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Independence Day

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Steve Rogers was surprised to realize that, for the first time in what seemed like at least a lifetime, his life felt almost normal. Admittedly, his definition of "normal" was probably very different than most people's, but the point still stood.

Looking back, he should have known that it wasn't going to last.

Across from him, Tony Stark let out a fairly strong curse as he hung up his phone. Steve quirked an eyebrow and waited.

"Sorry, Steve, but it looks like we're going to have to cut our dinner a little short," Tony said, shoving his chair out and standing up. He pulled some cash out of his wallet and threw it on the table. "Time to go."

Steve stood up as well, frowning. "What's going on?"

Tony have him an apologetic smile. "Giant robots attacking the city."

"Again? Didn't we just fight off giant robots on Tuesday?" Steve asked. Then he shook his head. "Never mind, stupid question. Come on, let's go."

Tony raised an eyebrow, but he didn't say anything. He just nodded and started toward the door, glancing behind him only once to see if Steve was actually following.

*

Tony hit the ground with a sickening thud.

"Iron Man!" Steve yelled. He ducked a punch from one of the men he was fighting, grabbing the man and tossing him over his shoulders in one fluid movement. His shield lay several feet away, where it had landed when he'd thrown it at two men who had been trying to sneak up on Spider-Woman.

Steve took a second to look in Tony's direction, his worry growing when he saw that Iron Man hadn't moved yet. Usually it didn't take Tony more than a second or two to regain his bearings and get back into a fight.

"Steve, duck!"

Without hesitating, Steve dropped to the ground. Something that looked both heavy and very much on fire went flying over his head, straight into the chest of a man who had apparently been aiming a gun at Steve's back. The man dropped his weapon, yelling in pain as he dropped to the ground and began rolling around to put out the flames.

Steve glanced over at Bucky, who was grinning as he fought off three opponents a few feet away. It was still odd seeing him in a new uniform, especially one so different from all of his previous ones, but Steve had to admit that it suited him.

"I hope you didn't make a habit of setting people on fire back when you were still Captain America," Steve said, raising an eyebrow.

Bucky didn't even glance Steve's way as he sent one of his opponents sprawling to the ground with an impressive punch. He reached down and picked up Steve's shield, which he had apparently used to knock out another person while Steve hadn't been looking.

"You're welcome," he said, ducking as one of the bad guys tried to kick him in the head. He used the shield to take both of the remaining ones out before handing it back to Steve. "Now go check on Iron Man. Spider-Woman and I can handle the rest of the guys on the ground."

Steve hesitated.

A giant robot crashed to the ground a few feet away, smoke still rising from it where Thor had hit it with lightning. Somewhere on the far side of the fray, several of the bad guys were running in terror. Steve wasn't quite certain who or what they were running from, though he suspected Wolverine was probably involved in some way, but it did look like the others had everything under control for the time being.

He turned and ran toward Tony.

Tony was finally shoving himself up into a sitting position, cursing loudly as he yanked off his helmet and dropped it on the ground beside him. Smoke streamed out of it, mixed in with some alarming-looking sparks. He looked a little dazed, but otherwise Steve didn't see any major damage.

Steve knelt down beside him. "Tony, are you alright?"

"I'm fine," Tony said angrily, anything else he wanted to say cut off by a coughing fit. He reached up at rubbed at an angry red mark over his left eye, caused - Steve presumed - by the sparks he'd seen coming out of the helmet. Smudges, probably from the smoke, covered his face.

"Yes, it sounds like you're fine," Steve said dryly.

Tony waved a hand in his direction, the coughing fit slowly dying down. "That damn shot short-circuited part of my systems," he said, his voice a little hoarse. He reached down and picked up his discarded helmet, peering into it with a frown. "I had to reboot the suit before I could move. Just give me a minute or two to fix it."

Steve didn't even bother trying to argue; all that would do was bring out Tony's stubborn streak and make things worse. "At least it didn't short-circuit you," he pointed out, his voice a little gruffer than he had intended it to be.

Tony made a sound that wasn't quite a chuckle. "Point taken," he said, poking at something inside his helmet with some sort of tool. Steve hadn't noticed him pull it out from wherever it had been hidden; actually, come to think of it, he wasn't certain he wanted to know where Tony kept it.

After a few seconds had passed, Tony finally glanced up . . . and his eyes widened. "Behind you!"

Steve jumped up, spinning around as he did. His hands automatically went for his shield even before he saw the giant robot bearing down on them. Before he could throw it, a familiar spray of webbing appeared around the robot's legs. The robot ground to a halt, swaying back and forth as it tried to keep its balance.

Then a car flew through the air and crashed into its chest. The car exploded, sending debris flying everywhere. Seconds later, the robot fell, hitting the ground so hard that it almost knocked Steve off his feet.

Steve blinked. Then he glanced at Tony, not trying to hide the relieved grin he knew was on his face. "I think that Luke and his Avengers team just got here."

"Finally." Tony climbed unsteadily to his feet. He shoved his helmet back on his head. It wasn't sparking anymore, at least, but Steve was almost certain that he still saw a little bit of smoke coming out.

Steve shot him a wary look. "Are you sure you should be--"

"Come on, let's get back into the fight," Tony said, cutting him off. He was already flying away, straight into the middle of the fray, before Steve had a chance to reply.

With a tired sigh, Steve shook his head. Then he tightened his grip on his shield and followed in the direction the Tony had gone.

*

"Well, this isn't exactly how I expected the night to go when you invited me out to dinner," Steve said dryly.

Tony grimaced as a doctor poked at his bare chest yet again. "Stop that," he said, swatting at the doctor's hands as she got a little too close to the arc reactor. "I've already told you, I'm fine. A little smoke inhalation never killed anyone."

The doctor glared at him and opened her mouth to speak.

"Let me rephrase that," Tony said quickly.

Steve tapped his shoulder. Tony glanced up at him, and Steve shook his head. "Stop while you're behind."

Tony grimaced, but he didn't say anything else as the doctor finished examining him. He did, however, shoot Steve a smug look when she pronounced him mostly unharmed and walked out of the room.

"I told you so," Tony said.

Steve just shook his head in exasperation, trying not to smile. "She did say you'd be coughing the next couple of days," he pointed out. "That's not the same as fine." Then he stretched a bit and started toward the door.

Tony made a startled noise. "Wait, where are you going?"

"I'm sure Pepper's around here somewhere by now," Steve called over his shoulder. "I'm going to go tell her what the doctor actually said when it comes to what you're allowed to do and what you're not, since we both know you aren't planning on listening."

There was silence for a moment as Steve stepped up to the door.

"I'm throwing you a birthday party, by the way!" Tony said suddenly.

Steve stopped, his hand on the door handle. He ran their previous conversation through his head, making certain that he hadn't missed something that would explain where that non sequitur had come from.

He slowly turned back toward Tony. "What?" he asked, trying not to let Tony see how confused he was.

Judging by Tony's grin, it didn't look like he had succeeded.

"I said," Tony said, looking much too smug for someone who was sitting on a hospital bed in nothing but his underwear, "I'm throwing you a birthday party next week. I thought you'd like some advance notice, since you threatened to defenestrate me if I ever threw you another surprise party."

Steve stared at him. "What?" he repeated.

Tony raised an eyebrow. "For the third time, I'm going to--"

"Yes, I heard you the first two times," Steve said, cutting him off. "I just hoped that I was imagining it." He shot Tony a skeptical look. "Just how much smoke did you inhale earlier? Do I need to go get the doctor and make her check you again?"

Tony rolled his eyes. "Very funny, Steve. For your information, that's why I invited you to dinner in the first place. I was planning on telling you then."

Steve stared at him.

"Seriously, Tony," he finally said, shaking his head, "have you lost your mind?"

Steve regretted saying it the moment the words were out of his mouth.

Tony flinched slightly, but his grin didn't dim in the least bit. "If I have, Pepper and Rhodey haven't commented on it yet."

"I'm sorry," Steve said quietly. "I really should have worded that differently."

Tony shrugged, still grinning a bit. Steve couldn't help but think it looked a bit forced, unlike the genuine one he'd been wearing a few minutes earlier.

"But really, Tony?" Steve asked slowly, reaching up to rub his temples. "A birthday party?"

"Come on, Steve, it's your 90th birthday," Tony said. "That's something worth celebrating."

Steve paused, tilting his head. He hadn't really thought about it, but Tony was right. It had technically been ninety years since he was born. "Considering how many of those years were spent frozen in suspended animation, I'm not sure it counts as my 90th birthday," he said skeptically.

"Okay," Tony asked, "how old will you be on your birthday, not counting your time in the ice?"

Steve wrinkled his brow, thinking for a moment.

Tony held up a finger. "Time travel, magically being de-aged, temporary replacement by past or future selves, and time loops still count."

"Time loops shouldn't count if everything was reset after it ended," Steve grumbled, frowning. "Our bodies didn't actually age. We just have memories of things that happened during it."

"I'm waiting," Tony said, his mouth twitching.

Steve opened his mouth to answer. Then he closed it, his frown deepening.

Tony smirked.

"Remind me, Tony," Steve said slowly, making a big show of reaching up to scratch his head in feigned puzzlement. "How many times were you a teenager?"

Tony's smirk disappeared instantly. "I thought we agreed to forget that ever happened and to never mention it again."

Steve smiled despite himself. It faded after a few seconds, and he sighed. "Tony, as much as--"

"Don't worry," Tony cut in, "I'll take care of everything."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Steve muttered, shaking his head.

Tony tilted his head, his grin fading. "What was that?"

Steve stared at him for a moment. The pinched look that Tony had gotten after Steve had made his ill thought out comment had disappeared, and his smile looked almost real again. It was quickly disappearing, though, being replaced by disappointment.

"I said, then I guess I should leave it up to you," Steve said, forcing himself to smile even though he didn't really feel like it.

The way Tony's face lit up almost made it worth it.

*

Steve leaned against the railing on the balcony outside his apartment, looking out at the view. A warm breeze blew by, and he closed his eyes for a moment.

Something or someone dropped down beside him, landing surprisingly lightly.

"Hello, Peter," Steve said, not opening his eyes.

He could almost hear Peter frowning. "How did you know it was me?"

Chuckling, Steve opened his eyes and looked to his right. Peter Parker was standing there, resting his arms on the railing as well. "Social visit?"

Peter stretched. "Something like that," he agreed.

Steve didn't say anything. He just gave Peter a look and waited.

"So, what do you want for your birthday?" Peter asked, his grin very much on the borderline of being a smirk. "I don't want to get you the same thing as everyone else. That would just be tacky."

Steve stared blankly at him for a moment. Then he sighed. "You heard about the party Tony's throwing?" he hazarded.

Peter laughed. "Everyone has heard about it."

"Wonderful," Steve muttered, reaching up to rub his temples. "Just perfect."

Peter's grin faded. "Wait, the party's a bad thing instead of a good thing?"

A pang of guilt ran through Steve. "I didn't say it was a bad thing. It's just--" He hesitated, not quite sure how to continue.

Comprehension dawned on Peter's face. "Not how you planned on spending your birthday?" Peter asked, his voice a lot more subdued than it had been just seconds earlier.

"Something like that," Steve agreed.

Peter jumped up on top of the railing, precariously balancing on it. He frowned. "I get it. Tony's being a little too, well, Tony."

"His name's an adjective now?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow.

Peter raised his own eyebrows in return.

They stared at each other for a few seconds, their faces mirroring each other's. Then Peter snorted, his serious expression dissolving into laughter. Steve followed a few seconds later with a chuckle of his own.

"Do me a favor, Peter," Steve said once he had mostly regained his composure.

"Sure, Cap," Peter said. Then he grimaced. "Sorry, habit. I meant to call you Steve, really."

"It's fine, Peter," Steve said, his mouth twitching. "If you want to call me Cap, call me Cap. Now that I'm wearing the uniform again, I don't mind as much." His not quite smile faded after a few seconds. "But, please, don't say anything to Tony."

Peter hesitated. "About me calling you Cap instead of Steve?"

Steve shot him a look.

Peter shrugged, grinning sheepishly. "Oh," he said, "you mean about you not wanting a big party?"

Steve nodded.

"But--" Peter frowned. "He's trying to do this for you, to make up for, well, everything. If he knew this wasn't what you wanted, he'd change his plans in a second. You know that he would."

"And that's why I'm not going to tell him anything," Steve said firmly. "Why you're not going to tell him anything. I don't want to ruin this for him."

"You don't want to ruin this for him," Peter repeated. If anything, his frown grew even deeper. "But, Steve, it's your birthday. He--"

"Peter," Steve said warningly.

"Fine," Peter muttered, his face falling. "I promise that I won't say anything to him. Cross my heart."

Steve glanced suspiciously at Peter's hands.

Peter rolled his eyes good-naturedly, holding up his hands so Steve could see them. "Come on, do you really think I'd cross my fingers? I'm more mature than that."

Steve felt his mouth twitch again, despite himself. "And you promise not to say anything to Rhodey or Pepper or anyone else just so they'll tell Tony?"

Peter's face fell even more, but he reluctantly nodded. "I promise."

Steve smiled. "Thank you, Peter."

Peter kept frowning. "I still say that you should just tell him that--"

"Peter," Steve said warningly.

"Fine, fine." Peter rolled his eyes again. "Shutting up now."

*

Steve looked up from his plate of pasta and froze. It was instantly obvious that he was about to be in trouble. There was no missing the exasperation on Sharon Carter's face.

"Steve," she said, "think about how long I've known you. Do you really think I can't tell when you're upset?"

He blinked at her, putting down his fork. "I'm not upset."

Sharon stared at him, not saying anything.

Steve shifted uncomfortably in his seat for almost a minute. Sharon just kept staring. "Okay, fine," he said, leaning back in his chair, "maybe I'm a little upset."

"Would it be safe to assume this is about a birthday party that someone is throwing in your honor?" Sharon asked, smiling a bit.

Steve groaned. "Is there anyone who hasn't heard about it?"

Sharon shook her head. "Probably not, considering I found out about it from Nick," she said, standing up and walking over to where Steve was sitting. She rested her hands on his shoulders. "Not going the way you expected?"

"Oh, it's going exactly like I expected," Steve said, pushing his chair back from the table. Sharon moved her hands, and he stood up.

"Then what's the problem?" Sharon asked, frowning as Steve walked over to the window and stared out at the cityscape.

Steve didn't reply.

Sharon walked over and stood beside him. "Steve, what's wrong?"

He looked away from her.

"It's Tony Stark," Sharon said. "The moment he mentioned that he was throwing you a party, you knew he was going to throw the biggest, most gaudy one he could possibly afford. Why didn't you just tell him that's not what you want?"

Steve jerked his head around so he could stare at her. "How did you know?"

Sharon raised an eyebrow, shooting him a disbelieving look. "Steve, you hate big parties. I've known that since Nick had to threaten you to make you attend that banquet when the President insisted you be there."

He stared at her for another moment before throwing his head back and laughing. Sharon smiled and shook her head.

Steve suddenly wrapped her in a tight hug. "Remind me again why we broke up?" he asked quietly.

She pulled away, her face closing up a bit. "You know why," she said, just as softly. "I was programmed, Steve. I care for you, I always will, but--" She hesitated. "But I can't. Not now, at least. At this point, I don't know whether what I'm feeling is actually me, or if it's something left over from what Faustus did to me. Until I do--"

"I understand," Steve said, reluctantly dropping his arms back to his side. "Really, Sharon, I do. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought I up."

Sharon reached out, sliding her arm under his. "Don't apologize. It's just something that both of us are going to have to live with."

They stood there a moment in silence, their dinner almost forgotten. Then Steve bit his lip.

"Are you coming to the party then?" he asked, his voice a little more pleading than he had meant for it to be.

Sharon burst out laughing. "Not a chance in hell. Sorry, Steve, you're on your own for this one."

*

"The party's not for hours, Tony," Steve said, tugging at his dress uniform. "Why couldn't I just put it on later?"

Tony brushed some invisible lint off the sleeve of his own suit. "It's your party, Steve. You need to arrive in style."

Steve did his best to resist the urge to roll his eyes. "Tony, these are our friends. I doubt they're going to care if I'm in my dress uniform the entire time."

Tony's face was inscrutable as they stepped up to the door of the Avengers Mansion. "Still, appearances are important."

Steve frowned, glancing between Tony and the closed door. He was actually a little surprised that Luke had agreed to let Tony have the party here. The two of them were still understandably tense around each other, even after all this time. If they didn't have to interact with each other, they tried their best not to.

Maybe he wasn't the one who Tony wanted to make a good impression on.

The door opened, and Luke stepped out. He glanced at the two of them and nodded, crossing his arms. "You said you'd be here thirty minutes ago."

Before Steve could say anything, Tony jerked his thumb in Steve's direction. "He insisted we obey the speed limit."

The very edge of Luke's mouth twitched. It wasn't much, barely noticeable, but it was something.

"I know how you drive, Tony," Steve said. "You don't seem to understand the difference between New York City streets and the Autobahn."

Luke's mouth twitched again.

Tony elbowed Steve lightly in the stomach. "Which one of us has wrecked more vehicles?" he asked pointedly.

Steve opened his mouth to argue.

"Motorcycles count."

Steve closed his mouth.

There was no denying Luke's almost-smile now.

"Thanks again for letting us use the mansion for the party, Luke," Tony said, turning his attention back toward their host. He hesitated a moment before holding out his hand. "I know that I'm not exactly your favorite person right now."

Luke kept his arms crossed. Tony sighed and started to pull his hand back, only for Luke to uncross them and grab his hand in a slightly tighter-than-necessary grip. A startled look appeared on Tony's face as he met Luke's gaze.

"I didn't say 'yes' because of you, Stark," Luke said pointedly.

Tony nodded, his face serious. "I'm well aware of that."

"Good," Luke said gruffly. Then he shook Tony's hand. It only lasted for a moment, but his mouth twisted upward into a half-smile as he let go.

Steve smiled as Luke turned his attention toward him, self-consciously pulling at his dress uniform. "I appreciate it too, Luke."

Luke shrugged. "Hey, it's the least I can do."

Tony gave Luke a tentative smile of his own. "I'm assuming the rest of your family's inside somewhere?"

"Just Danny and Dani," Luke said, something that Steve couldn't quite read flashing in his eyes for a second. "Jess is spending the afternoon with Misty and Colleen. I didn't ask what they were doing."

"And you really don't want to know?" Steve guessed,

This time, Luke openly grinned. "Got it in one."

Just inside the still open door, Dani went floating by. She paused for a moment in midair, giggling as she waved at them.

Tony hesitantly reached his hand up and waved back, elbowing Steve in the side when he kept gaping. Steve quickly waved back as well. Luke frowned and turned around to see who they were waving at.

Dani grinned broadly at them; then she flew out of sight again.

Steve and Tony shared a look before turning back toward Luke. He was massaging his temples, a tired look on his face.

"So," Steve said, trying to keep his voice nonchalant, "Dani can fly. I'm assuming that's a recent development?"

Luke glared at him, all hints of amusement erased.

Inside the mansion, Danny Rand came running up to the door. He grabbed the doorframe, leaning out to look at the three of them. He looked more amused than worried. "Hey, have any of you happened to see my goddaughter?"

Luke turned his glare toward Danny.

Danny held out his hands, making a vaguely Dani-sized shape. "She's about this big, is wearing a Superman shirt, and thankfully takes after her mother more than her father when it comes to looks."

Luke made a sound that reminded Steve suspiciously of a growl. "I thought you were watching her!"

Danny shot him a dirty look. "She kind of has a slight advantage over me."

"She's a toddler," Luke said dryly.

"Well, yes," Danny agreed, "but she's a toddler who can fly. Which, I might add, is not an ability that I share."

"Danny," Luke said warningly. "Go find my daughter before Jess--"

There was a loud crash somewhere inside the mansion, followed by the unmistakable sound of a fire alarm. Danny grimaced and disappeared from the doorway.

Luke sighed. "They've been setting everything up on the third floor. Think you can find your own way up? I need to go find my daughter, and then I need to kill my best friend before our wives get back."

Steve chuckled. "I think we can find our own way up."

*

"Everything feels wrong, doesn't it?" Tony asked, breaking the silence they had been sharing since they had started up the stairs to the third floor.

Steve turned toward him. "What?"

"The mansion," Tony said, gesturing around. "It's wrong."

"The same but different," Steve said slowly, suddenly aware of what Tony was talking about now that it had been brought to his attention. "Like the world's been going on without us."

Tony stopped, turning to stare at him. He frowned. "Touché."

Steve gave him a weak smile. "I really do know what you mean," he said, forcing himself to look around. He had been trying not to; like Tony had pointed out, it felt wrong. The shape was the same. The doors were in the same places, and the hallway was the same length it had always been. But everything else was different. The colors, the decorations, the furniture. It was the mansion that he remembered, but at the same time it wasn't.

It was disconcerting, now that he was really thinking about it.

"The mansion was my home for so long," Steve said quietly. He reached over to pick up a framed photograph sitting on a nearby table. Luke and his team stared back at him, a mixture of smiles, frowns, and - in Logan's case, at least - a hand with a single finger held up and a grimace.

Tony reached out and ran his fingers over the newly painted wall. "It was my home too, Steve."

"Times have changed, huh?" Steve said. He tried to smile, but he suspected it wasn't very reassuring.

Tony didn't even try. "Do you miss the old days? Back when it was just the five of us? Before everything became so complicated?"

"All the time," Steve answered, not even hesitating.

"Me too," Tony said softly, his eyes focused on the wall. "Jarvis must have given them that one. I have another copy of it in the Tower."

Steve followed his gaze. There was a familiar photograph hanging on the hallway's wall, taken only a few months after he had joined the Avengers. Thor was standing in the back, an uncertain look on his face; he hadn't been impressed with the fancy camera that Tony - still Mr. Stark back then - had provided.

Steve was standing beside him, his hair longer than he liked; he had kept getting distracted from getting a haircut when he had first been unfrozen. Beside Steve was Tony, safely hidden inside the Iron Man suit; none of them had known his secret identity back then.

Hank and Janet were standing in front of them. His arm was around her waist as she smiled and leaned in close to him. Rick was standing off to the side a bit, biting his lip as if he wasn't quite certain he belonged there. Jarvis stood beside him, a bland expression on his face.

They all looked so young.

"Do you remember the day we took this picture?" Steve asked, his throat suddenly tight.

Tony nodded. His voice sounded just as rough. "Like it was yesterday."

Neither of them said another word as they slowly walked the rest of the way down the hallway.

*

Steve glanced around the room, trying to hide just how uncomfortable he was. There were dozens and dozens of people around him, some familiar and others not. Sometimes it was easy to forget that he'd lost even more time, that the world had kept moving forward without him again. At other times, it was painfully obvious.

"Happy birthday, Steve," Clint said, grinning broadly as he threw an arm over Steve's shoulder. "How does it feel to be a nonagenarian?

Steve forced himself to grin, purposely ignoring the second part. "Thanks, Clint."

Someone tapped him on the arm. Disentangling himself from Clint's exuberant grip, Steve turned around.

"I just wanted to say happy birthday, Captain America."

Steve had no idea who the woman speaking to him was, but - judging by the silver necklace with a rather conspicuous X dangling on it that she wearing - he was willing to bet she was a mutant. One of the X-Men, maybe? "Thank you," he said, smiling.

When he turned back around, Clint had already disappeared.

Steve scanned the room. He thought that he saw Clint on the other side of the room, someone with a shock of silver hair standing beside him. He only knew two people with hair that color, so it was either Pietro or--

Jessica Jones's voice rang out behind him.

"Tommy Shepherd, unless you've magically turned twenty-one, don't even think about it!" There was a pause, and Steve felt a sudden breeze. "Tommy!"

Pietro it was, then.

"Happy birthday, Cap."

Steve turned to his left. Eli Bradley was standing there, a somewhat hesitant look on his face. "Thank you, Patriot," Steve said. For once, his smile wasn't forced. "I appreciate it."

Eli nodded. His gaze drifted past Steve, focusing on something behind him for a second, before he moved his gaze back. The expression on his face was fairly easy to read.

Steve gestured behind him with his head. "Fighting with Kate again?"

"That obvious, huh?" Eli asked, a hint of a wry grin on his face.

Steve shook his head. "Eli, go make up with your girlfriend."

Eli laughed. "Yes, sir," he said.

Steve watched as Eli made his way across the room, stopping beside Kate Bishop and saying something to her that made her face flush a bit. Still shaking his head, he turned away from the teenagers and glanced around the room again.

He didn't recognize half of the people surrounding him.

"Well, this is going to be a fun night," he muttered under his breath.

A young woman with blonde hair and an M tattooed over her eye stopped as she walked by. She turned and gave him an enigmatic smile. "Oh Steve, you have no idea. Not yet, anyway." She tilted her head a bit. "It's very nice outside tonight."

Then she turned and walked off without another word.

Steve frowned, watching her disappear into the crowd. "Who on earth was that?"

After a few seconds, it became apparently that no one was going to magically walk up and answer his question. Shaking his head, Steve turned around and let his gaze drift over the room again. His eyes focused in on the sliding door that led out to one of the balconies, and he slowly started to smile.

*

Steve leaned forward, resting his arms on the balcony's railing. Inside, the sound of breaking glass made its way through the open doors. It was the third time in the past ten minutes. A small part of him was curious enough to want to find out just what was going on in there; the rest of him pointed out that if he went back inside to investigate, he probably wouldn't get another chance to escape.

Curiosity wasn't really that important in the grand scheme of things.

Above him, the sky suddenly filled with fireworks. Steve grinned despite himself, letting the colors wash over him for a moment. Then he frowned. The nearest fireworks show wasn't close enough to be seen this clearly, not from the mansion. Which meant--

Steve sighed. "Really, Tony," he muttered. "Fireworks too?"

Steve heard someone step through the door to join him outside. The sound quickly stopped, as if the person had paused just after stepping through the doorway. Steve recognized those footsteps.

"Hey," Tony said after a few moments hesitation.

Steve didn't turn around. "Hey yourself."

He could hear the sheepish smile in Tony's voice. "I was wondering where you'd disappeared to," Tony said. "Peter said that he thought he'd seen you slip out here."

Tony paused for a moment.

"This should have been the first place that I looked," he said, his voice dropping in volume. "I'd almost forgotten. You used to do this all the time back in the old days."

"Do what?" Steve asked. "Run off in the middle of a party?"

Steve could almost hear Tony shrugging. "Parties, arguments, post-mission debriefings, random Avengers meetings that got too long-winded, anything involving talking with Reed Richards or Nick Fury for more than five minutes at a time . . . ."

Despite himself, Steve smiled. He finally turned around to glance at Tony. "Did I hear glass breaking a few minutes ago?" he asked.

Sating his curiosity wasn't necessarily that bad if he didn't have to go back inside to do it.

Tony grimaced. "Yes, you did," he said reluctantly. "Clint and Pietro were, uh, having a discussion. It's been some time since they were in a room together, and I'm sure you remember what the two of them can be like once they both open their mouths."

Steve raised an eyebrow. "A discussion?" he repeated.

Tony shot him a look. "They were talking, then they were arguing, and now they're working out their issues. Do you really want me to go into more details than that?" he asked. "Because I can, if that's what you want, since it's unfortunately very fresh on my mind. After all that time on a team with them, I would have thought you could do without descriptive details, but--"

"No, really, I'm good," Steve cut in, pulling a face. Then he paused. "I almost hate to ask, but where's Bobbi?"

"From what I could tell, enjoying the view," Tony said dryly.

Steve's face went studiously blank as he turned around and went back to staring out over the city. Above them, a few more fireworks went off.

"Do I even want to know how you got permission from the city to shoot off fireworks?" Steve asked after a minute or so of silence had passed.

Tony laughed. "I might not be as rich as I was in the past, but I do still have a few friends in high places."

Steve raised an eyebrow. "Please tell me you didn't blackmail anyone."

If anything, Tony looked even more smug than before.

"Only you, Tony," Steve said, trying not to laugh. "Only you."

*

Steve had no idea how long the two of them had been standing outside on the balcony, staring up at the sky and not saying a word. It was a comfortable silence. It could have been five minutes, or it could have been an hour.

"Why are you out here anyway?" Tony asked. He sounded almost hesitant to break the silence. "Shouldn't you be inside enjoying being the life the party?"

Steve just shook his head. "Not if I can do anything to help it."

Tony frowned. "It's your party, Steve."

Steve sighed. "No, it's not," he said, turning enough that he could meet Tony's gaze. He managed a weak grin as he shrugged. "Come on, Tony, we both know that it's your party, not mine."

Tony stared blankly at him.

Steve blinked a few times, then he laughed. "You haven't even noticed, have you?" he asked, grinning at the confused look on Tony's face.

"Noticed what?" Tony asked slowly.

"Oh, Tony," Steve said, shaking his head. "You never change, do you?"

A shuttered look appeared on Tony's face. "All things considered, I'm not sure if I should take that as a compliment or an insult."

Steve smiled tiredly. "I didn't mean it as an insult. Not this time." He paused for a moment. "I promise."

Tony's eyes twinkled slightly, though the shuttered look didn't disappear completely. "Well, if Captain America promises . . ."

Forgetting entirely about both propriety and maturity, Steve stuck out his tongue.

Tony burst into laughter.

Hoping that the conversation was over, Steve turned his attention back to the sky. The fireworks had ended, but it was dark enough that he could actually see some stars.

"You should have told me that this wasn't what you wanted," Tony said softly, his voice serious.

Steve started to turn back toward him, but he stopped at the last minute. "You wanted to throw me a party, Tony."

"No, I wanted to give you something that you wanted," Tony shot back. There was a slight edge to his voice that hadn't been there before.

This time, Steve did look at him. "Tony," he said, his own voice rising in volume a bit, "how long have you known me? Did you really think that I'd enjoy something like this?"

Tony seemed to shrink in on himself as he turned away. Steve closed his eyes regretfully and turned his back as well.

They stood there in silence for a few minutes. This time, however, it felt like years.

"It's never going to go back to normal, is it?" Tony asked quietly.

Steve didn't look at him. "What isn't?"

Tony's mouth twisted, more of a grimace than a smile. "Us," he said. "Things are never going to be like they were before--" He paused; then he shrugged. "Well, before everything."

"Things change, Tony," Steve said. He finally looked at Tony. "People change."

Tony leaned forward a bit, his grip on the balcony's railing tightening.

Steve stood there a moment, studying Tony. It had been almost fifteen years since the Avengers found Steve in the ice, since he had woken up and discovered that he had lost everything. Time had changed both of them. They were older. Wiser. More hardened. They had lost friends, and they had gained them.

Neither of them was the same person they had been when that picture had been taken, all those years ago.

Steve slowly started to smile. "On the other hand, what's normal?"

Tony startled. He didn't look at Steve, but his smile was still obvious from the way his stance changed.

"This is the first time in years that we've all come together for something good," Tony said quietly. "Something that isn't a fight or a funeral."

Steve stilled.

Tony glanced at him, his smile weak but definitely there. "Wanda's back. I wouldn't go as far as to say that people have forgiven her, but they're getting there." He looked away, his gaze focusing on his hands. "Peter and Mary Jane seem happy. Scott's back. Jan's back. You're back."

"I've been back for some time now," Steve pointed out gently.

Tony clenched his hands. "I know," he said. "It's just-- things are going back to the way they used to be, at least somewhat. Hell, the majority of the X-Men are alive right now. When was the last time that happened?"

Steve sighed. "Tony," he said slowly, "I'm not sure 'normal' is a term that even exists when it comes to our lives."

Tony reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "I know, I know," he agreed. "It's just-- it's our version of normal that I miss."

Shaking his head a bit, Steve reached out and lightly rested his hand on Tony's arm. Tony stilled, an uncertain look on his face as he glanced at Steve.

"Normal's overrated," Steve said gently. "Things are okay for now. That's really all we can ask for, right?"

"Even if you hate your birthday party?" Tony asked, his mouth twitching a bit.

Steve couldn't help but laugh a bit. "Even if I hate my birthday party," he agreed.

Tony stared at him for a moment, his eyes running over Steve's face as if he was memorizing it. He looked almost hesitant, which wasn't a look Steve was used to seeing on him.

Steve's laughter faded. "Tony?" he asked, suddenly worried that he'd said the wrong thing again. "Is something wrong?"

Tony twisted around and kissed him.

As kisses went, it wasn't much. It was barely a peck on the lips, lasting no more than a second or two. Still, it was enough to make Steve's face flame as he pulled away, his eyes wide with surprise.

"Well, you're not punching me," Tony said finally. "Is that a good sign?"

Steve just kept staring at him.

Tony swallowed. "Is it a bad sign?"

Steve was still having trouble getting his voice to work. He managed to weakly shake his head.

"Come on, Steve, give me something," Tony said, obviously trying to keep his voice light. He wasn't succeeding very well. Steve could hear the slight tremor in it that was usually a sign that Tony was barely keeping himself from completely falling apart.

Steve let out a shaky breath. "I thought we agreed a long time ago that this wouldn't be a good idea."

"Like you said, times change," Tony said, ignoring him completely. Steve had expected as much, if he was honest with himself.

Tony's hand had moved to rest on Steve's arm sometime in the past few minutes. Now it moved downward somewhat, resting lightly on Steve's thigh.

Steve swallowed a few times, not willing to pull away quite yet. "Okay, I have to admit, this isn't how I pictured the night going."

Tony chuckled. "Better than expected?" he asked hopefully.

Finally starting to smile, Steve leaned in and kissed him back. This time it was a proper kiss, and Steve could feel Tony relax as he realized what it meant.

Behind them, there was a wolf whistle. Then someone started to clap.

They both jerked apart, spinning around only to freeze in place when they saw Carol, Wanda, and Jessica Jones standing in the doorway, a few other people near the door peering curiously out in an attempt to see what was happening. Carol was the one clapping, and it was obvious from the grin on her face that Jessica was the one who had whistled. Wanda was standing between the two of them, a hesitant look on her face as if she wasn't quite certain she belonged there.

Steve covered his face with his left hand.

"Carol," he said warningly. He suspected the fact that he was hiding his face probably made it seem less threatening than he would have liked.

She laughed, proving his suspicions true. Still, she stopped clapping.

"What are you doing out here?" Tony asked, his voice steady.

Steve reluctantly uncovered his face and glanced over at Tony. Despite his calm voice, his face had a noticeable red tinge to it.

Jessica laughed. "We were actually coming out to ask the two of you the same question."

"I guess we don't need to ask now," Wanda said. For a moment, Steve could see a hint of her old self in the smirk she was wearing, before she realized what she had said and disappeared back behind the nervous mask she'd been wearing for months now.

"Well, now you know," Tony said, his voice only slightly strangled. "I think it's time to go back inside and enjoy the party, don't you?"

Carol made a big deal of tilting her head like she was considering his suggestion. "But it looks so much more interesting out here," she said teasingly.

Steve closed his eyes, barely resisting the urge to hide his face again. "Carol," he said, hoping his voice didn't sound quite as shaky as he suspected it did.

She laughed. "Fine, fine," she agreed. "I wouldn't take too long, though. Some of the others were starting to wonder where the two of you had disappeared to."

*

As they finally walked back inside, Steve couldn't shake the feeling that everyone was staring at them. It wasn't true. Almost everyone in the room was standing around in small groups, talking among themselves and, in several cases, pointedly ignoring other people. Some fractures still hadn't healed.

"Oh, you have to be kidding me," Tony muttered beside him.

Steve glanced at Tony, frowning as he followed the other man's line of sight. Carol, Jessica, and Wanda were staring at the two of them, openly smirking. Luke was standing beside them, and he grimaced and shook his head apologetically when he noticed that Steve and Tony were looking in their direction.

"Well, I think it's safe to say they told Luke," Steve said quietly. He could feel his face flushing.

"Safe to say who told Luke what?" Peter asked, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. He raised an eyebrow.

If anything, Steve blushed even more. He glanced over at Tony, surprised to see a hint of red on his face as well.

Peter stared at both of them for a few seconds. Then he glanced over at Carol and the others; all three of the women had dissolved into laughter, and in Steve's opinion Luke looked as if he was struggling not to do the same. Peter turned his attention back toward Steve and Tony, his eyes drifting toward Steve's neck, right at the spot where Tony had--

Steve brought his hand up, trying his best to hide his face.

"Oh, finally!" Peter exclaimed, his voice carrying. He quickly closed his mouth, apparently realizing just how loud he'd been, but the damage was already done.

Now almost everyone in the room really was staring at them.

If Steve hadn't been so embarrassed, he would have been amused by the fact that Tony was apparently trying his best to sink into the floor. "Thank you, Peter," he managed to choke out. "That was very helpful."

Peter gave them a sheepish look. "Sorry," he mouthed, backing away.

Steve sighed and tried his best to ignore the curious looks being aimed in their direction. He suspected that the rest of the night was going to be interesting, at the very least.

"Come on," Tony muttered, pulling Steve toward the buffet table. He was purposely ignoring the stares as well. "Let's cut the birthday cake."

Trying not to laugh, Steve let Tony lead the way. Despite everything, he had to admit that things almost felt . . . normal.