Bucky tosses Steve the bottle of sunscreen and says, "Can you do my back?" and Steve knows--he knows that it's not Bucky being flirty, knows it's that he doesn't like strangers touching him anymore, not even pretty girls in tiny bikinis--but he kind of can't help the way his heart thumps in his chest and the tips of his fingers go suddenly numb, or at least that's the best explanation he has for fumbling the bottle.
"Sure," he says, and thankfully it doesn't come out squeaky or strangled. Bucky leans forward, arms around his knees, and grins over his shoulder like a dare.
Steve kneels up behind him and pours some Coppertone into the palm of his hand. He's never done this before--he still keeps a shirt on at the beach, despite knowing he won't burn anymore--but he starts at Bucky's shoulders and sweeps down over the jut of his scapulae, the synthetic skin over his metal arm as warm as the rest of him, for all that it feels a little too smooth under Steve's fingertips when he rubs it.
Bucky relaxes into the touch, so Steve takes his time about it. He has strong hands now, with wide palms and fingers long enough to curl over Bucky's shoulders and squeeze, confirming the solid reality of him with every touch. Every freckle and knob of his spine is familiar (loved), and a scattering of silvery scars that aren't.
Bucky's skin is smooth and pliant under his hands, and Steve wishes he could keep touching him forever, down over the curve of his rear end and the lean length of his thighs to his surprisingly bony feet. He lets his thoughts and the motion of his hands mesmerize him, falling into a fantasy where he does just that, and Bucky rolls over and kisses him, tasting of sand and sunscreen.
Bucky lets out a low grunt that snaps Steve's attention back to the present, and he squirts some more lotion onto his hands, though he doesn't really need it.
"Don't want you to get all streaky," he says, and his voice sounds weird and foreign to his ears.
Bucky huffs a laugh and Steve thinks about tickling him, but doesn't want to know if that's something the brainwashing took away, and he doesn't think a public beach is the best place for that kind of exploration anyway. And it's not really appropriate, now that they're grown men, though Bucky's never placed much stock in propriety and spent a lot of their youth trying to get Steve to loosen up. Steve wishes sometimes that it had worked.
"You all right there, pal?" Bucky says, glancing at him, on hand shading his eyes from the sun.
"Yeah," Steve says. "I'm just a little--"
"Yeah," Bucky says, nodding. "The sun."
"Yeah." Steve is willing to let him believe that. He finishes what he's doing, and wipes the leftover sunscreen on his own legs, surprised (though he probably shouldn't be) at how even that small amount of contact with Bucky's skin leaves him craving more.
Bucky settles down on his belly, cheek pillowed on his hands, and starts to doze. Steve goes back to reading Harry Potter, though he finds it rough going when people start picking on Neville and nobody stands up for him.
He stares out at the ocean, watches a little girl in a bright pink bathing suit and a tutu follow her mother out into the water, both of them shrieking with laughter as the waves break over their ankles. He remembers being a kid, rushing headlong into the surf, even when he shouldn't have. Those days were another lifetime, so long ago now that they seem sepia-toned even in his memory sometimes.
Neither he nor Bucky has tried the water, and Steve's glad; he doesn't know if he could handle the rough surf, cold water closing over his head, salt in his mouth. He gets a little wheezy just thinking about it, even though he knows it's all in his head.
"You okay?" Bucky's squinting up at him, the concern on his face as familiar as it is unnecessary.
"Yeah." He swallows against the sickly metallic taste of fear in his mouth. "You want a hotdog?"
Bucky shrugs. "I could eat."
They didn't bring much with them, so it doesn't take long to roll up the blanket and shove it into his knapsack. The sand is hot against the soles of his feet, but he doesn't like the feel of the sand shifting under his shoes if he can avoid it.
They stand on line at Nathan's, the crowd pressing in close, and Bucky, still shirtless, nudges back against him, and Steve tries not to think about how perfectly Bucky fits there, his back against Steve's chest, his hair smelling faintly of gel and sand and sweat as they shuffle along behind teenagers and old people who are still probably younger than both of them.
It's all familiar--they used to spend Fourth of July like this a lot as kids, Steve scraping up nickels for weeks in advance wherever he could find odd jobs or chores around the neighborhood, and then, when they were older, Bucky always seemed to have money for Steve's birthday, and Steve rarely asked where it came from, knowing he wasn't going to get the truth. It feels good--right--to be here again on this day, together, the way Steve thought they never would be again.
A little boy in an Iron Man bathing suit weaves in and out of the line, and Bucky steps back to avoid a collision. Steve puts a steadying hand on his back, the skin warm and sweaty against his hand, and has to close his eyes and take a deep breath to rein in the wave of desire that comes over him. He doesn't have time to indulge it (though he's looking forward to his shower when they get home), because they're next at the counter, and his stomach rumbles in appreciation of the smell of fried grease.
They eat quickly, standing away from the crowded picnic tables, and Bucky grins at him, wide and unshadowed for once, and then reaches up to brush at the corner of Steve's mouth with his thumb.
"Mustard," he says.
"Oh." Steve wipes his mouth with his napkin, pretty sure the tingling of his lips has nothing to do with the mustard or relish he's just eaten.
"Crap, look at the time." Bucky tosses his napkins away and finishes his lemonade with a rattling of ice cubes in the bottom of the cup. "I know you wanted to go home first, but I promised Pepper we'd be there by three."
"No problem," Steve says. "I just hope she don't mind a little sand in the carpet."
Bucky opens his mouth and closes it again, shaking his head. "Sometimes, I wonder about you, Rogers."
Steve spends a large part of their train ride back into the city trying to figure out what it is that Bucky wonders.
The train isn't packed, but it's crowded enough that they have to stand. Bucky puts his shirt back on, but he still stands right up against Steve. Steve remembers the first few months after Bucky came back, how he'd flinched away from crowds and loud noises, how he'd slept away most days and wandered all night, and he's so grateful that Bucky's clawed his way back to being able to live in the world. He still has bad days and bad nights, nights when Steve crawls into bed beside him and reminds him that he's not alone, that he's not the Winter Soldier, that that's only a lingering nightmare and this is his reality now. But the good days are starting to outweigh the bad, and Steve figures that's all anybody can ask for in this life.
When they walk through Grand Central, Steve looks up the way he always does; none of them are quite sure how it happened, but the famous ceiling made it through the Chitauri attack unscathed, and Steve doesn't take it for granted anymore. There isn't a lot left of the city he grew up in, and even though the city he lives in now is familiar and loved, sometimes he aches with the loss.
And then Bucky bumps his shoulder as they walk, and Steve realizes that even with everything he's lost, there's some things that have found their way back to him, and he wouldn't give them up again for the world.
They ride the escalator single file, though there's no one rushing up the stairs on the left, and Steve sighs softly as they ascend from the humid train station into the chilly lobby of Avengers Tower. The security guards nod and smile and wish him a happy birthday.
"Hope you guys get to see the fireworks tonight," he says and they nod or shrug in response as Bucky shepherds him into the private elevator to the penthouse.
Bucky leans against the wall next to the buttons and smirks at him. "Oh, that's right, it's your birthday." It's the worst fake surprise Steve has ever heard.
"Well, when you get to be our age, I guess it's be a surprise if you remembered."
"You should leave the jokes to people who are actually funny."
"I guess that means people who aren't you, huh?"
Bucky opens his mouth to answer, but Steve steps forward into his space and says, "I'm going to kiss you now, unless you tell me not to."
Bucky curls his fingers in Steve's t-shirt and tips his face up, lips so close that Steve can feel his breath when he says, "Well, it's taken you long enough."
And then Steve is actually kissing him, pushing his tongue between those slick red lips and licking at the roof of his mouth. Bucky presses up against him, all lean muscle and aggression, one hand settling on Steve's hip and the other brushing through his hair. Steve tastes the hotdogs they ate for lunch and swallows whatever else Bucky is trying to say, his tongue twisting around Steve's like he's speaking some secret language Steve can only hope to pick up through practice. Lots of practice.
He pushes forward with his hips and Bucky pushes back, delicious friction sending heat sparking along every livewire nerve in Steve's body. He gasps and Bucky's hand tightens in his hair. He hears a bell and is vaguely surprised because he'd always thought that was a myth, and then realizes it's the elevator announcing their arrival. The doors open but he doesn't care, he'll ride in the elevator forever if Bucky keeps kissing him like this.
"Surprise! Happy birthday!"
Steve jumps back like a shot, pleased to see Bucky looks just as startled as he does, until a smug smile curves his slick, red lips, and Steve desperately wants to kiss him again but his entire team (plus associates) is standing there grinning at him.
"Happy birthday, Steve," Bucky says.
Steve's face is hot and his ears are burning but these are his friends and Bucky is--Bucky is the best gift he's ever gotten, every time.
"Thanks," he says, beaming, and lets them all pull him in for a hug.