Chet Flash wuz here Circulation: 187,548,790 Issue: 518 | 28th day of Collecting, Y13
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Family Gatherings: Joy, Terror and Chocolate Cake? - Part Three

by miriel


I was lost but I couldn't stop now. My sister was still out in the woods somewhere and I had to find her.

     I took a breath to settle myself and set off in roughly the same direction I'd been heading in, hoping it was the right way.

     I moved slowly now, listening for any sound that could indicate which way Alice had gone.

     After ten minutes a chill started to settle in my bones. It was cold and dark and murky. The air felt thick and I jumped at every little noise. After twenty minutes I was freezing and officially spooked, but refused to give up.

     Moments later I heard a faint sniffle that made me pause and listen. It was followed by a muffled sob and I immediately started tiptoeing towards the source of the sound.

     After a couple of minutes of careful creeping and listening I caught a flash of red up ahead. I breathed out a faint sigh of relief and started moving a little faster. Just as I could make out Alice's luminous outline her head whipped up and she looked around nervously.

     "Who's there?" she asked, a note of fear in her voice. I stepped into her view and she relaxed slightly. "Oh... um.... hi," she said quietly, sounding completely defeated.

     I smiled at her as I sidled over to her. "Nice place," I said dryly, gesturing around the gloomy clearing.

     Alice smiled weakly as she glanced around. She suddenly looked at me warily. "What are you doing here?"

     "I ran after you," I explained. "I'm on my own if that's what you're worried about. I just thought you might want someone to talk to."

     She looked at me for a second before her eyes brimmed with fresh tears. "Did you know?"

     "Know what?" I asked cautiously, I didn't want to say yes without knowing what Lex had said.

     "That Lex was going to give me back to Diane," she said miserably. I assumed 'Diane' was her old owner and if I'd had doubts about whether Alice would want to go or not they'd just been answered. Something inside me relaxed as I realised she really didn't want to go anywhere.

     "Did Lex say that?" I asked, trying to keep my tone neutral.

     "She didn't have to," Alice retorted. "Why else would Diane be here?"

     I resisted the urge to roll my eyes at her epic leap to the wrongest of conclusions. "Lex didn't invite her here," I started.

     Alice looked at me sharply. "You knew?" she spat accusingly.

     I held up one paw. "Will you let me finish?" I asked, when she nodded I continued, "Lex didn't invite her here, she got an neomail yesterday from Diane saying she wanted to visit and talk to Lex. Lex showed me yesterday because she didn't know what to do. We didn't want to say anything because I guess we were hoping she wouldn't actually show up. I'm really sorry. We should have told you," I finished, hanging my head.

     Alice looked at me steadily for a moment before sighing. "It's okay, I guess," she said sadly. "I mean, a head's up would have been nice, but I suppose I can understand why you didn't say something."

     I breathed out a sigh of relief. I truly wouldn't have blamed her if she'd never spoken to me again.

     "So," Alice started hesitantly. "Lex isn't going to send me back with Diane?"

     I shook my head adamantly. "If she thought about trying it, she would have had me and Zee to deal with at the very least," I said firmly. "I think Lex was scared that you'd want to go back to your old family."

     Alice looked at me, shocked. "Why on Neopia would she think that?" Alice asked incredulously.

     I shrugged. "They were your first family, Diane created you," I said, although I knew that that didn't always mean a lot to some pets.

     Alice shook her head. "But Diane ignored me for three and a half years before dumping me in the Pound," Alice said. "She changed her other pets so quickly I never really got to know most of my siblings."

     I nodded in understanding. I knew a lot of pets that'd had similar experiences. "But Lex wants you to be happy," I reminded her. "And she'd do anything to make sure you are, even if it meant letting you go with someone else."

     Alice's eyes filled with tears again and she pulled me into a hug as she wept. "I don't want to go anywhere," she managed to choke out.

     "Then you won't," I mumbled into her shoulder. We stood like that for a long while until Alice's tears ran dry and she managed to gather herself.

     Finally she stepped back from me and looked around. She frowned as she looked back at me. "Where are we?" she asked and my heart sank.

     "I was rather hoping you'd be able to answer that," I admitted. "You know, seeing as you live here and all."

     She looked at me awkwardly. "I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going," she admitted in a small voice.

     I took a breath to answer but someone else beat me to it. "Well, that's a shame," said an oily sort of voice from the shadows that surrounded the clearing. Alice grabbed my arm and pulled me back, away from the source of the voice. "It probably would have saved you all sorts of trouble."

     I could feel Alice trembling beside me as I scanned the tree line, trying to find whoever was speaking. After a moment a shadow detached itself from the rest of the gloom and stepped forward slightly. Just enough for me to realise whoever it was was huge. I bit back a whimper as I started edging backwards, dragging Alice with me.

     "Now, now, there's no need to leave just yet," the figure went on. "Why don't you stop here with us for a while?"

     Us? The word had barely flitted across my terror-stalled brain when I heard rustling behind me. I resisted the urge to whirl around and seek out the source of the new sound, unwilling to take my eyes off the first figure; I simply stopped edging backwards and stood in the clearing trying to think of a plan.

     Any plan.

     Any plan that didn't involve me and my sister being eaten. I was still coming up empty as the creature in front of me finally stepped into view. A Werelupe. A huge Werelupe that towered over my sister and myself, with an ominous light in its' eyes and a distinctly nasty smile.

     Alice came up beside me to meet his gaze squarely. "What do you want?" she demanded, a lot more bravely than I could have.

     The Lupe didn't reply as four others stepped into the clearing. Alice and I crowded closer together in the middle, trying to keep as far away from them as possible.

     One suddenly lunged forward and snapped at Alice's wing. We both screamed as the obvious leader bellowed for him to back off. The attacker retreated, muttering sullenly under his breath.

     I knew our reprieve would be short-lived. The leader simply wanted to terrify us further. I looked at him, knowing the others wouldn't move without his cue. He grinned cruelly at us, taking one careful step forward.

     "We thought you might like to join us for a meal," he said, his intent clear in his voice.

     I suppressed a shudder as I heard Alice take a breath. "I don't think so," she said, her voice a fierce hiss. I heard a couple of the Lupes snicker at her bravado.

     "Oh really, I insist," he said, stalking closer to us, and I had to consciously stop myself backing away. The other started closing in around us, cutting off any escape.

     Without warning a shadow passed over the clearing, followed by a soft thump as a figure landed in front of Alice and me, directly in the path of the leader. He had twin swords clutched in his hands and was crouched low to the ground. "So do I," Nix snarled, glaring at the lead Lupe. "Back off."

     I saw shock pass briefly over the Werelupes' face before it settled back into a mask of vindictiveness. "Oh look, you bought a friend," he said, still aiming for sinister, but his tone was slightly off and I could tell he didn't appreciate the interruption.

     The other four Lupes padded around to stand behind their leader, obviously intending to back him up against this new threat. Alice grabbed my paw as she retreated, giving Nix space as he growled at the pack.

     My heart was in my throat as the leader lunged at my brother, closely followed by two others. But Nix was faster, and well armed. He spun and ducked, bringing his blade up to block the charge of the second Lupe and force him into the path of the third. I watched in awe as he danced and weaved through his attackers.

     One Lupe and then another went down in quick succession before the other two Lupes, who had been pacing at the edge of the clearing, joined the fray. But Nix was slowing slightly, tired, and it looked like the Lupes, bigger and more wily, were gaining the upper hand. I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon, but before I could get very far, Dex and Zook bounded into the clearing, both wielding blades made of fire and ice.

     The Lupes stopped in their tracks and looked at the newcomers, who'd taken a stance on either side of Nix. I could just see his cocked eyebrow and the smile playing at the corners of his mouth as Nix looked at his remaining opponents.

     I almost laughed as the Werelupes exchanged a series of loaded glances before scooping up their fallen comrades and dashing out of the clearing as fast as they could, burdened as they were.

     I felt the tension finally leave my shoulders as Alice breathed a sigh of relief before we both tackled Nix into a hug. He chuckled dryly as he hugged us back. After a moment I disentangled myself and repeated the process with Dex and then Zook.

     Just as Zook was picking himself up from the floor, Lex and Zee crashed into the clearing, followed by Bex who was carrying Jojo and trailed by about half the guests from the party.

     I didn't have the chance to utter a word before the rest of my family tackled Alice and me to the floor, laughing and crying all at once.

     After a long moment they released us and we all got to our feet. I caught the look on Lex's face and I knew she wanted to say something about us running off. Probably a lot of something. But she pressed her lips together and refrained for the time being.

     The rest of our guests came forward to hug Alice and even me, murmuring how glad they were that we were okay. Eventually Lex cleared her throat.

     "We should probably head back to the house," she said, glancing worriedly at Alice, like she expected her to refuse. There was a murmur of agreement.

     "Which way?" a speckled Aisha asked, glancing around nervously. There was a beat of silence as everyone looked around, and then everyone started whispering at once.

     Lex rolled her eyes. "Nix?" she said, looking at him.

     He grinned and darted up before anyone could say anything else. He cleared the treetops and I could see him surveying the area. A moment later he plummeted back to the clearing.

     He landed softly beside Lex and pointed in a seemingly random direction. Lex didn't question him as she scooped Jojo off the floor and strode off in the direction Nix had indicated. The rest of us scrambled after her, with Dex and Zook walking in the back, uncharacteristically serious expressions on their faces.

     It took us almost an hour to retrace our steps, but eventually we could make out light shining through the murk and trees. Zee walked beside me, practically vibrating with the need to say something, but she didn't. Probably waiting, like Lex, until we were somewhere more private.

     I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped in the foyer of the Hollow. There was an excited buzz of conversation as we stepped into the living room, where the rest of the guests were waiting anxiously, including Diane, who stood slightly apart from the other guests. I jumped when I felt something nuzzle against my leg and looked down to find Jellybean glaring at me dolefully.

     "Sorry," I whispered to him, scratching his ears. He bleated at me before bumping against my leg again and trotting off.

     "Everyone's fine," Lex said, in answer to several inquiries. "I'm sure that Zee can explain everything, while I talk to Molly and Alice."

     She ushered us out of the room, gesturing to Diane to follow her. We all trooped into the library and Lex shut the door behind us. Alice and I immediately sank down together on a sofa as Diane took an armchair next to the fireplace. Lex paced for a moment in silence before slumping down into the chair opposite Diane.

     I took a breath and opened my mouth but Alice beat me to it. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I overreacted and I shouldn't have run off like that."

     Lex looked at her in surprise.

     "What she said," I mumbled quietly, hanging my head. Lex turned to look at me, a smile threatening to spill across her lips.

     "I'm sorry too," she said after a moment. "I shouldn't have blind-sided you like that. It was unfair, especially today."

     Alice didn't reply, but smiled gently at Lex. I watched Diane roll her eyes before she huffed out a breath.

     "So can we move on?" she asked, obviously trying to tamp down the irritation in her tone. All three of us turned to look at her. "Have you decided?" she asked Lex, completely ignoring Alice and me.

     Lex looked at her steadily for a moment before turning back to Alice. "She's asked if I'd let her take you back," Lex said calmly. "But it's really up to you."

     Alice was already shaking her head before Lex finished speaking. "I don't want to go back," she said quietly. "I want to stay here."

     Lex beamed at her while Diane sputtered in disbelief. "But I created you! I was your first owner!" she exclaimed.

     "And you abandoned me," Alice said, her voice hardening as she looked at her former owner. "You just want me back now because I'm a painted Hissi."

     Diane shook her head in mute denial before turning back to Lex. "You're going to let her make this decision? You're her owner; what you say goes!" she argued, not seeming to notice Lex's expression darkening with every word.

     "Indeed," Lex replied coldly. "What I say does go, and right now I say Alice can stay here as long as she wants. You may have created her, but you gave up your right to her when you dumped her in the Pound. She's my pet, and will be as long as she likes."

     I watched as Diane stared, speechless, for a moment before she abruptly stood up. "If you reconsider, let me know," she said to Lex, not looking at either Alice or me. She swept out of the library, closing the door loudly behind her.

     A snicker escaped my lips before I could help it and Lex and Alice turned to look at me before joining in.

     Once she'd quelled her giggles, Lex looked at both of us. "If either of you pull something like that again, you'll be grounded for a decade," she said sternly. "Understood?"

     Alice and I nodded quickly; it was easy to see she was serious. And even if she wasn't, after our little misadventure I doubted either if us would be venturing to that part of the Woods ever again.

     Her shoulders relaxed at our easy acceptance. "I'm glad you're both ok," she added gently. "Maybe we should go finish the party?"

     Alice opened her mouth to object but I instantly perked up. "Good idea," I said enthusiastically. "The Birthday Girl hasn't opened her presents yet."

     Alice whipped around to glare at me but Lex grinned. "True," she said. "It would be rude to ignore all those gifts your guests bought for you." She looked at Alice, whose shoulders slumped in defeat a moment later.

     I suppressed a shriek of glee as I barrelled out of the library and towards the front of the house. Zee goggled at me as I sprinted past her and up the stairs, but followed a moment later.

     She cornered me as I bounded into my room and scooped up our gifts for Alice. "If you ever scare me like that again...." She trailed off threateningly.

     I smiled sheepishly at her. "Don't worry, Lex has already threatened to ground both of us for a decade if we pull another stunt like that,' I reassured her. "I just didn't think about it. She's my sister and she was upset."

     Zee's expression softened. "I know," she said. "Is she okay?"

     I nodded, anxious to get back downstairs but unwilling to leave Zee without an explanation. "She thought her old owner was here at Lex's invitation to take her away," I said hurriedly. "Once I'd explained that Diane had contacted Lex out of the blue and Lex was worried that she'd want to go back to her old family, she relaxed."

     Zee nodded thoughtfully. "What did she decide?" Zee asked quietly.

     I rolled my eyes at her. "I guess you didn't see Diane storm out of the house," I replied, grinning. "Of course Alice wants to stay with us."

     Zee grinned in relief. "So, drama over?" she asked, taking her gift for Alice out of my paws.

     I nodded affirmation. "Drama over," I concluded, still grinning like a deranged Spardel.

     I followed Zee as she bounced down the stairs and into the living room. She paused by the table full of gifts to deposit her own parcel before bounding over to hug Alice. I followed a little more sedately and grinned at Alice's bewildered expression.

     The next half hour passed with a lot of gasping and paper tearing and a flurry of thank yous. I watched with mounting excitement as Alice worked her way through the pile of presents to the one's from Zee and myself.

     She seemed genuinely touched that we'd gotten her something and utterly delighted with the two dresses she carefully unwrapped. She hugged us both tightly as she thanked us and I saw Lex smile proudly as Alice released us.

     Eventually Alice managed to conquer Mount Present and thanked everyone for the 'wonderfully thoughtful gifts'.

     Lex once again herded everyone into the dining room, where the lights had been dimmed to get the full effect of the massive candle-lit birthday cake sitting on it's own table in the middle of the room. We all watched as Alice blew out the candles and made a wish, cheering loudly once the final candle was extinguished.

     Lex started handing out slices of cake to the waiting guests as owners and pets alike, went up to hug Alice.

     All in all it was nearly midnight before the first guests left, most carrying extremely sleepy pets and petpets.

     I was utterly exhausted when the final guest bid us goodnight and clambered onto an Eyrie. Lex shuffled back into the living room and collapsed on the sofa next to Zook.

     We all sat in silence for a long moment, before our petpets streamed into the room and trotted over to the respective owners. I hauled Jellybean into my lap and held him close, his weight comfortingly familiar.

     "Well," Bex said. "That went well."

     I credited my overwhelming exhaustion for the deranged giggle that escaped my lips. Before I knew it, the whole family was laughing along with me.

     "You're staying?" Nix asked Alice after the laughter died down.

     Alice nodded, and I could see tears glistening in her eyes. "Why would I want to leave?" she whispered with a smile.

     Nix nodded seriously, although I could see the relief in his expression. I smiled at the exchange before I glanced around the room.

     "You know," I started, wanting to change the subject. "If the house always looks like this at the end of a party, why do we bother cleaning up beforehand?"

     Lex looked at me for a beat before snorting as the others sniggered. "That's actually a very good point," Lex conceded, looking around the paper-littered room. "At the moment I don't care, this lot can wait 'til tomorrow. I think we all need a good night's sleep."

     There were murmurs of agreement as we all dragged our way to our paws/feet. I followed the rest of my family as they trudged into the hallway but broke off from the main parade to head towards the dining room.

     Zee's paw on my arm stopped me. "Where are you going?" she asked quietly.

     "I thought I'd just put some of the leftovers in the kitchen," I explained. "I don't want it to spoil."

     She looked at me for a moment before nodding and nudging me ahead of her down the hallway. "I probably should have thought of that," she conceded in a whisper.

     "You don't have to help," I started to protest, but she hushed me.

     "It'll only take half as long if I help," she said as we stepped into the dining room.

     I decided it was pointless to argue further, especially as we need our remaining energy to clear the room. We wordlessly started clearing plates and dishes from the table. I found myself snarfing down morsels of food as I worked and heard Zee snicker.

     I looked over at her, only to see her holding a mini hotdog. She grinned as she ate it in one huge bite. I rolled my eyes as she chewed and swallowed. "Good idea," she said, "We need our strength."

     I chuckled as I went back to work, and started carrying plates to the kitchen and placing them in the fridge. I cleared and ate and carried and dropped corners of cookies and cakes onto the floor whenever Jellybean bumped against my leg or Mimi meeped at me.

     After twenty minutes the dining room was clear of food, although nowhere near 'clean'. The fridge was practically stuffed with leftovers and Zee and I were sharing self-congratulatory slices of cake and glasses of milk.

     "Good work, sister," Zee said, smiling at me as she forked up more cake.

     I grinned back at her. "Ditto," I replied. "Hopefully some of this will be left when we get up in the morning."

     Zee snickered as Mimi and Jellybean made identical plaintive mews from the floor and we dropped chunks of cake onto the floor.

     "That's not very likely," she said as she watched Mimi chew. "But at least we have this." She lifted her plate slightly and I nodded. It was really good cake.

     Finally I couldn't manage another bite and I held out my remaining cake to Jellybean, who promptly inhaled it with a grateful bleat. I chugged the last of my milk and balanced the dirty glass on the mass of equally dirty dishes stacked beside the sink.

     "And seeing as we made all this effort when everyone else vegged out in bed, we don't have to help wash up tomorrow," I said, striving to maintain my innocent expression.

     Zee giggled. "I completely agree," she said as she drained her own glass and deposited it on a spare bit of counter.

     She scooped Mimi off the floor and headed for the door. I followed suit, grabbing Jellybean as I went. We trudged up the stairs and down the corridor.

     "'Night," I mumbled to Zee as I reached my bedroom door.

     "Sleep tight," Zee replied with a yawn.

     I stumbled into my room and didn't bother turning the lamps on as I deposited Jellybean on a spare pillow, shrugged out of my dress so I didn't crease it anymore than it already was and flopped onto my bed. I felt Jellybean hop off his pillow and sidle closer to me, snuggling into my side as I drifted into unconsciousness.


     I jolted awake so suddenly I almost fell out of bed. I flailed for a second before I regained my balance and slumped back into my pillows. My dream already dissipating, I looked around my room. It was daylight. Or as close to daylight as it got around here. I groaned softly as I rolled out of bed and lurched towards the bathroom.

     I felt like a new Usul after my shower, and tied my bow on before skipping back into my room. It seemed I was in full Zee-mode this morning as I flung open my door and stepped into the hallway.

     I knocked on Zee's door and whistled a nonsense tune as I waited for her reply. I heard a squeal and some mumbling before the door open to reveal a slightly rumpled Zafara.

     "Good Morning!" I sang, unable to repress my bubbly mood. Zee raised an eyebrow but said nothing as she stepped back to let me in.

     "Good Morning to you too!" she said cheerfully, despite her appearance. "Give me five minutes."

     She disappeared into her bathroom and I more or less bounced around her room, looking over all the little knickknacks and souvenirs that were dotted about. Mimi watched me suspiciously for a moment before going over to bump her head against Jellybean's.

     Five minutes later Zee emerged from the bathroom and grinned at me. "You're certainly chipper this morning," she said as she led the way out of the room and down the corridor.

     I grinned back at her. "I think cake and milk before bed agrees with me," I said, feeling unaccountably cheery.

     Zee snickered as she reached the bottom of the stairs. "So I see," she said.

     We peeked into the dining room, to find Dex and Jojo cleaning up. We continued onto the kitchen to find Lex, Bex and Nix standing by the sink, washing up.

     "Morning!" Zee and I chorused.

     All three turned to look at us and we giggled in unison. "Good morning," Lex said with a smile. "Did you sleep well?"

     We both nodded and moved to the fridge, standing side by side as we took stock of the contents. It was cake for breakfast too, it seemed. I moved to find clean plates as Zee selected two individual cakes. She placed them on the plates and looked at me.

     I simply shrugged at her and held out the two plates to her, indicating she should choose. Somewhat predictably she chose the Chocolate Nimmo Cake and I grinned at her as she carried her treat to the kitchen table. I followed suit before turning back to the fridge for a bottle of juice and swiped two clean glasses from the counter.

     I settled at the table and poured myself a glass before handing the bottle to Zee and digging in to my Autumn Usuki Cake. Yum.

     I could feel Jellybean's stare on me and automatically held out a chunk of cake as Alice and Zook trudged into the kitchen carrying two bulging garbage bags.

     "Why aren't they helping?" Zook whined as he deposited his bag by door leading to the garden.

     "Because thy saved us from waking up to a mound of spoiled food this morning," Lex explained calmly.

     Zook looked mutinous and Alice rolled her eyes.

     "While we all crashed into bed, these two wrapped up all the leftovers and put them in the fridge. Give them a break," Alice said, sounding slightly exasperated. Apparently she'd been supervising Zook for a while.

     Zook just rolled his eyes and refrained from arguing further. He did almost lose a paw when he snagged a chunk of cake from Zee's plate. He grinned at her and shoved it in his mouth as he danced back out of her reach. Zee let out a mock growl as she glared at him.

     I looked at Alice. "Are we still visiting Bill today?" I asked her.

     Alice nodded. "Although I've no idea what to take for the picnic," she said, looking around the progressively cleaner kitchen.

     "You can take some of the cakes and cookies from the party and I'll run in to Neopia Central for sandwiches and sodas after we finish up here," Lex said, as she scrubbed a plate. "Who's going?"

     Alice shrugged. "Anyone who wants to," she replied. "At the very least Zee, Molly and me."

     "I'll come," Nix said. "If you guys don't mind?"

     "Ditto," Bex chipped in. Alice nodded at them both.

     "Alrighty," Lex said, glancing around the kitchen. "Zook? Are you going?" Zook nodded enthusiastically as he slurped a can of neocola and Lex nodded. "I'll ask the others in a moment, but it looks like the whole clan will be visiting."

     Alice grinned happily as she got her own soda from the fridge and popped it open. "Sounds great," she said after a swallow. "You need a hand with the shopping?" Lex smiled and shook her head.

     Once we'd finished eating, Zee and I took over the washing up so Lex could go talk to the others and head out to the shops while Nix and Bex started to put the stacks of dishes away.

     Finally the last fork had been washed, dried and put away and the last garbage bag had been hauled out to the bin. The living and dining rooms had been swept clean and Alice had squirreled all her new gifts away. All eight of us collapsed on the sofas in the den.

     We were chattering, or in some cases snoring, happily when Lex reappeared some time later. She laughed when she saw us sprawled out on every available squishy surface.

     "I hate to say it, but you guys should get ready if you want to go on this picnic," she said, still smiling at us.

     I giggled as I nudged Dex who was slouched next to me on the sofa. He woke with a start and looked at me blearily. "Time to get ready," I said cheerfully.

     He bounded to his feet with surprising energy for someone who'd been sleeping soundly moments ago. He grinned at me before dashing out of the room and thundering up the stairs.

     "Good grief, he sounds like a herd of Elephantes," Zee mumbled as we followed in his wake.

     "That's an insult to Elephantes everywhere, and you know it," Nix quipped, earning a snicker from the entire family.

     I went quickly to my room and changed into the outfit I'd picked the day before, thankful I'd had the foresight to suggest it. I spent a few moments getting the beret to sit right before heading towards the door again. I stopped short when I heard Jellybean bleat.

     I looked down at him and he was staring at me questioningly. I guessed he wanted to know whether he was staying in the house again.

     "I'm not sure," I said to him. "Come with me, and I'll ask Zee or Alice." He burbled happily as he trotted after me out of my bedroom.

     I raised my paw to knock on Zee's door but it was flung open before I could make contact. I bit back a yelp as she almost ploughed into me.

     "Oh!" she said in surprise. "You're ready?" I nodded mutely. "You look great! I love that colour."

     I looked down at my red coat and smothered a grin. If something couldn't be pink the next best colour was red according to Zee. I trailed after her down the hallway and we'd just reached the stairs as Alice emerged from her room. She joined us as we trooped down the stairs.

     Lex was alone in the living room when we stepped in, a huge basket at her feet. She looked up at us startled. "That was quick," she said, eying our outfits.

     "Molly suggested we pick out today's outfits while we were deciding what to wear yesterday," Alice explained with a shrug.

     Lex grinned. "Good tactic," she said to me. "Very efficient."

     I grinned back at her and shrugged, feigning modesty. We all slumped in chairs as we waited for the others.

     Ten minutes later, Zook ambled into the room – the last to join us. "Right," Lex began. "Now that we're all here, let's get going."

     Jellybean bumped my leg. "Ummm..." I said, as everyone headed for the door. "Are the petpets staying here?" I could see Belle was hovering at Nix's shoulder and Bex's Faellie was flying circles around her head.

     Lex looked back at me. "As long as they promise not to wander off, they can come," she conceded.

     Jojo instantly scooped Leggi up in a tight hug and the Slorg immediately started squealing happily and squirming. Lex smiled fondly as she handed the picnic basket to Alice and swept the two of them into her arms.

     We ambled along the paths toward the centre of town, chatting and laughing. I did noticed how alert Nix and Zook seemed, although we didn't have any trouble or nasty surprises. We fell silent as we passed Edna's Tower and hurried through the centre of town, taking the path to Bill's clearing.

     Halfway down the path there was a sign hanging from a tree saying that the Esophagor wasn't open to questers for the afternoon. We continued past the sign without pause and soon came into the clearing.

     Bill was waiting for us; from the impatient energy he was exuding I guessed if he cold have paced up and down he would have. He greeted us cheerfully, happy to see the entire family had come and he didn't even mind the flock of petpets exploring his home.

     We all settled on rocks and fallen logs as Lex started unpacking the food. "So how was the party?" Bill asked as Alice curled up on a large, flat rock.

     We all looked at each other for a moment, unsure what to say, before Alice took the lead. "It was good," she said, smiling wryly. "Apart from almost being eaten."

     Bill looked at her shocked, clearly not quite sure whether she was kidding or not. Before he could ask, Alice launched into the tale, a lot more at ease with it than I'd thought she'd be.

     "Those Lupes had better hope they never cross my path," Bill growled furiously as Alice finished the story. "And that Diane girl certainly has a nerve!"

     It warmed me to see how indignant Bill was on Alice's behalf and when I glanced around at the rest of my family they were all wearing similar expressions to mine.

     "It all worked out in the end," Alice said soothingly. "And I'm still with my family," she added, smiling around at us.

     "And now that Bill's all caught up with your shenanigans, why don't we tuck in," Dex hinted, darting a covetous glance at the food laid out on the blanket Lex had spread on the ground.

     Bill chuckled as everyone started filling plates. Alice thoughtfully filled a plate for Bill before going back for her own and soon everyone was munching contentedly and the conversation drifted onto other topics.

     Once the last scone had been polished off, Lex cleared her throat. "I was thinking," she said, looking around at us. "The house on Mystery Island is almost finished and we'll be able to visit in a couple of weeks, so to save me ping-ponging back and forth, trying to get everyone ready to go, maybe you guys should come stay at the Lodge until it's ready?"

     I smiled at the prospect. I was sure that Alice, at least, would be apprehensive about going out alone in the Woods for a while to come, and this was the perfect opportunity to put some distance between herself and what happened.

     "That sounds great!" said Bex. "We could come stay with you guys, go to Mystery Island and then come back here for Halloween."

     Lex thought about this for a moment before beaming at Bex. "That sounds like an excellent plan," she concluded. "What do you guys think?"

     There was a chorus of enthusiastic responses and even Bill said he wished he could go with us.

     After that announcement we quickly fell into planning mode, chattering amongst ourselves about what we could do in Shenkuu and then on Mystery Island. Dex and Bex were eagerly planning their 'Trick or Treat Extravaganza' for when they got back.

     Alice glided over to where Zee and I were perched and grinned at us. "Looks like you're stuck with me for a while yet," she said teasingly.

     "I'd have said it was you who was stuck with us," Zee replied with a giggle. "Although we're going to be super busy with the Games Room anyway, so you get a slight reprieve."

     "Could I help?" Alice asked, looking hopeful.

     "You don't have to do that," I protested. "I already feel g..."

     Zee cut me off. "If the next word out of your mouth is 'guilty', I'm gonna glue your face to your pillow while you're sleeping," she threatened me with a mock glare. "I like playing games, I like saving for a goal, and I like helping my sister."

     Alice snickered. "What she said," she told me, with an impish grin. "Besides you'll need help picking out furniture and you still have to decide on a Paint Brush colour." I looked at her sheepishly. "Or do you?" she added, narrowing her eyes at me.

     I shrugged. "I'm torn between Royal and Faerie," I admitted quietly, feeling myself blush with embarrassment.

     Zee raised an eyebrow. This was news to her.

     "Maybe both?" Alice mused quietly, not looking at me.

     "No," I said adamantly.

     Zee rolled her eyes. "We'll see," she amended, already grinning at the prospect. "Either way it'll be nice to have you with us."

     I brightened as I remembered something. "And while I'm still dithering," I began, looking slyly at Alice. "We could always save for another Tyrannian petpet paint brush for Hop."

     The Snowbunny looked around at hearing his name and Alice lit up at the suggestion. "If you like," she said, already excited.

     Zee was practically vibrating with repressed glee. "This is going to be soooo much fun!" she squealed, loud enough to attract the attention of the rest of the family.

     I grinned at her exuberance, pleased that I would be able to help my sister get something she wanted as well.

     An hour or so later Lex finally stood up and stretched. "Alrighty then," she said, gathering up the empty dishes and bottles, cramming them back into her basket. "We need to get home so we can start packing."

     We all bid goodbye to Bill; promising to come visit him again as soon as we could. We strolled back towards home and I smiled as Dex and Bex chased each other through the trees lining the road while Zook pranced circles around Lex, asking question after question about the Mystery Island house. Jojo was shrieking with laughter as he and Leggi rolled their way towards home and I smothered a grin.

     Neopia wouldn't know what hit it when the Cirque du Chaos that was my family rolled through its lands. I hoped the Mystery Islanders wouldn't be too angry about their shattered idyll.

The End

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