Leo couldn’t help but grin at the sight of the last dish he’d prepared. After hours and hours in the kitchen, the feast was finally ready.
Sure, it wasn’t the experimental haute cuisine that he’d been proudly serving at the restaurant lately, but Leo knew that some occasions called for good old home comfort dishes. Most of today’s guests would probably not be able to fully appreciate a jungle moss egg with lavender wisps anyway…
“That smells divine,” his wife joined him, tilting her head back as if to allow even more of the scent in. “I can’t wait to tuck in!”
“Do you think it’s enough food? 19 people is a lot…”
“Calm down, honey,” Pauline tried not to laugh at her husband’s nerves, wrapping him into an embrace. “You’ve done this a thousand times. The restaurant gets more than 19 visitors a night, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but that’s what I have my staff for,” Leo pointed out. “It’s a whole other ball game to pull it off all on my own.”
“Just relax. It’s family. They’d love it even if you served up plain mac and cheese!”
“The kids would probably prefer it,” Leo laughed.
“Thanks, Pauline,” he continued. “You always know what to say. Where would I be without you?”
Pauline just smiled. She could of course reminisce about their beautiful life together, and marvel at the fact that all the wonderful people that would soon fill the room would only be here thanks to their union… but it was too early in the day to get sentimental. No doubt she’d get misty over some eggnog later on regardless…
No time for that now! The guests had already started arriving.
“Grandma!” Hope rushed towards her, stretching her arms out. Pauline pulled the little girl into a cuddle.
“How’s Hopey-bug?” She asked her.
“Pretty good!” Hope bounced up and down eagerly “Have you seen all the kids? So many new people my age! How awesome is that?”
“Pretty awesome.” Pauline smiled softly.
“Oh, and there’s presents too! Eeep!” Hope ran off excitedly. Pauline and Leo giggled at the sight of her.
“Your kid is too cute.” Sera told her sister. “I just want to steal her!” She joked.
“You’ll have one of your own someday,” Carly smiled.
“I don’t know about that. It takes two, as you’d know…”
“So? Don’t be so hard on yourself, Sera.” Carly said firmly. “Besides, even if you don’t find who you’re looking for, you could always adopt – just look around the room!”
“True,” Sera nodded. “Though it’s tricky, since all of them already feel like a part of the family… How could I possibly just pick one? And how would the others feel?”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Carly sighed. Sera wondered if her sister had been giving this some thought already. “Besides… weren’t we talking hypothetically, anyway?”
Sera hesitated for a moment. “Hey Carly… what if I think I have found the guy I’m looking for already?” She asked. “Except… I don’t think he’s looking for me. Or anyone, for that matter.”
Carly tilted her head. “Ok, you need to tell me more…”
Aslan was sitting right beside them, but he had way more interesting things to focus on than eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ silly conversations.
The girl next to him was glowing. And not in the figurative sense of the word. Was he imagining things? Had nobody else noticed?
She noticed him staring.
“HI! I’m Alexus!” She introduced herself with a smile.
“Aslan.” He eyed her up and down. “Have you eaten something weird?”
“What? You mean the zombie cake?” She asked. “But you had that too!”
Aslan frowned a little. “Never mind…”
He didn’t have much more time to mull it over, the girl’s pinkish glow subsided as everyone gathered around the table for their meal, squeezing tightly around the table.
Carly’s couldn’t help but trace back to her conversation with Sera. Seeing all these little kids about made her mind raise. A part of her wanted to give them all a new home – but what would be the point of that? Hallie had already done that, and far better than she could in her own house.
But with Sigrid’s cute smile, Eun’s clever remarks and Marla’s tomboyish ways… how could she resist the urge of welcoming another child into her home?
And seeing how excited Hope was, and how good Ralph seemed at entertaining all the little ones certainly didn’t make it go away.
But her sister was right. Adopting one of them and having the others live just around the corner, witnessing what could have been their life so close they could almost reach it… it seemed cruel.
Carly shook her head. It was a silly thing to think about. The children had a fantastic life with Hallie.
“Hey Sera,” Vito greeted his sister at the other side of the table. “You look good. Has that hunky yoga instructor of yours noticed yet?”
Sera blushed a little. “I don’t know. He’s a bit of a closed book, even now. Maybe I should set you up with him, since I’m clearly not getting anywhere and you think he’s hunky…” She joked, deflecting.
“Haha, very funny! Nah, I think I’ll be kind and let you keep this one.” Vito teased her.
“To be honest, going to that singles’ night thing the other day made me realise I’m not really ready to date again yet.” He got more serious. “I’m just… still not really over him.”
“Sorry.” Sera said quickly.
“No need to be sorry. It’s just how it is.” Vito shrugged. “I’ve got more important things to worry about anyway. Aslan’s what matters most now, you know?”
“Who are you and what have you done with our Vito?” Hallie chimed in, overhearing the conversation.
“Guess he’s grown up, huh?” Sera smiled. “Guess we all have…”
“Except for Carly.” Vito added. “She’s always been a grown up.”
“If only!” Carly called out to him across the table.
Yenn beamed, looking at them contently. She never thought she’d see the day when all the four heirs would get along so well, sitting around one table and actually seem happy about them. They all still had their own troubles to face, but now they had each other.
Involuntarily, her mind slipped back to her own brother and sister. How much time had her and Booker wasted before they fully buried the hatchet? How many more times could they all have had, together with Chell, all three of them? Not judging each other, not hiding away from one another in rough times…
But these kids, they got it right, Yenn thought.
Yenn was brought back to the present with Peyton’s unmistakable voice resonating through the room.
“This is a public Peyton announcement! We will now take a short break from all the eating, to resume shortly with… more eating! I hear Leo has several more pots bubbling away in the kitchen, so prepare yourselves for more… if you can handle it!”
Her and Pauline then headed for the bar giddily. It had been a while since the two sisters had a chance to catch up properly.
But no matter how long it had or hadn’t been, no matter how busy they were with their own lives, the two of them would always lip right back into their old ways, as if they’d only just seen each other a moment ago. Their friendship was one of those that you could pick right back up at any time, right back where you left off.
Far from subtle, the presence of the two bubbly green-skinned women hadn’t escaped any of the orphans.
“So, it is confirmed,” Eun turned to Millicent. “Aliens. Right here, in Newcrest! And I thought Donnie’s imagination was running wild when he talked about that tombstone… Who knew?”
“Well, I for one always knew they existed.” Millicent told him smugly. “I mean, wasn’t it obvious?”
“But you didn’t believe Donnie either!”
Donnell was barely listening to them. Eun and Millie were the two kids he went to with his alien grave discovery after Alexus had shrugged it off. And they didn’t believe him. Alexus didn’t believe him. Clearly, they were all wrong.
If there were two aliens already living in Newcrest, out in the open, how many more were hiding around, going unnoticed?
“Hey Donnie, is your head in the clouds again?” Camden nudged the boy.
“Donnie’s a dreamer!” Hope smiled. “Besides, wouldn’t it be boring to always have your feet on the ground?”
Camden frowned. Getting lost in airy-fairy stuff like Donnell was not his thing. He liked to play in the mud, and see what was in front of him.
“Whatever, point is Donnie is a looney!” Camden burst out.
“Hey!” Donnell turned to him helplessly. “What’s your problem?”
“Yeah, not everyone can be cool like us,” Aslan nodded with his mouth full.
“I think Donnie’s cool!” Hope jumped in.
“Thanks Hope!” Donnell’s face lit up. He’d never been described as cool in his life.
“Don’t flatter yourself, Hope thinks everyone’s cool.” Aslan shot his confidence right back down.
“I mean, honestly, you do seem like a bit of a looney. But some people have to be the weirdos, right?”
Donnell buried his face in the palms of his hands. Hope started to open her mouth to scold her cousin – she knew most people couldn’t handle Aslan’s harshness – but Camden beat her to the punch.
“Oh, you think you’re the best thing in the world, don’t you? Just because your family owns this restaurant doesn’t mean you’re better than us! There’s seven of us and only one of you, we can take you on!” He said to Aslan angrily.
“My family owns the whole of Newcrest!” Aslan hissed.
“I thought the Bloomers owned Newcrest.” Camden shrugged. “And what’s your last name? Leoni!”
“And I’m a Forrester.” Hope interrupted. “It’s just a name. It doesn’t matter. We’re all family here, aren’t we? Now, are you boys done fighting?”
Aslan and Camden fell silent. Marla shook her head with a soft laugh. Silly boys…
“I’m sorry Hope.” Camden turned to the girl. “You’re right, names don’t matter. And I’ve got nothing against you. I was just… looking out for Donnie.”
Donnell looked at him, confused. “But… you’re the one who called me a looney in the first place.”
“Well, yeah,” Camden agreed. “Only I get to call you a looney, though! You might be a looney, but you’re our looney. Which means nobody can mess with you!”
“Aww!” Hope beamed.
Donnie smiled shyly. “Thanks Camden.”
Aslan watched them all be stupidly mushy for a moment. “You’re all lame!” He rolled his eyes, walking away.
“Don’t worry,” Hope waved it off. “He’ll come around.”
Ralph and Carly had been watching the children.
“We’ve got such a good kid.” Ralph grinned proudly.
“I know.” Carly agreed. “How did we get this lucky?”
“I think luck has nothing to do with it.” Ralph looked at his wife lovingly.
“Listen, Lottie, I’ve been thinking… Do you think it’s time for us to have another one?”
Carly almost laughed. “Have you read my mind?”
“I wish I was that good.” Ralph said. “I just figured that it would be nice for our little family to get a bit bigger. Maybe it’s all the kids. Maybe it’s Snowflake Day. Maybe it’s because I think Hope would make an amazing older sister to another munchkin. Or maybe it’s just because I think we’re in a good place, and I feel like more good should come of it.”
“Then you have read my mind.” Carly said. “Since I’ve been thinking the exact same thing…”
Unbeknownst of her parents’ plans, Hope’s mind was preoccupied. She found Donnell by the entrance.
“Hi, Donnie! I just wanted to check if you were ok?” She approached the boy.
“Yeah, thanks!” Donnie was appreciative of her concern. “This is a really good day for me, actually.”
“You bet! Camden actually likes me now. And none of the other kids think I’m a joke anymore. Because I was right. Aliens exist! And I got to meet one, kind of. Well, not that I’ve gotten to talk to them, but…”
“Oh, you want to talk to grandma or her sister? Great aunt Peyton is right there!” Hope pointed at Peyton.
“Uh, I don’t know…”
“Don’t worry, she’s really nice. Aunt Peyton!”
“What’s up, little one?” Peyton joined them.
“Donnie here really wanted to meet you.” Hope gestured towards her new friend.
“Well, hello there, Donnie.” Peyton smiled at the child.
“Um, hi.” Donnie half-waved.
“You look like you have something on your mind.”
“He finds it interesting that you’re an alien.” Hope said helpfully.
“Shh!” Donnie was alarmed.
“I sure am an alien,” Peyton confirmed. “Though I’m probably not as exciting as you might think! I was born on this planet, raised by human parents, never tried to use any of my powers, never wore a disguise… I’m just enjoying being myself. And so should you.”
She was going to stick around for longer, but her husband Grady called her over.
“So that’s aunt Peyton,” Hope laughed. “I’m sure you’ll get to speak to her some more today!”
“Woah. Did you hear her?” Donnie asked. “She has powers? And aliens can have disguises?”
“I guess,” Hope shrugged. “I’ve never really thought about it. Her and grandma have just always been like this. Why would they even disguise themselves?”
“So that you don’t know they’re aliens!” Donnie explained. “Just imagine, if they can disguise themselves, who knows how many there really are! There can be a hidden alien in this room!”
He noticed a rather upset looking Alexus standing next to them.
“Don’t worry Alexus, I don’t really think there’s an alien in disguise in the room!” He tried to cheer her up.
“Yeah, grandma is a half alien, and aunt Peyton is a total alien, but nobody else in the family is.” Hope added.
“And other than your family, it’s just us.” Donnie nodded. “And we all know each other.”
“Just stop it, ok!?” Alexus yelled out all of the sudden. “Mind your own business!”
She turned around and ran towards the door.
Millicent, who was passing through raised an eyebrow. “What’s her problem?”
Donnie looked at Hope helplessly. “That was so weird! Alexus is never like this, I promise! She’s always really nice to everyone.”
“She looked upset.” Hope agreed. “Maybe she’s worried about aliens?”
“She must be.” Donnie felt guilty. “I didn’t want to upset her… I really like Alexus. She was the first person to say something to me, at the orphanage. And now I made her mad…”
“It’s ok. I’ll go talk to her.” Hope offered.
“Of course. I’ll just tell her that aliens are just like us and that she has nothing to worry about.”
“Thanks Hope!” Donnie said gratefully.
Hope did a little twirl.
“I’ll be back!”