...As when Lucie had first met the strange striped Xweetok, chills swept up and down her back.
"Peace offering?" she echoed in a hushed, whispered voice as she stared at the shining vial.
The Xweetok bit her lip, staring into Lucie's eyes. She was searching for something, but what, the Ixi wasn't sure.
"A peace offering," she repeated softly, having found whatever she had been looking for in Lucie's eyes.
In her hand, the vial seemed to throb with electric intensity, underscoring the quiet force of the trapped Xweetok's words.
Looking confused, Jay let go of her warily, staring. "Peace offering to who? For what?" she repeated.
Rubbing her arms reflexively, she sighed. "Have none of you ever wondered why the Snowager hoards keyrings and Neggs and snowballs?" she asked.
"And weapons," Lucie whispered, staring at the vial that now seemed alive in her hand.
"And weapons," the Xweetok agreed sadly.
A beat passed, and then another, and another. "Obviously not," Jay replied, still a bit surly for having been held hostage by the strange Neopet earlier.
"Have none of you wondered what it must be like to be the Snowager? To be so large and fearsome? So far removed from the rest of the Neopia, from anyone he might converse with?" she asked, passion ringing suddenly in her voice.
Lucie stared down at the vial, a strange sensation creeping down her spine. She couldn't identify it, but it wasn't pleasant.
"The Snowager is... a beast. It attacks us... attacks us when..." Jay trailed off, staring at the sad Xweetok.
"When we steal his stuff," said the Xweetok, picking up where Jay had trailed off. "What would you do if someone stole from you?"
The strange sensation seemed to grow and took up residence in the pit of the Ixi's stomach. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
Jay scuffed the snow with the toe of her boots. "I wouldn't be very happy," she finally admitted rather glumly.
"It's not treasure," the Xweetok said again.
"It’s a peace offering," Jay said, still glum. "A peace offering..."
"To himself," the striped Xweetok finished, staring deep into Lucie's eyes again. "Don't you see?"
A peace offering. Staring at the vial in her hand, the feeling in her stomach doubled and writhed, making her feel slightly sick.
"Don't you see?" the Xweetok urged, taking an unconscious step toward Lucie.
With a lurch, Lucie realized that she did see. Saw much, much more clearly than she wanted.
With no one to talk to, too frightening to interact with anyone, what would she do if she was the Snowager? Might she start collecting little things she held dear? Little things that made her feel normal, little things that comforted her and made her smile?
She nodded, slowly, and identified the feeling that was making her stomach cramp, the feeling that had crept down her spine and taken root.
And now that she knew it for what it was, another wave of shame swept over her, making her cheeks burn.
She was ashamed.
"This month, the Snowager hibernates, his first sleep in more years than most of us can remember," the Xweetok said, "How do you suppose he'll feel when he wakes up after the Starlight Festival ends?"
A fresh wave of shame burned through her.
"Not so hot," Lucie whispered weakly. Behind the Xweetok, Jay looked down at her keyring, embarrassed.
Lucie clutched the vial, feeling it burn against her palm. The heat was in her imagination, of course, but at that moment, it felt completely real. For a long, forlorn moment, she stared back at the Xweetok -- and then, abruptly, determination swept away the shame. Nodding at Jay, she turned around and ran back toward the Snowager's cave.
Creeping in quietly, the Ixi stared at the Snowager. She knew she'd never be back here -- at least, not for the reason she'd been here before. Slinking forward quietly, she stared one last time at the vial, envy burning through her for one fleeting moment. With her epiphany, however, there was no way she could keep the vial. With a reluctant sigh, she tucked it carefully underneath a coil of the Snowager's massive bulk -- somewhere she knew no normal Neopet would look. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jay do the same with her keyring.
Outside, the Xweetok was nowhere to be seen. Standing in the mouth of the cave, Jay looked at her.
"Even if we never steal his stuff again, we can't stop everyone else," she told her, resigned.
"Nope. But knowing that, do you still want to steal from him?" she asked, quietly.
Jay shook her head.
"Then that will have to be good enough," she told her.
She nodded, and gave Lucie a hug. The vial still haunted her thoughts; she had never even figured out what it was.
Some things just weren't hers to figure out, though.
"Come on, Jay... let's get some hot Borovan. I'm freezing!” she said with a watery smile.
Jay smiled back, and nodded. She may envy the Snowager his items, but she realized now that he probably envied her more -- because she had Jay.