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The Semiotics of Comestibles (aka the Roast Chicken Caper)

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"Why do you have these?" Bucky asked, holding up a paperback book with the daunting title of The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan : Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970's. It was the top of a small pile of cookbooks, all of a theme that seemed to be 'bad eating ideas from the past.' Steve collected cookbooks, although not in the same way they'd once collected marbles or baseball cards. They were mostly gifts and some, at least -- Bucky hoped -- were of the gag variety.

Steve looked up from where he was dicing onions. "Clint," he replied, which explained everything. "There aren't any recipes included, thankfully, so he can't dare me to make anything out of it."

Bucky flipped a few pages. "I'd dare you to make Surprise Chowder," Bucky offered, looking at the picture. "But I make no promise about eating the results. Oh, look. There really is a mackerel pudding. Except it's fluffy mackerel pudding. Shoulda put that in the title, too."

As Steve sliced and diced and got things out of the refrigerator -- the nice thing about coming over to have dinner and watch the game was that Bucky's only responsibility was to bring beer and put out any fires Steve might start, which had only ever happened the once -- Bucky skimmed through the book, horrified and delighted at once. Everything seemed to be molded gelatin or hot dogs or mismatched foods thrown on top of Wonder Bread and given exotic names. The gelatin molds were comfortably familiar in their own way -- it may have gone haywire in the '70's if this book was any indication, but he'd served plenty of otherwise perfectly normal foods suspended in aspic or gelatin during his waitering days before the war. As for the rest, it was probably a testament to his therapist that he could treat the fads and follies of popular culture during his Winter Soldier years as something to be amused by and not through a filter of guilt and anger and bitterness. It was still different for him and for Steve, how they looked at the decades between their falls and their returns; Steve had missed it entirely while he'd been present, on and off, but his knowledge and experiences had been so circumscribed by his missions and his masters that it usually felt like he hadn't been there at all. The Winter Soldier had spent a lot of the Seventies out of stasis, but mostly very far away from anywhere there might have been frozen cream cheese on top of asparagus or tuna casseroles ideal for potlucks.

"These look like dicks," he announced, turning the book around and holding it out so that Steve could see the two curved, gleaming pink examples of a Shrimp-Salmon Mold. "Of guys who'd died by drowning, but still."

Steve, having moved over to the stove, looked over his right shoulder to frown at Bucky, but, as Bucky knew he would, he looked at the picture, too. And the frown deepened, but it was for show because Bucky could see him smile as he turned back.

"It's a sad state of affairs that I could probably make everything in this book," Bucky announced. His cooking skills had improved greatly since he'd been brought in from the cold, but he'd also started from nothing. Neither he nor Steve had ever done much more than slice bread or open cans before they'd joined the Army and while Steve had come out of the ice determined to learn for real, Bucky had picked up what little he had more through self-preservation and banning himself from Seamless at least twice a week. "Maybe I'll surprise Natasha and make her the fortress of hot dogs with cabbage on it and tell her it's Crown Roast of Frankfurter."

"Natasha has killed men for less," Steve pointed out, reaching for where he'd left the bowl of chopped peppers and celery. "Why don't you cook her something for real?"

"I've cooked for her," Bucky objected. "Just because my scrambled eggs don't come with truffle oil doesn't mean they don't count. She liked 'em."

She liked them because his scrambled eggs came with enough butter to prove without a doubt that he'd been born sixty years before anyone had started worrying about cholesterol and fat.

"I meant a proper meal," Steve said, attention on whatever he was doing in the skillet. "Something fancy."

It was Bucky's turn to frown. "That's your thing, buddy. I can't do fancy. I can barely order fancy at a restaurant."

Steve's pantry had spices and sauces Bucky had never heard of and grains he didn't know existed. His own pantry was looking exotic if he had more than two kinds of dried pasta.

"I know," Steve agreed. "That's why I suggested it."

Bucky made a face at Steve's back. "You're doing that thing again where your souped-up brain is making connections that make no sense to the rest of us."

Steve turned around and gave him a quick stink-eye before shrugging. "Feeding someone when it takes effort, when it's not just opening the nearest can or throwing whatever's in the fridge into the microwave, it can be romantic, is all."

"Does that mean that that stew you're making is foreplay?" Bucky asked, grinning. "Because I need a little more before I put out."

Steve just looked at him balefully. "Please. I used to live with you. I know exactly how flimsy your virtue is."

Bucky grinned because Steve wasn't wrong about his youthful exuberance. But then had a horrified realization. "Wait, is this you giving me romantic advice?"

"No," Steve retorted, not entirely faking his annoyance. "I'm just saying putting in effort to feed someone is a nice thing to do. As a gesture."

"And not as something you picked up after Margie Stewart or Marlene Dietrich or whoever fed you soufflé in bed."

Steve's official histories were pretty respectful and oblique when it came to his dalliances during his USO and war bond days, but Bucky knew about all of them within a couple of months of their reunion in the Commandos. Steve had gotten tired of Bucky buying girls for him to finally get some action, blurting out that he'd already gotten plenty, which in turn had given Bucky what he'd needed to wring the full story out of him. The rest of the Commandos had known, too, especially after nobody could've missed the "I could ride that again" come-hither grin Carole Landis had shot Steve when they'd crossed paths in Italy. (Which, Steve being Steve, he'd nearly blown off until the Commandos had intervened.)

"I'm not saying that, either," Steve replied with a bit of a smile. "It was pot roast and not in bed. But my point stands."

Bucky rolled his eyes and hopped off his stool to go to the fridge to get the two beers he'd put in the freezer to get cold faster, opening them both and putting one next to Steve's cutting board. "So what would you have me make?" he asked once he'd seated himself again. Even if it wasn't romantic advice -- which it totally was -- then Steve was still better than he was at judging what normal people did.

"Roast chicken," Steve replied immediately, which made Bucky suspect that he'd thought about this before. Maybe not with respect to him and Natasha, but he wouldn't put it past Steve. "It's easy, it can look fancy, and Natasha likes it."

"Easy for you," Bucky retorted. He stayed away from anything in the meat section that wasn't already broken down into parts he could put in a pan. Back in the day, there'd been butcher shops where they'd cut things to order for your taste and budget and then would explain how to cook them. Now, things were in plastic-covered styrofoam with sell-by dates and misspelled labels that meant nothing to him. Steve had given him a meat thermometer and written him out a crib sheet of cooking temperatures, but that was too complicated and scientific for dinner, which itself was usually an afterthought, so Bucky tended to stick to the "stab it in the middle and see what happens" method. Drove Steve nuts, even if he wasn't around to see Bucky do it.

"It's idiot-proof," Steve assured and Bucky could hear him grinning. "Even for you-shaped idiots. They come with a little pop-up toy that tells you when it's ready."

It was time for the game to start, so the conversation mercifully ended. Or at least Bucky thought it had ended. Ten days later, he got back from a mission to the Ukraine to find an email from Steve with step-by-step instructions on how to roast a chicken and bake potatoes alongside it, accompanied by illustrative photographs because Steve had apparently roasted a chicken to take pictures of it to show Bucky how to do it. The first picture was of a whole chicken from the supermarket still in its plastic wrap with the "roaster" part of Oven Stuffer Roaster highlighted.

"Did Stark get you the tablet with the camera? I want to know who to shoot," was Bucky's emailed reply.

Steve sent him back a picture of string beans in a bowl with the text "make these, too."

There was no chicken-making. Bucky spent better part of the next three months dragging his ass between Sevastopol and Simferopol and Kerch and Krasnodar, with the occasional pit-stop in Constanta to meet with SHIELD people because it was easier to get to Romania unnoticed than Kiev. He saw Natasha -- who was working the same mission but from inside Moscow -- twice, the first time when she'd more or less kidnapped him from Constanta and dragged him off to a hotel in Moldavia for a weekend, the second when only his reflexes kept him from killing her because SHIELD's analysts had gotten confused over aliases and assigned him to eliminate the same target Natasha had been pumping for information. After that had been sorted out -- at a very high decibel level -- in Fury's office, they went back to his apartment and that's when Bucky realized that Steve clearly had had more down time than him.

Thankfully, Natasha had gone straight to the bathroom to shower before he found the instructions on the counter for how to defrost the chicken currently in his freezer and how to make a compound butter.

"Stop trying to use me to woo my girl," he texted Steve, who didn't reply until the next day because it turned out he was in Bolivia doing whatever it was that needed doing this time. (It was Bolivia, there was always a list.)

They ordered in because there was no food in his apartment beyond the chicken in the freezer and the potatoes in the fridge, but he didn't throw away Steve's instructions. He debating telling Steve he had, but Steve would either not believe him or just re-do it.

"Your inability to let things go is what used to get you beaten up all the time," Bucky reminded him the next time they were both in the same city at the same time, which happened to be Miami. "It's no more endearing now just because you're harder to hit."

A month or so later, Natasha broke her ankle and wrist and three ribs in a fall somewhere in international waters and, as might have been imagined, she was a horrible invalid. Bucky was used to difficult patients -- finding Steve collapsed on the floor because he'd tried to get himself out of bed and on with his day had been nothing unusual -- but Natasha was mean and cruel in her frustration and pain, on top of the fact that she could still make a pretty good attempt to kill him if he pushed too hard. He didn't push too hard, not out of fear -- he could take her even when she was healthy, although reminding her of that was a guaranteed way to sleep alone -- but instead because he hadn't forgotten that he had been a different kind of even more difficult patient when he'd first come in from the cold and she'd managed to keep him together without resorting to threats or reprisals or escalation. Also, she wasn't completely awful all of the time or even most of it and, if pressed (by Steve, who knew exactly where to poke) he'd admit that he liked taking care of her. Liked being able to. He might possibly have started to look forward to the evenings when Natasha had given up trying do "do something, anything!" for the day and would finally take a painkiller and her edges would lose their sharpness and they could lie together on the couch or in bed with a movie on without her hurting or trying to hurt him.

"You like me better when I'm drugged," Natasha accused one night, but she undercut herself by snuggling tighter into the crook of his arm before he could answer.

"I like you period," he told her, kissing her forehead. "But it's nice to be trusted with seeing you a little less invulnerable than usual."

He had to remind himself of that a few times the day Natasha found out that no, she couldn't have her wrist cast taken off because the bones were still knitting. She apologized the next day -- she had to, she'd said things that couldn't easily be pretended away -- but he wasn't sure they were quite back to the status quo ante before he shipped out to Simferopol for round two (three? four?) of Crimean drama. He was going as an informed observer, but that's what they'd told him last time before needing to ship his rifle kit to him three weeks later. But at least for this go-round, he was using his camera zoom more than his rifle sight and the only blood he drew with his knives was that of the world's unluckiest mugger. He was still running around like a headless chicken, however, being given instructions from his handler that sometimes conflicted and usually would have been a lot easier if they'd been issued in a different order. He said as much after the third time he'd had to sneak into the Russian Consulate, which was calling itself by loftier terms now that two countries were claiming the city as their own. It initially got him a dressing-down, since he hadn't been very polite about it, but Cheung was suspiciously nicer at the next check-in, which Bucky took to mean that someone had reminded him that his field asset was still the Winter Soldier, however tamed he might be for the moment. Bucky usually made a point of not using the Winter Soldier's dark shadow as an invisible threat, but he couldn't say that he didn't mind certain times when other people did. Not that that got him out of the region any faster this time -- or without incident.

He stumbled into his own apartment late morning local time and forced himself to shower before going to sleep. He would call Natasha later; they had exchanged a few texts while he'd been abroad, but it was hard to judge tone and so he had no idea if the lingering weirdness from before he'd left was still lingering. Still, he should let her know he was back; she was off her crutches and out of her cast, but not yet cleared for duty and so probably in town.

When he woke up, it was dark outside his bedroom window and his apartment smelled like roasting chicken. He sighed and laughed because Steve was such a freak at times and, in his own way, still very eager to return the favor of caretaking he thought he owed from their youth. (Steve owed him nothing. They had never kept score.) He pulled on his pants and went toward the kitchen prepared to give Steve guff about his mothering -- and that damned chicken -- but stopped short a few feet into the living room because Steve wasn't there.

Natasha stood in the kitchen with an apron on, one hand on her hip, frowning as she intently studied a piece of paper on the counter -- Bucky would bet his life it was a copy of Steve's instructions. But settling the bet would require announcing his presence to Natasha and he wanted to enjoy one more moment of this view before she shuttered up and pretended she was just doing this for a completely practical reason. Which there wasn't because Natasha didn't cook. Full stop. She wouldn't starve if on a mission without a menu to look over, but she even got her green salads made by someone else. If Steve showed his feelings through a home-cooked meal, Natasha showed hers through where she ordered in from. This was... significant.

"You shouldn't have let me sleep so long," he said, since he knew better than to point that out. Wasn't sure he would want to even if he didn't. Their gestures of love for each other, like their acts of war against their enemies, worked better in silence.

"I'll make sure you're tired enough to sleep later," she assured easily, then grimaced. "If we both don't end up in the ER with food poisoning."

"I have faith in you," he said, crossing the room and joining in her in the kitchen area, kissing her hair as he passed by to get a drink of water. "Also, Steve's directions can be very detailed. He sent photos to me."

Natasha smiled wryly and held up the papers she'd been studying, which turned out to be a stapled-in-the-corner booklet complete with hand-drawn illustrations next to each step, a far more detailed production.

They followed the rest of the steps together. He did not laugh when he turned around from draining the string beans in the sink to see Natasha carefully positioning the potato on the cutting board so it matched the angle of the one in Steve's cartoon; he could have told her that quartering it any which way would be fine, but he didn't because that wasn't the point.

"We have to take a picture and send it to him," he said when they took the roasting pan out of the oven. "This chicken campaign lasted longer than any he went on during the war with the Commandos."

Which was just as well, since that was the last time dinner looked at all presentable. For two people who'd used knives in a professional capacity for a long time and with great precision and greater results, they made an utter wreck out of the carving. Nonetheless, the results were surprisingly good, better than anything he could have made on his own, if not necessarily restaurant quality. He complimented the chef, as he often did when they were eating food she'd ordered in, but she didn't glare at him for his jape because, in this instance, it really was her. He got an almost girlish smile back and he was surprised how much lighter he felt for it.