It was two days until Steve Rogers’s birthday, and Sam Wilson was on a mission. Asking Steve what he wanted was hopeless - Steve Rogers had no problems asking people to take on world-spanning conspiracies with him, but inquire what he wanted for his birthday and it was “oh, it’s fine, I don’t need anything.” Time to ask Steve’s old friends and teammates.
Sam found Clint at the gym, doing something implausibly acrobatic for a guy in his forties. Sam climbed up to join him. “‘Sup, bird buddy.”
“Steve’s birthday’s in two days,” Sam said. “You getting him anything?” Sam was giving Steve an artbook about the East African contemporary art scene.
“I was going to get him the Hamilton album,” Clint said. “But I left it at home when I had to leave the country in a hurry. I guess I can burn him a copy.”
“You think he’d like that?” Sam asked. “I’ve been trying to introduce him to hip-hop, but I haven’t found anything that really clicks with him yet.”
“It’s about America and a plucky immigrant orphan who wants to fight everyone,” Clint said. “I thought it’d be relatable.”
“Yeah, I can see that. So, weird question, but - do you know what kind of cake Steve likes?”
“Don’t you know that? You’ve spent the most time with him out of any of us except Barnes.”
“Yeah, but you know how Steve is,” Sam said. “Well-brought-up Depression baby. He’s just happy there’s enough cake to go around, he’s not gonna make special requests.”
“Why don’t you ask Barnes?” Clint asked.
“Because he’s in the middle of having his brain unscrambled and won’t be good for anything until this evening. I want to get started today so I don’t have to buy the ingredients at the last minute.”
Clint nodded understandingly and the two men set in companionable silence for a few moments. Then Clint said “Apple cake. When he was living in DC, he asked Nat if she knew any bakeries near where he lived that made a good apple cake.”
“Apple cake. Gotcha. Thanks, man,” Sam said.
“Any time. Save me a piece, okay?”
“I’ll do what I can,” Sam said. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
Sam found Scott Lang sitting at a desk in his suite with a set of tiny tools, a magnifier, and the remains of some Wakandan electronic gadget - something fairly old-fashioned, since it had recognizable internal parts instead of kimoyo tech. “Please tell me you didn’t take apart the toaster,” Sam said.
“Hey, this was broken when I got my hands on it,” said Scott. “I just wanted to get a better idea of how Wakandan tech worked, and I couldn’t find any manuals written in English. I thought it couldn’t be too hard to understand. I mean, electricity is electricity, whatever country you’re in.” Sam nodded. “But if you have enough vibranium you can do all kinds of things my engineering classes never covered.”
“I can imagine,” Sam said. “Scott, I’ve got a favor I want to ask you. How good of a scrounger are you? We’re talking reasonably polite, legal scrounging, of course.”
“Polite and legal kind of limits your options, but I think I’m better than most people,” Scott said. “What do you need?”
“Steve’s birthday is in two days and I want to make him an apple cake,” Sam said. “But apple cake is not a normal part of Wakandan cuisine, so it’s not like I’ll be able to pick up all my supplies in one trip to Save-A-Lot. I figured it would be easier getting my hands on everything I’ll need with some help.”
“Do I get anything out of this?” Scott asked.
“I’m in. Gimme your shopping list.”
With Scott on dry ingredients and utensils duty, Sam hit the markets to look for apples or a reasonable equivalent. He had no idea if apples could even grow in Wakanda. It was a tropical country, but it got cool up in the hills, didn’t it?
While he was exploring the Central Wakanda produce market, Sam started to wonder about Wakandan agriculture. Was it as futuristic as a lot of their technology? Were those mangos some kind of gene-spliced vibranium-infused nanotech superfruit, or were they just… mangos?
If Sam had wanted to make banana bread, he’d have had a ton of options, but he could not find any damn cooking apples. The closest he could find was a pretty red fruit called the Mount Kanda apple, which had the right texture but wasn’t tart enough. But Sam remembered Steve telling him about his mom making mock apple pie during the Depression, with lemon juice and cream of tartar to make it tangy. Sam saw no reason why the same principle shouldn’t work for cake. The stall next door sold tamarind, which Sam thought should be at least as good for adding fruity sourness to a recipe as lemon juice. Sam bought big bags of both kinds of fruit, so he’d have extra for experimentation, as well as a bag of African walnuts, and headed back to the palace.
When Sam got back to his suite, he noticed Steve and Bucky curled up on the couch like a couple of cats in a laundry basket, taking an afternoon nap. Sam wasn’t surprised to see Bucky sacked out - deprogramming took a lot out of him - but he hadn’t been expecting Steve “I get up before six every day and run thirty miles as a morning jog” Rogers to join him. Sam tiptoed up to them and took a picture with his phone to commemorate the occasion. Steve and Bucky looked really cute when they were sleeping. You could hardly tell what a couple of assholes they were when they were awake.
Sam tiptoed into the suite’s kitchenette and found that Scott had already brought in the dry ingredients and cake pans. Now it was up to Sam. He had a trustworthy recipe in mind for the cake, but the fruit was going to need some experimentation. Sam decided to start by making apple pie-flavored tamarind syrup and letting the I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-apple slices marinate in it. When the kitchen started to smell like cinnamon, the Popsicle Twins, as if at a signal, woke up and drifted to the kitchen door with hopeful looks.
“It smells like pie in here,” Bucky said. “Is there pie?” he asked, with an accusatory edge that Sam considered completely out of line.
“It smells really good, Sam,” Steve said.
“There is no pie, Barnes,” Sam said. “This is for a personal project. But y’all can have a taste when it’s done if you help me cut this fruit up.” Bucky nodded and pulled a knife out. It looked clean, but still. Sam had standards. “With a kitchen knife, Bucky.”
“You are no fun,” Bucky said. Steve just looked at them both with that wistful, doe-eyed “I can’t believe we’re all here together” smile.
With two supersoldiers helping out - Steve paring and Bucky chopping one-handed - Sam soon had all the chopped Mount Kanda apples he needed. “Thanks, guys,” Sam said. “I think I’ve got it from here.” Steve and Bucky took the hint and went back out to the common room, where Sam overheard them begin a game of Wakandan mancala. Steve, being both an expert strategist and a big old nerd, was as good at board games as you would expect. But T’Challa, who was also an expert strategist and had the advantage of having grown up with the game, was apparently the bao shark of East Africa. And while Steve was a good sport about T’Challa wiping the floor with him every time they played together, Sam knew that he was also a competitive sonofabitch. Sam wasn’t surprised at all that Steve was practicing in his free time with anyone who would cooperate.
The stewed Mount Kanda apples turned out to be juicier than Sam had anticipated - he’d have to adjust the recipe if he didn’t want soggy cake - but otherwise about what he’d expected. Sam received no complaints from either of the sad defrosted super soldiers. Bucky may not have remembered his crazy-good old timey manners as well as Steve did, but he remembered enough not to complain about free dessert.
Sam woke up the next day full of energy and big plans. This cake was gonna be awesome! (And if the cake turned out to be less than awesome, he had enough ingredients and time for a second batch, because unlike certain big parachute-ignoring blonds he could name, Sam knew about the importance of redundant safety measures.) Bucky went off to the medical wing to have his brain unscrambled as normal. But Steve would not leave.
“Is anything wrong, Steve?” Sam asked. “Don’t you and T’Challa usually go for a run together every day?”
“We did,” Steve said. “But he’s real busy today so we rescheduled it for earlier in the morning.” Sam winced.
“Planning on visiting the palace library?” Sam asked. “I was browsing the other day and they have some good books on Wakandan art history.”
“Sam,” Steve said, looking at him reproachfully, “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
Sam nodded. “Just for a couple of hours. It’s nothing personal, man. Sometimes a guy just wants to watch morally bankrupt television without a running commentary during the commercials about how all the main characters need to have a long talk with their priest.”
“Okay, Sam,” Steve said. “I guess I’ll be in the gym or the library if anyone needs me for anything. Enjoy your terrible-people shows.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Sam said. And as soon as Steve was safely out the door and not likely to come back unannounced for his sketchbook, Sam got to work on the cake. And because Sam was not the kind of person who went around just casually lying to Captain America, he watched an episode of Game of Thrones while the cake was in the oven.
The cake was cooling and the common area of their suite still smelled suspiciously like cinnamon and baking fruit when Sam heard a soft, hesitant knock on the door. ‘Dammit, how am I gonna explain this?’ he thought, before he realized that it couldn’t be Steve. He opened the door and saw Wanda standing there looking nervous, which hadn’t been rare for her since the Raft.
“Bucky told me that the Captain’s birthday is tomorrow,” Wanda said. “Will he expect me to give him anything?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sam said. “He won’t. But if you want to do something, I’m making Steve a birthday cake. You can help with the topping.”
“I’d like that,” Wanda said. “And I could use the distraction. I’m glad I can help him, but Bucky’s mind is a terrible place.”
“Yeah, that kid’s got some issues,” Sam said.
“Kid? He is almost one hundred years old,” Wanda said.
“But he doesn’t act like it. Neither does Steve, unless you manage to push his Grumpy Old Man buttons. Which is hilarious, by the way.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. And have you ever toasted nuts before?” Sam asked. Wanda hadn’t, but she was a quick study, and they got the cake frosted and put away without incident before Steve and Bucky came back.
Now the question arose - how to give Steve his birthday goodies? Steve could be a real holidork about Christmas and other holidays, but he probably wouldn’t want a big party in his own honor, even if Sam had been in a position to throw one. Maybe Sam could just have the team over for brunch. Cake can be brunch food, and it’s not like Steve of all people was uncomfortable socializing before noon. Yeah, brunch could work. Sam let Steve know that they were having friends over for brunch tomorrow - in an occupation with as high rates of PTSD and hypervigilance as theirs, real out-of-nowhere surprise parties weren’t a great idea - and not to make any conflicting plans for mid-morning. Then he called up the rest of the team. Everyone was on the same page, which in retrospect Sam should have realized was ominous. Sam also invited T’Challa, because he and Steve were exercise and bao buddies and it would have been rude to exclude him, but he didn’t expect that T’Challa would take time out from his busy absolute monarch schedule to actually attend.
At nine a.m. on the fourth of July, Sam welcomed Wanda, Clint, and Scott to the suite he shared with Steve and Bucky, as he’d expected. What he did not expect was the goddamn King of Wakanda, in casual clothes, carrying a gift-wrapped box under his arm and accompanied by a palace servant carrying a bakery box that smelled like Wakandan honey bread. “Good morning,” T’Challa said. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
Scott, who unlike Steve and T’Challa was clearly not a morning person, decided to commence the festivities with a cup of coffee. Never mind that Steve, Bucky, and maybe T’Challa, depending on how his powers worked, were probably the only people on earth who had any business drinking Wakandan coffee out of American-sized coffee mugs. Wakandans used those cute little porcelain cups for a damn good reason. But Scott was in good health with no history of heart palpitations, and was clutching his mug with “first cup of the day” tenacity, so Sam decided to leave him to it, and sat back to enjoy the show. Scott was a funny guy, anyway, and with a mug of Wakandan coffee egging him on, he kept the conversation going until everyone else got over the shock of “oh my god, I’m eating eggs with African Prince Cat Batman!” Not that Sam was overly impressed by wealth or royalty, but T’Challa was really distractingly handsome when he wasn’t trying to chase you down and claw your face off. His aura of regal poise was only enhanced by the fact that he was the only person at the table whose nose wasn’t running from the spiced butter.
After everyone had finished their eggs, porridge with spiced butter, refried flatbread with spiced butter and yogurt, honey bread, coffee, and fruit, they took a break from eating so the non-Wakandans’ noses could stop running and Steve could open his presents. Besides Sam and Clint’s gifts, Steve also got a Wakandan drawing tablet from T’Challa. It looked fairly standard at first, except for the program that could turn drawings into holograms. Steve seemed to sincerely like all his presents, even if he’d been a little confused about what on earth a homemade CD labelled “Hamilton” was until Clint explained it.
Okay. Now was the moment of truth. Time to bring out the cake. To Sam’s everlasting regret, neither he nor Scott had been able to source ninety-eight tiny candles. Though, considering Steve’s reaction whenever Bucky brought up the old USO show, Sam thought Steve probably was just as happy people weren’t singing at him.
Sam had made a big cake, so there was enough for everyone even with two super soldiers and one extremely athletic cat prince. Steve took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully while Sam waited in suspense, then looked up and smiled. “Was this what you were working on the other day?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Sam said.
“It’s really good,” Steve said.
“Best mock apple stuff I’ve ever had,” said Bucky.
“Well, it’s nice to know I can do better than a box of crackers,” said Sam.
“I like it,” said T’Challa. “Most American pastry is too sweet. This is not.”
Well whaddaya know, Sam thought. Maybe if I have to retire from superheroing permanently I can take up life anew as a pastry chef. Captain America tested, King of Wakanda approved.