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Family Gatherings: Joy, Terror and Chocolate Cake? - Part One


by miriel

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I was eying myself in the bathroom mirror when I heard a knock on my bedroom door. Before I could draw breath to answer my sister, because it was definitely my sister, I heard the door burst open and an instant later Zee bounced into my bathroom. I heard a high-pitched squeal from my bedroom, which indicated Jellybean had ambushed Mimi.

     "Are you ready?" Zee asked, bouncing on the spot and making the material on her hat flutter.

     "Almost," I replied, trying to keep the apprehension out of my voice. I reached for my tail bow, avoiding meeting her eyes.

     "It'll be fine, Molly," she reassured me, and I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.

     To an extent I could understand her attitude, I had been here three weeks and most of the time I felt right at home. But my cynicism was well ingrained and sometimes it was hard to ignore it.

     "I know," I replied, sighing softly. "It's just I've only met them once and now we're visiting their home."

     "Our home," Zee corrected. "The house belongs to Lex and we're always welcome there, just like they are always welcome here. They're our family."

     I smiled and nodded as I fiddled with my bow. I still wasn't completely used to it. Despite my protests, Lex had insisted on painting me green so I got my bow and ear bands back. I had argued there was no point if she was going to paint me again in the future.

     "But it may take a while, even after you've made your decision," Lex had argued, in that annoyingly reasonable tone that I can't argue with. "In the meantime, we may as well do this so you have your bow again." I'd grudgingly agreed.

     "You look great!" Zee added as she watched me fuss. "You know after we've painted Jellybean, we could save up for some Paint Brushes for you, get you a selection of bows!"

     Now, over the last three weeks I've gotten much better at controlling my 'gape reflex', but sometimes that Zafara defies belief! I felt my jaw drop before I could even begin to think of what to say to that. But I have learnt that Zee is pretty much irrepressible.

     "We'll see," I said, unwilling to promise anything until I could be sure there wasn't a way out of it.

     Zee beamed, and there was a glint in her eyes that told me there was no getting out of it. "We'd better go; the others are waiting downstairs."

     I nodded and trailed after her through my bedroom and into the hallway, whistling for Jellybean to follow me. He gave a little bleat as he trotted after us down the stairs.

     Nix was sitting on the bottom step with Belle, his Faerie Raindorf, watching Jojo rolling around on the rug with Leggi, his Plushie Slorg. Nix looked up at us and smiled as we clunked down the last few steps.

     I glanced around. "Where's Lex?" I asked.

     Nix rolled his eyes. "Running around the house, checking everything is locked up," he replied.

     "Like she did ten minutes ago?" Zee chipped in, sounding bemused.

     Nix nodded. "And ten minutes before that," he said with a sigh.

     I looked at them, confused, while Jojo giggled.

     "Lex tends to get a little paranoid about home security," Zee explained with a long-suffering sigh.

     "You'll thank me when we get back and find all our stuff still here," Lex replied as she walked out of the living room.

     "I doubt they'd take everything," Nix said.

     "Yeah, it'd take them a week to empty the ground floor!" Zee quipped, snickering at the end.

     I pressed my own lips together to contain my giggles, but still sniggered at the look on Lex's face. Jojo giggled at us from the rug.

     Lex rolled her eyes. "Let's just go, shall we?" she said, ushering us towards the front door. "Everyone pick something to carry."

     We distributed the parcels sitting by the door between the three of us (Lex was carrying Jojo) and trooped out the front door. We waited while Lex locked the door and pocketed the keys.

     There were four Eyries waiting for us at the end of the garden path, talking among themselves until we approached.

     "Right, everyone, hop on," Lex said cheerfully. "We're all going to the Haunted Woods, 450237 Spyder Street, please."

     The Eyries nodded and we all clambered awkwardly aboard thanks to the packages and petpets we were trying to balance. I scrambled onto the striped Eyrie, who crouched down slightly to make it easier.

     "Thanks," I said once I was finally settled, with the parcel in my lap and Jellybean perched on top of it.

     "No problem," he replied. "Hold on tight." And with that he spread his wings and leapt into the air.

     I flailed for an instant, trying to hold onto my parcel and Jellybean and still maintain my balance, before righting myself with a gasp of relief.

     The journey didn't take as long as I thought it would, all too soon the landscape below changed from pleasant rolling hills to woods, which grew steadily darker, and generally more spooky as we glided over them.

     My Eyrie swooped lower so smoothly I didn't feel the jolt, which was lucky because I probably would have dropped the box I was holding. He followed Lex's Eyrie as he swept down a row of houses before touching down outside a large, brightly lit mansion.

     My Eyrie dropped to the ground just behind and I slid off his back as best I could, Jellybean leapt down with a grateful bleat. "Thank you," I said to him before going to stand beside the gatepost. Zee and Nix quickly joined me and we waited as Lex paid the Eyries and thanked them herself.

     As they flew off, Lex turned to us, motioning us up the path before her. Before we got to the front door, it opened and a Hissi was silhouetted in the doorway.

     "Hey, guys!" Alice said, standing back so we could enter. "You're just in time for lunch."

     We all piled into the house, depositing our parcels in the entryway. Before I could get a proper look at the interior, I was swept up in a hug.

     "Hi, Molly," Alice whispered in my ear. "Welcome to the Hollow."

     "Thanks, Alice," I whispered back, squeezing her around what I presumed to be her waist.

     She released me after a moment and moved on to hug Zee and then Nix, before hold out her arms so Lex could deposit Jojo in them. "There's mail on the side table for you," she said to Lex as she hugged the Baby Meerca fiercely.

     Jojo burbled happily as Alice moved off into the house. "I'll give you the grand tour later, Molly," she called over her shoulder. "But I'm afraid if we don't sit down for lunch now, Zook will eat the dining table."

     "That'd be great, thanks, Alice," I replied with a laugh.

     "It really wouldn't," Nix stage-whispered to me. "The last time Zook ate the table, the hospital bills were astronomical!"

     I looked at him, but couldn't tell if he was joking or not. I shook my head slightly and followed Alice into the dining room. My other three siblings were already seated, all with various expressions of impatience on their faces. Zook seemed to be vibrating slightly.

     Alice and Lex headed out of the room through another door, which presumably led towards the kitchen as the rest of us took our seats. I looked around but couldn't see any of our petpets. I looked at Zee and opened my mouth to ask where they'd gone but she beat me to it.

     "No petpets in the dining room; they'll be in the living room or exploring the house," she said, completely unconcerned.

     "Hey guys," Dex said. "How was your trip?"

     He may have asked the question, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't listening for the answer, judging by the way his eyes kept straying towards the door Alice and Lex had disappeared through.

     "Oh, it was fine," I replied, before the others could open their mouths. "Once we got past the rampaging Dandans and the flocks of Gobblers it was plain sailing."

     Zee stifled a snicker and Nix grinned at me.

     "Uh-huh, uh-huh," Dex replied. "That sounds great, you should think about a matching hat."

     Zee seemed to be choking on her giggles and Nix's shoulders were shaking with the effort of not laughing. I waited.

     Dex frowned. "Rampaging Dandans? What are you talking about?" he asked, finally looking at us.

     "I was answering your question," I replied, trying desperately to keep a straight face.

     His frown deepened. "What question?" he asked.

     "You were asking me about the new book I read," I replied, my mind working furiously.

     There was a soft thunk of Zee's head hitting the table as her shoulders shook in silent giggles.

     "Oh right, right," Dex said, his expression brightening as his gaze strayed to the door again. "What was the title again?"

     "Oh, it was called 'You really should pay attention if you don't want to look like an idiot'," I replied, trying my best to look innocent.

     Dex's eyes snapped back to me, and his mouth opened slightly. "What kind of title is th...." he trailed off and sat silently for a moment before flushing red. "Sorry, I was distracted."

     "Uh-huh," I replied, smirking slightly. "I figured. And it's good to see you guys."

     "You too, Molly," Bex replied, grinning at me appreciatively.

     "Yeah, we missed you," Zook added. Dex nodded his head vigorously in agreement.

     Alice and Lex saved me from finding a reply as they walked back in carrying huge platters of sandwiches, pies and pastries, which they placed in the middle of the table. Alice took her seat as Lex ducked out of the room again, only to return seconds later with bottles of juice and soda, which joined the food on the table.

     Lex sat down and without a word everyone started passing platters around and filling their plates. Zee handed me the bottle of juice and I smiled at her as I took it and filled my glass.

     Pretty soon we were all munching contentedly.

     "So guys, what have you been up to?" Bex asked, without taking her eyes off her plate.

     "Training," Nix said, around a mouthful of pie. Lex cleared her throat and gave him a pointed look. He swallowed audibly and added, "and practicing kou-jong."

     "Playing games," Zee said. "We're saving for Jellybean's paint brush."

     I blushed at this; even though Zee insisted she liked to play games, I still felt slightly guilty that everything she earned was going towards painting my Babaa.

     "Molly is really good at puzzles," she added, smiling at me.

     I turned redder at this compliment. It was true, I did have an aptitude for puzzles and quizzes, but I didn't think she'd really noticed. I wasn't really any better than her and I still stunk at some of the other games we'd tried.

     "You're better at the action and adventure games; you have better reflexes," I said.

     Zee shrugged, clearly not much more comfortable with compliments than I was. "All in all, we make a pretty good team."

     "And I've been browsing through some furniture catalogues," I added, trying to take the focus off our gaming, before one of us let slip we'd used some of our earnings on surprise gifts for Alice's birthday.

     "Yeah, she's almost settled on a colour scheme," Zee said, sounding excited at the prospect of helping me to pick out my furniture.

     Alice looked at me with interest. "If you need a hand, let me know. I like to decorate and plan almost as much as Zee does," she said, smiling at me.

     I nodded and smiled back shyly. "Actually, I wouldn't mind having a look around here, just to see what you've done," I said, glancing around the elegantly decorated dining room.

     Alice nodded, smiling wider. "You can have a good look around later, see what you think works."

     I nodded and turned back to my BLT sandwich in all its deliciousness.

     "How about you guys?" Zee asked.

     Zook shrugged. "Training," he replied. "And training."

     "We're thinking of starting some sort of local sports tournament," Bex chipped in. "You know, get our friends and neighbours involved?"

     I looked at her, surprised. "That sounds like a really good idea," I said, marvelling at the concept. "You could get a street team together and playing against teams from other streets."

     "That's the plan," Dex said, nodding. "We just have to find a team game that's easy to learn but requires skill and strategy to play well."

     "I still think Yooyuball would be great," Zook muttered.

     Dex shook his head. "We can't infringe on the ACC, and besides, we haven't got any Yooyus," he replied, sounding slightly exasperated. Apparently this had been a topic for debate before.

     "Well," I chipped in, "if you decide to come up with a game yourselves just be sure to plan out all the rules and game-play clearly before you start recruiting people. You wouldn't believe how much trouble it can cause if you have to start changing the rules halfway through a tournament."

     They all looked at me in surprise and I shrugged. "We held a couple of tournaments in the Pound when it was down for maintenance. You know, and we were all stuck there? We got bored and it was a way to pass the time."

     There was a moment of silence. "Were they any good?" Dex asked quietly.

     I shrugged. "Some of them were really good, but others just caused huge rows when we couldn't get the rules straight and people had been practicing for days."

     "Hence, planning everything out before we recruit people," Bex said, nodding.

     "Did you carry any of them on?" Zee asked, her tone abnormally subdued.

     I shook my head. "Not after the Pound reopened. We couldn't be sure everyone would be around to finished the tournament and it'd mess everything up to have players coming and going every few hours."

     "Hey, maybe you could give us some game ideas later!" Dex said, brightening up. I smiled and nodded, pleased that I could help them with their project.

     We continued eating and catching up until all the plates had been hoovered clean of food and we were all stuffed.

     "Right," Lex began. "Alice, why don't you and Zee show Molly around? Bex and Zook can help me clear the dishes, and Nix? Could you and Dex pop into Neopia Central for some last minute bits and pieces? I have a list right here."

     She pulled out a list that looked to be a mile long. Nix sighed and nodded, accepting the list and bulging bag of Neopoints before grabbing Dex and towing him out the room. Everyone else stood up, Jojo toddled off towards the kitchen and Zee took my paw and pulled me after Alice, who was heading for the front foyer.

     We started with the living room, where all of our petpets were waiting patiently, minus Belle, who had obviously decided to go with Nix. Jellybean squealed happily as he trotted over to me and I bent down to scratch his ears. Alice smiled at us before continuing with the tour.

     The Hollow was just as big as the Lodge, our house in Shenkuu, although the décor was vastly different. It was still luxurious, there was just a lot more wood and fur and rich fabrics. And lamps. There were lots more lamps. Dotted around each room, most were glowing brightly, staving off the gloom that seemed to pervade the entire area, even during the day.

     We covered most of the ground floor and headed upstairs.

     "Do you like living here?" I asked Alice. She looked back at me curiously. I blushed. "I mean, this place is fantastic, but don't you find the Haunted Woods a bit gloomy?" I clarified. The house was superb and anyone in their right mind would love to live in it, but the area was just downright creepy.

     Alice smiled in understanding. "You get used to the creep-factor," she assured me. "And we're actually really close to the Lost Desert if we ever feel the need to see the sun."

     I nodded, contemplating.

     "That's not to say we won't be taking full advantage of the house on Mystery Island once it's finished," she added, grinning at the prospect.

     I smiled and nodded again. The chance to swim in the sea and play on the beach did sound appealing. And to think I'd been shocked by the very thought of a holiday home on Mystery Island when I first joined this family.

     We started off again on the top floor of the house, Alice was pointing out rooms and bathrooms. Before long we reached the end of the hallway.

     "Okay, now you've got a choice," Alice said, turning to me. "The others have rooms they usually stay in while they're here, so you have a choice between this one," she said, indicating the door on her left. "Or the guest room next to mine. Although I will warn you, the one next to mine doesn't have an en-suite bathroom."

     I raised an eyebrow and Alice shrugged. "Lex sort of built herself into a corner. The only way to add a bathroom would be to demolish half the top floor of the house and start again."

     I nodded. "For the sake of a bathroom, it's not worth it," I agreed. "I'll take this one, if that's ok?" I added, nodding towards the first door she'd pointed out.

     Alice nodded. "You'll be right next to Zee and Dex," she said pointing to each door in turn, before opening the door to my guest room and ushering me in.

     It was better furnished than my room at home, which made sense seeing as it was a finished room, and mine was only furnished with temporary furniture until I decided what I wanted.

     "This will be the room you always use when you stay," Alice said, standing in the doorway. "So if you want to change anything feel free."

     I looked around the room. It was just as luxurious as the rest of the house and I couldn't really find fault with it. Except...

     "Um... maybe an extra lamp or two?" I asked, hesitantly.

     Alice grinned and nodded. "I think we did actually mooch a couple from this room when Jojo first stayed here. He really doesn't like the dark!"

     "Almost screamed the house down," Zee muttered under her breath. I snickered.

     "I don't think we ever replaced them," Alice continued, grinning at Zee comment. "So yeah, I'll scrounge up a couple from somewhere, but when you're picking out your furniture for your Shenkuu room, just add a couple of lamps for this place to the list."

     I nodded, glancing around the room again and pondering what would fit with the décor.

     Zee grabbed my paw. "Come on, let's go get our stuff," she said, towing my out of the room and down the hallway. We made it down the stairs, before pulling up short to avoid getting trampled by Zook and then Bex as they chased each other through the foyer.

     Alice simply sighed and headed into the living room. Zee handed me my parcel and grabbed her own before turning to head back upstairs.

     I hesitated. "Shouldn't we find out what that was about?" I asked, taking a step or two after Zee.

     Zee snickered. "If we asked about every altercation we would never get anything done!" she said, stifling the rest of her giggles.

     I snorted. "I suppose, with Dex, Bex and Zook living here I'm surprise Lex didn't call this place Manic Manor," I said as I followed her first into my room to deposit my things and then next door into hers.

     Zee giggled. "Good name," she said, grinning appreciatively. "Very appropriate." She dumped her parcel onto an elegant green chair before flopping down on her bed. Mimi immediately bounced onto her stomach and curled up.

     "Oof!" Zee exhaled, but even I could tell she was joking. Jellybean started sniffing his way around the room, carefully examining each piece of furniture he encountered.

     I watched him absently for a moment. "Did Zook really eat a table?" I asked, already feeling ridiculous, before I had an answer.

     Zee laughed. "Yep," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "He was only a few weeks old and hadn't grasped the concept of mealtimes yet. He decided he was hungry and that if it was in the dining room, then it was fair game. Probably didn't help that the table was shaped like a giant doughnutfruit..." She trailed off thoughtfully.

     I collapsed into a squishy brown armchair, holding my sides as I shook with laughter.

     "He's not really much better now," Zee continued, obviously enjoying herself. "He's just got us trained to feed him regularly and keep the kitchen well stocked."

     I was gasping for breath between my giggles. "Maybe Lex should buy him his own farm, let him grow his own food!" I said. "It'd be a lot cheaper!"

     Zee sniggered. "Yeah, but he's too impatient," she retorted. "He'd probably end up eating the grass and dirt!"

     We both collapsed in a fit of giggles, which had both Mimi and Jellybean looking at us like we were insane by the time we'd calmed down.

     "Okay, okay," I managed to gasped out. "New topic before I die of laughter."

     Zee managed to compose herself slightly. "I'll give you a tour of the garden, if you like?"

     I shivered at the thought of going outside into the gloom but nodded. If our garden in Shenkuu could be used as a guide, the Hollow's garden would be as spectacular as the house.

     I followed Zee out of her room and down the stairs, she poked her head into the living room. "I'm just going to show Molly the garden," she announced, there was a murmur of acknowledgement before she tugged on my arm and headed towards the front door.

     We stepped out into the bleak, grey light of afternoon in the Haunted Woods. Even Zee shivered slightly at the damp chill in the air as she led me around the house.

     "Okay, this is the picnic and play area," she said indicating a large patch of grass with picnic tables and a barbecue on it along with a climbing frame and slide. I gaped slightly.

     "You eat out here?" I asked incredulously.

     "Not often," Zee admitted with a shrug. "But Lex does throw an awesome Halloween party every year!"

     I raised an eyebrow. "Isn't it always Halloween around here?" I asked, sarcasm creeping into my tone.

     Zee snorted. "Yeah, more or less," she conceded. "But you can tell it's a party because of the surplus of cake."

     "A surplus of cake? With you around?!" I teased, pretending to be shocked.

     Zee giggled and nodded. "Which should give you an idea how much Lex actually buys," she retorted as she led me further into the garden.

     "I wouldn't have thought there's enough sugar in Neopia," I murmured, looking around me in interest.

     The garden didn't quite exude the same sense of tranquillity as our garden in Shenkuu. The plants and flowers were clustered together in flowerbeds and there were large patches of lawn between them, which would be ideal for ball games. It was still perfect, just not in the same way.

     "There's a gazebo over there, see?" Zee said, pointing over to the far corner. "There are lanterns all around it, thought they aren't lit at the moment. It's a great place to sit and plot."

     "Plot?" I echoed, unsure.

     She grinned at me. "You don't think you could stay here any length of time and not be the target of a prank or two, do you? We had some pretty epic 'prank-wars' until Lex put her foot down."

     Dozens of possible scenarios passed through my mind's eye and I was thankful I hadn't been around. "Not anymore, though?" I asked.

     "Oh, we still prank each other, from time to time," Zee said with a shrug. "I mean, we're siblings, what do you expect? But we don't go to extremes anymore. I mean, in the end, more or less the entire house was booby-trapped. You couldn't leave your own little territory without something happening to you!"

     I shook my head at the absurdity of it.

     "Don't worry, I'll watch your back," Zee assured me, I looked at her suspiciously for a moment, but she seemed genuine.

     I smiled at her. "Ditto," I promised her.

     She grinned at me and continued walking, pointing out interesting plants and trees, until we eventually reached the front door again.

     I was grateful to be back inside the warm house and stood for a moment in the foyer, enjoying the warmth seeping into me. I heard a high-pitched chirping noise and looked down to see Mimi prancing around on the rug in front of us. Zee scooped the Alkenore up and headed deeper into the house.

     "Let's go see what Alice is up to," she said to me as I followed after her.

     Unsurprisingly we found Alice in the kitchen, just taking a batch of cookies out of the Tooth Faerie Oven. Zee's eye's lit up and Alice snickered.

     "One," she said sternly. "The rest are for dinner."

     Zee bounced over to the tray and plucked one of the treats off the sheet, juggling it a bit to avoid burning her paws. She hugged Alice tightly before nibbling at the edges of the cookie.

     Alice looked at me. "You want one?" she asked with a smile, as she took one for herself.

     I nodded shyly before sidling over to the counter and taking one. I bit off a corner and savoured the sugary treat. I cleared my throat. "Thanks, Alice," I mumbled.

     They both grinned at me as they munched. Zee finished off her cookie and gave the others a longing glance before heading to the fridge and taking out three cartons of milk. She handed one to me and another to Alice before opening her own and taking a sip.

     I felt something brush against my leg and looked down. Jellybean was looking at me beseechingly, I giggled and broke off a corner for him. He snarfed it down and bleated happily at me.

     "He really does suit that name, doesn't he?" Alice said, watching as Jellybean started rolling around on the floor, his little hooves waving wildly in the air.

     I took a breath to reply but Zee beat me to it. "Yep," she said. "I remember Molly had to physically carry him out of the Chocolate Factory the first time we went in there."

     I sniggered. "It didn't help that I had to drag you out as well!" I teased. Alice laughed as Zee blushed.

     "I like chocolate," Zee said, clearly embarrassed.

     "We know you do," Alice said. "And we wouldn't change you for anything."

     I nodded vigorously in agreement. Zee smiled shyly at us before turning to Alice. "Do you want a hand in here?" she asked, gesturing to the pile of ingredients that Alice had assembled for her next dish.

     "If you guys don't mind?" Alice said, looking at us. "I wouldn't mind some company."

     We both nodded and headed to the counter. "What are you making?" I asked, looking over the paraphernalia scattered over the work surface.

     "Cherry pie," Alice replied, already dividing up the ingredients between us.

     We spent the next hour or so working and chatting. After the pie was in the oven we moved on to making a batch of brownies.

     "Oh, I forgot to ask Lex whether she wanted blueberry or chocolate scones," Alice said, as she dug through the cupboards for her next batch of ingredients. "Molly, would you mind going to ask her?"

     "Sure," I replied, from my spot by the sink. I hung up my dishtowel and headed towards the door.

     "Umm..." Zee said, before I could reach it. "You might want to take Jellybean with you, before he burns his nose."

     I chuckled and nodded, scooping up the Babaa from his spot in front of the oven. He had been inching closer to the door as the brownies baked.

     I wandered through the house, peeking into various rooms along the way. I found Jojo and Zook playing Kacheekers in the den, Jojo was winning. Nix was curled up in the library, reading a book. Finally I found Lex sitting in the snug that was tucked away behind the playroom, she was going through her mail.

     "Um... Lex?" I said quietly as I stood just inside the doorway. She looked up at me and smiled, but that wasn't before I caught the flash of worry in her eyes. "Alice wants to know what kind of scones you want? Chocolate or blueberry?"

     "Um... blueberry, I think," she replied distractedly, looking back at the papers in her hand.

     I hesitated for a moment before steeling myself. "What's wrong?" I asked her, stepping towards her.

     She looked back at me, and didn't bother hiding the worry this time. "I just got this neomail today," she said quietly, holding out a letter to me.

     I took it and read it quickly. My heart sank and I looked back at Lex questioningly.

     "I don't know what to do," she whispered to me, looking worried and heartbroken at the same time.

     "But why is she coming here now?" I asked her, sounding slightly panicked at the prospect even if it didn't directly concern me.

     "I don't know," she replied, suddenly sounding exhausted. "It took her months to get over it and trust us. I don't know what to do."

     "Well, we'll just have to keep her busy and hope for the best," I said, finding my determination. "Let her know we're here for her."

     Lex looked me in the eye and nodded, her expression resigned. "You don't think she'll want to know?" Lex asked.

     I thought for a moment. "I think she might want to know, but I don't think it'll be good for her, especially if she's just moved on from them. I just don't think it'll be the right thing for her," I explained, thinking over my own experiences. "She'll just worry."

     Lex nodded in agreement. "Well, there's no point worrying about it; whatever happens, happens," she said, turning back to her mail.

     I nodded to myself. Feeling both guilty and worried as I headed out of the room and back to the kitchen.

     Zee and Alice looked at me expectantly, and for an instant I thought they knew what Lex and I had been talking about before I remembered why I'd gone to find Lex in the first place.

     "Blueberry," I said quietly, trying to smile at them. Zee deflated slightly as she went to the fridge and pulled out a punnet of blueberries. Alice chuckled at her as she started pouring ingredients into her mixing bowl.

     We resume our work, after the scones were done we moved on to preparing dinner. Once the lasagne was in the oven and the salad had been chopped and dressed, I went to set the table while the other two washed the utensils we'd used.

     I was moving about on automatic, my mind so consumed with worry that I almost screamed and dropped the plate I was holding when I felt something bump against my leg. I looked down and saw Jellybean staring up at me anxiously.

     "I'm fine," I reassured him, patting his head as I moved past him, continuing to set the table.

     Zook poked his head into the room minutes later. "I take it dinner is almost ready?" he asked me eagerly.

     I had to smother a grin at the thought of him trying to eat the dining room table again. "Yeah, it should be ready in about ten minutes," I told him.

     He looked at me strangely for a moment, as if he could tell I was trying not to laugh, before smiling and ducking back into the hallway.

     I finished setting the table and headed back into the kitchen with Jellybean trailing after me. Zee was chattering happily as Alice sliced some bread and arranged it on plates. I settled against the counter and listened to them.

     Ten minutes later we carried the plates of bread and bowls of salad into the dining room, to find Zook, Bex and Jojo already seated. As I set the bowl I was carrying on the table, Dex sauntered in and took a seat next to Bex.

     We headed back to the kitchen for the rest of the food. "DINNER!" Zee hollered as we came back into the hallway.

     I set the bottles of juice on the table and flopped into my seat. Moments later Nix appeared, closely followed by Lex, once she was seated we began passing dishes and bowls, scooping food onto our plates.

     Everyone talked happily as I sat and worried, though I tried not to let it show. I could tell Zee noticed, I caught her looking at me a couple of times and anyone who knew her could see the raging curiosity in her eyes. She refrained from saying anything and I was grateful. I vowed to talk to her about it later, maybe she'd know how to handle it.

     I felt myself brighten as I came up with this plan, Zee would know what to do. I managed to sit through the rest of the meal, without drawing too much attention to myself.

     We finished our meal and demolished the desserts in pretty much no time. As always, the food was fantastic and we all let out a contented sigh once the last crumbs were gone.

     Finally Lex sat forward. "Okay, Dex? Zook? Would you help me clear the table? Nix and Bex and can clean up in here."

     "What about those three?" Dex whined, pointing at me, Zee and Alice.

     Lex sighed. "You know the rules, they made the meal, so someone else helps to clear the table." She rolled her eyes when Dex muttered something unintelligible and started gathering dishes.

     Alice smiled. "I think I'll go finished that book," she said, wandering off towards the library.

     I grabbed Zee's paw and started towing her out of the room. "I need to talk to you," I whispered to her as we reached the hall.

     She looked at me but said nothing, allowing me to lead her upstairs and into my room without argument.

     I shut the door firmly behind me and leaned against it for a moment, trying to gather my thoughts.

     "What's up?" Zee asked, she seemed really concerned. "Are you ok?"

     "I'm fine," I assured her. "I'm just worried."

     She gestured for me to continue and I took a deep breath.

     "Lex got a neomail today," I started and Zee raised an eyebrow. "It was from Alice's former owner; she wants to come for a visit tomorrow."

     Zee's face melted from shock to fury in a matter of seconds. "NO!" she said loudly.

     "Shush!" I whispered desperately. "Lex doesn't want Alice to know yet!"

     Zee instantly looked apologetic. "Sorry," she whispered back. "Why doesn't she want Alice to know?"

     "You probably know better than I do what she was like when she got here," I explained patiently. "Wasn't she really shy and withdrawn? You told me she wouldn't say more than two words to you for months when she first came here."

     Zee's expression became somber as she thought back. "She used to cry at night," she said quietly.

     "Right," I agreed, swallowing around the lump in my throat.. "So Lex is hoping she can dissuade this person, or at least get rid of them before Alice finds out. So she won't have to deal with them."

     "I'm not sure I totally agree with that, but I see your point," Zee said thoughtfully. "You do realise she's going to be really mad when she finds out."

     "I know," I replied. "But I'd rather she's mad at us, than depressed and angry with herself."

     "Agreed," Zee sighed, sounding resigned. "You know, this is super bad-timing. Couldn't this have waited until after her birthday?"

     I smiled weakly. "You're just horrified at the prospect of no cake," I teased half-heartedly.

     She rolled her eyes at me and flopped down in an armchair. "Okay, so we'll just keep Alice super busy and let Lex deal with the owner," Zee reviewed. "Sounds like a plan."

     "Although not a very good one," I said, feeling guilty.

     Zee shrugged. "Best we could do," she said with a shrug. "And we just have to hone our grovelling skills for when it blows up in our faces. We should probably get to bed – it's going to be a long day tomorrow."

     I nodded in agreement as Zee headed for the door.

     "I'm just next door if you need anything," she said as she opened the door. "Oh! Sorry, little guy!"

     Jellybean, who had been sitting patiently outside my door, bleated and bumped her leg with his head before trotting into the room. I scooped him up and hugged him, before looking at Zee.

     "Thanks," I said quietly. "Good night."

     She smiled at me. "Sleep well."

To be continued...

 
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