When Sam and Steve had first been approached about being guest judges on an Avengers-themed special of Chef Wars, they’d spent a full fifteen minutes jumping around the common room in the Tower like a pair of overgrown kids on a sugar high.
Guest judges. On Chef Wars.
It so happens that Sam and Steve watch Chef Wars religiously. In fact, Steve even mentioned this in passing in one or two of his more recent interviews when asked how Captain America likes to spend his downtime, which is probably how the show’s executives had thought to invite them in the first place.
Sam’s love for cooking and cooking shows was passed down to him by his mother Darlene, and he, in turn, passed it on to Captain America – though if you’d told ten-year-old Sam that, he would’ve thought you were nuts. Poor Steve isn’t exactly the culinary sort of guy himself, but once Sam started turning up on his doorstep three nights a week to keep him company and make sure he didn’t sink further into depression, he’d slowly started to enjoy the shows Sam insisted on watching with him. Sam figured the familiarity of the actions and the low stakes of an amateur cooking competition would be perfectly suited to someone trying to integrate into a new century, while still being just exciting enough to hold the attention of an adrenaline junkie like Steve.
And he was right. So now, every Thursday night, the two of them chill on Steve’s couch, yelling at the TV and pretending they‘d do a better job of it than the contestants. Which, to be fair, Sam probably would, but Steve decidedly would not. What Steve lacks in culinary skills, though, he more than makes up for with his crazy supersoldier metabolism, rivaled only by the Other Guy and sometimes Thor, once he’s cracked open the mead. Steve can eat, and he does so with relish.
So needless to say, when they got the invite, they’d both jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t, when presented with the opportunity to do the thing they did every Thursday night for funsies, but this time for realsies? And after weeks of giddy anticipation, today is finally the day.
The whole thing had gotten off to an excellent start. The sun was shining, Steve had actually been whistling on their way to the studio instead of nervously drumming his fingers on the dashboard (something which got on Sam’s nerves like nothing else), and they’d been offered some quality Italian espresso when they arrived. The show got on the road as soon as they’d gotten a quick tour of the studio, and after lights, camera, action, the contestants were introduced one by one.
There is Bernadette, a Missouri housewife who turned out to be somewhat of a BBQ expert and who reminds Sam of his Aunt Jenna; there’s Bob, a big, burly dude from Kentucky who wouldn’t look amiss on a Pro Wrestling show but who ends up surprising them all with a surprisingly delicate edible flower-dish dedicated to his lovely wife; and Yulia, a tiny, fierce girl from Bulgaria with some mean knife skills who Sam suspects could very well be a distant relative of Natasha’s.
And then there’s Bucky Barnes.
Bucky Barnes is a thirty-one-year-old physical therapist from Brooklyn who’s looking to change careers and get into the restaurant business full time. He has that whole hipster vibe going on: long, meticulously conditioned chestnut hair in a messy top knot, designer stubble, sleeve of – admittedly awesome – tattoos on his left arm. His cool, blue eyes and sharp cheekbones give him a model-like appearance, and yet there’s something soft and disarming about him.
Steve certainly seems to think so, at least.
The moment Barnes came walking through those glass doors, Sam heard Steve suck in a sharp breath at his side. A quick glance at Steve’s slack-jawed expression told Sam all he needed to know, since the dude is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. He’d elbowed Steve in the side until he looked over and pretended to wipe some drool from the corner of his mouth. Steve’s eyes went wide as he hastily mirrored the movement, missing the joke by about fifty yards. Oh, boy.
From that moment onward, Steve’s brain seemed to have gone through a blender, turning it into a rainbow smoothie – which was pretty unfortunate, considering they were going to have to interact with the contestants in a way that was suitable for daytime television.
The thing is, Steve is not exactly what you’d call a people person at the best of times. He’s fine with someone he’s known for a while and feels comfortable with, but with strangers he’s just… a little awkward. Credit where credit’s due, Steve is one of the most loyal, sweet, funny and whip-smart guys Sam has ever known – and let’s not forget stubborn as hell – but he’s also very, very bad at social cues. It’s not his fault, of course. Steve had gone from growing up pretty isolated without any real friends to speak of, to suddenly spending years surrounded only by his army buddies, which wasn’t at all representative for how normal people interacted with each other (Sam knows this from experience).
While Steve’s many social faux-pas are an endless source of entertainment for Sam, he’s not a total asshole, and he has tried to help Steve practice his social skills. Unfortunately, giving him well-meaning advice like “just be yourself” seems to be a sure-fire way to ensure Steve will put his foot in his mouth somehow.
That’s why Steve prefers to put on his Cap persona for public interactions. When he’s Captain America instead of Steve Rogers, all he has to do is look commanding and sort of friendly and say bland things like “I’m very happy to be here” and “You did well, son” and no one would be any the wiser that beneath that righteous exterior, Steve was floundering and wondering when he could reasonably leave whatever social engagement Pepper had sweet-talked him into attending, and head home to the comfort of his armchair and his sketchbook.
For today’s engagement, Steve had wisely adopted this approach as well, and the fact that he was genuinely excited to be there helped to loosen him up a little – so really, it should’ve all been fine.
But then Bucky Barnes from Brooklyn walked into the room and turned his big, blue eyes in Steve’s direction, and Steve promptly seemed to forget who or what a Captain America even was.
So far, Steve has already missed his cue twice, and it’s taken Sam stepping on his toes to get him to focus. To be fair, though, Steve puts in a valiant effort to pull himself together, managing to ooh and aah in all the right places when talking to the other candidates – sheer dumb luck, if you ask Sam. But as Steve’s best friend and confidante, Sam sees right through it. He hasn’t missed the way Steve’s gaze keeps drifting in Barnes’ direction, and coupled with the blush creeping up the back of Steve’s neck whenever Barnes’s eyes meet his, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Cap has got himself a Manhattan-sized crush.
Now, most people probably aren’t aware that Captain America is also attracted to men, but Sam has a feeling that by the end of this episode, that cat will most definitely be out of the closet. Steve never purposely hid his sexuality; it was more of a question of it never having come up yet. It sure as hell has come up now.
And what makes this even better is that Barnes is just as bad. He stuttered his way through his introduction, very obviously starstruck at meeting Captain America, but also very obviously gay as hell for him, if the way his eyes lingered on Steve’s chest and thighs is any indication. Sam, for his part, is incredibly amused by it all. Not only does he get to be on the set of his favorite cooking show, he also gets to rib Steve, throwing in as many food puns as he possibly can – most of which go over Steve’s head because he’s too busy drooling over Barnes. Sam’s wit is wasted on his friends.
Then, it’s time to judge. In the first round, the contestants are supposed to make something which represents why they got into cooking in the first place.
Sam can feel Steve practically vibrate with nerves at his side as they walk up to Barnes’ station. Feeling magnanimous, Sam decides to have mercy on his muscly pal and take the lead on this one.
“Mr. Barnes,” he says, giving Barnes an encouraging smile. “Tell us about your dish, if you please.”
“Call me Bucky,” Barnes says, returning the gesture with a quick quirk of his lips.
Next to him, Steve repeats the name in a whisper, most likely unaware that he’s even doing it.
Sam has to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep from smirking.
“I grew up in Brooklyn, as the eldest of five kids. My dad left when I was fifteen, and while I was still in school, my mom had to work three jobs to provide for us all. She wasn’t home much, so it was kind of up to me to make sure dinner was on the table most nights.”
Bucky plucks at the seam of his black skinny jeans, lost in thought. “I think that’s why my specialty is comfort food. Nothing unnecessary, just hearty, nutritious food, y’know?” With a tilt of his head, he adds, “Although since all my siblings moved into their own places I’ve been cooking mostly for myself and my cat, so I’ve been experimenting with adding some twists to my tried and tested recipes.” He laughs, right hand clasping the back of his neck in a bashful gesture. “I’ve had… mixed success. Luckily Alpine has loved all of it. She’s my cat.”
“My first dish today is Irish soda bread with sage butter and Himalayan sea salt,” Bucky continues. “Bread was something we could never have enough of in our household. Five growing kids, y’know? And also, um...” A slight blush creeps its way onto Bucky’s cheeks, his eyes flitting around nervously. “Well, I guess you could say I used to be a bit of a history nerd growing up. I was super interested in World War II, particularly, uh, Captain America.” His blush deepens, spreading upwards from the neckline of his white t-shirt to the tips of his pierced ears.
“I, uh, I basically read every Steve Rogers biography I could get my hands on, which is why I learned to make things like soda bread because, y’know, Steve Rogers was Irish. Is Irish,” he corrects himself. Bucky’s eyes glaze over, taking on a faraway look. “Man, I couldn’t believe it when Cap was found a few years ago,” he marvels, “and alive. I don’t think I slept for a week after I found out.” He stares into space for a moment before shaking himself. He clears his throat, eyes refocusing on the person behind the camera. “Anyway, so when I heard that Chef Wars was doing an Avengers-themed special, I immediately applied because Steve – Cap, I mean- Captain America. Um. Yeah, so Cap mentioned in a few of his interviews that he watches Chef Wars, so I figured there would be a good chance he’d be watching this one too, you know? And then I got the email that I’d been selected and that he was going to be the one judging us, and I just…” Bucky trails off, looking a little faint, the blood draining from his face as quickly as it had risen.
“God, I just can’t believe I’ll finally get to see him in the flesh.” His eyes widen. “In person, I mean," he hastily amends. "And I’m excited about my dishes too, of course. I really hope Cap will like them. And the Falcon. Him, too. Yeah.”
“I made soda bread.”
Steve lets out the 6’2” supersoldier equivalent of a squeak. “Oh, I love soda bread,” he says eagerly, rolling forward on the balls of his feet like he does when he gets excited. “My mom used to make it all the time when I was growing up.”
The tips of Barnes’s ears turn red, and he mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, “I know.”
When Steve puts a piece of bread into his mouth and chews slowly, he sniffs, eyes turning a little watery. “It tastes exactly like my mom’s,” he says in a hushed voice, sounding like he can’t quite believe his taste buds. Sam pats Steve’s back consolingly, before scooping up some sage butter with his own piece of bread and taking an enthusiastic bite.
“Hmm, nice,” he says, giving Barnes an appreciative nod. “And the butter? You make that yourself, too?”
“You butter believe it,” Barnes replies, then immediately looks horrified, like he can’t believe he made a pun that bad on national television.
Sam cackles, holding out his fist for Barnes to bump. When Barnes has recovered enough to return the gesture with his left hand, Steve stares longingly at their touching hands, before letting his gaze trail over the tattoos on Barnes’ exposed forearm. Since he's not exactly subtle about it, Barnes catches him looking and gives Steve a tentative smile when their eyes meet. Steve chokes on absolutely nothing and launches into an impromptu coughing fit. “Crumbs,” he wheezes, thumping a massive fist on his massive chest, “wrong pipe.”
Sam just smirks at him, before turning back to Barnes. “That was delicious,” he tells him. “Can’t wait for your next dish, man.”
“Really, really, good,” Steve chimes in once he’s caught his breath. “Well done, Bucky.”
Barnes goes as red as a tomato, eyes trained on the floor as he awkwardly shifts from foot to foot. “Thank you, Captain.”
“Steve, please,” Steve implores.
Barnes bites his lip, looking up at Steve through his lashes. “Thanks, Steve.”
Sam's pretty sure Steve stops breathing altogether right then. Christ, it’s like there’s an electrical current running between the two of them, the air crackling with it. Thunderbolts and lighting, very very nauseating.
Sam claps his hands. “Right,” he says loudly, “moving on to the next contestant now… Yulia, what have you prepared for us?”
By the time the second round rolls around, Steve has had a series of meltdowns and Sam has spent precious time he could’ve been exploring the set and taking pics for his mom on talking Steve out of a bathroom stall. Damn, he’s a good friend. It takes all of Sam’s VA-honed therapist skills to convince Steve that he’s doing fine, he’s not embarrassing himself, and no one but Sam has noticed Steve’s massive heart boner for Barnes yet. Sam actually isn’t entirely positive about that last one – or the first two for that matter – but Steve doesn’t need to know that. There are still two rounds to go.
In the second round, contestants are asked to make a dish that represents who they are as a person.
While the contestants are cooking up a metaphorical storm, Sam and Steve walk around their stations to chat with everyone some more, camera crew on their heels. Steve manages to get out at least three complete sentences, and Bernadette and Bob are too in awe of him to notice the few times he says something that doesn’t actually make any sense. Yulia has given no indication that she even knows who either of them are, and Sam can practically feel the relief radiating off of Steve. He guesses that’s part of why he and Natasha get on so well.
When they round on Barnes’ station, Barnes has just started seasoning his dish. There’s a checkered dishcloth slung over his right shoulder and a focused look on his face, which turns into one of low-key stress the moment he spots Steve and Sam coming towards him. Leaning his hip against the counter, Sam settles in to watch Steve make a fool of himself. He's not disappointed.
“Wow,” Steve says inanely, gesturing in the direction of Barnes’ hands. “That’s- you’re- you’re really good at that.”
Barnes pauses his turning of the peppermill to give Steve a slightly panicked look. “At… grinding?”
At Steve’s strangled cough, Barnes seems to realize what he just said, his bewildered expression morphing into one of abject mortification. The poor guy looks like he’d very much like the ground to swallow him whole right about now.
Honestly, these two deserve each other.
When they've finished chatting to everyone and it’s time to taste, Barnes is asked to explain his dish and how it represents him. He seems to have pulled himself together somewhat since their last encounter, his stance a little more confident now and his eyes only drifting to Steve’s pecs every other sentence.
“I’m a simple guy,” he tells them, somehow managing to make it sound genuine instead of cliché. “I enjoy the little things in life. I like taking care of people, making them feel good and comfortable, and I think that’s reflected in my cooking. I enjoy making comfort food, the hale and hearty stuff.” He licks his lips, meaningfully adding, “Although, don’t get me wrong. I do indulge occasionally. I’ve got my guilty pleasures same as everyone else, y'know?” That last part is directed at Steve, who nods dazedly, like he knows exactly what Barnes means. Gross.
“So I guess you could say you’re just… arugula guy?” Sam grins, cheerfully ignoring the growing sexual tension.
Barnes stares at him for a beat, and then snorts. “You know what?” he says, returning Sam's grin, “the s’more I get to know you, the s’more I like you.”
Sam has a very real moment where he thinks he might actually fall in love with this guy himself. It’s only Steve’s doe-eyed look that keeps him from proposing to Barnes there and then. Okay, and maybe the fact that Barnes is clearly smitten with Steve, and also Sam is straight and very happily dating Nat, who would not hesitate to gut him if he decided to elope with some pasty hipster dude.
Barnes’ dish – mac and cheese with black truffle and locally sourced cheeses and fancy cuts of bacon – is mouthwateringly good, and Sam tells him as much. Using appropriate words to do so. You know, like a normal person.
Steve, on the other hand, moans loudly around his bite and then, mouth still full, he blurts, “That’s exactly what I thought you’d taste like.”
In the painfully awkward silence that follows, Steve and Barnes blush so hard the combined heat of their flaming cheeks could probably power most of New York City. This time, Sam can’t contain his laughter. He crows as he gleefully slaps his thighs, and even some of the crew is hiding having a hard time staying professional in the face of such blatant dumbassery.
Shaking his head, Sam grabs Steve by the bicep and herds him towards the backroom. “Come on, Casanova,” he says. “Let’s get you some ice for those burns.”
For dessert, Barnes goes all out.
He actually makes Captain America cake pops, shaped and decorated like Steve’s shield with blue, red and white frosting. Steve’s eyes almost bug out of his head when he sees them. Barnes explains how they’re “sort of an adult version” of normal cake pops, which makes Sam raise an eyebrow. He’s been on the internet. He unfortunately has seen adult versions of all kinds of Captain America paraphernalia. Fortunately, Barnes just means that his cake pops have some sort of liquor in the center, “for a punch, you know?”
The starry-eyed look Steve gives Barnes clearly conveys just how clever he thinks that is, and Sam surreptitiously rolls his eyes. No game whatsoever, either of them.
“I’ve never had a cake pop before,” Steve says, carefully picking up one of the treats and inspecting it curiously.
“Oh,” Barnes says, blinking at him. “Well, normally you’d eat them in one go, but these are a bit bigger than usual because of the shape of the shield, so you probably won’t be able to fit -”
The rest of his sentence sort of peters off into a stunned silence as Steve proceeds to stick a whole-ass giant cake pop in his mouth in one go, letting out an appreciative grunt as he chews and then swallows.
Barnes’s mouth goes slack. “Oh my god,” he breathes, his eyes glazing over, and Sam cracks up. Again.
The cake pops are actually surprisingly good, despite their garish (sorry, Steve) appearance, and then it’s time to retreat and deliberate. As was to be expected, Steve has a crisis of conscience.
“I can’t vote for him just because he made my mom’s soda bread and he practically raised his baby sisters by himself and he cooks for his cat and he has pretty eyes, Sam!” he laments, voice muffled into his massive forearms. Sam makes the filming crew promise not to air this bit. It takes some doing, but finally Sam manages to convince Steve that Barnes’s food was simply the best. Better than all the rest. He even does a little Tina impression to get his point across, and that seems to do it.
When they announce the winner, Barnes smiles so wide it transforms his whole face and makes Steve melt into a puddle of Gü.
Sam has to nudge Steve again to get him to say his line, since he’s too busy mooning over Barnes to notice the autocue changing. “Ah, yes!” Steve says loudly. “First prize is a substantial sum of money, sponsored by Tony Stark, which we hope will go towards opening your own restaurant–"
“… and a weekend stay at Avengers Tower, also sponsored by Tony!”
Steve’s head whips around to him in surprise. Sam winks at him. “Including a private tour of the premises by none other than Captain America himself. Isn’t that right, Steven?”
A beat of silence, and then Steve.exe starts back up. "Right,” he nods, drawing out the word. “Yes. That’s right.” Sam pats his arm. Good man.
Stepping forward, Steve takes Barnes’ hand and shakes it slowly. “Congratulations, Bucky. I look forward to seeing you again soon," he says, adding, after a quick, bracing inhale, “and maybe when you visit, I can make my mom’s stew for you? If- if you like?”
Sam feels a surge of pride. Look at Steve go, being something almost in the vicinity of smooth.
Barnes laps it up, beaming at Steve. “I’d really love that,” he says in a low voice, still holding Steve's hand. “I’m sure you’re delicious.” His eyes widen. “It’s delicious. The stew – not- not-" Abruptly, Barnes stops babbling, then seems to come to a decision. “Oh, fuck it,” he mutters, and pulls Steve towards him, crashing their mouths together in a scorching kiss.
Over the noise of the assembled crowd's whoops and cheers, Sam gleefully calls, “And that, my friends, is a wrap!”