The Junior Gourmet's Society
Natilie sat by herself in the cafeteria on her very first day of Neoschool. She was much younger than all of the other pets - the first year of school was optional, as Neopian kindergarten didn't feature any skills that might make or break your future in the world - but she had been just as excited as her owner at the prospect of cramming new knowledge into her baby Aisha brain. And so there she was, staring down at her Hannah Lunch Box (her hero, which was maybe influenced - just a little - by the fact that her owner liked Hannah a lot, too), her comically over-sized ears flopping down over the slits of her eyes.
The kindergarten class was remarkably small. There were maybe a dozen pets in all - many of them painted baby, but some just genuinely young and new to the world. Natilie was both. She had been born in the Month of Celebrating, and it was now the Month of Hiding, so she was not even a year old.
Which meant, of course, that she knew very little about making friends. She felt a strange little pang in the pit of her stomach as she lifted her bobbly blue head up and stared around the lunch room at the other groups of pets - each one wandering hither and thither with their classmates, or sitting down in groups to eat together, or standing in line with one another, talking and joking and looping their arms through those of their pals.
Maybe I would meet someone if I hadn't brought my lunch, she thought, looking down at it again as she undid the clasps to reveal what her owner had packed. Natilie couldn't help but giggle, her doubt fading away with ease as she first spied the Meepit Veggie Sandwich, with its little bread buck teeth and eyes made of olives. There was also a small carton of Negg Juice, a bag of Baked Chomby Crisps (her owner was very health conscious... when she wanted to be, anyway), and a tiny pile of Ghost Marshmallows - and there pinned to the lid of the box was a note, penned in her owner's looping handwriting - I know you'll have a great first day. Be brave!
Natilie's heart swelled as she smiled at the thoughtful package before her. How had her owner known she would be nervous? The two of them had been so eager and happy about the idea of Neoschool, she didn't think that she had let on that she might be scared of it - mostly because she hadn't been, not at all, until she got there. Deciding that owners must simply know some things that pets didn't (or at least wouldn't until sometime in the future, as it had turned out to be), she happily lined up her food on the table in front of her and picked the olives off of her sandwich to eat first.
She was just finishing off the last couple of bites and preparing to open her bag of crisps when a shadow was cast over her and she heard someone clearing their throat pointedly. Reluctantly pulling away from her food, Natilie turned to see a large yellow Skeith standing behind her, his hands on his hips as he sized up the little Aisha before him.
"I see you have some Ghost Marshmallows, there." He nodded towards her lunch, rows of sharp teeth showing as he spoke. Natilie gulped nervously and nodded, ears waving back and forth frantically as she did. Was this going to be her first encounter with a bully, she wondered? Would he demand the sugary treats from her as a payment for not making her eat dirt?
Instead, his face split into a friendly grin, and he pointed over to a table by the window. "Want to sit with us?"
The Skeith, who was named Gourmand, as Natilie found out, helped her carry her lunch over to the table so she wouldn't have to repack it all. There were three other pets sitting there - a faerie Tonu and a green Elephante, who both rivaled the Skeith in size, and a tiny, slender electric Xweetok. They all three looked up as Natilie carefully placed her lunch box on the table and sat down, piling her marshmallows all around it. Gourmand cleared his throat again - although they had only just met, Natilie had a feeling he was a bit self-important, though not in an obnoxious way.
"This is Natilie." He made a grand gesture towards the baby Aisha, who waggled one of her ears towards the rest of the group in greeting as she slurped at her Negg Juice. They had all stopped eating to observe the newcomer. "She's going to be sitting with us from now on."
"I am?" she asked, squinting her already practically invisible eyes at him.
"She is?" the Elephante asked, a slight edge to her voice as she cast the Aisha a clearly judgmental sideways glance.
"Yes," Gourmand replied firmly. "Well, uh, unless you don't want to, I guess." He scratched his head as though the thought had never even crossed his mind. "Anyway. I expect you all to be welcoming to our newest member, not like you were with the last one -"
"I would hardly have called him a member." The Elephante snorted as she cut into the conversation again, rolling her eyes and raising a Toffee Dubloon to her mouth with her trunk. Flecks of chocolate sprayed onto the table as she continued to speak while chewing. Natilie tried not to be impolite but couldn't help wrinkling her nose a little. "He brought Flotatos almost every day. You know, the cheapest gourmet food out there?" She stared pointedly at Natilie's little pile of marshmallows.
"The value of the food shouldn't matter," the Tonu spoke up, his voice surprisingly gentle. He kept his eyes on the table while he talked, his voice barely a murmur in the low din of the cafeteria, burying his face in his mane while a blush rose to his cheeks. "I mean, it isn't good to bring the same thing every day, but if we start being snobs about spending that would exclude people from joining..."
Natilie couldn't take the confusion anymore. "Joining what?" she piped up, looking from one pet to the next quizzically. "A member of what?" Immediately all three of the other sitting pets turned to the Skeith, the Elephante giving an exasperated sigh and slapping a hoof to the gem at the center of her forehead.
"You didn't explain. Again." She made this observation without question.
"Well, uh, yes, I may have forgotten." Gourmand bowed his head sheepishly, clasping his hands behind his back. "I am quite forgetful."
The Xweetok, who had been mostly disinterested in the petty bickering going on before her, suddenly leaned across the table and ruffled Natilie's ears, grinning at her. "Welcome to the Junior Gourmet's Society, kiddo." She winked and her bushy tail wagged back and forth. "If you can handle putting up with the other members, anyway."
Throughout her first week of Neoschool, Natilie learned a lot. She learned which colors made which as she participated in paw-painting with the other kindergartners, and how to count to ten (something she was very proud of catching on to quite quickly - having an extra set of ears with which to count appendages came in handy here while the other pets counted their fingers and toes), and even how to spell her own name - but reading the list of gourmet foods that Gourmand had copied down for her was a bit beyond her skill level. She rolled it up and placed it carefully in her Faerie Backpack as she crossed the school lawn. While she was occupied with closing her bag, she bumped right into Buttercreme, the bashful faerie Tonu from the JGS.
"I could give you a ride home," he offered, kicking at a patch of grass timidly. "I see you walking sometimes, you don't live too far from me. Everyone else lives the other way." Natilie was debating the safety of sliding around on a big Tonu's back as an itty bitty Aisha when she saw the glimmer of hope in Butter's eyes - he must be lonely, walking home all alone.
"Okay," she agreed courageously, slipping her backpack on and clambering aboard the Tonu without hesitation. Be brave. Her owner's words came back to her and she braced herself by getting a gentle hold on his mane, just in front of his wings.
He laughed softly. "I was going to kneel down, but you're a good climber, huh?" She felt embarrassed until she realized he wasn't making fun of her, and then Natilie laughed too.
The flight wasn't nearly as bumpy as she had anticipated. Buttercreme's wings beat a couple of times before they both rose off of the ground slowly, and he angled them towards their neighborhood with a surprising amount of ease and finesse. As they glided over the treetops, his soft baritone voice floated back to Natilie on the breeze created by his wings.
"It's good that you don't let Viv get to you too bad," he said as they drifted lazily over the back yards of other Neopian homes. Pets looked up at them as they passed, some pointing gleefully at Butter. He shied away then, sticking to the paths. "She doesn't mean a lot of the stuff she says."
"Why is she so mean?" Natilie had secured a place for herself curled up in his mane, and felt quite warm and safe there, carefully peering past his horn to see the sights below. "And why do you guys put up with it?"
"She was the leader of the club before Gourmand," he started, speaking slowly, as though it was a delicate topic. "It used to be more exclusive, and none of the pets in it were very nice, to be truthful." She knew it must be true, for the kind Tonu didn't like to speak ill of anyone, no matter how sour of a pet they might be. "But there was a big fight within the inner rankings because they couldn't agree on whether or not they should take into account how much you spent on something when you traded it, and if they should even let people in if they couldn't afford to spend a lot, and other things like that."
Natilie frowned. "That doesn't sound fair!" Although she and her owner weren't poor, she knew they couldn't afford to spend too much on a single dish for every day of the week. She felt a swirling of nervousness in her stomach - this was one of the reasons she hadn't yet asked about becoming an official member of the club, with her owner's help - she did pack Natilie's lunch, after all... and purchase what went into it.
"It wasn't fair," Buttercreme agreed, circling around what Natilie realized was her house. "Some of the members didn't think so either, and the group eventually split up. There was too much fighting. But Viv really cares about gourmet eating - she still wanted there to be a club." He landed as gently as he could, though his weight still caused the ground to tremble a bit as he touched down. "She formed the Society as it is now, though not as many people want to join since they can't brag as much about being in a club that will let anyone in, as long as they love gourmet." He laughed a little, though Natilie didn't really understand what was funny. Anyone who felt that way certainly wasn't someone she'd want to share the club with.
"So don't take it too personally. She let Gourmand lead the Society because he's better at talking to people." This time the Aisha did wait for her Tonu friend to kneel down before scampering off of his back. "But Viv really loves the club, and she's only hard on you because she wants to make sure anyone who joins is really in it - you know, for the right reasons."
Natilie touched a paw to her chin thoughtfully, then waved as Buttercreme took off once more, towards his own home this time. She had a lot to think about during the weekend... and there was still the fact that she'd not yet told her owner about the club. Giving as deep a sigh as her tiny lungs could manage, she trotted into her home and upstairs to her room, thinking deeply about everything she had learned during her first days at school.
Natilie's voice was unusually somber as she approached the dinner table - which was currently unladen with food, as Friday nights were celebrated with going out to eat, provided she had behaved all the week before (and it was a rare occurrence that she did not). Natilie's owner, Cerpin, laid down the A Magazine she had been reading - a rather expensive addition to her collection of books about Aishas - and smiled at her pet. "What's up, kiddo?"
"I need some things for school." Her heart felt like it was fluttering up from her chest and into her throat as she clutched the paper Gourmand had given her earlier that day. "Important things," she added, looking as determined as she could muster.
Cerpin frowned. "Did we miss something from your syllabus? I could've sworn I checked and double checked that thing." She held out her hand for the paper. "We can pick it up while we're out tonight, though."
Natilie smiled triumphantly as she handed the list over, but then felt her mood plummet as Cerpin looked over the items that Gourmand had penned down. "Acara Cabbage Cake. Angelic Ice Lolly. Artichoke Cupcake? Nat, what are these for? Are you guys having a picnic or something?"
The little Aisha spent a moment or two hemming and hawing before she remembered the advice she'd been staunchly following - brave! - and puffed her chest out. "It's for a club I'm in!" she declared boldly, causing her owner to laugh a little. "What?" she demanded as Cerpin shook her head, smiling.
"You just look so serious, that's all. But you didn't tell me you were in a club." Natilie's very tall owner stood up and began looking through the cupboards to see if they might already have some of the items on the list. "What club is it? Natilie, some of these are pretty expensive..."
Although she felt her heart plunge back down into her rib cage, she didn't let that dissuade her. "It's the Junior Gourmet Society. I didn't say because I didn't know if you'd want me trading my lunch." Natilie did a little dance of frustration behind her owner's back as she realized her tried and true bravery had caused her to blurt out something she wasn't so sure she wanted to say just yet.
"Trading your lunch?" There was a slightly sharp tone to Cerpin's voice as she turned around, crossing her arms and watching her pet with a look that was dangerously motherly. "Alright, kiddo. Tell me the whole thing. What kind of club is this?"
Her ears drooped mournfully as the Aisha trudged over to the table and climbed into a chair in order to gain a better height with which to speak to her owner. "It's a lunch club," she started, placing her front paws on the smooth surface of the Pink Table. "I met them on my very first day, Gourmand invited me to sit with them because he saw I was eating Ghost Marshmallows, but I didn't know why 'cause he forgot to explain to me like I am to you." She paused to see if she was doing a good enough job of that, and Cerpin motioned for her to continue. Natilie took a deep breath. Better to get the whole thing over with at once, she decided.
"They eat fancier foods and like to talk really smart about them, and even though Viv - she's in the club too, she's an Elephante and she didn't like me at first but she doesn't really like anyone but she's okay I guess, uhm - Viv didn't think I'd be good for it since she said I'm just a baby, but Zest stood up for me and said she's little too but she does fine, so they let me in, even though I didn't understand at first and when we went to trade - one thing, Momma, you just trade one thing so it's not like it's my whole lunch - anyway we went to trade and I tried to trade my Baked Chomby Crisps to Viv but she got mad and said you can't TRADE that it's not gourmet and Zest said it was okay 'cause I didn't know and I had to trade my Ghost Marshmallows instead, but I liked them, but it's okay because Zest let me trade with her and she had an Ultranova Sponge Cake, and it was real good, so now I'm in the club and I have to bring a gourmet food to trade every day."
"Every day?" Cerpin was unfazed by the enormous amount of rambling Natilie had just spewed, and the Aisha nodded as she tried to catch her breath. "I dunno, Nat..."
"Buttercreme said it doesn't matter how much it costs!" she cried, slumping down in the chair and giving the best pleading baby eyes she could muster.
"He's the nice Tonu who's been dropping you off, right?"
"Yeah, he's real nice. And Zest is real nice too, you'd like her a lot, she's a little Xweetok and she doesn't let Viv say mean things and doesn't let people argue." Natilie's ears perked up as Cerpin picked up the list again and began to look over it.
"Alright, we'll see what we can do. You might have to help me, alright? But there's no reason we can't at least try." She smiled and crossed the kitchen to pick up her Aisha and hug her, and Natilie whooped and cheered as she gave her owner the biggest neck hug she had ever given in her short lifespan thus far.
That Monday, Natilie had a hard time sitting through the morning hours of class. Over the weekend she had made a deal with her owner about her lunch - Cerpin was willing to buy the five gourmet foods she would need for each day of the week, provided that they each cost under a thousand neopoints. If Natilie wanted anything more expensive than that, she would have to play games, save up, or somehow earn the neopoints herself to make up the difference. And over the weekend, she had done just that - she was only able to make a couple thousand more, but it was enough to purchase a White Chocolate Asparagus Souffle, a dish that she personally considered pretty high on the fanciness scale.
Resolving not to let her food-related distractions quell her desire to learn, she powered through a session of practicing her handwriting by carefully scribbling her name over and over, staying perfectly within the lines and earning a shiny rainbow Uni on her paper from her smiling teacher's Uni Sticker Sheet. Natilie smiled, too. Cerpin would be really proud, and probably even hang it up in the kitchen, along with her other crowning achievements from the week before.
Finally, after what seemed like crawling hours of story time and show and tell, the lunch bell rang. Natalie was the first one out of the room, hauling her lunch along with her, careful not to jostle the gourmet treasure within.
"Voidberry Slushie," Viv declared to no one in particular as she opened her Top Security Lunch Box, which had a real safe lock on it. Natilie knew she always brought something genuinely interesting to trade - as harsh as Viv might be to newcomers, she was really passionate about the gourmet aspect of the club, like Butter said. Today was no different.
"White Chocolate Asparagus Souffle," Natilie managed to squeak out, doing her best to sound nonchalant. Zest, Butter, and Gourmand were already engaged in a complicated-looking three way trade involving the division of a Whole White Pizza, a plate of Dipping Apples, and four Chocolate Taquitos.
"Not bad, newbie. Wanna swap?" The normally judgmental Elephante didn't quite smile at the newest member of the Junior Gourmet Society, but she didn't scowl, either. Natilie couldn't help but grin as she slid the quivering plate of food across the table.
The slushie was weird tasting, but that didn't stop her. She had immediately loved trying all of the new things, and hadn't yet found anything she felt that she couldn't grow to like. As the group settled down to their respective food and chattered about what new things they had tried over the two day break from class, Viv munched on her prize and nodded to the young Aisha appreciatively.
"I guess I was wrong about you, pipsqueak. I think you'll fit in here after all. You've got good taste," she said casually, and the smile that crept across Natilie's lips was as sparkling as the Voidberries that were blended into her drink.