Area 52 HKH

Keys In A Box

by Orrymain

URL: http://area52hkh.net/aso/orrymain4/keysinab.php
Summary: Sometimes trying to be fair actually means you've been unfair. That's the lesson for Jack and Daniel as they prepare to take some of their brood on special trips.

Mid-morning, Jack and Daniel were chatting in their master bedroom after making their bed for the second time, thanks to a spontaneous round of lovemaking. At the moment, the general was explaining about an invitation he'd received via a phone call during breakfast.

"He's a four-star, Danny. I can turn him down, but ..."

"You want to go?" Daniel asked his lover. He chuckled, "You hate those luncheons."

"Yeah, most of the time," Jack agreed.

With a smile, Daniel surmised, "But this is a chance to take a couple of the children with you."

"I thought we might spend the morning at the Smithsonian, do the luncheon thing, and then take the kids to see those fighter jets. A friend of mine will be there. I might be able to get the kids seat time."

"I can see Jonny's eyes now," Daniel replied.

"It would have to be quick, but he owes me a favor."

"Looks like we'll both get to have some extra time with the brood in the next few days."

"The box?"

Daniel nodded and walked over to the dresser. He opened the top drawer, pulled out a box that was in the back, and returned to stand across from his husband near the head of the bed.

"How many?" the archaeologist inquired.

"Just two, so Jonny and ..." Jack purposefully paused as he closed his eyes and let his fingers play with the items inside the now-opened box. He pulled out the item, a key chain with a face of one of the children on it. "Lulu." Jack took the box, closed it, and shook it vigorously. Opening it, he held it out and said, "Your turn."

"Well, I can take three. I really think David would enjoy this as there could be some lithology involved. Of course, whenever he has a chance to explore his love of petrology ..."

"Daniel, just say rocks."

"Okay, well, David and Little Danny, of course, so one more for me, too," Daniel stated as he stared intently into his lover's eyes. The connection was super strong. Just when he thought they might end up messing up their bed again, he reached in and grabbed the first key chain he felt. "Ash."

Both parents loved being able to take their kids with them when they traveled. Often, though, they could only take one or just a few, and that's where the box full of key chains came in handy. It was their attempt to be fair as to which of their children were chosen to accompany them on trips.

"We're done here."

"Are we?" was the seductive reply.

"Mmmmm ..."

The bed in the master bedroom would have to made up once again before the couple was able to proceed with their day.

====

After dinner that night, the parents held a family meeting. At the end, they told the brood about the latest special trips that would be taken.

"One last piece of business," Jack told the children. "We have two trips coming up, one for me and one for Daddy." He went on to let the children know more about his one-day trek to Washington D.C. where two of the kids could go with him, meet a four-star general, visit the famous institute, and maybe sit inside a fighter jet. "I'll be taking ..."

The children all had smiles on their faces as they eagerly awaited the response.

"... Jonny and Lulu."

After a bit more discussion, Daniel referred to his trip as he elaborated, "J-O is conducting a dig in Alberta, Canada, and I'll be going for a couple of days next week. We'll be able to do some actual digging and observation while there."

Again, as their daddy talked, the children were eager to hear who would be going. There were anticipatory smiles and some of the kids, like Jenny and Chenoa, were actually sitting on the edge of their seats as they waited to see if they would be one of the traveling brood for this occasion.

"This time, David, Little Danny, and Ash will be going with me," Daniel announced.

Jack and Daniel were proud of the children and how they always handled who was able to go with their parents on various trips. There was never any hostility. After all, each of the children had gone on various adventures with one or both of their parents. As usual, there was a lot of merriment and well wishes among given.

"Meeting adjourned. Ice cream!" Jack exclaimed, rubbing his hands together.

As the kids hurried to the hospitality room to enjoy their pre-bed treat, their parents remained in the living room for a couple of minutes.

"I think they're excited," Jack remarked.

"You're excited," Daniel replied with a smile.

"Lulu's gonna love sitting in that bird," the general opined.

"Did you see Jonny when you talked about that? He could barely sit still."

"Little Danny was the same when you were talking about the dig."

"Ice cream," Daniel stated with desirous eyes.

"Three scoops," the older man teased while putting his arm around his husband's waist and beginning the walk to join their children.

====

A bit later, the parents were making their goodnight rounds. On this night, they were talking to the kids separately. Jack finished his visits first and was heading downstairs to do some work in his study. Daniel, meanwhile, was in the girls' room for his final goodnights of the evening. He was a little disappointed that Aislinn was already asleep, but he figured it would give him more time to talk to Jenny, who he'd noticed had only had one scoop of ice cream. That was unusual when all of the other kids enjoyed two or three scoops.

The father stood over the redhead's bed and wondered if she, too, was asleep. Jenny was on her side, her back to Daniel. She had the covers pulled up to her neck.

"Jenny, are you okay?" Daniel asked in a hush, not wanting to wake Aislinn.

"I'm fine."

~Gawd, do I recognize that tone,~ the scientist internalized. "Sweetie, what's wrong?" he asked as he sat down on the side of the bed.

"It doesn't matter."

The sadness cut through the father's heart. He'd worried that Jenny might be sick, not that she was upset about something. Worse, she wasn't wanting to discuss it. For the close-knit Jackson-O'Neill family, that was huge.

"Yes, it does. Tell me what the problem is."

Jenny sniffled, causing her younger father to be even more concerned.

"Are you not feeling well?"

"I'm fine," Jenny responded, only her voice cracked and a tiny sob was heard.

"Sweetie, please tell me why you're upset. I want to help," Daniel spoke with caring, his hand caressing his daughter's back.

"It's always the same," Jenny whispered.

"What's always the same?"

"Little Danny always goes with you and Jonny with Dad. It's always the same. They always get to go."

Daniel's heart nearly stopped beating. Stunned, he withdrew his hand. In an instant, he was overcome with regret and a sense of parental failure.

"I'm fine, Daddy. It's okay that I never get to go with you on digs and with Dad to see the planes. We go other places together." The despairing girl let out two more sniffles before reiterating, "I'm fine."

"Jenny ..."

"Going to sleep now," the girl lied as she let out a giant sniffle and pulled the covers up even higher.

"Goodnight, Jenny. I love you," Daniel vowed, leaning forward to place a kiss on the side of her face, something that was difficult considering how high the blankets were drawn.

Daniel looked over at Aislinn, curious if she was awake and had heard anything, but he didn't see any sign of movement by the youngest Munchkin. Slowly, he made his way to the door. He stood still for a moment, staring at the Spitfire who had no fire in her at the minute. Turning off the light, the archaeologist pulled the door so that it was only slightly ajar and walked away.

====

An hour later, Jack finished up his work and glanced at the clock. He realized his lover hadn't been heard from, something that was a little unusual after individual rounds. Standing, he left the study and went upstairs, expecting to find Daniel either in his den or their bedroom. Both rooms were vacant, however.

The general returned to the lower floor and checked out the kitchen, hospitality room, and living room.

**Daniel?** Jack called out in his mind.

The silver-haired man became more worried when there wasn't any response. He decided to check the garage, but as he passed the patio door, a familiar image caught his eye. He walked to the door and stared outside into the darkness.

~Crap!~ Jack let out a breath. He hadn't seen this particular sight in a very long time and seeing it now, he knew the odds were that something was amiss in their lives. He opened the door and made his way into the coldness of the night. He kept walking until he reached the center of the grassy yard where he came upon his soulmate. "Angel, what's wrong?"

Sitting Indian-style on the grass, Daniel was staring straight ahead at the house when he answered, "We've made a mistake, Jack, a big one."

"Okay, let's fix it."

"I'm not sure it's easily fixable. We tried so hard to be fair, so hard that we ignored the fact that we were being unfair."

"Let's go in the house and discuss it."

"I'm fine here."

~Oh crap! It's worse than I thought,~ Jack bemoaned. Realizing the conversation was destined to continue in the chilly air, he sat down a bit to the right and in front of the archaeologist. "Danny, what did we do that's wrong or unfair?"

"We thought we were right. We weren't, Jack. We ... we were so wrong."

"How? How were we wrong?" the older man asked. ~Come on, Angel. Help me out here.~

"Jenny's fine," Daniel whispered. "Like I was always fine."

"Red was asleep when I did my rounds."

Shaking his head, Daniel refuted, "No. She might have been quiet, but she ... she was awake."

"Okay, so she's ... upset?"

"She's fine," Daniel sighed.

"Daniel, you're going to have to give me a hint here," Jack begged. "Whatever is wrong, we can fix. We can fix anything, but you have to tell me or we is just you."

"We play favorites, Jack," Daniel told his husband, glancing over at him. "Jonny for you, Little Danny for me. We play favorites."

Angrily, Jack refuted, "Daniel, I love each and every one of our brood just the same. There's not one of them that I love more than the other, not a blazin' one!"

"I know that, I do," Daniel responded, "but we play favorites."

"How? We bend over backwards to make sure our kids, all of them, are treated the same."

With an awkward smile, the archaeologist nodded as he replied, "Yes, we bend over backwards to be fair, so much so that we're not fair at all."

"Okay, Daniel, tell me what's going on," Jack requested sternly. He was on edge now, especially with the silence that followed. "Daniel, talk to me."

The archaeologist nodded and let out a mournful sigh as he explained, "I take Little Danny and sometimes David with me on anything that archaeology related, especially digs. Whenever you go to an Air Force event or do something that involves planes ..."

"I take Jonny." Jack saw his Love nod. "So? Danny, the kids have never complained."

"No, they haven't, and that's part of the problem. They trust us, Jack. They trust us to do what's right for them. We're their parents, but we've let them down."

"Can you be a little more specific?"

"Jenny," Daniel answered. "Jenny wants to go on the dig and Jenny wants to sit in the fighter jet, and, Jack, if Jenny is this upset, you know that others must be, too."

"Why hasn't she said something?"

"I don't know," Daniel sighed.

"Danny, we have family meetings, we talk to the kids together, separately, all the friggin' time, Jenny's never said boo about the choices we make."

"Jack, get your head out of the sand. We're the parents. It's up to us, not our children, to make choices that are appropriate for them. Jenny trusted us. They all trust us."

The older man reached over and caressed his Angel's back, making small, comforting circles. He was digesting the information and trying to work out the best solution.

"Okay, I guess we change the system."

"Too late for Jenny."

"Too late this time, but they'll be more trips. Danny, we're on the go all the time. She'll get a chance. We just stop ... oh, crap."

"We stop playing favorites. You know that's what we've done, with the best of intentions, but that's what we've done nevertheless."

"Okay, Daniel, we've played favorites. We can't tell Jonny and Little Danny they can't go on these trips. We've already promised them, and David. All we can do is change it for the future."

"Right," an unhappy Daniel responded.

"Danny, I get it, but we can't change the past. All we can do is make it better for the future. From now on, if we can take one, two, or three, we choose one, two, or three key chains and let the draws be what they are. No more favorites." Jack groaned, hating that word. ~That was the last thing we ever intended.~

"I guess that's all we can do."

Jack scooted around and put his arm protectively around his husband. If he felt like crap, he knew Daniel was emotionally crushed by the realization made. It was going to be a long, sad, restless night.

====

The next morning, Jack was in the kitchen, looking out the window. Jenny was sitting on the grass, not really doing anything. She'd separated herself from her siblings, wanting to be alone. As he watched, a thought came to him.

"I wish she wasn't so sad," Daniel lamented as he walked forward to stand next to Jack. "You're right, though. There's nothing we can do right now."

"Maybe there is," Jack suggested with a sly smile. "Stay tuned," he urged as he walked away.

"Where are you going?"

"Daniel, what's the most important skill a military man does?"

"Act arrogantly."

"Cute," Jack sighed. "He strategizes. That's what I'm doing now -- strategizing."

"Okay."

"Just stay there and observe the master in action."

"The master," Daniel mused, turning back to watch his daughter. ~I'm sorry, Jenny. I didn't mean to let you down.~

====

Jack entered the boys' room where Jonny was seated on the floor with a bunch of toy soldiers in front of him.

"How goes the war?"

"I have them boxed in," Jonny answered with pride.

The father observed the strategy employed by his son and was quite pleased. Jonny was a natural, but this wasn't the time to become distracted.

Sitting down on Little Danny's bed, Jack stated, "Being the leader is tough."

"It is?" Jonny questioned with doubt. "You're a great leader, Dad."

"Let's keep that a secret," Jack teased. "So, Son, are you the leader of your team?"

"I'm the little general," Jonny piped up with confidence.

"There's more to being a general than leading your troops into battle," Jack pointed out. "Strategy in battle is important, but so is knowing your team." He looked away for a moment and asked casually, "How's Jenny today?"

Focusing on moving one of his enemy soldiers, the boy answered, "She says she's fine."

"She says," Jack repeated softly. "Is she fine?"

"She says so."

"Son, you know another part of being a good military leader is having good observation skills."

"I see things good," the boy claimed.

"Do you?"

"Dad, I'm very good!"

"Yes, you are, but have you observed Jenny today?"

"She doesn't want to play," the boy commented, not really concerned about his sister's attitude at the moment. "I think I should move some men to cover my flank. What do you think, Dad?"

"Good idea," Jack answered as he observed the toy battle in progress. "Not interested in being a real leader today then, eh?"

"Huh?" the boy responded, looking up in confusion.

"Jonny, when you're a team leader, you have to make sure that every member of your team is ready, that means they're healthy and they have their head in the game. If they don't, they can't do their job, and if they don't do their job, that means you haven't done your job."

"Huh?"

"You are responsible for your team. Even a lieutenant has to make sure that his team is game ready. It's his or her responsibility." The father paused and raised his hand to scratch his chin thoughtfully. "Of course, not everyone can be a leader."

"I can! I'm a good leader," Jonny submitted stubbornly.

"What are you the leader of?" Jack challenged.

"I'm the leader of the brood, even if I'm not the oldest," the Munchkin claimed.

"Are you now? Tell me again what's wrong with Jenny?"

Frustrated and a tad annoyed, Jonny answered, "She's pouting, Dad. I don't know why."

"Yeah, I guess you don't." Jack patted his legs a couple of times as he sounded off with a "Well." He stood and headed for the door. "The brood's a team, a very strong unit, but it's only strong if everyone communicates. A leader knows that; a leader makes sure they do whatever is necessary to keep every member of his or her team ready, but Jenny's fine. She said so." As he walked out the door, he added, "Better check the guard you have hiding just inside the gate. He could sound the alarm."

The boy reviewed the battle at hand. He'd forgotten about the interior guard and sighed.

~Next time!~

====

"Any movement?" Jack asked as he approached Daniel in the kitchen.

"No," the archaeologist responded. "She's plucked a few blades of grass and talked to Ash for a minute, but mostly, she's just sitting." He faced his husband and inquired, "So what did you do?"

"Planted a seed, but you'll need to be a little patient."

"Patient?"

"Danny, you know how you are when you're right and I'm wrong?" Seeing the other man shrug, Jack continued, "You plant a little seed in my brain. It sits there and stirs. Slowly, it heats up; comes to a boil. Finally, it's steaming hot, driving me crazy until finally I have to admit I blew it and you're on the mark. Jonny's like me. Fortunately, he's not as stubborn. That's your influence." He grinned as he let his remarks settle with his Love. "By my calculation, we'll see some action in," he looked at his watch, "five ... four ... three ... two ... one."

Daniel looked around, but nothing happened.

Jack coughed as he, too, twisted all around in expectation.

Finally, Jonny was seen walking through the living room and heading outside.

"So close," Jack sighed.

The parents turned and stared outside through the window to see what would happen next.

====

Outside, Jonny walked over to Jenny, sat down, and asked, "Whatcha' doin'?"

"Sitting."

"Jenny, why don't you want to play with us today?"

"Maybe later," the redhead sighed.

"You mad?"

"No."

"Did somebody do something to hurt you?"

"No."

"Jenny, what's wrong?"

"It doesn't matter."

"Sure, it does," Jonny insisted. "We're the brood. We always help each other."

Jenny look at the Munchkin and accused, "You don't really want to know, Jonny."

"I do, too," the boy argued. "Come on, Jenny, tell me."

"Why?"

"Cause I'm the little general and I can't do my job if I don't know what's happening with my team."

Jenny stared at her brother and returned, "We're not military, Jonny. We're brothers and sisters."

"Same thing."

"No, it's not."

"Jenny, tell me what's wrong."

"You don't want to know," the little girl repeated.

"Yes, I do. I'm your big brother and I'm supposed to help," Jonny sighed.

"It doesn't matter."

Though he'd begun by being a bit frustrated, Jonny was becoming truly concerned about Jenny's feelings. He really did want to help her, and it had nothing to do with being a leader. Rather, it had everything to do with loving his sister.

Jonny reached out and took Jenny's hand while proclaiming, "Jenny, you're my sister, and I want you to be happy. You hafta tell me why you're not happy, so I can fix it."

"Fine. I want to go see the planes with Dad and go dig with Daddy. Fix that."

"Huh?" the boy responded in surprise.

"They didn't pick me," the girl lamented, hanging her head.

"We can't all go."

"I know that, but they didn't pick my key."

"Shhh!" Jonny instructed. "I could get in big trouble if Dad and Daddy knew that I found the box."

"See! You can't fix it because you don't want to fix it. You'd have to tell them," Jenny stated sternly.

"Jenny, they draw names."

"Sometimes," the girl returned.

"All the time."

Skeptically, Jenny looked at her brother while saying, "All the time for one or two, but not all, and you know it, Jonny Jackson-O'Neill."

"I do not."

"You're not dumb, you just act that way, but we know you're smart, as smart as we are, and you do, too, know that they draw names, but only names after you and Little Danny get to go."

"Jenny," the bewildered little general sighed. "And they're not keys," Jonny reminded, trying to shift the focus of the conversation a little. "They have key chains with pictures of us on them."

"Whatever," Jenny retorted.

"We don't really know that they draw our names," the boy put forth. The response was a cold 'oh yeah' glare that challenged the boy's integrity. "Okay, maybe we do, but, Jenny, I get to sit in a fighter jet."

"Have fun," Jenny replied, her gaze returning to the green grass.

"Maybe next time ..."

"Right, next time," the girl agreed, just wanting to the end the conversation. "I told you wouldn't to know. It's okay. It doesn't matter. Have fun, Jonny, and tell Little Danny to have fun, too."

Resigned that he wasn't getting anywhere, Jonny stood up and walked inside the house.

--

Inside the house, the parents watched the conversation, but they couldn't hear any of it. All they'd been able to do was witness that a conversation occurred and make assumptions based on the body language and actions of the two kids.

"What do we do?" Daniel whispered.

"Wait; let it simmer."

"Let what simmer, Jack? We have no idea what they were talking about."

"If I know our little general, he probed, and he got his answer. He just needs to process it and ..."

"... figure out the right thing to do?"

"I hope so," Jack sighed.

"And what is the right thing?"

"The truth is, Danny, I'm not sure, but I suspect the right thing will occur to Jonny."

"Why is that?"

"Because he's half yours and there's no one in this universe who knows about doing the right thing than you."

With a smile, Jack walked away. Patience was the only answer he had right now, that and a lot of hope.

====

Jonny returned to his bedroom and tried to play with his toy soldiers, but he was too distracted. He went downstairs and watched Lulu and Chenoa practicing a new routine in the dance room for a while, but he soon lost interest in that, too. Then he wandered into the living room and watched the fish swim.

"Hi, Homer," the Munchkin greeted the family's lemon peel angelfish.

After a few minutes, the boy went back outside. Jenny wasn't sitting on the grass anymore and was nowhere in sight. Jonny sauntered over to the deluxe doghouse where Bijou and Katie were relaxing. He sat down in front of the beagles and sighed.

"It's a fighter jet. You don't get to sit in a fighter jet every day," Jonny whined. "And I *am* a good general, well, little general anyway. What am I supposed to do? I can't help it they didn't draw her name." He let out a big groan. "Dad and Daddy won't let me go anywhere for a year if they find out, maybe never."

"Mama, what is Jonny talking about?" Katie asked.

"I'm not sure, Little One, but maybe it has to do with Jenny being so sad," the mother beagle replied.

"Can we help?"

"Why don't you scoot over here a little closer. We'll snuggle for a while."

"I love to snuggle," Katie responded with a grin as she did as her mother suggested. "Mama, want my biscuit?"

"Thank you, Katie. Here, have my tug toy."

"I love your toy."

"Now, snuggle, snuggle close."

"Why are we snuggling now when Jonny needs us?"

"We're showing him love, Little One. Love is often the answer for what ails you."

"I love you, Mama."

"And I love you."

Sighing, Jonny got up and complained, "You two are no help." He started to walk away, but then he turned around and said, "But I love you both anyway."

Bijou and Katie barked their love and watched as Jonny returned to the house where he basically wandered around from room to room as he tried to work out his problem.

====

The little general couldn't find peace in anything he was doing. He was troubled by Jenny's sadness and his own need to sit in the fighter jet and mingle with the four-star general. A big part of him knew what he had to do, but he just couldn't fully let go of his own needs and desires.

The internal struggle was making his heart ache, and he didn't like that one bit. He sauntered over to the bookshelf and pulled out a family album. He had a few of them. This one was full of pictures of Jonny on his various treks with his parents, either one or both of them.

There were many happy memories there for the youth. His pride in being at the side of his dad and daddy was huge. Jonny smiled at a picture of him with Jack at the Kennedy Space Center. At the last minute, the general finagled a pass so that he and his namesake could be at the NASA facility to watch the return of final space shuttle flight ever. It was so last minute that they'd flown to Florida at night to get there in time, but they'd made it. There he was, the oldest Munchkin, standing by the Atlantis, one of the few permitted to do so that day, thanks to the pull of his father.

Jonny turned the page and saw another picture, one of him with Daniel. The boy was carrying a gradiometer, walking casually over the grassy area. He was as proud of that moment as he was of standing by the Atlantis. His daddy let him walk the entire path and he'd discovered two separate areas where important items had been found. One spot had evidence of a living area and the other a border with a fence. He wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

~I feel lousy.~ Closing the album, Jonny laid down and stared at the ceiling. The more he thought, the more his head hurt. Finally, he let out with a loud, "Shibatwray!"

Instantly, Jonny sprang up and covered his mouth. Fearfully, he looked around the room. He got up and walked cautiously to the open door and peeked out into the hallway. He'd just cursed in a foreign language. He wasn't sure what language it was, but he'd heard his younger father use it from time to time.

~Be grounded for life for sure if Dad and Daddy heard me!~

Jonny's heart was beating fast at his faux pas. Feeling some relief, though, from escaping his parents' wrath at his cursing, he returned the album to the bookshelf. He knew what he had to do, but he wasn't quite ready to do it on his own. He needed some help to take that important step.

====

Ninety minutes after Jonny's encounter with the beagles and just ten minutes after swearing in his room, Daniel was in the living room cleaning the fish tank while Jack was reading a book in his comfortable chair. The stereo was on, a recording of "La Boheme" playing.

Jonny bounded down the steps and called out, "Daddy, when is Little Danny going to be home?"

Daniel glanced at his watch and answered, "Probably not for a couple of hours yet. Mrs. Miller said they'd be going to the park after lunch. Why?"

"I need to talk to him."

**Working!** Jack communicated without raising his eyes.

"Well, he'll be home later."

Jonny began to pace up and down the living room.

**Look at that, Danny. He's pacing like you do when you're processing information.**

**Not exactly, Babe. I don't think I walk that fast,** Daniel pointed out as continued his task.

Not quite three minutes later, Jonny sighed, "Daddy, can you take me to the park so I can talk to Little Danny?" He turned and saw his older father on his right. "Or maybe you can take me, Dad?"

"He's playing, Jonny," Daniel answered. "He'll be home soon."

"But it's real important, Daddy. Please!"

"Daniel, why don't I finish fish tank duty and you take Jonny to the park," Jack suggested as he put down his book and stood up.

"Okay, uh, sure," Daniel agreed. **Babe, don't forget to put the fish back into the tank when you're done.**

**Like I'd forget that,** Jack replied. He saw the pointed look from his lover. **It was just that one time, Danny.** When the look continued, he sighed, **I promise. Look, take Jonny. He needs your moral compass right now.**

"Give me a minute, Jonny," Daniel requested as he began to look around.

"What are you looking for, Daddy?"

A bit distracted, the archaeologist answered, "Uh, my shoes."

Both Jack and Jonny began to seek out Daniel's shoes, but they weren't anywhere in sight. Then Jonny got down on hands and knees and looked under the sofa.

"There they are."

"What are they doing under the sofa?" Daniel asked in confusion as Jonny handed him the items after pulling them out. Seeing a sheepish look on his lover's face, he prompted, "Jack?"

"I like your bare feet."

"Oh, for crying out loud," Daniel groaned as he put on his socks that were stuffed inside his shoes.

"That's my line."

"Sue me," Daniel teased.

"How come you didn't have your socks and shoes on, Daddy?" Jonny questioned.

"My feet were hot," Daniel answered.

**Hot, my foot,** Jack negated. **You were teasing me.**

**So sue me,** Daniel mocked with a sly smile.

"Geek."

"Fly Boy."

"Hey, you're one now, too, you know."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot," Daniel chuckled. "Come on, Son," he urged while smiling at Jack.

"Sometimes you and Dad are funny, Daddy."

"Uh ... probably."

Jack sat back down in his chair and began to read the book when he heard a gurgle.

"Oh, crap, the fish!"

**Jack!**

**It's under control, Angel.**

**It had better be.**

**Is that a threat, Love?**

**No, it's a promise. My bare feet will be unavailable until further notice if when I get home the tank isn't properly put back together, filled with water, and the fish swimming happily inside.**

**I can do that, except how do we know they're happy?**

**Just get it done, Jack.**

**Daniel?**

**Yes?**

**I love you!**

**I love you, Jack.**

====

"Daniel!" Mitzi Miller exclaimed in surprise as she saw Jonny streak passed her on his way to where Little Danny was playing with some friends. "Is everything all right?"

"Hello, Mitzi," Daniel returned. "Everything is fine. Jonny just needs to talk to Little Danny for a few minutes."

"Must be important."

"Could be," Daniel replied as he watched his two sons come together.

As the two neighborhood parents chatted, Jonny filled Little Danny in on what he'd learned about Jenny.

"I didn't know she wanted to go," Little Danny said as he sat against a tree.

"Me, neither, but she does."

"Jonny, we do go all the time," Little Danny admitted, his realization causing him to become saddened. "It's not fair to the others."

"But I'm the one who wants to be like Dad, and you want to be like Daddy," Jonny purported.

"Jonny, we're all like Dad and Daddy and we all want to be like them."

"You know what I mean."

"I know, but you know what I mean, too," Little Danny stated pointedly. "Jonny, we have to tell Dad and Daddy about the box."

"I'll get grounded for life."

The middle Munchkin thought for a minute and then promised, "If they ground you, I'll be grounded, too."

"That's not fair."

"We're brothers, and what happens to one of us, happens to the other," Little Danny suggested. "Besides, you weren't snooping, not really."

"They'll ground me," Jonny repeated sadly.

"You don't have to tell," Little Danny told his brother.

"I don't?"

"No, you don't have to."

"What's the catch?"

"No catch," Little Danny sighed. "I'm going to tell Daddy that I don't want to go to Alberta and I'm going to tell him to take Jenny instead."

"It's a fighter jet, Danny," Jonny groaned.

All Little Danny did was stare at his brother. There was no break in his look. He didn't even blink.

"Ah, Little Danny, it's a fighter jet."

"Have fun, Jonny," the boy responded. "Really, I want you to enjoy yourself. I'll think of something for us to do with Jenny."

"She can go next time."

"I have to go back now. I'm supposed to be playing with my friends."

Jonny let out a huge sigh and conceded, "Okay. Jenny can go sit in the fighter jet."

The grin on the other boy's face was unmistakable as he responded, "It'll be okay, Jonny. We'll have fun doing something and Jenny can take pictures."

"Great," the older boy replied unenthusiastically.

"Jonny, if you really don't want to let Jenny go, then you shouldn't. You have to do it because you really want to, because you know she's our sister, and the box isn't fair when you and I get to go all the time. Jenny likes planes. You know that, and she always has fun on the family digs. It's not fair for us to always get to go. I love Jenny, and I don't want her to be sad and feel left out."

"I love her, too, and I don't want her to feel left out, either," Jonny noted. "You're right. She was really sad, and she didn't think I cared. How could see feel like that?"

"She knows you care. She just didn't think you'd give up the fighter jet. You have to really love someone to give up something you really love."

"Like you love looking for artifacts."

Little Danny nodded added, "And you love planes."

--

"They look so serious, Daniel. Are you sure everything is okay?"

"It will be," Daniel replied as he continued to watch the boys talk.

====

"We need to have a brood meeting," Jonny stated.

The other boy nodded in agreement and added, "It's all our faults, Jonny. We have to fix it."

"Let's go."

"Wait," Little Danny objected as he stood up at the same time his brother did. "I need to tell them," he pointed at the friends he'd been with that morning, "and then I'll come, okay?"

"Okay." Jonny turned and jogged at a moderate pace to where the parents were standing. "Daddy, we can go home now."

"Manners!"

"Oh, I'm sorry," the Munchkin responded sincerely. "Hi, Mrs. Miller. I'm sorry I ignored you. I have a lot on my mind today."

Mitzi Miller chuckled and replied, "That's all right, Jonny. Sometimes, I have days like that, too."

"Okay, well ..." Daniel began while taking a step.

"Wait, Daddy," Jonny interrupted. "Little Danny is coming home with us, too."

"He is?"

"We have to have a brood meeting."

"Oh." Daniel sighed, "I'm not sure everyone is home."

"They will be."

Daniel nodded and waited until his namesake joined them. He listened as the child prodigy gave his thanks and said goodbye to Mitzi before guiding the kids to the car.

"Wow, we get to double up," Jonny observed with a grin.

"Yes, well, let's not mention that to Dad," Daniel suggested as he sighed at his poor choice of driving Jonny to the park in the Silver Fox, his sleek sports car that was only a two-seater.

Jonny looked at his brother and advised, "No messing around. We don't want Daddy to get a ticket."

Once the boys were secured in the passenger seat, Daniel headed for home. He was a bit surprised when the boys chattered away about all kinds of things as if nothing unusual was happening. He feared his oversight over the years could not be repaired. Certainly, he and Jack could make better choices in the future, but that wasn't helping him to deal with the harshness of Jenny's emotions today.

~Maybe Jack's strategy didn't work. Gawd, we're just going to have to live with this, with our ... failure.~

====

Upon arriving home, the two boys immediately searched the house to see which of their siblings were home. Then they'd met to confer, deciding upon their best option. Since their dad's trip was the next day, they considered the timing to be urgent.

Meanwhile, Jack and Daniel were in the living room, the older man being evaluated by the younger.

"Homer and company are happy little swimmers," Jack proclaimed proudly as his husband examined the fish tank.

"Nice job," Daniel praised, rewarding his lover with a sweet kiss.

"So, how was it?" Jack asked.

"They talked a long time and then said they had to have a brood meeting."

"Not all the kids are home," Jack pointed out.

"You know that, I know that, and they know that," Daniel replied with a shrug.

The sound of hurrying children interrupted the conversation.

"Dad, Daddy, we need Bri, Noa, Lulu, and Jen to come home right now," Jonny stated.

"It's really really really important," Little Danny added.

"Yeah, we have to have a brood meeting, and it can't wait."

"Kids, I know it's important," Jack responded.

"You do?" Jonny questioned with a bit of concern.

"Didn't you just tell us it was important?" the general returned.

"Oh, yeah, and it is."

**What do you think?** Jack communicated with his husband.

**Babe, your trip is tomorrow. I think that's why they feel the need to get together now, and if we're hoping that ... well, you know.**

"Give us an hour to round them up," Jack told the boys.

"Thanks, Dad!" Jonny responded happily. "Come on. We have to make strategy."

As the boys bounded back upstairs, Daniel queried, "Strategy?"

"Not sure what to make of that," Jack admitted. "Listen, I'll go pick up the Curly Tops. Can you call Sheila's folks and contact the Westhavens?"

"Yeah. I'll call with the details," Daniel replied.

The lovers kissed and Jack left the house to pick up the girl dancers who, after practicing their dance routine earlier, were now playing at Angela Wilson's house.

Daniel went to the phone to call his oldest daughter, who was at her best friend's house. His next call would be to the Westhavens who had taken some of the neighborhood kids to the skating rink for an impromptu ice hockey game. It wasn't clear how long the game would go on, so pending on the response, Brianna would be on her way home with the Westhavens or Jack would veer by the rink to pick her up.

~I hope we're doing the right thing,~ the archaeologist thought as he dialed.

====

"Sure wish I knew what this was about," Jennifer sighed as she walked in the front door.

Quickly, Chenoa and Lulu headed upstairs to find their other siblings, while the two older girls lagged behind.

"What are you complaining about, Jen?" Brianna queried rhetorically. "We were in overtime when Dad pulled me out."

"Hey, both of you. What's more important," Jack looked at Jennifer, "Sheila and gossiping about boys," he stared at Brianna, "a hockey game," he altered his gaze to confront both girls, "or your brothers and sisters?"

"Oh fudge," Jennifer groaned. "Hey, but ..."

"No buts," Jack interrupted. "You have a problem with it, you take it up with Jonny. He called the meeting and insisted it couldn't wait."

"Must be important," Brianna replied. "Come on, Jen. Let's go find 'em."

Still not happy, Jennifer nodded and followed the tomboy upstairs, nodding and letting out small waves toward their younger father as they saw him walking from the patio toward the home's entranceway.

"They, uh, didn't sound happy," Daniel noted.

"Nope, but they'll live with it."

"You still think this is going to work?"

"Sure," Jack responded positively. He started to walk away, but quickly noticed his husband was lingering. "Danny?"

"Jack, why a big meeting? I mean, this really only involves Jonny and Little Danny, and maybe David. Why did Jonny insist on a full out brood meeting?"

Jack walked slowly back to his husband, his mind searching for the answer. He glanced upward at the second level and then looked back at his questioning lover. His eyes made contact with Daniel's.

"That's a good question," the general finally returned. "Why?"

"I have no idea, but something isn't quite right about this."

"Maybe he and Little Danny want to apologize for unintentionally hogging the trips."

"It was never their fault; it was ours," Daniel reminded. "I'm just saying they didn't need a brood meeting *right now* to apologize, not that they have anything to apologize for."

"Okay then, why the full meeting?"

"I don't know, but apparently, it's important. I just think we need to be prepared."

"I'm not liking the sound of that."

"We're missing something, Babe. I don't know what it is, but there's more going on here than Jenny's problem."

"Hey, maybe that's it. Look, I laid it on pretty thick with Jonny, about being aware of everyone's feelings. Jenny held out on them; maybe that's what the meeting is about."

"Maybe," the doubting archaeologist replied and began walking back to the kitchen.

"Crap," Jack lamented, certain his husband was right since he was normally right about everything.

====

The brood gathered in the boys' room, closing the door for privacy.

"Meeting called to order," Jonny announced.

"Great!" Brianna exclaimed. "Why couldn't our meeting wait until my hockey game was done?"

"Cause we have to talk," Jonny answered. "We have to fix a problem."

"What problem?" Jeff asked.

Jonny sighed, "The box problem."

"Actually, it's Jonny and me always getting to go with Dad and Daddy places," Little Danny corrected.

"We all go with Dad and Daddy places," Chenoa interjected.

Jonny looked at Jenny, whose head was hung low, and refuted, "Yes, but no. It's the box draw."

"It's the box draw because they don't draw the right number of names," Little Danny pointed out.

"We don't really know they're drawing names," Jennifer put forth.

"I saw the box, remember?" Jonny replied. "What else could it be for?"

"I don't know, but just because they have a box full of key chains with our pictures on them that they hide in Daddy's drawer ..." Jennifer's voice trailed off and she shrugged. "Okay, well, maybe, but what's the problem? Whatever they're doing, it's works."

Jonny walked over to Jenny, looking her in the eyes as he shook his head, and insisted, "No, it's not, not all the way."

"I get it," David stated.

"Tell me, Bro," Jeff requested.

"It's not just Jonny and Little Danny, but me, too, sometimes. When Dad goes to some Air Force thing, however many of us go with him, Jonny's always part of it, and with Daddy, when it's a dig or something where it's, well, archaeology in action, Little Danny goes and ... sometimes me, especially when rocks are part of it."

"They always go," Jenny finally whispered.

At that point, Jonny and Little Danny told their siblings why Jenny was upset and how they'd come to the conclusion that they shouldn't automatically be chosen for those trips.

"So, let's tell Dad and Daddy," Brianna stated, not quite understanding the hesitation.

"I'm gonna get grounded for life," Jonny bemoaned.

"Jonny found the box and never told them," Little Danny reminded. "He went into Daddy's drawer and got the box. We're not supposed to do that."

"Plus, he told all of us about it," Aislinn added as she realized the extent of the problem. "We're all going to be in trouble because we didn't tell them, or didn't tell Jonny to tell them."

"Kids, I think you're making a little too much of this," Jennifer opined. "Let's just tell them the truth. They'll like that."

"We need to talk about something else, too," Little Danny told the brood.

"What?" Lulu asked.

"Jenny didn't say anything about being upset. She should have been able to tell us," Little Danny explained. "We shouldn't have secrets like that, not from each other."

"Jenny, why didn't you tell me?" Ricky asked. "You should have at least told me."

In a small voice, the redhead answered, "I didn't want anyone to be mad at me or get hurt. I don't want Jonny and Little Danny not to go with Dad and Daddy just because of me. They like it too much. I'm not a general, and I don't want to be one. I don't want to be an archaeologist, either. I just ..." She let out a sniffle and her voice stopped after a tiny, "I don't know."

The kids surrounded their sister and it was Little Danny who surmised, "She wants to spend time with Dad and Daddy when they're doing what they really love; she wants to be part of it."

"I do, too," Aislinn admitted. "Sometimes, not a lot, but sometimes when Jonny goes with Dad, I wish it were me."

At last, the brood opened up to one another, confessing their feelings about the current system and how it touched them. They were all a little surprised at how they'd internalized the situation and how wide spread the emotional dissatisfaction with the system went. It turned out to be a meeting of revelation and even deeper understanding of their roles within the Jackson-O'Neill family.

====

"Jack."

"Yeah, they've been at it a long time," Jack concurred as he sat at the kitchen table in the nook area.

Standing by the counter with his arms folded as he stared at the bottom of the stairs, Daniel sighed, "We've missed something."

"When you're right, you're right," Jack agreed. "They'll tell us."

"Are you sure?"

"No, but I think they will," Jack answered.

Daniel began to pace, going from the counter to the wall, walking alongside the patio door.

"Danny, sit down."

"What did we miss? Jack, what else do they have to talk about? I mean, uh, if Jonny figured out that he needs to stay home and let Jenny go with you tomorrow, and maybe, gawd, I don't know. Maybe Little Danny decided to back out. They tell one another. What else is there?"

"Maybe they're trying to figure out how to tell us without ..."

"... without hurting us?" Daniel suggested.

"Could be."

"I guess so," Daniel half-heartedly agreed.

====

It was twenty minutes later when the children finally appeared in the living room. Since their parents were nowhere in sight, Brianna was chosen to check the study as they'd already sought out Jack and Daniel in Daniel's den as well as the master bedroom while coming downstairs. Meanwhile, the brood opted to go to the recreation room where they could be more comfortable for what was to follow.

"There you are," Brianna said as she stood in the doorway.

"Everything okay?" Jack questioned.

"Well, we'll know in a while. Um, we'd like to have a family meeting now, if that's okay."

"Sure," Daniel answered, getting up from the sofa as did Jack.

The couple followed Brianna into the rec room and saw the children sitting quietly, some on the sofa, some on floor pillows, and the rest on ottomans.

Seeing their parents, Jonny and Little Danny stood up from the center of the sofa where they'd been sitting.

"Dad, Daddy, you can sit there, okay?" Little Danny requested as he pointed to the sofa.

"Okay," Daniel agreed.

Once they were seated, Jack asked, "What's up, kids?"

Jonny drew a big breath and muttered, "Gonna be grounded for life."

"What was that?" Jack questioned.

"Nothing," the Munchkin returned.

With a slight poke of his brother's arm, Little Danny cajoled, "Tell them, Jonny."

"I will, I will," the boy sighed. He decided to start with the easy part. "Dad, Daddy, Jenny really wants to go with you on the trips tomorrow and next week, so I'm not gonna go sit in the fighter jet and Little Danny's not gonna play in the dirt with Daddy."

**Not very enthusiastic,** Daniel noted.

**Nope, but he said it,** Jack replied.

"Well, that's very nice of you two," Daniel responded to the little general.

"And ... uh ... oh crap," the oldest Munchkin lamented.

"What was that?" Jack asked.

"We want a new system," Jonny announced, figuring if he ignored his dad's query, there was a small chance his use of language would be overlooked.

"New system?" the silver-haired man queried.

"Little Danny and me know you take us more than you take the others, and it's not fair," Jonny stated as his siblings watched. "Jenny's not the only one who has wanted to go and hasn't been able to."

"She's not?" a saddened Daniel asked.

Little Danny shook his head and added, "But it's okay, Daddy, cause we all get to go with you and Dad sometimes. We've talked it out now. We promised we're not going to keep it inside if we think something isn't fair anymore."

"That's good," Daniel responded. "Who else ... is upset."

"Dad, Daddy," Jennifer interjected. "We decided we want to keep that private. Really, it's not that any of us are mad or upset or anything, but the experiences we've all had have been wonderful, and no matter what, we've all been super happy and excited for what each of us has been fortunate to do and see. Please, I know it's tempting and maybe you have a right to know, but we talked about it, and we figured out where we messed up as the brood and now we'd just like to move forward and make sure we don't hide things like this from one another anymore. Can you respect that and let it go? Please."

Jack and Daniel exchanged a look and then both nodded. It was going to be hard not to inquire about this further, but they both felt their children earned respect like this, so unless something happened in the future that would call the decision into question, they were willing to let it go.

"Thanks," Jennifer replied on behalf of her brothers and sisters. She looked over at the male Munchkins and prompted, "Jonny."

The boy shuffled his feet slightly as he stared down at the carpet before taking a giant breath and sounding a lot like his fast talking daddy as he revealed, "And we want you to draw names all the time out of the box that's in Daddy's drawer and not pick David, Little Danny, and me for the special trips."

Jack stared at his namesake for a few seconds before turning his head to look at Daniel as he asked, "Did you get that?"

"I think so."

"Good. What did he say?"

"They know about the box," Daniel sighed. "Jonny, how did you find out about the box?"

"It was my turn to do the laundry. I took your socks and hankies upstairs, but you weren't there. I'd messed up on my history test that day, and you weren't happy with me. I wanted to make up for it, so I thought I'd put your clothes away instead of leaving them on the bed like we're supposed to. I opened your drawer and saw the box. I was curious, so I took it out and saw the key chains with our pictures on them."

"How do you know what we do with them?" the archaeologist questioned.

With a shrug, Jonny answered, "It just seemed logical. You had to use the key chains for something. The only thing I could think of was when we go on trips."

**Logical,** Daniel relayed to his husband.

"Yeah, you always tell us who is going and never ask us," Little Danny added in support of his brother.

"What about the trip to Egypt this month?" Jack challenged. "You voted."

"We didn't have the box," Daniel sighed.

"Daniel!"

"Jack, they know. We were at the cabin when the Egypt opportunity came up. We didn't anticipate it, so we didn't take the box."

"Okay," the general acknowledged, leaning forward and his hands intertwined. "Maybe it's time to make a few changes." He looked at Daniel and asked, "What do we do about my trip tomorrow and yours next week?"

"I guess we go as scheduled," Daniel respected.

"Except Jenny goes in our place," Jonny piped up, getting a nod from Little Danny.

Jenny stood up and said, "No, I think you should both go."

"You're going," Jonny insisted.

"But it's a fighter jet, Jonny. I can go the next time," Jenny argued.

"Except ..."

The voice was a near whisper, a tiny noise that barely transcended the space between the speaker and the parents.

"What is it, Lil' Bit? Go ahead," Jack prodded.

"I like going with you and Daddy, Dad," Lulu stated softly.

"But?" the older father asked.

"Tomorrow, Mrs. Rogers was taking some of us to Julie's house."

"Julie? Long brown hair, lots of personality, twirls around a lot?"

Lulu nodded and reminded, "She broke her leg and can't dance for a long time. Her mommy says she's feeling really sad so some of us were going to her house. Mrs. Rogers taught us a special routine just for Julie. We want to cheer her up and tell her we miss her at class."

"Lulu, why didn't you tell us about this?" Daniel asked from his spot on the sofa.

"I was going to," the little girl responded. "Every time I started to, something happened, and then I forgot. Then I remembered during our meeting, but then ..."

As Lulu's words trailed off, Jack completed, "... we told you that you were coming with me."

Daniel stood up and walked towards the front of the room. He stared at nothingness for a minute, but then turned around and looked at his children.

"I need you, all of you, to tell us the truth, the absolute truth," the archaeologist stated. "Raise your hand if you've ever gone anywhere with me or Dad or both of us when you had something else that you wanted to do instead. Be honest. Raise your hands."

Jennifer looked over at her siblings and saw the hesitation in their demeanor. She sighed and raised her hand.

"Come on, kids. Remember what we talked about in our meeting. We need to be honest with them, just like Daddy said."

Slowly, seven of the twelve children raised their hands.

"Oh gawd," Daniel expressed as he bowed his head. **We messed up more than I thought.**

Sensing his father's distress, Little Danny ran over to Daniel and threw his arms around him while saying, "We love you, Daddy, and we love going with you, and with Dad. It's not a bad thing, is it, kids?"

All of the children shook their heads and uttered expressions about how much they enjoyed their trips.

Jack approached Lulu, taking her hands as he responded, "But sometimes maybe you'd rather be somewhere else on a particular day."

"Julie's helped me a lot," Lulu replied.

**We never asked them, Jack. We never once asked our children if they had something else they wanted to do, or needed to do. How arrogant have we been?**

**No sirree, Danny. Not arrogant, and they're not unhappy.**

**No? Look at them.**

Jack sighed and again focused on the curly-haired brunette, inquiring, "Lulu, tell your old man the truth. Do you really want to go hobnob with a four-star stuffed shirt and sit in some old jet?"

Lulu's face lit up like a Christmas tree as she answered, "Oh, yes, Dad, I do! I love seeing you when you play with the generals."

~Play?~ Jack echoed in his mind. ~That's my girl.~

"And, oh, wow, sitting in a jet. I'll probably never get to do that again. You told us stories about flying a jet. I think it would great fun."

**There's your answer, Danny. Our kids want to go with us. We've just neglected to consider their schedules as much as ours.** Jack stood and addressed the children. "How about the others who raised their hands?"

Jonny put his hands on his hips and he declared, "Dad, we *love* going with you and Daddy anywhere. It's special time. We've done lots of neat things ..."

"I got to go see the horses," Chenoa said with a huge grin.

"And we've gone all over the world," Jeff pointed out. "Not many of our friends have left the state, let alone the country like we have."

"We always have fun," Aislinn added.

"You can't beat the education it gives us, too," Brianna interjected.

"Daddy," Jenny called out, finally adding to the discussion. "I raised my hand because one time you took me with you to Vermont and we went to the ice cream factory."

"Yeah, she got to see the ice cream," Jonny declared enviously. "That was awesome!"

"But I ate too much and I had an upset tummy. I remember you sang to me and held me really close. It made me feel all better. I always want to go with you and Dad places because when I do, I feel good all over."

"Is there a 'but' in there, Princess?" Jack queried,.

"Well, that was the day of the doll club meeting and it was just a regular meeting, but, well ..."

Aislinn gasped and recalled, "We were having a contest that month." She looked at the redhead and said, "I forgot, Jenny. You worked so hard on your dolly."

"Worked hard?" Daniel questioned.

"Daddy, remember? You took us shopping?" Aislinn responded with a question of her own.

"We had to make a dolly from a pretend country," Jenny noted.

"I remember now," Daniel acknowledged. "You, uh, used your piggy bank money to pay for some material and accessories."

"I think Jenny would have won," Aislinn opined.

"But she wasn't there because she was with me," Daniel surmised with another sigh.

"But we had so much fun, Daddy."

Daniel walked over, picked up the Spitfire, and hugged her while agreeing, "Yes, we did, Jenny. I love you, and I'm sorry you missed that important doll club meeting."

The father put the little girl down and returned to where he'd been standing. Jack joined him. The two looked into each other's eyes. They didn't say anything, verbally or via their special communication link. All they needed to understand their thoughts was the connection of brown eyes to blue ones.

"New rules," Jack stated, still staring at Daniel. Then he turned to face the kids. "From now on, when Daddy and I have special trips, when we tell you who is going, we want you to be honest with us if there is a reason you'd rather not come."

"You *have* to trust us that it's okay. We might forget something you've told us about or, like with Jenny, maybe there is something special about a routine activity that we aren't aware of, or don't remember. It's okay. Please tell us," Daniel pleaded.

"Dad, Daddy," Lulu spoke up again.

"What is it, Little Bit?" Daniel asked.

"I think we did a good job ... voting," Lulu opined.

"Me, too!" Chenoa seconded.

"Voting was fun," Ricky added.

"I think what they're saying is that maybe sometimes we can be part of the decision," Jennifer offered.

**They're right, Danny. They proved that at the cabin when we didn't have the box.**

**So, we let them decide who goes?**

**Why not?** Jack asked.

Daniel's reply came in the form of a nod.

Facing the children, Jack announced, "New rules again. From now on when a trip is in play, we'll tell you about it and you all can do your thing and decide who goes. We'll trust you to be fair and logical in your choices."

"Jen," Daniel stated, his one-word moniker a complete sentence.

"I promise," Jennifer replied, having understood that it would be her responsibility to ensure the brood meetings on this subject remained fair and no one was left out or unheard.

"It's very important," Daniel said as he looked at the children, "that if anyone is *ever* uncomfortable or has a problem about this, or anything else, that you talk to us. Please, please don't keep it to yourselves. Dad and I, we ... we just ..."

Daniel couldn't complete his sentence. He'd always tried so hard to be completely impartial and to never hurt the children. He was disheartened throughout this experience and felt as though he had disappointed his children.

Immediately, the kids all stood and surrounded their younger father.

"It's okay, Daddy. I should have told you," Jenny soothed.

"We're good to go now," Jonny promised. "I understand more now about what being the little general really means."

"We've all learned from this, Daddy," David added.

"One more thing," a recomposed Daniel began. "There might be times when we decide we want to take one or more of you on a trip for reasons we might not disclose."

"Daddy's absolutely correct," Jack interjected supportively. "When those times happen, no lip and no questions about the lack of the democratic process. There will be times when this is a dictatorship."

"All we're saying is that every now and then, we might feel a need to spend time with one or two of you in a way we can't do at home, or maybe we think you need some time, or ..."

"... maybe we just feel like it and just maybe sometimes there will be something that we think Jonny or Little Danny ... or Lulu might especially benefit from so much that it outweighs brood voting rights. When those times occur, we expect you to understand and go along with it."

"That said, we still want you to be honest with us. If you have a prior obligation or something we aren't understanding the importance of, come to us."

Jack picked up the admonition by saying, "It doesn't mean we can or will always be able to make changes, but when we can, we will, and that's exactly why our trip to DC is being pushed back a day."

"What?" Lulu asked, her voice louder and more excited than it had been during the entire meeting.

With a grin, Jack advised, "I don't know if we'll be meeting with the four-star, but the Smithsonian and the jets will be there on Friday, so that's when Jonny, Lulu, *and* Jenny are coming with me to DC. Any problems with that?"

Smiling faces all shook their heads along with various verbal phrases of agreement.

"Okay, now my trip for next week. David, Little Danny, Ash, and Jenny will go with me."

"Are you sure you can take me, Daddy?" the Spitfire asked. "It's okay. Really, it is, if you can't."

Daniel kneeled down and smiled at his princess as he replied, "Jenny, there's no way I'm going on this trip without you. There's always room for one more in this family."

"Oh boy!" Jenny exclaimed. "Two trips in a week!"

The children were very excited for their sibling and encouraged her to remember everything so she could tell them all about her adventures upon returning home.

"Anything else, General Jonny?" Jack asked.

"Yes, Sir," the boy answered, suddenly feeling deflated.

**Oh, no, not something else,** Daniel bemoaned.

"We're listening," Jack responded.

"You haven't punished me yet."

Jack sighed and exchanged a look with his lover before replying, "Daddy and I need to discuss your punishment, and the roles of your siblings in keeping the secret. We'll let you know."

The meeting was dismissed, though everyone remained and chatted for a while until eventually, the family separated to tend to other tasks or play. The parents also had things to do and a lot to think about.

====

After dinner, Jack and Daniel were upstairs getting ready to go out for a couple of hours with their friends, Paul Davis and Marc Reynolds. Their neighbor, Mrs. Sophia Valissi, would be coming over to stay with the children while the couple was gone.

At the moment, Jack was in the bathroom, his shirt off, as he cleaned up. As he reached for his razor, Jack felt his Love's hands reaching out and caressing his hairy chest. Then he felt a tender kiss on his left shoulder.

"Danny, you keep that up and we're not going to make drinks with Davis and Reynolds."

"They'll give us a rain check."

"Works for me," the older man responded as he gazed at Daniel via the mirror.

"No, we need to go, but ... thank you."

"You're welcome, but what did I do?"

"You fixed it, like always."

"I didn't do squat."

"You planted the seed, Babe, and that seed has freed us all from ... from our mistakes. Gawd, we'd made more than I thought."

"Danny, we're just like any other parent. We do our best, make choices based on what we know and feel. We can't beat ourselves up for this."

"I know, but that doesn't make it disappear," the younger man replied, his arms still wrapped around his husband.

"We have to stop selling our kids short. That's our mistake," Jack claimed.

"You're right."

"Say that again," Jack teased.

"No."

"Stubborn."

"Absolutely," Daniel agreed. Releasing his hold on Jack, he asked, "What are we going to do about Jonny?"

Jack turned around and leaned against the sink, shaking his head as he responded, "Part of me wants to let him off the hook."

"We can't do that, Jack. Look, I ... I have that same emotion about letting it go, but we can't, not with who we are and the sensitivities that surround our lives."

"We have to be able to trust the kids not to break the rules," Jack elaborated.

"He not only opened the drawer, but he took out the box, and he opened it. Jack, we're lucky that the only things in there were key chains. It's not like we have ..."

Daniel paused, suddenly becoming very uncomfortable with what he'd almost said.

Jack nodded, approached his husband, and rubbed up and down Daniel's arms while responding, "No weapons in this house for our brood to find."

"Well, we have them," Daniel corrected. "We've just taken great precautions to make sure they can't get to them. Maybe we should say we've done all we can to ensure that."

"Danny, we need to punish Jonny because you're right. We have to know he and the others fully understand that they have to control their curiosity."

"What's the fair thing?"

Jack thought for a moment and then smiled as he questioned, "What does Jonny love most?"

"You."

"Daniel!"

The younger man laughed and responded, "The Air Force. He wants to be a general."

"Okay, second best?"

"What are you thinking?"

"A way to punish him that both gets the message across but doesn't make us feel like heels in the process."

"I'm listening."

====

"Here's your double scoop, Ash," Jonny sighed as he handed Aislinn a bowl with two scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream inside it.

"Thanks, Jonny."

"And here's yours, Jenny," the Munchkin said as he held out the bowl of orange sherbet with strawberries on top.

From their spot at the kitchen door, Jack and Daniel witnessed Jonny handing out ice cream to all of the children. They were all allowed to have double scoops, not just on this night, but for the next three nights exclusive of the trip to DC. Jonny, however, was not allowed to have any ice cream. Even so, he would be scooping up and handing out all of the family's ice cream and then would manually do the dishes afterward. The dishwasher was off limits for the duration of the ice cream service.

"Genius," Daniel whispered to his husband.

"Every now and then," Jack answered as the two men continued to watch the action play out.

"Double scoop double chocolate fudge," Jonny announced as he gave the bowl to his Munchkin brother.

"Thank you."

Jonny walked over and sat down on the ottoman now that all of his siblings had their ice cream.

Little Danny took one bite and then gasped.

"Are you okay?" Aislinn asked her brother.

"I forgot," Little Danny replied. "Jonny, you need to take this back."

"Why?"

"I promised you we'd be punished together. I'm sorry I forgot," the young genius sighed.

"Thanks, Little Danny."

"Yeah, we shouldn't have ice cream," Ricky concurred, with nods coming from the others.

Jonny stood up, put his hands on his hips, and ordered, "Eat your ice cream. I'm the little general and *I* should have known better. I was the one who opened Daddy's drawer and *I* opened the box. Then I told all of you instead of asking Dad and Daddy bout it like I should have. Worse, I didn't take care of Jenny and Lulu and all of us like I should have. It's my fault and part of being a little general is admitting when I made a mistake. I made a mistake. Eat your ice cream. I'll have three scoops on Sunday when I'm off ice cream punishment."

"Are you sure?" Little Danny questioned.

"Dad and Daddy want me to remember the rules and understand that their rules are important. No ice cream for me and serving double scoops for you guys all week? Oh boy, will I remember!"

Jonny laughed and then so did his siblings.

"You're the best little general ever," Aislinn praised, walking over and kissing her brother on the cheek.

"Don't get mushy, Ash."

"You're my brother, and I'm proud of you, and I love you, and if I want to give you a kiss or a big hug like this," Aislinn latched on to the boy tight, "then I will. Deal with it."

"Thanks, Ash," Jonny returned, hugging his sister back.

A knock on the door drew Jack's and Daniel's attention.

"That should be Mrs. Valissi," Daniel stated.

"Kids, we're going now. Behave for Mrs. V."

"We'll do rounds when we get home for anyone still awake. We love you, all of you."

The couple greeted their neighbor, said goodbye to the brood, and headed out to enjoy some adult conversation and drinks with their military friends.

====

When the lovers returned home, they made their traditional goodnight rounds together. Most of the younger kids were asleep, but Jenny was awake, too excited about the big trip to DC the next day to sleep. After chatting with her for a bit, the couple entered the boys' room where Little Danny and Ricky were sound asleep. Jonny, though, was awake, though he was very tired and yawning frequently.

"Go to sleep, Jonny," Daniel urged.

"Goodnight, Son," Jack called out from behind his Angel.

The parents started to walk away when they heard the oldest Munchkin call out quietly, "Daddy?"

"Yes?" Daniel asked as he turned around.

"I should have known about Jenny sooner," Jonny sighed.

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, the father pointed out, "You're not a mind reader, Jonny."

"I should have gave up my spot quicker," the boy stated.

With a hand on the boy's chest, Daniel replied, "Sometimes, we have to step back to see the big picture. It doesn't necessarily matter how long it takes you to do it, as long as you get there."

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"Are you proud of me?"

Smiling, the reply was resolute.

"Jonny, I am *so* proud of you. It's never easy to give up something you love, but you did it, and you did it because you love your sister. And I'm proud of you because when you realized there was a problem, you took action. You didn't not think about it or try to ignore it, you thought it through, you sought out counsel ..."

"Huh?"

"You talked to Little Danny and then all of your brothers and sisters."

"Oh," Jonny responded, understanding now what his father was saying.

"The point is that you made me very proud today and also this evening during ice cream. What you said to the rest of the brood was the right thing. You put them first and accepted your punishment without making them feel bad. Yes, I'm very proud of you." Daniel touched the boy's cheek and added, "Jonny, I'm always proud of you. I love you so much."

Jonny jumped up from the covers and hugged his daddy, enjoying the feeling of Daniel's arms around him.

"Dad, are you proud of me, too?"

"You know it!" Jack assured. "You were spot on with everything you said. You made a mistake and took responsibility for it. That's what a real leader does."

Jonny smiled and let out a big yawn.

"Time to close your eyes," Daniel encouraged, leaning over and giving his son a kiss. "Sleep, Jonny." Standing, he mused, "I think he's already asleep."

Jack and Daniel left the boys' room and finished their rounds.

====

Deciding to get a head start on the next night's meal, the lovers were in the hospitality room doing some dinner preparation. Jack was cutting up meat for a beef stew, while Daniel was chopping up vegetables and greens for a salad.

"Angel," Jack spoke softly, breaking the silence that had been presence as the couple had focused on their tasks.

"What?"

"We have to stop shortchanging the kids."

"What do you mean?" Daniel questioned, looking up with curiosity.

As he put the chopped meat into a large pan, Jack explained, "We keep forgetting what they've told us over and over again."

"I still don't know what you mean."

"How many times have Jonny and Little Danny told us that they are a part of both of us?"

"A lot."

"And how many times have we ignored that because we keep putting them in our self-conceived boxes?"

"A lot," Daniel sighed while also thinking how much Jack was sounding like him. ~The older the get, the more we sound like each other,~ he mused. Verbally, he added, "But I still have no idea what you're getting at."

"My namesake has gone through a struggle during the past several hours and at the end of the day what mattered to him is that you're proud of him." Jack walked over to Daniel and took him into his arms. "Angel, you've always been my moral compass. There were times I ignored it and tried to pretend reality was more what I wanted it to be, but when it was all said and done, you were the moral right. Whether it was saving Abydos or two Shetland ponies, your heart is centered where it should be."

"Thank you, but your heart is, too."

"You're just saying that!"

"I am not," Daniel denied, "and don't start with the 'am, too, am not' business," he laughed. "You just take a little longer sometimes to see where justice should be."

"Jonny's a lot like me, Danny, but had it been me trying to figure out the ethics of what he went through today, I would have taken at least a day, maybe two to see the light, if not longer. *Our* son got it done in a few hours."

"He had a lot to digest."

"But he did the right thing and that's because of you and that's why he needed to know tonight that you were still proud of him. He's the best of both of us. They all are."

"I love you, Jack."

"Geez, I love you."

The lovers kissed, their lingering of their lips lasting several minutes and delaying their meal prep for tomorrow. It had been a very long and trying day, but even at its lowest points, the Jackson-O'Neills pulled together, supporting one another as they strove to determine the right path to take. Nothing could be finer than the parents and their brood working together to solve their problems. It was never about being easy, but it was always about loving, and for Jack and Daniel, there was an abundance of love to go all around.

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

Author's Note: Please feel free to email me with your comments or suggestions; constructive criticism, things you'd like to see, etc. A chronological listing of my universe is at http://orrymain.com

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