A horrible stench was wafting through Barbra's Neohome. Unfortunately, that was normal; she didn't seem to know any recipes that didn't include either tofu, carrots, broccoli, asparagus or brussel sprouts, and she didn't allow her pets to leave the table until they ate everything on their plates. Hence why her pets had given her the nickname "Barbarian."
But there would be something different about tonight's dinner, though Grum didn't know it yet. Grum, a Blue Kacheek called Grumpy by his siblings because of his never-fading frown, was now going into the kitchen to see what pot of suffering Barbra was cooking today, already prepared with very witty insults to throw at it. He walked up to the stove where Barbra stood, busily stirring something absolutely putrid-smelling in her giant cauldron-pot while constantly glancing between it and a cookbook propped up against a clear, plastic bag of celery. His frown growing wider, he said, "What's that? I thought we had toxic waste for dinner last night."
Barbra shot a piercing glare right back at him with frazzled yet menacing eyes and growled, "It's your dessert for tonight, celery pudding. And you won't complain about it any more, Grum."
The Kacheek sneered at her and responded, "I don't doubt that. It'll probably glue my mouth shut!"
Barbra stopped stirring. She turned toward her pet, still with those horrible eyes, and shouted, "YOU'LL GET SECOND AND THIRD HELPINGS IF YOU KEEP THAT UP!"
With one last glare of his own, Grum marched back out of the kitchen. Really, Barbra wasn't a bad person; constantly keeping her pets under control was quite a strain, though, and her bad cooking skills only made it harder. Grum was the whiner and grouch of her four pets, rated by the entire family worst of them all; coming in second most difficult to handle was Iwaailiieosau, a tiny Baby Zafara, though the family simply called him Iwa. He had been adopted and refused to talk about why his previous owner gave him such an odd name. He was the tattletale, the bane of his siblings' existence, constantly reporting what they were doing to Barbra. Most would think that that should have made life easier for her, but it really meant protecting him from his brothers' and sister's fists all the time.
Third worst was Celia, a Blue Cybunny and a "whiner-in-training" with Grum teaching her. Her favorite hobbies were TPing Barbra's bed and playing with her Usuki collection while singing loud, obnoxious songs that would catch in everyone's heads for the rest of the day. And then there was Duke, a Red Lupe, considered the tamest but still a handful. He was the meanie, being the oldest and strongest, and he never denied himself an opportunity to shove out of his way a sibling or take away one of their snacks or toys.
That night, at the dinner table, they all seemed to have a general unrest: Duke was calmly catapulting some of his onion glop at Iwa with his spoon, Iwa screaming his head off at Barbra to make him stop, and Celia was giving an extra-big serving of complaining about the food. Barbra was simply staring into space, her spoon of onion glop half-raised, a twitch in her eye.
Grum, on the other hand, was for once silent. He was staring at his dinner with only his usual grimace, silently turning his spoon over in the mush. Whenever he lifted his spoon and let the glop dribble out, he listened above the rest of the noise to the nauseous sound of it slopping back into his bowl. Slop. Slop. Blorp.
Suddenly he plunged his spoon back into the bowl and stood up so quickly that everyone else stopped what they were doing and looking up at him. He stared right at Barbra and loudly proclaimed, "I won't eat this excuse for something edible!"
But Barbra had experience in these rebellions; this was simply another one to trample over and squash. Slowly, frighteningly calmly, she laid her spoon on top of her glop and watched it sink into the porridge-like substance. Then, she looked up at Grum with a cold stare devoid of anything good in the world and said, "Sit down, Grum."
"I won't!" Grum shot back. This, too, was usual; a fight would ensue, she'd give him extra helpings and force him to eat it all, and dinner would end. No trouble.
"Sit down, Grum," Barbra repeated.
But now, instead of yelling at her again, Grum glanced down at his meal and back up at Barbra with no shouting. He frowned even wider and finally declared, "I'll make my own food to eat!"
At that, Celia's jaw dropped and Duke audibly chuckled. Iwa stared at his big brother, not really sure whether to laugh, scream, or cling to his mother. Barbra, though, lost her calmness and let out a long, cruel-ish laugh, as if she had been waiting for so long to hear him say that. "Oh, I'll take you up on that! If you won't appreciate me slaving over a hot oven for hours every day, go ahead and feed yourself! It'll be a pleasure to watch!"
Suddenly, Grum felt an odd plummeting feeling in his stomach that made him frown even more. "Fine!" he yelled. "At least I'll be able to make something that won't damage my digestive system!"
Barbra leaped up from her chair and shouted back at him, "Then you won't get any Neopoints from me to buy your ingredients! I won't allow that privilege to you!"
And Grum didn't really have any Neopoints of his own to get ingredients with, either. That, coupled with his complete inexperience in cooking, seemed reasonable to explain the weird, sinking feeling in his stomach. Still, minor things like that wouldn't defeat them; with one last, defiant glare at Barbra and a few mini-sneers at his siblings, he marched away from the table, out the front door of the house and headed toward the town marketplace. And he even already knew what he'd make: spaghetti! But was the meat in it supposed to be turkey or chicken? Eh, that really didn't matter so much. Anything would be better than Barbarian's cooking, he knew.
In ten minutes he arrived at the marketplace. Not too many other shoppers were about, mainly wandering around shop windows looking for anything to catch their eye. Grum had time only for a bit of weary glaring at them, though, so he hurried on to the first fairly large food shop he saw. The sign above the door blared, "COMMON AND EXOTIC FOODS TO SATISFY ALL TASTES FOR ANY NEOPIAN! PETS OF ALL SPECIES HAVE DECLARED THEIR LOVE FOR FRENNY'S FAVORITE FOODS, ALL AVAILABLE IN SEVEN DIFFERENT--". Grum couldn't make out the last bit because the writer had ran out of space on the sign and resorted to finishing it in tiny, intelligible letters at the very bottom.
Stomping inside, he saw that indeed all of the shelves were filled up with food that he had never seen in his life and things he knew normal people ate every day. Quickly, he went right up to the shopkeeper, a Green Quiggle, and growled loudly to get his attention away from a fashion magazine.
The Quiggle lowered the magazine and stared straight at Grum with a look that said he was quite peeved at being disturbed by a lowly customer. Grum immediately changed his expression to an enormous frown he usually reserved for very special social occasions and demanded, "I need beef, noodles and sauce for free! Give me some!"
The shopkeeper gave an intense, indignant glare at him and dramatically threw his magazine to the floor. "Yeah? Well, follow me!"
He trooped out from behind the counter and down one of his aisles, Grum following. He stopped and drew a large tin can of sauce from one of the shelves and then continued toward the section where the noodles were. Arriving there and getting a box of them, he shoved them and the sauce into Grum's open arms and gave a smug smile. Grum's eyebrows raised angrily as he realized what had happened; the Quiggle was going to give him only two of his three needed items for free but refuse him the beef. It was a gigantic insult to leave him without one ingredient; two things for free was like a slap in the face!
"Now I need beef! Give me my beef!" Grum furiously ordered. The shopkeeper only folded his arms and puffed out his chest defiantly.
After a couple of minutes of glaring at each other, Grum realized what he had to do. He set his supplies down on the floor and backed away from the shopkeeper slowly, at the same time drawing a gigantic scimitar from behind his back that didn't seem to have been there before. The Quiggle smirked and jeered, "That's how you want to play it, huh? Well then, I'll show you no mercy."
He, too, drew a huge sword from his back and the two combatants started circling each other, both gripping their weapons tensely. The Quiggle made the first move, making a lighting-quick lunge at Grum's left side, but the Kacheek managed to leap a few yards away just in time to avoid it. It was Grum's turn, then: he dashed at the shopkeeper and they each started parrying the other's slashes and blows, until finally the Quiggle managed to land a decisive hit that sent Grum flying back into one of the shelves. The battle's intensity made it explode upon impact, and in a few seconds Grum slowly wobbled out of the rubble rubbing his head. He looked right at the Quiggle, took proper hold of his blade once again, and muttered, "That hurt."
The shopkeeper sneered at him and made another lunge, Grum easily countering it and sending a flurry of swipes right back at the Quiggle. For several minutes the battle remained a scene of blurry attacks and the constant sound of striking metal, but suddenly Grum saw his chance to land the finishing blow as the shopkeeper misstepped and slipped; the Kacheek slammed his foe's sword out of his hand with his own and jumped into the air with a masterful twirl. Summoning every ounce of strength he could muster into his leg, he plowed it right into the Quiggle's stomach and screamed, "Grum-Dum-Ko leaping SMASH!"
With a wheeze of breath, the shopkeeper was hurled backward, smashing through a few shelves before he collided with the wall in an explosion even bigger than before. Peering through the carnage, Grum slowly narrowed his eyes and prepared for another assault, but as the smoke cleared he frowned in victory; sprawled out on some uncomfortable-looking cans and boxes was his defeated foe, struggling and failing to even stand back up.
With the last of his strength, the Quiggle grasped a toppled shrink-wrapped package next to him and threw it as hard as he could at Grum. The Kacheek caught it effortlessly, turning it over in his paw to read "YUMMY BEEF" on the packaging. He looked back over at the shopkeeper and they both exchanged menacing glares before Grum sheathed his scimitar and re-collected his other two groceries, exiting the store.
The walk back to his house was brisk; sweet victory seemed to permeate the air around him. Unfortunately, he arrived back there in only a few minutes and the thick stench of leftovers already was overwhelming his victory. He was so used to it by now, though, that he didn't have much trouble suppressing his gag reflex.
He walked inside and headed to the kitchen. Standing on tiptoe to put his groceries on the counter, he quickly pulled up a chair and hopped onto it, peering over his ingredients. Now he needed mixing and cooking supplies...
He hopped back off of the chair and went over to one of the cabinets, opening it and with a quick peer inside pulling out a large bowl and pot. He then pulled out a drawer and yanked out a long, wooden spoon and a set of measuring cups. He climbed back onto the chair and, seeing all of the tools he needed, declared, "COME WITNESS MY ULTIMATE VICTORY!"
He turned around and there his family was, all eagerly watching him. Barbra seemed to have a vicious twinkle in her eye as she and Grum exchanged battle glares. He turned back around and stared at his ingredients without moving any further. Barbra grinned deviously. He didn't know what to do now... some ultimate victory.
Suddenly, Grum let out a barely audible chuckle. Barbra narrowed her eyes as he pulled open another drawer and started rustling his paw around inside of it. Another chuckle, and he pulled something out...
Everyone gasped. Barbra narrowed her eyes further. In Grum's paw was clutched a cookbook; a thick, detailed-looking cookbook. "Don't you remember? You got this for me on my fourth birthday, before I even knew how to read. I said that I wanted to become a world-class chef, so this was all I wanted. You thought I was so cute, didn't you?"
He twisted his head around with a devilish glint in his eyes. "Well, look at me now! Do I look cute to you?"
Duke and Iwa immediately responded, "Nope." Celia looked up at Barbra just in time to see a single sweat drop fall from her brow. Grum turned back toward the counter and took a deep breath. Putting on a battle frown, he started flipping through the cookbook to the spaghetti recipe; he quickly found it and laid the book against the wall, grabbing his pot and stuffing it under the sink faucet after quickly running his paws under it. He filled it up with water and carefully picked it up out of the sink, setting it back down onto the counter. His frown grew bigger as he realized that he needed to pull up another chair so as to put his pot of water onto the stove.
He did so in a flash. Then, he gingerly lifted the pot back up and set it down onto the stove, careful not to spill any water; glancing back at the cookbook for a moment, he turned on the flame and started to boil the water. Now, the sauce awaited him.
He jumped back off of the chairs and scurried over to a corner cabinet, opening it and pulling out a mini-cooker and crock pot that were almost too heavy for him. Fumbling them onto the counter after a couple of minutes, he stopped himself from panting, struggling not to show how tired he already was; resisting even a glance back at the others, he twisted the tops off of two jars of sauce and dumped their contents into the pot after quickly plugging in the cooker. Turning the heat knob up on the cooker to heat up the sauce, he was left with one last thing to do before waiting for the noodles to finish boiling: cook the meat.
He grabbed the beef across from the oven and tore off the shrink-wrap, dumping the meat into the bowl in front of him. He tossed the empty packaging across the counter and sighed quickly before shoving his paws into the bowl, thoroughly mashing and mixing up its freezing contents. He finished in a couple of minutes, still resisting showing any signs of weakness like letting himself rub his cold paws together, and promptly poured the estimated proper amount into the crock pot to the left of him.
A tense fifteen minutes or so followed; no one in the kitchen spoke, but Grum could almost feel his spectators drilling holes into the back of his head with their stares. At last, a sound emerged from the silence: the water in the pot was bubbling, signaling its completion to the boiling level. Grum turned down the burner, glancing at the cookbook again and nodding to himself as he read, and then turned his attention to the sauce and meat simmering in the crock pot. It was done cooking, so he turned the heat down to a low setting and carefully climbed around the oven onto the counter itself.
Opening the kitchenware cabinet, he pulled down a large ceramic plate and set it down beside him, closing the cabinet and getting back down to the chairs below him. Pulling open the silverware drawer, he snatched a fork out of it and slammed it shut, trying to calm his growing anxiety at what he knew was to come.
He swiftly piled the noodles and their counterpart, the now-combined sauce and beef, onto the plate and looked down at it with a proud but nervous frown. Quickly after, he piled the rest onto four more plates and, one by one, carried them all to the table for everyone to eat. Iwa, Duke and Celia all looked at it wistfully, like they were praying that it would taste good; Grum knew that they were on his side, but only one person's opinion really mattered...
Barbra slowly sat down at the head of the table, looming over her share of the meal with dark eyes. The rest of the family followed her example and took their seats, but all of them were only looking at her as she picked up the fork Grum had placed on all of the plates. Unblinkingly, the Kacheek watched her lower the utensil into the spaghetti and raise the bite back to her lips, tasting it carefully. The whole world seemed to stop for a moment as the situation hovered between victory and defeat for Grum, joy and sorrow, freedom and captivity, life and death.
Barbra lowered her fork again. Everyone else at the table held their breath as she began to speak, no one able to tell what she was thinking as her eyes hadn't betrayed her thoughts. "It's... decent."
Victory! The world started spinning again, Grum standing on top of it. "Decent" was Barbra's way of irritably admitting she had lost. Lost, at last. Her treacherous cooking regime had ended, fallen in a might heap of rubble and ruin. She folded her arms with a cold stare at Grum as everyone else dug into their own spaghetti, ravaging the best food they had eaten in just about forever. Grum smugly frowned right back at his defeated nemesis.
The next few days were reasonably pleasant for the family; Grum was hardly the new chef of the house, but Barbra reluctantly allowed him to cook a meal for everyone once in a while. Even so, nothing had really changed: Celia's whining abilities were growing ever stronger under Grum's tutelage, Iwa was ratting on his siblings just as much as before and Duke enjoyed pushing them all around as much as ever. Life went on, but for Grum, it was only the beginning of what would be his greatest victories in life.