When he was a kid, Steve always enjoyed the fireworks and hoopla on the Fourth of July, because no matter how much money they didn't have (and they didn't have a lot), he always got fireworks and free hotdogs at Nathan's and it felt like a party even when it was just him and Bucky and some ten cent sparklers they got at Woolworth's.
Last year, so soon after the Battle of Manhattan, while the city was still rebuilding, he'd agreed to the whole dog and pony show--watching the hotdog eating contest at Nathan's, reading the Declaration of Independence while the fireworks exploded over the Hudson, and then a fundraiser at Stark Tower, where he glad-handed politicians and got twirled across the parquet by Pepper, Natasha, and Maria while he tried to avoid stepping on any toes, both literal and metaphorical.
This year, though, he's got Bucky back, which means that no matter what they do, it's going to be the best birthday Steve's ever had. Still, he wants to celebrate, so he invites everyone to a barbecue at their apartment in Brooklyn--the fireworks are back on the East Side this year, and they'll have a great view from the roof.
"It'll be small," he promises Bucky. "Just the team and the ladies. Maybe Rhodey and Carol if they're in town. You'll know everybody there."
"Yeah," Bucky says after a long moment, his mouth stretching into a weak smile. "Okay."
Steve squeezes his shoulder and returns the smile like he hasn't noticed anything wrong. He understands, intellectually anyway, how different Bucky is now (how different everything is now), but on some level, he's never gotten used to the reversal in their roles, not then, and not now. He might have led Bucky into most of the fights they got into, both before the serum and after, but Bucky'd always been the one dragging him out dancing or to bars to meet dames who'd never given him a second look before he became Captain America.
Steve'd never cared that much, because all he'd wanted was Bucky's attention (that was all he allowed himself to want, because wanting anything more was too dangerous for too many reasons), and the knowledge that Bucky would always end up safely back at his side, until he hadn't.
"Great," he says, realizing that the silence has gone awkward again, something that almost never used to happen between them, just another thing that ice and time and Department X has stolen from them. "It's gonna be great."
"Yeah," Bucky says, humoring him. Steve's okay with that, though, because he knows if they pretend long enough, it'll become real.
He's not wrong, mostly. He watches Bucky relax by inches during the afternoon, watches the others slowly relax about having him there, too. He's engaged in an animated discussion with Clint and Bruce when Steve walks over.
"I was gone for almost seventy years and the Cubs still haven't won the Series," Bucky's saying, "and they're not gonna manage it this year, either, but I gotta admire your loyalty."
"At least they're still in Chicago," Steve says, joining the conversation."I tried rooting for the Dodgers now, but it's just not the same."
"So he picked the Mets," Tony says. "Like a masochist."
Steve eyes him skeptically. "You don't even like baseball."
"No, but if I did, I'd pick a winner."
"Steve's always gotta root for the underdog," Bucky says, gesturing with his beer.
Steve raises his eyebrows. "And you don't?"
"Nobody cares who I root for." Bucky turns to Bruce. "What about you?"
Bruce shrugs diffidently. "The Phillies."
"Big Green likes the mascot," Tony says.
"At least we can all agree that the designated hitter is a travesty," Steve says, and they laugh.
The conversation breaks up as Natasha and Pepper collect Clint and take him to the grill down in the backyard, and Tony and Bruce start pelting Jane with questions about her latest attempt to reopen the Einstein-Rosen bridge.
Steve leans a hip against the table next to Bucky and tries not to look like he's hovering. "You okay?"
Bucky looks askance at him and Steve knows he's not fooling anyone, but Bucky just says, "Yeah."
Steve gives him a small smile. "I told you it'd be fun."
"I wouldn't go that far." But Bucky's answering grin is genuine and familiar, and Steve basks in it for a few seconds, until Darcy bounces over and asks for his help refilling the cooler with ice.
The afternoon is long and slow and lazy, punctuated by bursts of laughter and food and a variety of ever more outlandish and ridiculous cocktails mixed up by Tony, who apparently brings his own liquor with him, because Steve's pretty sure he doesn't own half the bottles now set up on the drinks cart. Tony swears they're all patriotic, even the one that's a peculiar shade of purple because Bruce can't get the blue curaçao and the grenadine layered properly in the glass.
"Grenadine first," Tony reminds him, pouring with a steady hand, even though they've been drinking for hours now and Tony doesn't have the same advantages Steve and Bruce do.
It's barely twilight when the firecrackers start popping, punctuated every so often by the extra loud boom of a cherry bomb. They all flinch and then laugh when they realize what's happening.
"I thought those were illegal," Jane says.
"Yeah, I don't think that penetrated into the wilds of Cobble Hill," Tony says, rolling his eyes.
Clint chimes in with, "Brooklyn, home of the hipster outlaws."
"Hey," Steve starts, but then next fusillade of firecrackers goes off, and this one lasts almost a minute.
Bruce looks a little green around the gills, and Tony's clutching Pepper's hand in a way that doesn't look comfortable, but Steve's more concerned about Bucky, who's gone pale and still, his eyes staring blankly off into the distance in a way that's all too familiar and never the harbinger of anything good. Steve glances at Natasha, who nods like she knows what he's thinking. She probably does.
"Hey," Steve says again, "Bucky, come inside and help me...get the thing." He tentatively touches Bucky's elbow with the tips of his fingers, and Bucky flinches almost imperceptibly--if Steve hadn't been watching so intently, he wouldn't have seen it, and he doesn't think anyone else but Natasha does, though Tony gives him a nod as well. "We'll be back up in a bit," he says, guiding Bucky inside and down the stairs.
"I'm okay," Bucky says, because that's what he always says. Steve understands, but he's not going to let him get away with it, any more than Bucky ever let him get away with it when their situations were reversed.
"I know," Steve answers, but he doesn't stop moving until they're in the bedroom, which is dim in the early evening, and cooler than the rest of the apartment, since the blinds have been drawn all day. He turns on the air conditioner and the little white noise machine that his SHIELD shrink recommended when he couldn't sleep those first few months out of the ice. The sound of firecrackers is muffled now, nothing more than a faint ripple of faraway noise.
He unbuttons his shirt and hangs it on the doorknob, takes off his belt, empties the pockets of his khakis, and then sits on the bed to untie his sneakers.
Bucky leans against the dresser, arms crossed over his chest and a confused look on his face. "What are you doing?"
"Come on," Steve says. "No shoes and no sharp edges on the bed." He drops his gaze to the comforter and watches Bucky surreptitiously through his lashes, hoping he'll just go along with it instead of making a fuss.
They've done it before, crawled into bed and cuddled for comfort or warmth or both (though neither of them would ever call it that); they did it in the orphanage and they did it in a series of coldwater flats in Brooklyn and tents across Europe during the war, and in this very bed a handful of times in the few weeks since SHIELD let Bucky out into the world again, after his nightmares woke them both up. (And not just Bucky's nightmares.) But never in daylight and with such deliberation, not since they were boys and no one would look askance at it.
Bucky stares at him for a long moment and Steve's skin starts to prickle with embarrassment and he wonders if he's made a huge mistake, but then Bucky crouches down to unlace his boots, mumbling under his breath the whole while. He unstraps the knife from his ankle and removes the gun from the small of his back and lays them on the dresser. Then Bucky lies down, leaving a good six inches between them, and rolls his head to the side to give Steve another skeptical look.
Steve sighs in exasperation and reaches out to tug at the soft material of Bucky's t-shirt, careful not to tear it. "C'mere, you jerk."
"Punk," Bucky mutters without hesitation, with nothing but affection, and lets Steve pull him close.
Steve's heart stutters, because he hasn't heard it in so long, because it's like he's hearing it for the first time, like it's a secret, special language only the two of them speak, and for a long time he'd thought he was the only one left, and then he'd learned he wasn't anymore. He thinks maybe Bucky can feel it, the way his heart is hammering in his chest, but he just squirms a little before he settles into the circle of Steve's arms like he belongs there. (He does.)
Steve's body responds the way it always has to Bucky, but he resolutely ignores it in favor of closing his eyes and breathing in the scent of Bucky's hair, sweat and shampoo and the gel they both use. Sometimes he still can't believe he was lucky enough to get Bucky back; he still dreams of watching Bucky fall, dreams he can feel his fingers slipping away, and he wakes up in a cold sweat, gasping, desperate for the reassurance that he hasn't lost him again. Now, he lets himself luxuriate in Bucky's presence.
He's almost asleep when Bucky says, "We're missing the fireworks."
Bucky squirms again, turning over so he's facing Steve now. "I just thought, you invited all these people over to watch the fireworks and there are no fireworks in here." He raises his eyebrows. "No people, either."
"I'll give you fireworks," Steve murmurs, holding Bucky's gaze, the bright blue of his eyes mesmerizing around the wide black of his pupils.
"You will, will you?" Beneath the amusement, there's a challenge in Bucky's voice, and Steve's never been able to resist a challenge.
He closes the small distance between them and presses his mouth to Bucky's. Bucky's lips are warm and chapped and for a few seconds, they do nothing but breathe each other's air. It's the best air Steve's ever tasted, it fizzes in his lungs and his brain like the finest vintage champagne. And then Bucky's mouth opens beneath his and Bucky's tongue slides against his, and it sets him off like a bottle rocket, heat and need firing in his veins. He tangles his fingers in Bucky's hair, and Bucky slings a leg over and hooks his foot behind Steve's knee, like he's afraid Steve's going somewhere. Like there's anywhere Steve would rather be. Steve laughs into Bucky's mouth, exhilarated, and Bucky bites his lower lip, then licks away the sting.
If there are fireworks going off outside now, Steve can't hear them over the thunder of his own heart and the soft moans Bucky's making as they kiss. He pushes Bucky back against the pillows so he can kiss his way up the sharp angle of his jaw to nip at his earlobe, reveling in the taste of Bucky's skin, the rough brush of his stubble, against his tongue.
"This okay?" he murmurs against Bucky's ear.
"Yeah," Bucky answers before capturing his mouth in another hungry kiss. Steve loses himself in the heat of it; it's better than he ever imagined it could be, and he's had a long time to imagine it. He doesn't care that he's being a terrible host; it's his birthday and Bucky needs him and he needs this. He always has. And he's pretty sure they'll understand.
Steve and Bucky make their way back up to the roof a while later, disheveled and kiss-drunk.
"You missed the fireworks," Natasha says, giving them a knowing look.
"No," Steve answers, smiling brightly and twining his fingers with Bucky's, "we didn't."