Bucky stirred vigorously, frowning at the concoction in the bowl. He had followed the instructions perfectly. He had. But it was roughly the color and consistency of radioactive sludge. He stirred faster, hoping maybe he could trick the mixture into being smoother.
The wooden spoon broke off in his hand.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he muttered, pulling it (and half of the bowl’s contents stuck to it) out and tossing it in the sink. He glared at the whole area, hands on his hips. He glanced at the clock. He still had almost an hour. An idea was budding in his brain. It was kind of an asshole move. But…
He was desperate.
He was desperate because it was Steve’s birthday. It was Steve’s first birthday they’d be spending together since…well, everything. Since they both died. Since neither of them died. Since Bucky came back.
Everything had to be perfect. And this—he sniffed at the curious smell emanating from the bowl and the sink—this was not perfect.
Normally Bucky would just call it a wash. Big deal, he screwed up. But last week, Steve was regaling everyone with stories of Bucky somehow pilfering ingredients to make him cupcakes every year on his birthday and how they were always the best cupcakes Steve had ever tasted, even when they didn’t have sugar.
So Bucky knew if he didn’t deliver the best cupcakes in the world, Steve would do that forced-smile, everything’s-fine face that he absolutely hated because it meant he screwed up again, he forgot something important to Steve. He knew Steve didn’t mind so much, in the overall big picture. Steve loved him and was glad he was back, even if his memory was shit. But Steve could pretend all he wanted—Bucky still knew it hurt him to realize he was just about the only person left alive who remembered their time.
And that meant Bucky was making these motherfucking cupcakes.
Except he didn’t have time now, and he was sure the next attempt wouldn’t turn out much better than the first. So he did something pretty dishonest and low: he went to the bakery three blocks away and bought two dozen cupcakes. And then he laid them all out on the counter and took all the damning evidence to a dumpster four blocks away. He even washed the cupcake tin and left in the drying rack and started some coffee so the smell of it brewing would cover up the lack of baking smell in the apartment.
He was a goddamn legendary master assassin. He could pull off a cupcake heist.
He was smudging up some of the frosting so it wouldn’t look so perfect when Steve and the rest of the team got home. He’d lead a Fourth of July fun run and then all the Avengers had signed autographs afterward. Bucky wasn’t exactly invited, on account of how he wasn’t exactly supposed to be alive.
Steve’s face lit up when he saw the array on the counter. Bucky put on his most 1940s grin and lit the candle on top of the biggest cupcake, special made for this very reason.
“Happy birthday, pal,” he said. “Make a wish.”
“Yes, we finally get to try some of these legendary cupcakes!” Clint cheered.
“A Bucky Barnes special,” Bucky promised. Steve’s face was all soft and affectionate, and if no one else was there Bucky would put money on him saying something sappy like I don’t need to make a wish; I have everything I want right here. Luckily he had some pride and wouldn’t be caught dead with that sentimental shit in front of his team. It would just make Bucky feel guilty about lying.
Steve obediently hovered over the cupcake for a second before blowing out the candle with one little huff of breath from his bellows-lungs. It wasn’t completely clear, but Bucky could remember when one little candle would’ve been a bit of a challenge.
“You made cupcakes, Buck?” Steve asked.
“Course I did,” Bucky said proudly. “It’s your birthday, ain’t it?”
“You made them yourself?” Steve pressed. Bucky didn’t falter. He’d set his cover beforehand.
“Yep, just me and my kitchen prowess,” he boasted.
“These are amazing,” Clint said, muffled around a mouthful of cupcake.
“Seriously,” Sam agreed. “Definitely lives up to the hype.”
“And you made them?” Steve asked again.
“Yeah,” Bucky said, keeping his voice cheerful. He gestured at the drying cupcake tins. “Oven’s still warm.” That wasn’t a lie. He’d preheated it and everything.
A strange little look passed over Steve’s face, just for a quick second. “Thanks, Buck,” he said, focusing on peeling the paper off his cupcake. His voice was off. Bucky’s stomach lurched. He’d done something wrong.
“Why aren’t they red, white, and blue?” Tony complained. “What is the point of the man being born in the Fourth of July if you’re not going to stick to the color scheme?”
Bucky ignored him to focus on Steve as he took a bite of the cupcake. And then he pulled up that godawful smile that was more of a grimace. “These are real good, Buck.”
Bucky was completely dumbfounded. He’d delivered delicious cupcakes, just like he was supposed to. So why was Steve acting like Bucky had done something wrong again?
“You even cleaned up after yourself, too,” Steve joked. “Now I really know it’s my birthday.”
“What?” Bucky barked. “What the hell did I do wrong now?”
The room went silent except for Clint’s quick swallow.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked.
“Why do you look like I kicked your dog?”
“Maybe we should…” Bruce gestured toward the door. Clint looked plaintively at the counter, where there were still cupcakes waiting.
“Who says you did anything wrong?” Steve asked, using that overly-patient tone Bucky hated. Steve Rogers was not a patient man. Any patience he put on was Captain America.
“Your face does,” Bucky answered. The rest of the team was sort of stuck in between them. Thor was hunching his shoulders a little, trying to look smaller, and Natasha was very interested in the frosting on her cupcake.
“I’m happy you made me cupcakes,” Steve said.
“You don’t seem very happy.” Bucky ran a hand through his hair. “I thought this is what you wanted! You were just talking about how I used to do this every year, so I did it for you!”
“It’s nothing,” Steve stuck to his guns, teeth clenched now because Bucky knew how to make him mad. “Thank you.”
“Well, you want to know something, Stevie?” Bucky leaned closer. “Since I already screwed this up, might as well tell you. I didn’t even make those. I bought them!”
Thor made a little noise. “I thought I had tasted these before.”
Steve’s mouth dropped open. “You bought them?”
“I tried making ‘em, and I failed.” Bucky’s voice started out taunting but then he got sad. “I didn’t want to ruin your birthday by screwing up, ‘cause you said I used to be so good at making cupcakes for your birthday. Guess I ruined it all anyway.”
Steve’s face positively lit up. “Bucky, you have always been a shit baker,” he said excitedly. “This is what you did every year! You pretended to make me cupcakes and we both knew you’d bought them.”
Bucky gaped a little. “Well, you didn’t mention that part,” he said, slightly dazed. Steve laughed delightedly, leaving his half-eaten cupcake on the counter to grab onto Bucky’s shoulders.
“I thought they’d finally taught you to cook.”
“Nope, guess not,” Bucky said. Steve’s grin was so big it was taking over his whole face, and Bucky couldn’t be embarrassed for his lack of baking skills or memory with Steve looking like that.
Steve gave him a quick little squeeze, whispering, “You know, I'd still be glad even if you could bake now. If everyone else weren’t here I’d kiss you right now.”
“Oh, go ahead,” Natasha said, bored. “Like we haven’t all imagined it anyway.”
“I know I have,” Clint agreed, on his fourth cupcake now.
“Tony drew a picture of it,” Rhodey said.
“I—no,” Tony protested. “That was in high school and I was very traumatized.”
“I’m very traumatized, and I’ve never drawn anyone kissing,” Bucky pointed out.
“That’s because you can’t draw,” Sam countered. “How many times has Steve drawn you guys kissing?”
“I’m an artist,” Steve sniffed imperiously.
“You didn’t answer the question,” Natasha said. Steve’s ears were going all red, and Bucky pulled him in by the straps on his uniform to kiss him out of his misery.
“Happy birthday,” he murmured against Steve’s lips.
“Thanks, Buck,” Steve said, all smiley and happy. They stood there reveling in each other’s presence for a moment, enjoying the moment. It was only slightly broken when Bruce asked,
“Have you drawn anyone kissing since high school?”
A very uncomfortable silence followed his words, and Tony had trouble meeting several of his teammate’s eyes for the rest of the day.