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The Art Of Cooking For Two

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The taxi deposits Bucky outside of a perfectly pleasant little hotel somewhere south of nowhere, Berkshire. He hauls his bag out of the footwell behind the driver's seat and climbs out, feet crunching on the pebbled driveway. As the taxi pulls away and trundles down the road, Bucky wonders, not for the first time, or even the tenth, what the fuck he is doing.

It had been a joke at first, filling out the application form for a television baking competition and sending it off without a second thought. Then there had been the invite to an audition, baking two items for the overly cheerful researcher who had wolfed down his placinta and marmalade cake, and told him they’d be in touch.
He had thought that would be the end of it, but he’d been called back a month later for a screen test and interview with the producer, Maria, a slightly terrifying woman with a clipboard and a smile that seemed sincere while also expressing the desire to punch you in the throat if you mildly inconvenienced her. He’d had CO’s in Kabul less terrifying than she was.
Shortly after that he’d been invited back to a second interview, this time with the judges from the show. Nick Fury, the steel eyed ‘Bad cop’ judge, born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen where his father ran a bakery. And Peggy Carter, a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, who fell into cookery at the end of the war and spent the next fifty years publishing cookbooks, presenting TV shows and cementing her role as the nation's favourite grandmother. Bucky had been more nervous about cooking for her than for Fury. Fury was dissatisfaction made flesh and clad in leather, no point in trying to please him. But Peggy Carter's opinion actually mattered. She had been sweet and understanding when he got flustered, and didn’t even stare at his arm.
And now here he was, stood outside a pleasant little hotel somewhere in Berkshire.

He pulls himself together and walks up the stone steps to the door, pushing it open and peering around the foyer. He spots Maria standing by the reception desk and slopes over to mutter hello. She glances up and gives him a brittle little smile.
“Mr Barnes, you made it,” she says.
She mutters to the receptionist, who picks a key from the rack behind her and hands it over. Maria gestures for Bucky to follow her and leads the way to the stairs, walking up to the second floor and down the hallway. She tosses the keys to him and he manages to catch them without fumbling.
“This is your room, try not to wreck it,” she says with a smirk. “Breakfast is at 5.30am. Tradition is the contestants have dinner together Friday night, so be down in reception at 7pm. You’ll get to meet the competition.” She pauses to make a note on her clipboard. “Any changes to your recipes?”
Bucky shakes his head.
“Any questions?” she asks with a raised eyebrow.
“Uh. What the fuck am I doing here?” Bucky offers.
She snorts. Holy crap, she has a sense of humour.
“I ask myself the same thing,” she says and holds out her hand. “Give me your phone.”
Bucky hesitates before pulling his phone out of his pocket. Maria plucks it out of his hand.
“You’ll get it back on Sunday,” she says, tucking it in her pocket.
“What?” Bucky splutters.
“No mobile phones, no cameras, no internet access,” she rattles off. “No googling recipes or tweeting about being eliminated”.
Bucky nods. Oh, well that makes sense. Maria gives him a smile that might actually be genuine and stalks off the way she came.
Bucky unlocks the door and walks into the room. It’s small but comfortable, with a double bed and en suite. He drops his bag on the floor, kicks off his shoes and falls face first on the bed.
What the fuck is he doing here?

Bucky ambles downstairs shortly before 7pm to find the reception full of people. A dozen to be precise, the eleven other contestants and Maria, who herds them like a Border Collie with her milling sheep.
They are ushered out the door and down the road to a nearby restaurant, a bucolic, wood panelling and open fireplace place with soft lighting from wall-mounted lanterns and fuck-ugly carpets.
Bucky finds himself sat at the end of the table next to an excitable Mexican who introduces himself as Luis and launches into a lengthy anecdote about.. Ricotta cheese? Or rosé wine? Bucky nods and makes ‘Uh-huh?’ noises at appropriate moments.
Menus are passed around and Maria circles the table, getting everyone’s food and drink orders down despite all the chattering and questions. When she returns from the bar after placing the orders she suggests that they go around the table and introduce themselves, pointing to a thin, ginger haired woman at the far end of the table who smiles at the group.
“Hi, I’m Pepper. I run a clean eating blog. I think food can be healthy and delicious.”
Bucky suppresses a laugh, and Luis kicks his leg and sniggers. Maria points to the next person down the table, a ruggedly handsome older man.
“My name is Alexander Pierce. I recently retired and have taken an interest in cooking,” he says, smiling at the group.
Maria points to the man next to him, who folds his hands on the table before speaking.
“Good evening, my name is T’Challa. I am from Wakanda and it is my pleasure to be here.” His voice is soft and low.
The young woman with long dark hair next to T'Challa speaks up next.
“Hi, I’m Jane. I’m an astrophysicist. When I’m not studying quantum mechanics I like making cakes.”
“Hey, I’m Luis! My cousin filled in my application form, y’know? He knows this dude who makes these killer pain au chocolat and the lamination is just exquisite…” Bucky gives Luis a sharp kick to the ankle and raises his eyebrows. “Anyway, yeah. I like baking.”
Bucky glances around the table and takes a deep breath.
“I’m Bucky. Uh… Born in Romania, moved here as a kid. Was in the Army but,” he raises his hand, his metal fingers reflecting the lamplight. “Medical discharge.”
“Holy shit!” exclaims a girl further down the table. The large, blond haired man sat next to her laughs and calls her spirited.
The man sat opposite Bucky gives him a sympathetic smile before speaking.
“Hi, I’m Bruce. I stress-bake. A lot.”
There is a ripple of amusement around the table.
After Bruce is a young woman with an Eastern European accent thicker than Bucky’s.
“I’m Wanda. I’m from Sokovia, but you’ve probably never heard of it. My brother sent my application in without telling me.”
Bucky glances at the next guy along and his heart kicks in his chest. Damnit the man is beautiful, dark blond hair and blue eyes. Bucky mentally slaps himself. Focus.
“Uh. I’m Steve, I’m from Brooklyn originally. Uh, I’m an artist. I like making patisserie.”
Focus, Barnes. Focus.
The next in line is the young woman who was so excited by Bucky’s hand.
“Hey guys, I’m Darcy. I’m studying political science but I’d rather make cupcakes.” She points at Bucky. “And I really wanna touch that hand!”
There is awkward laughter at that, and Bucky leans forward and rests his hand on the table, keeping it unnaturally still. He’s still not entirely comfortable with people staring at the prosthetic, and has been keeping it under the table during the meal so no one has spotted its range of mobility. Yet.
“Really?” the girl asks delightedly.
Bucky nods and watches as she taps it with her index finger, waits for her to relax and snaps his fingers over her hand, making her jump and squeal. He pulls back and tucks his hand under the table while she laughs and swears at him.
Beside her the blond, muscled giant of a man bangs his fist on the table for attention.
“Greetings, I am Thor. I will vanquish you all,” he says cheerfully.
There is a nervous giggling around the table and the last contestant speaks up.
“I’m Scott. I don’t know why I’m here, it’s all some terrible mistake.”

Their drinks arrive shortly after, and everyone starts to strike up conversations with the people sat next to them. For Bucky that means listening to Luis and occasionally exchanging a few words with Wanda and Bruce. When the food arrives the table falls silent while everyone eats, but for the occasional comment from Pepper about how everything is loaded with nitrates and toxins and Thor's cheerful flirting with Jane.
The waitresses come to collect their empty plates, and Maria points out that they’re to be waiting in reception at 6.15 am and to consider the bar closed. Luis and Darcy kick up a fuss over the early start and lack of alcohol, but Maria gives them a terrifying smile and they settle down.
They finish their drinks and allow themselves to be herded back to the hotel, where they mutter goodnight to each other and go up to their rooms.
Bucky kicks off his shoes and putters around his room for a while before brushing his teeth, getting undressed and going to bed.
He stares at the ceiling and wonders, not for the last time, what the fuck he is doing.

The nightmare wakes him up before the alarm call from reception does. Bucky sits on the edge of the bed and breathes slowly in through his nose and out through his mouth, counting to five as he does so. He stretches and runs through his physio routine before making the most of the hotel's power shower. By the time he is shaved and dressed in jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, it’s time to head downstairs to breakfast.
He pulls on his shoes and grabs his hotel key, padding across the hall and down the stairs, managing to find the dining room where a continental breakfast is laid out. Bruce is sat at one of the tables with orange juice and fruit salad in front of him. Bucky pours himself some coffee and grabs a bagel before motioning to the seat opposite.
“Mind if I join you?” he asks.
Bruce nods with a smile, and Bucky sits down.
“Nervous?” Bruce asks as he pushes diced melon around his bowl.
“Nah,” Bucky says with a grin. “You?”
“Questioning my life choices,” he says ruefully.
“Oh, yeah. That’s a given,” Bucky laughs and bites into his bagel.
The rest of the contestants filter into the room for breakfast. Luis is uncharacteristically quiet, hugging his cup of coffee to his chest and poking listlessly at a croissant.
Steve arrives last, still damp from a shower. Not that Bucky is paying attention.
At 6.15am Maria hustles the stragglers out of the dining room, and they all climb into a fleet of waiting taxis and whisked off to the Baking Marquee.

On arrival they meet the other producer, Phil.
Phil is polite, well presented and slightly flustered. He leads the way into the tent and talks them through the day's filming, showing them around the twelve counters stacked with their ingredients and their personal ovens set up underneath. The shared fridges and freezers are lined against the near wall. He lectures them on using bad language (don't), talking over the judges while filming (don't) and sternly advising them to behave themselves, giving Luis a pointed look.
His warnings all fly out the window when the hosts arrive and immediately start making lewd jokes and getting Phil flustered. He mutters darkly at them and goes off in search of the camera crew.
The show’s hosts, Clint and Natasha, introduce themselves to the contestants. Clint is laid back with a sarcastic streak a mile wide and a love of innuendoes. Natasha is sharp, sly and has a mouth like a sailor. A dishonorably discharged, extremely vulgar sailor.
The contestants are plied with tea and biscuits and made to feel welcome while the camera crew set up around them. There is a susurrus amongst the group when the judges arrive, Peggy resplendent in a vintage pantsuit and Nick in his customary leather.
Phil flaps around them for a while before the cameras start rolling and the contestants are sent to their counters.

Bucky’s counter is somewhere in the middle, alongside Darcy and behind Scott. He’s in front of Steve, so at least he won’t be distracted every time the guy bends down to check the oven. He does glance over to catch his eye and give a reassuring smile, which Steve returns.
Peggy makes the first announcement while they put on their aprons and check their recipes, informing the cameras that the first round in the competition is cakes, with three challenges over two days. The first of the day is the ‘Signature’ challenge, their tried-and-tested favourite recipe. They are given two hours to make a vegetable cake.
It’s slightly surreal having to stand around and listen to the announcement like the information is new, and he hadn’t submitted his recipe weeks beforehand.
Bucky had decided on chocolate beetroot cake, and immediately starts peeling and grating his beets.
In front of him Scott is muttering under his breath and grappling with a handful of carrots. He glances back to see Steve peeling a butternut squash. When Steve looks up at him he waves his purple stained right hand and rolls his eyes. Steve smiles before returning to his work.

Clint and Natasha come to bother him while he’s measuring out his cream and breaking chocolate into pieces. They get underfoot and poke at his arm, asking if it comes with attachments, and stealing chunks of chocolate until Bucky threatens them with beetroot stained fingers and they scuttle off cackling, in search of more victims.
Bucky melts chocolate and cream together, setting it aside to cool while he separates his eggs and whisks the whites into soft peaks. He combines the rest of his ingredients together in a bowl, stirs in the chocolate cream and folds in the egg whites before he spoons the mixture into a greased cake tin. He smooths down the top and slides it into the oven. He wipes down the counter and washes his hands before glancing around the room.
The judges are talking to Bruce about his cake. Scott is swearing at a bowl of batter. Wanda is sat cross-legged on the floor in front of her oven and doesn’t look inclined to move. Bucky has the best part of an hour to kill, so he heads over to the table set up with tea and coffee making facilities and sets the kettle on to boil. He makes tea for Scott, Luis and Wanda, coffee for himself and Steve, who looks genuinely touched when he pushes the mug across the counter towards him.
Pepper insists on making her own tea which isn’t even tea but some sort of compost heap in a bag that helps the body… something. Bucky tunes out at that point and carries on making a cup of chamomile tea for Bruce before going around the room to offer a drink to the rest of the group.

Forty five minutes into his hour of cooking time Bucky checks on his cake, poking it with a skewer and deciding to give it another five minutes. He sits on the floor in front of the oven and drums his prosthetic hand on the glass, counting down the minutes. He is suddenly aware of a cameraman filming the tapping of his metal fingers on the oven door and quickly snatches his hand out of view.
He checks the cakes again and pulls it out of the oven, setting it on the counter to cool before removing it from the tin and placing it on a cakestand.
He covers the cake with chocolate ganache, running a palette knife over the surface until he has a smooth, glossy finish. He licks the blade clean while he waits for the ganache to set. He spots a camera pointing towards him and winks at it before dropping the palette knife in the sink.
He mixes beetroot powder with cocoa powder and dusts it around the edge of the cake, stepping back before the urge to fidget with it gets too much and starts to tidy up. He glances up and sees the people around him putting finishing touches to their cakes and feels relieved. He’s not out of time, nor finished suspiciously early.
Clint and Natasha call time and Scott swears under his breath. Bucky walks over to his counter to clap him on the back and say nice things about his lopsided cake.
Steve comes over to compliment Bucky’s cake and Bucky manages to ask a fairly lucid question about using raw grated squash or pumpkin puree in cake, which Steve is happy to answer. They are still discussing crushed amaretti biscuits versus ground almonds to counter the moisture content of the vegetable when Phil hustles them back to their counters for judging.

The judging for the first round happens at each contestant's counter, and Thor is first.
Thor has a parsnip and honey cake that has singed a little. Peggy makes sympathetic noises, explaining that honey cakes are more likely to burn, but compliments him on the flavour. Nick makes a slightly disparaging remark that doesn’t even register with the beaming Thor.
Bruce follows with a pumpkin and nutmeg cake that is very well received, followed by Scott and Jane who made acceptable, but not particularly noteworthy carrot cakes.
Darcy is next with a ‘mystery’ cake, a depression-era recipe with the surprise being that it’s made with a tin of tomato soup. The judges are unconvinced, and declare the results dry and odd tasting.
Bucky briefly considers making a run for it as the judges approach his table, but manages a smile instead as they gather around his cake. Peggy compliments the classic simplicity of the presentation, while Nick grouses that it’s rather plain looking. They cut into the cake and Bucky lets himself relax a little as they take a bite. Peggy lets out a little hum of pleasure and takes a second bite. Nick grudgingly admits that it’s dense and fudgy, though a shade too bitter. Peggy declares it to be perfect, while Clint and Natasha hoover up what's left of the slice and pick at the crumbs. The judges move on to the next contestant, and Natasha tears a large piece off the edge of Bucky’s cake as she passes, dodging away when Bucky swats at her. Steve leans over to murmur congratulations once they have left, and Bucky does his best not to blush.

T'Challa has made a lime drizzle cake made with sweet cassava, a tuber with a rich coconut flavour. Peggy delights in the unusual ingredient and the balance of flavours. Nick twists his lip and mutters ‘good’ under his breath.
Luis is next with a boozy sweet potato tres leches cake, a light sponge soaked in Irish liqueur, condensed milk and cream. Peggy is delighted with the alcohol, and Luis flirts with her mercilessly while Nick complains that the whiskey spoils the flavour of the cake.
Alexander follows with a courgette and walnut coffee cake, finished with a classic buttercream filling and topped with piped rosettes and walnut halves. Nick calls the design old fashioned, though Peggy refers to it as classic.
Steve is next and Bucky whispers encouragements as the judges approach. His butternut squash, ginger and almond cake is golden brown, filled with whipped cream and crushed amaretti biscuit, and topped with a dusting of gingered sugar. Peggy cuts into it and gushes over the crunch of amaretti and moist crumb. Nick shrugs and calls it a ‘good bake’, which is the Nick Fury equivalent of a three hour firework display accompanied by the Philharmonic Orchestra.
Clint and Natasha squabble over the remains of the slice until Clint snatches up the plate and runs out of the marquee with it.
Bucky snags him long enough to congratulate him and sneak a mouthful of cake while Phil is chasing down the hosts. Peggy’s right, it’s delicious and Bucky says as much which makes Steve blush furiously.

Clint and Natasha reappear, Clint happily licking the last traces of cream off his plate and ignoring Phil’s mutters about professionalism, and Pepper is next.
Her zucchini angel food cake, made with oat flour, coconut sugar and about a thousand eggs, is pale and slightly deflated. She informs the judges that the cake is fat free, sugar free and gluten free. Nick grimaces and calls it taste free, likening it to an oddly sweet omelette. Peggy smiles and comments on half the fun of cake being the indulgence.
Luis makes retching noises and Bucky hisses at him, though is inclined to agree.
Finally, there is Wanda’s chocolate chilli zucchini cake. It’s covered in a rich, glossy ganache and decorated with fine strips of candied chilli. The judges cut a generous slice and Clint and Natasha get a mouthful before anyone else, their groans and garbled enthusiasm drowning out any complaints from Nick that the chilli is too powerful. Peggy declares the cake moist and indulgent, and admires Wanda’s organisation and skill. Wanda mumbles and ducks her head.

With the judging over, everyone starts moving around the counters, tasting each other's cakes and congratulating and commiserating on the judges comments. Bucky heads over to Luis to try his Tres Leche cake, taking his chocolate beetroot with him. Scott joins them, and after a moment Steve appears at Bucky’s shoulder with his bake, and Bucky wastes no time in foisting cake on him.
Phil hustles everyone out of the marquee and off to lunch, provided by a mobile catering company, while they wait for the next round of the competition to be set up.
They sit at trestle tables in the sunshine, Bucky wedged between Steve and Wanda. Thor sits himself down opposite Jane and starts reciting poetry to her while Darcy cackles and eggs him on. The rest of them pick at their pasta bakes and fret over what the next challenge will be.
The show requires some talking head shots with each contestant, giving the audience a chance to get to know each of them a little better, and watch them sweat and panic over the challenges. Phil collects a handful of contestants and takes them off to scenic parts of the country estate where the show is filmed.
Bucky watches as Steve, followed by Darcy, then T'Challa and finally Pepper are summoned to their interviews. Luis elbows him in the ribs.
“Best ‘till last, man,” he says cheerfully.

An hour and a bowlful of bland pasta later Phil reappears and ushers them back into the marquee.
The counters have kilner jars filled with ground almonds, sugar and eggs laid out on them, along with a printed sheet of instructions laid face down on each countertop. The contestants wander over to the same counter they had been using in the morning to await further instructions.
Bucky glances over at Steve and raises his eyebrows. Steve shrugs and shakes his head.
Clint and Natasha position themselves at the front of the marquee alongside the judges and introduce the Technical Challenge, Clint explaining for the audience at home that it is the round in the competition where the bakers prove their technical ability when given a recipe with no instructions, just a list of ingredients and quantities.
Bucky shifts nervously. With no guidelines to follow the challenge is how you combine the ingredients, how long you cook them and the oven temperature used. The challenges are usually obscure and unusual recipes designed to trip up inexperienced bakers.
Nick announces that the challenge is a Tårnkake, a Norwegian wreath cake.
The contestants glance at each other, shaking their heads and looking around. No one has heard of it. Peggy describes a series of concentric rings of cake stacked on top of one another to form a steep cone shape and topped with white icing.
Clint reminds the contestants, for the benefit of the cameras, that since the challenge is tested blind by the judges, they will not be observing the baking, and direct Peggy and Nick out of the marquee.
They are given two hours and a collection of ring shaped moulds to use, and the clock starts.

Bucky turns over the sheet of paper and reads through the recipe. He frowns to himself, the ingredients list has no flour or fat in it. After a moment of staring blankly at the page he shakes himself and gets to work.
He separates four egg whites and put them in an electric mixer, setting it to whisk while he weighs out sugar and ground almonds. He glances up and sees Scott looking lost, so whistles softly at him and tilts his head to the mixer and the pile of egg shells on his counter. Scott nods and starts cracking eggs.
Bucky slowly incorporates the ground almonds and sugar until he has a soft dough. He sets the dough to one side and spreads his metal cake rings out on the counter.
He hears a cough behind him and glances around to see Steve looking at him. He watches as Steve slowly taps a small glass bottle of almond essence on his counter. Fuck, he’d missed that. He gives Steve a quick nod and finds the bottle on his table, adding a teaspoon of extract to his batter and folding it in. He oils the cake rings and spoons out the soft dough, spreading it evenly in each mould. He can hear Clint and Natasha badgering Scott, but keeps his head down as he works, and soon enough they are hovering around him, prodding his cake tins and asking him questions.
He pinches Clint with his metal fingers, making him yelp and twist away, and they leave him alone for the time being. A few moments later he can hear Steve yelp as Clint prods him and asks if he works out, and Bucky tries not to snigger.

He puts the first lot of cake tins in the oven and sets the timer for seven minutes. He looks over at Luis to his right, who is getting his wetter batter into his moulds with a piping bag. Bucky asks if he’s okay, and Luis gives him a thumbs up.
Steve is busy filling his cake moulds. Bucky doesn’t want to disturb him, so he gets out a couple of wire cooling racks and sets them on the counter, then sits on the floor to glare through the glass oven door at the cakes within. He resists the urge to open the oven door until the cakes are golden in colour, and makes little warning noises at Luis everytime he goes for his own oven. He can hear Steve chuckling behind him each time it happens.
He finally opens the door and pulls out his first lot of cakes, they look light and well risen, and he sets them down on the cooling racks before putting the next lot of tins in and setting the timer again.
He runs a knife around each cake and they pop out fairly easily onto the cooling rack. He presses each one and watches them spring back, satisfied.
He leaves the next lot in slightly too long, and they come out a little darker, but he’s still happy with them. He repeats the process, washing and reusing moulds as he goes until he has eighteen sponge rings. He looks at his ingredients and decides on an egg white icing, whisking the separated egg whites and adding icing sugar a spoonful at a time. until he has a smooth, firm icing. He spoons the mix into an icing bag and starts assembling the cake.
He arranges his cake rings by size and drizzles icing on the largest one, setting it on the provided cake stand and getting to work on the next one. He is vaguely aware of Natasha warning them that there were only ten minutes remaining, but keeps his head down until the last cake ring is positioned at the top of his slightly lopsided tower.
He steps back before he gets the urge to start fiddling and knock the damn thing over, looking over at Steve who is adding a last few artful drips of icing to a damn near perfect looking tower. Bucky whistles and Steve flaps a hand at him, smiling as he shoos him away.
Bucky looks around the room, Scott has stacked his cake rings and is hastily squirting them with icing, Luis is dusting his tower with icing sugar and Wanda is sat on a stool drinking a cup of coffee.
Natasha calls time, and everyone steps away from their tables except Thor, who continues to drizzle icing over his impressive cake. He ignores Natashas repeated calls to stop, and gives her a sly grin before shoving the nozzle of the piping bag between his lips and squeezing the last of his icing into his mouth.

They drink tea and mill around while a line of tables are set at the front of the marquee. Phil places a picture of each contestant in a line on top, facing towards the contestants. Twelve stools are placed in a row in front of the tables.
Clint and Natasha take their places. The cameras are put in position and start rolling.
Natasha calls for the contestants to place their finished bakes behind their pictures and there is a slightly clumsy, uncoordinated dash to get the cakes in position before taking a stool.
Bucky positions himself next to Luis, because, well, someone has to, and manages not to jump when Steve sits next to him.
“Good luck,” Steve murmurs. Bucky grins at him.
“I’d say the same, but you got this in the bag,” he counters, which makes Steve blush.
Damnit, he’s cute when he blushes.

Clint and Natasha congratulate the contestants on the challenge, and call in the judges, who position themselves behind the table facing the contestants.
Nick and Peggy start appraising the first cake, and the contestants watch silently as he breaks apart the wreath, prodding and squeezing while Peggy takes demure bites and compliments the flavours. Nick works his way along the table, breaking up the wreaths and shoving his fingers into the cake rings. To dry, he growls. Too sweet. Too much vanilla. Not enough vanilla. Peggy makes a point of saying something complimentary about each cake. Nicely balanced, she says. Well structured. Excellent crumb. Good icing.
Clint seems to make it his personal mission to eat as much cake as possible, and stands behind the judges stuffing chunks of cake in his mouth, regardless of when Nick dismisses the bakes as overdone or lacking vanilla.
For the contestants trying not to wince at Nick’s dismissive remarks, the sight of Clint cramming more cake into his face than is humanly possible and winking merrily softens the blow.

After a moment of conferring, the judges rank the wreaths from worst to best.
Scott comes in twelfth. He shrugs and nods his head while Luis throws an arm around his shoulder. Thor is next, and is completely unfazed. Darcy, Bruce and Alexander follow, much to Alexander's displeasure. Pepper, Jane and Luis are called next. Bucky is called, much to his shock. Luis punches him in the arm, then winces and shakes his fingers because, oops, wrong arm. Bucky slaps him on the back, partly because Luis came in fifth and deserves a slap on the back, and partly because Luis forgot he has a fuckin’ metal arm and Bucky loves him a little bit for that.
Steve comes in third, and Bucky puts an arm around his shoulders and gives him a little shake while Steve covers his face with his hands. Wanda comes in second and first place goes to T'Challa.
The cameras record them hugging and congratulating each other before Phil sends them outside where a trestle table has been laid out with tea and all their cakes from the morning, so they spend half an hour trying each other’s bakes and chatting while Phil plucks people from the group to film segments assessing their progress in the competition so far.
Bucky watches contestants come and go, until Steve gives him a gentle nudge and asks him about his plans for the next day's challenge.

They are shepherded into taxis and taken back to the hotel. No one feels like going out to the restaurant again, and they slowly disperse, some going to their rooms to work on their challenges tomorrow, grab a shower or order room service.
Bucky debates going to his room to lie on the floor and question his judgement, but Luis grabs him and drags him to the hotel dining room. Luis catches Steve before he disappears upstairs and talks at him until he agrees to join them for dinner.
Bruce, Scott and Wanda join them with stories of Thor attempting to woo Jane with a picnic in the car park while Darcy took pictures and offered encouragement.
Bucky ends up sitting between Wanda and Steve, poking at his rubbery gnocchi and listening to Luis reassure Scott that he wasn’t going to be voted off the next day. They wonder aloud who will win in the end, whether Thor will have a black eye in the morning, and if coconut sugar is a real thing.
Wanda rests her head on Bucky’s shoulder and starts to doze, so he quietly excuses himself from the table and leads her back to her room. She mumbles at him in language familiar and strange as they climb the stairs and walk down the hall. He gets her into her room and warns her to clean the gunk off her face before she goes to bed. She rolls her eyes and calls him Tata before shutting the door.
Bucky briefly considers going back to the dining room, but instead walks down the corridor to his own room.
He brushes his teeth, gets undressed and climbs into bed, and it’s not long before he slips into sleep.

Bucky jerks awake, foggy and disoriented. He takes a few deep breaths and remembers where he is:, some ridiculous chocolate box hotel in the south. Making cakes for a TV cooking competition. He rubs a hand over his face, dull silver gleaming. There’s icing in between the metal plates. Bucky sighs and gets to his feet, shuffles into the bathroom and turns on the shower. He brushes his teeth while the water heats up, strips off his nightclothes and ducks under the showerhead. He washes quickly and scrubs at his prosthetic with a nailbrush, holding the metal fingers under the spray until they’re shiny and clean. He turns off the water and towels himself off, wrapping the damp towel around his waist while he rummages in his bag for clean clothes.
He dresses in dark jeans and a long sleeved top, pulling on socks and shoes and hastily packing up his bag.
Since the Showstopper challenge will take all morning, they need to check out before going over to the marquee, leaving their bags in Maria's care until the end of the day, when they’ll be bundled into taxis and sent home, one of their number permanently.
He double checks the bathroom and under the bed, checking he’s not left anything, before throwing his bag over his shoulder and heading out into the hall, locking the door behind him and heading down the stairs.

He sees Maria at the reception desk and hands in his key. She nods at him and makes a note on her clipboard while he wanders over to the dining room where Bruce is already eating fruit salad and humming to himself. Bucky gets some coffee and toast before joining him.
“All set for today?” Bruce asks softly. Bucky shakes his head and laughs. “Me neither”.
They sit in silence for a while, Bucky chewing on toast while Bruce nurses his glass of orange juice. The room slowly fills with contestants, Luis slumps in a chair next to Bucky, cup of coffee cradled to his chest and grumbles quietly into his shoulder while Bucky chuckles and rests his hand on the back of Luis's head, lightly rubbing at his scalp until he stops grumbling. Steve comes down last, still damp from a shower, and snags the last bagel.
At 6.15am Maria herds them out to the waiting taxis and they make the short journey to the estate where the Baking Marquee is set up.

The taxi deposits them with their bags outside the manor house where they stow their belongings before walking down to the Marquee.
The counters are set up with equipment and Phil directs them to the counters they had used the previous day. They check their stocks of ingredients and put on their aprons. The hosts arrive along with the judges, and position themselves at the front of the Marquee. The cameras are put in place and filming starts.
Natasha welcomes them all back to the baking tent and describes the final task of the weekend, the Showstopper Challenge. She explains for the cameras that it’s an opportunity for the contestants to show off their skills and produce a bake that is both professional in appearance and excellent in flavour.
Peggy steps forward and announces the challenge itself, twenty four individual layered cakes, each with a minimum of four layers. Every cake must look exactly the same.
The camera pans around for reaction shots and Bucky shifts from foot to foot. He had submitted his recipe over a week ago, so it’s not exactly news to him. He resist the urge to pull a face at the camera when it pauses on him.
They are given a ridiculously short amount of time in which to do the challenge, and told to get started.

Bucky pre-heats his oven and starts separating eggs, putting the whites into the freestanding mixer on his counter, fitting the whisk attachment and setting it work while he weighs out sugar and beats it together with the remaining egg yolks. He measures out sweet almond oil and adds it to the mix.
The judges start walking around the room, peering at the contestants while they work and muttering between themselves for the cameras.
Bucky greases and lines a couple of shallow baking trays. He stops the mixer and checks on his egg whites, pleased to see them forming stiff white peaks. He weighs out flour and cocoa powder, then sifts them into the egg yolk mixture. He carefully folds in the whisked egg white, careful not to knock the air out of them and pours the mix into the two baking trays, getting them distributed evenly. He tilts each tray to spread the cake into the corners, checks that the oven is hot enough and slides each tray onto a shelf, closing the oven door carefully and setting the timer for twenty minutes.
He glances over at Steve, who is spreading cake batter out on a similar sized baking tray. Bucky gives him a wink and he smiles in return, pink tinting his cheeks.
Bucky checks on Luis, whose cakes are already in the oven. He’s singing cheerfully while whipping up a buttercream dyed a vivid shade of green. Scott is pouring wine-coloured chocolate batter into an unlined tray. Bucky whistles to him and he pauses, glancing over. Bucky holds up a roll of baking parchment and Scott swears under his breath and starts scraping his batter back into his mixing bowl, washing and drying his tray before oiling it and lining it with paper. He gives Bucky a thumbs up and starts scraping out batter again.
Clint clicks his tongue at Bucky as he walks past, but there’s still a grin on his face so Bucky doubts he’s in trouble.

Bucky sets a pan of water onto the stovetop to boil and gets to work on his filling. He cracks eggs into a heatproof bowl, weighs in sugar and sets it on top of the pan. He grabs a whisk and starts beating. It’s time consuming and his shoulder starts aching, but the mix becomes thick and creamy before anything essential seizes up of falls off. He taps the excess off the whisk into the bowl and puts the mix in the fridge to cool.
He still has a few minutes to go before the cake is ready to come out, so measures out chocolate and double cream, breaking the chocolate into small pieces and putting them together in another heatproof bowl, setting it over the pan of simmering water and turning off the heat.
He crouches down in front of the oven and peers through the glass fronted door. After a minute he grabs a skewer from the counter, opens the door a little and pokes the centre of the cake with the skewer. It comes out streaked with batter, so he carefully closes the door and sits back down. Five more minutes.
He hears Steve clearing his throat and tips his head back far enough to see him leaning over his counter, looking down at Bucky hunched on the floor.
“You okay there, Buck?”
Bucky grins at him. “Ask me in an hour?”
Steve snorts and nods, going back to his thickened creme patissiere.

Bucky checks his cake again and pulls it out of the oven when the skewer comes out clean, setting the two trays on top of the oven and leaving them to cool a little before turning them out. He creams butter and beats it into his chilled filling, adding a splash of almond extract to the mix and returning it to the fridge.
He clears down his counter and is about to turn out his cakes when Nick and Peggy come over to his counter with the camera crew.
They smile and say hello, and watch carefully while he turns out his cakes, quick and carefully so as not to break them.
“Oh, well done,” Peggy says cheerfully as he manages to get them out in one piece. “And what are you making for us today?”
Nick reaches for the sheet of cake and Bucky takes great pleasure in whacking his fingers with a spatula.
Amandine,” he says cheerfully. Peggy nods expectantly. “I loved prājiturā, uhh, little cakes? When I was growing up. Amandine was always a favourite.”
Peggy nods appraisingly. “So did your mother make this for you?”
Bucky bites back a laugh and shakes his head.
“Nah, she couldn’t cook to save her life!” He glances at the camera. “Mama pare rau,” he says sheepishly.
“So you’re self taught,” Peggy confirms. Bucky nods but says nothing further on the matter, excusing himself with a smile and nod to check on his chocolate cream.

The judges wander off to question Steve about his bake, and Bucky can’t help but listen as he describes growing up in Brooklyn with his mother, Sarah, who worked all hours as a nurse, but would bring him something from the local bakery on her way home from a night shift.
Bucky drizzles amaretto liqueur over the bottom layer of cake and lets himself remember, just for a minute, the cofetārie in the centre of town and Sunday afternoon spent there, his little sister with chocolate smeared on her cheeks.
It’s a good memory, and he lets it fill his senses for a moment. The bittersweet aroma of coffee and chocolate. He scrapes the filling out onto the sheet of cake and spreads it out evenly to the edges. He carefully places the second sheet of cake on top and presses it down until it’s level. He fetches a sharp knife and trims the edges of the cakes before dividing it into twenty four equal sized squares, pausing to check they are uniform with a ruler. He’s finishing his last slice when Steve appears at his side. Bucky glances up. Steve scratches the back of his neck nervously.
“I just wanted to check you were okay?” Steve mutters.
Bucky frowns. “Yeah, why?”
“I wasn’t listening,” Steve blurts out and flushes pink. Bucky sets his knife on the counter and looks at him expectantly. “You just, y’know. Shut down when they asked about your family?”
Steve looks awkward but determined, and Bucky can’t help but smile.
“I’m fine, Steve. I just didn’t feel like talking in front of the cameras.”
Steve nods and takes a step back.
“Well, if you ever want to talk.” He reverses into his counter and jumps. “Ah. Anyway.”
Steve points to his uniced cakes and Bucky grins as he stumbles back around the counter.
He picks up a piece of cut-off cake edge and places it on the edge of Steve’s counter.
“Thanks,” he says softly.
Steve turns a darker red and ducks his head, mumbling under his breath.

Bucky gives his chocolate glaze a last stir and starts spooning it on top of his cakes, spreading it to the edges and letting the chocolate drip down the sides.
His shoulder aches.
Natasha calls out that there are fifteen minutes remaining and Bucky swears under his breath, grabbing a whisk and whipping the remaining glaze into a light, pale cream. He scoops it into a bag and pipes out a neat little rosette on each cake. He sets down his bag and opens a jar of whole, skinned almonds, setting one into the rosette on each cake.
He fetches a white ceramic platter from under the counter and sets it on the far right. He picks up a palette knife and carefully transfers each cake to the platter, moving carefully and making sure each one is positioned neatly.
With the last cake in place he glances up. Luis is shaving chocolate curls over a tray of acid green cakes. Wanda is perched on a stool, drinking a bottle of water. He glances over at Steve, who smiles back at him.

Clint calls time and tells everyone to step away from their bakes. There are a few grumbles and curses. but everyone downs their tools and steps back. People wander to other counters to make impressed or sympathetic noises at the cakes on display.
Steve has made miniature Boston Cream Pies, each one glossy and perfect to Bucky, though Steve frets quietly about the filling.
Phil brings the camera team around to get close ups of each display of cakes before sending everyone out while they set up the judging table. They mill around in the courtyard, forming little groups.
Bucky’s shoulder aches, but he lets Wanda wrap his arm around her, suppressing a flinch when she tugs on his wrist. She tucks her face into his neck while he tugs at her hair and calls her păpuşă.
Phil appears, looking harassed as usual and ushers them back into the Marquee.
They walk over to their counters and wait for the cameras to set up.
Clint and Natasha position themselves alongside the judges at the front of the Marquee and do a short piece to camera before calling on the first contestant, and the judging begins.

Alexander is called first, with miniature black forest gateaux that receives approving noises from the judges.
Pepper is called up next and presents her cake to the judges, a gluten free paleo chocolate brownie stack with raw cacao avocado mousse. Scott sniggers and Luis makes a retching noise. Bucky would hiss at them to be quiet, but he’s too busy struggling with the idea of cavemen making brownies. Peggy finds the mousse bitter and gritty, but compliments her on the presentation. Nick takes one mouthful and flatly declares that he hates it.
Bruce follows with Banoffee cakes, layers of banana cake with a whipped cream and toffee filling and crushed pecan brittle. Nick has a weakness for banana, and gruffly declares the cake ‘good’ to Bruce's quiet pleasure.
Steve is called up next with his tray of miniature Boston Cream Pies. Nick gruffly admits that the cake is well baked and the filling rich and smooth, but dislikes the finish. Peggy dismisses his complaints and tells Steve to be proud of his work. Steve mumbles his thanks and takes his cakes back to his table, giving Bucky a surreptitious little salute as he walks past.
Jane is called to the judging table with little round blueberry cakes filled with layers of lemon mousse. Peggy compliments her on the flavours while Thor cheerfully heckles every time Nick opens his mouth. Jane blushes furiously and hisses at him to shut up.
Darcy follows with triple chocolate cake bars that Nick describes as over sweet while Peggy smiles and suggests that he might be missing the point.
Bucky is called up next. He takes a deep breath, grits his teeth and carries his platter of amandine to the judges table. Peggy compliments him on their uniform shape and size before taking a bite. Nick complains that he was too heavy handed with the alcohol. Bucky can’t help but snort at that and Peggy grins at him and loudly proclaims that the alcohol is perfect. Bucky winks at her and picks up his platter, holding it out to Clint and Natasha to help themselves before going back to his counter.

Thor brings raspberry ripple layer cakes to the judges, and waits patiently for Natasha to finish eating her Amandine before setting his wooden board down. Peggy loves his cakes, from the crushed raspberry filling to the celtic knot pattern he has drawn on each iced surface. Thor kisses her hand and makes her blush, snatching up his board and walking away before Nick has the chance to make a comment.
T'Challa presents perfect squares of Hummingbird cake, made with banana, crushed pineapple and ground pecans and filled and iced with cream cheese frosting. The judges fall silent as they eat, Peggy offering a murmured ‘perfect’ at the end.
Scott brings his red velvet cakes to the front. He winces when Nick calls his cakes ugly, but Peggy commends him on the flavour before he grabs his cake stand and hurries back to his counter.
Wanda is called up with her display stand of miniature Dobos torte, thin discs of sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and caramel, the edges covered in ground almonds. Peggy adores them. Nick says nothing, but there is something like a smile tugging the corner of his mouth.
Luis comes last with his fluorescent green grasshopper cakes. The cakes are soaked in crème de menthe, which Nick hates. Peggy’s eyes light up with her first mouthful, and Luis clicks his tongue at her and promises to get her drunk. Clint drags him back to his counter while Luis holds his hand to his ear, thumb and little finger extended while he mouths ‘call me’.

Phil scowls at Luis and tells him to behave himself before announcing a break for lunch while the judges deliberate. The contestants walk down to the catering van, offering congratulations and commiserations to each other as they go.
They queue for their lunch and sit down at the trestle tables to eat pasta and worry about how the judging is going. Scott pokes at his penne disconsolately, convinced he’s about to be eliminated. Darcy starts a betting pool for who will win and Bucky puts a fiver down for Steve, who shoves at him and tells him not to waste his money. Luis bets a fiver on Steve too, but is called away by Phil to do a piece to camera before Steve can argue with him.
Bucky nudges Steve in the ribs.
“You’re gonna win this, Steve,” he says softly. Steve shakes his head.
“C’mon, Buck,” he grumbles.
“I’m serious. You’ll be in the finals.” Bucky watches him shake his head and smile. “Fine, don’t believe me. But I got money riding on you now, so don’t screw up.”
Steve chuckles. “Sure thing, Buck.”
Luis and Phil return and Bucky gets summoned to do his piece to camera. Phil directs him to one of the sycamore trees around the estate and makes him shuffle around until he’s happy with the background. He flips through his notes and tells Bucky to look at him rather than the camera.

Bucky looks nervous, shifting from foot to foot, both hands behind his back.
“Yeah, well. ‘Get a hobby’ they said. As part of the rehabilitation.”
He holds up his left hand and flexes the silvery fingers, tapping the thumb to the tip of each finger, one after the other, with ease borne of long practice.
“Develop my motor skills and strengthen the neural link between brain and prosthesis,” his mouth twists in something not dissimilar to a smile. “The only thing I was ever really good at was hitting targets from really f… from far away.”
He shifts again, thrusting his hands into his pockets and looking anywhere but the camera.
“When I was a kid we, my mama, my sister and me, we would go to a… like, a patisserie for cakes?” he bites the inside of his cheek. “When I was out there I kept thinking about them. Daydreaming about plăcinta and papanasi. I got back and couldn’t find them anywhere,” He shrugs. “So I learned how to make them.”
He smiles then, eyes cast down, head bowed.
“It’s good. It tastes like home.”

Bucky walks back to the group and drops down into the empty seat next to Bruce.
“Ugh,” he mutters emphatically.
Bruce gives him a sympathetic smile and they sit in comfortable silence while Luis ponders why some cakes are called pies but pies are never called cakes. Before he can get to the thorny matter of cheesecake, Phil arrives and directs them back to the Baking Marquee.
Stools have been arranged at the front again, and they quietly take their seats, Bucky and Luis sit either side of Scott, and Steve sits on Bucky’s other side. Bucky does his best not to read anything into it, but presses briefly against Steve’s side and is comforted when he gently pushes back.
Clint and Natasha take turns explaining for the cameras that the judges have made their decision on the best and worst baker of the day. The best will be announced ‘Star Baker’ and the worst will be eliminated from the competition.
There is a painful pause while the camera pans across their nervous expressions, and Peggy announces that the Star Baker for the round is T'Challa. He bows his head silently while Thor thumps him on the back and Luis whoops.
Nick calls the group to order and announces the worst baker of the weekend, Pepper.
Luis is unexpectedly tactful, and everyone gets up to hug each other and congratulate T'Challa and express sympathy to Pepper. She handles the rejection well, though Bucky is willing to bet that she’ll be calling them all every name under the sun soon enough.
Peggy makes a beeline for Steve and wastes no time in giving him a hug and congratulating him, telling him how well he did. Nick gruffly informs Wanda that she was a close contender for Star Baker, but T'Challa’s flavours were better. She smiles and nods, but calls him a number of unsavoury things in Sokovian under her breath to Bucky when he walks off. Bucky understands maybe half of what she says, but enough to get the gist and does his best not to laugh until Nick is out of earshot.
Steve taps his arm and quietly asks if it’s okay to get a hug. Bucky pulls him close, trying not to think about the solid muscle moving underneath Steve’s too-tight grey t-shirt.

Phil checks that the camera crew have everything they need before getting everyone's attention. He starts handing out sheets of paper for next week's challenges, giving them deadlines and dire warnings as he goes.
Bucky accepts his papers with a nod and flicks through them. Bread. He lets out a relieved sigh. He can do bread. He glances at Steve, who is already frowning at his notes and making plans.
Luis comes barrelling over to him, dragging Scott in his wake.
“Fuckin’ pretzels, man!” he yells with a grin. Phil grimaces. Despite repeated instructions to moderate his language, an excited Luis is not a family TV- friendly Luis. It’ll be a miracle if he gets any screen time.
Bucky gives Scott a one-armed hug, getting a clumsy pat on the back in return.
“I’m still here,” Scott mutters, shocked.
“Yeah, you’re still here,” Bucky agrees.

Phil ushers them out to the manor house, where they meet Maria with their luggage and mobile phones. She hands out forms for them to sign and itinerary for the following week, along with reminders to keep the events of the competition to themselves.
Luis grabs Bucky’s phone and keys in his number, sending himself a text and telling Bucky to keep in touch. Bucky flashes a grin at Steve and holds out his phone. Steve flushes pink and takes it, adding his number to the contact list before giving it back and saying goodbye, picking up his case and getting into his taxi.
Bucky checks his phone and sees a missed call from Falsworth and several garbled but enthusiastic texts from Dugan. He sends Dugan a text back letting him know he’s made it through to the second round and pockets it before getting into his taxi.
He stares unseeing out the window as the car trundles down the gravel drive and turns onto the main road, lost in his thoughts. His phone pings.

Steve: pretzels? Really?!

Bucky chuckles and sits back, thumbs sliding over the keys. He thinks of covrigi and the crunch of poppyseeds.

----------

Chocolate Beetroot Cake

200g raw beetroot, finely grated
3 eggs
150g sugar
150g ground hazelnuts/almonds
130g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
100g plain chocolate
250ml cream
2 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 160°C/325°F/G3. Grease a 23cm cake tin and dust with cocoa.
Heat cream and chocolate together until the chocolate has melted. Set aside to cool. Separate the eggs and whisk the whites into soft peaks. In a separate bowl combine the remaining ingredients and stir in the chocolate cream. Fold in the egg whites. Pour into the cake tin and bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean, if a bit purple. Leave to stand for five minutes before removing from tin.