, and I admit that.  I told Jen and Jeff the truth, and they forgave me.  Can you?”

After a moment that seemed like an eternity to the older man, Daniel smiled and said, “Jack, we're not perfect, neither of us.  You crossed a line, but it's hardly a line that can't be mended.  You have some making up to do, and the best way to do that is to follow through with what you told me earlier, that you'll lead the charge and make sure our anniversary party is even better than the brood can imagine.”

“I will, Danny.  I promise,” Jack pledged emotionally.

“Um, I can't help but notice that you're ... naked,” Daniel said with a wry smile.

Jack looked down at his body and said, “How observant of you, Doctor Jackson-O'Neill.”

With a smile, Daniel leaned over his husband and began a spine-tingling round of foreplay.  Before turning his full attention to matters 'at hand' as it were, Jack took a moment to reflect on his exceedingly good fortune; however, it was just a brief moment before he gave himself over to the attentions of his still very forgiving husband.

The Jackson-O'Neills had a very busy November ahead of them, one that would include a lavish anniversary party.  It was bound to be an interesting time.

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