It started with shawarma.
After hours of fighting, after a number of extremely taxing days, the battle against the Chitauri was finally over and Steve could admit it: he was exhausted. Hungry, too. Or rather, starving. He had been for a while but he knew from experience, from the war, that he could go well over a week without eating properly and still be operational. Thanks to the serum, neither his physical nor his mental abilities suffered. It wasn't pleasant, though, far from it—a constant ache persistently gnawing at his stomach.
He'd learned to ignore it. He had known pain his whole life, after all, lived with it, worked through it. But he'd also learned to seize any opportunity to assuage it, if only for a little while. So when Stark started babbling about food, Steve readily agreed to follow, even if he had no idea what it was Stark was suggesting.
'Shawarma', as it turned out, was some sort of sandwich, a round flat bread split open and stuffed full of meat and bits of vegetables—salad and tomatoes and onions sprinkled with white sauce. The whole thing was cradled in paper, fries an aside in a separate basket. No cutlery. Steve glanced at the woman who'd brought their orders to see if any was coming, but she hadn't returned to the counter. Instead she'd fetched a broom and was sweeping the floor, trying to gather the cement dust strewn all over it.
The place had been just inside the perimeter of the attack, and while it hadn't been destroyed, its whole facade was in a piteous state: the windows were shattered, the door hanging half off its hinges, and several pictures on the walls askew. Further inside things were better, the kitchen still running and the workers surprisingly willing to serve the team when they'd arrived. Steve hadn't quite believed it: he would've expected them to have barricaded themselves at the very least. He remembered northern France, he remembered Belgium and the Netherlands, every street entirely deserted, all the shops closed, doors and windows barred. No movement, no sound, nothing but that eerie stillness that preceded a bombing, or settled in its wake.
But here and now, people hadn't been expecting an attack—who could've expected aliens dropping from the sky? They'd been at home, at work, they hadn't had time to prepare, probably wouldn't even have known how to. And now they were stuck where they were for the foreseeable future: public transportation was down, no taxi would be driving down these streets any time soon, and even walking outside wouldn't be safe until someone had assessed which buildings were at risk of crumbling. And so maybe they thought—given that they were here anyway, their hotplates working, the food intact, given that someone was buying: eh, we might as well. Steve might not have felt quite comfortable with it, but to them it didn't matter.
So he kept his mouth shut and followed Stark's lead, and now that they were seated and the food was on the table, he waited to see how the others would go about eating it. There were no knives, no forks: he didn't want to come off as rude, or clueless, but this 'shawarma' didn't look like something one could eat easily or cleanly. Were you supposed to pick at the stuffing? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose, though?
Unfortunately, the others were so spent they didn't seem in any hurry to start. Even Stark, who had clamored for the whole thing, took a whole minute to just start nibbling at some fries. In the end it was Thor, surprisingly, who solved it: he picked up his stuffed bread with both hands and bit right into it—a large mouthful which, as expected, left him with bits of meat sticking out of his mouth and smears of sauce on his cheek and chin. He didn't seem to notice, chewing happily. No one stared, or even reacted: either he was doing it right, or they just didn't care.
Slowly, discreetly, Steve copied the gesture, gathering the shawarma in his hands and bringing it to his mouth to take a small, manageable bite. He didn't know what to expect, almost entirely focused on not spilling anything, so when taste exploded on his tongue, he almost froze. Salt and grease and tender grilled meat, a strong flavor overbalanced by the fresh tang of tomatoes, the slight sting of onions, the unexpected sourness of the sauce…
He looked down at his handful. He chewed, the taste spreading through his mouth. He swallowed.
Before he knew it, he'd wolfed down the entirety of his portion and, with Thor's help, proceeded to finish everyone else's leftovers.
He wasn't sure they noticed, tired as they were.
It was extremely satisfying—every bite a delight, the food both good and filling.
When it was all gone, for the first time in a long while, Steve's hunger had stilled.
See, Steve Rogers knew hunger.
He'd known it as a young child, waking up after weeks of fever with his body weak and trembling, his head spinning and in his stomach a pit: the first sure sign of healing.
He'd known it as an older child, right after the crash, at the beginning of what they now called the Great Depression, when his mother's salary had suddenly lost most of its monetary value, when there had been nothing left to buy anyway, when a vegetable broth with more than one old potato and a moldy cabbage had started to feel like the height of luxury.
He'd known it as young adult trying to make it on his own, when more than once he'd had to choose between food and a shirt that wasn't riddled with holes—which would maybe, hopefully make him look, if not good, then at least respectable enough to be hired someplace—or between food and supplies—which would maybe, hopefully mean a commission done and delivered, a payment given—so that maybe, hopefully he would one day have the means to eat better, to eat at all.
He'd known it during the war, when his new body had needed so much food, when there had been no food to be had, when deliveries to the front were constantly delayed at best and even the double rations he'd been granted had been nowhere near enough.
So yes, Steve Rogers knew hunger, intimately so.
But now, he realized, there was no reason it should remain so.
When they'd settled him in his new flat—unnervingly large and quiet for New York—the people from the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency had given him a portable computer and shown him how to use it: turn it on, open and close softwares, access the internet, turn it off.
He sat in front of it now, after the Avengers had been debriefed, checked for injuries and sent on their ways. He went to the Wikipedia—he still felt more comfortable with that website than with the vast endlessness of the Google search engine—and typed in: Shawarma.
There was an article about it. Also spelled shawurma or shawerma, it said. A Levantine meat preparation. Place of origin: Ottoman Empire.
Steve stared at the screen, the strangest feeling churning inside of him; a bit thrilled, a bit spooked, mostly amazed.
He'd never had Turkish before.
In the months since he'd been woken up from the ice, Steve hadn't thought much about food. Or maybe he hadn't let himself do so. Like everything else, it was different now, and so like with everything else he couldn't help but be cautious, wary, almost reluctant about it. Everywhere he went, whatever he did felt like he was stuck crawling his way across a sheer rock face threatening to crumble any second under his hands and feet. Every misstep could be lethal, yet everything he'd had to help him—a familiar harness, a secure rope, a trusted teammate—had been torn away from him, so that he had to make do with weak holds and faulty rungs set up by strangers who couldn't be relied on, for all he knew. And so he hadn't ventured far, had just inched his way forward until he'd reached an area that seemed minutely safer, a small niche in the stone where he'd settled and decided to stay until he felt rested enough, confident enough, to try and climb further.
When it came to food, it meant cycling through two or three options. For breakfast he had bagels which he bought at the small eatery around the corner, the only food establishment he'd dared enter since he'd moved in. Every morning he'd buy three of them, always the same. They weren't great—they couldn't be, not compared to the ones Bucky's Pa used to buy some Sundays—but they got the job done. Steve ate them in small, efficient bites, and tried not to remember the times his Ma would drop him off at church before leaving for the hospital—because Sunday shifts, like night shifts, paid better. After mass, Bucky would be waiting for him outside, ready to take him to his home. Sometimes, if the weather was good, they'd arrive right on time to join the Barnes family as they left for the park. He tried not to remember how George Barnes would part from the group with a wink, off to the secret place where he found his treats, how he and Buck would try and follow him—because if they knew where the bagels came from, then they could have them all the time—only to be stopped by Bucky's Mame, who needed help carrying things, or to be found out a couple streets in, or to simply lose George's trail. And now that he remembered even as he tried not to, Steve wondered: had those bagels really tasted that good, or was it the occasion, the mystery George had crafted around them, that lent them their special flavor?
He didn't know. He never would, now.
For lunch, he ate at the cafeteria in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters more often than not. His loose links to the agency granted him access to it, and he went because there at least he would always be served triple the standard quantities without needing to ask, without being stared at. It made up for the rest. For how, despite the size of his portion, it still didn't feel like enough, never stayed the hunger for more than a couple of hours; and for how bland it was, overcooked rice and tasteless pasta, watery vegetables and meat that remained dry even when drowned in sauce.
It wasn't just the food at S.H.I.E.L.D., though: the same went for anything he prepared himself—because most of the time, in the evening, he ate at home. It came with its own set of problems, of course. Supermarkets and grocery stores were overwhelming at the best of times, so he'd had to devise a strategy to navigate them: a simple route, always the same, from the vegetable display to the can aisle to the cashier desks, with a quick detour by dairy or dry good aisles as needed. He stuck to what he knew: potatoes and root vegetables, onions, cabbages, apples. Hot dogs, cans. Lots of cans. When there was choice he always picked the same brand, which was the one he'd grabbed at random the first time around—running out of patience with himself, feeling ill-at-ease and conspicuous and ridiculous for his inability to make a decision, for his ignorance as to what exactly made one type of yoghurt different from the other, apart from the price and the color of the packaging. Given that what he'd ended up with hadn't tasted too bad, he'd stood by it on his next trip, and the next, and the next.
He prepared it all using the simplest of recipes, familiar ones; but the results were mediocre at best. They had been back then too: caring about taste had been a luxury he couldn't afford. But there had been some satisfaction to be drawn from eating a whole casserole of pasta with carrots and white sauce, a bean loaf, a pan of potatoes with some onion and sliced hot dogs. It had been filling, at the very least. Now that he could easily procure larger quantities, Steve had thought that whatever he made would do the same, if not better.
It didn't. He didn't know why; didn't know if it was due to him—months down the road he still felt cut off from the world—or if it had to do with the ingredients. The cans were wrapped in colorful paper with pretty pictures, the vegetables enormous, some looking downright swollen, all shiny and spotless. Yet for all that luxuriance they didn't taste like much of anything, didn't cling to his stomach, as if whatever they'd gained in appearance and size they'd lost in flavor and consistency.
And it wasn't just the food: for all the exuberance and richness people kept mentioning as staples of this new century, to Steve everything came off as faded, deprived of the vibrancy he'd once perceived everywhere—in children playing in the sun at Brighton Beach, in a single orange peeled and eaten at Christmas, in the dancing halls Bucky where had loved to lose himself, in a good egg cream, in Peggy's smile and presence, in people shouting at each other from opposite sides of the street…
Something had been lost, it seemed. He wasn't sure what it was or who, exactly, had lost it, himself or the world. He just knew that it couldn't be recovered. That all he could do was accept it. Make do without it, and move on.
When God closes a door, he opens a window, or so the saying went. Steve had no idea if that was still something people said nowadays, but after the fight against the Chitauri, after that evening of exhausted companionship, it was exactly what it felt like. Like a curtain had been drawn away, a window thrown open, letting light spill into the room and chase the darkness away while a fresh breeze wafted in and dissolved the stale, stuffy air Steve had been caught in. For the first time since he'd been brought back, he felt something other than grief, or terror, or anger: something like curiosity. It was tentative, but undeniably there.
He remembered how diverse Brooklyn had been when he'd grown up. There had been the Irish, the Italians and the Jews, the Russians and the Poles, even some Chinese, all of them crammed together on that too-small lip of land. That variety only seemed to have increased since then, reaching into every part of the world. Now there were Greeks and Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, people from Central and South America, people S.H.I.E.L.D. had hurried to tell Steve should now be called African Americans, people from communities he'd had to learn to recognize: Arabic and Pakistani, Caribbean, South East Asian. All there, all with their cultures and their cuisines, and now that the fog surrounding him had somewhat lifted, Steve was fascinated.
He had been as a kid, too. It had been both confusing and amazing to him that their next-door neighbor could be so similar to him and his Ma—pious and poor, hard-working and kind—yet so different at the same time, in his accent, his eating habits, his beliefs. Outside the door the distinction had been even starker. For all the forced closeness between people, the lines had been clearly drawn—between neighborhoods, between streets—especially amongst children. Over the years, Steve had caught glimpses, though, through windows and doors left ajar, in shops and in church. His ears had snatched echoes from what sometimes sounded like a whole other world in songs and shouts and Julio Mazzetti's mother scolding him out in the open. Walking down a street around lunch or dinner, he'd gotten whiffs of delicious smells—fragments, at best. He'd never gotten to really see or hear or taste any of it. He could rarely afford to buy ready-made food, and apart from Bucky he hadn't had any friends who would've brought him into their homes, made him welcome at the family table.
That had been what he'd been the most envious of, especially in his hungriest, loneliest years: not only the food—enough food, good food—but also the sense of community, of companionship, that came with a large family gathered to share a meal. Instead, he'd had to make do with scraps: walking down a street with his nose in the air, enjoying the smell of what he couldn't taste, and sometimes being lucky enough to bump into a wedding party when the families had scourged up enough savings to go all out, when celebrations spilled out onto the streets and in all the noise and happiness even the kids forgot that they didn't like the Irish and the Jews. On such occasions, if he played his cards right, if he managed to look non-intrusive and innocent enough, he'd manage to snatch something from the banquet, or maybe even get offered a full plate—the best of treats, even though it never felt like enough.
But things were different, now. Steve didn't have to settle for scraps anymore. Sure, he wasn't suddenly best pals with every single person in the borough, but with the back pay S.H.I.E.L.D. had ensured he obtained he could most definitely afford to buy their food. That, and there were restaurants and eateries everywhere: Italians offering pasta and pizza around every corner, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican. The Poles and Russians were more discreet, but Steve was sure he could find them if he looked. He could find anything, it felt like.
And that in itself turned out to be his main problem: there was so much choice. Too much, and he didn't know how to determine which one was the best, which one would suit him. He briefly considered going at it the same way he had at the grocery store, picking something at random—but no, no, that'd be going the easy way, that'd be taking the risk of ending up with something mediocre, or worse. He wanted to do this right. His newfound curiosity felt so novel, so refreshing, almost precious—but also so fragile. He didn't want to kill it. He wanted to honor it, to really try, this time.
Which meant he had to prepare, to research. People kept telling him that the 21st century was the era of information, massive and available and free. And maybe it was—provided one knew how to access it. And the people from S.H.I.E.L.D. somehow hadn't quite covered that part.
Steve was loathe to go and ask them. Surely he could figure this out on his own.
He went to the library, which was always a good place to start. One of the first things he'd done after he'd been let out into the world had been to have a membership card issued. He remembered how the woman had boggled at the date of birth on his ID card as she'd filled out his information, the small faltering Oh that had passed her lips when she'd looked him in the eye and suddenly placed him, the blush on her cheeks and the stiff line of her shoulders as she'd finished and asked him if he wanted the card mailed to his private address or would come pick it up. For her sake, Steve had chosen the former. Since then, he'd come in several times, to borrow history books, biographies, essays, trying to catch up. He knew how to use the Wikipedia, but somehow printed words still felt more reliable.
Finding what he was looking for proved more difficult than he'd hoped, though. He did find some guide books, was even bemused to discover a Michelin Guide for New York: he remembered the oblong volume that had been put into his hands back in 1943, thick, with a leathery red cover. 1939 - Guide du pneu Michelin. 30 fr. "It has the best maps available," Colonel Phillips had retorted at Steve's confused look, but it hadn't been the 50 pages of maps Bucky had looked at later. It had been the long lists of hotels and restaurants attached. "Well, shit," he'd said, "look at all them fancy places we'll never get to eat at." Steve hadn't known about fancy, but here and now it was indeed the impression he got, leafing through it. All he saw were ratings of one, two, three stars, and that was without mentioning the prices. This wasn't what he wanted. He was hoping to find small establishments, family businesses, holes in the wall: the exact opposite of fancy.
In the end, he swallowed his pride and hunted down a librarian. He found a slender young man with quiet dark eyes and a small tag displaying the name Kemal, who listened to his fumbled explanations with a patient, then hesitant smile.
"We have guides with a wide range of recommendations," he finally said, "but I think you have more chance of finding what you're looking for on the internet."
"Google?" Steve asked almost fearfully: this was exactly what he'd hoped to avoid.
"I was thinking more like Yelp, or maybe Zagat." At Steve's awkward look, Kemal added, "Come on, I'll show you," and led him to the bank of computers. There he sat him down, and after making him go on the website, proceeded to show him its various functionalities: how to type in a search and narrow it down by location, what the various filters were and how to use them. Steve quickly got the hang of it—not for the first time, his wary apprehension had been the biggest obstacle to mastering a new tool—and smiled up at his impromptu teacher.
"This more like it?" Kemal asked, returning the expression.
"It's perfect, thank you."
Kemal hesitated a second, then added, "Yeah, it's great. But— I mean, in my experience, nothing beats asking people. Anyone: Your colleagues. Your neighbors. The barista at Starbucks. That's how you find the true gems."
"Oh, yeah?" Steve said, leaning back in his chair. "What restaurant would you recommend, then?"
Before he could make use of his newfound knowledge, he was invited to dinner at Stark Tower.
"Oh, haven't you heard? It's Avengers Tower now," Stark told him, and added, "You'd think the big A on top of the building would be enough of a clue," as if he actually believed that you could see it from the ground.
The top floors were still under repair after their confrontation with Loki, and while the rest had fared better during the attack, Steve saw signs of ongoing work there too: clearly Tony had meant it when he'd said he'd repurpose half the building to make headquarters for the team. Only some parts would be spared, like Tony's private quarters, which was where the elevator carried Steve without him needing to ask.
He couldn't help but look around curiously as he stepped out. The place looked more like the antechamber to a workshop than a living-room and kitchen, but there was a round table in front of the counter. Unlike every other surface, it wasn't cluttered with mechanical parts, wires, vials, beakers or test tubes. Instead it was covered in takeout boxes, beside which Dr. Banner was just putting down a pile of plates and cutlery. He greeted Steve with a smile and a handshake.
"The others aren't here yet?" Steve asked.
"Weeell," Stark drawled, "I totally invited them—I mean, The Good Hammer isn't aware of it given that he's probably busy having his brother executed—yikes—and, oh yeah, we have no way to contact him—which, by the way, is so not a good plan. I mean, how will we all assemble if there is an emergency, do they even get phone calls or emails on—what was it called already, Alpha something—"
"Asgard," Dr. Banner said mildly.
"Yeah, that," Stark said, waving a dismissive hand. "And the Widow and Robin Hood appear to be on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., because apparently crazy spy-lords don't grant you leave even when you save the world from aliens—or maybe they're ignoring us because they don't like us, I don't know, they haven't gotten back to me—which, hello, rude."
"So it's just us," Steve concluded.
Stark grinned, a bit manically. "It is. But don't worry, Cap. Three's plenty enough to get freaky."
Steve chose to ignore that remark, and went to help Dr. Banner set the table instead. It didn't take long, and soon they were sitting down, Stark opening box after box with nearly childish glee.
"What kind of food is this?" Steve asked, curiously peering as dishes of meat and vegetables drowned in sauce appeared, one after the other.
"Chinese," Stark replied at the same time as Dr. Banner said, "Cantonese."
Stark flapped a hand. "Same thing."
Once again, Steve refrained from commenting; he could look it up later. He prepared to dig in, only to realize that he was the only one holding a fork: both Stark and Dr. Banner had picked up a pair of thin wooden sticks wrapped in paper. Chopsticks, he realized, and was obvious enough in his staring for Dr. Banner to take pity on him and say, "You hold them like a pen," before demonstrating what he meant when Steve snatched one of the leftover pairs to try.
It was nothing like holding a pen.
"This is amazing," Stark crowed as Steve tried—and failed—to pick up what Dr. Banner told him was called a dumpling. "I should be recording this. Are you recording this, J.A.R.V.I.S.?"
"I am not, sir," the voice Steve recognized from the elevator said. It almost made him startle. His chopsticks crossed, the dumpling flew—but fortunately not far enough to fall off the table.
"So how are you settling back in New York?" Dr. Banner asked, steering the conversation in a more amicable direction.
Grateful for the distraction, Steve replied while carefully bringing the dumpling back onto his plate. He then kept the conversation going by returning the question, asking how Dr. Banner—"Please, call me Bruce."—was liking the Tower, at which point Stark butted right back in to lay out his plans for the building's new private quarters. He was ostensibly vexed when Steve declined the offer of a suite of his own, which forced Steve to explain his wish to remain close to Brooklyn, to reacquaint himself with it and discover its restaurants. This incidentally gave him the perfect opening to enquire as to whether they might have some recommendations. He also asked where tonight's food had come from. What he painstakingly managed to bring to his mouth was excellent, so much so that Ms. Romanov and Barton's absence turned out to be a blessing in disguise: there would never have been enough for the five of them, not with the quantities Steve put away without noticing.
It was only later, at the end of the night, that he realized that Stark's decision to stage their reunion evening now, when both agents were away on a mission, instead of waiting for their return, might not have been random. As Steve got ready to leave, after Bruce had retreated for the night, Tony hovered, hopping from foot to foot.
"By the way," he finally blurted, his nonchalant tone clashing with his entire demeanor, "S.H.I.E.L.D.'s getting ready to hire you for good. I mean, they're making plans. Still wondering how to approach you—they're worse than a teen hemming and hawing over a promposal, I swear, but still, it won't be long now."
"You're still spying on their servers?" Steve asked, putting on his jacket.
Stark bristled. "It'd serve them right—but actually I might be a bit stuck at the trying to stage—I mean, I'm not stuck, J.A.R.V.I.S. is not stuck, their central servers are just equipped with a pretty good A.I., it's quite clever at blocking the way, so for now I'm only getting scraps. I'll have to ask how they came up with it—if I ever get around to actually tell them about what I'm doing that is, so probably never. But who cares anyway, it's only a matter of time before I crack it."
He said it so nonchalantly, so confidently, and for a second the world tilted and it was Howard standing there instead, full of prickly irritation over that pesky bump on the smooth, swift road his mind cut through life, dismissing it with that careless drawl of his, that casual trust in his own brilliance. Steve's eyebrows twitched. Then he blinked, and the moment was gone. He swallowed.
"Thanks for the warning, then," he said, adjusting his collar with a nod. "I'll let you know how it goes."
He made a quick exit.
Armed with Bruce and Kemal's recommendations as well as the Yelp guide, Steve now had more than enough to start from. However, faced with so much choice, with food from every corner of the world, he found himself wanting to start simple. Start with something familiar, something he knew, and work his way from there.
He found a small kosher restaurant with great reviews in Sheepshead Bay. It had everything: bagels with pastrami and corned beef, stuffed cabbage, chopped liver—and it was only when the waitress brought him his chicken soup with matzo balls that Steve realized coming here had been a mistake.
The second the broth hit his tongue, memories crashed into his mind, overwhelming, clashing like pieces of cutlery against one another, a racket of exclamations and laughter and chairs scrapping against the floor—and then a hand patted his shoulder, ruffled his hair, and a voice said, "Come on, sweetie, eat up," and "Got to get some meat onto those bird bones." On the other side of the gigantic table, a wrinkled face was looking right at him, distant, intimidating, but there was Bucky too, grinning at him over his bowl, while Becca complained, because why couldn't she get another ball, she could too eat it, and in the here and now Steve almost choked. Tears sprang to his eyes, because it felt like it was all right here, within reach, but in reality it was all gone and—
He had to leave. He couldn't let anyone notice what was happening, he couldn't let anyone try to help. Head lowered, shoulders hunched, he pressed a fist against his lips until he was sure that he'd swallowed everything down, his mouthful of soup and any sound that might've escaped. Then he groped for his wallet, only he couldn't open it, his fingers were trembling so hard, and even once he'd managed to do it, his blurred vision made it almost impossible for him to see what bills he was tugging out, but at this point he didn't care, he just needed to go, so he dumped a bunch of them on the table, stood up, and fled.
During his childhood, there had been a few years during which Steve had eaten his fill at least one day out of seven. It had been after the crash, surprisingly enough. It had been after he'd met Bucky.
He didn't remember the meeting itself, or even the first time Bucky had brought him home to meet his parents, his sisters, his uncles and his Bubbe—which was when Steve had realized that he was talking about his grandmother and not a very intelligent, very capricious cat with a weird name. He didn't even remember the first time he'd been invited to dinner. What he did remember was how overwhelming such scenes had been, even years down the road. The Barneses were a large family, all living together, not only Bucky's parents and sisters and grandmother but also several uncles plus, as years had gone by, a couple aunts, then cousins—a true crowd for a boy used to the quiet emptiness of the tenement flat he shared with a single mother who was at work more often than not. At the Barneses', every meal had felt like a feast: noisy, messy, and always with so much food. Even the depression hadn't changed that. Bucky's uncles owned a grocery store, and so the family had always had the luxury of first pick, had always been able to scrounge up enough. With nearly a dozen people around the table at all times, Mrs. Barnes hadn't minded one more mouth to feed, had barely even noticed: whatever Steve and his birdlike appetite ate, it was nothing compared to the dents the men of the family always made in the table's offerings.
Mrs. Barnes had been a fine cook, too. When Steve had first met her, he'd been confused and amazed at the fact that she didn't have to work, until he'd realized that keeping up the house—not only keeping it clean but also maintaining its stocks while keeping track of its budget, rotating the laundry, preparing three meals a day for the whole family, plus taking care of Bucky's sisters until they were all old enough to go to school—that all of it was a full time job in and of itself. She'd juggled it all, though, and had always had something mouthwatering to put on the table, lamb and fish, all kinds of soups and bread, potato latkes and cholent on a Saturday.
She always offered Steve a second helping too. At first Steve had tried to decline, not wanting to be a bother or appear greedy. All that had earned him was Bucky becoming angry at him for not liking his Mame's cooking. This had led to several awful days, tense, confusing, and wrought with the terror of having pissed off the only friend he'd ever made, until Steve had managed to make Bucky understand that he did like Mrs. Barnes' dishes, but that he didn't want to be rude. Bucky had retorted that not taking seconds was being rude, and that he wouldn't put up with anyone insulting his Mame.
After that, there had been no more telling Mrs. Barnes no when it came to being fed—not even when he was already more than full from finishing his plate the first time around.
But all of that was gone now. Becca and Allie squabbling over the last slice of strudel; Frank and Harry Buchanan's laughter; their mother, Bucky's Bubbe, with whom Steve had barely interacted once or twice over the years, whom he'd only ever watched from afar, a bit intimidated, a bit spooked, because she never really smiled and her old, wrinkled, greyed features didn't seem to quite belong to this world, already had something of the beyond in them. When she'd passed away, he hadn't been surprised, and hadn't really understood why Bucky had been so sad, why he'd sobbed so wretchedly. He didn't have any basis for comparison: he'd never met his own grandparents. His Ma didn't have any pictures. She never really talked about them either, just as she didn't talk about Ireland, or about her siblings. Steve only knew of them—and that he shouldn't ask why, out of the five of them, not one had been there to cross over to the New World when Sarah had.
To him, they'd always been gone, like his Dad. Then his Ma had been gone too, and now the Barneses, all of them, all of it: gone, gone, gone.
He didn't give up on his endeavor to discover and enjoy new types of food, though. He refused to.
The next restaurant he tried was a Tibetan; one of Bruce's recommendations.
It was very good.
It was also a lot safer.
Little by little, he expanded his perspective, moving from one country to the next. There were so many types of food, so many ways to prepare it, so many tastes. He'd never known: he could never have imagined it, not even in his wildest dreams.
He tried Japanese—he wasn't so sure about sushi, even less about sashimi, but he had to have eaten fifty meat skewers at least. He tried Mexican. He tried Greek. He tried Indian.
He kept a notebook with him, used it to jot down the address of the restaurant he intended to visit that day, sometimes accompanied by the sketch of a map he'd copied from the internet. At first he thought that he'd supplement them with notes about what he'd chosen to try each time, what he'd thought about it, so that he wouldn't end up eating the same thing twice if he ever came back. But he quickly realized that he didn't need to. No matter how many restaurants he tried, he always kept them distinct in his head, always remembered them. Everything was right there in his head: the name of the dish he'd ordered, its appearance, its smell, its taste—but also the location and layout of the place, its atmosphere, the faces of the waiters, the entire menu, even though sometimes he'd only glanced at it.
An eidetic memory, Peggy had called it. Steve remembered how spooked he'd been by it at first. He'd always had a knack for remembering things—"Mind like a steel trap," Bucky used to mutter, disgruntled, because in his eyes Steve mostly used that talent to remember every single person he held a grudge against and why—but after the serum, it had been something else entirely. He never had to rack his brain anymore, the information he was trying to recall jumping to the forefront of his mind at once. What's more, he never had to consciously try to memorize anything, never even decided to: it would all imprint itself on his brain no matter what. In the first few months he'd ended each day feeling like his head was going to explode under the pressure of so much information, so many details. That was what had frightened him: the lack of control, the absence of conscious choice—because if his body could do that without his say-so, what else could it do?
He'd gotten used to it—he'd had to—but at the same time, he never had. During the USO tour it had been awkward. The girls had been fascinated by it, had taken to asking him to recall things like one would ask a math prodigy to calculate impossible equations in a second, as if he hadn't been enough of a circus attraction as it was. With the Howling Commandos, there had been moments in which it had come in useful, in which remembering that one little detail had saved them and he'd been pleased, grateful. But here and now, in such a benign context, it was unnerving. There was no war, no mission, no need for a hyper-awareness. Yet here it was, every single detail, forever carved into his mind like on a slab of marble, and with it the undeniable truth: that he was different, not only from everyone else, but also from himself, from the person he'd once been. It wasn't just Captain America sticking to him like glue, like a second skin he couldn't take off. It went deeper: a change from within, that would never be unmade.
He was lucky, though. Somehow, in all the establishments he went to, no one treated him like something special. Most of the time they didn't recognize him, and when they did—usually due to the size of his order—they took it in stride. He didn't know if it was due to professionalism, or to the 21st century, or to New York itself. No matter what happened, they'd already seen something weirder, it seemed, and so received everything with nothing but an impressively blasé attitude.
But then, aliens had just dropped from the sky. Compared to that, a soldier with an enhanced metabolism sounded pretty run-of-the-mill. His habit to tip generously seemed to stand out a lot more in their eyes than the fact that he'd ordered and eaten three to four times as much food as the average customer. Only the owners and cooks were really happy about the latter, rather than the waiters—with a few short-lived exceptions.
Once, in a small Korean restaurant, his placing a third order had had the chef storming out of the kitchen to ask what was wrong with his food. Was it the taste, the ingredients, the quantities, what, wasn't it satisfying enough as it was? Faced with Steve's hurried reassurances he'd only huffed, crossed his arms and told him to forget what he'd last ordered, to just wait: the man would prepare him something else, something better, that'd make him stop eating, "just to keep the flavor in your mouth for as long as possible."
And he had. Steve had been sure to let him know, too—and to come back. He was now considered a regular, he believed, or close to it. The waitress—a young girl whose serving manners were so sloppy she had to be the owner's daughter—recognized him and always seated him at the same single table, near the corridor leading to the bathroom and kitchens. Every time, the cook—his name was Sung-ho, Steve had learned—would stick his head through the swinging door and grumble, "You again?" and start to prepare something before Steve had even gotten a glimpse of the menu.
He also returning to a Lebanese, an Ethiopian, a Mexican, circling towards cuisines that were hearty, filling, that relied on strong and generous flavors. It wasn't just the food that had him coming back, though: it was also the way he was welcomed, how they'd greet him with a smile, how they wouldn't treat him any differently because of who he was, but still give him a table in a discreet spot, away from the windows, so he wouldn't be disturbed. How they'd tell him about their day if he asked, and return the favor by enquiring about how he'd been, even though he rarely had anything new to say. How these places had started growing familiar, trusted, small spots of explored territory where he could find refuge, where he could stop and rest, in a city that he'd once known like the back of his hand but that now felt overwhelmingly changed, skewed, foreign.
He drew it all, his notebook coming in useful in the end: the tables and chairs, the rows of bottles behind the bar when there was one, the streets outside, maps that grew painstakingly detailed, chasing off the blankness of the terræ incognitæ. He drew faces, too, smiles, hairdos, clothes. He wrote down words in all sorts of languages, sentences he caught as they flew between waiters and cooks, the phonetic rendition of a dish's name, now matter how bad he remained at reproducing it. It made them laugh when he tried: the best of incentives.
And when they did, or when he discovered a dish he particularly liked—when he sent his compliments to the cook and they smiled, happy and satisfied, with the slightest hint of smugness, he felt…better. More settled, closer to finding his footing in this century that so enjoyed throwing him off-kilter. He started thinking, hoping: maybe he could carve out a place for himself here. Maybe he could still build a life, somehow.
Then Steve Rogers discovered Chinese hot pot.
That was a good day.
Stark had been right, though: S.H.I.E.L.D. did want to recruit him, to make him an official, full-time operative. When they made their offer, Steve was grateful that he'd been given the heads-up. It had given him the time to think and come to a decision.
However, he hadn't accounted, hadn't prepared himself, for one thing: they wanted to assign him to Washington, D.C. They wanted him to move. Just as New York was starting to feel—not like home, not quite, not yet; but like it might one day be once again.
"Would it be possible for me to work from the New York offices instead?" he asked. He was loathe to, close as it came to admitting to a weakness, but he made himself do it anyway. Now was not the time for misplaced pride: not with that sinking feeling in his chest, grabbing at something under his ribs, squeezing. It felt like panic, like desperation, at the thought that all of his efforts to get back into the world, to reacquaint himself with it, with its people, had been in vain—or rather, that they'd be made vain, carelessly ground to dust. And starting again elsewhere, from scratch… It felt daunting. It felt exhausting. He couldn't do it.
No, he didn't want to do it.
Neither Nick Fury nor Ms. Hill appeared to realize any of that. But then, Steve's voice hadn't trembled, his straight posture hadn't changed: to them it had probably sounded like a simple question, a polite enquiry motivated by purely practical reasons—nothing like an actual request.
Peggy would've understood at once. She'd quickly realized how rarely he asked for things—and Bucky had been even quicker to rejoice about it. "Finally," he'd said, "someone who understands." Their relationship had been an odd one, running hot then cold from one second to the next, constantly swinging from familiar to awkward and back in no discernible pattern. But on that topic, they'd been of one mind. Steve still squirmed inside whenever he thought about the conversations they used to launch into, complaining about his bad habits, his knack for martyrdom, as if he wasn't right there, standing in the same corridor, sitting at the same table. He'd complained about it only the once, in the early days. Their heads had turned towards him in unison. They'd both stared like they couldn't believe the gall. Then Bucky had scowled, while Peggy started grinning—which, somehow, had been even worse. Remembering it, part of Steve still quaked.
It had taught him a very valuable lesson: never provoke them once they'd gotten going. Never give them a reason to gang up on him.
This time, though, he'd actually come out and asked. He even dared believe that they would've been proud of him for it. Fuck, is that progress I see? he could almost hear Bucky say, just like he could almost feel how he'd slap Steve's back, scuff him on the head, and add, Hell, ya ugly duckling, if you keep this up you might actually turn into an actual, nasty fuckin' swan.
But Bucky wasn't there; neither was Peggy. There was only Fury, who shook his head and said, "No." After a second of silence, he elaborated: "The New York offices deal with administrative and federal matters. You are to be placed in an active unit operating in an international capacity. Those are based at the Triskelion, which has the second advantage of being close to the central instances of power." He paused. "I've discussed it with the Secretary of State. He agrees with me—even argued in favor of the decision."
Steve gritted his teeth, but nodded. He understood. In the end, it wasn't like he had a choice: he'd already decided that he'd accept their proposition. What would it say about him if he were to change his mind over something as petty as location?
He took the job.
"We'll have everything ready for you within the next two weeks," Ms. Hill told him. Once they'd come to an agreement Fury hadn't lingered in New York, but she had. That or she'd made a second trip just to meet Steve again a few days later and discuss logistics. She'd brought a contract in triplicate for him to sign, as well as a series of instructions pertaining to the date and time at which he'd be expected in D.C., where he was to report, and the amenities that would come with the job. S.H.I.E.L.D. would provide everything he needed: gear, weapons, transportation, even accommodations, in the form of a fully furnished flat.
"Any particular requests?" she asked.
Steve almost said No at once—automatic, dismissive, thoughtless. But he made himself pause and consider. As it turned out, there was something.
"Yes," he said. "I'd like a large kitchen, if possible. Fully equipped."
From the look on Ms. Hill's face, that was unexpected. Still, she jotted it down without question—and as long as she did, Steve decided that he didn't care what she thought.
Or at least, he tried not to.
Steve had to hand it to S.H.I.E.L.D.: they knew how to deliver. The kitchen in the flat they provided him with was open space, with a huge counter and equipped with everything he'd been thinking of and more: a refrigerator with a water dispenser, a stove with an oven, three burners and an electric plate topped by what he'd learned was a hood, a double sink, a microwave, a coffee machine, an electric kettle, a toaster. The cupboards were filled with dishes, pots and pans in all shapes, sizes and materials, the drawers overflowing with more cutlery and utensils than he knew what to do with, some of which he couldn't even identify. Everything was brand new, spotless, blindingly shiny. He almost felt reluctant to use it, like he wasn't allowed. His eyes traced the smooth curve of a ladle made of some sort of thick black plastic, and he remembered the wooden spoon Bucky's Mame had used for stirring. It had been old, blackened and cracked, so worn that it had grown lopsided. She'd wielded it like it was part of her, an extension of her arm and hand and fingers. No one else had used it; no one had dared. Steve—and, he suspected, all the children in the Barnes household—had been secretly convinced that using it was what made her cooking so delicious, what gave it that special, unparalleled flavor. Like it was some sort of magic wand without which any meal would lose half its taste. Even now some of that belief lingered. As he looked at all the utensils surrounding him, he felt like no matter how beautiful or fancy or modern they were, no matter how hard he tried, nothing he could make with them would ever compare.
Rivaling with Winifred Barnes wasn't his purpose, though: he'd set his sights much lower, even though he was looking in a lot more directions.
Before he'd left New York, he'd dropped by the various restaurants at which he'd started to eat regularly to say goodbye. Most of them had taken it in stride, surprised but pleased that he'd gone to the trouble of coming and letting them know. Others—like Jana, like Sung-ho, like Hilina—had been more affected, had asked him, "But how will you survive without this, without that…?", mentioning a dish that had slowly but surely been becoming a favorite of his. Steve had tried to reassure them, but they'd simply shaken their head, crossed their arms and said, "You better not try and get it from some tasteless quack down in D.C."
"Actually," Steve had said, "I was thinking of trying to make it myself." When all he'd gotten in answer was a snort, an incredulous grin, a skeptically raised eyebrow, he'd added, vexed, "I do know how to cook."
And they'd said, "Well, you'll just have to come back to bring us proof, won't you?"
Steve had nodded: it was a nice prospect. It softened the blow of having to leave them all so soon after having met them.
He hadn't lied, though: he did know how to cook. He'd taught himself, mostly, a long time ago. He'd had to, given how much his Ma worked. But even if she hadn't he would've wanted to learn, to help—to alleviate her burdens and make up for how goddamn difficult it was to have him as a son. Sarah had never complained, had barely even shown weariness even at the most harrowing of times, but still: he'd known. With his catastrophic health, with all the fights he got into, with his inability to take care of himself or to get along with others, how could he not? And whenever he'd come close to forgetting it, even for a second, there'd always been someone nearby, whispering as he walked past, scolding him, trying to rile him up by telling him how sorry for her they felt.
Cooking had been the least he could do. It hadn't been glorious at first. More than once, instead of coming home to a set table and heavenly smells wafting from the stove, his Ma had been welcomed by an utter mess: scorched potatoes, overcooked cabbage, charred hot dogs, and in the middle of it all a little boy with his clothes dirty and his hands burnt or cut, teetering on the verge of tears born of frustration more than pain. She'd spent the next few hours trying to console him, when he was very determined not to be, and scrubbing at the stove, the pans, trying to figure out if any part of the meal could be salvaged, because they couldn't afford to throw away more than absolutely necessary. It had to have been exhausting: the exact opposite of what Steve had aimed for. Yet she'd never grown angry at him, at least not for trying. If he refused to listen to her when she showed him how to make things better, then it was another matter altogether.
So he'd listened. He hadn't given up, he'd watched and learned until he could figure out the rest for himself. He'd gotten better. And after he'd become friends with Bucky, he'd gotten some tips from Mrs. Barnes too.
Not that the disasters had entirely disappeared. They'd still happen sometimes, after he'd been ill, whenever his recovery lingered unbearably. He'd have enough of sleeping the hours away, he'd be bored out of his mind yet not well enough to do much of anything, let alone be allowed back outside. In those moments, preparing lunch or dinner had sounded like the perfect compromise. Only he'd get dizzy halfway through, or forget something—like the salt—or suddenly be convinced that he'd forgotten something—like the salt—and accidentally double the dose.
His Ma didn't like finding him at the stove on those days, but it was mostly because she didn't want him to overexert himself. She'd always eaten everything he'd prepared, even when it had been bad. She'd always been grateful. He could almost see her still: how she'd say grace, hands joined, head bent over her plate, how she'd thank the Lord and then, cheekily, her dear mule of a son. They'd exchange a smile and tuck in.
They'd spent so many evenings that way, sitting at their tiny table in their small tenement flat, sharing a meal, talking about their respective days. And God, even after all these years Steve missed it, missed her, so much. He swallowed and blinked his eyes open. The sight of his immaculate kitchen was like a slap in the face. It felt gigantic. Impersonal in its neat, futuristic newness, cold, empty. Wrong. Why did I ask for all this? he wondered, because he certainly didn't need it. It wouldn't bring back what he'd lost, wouldn't even make up for any of it. And he knew how to make do with so much less: back then, he'd made do with next to nothing.
Next to nothing hadn't been nothing; but it was only now that Steve realized that what little he'd had had been plenty, in a way.
He'd had people to share his meals with. He'd had ingredients most of the time, especially after he'd met Bucky: for a penny, his uncles had sometimes let Steve take home some fruit or vegetable that had waited a bit too long, that had become wrinkled or limp and couldn't stay on display. He'd had a tool: his Ma's cookbook. Or his Nana's, he guessed. Sarah had inherited it from her own mother, along with all she'd known about food. Not that she'd learned everything she could have: she'd been more interested in school, in training to become a nurse, in reading whatever medical journals she could get her hands on with the help of the doctor and the priest. Of her own admission, Sarah hadn't been a great cook. She'd circled through a few well-known, well-tried recipes, using the cookbook as a reminder, and only go out of her way on special occasions: for a birthday, for Christmas, for Easter, for the times Steve's work had been complimented by the teacher, so rare that he could count them on the fingers of one hand. By the time Steve had turned fourteen, she started claiming that he'd long since surpassed her—not that he'd gone much further than she had into the book: most of the recipes had stayed out of reach, because they couldn't afford the ingredients, or didn't have the tools, or simply because the quantities were excessive for two.
He'd liked to leaf through it, back when the full extent of his culinary talent had been making soup and successfully boiling potatoes. He'd read the introductory chapters, full oft words like housekeepers and kitchen-maids and economy of the kitchen. He'd look at the engravings and the few colored pictures displaying the grandest of dishes. He'd fancy himself a true chef and pretend he knew how to prepare all of them. Sometimes he'd let his imagination run wild, plan an entire feast, a huge celebration. All the Barneses would be invited, and his Pa would be there too, still alive, and if his Pa was alive then maybe Steve would've had a couple siblings to boot—but there still would've been enough room for everyone to sit, enough food for everyone to eat, because Joseph would've had a good job and so of course they would've lived in a bigger place. They could've afforded the best cuts of meat and the finest sorts of fish.
Then Steve had grown up, and realized that there was no time for such vain daydreams.
He wondered what had happened to the book, though. When he'd left for Camp Lehigh, he'd brought it to the Barneses for safekeeping, along with a box containing the few items he'd valued. Given the neighborhood he'd lived in he hadn't been able to dismiss the possibility that someone would notice his prolonged absence and force their way into the apartment, looking for something to steal and sell. He wouldn't have put it past his landlord to decide that he'd been gone for good either, and to throw his stuff away before renting the place to someone else. The man would have been right to do so, as it turned out. When he'd left, Steve himself hadn't known whether he'd come back, but he'd already suspected that he wouldn't. He'd sure hoped that Bucky would, though. And if so, wouldn't he be glad to have some things of Steve's, to remember him by?
In the end, things hadn't gone that way—of course they hadn't, and of course it was Steve's fault. So he wondered: what had happened to his things? To Bucky's? Had Winifred kept it all, had she thrown it all away? He didn't know, couldn't know, and he had no idea where to start to try and find out. If he was honest with himself, he was afraid to. He didn't know what would be worse: for them all to be gone—not only Winifred and George and Uncle Frank and Uncle Harry, but also Becca, and Allie, and Lou—and for him to have to come to terms with it; or for some of them to still be here, and for him to have to face them, alive—when Bucky wasn't.
Remembering his Ma's cookbook, however, made it easy to know where to start in the kitchen—or so he thought, until he entered a bookstore. He'd expected a modest selection, a shelf at best, but now faced an entire section. He should've known: it matched his experience of this century up until now. No matter what you wanted or needed, you were sure to find an overabundance of it, more than you'd know what to do with. And so even for cookbooks, there were countless options: not only general works, but also a plethora of others devoted to more specific domains. He saw no less than five different volumes built exclusively around cookies, others about smoothies, about cocktails, about vegetarian cooking, about something called 'keto diet', about international cuisine—Italian, Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean. There were books by so-called 'celebrity chefs', atlases of wine, of beer, of coffee, methods for grilling, for chocolate and bread making, for slaughtering and preparing game…
They were such nice books, too. Like the cuisine they purported to teach, they came in all shapes and sizes, with hard covers and thick pages, full of colors and diverse fonts and illustrations: countless pictures, close-ups of arrangements that looked more like art than food. Steve could've lost himself for hours leafing through them, just looking. It was mouthwatering. It was absurd.
Especially given that they were all ridiculously expensive.
And so actually, no: he didn't know where to start.
Eventually, one of the store's employees sidled up to him and asked if he needed help with anything.
He was all too grateful to accept.
He'd come into the store planning to buy one, maybe two books.
He walked out with five.
One of them was about French cuisine.
"Quand cette foutue guerre sera finie, vous viendrez chez moi," Dernier used to say. "Ma soeur vous fera sa bouillabaisse—la meilleure que vous mangerez jamais!"
Chances were that whatever fish stew Steve prepared wouldn't compare with what Marie Guillot née Dernier, would've made. He doubted he would find all the proper fish varieties in America, for one.
Still, there was no harm in trying.
Given that he knew the basics of cooking and the most common terms, making use of his purchases didn't prove too difficult. He only needed a few things: stubbornness to keep trying even in the face of failure, which he had in spades, the patience to figure out his stove and oven, and the determination to overcome his unease at the supermarket in order to hunt for specific items in aisles he'd left unexplored up until then. The 21st century was all about fresh ingredients, it seemed, raw and crispy vegetables, eggs taken straight from the farm, fine cuts of meat you'd sear in a pan for less than a minute. As a consequence, he spent more and more time in front of the vegetable displays—and increasingly neglected the canned section. Those weren't welcome anymore, apparently. Sure, they were useful, they kept longer, but the recipes were clear: compared to 'the real thing', they were a step down.
Such ideas reeked of snobbism to him, but he adapted. He made progress, too—quite rapidly, if he dared say so himself. Especially once he'd figured out the trick of reading instructions on the packaging before doing anything.
Who knew the recommended cooking time for pasta was less than ten minutes?
The first person to benefit from it all was Peggy. It had to be, given that her presence in Washington D.C. was the only thing preventing Steve from regretting moving entirely. Going to see her at her retirement home had been terrifying the first time. He'd been made aware of her condition, of her encroaching dementia and hadn't known what he was most afraid of: that she wouldn't recognize him, or that seeing him would distress her, or that she'd be furious and turn him away. He should've known better than to listen to the doctor's alarmist warnings, though. He should've trusted her. When he'd finally shown up, lucky enough to do so on what the nurses later told him was a good day, Peggy had lit up at once. She'd already been aware of his return, it turned out—but of course she had: the footage of the Chitauri attack had played on every screen worldwide, and if there was one person left alive in the world to recognize him under even the gaudiest of outfits, it was her.
She'd sharply reminded him of that, before scolding him for not showing up earlier.
Since then, he'd been visiting her once a week, twice when his schedule allowed: a laughable attempt at making up for starting so late. The treat he was now bringing was another step in that direction.
He felt trepidation when he arrived, when he stepped up to her chair to kiss the cheek she was offering up, when he said, "I have something for you." Her skin was soft under his lips, almost powdery, and he got a whiff of her perfume, still the same even after all these years. He swallowed, and dragged another chair over to sit.
"Do you, now?" she said, and immediately accepted the Tupperware box when he took it out of its paper bag and handed it over. He watched nervously as she opened it. "Is that pudding?"
"It is." He suddenly remembered that she'd need cutlery and reached into the inner pocket of his jacket for the fork he'd put there, wrapped in a napkin. He paused before giving it to her, though, realizing: "I mean, if you're allowed to eat any."
"Probably not," Peggy replied at once, snatching at the fork. "According to my doctor, anyway."
Peggy interrupted him with a look. "Darling," she said, "I couldn't care less what the man has to say on the matter."
"I've survived this long trusting myself first and foremost, haven't I?" she went on, giving him that confident smile of hers. She carved out a small piece of the dessert but paused before she brought it to her mouth. "Oh, don't you make that face at me. I won't drop dead because of pudding—and if I do, then I promise I won't blame you."
Except maybe she should; but before he could find a way to tell her that, her mouth had closed around the fork. She was still smiling, eyes sparkling, and for a second she looked younger, looked like the little girl she must have been once, whom he'd never met and never been told about, no matter how much he wished he had.
He waited for her verdict. She simply took another bite. Then she asked, "Is there no slice for you?"
"Oh, uh," Steve stuttered. "No, I…already had some. Earlier." He'd had to make sure that it was at least edible, even if he couldn't judge how high it ranked compared to the real deal.
"Still with those hollow legs, are you?" she said, shaking her head chidingly—and Steve had a flash of Bucky staring at him, or rather at the quantities of food he'd been gobbling down after the serum. They'd been in London, right after Steve's rogue mission to rescue everyone from that factory in Austria, on some sort of leave while the soldiers recovered and the officers regrouped and decided what to make of it, of Steve—who for the first time in weeks had had access to food that wasn't meagre rations. "What did they do to you," Bucky had asked, "did they replace your legs with hollow ones?" Peggy had been there too, Steve suddenly remembered, sitting primly, looking so put together in her uniform that she'd made her pint of beer look like a glass of the finest wine. "Well, technically," she'd said, "it wasn't just the legs, sergeant." Bucky's features had tightened, then suddenly relaxed, his lips curling into a charming smile as he'd turned towards her and leaned on his elbow. "Oh, so he's got hollow arms too now?" Peggy had looked back, arched her eyebrows, replied: "Hollow everything." Bucky had blinked. "Except the hollow head," he'd said after a few seconds of silence, slowly, testing, "that one he's always had. A birth defect, you see." It had been Peggy's turn to blink, then grin—and a second later they'd been off, mentioning various body parts Steve now apparently had to fill with food lest he deflate the first time he got a scratch, paying no heed to Steve's feeble attempts to defend himself, until Peggy had gasped, "Hollow pectorals," and they'd both completely lost it. By the time Steve had finished his plate they'd still been at it. He'd wiped his mouth, sitting straight and dignified, and pretended very hard not to know the two people laughing so uproariously that everyone in the inn couldn't help but stare.
"This is delicious, though."
Steve snapped back to the present, to Peggy, to what she'd just said. He perked up. "It is?"
"Yes." She nodded, carved and ate another bite. "Where did you find it? I've been missing out, if I'd known there was a British bakery deserving of the name in the vicinity…"
Steve felt himself flush, pleased. He tried not to squirm in his chair. "I, um. I made it," he said.
Peggy stared at him. "Really?"
His blush deepened. He looked down at his hands in his lap—they felt huge, clumsy: he suddenly had no idea what to do with them—and made himself nod. "Yeah, I. I have this huge kitchen now. I've bought some books."
"Oh, darling." Her voice, full of unexpected emotion, made him look back up, alarmed. Her eyes were damp. Yet she smiled at him. "I'm so glad," she said, leaning forward to put one of her hands on his. Steve immediately returned the hold, careful not to squeeze too much. "When you accepted Fury's offer—" Peggy started, then paused. "I understand why you did it, of course, but…" She caught his eye, her expression earnest and tender. "You're more than a soldier, you know. Even now."
"I—" Steve tried to say. He had to clear his throat. "I don't know. Isn't what they remade me as?"
Her eyebrows twitched. "Oh, there he is," she said, her tone changing entirely, turning teasing, knowing. "Our grandiloquent idiot. I was wondering when he'd show up." A small smile tugged at the corner of Steve's lips despite himself at how delightful that was: being known.
"Dame's definitely got your number," Bucky had said. "Now what exactly did you do for her to've caught on so fast, I wonder?" And beyond the teasing there had been a serious undertone, almost threatening, eerily reminiscent of Winifred's whenever she sniffed out a lie.
"Maybe she's just that smart," Steve had replied, and carefully made no mention of any grenade, or of any wild chase, barefoot, unarmed, after a Hydra agent through the streets of Brooklyn, or of self-pitying declarations under a tarp in the rain.
"No, my dear," Peggy went on, giving his hand a firm shake. "They remade you to better protect people. To take care of them. That's why you have that shield. And yes, sometimes that means fighting. But not always. Sometimes all it means is that you have to try your hand at trifle."
Steve quirked an eyebrow. "Trifle?"
"You should look it up," Peggy said, patting his hand in benevolent condescension. "I am ready to put myself out and test any experimental samples, of course."
"How generous of you," Steve said. He snatched her hand back and brushed his thumb over the back of it, back and forth.
"Now, about this pudding," Peggy added, pointing with the fork she was still holding in her other hand. "Don't get me wrong, it is good. But. Do you take constructive criticism?"
Steve grinned. "From you? Always."
Actually, to say that Peggy had been the first to benefit from his cooking was a lie: the first recipient had been himself. His stomach was more than happy about it, too. Even the dishes he nearly botched were a definite step up from the Triskelion's cafeteria. Plus, it made his meals that much easier to tailor to his metabolism. He could rely more heavily on carbs and cereals that'd stick in his stomach for more than two hours at a time—especially once he'd discovered whole grain pasta and brown rice and wholemeal bread—but also include more meat, more sauce, complemented by vegetables that actually tasted like something, provided you knew how to prepare them—that is to say, Steve found out, that you avoided boiling most of them. Hell, his cookbooks had even given him several recipes that gave flavor to lentils and beans.
He was still a bit overwhelmed by the sheer amount of fresh vegetables and spices one could find today, their diversity, the liberality with which they were used—and the fact that he could actually afford them.
Well, some of them. He still balked at handing over more than ten bucks for a couple of grams of saffron, or almost four for a single avocado.
He definitely could make do without those.
He picked up the habit of bringing his own lunch to work whenever he was summoned to the Triskelion for training exercises, for crash courses on various 21st century technologies and practices, for briefings. People noticed, but no one dared comment on it, apart from Ms. Romanov—or Natasha, as she'd told him to call her, smirking slightly like she knew how difficult it'd be for him to do that.
"It's as good a way to keep busy as any," Steve replied with a shrug to her question, feigning nonchalance, hoping that she'd let it go.
She didn't. She liked to unsettle people, he'd realized, to wrong-foot them the second they grew complacent to see how they reacted. Case in point: as soon as her first name started sounding natural in Steve's mouth she switched strategy, peering curiously at his lunch whenever he opened the box, asking questions—what is it, what's in it, how did you make it—pestering him like a child, testing his patience. And when that didn't work, she moved on to, "Can I have a taste?" The smirk was there again, hovering at the corner of her mouth. Her lunch was a couple of small sandwiches, so she didn't have a fork: she was waiting to see how uncomfortable sharing his would make him, if he'd let that stop him.
When it didn't, she tried to make her use of it as suggestive as possible, staring at him all the while.
He retaliated the following day by bringing a second, smaller portion that he gave to her the moment she asked for a sample, intent on repeating the experience from the day before.
She didn't bat an eyelash, only paused for the briefest fraction of a second—but he saw it all the same. He'd caught her off-guard.
He pretended not to notice.
She wasn't fooled, though. Still, she took the box along with the second fork he'd brought and dug in.
It had been a while since he'd really shared a meal with someone, he realized. The last time hat been with the Commandos, although calling whatever they'd managed to scourge up on missions meals would've been generous: nothing but rations so scarce or disgusting that they'd had to distract themselves from it all with banter, with cigarettes to erase the taste, to cut through the hunger—and sometimes, on certain missions, without even that. Before the war, there had been Bucky, who'd come find him on his lunch break sometimes, bringing something of his Mame's because he knew how easily Steve let himself be absorbed by his work and 'forgot' to eat. They'd find a patch of greenery, a stoop or a fence to sit on. Sometimes they'd join some of their colleagues, or one of Bucky's sisters would be there too, but just as often it'd only be the two of them, people-watching, exchanging the latest news about their neighborhoods, their streets, their buildings.
Bucky staunchly refused to call it gossip.
With Natasha things weren't quite the same. The quiet companionship of those past moments was absent. It wasn't just that he barely knew her. She simply wasn't willing to share anything of herself. She seemed more intent to pry, to try and tease things out of him by any means necessary.
It wasn't pleasant; and it was miles away from what he would've called bonding.
Or he thought it was, until one day she walked up to him and presented him with her phone, asking, "Do you think you could make that?"
Steve took the device and looked. The internet browser was open on a page he identified as a blog. It displayed a recipe for something called kulebyaka.
"I can try," he said slowly, scrolling down with his thumb, checking the ingredient list, noticing how most steps were accompanied by a picture, making them easy to follow.
"I'll send you the link," she said, and he nodded although there was no need: he'd already memorized the address and the content of the page, just as he'd memorized every single recipe he'd tried since the start of his little experiment, without even meaning to.
He made kulebyaka.
Then he had to sit and not fidget while Natasha ate the large slice he'd brought, her expression remaining unchanged.
"So?" he finally caved in and asked once she'd packed the box back up and set it aside, still without having said a thing.
He was playing right into her hand, he knew. Yet she gave no outward sign of victory, simply said, "Not bad." Her tone was entirely deadpan. Even her usual smirk was absent, but Steve could feel something there, right underneath the surface, something very much like a smile. She confirmed it by adding, in the same voice, "Congratulations, you're marriage material."
He chuckled and reached out to take the box when she handed it over, only to pause when she didn't let go. Their eyes met.
"Thank you," she said, sounding strangely subdued—and that's when he realized what this had all been about: her, making an effort, opening up, revealing a part of herself, of the person she was underneath the masks and the lies and the dangerous skill set.
He made a mental note—Natasha Romanov, likes, and might even miss, kulebyaka, and potentially other Russian dishes—and said, "Any time."
Incidentally, that was also how Steve Rogers found out about recipe blogs.
When he'd talked about cooking as a way to keep his mind busy, it hadn't been entirely lying. He didn't bring his own meals on missions—it would've been too cumbersome and, more often than not, useless. Most of those were too short and busy for him to ever sit down and eat a full meal, and he would never have been able to bring enough for the few that lasted longer. But he still had to think about it, plan around his hectic schedule; figure out how to avoid leaving things to spoil in his fridge, when he was sent out with little to no warning.
He got used to only buying the perishables he'd need to prepare the next couple of meals. During downtime, it meant grocery shopping every day—which was good, he guessed: it took him out of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters, out of his flat. Get some fresh air, his Ma would've said, some light exercise, because she knew that Steve's back pains and bum ticker and flat feet and allergies were well on their way to turning him into a homebody. But despite her encouragements, it wasn't until he'd met Bucky, who kept popping in to drag him outside even when Steve just wanted to draw or read, that he'd followed her advice. They'd have been glad for the change—and at the same time not, if they'd known what had brought it on. Steve avoided thinking about that, and focused instead on learning how to make use of his freezer, storing raw meat and fish and any leftovers he had there instead of putting them in the refrigerator.
His collection of Tupperware expanded quickly.
Keeping the contents of said fridge to a minimum also meant that he couldn't go straight home after a mission, and had to make a pit stop at the stores on his way there—unless it was the middle of the night and he was tired enough to order takeout or to simply heat up a box from the freezer. He didn't mind, most of the time. Less and less as months went by, actually: it became part of his cooling down ritual, one of the elements that helped him transition from Cap to Steve Rogers, the last step on the way back to normal life. It meant making a list of things to buy in his head, which in turn meant knowing what he wanted to make. That's what he'd do, once their extraction had been successful and they were back in international airspace, once they were clear and he could let go of some of the tension and focus, once there was nothing left but several quiet hours of transit: he'd spend the time scrolling through recipe blogs, looking up dish after dish, trying to determine what he felt like eating, what he felt like making, putting a menu together. He wasn't worried about it not being allowed: the jet they used was untraceable, as was the phone S.H.I.E.L.D. had given him. He had no doubt they could monitor his use of it too, and yet he hadn't received any slap on the wrist. So he kept it up.
It gave him something to come home to.
He would've been as overwhelmed by cooking blogs as he'd been by the choices offered for restaurants and cookbooks, had he not figured out how to use them: as a way to build on what he already knew and to cross-reference websites when what he found on one didn't sound right.
Somehow, words read off a screen were easier to question than those written on paper.
"Oh, I see," Peggy said when he told her this, "you're an expert now, of course you'd know better."
"I'm not saying—" Steve started, then stopped when he realized that anything he'd say would only dig his grave deeper. "It works, doesn't it? This pudding's better than the last."
Peggy pressed her lips together. "It is," she admitted after a few seconds. Then she smirked. "It's not perfect though. You'll have to try again."
Steve refrained from rolling his eyes: he'd already known he would.
He refused to let the fact that he couldn't bring meals on missions mean that he had to go hungry, though. The trick was to keep his pockets, his locker, and the bag containing his gear full of energy bars—and to regularly replenish his stores so that they never ran out.
Over time, he ate his way through the store's entire selection. He tried every snack he found, brand by brand, flavor by flavor, until he knew what he preferred, what worked best to assuage or delay that unpleasant pang at the bottom of his stomach, what even gave him something close to an energy boost.
Energy bars only went so far, though. On a lot of missions they were enough—the ones that were quick, that had been carefully planned in advance and consisted of a simple extraction, a hard and fast strike on a target that had already been clearly identified and located when they'd set off. Steve and his team would be in and out in what felt like the blink of an eye, gone before anyone knew they'd been there, before they themselves had even realized where they'd been—sometimes abroad, sometimes at the other end of the world. It made Steve feel crazy, at times, scrambling. But with S.H.I.E.L.D., with its jets, it was well within the realm of possibility.
Sometimes, however, their intel was lacking and they had to gather more on the ground. Sometimes they had to investigate, infiltrate. Sometimes logistics demanded some time pass between one step of their strategy and the next, between the end of a mission and extraction. Sometimes they just had to wait, stuck in a country for days on end. And while those times weren't exactly idle, Steve had to find way to keep sharp and on top form, and MREs just didn't cut it: he'd had enough military food to last him a lifetime.
So whenever he could—without compromising their mission—he'd slip out of wherever they were cooped up and go take a look at what the surrounding streets had to offer, at what food he could find that was both cheap and easy to carry, easy to eat on the fly while still being a treat.
The answer was: a lot. Street food came in all shapes and forms and tastes, he discovered, especially given that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s missions took them all over. He had baozi in Vietnam and kilishi in Nigeria, arepa in Venezuela and mofo sakay in Madagascar, lángos in Hungary and khinkali in Georgia, vetkoek in South Africa and okonomiyaki in Japan…
"Where the hell do you even find that shit?" Rumlow asked once. They were in Jordan, and Steve was already halfway through the dozen sfiha he'd just bought. They were still warm, the crispy edges of the bread counterbalanced by how the meat and peppers melted on his tongue: the perfect combination for a perfect snack. And while Rumlow sounded incredulous and disgruntled, ready to go on a rant about the need for discretion and the risk brought to their cover by Captain America going off to buy some chow, most of the S.T.R.I.K.E. team seemed more yearning, if not downright envious.
Steve belatedly realized that he could at least have offered to share.
And so the next time an opportunity presented itself, on a stakeout in Alger—and really, Rumlow didn't need to worry: by now Steve had his persona of 'clueless American tourist' down to pat, because in most countries that was what people expected the second they caught sight of him, and no matter what Natasha said, he was learning—he made sure to bring back enough lamb skewers for everyone.
That was incidentally how he became aware of another perk of the serum, an obvious one, which he hadn't thought about: he was entirely immune to food poisoning.
The rest of the strike team, less so.
After a while, he realized that Natasha's 'marriage material' remark had been serious.
It had to be. It was the only explanation for how she was suddenly trying to set him up with every girl who crossed their path.
They all had one thing in common, too: they all confessed to being terrible cooks.
He eventually found out about the whereabouts of his Ma's cookbook—entirely by chance. It was at the Smithsonian.
Winifred had kept it, along with all of his and Bucky's stuff, all her life: she hadn't thrown away a single thing. After her death it had gone to Becca, who'd done the same, as if even after all these years there had still been a chance of him or Bucky coming home and needing them, or at least wanting to have them again. When she'd passed away in turn, in 2007—such a short amount of time before Steve had been found, and at the same time so long—her son had apparently decided that they'd been cluttering the family's attics for long enough; or maybe he'd received a request. In any case, he had given everything to the museum. Every item had been carefully cataloged, then put in storage, where it had stayed since.
That's where Steve found it. The museum wanted to set up an exhibition about him—well, ideally they would've liked to do a series about the Avengers, but Stark wouldn't share anything about the Iron Man suit or its design, and everything else they had on him either had more to do with Stark Industries than superhero-ing, or wasn't well-suited for an event they wanted to keep family friendly. As for the rest of the team, any information about Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk was classified, while Thor was wasn't exactly available. Which left Steve, the closest they had to an identifiable object. A well-known one, to boot: a symbol, a historical figure and a cartoon character all rolled into one, the perfect candidate for a children's favorite.
They invited him for a consultation. Upon his arrival he was welcomed by two women, the curator and the organizer for the event. "Captain," they greeted, shaking his hand, and Steve replied, "Doctor Patel, Doctor Swanson," acutely aware of the slew of academic titles he'd seen in their email signatures and the fact that he himself had barely managed to graduate high school. They didn't appear to notice his fumbling and invited him to follow them.
The room they led him to was rather small. From what Dr. Patel, the curator, told him, it didn't hold the entirety of what the museum possessed or planned to include in the exhibition. Several larger items, most of them pertaining to the war, were being kept at other sites—like one of the motorcycles he'd used. They were currently negotiating with other institutions and private collectors for further pieces.
"We have some items we would like to discuss with you," Dr. Swanson, the organizer, said. Steve barely heard her: he was still stuck on the fact that some of the objects that had made up his everyday life were now considered worthy enough, interesting enough, to catch the interest of a private buyer. How strange, he thought. How absurd. Dr. Swanson went on: "But first we'd like you to just take a look around. See what we have and—" She stuttered a bit. She was nervous, Steve realized, although he wasn't sure why. "We'll be over there—" She gestured at a table on the side of the room. "—out of the way. Take all the time you need. And maybe—I mean, if you find anything you think might be of interest, something you would like to tell us a story about, please do so. All right?"
She smiled up at him, and Steve nodded. After a few more awkward seconds she said, "I'll leave you to it, then," and walked away.
Steve turned his attention to the contents of the room, and only then did it strike him: how unnerving this all was. Even though most of the objects came from after Project Rebirth, there were some that were older, so that the collection included all the periods of his short life. It was all here, put together without order, as if someone had taken a stroll through his memories and randomly picked things here and there, stolen them without care for logic and run away with them, only to carelessly dump them the first chance they got, right here. Some objects Steve had no memory of. Others Dr. Patel was obviously proud to have gotten her hands on: the way they were placed was meant to draw the eye. She probably hoped that he'd pick those, say something about them: the books he'd taken with him to Camp Lehigh, some drawings he remembered doing in the few art classes he'd managed to take before the beginning of the war, the program of his first USO show, several reels of film…
Steve slowed down in front of those, wondering what was on them. Maybe a couple of his short movies, maybe some unedited material. He remembered cameras episodically following him around camp or at the end of the easier missions, clearing out a town or a village in reconquered territory. Once the clean-up was mostly done and the site secure they'd arrive, a crew of a dozen people bearing down like a flock of birds, noisy, messy, taking over what little room there was. It used to drive Colonel Phillips crazy. Bucky, on the other hand, would laugh, sometimes even preen in front of the cameras—or at least, he did on his good days. On bad days, he evaded them entirely, vanished the second they came into sight, and underneath his worry Steve had always envied his ability to just disappear. On good days, however, Bucky would be right there beside him. Hell, maybe he was on one of those reels, smiling, ribbing Steve, telling him to smile for the ladies back home, saying, "Come on, pal, give them some sugar to tide them over the next few days, it's your patriotic duty, ain't it?" But underneath the teasing his eyes would be serious, almost pleading at times, and they certainly wouldn't be asking for any lady's sake. And Steve, who knew how his face closed down when he focused on a mission, when he was at the center of attention, would feel his lips curl up despite himself, a smile given at once, a gift.
The first clue he got as to what had happened to the things he'd entrusted to Bucky's Mame was a bundle of letters, bound with string. It caught and held his eye—or rather, the cursive on the front did, recognizable even from a distance: Bucky's hand. Not the one he'd had as a boy, clean and school-like. No, it was the one he'd developed later, with his engineering classes—messier, nearly hieroglyphic at times, letters turning into numbers and symbols. These were the letters Steve had received while Bucky had been in training, and then later, after he'd been sent to the front. Seeing them here, now, was jarring, a maw of grief and yearning opening wide and threatening to swallow Steve whole. He reached out for them thoughtlessly, reflexively, like he would a lifeline—Bucky's words to him, right there, right there—until the realization came, and halted his hand: those letters had been cataloged. They'd probably, no, they'd definitely been read, by more than one person, by complete strangers. The feeling of violation was like a bayonet burying itself underneath his ribs, aiming for his lungs, his heart, choking him. And close on its heels, on its tip, a dash of terror like poison. Because if someone had read those letters… But of course someone had, even back then they had. Both he and Bucky had known that. They'd always been careful. Bucky especially had gotten the hang of secrecy quickly, quicker than Steve had, had learned how to say things by not saying them. Soon they'd both been quite confident that the censors going through their correspondence, perfunctorily looking for sensitive or classified information to redact, wouldn't know, or try, to read between the lines. But if meant to do just that, was actively looking for information, for clues as to what may lie underneath the words. If someone was willing to read them repeatedly, maybe they'd— they definitely could—
Steve hastily looked away, determined not to draw any undue attention to the letters, no matter how painful the need to at least hold them again was. That's when his eyes fell on the book. He recognized it at once: that familiar cover, its faded colors and title, the torn corner, the spine that was so worn and cracked that the fabric and strings binding the pages had become visible, barely holding on. Before he knew it, he'd picked it up, opened it. It was one of the very few items his Ma had brought from Ireland, and now here it was, nearly a century later, back in Steve's hands. The pages had darkened, grown more rigid; they creaked as he turned them, making him fear that they'd tear, or break. But the ink hadn't faded, neither on the print nor on the annotations filling nearly every margin, a thin, careful handwriting correcting the quantities of ingredients, suggesting changes, adjusting the steps of a recipe: his Nana's. She'd been the first girl in her family who'd ever finished school, Steve knew. She'd been proud of it, too—something his Ma had liked to remind him of every time he'd flagged in his own schoolwork, when his health had made him miss so many classes that catching up felt impossible. "What's the point?" he'd exclaim, and his Ma would reply, "Maybe you can't see it now, but one day you will, so you better be giving it your all." Back then he'd still been young enough, respectful enough, not to retort that he might never live to see that day. He wouldn't have hurt her that way. And by the time he'd reached an age where he might have, in one of his infamous fits of rage, he'd made it nearly all the way through anyway. And then his Ma had fallen sick, and then she'd died, and after that, well. He'd had to finish, hadn't he? For her sake, if not for his own.
In the end, she'd been right—even though he'd never made use of his acquired knowledge to add to his Nana's cookbook. It felt too much like a relic for him to do so. The marks he'd left had taken the form of grease spots instead, on the few recipes he'd used extensively, and of several pieces of paper, tucked between the last page and the back cover: handwritten recipes for blackberry jelly, for apple cake, for bread, which he'd folded and unfolded so many times that the paper had turned soft, almost cottony. On one of them, Steve recognized Winifred's handwriting: How to make Mandelbrot. He'd wanted to make some for Bucky, he remembered, although he could not recall the occasion. He'd carefully followed every step, and yet the end result had still been inedible. Not because it had tasted bad, but because the whole thing had been hard enough to break your teeth on, even after it had been dipped in milk. Yet it had looked so good, coming out of the oven: the perfect shape and color. Steve had been so dismayed—then vexed, because Bucky hadn't stopped laughing for entire minutes. He'd kept saying things like, "What didja put in it, cement instead of flour?" and, "We should send this to the government, they could build fortresses with this," and, "Hey, maybe with this I can finally break Rob Rizzo's face." Only he hadn't, because—
Steve snapped back to the present and almost startled. In his hands, the book creaked faintly. He glanced over at Dr. Swanson, who was standing beside him. She gave him a small, encouraging smile.
"Did you find something?" she asked.
"Oh, uh, not really," Steve replied, because it wasn't like this book would be relevant for an exhibition about Captain America. "Just my Nana's cookbook."
Dr. Swanson raised her eyebrows. "It belonged to your grandmother?"
"Yes, I… did not expect to find it here." He looked back down at it and murmured, "It's such an old thing. I used to cook with it as a child." He should've closed it, should've put it down and given Dr. Swanson his attention, answered the questions she'd said they had. But somehow he couldn't. He could feel the weight of the volume in his arms, the ridges of its spine against his palm, startlingly familiar. He could smell it, even. He found himself asking, "Could I maybe get—"
But before he could finish, he caught the expression on Dr. Swanson's face, the keen interest in her eyes—and realized his mistake. This, what he'd just said, this was exactly what they'd been looking for when they'd led him into this room. A crack in the armor, a glimpse at who lay behind the shield: Steve Rogers, the man. And while it could've been a relief—so many people and books seemed to believe that his life came down to nothing but the war, to what, in the end, amounted to less than a couple of years—instead it felt like another violation, a foreign hand callously reaching for the tender parts of him, parts they had no business touching. He wanted to step back, hug the book and all it represented to his chest, as if he could press it inside of him, hide it where it could neither be damaged nor lost.
He didn't. When she probed for more information—asked if he'd inherited the book from his mother, asked about life in the twenties, in the thirties, he politely answered. He told them everything they wanted, could see on their faces how pleasantly surprised they were that he was being so cooperative.
He should've known that it wouldn't work. Still, at the end of it all, he asked anyway. Not for that movie reel, fifteen minutes of random material, entirely useless for anyone but him—for anyone who didn't care for those few seconds, in the middle of it all, that had captured Bucky's face, his smile as it slowly bloomed, the right corner of his mouth curling up first, the left always catching up late, right before the teeth showed. He didn't even ask for Bucky's letters. Dr. Patel had asked about them, she clearly wanted to use them as a lead-up to the part of the exhibition devoted to the war. He only asked for the book.
He couldn't have it, they said, apologetic but not quite sorry. Officially, legally, everything in the room belonged to the museum. Maybe he could stake a claim to them, but his case was unprecedented: it would take a while to sort out. Even more so with the exhibition. If he could only wait for it to be over, things would be quieter then, easier, for everyone.
In the meantime, they offered to send him a digital copy. As if it was anywhere near the same thing.
Still, he took it.
It was better than nothing.
Once they were done, he slowly walked back to his apartment. It wasn't a long route: along the National Mall, then northwards past the White House, past Lafayette Square, onto Connecticut Avenue.
On the way, he stopped at a stationery store. There he bought a new notebook: larger, thicker, more expensive, with a leather cover and beautiful lined pages. He brought it home and sat down with it at the kitchen counter. A couple of pens were lying around for when he felt like writing down his grocery list. He snagged one, opened the book and, using his best cursive—the only thing his teachers had unanimously complimented him on, the one that'd even earned him a prize once, making his Ma so proud—he started writing down the recipes he'd made. Not the ones he'd taken from the few books he'd bought, but rather the ones he'd put together using the internet and his own increasing knowledge. The ones he'd liked, had even been tentatively proud of. The ones he wouldn't mind using again.
It was nowhere near necessary. The way he wrote them down one after the other without having to pause and ponder, confirmed that he'd already memorized them all, even the failures that didn't end up on the page. It was okay, though. He wasn't doing this to have a guide, a repertoire of ideas. He just wanted some proof, a trace. Something concrete to hold in his hands, to point at if anyone was ever curious—something he could keep when everything else was gone.
He also had a world map in his bedroom, hung on the wall over his desk. It was one of the modern ones they made today, easy to find and easy to buy, the kind that didn't display relief or roads but still pointed out the major cities. Every country appeared in a different color: pink and yellow, green and purple, orange. Seas and rivers in blue.
Part of him never ceased to be fascinated by it: the exact depiction of how much the world had changed. Empires had crumbled and countless countries had sprung up in their stead, in Central Asia, in Eastern Europe, in Africa, far in the Orient. Some lands had gone to pieces, some had changed their names. Some seemed to have appeared out of nowhere: Yemen, Bangladesh, Israel—the latter a name Steve remembered from the Bible, from the stories Bucky had told him, repeating what he'd learned at the yeshiva. The first time Steve had seen it on a map, he'd felt a jolt; still did sometimes, even now. To him it felt like someone had carved out a part of England and said, There, this is Albion now, this is Albion once more, this is Albion reborn, dragging the name and all it conveyed from legend and myth, from time immemorial when God had still roamed the Earth into base reality, into the here and now that was full of silence and absence.
Steve avoided thinking about God. Instead he used the map to focus on other things. He had a set of colored pins with which he marked all the places his missions had brought him to: cities, harbors, coasts, forests, deserts. Fury would've been furious if he'd known: it would be an unacceptable information leak, were anyone to break into the flat. But Steve cared little for what his boss thought, or for his web of lies, no matter how carefully crafted. He'd sit at his desk and look at those ever-multiplying dots, let himself be incredulous, let himself marvel: all the places where Steve Rogers had gone, the boy who'd spent most of his life convinced that he would never leave Brooklyn, wouldn't live to try.
Often he wondered what Bucky would've thought about it. He'd always been fascinated by elsewhere: other places, other times, other realities. He'd read everything he could get his hands on—fantastic stories, pulp magazines, real and fictional travel journals—seen all the movies, listened to all the songs. Half the time he'd turned his and Steve's wanderings through the neighborhood and beyond into quests, into adventures in which they were two knights searching for the Holy Grail, two scientists cutting their way through an unknown jungle, two astronauts discovering a new planet… What would he have made of this: the future, in which the entire world, maybe the entire universe, was within reach?
He might've been envious, Steve thought, for half a second, before he realized: who was he kidding? If Bucky had been alive, if he'd made it all the way here, he would've been so thrilled. He would've wanted to know everything, try everything. He would've been able to see the situation as a chance he'd been given—a lot more than Steve did, or ever would. Hell, he would've scolded Steve for his inability to adapt, to embrace the new world. And on missions he would've been right there beside Steve, ready to go and seize it all.
What wouldn't Steve have given, for things to be that way; for Bucky to have made it here too—or simply to have made it here instead of him.
But he hadn't, and Steve was trying. He really was. That had to count for something, didn't it?
Once, in Thailand, he ate a full insect skewer. It was mostly done on a dare: just to see the look on Rumlow's face when Steve not only took him up on it but went through with it there and then—which meant that now it was Rumlow's turn to try.
The man couldn't have known that the dice were loaded from the start—but at the same time, Steve felt like he should have. He'd lived through the thirties, through the war: he'd eaten things far worse than a bunch of oversized insects.
Hell, had he had some of those, he would've been very happy indeed.
Bucky wouldn't have agreed, he suspected. Hell, he would probably have been pissed at Steve for experimenting with the things he put in his mouth, for walking the line of edibility, just as he'd been pissed those times Steve had gotten food poisoning from lard turned bad, from cream that had sat too long, from a can whose content Steve had taken a chance on even though it had been rusted around the edges, because there had been nothing else to eat, because you don't throw food away.
"You do when it's become toxic," Bucky had said, and Steve had muttered, "Easy for you to say," and then regretted it at once, not only because of the look on Bucky's face, of the fact that he hadn't had an answer to that, but because it had revealed things that Steve never wanted Bucky to see: a pettiness, an envy of Bucky's life, his huge family, the stores in his kitchen—feelings that Steve knew were wrong, knew that he shouldn't feel. He really tried not to. Failing that, he at least strove not to let them show, especially not in front of Bucky. He didn't want Bucky to pity him, and he didn't want Bucky to feel bad: it wasn't his fault that they'd been born and lived in such different circumstances. And Bucky was such a nice guy. He was kind, generous: a genuinely good person. He shared liberally, he'd opened his door to Steve and invited him to his family's table without a second thought. He'd never given Steve the impression that the many differences between them—in abilities, health, social standing, or religion—mattered at all. He'd never made Steve feel less because of what and who he was.
The least Steve could do was return the favor.
"Verdict?" he asked, and Peggy replied, "It's getting there."
Steve bit back a sigh, rueful, faintly frustrated, but mostly amused. From the look in Peggy's eyes she was enjoying their little game even more than he did, so who was he to complain, if it made her happy?
"You should try it coffee flavored next time," she said.
"I thought you couldn't drink coffee."
"Why, yes. I've been told I shouldn't," she said. "And?"
"The food is a lot better," Steve told Sam Wilson when he met him one morning, jogging near the Washington Monument, "we used to boil everything."
The exhibition on Captain America was such a success that it was prolonged indefinitely. Not that they bothered to tell Steve about it: he found it out by himself when he went there.
He wondered what that meant for his Ma's cookbook. He wondered if there was anything he could do, if he should try to do it.
And then he came home to find Nick Fury in his apartment, injured, a clear message: there were other things, more important things, to worry about.
After the whole Project Insight fiasco, Steve went back to New York. It became the plan before he'd even been aware of it, his mind turning in that direction like a messenger bird the second it had been released, a reflex: return to home base. He didn't realize it though, not until Stark rang.
The man spent ten minutes yelling at him for not calling. It was all, "It would've taken you five fucking seconds, no explanation needed, so don't tell me there was no time," and, "And don't tell me it would've been too risky either, I know Romanov could've found a way to set up a secure line if she'd tried," and, "What is the point of the Avengers if we don't assemble in moments like this?" Steve hadn't known what to say, and in the end the only thing that had come out of his mouth had been, "I'm sorry." Because he was, and he didn't have any explanation. He would have had the time and the means to call if he'd wanted to. And even though the Avengers had been brought together by Fury, it hadn't occurred to him to wonder whether any of them could be Hydra—apart from Natasha, who'd been right there, and he'd dismissed the thought at once. No, the truth—even though Stark probably wouldn't have believed it—was that Steve hadn't even thought to pause and wonder if there was anyone he could call. Fury had told him not to trust anyone, had told him, You're on your own, and Steve had accepted it and planned in accordance, only reacting to who and what was in front of him, dealing with the latest emergency, the closest necessity.
And then there had been Bucky, and with that he had lost all ability to see past the here and now.
"I didn't think, I'm sorry," he repeated. He wouldn't have thought that it'd be enough but when Stark spoke again after a short silence, he sounded mollified.
"So," he said, "how long do I have to talk before you come to New York? 'Cause we need to regroup, fast—everyone's floundering, it'd be—"
"There's no need for a speech," Steve said, "I've already—" And that's when he realized that his decision had already been made; that if his bike hadn't been destroyed, he would've been ready to hop on it and just leave: there was nothing holding him here anymore. Well, nothing, except—
"Aunt Pegs? Oh, don't worry about her, I've got her covered," Stark said when Steve mentioned her. "There's no way I'm leaving her on her own with a bunch of fascist squids lurking around. She's being transferred to a private clinic funded by Stark Industries, she's totally on board too—asked for a better view and easy access to the gardens and a doctor that 'won't suck the last joys out of her life by not letting her eat anything good', which, I didn't know she had such a sweet tooth. You think you know people…"
Steve had grinned.
After that, moving had been ridiculously quick. He'd dropped by Sam's to tell him and the man had nodded. "You go ahead," he'd said. "I'll need a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, to sort out this place—" He'd gestured at the house around them. "—and my job, but after that I'll join you."
Steve had felt himself falter at that—because dropping everything to chase after Hydra, after Bucky, that was easy for him, that was obvious: he had nothing left, no one waiting for him. But Sam… Sam had a life here in D.C., a good one, one he'd painstakingly rebuilt from rubble—or he had, until Steve had barged in and thrown it all into disarray. Who was Steve to ask that of him? Worse, who was he to ask for more?
Some of his thoughts must have shown on his face, because Sam had shaken his head. "Don't say it, man," he'd said, voice full of warning. "It's like I said: I do the same thing he does, just slower. That's my decision."
Steve had almost insisted, but Sam had given him a forbidding look, and so he'd given in, sighed, nodded. Sam had smiled. "Now go pack your bags," he'd said, "I'll see you soon."
Steve had obeyed, only there hadn't been much for him to pack. His apartment was still a crime scene, and even if he hadn't had to break in, there wasn't much he was attached to there, nothing he wouldn't be happy to replace instead of wondering whether the agents that had bought it for him had been Hydra or not. In the end he only took a few items: some clothes, some records; his cookbooks, his map; his recipe notebook. It all fit in a single bag, which he slung over his shoulder before slipping out.
He hadn't told Natasha. She'd gone undercover, deep, and he had no way of contacting her. Yet he had no doubt that she'd find out about everything soon. Hell, she probably knew it all already. She'd turn up.
Once in New York, Steve moved into Stark—sorry, Avengers Tower. Temporarily: just until he found a flat to rent, although Stark didn't seem to have heard that and was full of long-term plans. But then, he'd probably drawn his own conclusions from what he knew of the real estate and its trends; knowledge which Steve had lacked, given that S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided him with the two flats he'd occupied. As a consequence, he'd remained unaware of housing prices—until now.
It'd take him a while to come to terms with the fact that nowadays the average rent on a flat in Red Hook was over 3000 bucks a month.
So maybe Stark was right: maybe Steve would stay here for a while, even though he could feel Brooklyn on the other side of the river, its murmur like a siren's call. The living quarters Stark had added to the Tower were nice enough, if of a curious making: it was duplex apartment, with a communal area and a series of suites. The former comprised a large open plan kitchen looking into a dining room, which in turn looked into a living-room, if its huge pair of corner couches and lavish entertainment center were anything to go by. The suites were private, each including a bedroom, private bathroom, and another room that could be converted into anything, or so Stark said: a home office, a craft room, a gym, a sex dungeon—although Steve pretended that he hadn't heard that last one. Two of them lay on the same level as the communal area while the other four were situated on the upper floor, accessible from the dining room through a spiral staircase. Its landing formed a small mezzanine before branching off into corridors. A reading corner had been set up there, with several armchairs and bookshelves, a coffee table and an amazing view on the river. It was no working place: the actual offices were on another floor entirely, Stark explained, along with the strategic center, the labs, the medical wing and the training rooms, all within easy reach thanks to the elevators, but still: separate.
The furniture was brand new, a bit impersonal, maybe, like what S.H.I.E.L.D. had bought for Steve's D.C. apartment. But it was definitely of higher quality, made of hardwood, of leather, of glass, without mentioning the electronics. Mostly, it looked unfinished, with plenty of room left for personal touches that could take the form of pictures hung on the walls, of books filling the shelves, of vases, of potted plants: a space just waiting for someone to come inhabit it. Walking through it, Steve could see Stark's thought process, the unexpected care with which he'd put this all together, wanting to do it right. He'd really meant for the team to live here. But it hadn't: Thor had left almost at once and hadn't returned, while Steve had been snatched away by SHIELD, sent off to D.C. like Natasha and Clint. Only Bruce had stuck around—and it had probably been for security reasons more than because he really wanted to.
Speaking of Bruce: he'd emerged from the corridor leading off to the private suites on the bottom floor when Steve had arrived, and was now following along on the tour Stark was giving. More than once, Steve glanced at him, before bringing his attention back to the rooms around them. All this space, he thought. It was a lot to occupy on one's own. Yet Bruce had, because Stark actually lived one floor further up, with Ms. Potts.
It must have been lonely.
"I guess we're roommates, now," Bruce said once the tour was over.
Steve smiled and said, "If you'll have me."
"Depends. Do you leave your dishes in the sink? Because I can get really angry about that."
Steve blinked, then felt his smile widen: Bruce had to have come a long way to make such jokes. "I'll try not to," he said.
He moved into the other suite on the bottom floor.
"Yeah, the selection is a bit scarce, sorry about that," Bruce said later with an apologetic smile when he found Steve looking into the nearly empty fridge. "I haven't really had the time to think about groceries these past few weeks. Tony keeps telling me to let J.A.R.V.I.S. keep track of what I buy so that he can order more whenever I run low, but—" He shrugged: he wasn't a fan of letting a machine do things in his stead either, it seemed.
Still, grocery shopping—whether actually going to the store or ordering online—tended to take a backseat when one found out that most of the world's governments had been infiltrated; and when all information about it had come in the form of a data dump so large that no one agreed yet on its actual size. From what Stark had told Steve, he and Bruce had started on it at once, had been working at it ever since, categorizing, defining an order of priority, deciphering, analyzing. But even with J.A.R.V.I.S. and Stark Industries' powerful servers on hand, it was slow-going, and extremely time consuming.
"Mostly we've been living off take-out," Bruce went on.
Steve wasn't too fond of that, though: it reminded him too much of desperate measures, of the few evenings in D.C. after a mission gone wrong, when he'd been left alone and exhausted and, yes, upset, so much so that cooking had felt beyond him, that showing his face in the grocery store had been unthinkable. Evenings when he hadn't even had the consolation of leftovers waiting in his freezer and had had to make do with whatever deli was still open and did deliveries and didn't ask questions no matter who you were and what state you were in when you opened the door. He didn't like to be reminded of these moments, these dark spots, saw no point in revisiting them. Instead he preferred to tell himself that he only acknowledged two possible scenarios when it came to meals: either one ate at home, in which case one made the food oneself; or one ate outside and—
And that's when he realized that, if he didn't feel like cooking lunch or dinner, he could abstain: there were plenty of places where he could go to eat instead, plenty of places he knew.
Stark was more than happy to lend him one of his bikes when he asked—although he told him to avoid throwing it at any plane, jet, helicopter, or U.F.O. Steve rolled his eyes, snatched the keys, and drove straight to Brooklyn, to an address he barely had to think about before he was rolling to a stop in front of it.
The small restaurant hadn't changed a bit in a year, neither its slightly dingy shopfront nor its cramped inner room. The waitress wasn't the same, though—yet when she seated him she put him at the exact same table as he would've gotten before he'd left. It had little to do with chance, and even less with the young woman having possibly heard of him or his habits and preferences. Rather, it was due to the table itself: how small it was, where it was situated, near the back, on the way to the kitchen and bathroom. It was bound to see a lot of traffic, to get all the noise and billows of warm, damp air from the kitchen. Therefore it made sense for it to be free for a single customer when all the other tables were taken by groups of three or more.
However, to say that the waitress didn't recognize Steve wasn't entirely right. She might not have heard of Steve from her employer, but she'd definitely placed him, if the slightly incredulous glance she threw at him as she quickly wiped the table and put a menu down on top of it was anything to go by. Steve gave her a quick, stiff smile and waited for her to pass him to sit down. Once she had, he drew his chair towards himself, only to freeze, because when she'd gone into the kitchen, a jumble of smells and voices had spilled through the door, rapid-fire Korean and spices and swears and oil and shouts and rice, an utter mess and yet it was so—
And then there was an exclamation, and steps, and the door was pushed open once more, and when Steve turned around to look there stood the cook, his coat dirty, a severe look on his face, putting a hand on his hip and saying, "You again?"
He would probably have spun right on his heels, as was his habit, if Steve hadn't said, "Me again." Or rather, tried to say. His voice came out a bit choked, a bit overwhelmed, because all this—the smells and the sounds and the stuffy warmth and the cramped corridor—this was familiar, this was known. This was so close to something he'd thought he'd never feel again.
The man blinked, briefly caught off-guard. Then he rolled his eyes, but still he stepped forward, arms coming up to pull Steve into a stiff hug, patting his back in a sharp staccato. Voice strangled, Steve said, "It's good to see you, Sung-ho." He squeezed his eyes shut, and returned the embrace.
"You're hungry," Sung-ho said peremptorily, reproachfully, once Steve had pulled himself together and sat down. "I'll make you something, Cora'll bring it to you."
"Where's Michelle?" Steve asked, discreetly blowing his nose with one of the paper napkins from the table dispenser.
"College," Sung-ho replied, face impassible, back straight with pride.
Steve smiled, "That's great," he said, "what's she studying?"
"Bio-engineering," Sung-ho said, and promptly returned to the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, the new waitress—Cora—brought a large bowl full of broth, noodles, heaps of meat and vegetables: a customized jeongol. Steve smiled: Sung-ho had remembered that he liked to start things off with a soup. Or something resembling soup, at any rate.
It was so carefully laid out too, almost pretty: slices of meat fanning out on one side, tofu on the other, interspersed with mushrooms, with sticks of vegetables and onions. He could feel the care Sung-ho had put in it, despite his show of dour impatience. And the smell… Steve almost didn't want to eat it, almost wanted to just keep looking at it and bask in the emotions that the sight of it, the simple fact of being back here in this well-known place, awoke in him. But Sung-ho would be incensed if Steve let his food grow cold, so he did the next best thing: he took his phone out of his jacket pocket and snapped a picture. That's what people did nowadays to try and immortalize a moment, wasn't it?
"You gonna Instagram it?"
He glanced up, and there was Cora, an awkward expression painting itself over her face, accompanied by a mortified blush. She immediately looked down.
"Uh, I'm sorry," she babbled, "I shouldn't've— I mean—"
"You know what?" Steve found himself saying before she could find new ways to apologize, "I think I will."
That's how Captain America got an Instagram account.
He asked Bruce where he could buy groceries near the Tower, in stores that weren't Grand Central Market, where prices were insane. He'd expected to be directed at a Trader Joe's or a similar food chain, but the man only had two words for him—farmers' market—plus a list of addresses and opening days and times that guaranteed he could get anything he wanted any day of the week.
As a consequence, when Sam finally arrived, Steve had everything he needed to welcome him with a nice meal.
It had taken Sam a little over three weeks to get everything in order—and, unlike Steve, he had no qualms about moving into the Tower.
"He the one with the wings?" Tony had asked when Steve had sounded him out to see how welcome Sam would be. When Steve had confirmed that Sam was indeed 'the one with the wings', he'd added, "We're in business. I mean, we will be in business, as soon as he gets here. When is he getting here?"
So that had been that. Sam had chosen one of the suites on the duplex's upper floor, and when Steve came up to tell him that dinner was ready, he was on the phone, saying, "You heard right, Man-freaking-hattan, and all for free—room and board are all included in the Avengers package apparently, just like the—wait for it—the flying permit. So don't you go saying it's a bad idea ag—" He paused, having clearly been interrupted by whoever was on the other end of the line. "Oh, yeah? Okay, then I raise you—you don't have all the data here, just gimme a sec'—Mom. Check out this view first, then you can talk," and as he spoke he held out his phone horizontally to take a picture through the window. He'd chosen the suite on the north-east corner of the building. From there you could see Harlem on the left, Queens to the right, and in the middle the East River with Randalls and Rikers Islands. Not for the first time, Steve realized how high the Tower was—and how close to the top of it Stark had put the duplex.
He knocked on the doorjamb to catch Sam's attention. Sam understood at once what this was about and nodded, mouthing 'five minutes' before going back to his conversation.
"Should I mention that I'm about to eat dinner prepared by Captain America?" Steve heard as he left the suite. "Yeah, you heard that right, Captain freaking— Oh, that doesn't change anything? Well, then—"
Mrs. Wilson wasn't the only one to hear of Steve's move back to New York. The media soon took notice too—although that didn't manifest in a way that Steve had expected.
Is Captain America a foodie? a tabloid wondered. The article bore no mention of Project Insight, or of the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., did not even speculate on his reasons—strategic or otherwise—for returning to his home city. Under the title stood a paparazzi picture showing Steve leaving the farmers' market at Union Square, laden with bags. It was accompanied by a selection from his Instagram.
To each their own, Steve guessed. So the gutter press was obsessing over Captain America's eating habits. So what? It wasn't that different from what he himself kept worrying about, when it came down to it—even though the person concerned wasn't the same.
Is he eating well? he kept wondering. Is he safe?
Where is he?
A few months in, and the search for Bucky remained entirely unsuccessful. There had been no sightings. The few leads that they'd drawn from the file Natasha had put together hadn't yielded anything substantial. And when it came to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s data dump, Steve didn't know where to start. He could've asked for Stark and Bruce's help, but he was reluctant to do so: they were already so busy. There were more important and pressing matters than looking for a single, wayward, possibly unstable soldier.
"Maybe you don't have to worry," Sam said. "We got nothing on his whereabouts, sure, but neither does anyone else. Which means he's laying low, he's not slaughtering civilians left and right. He hasn't been arrested. And we would have seen something go through Hydra's channels if they'd caught him." His voice softened even more as he added, "Sometimes no news is good news."
Steve silently looked at him. And as he did, he remembered his Ma, remembered the letters she'd sent from the sanatorium which had all carefully skirted the topic of her health. Instead they'd focused on all the other things she'd been doing, the books she'd read, her walks around the gardens, her conversations with the personnel and other patients, all underlain by the affirmation that she was fine, just fine. Only she hadn't been, and as time had gone by, as her health had kept declining, all the things she'd refused to say had multiplied. They'd started to take over, first the space between her lines, then the space underneath, then the rest. Her letters had become shorter and shorter, the blindingly blank space filled by her illness—never mentioned, always present—had grown larger and larger…until there had been no room left. Not for her, not for anything aside from a devastating absence.
He remembered Winifred's cousin, whom he'd never met, whom no one in Bucky's family had ever met—but when Bucky's Bubbe had died, Winifred had sent a letter to their relatives on the old continent, because Bucky's Bubbe had been the only one with enough spunk to actually cross over. They'd received an answer, and sent one back, a bond appearing and tightening like it often happened in times of mourning. The correspondence hadn't been much, most of it made up of the expected letters sent on the various celebrations of the year, to announce a marriage or the birth of a baby. Still, some letters had come just for the sake of it, carrying mundane news—until the thirties had come, and with them bad news which had become worse news, to the point that Winifred had offered for her cousin and her family to come to the United States. The Barneses' home would always be open to them, she'd written. Yet her worry then had been nothing compared to what she—what everyone—had felt when the news had stopped coming altogether. And then, one day… Steve remembered the expression on Bucky's face when he'd come by, distraught, terrified, the tremble in his voice when he'd said that they had received something in the end: one of his Mame's letters, unopened, returned to sender with the mention, 'Addressee unknown'.
He remembered the war, how Bucky had walked to the recruitment center the second it had been declared, how he'd been selected and gone in the blink of an eye, how inconsistent the rhythm of their correspondence had been. For weeks on end there'd be no news or letters, and then he'd suddenly get three in a day, dated months apart. Sometimes they were addressed to his family, sometimes to Steve, but they always contained something for everyone, time and space all jumbled—until they too had stopped, seemingly for good. It was only later, much later, after the serum, after the factory, that Steve had found out about Azzano and realized how close they'd all come to receiving that last, terrible telegram—which, in the end, the Barneses had gotten anyway. Hadn't they?
Steve remembered all this, and said, "Not in my experience."
Therefore he was secretly relieved, almost delighted, when Natasha came back. He'd had no idea that she was planning to do so so soon. He was throwing together some batter one morning when he heard, "Are you making pancakes?"
He glanced over his shoulder and there she was, in what definitely looked like sleeping clothes, a tank top and loose cotton pants, like she'd moved in hours, maybe days ago, and only now let her presence known.
"Blueberry," Steve said, almost blurted, and when that smirk of hers appeared—her sudden appearance had obviously had the desired effect—he turned away and busied himself by doubling the proportions of ingredients.
Or rather, tripling them.
"I heard there was breakfast," Clint said the following morning, popping up like he'd been summoned.
Looked like tripling the proportions had been the right thing to do.
Steve experienced the strangest of sensations that morning, when he brought the last huge pan to the table, the scrambled eggs in it still sizzling, and sat down. Bruce started dealing the eggs out and interested parties held out their plates for their share, albeit distractedly: after being introduced Clint and Sam had dived right into a conversation about aerial battles, while Natasha was scrolling on her phone. But they were all there, around the table which for the first time felt almost crowded, sharing a meal—a meal that Steve had prepared.
He didn't know why it made him pause, why it made his insides churn. All he knew was this: halfway through breakfast the elevator dinged open and out stepped Stark. He was probably looking for Bruce, and clearly hadn't expected to stumble upon an entire party: he stopped walking, stopped talking right in the middle of a sentence, and stared. His mouth clicked shut. His lips looked almost wobbly for a second, before he swallowed. Then he blinked, met Steve's gaze—and that's when Steve recognized the expression on his face.
It looked exactly like Steve was feeling.
With a nearly full roster of Avengers the chase after Hydra finally started to take shape. From a project, it turned into a long-term operation. They hit several bases and facilities, the few that were close by or that Stark and Bruce's analyses had already uncovered. The majority of the network was still buried, though, hidden underground and underneath the huge mass of information Natasha had released.
And so for now what the Avengers needed the most, before they could do anything, was intel: to take stock of what they had, sort through it, analyze it, find out what was missing but still necessary. It was grunt work, complicated, slow going, days and sometimes weeks spent going through file after file, hoping that their content would add up, would come together to form a coherent picture—but running the risk that it wouldn't. Steve was willing to do the work, but he quickly came to realize that, in this area, he wasn't the team's strongest asset. What he excelled at was strategy: planning an operation in the field, from entry to extraction, taking what information they had into account, adapting their tactics to the conditions on the ground, to any new intel that emerged. But when it came to finding that intel… That was more Natasha's area, and Clint's: they knew how the spy game worked, had contacts all over the world, knew how to investigate. Steve had offered to accompany them, more than once, but Natasha had soon taken him aside and laid down the truth: she and Clint worked better as a two people unit. They'd worked together for years, they knew each other, their respective habits, strengths and weaknesses, their preferences. Besides, a small cell was better for tracking down information: a greater number would attract too much attention. Especially if said number included Steve, she hadn't said, but Steve had heard it all the same. He couldn't contradict her: he knew that he wasn't inconspicuous, and they didn't have the time to turn him into an intelligence officer—especially given that Nick Fury had tried to do so for over a year and failed.
He could've helped unpack all the intel they had at their disposal, but in that area too he was bested. Stark and Bruce had been doing the work of decrypting, setting up search algorithms, working out patterns; and no matter how much Steve had caught up on technology, he wasn't on the same level as they were—and especially not Stark's, who worked with J.A.R.V.I.S. and knew better than anyone else what his A.I. was capable of.
He did what he could. He focused on already deciphered files. He read the reports J.A.R.V.I.S. compiled every six to twelve hours. He kept up to date with what Natasha and Clint were doing. He helped figure out what they needed to look for next and where it might be, whether they had enough information on a target to strike, whether said target warranted their intervention or would be best left to the local authorities. He talked with Hill, whom Stark had hired as the Avengers' spokesperson and whose job mostly consisted of taking calls from panicked or incensed officials, rejecting requests for interviews from the press, and keeping a steady channel of information open between them and Colonel Rhodes, who then decided what to share with his own superiors. Steve also planned training simulations and exercises for the team so that they stayed sharp, learned to better work together. He trained with Sam especially, helping him get back into shape for the augmented Falcon suit that Stark was making for him, bringing him into the fold.
He tried to find Bucky, without success.
Despite all that, he didn't feel like he was doing enough. Or rather, he still felt like too much of his time was spent at the Tower just…waiting. For results, for others to do the job he wasn't able to do properly.
It wasn't a rational way of thinking, he knew that. That didn't make it any easier to keep such thoughts at bay whenever they cropped up.
He looked for other ways to keep his mind busy, to make himself useful. Fortunately the kitchen in their duplex was close-by and extremely well-equipped—and there was always someone in need of a good meal. If he couldn't do the things the others did, at least he could ensure that they were in the best condition possible. It helped him keep track of them all too: of who was at the Tower and who wasn't, who would need something to go, who would come back hungry from a mission. That wasn't all, though: the act of cooking was beneficial to him too. By keeping his mind focused on something, it quietened it, and in that quiet he could work through the steady stream of information coming his way. More than once, Steve'd be gathering the ingredients for a dish, putting in the layers for lasagna or for au gratin style potatoes, going through the steps of a recipe, the spices to add, only to realize that parallel to it an entirely different train of thought was running: data organizing itself, patterns emerging, elements finding their logic and resolving themselves into a whole the same way a heap of ingredients combined themselves into a casserole, a stew, a layered cake.
It was also, incidentally, a great way to get to know the members of the team better. Sam had a weakness for South-American cuisine, dishes that were hearty, filling, with rice and potatoes and beans, ground meat and spices for taste: meals that stuck to his insides, for which he'd developed a taste while training with the EXO-7, because it burned energy like crazy. Clint would eat pretty much anything with gusto, although he seemed to favor Italian: he'd loved Steve's tiramisu, and the time Steve had tried his hand at homemade pizza definitely left a long-lasting impression. Bruce, surprisingly, enjoyed spicy food the most, although he claimed that even the hottest of dishes had never brought The Other Guy to the surface. As for Natasha, she had a disgustingly sweet tooth. The team still hadn't recovered from the sour cherry soup she'd asked for that one time, which she'd seemed to delight in as much as in their collective reaction.
Stark was the most difficult one to figure out. He didn't seem to care about food, or even to realize that it was something he needed at all. He'd go without a proper meal for days, like he went without sleep, but instead of exhausting him it only seemed to wind him up more. To have J.A.R.V.I.S. tell him that lunch or dinner was ready was useless: you'd wait forever for him to emerge from his lab. To bring a plate to him while he worked was equally vain: you'd find it where you'd left it hours later, untouched and cold. Sometimes, without following any distinguishable pattern, he'd look up from his latest experiment or project and find himself famished. That was when he'd tell J.A.R.V.I.S. to order something. Then he'd gorge himself, only to get distracted halfway through and leave what he hadn't eaten just lying there until one of his robots swept it away. The best Steve could do, he came to realize, was to ensure that there was always several full plates or a couple Tupperware boxes waiting for him on a shelf in the fridge—especially once he got J.A.R.V.I.S. in on it and the A.I. started pointing Stark in that direction instead of placing yet another order for Thai. Stark didn't seem to mind: to him it simply meant that he didn't have to wait ten minutes or more for his food to arrive. Hell, he could even have one of his robots or suits bring it directly to him in his lab.
After that discovery, it became easier to keep track of how much and how well he was eating. Steve refused to deem himself satisfied, though.
The only reason why Stark didn't actually collapse in between bouts of gluttony was because he grazed. His lab was full of snacks: energy bars, protein shakes, packs of trail mix and dried fruit. It was quick fuel more than food, but it kept him going. Most of all, it didn't require any cutlery, didn't even require both hands: he could eat it without interrupting his work, without even looking up from it. Put that kind of food within easy reach, in the right spot for him to register its presence, and he would inevitably end up picking at it at some point or other. Once Steve realized that—with Bruce's input—all that was left was figure out what would work best: what he could make that'd be more nutritious, more filling, more balanced than nuts and raisin, while not being flaky or greasy, while not spraying Stark's table with crumbs when he worked on electronics, while not dripping sauce all over his screens. It wasn't easy.
Steve wasn't one to back down from a challenge, though.
He didn't think Tony noticed. Sure, he ate Steve's food, but he did so absently, always thinking of the next experiment, the next project. He didn't seem to stop and savor the taste, nor even pause and wonder where the whole dish had come from.
And so while they made progress, Steve's greatest personal victory happened during a briefing. He joined the team carrying a plate which he put down on the table over a paper towel, because while he knew that the screens making up the table surface would shift their display around to accommodate the presence of an object, he also knew that they weren't too fond of grease marks. Clint visibly perked up at the sight of food, but Tony and Bruce didn't appear to notice. They were deep in conversation, voices low, trying to determine how to present the results of their latest bunch of data analysis. In the end Bruce stood up to do it, while Tony leaned back in his chair, ready to butt in—and butt in he did, as he was wont to. He would lean forward, fingers flying over the console, to supplement Bruce's words with a chart, a map, the picture of a suspect, all accompanied by a rambling commentary. Once, as he did so, his hand bumped against the plate Steve had brought. He gave it a distracted glance, but as he continued speaking he just as distractedly picked up one of the pastries. He brought it to his mouth, bit into it halfway through a sentence, ready to keep on talking, except that—
He abruptly went silent.
That, more than anything, caught everyone's attention and made them glance over.
Tony was looking down at the pastry in his hand, chowing slowly. "Uh," he said. "This is— What's this? This is good. This is—"
"It's samosa," Steve said, carefully keeping his face and voice neutral.
Tony scowled, miffed. "I know it's— I mean, who—where did you get them? And how come I didn't know about that place? Do they need an investor? Would they be willing to move, like here? Because—"
"I made them," Steve said.
That was a rare sight: Tony Stark rendered entirely speechless.
He stared at Steve. Looked down at the samosa in his hand. Took another bite, chewed it slowly, swallowed. Stared at it some more.
"Uh. That's—" He stopped. Then: "Aren't you full of surprises, Cap," he finally said, going for flippant but actually sounding a bit feeble.
Bruce, merciful soul that he was, cleared his throat to bring them back to the matter at hand, and segued into his next point. The Avengers, Steve included, turned back to him willingly enough. Tony ostensibly did the same. Yet a couple minutes later, he slowly reached out without looking and snatched a corner of the paper napkin between his thumb and forefinger to tug the plate of samosas into easier reach.
He probably thought he was being discreet.
Steve quickly looked down at his file and bit his lips to hold back a smile.
A few days later, Steve found a present waiting for him in the kitchen: an apron. It was so ugly, so gaudy, there was no doubt who it was from.
He wore it anyways.
Things weren't always that easy, though.
"Hey," Steve said, and Natasha looked up from her tablet—on which she'd probably been working, despite Dr. Cho's orders. She put it down willingly enough, though, quirking a smile that widened when she caught sight of the tray in Steve's hands.
"Hey yourself," she said and made to sit up.
"No, don't—" Steve started, hastily putting the tray down on her bedside table—but she'd already stopped, wincing, and fallen back against the mattress and pillow. "You okay?"
"Define okay," she muttered, then caught Steve's worried gaze and rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Rogers. Now help me with this." She gestured at the commands, which Steve activated to raise the bed until she was half-sitting. Then he wheeled over the small overbed table that had been tucked against the wall and transferred the tray onto it.
Natasha stared at the bowl for nearly a minute. "That's shchi," she finally said, as if Steve didn't know.
He brought a chair closer and sat down. "I thought you might like it." He realized that he was twisting his hands, made himself stop. "What did Dr. Cho say?"
"That I'll live," Natasha replied, picking up the spoon and dipping it into the soup. "Stop making that face—you look even worse than Clint."
Except that it made perfect sense for him to do so, because at least Clint had been there. Sure, he hadn't been able to prevent her from getting hurt; but he'd covered her, and carried her to safety, and dressed her wound the best he could, and brought her home. And where had Steve been? Right here, twiddling his thumbs or close enough, when he should have been out there with them, helping, fighting.
What kind of captain was he, if he couldn't keep his own team safe? Even worse: try as he might, he couldn't seem to manage to force an apology past his lips—when it was the very least he could do.
"This isn't half bad, for a first try," Natasha said, swallowing another spoonful. Then, without looking at him, she added: "Stop stressing about it, Rogers. You're doing alright." She looked into her bowl. Her mouth quirked into a little smile. "You're doing plenty."
He still went out to eat at his favorite restaurants, whenever he had the time, whenever the rest of the team was busy or away, whenever they came back from a mission. Most of those never made it to the papers, so it wasn't a way to reassure the cooks and owners and waiters who had gotten used to seeing him again. Mostly, it was a way to reassure himself: see that they were doing okay, that the world was still going round. It was grounding. It was restful.
And then one time, he was at the Ethiopian place, and Hilina was acting strange: glad to see him, a little bit more than usual even, but nervous too. His glass of water rattled faintly on the table when she put it down. He frowned, opened his mouth to ask if everything was okay, but she beat him to it by saying, her voice almost a whisper, "After you're done eating and leave, can you come back in through the back?"
A stab of tension zinged across his shoulders and coiled around his nape. He nodded, and immediately she straightened, smiling, doing an excellent job of looking like nothing was wrong. "I'll be right back with your order," she said brightly, and walked away.
By the time she brought out his food, Steve had lost all appetite. He watched her face, searching for a clue, but she only gave him a brief—maybe even reassuring—smile, and told him to eat.
He ate. He even tried to look like he was enjoying it, like nothing was wrong, but Natasha was right: he was a terrible liar, and an even worse undercover agent, especially with all those feelings churning right under the surface, concern and fear and anger. But he tried. He finished his plate, his glass of water. Stood up, walked to the counter. Paid for his meal. Bid his goodbyes. Left.
Eight minutes later, he was knocking on the service entrance door. He would've come quicker, but he'd had to make sure that he wasn't being watched or followed—and even then, he was sure that he'd done a piss-poor job of it. Clint would've laughed, probably, and Natasha would've stared at him with nothing but scorn.
The door opened almost at once and Samson—the newest recruit in the kitchen, one of Hilina's nephews—ushered him in. Steve barely waited until he was inside before asking, "What is it, what's wrong?"
Nothing, they reassured him at once, nothing was wrong, they were alright, all of them. Still, there was this:
A little over a week ago, a man had come in. Unkempt and worn, unshaved, with long, greasy hair under a dirty cap, wearing too many layers, gloves on both hands, and a look in his eyes… "One of those veteran types," Hilina said. He'd had money to pay, though, so they wouldn't have thought anything of it, but.
He hadn't said a word. When it had come to ordering he'd taken out a surprisingly nice phone—"The stolen kind of nice," Samson muttered and Hilina's husband, Dawit, swatted him on the arm—to show them a picture: a post from Steve's Instagram, displaying their special, an injera laid out on a large plate and covered in small portions of red lentils, steamed greens, mashed peas with spices, sautéed mushrooms, and so on. When it had been brought to him, he hadn't touched it, had just glared at it for the longest time. Then his eyes had darted around, checking the room, the other customers, the way they were eating the whole thing—"I mean, it's not rocket science, right?" Samson mumbled, earning himself another swat. Yet his observations had seemed to have been in vain: when he'd finally picked up the small roll of injera they'd provided as a complement, he hadn't unrolled it, nor even bit into it. Instead he'd used it to poke at the tiny piles of food, spreading them out like he was checking for anything hidden inside, turning the entire thing into an unholy mess. It had been painful to watch, but also weirdly funny—"In a clueless white guy kinda way," Samson said, and danced out of Dawit's reach with a cackle. Or it had been, until it hadn't. Once he'd reduced his plate to an unnamed mash, the man had glared at it some more, then at the limp, smeared piece of rolled up bread in his hand. Finally, he'd brought it to his lips. He'd sniffed at it, looking extremely suspicious, then darted his tongue out for the smallest of licks.
The reaction had been instantaneous. The second the sample had passed his lips, his entire face had convulsed. He'd paled. His eyes had widened. He'd tensed, the roll slipping through his fingers.
Then he'd scrambled to his feet, so noisily that it had made everyone in the room startle, and bolted right out the door.
Similar scenes took place over the next few months, not only in places where Steve had become a regular, but also at a couple that he'd only visited the once. They all had one thing in common: the fact that he'd taken a picture of his meal and posted it on Instagram.
The pattern was clear enough that he considered calling all the places he'd mentioned on that platform to warn them, to ask them if they wanted him to take the picture down to avoid a visit, or if they could call him were Bucky to show up—because it was Bucky, of that he was sure. Even with his most distinguishing feature, his metal arm, hidden under an abundance of layers, Steve had gotten enough description to dispel any doubt: long dark hair, stubble that was growing out of control, strong nose, the saddest blue eyes ever—or so Cora said. Sung-ho, for his part, had been fuming, although it wasn't quite clear whether it was over the disruption Bucky had caused, which couldn't be good for business, or over the fact that he hadn't appreciated the food and even knocked over his full bowl of tang in his haste.
Steve wasn't sure how to proceed—he didn't want to confront Bucky prematurely, spook him, have him vanish—so he asked Sam.
Sam started laughing, of all things. "He's Facebook-stalking you?"
"It's not—" Steve sputtered. "I'm not on Facebook."
"Well, they kinda, you know, own Instagram now, so technically…" He sniggered again, shaking his head. "Oh man, this is priceless. I mean, we've been chasing the guy for months and come up with nothing, so here I was, thinking we have to up our game, go full James Bond—you know, secret agents wearing tuxes, infiltrating galas and jumping through windows. Car chases! Explosions! Spying shenanigans all over Europe! But no, oh no. Turns out dude's right here and just— just letting you take him on a gastronomic tour of Brooklyn." With that, he was off again.
"This isn't funny, Sam," Steve said, although he knew that at least half of Sam's reaction was due to fraying nerves.
He couldn't take it that lightly, though. Sure, part of him was glad, relieved: finally they had something, sightings even, solid ones, not some dubious witness account, some shaky lead from downtown Hong Kong or Arkhangelsk that'd have crumbled by the time they made it there. No, they came from people he knew and trusted, from right here in New York—in Brooklyn. Plus, that didn't just mean that Bucky was close-by. It also meant that he was okay, well enough to have acquired clothes, to have gotten a phone, to know how to use it and access the internet; to make decisions for himself. It assuaged Steve's worry—while increasing it at the same time. Because no matter what places Bucky had gone to, what dish he'd ordered, all the scenes had ended the same way: without any food actually making it past his lips beyond the first mouthful. It made Steve wonder: why? Was it the taste? The consistency? Was it the fact that he didn't know who had prepared it or how, what they'd put in it—was it that he couldn't be sure that it wasn't poisoned? Or was it worse than that, was it that it was solid food, diverse food? Steve had read the file Natasha had put together, plus all the documents they'd unearthed since, sorting through S.H.I.E.L.D.'s and Hydra's intel. He knew about the periods of starvation, for testing, for punishment, for so-called treatment, sometimes just for the sake of it, it seemed. He knew about the intravenous and tube feedings, remembered the lists of components, chemicals and vitamins and biomolecules: Hydra making sure that their asset had all the nutrients it needed to function optimally for the duration of the mission—but not for any longer. It had been smart, in that terrible, cruel way Hydra knew how to be. They'd made Bucky forget about the very act of eating, about what actual food, normal food, was like, and in doing so they'd created yet another leash for him, another guarantee that he'd return to them eventually, or be more easily retrieved if he didn't.
They hadn't caught him yet. Right now they definitely had other things on their minds, for which Steve was ferociously glad—let them scramble, let them cower, it wouldn't save them, it wouldn't change a thing. Besides, the scenes at the restaurants, upsetting as they were, at least proved that Bucky was remembering food, remembering eating—or that he was learning, watching people, imitating them. He was overcoming his conditioning, or trying to. But if he couldn't get or keep anything down—if what had happened at Hilina's or Sung-ho's or Jana's also happened every time he tried to eat something, how much longer did he have? Plus, if such incidents kept happening, it would only be a matter of time until they caught the wrong person's attention—Hydra's, who might just risk an attempt to bring their asset in, or simply the police's, the authorities'. There was no way to know how that would go. Bucky didn't seem violent, but he might resist capture, and the ones trying to catch him might not care about collateral damage, be it material or human.
That was the worst part of it all: all the surrounding people—innocent people, good people—who were now at risk. Not because of Bucky, or because of Hydra, but because of Steve's utter stupidity. His Instagram account had been verified within a week of its creation, the time it had taken for Tony to find out about its existence and start following it, all the while complaining about Steve going behind his back and not letting him contribute to the choosing of a handle, when he'd had had so many—allegedly—hilarious ideas. Before Steve had known it, he'd had hundreds of thousands of followers, and then the press had gotten involved, which had meant even more followers…and he hadn't stopped for a second to think about consequences. At best he'd asked, after taking the picture of a dish, if the restaurants' owners were okay with it. Most of them hadn't minded. Some had even welcomed the free publicity. But it also made them stand out. The fact that Bucky of all people had paid some of them a visit proved that they were easy to find. And not everyone might show up with intentions as innocent as trying a dish that looked good on a picture.
In short, Steve had painted a giant target on every single one of those shops, had put their owners and their employees and their customers in danger.
He couldn't have that.
Before he and Sam could come up with an actual strategy, though, the decision was taken right out of their hands: they were just coming out of a training session when Steve got a call from one of his favorite restaurants, to whom he'd given his number just in case, along with a description. A man corresponding to it had come in, ordered a dish using an Instagram post—and collapsed before it was ready. It looked like some sort of seizure, the manager—José—said, but a very intense one, violent, making the guy lash out so bad that no one could come close, not even the nurse who'd happened to be there on her lunch break. They'd called 911 and the ambulance was on its way, but—
But Steve couldn't let them get there first and take Bucky away. "I'll be right there," he said.
He was terrified, and at the same time he couldn't believe his luck: he and Sam had been testing the newest upgrade Tony had done on the jetpack. They were still—already—half in uniform, Steve's shield right beside him on the bench, Sam's wings within reach: he only needed to strap them back on and he could be on site faster than anyone else, playing the part of intermediary until Steve himself got there.
They parted at the elevator banks, Sam moving up towards the Tower's landing pad, Steve going down to the garage, shrugging on his uniform jacket and putting in a quick call to Dr. Cho. Once on his bike, he must have committed about fifteen traffic offenses, but he didn't care: all that mattered was that when he arrived, the ambulance was still there. Sam was standing just outside the restaurant, calmly talking with José and one of the EMTs. The rest of the emergency team was inside, crouched around Bucky who, it turned out, had lost consciousness. No one seemed surprised to see Steve arrive, nor did they protest when he told them that the Avengers' medical team would arrive soon to take over. If anything, they were relieved: they'd taken off Bucky's gloves, probably to check his pulse, and discovered the metal arm. With all the noise that had surrounded Project Insight and the following events, they'd known at once who they were dealing with, and with it that they were in over their heads.
The presence of two Avengers was also enough to ensure no one called the police just yet, and soon enough Dr. Cho's team was here, loading Bucky into their vehicle unencumbered. He still hadn't regained consciousness—which, Steve was loathe to admit, might not be a bad thing: it was worrying, sure, but it also spared them a confrontation that might get out of hand.
He climbed into the ambulance, in case Bucky woke, but mostly because he felt physically unable to let him out of his sight. He barely heard Sam asking for the keys to the bike, threw them at him with nary a glance, and spent the entirety of the ride back to the Tower sitting right beside the cot on which Bucky lay. He couldn't help but stare. Bucky looked exactly like everyone had described him: wearing too many worn layers of clothes, his hair long and dirty, his face unshaven. Underneath the stubble Steve could see what he'd dreaded: his features were drawn, almost emaciated, his cheeks hollow, his eyes sunken in their orbits.
All this time spent searching, Steve thought, and now here Bucky was, just like that. He couldn't quite believe it. The whole incident had lasted less than thirty minutes. It had been so easy, in the end—too easy. To the point Steve couldn't quite trust it.
He was right not to.
The incident hadn't taken long, but it had been public enough, especially once Captain America and the Falcon—who was starting to get a name for himself through the information Hill had been carefully doling out—had shown up. Steve had noticed the small crowd loitering nearby, but he hadn't had the time to care about them and hadn't stopped for a second to think that at least one of them might be recording the events on their phone. But recorded they had, and within hours the whole thing was all over the internet: the D.C. assailant, the Winter Soldier, Hydra's chief assassin, had been found and captured.
Demands for a trial, for imprisonment, for execution, were quick to follow. As were a myriad of phone calls from various officials, from the military, from the press, which Hill fielded as best she could. She wasn't pleased: Steve had failed to tell her—and the rest of the team—how close Bucky was. While she conceded that he couldn't have predicted that things would go down the way they had, a little bit of warning would've been nice.
Steve knew her complaints were justified, and that he'd need to apologize. For now, however, he was entirely too preoccupied by the mess this was turning into, the way people were reacting. They were calling for blood, for the death sentence, for—
"This is a good thing," Natasha told him when she found him sitting in the medical wing, scrolling through media feeds as he waited for Dr. Cho to finish her examination of Bucky—who still hadn't regained consciousness. "If it had to happen, it's good that it happened this way."
"How so?" Steve asked, because he really couldn't see.
"Because the public knows," Natasha explained. "Which means that they—the government, the FBI, anyone—they can't just disappear him, dump him in a hole somewhere and hope people forget about him. It's too late for that: there needs to be a public resolution. Which means a trial. Which means an investigation—a long one, given the complexity of the case and its ties to all the other ongoing investigations related to Hydra. Which means that we have time to turn public opinion in our favor. Which means that we can win."
Her lips quirked into that familiar smirk. "We will."
She said it so quietly, so confidently—not even bothering to sound smug—that for a second Steve believed her. What happened next certainly seemed to give her reason: an announcement was made, signaling that an investigation had been opened and entrusted to the FBI. The Avengers found out about it before the general public, too, given that the first thing the agency did upon receiving its orders was contact them and ask for their cooperation on all levels: not only by bringing the Winter Soldier in to them, but also helping to procure all available evidence related to the crimes of which he was a suspect. Steve staunchly opposed the former—if they wanted Bucky, they'd have to go through him first—but was more receptive to the latter. If it was evidence they wanted, then they'd get it. They'd get all of it: everything Steve had found and could find and would keep finding about the ways Hydra had mistreated Bucky, about the ways the governments and agencies of the world had contributed to it through their complacency, their callousness, their sheer incompetence. No jury would convict Bucky if they knew what had been done to him; but more than one organization or official would have to answer to what they'd allowed to happen.
In the end they reached a tenuous agreement, with no little help from the army of lawyers that Tony had at hand. The Avengers would cooperate with the FBI when it came to gathering and analyzing all evidence pertaining to the Winter Soldier case, granting the agency access to the documentation and items they'd recovered and would keep recovering in the course their operation against Hydra. They would make the Winter Soldier available for questioning, although those interviews would be monitored and only happen on the condition that the Soldier and his doctors agreed to them. He would not be taken in by the agency: he would be placed under the custody of Captain America, and would stay at Avengers Tower, which he wasn't allowed to leave unaccompanied.
Obtaining those concessions had been easier than Steve had expected. Tony's lawyers had quickly strong-armed the agency into a surprising show of humility, making them admit that in its current state—with several key positions vacant, given that their holders had been unmasked as Hydra, and an internal investigation underway to root out all other infiltrators—it couldn't offer the same safety guarantees when it came to the Soldier as Captain America, and by extension the Avengers. On top of that, and more pragmatically, Avengers Tower was probably the only place with the means to hold the Winter Soldier—given that it was equipped to keep in the Hulk. That, and Captain America was quite possibly the only person the Winter Soldier would accept as a jailor—although Steve resented the term—and cooperate with.
That much had become clear when Bucky had finally woken up—not that Stark's lawyers had mentioned any of what had happened. It hadn't gone well. The entire medical wing had had to be evacuated at once, no one able to do anything until Steve had immobilized him. He'd felt terrible about it. Bucky had struggled like a wild animal, wounded, mad with terror and confusion—until suddenly he'd frozen. His eyes had landed on Steve's face. And he'd said—his voice had been so small, so quiet, he'd said, "Steve?" Steve had nodded at once, heart in his throat, had replied, "Yeah, yeah, it's me. You know me, you—" He'd stumbled over the next word, because suddenly Bucky had released all the tension in his body, turned to deadweight in Steve's hold, and he was heavy, heavier than he used to be, despite Dr. Cho's diagnosis that he was indeed seriously undernourished. "I— I do," Bucky had said, closing his eyes on a sigh—then opening them again at once, like he was afraid that Steve would vanish. "I know you," he'd said, more firmly. "You're Steve. I know you." And Steve had repeated, "You know me," and they'd kept at it, this soothing back and forth, for almost an hour before Bucky had calmed down enough, felt stable enough, to try and let Dr. Cho come back in and check him over, provided Steve stayed right there, with Bucky's hand bunched into his shirt, feeling his heartbeat, keeping him close.
He seemed to understand that they were trying to help, and to accept the presence of the rest of the team—or at least some of them. Sam, Bruce and Clint were okay, but Bucky had reacted badly upon seeing Natasha. She hadn't seemed surprised. As for Tony…
"I'm sorry, what?" he said when Steve came to him. "You're joking, right?"
"I'm not," Steve said.
"Because I'm pretty sure you've just told me you're looking for a new place for you and your buddy, when we've just spent a week hashing out an agreement stating that he'd be staying right here. At, you know, Avengers Tower?"
"It might be for the best," Steve said, "I—"
"Okay, who told you that?" Tony interrupted. "Was it Agent Failed Agent?" He hadn't been very impressed with the leader of the investigation. "The CIA? The government? Because whatever they said, it's bullshit, and if they did say it, then I'll not-kindly tell them to go take another look at their Who's Who: Hydra Edition, because this is 100% Hydra's M.O.—trying to keep us apart, dragging us away from each other. You do realize that that's what they did after the Chitauri, when they sent you and Romanov all the way down to D.C., right? No, this time, we're sticking together."
And so there was no way around it: Steve had to go the direct route. He'd already waited too long; he couldn't afford it any more—not with Bucky so close, so vulnerable, so in need of stability.
"The data dump," he said. He cleared his throat. "Have you seen anything about Howard in it? Have you— Have you looked for anything?"
Tony blinked, his face turning confused before closing itself off, like it always did whenever Howard was mentioned. "What's that got to do with anything?" he asked.
"I think you should. Look, I mean. Then—then you let me know."
For a second, Tony just stared at him, frowning. And then, a flash, darting through his eyes: a sudden suspicion, a dawning, terrible realization.
"J.A.R.V.I.S.," he snapped, and turned around in his chair to focus on the closest screen, hands flying over the keyboard.
He didn't even look up when Steve left.
Steve was back in the medical wing that evening, reading yet another report, when his phone buzzed. On the bed beside him, Bucky was asleep. He hadn't explicitly asked for Steve to be here in case he woke up, just as he hadn't actually said that he hated being here—hated the beeping of the machines, the smell of antiseptics, the clinical spareness of the room—but Steve knew all the same. So he was sticking close, and unless Bucky sent him away he'd keep at it until Dr. Cho finally deemed it safe for Bucky to leave.
The seizure, it turned out, hadn't been caused by lack of food or drink, nor by something Bucky had ingested, but by withdrawal from yet another drug Hydra had kept him on. It hadn't been the first one he'd suffered, he'd said, and he'd gotten through at least another one since Steve had brought him in. For now, though, he was resting, sleeping, and so Steve picked up the call at once, hoping not to disturb him.
"How long have you known?" Tony asked at once. No greetings, no waiting to make sure Steve had had the time to bring the phone to his ear. He sounded…
Steve wasn't sure how he sounded. Strained, distraught. Wounded.
He felt a weight settle on his shoulders, but forced himself to keep them straight. He took a silent breath. "I only suspected—"
"Don't bullshit me, Rogers," Tony snarled. "How. Long?"
Steve pressed his lips together. "Since Project Insight," he admitted. "Something Zola said…"
"So from the start," Tony said. "For months, for a whole—"
"No, I get it." And with that he hung up.
Steve tried to call him back a few hours later, and then again the following morning, at which point J.A.R.V.I.S. informed him that 'Sir' had left the Tower, had left the country entirely, to go join Ms. Potts on her business trip. He wouldn't be reachable until their return.
That was a request for time if Steve knew one, and no matter how he felt about it, respecting it was the least he could do. He thanked J.A.R.V.I.S. and settled down to wait.
Tony maintained complete radio silence for the entirety of his time abroad, and even after that. More than once Steve was tempted to go down to the labs, before telling himself—or having Sam tell him—to be patient.
In the end, it wasn't there that Tony had J.A.R.V.I.S. call him, but to the Avengers duplex.
He was sitting on one of the giant couches when Steve arrived, one arm slung over the backrest, the other fiddling with his phone. Steve quickly checked him over. He didn't look good, looked worse than he had sounded on the phone over a week earlier; but he didn't look as awful as Steve had dreaded, or as he'd sometimes seen him. He hadn't been sleeping enough, that much was clear; nor had he been eating properly, Steve was willing to bet. But his face was devoid of the sick haggardness it carried whenever he drank too much.
He didn't look at Steve, eyes carefully riveted to the television even though it wasn't on. He didn't speak. Seconds went by, stretched into nearly a minute. Steve wondered if Tony was waiting for him to start the conversation—but he had no idea how.
And then Tony said, abrupt and casual—only not quite, "So I kind of need to know. Will your—will the Manchurian Candidate be staying in your spare room or suite number 6? Because I'll need to up security and—and if he wants a whole goddamn suite, then we'll have to figure out what to do with Thor if he ever visits. Dude's weird, but I doubt he'll be happy camping on the roof."
Steve felt his lips part and, for a second, floundered: this wasn't what he'd been expecting. "I…think the spare room will suffice," he said.
"Great, that'll take next to no time, then." Tony'd aimed for a light, almost flippant tone, but you could still hear the tension underneath, making his voice tremble, gathering along his shoulder. He still hadn't looked at Steve.
"Tony—" Steve tried, but Tony didn't let him speak:
"Any specifics I should be made aware of?" he asked. "Does he need a special shower for his arm, a walk-in closet to stash his guns, anything?" He finally turned his head, meeting Steve's gaze defiantly, almost provocatively.
Steve refused to take the bait. He pressed his lips together and said, "Thank you."
Tony's face twitched. "No," he said. His voice turned into a snarl as he went on, "No, you don't get to thank me. Not when you didn't even have the guts tell me to my face—not when I had to find out from a goddamn report and from—" He broke off. "Did you know there was footage?"
Steve felt himself pause. "I— No," he said. "No, I didn't, I—footage?" He hadn't thought for a second that there would be; it made no sense.
"Yeah, the whole thing," Tony confirmed mercilessly. "Not in HD surround sound, mind you, but still enough to—" His voice failed him. He looked away. "Turns out they didn't die in the crash itself. Turns out my mom—" He bit down whatever he'd been about to say and closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling—a deep breath in, a deep breath out, another deep breath in, slow, regular. Steve recognized the exercises Bucky's brand new therapist had been teaching him, although whether Tony was using them to stave off panic, or anger, or tears, he wasn't sure.
"Pepper," he unexpectedly said at the end of one such breath, "that's who you should be thanking. She's the only reason I'm not in a suit right now, blasting someone through—" He cut himself off, breathed some more. Met Steve's eye again. "I'm willing to let justice run its course and decide whether he's guilty or not. And until then, you better be sure I'll be keeping him right where I can see him."
"It wasn't him, Tony," Steve said. "Hydra— You know what Hydra did to him. Without that he would never—"
"Wouldn't he? He was already a sniper in the war, wasn't he?" A nasty smile drew itself on his lips. "An elite marksman, racked up quite the number of kills from what I've seen. Good at hand-to-hand too, but that's mostly due to the fact that he enjoyed punching people even before the war. Triple YMCA champion and all that." Steve wanted to protest: he couldn't deny the facts but what mattered what the intent—but he knew that it was an argument Tony wouldn't want to hear, one he'd find very feeble indeed. He bit it back. Tony saw it on his face all the same, though: his smile faded, replaced by something hard, unforgiving. "So no, actually, I don't know what Hydra did to him. I don't know how much of it was them and how much of it was him." He paused. "The only reason I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt is you."
"Me?" Steve said, blinking.
"Yes, fucking you," Tony snapped, glaring. "You would've thought that after all this time and all the—" He huffed. "Look, we all live together, work together, fight together. It shouldn't come as a surprise that—and you've fed us, okay? You've fed me. Big dumb idiot with your meal schedule—like, seriously, who the fuck still tries to eat a full meal three times a day in this century? Plus your fucking stews, and casseroles, and sautéed whatever, and your fucking samosas, and—" He swallowed. "Do you know who ever did that for me, apart from people who were paid for it? Not even Pepper—I mean, Pepper is great, she's the best, but she doesn't have time for that kind of crap and anyway she'd probably set the whole kitchen on fire if she tried—literally. So." He breathed out slowly, visibly striving to calm down. "I owed you. This is just—this is payback."
He looked back down at the phone in his hand and seemed to decide that the conversation was over. "I'll let you know when the room's ready," he said. Then he stood up and left.
Converting Steve's spare room into an actual bedroom was the work of a couple of weeks—although it would've been even less, hadn't Tony had the entire security system of the duplex revamped. Steve prickled at it, but Bucky told him that it was okay, that he understood; that it was reassuring, even, to know that there were measures in place to stop him, just in case.
In case of what? Steve wanted to ask, but didn't: it was obvious that Bucky was leery of him doing so, and his brand new therapist had been clear that, in such situations, Steve shouldn't press.
The woman was part of an entire medical team that had been gathered to study Bucky's case and treat him. Dr. Cho was still monitoring his progress, but she'd also brought in a neurologist, an addiction specialist, a toxicologist and an osteologist for consult—without mentioning her frequent calls on Bruce when it came to the specific matter of the serum. Added to that were a psychologist specializing in trauma plus two psychiatrists, one of them mandated by the FBI to deliver a psychological evaluation for the investigation. Last but not least came a dietician—although they'd had some trouble with that one, the first person they'd found having refused to treat the patient once she'd realized who it was.
Steve was glad for the change, even more so that the second specialist, a Dr. Davis, was very welcoming when he offered to help any way he could and even asked for his input to set up a treatment plan that took the effects of Zola's serum into account. After all, he was the closest they had to an expert on the matter. From what they'd gathered compiling Steve and Bucky's experience as well as the contents of Hydra's reports, Bucky's healing factor wasn't as quick as Steve's. As a consequence, he probably didn't burn through as many calories as Steve did, but still did so faster than the average human. Which was a problem in and of itself: right now Bucky's blood work showed several severe deficiencies, which threaten to worsen all the more rapidly. It made the already complex problem of his post-starvation recovery even more delicate: they had to give his body the nutrition it needed as soon as possible, while still weaning it off all medication and pre-processed food so that it remembered how to go through a full digestion cycle sooner than later.
The plan Dr. Davis came up with wasn't anywhere near as complicated as Steve had expected, though. It had a lot of steps, true, it was experimental and liable to change, but when she laid it out it all made sense. "Simple is nimble," was her explanation, with a smile that stood out against the rich brown of her skin.
A lot of it sounded familiar, too. It reminded Steve of the diet he'd had to keep when recovering from a long illness. And—even though he hated to think it—it reminded him of the way he'd seen nurses of the Red Army deal with the recently liberated inmates of a concentration camp. It had been at the very end of 1944. He and the Commandos had been sent to western Poland to neutralize a couple of Hydra facilities. Their drop point had been a Soviet encampment at the very edge of the territory which the Red Army had reconquered. They were to set off westwards and make their way on foot through the forest, through the war zone: nothing unusual for them. What had been unusual had been the amount of civilians in the camp, what they'd looked like: so thin and pale, almost skeletal, their hair shorn, their eyes sunken with hunger and exhaustion. None of the Commandos had mastered enough Russian to ask for or understand an explanation, and the Soviets had been just as unqualified to try and give it in English—yet they'd known, all the same. What this was. They'd heard rumors, too many for them to be dismissed, no matter how loathe the staff was to confirm or even comment on them.
The encampment had been quiet as they'd crossed it—too quiet, given the amount of people in it. At one point Steve had glanced over at Bucky, hadn't been able to help it. After all, had Bucky's Bubbe not moved to the US, that might have been him, right there, amongst those people silently eating their small bowls of thin soup, their hands like claws, their bones so protruding that one almost feared they'd pierce flesh. Bucky's face had been entirely shut down, his eyes dark as they'd run over the civilians without lingering, without stopping. He hadn't let go of his rifle, held between his hands instead of slung over his back. He hadn't said a word; not then, and not for the entirety of that mission afterwards.
Here and now, back in New York, he was nowhere near the state these former inmates had been in; and he certainly didn't need Steve making those kinds of connections. So Steve forcefully pushed the thought away—even now, it made something go small and quiet and cold inside of him, made him shudder—and focused instead on Dr. Davis' plan.
They started with juice, in small quantities, drunk at regular intervals throughout the day, for several days. Bucky stopped feeling queasy quite rapidly, and so they moved on to the next step: some dietary supplements ingested as pills while they worked their way up to broth—where they stagnated for longer than planned, due to the way Bucky reacted to it. Sometimes he'd be overwhelmed by the taste, other times he'd throw up, either at once or within half an hour. Sometimes he'd panic the second he brought the spoon to his mouth and the vapor hit his lips.
They tried to serve him the broth cold, after that. It worked better. Eventually, he stopped throwing up. He started being able to swallow and keep down more than a very small cup at a time.
The transition to solid food promised to be as difficult, if not more. They went at it bit by bit, in a roundabout way, as if Bucky was trying to fool his own stomach: small pieces of white toast mixed in with the still cold broth, followed by crackers, by actual bread—dry—then by white rice; by eggs without their yolk; by pasta cooked for over ten minutes, served without butter.
"This might feel familiar," Steve said with a wry smile when he served the last one. That day he sat down to eat too—not only as a show of solidarity, but because sometimes he weirdly missed the horrible blandness of the food he'd eaten during his formative years, the squishy texture of macaronis that had been boiled for over twenty minutes, saturated with water and so soft you barely felt them between your teeth as you chewed. Bucky didn't have the luxury to focus on any of that, though, or to reminisce. He ate his plate in small bites, pausing after every mouthful to make sure that it wasn't about to come back up.
Fortunately, it didn't.
The first time Steve was allowed to add vegetables, he didn't go for carrots and chose to make a Chinese tomato and egg soup instead. The recipe was one he'd found on a blog, and he remembered noticing the first comment underneath, from a person who'd spent the past few years in Beijing. THE to-go soup when recovering from food poisoning, they'd written, AND easy to make. Real life saver here.
He'd thought that they were exaggerating, but as it turned out they were right: Bucky ate one bowl and a half, and didn't look queasy once.
With vegetables came greater variety, and with greater variety the opportunity for Steve to make use of his newly acquired skills in the kitchen. He'd thought Bucky would be glad of it too, but instead he seemed increasingly…not confused, not really, but suspicious.
He'd creep up to Steve while he was cooking and stare at what Steve was doing, eyes narrowed, like dicing vegetables, frying onions in a pan or tossing a salad were magic tricks he was trying to uncover the secret of.
"Everything okay there, Buck?" Steve asked once while stirring some sliced mushrooms and leek. Bucky was watching the proceedings over his shoulder, standing so close that he might as well have perched on it. Steve had to make a conscious effort not to lean back towards him.
Bucky didn't reply, just looked—well, glared, really—at the pan, then at Steve, then at the pan again, before he retreated with a faint grunt.
From that brief scene, and especially from Bucky's laconism, Steve almost expected things to become difficult: Bucky growing non-verbal was often the first sign of an oncoming bad pass. He'd worried over nothing, though. When he shouted that the food was ready, Bucky came out of their suite easily enough. But the wary, vaguely irritated look hadn't left his face, landing straight on the plate Steve filled and put in front of him: fried rice with mushrooms, leek and fava beans.
"I promise it's not poisoned," Steve said once he'd served himself a plate and sat down in turn, because Bucky still hadn't moved. He proved it by tucking into his own portion with gusto, even though it wasn't his usual lunch time. He and the rest of the team normally ate a bit later, but for now they'd decided that it would be best for Bucky not to partake in such group meals lest he be overwhelmed. Besides, on that precise day most of the Avengers were out: Natasha and Clint had left two days earlier on a mission and Sam had gone to visit his mom. Tony was in his labs, but wouldn't be leaving them any time soon, especially not to come to the duplex; Bruce wouldn't either, keeping him company.
Bucky hadn't reacted to Steve's remark, except to shift his narrow-eyed gaze from his plate to his friend. Finally he asked, "Since when do you know how to cook?"
Steve froze, fork halfway to his mouth, surprised by his tone: it was rare for Bucky to be that direct these days, when he was all skittishness and tension—understandably so. Then what he'd said actually registered and Steve straightened, feeling a spike of indignation. "I always knew how to cook," he said.
"You knew how to boil crap into submission and drown it in cream for a casserole," Bucky retorted. "That's not the same thing."
"You loved my casseroles," Steve said, which was a bald-faced lie if there ever was one. Most of the time Bucky had looked at them with even more suspicion than he'd given this stir-fry, studying them from afar like one would an unidentified creature: with polite curiosity, or halfway between fascination and horror, or quite convinced that it would come alive any moment and crawl right out of its dish. More than once Steve had offered to share with him, only for him to deftly step away and say, "I can't, this ain't kosher," in a tone that was that bit too close to joyful. It had been vexing—but also, quite often, true.
"I added pepper and seasoning too," Steve added, trying to keep a straight face, to play up his outrage. It was difficult, though—no, impossible. Because Bucky remembered. That simple fact made joy bubble up in Steve's stomach, so buoyant that he felt like he might hop off his seat without meaning to. When Bucky finally picked up his fork and dug in, he couldn't hold it in any longer: the grin came through, irrepressible, helpless. Relieved.
A few days later, he caught Bucky leafing through his recipe notebook. It had been in the kitchen, tucked away on the small shelf over the spice rack, along with Steve's few cookbooks, a few volumes about clean living, Hindu dietary practices and the medical properties of plants—Bruce's—as well as a cocktail encyclopedia—probably Tony's.
A set of small, multicolored sticky page markers rested beside Bucky on the table. As Steve watched, he extracted one tab from the rest—a neon pink one—and stuck it on the page he'd been reading. Then he glanced up.
"For later," he said, a little bit defensively.
Steve only smiled. It sounded like a promise.
However, the whole conversation about his casseroles prompted Steve to think about something he hadn't really stopped to consider up until now; to remember—
It was so useful, having grocers in the family, Mrs. Barnes used to say. Not just because it had granted them access to necessities even through hard times, but also because, that way, you always knew where the things you were buying came from. Same thing went for the few places where she bought meat and fish—always the same well-known, well-trusted shops—and for the even more select few restaurants the Barnes family ate at. For a long time, Steve hadn't quite realized why. He'd known that there were Rules—the capital R clearly audible whenever Bucky mentioned them—about what Jews were allowed to eat, or rather not allowed to. But he'd never known the details. No pork had been easy enough for him to understand and remember. No rabbit. No milk either—but not always, and not always for the same reasons. It had seemed so random, and he'd never gotten Bucky to explain.
The point of it was: the Barnes family had kept a rigorously kosher diet, Mrs. Barnes a scrupulously kosher kitchen. So he wondered now: was it something Bucky would want again? In the war, he'd had to give up on it. When it came to choosing between breaking a dietary law, even one you'd grown up with and followed your whole life, and not eating at all, the decision was quickly made—even if it wasn't entirely yours. And afterwards… Well. Steve doubted Hydra had been very concerned about their Asset's beliefs.
Had they even known that Bucky was Jewish?
Worse: did Bucky know? Even after all these months his memory was still patchy, and he had made no mention of it. Not even in passing, or as something implied. Steve hadn't seen or heard him pray, not even in that absent-minded way he'd done sometimes, starting the Aleinu and abruptly stopping, or segueing into a song that was more proper for the middle of the day, that could be sung without thinking about it, without meaning it. Whenever he got confused, grew uncertain of where or when he was and started speaking whatever language he believed himself to be surrounded by, it was always Russian that came out, or German, sometimes Spanish—never Yiddish. One Sunday morning he'd done a double take upon finding Steve in the kitchen, had asked, "What about church?"—but he'd never asked about going to shul. He'd remembered the Assumption as well as All Saints' Day, but had let Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur pass without a sign that the dates might mean anything special to him.
And now on top of that, the food. How he ate whatever was put in front of him. How he never even asked what it was, what was in it. How Dr. Davis had pointed at a step in the plan, set months in the future, and said, "That's about when we'll start trying for red meat. Beef first, we'll try pork only if that goes right," and Bucky hadn't said, "No, no pork, beef's enough."
Steve could ask. Should ask, probably. But at the same time he didn't dare. Because what if Bucky indeed didn't remember? What if he did, but had lost faith, and Steve broaching the topic was what made him realize it? Another memory, another loss, another thing to mourn… At times it felt like that was all there was to the whole thing: Bucky remembering people—his Mame, his sisters, the members of his first unit, Julio fucking Mazzetti—or remembering places, only to realize that they were all gone, lost, forever out of his reach even as he'd believed that he'd get to hold them again, in his mind, in his arms. It was watching him getting tortured all over again, only worse, because this was so much more incisive, so much more intimate than anything Zola could've come up with.
Unless he had. Unless this was the last thing on his long list of perverse, monstrous parting gifts.
Oh, how Bucky had cried, when he'd remembered his sisters, when Steve had had to tell him what had become of them. Of Becca, who'd died such a short time ago, of Lou, who'd died so young, of Allie, who had—Steve had hesitated, there, because he'd never seen Bucky cry like that, not even as a child, and he didn't want to make it worse. But Bucky had snarled, "Tell me," and so he had.
Later, Bucky had said, "It's worth it. Remembering." His eyes had been red, his voice a barely-there croak that soon faded into an exhausted whisper. "It's worth it."
Steve hadn't been so sure about that. Bucky had looked so tired, so sad: broken, almost. And so he hesitated, now. He didn't want to broach the topic of Bucky's faith if all it was going to do was bring him more pain. He didn't want something that had once been such an integral part of Bucky's life, that had colored the comfort he'd always found in family and familiarity, to be twisted that way.
Or maybe he was just being a coward again; telling himself that he was sparing Bucky, when in actuality he was sparing himself—like he'd been with Tony.
He read up on Jewish dietary laws, as a feeble, ludicrous way to make up for his inability to come to a decision.
As it turned out, Bucky stating It ain't kosher had been true in a lot more cases than Steve had surmised—instead of just being an excuse Bucky had brandished whenever he hadn't liked the look of what Steve had made, or hadn't wanted to deprive Steve of what little he'd had.
They had other things to worry about, though: the investigation team wanted Bucky's arm as evidence.
"No," Steve said at once, but even the authority he'd been granted on this case didn't allow him not to at least tell Bucky about the request. When he did, all Bucky said was, "Okay. If they need it, I—okay."
But Steve could see the apprehension at the bottom of his eyes. "Buck, it's your arm," he said.
Bucky shook his head. "No," he said lowly, almost resentfully. "It's theirs."
Then things got about five times worse, because the FBI brought in Tony to consult on the matter—Tony, who'd conspicuously avoided setting foot into the duplex since Bucky had moved into it, who only ever talked to Steve when strictly necessary now, when he couldn't reasonably use J.A.R.V.I.S. as an intermediary. This'd happen during missions, mostly, and Steve had been sitting them out lately, letting Sam or, yes, Tony go in his stead whenever Natasha and Clint needed backup. He wasn't doing so entirely willingly. He'd offered more than once to join them, but Natasha's sole reaction had been a look making it pretty clear what she thought of that. Sam, for his part, had laughed. "Yeah, no," he'd said, shaking his head, "you'll spend the whole time just worrying about your pal back home, no way I'm covering your ass in those conditions." As for Tony, Steve hadn't exactly had the opportunity to ask him what he thought.
He'd been hoping that things would get better of their own accord eventually. But now here they were, already forced to interact. Steve wasn't entirely surprised by the FBI's request, or by Tony's willingness to accede to it: with the Iron Man suit he had to be the closest thing America had to a bionics expert, and Steve would be willing to bet that part of him had been itching to study Bucky's metal arm up close.
Still, he half expected everything to go spectacularly awry—which he only realized when they didn't. Bucky hadn't trusted himself to remain calm during the full body scan Dr. Cho and Tony wanted to perform, and even less during the close examination of the arm and its inner workings that was to follow, and had asked to be put under, which canceled all risks on that front. As for Tony, he'd always been very good at focusing on one thing at the expense of everything else. Steve saw him clearly decide to only have eyes for the arm, and forget who it was attached to entirely.
He didn't quite succeed, though, for reasons he himself hadn't foreseen. When he came out of the examination room he had the strangest look on his face: distant, unnerved, almost nauseous. Without a word he came to stand beside Steve at the window through which Steve had been watching the proceedings without hearing or seeing any of the conclusions they were drawing.
"Okay, so," Tony started after scarcely a minute of silence. Steve almost stopped him: Bucky wasn't due to wake up for another fifteen minutes at least, and in Steve's opinion he was the first—the only—person really entitled to whatever information Tony was about to share. But at the same time, Tony seemed so revved up, almost vibrating after a mere minute of waiting, that it felt like a really bad idea to force him to bottle it up any longer.
That, and: he wanted to know. He gave Tony a glance, indicating that he was listening.
"Their instructions were clear, they want the whole thing," Tony started, sounding relieved, almost grateful to be allowed to let it all out. "Not only the arm but also the— the socket and whatever connects it all to his neural system. It'd be killing two birds with one stone, right: deprive the Winter Soldier of its last weapon while at the same time—" He stopped, shook his head. "But, yeah, that—" He swallowed. "That won't be possible." He turned to Steve—who realized he hadn't been mistaken: Tony really did look sick. "That thing goes all the way to his brain. I'm not— I'll have to talk with Bruce about it, because to be honest I have no idea how come the guy isn't keeled over in pain all the time, how he's even functional."
Maybe he didn't have a choice and got used to it, Steve almost said. Maybe it's so constant he doesn't even notice anymore. Maybe it's always been there, as far as he remembers: maybe he still has no memory of a life without that pain.
He'd asked Bucky once, at the very beginning, "Does it hurt?"
And Bucky had replied, "I don't know."
"And the way it's just… jammed up in there," Tony was saying. "It's just, it's ugly work. Clearly experimental—I don't think they were even expecting for it to work and— Yeah, it definitely looks like one of those things you shouldn't poke at. As far as I can see, there's no way to take it all off that won't count as torture in feudal Japan—if it doesn't paralyze or kill him, pure and simple."
Steve pressed his lips together to hold back the I don't think they'd mind too much if either of those happened, but Tony glanced at him before he could properly school his expression and seemed to hear it anyway. He frowned minutely, looked faintly spooked—looked, for a second, intolerably young.
It only worsened once Bucky woke up: he listened to what they'd found and looked entirely unsurprised. "They won't back down that easily," was all he seemed to have to say.
Somehow, the moment he said that was when Tony's badly repressed horror toppled into anger. Steve saw it unfold right in front of his eyes: how Tony blinked, then straightened, how his mouth flattened into a thin line. None of it was directed at Bucky, though. Rather, he packed it all up in a tight little bundle which he took with him when he went to give his report to the FBI.
He came back with concessions: they still wanted the arm, but only the arm. The port could stay.
"But you know what? Fuck those guys," Tony seethed. "Oh, sure, they'll get that arm—who cares? That arm's shit anyway, I'll just make you another one. A better one."
Bucky blinked. He didn't seem to know what to make of Tony's abrupt change of demeanor. If Steve was being honest, he didn't either. "I don't think—" Bucky started, shaking his head.
Tony cut him off with an impatient flap of the hand. "Tut-tut, I'm doing it. Any requests?"
His question was met with silence. Bucky was just staring at him, nonplussed. When he opened his mouth, Steve was half convinced that he would try and decline the offer again. Instead he said, "Just— I want it to just be an arm. Not— not a weapon, or— Just, you know." He looked down. "An arm."
"What, no grenade launcher?" Tony asked.
Bucky's lips curled wryly. "No grenade launcher."
"No battering ram, no taser—not even a can opener?"
Bucky paused. "…Maybe a can opener."
"Great," Tony said, snapping his fingers and pointing. Then he abruptly turned to Steve and added, "I'll accept payment in spring rolls and muffins."
With that he pivoted on his chair, pulled up a screen, and started to type some obscure formulas. Steve and Bucky took it as their cue to leave.
Despite the growing enthusiasm Tony manifested for this newest project, he didn't actually have that much time to devote to it: Avengers business took precedence. It was time consuming too, and called him away from his lab and schematics more often than not, impeding his progress.
He was a lot more frustrated over it than Bucky himself was—not that it was difficult. Steve himself was surprised by his friend's patience and mellowness, just like he'd been surprised by how easily Bucky had adapted to having his arm removed. Sometimes he thought Bucky would be content if it was never replaced.
He was doing better and better. Having been assigned as the supervising officer, Steve received regular reports from Dr. Cho's medical team and from his therapists. They didn't go into the details of the examinations, of what was discussed during sessions—some lip service had to be given to patient confidentiality, after all—but they still presented a general, informed opinion on Bucky's state and progress. They were optimistic, for the most part.
What it meant for Steve, mostly, was that he could step back a bit, leave Bucky to his own devices. It meant that he could—and therefore had to—return to his position as the Avengers' chief strategist, coordinating the search for Hydra and leading the majority of their missions. It was good work, work that had to be done, work that he wanted to get done, yet he couldn't feel unequivocally good about it. He'd never liked killing, never liked having to make compromises, especially when all options were bad—and with Hydra's disturbingly faithful agents, they often were.
Some of them were so young.
It wasn't just that. They kept finding things in Hydra's bases, in their labs: projects, experiments, a lot of them failures. Attempts to tweak and twist, to repurpose, to enhance, to…something. Their aim wasn't always clear. They used everything as raw material, too: rare metals, alien substances—they found more than one sample of Chitauri technology—animals. People. Seeing them—some of whom would never have a normal life again, most of whom were nothing but distorted remains—never ceased to be horrific. It showed that no matter how awful Bucky's treatment had been, it still could have been worse. There were no limits to Hydra's cruel ingenuity, it seemed, to what their clinical, experimental minds could come up with.
Out of all the team, Tony was affected the worst: discovering how much the science that made up his whole life could be perverted. Sam lost his meal more than once. Several times even Natasha paled. Steve, unfortunately, was used to it: he'd seen it all and worse during the war, going after Schmidt and Zola. He'd just hoped that it'd stopped with them. Apparently not. Apparently they weren't that much of an exception.
Mostly it made him want to go back to Bucky, to check on him, to just see him and ascertain that he was safe, that he was okay, recovering.
Their situation wasn't ideal, though: in his absence Bucky wasn't allowed to leave the Tower or to do much of anything that wasn't going to therapy. Not that they got out much even when Steve was home. Up until now they'd only gone on short excursions: a car ride, a walk early in the morning to the park, a visit to a coffee shop during the afternoon lull, all part of some exercises Bucky's therapists had assigned to get him back into the habit of being outside, being around strangers and interacting with them. He'd done it all, too, even though he hadn't seemed to enjoy it much. Still, in Steve's absence, he was bound to feel cooped up at times; and, even if Bruce stayed behind too more often than not, he had to feel lonely.
Steve tried to make up for it by bringing things back for him whenever he could: postcards, trinkets, but mostly edible items that only grew more varied as more ingredients made their way back onto the list of things Bucky could eat. Meat wasn't included yet; neither were most dairy products—milk, yoghurt, cheese—but pastries made with butter were okay. Steve took advantage of that: he brought back Toruń gingerbread from Poland, pineapple cake from Taiwan, dragées from France, pastila from Russia, alfajor from Argentina, bakpia from the Philippines…
"I'm startin' to feel like the housewife you bring presents back to after a business trip that was more pleasure than business, if you get my meaning," Bucky said one time, when Steve presented him with a box of baklava. "What's next, flowers? Pearls?"
He'd recently discovered daytime television and had definitely been watching too much of it.
Steve's lips twitched. "Why, do you want pearls?" he asked. "I can bring you pearls."
Bucky gave him a baleful look. "You steppin' out on me, Rogers?"
Something zinged down Steve's spine at the words. His heart gave a thud. This was the closest Bucky had come to mentioning them, what they'd once been to each other, since he'd been brought in to the Tower. But it was also vague, barely there: it might be nothing but part of their banter, the natural follow-up in context. Even though Steve hoped, he didn't want to force the matter. He couldn't, not if Bucky didn't quite remember, not if he wasn't sure.
Surely he would've been more direct if he did, if he was.
So Steve swallowed, pushed it all down. "You know I'd never," he said, trying for the same light tone as before, but ending up sounding all wrong: feeble yet earnest at the same time.
The atmosphere turned awkward. Bucky looked down.
When Bucky spoke again, it was subdued. "Want some?" he said, jutting his chin at the box on the coffee table. He'd already eaten his way through a good third of it.
Steve took the olive branch for what it was: he nodded and gingerly extracted one of the pastries, popping it into his mouth. It was flaky, nutty, and drenched in honey, in one word: delicious.
He told Bucky so, and was reassured when they shared a smile.
It wasn't all, though. In between hunting for food he could bring back, Steve resumed his habit of trying new things whenever a mission took him abroad. However, he was a lot more…adventurous; not always, but enough to make it count.
He had surströmming in Sweden and Changsha stinky tofu in China, akutaq in Alaska and ema-datshi in Buthan, durian in Malaysia and jumiles in Mexico, casu marzu in Italy and natto in Japan, eri polu in India and salo in Ukraine, damamian in Taiwan and sik sik wat in Ethiopia, madora in South Africa and tiet canh in Vietnam.
"Man, why the hell're you doing this to yourself?" Sam asked once. They were in Peru, and his expression was the perfect mix or concern and disapproval as he watched Steve struggle to finish a huge plate of cau cau—the authentic version, with tripes.
Steve simply shook his head, stuffed a large mouthful of white rice into his mouth, took a breath, wiped his eyes. Then, still without answering, he dove right back in.
Sam wouldn't have understood. It wasn't that Steve never regretted his culinary decisions; rather, it was that what followed always made up for it. He'd go home, usually with a box or a jar of something as a present. Bucky would ask how things had gone. Steve would reply, and find a way to mention what he'd eaten this time, casually, in passing. Bucky would simply nod: most of the time, he had no idea what Steve was talking about. He'd be curious, though—always had been about things he didn't know. The second Steve left him alone he'd jump onto the computer, onto his phone, do a quick search. And, if it was one of the occasions where Steve taken advantage of the trip for a risky experiment, he'd reappear at his side in less than a minute, no matter where Steve had gone off to—the couch to rest, his desk to write his report, the gym to stretch, the kitchen to start dinner, even one memorable time the shower—and just…stand there. Looming. Glowering.
"You didn't," he'd seethe.
And every time—every single time—Steve wouldn't be able to help it: the grin would crack through, turning his voice almost gleeful as he said, "Oh, you bet I did."
Whenever he could, he also brought things back for the whole team to enjoy.
"You know that's illegal, right?"
Steve looked up from the instruction manual for the fondue pot he'd bought at the tiny hardware store beside the hostel he and Tony had stayed at while Nat and Clint had been doing some reconnaissance. They were on their way back now, mission accomplished. It had gone well: no injuries, and they'd gotten the documents they'd been hoping to find. And yet—
It was late in the fall, and their target had been an old Hydra facility, abandoned but—as they'd hoped—not quite emptied out, situated in the Alps. It had been tucked at the end of a small, isolated valley, at the very edge of a network of ski runs: the expansion of the resort those belonged to and the increase in cross-country traffic in the valley itself explained the base's decrease in activity quite easily. They'd had to go on foot: there was no road, and the valley was too narrow, the slopes too steep, for even Clint to risk flying the Quinjet into it, let alone land.
It hadn't been a long climb. The valley itself wasn't too high. And yet with the autumn weather… It had been cold, and wet, with a sharp wind that ensured that the raindrops felt like shards of ice against their faces.
It had brought back bad memories.
Even here and now, back in the Quinjet, flying home, Steve almost shuddered. Unpacking the fondue pot had seemed like as good a way as any to distract himself, to remember other times, better times—and now Tony had butted right in. He wasn't unwelcome.
Steve raised his eyebrows quizzically.
"All that." Tony gestured at the large thermos bag beside Steve, full of the various types of cheese he'd need for a fondue—and more, because he hadn't been able to resist. The worker at the cheese shop had been very insistent that they should not be stored in a fridge. "You're not allowed to bring those back—or maybe just some of them, I don't know, it's something to do with bacteria, but I've never understood when it was supposed to matter—customs services are weird. And inconsistent."
"Oh," Steve said, frowning faintly. "So you're saying we should make a pit stop at JFK? Have it all checked by customs?" He glanced at the bag. "I hope they won't get suspicious and think we intend to resell it. I did buy large quantities."
He was laying it on quite thick, despite keeping an entirely straight face. Yet it wasn't until he added, "Do you think they'll ask us to go through a decontamination shower too?" that Tony realized what was going on. He froze and his expression, which had been warring between incredulity and derision, turned into irritation. He shook his head.
"Wow. Once again I am amazed that the world still hasn't realized how much of a shit you are. You're not even trying to hide it, are you?"
Steve simply grinned in answer—and no matter how hard Tony tried to repress it, the responding twitch of his lips was impossible to miss.
The fondue was a success.
It was also an utter mess.
Bucky still didn't take part in group meals. The Avengers were a rowdy bunch and a lot to deal with even for someone who didn't startle at loud noises; plus their dietary habits didn't agree with him. While chicken had finally made its way back into the category of things he could eat, any kind of red meat quickly became too much for his stomach to handle, and cheese was still out of the question.
Still, he spent an increasing amount of time in the common areas of the duplex instead of sticking to his and Steve's suite, and tended to linger for longer and longer while Steve brought the finishing touches to that day's dinner. For lunches Steve usually went for things that didn't take as much time to prepare and were easier to carry, to take with oneself back to the labs or the office or a meeting: mixed salads with a base of rice or pasta, of quinoa, of legumes, a selection of sandwiches, bento boxes. For dinner, however, he went all out whenever he could, and only conceded to making an oven dish if he still had obligations to fulfill before the day was through. He'd make something for Bucky first, if possible something similar to what everyone else was going to have, and proceed to prepare that while Bucky ate.
At first Bucky had done so in his room, but now he sat at the table in the dining room, or stood beside Steve, watching him cook and looking as the rest of the team trickled in. They'd come in one after the other, not because they'd been drawn in by the smell of food or summoned by J.A.R.V.I.S., but simply because dinner time had become habit, part of the day's rhythm around here: if you were at the Tower, and things were on the quiet side—work dominated by research, by processing data, by planning for a future missions—then dinner was at 7 on the dot.
Bucky hadn't liked the implications of that. The fact that, on top of everything else, Steve also had to cover meal duty, with no one to pick up the slack when he couldn't. And he'd like the fact that his own presence only meant more work, another dish Steve had to plan for and prepare, even less.
"I don't mind," Steve said with a smile, stirring onions. That was the thing: he really didn't. "Besides, it means I never have to do the dishes anymore, so…"
Bucky didn't seem convinced. He was frowning at Steve, eyes narrowed—until suddenly his expression cleared. He took a deep breath in. "Oh, I see what this is about," he said. Steve threw him a quizzical glance—then froze, because Bucky had just bumped their shoulders together and was now leaning in close, close enough for Steve to feel the heat of his body against his side, to hear his voice over the din of the hood and the sizzling of the pan as he murmured, "It just figures that whoever'd be willing to indulge your need to try and feed the entire planet would be a bunch of crazy idiots with a dying wish."
The words barely registered in Steve's brain. Bucky's breath was brushing against the shell of his ear, down his neck, making his skin prickle. He almost shivered—but already Bucky was retreating, stepping back over to the sink to rinse his bowl, walking away. Steve was left standing at the stove, alone, bereft, with nothing but a spatula in hand and a pan full of onions in front of him.
Onions that were now burning, he realized. He cursed, and went back to stirring.
Some people didn't appreciate Tony Stark's inability to leave anything well enough alone, but Steve knew to feel grateful—even a bit admiring. Despite the huge amount of work he was putting in to eradicating Hydra, both at the Tower and on missions, he still found the time to work on the side project that was Bucky's new arm. With results.
"So, how does it feel?" he asked, beating Steve to the punch.
Bucky didn't spare him a glance: he was too busy staring at his left hand, turning it this way and that, flicking the wrist. "It doesn't hurt."
Tony looked outraged. "Well, of course it doesn't hurt, what do you think this is, the freaking—"
"It's so light," Bucky went on, as if he hadn't heard.
"Incidentally, yes," Tony said. "That's what you wanted, right? Comes with downsides though, you better not go around punching walls or—"
Bucky curled his new fingers to form a fist, uncurled them, brought them closer to his face and blew on them. His lips twitched. "Sensitive, too."
"It's meant to be—I mean, I might have gone overboard, maybe it needs some tweaking, I'll need some feedback. Same thing for the temperature sensors, pressure is easy but warmth is a whole other—"
Tony probably didn't stop talking, but Steve didn't hear, because Bucky—simply, casually, as if it was nothing, as if it was something they did all the time—reached out with his hand and cradled Steve's cheek with it. Acutely aware of where they were, in front of whom, Steve froze. He could feel a blush rising already. And as it did, a smile appeared on Bucky's lips, slow and slightly crooked, with the slightest edge of teasing, the slightest hint of smugness. A smile Steve had thought lost forever: the right corner of his mouth curling up first, the left catching up late, right before the teeth showed.
"Don't you worry about that," Bucky said, staring straight into Steve's eyes. "I can feel warmth all right."
With the progress of Bucky's therapy, leaving the Tower had started to become a habit rather than a challenge. Bucky accompanied Steve on his morning runs from time to time, went with him to pick up their take-out orders on the rare evenings Steve wasn't up for cooking. Now that most foods were okay for him to eat, they returned to Hilina's, to Sung-ho's, to Jana's, so that he could enjoy what they made this time—although a whole evening spent in a cramped area, teeming with strangers and noise, always proved to be a bit much. It frustrated Bucky: he wanted to do better, he'd admitted once. He wanted to be able to go to the pictures already, go dancing.
They visited Peggy at least a couple times a month, with varying success. Unlike Bucky, her health and mental state weren't improving and there was no telling in advance how she'd react to seeing them. Sometimes she was okay. She'd smile at them and eagerly wait for Steve to bring out slices of whatever cake he'd made this time. Then they'd spend a couple of hours talking about baking, teasing, reminiscing. Other times, however, their dual presence would only confuse her, distress her. And then there were the times where it simply dragged her right back to 1944, and she'd spend the whole time believing that she was bed-bound due to an injury, telling them that she couldn't stay here, that there was work to be done, not understanding why she wasn't allowed to leave, why she couldn't remember how she'd gotten hurt, why the doctors wouldn't tell her anything. Those times were a lot more difficult to bear.
Bucky never asked to stop coming, though.
Their next few excursions were planned with a new purpose: find ways to test out Bucky's arm. Steve suggested he accompany him to the farmers' market, help him carry everything back. Tony fully endorsed the idea. "Fondle as many types of fruit as you can," he said with an unmistakable leer, "the rounder and juicier the better."
Steve marveled at the man's ability to turn everything into an innuendo—when he wasn't irritated by it. He rolled his eyes.
Bucky did as instructed, although there was nothing suggestive or indecent about it. As they made their way through the market he'd pick up a tomato here and there, a peach, a plum, extract it carefully, almost gingerly from the bunch and test the weight of it in his hand. He'd smile: he could feel it in his palm, up his arm, the faintest of sensations but a sensation all the same, just as he could feel the slight yield of the ripe flesh as he brushed his thumb against it, applied the slightest bit of pressure. It almost felt like his real hand, he'd say, sounding so amazed, so marveling, that Steve couldn't help but smile. Sometimes Bucky'd put the piece of fruit back, other times he'd nod to himself and say, "Yes, this one's good," and Steve'd put it in the bag without question.
It took them a long time to go through the entirety of Steve's list that way, but that was okay. They'd left the Tower early in order to get there at opening and avoid the late morning crowd. It also granted them first pick on the best produce.
They came back with a rich loot, half of it seasonal fruit: plums, apricots, peaches… Steve felt like he hadn't stopped smiling in hours, and he was smiling still as he said, "I think I'll make a pie."
The positive results at the market didn't meant that Bucky's dexterity was up to par in all situations. That's how Steve ended up folding manti by himself a few days later: after his fourth try Bucky had had to give up and go clean his hand before the bits of dough and filling that had found their way between the plates could dry and clog the mechanism. Steve didn't mind. He liked assembling dumplings of all sorts. He liked the satisfaction that came when he picked the perfect amount of filling and the paper-thin dough folded around it just right. He liked the soothing repetitiveness of his gestures, how it gave his mind the space it needed to wander. He'd think of his meal plan, of the team, of who was here and who was off on a mission, of the information they'd most recently acquired, of what to make of it. More than once, he'd planned an entire mission in between folding spring rolls. More than once, he'd reached a conclusion halfway through, gotten the whole team out of a situation they'd believed to be a dead end but wasn't.
That, and by being the one to actually build the dumplings, he got to have a taste of the filling. This time it was minced lamb, with bits of potato and squash, some pepper for spice. For the sauce, he'd passed on the butter and cream for Bucky's sake and settled for vinegar with garlic and coriander, plus a dash of lemon.
He couldn't wait for it all to be done.
"I'll never cease to be surprised by how good at this you are."
Steve finished folding the manti in his hands and looked up. Natasha was standing against the dining room table, her posture hinting that she'd been here for a while. Focused as he'd been on his task, Steve hadn't heard or seen her come in. A small smirk was hovering at the corner of her mouth: she always enjoyed getting one on him.
Steve would've straightened pridefully and sniffed that he'd always been skilled with his hands—which wasn't a lie: of his entire body they were the parts that had changed the least, even in size—but other things took priority.
"How was the mission?" he asked instead, checking her over. She seemed relaxed enough, didn't have any visible bruising, didn't appear to favor one side of her body over the other. But with her he could never be sure.
"It was a mission," she replied, walking over—no limp in her steps, Steve noted—and sitting on a stool at the counter—no flinching as she settled—facing Steve. She met his gaze, daring him to come out and ask, but he simply gave her a not-quite-rueful smile and went back to making his dumplings, stuffing and folding and swatting Natasha's hand away when she tried to sample the filling. He moved the bowl away, even though there wasn't enough space on the counter for it to end up out of her reach.
"So," Natasha asked after a couple minutes of silence and half a dozen dumplings, "what's with the beard?"
Steve almost paused, confused, before he remembered that Natasha and Clint had left on their mission nearly two months ago and therefore hadn't been there to witness this new development. He didn't quite know what to say. It had started out a silly thing, really, a clumsy and probably misplaced show of support. Bucky had had a series of extremely bad days in which he hadn't slept, barely eaten, and seemed to dissociate or topple into a panic attack at the smallest noise, the tiniest movement caught out of the corner of his eye. Trying to crawl his way out of that spiral had taken all his energy and, exhausted as he'd been, personal hygiene had fallen to the wayside. Usually he didn't care much about that, but this time he had, for some reason. It had only made everything worse. Steve hadn't known what to do—they were removing some trigger words Hydra had implanted in his mind, Dr. Cho had explained, there was nothing to be done to avoid bad associations from cropping up—and that's what his helplessness had turned into, somehow: he'd stopped shaving. He'd thought that he'd end up with the same type of messy stubble Bucky had been sporting. Instead within a week his cheeks, chin and upper lip had been covered in what was already starting to look like a definite beard.
He'd been the first one to be surprised. He'd been smooth-faced before the serum, had barely grown anything beyond a smattering of hair on the tip of his chin. It had frustrated him to no end at first, especially given that Bucky had almost needed to shave twice a day by the time he'd been nineteen. Then he'd grown older, busier, and realized that only needing to shave once a week might've been a blessing in disguise. As for once he'd gotten the serum… He'd noticed how much more quickly his stubble came in, of course, how it covered his cheeks now, but Captain America had to be perfectly shaven, and so he hadn't really had the time to ponder or to experiment. Mostly, he'd counted himself lucky that George Barnes had taught him the whole process alongside his own son—and he'd tried not to think of all the times he'd watched Bucky do it while Steve half-lay in bed, in a mess of sheets and covers with a warm cup of coffee cradled between his hands. All the times Bucky had met his gaze in the mirror and smiled, all the times Bucky had walked back to the bed once he was done, bent down for a kiss and let Steve run a hand along his smooth jaw, tease him when he'd missed a spot. And so by the time Steve had actually gotten into the army, shaving every morning had become a habit, and he hadn't broken it once he'd ended up in this century. A century in which, suddenly, having a beard wasn't being unkempt, wasn't being old-fashioned: where having a beard was fashionable.
"Looking good, man," Sam had told him after that first week. "You thinking of keeping it?"
By this point, Steve had been curious. He'd nodded, and within an hour Sam was showing him a series of websites and videos with instructions and advice about grooming, about trimming and washing, about matching the shape of your beard to the shape of your face, about beard oils, beard brushes, grooming scissors—
Having a neat beard was a lot more work than Steve had expected, as it turned out.
He'd tried it, though. When Bucky had seen the result, he'd squinted. He hadn't been feeling entirely better just yet, so Steve hadn't expected much more of a reaction. But then Bucky had come closer, had reached out a hand—first the right, then the left—and cupped Steve's face with it. He'd patted the beard, rubbed it, as if he was testing the texture against both palms until he'd come to a conclusion: he'd taken a step back, nodded, and said, "It can stay."
Steve hadn't known what to make of that. Even now the memory of it made him squirm inside, threatened to make him blush in a way that he didn't feel like sharing. So he simply shrugged and replied to Natasha's question with, "I don't know. I just felt like a change, I guess."
Is Captain America turning into a hipster? a tabloid asked, although it was unclear whether it was going for an excited or alarmed tone. Underneath the title was another picture of Steve at the farmers' market, a tote bag overflowing with greens slung over one shoulder.
Steve stared at it bemusedly. The paper had been innocuously sitting on the counter when he'd gotten up that morning. Bucky had picked it up at once—nothing left lying around was safe from him these days—and he was laughing now, trying and failing to read the article out loud. That was something, at least. Another was: one and a half columns, and it didn't breathe a word—disparaging or otherwise—about the man one could see quite clearly at Steve's side on the picture. Didn't mention the trial which, after over a year of investigation, had been given a starting date that was looming closer and closer. Didn't even hint at what so many people had to say about it or its possible outcome. Instead all it focused on were Captain America's grooming and clothing choices.
All in all, Steve conceded, there were worse editorial lines to be had.
Less than a week before Bucky would turn himself back in for the duration of the trial he came up to Steve and said, "I want to show you something."
Given how long and difficult it had been for him to reach the point where he could say the words 'I want', let alone start a sentence with them, Steve put down the file he'd been reading and was ready to follow him at once.
He half expected Bucky to take his phone out to show him a video or a picture, but instead he led them down to the garage, had them take a bike—Steve driving, Bucky securely wrapped around him—and head to Brooklyn. Once they'd crossed the bridge, he started giving more precise directions, until he told Steve to stop, right in front of a small, neat little shop with wooden window and door frames. Steve glanced back at Bucky, waiting for him to say that they'd arrived, that they were in the right place, but Bucky didn't. He was staring at the shop sign with the strangest of expressions on his face, not quite sad but—
Steve followed his gaze, trying to understand what he was seeing. The shop looked like any other New York deli, a bit cramped, a bit rundown. Under its name the sign boasted, 'Since 1911' while another, smaller label said 'kosher'.
Steve blinked. "Wait," he said, "is that…?"
He glanced back at Bucky again, who nodded without looking at him and finally dismounted the bike. "My Pa brought me here when I turned 18," he said. He sounded like he wasn't quite present, half sunken into memory. "Said I was a man now, so I could be let in on the secret. He'd been there to see the opening, he said." He swallowed. "I saw on the internet that it was still here but I can't—even now I can't believe it. After all this time…"
He still hadn't looked away from it, like he was afraid that, if he did, it would disappear. Or maybe he was looking for the changes, trying to see the place as it had been underneath the layers of paint and repairs and replaced windows.
"You never told me," Steve said and that, finally, made Bucky turn to him.
"I was waiting for a special occasion," he said.
Steve twitched a smile. "Guess it never came, uh?"
That made Bucky frown. "Yes, it did. I mean, that morning—I brought a bag straight back to you." He faltered. "Or…I didn't?"
The unspoken question, of course, was, Am I remembering this wrong?, underlain by doubt and fear: Bucky hated it when what he believed to be a memory turned out to be yet another lie, another trick his brain was playing on itself.
This time it wasn't, though. "That morning," he'd said, and Steve hadn't needed anything else to know what he was talking about. He remembered it so clearly still: a Sunday morning, waking up in his bed with a smile on his face—a smile that had faded when he'd found himself alone. No one with him in bed, no one in the other room… He'd even gotten up to check, even though the entire flat had been so small that no one's presence could've been missed. Then he'd returned to his bed, sat down on it. He could say that he'd been disappointed, hurt, but mostly he'd felt numb. Stunned. Outside, bells had started ringing, and he'd thought, I'm missing mass. Not that it had been an extraordinary fact: he often had, after his Ma had died. Sometimes he was sick, sometimes he was busy working because not everyone could afford to rest on the seventh day. Sometimes he felt too angry, too bitter, too riddled with doubt: felt like he shouldn't. But that wasn't why he hadn't been planning on going that morning either. When he'd closed his eyes to sleep the night before—oh, the night before: the dip at the bottom of Bucky's throat, the line of his shoulders, his hands brushing Steve's waist, running down Steve's thighs, his skin under Steve's lips. In the dark and quiet their breaths had sounded so loud, every gasp audible, every sigh, every soft rumble of laughter, and in middle of it, half delirious, Steve had grinned, because in the morning they could do it all over again, and to hell with church. Only it was morning now, and Bucky was gone. So maybe Steve should go; maybe confess, even, repent, wash himself of what they'd done. If Bucky had thought it so wrong that he'd fled in the middle of the night, like a thief, like he was ashamed… And that was when the hurt had made itself known, tears prickling at Steve's eyes as his hands tightened into fists, making the sheets rustle—sheets that he'd have to wash, fast, to erase the evidence, to scrub out everything that had happened, like he'd have to scrub the memory from his mind, from his soul—
And then, unexpectedly, a noise: a key finding its way into the lock, turning. The apartment's door had opened, and in Bucky had stepped. His shirt had been creased, his hair disheveled, his cheeks flushed: he should've looked like an utter mess, but he'd only been handsome, full of life and youth and elation. When he'd caught sight of Steve, he'd smiled—not his usual, flirtatious smile, not a grin either. It had been something small, almost shy, almost disbelieving: the smile he got when something made him happy and he didn't know what to do with that feeling, the sheer size of it.
"I thought you'd still be asleep," he'd said, a bit sheepish, and that's when Steve had noticed the bag in his hand.
"You did," he said, here and now. His voice was strangled: he'd never forgotten those few terrible minutes of solitude, and he'd never forgiven himself for them—for having doubted Bucky. "I thought you'd gotten them from your Pa."
And hadn't that been an awkward thought. He'd pictured Bucky, showing up at home after having stayed out all night, claiming he'd slept at Steve's—not an uncommon occurrence, true: he'd slept off more than one evening of drinking and dancing sprawled on the floor next to Steve's bed. Steve had imagined Winifred's disapproving scowl—she didn't like Bucky's drinking, and his imposing on Steve afterwards even less—while Bucky pretended that it was all there was to it. That nothing unusual had happened, nothing different. He'd wondered what George had thought of his son stealing a couple of his bagels and running away again, without having taken the time to change, to wash his face…and he'd made himself stop: he couldn't bear to ask how that had gone.
"I was gonna tell you," Bucky said, still standing on the sidewalk in front of the deli. "But then I got kinda…distracted."
He'd insisted Steve come to the table, insisted they eat first, and Steve in his relief hadn't minded the slight change of plans. Suddenly he'd felt ravenous. The bagels had been as generous as always, lox and cream cheese—George's favorite—and Steve had taken such large bites of it that halfway through he'd had to stop to wipe corner of his mouth, lick his fingers clean. When he'd looked up, Bucky had been staring at him, his own bagel forgotten, with such a blush on his cheeks…
So yes: they'd gotten distracted.
"You remember," Steve said.
Bucky smiled wryly. "Looks like I do."
"No, I mean—" Steve swallowed. "—you remember…us. What we—what we were."
"'Course I do," Bucky said with a minute frown. "How could I not? It's gotta be the third thing I remembered, after the Aleinu and that weird fucking dream about my Bubbe."
Steve couldn't help but chuckle: of course Bucky had remembered that dream—although from what he'd described, it was more of a recurring nightmare.
"You thought I didn't?" Bucky asked. He hesitated, then added: "Is that— That's why you haven't been kissin' me none?"
"I—" Steve started, and stopped, because suddenly none of the reasons that had been stopping him from even asking felt stupid, empty. Still, he tried. "I wasn't sure. I didn't want to upset you if that was the case. And I didn't want to make you feel pressured into— into anything, even if you did."
Bucky crossed his arms. "I thought we'd had that talk about you not coddlin' me."
"I thought we'd had that talk about you asking when something's bothering you," Steve retorted. "Clearly this has, so why didn't you?"
Bucky's glare faded. "I don't know," he said defensively, the way that meant that he very much did. After a few seconds, he went on: "I wasn't sure. It'd been a while and I thought, maybe you'd moved on. Maybe you just didn't want me no more. After all the things I've done…"
He trailed off. Steve was staring, a bit incredulous—and sad, and angry, and hurt, because how could Bucky believe that? "Of course I still—" he started, then swallowed, then said, "All those things you did, they made you—it wasn't you."
"But it was," Bucky said. "Maybe I didn't have a choice but—me and the Winter Soldier, we ain't two separate people. You know that."
His shoulders had hunched slightly, tensed. Steve wanted nothing more than to reach out, touch him, reassure him, but he wasn't sure it'd be welcome. "I know," he said. "He's part of you—but he isn't bad." He'd just been forced to do bad things, terrible things. Steve had vowed long ago that he'd make sure the people responsible paid for it—that no one else would ever have the same things done to them. But that wasn't what Bucky needed to hear right now, he didn't think; and it wasn't what he wanted to say. Instead he swallowed, took a breath, made himself utter the words: "To me it doesn't change a thing. You're still you—the core of you. They haven't touched that, they weren't able to touch that, just to—" Suppress it, maybe, mowing, hacking, but not killing, and so it had always stayed there, underneath the surface, a web of deeply buried roots just waiting for the winter to pass so they could shoot up and flourish again. "And I—I still love you. I do."
He almost didn't get the last words out: his throat had closed up, like it always did around that sentence. Over the years he'd only managed to say it a couple of times. Not to his Ma, because in that respect she'd been like him: it was no use stating the obvious, she'd say, of course they loved each other, they didn't need to say it. But to Bucky… Because on Bucky's tongue those words flowed so freely, like he couldn't help it, like it'd never occurred to him to hold them back, like saying them made him feel good and happy instead of small and vulnerable and scared. Steve had never understood it: how easily it came to him. He'd felt envious, too, and a bit guilty for not being able to reciprocate. Bucky had never seemed to mind. Yet the few times Steve had managed to get over himself and actually say it, Bucky had gotten that smile on his face, small, private, trying to tamp down the thrilled delight which came out as a high flush on his cheeks instead—the very same flush he was now sporting.
"I— Same." He cleared his throat. "So this whole time we've just been a coupla dumbasses, uh."
"I believe they call it miscommunication these days," Steve said with a smile—a sad one: it would've never happened to them before, not like that, not for so long.
"Yeah," Bucky said quietly, "but look, we—" He broke off, then went on: "—we used our words," like it was funny, and suddenly it was: it was the funniest thing Steve had heard all week. He grinned. Bucky grinned back. "Come on," he said, gesturing at the shop behind him, "I can finally eat cheese again, so let's go make up for some of that lost time."
The bagels didn't taste the same. Steve was surprised and not, disappointed and not: of course they didn't. Nothing did, not really. Not even Bucky's lips.
But it was alright. It didn't mean that the bagels weren't good; much to the contrary, they were delicious, with a flavor of their own.
Bucky's kisses were the same. They didn't taste like a homecoming, but rather like a new beginning, a victory—the first and the second and all the ones Steve quickly lost count of, because who cared about numbers when there was this: Bucky's lips meeting his, dragging against his skin, his teeth nipping at Steve's mouth, his neck, flashing through when he smiled, his hands cradling Steve's face, his gasps, his laughter, his long hair sliding smoothly between Steve's fingers, his voice calling Steve's name. His smile at the end, the trust in his eyes closing, his body relaxing amongst the sheets, his head tilting and leaving his throat bare.
"We could've been doing this from the start," he said almost plaintively, cracking an eye open to look at Steve, who was turning his metal hand over, fascinated by the intricacies of it, by the way Bucky shivered when he ran his thumb against the palm. "Okay, maybe not the start-start," he admitted after a few seconds of silence. "I wasn't— I would've freaked out, maybe. Probably. But still: for months, at least."
Steve didn't say I'm sorry: Bucky wouldn't have liked it. Still, it was something like an apology when he dipped his head and kissed the back of Bucky's hand. Bucky huffed, shifted, leaned back into his pillow.
"So," he said, "anything else important we haven't talked about because you're worried about my fragile psyche?"
Steve gave him a look, but Bucky mouthed, Months, and so he relented. He looked down. "I don't know. Well. Maybe. I mean, I've been careful not mixing dairy and— But that's not all there is to it and—" And he was beating around the bush in the most ridiculous of ways. He huffed, irritated at himself, and made himself bite the bullet, meet Bucky's nonplussed gaze and ask, "Would you like me to cook kosher? Because I can. I mean, I will. If you— If that's something you'd want."
Bucky's lips had parted. He looked almost stunned for a second, before his eyes shifted to the ceiling and he took on a pensive expression, letting himself think about it: having the freedom, the luxury, to care about this again in a way he hadn't been able to since the war. Steve waited.
In the end, Bucky said, "I think—" He paused, cleared his throat. "Yeah. Yes. That'd— that'd be nice."
"Okay," Steve said, nodding. "I can— I'll switch the pots and pans and— Everything should be easy to replace. I'll see what can be done for the dishwasher and the sink—but that shouldn't take too long either. I'm sure I can have everything in order for when you come back."
Bucky stared at him for a long moment. "When," he finally repeated. His voice was trembling slightly.
"When," Steve confirmed.
It wasn't often that Steve Rogers got to be glad about being right. Resigned, yes. Vindicated, sometimes—maybe more often than he should have. But glad? Simply and genuinely glad? Rarely. Almost never.
The last day of Bucky's trial was one of those rare moments, though. When the jury gave their verdict and declared Bucky not guilty on all charges, Steve felt his face split into a grin. He almost jumped to his feet, almost ran straight up to him, almost hugged and kissed him in front of everyone, in front of the entire world—because who cared about them all, or what they thought? Bucky wasn't guilty, Steve had known that he wasn't guilty and that no one in their right mind would judge otherwise and—
And okay, maybe there was a little bit of vindication in there somewhere. But that was okay, probably. Steve felt like he'd earned it, after all he'd contributed to the investigation. Especially since the dominant feeling bubbling inside of him was still, mostly, happiness.
It took a little bit of time for Bucky to be released for good, to have his belongings returned to him and be allowed to walk out the door a free man, able to go wherever he wanted. Well, maybe not wherever: he still didn't have an ID. Part of their defense during the trial had relied on proving that he was indeed James Buchanan Barnes, sergeant in the U.S. Army, born March 10th 1917 and declared M.I.A. in February 1945. They'd been successful in that endeavor, but it would still take a while for the federal administration to do its job and bring James B. Barnes back to life, to make him a citizen once more. But that was okay: he had time, now. And hopefully it wouldn't take as long as it had for Steve—thanks to whom there was now a precedent, at least.
In the meantime, Bucky returned to the Tower, where Steve got everyone to settle at the dinner table while he walked over to the fridge and took out the cheesecake he'd prepared for the occasion. When he turned around, holding it in his hands, and caught sight of the entire team waiting, half of them craning their necks to see what he'd made, he paused: was this what Mrs. Barnes had felt like, all those years ago, bringing challah to a table full of eager and impatient children? Then he blinked, and the feeling passed. He walked over and put the cake down on the table, before accepting the spoon and plate Sam was holding out to him. Of all the Avengers, he was the only one who'd been raised well enough to help by fetching the cutlery without needing to be asked, it seemed. Well, usually Bucky would've done the same, but today he was excused. He was staring at the cake.
After a while he muttered, "Felt pretty confident about our odds, uh." Which was pretty much what Tony had said the day before, when he'd dropped by the duplex and found Steve bringing the finishing touches to the cake before putting it in the fridge to sit overnight. All Steve had done was shrug in answer and say, "Well, if the outcome isn't the right one, there's still the option of busting him out of prison and going on the run. I was thinking to Africa first. Ethiopia, maybe, or somewhere nearby—somewhere warm."
He and Tony had exchanged a look, not quite tense, but aware of how differently they stood on the matter of the trial and its expected results, even though Tony had mellowed out a lot over the past year—so much so that in the end he'd only shrugged. "As long as I get to eat the entirety of that in compensation," he said, gesturing at the fridge. "What flavor is it, by the way? Asking for science."
The answer was: plum, with a little bit of lemon.
"Oh my God, this is so good," Sam said around his first mouthful. He'd dug in the second everyone had been served. "Where did you find the recipe?"
Steve hesitated for less than a second, but it was enough for Natasha to smile and ask, "Did you come up with it yourself?"
"No," Steve said quickly, "not— I mean. I used a recipe I'd already used as a basis—this isn't the first cheesecake I've made, remember?"
"No, actually, I don't remember," Clint said indignantly. "What cheesecake?"
Bruce, on the other hand, was smiling and nodding. Of course he did, Steve realized: that week Natasha, Clint and Sam had been off on a mission while Tony had been busy with an experiment in his lab from which he wouldn't be distracted. As a consequence, Bruce had gotten most of the cake to himself.
He hadn't seemed to mind.
"What it boils down to is, I did follow a recipe, of sorts," Steve went on. "I just—I changed the flavor, using plums instead of— And so then I had to make some adjustments in the quantities, lower the amount of sugar to make up for how much sweeter plums are to begin with—and add some lemon too, to add a little kick, but that wasn't really—"
Bucky rolled his eyes. "Steve," he said, interrupting him and giving him a look. "Stop the bullshit. You didn't have a recipe, you came up with it yourself."
For a second, Steve could only stare at him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tony cutting himself another slice—trying and failing to be discreet, as always.
"I guess," Steve said then, slowly. He looked down at the slice sitting on his own plate, untouched: he'd been so preoccupied with everyone's reaction that he hadn't even taken the time to get a taste of his own. He picked up his fork to do just that, and found himself smiling. "Yeah," he said, a bit bashful still, yet more confident too, "that one—I guess that one's all me."