Sam attempts to have the conversation a full month in advance, because superheroes, busy schedule, yadda yadda. He starts with a soft open while they’re driving through enemy terrain in New Hampshire: Steve’s at the wheel of the panel van and Clint’s riding shotgun, because neither of them have PTSD nightmares about land mines or actual land mines on hand. Sam leans across the gap between the bench seats in back and whispers, “How do you guys feel about birthdays?”
Nat shrugs. “I don’t know my real birthday.”
Bucky is playing 2048 one-handed on someone’s iPad. He doesn’t respond.
“Well, this is depressing,” says Sam.
Predictably, that’s when something in front of them explodes.
A week later, the three of them are sitting in Sam’s kitchen while Bucky stitches up the wound over Nat’s eyebrow with surgical precision and no anesthetic. The shrapnel that hit Nat came from a homemade bomb in Fury’s old apartment. She breathes shallowly while Bucky sews, fingers digging into her knees, eyes closed.
“I need help baking,” Sam says, trying for distraction. “I mean. I don’t know how to bake.”
Nat says, “You think I do?”
“There are boxes,” Bucky says absently as he ties off Nat’s sutures. He shields Nat’s eyes with his metal hand while he snips the end of the thread with the EMT shears; the excess slides over his palm and onto the floor. His hand drops to cup Nat’s chin, tilting her head back to inspect his work. “You’re good, Romanova.”
“It’s a cake for Steve,” Sam says into the silence that follows.
Nat looks up from where Bucky’s packing the first aid kid away and gives Sam a small half-smile. “Oh, for Steve.”
“I wouldn’t bake you assholes a cake,” Sam says.
“Yes, you would,” says Bucky.
Post-political-amnesty-and-exit-from-HYDRA, Bucky is Sam’s occasional coworker and Steve’s Ambiguously Gay Roommate. Steve himself is unambiguously bisexual: there was that photoshoot for The Advocate and a longer interview in The New York Times, which hilariously referred to Steve as “Rogers” throughout as per its style guide. Sam is not the kind of guy to pry directly and Nat has this Soviet comrade loyalty thing going on, so Sam has resigned himself to discovering the truth in a mutually scarring way at some undefined point in the future.
Today is not that day, but it is Steve’s birthday, so of course it’s also a day on which Sam rises to discover Bucky sitting in his living room, sharpening a throwing knife. “I put the butter out to soften,” Bucky says. “Natasha went out for flour.”
“I thought we had a briefing with Stark at noon,” Sam says.
Bucky flips the knife in the air and stashes it somewhere in his sleeve. He’s wearing a t-shirt. “Rescheduled.”
That doesn’t sound ominous at all.
Sam gets coffee going and a few Pop Tarts toasted before Nat returns with a bigger bag than “flour” can justify. She lets herself into Sam’s place with a key he’s definitely never given her and starts unloading supplies onto the kitchen table: round pans, white sugar, Arm & Hammer. “Is that a sifter?”
Nat pulls a stand mixer out of her bag. “I think so.”
“I thought you didn’t know how to bake,” Sam says after a moment.
“I don’t,” Nat says. “I watched some tutorials on YouTube.”
Everything about baking is exceedingly messy. “Could have gone with a box,” Bucky says when Sam drops an egg on the floor. "Or a bakery."
“Boxes are for quitters,” Nat says. She is wearing black and a light dusting of flour that goes from her feet to the tip of her nose. It is adorable, and because Sam has a healthy respect for his life, he resolves never to tell her so.
“Did you have an opinion about that before today?” he says instead.
She rolls her eyes. “You’re the one who asked for help.”
“I could have bought a cake,” Sam says. “I didn’t ask for this bullshit.”
Bucky licks some batter off his fingers. “This tastes okay.”
“Yeah, and that’s how you get salmonella.” Sam learned a few things from Mom.
Nat swipes a fingerful from the bowl. "Hasn't killed us yet."
The cake is yolk-yellow, two layers, with raspberry jam in between and chocolate buttercream frosting on top. It is uneven and unlovely. Sam couldn’t fit enough single candles on top, so he went with a ring around the edges and chunky number candles in the middle: 97.
“You guys,” says Steve. He looks a little damp around the eyes. “I can’t believe you—did you make this?”
It’s an obviously homemade cake and Sam’s sink is piled high with batter-encrusted dishes. “We did,” Nat says, generously helping Steve out. “From scratch.”
“It was my idea,” Sam says.
Bucky says, “I made the frosting.”
They sing “Happy Birthday” in unison and vaguely on-key, and then Sam lowers the lights so Steve can dramatically plunge them into darkness when he blows out his candles. Outside, fireworks are already going off, because someone had to pick a Captain America born on July 4th. God, Sam loves this guy. “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” Steve says, drawing them into a huddle around the table, Sam under one arm and Nat under the other. Bucky looms opposite Steve, which for him counts as participation in a group hug. “Thank you.”
“Thanks for being our friend,” Nat says softly.
“Come on,” Steve says. “You’re family.”
Sam says, “Which means you’ll eat this cake even if it’s terrible.”
“Yessir,” says Steve.
“This cake is only a little terrible,” Steve says three slices later.