After a very long flight and an almost as long series of bus rides, Tula is finally home. She leaves her bags on the front yard for the time being, knowing no one in this small town would dream of stealing it.
She looks around the house and notes that it hasn't changed a single bit. Walking through the front door is like stepping through a time machine. Even her grandmother's paintings hang in the exact same positions on the walls, still just as bright as when they were freshly painted.
Paolo rushes to greet her.
"Oh I'm so happy to see you!" he gushes before she can even open her mouth, "And so is Haliya! Well, once she gets back from ballet she will be. She's grown so much since you left!"
Right, her younger sister. Tula has trouble imagining her as anything but a little toddler. Internet in the hotel was usually only good enough for voice calls and pictures.
"Does she even recognize me?" Tula frets, "She was only two when I left..."
"She's always happy to see your pictures," Paolo is quick to reassure her, "She keeps telling her friends about her 'cool sister' in China."
Tula smiles with seeming relief, "Oh really? Aw, that's so sweet! I can't wait to see her."
Noticing her father's shining eyes and soft smile, she realizes that he's just as excited to see her. And nervous. He probably still blames himself for being a bad father. She almost shakes her head; just like her dad to get caught up in the past.
"I missed you so much, dad!'
With those words, she sweeps him into a hug. The relief that he feels all but floods from his every pore.
"I missed you too. Now go get settled, I'll bring your stuff in. I'll try to get Haliya to leave you alone for a few hours, you need your rest..."
Tula waves his concerns away dismissively, "Nah, I slept on the bus here. Just send her my way once she gets home."
And sure enough, several hours later, Haliya bounds up the stairs to see her big sister. Tula was looking for something to read, but a person can do just as well as a book.
"Wow," Haliya breathes, "You're so pink!"
"And you're so...yellow."
Haliya's face scrunches up, "And blue..." She sticks her booted foot in front of her a little.
Tula and Haliya stare at each other silently.
There are tons of questions Haliya wants to ask, like if Tula really went on the Great Wall and if she can use chop sticks and everything... man, her sister's so cool!
Tula can see the adoration in Haliya's eyes and obliges with a hug. Haliya returns it eagerly.
"I want to hear all about you," Tula says with a smile, "I hear you're doing ballet? I'm jealous, I could never dance..."
Haliya's eyes widen; her sister wants to know about her?
So she shyly tells Tula about her dance classes. She likes the dancing, but the giggling with her friends seems to take priority.
Tula listens with interest, nodding in the right places and continuing the conversation; do you like your teacher? Ooh, you'll have to show me your pirouette sometime... Maybe you could teach me to dance!
When Haliya beams at her, Tula knows her little sister could be very...
Haliya is exhausted from ballet and school and eagerly accepts Tula's offer for a bedtime story. Haliya normally sleeps in Tula's old room, but with Tula home, she's kicked upstairs to Paolo's old bedroom. It seems that he kept to his promise to be with Sun downstairs.
Tula starts with the story on the page- about a canine police officer- but quickly sees that Haliya's eyes are pinned on her face rather than the book and that she's not really listening to her story.
Tula's gaze wanders to the pictures of her mother and father. She is completely unsurprised that Paolo keeps them up.
"Do you know who that is?" Tula points to the photos.
Haliya looks at them and shrugs, "Daddy and some lady."
"Do you know who that lady is?"
Haliya gives it some thought, "No..."
Tula smiles, "Let me tell you about her. In a story."
She flips to the first page, which is introducing the protagonist, a german sheperd named Officer Sheperd. She decides to alter the story juuuust a little bit.
"Officer Sheperd met a lovely fox named Christina. She wore flowers on her head and she was very beautiful. He knew he liked her immediately, but little did he know that her father was the dastardly Mr. Hunt! Mr. Hunt was the one behind all the stealing. Mr. Hunt was the one making the forest animals so sad..."
Haliya cocks her head, "I thought you were going to tell me about the lady in the photo..."
Tula smiles, "I am, just pay attention..."
"Officer Sheperd heard from Miss June-bug that she saw a fox leaving the house on the night of the robbery. Their ears were pointy, their tail was bushy..."
Haliya gasps, "Who was the stealer?"
Tula smirks, "Let's find out..."
"There were only two foxes that lived in the town. Mr. Hunt....and his daughter Christina. It had to be Mr. Hunt, Officer Sheperd thought. Christina was too nice to be a thief."
"But when he came to the fox den to arrest Mr. Hunt... all he found was Christina. She had Miss June-bug's dresses, Mr. Toad's safe, and most importantly of all..." she pauses for dramatic emphasis, "...Officer Sheperd's heart."
"Christina wanted to become nice again, so she went with Officer Sheperd. The other police officers could help her. But poor Officer Sheperd was too sad to talk to her anymore. That's when he met Miss Star, the yellow starfish. She liked building things. He liked Miss Star a lot, so he asked her to build a house. They could both live there and be happy. She made the house just for Officer Sheperd. He loved it! He and Miss Star moved into the house. But even though she made him happy, and even though she was very nice... he still thought about Christina. He wanted her to get better."
Haliya's eyebrows furrow; she can't follow Tula's story very well. But, as her eyelids droop, she fights to keep listening.
"So even though he loved Miss Star, he always loved Christina a little more."
Haliya falls asleep at this point, her exhaustion winning out over the many questions she has about this story.
Tula kisses her sister's forehead, having a vague memory of her mother or father doing this when she was young.
The next morning, Tula and Haliya have a very late breakfast.
"Key lime pie isn't a very healthy breakfast choice," Tula criticizes.
"Oh don't worry, I let her have some," Sun says from behind them, "She likes sweets."
Haliya giggles, "Mommy always lets me have pie for breakfast."
"A little sugar never hurt anyone," Sun defends.
Tula arches an eyebrow, but says nothing.
"I bet you didn't eat pie in China, I bet by the time the sun rose you and those tourists were already running on the Great Wall."
Tula chuckles, "You've seen too many movies..."
"But you did go on the Great Wall, right?"
"Only about a million times," she mumbles before adding at a normal volume, "Yeah, I went there with friends a lot."
"Were any of them your boooooyfriend?"
Haliya pouts, "I thought you'd fall in love and get married and have Chinese babies..."
Tula coughs, pretending to be shocked, "Haliya!"
Sun's face remains neutral, but Tula can see the twinkle in her eyes, "She's not the only one who thought that..."
As Paolo sits down to join them for bruncht, Haliya turns to Sun.
"When will I get a niece or nephew? I want to hold a baby..."
Sun turns to Paolo, "Was Tula so baby-obsessed when she was her age?"
Paolo rolls his eyes, "A lot of little girls are. Calm down, it's normal."
Haliya pushes away from the table, "I'm going to bake!"
While Haliya makes muffins, Tula tries her hand at painting. Aside from art classes in school, she's never held a paint brush. It brings back some memories of her grandmother, painting serenely. Well, obsessively after her grandfather's death. Strange what activities the mind clings to when things change.
Maybe Tula can't understand it, but she can see if art does anything for her.
Haliya makes a single, fluffy muffin. Seeing Tula painting, she stares at her grandma's paitnings and quietly zones out. She's only seen a few photos of Persis, but wishes she could've met her. Most of her friends live with their grandparents, or at least see them weekly. Why did she have to have such a small family? She doesn't even have a cousin her age to play with.
Well, there's Bree, but she's normally in Bridgeport for school. Aunt Xara decided instead of the constant coming and going Gregory, Seth, and Omar had during their childhoods that Bree should be with her mother as much as possible.
Haliya sighs. She bets that there're lots of big families in Bridgeport...
Tula inspects her work.
Decent, but could be better.
They have pie for dinner too.
"All this pie is going to make us fat," Tula mutters.
"W-What? Really?" Haliya is shocked.
Paolo shoots Tula a look from the other end of the table.
"Only if you have too much," Paolo corrects.
"Oh, ok..." And there's never such a thing as too much pie, so she should be fine, right?
As they eat, Paolo and Sun cite the late time and head off to bed. This leaves the sisters alone.
"Did you ever use kung-fu on anyone?" Haliya asks.
"Only in sparring matches."
Tula smiles, "Well I did fight a vampire once..."
Haliya is entranced by her sister's story. An ancient vampire? Last-minute strikes while backs are turned? Her sister is so cool!
"And did you save Prince Rafael?" Haliya asks, her eyes intense, "Did you live happily ever after?"
"It's just a story, Haliya..."
Haliya pouts. Everything is "just a story" it seems.
"How about Christina and Officer Sheperd?"
"Stories can be based on some truth. That doesn't mean all of it is real."
Haliya's brow furrows in confusion, but she shakes her head. Adults are weird.
"So when will you have babies?" Haliya moves on to her next urgent line of questioning, "I want to be an aunt."
"And why to you want to be an aunt?"
"Mommy and daddy say I'm too young to be a mommy, but you're already old!"
"I'm 19, Haliya..."
"You know what I mean. You can get married! I checked..."
Well, this dinner has certainly been... informative.
Her sister likes happy endings, it seems.
She has a lot to learn.