They started the game as something not a game at all; at its earliest, it was an act of verification. Steve couldn't know whether Bucky was dangerous, or how dangerous he was, and Bucky could hardly trust his own mind, let alone someone else's. His memories were a dangerous maze full of traps, and as much as he confirmed his humanity to Steve with them, he confirmed for himself that Steve could be trusted to guide him through.
Steve had simply asked him what he remembered, and Bucky had given him enough to twist one fragile little rope of trust between them. When Steve brought him in from the cold -- Clint's phrase, eventually, and Bucky liked how perfect it was, how it brought to mind thaw and warmth and welcome -- when Steve brought him in, at first they didn't talk much, and the rope stretched and strained.
But, "What do you remember?" Steve asked him one morning. And Bucky answered with some half-formed recollection, buying penny candy (and the magnificence of the candy shop owner's mustache). Steve had smiled like the sun, and thrown another thin cable across the chasm to him.
After that, every morning he asked "What do you remember?" and every morning Bucky looked for something new in his mind, something tinged with the sepia of New York before the war rather than the scarlet of the Winter Soldier.
One morning, just to test -- when the bridge they were trying to build was strong enough it could withstand this kind of minor betrayal -- he gave a false answer. He made up a memory of something that had never happened, of himself and Steve skipping out on school to go see the Empire State Building under construction.
Steve looked confused, and Bucky waited with cynical patience for him to swallow it with a smile and agree that it had happened. But he didn't. He stared down at his coffee and said, very quietly, "I don't know as that ever happened, Buck. Maybe you went without me some time?"
"I made it up," Bucky blurted, because Steve looked so lost and crushed. Steve's head raised. "I made it up to see if you'd disagree."
Steve blinked, and then he looked -- well, still hurt, but a different kind of hurt. The look he got when he was hurting for Bucky, not because of him.
"Don't you think you been lied to enough?" Steve said softly. "I wouldn't lie to you about your memories, Buck."
"Not ever?" Bucky asked.
"Not ever. If you didn't remember something right, I'd say, well, I don't believe it happened that way," Steve said. "And maybe you wouldn't remember it the way I did, but. I wouldn't tell you a thing was true if it wasn't true. Besides, you always caught me when I was lying," he said with a shy grin.
After that, every so often, Bucky would throw out a memory of a thing that didn't happen, and every time, Steve caught him at it. Sometimes even Steve would be uncertain whether something had happened, but that was nice too -- nice to see even a solid rock like Steve could be shaken sometimes.
"I don't think I ever punched Dum Dum for trying to make time with Peggy," Steve said, thoughtfully rubbing his morning stubble with one hand, coffee in the other. "But if he had, I mighta, especially since Dum Dum didn't always know when a lady was giving him the brush-off."
"You changed that," Bucky said without thinking. "But you didn't punch him."
"HA! I KNEW IT!" Steve said, pointing at him.
"So," Bucky said, shoveling some eggs into his mouth. "Tell me something you remember."
Steve considered it as he sipped his coffee. "Mostly all the fights I picked that you pulled me out of. Can't do that anymore, you know, it terrorizes people now."
"No, now you just pick fights with whole political movements," Bucky said.
"Well, it's proportionate at least," Steve said. "I got bigger, so did the bullies. Difference now is I know how to swing a real punch."
"Seems like you could still use someone to pull your skinny butt out of trouble now and again," Bucky said.
"I have it on excellent authority my butt is actually very impressive," Steve said, and Bucky laughed, rusty and cackling. The delight on Steve's face was like a sunrise.
The really funny thing was, he did have to pull Steve's bacon out of the fire, not long after.
"For someone who said he can't get into bar fights anymore, you sure did get in a bar fight," he said afterward, sitting on the bench next to Steve, who had been given an ice pack to hold over his bruised eye.
"I'm not sorry at all," Steve declared.
"Yeah, pal, I see that," Bucky sighed, resting his forehead on Steve's shoulder.
It was supposed to be a quiet night out, helping reacclimate Bucky to the modern world. He was actually grateful, for once, for Steve's hovering attendance; it was hard to go out places alone without fully understanding anything, and at least when Steve was as ignorant as him, they were ignorant together.
One thing that hadn't changed too much was the neighborhood local, though, and he and Steve had only intended to get out of Steve's quarters in Stark Tower and have a beer.
But there'd been a handful of drunk fellas there -- the bartender had called them "fratbros", whatever that was -- and they'd begun picking on a middle-aged man who'd been minding his own business, shooting pool with a friend.
When they'd gotten rowdy, Steve had told them to keep it down and mind their own business, and that'd been fine, because they'd come after Steve then, and all Steve had to do was stand up in order to get them to back down. But then they'd started up again, and so Steve had spoken up again, and, well.
Steve could hold his own against five little boys, no doubt, but half a dozen more came rushing over from the bar, and about ten others who'd been having a smoke or in the bathroom or god-knew-where. Bucky had sat back and waited until it looked like Steve was losing, and then he'd stood up and started pulling fratbros off him, attempting to throw them somewhere they wouldn't do any damage but not overly concerned if they did. The cops showed up around the time Bucky was holding the last one off the ground, just holding him there, watching him twist, looking at him more curiously than anything.
The police officers clearly hadn't quite known what to do, and when one of them barked "Set the man down and put your hands in the air!" Steve had started laughing uncontrollably from the floor.
"You know, I gotta say, Steve," Bucky said, "all the crazy fights we were in before, we never ended up in the slam."
"Bound to happen sooner or later," Steve said. Bucky snorted. "You used to be faster on your feet."
"Well, I can't just throw you over my shoulder and run anymore, can I?" Bucky said. "This was a lot easier when a sharp wind could pick you up."
Steve gave him a fond smile, looking perfectly at ease with his bruised face, sitting on a bench in the local precinct's holding cells. The fratbros were down the hall, probably to prevent Steve from going through the bars and having a second shot.
Bucky was about to remark sharply on the whole situation, but just then a cop knocked on the bars with his stick, making them ring.
"Well," the officer said, looking somewhat sheepish. "Your ID checks out, Captain Rogers."
"If I can make a call, I can get bail..." Steve began, but the officer held up his hand, unlocking the door.
"You're being released without charge," he said. "Least we can do for Captain America."
Don't do it, Bucky thought, though he knew Steve was going to do it. Don't do it, we can walk out of here...
"I don't want any special treatment," Steve said, standing but crossing his arms. "Nobody's above the law, and I don't want there to be any accusations that you-all cut me slack I didn't deserve."
"Your pal said you'd say that," the cop said, grinning. "For what it's worth, Captain, when they heard who you were, the boys you were fighting and the owner of the bar both refused to press charges."
"Our pal?" Bucky echoed, cutting through to the important part.
"Refused?" Steve asked, confused.
"Well, it's a hell of a story, talking up that time you got in a bar fight with Captain America," the officer said. "And the guy who owns the bar's probably gonna put up a sign saying you drink there. Anyway, you're free to go, unless you wanna sit there in an unlocked cell. Your friend's here to drive you home."
"Sam!" Steve cried happily, as they were led out of the holding cells. Sam was standing in the foyer of the precinct, arms crossed. "Who called you?"
"The cops, when they found me under ICE in your phone," Sam said, looking annoyed. "I guess they thought arresting Captain America counts as an emergency. You were supposed to keep him out of trouble," he told Bucky.
"Since when?" Bucky asked.
"You are literally famous for keeping Captain America out of trouble!"
"Nuts," Bucky declared. "I never kept him outta trouble, I just kept him from getting killed by it."
"I'm blaming you anyway," Sam said. "The responsibility's good for you."
"It'd be a lot better for him, I'm not the one who started the fight," Bucky said, jerking his thumb at Steve.
"Lost cause," Sam said, and Bucky fought a laugh while Steve looked indignant. Sam took his arm like he wasn't 240 pounds of muscle and steered him towards the car.
"What was the problem, anyway?" Sam asked, as he got inside and buckled his seatbelt. Bucky, by habit, climbed into the back; when they'd ridden convoy in the war he was always rear point with Steve shotgun and one of the Commandos driving. And after the war, well, you didn't make an asset like the Winter Soldier drive himself. He felt comfortable in the back, able to see both Steve and Sam, who in his early days in-from-the-cold had become his priorities at all times. Whenever he felt lost or scared, he focused on the new mission: Steve and Sam.
"At the bar? You know how it is, kids making trouble," Steve said. "Couldn't stand for what they were saying."
"The cops said you got mobbed," Sam said. "They said Bucky took out like, twenty dudes."
"We didn't know the five guys Steve picked a fight with had fifteen more in reserve," Bucky said.
"What the hell did you say to them, man?" Sam asked Steve.
"They were harassing a guy and his boyfriend," Steve said. "I told them to knock it the hell off."
"And his what?" Bucky asked.
"His boyfriend, Buck," Steve said over his shoulder.
"How'd you know they were boyfriends?"
Steve shrugged. "Just did. Wasn't wrong."
"I didn't know that."
"Well, no offense, Buck, but your eyes for that kinda thing have never been that great," Steve told him.
"I know when a fella's sweet on fellas," Bucky said, annoyed. "I'm not a babe in arms, Steve."
"Hell you do," Steve said. "You never knew about Dernier."
"I did so! I didn't think it was polite to mention!"
Steve was silent, jaw set for a minute. "Well, you never knew about me."
Sam's head jerked around, and Bucky sat forward, mouth gaping open.
"Since when?" Bucky demanded.
"Since always, Buck, I told you, you got no eyes for this. And you can keep your eyes back on the road," Steve said to Sam.
"You coulda told me, Natasha and I would have stopped conspiring about women to set you up with," Sam said.
"I like women just fine," Steve replied, sitting back in the seat and pointedly ignoring Bucky's wide-eyed stare in the rearview mirror. "Not the women you picked for me -- "
" -- but I like women too," Steve said. "I looked it up, I'm bisexual. Makes it personal, when someone goes after one of mine. Gets me into trouble, but at least...less than it would have, back then."
"Well, you do what you need to," Sam said. "But I know an entire regiment of queer vets I could've been setting you up with."
"Thanks, Sam, but I think I'll handle this one on my own," Steve said.
"I'm not driving you home from the police station again," Sam said. "I'm liable to get shot just walking up in there."
Steve gave him a smile, and Bucky wondered idly if Steve was sweet on Sam. That'd be...well. Nice for Sam, maybe, if he swung that way. Terribly ironic for Bucky.
"I promise, no more bar fights," Steve said.
"Heard that before," Bucky muttered.
When they got back to Stark Tower, Sam got off at the floor below theirs with a casual salute. "Get some sleep," he said. "I'm sure someone's going to put this on the news tomorrow. You might as well be rested for when that happens."
"Thanks, Sam, honestly," Steve said.
"Don't make me bail you out again!" Sam called as the door closed. Steve leaned against the wall of the elevator, exhaling.
"We owe Sam one," he said.
"Not arguing," Bucky said. The door beeped open, and he followed Steve into the suite that technically belonged to Steve, despite Bucky having settled firmly into one of the guest bedrooms. (Why Tony Stark thought Steve would need four guest bedrooms was beyond him.) Steve went to the kitchen and took out another ice pack, then slouched into the living room while Bucky started shedding his clothes, door open.
"Hey, Buck," Steve called, laying himself out on the sofa. "What do you remember?"
Bucky laughed. "A pissant little streak of mouth I'm still hauling out of trouble, that's what I remember."
"You remember all the fights?"
"Dunno," Bucky said, coming to stand in the doorway, shirtless. "Hard to know if I don't."
Steve smiled up at the ceiling. "What was your favorite fight?"
Bucky rolled his eyes and undid his belt buckle, tossing the belt into the room behind him.
"You and Cort O'Hara," he said.
"That was -- we were fourteen!"
"Yeah, but it's still my favorite," Bucky said nostalgically, stepping out of his trousers. "We had to watch that rich prick bother every girl in class when Sister Mary Constance's back was turned, and finally you just up and went at him."
"One of the few I won," Steve said.
"You had the element of surprise." Bucky slapped a hand to his forehead. "And then his father -- "
"I just remembered his father -- coming down to the school -- " Bucky slid his hand down to cover his mouth.
"I thought he was going to destroy me," Steve said. Bucky reached for the soft flannel pyjama pants draped over the chair near the door, pulling the shirt under them over his shoulders. "He was about three hundred pounds of angry rich Irish gangster, I thought I was done for."
"And he turned to Cort and said, what'd he say?" Bucky squinted, trying to remember.
"You earned every slap that stick boy gave you and then some," Steve roared, cracking up laughing. Bucky vaulted the sofa and landed on the edge of the cushions, and Steve sat up to make a little more room. When Bucky leaned back, it was into the curve of Steve's arm.
"Thing is, you need me when you lose, but I like it when you win," Bucky said, tucking his feet up on the cushions, knees pulled to his chest.
"I need you when I win too, Buck," Steve said. He tipped his head against the back of the couch, balancing the ice on his face. "You don't care, do you? About me and fellas."
Bucky swallowed what he wanted to say, because he wasn't sure their trust extended that far yet, even after everything, and this felt too raw and close to the surface right now.
"It's fine with me," he agreed. At least that was true.
He didn't sleep much that night. Steve did; fell asleep on the couch and then, when Bucky got bored and poked him, got up and staggered to his room, tumbling onto the bed. Bucky closed the door quietly and went to his own room, closing his door and propping it with the back of the chair.
It was a ridiculous habit. Outside of a couple of Stark's prototypes, which weren't exactly mobile, he was the most dangerous thing in the building. But whatever was out there, Hydra or Rumlow or things that went bump in the night, for at least a few hours a night he didn't have to worry. And if he had a flashback or walked in his sleep, the chair would probably stop him before he got very far.
Even so, he mostly sat up in bed, elbows propped on his knees, thinking. He hadn't done a lot of that, or rather he hadn't done a lot of it alone. Seemed like every minute of the day he had to think his way through the maze of his own existence, match up the real world with what he'd been fed for decades. To be able to think without having to immediately react, that was a luxury these days.
He snatched a few hours of sleep in the early morning, but he woke when he heard Steve's door slam. Running with Sam, probably; maybe Natasha too. Steve kept trying to get Bucky to go running, but Bucky had a strict policy of not running unless he was chasing someone, or someone was chasing him. By modern standards he was a pretty active fella, but he had always thought of himself as a somewhat lazy man, and he was enjoying reclaiming that.
Still, by the time Sam and Steve showed up, he had coffee percolating, and they'd stopped to pick up breakfast. He settled in at the kitchen bar across from them and unpacked boxes of home fries and steak and omelettes and grits while they fixed their coffee.
"Steak's for you," Steve said, nudging the tray over in front of Bucky while he casually pulled the grits and a little box of sausages towards himself. Bucky's fork darted out and snagged two sausages; Steve looked outraged.
"You can eat some steak, s'good for you," Bucky said around a mouthful of sausage. "You eat too much bread, Steve."
"What are you, a low-carb guy now?" Sam asked.
"Meat's good for you. Bread's what you use to soak up the meat with," Bucky told him. "That's common sense."
"Grits aren't bread," Steve said.
"Might as well be. Liquid bread." Bucky sawed off a hunk of steak and dropped it on top of the grits.
"Eat your steak," Bucky said.
"Was he always like this?" Sam asked Steve.
"No, he used to be worse," Steve said. "He used to bully Dum Dum into giving me his meat ration."
Bucky made an outraged noise. "I didn't -- I never did that!"
Steve grinned at him. "Feels awful when someone tells a lie about your past, don't it?"
Bucky rolled his eyes. Sam was laughing over his home fries; he'd dumped half of them on the eggs and put the rest well out of Steve's reach. Bucky was opening his mouth to sass Steve back when Sam's phone buzzed.
"Mmh -- Tony needs me for a fitting," Sam said. He shoved a last bite of food into his mouth and dumped the rest of the fries on top of the omelette, closing the box to take with him. "Keep an eye on him," he said to Bucky, pointing a fork at Steve.
"Always do," Bucky replied, as Sam patted Steve on the shoulder and headed out. They ate quietly for a few minutes, Steve inhaling his steak so he could get to his grits.
"When did you know?" Bucky heard himself ask, without meaning to. Steve hesitated, spoon halfway to his mouth.
"Bout what?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
"You and fellas."
"Ah." Steve set the spoon down, rubbing the back of his neck. "You want me to tell you something comfortable or something true?"
"You never pick comfortable over true," Bucky said. "It's a point of pride with you, punk."
"This is different."
"How different can it be?" Bucky said, and Steve raised his eyes, guilt and fear in them. He wasn't accustomed to seeing either from Steve, and it gave him pause, but at the same time it sparked a little hope inside him. "Truth," he said.
"You know what I remember?" Steve said. Bucky tilted his head. "I remember I was thirteen, and you'd scrounged up two bits somewhere, so we were going to the movie palace after school. We were almost inside and I saw this fella walking in ahead of us, holding hands with his girl -- nobody we knew, he was older than us. And all of a sudden I thought, I wish I could do that. And I almost reached out and took your hand."
Bucky stared at him, confused.
"That's when I knew I was sorta like, you know, those guys we'd see around, only I wouldn't mind holding a girl's hand either, so..." Steve shrugged. "It was innocent, Buck, and neither of us are innocent anymore. But I think about when I knew, and that was when I knew." He laughed a little, awkwardly. "I remember the movie. City Lights. Charlie Chaplin."
"Me," Bucky said, trying to find the words to express what he was really asking.
"It's why I never did anything about it, liking fellas," Steve said, looking back down at his breakfast. "I mean, I appreciated them, you know, like you appreciate a beautiful woman. But when you were alive, there you were. Couldn't see another fella, not with you right there, couldn't bring myself to it. And when you were dead...I could've made a life with Peggy, if I hadn't gone down with that plane. And I never would have looked at another woman, because I'd've had her. And I loved her. And I never would have looked at another man, because I'd already lost you."
The unspoken addition, and I loved you, hung in the air.
"Told you it wasn't comfortable," Steve added finally. "I know you aren't that way, Buck -- "
"What you know wouldn't fill a coffee cup," Bucky said, appalled at how angry he sounded. He cleared his throat, ignoring the sharp way Steve looked up, the confusion on his face. "It was you, Steve, it's always been you for me, it's so obviously you that Dernier tried to give me the birds and bees for sodomites!"
Steve sat back. "What?"
"I spent half my life following you around New York, making sure you didn't get your damn self killed," Bucky said. "I wrote you every day from overseas. And when you showed up there, I spent the entire rest of my life following you around Europe!"
"Bucky, I don't -- "
"And I loved it! Blowing up Nazis, punchin' collaborators, stealing whatever the hell those spy document things were we stole that one time, I loved it, because I was following you." Bucky put his head in his hands. "For someone making fun of me for not seeing this kinda thing, Steve, you were actually really awful at seeing it for about fifteen years."
He expected the silence that followed. He didn't expect the laughter.
At first he thought it was an awkward throat-clearing. Steve made a noise like "Heh." And then a cough, and then another "heh" sort of noise, and then a series of wheezes until he built up to a real laugh, booming and long and rising in pitch until he was sitting there, red-faced, laughing so hard he was crying into his grits.
"We're idiots," Steve gasped finally. "We are the dumbest men in Manhattan."
Bucky's lips twitched. "I don't know, there's that cafeteria guy who can't ever get my order right, I don't think we're even the dumbest men in Stark Tower."
Steve turned and slipped off his stool, coming around the island to stand in front of Bucky, hip cocked against the tile.
"So if I asked you to come to the living room with me and watch City Lights," he said, "would you?"
He held up his hand, palm tipped out.
He was bigger than he'd been, palm wide and smooth, fingers capable and blunt-ended, and now Bucky had to look up to see his face instead of down. But for a second he felt thirteen again, pushing through the crowds at the movie palace with Steve, their friendship deathless but perhaps not so solid it could withstand something as simple as holding hands. Even now that he knew, even now that it was fine, for a second he was afraid to put his foot to the rope bridge between them, to test whether it would hold the weight of this.
Steve's face started to fade, lips thinning into a frown, and Bucky never could stomach hurting him. He raised his hand and covered Steve's palm with his.
"You gonna buy me a bag of popcorn?" Bucky asked. Steve pulled him in, inexorably, and dipped his head down. Bucky lifted his chin just in time to meet him halfway. He wanted to enjoy the kiss, his first in a couple of decades and his first with Steve, but he kept wishing Steve had reached out all those years ago. He would've held his hand.
Steve had always been braver than him, anyhow.
"Come on," Steve said. "Lemme take you to the movies, Buck."
Steve stepped back, still holding his hand, and headed for the living room. And Bucky followed.