"Look, Hai, I don't know what's wrong with you..." she said, exasperated. "I swear, I'm just going to get it over with and paint you baby."
It wasn't like Plum had no reason to act this way. I was eldest. The biggest in the house. And the only male. Plum had expectations. Expectations that I didn't live up to.
I was supposed to be a girl. Whenever I say that, they laugh. A beautiful girl, with soft, blue fur. But silly Plum, as usual, rushed out of the adoption center without even specifying what gender of Kougra she wanted. So she ended up with me.
My name's Haiamai, by the way. Not very macho, rough and tumble, is it? I'm just thankful I didn't end up with a name like Lucianna or Marabelle or something like that. It's bad enough Plum wanted all girls and got me; school would be a nightmare! I'm already bullied enough.
Well, enough of my history. When Plum was yelling at me, she wasn't trying to be mean. Fyora knows she could never be mean to a living soul. I remember one time when a baby Usul came up, his fur all dirty, and asked her if she could spare some neopoints. Plum gave him all she had, which was around two-hundred thousand.
We're not rich, by the way. Plum just works hard to provide us with all she can.
The problem is, I'm not the ideal big brother. I'm very timid and scare easy. I'm really more of a pacifist than anything else. My littlest sister was strolling down the street with the rest of us, and a few mean-spirited neopets grabbed her.
"Look at this adorable baby!" chuckled one.
"I bet she'd go for a good price at the trading board." said another as Lyla bit and kicked and screamed.
My other sister, Loo, flew off for help, while Rae and I tried to scare them off. "Hey!" I said, my chest puffed up. "Leave her alone!" the leader, a fire Jetsam, stalked up to me.
"You going to do something about it?" he growled. I started to shake. He was really big. And he also looked like he was no stranger to the Battledome.
"No, I mean, yes, wait, please, just let her go..." I stared at my paws.
"Please?" he chortled. "Now, look here, sissy boy. When that Darigan sister of yours comes back, we'll be taking her as well." he stared pointedly at Rae. "And the faerie, too."
And I stood there, doing nothing. Lucky for us, Rae has a short temper. Sometimes we wonder why Loo is painted Darigan and not the other way around. Let's just say she left a good impression not to ever try selling pets again.
And so here I was, telling Plum exactly why I didn't do anything. Why I couldn't save my little sister, my responsibility.
"Plum, I'm sorry," I whispered, feeling like a failure. "I... tried to be brave. I really did."
She sighed, leaving the room with a swish of her ginger hair. I was sorry. And I wished I could be more brave. I really did. I sat in silence for a while before I heard a quiet knock on the door. Then the door opened and closed, admitting a tiny Kougra with brown fur and big eyes, paws and ears.
Lyla jumped on my bed, which was quite a leap for her, and sat next to me. She had a wrapped present in her paws, and handed it to me. I let it sit on my lap, and we sat in silence once more.
"I got it for your birthday, but now I think you could use it. Everyone pitched in. Even my friends! I worked really hard for it..." she tried, but I gave her no response. What was I supposed to say? Sorry I'm a lousy big brother, thanks for the present, bye?
But she continued. "I noticed you're the only one of us not painted, and I thought... you'd might like this one..." she trailed off. Then she jumped down. A paintbrush, then.
"I love you, big brother. You can be brave, I just know it."
And I snapped. Even to this day, I regret what I did and said, but that didn't matter. I still yelled at her. "What do you know, Lyluni? Huh? Have you ever been in that situation? I bet you'd just cry, like you always do!" I yelled.
I watched her adorable face scrunch up, and her eyes fill with tears. she ran out of the room, wailing like, well, like a baby. And I felt satisfied. It wasn't fair, to force me with all of this responsibility. I wasn't the Defenders of Neopia, for crying out loud! Let Rae handle it. She was so much stronger than I was.
In the hallway, I could hear the muffled sniffles of Lyla as she was comforted by Loo. She deserved it. Then I realized the package was still on my lap. I opened it, pulling on the ribbons carefully. "Oh, Lyla..." I said, picking it up.
I was transferred to a long time ago, when Lyla and I were still basic colors (although I still am) and we were walking home. Then some neopet came and began picking on Lyla. "Your brother's a coward!" he sneered. I shook and shivered until he was called home. But Lyla was proud of me.
That's when Lyla looked up at me, innocent as usual, and told me, "I know you can be brave. You didn't leave me there. Instead you stayed with me and comforted me when I cried. You're not a coward, Hai, I know you're not!" she had said with fierce belief.
I put the paintbrush back in its box. I was making a trip to the Rainbow Pool.
I walked back, my head held high. Sure, I felt different. I mean, when you go through that kind of transformation, it's hard not to feel anything. My paws and head were bigger, and my stripes were jagged and jet-black. I'm sure, I looked scary. Neopets gave me hard looks, and eventually, I turned down an abandoned ally to get away from their stares.
And a scream came from behind me.
I turned to see Lyla struggling against... wait, was that the fire Jetsam from earlier? He had his arm around Lyla's middle, and she was kicking, scratching, biting... to no avail. "Now there's no one but your cowardly big brother, who seems to think a new look will make him braver." He laughed, a cruel, cold sound.
"Leave her alone." I growled.
He laughed again. "The coward speaks." He turned to Lyla, who had started wailing, and clamped a fin over her mouth. "Stop that," he said. She bit him.
"Let her go." Odd, my voice wasn't shaking.
This time he seemed to see what I meant. But he didn't let her go.
"You wouldn't do anything," he scoffed, taking out some rope. Probably to tie up Lyla with.
I don't really know what came over me. Rae and Loo were not here. There would be no help, and no angry faerie to save the day. Only me, timid as a mouse. Thankfully, it was enough.
I ran over, closing the distance between him and I, and bit the arm that held my sister against her will. Now, regular Kougra teeth hurt. But my new color also has some new teeth. And these teeth were a bit sharper than usual.
Needless to say, he let go. "Don't ever mess with my sisters again, do you hear me!" I called as he fled, and then I turned to Lyla.
"Lyla, Lyla, Lyla, Lyla, Lyla," I cried as I picked her up. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Then I blinked. "How did you get here?"
It was her turn to be sorry as she hugged my neck. "I followed you!" she gasped through her tears. "I wanted to see where you were going..."
I snuggled her close. "Don't ever scare me like that."
"You look good as a Tyrannian."
I wasn't brave after that. I was still me. I still jumped at shadows on the walls and Spyders and such. But when it came to protecting Lyla, I was the bravest of them all. I trained in the Battledome so when I needed the skills, I would know them.
Lyla was proud of me, even though I was still as brave as a pile of soot.
Courage was not that you weren't scared of something; it was being brave when you were scared of something.