He made the mistake of telling her about the cake.
That’s not entirely true. His first mistake had been the artichoke.
Not eating the artichoke. That had been fine. Talking about the artichoke. That was the real mistake.
Steve was out shopping and for some reason, instead of just sitting there, instead of waiting for him to get back and announce what they were eating like he always did, Bucky decided on his own to open the fridge and look around.
The artichoke was all alone in the crisper. Almost past it’s prime, leaves already starting to unfurl from their tightly compacted center core. He remembered artichokes from before. Before everything. His mom used to buy them for special occasions when he was a kid.
He’d watch her trim the leaves and the stem, salt the water and put it on to boil. Knowing that something good had happened, feeling safe and happy.
Before he realized it, he was trimming the leaves and the stem, he was putting the water on to boil. Mom made her own sauce back in the day, but the fridge had mayonnaise in it, which was close enough.
Bucky sat alone in the quiet kitchen and ate the artichoke. One by one, he removed the leaves, dipped them in mayo and scraped the soft flesh off the end of the leaf with this teeth, throwing the spent leaves back onto the same cutting board he’d trimmed it on before he boiled it.
As the leaves got smaller and more delicate, his anticipation built along with a sense of nostalgic sadness. When he got to the steaming heart of the thing, he paused. This had always been his favorite part. He breathed in, astringent and earthy all at once, inviting him to eat it, activating a pull he thought his body could no longer feel. The raw human sensation of want and hunger together. Lust for food. Maybe even for life, but that was too big a thought for this small, simple vegetable and it’s thistle-like barrier.
Carefully, Bucky used the knife he’d originally trimmed the artichoke with to cut the bristle brushes of choke away from the delicate heart. Cradling the stem in his metal hand, he made swift work with the knife in his right. Novel to be using a knife this way after all these years. Muscle memory overlapping with itself. The knife for killing, the knife for eating. Today, he used the tool the way his mother taught him. Detailed, precise and generous, cutting as close to the choke as he could in order to preserve what he loved the most. What he missed the most.
As always, he ate the heart too fast. At the very most, it was four small bites. The flavor of warm earth, memories of walnut and deep green sunlight chlorophyll mixed with the tang and the smooth creaminess of the mayonnaise. Not like mom’s, but close enough.
“I made an artichoke and ate it.” he told Steve when he finally got back, arms loaded with plastic shopping bags.
“I’m proud of you.” Steve said, with a strange look in his eyes. “Do you still want lunch?”
And Bucky found that he did.
“And how are you doing with your feelings of hunger, James?”
That had been the question that started this whole cake nonsense.
Dr. Ruiz was possibly one of the most devious people he’d ever met. Just the week before, she’d asked him to write his meal times on a innocent looking chalkboard. Then she’d asked him where he would recommend snacks go in a day with a 5am wake-up followed by a run and work-out with a 7am shower, breakfast at 7:30; lunch at noon; dinner at 6pm and bed at 11pm?
He was forced to either admit that, despite his generous use of the SHIELD formula power that made his meals caloric enough to sustain his metabolism (which had been a whole other fight), that working out on a completely empty stomach was probably not helping him stay fit, and that six hours between lunch and dinner, followed by another five hours before bed was a little long for anyone, let alone a super soldier to go between without fuel.
And he was hungry. Hungrier than he could remember being as a free man. Hungry like he had been back in the HYDRA camp, but for seemingly no reason at all. Three or four hours after a meal, his hands would start to shake and his gut would churn with pain and need. It felt unnatural, frightening.
Dr. Ruiz said it was his body trying desperately to convince him never to starve it again, but he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if he were to get captured.
This new version of himself wouldn’t survive. He was weak. He’d willingly chosen to handicap himself. For what? To feel better when he went out to dinner with Steve? To stop the constant anxiety that filled him whenever the subject of food was brought up? To stave off the horror of chewing and swallowing after 70 years of intubation and intravenous nutrition?
To be a normal person. But does a weapon get to be a normal person? Why did he get that right while hundreds, thousands of others were dead? Victims of the Winter Soldier.
But they’d been through that, hadn’t they? He’d read all the books on victim blaming, brainwashing, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. He’d done the daily affirmations Ruiz gave him back before he knew he could trust her. Crying, hating himself, suicide watch, Steve’s sweet and devastated face. That was years ago now.
He had a whole other library on gay liberation and gender theory. They had a rainbow sticker on the car and a genderqueer flag sticker next to that one. And most of the time, he really did think that whether he deserved to have a normal life or not, he had an opportunity to, and he should take it. As much as he could.
And hadn’t he felt weaker when he first started letting Steve back in? And hadn’t he felt weaker when he’d started to paint his nails and wear what he liked and say what he felt?
Dr. Ruiz seemed to agree. “Were you really stronger back then, or were you less flexible?”
This is one of those rhetorical questions we was supposed to answer. Because the things we think of as being the strongest: steel, cement, toxic masculinity are actually the most breakable. They shatter under pressure, whereas the malleable elements can flow around obstacles and avoid them. Every soldier knows the value of maneuverability.
The hunger had driven him to the fridge, to the artichoke, and to him telling Dr. Ruiz that it was one of the first times he’d enjoyed cooking something since before the war.
“Maybe you don’t hate cooking.” She said. “Maybe your food anxiety got in the way of you enjoying it, and now that we’re working on it, maybe you’ll find you like cooking.”
That seemed unlikely.
“I used to like to bake.” He said. “Before the war, I baked Steve a chocolate cake for his birthday. He still brings it up sometimes.” Just another way he couldn’t go back. One more version of James Buchanan Barnes the world would never see again.
“You should bake a cake.” Ruiz told him. “That’ll be your food goal for the week. Bake a cake and eat a piece of it.”
Oh shit. And she was serious too. He’d made sure of it.
He’d spent $90 and nearly two hours trying to buy cake ingredients. It was a long time since Nat and Clint took him in hand and showed him how the grocery store worked but it was still an overwhelming place. That’s why Steve usually went alone. Too many blind corners, screaming children, and overwhelming choices between products that looked exactly the same as each other but were actually different for some reason. He bought himself a new nail polish as a reward for getting out of there without causing an incident.
The recipe was from the Internet. It was similar to the cake he’d made Steve, but it wasn’t the same. He’d never heard of Canola Oil and when he opened it, it smelled like engine grease. He Googled it and learned that’s because it was engine grease in the war. But according to Google, it’s perfectly edible. He sighed. Better to follow the recipe this time, and then change it later on.
He’d meant to make the cake as soon a he got home, but Steve already started on dinner. And then he meant to make it the next day, but there was a fire downtown and Fury dispatched The Avengers, which meant him and Steve running into the building with the firefighters as Natasha, Clint, and Bruce did triage on the ground while Tony, Vision, Sam and Thor had all the fun in the air shooting Stark Industries brand Fire Suppression Foam™ all over the place.
All told, he left the ingredients (except for the eggs and the milk) on the counter for exactly six days, avoiding the goal for as long as possible before his weekly appointment with Dr. Ruiz.
When he finally decided to just make the damn cake, he put Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on the turntable and turned the volume up as high as he could without disturbing the neighbors. He put all the ingredients, bowl, spoon, baking trays, measuring cups and tablespoons on the counter with the recipe shut in the bottom of a cabinet door so he could read it with his hands dirty.
As he sifted and measured and mixed, the weirdest thing began to happen. The rigor of the recipe took over and he began to feel like he did during missions. Present but focused, and focused enough that all the other daily static of stress and anxiety floated away. It was just him and the measurement of things, the movement of his body and the bowl of goop that was swiftly becoming cake.
He felt it again as he was icing the thing, simple strokes of whipped buttercream across the spongy, slightly warm surface.
Steve was, of course, eager to try it.
“It won’t be the same.” Bucky warned him. Nothing was ever the same as it was, but he wanted this cake to be the same. Even though he knew it couldn’t in any way be the same as the cake he’d scraped together all his extra change for back in 1935, he needed to say it out loud. Remind himself and Steve that everything had changed.
“It’ll still be cake, Buck.”
And it was. For certain definitions of cake.
“This tastes like motor oil” he admitted after a few bites.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.” Steve said, setting down his fork.
Bucky got up and opened Steve’s recipe binder, where he stashed the printed cake recipe. Grabbing a pencil, he crossed out Canoal Oil and wrote ‘Butter?’
“I feel like I used butter last time” he told Steve.
Later that night as he was drifting off to sleep, he heard Steve turn over towards him.
Steve hesitated. Bucky reached across the bed to run his fingers through Steve’s hair, a petting motion he used to use when Steve was sick and couldn’t sleep. Before they were lovers. Before everything.
Steve let out a big breath and started to talk “I’m really proud of all the work you’re doing with your anorexia.” That was a word they rarely said. “But sometimes,” he went on “I worry that when you get this food stuff figured out, you won’t need me anymore.”
Bucky closed the gap between them and kissed Steve’s forehead, both his cheeks and the tip of his nose. “Oh pal,” he laughed “If I was gonna leave you over cooking, I would have done that back in the 30s. Remember how bad you were at first? Those were some awful years, Rogers.”
Steve chuckled and ducked his head in to Bucky’s chest. “Oh God” he breathed. “Remember beef heart soup?”
“How could I forget beef heart soup? We had to eat it for a week straight. I thought I’d never get that taste outta my mouth, you brat.”
Steve curled one hand around his neck and ran his fingers through the hair at the base of Bucky’s skull. “You love me, though.”
“I do” He answered, pulling Steve in for a kiss. “I really do.”