Sam went with Steve around Eastern Europe as they chased Bucky from HYDRA base to HYDRA base without ever catching him. Sam listened to story after story about Bucky, Bucky the hero, Bucky the drama queen, Bucky the mama's boy, Bucky the baseball star, Bucky the charmer. Sam took Steve home when the trail went cold.
Sam was a good person, so he didn’t say anything when Steve started leaving food on the fire escape. And he didn’t say anything when Steve excitedly said he knew it was Bucky taking it when Sam happened to know the neighbor had a cat. He didn’t say that he was a little worried, to say the least, that Steve was excited about the fact that a brainwashed assassin, who had tried to kill both of them, knew where they lived. He didn’t say that he was a little worried about Steve’s emotional state.
But he had his breaking point.
“Dude, cabbage? Seriously?” Sam complained. His apartment smelled terrible and this was just a bit much. The last time he’d smelled boiled cabbage was in his ninth-grade biology class when they were learning about pH levels. Steve looked up a little sheepishly.
“We ate a lot of boiled cabbage.”
“And he liked boiled cabbage?”
“No one liked boiled cabbage.” Steve gave Sam a look like Sam was the one acting strange.
“So shouldn’t you be giving him food he likes?”
“Well…Bucky really hates boiled cabbage. A lot.” Steve shifted guiltily and Sam realized what was going on.
“You think after months of dodging us you’re going to get a reaction out of boiled cabbage?” Sam asked. Steve shrugged. Sam stayed quiet for a long time, then said, “Well, if anything will do it, I guess it’d be boiled cabbage.”
The next morning, Steve tried to curb his disappointment when he flung the window open and found the cabbage still sitting there. Personally, Sam thought this confirmed his cat theory more than anything—even cats turned up their noses at cabbage, apparently—but, being the good person he was, he didn't voice this opinion.
“That's fine,” Steve said, and he got his Captain America steely gaze going and Sam groaned a little internally. “I'm not giving up.”
“Of course you aren't,” Sam muttered. Over the next few weeks, he was taken on a tour of the foods of the 1930s, and he had to say, he was not impressed. Neither, apparently, was Barnes, if that was who had been eating the food before. Lima beans went untouched. Bread with currant jam was ignored. Some kind of weird onion and peanut dish was still waiting forlornly on the fire escape the next morning.
But the beets were, apparently, unforgivable.
“If there's one thing Bucky always hated,” Steve explained to Sam as he opened the can, “it's pickled beets.”
Once he caught a whiff of the contents of the can, Sam could sympathize. They smelled disgusting. He vaguely remembered his father talking about pickled beets once, but it wasn't something Sam had ever eaten. He wasn't expecting anything but the sad purse of Steve's lips the next morning, but it was some kind of food miracle: there, sitting on the fire escape next to the still-full bowl of pickled beets, was a rotisserie chicken. Also the neighbor's cat, who was picking at the uncovered chicken.
Sam's mouth dropped open.
“Bucky did that,” Steve said frantically. He looked at Sam with wild eyes. “That's there, right?”
“Yeah, it's there,” Sam confirmed. “Wait, do you hallucinate chickens regularly?”
Steve waved a hand around like he didn't have time for totally legitimate questions. “When we were really hungry, we'd talk about what food we'd get when we were rich. And I always said roast chicken.”
Steve looked, honestly, like he was going to cry, and Sam thought finally. Steve hadn't cried even once during the whole ordeal, not that Sam had seen, anyway, and Sam didn't think that was healthy. He knew the party line about everyone grieving differently, but Steve hadn't seemed to be grieving at all.
But he still didn't cry.
He shooed the cat away gently, because Steve was 6'2” and over 200 pounds but could somehow still be the softest guy around. He even dropped a few more scraps for the cat, and Sam shook his head a little. Steve brought the chicken in like it was made of gold. He was staring at it with the most amazed look on his face.
“He must have his memories back,” Steve said. “He remembers me talking about roast chicken.”
“Maybe,” Sam responded cautiously, thinking if it was Barnes he might've just taken any food he'd found.
“He probably thinks I'm still eating the way we used to and he wants me to have what I wanted!” Steve's grin was so broad Sam couldn't bear to knock it down, so he just agreed and mustered up a smile.
That night, Steve left banana pudding out—“Bucky hates bananas”—and in return got a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Pork chops in exchange for some weird-ass relish stuff Steve called piccalilli. Lasagna for mashed turnips.
The cherry pie finally finished Steve off.
He'd left out a plate of honest-to-God ground liver and he'd actually snickered as he'd done so. Sam wished every Captain America historian could see this side of Steve so they'd finally put something accurate about Steve's attitude in those books—he wasn't earnest and honest like Sam had been taught his whole life; hell no, the man was a menace. Bucky, Steve had explained with a wicked glint in his eye, had been subjected to more than his fair share of liver in his early years.
Bucky's mother had apparently been a firm believer in the health benefits of liver, and as such, fed her children liver at least once a week. And they weren't allowed to complain about it, seeing as how there was a depression going and some people who didn't have food at all, and they were fortunate to have such a bounty of different animals' livers each week.
Steve went out to the fire escape the next morning and it was quiet for so long Sam started to get kind of worried. He stuck his head out the window and retreated hastily when he saw tears in Steve's eyes. Finally. After a few minutes, Steve came back in, eyes a little red but otherwise normal.
“Cherry pie's my favorite,” he reported softly. “Every year on my birthday, Bucky managed to get me cherry pie. Sometimes it was just a piece, but he wouldn't eat any and I'd get the whole thing to myself.” He had the wistful smile on his face he always got when he told stories about Bucky.
Sam stayed quiet, letting Steve talk. Over the past six months, Sam had heard more stories about Bucky Barnes than he'd ever dreamed of as he'd pored over Captain America comic books as a kid. But it came with a price—if Steve told too many in one day, he got quiet and melancholy, so Sam had to find a balance between letting him talk and keeping him in good spirits to endure the long slog that was tracking Bucky.
“Okay,” Steve said firmly, snapping out of his reverie. “Game on, Buck.”
Sam went with Steve to the grocery store, where he bought a frankly ridiculous amount of food. A roast. Carrots, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, apples, peaches, heavy cream, vanilla wafers, and chocolate ice cream. Sam didn't comment, but he couldn't help a raised eyebrow. That was a lot, even for a supersoldier.
And then Steve baked. He set Sam to chopping potatoes while he tackled the carrots. He put the roast in a pot with the potatoes, carrots, and peas and let it cook all day, filling Sam's apartment with the most tantalizing smell. He sliced tomatoes and apples and peaches. He sprinkled honey and cinnamon and sugar on the apples. He dropped the peaches into the cream. He fried the tomato slices. He peeled two oranges and dutifully pulled apart the slices. He scooped ice cream into a bowl and topped it with vanilla wafers.
Steve was a good person, despite his sass, so he let Sam eat a bit of everything he made, but he put the lion's share of the feast on the fire escape, all covered carefully to ward off the cat that had been getting increasingly fatter. He put out a fork and a spoon and half a roll of paper towels—“He'll eat the apples with his hands and he always spills the cream.”—and a note that Sam tried not to read but on which he noticed the words miss you and please come inside.
But Sam would admit to still not expecting much. He expected the food to be gone the next morning, and maybe a burger waiting in its place. He expected, at most, a note in return. He did not expect to glance out the window as he got a drink of water at 5:40 am to find Bucky Barnes waiting patiently on the fire escape, eerily still and peering in the window.
Sam screamed out loud and dropped the glass of water.
Barnes didn't even bat an eye. He was, Sam reflected later, probably used to getting that reaction. Steve came skidding into the kitchen in seconds, bare-chested, shield at the ready.
“Sam?” He asked, looking around the room wildly, hair sticking up every which way. Sam pointed weakly at the window. Steve dropped his shield when he saw Barnes. “Bucky,” he breathed. Barnes didn't move. They sat there, staring at one another through a few plates of glass, until Sam rolled his eyes and shoved Steve toward the glass door.
Sam went to his room to give them some privacy and to recover from what he was pretty sure was a heart attack. He heard the door open. He heard Steve speaking softly. That went on for a while, but Sam never heard any responses. And then he heard the shower running and Steve puttering around in his room.
Over the next few weeks, he endured losing the use of his kitchen. Steve and Barnes, it seemed, were communicating mostly in food. When Barnes was feeling peevish, he boiled ground beef—a way of cooking the meat Sam had previously never thought about and subsequently did not wish to eat again. When Steve was happy, he baked hollowed-out apples and filled them with cinnamon and sweetened condensed milk that cooked into a soft caramel. When Barnes was apologizing for something, there would be cherry pies and cherry tarts and cherry turnovers.
Sam gained twelve pounds in three weeks. The two supersoldiers, of course, gained nothing. Assholes. But one night, Sam paused in the hall when he saw the kitchen light was on. He could see Steve and Barnes sitting up to the counter, sharing a monstrous slice of chocolate cake between them, heads bent close, both of them smiling softly and occasionally murmuring something that made the other chuckle. He witnessed them get into an elbow-jabbing fight, which Barnes won by virtue of his elbow being made of metal, and then he witnessed Barnes apologizing for winning by lifting his cake-laden fork to Steve's mouth for another bite.
Sam tiptoed back to his room, thinking his bladder could hold up for at least fifteen more minutes. He thought of boiled cabbage and roast chicken and a story in one of the hundreds of Captain America biographies about Dum Dum Dugan seeing Barnes tipping extra food on Steve's plate, not noticing that Steve had just tipped some extra food onto Barnes's plate.
They communicated in food. Fine. They'd gone long enough without each other; he'd leave them to it.