Who Needs a Royal Paint Brush? III: Part Five
The falling snow ceased slightly so that it came down upon
the Neopian citizens more gently. Cuni stumbled and tripped on her way up Guild
Street, but finally crossed the snow-covered lawn, her hooves imprinted in the
ankle-deep ice crystals.
She hurtled at the door and threw it open, completely
out of breath.
"XWAY!" she bellowed. "IT'S -- ME -- CUNI --"
She staggered into the hallway and pulled the
door shut behind her. The baby Uni was just about to call again when a Halloween
Shoyru appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking alarmed. "Cuni, what is it?"
Cuni hesitated. The time had come at last to
tell her story, and she knew it. The light above flickered and she blinked.
Panting, out of breath, she bent double, bowing her head as she clutched a stitch
in her side. And suddenly, as she had been bursting to tell her story from the
very beginning, it felt very odd to her not to know where to begin.
"Cuni, does Courtney know you're here?" she said,
pulling a skeptical expression.
"Acawas!" gasped Cuni, ignoring her sister. "Paint
Bwush -- Woyal -- Paint -- Bwush -- Syl -- "
"What?" said Xrai, crouching lower to level her
face with Cuni's.
"Syl! The Acawas! Da Woyal Paint Bwush!"
Xrai looked rather pale. "What are you -- ?"
She stopped, her eyes widening slowly. "Those... those two Acaras?" she whispered,
looking paler than before. And, instinctively, her paw rose, slowly, trembling,
and closed around the acorn-sized golden Snowbunny that the Acaras had given
Cuni as a gift for her to represent the support they had shown for Cybana. The
baby Uni vaguely and instantly groped for hers around her own neck -- but it
wasn't there. Shaking off that worry for now, she looked into her sister's eyes,
"Yeah! Dem," said Cuni, nodding vigorously so
that the woolly blue hat on her head fell over her ears and eyes. She pushed
it sloppily back onto her head and out of her face so that it was rather lopsided,
but she did not care.
"What about them?"
"Da Woyal Paint Bwush!" cried Cuni. "Da -- Paint
Bwush, and -- "
"The Royal Paint Brush you gave back to them?"
"Yes!" said Cuni exasperatedly. "Okay, see, I
didn't do -- I was gonna give it back to dem -- honestwy, I was -- !"
"Calm down, Cuni," said Xrai loudly and Cuni's
stutters halted at once. "Now what is it?"
And so Cuni relaxed a bit, her shoulders sagging
as she gulped, and she told her sister everything. She told of how the Paint
Brush had been left on their doorstep, of her suspicions, of how she hid it
in the closet, how she had thought it over and came to the decision to bring
it back, and how it was not there when she went to look. Now trembling, she
explained how she had gone with Snickers to the Pound and how she found the
bag in there, but later discovered it was not inside. She continued on to say
how her panic had risen at once and concluded by saying she knew Xrai was the
best one to tell. All she left out were her suspicions with Snickers, as he
had not yet shown any behavior that would qualify as proof, and found it neither
important or necessary to include.
Xrai nodded and at last cleared her throat, looking
shaken. "Right..." she said softly, "well -- Cuni, why didn't you say anything
before? You could've told us..."
Caught unawares, Cuni shrugged and directed her
gaze at the floor. Her streak of independence had ruined everything, and it
now seemed childish, not to mention stupid, of her to ever think she could handle
this on her own.
"Fair enough," said Xrai, nodding as though she
understood. "Well... it's going to be extremely difficult -- maybe impossible
-- to get it back, but perhaps we can persuade whoever found it to give it back
if we tell them out story..."
Cuni, who thought it very improbable that anyone
would give an item of such value back after listening to what she had just said,
merely grunted. Xrai seemed to have read her mind. "I know it seems... unlikely,"
she said dolefully, "but -- we have to try, haven't we?"
Again, she nodded, feeling that the blame rested
entirely with her if she never once saw that Royal Paint Brush again and was
unable to return it.
"First thing's first," said Xrai, now straightening
up and sounding much more stern. "Can you remember where you hid it in the closet
to begin with?"
The Uni glanced up at her sister and racked her
brain; she remembered putting it underneath a sweater, but how to identify it?
"No," she said finally, hanging her head in defeat. "I put it undewr a sweatewr,
but -- I don't know what it wooked wike and dare were pwobably a wot of sweatewrs
in dat cwoset dat Couwtney gave away."
The Shoyru nodded in agreement. "Well, do you
know what bag the package was in?" she said. "Where did you find it when you
went to the Pound?"
"In a bag wiff other cwoset stuff," Cuni answered
at once. "So -- so if it swipped out in da bag --"
"-- then it must be in that one," finsihed Xrai,
smiling faintly, the last thing Cuni felt like doing. "Well, we must try, right?"
"Wight -- yeah," Cuni said distractedly, thinking
hard. A twinge inside of her told her there was something wrong -- something
that would make their situation yet again more difficult than present, maybe
even impossible --
"Oh no!" Cuni cried suddenly as Xrai began to
put her coat on, slipping into a pair of boots. "I -- oh no, I just wemembewred
"What?" asked Xrai urgently, pulling open the
door; the wind had subsided completely. She beckoned for Cuni to follow, and
they took off at a jog down Guild Street as Cuni strained her mind, trying to
remember the full details, but it was was like trying to keep water from leaking
from her hoof...
"What is it?" Xrai repeated, panting imperceptibly
as they neared the forest and slowed to a quick walk.
"I --" And suddenly, she remembered, quite clearly,
what. She stopped, her eyes wide, feeling as though something very heavy had
struck her in the face. "I wemembewr where I hid it in da cwoset," she said
faintly, surpsied Xrai could not hear the loud banging of her heart against
"And?" said Xrai eagerly. Her face fell. "Why's
that bad? You look -- pale --"
Cuni nodded, frozen to the spot though that had
nothing to do with the temperature. "I -- I put it undewneaff a red sweatewr."
"And -- Cuni, what's wrong? We know where it
"But," continued Cuni in a small voice, "I just
wemembewred dat befowe I weft and came to you -- I bwought a bag wiff a red
sweater to da Money Twee!"
The colour left in Xrai's face was instantly
drained. "Oh no, oh no," she muttered. "Did you happen -- to -- to see who got
it, by any chance?"
Shaking her head, Cuni felt a ripple of guilt
and anger at herself beneath her stunned disbelief. How could she be so stupid?
She had actually placed the Royal Paint Brush near the Money Tree without realizing
"C'mon," Xrai said abruptly, her paw closing
tightly around Cuni's.
"What?" exclaimed Cuni, feeling numb. "But --
it's gone --"
"Oh no it's not," snarled Xrai firmly, looking
determined rather than fuming as Cuni would have thought. "We'll get it back,
somehow, some way --"
"But --" spluttered Cuni, but her voice became
an inaudible squeak as they exited the forest. Xrai's strides lengthened, and
Cuni had to canter to keep up with her as they made their way towards the Money
Tree. There, at its trunk, stood Jake alongside a harrassed-looking Courtney
along with Alec, Snickers, and the glowing Kougra that was Kougie, who stuck
out among the grim-faced, teeth-chattering Neopians rushing by.
"Cuni!" cried Courtney at once as they made eye
contact, and relief was etched into every line of her face. "Cuni, we were worried,
why did you run off, where've you --? And Xrai, what --?" Snickers was the only
one without surprise on his face, which Cuni took (although she had no time
to worry about it) as an onimous sign.
"Not now, we'll explain later!" Xrai said hurriedly;
it was safe to say she was dragging Cuni at this point. "Come ON."
Cuni obliged and quickened up, rushing to keep
up in Xrai's wake. They stopped rather abruptly nearer to the Money Tree than
Courtney, Jake and the pets were. Neopians were scattered everywhere, snatching
up items and clothes on the snowy ground and scurrying off to celebrate their
Xrai was scanning the vicinity, though Cuni had
no idea what for; she had not been able to supply a description of the pets
who had taken the clothes from her, and could not think why they would have
stayed around much longer.
"Xrai, I think --"
"Not now!" hissed the Shoyru.
Cuni yanked away from her sister and, standing
on three hooves, began fingering around her neck and inside of her scarf for
the golden Snowbunny necklace as she waited for Xrai to explain her findings,
if she had any. She unraveled the scarf from around her neck and looked down;
there was no necklace at all.
Dolefully, she hung her head. That necklace had
been a symbol of hope for her in some way, and her eyes began sidling from every
spare space of snowy ground available, thinking she had probably dropped it
near here. Or maybe it's at home, she mused desperately, glancing up
at Xrai, whose face had hardened as she glared at passersby.
And the Uni began to mull about how she had ended
in this baffling, difficult situation. Why did I ever fink I could do somefing
wike dis on my own? she thought miserably. Evewyfing dat could go wong
did go wong...
She was jerked out of her musings as she glanced
up hopefully at Xrai. The Shoyru was facing the opposite direction and Cuni
hastened to imitate her.
She let out a gasp as her heart soared. "Y-you!"
she gasped. "How -- how did you find -- what awe you --?"
The pair of Acaras stood boldly before Cuni and
her sister, smiling with a large, bulging bag in Syl's hand and, in the other's,
a golden necklace dangling from her paws as she grinned mysteriously. The mere
appearance of them had her rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak as though
paralyzed in shock.
"Found this over there," said the older one,
who was taller than Cuni but bent lower so that they were level. "Thought you
might like it back."
Nodding, numb with disbelief, Cuni reached out
slowly and took the necklace, forgetting for a moment what their purpose for
finding the Acaras for had been in the first place. "F-Fanks," she stuttered,
feeling the warmth that the necklace gave off. She could hardly believe that
the two Acaras had popped up like this, the ones she had been searching for
for so long, that she did not notice the bag in Syl's hands as the Acara struggled
to hold it until her eyes traveled and settled upon it.
She drew a loud intake of breath and immediately
fell to her knees; a red sweater was poking out from inside the bag, and Cuni's
heart hammered from not fear, but this time, excitement and accomplishment.
"Oh, you guys -- you -- in here, it's -- I know it, the sweatewr and --" She
continued in this vein for some time as Syl released her grip on the bag and
watched her, a slight crease in her eyebrows as she and Kaunna exchanged glances.
"Cuni -- what --?" began Xrai, but Cuni had just
set aside the red sweater in her search and Xrai's eyes widened too.
"Oh my -- you -- it's -- that -- that bag, but
Cuni, it's not -- it is?" she stuttered weakly, and she bore a striking resemblence
to Cuni just then. She looked wildly from Syl to Kaunna. "I -- I think you'll
find something -- in there -- that's yours," she said as Cui continued to rummage
"Erm --" said Kaunna confusedly, looking down
at her sister who wore a similar look of puzzlement.
"Aha!" exclaimed Cuni at last; scattered around
them were shirts and sweaters, jeans and scarves. But none of it mattered. Cuni
could feel tears of happiness burning beyond her eyelids as she straightened
up -- Syl let out a tiny stifled scream and Kaunna, her eyes wide, merely gaped
as Cuni held up the Royal Paint Brush to the light and it gleamed brighter;
the handle seemed to glow warmer, too.
"The -- the Royal Paint Brush," muttered Kaunna
weakly after a pause that stretched on for several moments.
"I found it on da doowstep," said Cuni, holding
out out to Syl. The little red Acara's fur blew in the breeze, but none of them
seemed aware of the cold anymore. "And -- um," continued the Uni when Syl did
not take it, but stared blankly at it, "well I -- I was wondewing -- why?"
The question had burst from her before she could
stop it. She bit her lip and looked from one Acara to the other, and they both
dropped their gazes to the glittering white ground. "Well..." Hesitently, Kaunna
took a deep breath. "We were told -- to use it wisely. Syl and I think -- we
think that the best thing -- the wisest thing -- to do would be to hand it to
you." And she smiled.
"But -- but don't you need it?" said Xrai, blinking.
Kaunna gave a sorrowful sigh. "Not as much as
you do," she said quietly.
And as the wind suddenly gave a loud whistle,
Cuni remembered the question she had wanted to ask, the one she had told herself
she would ask as soon as she returned the Paint Brush -- but should she?
"Erm -- I -- I was -- was -- um," stuttered Cuni,
and her voice tailed away.
"What?" asked Kaunna kindly. Cuni blushed and
let the hoof holding the Royal Paint Brush fall limply to her side, as neither
Acara had taken it.
"Well, I don't wanta' ask dis if it's -- it's
too -- too -- pewsonal," she muttered so that all three had to lean in to hear
her. "But -- um -- if you -- if you don't mind my asking, where did you
get it? Da Paint Bwush?"
At once, Cuni knew she shouldn't have asked it.
Syl's lower lip trembled and Kaunna's eyes seemed to gaze beyond in a sort of
sorrowful reminiscence while Xrai shot Cuni a stern, hard look. "I -- fowget
it," said Cuni softly, "Sowwy, I didn't --"
"No," said Kaunna at once, "it's -- okay." She
took another deep breath. "We -- Syl and I -- well, we got that Royal Paint
Brush from our mother before -- before she left us."
"Weft you --?" Cuni said, puzzled, but Xrai jabbed
her elbow painfully into Cuni's side. "Ow!" she hissed, but then her common
sense caught up with her reasoning. "OH!" she said loudly, and suddenly, she
felt her heart break in two. The tears of happiness behind her eyes were suddenly
that of mournfulness. Morosely, she stared at the two, and felt a tear trickling
down her cheek, but she did not make to wipe it away.
"I'm sowwy," she said quietly as Xrai nodded
"That's quite all right," said Kaunna, trying
to interject a note of cheerfulness in her voice, an exploit she failed at miserably.
"It's been a while -- but she told us to use it wisely, and we've decided that
it would be best if you put it to better use. You see, our grandmother was quite
determined to have a Royal Acara in the family, but apparently, our mother thought
otherwise. She -- she -- as you noticed -- she told us, 'Use it wisely,' instead
of the words her mother spoke. She knew we would make the right choice, and
we did." She shrugged and Syl nodded.
"That's right," the younger Acara said simply.
"No," Cuni said firmly, and she held out the
Royal Paint Brush again, her face set with certainty. She glanced at Xrai; Xrai
blinked several times fast, perhaps to rid her face of tears, and nodded with
just as much resolution.
"What?" said Kaunna, taken aback. "No --?"
"That's wight," said Cuni, nodding and jerking
the Royal Paint Brush towards them stubbornly, "you take it, it isn't ouwrs
to keep --"
"-- it -- it was your mother's wish to use it
wisely," interjected Xrai, seemingly hesitant to mention their mother.
"-- and we fink it would be best fowr you to
use it howevewr you want," said Cuni, bowing her head slightly. "Dat
is -- I fink you -- one of you -- should get painted, wike youw gwandmother
wanted." With that, she pressed the Royal Paint Brush into Syl's arms, who took
it, relenting, but rather reluctantly and looked up at Kaunna for support.
"But you need it much more than we do," Kaunna
said. "What about your Snowbunny?"
"She's fine, as far as we know," said Xrai at
once, as though expecting that statement. "She's even found a friend -- Moze
the Mozito! Moze guides Cybana and directs her to the right place, they communicate
somehow, and Cybana's relying more on her sense of smell and hearing, she's
become quite used to it."
"That's not --" began Kaunna.
"And," Xrai pressed on loudly with an air of
finalty (Cuni smiled), "she's learned to cope with losing her eyesight -- I
really don't think she knows much difference anymore, she's quite capable of
continuing this way. And anyway," she added as Kaunna opened her mouth to speak,
"I -- I think you should follow your grandmother's wishes. And your mother's."
And she crossed her arms, gazing at the two Acaras, who gaped soundlessly like
A long pause stretched on.
At last, Kaunna nodded. "I -- I suppose you're
right," she mumbled. "We agreed to have Syl painted, but -- but we started feeling
rather guilty and put it on your porch. We knew, of course, that you wouldn't
accept it --" (Here she actually smiled and winked) "-- so we just left
it. We were right, weren't we?"
"Yes," enthused Cuni, almost laughing.
"Ready -- ready to get painted, then?" Kaunna
said after a short pause, smiling down at her younger sister.
But Syl's smile was wider than them all; she
held the Paint Brush in her hand, gazing at its bristles and shining handle,
and, almost absently, began to make her way towards the Rainbow Pool, stroking
the Paint Brush fondly. Cuni giggled.
"Mind if we come?" said Xrai, grinning.
"Not at all." Kaunna shook her head and started
after Sylannya, and Xrai followed closely behind.
Cuni took one step before she felt a most peculiar
feeling that she was being closely watched. She glanced over her shoulder to
see Snickers, Alec, and Kougie grouped together near the Tree's trunk as though
they had not even glanced at her. But Cuni had a definite feeling that Snickers
had just joined in on the conversation and his eyes had just sidled back over
Cuni watched them, and the final mystery rose
inside of her. Had he known? She smiled vaguely in wonderment.
The baby Uni gave a jolt. She was positive that,
when she had smiled, she had received one in return, and, if possible, a wink
from the skunk Kougra. Could it be true? Did he know?
But she knew; he had winked at her, and something
clunked into place. Snickers was always the quiet, understanding one, and Cuni,
in ways that she could not even explain to herself, knew he had known all along.
He had not interfered; he had known, not only of her situation, but of her independence
and believed she wanted to show that she wasn't the baby in the family anymore,
despite her colour. When she had gone to Xrai for help -- it was showing responsibility
of knowing when she could no longer control things.
But the wink and smile had gone, and he was chatting
animatedly with Kougie and Alec again. Had she imagined it?
The Uni spun around and felt herself stumble
in her haste. Clumsily, she hurried off at a trot, and the clothes scattered
around were forgotten as surrounding pets hesitantly picked them up.
"Yeah!" she called, and went off at a gallop
in the direction of the Rainbow Pool in an attempt to catch up with her sister
-- and her friends, a red Acara and a younger, soon-to-be-Royal one.