Paradis, sometime before the Libero attack
“Can’t tell you the details, sorry,” Sasha was saying. “Will be gone for a week or so, that’s all I’m allowed to disclose.”
Nicolo shifted his position in bed, rolling on his side and raising his head with one hand, gazing down at his girlfriend. She looked so cute, with her glossy brunette locks scattered all over the pillow, her expressive eyes pleading no further questions. Sunlight filtered through the curtains in his apartment. It was a leisurely morning on his off day, they’d just made love and he didn’t want to ruin the pleasant mood.
“Military top secret mission, that kind of thing?”
“Yeah, that kind of thing.”
“Will you be gone for a few months, like the last time?”
“No, not that long. Not this time.”
“Okay. Makes me worry, though, not knowing where you’ll be.” He knew he shouldn’t whinge. Information being withheld was the price a man paid for loving a soldier, especially one from the Survey Corps.
“No need to, Nico. I can take care of myself, you know.”
“I know,” he said, sighing. “But that won’t keep me from missing you.”
“I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be back.”
“Promise! I returned the last time, didn’t I?” she said, smiling up at him before changing the subject. “I’m starving. Breakfast of champions?”
“Coming right up,” he grinned, bending down to kiss her before making his way to the kitchenette.
“While you’re gone, I’ll work on my restaurant business plan, continue looking for investors,” he said as he watched her eat breakfast in bed. “Gonna have another round of meetings with Mr Rosenberg. Will keep very busy so I won’t miss you too much.”
“Will definitely miss your pancakes,” she said, chewing contentedly. “So perfectly fluffy and yet completely satisfying. Just the right amount of everything.”
“You can have all the pancakes you like, when you return.”
“Eat with me?” she asked, offering him a bite with her fork.
“No, I’ll eat later,” he said, shaking his head. “I like watching you eat.”
And he did. He always did, for the two years they’d been together. When she ate the meals he prepared she had this beatific look on her face, as if she was in heaven and he was her god. This morning, as with the other mornings since they became a couple, she ate like an ordinary girl, deftly manipulating the cutlery like any well-mannered person.
It hadn’t been like this at the beginning, however. Nicolo recalled the time he first met her at the port, greedily devouring his dishes like a wild animal. A pretty girl, he’d thought grimly, but too barbaric for my taste. How wrong he’d been!
Not about the eating like a barbarian part. At the time she ate quickly and messily, as if there was no tomorrow, as if every dish was her last meal on earth. It took him quite a bit of effort to teach her how to truly enjoy the food, but eventually, his efforts paid off.
He knew it was so by the time he’d served two pickled oysters. Her brows shot up skeptically. “Only this?”
“For starters, yes.”
The old Sasha would have slurped them quickly, one after the other, and then demanded the main course. But not this time.
She picked one up, looked at it closely, shaking her head in amazement at the dollop of horseradish cream, with a dice of celery and a couple fronds of dill. “Impeccably tailored is how I’d describe it.”
He grinned, “Taste the dressing.”
She slurped on the shell, but carefully, not spilling a drop of the lime-colored liquid, eyes widening at the cooling herby liquor, bright and fresh and crisp. “There’s a brisk acidity, just right. Not overpowering at all.”
Next she ate the oyster meat, chewing slowly with her eyes closed. “Delicious is an understatement,” she said after swallowing. “Can’t believe the astonishing amount going on inside this little half shell.”
Her reward for minding her manners was a big fat plate of homemade crumpet, dripping with spiced molten butter over a generous pile of potted shrimp with a nutty, lip-smacking aftertaste, completed by a healthy side of gherkins and kohlrabi. She ate with gusto, letting out a hiss of pleasure.
“Everything tastes a million times better since I met you,” she’d told him.
Savouring the food was just one of the things he taught her. From him Sasha learned to pair food with wine. “Teach me what goes with which,” she’d asked him once. One day she’d overheard him and his colleagues discussing pairings, and she had no idea what they were talking about. As a chef’s sweetheart I might as well learn, she thought.
From then on Nicolo always brought wine, the affordable kind, the ones average people can buy, leaving the expensive ones for the senior military officials as instructed by Yelena. The high end bottles of wine sourced from an unknown location in Marley he found deeply suspicious. No, he wasn’t going to pilfer any of those to serve his beloved. Better be safe than sorry.
“Even cheap wine tastes a lot better paired with the right kind of food,” he’d explained. “It’s all about finding a beautifully balanced match. The principal flavours in a meal should be reflected in the wine, but not rigidly so.”
One time he served her duck à l’orange, preparing two glasses of wine. She drank a little of each with the food.
“Which tastes better? Which makes the food taste better?” he asked.
“The duck has a sharp flavour. This one here,” she said, picking up one of the glasses, “feels dull and flavourless.” Then she picked up the other glass. “This one matches, definitely.”
“Very good!” Nicolo praised her. “Meals that have a sharp flavour such as this duck, or say, salads with a vinegar dressing, need to be paired with wines of similar acidity. The one you didn’t like is a low-acid wine, whose flavour was overpowered by the food. It’ll work for pasta served with a rich tomato sauce, but not for this sharp-flavoured dish.”
He also taught her about texture, by serving a tuna dish. Her choices were a red and white wine.
“Red wine with red meats, white wine with white meats—seems like common sense,” Sasha opined, “but for some reason I like this red one better for this fish.”
“Perfect!” exclaimed Nicolo, very pleased. “Texture is just as important as acidity. Meaty-textured fish such as tuna would be best matched with a light red wine, rather than a white wine, because the texture of the fish overwhelms most white wine.”
Weight was another factor. One time he got a hold of some left-over lobster, simply cooked. This time Sasha chose a white wine for it.
“Spot on,” said Nicolo. “Light foods allow the flavour and texture of young, delicate white wines to shine.”
“So that means full-bodied wines should be served with big, robust-flavoured food,” Sasha concluded.
“So, am I getting any of this rich-flavoured food?” She’d already eaten the lobster.
“Perhaps next time!” he said with a smile. She smiled back in anticipation.
As promised, the next time they were together he cooked up a savoury venison ragoût. Next to it were two types of red wine. Sasha unhesitatingly picked the young red over the refined one.
“Excellent!” Nicolo was all praise. “The young red is a full-bodied wine and a perfect match for the big flavours and richness of the stew. The refined red is overwhelmed by the dish, and that’s why it tasted rather pallid.”
She liked to watch him work, and he was happy to impart his knowledge as he went about cooking. “I’m making a wine-based casserole called coq a vin, and I’m planning to serve red wine with it. When I cook, I sometimes use a cheaper wine of the same type. The flavour of the red is absorbed into the ingredients during the cooking process, leaving a soft, palatable wine flavour imbued in the dish as the alcohol evaporates.”
Needless to say, Sasha got dibs on the classic chicken stew slowly braised in red wine, with crisp bits of bacon, mushrooms and burnished pearl onions. Chewing slowly with her eyes closed, she swallowed and then took a sip of the wine Nicolo paired with the dish. “Perfect harmony!” she exclaimed, her face awash with a look of pure ecstasy.
She watched him cook, fascinated, and he watched her eat, fascinated. Each time, the look of orgasmic pleasure on her face gave him a warm, happy feeling. He had never felt so satisfied and pleased in his entire life. Here was a girl who completely adored him, worshiped him as a food god, made him feel like a superstar.
Nicolo used to hate being on the island, but now he thanked the gods he was here, with her. Looking into her eyes, he knew he was in love and wanted the entire world to know about it.
Sasha’s friends were happy for them, but everyone else thought it was a bad match, like light wine paired with heavy food. His parents in Marley, while being relieved to find out he was still alive, wrote a livid reply to the letter he sent telling them all about this special girl Sasha Brauss.
“An island devil! An Eldian, of all people! For goodness’ sake get a hold of yourself! Cavorting with the enemy! Ruining your life! Throwing away your future! For shame! For shame!” they’d written, amongst other incensed accusations.
“You say I’ve been wasting my time taming a savage, educating a barbarian, imbibing some culture into a wildling. But that’s not the case at all, Mother. Sasha has done more for me than I could ever do for her,” he wrote back.
And it was the truth.
How do you explain to someone far away about a ray of sunshine? How could one possibly understand the deep, dark pit of despair he’d fallen in after being dragged to this godforsaken expedition, and then finding hope and joy in the arms of a girl from a tribe he’d been taught to despise all his life?
He cooked for the Eldians and found they were far more appreciative of his talents than anyone at Marley had ever been. Talented chefs were a dime a dozen in the great old nation, what with its sublime food culture and cooking traditions known and celebrated the world over. In Marley he was just another hopeful young cook with big dreams, while over here on the island he had initially been a lost soul, certain these ignorant savages would never understand good cooking from bad. What was the point in trying?
And then he met Sasha.
It wasn’t merely her pure, unadulterated love for anything he cooked that won him over. Seeing the world through her eyes—those of an impoverished girl from the countryside—changed the way he saw the world.
He listened to her stories of food poverty, a downward trajectory from a healthy childhood eating wild game to one where their clan’s primary means of feeding themselves had been taken away. When hunting was outlawed on the island, she told of him being so hungry all the time and stealing winter food from her own family’s pantry.
Food poverty was a big issue on the island, and in spite of himself, he became aware about issues surrounding the production and selling of food, a massive part of retailing in particular and the economy in general.
As a chef, he understood the importance of good food in maintaining a human being’s physical health and mental well-being. The right diet raised a healthy, happy child, while the wrong one created the opposite, and this was clearly tied to income. He’d never thought much about it, as he himself had been raised in an average family with enough income to fully feed him and his siblings each day, with snacks to boot.
But being witness to the food poverty in Paradis made him aware of the political side of things: that food was a commodity traded on financial markets influenced by inflation and interest rates, that being able to afford good food demanded proper wages, that wages depended on wealth distribution, which in turn affected the quality of the national health service, as well as the skewed benefits system and the deformed taxation system.
The vast majority of famines were caused by governmental incompetence, and Paradis was no exception. Every problem in the country can be pared down to arguments over resources, food being the most essential. Becoming aware of all these issues and how they affected his new friends politicised him. He began seeing the world through different eyes, wide-awake ones.
Thus, when Queen Historia asked him, after hearing Sasha rave about his talents, to help out with the planning of the food service for her network of orphanages as well as primary schools, he was happy to volunteer his knowledge on nutrition, food preparation and meal planning. He knew that a better diet produced better academic outcomes for children, and being able to eat properly during one’s growing years can be transformative.
The island was undergoing rapid change as the ports were being built bringing about the influx of foreigners with their technical expertise, and he wanted to become part of this wave of change. And yet while he was helping the isolated islanders progress, something was changing inside him, too.
Most obvious, of course, was that he no longer hated these mysterious Eldians. It was easy to loathe and fear people you’ve never met, but after he became friends with them he found out the extent of the world’s ignorance.
What truly changed within himself was a new-found appreciation of the importance of food, which he’d taken for granted back home. When he was a chef in Marley, the restaurants he worked at threw out a lot of the leftovers, and had been, like many other similar restaurants, careless about recycling and repurposing.
He knew, too, that Marleyan supermarkets and other food establishments binned plenty of still edible food. In fact, food loss was a huge issue in the country, but no one, including himself, really thought much about it. In Marley there was always plenty of food to go around. Who cared, really?
In Paradis, he began to care. Seeing Sasha lick her plate clean made him rethink the way he thought of food availability, made him less wasteful with resources. He watched as Mikasa ate everything on her plate, then turned her eyes at Eren’s and scolded him if he left anything on his.
Seeing how Connie, Jean and Armin would eat even the garnishings on their food, he remembered how some of the young customers in his former restaurants in the continent would pick on their meal, pushing out peas to the side, flicking off broccoli onto the table, eating everything except the green on their plate at best, or most painfully, returning dishes completely untouched.
In Paradis, he saw a deep appreciation for every mouthful, every slice, every morsel.
No one was more appreciative than Sasha. Eyes sparkling with mirth, she’d look at him admiringly and he felt a renewed sense of purpose.
He had always loved to cook, even as a young boy it was clear he was very good at it, but because it came so naturally to him he took his talents for granted. Sasha loving every grain he ever touched made him grateful for his talents, made him want to become an even better cook so he could give her and the people she loved every ounce of possible joy in the food they ate.
She believed in him and the healing, nourishing powers of his cooking more than he ever had. What had become an unwanted expedition to the devils’ island became deeply meaningful work on his part.
Apart from the food, Sasha touched his life in many other ways. She taught him the joys of wild and adventurous love-making. One time, after a dessert with honey on it, she dribbled some on his chest. “Oops,” she grinned naughtily, “how clumsy of me. Let me clean that up!” The warm, wet tongue she ran over his chest and belly before going even lower sent him to heaven again and again.
Another time she brought a bag of donuts, placing them on the bedside table. He thought it was for her post-sex snack, but instead she stacked the baked goodies onto his rigid cock, eating gently and licking him generously while her hands massaged and caressed him all over. The thought and feel of these edible cock rings made him howl in laughter, he was so incredibly happy. It was only with Sasha that he learned he could laugh and orgasm hard at the same time.
She brought him joy, blissful happiness he never imagined existed.
Thus, before Sasha left on her top secret mission, he was busy preparing.
“Wow, an edible box! How cute! Can I eat it?” she asked, on their last night together. Her eyes were gazing expectantly at an ornate box he’d placed on the palm of her hand, made of cookies and lavishly decorated with icing.
“Sure, eat the top first.”
Peeking inside the box after eating its cover, she squealed in delight. “Is this… a ring?” It was the exact size of her ring finger, made of bread baked to golden perfection, topped with a marzipan shaped like a diamond.
“Yes, an engagement ring,” he answered, flushing. “I… couldn’t afford a proper ring. But I wanted to ask you, before you leave on your top secret mission…”
He went down on one knee, took her hand and looked up at the beautiful eyes he’d grown to love with all his heart. “Will you marry me, Sasha Brauss?”
“Yes! Yes, of course I’ll marry you!” she nearly shouted, pulling him to his feet and throwing her arms around his neck.
How could he describe the joyous feeling that coursed through his veins at the moment she said yes?
It felt like getting an exotic dish perfectly right on his very first try: a delicious, layered pastry dessert, crushed nuts filling fragile crowns of crisp pastry and drenched in sugar syrup, topped by dried rose petals, with a side of unsweetened coconut milk cream. First you look at it and sigh with anticipation, and then you taste it and sigh once more, this time with a moan of pleasure. By the time you get to the last spoon, you are deeply in love.
Sasha said yes, and all became right with the world. They gazed at each other and couldn’t stop smiling. Such was their joy that day.
Afterwards, cuddling in the afterglow of sex, she turned to him and asked, “I’m hungry, can I eat the ring now?”
“Go right ahead!”
She popped the bread into her mouth, and the ecstatic look on her face made his heart leap once more. Touching his cheek tenderly with her hand, she purred, “That was the most delicious, best-tasting ring ever!”
“Sash, I promise I’ll save up for a decent ring…”
“No, no,” she said, adamantly. “Let’s put our savings into our future restaurant. I don’t want a regular ring. Promise me this: make me a food ring every day for the rest of my life!”
“Do carved vegetables count?”
“Veggies will be just fine!” she assured him with a large, playful smile.
“I promise then!” he replied with a grin as they kissed.
They held each other and made plans. He’ll write his family in Marley, he told her. Let my mother be hopping mad, he thought to himself. He was in love with a wonderful girl and no amount of prejudice will keep them apart.
I’ll introduce you to my family after I come back, Sasha told him. Will they accept a Marleyan, he asked, worriedly. They’ll totally love you, she assured him, with great conviction. After she returns from her mission, they’ll tell all their friends and colleagues about their engagement during a surprise party. Such was their mutual agreement.
Before she left he asked her, “What would you like for your welcome back meal?”
“Hmm… Surprise me!”
“Ocean meat? Or just red meat?”
“As long as there’s meat,” she replied, giggling and hugging him. “Bye for now, my genius fiance. See you soon. I love you!”
“Bye for now, my bride-to-be. I love you, too! Promise you’ll come back to me.”
“I promise! Don’t be so worried. Very soon you’ll be baking me a ring every day,” she said, laughing affectionately and giving him one last, long embrace.
Thank you so much for reading! Please take a moment to share a thought or two in the comment section below. Your comments give me life and are a real source of encouragement. xoxo – hana
Next – Chapter 4: Her Legacy
Thank you to my naughty friend Bob for giving me the donut idea! 😉
The wine-and-food pairings in this chapter are suggestions from Le Cordon Bleu’s Wine Essentials: Professional Secrets to Buying, Storing, Serving and Drinking Wine. (2001. New York: John Wiley & Sons)