The apartment is quiet when Steve elbows the door open, carefully protecting the rectangular cardboard box and the bouquet of thirteen pastel-coloured freesias (Bucky isn't so fond of red anymore). Somewhere in the depths of the living room, the murmur of TV signals that the birthday boy is home, despite the stillness of his surroundings.
(Steve sometimes spares a minute furtively missing the exuberance of the pre-war years, when Bucky's presence was a hurricane of emotions and opinions all expressed at the top of his voice - a trait Steve suspects was honed from cohabiting with a large family replete with young relatives.)
He's used to this, though. Now that they are both retirees of a kind, quiet days spent in separate corners doing their own thing is the new normal. Bucky needs the space, and when he doesn't, he has no problems stalking over and butting at Steve for attention like a skittish, sparingly affectionate cat.
Steve doesn't mind. It would be foolish and hypocritical to act like things haven't changed. The nightmares, the jumping at shadows, the endless patrolling of their hipster Berlin neighbourhood, the perfectly maintained window hinges and hidey-holes in the floor and behind the toilet tank tell a different story. But - this is good. Steve isn't just stoically bearing it. He likes their new way of life, likes that he can speak the language without the sinister overhang of their past. Likes the people - overwhelmingly kind, considerate, the kind of people he and Bucky remember meeting in every village - the ones who Doctor Erskine used to remind Steve were the first to be conquered by the new regime, unfailingly helpful, the flames of resistance still burning bright inside them.
Most of all, he likes that he gets to live this life, that the government no longer has any say in his person or how he conducts his affairs. That he and Bucky can just be Army vets Steven and James Barnes, a nice if a little old-fashioned married couple who are thinking of getting a cat, one of those marmalade things that used to stretch out in the sunlit spots behind the grocery store Steve worked at to make rent on his and Bucky's apartment. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's soothing.
There's no point calling out to warn Bucky he's home. Bucky probably heard his steps when he made the turn on the landing two floors below. He follows the faint sounds of Bucky's breathing deeper into the apartment to find him curled up on their sofa under the blanket that looks like nothing more than a bear wrapped protectively around him. On the screen, a blonde girl in a ponytail is having a wrenching argument with an older dark-haired guy who is acting like an asshole. Bucky doesn't acknowledge Steve's appearance, eyes glued to the screen and looking suspiciously damp.
Steve wisely keeps his mouth shut, turning instead into their small kitchen to find their only vase, just cleaned this morning in preparation for its new contents. He pours in water and arranges the freesias, enjoying their lemony scent. Then he opens the pastry box and pulls out five cupcakes.
(Bucky has a thing about even-numbered things now, especially flowers - namely, he doesn't say a word, just fidgets and waits until Steve's back is turned to remove one from the vase or the plate. Steve had nearly broken their laptop after that particular Google search had brought up mentions of even-numbered flower arrangements suitable for funerals in Eastern Europe.)
He arranges the cupcakes on a big plate, a little off-centre, and sticks a 100 candle on top of one at random. He brings his offerings to the coffee table, snags a lighter in preparation of later. It earns him a quick, crinkle-eyed smile that sends warmth blooming in his chest. He gives in to the urge to flop back onto the spot next to Bucky, who shifts to nudge against him and lean his head on Steve's shoulder so he can still see the TV set. Steve tucks his arm around him and settles in to watch the blonde girl sitting next to an older woman who looks like comfort and home - her mother.
"Well, go on, make a wish," the mother says, waving a hand at a candle stuck in a cupcake of their own.
The blonde girl stares at it. "I think I'll just let it burn," she says. Then she leans in, putting her head in her mother's lap.
Bucky tucks himself closer into Steve, resting his cheek against his chest now that the episode is over. Netflix's countdown to the next one starts, but Bucky pauses it with the tip of the remote peeking out from under the blanket. Steve looks down at the bit of his face he can see, then reaches over to flick the lighter and touch the flame to the wick of the birthday candle. Bucky doesn't say anything, but his hand closes on Steve's and laces their fingers together.
"You smell like paper and ink," he mutters a while later. His voice is raspy with disuse. Wax drips slowly over the top of the cupcake. Neither of them moves.
"Did impromptu sketching with some kids. They wanted advice on which pen stroke was better, so I drew up a quick one of Sam's face."
Bucky grunts in amusement. Admittedly, he and Sam could have met under better circumstances, but Bucky did help break Sam out of jail afterwards, so Steve reckons the playing field has evened out.
"Hey, one of the girls asked to keep it." He tries for mock-offended and probably fails.
"'Cause she fancied you, you goof."
Steve rubs at the band of gold on Bucky's right ring finger and kisses the top of his head. The TV catches his eye, the blonde girl posing with an older English-looking man.
"What happened on your show? It looked rough."
Bucky grunts again, this one unhappy.
"Vampire boyfriend turned evil after they slept together."
Steve digests that in silence. He learned his lesson after the first time he'd laughed at the absurdity and Bucky hadn't spoken to him for three hours. Bucky often goes through bouts of silence, but that one had been… pointed. Steve hasn't had the chance to explain that he wasn't laughing at the show, which is actually pretty good and reminds him of Peggy and the Commandos. No, he'd been laughing at the idea of a hundred-year-old bionic supersoldier-slash-assassin hooked on a show about vampires.
"Sounds shitty," he concludes in the end. "I'm sorry."
Bucky shifts, rumbling discontent. "If you'd done that the first time we slept together, we'd have had words."
Steve rolls his eyes. "Sure, Buck. Because I was only after you for the sex before moving on to greener pastures." Bucky squeezes his wrist meanly; Steve snorts. "But if you're into that kinda thing, I can always act like a jerk for our 75th anniversary next week-"
"Why do I even love you," Bucky whines, pushing Steve's face away while Steve laughs helplessly.
"Don't know, pal, but you do," he says smugly.
"Ugh, you are not attractive."
"I can hear it when you lie, you know."
"Unbelievable. I get stuck for a century and change with this guy."
"Shh. Now blow out your candle."
The top of the 100 has melted a third of the way down. The frosting is a mess of wax and butterscotch cream cheese. Bucky leans down to snag the cupcake, looks into Steve's eyes as he purses his lips and blows out the flame.
"Take the plastic out, willya? I want a bite."
Steve reaches up for the assist, licking traces of cake and icing off the bottom. Bucky takes a big bite off the side with the least amount of wax, making a pleased noise that lodges right into Steve's gut. Now there's frosting all over Bucky's perfectly shaped lips, and Steve needs to get his mouth on him, so he leans in, tipping Bucky's head back.
Bucky reaches up and mashes the rest of the cupcake into his face. Steve doesn't know why he's surprised. Bucky giggles like a fiend, throwing off the blanket and running away like he thinks that will save him. Steve grins, feeling unbearably light despite - or maybe because of - the cake smeared all over his nose and cheeks. Then he grabs another cupcake and races after his husband, intent on revenge.
(Later, Steve gives Bucky his present - a drawing of their mothers having tea in the Barnes' kitchen, surrounded by children, tiny Bucky and Steve sitting under the table and playing cat's cradle - also the real reason Steve smells like ink and paper. Bucky, predictably, cries, which sets Steve off, and they hold each other and let each other fall apart over all the things they've lost. And then, they hold on some more, and remind themselves of all the things they have still - again - together like always.)