Within a few months, Steve and Bucky had developed something of a routine; the two continued to meet around once a week, circumstance permitting. It wasn’t quite as often as Steve would have liked and conversation was often awkward and stilted, but he was grateful to be spending any time at all around Bucky and didn’t want to push his luck. Originally, they visited the same café (though Steve noticed, with some amusement, that Bucky never ordered the apple pie again and pulled a face at Steve doing so), but after almost four months Bucky had finally trusted Steve (and himself) enough show him where he was currently staying.
The apartment was nice, nicer than Steve had been expecting, and he found himself far more reassured than he had expected to finally know that Bucky did have a safe place to live. Though, he did have to stave off guilt by lying himself that, of course, Bucky acquired the apartment through fully legal means.
It was a comfort to know that Bucky was safe and alive – something Steve feared would be revealed as a dream each morning he awoke.
They hadn’t made any major gains, but pieces were slowly being recovered (neither of them voiced their shared fear that Hydra could have taken those memories away permanently) and Bucky was returning closer to human with each day. They both knew that he could never return to the man that had fallen from the train, but then Steve was no longer the man from that day either. He was not going to try to mould Bucky back into a figure he no longer fit, but he would do anything to break whatever walls Hydra had built around him.
Despite everything, Bucky was trying and Steve was overjoyed, even if it broke his heart to see the pain of failure. A week previously Steve had visited Bucky’s apartment only to find the kitchen a mess of piled dishes and spilled flour, with Bucky at the epicentre crying tears of frustration. Voice broken, Bucky muttered only a string of “its still wrong, its still wrong Stevie.” Around him was the scattered evidence of multiple failed attempts to recreate the familiar apple pie.
The broken and desperate man in front of him tore holes in Steve’s heart. Bucky was trying so hard and Steve had no idea how to help.
In amongst the sadness and frustration, there were still little hopes to be found. A small, selfish part of himself savoured the pang that shot through him at hearing Bucky call him ‘Stevie’. It was the first time he had heard it since the forties and a warm, welcome sign that perhaps Bucky could recover himself after all. He knew that was the wrong detail to focus on when Bucky was so fractured, but his attention kept snagging on that on word even a week later. And each time he did a sliver of guilt bubbled up to the surface.
Because Steve still hadn’t mentioned anything about his and Bucky’s past relationship.
Bucky knew that they had been close – how could he not? the museum gushed about their ‘friendship’ – but neither had done anything to suggest they had more than that. On Steve’s part it was an effort not to rush Bucky or force him into feelings he may no longer have. But on Bucky’s? He had no clue whether or not he remembered. Some days Steve felt like maybe Bucky knew – hearing that familiar nickname set loose a fluttering hope – but he could never be sure and so Steve waited on bated breath for Bucky to make the first move.
The uncertainty in the meantime was killing him.
Steve took up his next ‘mission’ on one of the (steadily increasing) sofas in the Tower. The shared living space was empty except for Bruce, who was flipping through a text book, pausing only from his reading only to make the occasional note in the margin. Neither man acknowledged each other, but honestly, the calm aura of Bruce was something Steve greatly appreciated. It was difficult to find most days.
He settled in place to begin his ‘work’.
As a part of his quest to help Bucky, Steve decided to follow the other’s suit and spent his time scrolling through online recipes, hoping to find one that was closer to his mother’s. Which would have been a good idea if he actually remembered anything about the original. Or had any understanding of baking and could tell the difference between the recipes he was reading. He let himself cling to the dwindling hope that one would suddenly jump out at him.
With a small sigh, he placed he laptop on the coffee table beside him and leaned back to gaze out of one of the many large windows overlooking the city. The view from the Avengers tower was breath-taking and, though unsettling at first, he would never stop marvelling at how much his city had changed.
He took in the skyline, basking in the sun radiating through the glass, the only sound the faint flip on pages. It was nice. Steve so rarely got days that were simply nice.
Then Tony walked in.
His entrance was serenaded by heavy rock blasting through tinny speakers. (Tony at least was using his phone and not playing music over JARVIS again. Small mercies.) Bruce ducked out as Tony settled himself leaning against the arm of a chair. Steve considered following Bruce’s suit, an idea dashed when the other man began speaking.
“What’re you doing there, sweet-cheeks?”
“What?” Steve wanted to sound confrontational but his voice held more confusion than anything else.
Tony tilted his head, shit-eating grin lighting up his face, “It was a simple question, angel, what are you working on?”
Steve resisted the urge to bury his head in his hand, resigning himself to a deep sigh. “Okay, what the fuck?”
Tony briefly hesitated and Steve felt the upper hand within his reach. Even though they had long since established ‘Steven G. Rogers is an adult who is allowed to swear if he wants to’ he knew it still caught the others off-guard. It was a cheap victory, and short-lived, but it was one that he would savour nonetheless.
“Seriously Tony, what is going on? You and Nat have been at this all week.”
In response, he simply pulled his features into an innocent expression. Or, at least what Tony probably thought was an innocent expression; Steve wasn’t sure if that was even a word in his vocabulary.
“I don’t know what you could possibly mean, darling.” At Steve’s glare he finally conceded, “ok, so Romanov and I – and by that I mean she – happened to find some charming old letters in a Smithsonian exhibit and in light of… recent revelations those letters happened to become very interesting.”
Bucky’s letters to Steve after he left for the front. The love letters that had been ascribed to Sergeant Barnes’ mystery lover. Those letters. Of course Natasha remembered them, even if they had been off display for months, and of course she had realised their significance.
“We didn’t want to bring it up – believe it or not I do have a small modicum of tact – but then last week Romanov told me that a certain someone had been meeting up with a handsome, familiar-looking man. Now isn’t that fascinating?”
Steve pushed down the hint of nerves at the others knowing Bucky’s whereabouts and focused on trying to salvage a little dignity, “you know he only did all that because he couldn’t use my name, right. The pet-names, I mean, they were just code,” but his flush and Tony’s knowing smirk rebuked any chance of that. Hastily, he changed the topic, “anyway, I should probably be going,” he said as he began collecting his laptop.
“Whatever you say honey-bunch.”
He stayed silent as he made for the exit, the voice of Tony calling after him.
“Where are you going baby-doll?”
Back in the safety of his room, Steve let his mind wander back to those letters. He’d never felt the need to read them during the war and yet when he’d awoken in a world without Bucky, it suddenly seemed imperative that he memorise every work to heart.
All those things Bucky had wanted him to know in case he died. There was the obvious: the ‘I love you’s and the promises everything would be okay, but then there was the less obvious too: instructions on what to do if he was running low on cash, how to fix that one window that always caused them trouble in winter, reminders that his medication was more important than buying food for the stray cat that loitered around their building (a point Steve had yet to concede on).
Everything Bucky thought Steve would need to know without him. Including…
Frantically, he pulled out his phone, searching for the digital records he knew had been made of those letters. It had to be in there, it had to be –
I don’t really have much to say to you today, but I couldn’t just not write you. I figured if I don’t have anything sweet to say I might as well make this one useful. So, here’s a recipe you might want to keep hold of. Technically its your ma’s anyway. So here it is. Now you can make it
even if I don’t for me when I get home. And I don’t want to here you complaining that you can’t bake because you’d damn better learn. For me, please.
The recipe below read to Steve the same way all the others had, and yet there was something instantly reassuring about reading it in Bucky’s hand.
This was it.
He saved a transcript of the recipe to his phone, not quite ready to show the rest of the letter to Bucky.
He only had to wait two days before he next saw him. The other man could probably tell something was up the way Steve was squirming on the couch but he let them exchange brief pleasantries until they reached a gentle lull. Without saying a word Steve pulled out his phone and handed it over, screen displaying the recently copied recipe.
He watched as Bucky’s eyebrows scrunched together, his face falling somewhere between concentration or confusion.
“You, uh, you might want to try that one out. I really think it’ll work this time.”
Bucky’s face only scrunched up further as his eyes shifted from the phone to Steve’s face, searching for something though Steve couldn’t say what.
After a moment he asked, small and hesitant, “did I write this?” his words were laced at a heavy confusion, and Steve couldn’t tell if it was at the recipe or the fact that he somehow recognised it as his own. He wasn’t sure if Bucky even knew.
He glanced back down at the screen, taking in the little notes and comments on each step that Steve hadn’t thought to edit out. They ranged from the vague (No, pastry does not need kneading) to the slightly passive aggressive (and remember that you’re making dough not soup, you do not need to add a whole goddamn glass of water) and yet they were all very much his.
Steve wasn’t sure how much detail Bucky could cope with, so he simply said, “yeah, you did,” voice breaking ever so slightly. He watched Bucky contemplate the screen for a few seconds longer, before the other man abruptly stood up, striding in the direction of the kitchen.
Steve scrambled to his feet and hastily followed, entering in time to see Bucky already pulling ingredients out of cupboards.
He watched as things were weighed and poured and delicately mixed together, watching over as Bucky worked on his masterpiece, fascinated by the strange juxtaposition of his careful movements and the almost frantic gleam in his eyes.
They exchanged very little in the way of words until it came to the final moment of judgment: tasting. Each man took a small sliver of pie, and Steve could feel the nervous anticipation rolling off Bucky. The second the placed their forks in their mouths everything else melted away. It was perfection incarnate. It was home in a single sweet mouthful. It was right.
Steve looked up to Bucky’s smiling face and knew he felt it too.