Steve recovers in fits and starts, like he's been exhausted for too long and his body is too wrung out to spring back all at once. He smiles at Bucky, blurry, and then fades back to sleep as quick. They say he’s healing: this is the serum doing its work.
Bucky doesn't leave him. He parks himself by Steve’s bedside and clenches his fingers around the blanket. He’ll fight to stay here.
No one comes to make him leave, though, and Bucky slowly relaxes. He relishes in being able to sit still for the first time in months - decades, really. There is no work to go to, no pursuers to flee from, no future to fear. They are safe.
In the long silences where the only sound is Steve breathing, Bucky allows himself to ruminate on Stark’s words, lets them sink deep inside of his marrow. Slowly, like a plant growing roots, they take real form and shape, flowering and spreading. All the dark spaces are not gone, but this is something new and he leans into it, lets it ease some of the old burden. He touches the silk of his clothes and wonders at the softness. He lays his head on a pillow and gets lost in the comfort. He watches the sun rise and his whole body warms in the spreading colors.
Stark’s pronouncement had done something that all Steve’s righteous anger had been helpless against. If Stark, who Bucky had stolen so much from, can pronounce Bucky not guilty, then maybe it is true. Maybe it is possible for him to go home.
Steve just has to get better so Bucky can share all this with him. He wants to see that harsh riptide of Steve settle and ease. He wants Steve to smile, real and soft and gentle. He wants them to touch each other without the pain and grief and guilt and fear. He wants to walk with Steve under open sky and sleep in sunny fields. The world has expanded from the hard scrabble of running. He wants to sit with Steve in stillness and discover the intimate shape of them, how all their parts align together in peace.
When Steve opens his eyes on the third day, clear and wholly present, Bucky kisses his mouth. "We're safe here," he promises him, like he has every time Steve has opened his eyes, feeling the warmth in his chest. They're safe. They're together. He lets the gladness wash over him, lets himself smile wide and bright.
Steve takes his hand and one side of his mouth tugs, but he doesn't smile. His eyes go behind Bucky to the door. "We can't stay here long," he says. He doesn't say it with fear, just dead certainty.
Bucky twines their fingers and settles in his chair a little. "I promise, we're safe," he repeats. "The king extended diplomatic protection to us. Stark is working on a deal in the States. We don't have to..."
Steve closes his eyes and turns his head away. "I'm tired, Buck," he says. "We can talk later."
A day later, Steve leaves the hospital. He thanks the doctors and the princess genuinely - but he's taut, a strained wire of energy that buzzes next to Bucky and makes his hair stand on end. It’s familiar, at least. Steve is a breath from running or picking a fight.
The king gives them a house on the outskirts of the city, wedged between mountains and hills and the lake, close enough that Bucky can return to the palace every day for neural mappings and prosthesis fittings. It's plain and a single room, but it's all they need. A tiny corner of the earth, Bucky thinks, for them to rest.
He can see it, in his mind’s eye. He can sow a garden here. He can have a pen for goats here. Maybe some cows. Here is a coop for chickens and an apple tree to lie under on hot summer days.
Steve doesn’t seem to notice any of it.
Natasha had brought their worn backpacks from Turkey and Steve takes his now, goes through it meticulously as he sits on the bed, laying out the clothes to clean and counting the money left in the coin purse. "We can hike up through Egypt," he tells Bucky as he cleans his boots, patching where the toe has worn through. "Catch a freighter in Cairo. Or over the Sinai Peninsula and up through Jordan. We can get back to Ukraine by spring and..."
Bucky stands in the doorway, halfway in the shadow of the room and halfway in the brightness of Wakanda. Something is breaking in his heart. He looks over the hills and the trees and then back to the taut line of Steve’s shoulders, still braced for a battle. "Steve," he says, just the beloved name.
Steve looks up and there are so many shattered edges in his eyes. How many pieces had Steve left behind on their wanderings? How long would Steve be able to scrape them all together and soldier on before he crumbled in the face of it?
“I can't go," Bucky says. "I can’t run anymore. I have to... those goddamn words. Hydra can,” he snaps his fingers and thinks of Tony’s words. Kill me. Each trigger is a little death. He's been dying for seventy years and he's tired. He wants to be free. “I'm dangerous.” I’m exhausted.
"You're not," Steve says with venom. He throws down his boots and plants his hands on either side of his thighs. He’s spoiling for a fight but he doesn’t have an enemy and nothing frustrates Steve more than that. “Who's telling you this? They're wrong. I know you. I've stopped you before and I…”
Bucky feels the heat of Steve's inferno and basks in it. "If Stark hadn't stopped me," he says, making his voice gentle, soothing, but matter of fact. "I would've died with your blood all over me and I wouldn’t have lived long past that.“
Steve's face twists and he hunches his shoulders like this is a shameful blow, his fury turning inward on a dime. “I'm sorry,” he says. He rubs his forehead. “I’ll be more careful. I promise. I know I,” he swallows, looking pained. “I was reckless. I put us in danger during the floods. I know that's how they found us. I'll be better. I'll do better. We can hide wherever you want. I’ll fit in. I won't…”
"Steve. That's not it. I don't want you to hide I don't want to run anymore. I want us to be safe. Together. Whatever that looks like." Bucky crosses to him, puts his one hand on the side of his head, feeling his beard beneath his palm. “You almost died in that parking lot. They saved you. We can trust them. We can stop running.”
"I can't," Steve says after a silence and his teeth are gritted tight like he's trying to keep something inside. His hand comes up to cling to Bucky's wrist, childlike. "I can't trust anyone with you. Buck. If I lost you again, I wouldn’t... I can't do it again. I've trusted the wrong people. In Bucharest, in Berlin, in Italy, in D.C., in Siberia. I've failed..."
"You can trust me," Bucky says. He wants to reach into the marrow of Steve, wrap up all these broken pieces and cradle them and glue them back together. "Trust me. Trust me to do this."
Steve is silent for a long moment. He’s surveying the terrain, looking for a path to victory. "I chose you," Steve says at last, the words dragging out of him like the worst confession. His eyes go to the door, unable to look at Bucky. He's starting tremble as the words come faster. ”I had to choose between my duty and you and I chose you because I can't lose you again. I can't let you be taken or hurt or killed. So I have to keep you safe because you're all I have left."
Bucky rubs his thumb along Steve's jaw. It used to be so narrow, he thinks wonderingly. “And I have to keep you safe,” he says. “You almost died, Steve. Don’t make me choose between following after you and watching you die or getting Hydra out of my head here.” He hesitates for a breath and then presses his advantage when Steve doesn’t offer a rebuttal. “If we stay, you won't have to choose. I know you’d keep me safe the rest of your life, all on your own. But the thing is, you don’t have to. We don’t have to go it alone - not anymore.”
Steve makes a hurt noise, like he's afraid, and leans forward to put his face into Bucky's ribs. "He tried to kill you," he says, muffled, and Bucky doesn't have to ask who he's talking about. His voice is plaintive. "He was my friend and I trusted him and he tried to take you away. I thought you were going to die and I couldn't stop him. I was going to watch you be killed and I was helpless and all I could do was hope that he killed me too so I didn't have to live with that. I can't take that risk again. I can't do it. Don't ask me..."
It's like a wave finally cresting, a current pulled deep from within Steve's chest and Bucky feels it washing over him, cleansing. Steve is shaking like a hurricane, breaking into pieces. He puts his fingers in Steve's hair, runs them up and down and thinks, like his mother used to do. He feels something wet soak into his shirt and he knows that Steve is crying, silent and messy.
"We're not alone anymore," he says at last, when Steve’s shivering has slowed. Bucky feels calm, steadier like he’s finally found his footing after almost eighty years. He can do this, he thinks, he can bring Steve home. “We’ll be safe. We’ll be together. We can... we can rest for awhile, now, here." He gestures out the door, at the green hills and the pale, golden sunlight.
Steve inhales but doesn't move away. It’s not a surrender but the cannons have stopped bellowing.
Bucky settles his fingers on the back of his neck, feels the tension easing and it makes his heart warm. "You've never failed me, Steve," he says tenderly, easing into the opening Steve has given him. "You haven't failed anyone and you don't have to choose. I'm here. I'm not leaving. We're safe. No more running.”
Against his stomach, at last, Steve nods and he exhales like he’s letting go of something heavy and old. Bucky closes his eyes and holds him tight as slower tears soak into his shirt.
After long minutes, Bucky shifts, delicately, like Steve could spook if he moves too fast. He pulls and tugs Steve until they're lying together, face to face, on the small bed in their small house in the serenity of Wakanda. Steve's expression is cracked wide open, vulnerable and tender and so different than the weathered expression he'd carried all over Europe. His cheeks are puffy and his eyes are bloodshot and Bucky thinks he is beautiful.
"We can rest," he says again and Steve leans forward and kisses him hard, hands pressed hot and strong against Bucky's ribs. He tastes of salt and exhaustion.
Waning sunlight tilts through the windows and Bucky can hear the sounds of insects on the lake. They curl together until there's no space between them and Steve touches the stump of Bucky's arm and Bucky touches the scars on his back. Steve leans forward, buries his face in the crook of his neck and Bucky feels his warm breath against his skin.
Home, he thinks. We made it home.
When Steve leans back a little, Bucky touches the smeared tear trails on Steve's jaw and sees a whole new day dawning in the blue of Steve's eyes, a battlefield finally gone quiet.
He falls asleep like that, clinging to Bucky, and Bucky cradles him close.
While Steve's breathing evens out, Bucky watches the last of the sun beams fade away, watches the glow of the moon across the low, green hills. He stares up at the sky, watching the stars glitter through out an entire unknowable universe that won’t ever stop coming.
For now, though, there is peace.
“I’ll be home soon,” Steve tells Bucky that morning. He presses a kiss to his mouth, interrupting him when he’s in the middle of feeding the chickens. The day is already warm but there’s a cool breeze coming off the lake, sweeping down the green hills and rustling the trees. “Don’t worry,” Steve says, a smile in his voice as he brushes Bucky’s hair back from his forehead. "I’m sure this is nothing we can’t handle.”
Bucky shades his eyes against the sun as Steve boards the quinjet, Natasha and Sam already waiting on board. “Be safe,” he calls and Steve turns back once to salute.
He doesn’t move until it takes off, waving as it jets across the blue sky, heading for Scotland. They’re going to New York after, something about spaceships and aliens that are after some wizard. Tony had called, sounding breathless and worried.
Unease curls in Bucky’s gut - but he shakes it off. There’s nothing he can do about it now. He brushes his hands on his tunic and heads over to milk the goats. With any luck, he thinks, Steve will be home for breakfast in the morning. Maybe Tony will come for a visit and Natasha and Sam will stay over. He'll get out the extra blankets from the closet.
He smiles. They have all the time in the world.