Rating: Up to light R
Pairing: SanZo principally, as well as a secondary Luffy/Usopp (there's no particular significance to the direction of those slashes.) A third pairing crops up briefly, but I'll
Warning: Big fat massive SPOILERS for various episodes up to manga ep. 440. I also play fast and loose with the OP-verse physics, introducing something that may or may not be alchemy or faint sympathetic magic.
Summary: Sanji's cooking has reached a whole new level. It's almost uncanny. Especially when his thoughts and emotions somehow get into the mix along with the rest of the ingredients.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters from One Piece, and I make no money off of this fic.
AN: Mal's written a somewhat fluffy romance without any (well, much) violence. What's the world coming to? There are 4 chapters to this fic, plus a prologue and epilogue, all written and only in need of last-minute revising, so they should be out fairly fast.
The details of the Sunny's interior are wrong, since I couldn’t retrofit my story to recent chapters. However, I did manage to include Franky this time! I've been dabbling at this story on and off for months, so I had to shoehorn him in mid-process, but it worked out really well and solved a plot point I was struggling with. In fact, I rather like the big hunk o' junk now ^_^ He's fun to write.
Prologue: Lobster Surprise.
The fishing expedition had been Nami-swan's delectable idea. The darker water beneath the Thousand Sunny's hull meant their ship was sitting on a deep cold current, and since her weather-sense told her it'd be at least a day before the wind picked up again, she'd suggested they make the best of it. Ussop had cogitated, put together some traps, and cast seven of them into the water along with some whizz-bang gizmo of Franky's to act as lure and attract the prey into the cages.
They dragged the traps aboard a few hours later. One of the ropes snapped just as they hauled the cage over the gunwale. Luffy hollered that the meat was getting away and sent his arm and the rest of him plunging after the falling cage. Fortunately, Robin caught their captain before he fell into seawater, hands sprouting from the Sunny's hull to snag him by the vest. His crew hauled him back up, elongated arm and all, still clutching the trap. Once the excitement was over, Sanji examined the lobsters they’d caught. Huge beasts. He was tempted to hit his rubber-brained captain over the head with one, but that'd be hard on the lobster and Luffy wouldn't even feel it.
Chopper's contribution to the upcoming feast was to remind Sanji that lobsters were living creatures, not that different from human-reindeer, and that boiling them alive was surely out of the question. The doctor had spent the last few hours concocting a food-safe and totally painless method of euthanasia which he was waving about in a big syringe. Sanji, who wasn't fond of needles, promised to use it with his fingers crossed behind his back, and then sent the doctor and his other crewmates to the aft deck to relax and to sit on their captain so he wouldn't interfere while supper was cooking.
Getting dinner on the table that night had somehow turned into a team event...almost, the exception being on the foredeck. Zoro was sitting cross-legged with his two swords in his lap, bare to the waist in the muggy, breezeless air, and appeared to be meditating. He'd been practicing most of the day, ignoring the fun and the hubbub. As far as Sanji could tell, the only time he'd even looked in his crewmates' direction was when Luffy fell overboard. Once Robin had caught him, Zoro had gone back to training without missing more than a beat.
Sanji grabbed a couple of the heavy cages and lugged them towards the kitchen, with a passing disdainful look at the useless piece of seaweed. He didn't send a sarcastic barb to follow that look, though. Sanji knew - without really bothering to know since it wasn't his business and he wasn't all that interested in what the bloody boneheaded swordsman was doing - that Zoro was training with almost frightening intensity since they'd left Water 7, focusing on something he'd glimpsed during his battle at Enies Lobby. That might just about qualify as more important than lobsters, though Sanji estimated it was a close call and would probably go before the judges in the minds of most chefs.
The Sunny's brand new kitchen was a wonder of cleverly arranged counter space, useful appliances, storage and - wonder of wonders - a fridge with a lock. Sanji felt like he had the powers of a God of Cuisine every time he crossed the threshold. He set the two cages down, making a mental tally of the required supplies, and then he put his largest pan full of water on the stovetop to heat and gave the lobsters a calculating smirk. Chopper's medication was on the table, and would stay there until Sanji emptied it out in the sink. But he'd give the lobsters a cut behind the neck carapace before boiling them, to section the brain. He'd not be able to look into Chopper's big trusting eyes ever again otherwise. First-...
Sanji turned to go get the rest of the lobsters, only to find he wouldn't have to. Hands in his pockets, he watched with nonchalant semi-interest as Zoro, still shirtless and sweaty, brought in all five of the cages left outside. He was hauling two of them in each hand by a fistful of rope and the last perched with perfect poise on top of his head. What really wasn't fair, Sanji reflected a little sourly, was that on anybody else, that'd look ridiculous. Zoro made it look like routine.
"Careful, you'll get seaweed on your- oh, wait, never mind," Sanji said, because even if it didn't look as stupid as it should, that was no reason not to mock it to the max.
Zoro gave him a hard stare and tilted his head forward.
"Hey!" Sanji lunged towards the falling cage, heavy metal about to strike his beautiful kitchen floor- Zoro stuck out a foot and caught it upright as if it was as light as a ball, then nudged it down to the ground.
Sanji decided that trying to insert Zoro's head into one of the traps would be a waste of everyone's time, and the ladies were waiting for their lobster feast. He turned back to the stove and dropped a lid on the pan.
There was a metallic creak behind him. When Sanji glanced back, Zoro was making the acquaintance of a lobster. The critter's little legs whirred and claws clacked uselessly as Zoro held it up to his face by the back of its carapace and stared into its beady eyes. Sanji was in the rare position of a chef feeling sorry for an ingredient. That couldn't be a pleasant sight to see right before going to the great big ocean in the sky.
Zoro tilted the lobster to study it from a different angle. "Never eaten one of these things. Looks like a bug."
"Cooked properly, they're one of the treasures of the seas, a delight to serve to people of refinement and good taste. But don't worry, marimo, I'll let you have some too."
"Where should I put it?" Zoro asked in a tone that suggested that stuffing it into Sanji's big mouth was one answer he could live with.
Sanji deftly extracted two of the creatures from one of the traps he'd brought in. There were an even dozen in all, one for each Straw Hat and four extra for their captain and whoever was willing to fight him for it. He dumped them in the sink to join Zoro's, and bent over the next trap at the same time Zoro reached for it. Sanji switched targets with a muttered, "You get that one."
He didn't need the help, it'd be a pitiful cook who'd need a hand with a bunch of walking entrées, clawed or not. But he didn't mention it. Because if Zoro had decided that it would somehow improve the meal to make this a total team effort, and that this was worth postponing his post-training nap for...well, he was probably right. A first-class chef like Sanji knew that taste wasn't only a matter of seasoning and spices. He fully intended to leverage that 'team effort' concept later too, to browbeat the marimo into helping him with the dishes.
They both reached for the same cage again. Zoro relinquished it and leaned past Sanji to open the last trap. Up close, there was a subtle scent of sweat - fresh, since Zoro had just finished his insane calisthenics for the day - that somehow wound its way through the harsh brine smell from the cages.
A claw nearly fastened on Sanji's fingers. He severely turned his attention back to what he was doing.
In the sink, the lobsters skittered and crawled over each other.
"It smells delicious!" Nami exclaimed, at which point Sanji knew he could die happy. He ignored the tug on his jacket and the timid "They didn't suffer, right?" from Chopper, as well as Luffy's war-cry of "Foooooood!", Usopp and Zoro restraining their captain to make sure everyone had their fair share, and Franky going to get his colas from the fridge without any care for the excellent wine Sanji had opened.
The ship had dropped a sea anchor, just in case the Grand Line decided to play fast and loose with their navigation while they were busy, so the full complement of crew was free to settle around the table for the occasion. Sanji had set out the nicer dishes and lit a couple of candles against the gathering evening. He'd strategically positioned them so that with a squint and a little imagination, it would seem he was having a candlelit supper with Nami-san and Robin-chan, making abstraction of the oafs.
Robin hummed thoughtfully, pronged fork and fingers poised over the lobster's legs. "Thank you very much, Cook-san, this looks wonderful," she murmured, turning their chef into a puddle of happy hearts. "It's been awhile since I've had one of these, I hope I remember how to-"
Fortunately, Robin had good reflexes.
The lobster shook on the plate, forelegs shuddering with the force of the claws snapping shut. Then they slowly opened again.
"THEY'RE STILL ALIVE?!" Chopper and Usopp screamed with perfect synchronization and pitch.
Sanji picked his jaw up off the table, slotted it back into place and snapped, "Of course not, they're cooked! They-"
"Look!" Luffy laughed at the lobster - the bloody boiled lobster! - dangling from his finger by a claw which had slammed shut like a bear trap. "Haha! Cool! Hey, that hurts."
"Of course it hurts, idiot," Zoro said, tugging the lobster off by the tail and dropping it onto the plate. The claws twitched and opened again. Sanji got up and went to check the pot of water, which was still hot enough to scald. He felt stunned.
"Dude, interesting dish." Franky scratched his overgrown chin. "I heard the rich ate differently, but this is-"
"I'm not eating that!" Usopp was near the door with one hand on the knob, ready to bolt if his dinner jumped off the plate and came after him.
"It's very odd. They're quite dead," Chopper finally confirmed after a few minutes of clinical examination and one near-accident.
Nami tested her main course prudently with a knife and got the same reaction, to Sanji's despair. "Hm. Maybe...some kind of special lobster species you only find on the Grand Line?"
"Possibly." Robin was using the nutcracker to poke her lobster, observing the reaction with scientific interest. "Though I don't see how this could happen on an evolutionary level-..."
Her voice trailed off as all the Straw Hats turned towards the foot of the table and stared.
The air seemed denser, darker around Zoro. He had his knife raised in one hand, Usopp's knife in the other, a spoon held sideways in his mouth, and he was looking down unblinkingly at his lobster. Then-
Sanji had the speed and hand-eye coordination to follow what happened next, he was as good a fighter as the bloody muscle-brain after all, but when he thought back on it later, what he mainly remembered was the sound. SLASH.
The naked lobster was sliced into chunks. Shards of shell had shot off in all directions. Dribbles of juice had been neatly caught in the spoon (which even Sanji had to admit was almost slightly impressive). Zoro dumped the juice on the meat, speared a chunk of claw with his knife and ate it directly off the blade like the boor he was. He chewed for awhile, swallowed and then nodded fractionally. "S'not bad. S'not bad at all."
Coming from Zoro, that was a ringing endorsement if there ever was one.
The stunned silence was fractured by a frightening crunch drowning a double snap. Luffy had bitten right into his lobster. One claw was fastened on his nose, another on his thumb, he had pieces of shell around his mouth and crunching under his teeth, but he was grinning and licking his lips. "Yeah, s'really good! Can I have more? Yummmm...Ow. Yummmm."
The other diners watched them closely, except for Franky who'd torn off a claw with an impervious bionic hand and was staring at it, muttering about a cool idea for a weapon. Both Zoro and Luffy failed to fall over dead or do anything spectacular, and continued to eat contentedly while the tantalizing smell of lobster pervaded the kitchen.
Finally, Robin-chan turned towards Sanji with a smile of true grace. "Cook-san, could you please assist me with my entrée?"
"Of course," Sanji said, making a bloody good stab at suave and chivalrous, and not landing too far off the mark if he did say so himself. He sauntered to the counter, flicked a couple of his knives from their case, walked back to the table and proceeded to give the idiot marimo a demonstration of what cutting food was all about, amateurs abstain.
In the end, even Usopp was convinced to try a de-shelled version of dinner, and he and everybody else agreed that this was simply the best meal they'd had on board yet. It was somewhat soothing to their chef's harried professional pride.
It was four thirty in the morning before Sanji figured it out with the help of a bowl of the lobster's cooking water, a slice of lemon, a few of the remaining claws and a sleepless night behind him. He'd never seen such a reaction before, but it wasn't the lobsters; it was the broth and seasonings. He confirmed it with some dried beef ligaments he kept for stock.
With his eidetic memory for ingredients, Sanji could retrace his steps. He'd changed the recipe a little on the fly, since he never had absolutely everything he needed to hand; he'd learned to adapt and excel in the face of challenge, like any first-class sea chef. In this instance, the exact mixture of sake and spices in the broth seemed to have produced an odd reaction in the ligaments of the thoroughly cooked claws, making them as sensitive as spring traps, tightening under pressure and then releasing without it, but primed to go off again after a few seconds.
Sanji mechanically jotted down the exact recipe he'd used in his kitchen log, though he wasn't sure it would be of any use to anybody, except perhaps as a party trick or for diners who liked some excitement with their meal. Then he went out for a smoke. His mind kept chewing over the moment he'd made the broth. He'd been in the usual trance in which a chef operates, hands, heart and thoughts focused on what he was doing and working in harmony. The small part of his mind not dedicated to cooking had been dwelling on what the ladies would say, and chewing over...something else, deeper down...Sanji frowned. Couldn’t remember. He'd been concentrating on the food.
He tossed his cigarette in the ocean and headed back to the kitchen. It was too late to go to bed. He'd be up making breakfast in little over an hour. He pitched out the remains of shells and piled the dishes in the sink, absently licking some broth that had sloshed onto his fingers. The taste swirled in his mouth, a faint memory with it. It was salty with hints of cardamom, sake and seaweed, it reminded him of-...
A strange thought closed on his mind like a trap. Zoro leaned right past Sanji, a faint hint of an earthy spice in the air and a trickle of sweat down his neck as he reached into a cage. The lobster snapped at him, fighting an inevitable fate, quite, quite hopelessly...
Sanji decided that he was more tired than he'd first thought and he'd be better off getting a nap before starting breakfast preparations. He was thinking crazy. Right.
He'd avoid cooking whole lobster again though. Just in case. After all, there was absolutely nothing wrong with bisque, was Sanji's last muddled thought as he drifted off to sleep.
Link to Chapter 1
The prologue's fairly light and short; next chapter is a little darker and a lot longer. Would you guys prefer seeing these chapters posted as soon as they're revised, aka one every 2-3 days? Or should I save them up and post one every weekend, to avoid spamming the comm. and lists?
PS: For the few of you who know the movie, you may have noticed that the title and the emotions-showing-up-in-the-food theme are very loosely based on 'Like Water for Chocolate', an expression that means to be hot for someone. What 'Like Steel for Chocolate' might mean under those circumstances is anyone's guess ^^;