The Party's Over

Author:  Orrymain and special guest co-author, Robert!
Category:  Slash, Angst, Drama, Romance, Established Relationship
Pairing:  Jack/Daniel ... and it's all J/D
Rating:  PG-13
Season:  Beyond the Series - November 16-18, 2012
Spoilers:  None
Size:  150kb
Written:  July 1-12, 2010, June 27, 2011, April 6-10, June 15, 2013, April 25-27, May 3-7,11-14, 2014
Summary: Jack and Daniel's anniversary party winds down, but while the party is over, the after effects are only just beginning.
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), “Full Throttle”

The Party's Over
by Orrymain and Robert

Shortly after eleven in the evening, Jack and Daniel were enjoying a brief moment of relaxation amid all the celebrating.  It had been an enjoyable evening, and all that they'd had to do was to show up at the Denver Hyatt where the festivities were being held.  Still, being gracious hosts to well over three-hundred guests had been exhausting as well as exhilarating.  

Honoring their promise to their children, Jack and Daniel had been liberated on this anniversary evening, the ninth year of their marriage.  They hadn't given a thought to when, where, or how they kissed, touched, and interacted.  They were free to be who they really were, in spite of the fact that some of their guests were children.  Jack and Daniel tended to believe that it was up to parents to determine at what age and how young kids learned about alternate relationships.  The logic was that anyone at their anniversary party already knew about the couple's marriage, however, so the youngsters would not be an issue.  Also present were many in the military as well as government officials, including past Joint Chief of Staffs, current high ranking personnel in the Air Force and at the Pentagon, and even the President of the United States.  Though times were finally changing for the better for those with same gender relationships in the various armed services, there were still some malcontents, including political leaders who talked of repealing the law that took away the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.

Evidence of this natural flow was the fact that the lovers were close dancing to a romantic tune being played by the orchestra.  Daniel's hands were around his Love's neck, playing gently with the strands of silver-gray hair that he adored so much.  He leaned in for a kiss, and Jack responded with yet another kiss.

“Jack, do you realize we've never been like this in front of so many people before?”

“We should be like this all the time,” the older man sighed.  ~Prejudice lives on, even with the elimination of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'.~

“Well, not to disagree, Babe, but I don't think they'd like it in the fresh produce aisle.”

Jack laughed and led the two into a twirl.  He and Daniel were both happy and glad that the celebration was going so well.  As they casually glanced around over the remaining crowd, there were still over a hundred people present, some dancing alongside them and others eating, laughing, and generally having a good time.

--

Across the room, Alex Dennison and his girlfriend, Soncirria Suvulpo, also known as Sunny, were conversing.

“Alex, I'm really tired, and it's a long drive back to Colorado Springs,” Sunny put forth, ready to go.  ~I'd rather just disappear.  How did I let this happen?  Why didn't I see the truth, this awful truth, earlier?~

“I checked with the front desk earlier, Sunny.  They have rooms available,” the designer suggested.  “We could have brunch in the morning and head back afterwards.”

“I know, but my flight leaves at six.  I don't want to go back and forth so close together.  Please, let's go.”

Concerned about his lover, Alex queried, “Are you feeling all right?”

~Sometimes I feel like such a blonde twit,~ Sunny groaned inwardly.  ~I should have had this conversation with Alex two weeks ago after dinner.  It was the perfect time.~  Her heart was crying from what she was feeling and she felt like the walls were closing in on her.  ~I know he bought a ring.  I just know it.~  Feeling guilty about not having faced the issue head on long before this anniversary evening, Sunny put on a sweet smiled and assured her boyfriend that she was just a little tired.  “I really want to go back to the condo tonight.”

~That's funny.  This gala has been a breeze compared to all the big events we've attended together over the last couple of years.  Maybe she is just tired.  She has had a busy schedule of late,~ Alex conceded silently.  “Okay, Sweetheart.  Do you see Jack and Daniel so we can say our goodnights?”

Sunny looked around and then, pointing them out, replied, “They're over there, Alex.”

Even as the couple walked towards their host, Alex continued to ponder Sunny's unusual behavior and demeanor.

~She hasn't been herself tonight.  Her smile doesn't have that happy zing and her eyes aren't twinkling.  That's not my Sunny.~  Perplexed, Alex couldn't stop thinking about how little she'd smiled at all during the evening.  For that matter, she'd been more reserved lately.  ~I wonder if she knows I have the ring?~  He smiled as the two walked towards the honored guests.  ~Maybe that's it.  She just wants us to be home so I can propose.~  His heart rate increased as the adrenaline began to kick in, just from the anticipation he felt.  ~I've been studying and reading about marriage proposals.  I want it to be perfect, something we'll both always remember.~

Alex reached for his girlfriend's hand, squeezing it gently as the couple walked.  Feeling the gentle hold, Sunny's eyelids closed momentarily as she cringed inside. Not so long ago, she loved the security of that hand on hers, but right now, it felt more like an anchor than a symbol of true love.

~Life can be so cruel,~ the blonde lamented, the pain in her heart growing with every step.

--

“Having a good time?” Daniel asked, a happy expression on his face as Alex and Sunny approached.

“It was a wonderful party,” Sunny responded.  “Thank you for inviting us.”

“That was a given,” Jack returned cordially.

“I've attended plenty of high class celebrations in my pageant days and this one is right there at the top,” Sunny praised.

“It was the brood,” Daniel acknowledged.  “They did it all.”

“We're impressed,” Alex stated, his arm around his date's waist.

“We need to go now, but we had a great time,” Sunny told the honorees, her body language expressing that it was clearly, in her opinion, time to leave.

“Thank you for joining us,” Daniel responded politely.

“And thanks for helping the kids, especially in setting up the special effects,” Jack added, having heard that Alex's contributions had been very helpful.  Conspiratorially, he leaned over to Alex and whispered, “How did you manage to hide the elephants?”

Laughing out loud, Alex answered, “To be absolutely truthful, the elephants were not my department.”

“Goodnight,” Sunny interjected, lightly pulling on her boyfriend's arm.

“Jack, you're obsessed with the elephants.  Maybe we should add one to our zoo,” Daniel teased as the other couple began to walk away.

“Me, obsessed?  Not me, no sir!  What was I supposed to be obsessed with anyway?” Jack quickly quipped, afraid one of the children would overhear, something that could prove disastrous to his bank account.  ~We'd have to buy a peanut factory.~

Laughing at Jack's quick denial of interest in things elephantine, Daniel gave his Love a quick kiss.  Every part of his being was overflowing with joy as their special event continued.

“Alex better pop the question soon,” Jack opined as his arm wrapped around his Angel.

“Pop the question?”

“What's he waiting for?”

“Oh, I don't know.  Maybe he has ... issues,” Daniel suggested as the lovers swayed together to the internal music of their souls.  “We both know how harmful unresolved issues can be in a relationship.”

“Issues, schmissues.  He's got a life because of her,” Jack asserted.  “Trust me, Danny, they're ready.”

Just then, the sounds of the piano began to play.  It was just a few sounds, purposeful notes to draw the attention of the guests.  Then Jeff spoke, introducing a song he wanted to sing for his parents.  It was another sentimental and memorable moment from the lavish affair.

====

On the way back to Colorado Springs, the usually talkative pair of Alex and Sunny remained mostly quiet, each lost in their own thoughts, though from time to time, they exchanged occasional remarks about the party, what people wore, the toasts, and the magic show.  They were both glad they'd stopped at the exit and listened to Jeff's song, which had been such a loving tribute to Jack and Daniel.

Alex did notice that whenever he tried to talk about their plans for Saturday that Sunny kept bringing the conversation back to the party.

~I wonder if she is sick, or maybe there's something amiss with her family.  It's just so odd that on our way out of the hotel, she stopped at the bar to down 'one for the road' and a double at that.  That is so not like her,~ Alex told himself.  “Are you okay, Sunny?”

~Not really, Alex, not really,~ Sunny answered within her soul.  Vocally, she responded, “It's been a long week, that's all.  With the flight here, getting my hair and nails done, the drive, and five hours of dancing and meeting people, I feel like I've been in a pageant.”

“I can understand that,” Alex replied.  “Sweetheart, is everything all right with your family?  How's your mother?”

~This is going to be so hard.  He's such a nice guy,~ the woman sighed.  “Mom's good.  Everyone is well, Alex.”

~That's odd, too.  That's all she's called me all day, not a single term of endearment.  Maybe she's just in a funk.~  The man smiled, thinking of the surprise he had in store.  He'd read over five-hundred marriage proposals, what men said, how women responded, and how they remembered the moment years later.  He'd definitely done his homework.  ~Tonight's the night.  When she sees the ring, she'll be feeling better quick.~

Like most men in creative professions, Alex was accustomed to relying on his intuition in his work, and, like most men no matter their profession, he was utterly clueless when it came to paying attention to his intuition in his personal life.  Right now, though, he was positive his proposal would perk Sunny up.  With any luck at all, he'd convince her to cancel her Saturday flight and stay another day like he'd wanted her to do in the first place.

Next to Alex, the voluptuous, vivacious blonde was lost in her own reverie.  Her mind took her back to a lunch she'd had with some friends about a month ago.

//Flashback//
“Alex is so suave, such a dreamboat,” Twyla noted with a swoon, causing Sunny to smile.

“Keep that look to yourself, Twy.  Alex is taken,” Sunny reminded with a definite 'hands off my man' tone and demeanor.

“That's why I haven't tried to set you up with Kenjo.  He's smokin' hot to trot, but you're taken,” Clemma interjected.

“I know someone who is even *more* perfect for Sunny,” another of the females began, “but,” she sighed, “you're not interested, right?”

“Um, no, of course not.  I'm very happy with Alex, and he's happy with me,” Sunny asserted.  ~I wonder why I just said that.  Of course, we're happy.  It's these girls.  They're always so full of gossip.  They haven't been involved with anyone for more than a couple of months at a time.~

“I thought all male designers were gay,” Tanya stated ignorantly, changing the direction of the conversation somewhat.  “I've seen pictures of you with Alex at some pretty high profile events.  Are you sure he's hetero?  Is he any good in the sack?”

Sunny felt the blush creep up her neck.

“Woo hoo!  Look at that girls!  He must be really good!” Twyla exclaimed from her friend's bodily reaction.

“It doesn't matter what they can do in bed.  You can tell by who they look at, the guys or the girls.  It's the glance that lasts five seconds too long or seeing that they focus on the guys in a group and not the gals,” Sue, another attendee at the luncheon, put forth confidently, waving her hand to one side as she spoke.

“You should know, Sue.  You've had two gay boyfriends; you even married the last one.  Maybe you're turning them gay,” another woman cackled.

The six ladies all joined in, laughing wildly, except for Sunny, who excused herself to go to the ladies room.
//End of Flashback//

Sunny looked down as she thought about her visit to the powder room at the end of that luncheon.  She'd just stared in the mirror, flashes of different moments in time jumping before her eyes.  That brought her back to a couple of hours ago, when the lovers were still at the party.

~When he looked at me across the room during his toast, I knew he had the ring,~ Sunny mourned within her aching heart.  ~What do I do?  I can't break up with him while he's driving.  That's rude.  Besides, he could have a wreck.~  A darker, more sinister side of herself chimed, ~Let him wreck, put you both out of your misery; die young and gorgeous.~

Alex's words drew Sunny from her unpleasant thoughts.

“I need to stop for gas.  There's a coffee shop with a drive-through at the next exit.  Would you like to get something?”

Automatically, Sunny smiled at her boyfriend's thoughtfulness and responded, “Yes, I'd like that very much.”  Then she looked down as her mind raced on.  ~Geez, Alex, you just never drop the ball, ever.  After two years, it isn't an act. You are the real deal with one glaring exception you've hidden from yourself.  I hate myself right now.  This is so hard.  I'm not looking forward to this at all.  Part of me wishes I'd kept it hidden, too.~

Alex signaled and moved into the exit lane.

====

Back at the party, General Hammond was speaking privately with Jack, admitting, “Never thought I'd see a day like this one, Jack.”

“Yes, Sir, I know,” Jack acknowledged, glancing out over the diverse crowd.

“You and Daniel really pulled the wool over a lot of eyes for a lot of years,” the bald man chuckled.  “But maybe not so many as you thought.”

“We always tried to keep our personal relationship away from the Mountain.”

“Not possible, General,” Hammond put forth.  “I think a lot of us saw it, but we chose not to think about it.  It was an intentional failure to think.”

“Don't pursue,” Jack clarified, referring to an unofficial expansion of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' phrase.  Prior to repeal of the policy, he'd known of at least sixteen well-respected, high-placed fighting personnel at Stargate Command who lived a lifestyle that had been against the traditional military preference.  In fact, he was fairly positive that three of those did it both ways.  ~Better to mind your own business; let everyone live their lives how they choose.  Who sleeps with whom doesn't affect me.~

Hammond sighed thoughtfully and added, “From the moment 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was invoked, it was a dirty policy.  It took far too long to repeal it.”

“It wouldn't have been so bad if it really had been 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' but it was used as a smoke screen to continue the witch hunts.  Sexual preference has nothing to do with a person's ability to serve this country, or planet.”

“Like all prejudice, it was fear, that's all,” Daniel interjected as he joined the conversation from behind.  “Most people would be shocked to learn the Spartan soldiers were matched up as lover/warrior pairs.  It was expected that they would fight harder to protect their lovers.  Women were considered ...”

Daniel had that 'full lecture mode' look on his face, the conversation switching from a more casual chit chat to full blown speech.  That wasn't what Jack wanted on this night.

“Daniel, we're celebrating our anniversary.  Save it for another day,” Jack requested, leaning over to give his Love an apologetic peck on the cheek.

With an agreeable nod, Daniel began to laugh, well aware of his tendency to lecture.

“So, General, Little Danny tells me you've been reading stories to the little ones downstairs,” Daniel stated.

Hammond grinned and then proceeded to tell a little story about what had happened when he'd read to a group of kids that included young Chloe Payne earlier in the evening.

====

The rest of Alex and Sunny's ride back to Colorado Springs was quiet.  Alex was polishing his well-rehearsed proposal of marriage to the woman he loved and adored.  She'd breathed new life into him, and she'd been with him through the location of two of his lost siblings.  Sunny, however, was thinking back over the course of their relationship, her focus primarily on events in the past few weeks.  The totals adding up in her brain made her very uncomfortable.

~I've been ignoring what I've been seeing.  We've had so much fun together, going to parties around the globe, meeting people, and seeing places I never would have seen without being at the side of a man of Alex's caliber.  He's so classy, light years beyond anyone I've ever dated in the past.  What am I going to do?  Break up with him tonight?~  Internally, Sunny winced.  ~Maybe I should wait, but ... I can't, not if he has the ring.~

As soon as they pulled into the condo garage at roughly 12:30 Saturday morning, Sunny surprised Alex by jumping out of the Jaguar before he'd even turned off the motor.  She grabbed her bag and flew inside.

~She must really have to go,~ Alex mused.  ~Must be that stop at the all night coffee shop.~  Another thought occurred to him.  “Maybe her time of the month is a day or two early,” he suggested to his beloved car.  “That would explain everything.”

Following his customary fifteen-minute ritual, Alex emptied the trash container in his car and vacuumed out the interior with the garage vac at the ready.  Next, confident that he was prepared to ace the audition of his life, his proposal to make Sunny his bride, Alex marched to his mailbox whistling “Here Comes the Bride.”

Upon entering the condo, Alex cheerful expression turned upside down.  Shockwaves exploded in his body as he saw Sunny had changed, not into something sexy and comfortable, but into her travel clothes.  His eyes focused on her suitcase that was next to the door he'd just walked through.  When the couple had left for the party, the suitcase, unpacked, was in the closet.  As Sunny paced the floor, visibly upset, the designer couldn't help himself.  He reached over and momentarily picked up the luggage.  It was heavy which meant it was packed.

“Honey, what's wrong?” Alex inquired, approaching the woman and enfolding her in an embrace which she did not return.

“Alex, this is so hard,” Sunny cried.

“What is, Darling?”

“Our relationship is going nowhere.  It can't,” the woman spoke with a gulp.  ~You were supposed to start out a little lighter than that, girlfriend.~

“What are you talking about, Sunny?” Alex questioned.  ~This isn't the least bit what I had planned for tonight.~

“Alex, when you were talking to Casey tonight, I saw a fire in your eyes that I've just never seen before, not even for me.”  Sunny winced inwardly, complaining, ~Geez, could you mess this up any worse?  This is not how I planned it.  I'm not saying it right.  Oh darn!~

“Sunny, what the ... *What?*”

Nervously, Sunny turned away from Alex, playing with her hands as she explained, “I've been noticing the way you ... the way you ...”  She took a deep breath and let the words out.  “I've been noticing the way you look at men.”  She turned around, trying to keep her facade intact.  ~Finally, the opening line.~

“Looking at men?” Alex queried in confusion.  ~Okay, it's that time of the month.  She's acting weird.  What is she saying?~

~Don't look into his eyes.  If you don't do this now, you never will, and then you'll both lose.~  The woman stood, frozen, trying to maintain her momentum and remember what she wanted to say.  ~Do *not* really look at him.  Do the pageant stare.  That's it.  I can do this.  Make it a performance -- the right look, the right stance, the right smile: all fake, all phony, and all a game.  It's what Alex really wants, and it's what I need.  Okay, bring on the judges.  Sunny's about to win another pageant.~

“Sunny, talk to me!  Better yet, let's just go to bed.  That's our fire.  Come on, Baby, we'll light some flames.”

“No, Alex. I can't,” Sunny insisted, shaking her head.  “Not tonight, not ever again.”

~Her hair is so beautiful,~ Alex observed to himself, distracted for a split second by the tossing of the blonde locks.  “Sunny ...”

~I can't do this,~ Sunny told herself.  ~You idiot.  You looked at him.  Don't do that again.  It's a pageant.  Now focus.  It's now or never.~

~What is going on?~ Alex asked, seeing nothing but a blank expression staring back at him.  ~Someone has switched my script and it's definitely not the one I've been practicing.  I need to find out what's bothering her.  What did I do wrong?  I must have done something.  No.  Wait.  Calm down.  Talk to her.~

“Alex,” Sunny began, though she looked down, pausing her words.

“Sunny, tell me what's wrong.  Why is your suitcase out here?  Why are you wearing ... business attire?  Why are you pushing me away?  I thought you were looking forward to being together tonight, to ... making love.”

“I was,  I did , I ... I mean ...”  Sitting down on a chair and feeling the floor solidly under her, the woman calmed her nerves, rediscovered her focus, and finally began to deliver her rehearsed speech.  “Alex, it's like this.  At first, these moments were harmless to me.  I noticed them, but never gave them any real thought.  I always dismissed the looks as just ... normal, whatever that means, but I can't do that anymore, because it's not normal, not for a heterosexual male, anyway.”

“Honey ...”

“Please, let me finish,” Sunny interrupted with an upraised arm, palm out, her tone firm.  She had her game going now and she might be polite, but she was going to get it all out.  “In the last several months, it's been harder to ignore.  Alex, you don't look at women.  You just don't even notice them as women.  My dad always said, 'When I quit looking is the day you bury me,' and true to his word, he looked until the day he died.  You really do look at men the way most men look at women.  It's not that you ogle or stare, but you give them that quick full body glance, appraising their attractiveness, and tonight, when Casey looked at you, you just ... lit up.”

“I lit up,” the confused designer uttered in disbelief as an echoing of his Love's statement.  ~Don't question what she says.  Humor her; try to figure this out.  Does her time of the month cause insanity?~

“Yes, you did.”

“Casey is a client, Sunny,” Alex responded.  “I didn't dance with him.  I didn't do anything but talk to him for maybe ten minutes.”  Seeing no shift in his girlfriend's expression or demeanor, he continued speaking in a bit of a pleading frustrated inflection, “I couldn't turn my back on him, Sunny.  He was one of my first residential clients here in the Springs, and he was raving about how much he likes the changes I designed for his house.  It's nice to know one's work is appreciated, but ...” the tall man was beside himself, desperately wanting his true love to understand and dismiss this weirdness that seemed to be surrounding them at the moment “... Sunny, I was with you the whole time.  I can assure you that I have never made love to Casey Hemmings, or any man for that matter, nor do I have any desire to do so.”

Alex grinned as he looked Sunny up and down in wanton desire.

“Maybe you should,” Sunny replied with sad regret.  “Maybe you should.”

~What is she saying?  I'm not gay.  What is this all about?~  Stunned, Alex responded, “I don't know what to say, Sunny.  I love you.”

“This ... I know you think you do, but this is about something more than love, or to be precise, it's about more than the love you are capable of giving, at least to me.”

~Huh?  More than love.  Sex?  Are we talking about sex here?~ Alex wondered, deciding to show his vulnerable side in the belief that it might help.  “Sunny, most men wouldn't admit this, but it's just the truth that you were my first, at the age of thirty-two.”

~Don't listen, not with ears that care,~ Sunny told herself, her head bowed, afraid to look up.

Alex continued, “I was a virgin until the first night we were together.  I wanted to be sure of how I felt about you, and I didn't want you to feel like a conquest.  I know how many other men are.  They use women until they tire of them, and then they look for another beautiful woman to be their next prize.  I wanted our first time to be special for you.”  He paused, taking a breath while wishing the blonde would at least look at him.  “Have I done or said anything to make you feel taken for granted, or angry, or cheap ... or, Sunny, what have I done to get you so upset?”

“Nothing, Alex, nothing at all,” Sunny sighed as she finally looked at the man for more than half a second.  ~This would be so much easier if you had,~ she thought in a lament.  “I didn't know I was your first.  I'm honored, flattered even.  You're ... good when we're together.  I haven't had a lot of experience myself, very little compared to my friends, and you are without a doubt the best,” Sunny hesitated, “but ...”

Alex swelled with pride; he couldn't help it.  Like every man, he wanted to be the romantic partner that moved the earth for his woman.  Inside, he was turning cartwheels.

“... it feels more like you are, well, orchestrating rather than participating,” Sunny elaborated.

Alex's cartwheels stopped in mid jump.  He winced as he felt the metaphorical crash to his head.

For Sunny, the memories of the pleasure she had felt as a result of Alex's tender ministrations were starting to make her blush a bit.  They were good feelings, but the conversation wasn't about that exactly.

“It feels like you are creating the experience for me, rather than sharing it with me.”

“I don't understand what you are saying,” Alex replied.  “You seemed pleased and satisfied,” he added softly while remembering her screams of joy.  ~I'm not one to brag, but I thought I was doing all right.~

“I was, and I am, but I feel almost left out of the process because I'm not ... it feels like you're making love to me with a great deal of technical proficiency, like you've read it from a book, like one of your diagrams.”  Sunny closed her eyes in regret.  ~I cannot believe I just said that.~

~Technical proficiency?  Yes, I read and I studied -- for her.  I'm nuts about her and I'm 'technically proficient'?  I don't understand this.~  Alex was getting more upset himself now.  He felt attacked and defensive, and none of his questions were being answered.  “Sunny, I knew a lot about sex at a young age.  I shared a room with brothers in their teens when I was young.”

“Alex ...”

Seeing a look on Sunny's face, Alex hastened to correct what could be a mistaken impression and quickly clarified, “No, nothing like that, just a curious boy noticing the development of older brothers and asking questions which were sometimes answered in bawdy terms.”

“I didn't think it was,” Sunny stated.  “Alex, this isn't about sex, not really.”

“I did my best, to make you happy, to do ... what you'd enjoy.”

“You've done nothing wrong, Alex, nothing at all,” Sunny spoke softly.  ~I want to throw myself into his arms so badly, but I can't.  I have to finish this, for both of us.~

“Then what is this all about?  If you know how much I love you, and I satisfy you in bed, then what are we talking about?” a frustrated Alex questioned.  ~I thought all that talk of women being from Venus was crazy.  I'm catching on quick.~

Thoughts began roaring through Sunny's mind like freight trains crisscrossing on vanishing tracks and barely missing one another.  An engine bore down on the blonde and a version of herself narrowly escaped being flattened.

Looking at the outer Sunny like a reflection in a mirror, this version shouted above the din, “Maybe you're wrong.  You've never seen him try to hide any movies or pictures, and you've never found any ...”

The words weren't finished as the first inner Sunny jumped to avoid another train that whooshed on by so fast she almost felt the wind.

A second Sunny stood up, glared at where her twin had jumped, and yelled, “He notices men.  Just that quick glance top to bottom, but he notices.”

Then that Sunny jumped from the path of still another train while the outer Sunny considered what she'd just been reminded of by her second inner self.

Each train brought with it another roar and alternating projected versions of Sunny's inner self.  Each version had her own sense of reality which she shouted above the incessant mechanical cacophony.

Jump, roar, and then the first Sunny shouted a thought; then roar and jump, and the second blonde would point out an opposing idea, over and over again.  This was all happening in the blink of an eye.

The outer Sunny interjected her own thought, ~Sometimes the guy looks back.  The waiter in that Italian restaurant seemed disappointed that Alex wasn't picking up on his vibes, and he was definitely sending vibes and not in my direction.~

A third Soncirria pirouetted gracefully out of the path of all three trains and walked right up almost nose to nose with the real Sunny and challenged, “Sunny, you've never seen him take a call and not tell you who it was.  You've put his laundry away when he is standing right there.  He asks you to get things out of his drawers and closets.  He never changes the computer screen when you walk in.  Sue's husband had all those signs, and he denied he was gay, even after she had confronted him.  Alex isn't like that.  You're jumping to conclusions.”

“No, you're not,” the second Sunny asserted.

“Why haven't you brought it up before now?” the third Sunny cross-examined like a defense attorney, dodging in and out of the speeding freight trains easily, not even mussing her hair while zeroing in on the weakest points of her accuser's argument.

“I ignored it because I wanted to believe I was imagining things.  Alex isn't like any man I've ever met.  It took me awhile to realize that his precise speech and exquisite manners have nothing to do with the fact that he does not express a natural, unconscious heterosexuality; and now I'm afraid,” Sunny admitted.

“Afraid its true, or afraid he might get violent?” Sunny's third internal being challenged.

“Yes!” the other two inner Sunny's chimed in unison.

“Alex violent?  Don't be ridiculous,” Sunny replied, silencing her inner selves.  She was ready to end the debate, not because of the accusation that her lover could become violent, but for one very masculine reason!  ~Alex may not realize it yet, but there is fire and desire within him for Casey.~

The sound of the trains receded into the distance.  The stronger her resolve grew, the softer the trains in Sunny's mind became.

====

Meanwhile, Alex was having his own intense private dialog.  It was a much shorter one, a review of his actions and words toward the blonde who had captured his heart.  He was frantically searching for a toehold to latch onto and stop events from spirally out of control.  Yet, he felt desperate in a way he never had before.

There was one voice inside the designer's head with one refrain only:  ~I love her! I can't lose her.~

The designer's private thoughts ended when the woman stood up, her intent stronger than ever.

“I cannot let this relationship go on.  I can't.  I'm ending it, Alex, and I am leaving because I must.”  Sunny's groan was slightly audible.  She just hoped the man she loved hadn't heard the conflict exploding within her.  ~Great, Sunny.  How low can you get?  Break up with him on the night of his friends' anniversary party and when you know full well he has a ring in his pocket.~

“No!” Alex exclaimed.  “Don't go, Sunny.  Stay, and we can talk about this in the morning.  I'll sleep in the guest room, or out here on the couch if it will make you feel better.  Stay, and we'll talk this over in the morning.”

“No.”

“Why?” an exasperated Alex asked with a quaking voice, his cool demeanor beginning to crack.  “I don't know what you want from me.  I *love* you.  I need you.  I want to be with you.  Please, Sunny, please, don't go.”

“Maybe you need me too much.  There are things you need to face,” Sunny told her broken-hearted lover.  ~I didn't mean for it to sound like that.  I'm not a therapist.  Get out, Sunny, just get out.  Get out of here before you break down and stay.~

“Sunny, I'll do whatever it takes.  Counseling?  Is that you want?  I'll get it, by myself or we can get couple's counseling, or both; whatever you want,” Alex begged.

~Oh, don't beg.  I feel so bad.  Alex, please yell at me.  Fight back!  I don't know that I'm strong enough otherwise.~  Sunny's strength was weakening again.  She loved this man, and she loved him a lot, but she wanted and needed more than what she felt he could give.  ~I was his first.  That's why he's fighting so hard.  He doesn't know there's plenty more out there.~  Her admission almost did her in, the thought making her want to crumble, but her response to the plea was, “Alex, my mind is made up.  That's just how it is.”

Alex was dumbfounded and stood, staring in disbelief at the curvaceous beauty, wondering at the alien creature she had become. She looked the same, but she was not.  He wasn't even sure he was breathing, not that it mattered anymore.

Sunny walked over to Alex and placed her hand on his left cheek.  She smiled, only for a split second.  Her eyes were on the verge of becoming moist, but she fought that.  She couldn't let him see too much emotion.

“I'll never forget you, Alex, and I truly wish you the best.  I hope you don't hate me and that you'll find the happiness I know you deserve.”  Sunny saw Alex about to speak, but she silenced him by placing her fingers across his mouth.  Her next words were strong, resolute, and incontestable.  “I'm sorry, Alex, but we're through, and it's final.  We *are* finished.”

“You did the right thing,” the second Sunny assured.  “If you give him any hope, he'll try to win you back.”

“Better go, or he might still succeed at that,” the third Sunny chimed.

The sound of trains closing their distance started again within the blonde's mind.

Sunny placed a chaste kiss on Alex's right cheek and whispered, “Goodbye, Alex.  Thank you for everything.”

Then the former beauty queen picked up her bag and walked to the door, opening it slowly.  She turned back and looked at Alex.  He was so handsome; yet, he looked disheveled, like a shadow of himself sitting in a puddle of tuxedo.

Turning, Alex implored, “Give us, give *me* another chance.  You're mistaken, Sunny.  Let's go to bed ...”

“I told you, Alex.  It's not really about sex.  You're not hearing me.”  Sunny sighed regretfully.  She was going to have to be tough, much tougher than she wanted to be.  ~He's so wonderful.  He's not even angry.  He'd take me back this second and never bring it up again.  Maybe ...”

Sunny's doubts assailed the torn woman as her first self roared, “See, you know you're wrong,” followed by a quick, “Oh, no you're not,” denial by the second train jumper.

~Oh, how easy it would be to drown myself in his arms, his lips, his ...~  Sunny shook her head as she interrupted the designer, “I know it would be wonderful, but it wouldn't change anything.  Don't make this any harder on both of us than it has to be.”

“Sunny ...”

“Girl, if you don't seal the deal on this, that boy is going to beat you home to Florida.  He'll be on your doorstep with dozens of roses every day until you give in,” the second Sunny put forth.

“You have to do it, Sunny, unless you think you're wrong about his being gay,” the third version of the woman stated.  “Your choice, but you'd better hurry.  Metaphorical or not, this next train *will* flatten you.”

~No, I'm not wrong.  I wish I were.~  Sunny mustered up the last of her strength and stated strongly, “We're done, Alex.  Accept it, and let's make it a clean break.”

Sunny didn't exactly slam the door, but the firmness of the action was somewhat audible and definite.

The finality echoed in Alex's mind and brought forth every pain he'd ever known. This had to be a nightmare.  It just had to be.

====

Just before the clock struck one in the morning, Daniel looked up from his husband's shoulder and observed a myriad of happy couples dancing.  The feeling in the ballroom was one of serene happiness.  No one was worried about planetary peace, villains (domestic or alien), or sexual preferences.  He noticed Sam and Pete, both of whom had worked so hard during the event to assist the brood with the party, but now were taking a few minutes to be in their own little world.

~Sam's come a long way.  Pete proves patience and love can win in the end,~ the archaeologist noted.  Daniel glanced in another direction and saw Grace Satterfield dancing with Steve Watkins.  His eyes widened, surprise at the new coupling in his view.  ~Grace hasn't said anything, but they must be dating.  They look like they've been dancing together for years.~  He smiled, internally wishing Grace happiness.  ~Maybe we'll be dancing at your wedding one day soon,~ he mused before refocusing on the man who was holding him close.  ~Gawd, I love how he makes me feel.~

“What?” Jack questioned, pulling back a tad to gaze into his Love's beautiful blue eyes.

“Jack, if a person is fortunate, not just lucky, but truly fortunate, he has a few moments of transcendence in his life that defy description or comparison.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Jack merrily quipped, “Feeling fortunate now, Angel?”

“Later, Babe, when we aren't surrounded by a couple hundred people,” Daniel returned softly.

Agreeing it wasn't exactly the time or place as yet, Jack returned to their original conversation and asked, “So what's the source of this transcendence?”

“Well, I can't imagine anything more perfect than tonight, and I'm still reeling from the effort the brood put into this evening.  I have no words.”

“That's a first!”

“Jack!”

The older man laughed and added, “Danny, you being wordless is like a world without ice cream.  Not normal!”

Daniel smiled and conceded with a succinct, “Maybe.”  After a brief moment of inner reflection, he added, “But it is amazing and I really don't have the words to describe how all of this makes me feel right now.”

“Then stop trying to find them and put your lips to better use,” the husband commanded.

“Yes, Sir!” Daniel acknowledged, snapping to, giving his soulmate a sloppy salute, and then diving in for a deep, passionate kiss that clearly relayed the feelings of his innermost self.

~Love it when a plan comes together,~ Jack thought as the public display of affection continued.

====

On the 37th floor, Katie was snuggled up to Little Danny, who was sound asleep.  A noise disturbed the beagle, though, causing her ears to perk upward.  She raised her head, surveying the make-shift dorm for children aged six to twelve.  From her vantage point, the nine-year-old puppy-at-heart could see everyone since Little Danny's bed was at the very end.  Across from them were Jonny and Bijou, who yawned as she rested at the foot of the oldest Munchkin's bed.  The mama beagle was half asleep with one ear raised in a cautious, automatic alert stance.

Katie listened intently, sitting up when she heard the sound again.  It was a sniffle, coming from a girl five beds over.  Quietly, the beagle nudged her sleep mate until he roused.

“What's wrong, Katie?”

With a quiet whine, Katie pushed gently on the boy's arm and then looked over at the little girl.

Little Danny rolled over and whispered sadly, “That's Alana.  Her parents are getting a divorce.  She's afraid she'll never see her daddy again.”  The compassionate youngster pulled off his bedding and instructed, “Stay here.  I'll go see if I can make her feel a little better.  Gee, Katie, I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have both Dad and Daddy.”  He rubbed his eyes briefly, his inner thoughts going to his birth mother and how he missed her.  “Be right back.”

Katie put her head on her paws as she watched Little Danny make his way across the room and then sit down on Alana's bed.  The canine didn't know the girl and had never seen her before the party, but she still felt bad for her.  Her focus shifted to her mother, who now was awake and looking over at her.

Quietly, Katie jumped off the bed and joined Bijou on Jonny's bed.

“Mama, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, my little one.  What's on your mind?”

“What was my father like?  I don't remember him at all.  I did have a father, didn't I?”

“Of course, you did,” Bijou assured.  She let out a soft, contented hum, a smile on her doggie face.  “Francois.  What a beagle!”

“Francois?  That's French.”

“Oui, oui!” Bijou sighed contently.  Remembering she was talking to her baby, the mama beagle explained, “Francois' humans were French and they named all of their dogs French names.  There was Valere, Jacques, Juan-Luc, Luciano, Bastian, Gilles, and Gabriel: all very handsome.”

“Mama, Luciano?  That's not French,” Katie reminded.

“No, it's not, but that's what they named him,” Bijou said, flapping her ears rapidly for a moment as she dismissed the thought of the single Italian name in the French lineup of siblings.

“They're all boys.”

“Yes, Francois' mother had an entire litter of boys.  We grew up together.  They were all very rambunctious beagles.  Some of them were trained to hunt, a couple performed in shows, and the rest were like us, just loved for being part of the family.”

Bijou rolled over, stopping on her back and looking up at the ceiling as she recalled her youth.  She was eleven now, but her experience with Francois made her feel one again.

“We had such fun, Little One, Francois and me.  We'd romp through the yard and find little corners to make-out in.”

“Mama!”

“Well, we were young,” Bijou rationalized with no regrets whatsoever.

“Did you love him, Mama?”

“Silly question,” Bijou responded as she righted herself.  “All the boys liked me, but it was always Francois who did the special things.  He always gave me his bones.  When I was sick, I never had to move because he brought over the cleanest and best blades of grass for me to eat.  When I itched, he used his paws to scratch me where I couldn't reach.  He was everything a young beagle could ever want,” she sighed in happy reflection.

“Mama, did ... did he?”

“Out with it.  What is it you want to know?”

“Did my father ... did he love me?”

“Oh, yes, Katie.  He was so thrilled when we found out we'd have our very first litter.  He pranced around with such pride.  He had great plans for all of us.”

Bijou became silent, her dark eyes laden with emotion she had suppressed for most of her adult life.

~If only things could have been different,~ the purebred longed quietly.

“What happened to my father?” Katie asked gently.

“The human family was moving and they began to give away all of Francois' family.  I was fretful of never seeing him again, but then a miracle happened, and the Cornells agreed to keep him.”

“Wow.  Mrs. Cornell doesn't like dogs.  I've heard that forever,” Katie remarked, based on things she'd been told her entire life.

“No, she doesn't, but Jeff loves us.  She was just raised differently.”

“I don't understand.”

“Some people just don't like dogs.”

“We would have loved her, Mama,” Katie responded vulnerably.

“Oh, Little One, don't think too harshly of Mrs. Cornell.  After Francois and I had our romantic night together and I became pregnant, she did tell Jeff we had to go, but she insisted none of us be separated until the pups were old enough.”  Bijou gave her puppy a little nudge and continued, “I'll never forget what she did for Three.”

“Three?”

“I didn't name any of our litter,” Bijou admitted sadly.  “I just gave all of you numbers.  I knew you'd be leaving.  Giving you names would have made you more real.  I just didn't want the pain of it.”

“Oh, Mama,” Katie sighed, scooting up supportively against her mother, their bodies warming each other.

“Three was a beautiful puppy.  A man wanted her, a man Jeff worked with.  He came to the house and was about to take her when Mrs. Cornell took Jeff aside.  I followed, curious why she was hesitating.  I heard her say she had bad vibes about the man.  Jeff assured her he was okay.  He was military, but she shook her head and refused to let Three go with him.  Later, Three was given to a family with two little girls.  They fussed over her so.  I'm sure she got a good home with them, but that man?  I remember a few years ago hearing Jack and Daniel talking about him.  He was no good, Little One.  Mrs. Cornell saved my Three's live.  I'm sure of it, so don't judge her too harshly.  She understood her shortcomings and she did her best to make sure we were all taken care of and not just thrown out on the street as some humans do.”

“What happened to my father?”

“He was given to a rancher.  I'm not sure where,” Bijou sighed unhappily.

“It must have been hard to say goodbye,” Katie sniffled, feeling emotional about how her father had been torn away from her mother.

“It was, but it's a dog life, Katie,” Bijou stated, resigned to the fate of most canines.  “Humans can't handle a full litter on their own, at least, most of them can't.  They have one or two children at a time; we have six or seven, and sometimes more.  I heard of one beagle who had fourteen pups in her litter.”

“Wow!”

“Ouch!” Bijou exclaimed as she grimaced from the pain of pup-birth.  “My Francois was quite the champion.”

“You never talk about him.”

“I keep him in my heart; it's all I can do.”  Bijou smiled reassuringly.  “We're lucky, Katie.  I remember when Jack came to see me.  I knew he was a good man right away.  Jeff was telling him about having to find homes for all of us and he had, except for one puppy, my beautiful littlest puppy.”

“Me?”

“Is there another beagle around here?” the mama mused as she brushed her nose against Katie's.

“Jeff was afraid he wouldn't find a home for you, but as soon as Jack saw you, he scooped you up in his arms, and I just knew he couldn't let you go.  He was a little worried about Daniel.  You have to remember, Daniel wasn't really sure what a home was himself yet, but Jack couldn't separate us.  It was the only time I felt happy in those last weeks at the Cornell's.  Something inside made my tail wag with hope.”

“You were right, Mama.  Jack and Daniel love us.”

“They'd die for us, Little One.  They're very special humans.  I just hope that your brothers and sisters ... and your father have special humans, too.  I tell myself they do.”

“I wish we could find out.”

“Me, too, Little One, me, too.”

“Katie, come,” Little Danny called out as he returned to his bed, his command followed by a yawn.

“Night, Mama,” Katie told her mother before jumping off Jonny's bed and returning to the child prodigy's side.  With a lick on the boy's chin, she communicated her love and prayer that everything was all right with Alana.  ~It's so sad to never see your father again.~

“She'll be okay, Katie.  Alana's just a little scared right now,” Little Danny whispered.  “I love you.”

Katie nestled into the boy's loving embrace, her head touching his.  She felt an odd mournfulness she hadn't felt before now that she knew more about her father, and she felt bad for her mother who had kept her sadness inside for years.  She wondered what it would have been like to have had all of her family around, just like Jack and Daniel had their brood.  Slowly, her eyes closed and she fell into sleep, her melancholy eventually replaced by a dream of Daniel hiding a huge bone for her in the special play yard that had been built just for her when the house was remodeled years earlier.

As for Bijou, she sighed and rolled over on her side.

~Oh Francois, you were such a romantic beagle.  Be well, my love, wherever you are.~

====

Meanwhile, drawing on her inner strength and fearing that Alex was watching, Sunny walked swiftly to her rental car with firm steps.  She tossed her luggage in the car as if she were leaving on vacation.  She pasted the practiced pageant smile on her face and opened the door to the vehicle, taking her seat and shaking her hair like she had done on many a parade float after waving at thousands of strangers.

Smiling like an ad for toothpaste, the distraught blonde chanted, ~I will not cry! I can't cry.  Don't look back, either.  It's straight ahead now; it's the dawning of a new tomorrow.  I ... have to look forward to the future, and so does Alex.~  She sighed, “We just have to do that apart.”

Backing the car out of the driveway and heading toward the airport, Soncirria Suvulpo tossed her hair like she was shaking off some bit of unimportant news. The further away she drove, the heavier and more fake her smile grew, like a clown's, until seven blocks and three turns later, her smile cracked, and so did she.  Putting the car in park, the emotional beauty sobbed in shock and horror at what she had just done.

~Great!~  It was to voice of Sunny's mother thundering in her head.  ~You threw away your pageant career, and now you've just thrown away the best man you'll ever find!~

The freight trains, times three, were back, each threatening to run Sunny down.  The noise was deafening as multiple inner Sunny's argued.  The projected Sunny's now numbered nine in total, and they were all jumping in with their opinions.

“He's gay!”

“You don't know that!”

“I'm pretty sure.  I ... I think he is.”

“You broads are nuts.  You wanna figure this out tomorrow, give me a call, but I've had it for one night.”

“Heartless.  You should have waited.”

“You're wrong.  If she'd stayed and let him propose, it would have been worse.~

“Nonsense!  She missed out on great sex,” another Sunny chimed in.

“Who cares about the sex?  He gives a great morning massage,” the second Sunny reminded, moaning from the recollections of massages past.

“He didn't have any warning.  You just left him there to wonder where he went wrong.”

“He didn't go wrong.  He's just ... gay,” Sunny sobbed.  “Now I'm talking to myself.”

“You've been talking to yourself all night, Sunny,” the pirouetting Soncirria pointed out.  “You needed us to get through this.  We're tired.  Night!”

“Wait!” Sunny cried out.

The voices were gone, which was probably a good thing, but now the woman was left utterly alone to herself and the memory of all that had just happened.  She'd walked out on Alex, and it was killing her inside.  She wished she hadn't done it, and yet, she still knew she had no choice but to leave him.  Maybe she didn't do it the right way, but she wasn't wrong.  That's what she was telling herself now as the tears ran down her face.

Minutes passed, but Sunny couldn't stop crying.  Her body was pulsating from the deep shock of a love that had ended.  Well aware of her emotional state, she dialed the rental car agency to inform them where the car was being left and agreed to the hefty pickup charge that would be added to her credit card.  Then she called herself a cab.

The distraught woman had plenty of time.  It was only a bit after one in the morning and her flight didn't leave until Saturday evening.  Now, though, she was hoping to get on one of the early morning flights.  She needed out of Colorado Springs, to be away from the man she dearly loved; if not, she feared she might just turn back and run into his waiting arms.  Even now, in the chill of the darkness, she was tempted to open the door, toss off her heels, and sprint back to the condo just as fast as she could.  Alex would take her back in a flash.  All she had to do is say she was out of her mind, a result of her recent, exhausting schedule.

~No, I can't.~

Advised that it would take twenty minutes for a cab to arrive, Sunny made the best use of her time.  First, she called the airline and breathed a sigh of relief when told there was space available on the first flight out that morning.  Second, she cried her eyes out.  Maybe it would tide her over until she could get home, but she doubted it.

====

Back in his condo, the stunned designer sat, completely confused by what had happened in the last several shocking minutes of his life.  He hadn't seen this coming, not at all.

“I was going to ask her to marry me,” Alex mumbled, taking the special ring out of his pocket and opening the box.  He stared at the huge diamond and wondered where he'd gone wrong.  ~Every woman wants a romantic proposal, a nice ring, and a fantastic wedding, right?  It's in all the romance novels, movies, and soap operas.~

Alex closed the box and slid it onto a table.  He tried to replay the conversation to give him a clue about what he'd missed.  In all the stories that went 'Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,' none of them mentioned the boy being gay, so that line of thinking was a dead end.

~Gay?  She thinks I'm gay?  No, she didn't say that, not exactly.  She said I notice men the way a woman does.  She said I should make love to Casey?  He's good looking enough, but ... it was complicated in “Sleepless in Seattle,” but this is just plain weird.~

The designer didn't want to think anymore.  He made himself a gin and tonic, a double, and quickly downed it.  He was about to make another, but changed his mind.

Not one to sit still in distress, he numbly removed his tux and hung it up.  Not paying attention to what, he quickly changed into more casual attire.

Out of the silence, all he could hear was Sunny; all Alex could smell was her perfume, her special blend, one he'd gifted her with on her birthday.  It filled the room, taking his breath with it.

That's when Alex noticed the attire he'd unconsciously chosen, the shirt Sunny had surprised him with a month ago and an expensive pair of jeans that she'd especially liked.

~She practically had her way with me in the dressing room,~ Alex remembered bitterly.

Going out to the garage, the man got in his car, opened the door, and roared out of his driveway.  He had no idea where he was going, but anywhere was better than being at the condo right now.

====

At the Denver Hyatt, meanwhile, all of the scheduled events and activities at the anniversary party had been completed.  Though an official end time had never been announced, most figured it would be over by 1 a.m.  Indeed, the vast majority of children under eighteen had left the party and many guests, including President Hayes, had departed.  Still, if the party was over, no one would know it considering how many people still remained with no sign of wanting to leave.

After having a quick pow wow with her parents, Jennifer talked with the kitchen staff for a few minutes and then approached the bandleader, who had just finished conducting the large orchestra's rendition of “Cheek to Cheek,” the great Irving Berlin song.

Seeing the young woman heading his way, the man met her half way.

“It looks like we still have some people who want to dance,” the musician offered.

“I'm not surprised, with the way you guys have played all night.  Thank you for picking up on so many cues and filling in with the perfect segue.  I would like to exercise the option in our contract about extending your playing.  We'd like you to play for two more hours.”

“Until 3 a.m.,” the bandleader stated as he looked at his watch.

“Yes, but I don't think we need the entire orchestra to stay.  Can you select enough of your guys to be a rockin' dance band?” Jennifer inquired, doing a little dance move to indicate her desires.  ~Time to leave the thirties behind and rock it,~ she thought to herself.

“No problem at all,” the man acknowledged.  Immediately, he determined what was needed.  ~The strings can go except for Bob.  We need his bass.  We'll keep Alicia on the clarinet, Joseph on the sax; we'll let the other woodwinds go.  We'll need a trumpet, a coronet, a trombone, and Yang 'cause he also plays a mean pfluglehorn.  We still have the piano, so we'll keep the keyboardist and the drummer~.  All told, the bandleader decided that less than a fourth of the group would stay and the others would be released for the night.  “If it's dance music you want, you ain't heard nothin' yet!” the maestro exclaimed excitedly as he sprinted off to talk to his musicians.  ~It's not often the guys get a chance to strut their stuff like this.~

Jennifer turned around and gave a thumbs up to her parents, signaling that everything with the band was a go.  Then she observed the wait staff following through on the agreed upon plan.

The servers removed the chafing dishes with entrees and side dishes and began replacing them with finger foods and desserts.  A coffee bar was set up with two barristas to make mochas and lattes.

As Jennifer watched, one barrista made a flaming Napoleon to 'oohs' from the crowd, which included her coffee-loving younger father.

~Dance music and jet fuel if you need it,~ Jennifer chuckled as people began lining up to tank up on caffeine and sugar.

Just then, one of the lower level hospitality people indicated with a wave of her hand that she wanted a word with Jennifer.  Acknowledging the wave with a nod of her head, Jennifer began walking towards the staffer to see what was needed.

“Ms. Jackson O-Neill, what would you like us do with the left over food and cake?”

“Leftovers?” Jennifer queried, unprepared for the question.

“You paid for it,” the woman pointed out.  “It's been prepared and sanitation laws prohibit us from serving it to anyone else, or even giving it to shelters.”

Jennifer winced at the thought of the food going to waste and asked, “Can you freeze it?”

The worker shook her head and explained, “I'm afraid not.  The sanitation laws are very strict.

“How much food are we talking?”  Jennifer's eyes widened at the unanticipated amount, but then she also knew that the party plans had been a bit overabundant in the food department.  ~Better to have too much than not enough,~ she recalled at the rationale of having so many cakes and food choices for the event.  “Uh, I don't think we have room at home for that much.  Hold on a minute and let me ask my parents.”

Jack and Daniel, who was finishing up the hot cup of coffee,  watched the interaction and knew their daughter was on a mission when she approached them.

After Jennifer explained the situation, Jack instructed, “See if any of the security detail wants some of it, and what they don't want, take to the homeless.  Talk to Pete.  His connections here will know where to take it.”

The competent young woman nodded and headed off to the security area, leaving her parents behind.

“That's my general,” Daniel praised.  Then he marveled, “And that's our daughter, Jack.”

“I know, Danny, I know.  She doesn't realize how much this experience has given her.”

“She's growing up; she'll be gone before you know it.”

“Angel, let's think about us tonight and enjoy this unbelievable celebration.”

“Kiss me, my Silver Fox.”

“Sure thing ... General Space Monkey.”

A moment to laugh was followed by a kiss and then an upbeat dance as the band began to play one very rockin' song.

====

The action was bustling in downtown Colorado Springs, especially in the various bars.  Barely aware of what he was doing, Alex was currently at a bar on Tejon Street, his precious red Jaguar sitting vulnerably amid a slew of beat up and scratched pickup trucks and cars in the parking lot.  None of this mattered to the man, nor the fact that he was looked up and down by several potential predators, sexual and mercenary, as he walked in and sat down at the counter.  He hadn't even known this bar existed five minutes earlier.

Alex ordered and downed a double Tanqueray and tonic within a minute.  Quickly, he ordered another.  The numbness that short circuits emotional pain kicked in, and then the anger that masks the pain started rising.  Not being an experienced consumer of hard liquor, he didn't understand the need to pace himself to maintain the pleasant fog and avoid the slip and slide into pure drunkenness.

Unaware of the stockpiling effects of his first two drinks, his third double of the evening was placed down in front of him before he'd had time to even realize where he was.  He liked the fog he was in, a state that prevented him from breaking down and crying like some little broken-hearted wimp.

~She's too good for me?  Fine.  She'll find out just how many guys out there are moochers and creeps, and, well, rectal cavities!~

The alcohol speeding to Alex Dennison's brain was on its way to making him one very drunk designer when he was spotted by Casey Hemmings, who had wandered in a bit earlier.  He'd been seated at a corner table, just minding his own business.  He'd left the Jackson-O'Neill party about midnight and felt the need for a 'going home' drink of substance versus the lighter drinks that had been offered at the big bash in Denver.  He had simply been listening to the loud ruckus noise of the bar while contemplating the lack of any real love in his life.

~Alex?~ Casey observed.  ~He's the last person I'd expect to see at this dive, especially since I figured he'd be working his mojo with the blonde bombshell.  She really is a knockout, for a woman, that is, but she can't hold a candle to my sun god.~  The nurse casually glanced around the interior of the bar and immediately noticed predatory eyes focused on Alex.  ~Fish out of water; fish in dangerous waters.  These guys are barracudas and Alex is a guppy.~

Deciding to make it clear his friend wasn't alone, Casey left his table and took the  barstool next to the designer, greeting, “Hello there.  What are you doing here?”

“Having a drink.  What's it to ya?” Alex answered, neglecting to offer a 'hello' in return, though he did put forth a slight nod of his head before he raised his glass and downed the rest of the contents.

~Whoa, somebody's got a burr up his hiney,~ the nurse thought archly.  Verbally, however, Casey responded with, “Good stuff.”  Hearing nothing but a grumble in response and not knowing what can of worms he might be opening, he gently probed, “Uh, pardon my asking, but where's the beauty queen?”  Though he saw Alex take a large swallow and shrug as if he didn't care, the nurse wasn't buying it.  ~Nope, Casey, not gonna get lucky tonight.  Look at him.  I don't want any more of the drunken stupor nights.  Been there, done that too often.  I want my '10' awake and participating or not at all.~  He watched as Alex finished off his drink in one swallow.  ~Okay.~  He looked over at Mabel, the bartender and smiled.  Then he looked back at Alex and asked, “Where's your car?”

“Outside, where the parking lot is,” Alex responded a bit snarkily, which definitely was not his norm.

Casey sat next to the man he had admired and lusted after for what seemed like forever, trying to correctly assess the situation.

~She's not here.  He's not talking; he's not happy, and man, is he drinking.  Big fight minimum.  It can't be that serious.  If she'd walked out, Alex would have run after her like a dog running down a fox.~  The man winced a little as he looked around.  ~Not a politically correct analogy, and hunting's not my thing, but man, it's late.~

All of a sudden, the nurse looked at Alex and noticed that his face was becoming slack and his eyes were taking on that vacuous look that only comes from sobriety slipping away.

~He's been drinking more than these two drinks, that's for sure.~

Alex motioned to the bartender, who soon brought his fourth drink of the evening; that is, his fourth drink at the bar.  He pulled out his wallet and threw down a ten spot, waving Mabel away with the change.

His eyes widening at the way the designer just downed half of this latest drink, Casey advised, “Whoa, slow down there, Alex.  This isn't a frat party.”  Humorously, he joked, ~What am I saying?  Alex, at a frat party?~  Supportively, he suggested, “Try to save a few brain cells to kill tomorrow night or the night after.”

“Nuther drink,” Alex slurred loudly at the bartender.

~He is on a mission and he's is just about finished,~ Casey thought.  ~It's gonna be 'good night sweet prince'.  What did he have to eat at the party?~  The nurse groaned as he remembered the rich food on Alex's plate, including the crab dip. ~Gotta get him home, now!~

Mable walked over to the end of the bar where Alex and Casey were sitting.  She was well aware of Alex's swift alcoholic intake.  She also was well versed in the law.

“I'm sorry, Sir.  I appreciate the generous tips, but you've had four doubles ...” the bartender began.  Taking a good look at her patron she added, “... since you sat down.”

~Four?~ Casey noted, pursing his lips and letting out a breath of surprise.

“... and you clearly can't handle it.  I'm sure you're over the legal limit, so I can't allow you to drive.  I'll call you a cab,” Mable continued.  ~He's an accident waiting to happen.~

“Nah, don't Mable.  He's a friend; I'll take care of him,” Casey offered, happy when he saw the bartender nod in agreement.

“He's been awfully downtrodden, one drink after another since he walked in,” Mable sighed.  “Broken heart?”

“I don't have no broken harp, I meant heart,” a swaying Alex interjected.  ~They're talking like I'm not there, here, wherever,~ he thought dubiously.

Casey sagely nodded his head and answered Mabel's question with, “Pretty sure.  I'll make sure he's okay.”

The bartender nodded in sympathy.  She'd observed her share of human suffering in her profession, and she knew Casey well enough to know he'd done the same in his work, too.

“C'mon, Alex, buddy, lets go,” Casey prompted.

“I want another drink!” the designer demanded.  “You want money!  See,” he said, pulling out his wallet that was full of crisp green cash of multiple denominations.

“Whoa, pard!” Casey called out in concern.  As he shuffled to pick up the cash and return it to the wallet, he nervously looked around, hoping no one had seen the display.  “You don't want to go waving around cash like that, especially around here.”

Still praying the scene hadn't been observed by anyone, Casey stuffed the wallet back into Alex's pants, though Alex was totally ignorant of the action, his eyes focused on his glass of nothing that was in front of him.  Casey was hoping to avoid a confrontation in the parking lot with a knife-wielding thug or two who might want their way with Alex and make him pay for it, in more ways that one.

~Nice,~ the nurse thought about the darker-skinned man's smoothly shaped derriere.

“Where's my drink?” Alex called out to Mabel.

“Casey!” Mabel exclaimed.

“Alex, the bar's closing,” Casey claimed, looking at his watch and seeing that it was now a minute before two in the morning.  ~So they have another half-hour.  How's he's gonna know?~

“I'll ... buy the place,” Alex offered with slurred speech.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Casey chuckled.  ~He probably could, too,~ the nurse mused.  He looked around the dumpy dive and laughed, ~Heck, I could probably buy it.~  Knowing it was time to leave, he instructed, “Up,” practically pulling the designer off the barstool.  As Alex wobbled upon standing, the nurse responded with a slightly laughed, “Yikes!”  Helping his hopefully lover to be, Casey put his hands on Alex's arm to stabilize him and suggested, “Let's see how well you can walk.”

Casey nodded in the direction of the camera monitor that focused on the parking lot and whispered, “Jaguar.”

Understanding, Mabel discreetly shifted the angle until the out-of-place vehicle came squarely into view and thought, ~How the heck did he find his way here?  He's lucky he made it in the door.~

An idea in mind, Casey looked around the crowded bar full of some of Colorado Springs' roughest drinkers and realized it might be good to have some help standing by.  Throughout his conversation with Alex, he'd continually noticed some of the patrons looking over at the out-of-place designer.

~I don't see him,~ the nurse thought, referring to the bar's main bouncer.  “Mabel, where's Mac?”

“He's having a smoke,” the intuitive bartender answered.

~Probably out front then,~ Casey thought, having seen the bulky bouncer smoking cigarettes in the parking lot many times in the past.  “Thanks, he replied, also acknowledging the woman's response with a nod.

With Casey supporting most of Alex's body weight, Alex maneuvered through the thinning crowd, wobbled out the door toward his car, and promptly tripped on a concrete stop in the parking lot, taking Casey down with him.

~Not exactly how I wanted to get down and dirty with him,~ Casey lamented.  Out loud, he groaned, “That's what I thought.  You're in no shape to drive, friend.  Hand over the keys.”

Still on the ground, Alex protested, but gave in and eventually fished his keys out of his jeans, though he had to roll himself over a couple of times before he was able to actually get the keys out of his pocket.

~I wish I were fishing around in there,~ Casey thought lustfully.  Looking at the wad of keys the designer produced, he concluded ~No telling which one is for his condo.~  After a moment's thought, he asked, “Alex, do you have one of those fancy security systems like Jack and Daniel?”

“Of course,” Alex replied with a sloppy grin.

“Do you know your codes, or whatever?”

“Sure, it's ... well, uh ...”

“Never mind,” Casey interrupted.  ~The entire Colorado Springs Police Department would be there before he remembers.  I'll take him home, but we'll go in the Jag.~  Smiling to himself, he reasoned, “If he gets sick in his car, he can afford to have it cleaned.~

“Up you go,” Casey encouraged, standing himself.  Facing Alex, Casey bent over to take Alex by the arms and help the designer to stand.  Unfortunately, the amount of force the nurse had to use was more than anticipated and Alex's forward momentum caused Alex to stumble forward.  The impact against Casey was so strong that the nurse fell backward, landing on the cement yet again, only this time with Alex on top of him.  “Yeah, I like the concept, but not in front of the bar.”

“Huh?  Wha...?”

“Off, buddy,” Casey sighed, reluctantly rolling Alex off of his body and to the side.  “Let's try this again,” he suggested, except that this time Casey stood behind Alex and lifted.

With the keys in his possession, Casey turned off the car alarm and unlocked the Jaguar.  From that point on, it was a bit of a chore getting Alex into his tiny vehicle, but several minutes later, the task was accomplished.

Finally settled into the driver's seat, Casey quickly adjusted the seat of the Jaguar, rolled down both windows, and proceeded to acquaint himself with the driving mechanisms of the elite car.

“Nice!” Casey exclaimed as he stared at the controls.  “Wouldn't mind having one of these myself someday.”

The only response from the car's passenger seat was a burp.

With a chuckle, Casey put the car in reverse to back out of its parking space and then drove to his house with his very inebriated passenger.

====

The blinds and curtains at the window of the hotel bedroom were nothing like the total blackout shades Jack and Daniel Jackson-O'Neill had at home.  Their master bedroom was pitch black when the shades were closed, even at noon.  That wasn't the case here in their suite at the Denver Hyatt.

It had been the wee hours of the morning before Jack and Daniel had made it back to their suite and once there, their passion took root, resulting in a long and extremely satisfying round of lovemaking.  By the time they'd finally fallen asleep, most were rising, getting ready to start a new day.  Now the clock had struck 9:30 a.m., far too soon for the archaeologist.

“Jack, we haven't had two hours sleep yet,” Daniel groaned unhappily after being roused to semi-consciousness by his husband.

“Come on, Dannyboy.  We've had over,” Jack checked his watch and coughed, “a hundred-and-ten minutes of sleep.”

Still lying down, Daniel glared at his Love and repeated, “we haven't had two hours sleep yet.”

“Sorry, Angel, but it's about time to play hosts for the breakfast rush,” Jack reminded in a much too chipper tone for the younger man's weary taste.  The silver-haired man sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over to give his Heart's nape a kiss.  As his hands massaged Daniel's bare shoulders, he whispered, “After breakfast and the brood goes home, we have all afternoon, and all night, and all morning to ourselves.”

“I need sleeee <yawn> eep.”

“We can do that, too, eventually,” Jack conceded seductively.  Standing, he encouraged his lover with a pat on the rump along with the words, “Danny, the kids will be knocking on our door any minute.”

As if to mock Daniel, there was a tap, tap, tap on the suite door right at that instant.

Daniel just groaned, “domr motr.”

“Room service,” a cheerful voice announced from the hallway.

“Room service?” Jack echoed.  “I thought we were eating downstairs.”

Jack left the bedroom and walked to the entry area.  He opened the door to see Jeff smiling brightly while holding a dispensing coffee thermos and two mugs.  The Munchkins and the Spitfires were also bouncing off the walls.

~Okay, they're up,~ Jack mused to himself.

“Can we come in?” Jeff inquired as his smile grew.

“You can come in the living room area, but Daddy is still waking up.  This will help.  Thanks, Jeff,” Jack spoke as he took the coffee and the mugs from his son.  “It didn't sound like you at the door.”

“I didn't intend to sound like myself.  You think I'm goofing off in drama club?” Jeff deadpanned.

“Snarky, Jeff, just like your Daddy.”

“Like both of you.”

“Dad, it's Saturday morning,” Jonny announced with hopeful eyes.

With a chuckle, Jack permitted, “Turn on the cartoons.  I'll get Daddy up and dressed.”

The younger children cheered as they located the TV and remote control in happy anticipation of seeing some animated action before breakfast.

====

In Colorado Springs, it was five after ten when Alex awoke in a strange bed.  He knew before he even opened his eyes he was not at home in his lavish condominium.

First of all, he was naked, and Alex did not sleep naked.  Even after he and his girlfriend had made love, he put on sleeping shorts.  Second, the person next to him in bed was obviously male.  This person was quite close to him from behind, and saluting the morning, but not with his hand.

~Is the room going to spin?  I don't need this now,~ Alex thought while being hesitant to open his eyes and discover the full extent of his hangover.  ~This is why I don't get drunk; I hate that 'thud on the brain' feeling.~

The internal hydraulic pressure from last night's alcohol consumption was building by the minute, and soon, very soon, he was going to have to find a bathroom.  Alex very carefully picked up the hairy right arm draped over his abdomen and gently scooted to the side of the bed.  He held his breath, swung his legs out, and allowed their weight to drop and pull him upright on the edge of the bed.  Reaching out, he found a nightstand to steady himself.  He stood up, his eyes still squinting as he clung to the tabletop.

Without knowing where he was, Alex walked with slow, halting steps, testing his balance.  The feel of the carpet was serenading his toes, and there was something awfully familiar about it.  He reached the bathroom on instinct.  Immediately, the sensation of cold tile with grout lines stimulated the soles of his feet.  Without conscious thought, he shuffled to the commode and completed his transaction with Mother Nature.

Finding the sink, again more on instinct than sight, the designer operated the faucet, washed his hands, and splashed his face with cold water.  Sufficiently awake to take stock of his surroundings, he opened his eyes to see a bathroom that was not his, yet was somehow familiar.  His eyes widened in shock as he remembered when he had seen the bathroom, during the last walk-through at Casey Hemmings' home.

~Okay.  I'm at Casey's house, but ... why?~

The normally suave-looking man winced, not only at how he looked in the mirror, but at the process of thought.  Thinking made his head hurt.

~Why did I spec that solar lighting tube? Ow!~  Seconds later, he looked around, searching for something.  ~Clothes.  I was dressed the last time I could think.  I know that for sure, so where are my clothes?~

“Looking for these?” Casey asked, holding up a pair of designer jeans and a polo shirt.

It hadn't taken long for Casey to rouse once Alex had left the bed.  As he waked, he had wished this was the proverbial morning after a heated first night of sex with his hunky amour.  Aware that it wasn't, though, and uncertain how Alex was going to feel, Casey had risen and put on his briefs and jeans.

~We'll leave the Tarzan out, in case that gives him any ideas,~ the nurse had thought, symbolically pounding his bare chest.  He let out regretful groan.  ~Nah,~ he negated mentally as he chose a shirt to wear.  ~You may only get one shot at this, Casey boy, so don't blow it by scaring him away.  Clothes on, for now anyway.~

That's when Casey had collected Alex's clothes and approached the bathroom.

~Alex, your brain is shot.  Those are my jeans, but they're my good 'date night' pair, the ones I bought because Sunny likes ...~  The name was like an electrical shock for the despairing designer.  ~*Sunny!*~

Suddenly Alex's chest weighed so much he couldn't breathe or stand upright without leaning on the wall.  Sunny was gone from his life.  She'd left him, never to return.

~Why?  Why last night?  Why when I had the ring in my pocket?  I had the words chosen, perfectly chosen.  The words of poets were on my tongue.  Sunny, why?~

Alex had decided to pop the big question a few months ago.  He'd shopped for the perfect ring, ultimately deciding to have one made.  He was all primed to pop the question after celebrating Jack and Daniel's anniversary party.  It seemed like the ideal night to take the relationship to the next level.

~Sunny.  Sunny: sunshine of my life, you brought hope back into my life and made me feel joy when I thought nothing mattered except burying my pain in work.~

There was just one little stumbling block on the perfectly planned path to paradise.  Sunny had unexpectedly dumped him.

“Alex!” Casey shouted, throwing down the clothes as he reached out to keep the falling designer from crashing into the wall beside him.  ~What's going on here?  Heart attack?~  He wasn't sure if there was a medical problem or not.  “Let's get you to the bed.  You need to lie down.”

In denial, Alex gulped enough air to gasp, “I'm okay.”

“No, you're not,” Casey insisted as he slipped his arms around the other man.  ~It's a good thing I'm fully dressed or I might be tempted to start something before he'd even know what was happening.~

Alex had no clue about anything.  The fact that Casey had on a round-neck white T-shirt that showed his massive muscles and a pair too-tight faded denim jeans hadn't registered to him in any way.  Uncomfortable, he started to pull away, but the touch of another human being stopped him from putting his shields back up.  He let out just one little squeak of a sob and his control was shattered.  He cried because Sunny had left him.  He cried because she had shared his pain at the loss of his siblings, and now he bore it alone again, and he cried because the happiness he had almost, almost believed he deserved, after letting his brothers and sister down was gone.  Now, there was only the empty blackness mocking him once more.  That's what made his sobs build to screams.

Casey could feel Alex's pain and was moved, even upset by it.  As a nurse, he'd encountered his share of emotionally distraught patients, and he knew the best thing, the only thing he could do was to hold on and not let go until Alex exhausted himself.  Talk would come later, draining the emotional abscess had to come first.

~Such pain.  I've never heard anyone cry in such pain.~  Though Casey had already decided against having any sort of a romp with Alex, his decision was strengthened by the man's tears.  “I'm here, buddy, I'm here.  Go ahead and let it out; you'll feel better.”

Alex didn't need much encouraging, however.  His willpower was nowhere to be seen.  It was replaced by an ashen alcoholic stupor that put his resolve and its polished facade on the back burner.  The violent sobs continued unabated.

~This won't take long,~ Casey thought at the explosive release the designer was having.  He referred to his medical training, specifically his psychological studies, as he considered the situation, albeit briefly, from that point of view.  ~The human organism can only sustain full screaming rage for a few minutes.~

Casey was right as after three minutes of screaming, Alex began to quiet, though he keened, “Sunny, I'm so sorry.  Don't leave me.  Whatever is wrong, I swear I'll fix it.  I love you, and I need you.  Sunny, no please.”  His voice trailed off an octave lower and then started again, from a much darker and more visceral place where the gut stores its deepest anguish.  “My fault.  I should have been there.  I'm so sorry; I didn't know.  I didn't know.  I'm sorry, Mom, poor dead mom.”  Darker still, a growl-like voice proclaimed, “Steele, you low life slime ball, if you weren't dead already I'd kill you myself.”

As he heard the whimpers of fear and pain that followed, Casey surmised, ~Whatever this is about, it's much more than just that beauty queen.~  His hold on Alex continued as Casey listened to words that were no longer distinguishable.  ~Sounds like names, but I can't make them out.  Kiwi?~

Casey's grip was secure and it didn't loosen until he felt Alex letting go of his own clutching hold on the nurse.

Disentangling from Casey's hold and covering himself with his hands, Alex said nervously, “I should go.”  Shifting from one foot to the other, he repeated, “I really need to go.”

“Alex, what you need is a shower, a few aspirin, some coffee, and a sympathetic ear, all of which I have.”

“No, thank you, Casey, I really have to go.”  Alex blinked as a thought screamed out at him.  “My car.  Where's my car?”

“It's in the driveway, but you're in no shape to drive, my friend.”

“I can manage.”

Lacing his voice with just a touch of sternness, Casey responded, “Tell that to the kid you hit and kill because you're reflexes are too slow to stop you from hitting them.  It's a Saturday morning, you know.  The streets are full of kids on their bikes and chasing balls out into the street.”

“You don't understand.”

Casey laughed, “I have a hunch I understand more than you think I do.”  He sighed thoughtfully for a moment.  “What can you do at that spiffy condo of yours except feel sorry for yourself all alone.  I've got plenty of booze here, and we can both feel sorry for you.”

“I ... I don't know.”

“I do.  Take some aspirin,” Casey ordered, ignoring the doubts of the concerned soul he was next to.  “I left the bottle out for you.  Get a shower.  There's a robe on the hook, the pink one.”  He saw Alex's funny expression.  “It was a gift from my idiot brother; his idea of a joke.  I'd toss it, but that dingbat bought a top-of-the-line brand.  How can I just throw it out?”  He saw Alex looking down and away.  The curiosity over the pink robe had left as quickly as it had developed. “The white robe is mine.  I'll make coffee while you shower.  Then you talk, I'll listen.  Okay?”

Casey's manner was kind, but firm.  With a supportive smile, he left Alex alone in the bathroom.

~Maybe I do need a shower,~ Alex agreed.  ~Maybe then I can get these cobwebs out of my head.  I need to think.~

After Alex found the aspirin and swallowed four, he made his way to the shower and turned on the water.  The controls were similar to what he had in his own shower, and the blissful, vibrating water dancing over his skin brought a deep inhalation that caused his body to shudder in an almost sexual release.  He moved slowly, allowing the thrumming, cleansing bullets to reach every body part that could stand the treatment.

The dispenser of body wash was right where it should be, and Alex cleansed his skin of the gummy rancid sweat that comes from too much alcohol.

====

Meanwhile at the Denver Hyatt, Jennifer Jackson-O'Neill woke with a start when the phone rang.  She was staying in a two-bedroom suite.  She was alone in this room, with her friends, Sheila and Amber, sharing the other room.

Sitting up, the young woman answered, “Hello?”

“Hey, Sis.  I thought you might be sleeping in,” Jeff chuckled lightly.

“Very funny.”

“The brood is up, dressed, and ready for breakfast.  Dad and Daddy are getting dressed.  Check the clock, Jen; it's 10:15.  The guests will be strolling in for brunch any time now.”

“Shibatwray!” Jennifer cursed, using one of her linguist father's foreign words.

“Jen, language!” Jeff teased.

“That's what I get for pressing the 'snooze' button,” Jennifer sighed as she forced herself to sit up on the side of the bed.

Jeff  laughed, “Been there, done that a time or two, and believe me I'm planning on crashing this afternoon when we get home.  Let's feed the brood turkey.  Isn't that supposed to make you sleepy?”

“Ice cream, pizza, popcorn, movies: whatever they want as long as I can get some sleep when we get home.”

“Get downstairs as soon as you can,” Jeff requested, hanging up the phone.

Jennifer took a quick shower and donned the dressy pantsuit she had brought with her just in case she needed another outfit.  Fortunately, she'd placed her attire out so that it would be ready to go when she got up for the day.

~Like Dad says, always be prepared.~

The outfit was a navy blue tropical wool pant with a matching jacket.  She wore a tan and navy pinstripe silk blouse that had a jabot at the neck, navy pumps, and simple gold stud earrings to complete her look.

====

Humming, though he was unaware of the fact, Casey popped Alex's jeans and shirt into the dryer on refresh.  They would be tumbled for a few minutes in steam and dried in volumes of air.  He'd already put the hung-over man's underwear and socks into the washer.  Then he heard the sound that came from Alex's cell phone and immediately recognized the tune as “Sunny.”

“Hello,” Casey answered, choosing to respond to the call.

“Oh, uh, hello.  Is Alex there?”

“He can't talk right now,” Casey answered curtly.  ~Honey, you had your chance.  This is mine.  Scram.~

“Who's this?”

“Casey Hemmings.”

There was silence for several seconds, followed by a very presumptive, “I see.”

“No, I don't think you see; you don't see at all.”

“Did he tell you everything?”

“He hasn't told me anything, not consciously or coherently, but this ain't my first time at the rodeo, Blondie,” Casey answered sarcastically.  “I saw you dancing; the look in his eyes, and I heard the toast, too.  You dumped him, and you had to do it pretty darn quick, because you left the party before 11:30, and he was here at three, staggering into my front door.”

“But how ... why did ...?” Sunny's voice trailed off.

“How did he end up at a sleazy, roach-infested mid-town dive?  Good question.  Apparently, he didn't care where he placed his butt.  He just wanted a place to drown his sorrow.  He's not had a lot of practice at it, at least not with alcohol.”

“You don't understand,” Sunny whispered amid her tears.

Not caring about the woman's emotions, Casey drew a deep breath and continued, “You're lucky he's here taking a shower and not lying smashed up along the highway, or locked up in jail, which could easily have happened if I hadn't found him.  Do you have any idea what you've done to that man?  Do you?  I held him while he sobbed and screamed and wailed from his gut.  I'm a nurse with psychiatric training, and I know when people lose control.  Alex lost it, totally.  He kept saying 'I'm sorry', over and over and over.  He was sorry to you, his mom, and ... I don't know the people he named.  He said things about dead people.  He's just one sorry man right now because of you.”

“Oh, Casey, I'm sorry.  I didn't think it would be this bad.  I just ...” Sunny sighed sadly.

“Called to see how much damage you did?”

“And now you really don't see, Casey,” the woman countered.  “I did it for his own good.”

“Cut out the crap, lady, and stop sounding like you're holier than thou.  People use that 'for his own good' line to make themselves feel better.  It's what they say when they cut out your heart or liver or spleen and hand it to you on a silver platter with garnish to make it look pretty -- 'I did it for your own good'.  Well, you did it, and it sure did him a lot of good, yes, ma'am.  Stumbling drunk as a skunk all over the place,  dressed to the nines, looking good enough to eat with a spoon, except he couldn't walk or talk.  I made sure he didn't choke on his own vomit in the night, so you can thank me for saving his life.”

“Casey ...”

“Not interested in your excuses, Ms. Sunshine.  I'm turning his phone off.  I'll tell him you called -- later.”

“Just ... take care of him,” the blonde requested.

Not accepting any of Sunny's kindness or rationales, a hostile Casey returned, “There you go again, trying to be some heavenly altruistic angel.  You're lucky I found him at that bar and brought him home, and don't even go there.  I know what you're thinking, but before you get any ideas, I didn't touch him, not like you thought with your little 'I see', not that it's your business anymore.  You were everything to him, everything.”  Casey could hear the blonde crying on the other end of the phone.  For a moment, he felt badly for her, but he bit his lip instead and spat smugly, “You call that crying?  I wish you could have heard what I heard pour out of him last night.  Go ahead and cry a few false tears.  He's sure cried over you, honey, and he ain't done yet, not by a long shot.”

Full of anger, the nurse turned off the phone, tossing it inside a drawer in the kitchen.

~I swear, if I'm lucky enough to have a shot at that gorgeous piece of work in my bathroom, I'll sure as heck be good to him.  He's gonna need a lot of repair; I dunno.~

Casey stewed until all of Alex's clothes were ready to wear.  He headed for his bedroom, but then thought better of it.  He was walking a fine line between doing what was best for Alex and trying to satisfy his personal wants and desires.  With a twinge of regret, he changed directions and headed toward the guest room.

====

Sitting on a bench inside the Denver Hyatt waiting for their eldest daughter, the Jack and Daniel were talking with their children, exchanging hugs and chatting about last night's party when an elevator door opened.  Looking remarkably refreshed and well put together, Jennifer stepped out, a pleased smile enhancing her pretty facial features.

**Look at her, Danny.  To cover any more skin she'd have to wear a veil, and she still looks great!** Jack groused.

**Babe, Jen would look great if she wore a tent, so get over it.**

~I just know guys are looking at her.  What I'd give for a P-90,~ Jack thought silently, even as his Love was communicating with him.

Daniel continued, **She's a healthy young woman, and things are as they should be.**

**You're right ... Angelpuss,** Jack teased, using the nickname Ty Harper had given him via proxy in last night's skit about the officers of J-O Enterprises.

Sighing inwardly, Daniel rose to greet his daughter.

====

In the shower, Alex just wanted to drown his sorrows.  His head throbbed and his body had an odor to it that made him want to throw up, which of course he'd already done that morning.  He scrubbed hard and then he scrubbed some more.  The last thing the designer wanted to do was think.  He focused on cleansing his alcohol-filled body.  Finally, he stood under the showerhead, his body leaning forward and his hands splayed out on the tile.  The barrage of hot water pelted  down on his neck and shoulders.  He raised his head repeatedly under the relentless hydraulic onslaught that lengthened his hair and trickled down the rest of his skin.

Every time he backed away, Alex's head hurt more, so he kept repeating the process, letting the healing water soothe him.

~How ironic that the water pounding on me hurts so good.  It makes the pounding inside let up.  Pounding on pounding works.~  Alex blinked, his genius feeling befuddled.  ~I don't even think I'm making sense.~

Finally, Alex finished his long shower, pleased that his headache was starting to fade at last.  Coffee was beginning to sound good.  He slipped on Casey's pink robe and walked gingerly out to the living area of the house, fearing sudden movement might cause the percussion section to start a reprise.

In the kitchen, Casey poured a mug of Dunkin' Donuts dark coffee, putting it on a tray.  For a moment, his mind turned to Daniel, who he knew was a firm fan of Starbuck's blends.

~If Daniel feels about Starbuck's the way I feel about my Dunkin's, then Jack must be one jealous guy.~

Hearing noise in the living room, the muscular man placed a plate of sliced fruit and a croissant on the tray as well.  Walking into the living room, he took note of Alex, who was just wandering about the room, unfocused and uncertain.

~He's more lost than Mary's little lamb,~ Casey thought.  After placing the tray on the coffee table, he walked to Alex, gently nudging him on the arm and leading him to the sofa.  “Just sit here and let those aspirin work.  Sip your coffee and let that caffeine soak in.  It will help; trust me, I know.  I'm going to grab a quick shower and I'll be right back to offer a sympathetic ear.”

Alex nodded, saying nothing in reply.  The man was a blur at the moment because primary in Alex's thoughts was Sunny.

~I can't believe this.  She broke up with me because she thinks I'm gay?  She's nuts.~  Alex sighed, not knowing what to think or do.  ~Should I call?  Her plane wasn't until this evening.  Did she change it without telling me?  Where'd she go?  Home or maybe to her Mom's?  Does she even want to talk to me?  I don't know what to think.~  Alex groaned as he leaned forward.  ~Casey's right: coffee now, think later.~

For a few moments Alex zoned out to where he wasn't thinking at all.  He sipped his coffee automatically.  His body knew the caffeine would ease the subdued but still insistent thud-thud in his brain. Relief from the still and quiet flowed through his anguished body, his subconscious hoping it would never end.

====

In the ballroom of the Denver Hyatt, the guests were milling around, greeting each other and talking about the party from the evening before.  As they chatted, they helped themselves to coffee and juice at the bar before sitting down at one of the many tables set up in the room.

Jennifer was in the kitchen, checking to make sure everything was in order.  The short order cook had called in sick, and Mrs. Vachon was adamantly refusing to make French toast, which is what nearly all the children and several of the adults wanted.  Faced with the possibility of a kid rebellion and lots of unhappy parents as a result, the young woman mustered every diplomatic and commanding skill she had learned over the years and approached the pompous chef.

“Chef Vachon, you graduated from Le Cordon Bleu with honors, La Grande Diplome.  I know that means you have the highest recognition in both pastry and savory cooking.”

“My credentials are impeccable,” the chef boasted with a raised chin.

“Although I didn't know you personally then,” Jennifer paused as she silently thought, ~and, boy do I wish I could have passed on the 'honor' now, but as Daddy says, 'Meet them halfway, even if it's with one-sided kindness',~ and then smiled as sweetly as she could manage, “your credentials are one reason we chose the Grand Hyatt as the location for the party.  We'd love to recommend you to our *hundreds* of family, friends, and, well, the clients of J-O Enterprises.”

“That would be kind of you,” Vachon acknowledged.

~Okay, enough of that; I think she's got it.~  A bit more curtly, Jennifer cajoled, “Surely, you know how to make French toast.”

“It is the way they use up stale bread in France and feed it to children who do not appreciate crepes,” the woman sneered, apparently not as impressed with the volume of Jackson-O'Neill friends as the teenager had hoped.

~There's always an 'or'; there's always an 'or'; there's always an 'or',~ Jennifer told herself.  Suddenly, she smiled, having realized that the ambitious chef before her was somewhat snobbish, to say the least.  ~That means she cares about power and people who care about power care about powerful people.  I'll go with that,~ she determined.  “Chef Vachon, you were so busy preparing all of that marvelous food last night that I'm not sure you're aware how much the guests enjoyed it.”

The chef's head cocked up slightly in anticipation of the praise that was about to come her way.

“President Hayes was in heaven over your Maine crab cakes with apricot horseradish sauce.  Mmm-mmm.  He couldn't put them down,” Jennifer told the woman.  “Mrs. Hayes was gushing all night about the shredded beets marinated in borscht, and Alex Dennison was raving about the deviled eggs Oxaca.”  The compliments were being thrown all over the place,” she continued.  “Oh, and before he left, Lance Burton tasted the Pork chops Bangkok and threatened to make it all disappear from the ballroom and reappear on his plane.”

The older woman looked stunned, but made no reply.  Her only movement a wetting of her lips and a gleam of pride in her eyes.

A thunderbolt flashed in the mind of the resourceful young woman who realized, ~I definitely just found my 'or'.~  Her mind working fast, Jennifer suggested, “We had such wonderful guests, Chef Vachon.  Didn't you see them?”

“A good chef focuses on her duties.”

“Yes, of course,” Jennifer agreed.  “Maybe you can ask the servers who kept that delicious food hot and fresh in the buffet or check with the executive chef.  He came in for a few minutes early on to make sure everything was running smoothly.”

Vachon blinked, unaware that she was apparently being checked up on by her boss.

“He heard many of the comments.  I even saw him chatting with the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs.  Did you know he was here?”  Jennifer chuckled as an aside, her every movement intentional.  “We tried to prepare the hotel's security for all the guests, but I don't think they believed there would be so many important people attending; of course, every guest was important.  Your head of security was a bit annoyed with his staff, I think, for not being better prepared.  Fortunately, we had plenty of military power from Cheyenne Mountain.”

The professional chef was mute, but leaned in to listen.  Every sentence she was hearing pointed to powerful, well-known people who might one day want the great Vachon to cook for them, so the chef hoped.

The young woman knew she had the chef's full attention with her name dropping and confident stance, but inwardly, she thought, ~Daddy's gonna kill me when he finds out about this conversation.~  Jennifer took a breath and continued, “Glouster did the photography, Alex helped with the design of the ballroom; he did our house by the way ...”  She continued to name drop, mentioning the bandleader and the florist.  “Everyone involved did such an outstanding job that I'm enclosing their business cards in my thank-you notes, and boy do I have some thank-you notes to write, over three-hundred, which reminds me,” Jennifer was poised as she went in for the kill, “I meant to ask if you would like for me to include your business card as well?”

Her arms still crossed in defiance, the chef nodded as she responded, “That would be most kind of you.”

~Still no offer to make French toast,~ Jennifer sighed.  ~Okay, here's where I leave courtesy and total truthfulness behind and go out on a limb.~  She swallowed while thinking, “Forgive me, Dad and Daddy, but you'd be very unhappy if all the kids were running around the hotel in tears because of this woman.~  Calm and looking her adversary in the eyes, Jennifer smiled and inquired, “Chef Vachon, what would you say if I told you that Giada makes some of the best French toast ever?”

“Giada?” the chef questioned, her eyelids flashing a bit uncertainly.

~Bingo!~ Jennifer exclaimed to herself.  “Surely, you must know Gia, Giada De Laurentiis?  She's just fab; there's nothing she can't cook.  Her food, wow, it's awesome.  Of course, it's not the food itself, but it's the twist you can put on it to make it your own.”  With spot-on timing, Jennifer paused dramatically, waiting just the right number of beats before stating, “Of course, not everyone can cook like Gia.”

“Whatever she can do, I can do,” Vachon huffed.

“So, French toasts for the kids?”  The young woman grinned as she offered, “I'll be sure to tell Gia about your success.”

~She knows Giadi.  If she says good things about me, maybe I can finally meet her.  They will offer me a show on the Food Network!  I will outshine Giadi and all of them.~  With a firm nod, Vachon replied, “I shall the make the best French toast in the world.  Those kids will be begging for more.”

“Thank you, Chef,” Jennifer responded.  She turned around, trying not to bust out laughing.  Still trying to keep a straight face, she saw her sister peeking inside the kitchen.  “Hey, Bri,” she greeted as she reached the tomboy and the two left the cooking area.

“Gee, Jen, you look like that cat who just ate the poor canary,” Brianna observed.

Putting on airs in a satirical way, Jennifer replied, “It was just a bit of name dropping about my very good friend, Giadi De Laurentiis.”

“The cleavage lady on TV?”

Jennifer laughed, “She's a great cook, and I love to watch her, and she just helped me to make the kids happy.”

“How'd she do that?”  Before another second passed, Brianna stopped, reaching out to touch her sister's arm and announced, “Wait a minute.  Jen, you don't know Giadi.”

“You know that, and I know that, but Chef Vachon doesn't know that,” Jennifer mused as the two began walking again.

“How'd you convince her that you know Giadi?  She doesn't look gullible.”

“But I do know the President and Alex, not to mention everyone else who helped make the party a success, including Lance Burton and Celine Dion, so I fudged a little.”

“Dad's gonna love it,” Brianna asserted.  “He likes to fudge.”

“He likes fudge,” Jennifer laughed.  Changing the subject slightly, she asked, “How are Bijou and Katie doing?”

Amused, Brianna answered, “They're having a great time, being the center of attention.  There is one problem, though.”

“Ut oh.  What?”

“After this weekend, they'll need to go on a diet.  Everyone is feeding them.  They're making out like four-legged bandits, Jen.”

Both girls laughed and kept talking about the family beagles as they continued onward, coming upon their older father about a minute later.

“Hey, Dad,” the pleased-as-can-be teenager called out.  Still feeling proud of her solution to the French toast situation, she grinned mischievously.  ~One of the best lessons Dad ever taught me, there is always an 'or.'~

“Jennifer, why are you grinning like the cat that ate the canary?” Jack inquired suspiciously.

Brianna chuckled, “Deja vu, Jen.”

“What?” Jack asked in confusion with a star at the shorter blonde girl.  “What?” he repeated as he stared at Jennifer.

Blowing on her nails and rubbing them on her lapel, the young woman replied, “Let's just say, I found an 'or'.”

“A new friend,” Brianna chuckled.

With a bright smile, Jennifer claimed, “You'd be proud of me.”

“Always am, Princess,” Jack returned, pulling his daughter in for a quick squeeze.  “Tell me about it.”

“Well, I was reading this magazine article about Le Cordon Bleu graduates and ...” the teen began as she, her sister, and Jack re-entered the ballroom.

====

Faraway in the sunshine state, a woman convulsively cried in her bedroom surrounded by crowns and ribbons she had won over the years.  Her ribs hurt from sobbing.  She looked up as her phone rang, the caller ID revealing that it was her mother.

Soncirria let the phone continue to ring, choosing instead to bury her head in the silk pillow that was now her only comfort.

====

“Looks like you need a refill,” Casey commented, pouring Alex another cup of coffee and ending his 'in the zone' time.  He'd finished his shower and walked out in nothing but his white robe, spurred on in part by the memory of Sunny's phone call that had irked him.  “So talk to me, Buddy.  You and she looked like a fairytale couple out on the dance floor.  What happened?”

As oblivious to his host's attire now as he had been earlier, Alex replied, “You tell me and we'll both know.  Sunny got this notion in her head that I'm gay.  She says I 'notice' men.  I don't think I notice men anymore than I notice women. To tell you the truth, I don't really notice anyone but her, Sunny, I mean.”

“Why do you think she said that?” Casey asked, using every bit of his medical bedside manner to keep him from jumping up and down and screaming for joy, and other potential after pursuits.  ~Play it cool, Casey, play it cool.~

“She must really believe it's true.  She's a very honest person, and she must have had it on her mind for a bit.  Sunny's not the type to blurt something out like that without some conviction behind it.  Parts of what she said sounded rehearsed, but it came out all jumbled.  She was stressed out, and tired,” Alex sighed, staring into his coffee cup.  “I'm pretty sure she intuited that I had the ring.  I was so stunned, I couldn't even move.  After she slammed the door, I flipped on the TV to watch the security camera.  She walked to the car like she was walking away from prison, with a smile on her face as if she'd just won another crown.”

~She didn't sound like a winner to me earlier.  Let's just get a bit more info before we share that.  I don't know if I've got a shot at him or not, but I'll never get a better chance, so talk to me, Alex.  Let's see if I can be more than a client to you.~
Gently, Casey coaxed, “Is this the first time you've been dumped?”  He looked away for a second.  ~Maybe I should have rephrased that one.~

Alex stared straight ahead for a minute, but then he answered, “Yes.  The truth, Casey, is that Sunny's the first ... everything for me.”

~He can't mean what I think he means.~

The designer looked at the nurse and saw his surprise.  He let out an unhappy laugh and then took a sip of his coffee.

“Yes, Casey, I mean exactly what I said,” Alex admitted.  “I lived for school since I was five.  I loved it.  My mother had such high aspirations for me.  She made a big fuss over good grades in our house, for all of us, but I'm the one who took it to heart.  She made sure I learned classic European manners; old school stuff -- stand when a woman enters the room, gentlemen never discuss money, that kind of thing.  All of my brothers and sisters learned the proper way to live, but it was especially important to her, again maybe because I took it in, that I practiced good manners -- hands off the girls, treat them like ladies, even if they are not.”

“What about the boys?”

“What about them?” Alex asked.  He saw Casey shrug, and then the designer sighed.  “Casey, I've always been about school and work.  Nothing else mattered to me until Daniel butted into my life and convinced me that maybe there was more.  Sunny proved he was right.  She was my first, and before her, I didn't care about any of the boy-girl games or the boy-boy ones.”

~What a shame,~ Casey lamented.  ~He has no idea what he's been missing.~

“I dated a few times, but I was on a fast track.  I graduated at sixteen, won the Neu...” Alex paused.  He was so used to listing his credentials.  He'd worked hard for them.  He'd earned every word of every honor, but he didn't feel like celebrating himself at the moment.  “I worked hard in school, and I climbed the ladder fast.  From then on, everything was work, work, and more work until Sunny.  Every accolade only made me hungry for more.  She changed all of that, right from the beginning, though not romantically at first, of course.”

“No, not romantic...”  Casey felt a bit confused.  Now that he thought about it, he knew nothing really about Sunny or how she became the Eve to his sun god's Adam.  “How'd you meet her?” he inquired curiously.

“Byron, my boss, basically told me I was a pathetic loser because I lived only for work.”  Alex let out a bit of a gravelly groan.  He shook his head, remembering those pre-Sunny days when he thought he had everything he ever needed.  He smiled a little as he moved forward with his story in his mind.  Then he realized Casey was staring expectantly at him and that he wasn't verbalizing his tale.  Taking a deep breath, he spoke, “So, somebody dragged me to a function and introduced me to Sunny.  She was the runner-up in the Miss Florida pageant that year.”  The designer's smile widened as he added softly, “She was so beautiful.”  He looked down, his smile ebbing into sadness.  “She *is* so beautiful.”

~My chances may be fading,~ Casey whined internally.  Still, he wanted to know the rest of the story.  “You asked her out?”

“Yeah.  It was convenience dating.  We both had to attend a lot of functions, and we both knew the score.  I was becoming high profile, and she already was in the pageant arena.  We were good eye candy in a crowd.”

“Something changed.”

Nodding, Alex explained, “At first, it was just fun: no pressure, no stress.  There were no strings.  It just made our lives simpler, easier, not to have to worry about finding a date who didn't understand our needs or who wanted more than either of us wanted to give.  It was easy.  I rang, she came, and vice versa.”

~I'd like a bit of that vice versa,~ Casey opined, nearly salivating at the thought.

Alex's face grew soft, his eyes lighting up from his recall.  For a few moments, he felt good, thinking about how convenience seemed to slip away, replaced by need, want, and desire.

“Eventually, we fell in love and we became intimate.  Well, I fell in love.  I thought she did, too.  I was all set to propose last night, but instead, she broke up with me.”

“After you popped the big Q?”

Shaking his head in a sad lament, Alex sighed, “No.”  Wishing he could forget but knowing he couldn't, he confided, “I never had a chance.”  That was all Alex wanted to say on the subject.  He felt a loneliness he'd never felt before and that, coupled with a mountain of confusion, had him wishing he had a kill switch to his brain, something that would stop his incessant thinking about his blonde bombshell.  Unable to do that, he chose to shift gears slightly.  “By the way, Casey, thanks for keeping me off the road and from throwing up on my clothes.”

“You're welcome,” Casey responded.  “Uh, my car's still at the bar.  Maybe later you can drive me to pick it up.”

“Sure.”

The two men were quiet for a minute when they both spoke the other's name at the same time.  Then they went through a game of 'you first' and 'no, you first.' That was followed by a joint laugh and then things grew silent again for several seconds.

“What I wanted to say,” Casey began, “is that this morning you said a lot of stuff, about your mom and ...”

“I did?  I'm sorry.”

“Nah, it's okay.  You wanna talk about it?”

Alex considered it for a moment and then figured he had nothing to lose.  Taking a deep breath, he told Casey all about his siblings, including the fact that his stepfather, Edward Steele, had molested his younger siblings, a set of triplets, all of whom had been so emotionally damaged that they'd attempted suicide.  Alex told it all to the nurse, even the disturbing truth that his mom mysteriously displaced the triplets and then killed herself.

“Odds are, she killed Steele first,” Alex concluded, hanging his head from the painful memories.

Casey sat in shock, thinking, ~That explains last night and then some; and I thought I had it bad.  Sounds like a horror flick.~

“Uh, are you okay?” Alex probed, wondering if he'd made a mistake in confiding the truth about his past.

“That's my question,” Casey returned.  “Alex, my friend, that's a torturous tale.”

“Yeah; it's my life.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Me, too, but Sunny ...”  Alex sighed.  He hurt just to say her name.  “I tried to find the triplets, but never had any luck.  Sunny wouldn't let me give up, though.  Because of her, I found my sister, and then crazy as it sounds, Jack and Daniel discovered one of my brothers.”

“That's great, man.”

“Maybe one day ...” the designer stopped, his hope of finding the third triplet dwindling, especially now that Sunny wouldn't be around to encourage him.

Casey figured it was time for a change in subject, and he knew just the topic to discuss.

“Speaking of questions,” Casey began with a smile.  The change in direction was obvious to both men.  “Wasn't there something you wanted to ask me?”

“Question?”

“Alex, are you still without a clue?”

“Oh, you're gay,” Alex pronounced, though it was more like a question.

“No, but my boyfriend is,” Casey joked.  He shook his head in disbelief.  “Are you serious?  Have you really been that clueless this whole time?”

Alex shrugged and explained, “I thought so, but I never paid a lot of attention.  As a designer, I've been privy to many situations, most of which I really didn't want to know.  If it doesn't affect the job, I don't dwell on peoples' choices.”

“For the record, Mister Dennison, I'm gay, and I'm proud of it, too.”

“I'm sorry, but I don't know what the appropriate response is.  I'm glad you are comfortable in your own skin.”

“You are totally without a clue,” Casey surmised, looking away and finding Alex's lack of awareness both amusing and frustrating.  “Do you know why I hired you to makeover my house?”

“Because I'm a good designer,” Alex answered, deciding to be a bit more specific as well.  “Jack and Daniel recommended me, I know.  I assumed you liked what I did with the living/dining area and the family room, so you had me re-do the master bath.  Everything else was pretty much cosmetic: new paint, carpet, and furniture.”

“Yeah, that's true, but there's more to it.”

Alex stared, but said nothing.  His face was like a blank canvas, unemotional and devoid of spirit.

“Fine, closed lips, I'll say it so you can understand it.  Yes, I hired you because you are one heck of a designer, but the fact that you are absolutely smokin' hot and have made me see '10's' since the day we met is the reason I sealed the deal and decided to go ahead with the re-do of the house.”  Casey laughed, “I probably couldn't afford you now; I barely could then, but for the record, I'm thrilled with the result, partly because most of my friends can't afford you now, either, and that has ticked off a couple of my social climbing neighbors because the interior of this house as well as the front facade and rear patio, Alex *old pal*, is now the showplace of the neighborhood.  Yes!” he exclaimed, emphasizing his happiness about that with a fist pump.

~I'm 'smokin? hot'?~ Alex echoed in his mind, the rest of Casey's words evading his recall.  ~What did he just say?~

“Let's put the cards on the table,” Casey suggested.

Alex felt a bit dazed, something inside of him rousing at the other man's image of him.  He didn't understand why the compliment was making him feel good or why it mattered.  However, he also had a concern.

“You were ... happy to see me this morning,” Alex expressed cautiously about the body part he'd felt a bit close to his when he'd first awoke.

“Come on, Alex.  You're a guy.  That would have happened whether you were there or not, just like it usually does even when you're not drunk.  You know, the ole morning glory.”

Alex nodded in affirmation.

“Nothing happened between us,” Casey assured.  “Believe me, if it did, you'd know.”

“You're right,” Alex agreed.

“But now that you're on the market ...” Casey began, his expression a leading one. “You are, on the market, yes?”

His coffee mug on the table, Alex suddenly pushed it away and stood up while saying, “I'm feeling better, Casey.  Thank you for your hospitality, but I think I'd better go.  If you still want, I'll drop you off at the bar, but,” he smiled nervously, “you'll have to tell me where the bar is.  I don't remember anything other than driving around and stopping somewhere.”

~Pushed too hard; he's not ready, or if he is, he still needs to mull it over a while.~  Casey stood up and responded, “Thanks.  Your clothes are on the bed in the guest room.  I laundered your briefs and socks.  I'll get dressed.”

====

In Denver, the brunch was in high gear with the noon hour approaching.

Lou Ferretti approached Jennifer and advised, “The gifts are ready for transport to your house, Jen.  Gotta move 'em out now; we're out of manpower to watch them.”

Jennifer chuckled, “Thanks, Uncle Lou.  Did they fit in the MonsterMobile?”

Lou's pride and joy was his big truck, lovingly known as the MonsterMobile.

“Jen, the Mons is big, but not that big.”

“Huh?”

With a grin, Lou teased, “There were three-hundred guests and even more people passing through this little party last night.”

“Well, yes, I know, but they didn't all ...”  Jennifer's face grew wide.  “Oh, Uncle Lou -- three-hundred gifts?”

“Not quite, but I'd say at least two-hundred, and they aren't all tiny, either.”  Lou laughed, “It kept the gift detail hoppin'.  Didn't Grace tell you?”

“Well, she said it was busy, but ... two-*hundred* presents?” the shocked young woman asked with big eyes.  ~And my little butting in episode did distract her a wee bit,~ she opined proudly.

“I rented a U-Haul.  My treat,” Lou announced jovially.

“Will they ... fit in our garage?  I mean, it's big, but ... my loom is in there and ...” Jennifer's voice softened dramatically.  “Two-hundred?”

“Might be more.  President Hayes went to town.  He brought a lot of gifts for the brood.”

“Oh, yeah, he said something about that,” Jennifer recalled.  “Um,” she looked around nervously for a second and then stated, “Okay, well, do you have the security codes?”

“Did your folks change them last week?”

“Like clockwork,” Jennifer mused.

“Did I hear something about security codes?” Jack asked, popping over to see what the conversation was about.

“Pal, I need the latest codes.  I get to be Anniversary Claus,” Lou joked.

“Presents?” Jack questioned.  With a kid-like face, he asked, “We get presents?”

“A lot of presents, Dad.”

Aware the discussion wasn't as playful as he would have liked, the general sought verification and inquired, “People brought gifts to the shindig?”

With a deep sigh, the young woman explained, “It's my fault, Dad.  It's just I never thought about it; none of us did.  I mean, yes, we knew there would be presents.  We set up a room for it, but I thought, I don't know, fifty maybe, but not ...”

“How many?” Jack asked, looking over at Lou for the answer.

“Watch where you walk,” was the answer Lou gave his longtime friend.

“Sweet,” Jack mused, looking on the bright side.  He looked around and then quietly delivered the codes to the house to his trusted friend.  The Ferrettis had keys, but the security codes were frequently changed.  “Hey, how about taking the girls home with you?  I don't think they're having much fun down on the 37th now that the kids are gone.”

“They sure had fun while they were up here,” Jennifer laughed.

“Did they look fat to you?” the general canvassed the two people in front of him.

“That's why Bri and Little Danny finally took them out.  They weren't begging for food, Dad, but I think they felt obligated to eat what they were given,” Jennifer put forth in total seriousness.

“With those mutts, I'd believe it,” Lou opined.  “I've never met two more polite beagles in my life.”  The three laughed for a bit and then the SGC veteran straightened and supposed, “Colonel Davis is probably still watching them.”

“Dog sitting is right up his alley,” Jack responded with a mischievous cackle.  ~Old habits die hard,~ he told himself about his quip.  He cocked his head just slightly and reiterated his earlier query.  “Can you make sure Bij and Katie get home safely?  I don't want them to be alone down there.”

“Sure, Jack.”

~I just love my parents,~ Jennifer avouched to herself.  ~Look at Dad, so gruff and commanding and yet he really worries about Bij and Katie just like he does us.  He's a pussycat; er, a puppy.~

“What are you giggling at?” Jack inquired of his daughter.

“Was I giggling?” the girl asked, giggling even as she spoke.  “Just thinking about the dogs,” she expounded.

At that point, Lou gave a polite nod to Jennifer and a tap on Jack's arm, all indicators that he was about to take off to complete his mission.

“Hold on, Lou,” Jack requested.  “Brood, front and center!” he bellowed, causing several of the brunch guests to laugh.  “Good pipes,” he praised about his loud voice.

--

“Excuse me, Suz,” Daniel interrupted his sister as they chatted on the other side of the room.  “I'd better go see what's up.”

--

With the brood, and Daniel, assembled, Jack explained his idea of the beagles going home with Lou.

“That's a good idea, Dad,” Little Danny agreed.  “They looked a little sad when we left them down there.  Can I go with Uncle Lou to make sure they're okay with going home before us?”

“Sure, Sproglet,” Daniel permitted.  He looked at Jennifer and asked, “Who's watching the girls?”

“Paul,” Jennifer answered.

“Son, ask Paul to stay with you and then bring you back here to the ballroom, okay?” Daniel requested firmly.

“Thanks, Daddy,” the Munchkin acknowledged with a smile.

“Uh, now why isn't Lou staying for brunch?” the archaeologist questioned.

“We're popular,” Jack mused cryptically.

“I think I'll grab some food and put it on a plate for Uncle Lou,” Jennifer volunteered.  As she started to walk away, she suddenly stopped, turned around, and uttered, “Oh no!”

“What?” both parents called out at the same time.

“Aunt Carolyn and Trina left already.  If Uncle Lou drives the U-Haul, how is he going to get the MonsterMobile home?”

“He's not driving his truck?” Jack asked.

“U-Haul?” Daniel queried, his simple question overlapping his lover's.

“Yeah, U-Haul?” Jack echoed, not having allowed the truck brand to sink in when he'd first heard it.  “Jen, just how many presents does 'watch your step' mean?”

“Apparently, a U-Haul full.”

“Jonny will have fun,” Daniel quipped.

“I'm so sorry.  We didn't realize people would be so ... generous,” Jennifer sighed.

“It's okay, Sweetie.  You'd better hurry if you want to get a plate together for Lou,” Daniel stated.

“What about his truck?”

“Get his keys.  As long as he doesn't need it until tomorrow afternoon, I can drive it home,” Jack answered.

“Or ... maybe Jeff?”

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look.  Lou's truck was huge, oversized, and Jeff had never driven it, though he'd wanted to.

“Ask Lou, but assure him that if he's not comfortable with that, I'll drive it back,” Jack responded.

With a smile, Jennifer went to complete her task.

“Presents?” Daniel queried with a slightly stunned expression.

“I hope we get a new toaster,” Jack teased, putting his arm around Daniel's shoulder and smiling.

“Babe, we might get fifty new toasters.”

“Backups: lots of backups,” the general jested.  “Let's eat.”

====

Having dropped Casey off at the bar, Alex proceeded to drive home to his condo.  He was working on auto-pilot, not wanting to think and yet having flashes of memories flooding his mind and forcing his heart to break even more than it already had.

When he arrived home, Alex walked inside and looked around.  He had so many nice things, and his home was pristine without a spec of dust to be seen.  Normally, he entered his abode with a sense of pride at the treasures that it held within, but this time, all he felt was despair because his greatest treasure, the love of his life, his only love, was gone.

Feeling empty, the designer sat down in a chair, only he couldn't get comfortable.  He decided to relax on the bed, hoping he'd fall asleep, but rest didn't come there, either.  He even tried sitting at the kitchen table, but that proved fruitless as well.

Most of the afternoon continued on in the same manner, with Alex going from spot to spot in his quest for solace.  Sadly, he could find none.

With no place to go, no place he wanted to go, and the thought of alcohol making him queasy, the designer dragged out the vacuum cleaner, finding the white noise and simple repetitive physical activity oddly soothing.  Cleaning the bathrooms led to the kitchen, which led to dusting, polishing, and finally to a trek into the attic.  He finished his cleaning by arranging the decor back to its pre-Sunny state.

~Maybe I'll redecorate.~

====

“I'm sorry I can't go to the airport with you, Peter, but I really need to make sure everything is finished here.  The kids are getting a little cranky now.”

“I understand, Jen.  They've had a long weekend, and so have you.  You really pulled this off beautifully.”

“It was teamwork,” the young beauty stated with a smile.

“I ... I'm glad you weren't mad when I showed up,” Peter offered a bit nervously.

“It was a nice surprise; it really was.”

“Good.  Can I ... call you?  You know, later, when I get back to college?”

“Sure,” Jennifer agreed.  “I'd like that.”

Somewhat uncertainly, Jennifer leaned forward and gave the young man a kiss on the cheek.  It was sweet and genuine.  Peter smiled and returned the gesture with a slightly prolonged kiss on the girl's forehead.

“Take care, Jen.”

“You, too ... and have a safe trip.”

“Bye.”

“Bye,” Jennifer returned softly, sighing as she watched Peter back a few steps and then turn around.  ~I am glad you were here, Peter, but we're not dating.  I'm sorry, but I just can't go through that again.~

With a sweet yet sad smile, Jennifer watched the disappearing Peter for a few more seconds before heading to the concierge office.  Before joining her siblings for the trip home to Colorado Springs, she wanted to thank the hotel staff for their assistance one last time and remind them she'd be back on Monday to ensure no loose ends remained.

====

The last of the children had been picked up from childcare, the hotel security team escorting the parents and children to their vehicles.  The rooms, in fact the entire 37th and 38th floors, had been swept by SGC personnel for electronic bugs, explosives, personal property, and anything that could even potentially be a problem before Jennifer had officially notified the hotel that the floors were cleared and vacated by the Jackson-O'Neill party.

Weary and eager to go home, Jennifer reported to her parents in the hotel lobby before she departed.

“So,” the eighteen-year-old concluded with a big breath of relief, “we're done here, and I'm going home.”

“Jen, we just can't thank you enough for all you did,” Jack stated with a smile.
Sensing a deference to the brood about to come from his daughter, he held up his hands and said, “No matter how much teamwork there is, no matter how much cooperation and support, someone has to be the leader, the head of an effort.  That was you.  *You* did it.  Own it.  Be proud of it.”

Misty-eyed, the almost grown woman nodded, appreciating the strong words her father had just spoken.

“Just so you know,” Jennifer began, “I have an appointment Monday morning with the hospitality director and the hotel manager.  I have some notes to write before then about the spectacular performance of some of the employees, and I want to make certain we've paid for everything, like for the extra security. Oh, and I have to pick up Chef Vachon's business cards.”

“Tough cookie,” Jack commented, having heard about the woman.

“You said it, Dad, but she did come through with flying colors on the food, the kids' food, especially the French Toast Vachon,” Jennifer praised with a chuckle about chef's self-named toast that included marscapone and candied orange peel. “You know, I hear both of you talking about clients and keeping them happy and how important it is. I hope this is a reminder to her that listening to the client and cooperating is good business.”

“Now you can go home and relax,” Daniel interjected.

“Relax?  Daddy, I still have a lot to do.  As a way of thanking the vendors, I'm enclosing their business cards in the thank-you notes.”

“What thank-you notes?” Jack queried suspiciously.

“The ones *you're* sending to your guests,” Jennifer answered.  “The note will mention how much we appreciate the help of the vendors in making the party so successful, and they'll go to everyone who attended.”  She continued, “I'll have your thank-you notes ready with addressed envelopes so you can write them out as you open the gifts.”

“Very organized,” Daniel observed.

“I had some good advice, Daddy.”  Jennifer saw rebellion on her older father's face and quickly squelched the uprising.  “Don't give me that innocent look, Dad.  You are not going to dump this all on Daddy.  You'll do it together.”

“Aw, Jen, I'm no good at that stuff,” Jack put forth.  ~I knew there was a reason I didn't want this dang party!~

“Dad, don't whine.”

As Daniel bowed his head with amusement, Jack relented, “Okay, Princess, you're right,” and pulled her in for a hug and a kiss.  Daniel joined in for a moment, making in a three-way family love fest.

“We're both very proud of you,” Daniel added.

“Thanks, Daddy.  You two enjoy tonight alone.  We'll see you at home tomorrow,” the smartly dressed, sophisticated teen said as she turned and began to walk away, pausing just briefly to twist around and wave goodbye.

Jack put his arm around Daniel's waist and asked, “You thinking what I'm hoping you're thinking?”

Daniel just grinned with 'you know' written in his eyes.  No words, not even their unique silent communication, was needed.

Jack and Daniel quickly made their way to the elevator and to the floor where their suite was located.  Their pace was fast as they proceeded down the hall, the two grinning like a couple sneaking away to a rendezvous.  Daniel placed his key card in the lock.  Before the door was fully open, Jack grabbed the 'Do Not Disturb' sign and dropped it over the door handle.  Unable to take another step, he felt himself pulled into the living room  and his back pressed against the inside of the door as his husband pressed their lips together.  Each man slid a hand down the front of the other's pants, feeling a flaccid length become spongy, on its way to velvet hardness.

“We can move to the bedroom, get naked, and have wild monkey sex on the bed,” Jack suggested.  “Eh, Space Monkey?”

“Maybe, in a few minutes, but I want to enjoy feeling illicit in the living room, even if it's only ours temporarily.  How about having your way with me on the couch, or the table, or the desk?”

“One at a time, Angel, and aaaaaway we go!”

Coherent speech ceased, replaced by murmurs, moans, and groans of assent and agreement.

====

At the Jackson O'Neill household, Sunday morning consisted of a simple breakfast of Froot Loops, which the brood was happy to have.  Most of the kids were satisfied to relax or just play in the game room.  They were zonked from their efforts that had gone into making their parents' anniversary party the best it could be.  At the moment, Jenny was sitting in front of Muffin, the giant dinosaur that was in the game room.  She was leaning against the creation, daydreaming about new cheers she could do.

Nearby, David and Ricky were facing off against each other in a game of air hockey.  Upstairs in the library, Little Danny and Lulu were reading books of interest.  Elsewhere, Chenoa and Aislinn were chatting about girl stuff up in the Bird's Nest, the small room designated just for the female members of the family.  Brianna was in her room, watching a dolphin video on her computer.  JD was napping, with Bijou keeping watch next to him.

As for Jonny, the oldest Munchkin was totally beside himself as he ogled the mounds of presents that were piled into the garage.  In fact, there were so many gifts that Lou Ferretti, who had transported the presents from the Denver Hyatt to the family home in the wee hours of Saturday morning, had been forced to line up many inside the hallway of the home.  Now, Jonny kept pacing the presents, eager to see what was inside, especially the ones he recognized were from President Hayes.  Hayes, had, after all, brought multiple gifts for the children.

~Santa Hayes,~ Jonny mused to himself, finally plopping down in front of one huge box that had his name on it.  ~Wonder what it is!  Mister President Santa Hayes gives good gifts!~

In the recreation room, Jennifer sat at the round table near the front of the room. She was re-reading her draft for the thank-you note that was to be sent to all of the party's attendees, making sure it was perfect. Hearing the sound of feet against the floor, she looked up to see Jeff walking in from the hallway.

“How's he doing?” Jennifer asked her eldest brother about Jonny.

“He finally sat down in front of the presents in the hallway,” Jeff chuckled, shaking his head.

“Must be one from President Hayes.”

“I don't know if he's going to make it until Dad and Daddy get home,” the maturing male commented.

“Do I need to go talk to him?”

“Nah, he won't act like an Elf, but he's salivating,” Jeff advised as he sat down across from his sister.  Seeing all of the papers, he sighed, “Jen, explain to me again why we're doing this.”

Jennifer was well prepared for the question.  She was certain that when her silver-haired father returned, he'd bark at doing the thank-you notes, even though he'd agreed to it Saturday afternoon.  Her speech rehearsed, she answered the question as if it were an answer to a college examination.

“Number one: it is unexpected, but all of the guests did all make time to attend. Number two:  some of them might wonder who did what, but didn't want or know who to ask, or maybe didn't want to be spammed. Number three: it makes us, the brood, look good,” Jennifer said with a smile.  “I had to say that,” she chuckled.  Growing serious again, she continued, “Number four: it puts pressure on Dad and Daddy to get their thank-you notes for their gifts written.  You know Daddy would want to do this.  Dad's the stumbling block, and I just thought it would be nice to take the pressure off of Daddy for this.  Number five: it sets a good example for the brood.  Number six: it makes a good impression on the vendors.”  She laughed, “It'll be a long time before they forget the Jackson-O'Neill name, if ever!”

“Wow.”  Jeff nodded, laughing along and feeling impressed both.  “You must have been thinking about this for a long time.”

“Well, it's a good idea to know where your bread is buttered.”

“Think Dad would agree?”

“He butters a lot of our bread,” the young woman laughed.

Jeff reviewed the formal part of the thank-you note that his sister had prepared and then remarked, “How'd you do that, Sis?”

Nodding and laughing in sync, both siblings chuckled, “Butter!”

The note Jennifer had prepared succinctly thanked all of the appropriate vendors in three sentences.  Not only that, but she'd written it using her best handwriting.  The neatness wasn't surprising, but it was still worth Jeff's praise, especially since he was certain that his half of the notes wouldn't be so neat.

“It's the sentiment that counts, Bro.  Just make sure it's legible and that the names are spelled right,” Jennifer advised.

--

The two worked diligently, personally writing out their portion of the thank-you notes with care. An hour into the project, Jeff let out a little “woo” and shook his cramping hand.

“You'll live, Jeff.”

“When this is done, I'm taking a long nap,” the young man announced.

“Me, too, but I want a dip in the Jacuzzi first,” Jennifer announced.

“Any idea when the folks will be home?”

“My guess is that Dad will get them a late checkout, so I wouldn't be surprised if it's late afternoon or even early evening.”

“Jonny won't last that long,” Jeff put forth.

“Maybe I'd better check on him,” Jennifer suggested, putting down her pen and rising.

--

Just a minute later, Jennifer returned, a smile on her amused face.

“Well?” Jeff prompted.

“He's asleep, his arms around this big box from President Hayes.”

The siblings laughed and continued with their task.

--

Forty minutes later, Jennifer and Jeff both stopped writing. Their hands tired and rebelling, both needed another breather from their task.

“How was it?” Jeff inquired of his sister.

“How was what?”

“Seeing Peter at the party.”

“It was ... good, bad, fun, scary.  I ... I don't know,” Jennifer confided in total honesty.  “Jeff, I care about him.  I think I always will, but I can't go back.”

“What's wrong with going forward?”

“I ... what do you mean?”

“Look, I'm on your side, always, Sis, you know that,” Jeff began.  “Peter was a real jerk, for a long time.  He took advantage of you and he hurt you.  It's just ... ah, it's none of my business.”

Seeing Jeff start to write again, Jennifer reached over, her hand pressing on her brother's left arm.  She shook it gently.

“Jeff, what are you thinking?  I really want to know what you think.”

Nodding as he put down his pen again, Jeff answered, “Dad and Daddy are big on second chances.  Sometimes, it doesn't work out, but sometimes, it does.  They've, we've, all been hurt in our lives, but if you think about it, because of second chances, look where we are!  Jen, look at us.  You lost your parents and were on the verge of being separated from David and Noa for life until Dad and Daddy stepped in.  I would have been with Grandpa, but ...”  Jeff shrugged.  “Lulu,” he whispered.  “I don't even want to think where she might have ended up, and don't forget Bri.  I can sometimes see her on a street corner, fighting everyone, acting tough and living a life none of us ever even wants to think about.  Second chances, Jen.  Maybe Peter deserves a second chance.  That's all I'm saying, maybe.”

Jennifer withdrew her hand and grew very silent.  Her private thoughts were racing and her heartbroken soul confused.

“What if Daddy had never given Dad a second chance?  What if Dad had never given Daddy a second chance?  We've heard the stories, Jen.  How many times did they argue, hurt each other, and think it was over?”

“A lot.  I was even scared once that they were going to get a divorce.  They argued a lot.”

“Arguing is part of who they are; we know that, but in those early years of their relationship, it was pretty scary.  They've both admitted that to us.”

With a small smile, Jennifer looked over at her wise brother and said, “Thanks, Jeff.  I'll think about it some more.”

“Follow your heart, Sis, and if you take that chance, and he hurts you again, I'll take care of him.  Trust me.”

Touched, Jennifer responded lightly, “Dad would love to hear you say that.”

“So would Daddy.  He just keeps those feelings shielded under the hope for a better humanity.”

The two shared another chuckle and once again returned to their writing.

--

“Jen,” Jeff sighed pointedly after another thirty minutes had passed.

The boy's tone was serious and caused Jennifer to sit back with an understanding groan. She looked at the clock on the wall and realized they were in a serious time crunch, not because everything absolutely had to be done at the minute, but rather, the task was taking a big toll on their hands. Both were trying their best to be as legible as possible, but the longer the project took, the less perfect each note was. Not only that, but her plans for Jack and Daniel to get their portion of the notes done relied on everything else being ready to go.

“Okay, Plan B,” Jennifer announced.

“Copies?”

“I don't like it, but I really don't want to put this off for another day, either.”

“Copies, it is,” a happy Jeff stated, rising in anticipation of moving to his bedroom where the three-sentence vendor acknowledgement could be copied on his printer.

--

Back in the recreation room, Jennifer and Jeff were finishing up their part of the notes. Having used one of the first notes the young woman had written, Jeff had printed out all the copies needed. Then they cut each page appropriately as they worked on prepping the cards for their parents.

“Done!” Jennifer exclaimed as she placed the final paper in place.

“They look pretty good, Jen,” Jeff observed about the copies. “Not perfect, but who's really going to notice?”

“Some will, but we had to do it,” Jennifer opined as she glanced at her watch and realized the duo would only have been half way through the thank-you notes had they continued handwriting each one individually.

Sitting back, Jeff remarked, “When I look back on this shindig, Jen, it seems almost beyond belief.  The effort we put into winning the bet, planning, planning, and more planning, orchestrating, coordinating ...”

“Dealing with Dad,” Jennifer teased.  “Yeah, it was a major accomplishment, for sure.”  An idea sparked, “Jeff, you know what we should do?”

“What?”

“Let's put together an album for each one of the brood as a keepsake, along with a DVD.  We could give one to Dad and Daddy, too, maybe for Christmas.  What do you think?”

“I like it, Sis.  Maybe we could do interviews, call it a family history or something, but ...

“...  not tell any of them what it is for, exactly.  After all, this is a once in lifetime event.”

“I hope so,” Jeff said with a big breath.

“Well, you never know,” Jennifer joked.

“Whoa, Sis.  I tell ya one thing, if we're going to top this for their twenty-fifth, we better start planning now.”

“I'll pretend I did not hear that so I won't have to get up and smack you, Jeff.”

“Would you really beat up on your little brother?” Jeff sniffed, sticking his lower lip out.

“No, I'd just bribe David and Brianna to do it.  I got a hefty check from Archonics for that big Mexican rug.”

“That was spectacular,” Jeff praised.  “How'd you get those curved shapes in there?”

“It's a tapestry technique.  I was thrilled it came out so well, especially since I'm still such a novice.  I can't believe Alex keeps wanting me to do more for him.”  Just then there was a knock on the door.  “That's probably Karissa with the postage meter.  We can knock these envelopes out in a few minutes while she visits with Little Danny.”

“You really have thought of everything, Sis.  I wish I were more like you,” Jeff said as he walked to the security monitor to verify who was at the door.

~Be careful what you wish for,~ the older teen thought as her younger brother retreated.  ~I feel different, proud, yes, accomplished, but somehow different.~

====

Late Sunday afternoon, after a steady eight hours of sleep following a full night of romance and lovemaking, Jack and Daniel had left their suite at the Denver Hyatt at the latest possible checkout time and were on their way back to their home in Colorado Springs.

Smiling at each other, the two lovers basked in the afterglow of the incredible weekend-long celebration of their wedding anniversary that they had shared with their children, over three-hundred guests, and especially each other.  Their sense of serenity and tranquility was too profound for words, resulting in the often chatty couple simply enjoying a quiet time in the Silver Fox as they leisurely drove in the slow lane of the freeway.

Soon enough this wonderful spell would be broken by a much anticipated reunion with the brood and the family zoo, but for now, rolling down the interstate, holding hands in companionable silence was enough, that is until Daniel spoke in their special communication mode, **I can't believe I let you drive my car.**

Jack laughed boisterously at the mental jab and raised his Love's hand to kiss it.

“Eyes on the road, O'Neill.”

“Orders m'orders,” Jack responded, though he did have one eye focused on the oft-traveled pavement.

Daniel smiled as he gazed at his human Silver Fox driving the sleek sporty car named after Jack.  He could barely believe his good fortune.

Jack returned the warm glance, feeling equally lucky.  Sometimes, he felt like pinching himself to make sure the last couple of decades wasn't just a fantasy or dream.  Feeling the warmth of his husband's hand, he knew it was real.

The couple grew silent once again, just letting the calm linger as the afternoon ebbed away.  Soon enough, their lives would be full of the loving chaos known as their family, but right now, they were lost in their nation of two.

====

Anxious, scared, confused, and alone, Alex rang Casey's doorbell at 10 p.m. Sunday evening.  In his hand was a basket of tropical fruit.

“Alex?” Casey observed as he smiled in surprise at his unexpected visitor.

“I ... I shouldn't have come.”  Extending out his hand, he spoke, “Here, this is a token of appreciation for your hospitality.”

“Hey, it's okay.  You're welcome, but I am surprised to see you.  Coffee, or something stronger?” he asked as he invited the designer inside with the motioning of his hand and then took hold of the basket.

“I'll be sipping not guzzling tonight,” Alex answered while walking into the living room.

“So, what brings you by?” Casey asked as he put the gift in his kitchen.

Alex looked around the room as if he'd never been there before.  He felt awkward, but there he was, so he figured he should move forward with his agenda.

“It may sound crazy, but I realized my male bonding skills suck.  I managed to fall in love, but just never learned to hang with the guys.”

Returning to the living room, Casey advised, “You need to learn to relax, Alex.”

~Daniel's been telling me that for years,~ Alex thought to himself.  ~I thought I was, with Sunny.~  The brief lament segued into a vocal answer to the nurse's question.  “I tried that once after graduating college with that double major.  I suck at it, so just stuck with work.”

“And more work,” Casey added, getting a tiny smile from the other man.

Alex looked into the other man's eyes.  He still didn't understand anything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, nor did he have any idea what the future would be.  All he knew was that his heart hurt and he was alone.  He didn't want to be alone.  At the same time, he didn't want to mislead his client, the client who clearly wanted to be a friend and even more than that to the designer.

“Casey, I need to be honest with you.”

“Sure.  Honesty makes the world go round, so they say,” Casey noted lightheartedly.  Then he chuckled, “Or is that money makes the world go round and honesty is the best policy?”  Seeing Alex's ambiguous shrug in response, the nurse groaned inwardly, ~I'm still working too hard to get this guy.  Let him talk.  After all, he's here now, with me.  Don't blow it, Casey.  He needs some room; gotta give him time to adjust to the truth.~

Bowing his head reflectively, Alex continued, “I don't know about Sunny's assessment.  Maybe she was just noticing a lack of male bonding in my life.  I have done a bit of research on sexual attraction and orientation.”  Still looking down, he let out a laconic, self-deprecating laugh.  Then he focused on Casey and questioned rhetorically, “Like what else would I do, right?  Research: it's what I do; it's what I'm good at.”  He took a minute to get his thoughts together, his mind still jumbled with a myriad of images from his weekend of horror.  “Anyway, I'm not ready to toss aside the love I have for Sunny and decide I am homosexual, or gay, or whatever you want to call it, but I cannot dismiss her assessment out of hand.  I do have some questions I'd like to ask about your experiences, if you are comfortable with that, but I need some time to process this whole thing.  Do you understand?”

“Have a seat, friend, and let's bond.”  Casey genuinely smiled at the possibilities. ~Here's hoping for the best, for both of us.~

====

Some miles away, the clock was approaching midnight.  The kids were sound asleep as was the family's zoo of critters.  Jack and Daniel, however, were only just now preparing for bed.

“I've got writer's cramp!  Our daughter is a slave driver,” Jack complained, waving his right hand all about as if to drain out the pain.

“She did most of the work, Babe,” Daniel reminded as he pulled back the bedding. “We just added a bit of personalization to the thank-you notes and decided what to do with the presents.  It really wasn't that bad.”

“Bad enough,” the older man complained as he playfully bounced onto the bed.  “Shoulda kept the vibrator,” he quipped as he felt the smooth sheets.

Daniel rolled his eyes as he responded, “Your military buddies have an odd sense of humor.”

“Yeah!” the general acknowledged proudly.

“Anyway, it's all done now and a lot of people will benefit.”

“Ya wanna tell that to our kids,” Jack challenged.

Sitting down on his side of the bed, the younger man replied, “President Hayes went a little overboard, Jack.  Jonny already has three ...”

“Hey, I'm not disagreeing,” Jack interrupted.  “They each kept two presents; that's more than plenty, considering this was *our* anniversary and not *their* birthdays.”

“I'm glad Jen convinced us to follow through and get the thank-you notes done.”

Jack gave a begrudging nod and decided to bring up the next thing that popped into his brain.

As he slid down into his normal sleeping position, Jack commented, “That was some toast Alex made.”  With a bit of a laugh, he added, “I wonder if he's bought the ring.  He might as well put one on her finger, he's already got one through his nose.”

“*Jack!*”

“Aw, c'mon, Danny, you have to admit he's a much happier camper than before he met Sunny.”

“Still, that's no reason to mock him.”  Growing thoughtful, Daniel queried, “Did you think it odd that Sunny seemed so intent on leaving?”

“Nah, she probably just wanted her way with Alex.”

In typical fashion, the archaeologist began to analyze the events as he replayed the dialog in his mind.  There was just something about the departure that still bothered him.

“They could have stayed over,” Daniel opined thoughtfully.  “In fact, I thought Alex mentioned something about that the last time I talked to him, but I suppose their plans could have changed.”

“Now that I think about it, she seemed a little distracted,” Jack noted about Sunny, reflecting back on the party.  Then he shook his head uncertainly and uttered, “I dunno.”  Pausing briefly, he continued to mull over the situation until he finally remembered another moment at the party.  “Did you see her dancing with that good looking Air Force lieutenant?”

Daniel's eyebrows raised as he retorted with a mischievous grin, “Good looking?  Oh, so you *were* looking at the men as well as the women?”

“Daniel, get serious,” Jack responded, ignoring his lover's amused chuckle.  “I *only* look at women.”

This time, Daniel's brow arched for real.

Seeing this, Jack began to squirm to avoid the doghouse for his bed that night and quickly corrected, “Angel, you're the only one I have eyes for.”

“Better.  We'll discuss it later.”

~Not if I can help it,~ Jack determined within his soul.

Daniel continued, discarding the gender debate with, “That's neither here nor there right now.”

“Yeah.  We were talking about Sunny dancing with that g...Air Force lieutenant.”

“That doesn't mean anything, Babe.  We all danced with a lot of people.”

“Casey sure wanted to dance with Alex.  His eyes were glued to his butt moving on the dance floor.”

With a nod, Daniel replied, “Well, I hope Casey finds someone to make him happy because Alex is spoken for, just like a certain Silver Fox I know.”

“Really?  Do I know him?”Jack jested with a broad smile.

“I don't know, but I am about to know him, intimately, Biblically,” Daniel assured.

With that, Daniel turned out the light and assumed his position of Danny blanket to his Jack pillow.

“Mmmm Space Monkey.”

The grand anniversary party may be over, but the love affair between Jack and Daniel continued to shine brightly, even as the night grew darker in the master bedroom of their Colorado Springs retreat, lovingly known to them as home.

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

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