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If You Ever Did Believe

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Bucky is eight years old the first time his heart breaks.

He clutches at his Aunt Peggy’s hand and tries not to tug at his tie, doing his best to ignore the way it feels like it’s choking him. He watches, with wet eyes, as his parents are lowered to the ground. Aunt Angie is by his side, a soft hand holding on to his shoulder. Bucky sniffles and wipes at his nose with the sleeve of his suit. He doesn’t pay attention to the priest or the words he says; all of his focus is on the wooden boxes that hold his parents’ bodies, ready to return them to the earth.

“Do you want to say goodbye?” Aunt Peggy asks after the ceremony is done, her kind eyes and red lips framed by sad lines.

Bucky nods, because he didn’t get a chance to do that before. One minute he was happy running around during recess, and the next he didn’t have parents anymore. Every step he takes feels like forever. His face is swollen from crying and he can’t stop sniffling, but he knows he has to do this. This is his last chance to say goodbye before Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie take him away to go live in their little town of Solitude.

When the time comes, no words come out of Bucky’s mouth. Instead, he is left mute as he watches the patch of turned over dirt that is now his parents’ new home. All he knows is that there, buried underneath the earth, is also a piece of his heart.

 

**

 

Bucky is nine years old the first time he accepts his new life.

Living with Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie isn’t so bad. They let Bucky eat cake for breakfast and they don’t bother with silly things like bedtimes and putting their shoes away. They always sing while they cook, hug Bucky good morning and good night, and let him read whatever books he wants.

Plus, there is the magic.

Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie sit him down on their living room couch with an offering of cookies and herbal tea. Aunt Peggy watches him while she holds her tea cup. A silver spoon stirs the drink without Aunt Peggy’s help, the clinking sound of it against the porcelain echoing across the room.

Magic.

“Your cousin Natasha is coming to live with us,” Aunt Peggy tells him as she hands him a plate with two cookies and his tea.

“Her parents passed away,” Aunt Angie adds with a sad tilt to her voice. “We’re the closest family she has left.”

Bucky takes a sip of the tea to try and swallow past the sudden lump in his throat. He can taste chamomile and rose hip. Aunt Peggy has been teaching him about herbs and she says Bucky’s been making good progress. “Was it the curse?” he asks.

Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie exchange a glance. It is all the answer Bucky needs. He and Aunt Peggy might have different surnames, but the blood that flows through their veins is the same.

For more than two-hundred years, their family has been blamed for everything that goes wrong in the small town of Solitude. It all started with Maria, the first witch of their line, and her despair at being left alone in the island with her unborn child. She swore to never feel the agony of love again and cast a spell upon herself.

Bucky is a child, but he understands.

A broken heart is hard to mend.

The curse has been passed down from generation to generation, its bitterness flooding through the bloodline.

Any man who dares love an Owens will meet a swift end.

Bucky stares at his Aunts again. The same curse that took his parents away from him allowed Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie to stay together and married. Aunt Peggy might be an Owens through blood, but Angie is not a man.

“Yes, darling,” Aunt Peggy says with regret. “It was the curse.”

Bucky nods. He knows how Natasha must be feeling right now: angry and sad and like her entire world ended. He takes a deep breath and asks a question that, in hindsight, becomes the small act of kindness that sealed his and Natasha’s fates, “Can we bake a welcome cake?”

 

**

 

Bucky is ten years old the first time he breathes fire.

“I did it!” Bucky yells and raises his arms, smiling wide at the now lit up candle in front of him. The flames dance orange and bright, their emanating warmth proof of Bucky’s success.

Magic is new for him and he loves every part of it.

“So you did.” Aunt Peggy runs a hand through his hair and places a kiss on top of his head. “Now keep practicing. There are more candles to light.”

Bucky bounces in place, eager to try on this new found magic. Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie only deemed him ready to learn after his tenth birthday five months ago, but this is the first time since that he’s made any real progress. Before, all he could conjure was a little flick of smoke. Now, fire smiles at him and lights up the room.

This is not the only thing they’ve been teaching him. Bucky already has knowledge of herbs and brewing — he can make protection charms as strong as an oak tree and sleepy teas that put one down for over twelve hours. Aunt Peggy says, with a big smile on her lips, that he’s one of the strongest witches she’s seen since herself. Bucky pretends he doesn’t see the worry that exists behind her eyes every time she utters those words.

“Why can’t I do it?” Natasha asks, glaring at the white candle in front of her. She blows through her lips, brows furrowed in concentration, but no flame or smoke spring to life.

“We all have our talents,” Aunt Angie says. “You will find yours soon enough.”

Natasha doesn’t look very pleased, but her frown disappears when Aunt Peggy places an apple in front of her.

“If you can chop this for me in under 3 minutes, I’ll let you pick what we have for dinner,” Aunt Peggy says, and then hands Natasha a knife.

“Can I pick what we have for dessert?” Bucky asks, watching in fascination as Natasha flicks her wrist and splits the apple in two.

Aunt Peggy points at the candles. “If you light five more…”

Bucky goes to work. That night, they have blini for dinner and brownies for dessert.

 

**

 

The thing about magic is that one has to be careful what they wish for.

After all, magic does not care about one’s intentions. It does not care about will or feelings or what one really meant when they wished for something.

And magic always demands a price.

 

**

 

Bucky is thirteen years old the first time he truly understands the consequences of magic.

He and Natasha are huddled on the stairs, a blanket thrown over their shoulders, awake way past their nonexistent bedtimes. Electricity lingers in the air, making the hairs on the back of their necks stand, and thunder roars past the tree lines. They both know that something important is about to happen. Something they are meant to witness.

When a knock sounds on the door, Bucky holds his breath.

Aunt Peggy abandons her cross-stitch and stands up. Her face is blank, the sharp angles of her jaw and cheek bones quickly illuminated by the candles Aunt Angie arranges across their dining room table.

It is not unusual for them to receive late night visitors. The townsfolk might distrust anyone who lives up at the old Owens house, but that does not mean they are above coming to them for help. A cream to soothe lingering pain, a charm to attract good luck, a spell to get a job promotion. Aunt Peggy is paid well for her services, and Aunt Angie’s presence always serves to calm people’s nerves. No one wants to be left alone with the witch, but they are willing to withstand her presence if Aunt Angie is around.

“Did you bring the bird?” Aunt Peggy asks without preamble, stepping aside to let their guest in.

The woman pushes away at a loose strand of hair with a shaking hand, cradling a white dove to her chest with the other. “I... I didn’t want to do this, but I need him.”

“Angie, take the money,” Aunt Peggy orders.

“I can’t think of anything else. But his wife…” the woman stops and sniffs, the whites of her round eyes visible even from Bucky’s place up the staircase. “I don’t care what it costs.”

Aunt Angie extends a hand. The woman doesn’t waste time before she drops a stack of bills into Aunt Angie’s palm, although she refuses to stare at the money. It will buy her a wish, but it doesn’t erase the shame she feels at asking.

Aunt Peggy sets the Owens grimoire on the living room table. The pages are yellow and well-worn, brimming with magic and all kinds of spells. With a flick of her fingers, Aunt Peggy settles on a page before reaching out for the long and sharp needle that rests between them.

“Are you certain?” Aunt Peggy asks. “Maybe you will find someone else.”

The woman shakes her head. “He’s the only one I want and I want him to want me back. So much that he can’t stand it.”

Aunt Peggy takes the dove from the woman’s hand. “Be careful what you wish for,” she says, and plunges the needle into the dove’s heart.

Bucky covers his mouth with his hand and looks away, face buried against Natasha’s soft smelling hair while his stomach churns with dread. “I hope I never fall in love,” he whispers.

The words fall from between his lips like a prayer and burrow deep into his heart.

 

**

 

At the strike of midnight, Bucky slips off his bed.

The greenhouse the Aunts keep at the back of the property is a live thing, calling out to Bucky like the moon calls to the sea. He walks through it barefoot, feeling the specks of dirt and fallen leaves beneath his feet. He feels more at home here than inside the brick walls that make up the Owens house. When he first came to live here, he used to leave his bed at night and curl up under the bed of passion flowers, falling asleep while tears dried on his face.

It is a different kind of comfort he seeks now.

The bowl Bucky holds is one of Aunt Peggy’s old clay pots, used and well loved and perfect for what Bucky needs. He washes it thrice and then fills it with fresh water. Now ready, Bucky walks through their roses, plucking white petals and dropping them in the water, whispering under his breath as he goes.

“They will know my face before they ever see me,” Bucky says, magic rising up around him. “They will always do what is right.”

“What are you doing?”

Bucky twirls around, cradling the bowl close to his chest as he makes a face at Natasha. “You scared me.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“It’s a spell,” Bucky explains. “Amas Veritas.”

“A true love spell?” Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. “I thought you said you never wanted to fall in love.”

“I don’t. This makes sure of it,” Bucky says, and at Natasha’s frown, he adds, “The person I’m talking about doesn’t exist.”

“Well,” Natasha’s lips twitch into a smile, “go on then.”

Bucky rolls his eyes at her, but turns back around and plucks another petal. “Their favorite shape will be a star. They will be kind. And they will be as strong as an oak, but know weakness like autumn leaves.”

With the last statement, Bucky closes his eyes and lets go of the magic that has built up inside of him. It sends a rush of sparks through him and down the tips of his fingers, just as the petals in the water rise up and flow through the air high above them.

“Is that it?” Natasha asks in a whisper, watching as the petals disappear into the night.

“Yes.” Bucky watches and feels as the spell takes hold and wraps itself around his heart. “I will never die of a broken heart.”

 

**

 

20 Years Later

 

**

 

“Fuck,” Bucky curses as his long hair covers his face. His arms are straining while he tries not to drop twenty new flasks of one of their most popular massage oils. He’d spend most of the night before bottling them all up in between whispered enchantments, and he’d hate for all of his hard work to go to waste because he forgot to braid his hair this morning.

“I got it.” Gabe grabs one of the top boxes like it weighs nothing. “Trying to prove something, Barnes?”

“That he’s as strong as he’s beautiful, maybe?” Morita pipes up from where he’s holding the door open, a wide smile covering his face.

“Fuck you both,” Bucky mutters under his breath, although there’s no hiding the way his lips twitch up. “How are we looking today?”

“Considering we’ve been opened for two whole minutes, I’d say we’re fine,” Gabe answers, gently setting down the box and then turning around to help Bucky with his. “No one tried to throw rocks at the window again, if that’s what you mean.”

Bucky’s smile transforms to a grimace. He does not carry the Owens name, but there is no denying the blood in his veins.

Theirs is a small town with a big memory, and some folks are quick to hold on to prejudice and superstition. Bucky’s been called a witch more times than he can count; stared at with fear and cursed at with hate. That kind of attitude has changed some the past few years, even more so after Bucky opened Healthstone and carved himself a spot on Main Street, selling lotions and oils and seemingly nothing magical at all.

Magic is reserved for late night visits at the old Owens house.

Magic is reserved for friends.

“That’s good,” Bucky tells Gabe as he rummages through one of the counter drawers for a hair tie. He hums when his fingers wrap around an old scrunchie. It won’t look good when he wraps his hair up in a loose bun, but at least the strands won’t be falling down past his shoulders and getting on his face. Plus, the color matches the dark blue sweater he’s wearing today. “That means we have time to shelf all of this.”

Morita raises his hands up. “I’m manning the register.”

“Lucky for you, we don’t have any customers yet,” Bucky replies, and then fishes a small tin box from his pocket and hands it to him. “Here, for your Ma. It should help with the arthritis.”

“Thanks,” Morita says quietly, clapping Bucky on the shoulder. “She’s been doing better these past few weeks.”

“Glad to help. Now—”

The bell above the door jingles as someone steps inside. Through the now open door comes a cold breeze that makes the hairs on the back of Bucky’s neck stand on end.

“Morning, boys,” Rumlow drawls, a smug smirk around his lips and eyes set solely on Bucky. “Bucky.”

Morita and Gabe crowd up next to Bucky, one on each side of him, feet braced apart and ready to step in if Bucky needs it. A rush of affection and a sparkling of power surges through Bucky at that simple show of support.

“Out,” Bucky tells Rumlow, voice low and steady just as his hands curl into fists.

“Now, now, aren’t you happy to see me?” Rumlow grins, sickeningly sweet and all around fake. “I thought I’d stop by to ask if you reconsidered my proposition.”

“I’m not dating you,” Bucky snaps, taking a step forward just as Rumlow takes one back. “Not now, not ever, not for as long as I live and beyond that.”

Rumlow stops himself from retreating another step, face flushed and contorted with rage. “You—”

“So you’re going to kindly leave my shop and stay the hell away from me,” Bucky cuts him off, “before I curse your dick to shrivel up and fall of.”

“Fuck you,” Rumlow spits out, eyes wide and glinting with hate. “Like anyone would ever want you anyway, witch.”

Bucky bares his teeth in a snarl, power coiling tight in the palms of his hands. It’s only Gabe’s hand on his arm that stops him from lashing out, especially when Rumlow turns around and swipes a hand over one of their shelves, sending three shampoo bottles crashing to the floor, before he’s out the door like a shot.

“Pardon my language,” Gabe says, “but what a fuckwad.”

“Coward, more like,” Morita mutters, staring at the mess on the floor with hard eyes before glancing up at Bucky. “You okay?”

“No,” Bucky says through gritted teeth, and then forces himself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “But I will be. Thank you for having my back.”

“That’s what friends are for.” Gabe bumps him with an elbow. “We’ll help you clean up.”

Bucky shakes his head. “You don’t have to.”

“It’ll be faster if the three of us do it,” Morita offers, already moving to grab the cleaning supplies.

And Morita is right. It takes all but ten minutes for them to clear the floor of glass and shampoo, and another five for them to rearrange the shelf to display more products again. Bucky tries to ignore the glimpses he gets of people walking outside, trading whispers and pointing fingers when they walk past the shop front and its huge windows. He knows he’s borrowed trouble by threatening to curse Rumlow, but he’s not about to let himself be coerced and intimidated into dating someone.

“Could you really do it?” Gabe stares straight at Bucky’s face when he asks, not a hint of fear or disgust in his eyes.

“Curse his dick off, you mean?” Bucky clarifies.

“Yeah.”

Bucky shrugs. “Probably, but never without a price.”

“And he’s not worth a penny,” Morita says, smiling when that earns him a snort from Bucky.

The bell above the door jingles again, but this time the breeze that passes through leaves the scent of roses in the air. Natasha raises an eyebrow at Bucky when she sees him.

“I’m fine,” Bucky says without her having to ask, and bends down to accept the kiss she places on his cheek.

“Of course you are,” Natasha answers. “I’m staying anyway.”

“Nice,” Morita says, giving Natasha a high-five.

Bucky narrows his eyes at her. “Then you’re doing real work.”

“As long as you pay me in salves.”

“You can make your own,” Bucky points out.

“They’re not as good as yours,” Natasha says with a small smile devoid of bitterness.

It is a truth that stands between them. Bucky’s talents lie with practical magic while Natasha wraps herself in the obscure. While Bucky can brew potions and weave charms and draw on the earth for his spells, Natasha wields secrets and the shadows that surround them. She’s good with deception and persuasion and knowing everyone’s deep and dark desires. It is magic, but a different kind from Bucky’s own.

“Fine.” Bucky gives in, not that he was putting too much of a struggle to start. “But no slacking off.”

“You got is, boss.” Natasha mock salutes him. “Nice hair, by the way.”

Bucky fights back a smile and heads to the back office. Natasha’s presence is almost enough to keep Bucky from worrying, but while he does their stock inventory and looks through the shop’s accounts, he can’t help but notice the bell above the door stays silent for the rest of the day.

 

**

 

“Hunter’s Moon is near,” Aunt Peggy says as she glances up at the dark sky, her hair almost as dark as the shadows that circle around their backyard. She turns to Bucky, eyes shining in that way it means she knows something she is not willing to tell him. “Are you sure you’ll be alright?”

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t be?” Bucky asks, raking the yellow and orange leaves that cover their backyard. There’s already a big pile next to the house, dry and crunchy and ready for someone to jump into it. “It’s not the first time I’ll be alone at the house while Nat is at her place and you and Aunt Angie are off… doing whatever it is you do on Hunter’s Moon.”

“I assure you, what we do is very important,” Aunt Peggy says, smiling a tight smile. “I’ve been an Owens long enough to know that trouble finds us when we least want it.”

“You’re a Carter,” Bucky points out, just to be contrary.

Aunt Peggy flicks him on the shoulder and then gently runs her fingers through his long hair. “Be careful, child. Something’s coming.”

Bucky carefully rests the rake on the side of the house and swallows around a lump in his throat. “I’ll stock up on sage.”

“Some dill wouldn’t be amiss.”

“Alright.” Bucky nods, already making a mental list of charms he can make. “You’ll be back on the 31st, right?”

“We would never miss All Hallow’s Eve,” Aunt Angie pipes up from behind them. She offers Aunt Peggy a small cup of tea and then wraps her arms around Aunt Peggy’s waist. “It is my favorite holiday, after all.”

Bucky smiles at them and ignores the pang in his heart. He has grown up in a house filled with love, but he remembers it was love that took his parents away from him. As much as he sometimes wishes he had someone for himself, his spell from twenty years ago still holds true: he will never die of a broken heart, because the person he wants doesn’t exist.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?” Bucky offers, like he has done so for the past seventeen years.

“You cannot take us where we need to go,” Aunt Peggy answers, like she has done so for the past seventeen years. “We’ll leave tonight. Be sure to lock the doors behind you.”

“And have fun while we’re away,” Aunt Angie says, waggling her eyebrows.

“Yes, ma’am.” Bucky grins, and then pulls them both in a hug. “I’ll miss you.”

“You’ll survive.” Aunt Peggy kisses him on the cheek, leaving a red lipstick mark behind that she wipes off with her finger. “Won’t you?”

Bucky’s grin is hard around the edges. “I always do.”

 

**

 

Bucky wakes up with a harsh gasp, soaked in sweat and braided hair damp, with his heart beating so fast he thinks it will burst right out of his chest. Moonlight shines through the open curtains around his window, casting a ghastly glow over Bucky’s curled up shape on his bed.

A Hunter’s Moon, full and round and bloody.

“Natasha,” Bucky whispers as dread slithers up his spine and makes a home around his heart. He throws the covers off of him and runs down the stairs, reaching the living room just before their landline rings. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Natasha answers immediately, and Bucky’s heart slows down a beat, “but I need your help.”

“Where are you?”

“The Red Room.”

Bucky doesn’t have time to think of why Natasha would be at the one motel near city limits. He slams the receiver, puts on his boots, and is out the door before the big cuckoo clock that hangs on the wall strikes midnight.

 

**

 

“Don’t be angry,” is the first thing Natasha says when Bucky climbs out of the car. She looks unharmed, if a little frayed around the edges, and she hugs Bucky tight as soon as he gets his arms around her.

“I’m just glad you’re safe,” Bucky mumbles against her hair, although his relief is mingled with fear and a heavy sort of unease of what’s to come. Because he knows there is more to come. Natasha never asks for help without strings attached. “What is it?”

Natasha pulls back, and they both stand in the parking lot, right beneath the full moon that shines on the sky. “I might have killed someone.”

Bucky blinks, struck silent for a second that feels more like a hundred years. “Might have?”

“I couldn’t wake him,” Natasha says, somewhat defensively.

Him? Who?” Bucky feels rage bubbling in his gut. “Did he try to hurt you?”

Natasha presses her lips in a thin line. “No,” she says. “He was going to hurt you.”

“Who do you think you killed?”

The look Natasha gives him is a mixture of pity and exasperation, all mixed together with concern. “You know who.”

“Rumlow,” Bucky says, the name bitter on his tongue. “You better start explaining.”

Natasha takes him to her room for the night first, unlucky number 7 with a chipped blue door, and pretends the body lying sprawled on the ratty bed doesn’t bother her. Bucky swallows down bile and stares at Rumlow’s still form, octopus ring glinting on the hand that rests near the shining lamp, and he has to cross his arms to keep his own hands from shaking.

“He was running his mouth at Hydra,” Natasha says, gaze never leaving Rumlow. “About how he was going to show you a lesson. He was rather… explicit about it.”

“He wouldn’t have done anything,” Bucky tries to argue, but Natasha cuts him off with a sharp shake of her head.

“He would have,” Natasha says. “He was planning to. Maybe not tonight, but soon. I could feel it.”

“Nat,” Bucky whispers, shoulders dropping along with the sinking feeling in his stomach.

“I would never let anyone hurt you,” Natasha says with a fierceness that fills Bucky’s heart. “Never.”

Bucky stares down at Rumlow again, trying to push past the fear and worry that want to rise up his throat. “Did anyone see you?” he asks. Helping Natasha hide this won’t do them any good if any of the patrons at Hydra saw her at the bar and near Rumlow.

“Like I would ever go there wearing my true face,” Natasha mutters. She walks to bed and reaches for something under it, coming back with a blond wig and a pair of tortoise shell glasses.

Bucky groans. “Did he really fall for this?”

Natasha levels him with an unimpressed look. “Men are stupid.”

And we have magic, Bucky thinks.

“I won’t argue with that,” Bucky says instead. And it’s true. He is going to help her cover up a murder after all.

Premeditated, it seems.

Fuck.

“It didn’t take much,” Natasha starts, then stops herself. “Only a little poison. He wasn’t supposed to die here, though. I thought I’d have more time.”

“Oh my god.” Bucky scrubs a hand over his face, stopping to pinch the bridge of his nose. He takes a deep breath. “Okay, okay, here’s what we’re going to do.”

Taking Rumlow’s body to the car isn’t as difficult as Bucky thought it would be. Natasha is a lot stronger than she looks, and together they manage to throw him in the passenger seat and drive off unseen. The full moon is bright, but it stills serves as cover to those who honor its name. Here, in the car, there is no bigger hunter than Nat.

Getting Rumlow to the old house is trickier. Their feet sink into the wet earth as they carry his body up the path that leads to the side of the house, getting mud and grass stuck to their legs. The back door is locked, and it takes Natasha three tries to find the spare key which is usually hidden underneath a butterfly shaped rock under the window sill. They get in, dragging mud and dirt through the kitchen floor, until they’re finally able to drop Rumlow’s body on the empty kitchen table.

“That was harder than it was supposed to be,” Bucky says through shallow panting breaths. He and Natasha exchange a glance.

On the wall, the cuckoo clock ticks once and then lets out a chime, signaling the first hour after midnight.

And on the table, Rumlow opens his eyes.

 

**

 

“Nat!” Bucky screams when Rumlow shoots up from the table, but Natasha is too slow to duck.

I’m gonna fucking kill you!” Rumlow snarls as his hands lock themselves around Natasha’s neck, tight and rough, making her choke out in pain.

Bucky doesn’t think. He grabs the big spell knife Aunt Peggy likes to leave on the chopping block, grips it tight in his hand, and then brings it down on the side of Rumlow’s neck. Rumlow’s the one who screams now, loud and inhuman, but soon enough his scream cuts off into a gurgled sound of pain as blood fills his throat and spills down his body. His hands go slack around Natasha’s neck, who falls to the floor and crawls away, coughing and wheezing and massaging her throat.

Bucky still has a hand on the knife when Rumlow turns around to stare at him. The blade cuts deeper into the skin and more blood pours out, soaking Rumlow’s shirt and seeping into the floor of the house.

You,” Rumlow rasps out, blood on his lips, eyes so filled with hate they seem to glint under the soft lights of the kitchen.

Bucky’s breath stops in his lungs and he takes a step back, knife making a squelching sound as it slides through and out of Rumlow’s neck. Rumlow stumbles, knees going out from under him, and falls face down on the table. He sputters and chokes as a pool of blood starts forming on the wood. Bucky and Natasha watch on, panting hard, until Rumlow goes still and the only sounds they can hear are the ticks of the clock.

“Well,” Natasha says in a wrecked tone of voice, hand still resting lightly on her neck. Bruises are already forming on her pale skin, red and ugly and in the shape of Rumlow’s hands. “There is no might about having murdered him now.”

Bucky stares at her with wide eyes, his face pale with shock, and drops the knife to the floor.

 

**

 

Bucky would worry about how easy it is to dig a grave on the edge of their property, right where the land overlooks a rocky cliff that gives way to the sea, but there is nothing on his mind aside from the white buzzing of shock and Rumlow’s hateful eyes right before he died. Natasha is by his side with a shovel of her own, making quick work on the ground, but she keeps glancing up at Bucky every few minutes as if to make sure he’s still here.

They don’t speak as they roll Rumlow’s body into the grave, nor as they cover him up with dirt and mud again. The knife goes to the sea, thrown away by Natasha, but not washing away their sins.

“I’ll tell Aunt Peggy I used it to prepare meat by mistake,” Natasha says as they watch the glint of the knife disappear under the water. “And I’ll get her a new one.”

Bucky takes a deep breath and tries to push down the nausea that threatens to crawl up his throat. Meat. That sounds about right.

The blood staining the house isn’t as easy to clean. They get on their knees and scrub the floor until their arms hurt and their noses sting with the sharp scent of chemicals, and then they do it all again. The table, once cleaned, is harder to look at, and Bucky can’t imagine ever being able to eat there again when the image of Rumlow choking on his own blood flashes through his mind.

“This needs to go,” Bucky says, voice cracking at the end. “We should burn it.”

They use their own fireplace, but the warmth that sparks from the fire does nothing to ward off the chill from Bucky’s bones. Not even the lemon balm tea Natasha forces him to drink is enough to provide Bucky any sort of comfort or resemblance of calm. To be honest, he doesn’t think any comfort can ever be found after he’s just killed someone.

“He was going to kill me,” Natasha says like can read his mind. “And before that, he was going to hurt you. I’m not sorry for what happened.”

Bucky closes his eyes. He’s not sorry Rumlow’s dead either. He’s just sorry for himself and what he’s done. “No one can know,” he says instead.

Natasha doesn’t answer him. Instead, she reaches into her boot and comes holding a small knife, which she flicks open and uses to cut a line across her palm. The blood that gathers at the split skin makes Bucky’s stomach churn dangerously, but he manages to keep himself from throwing up when Natasha hands him the blade. He hisses when he cuts his own palm, refuses to look at his blood covering his skin, and is grateful when Natasha presses their hands together.

Their blood is warm and sticky as it mixes on their skins. The power that builds between them like a promise is anything but.

“No one will know,” Natasha seals the vow with a squeeze to Bucky’s hand.

 

**

 

The Hunter’s Moon shines its silver glow through the still backyard. It soaks through the turned over dirt and sinks into the earth, breathing a second life into things long dead.

After all, the Hunter’s Moon favors hunters and, that night, Natasha is not the only hunter after prey.

 

**

 

You.”

Bucky wakes up with a start for the second time in a few hours. He can still see Rumlow’s ghostly face hovering above him, throat slit and clothes covered in blood. A nightmare, but one that leaves Bucky with a bad taste in his mouth and a slight tremor to hands. He falls back onto his pillows and tries to slow down his heart by taking in deep and steadying breaths, wishing he could have gotten more sleep.

Wishing he hadn’t killed anyone during the wee hours of the night.

A shower doesn’t help. Staring at his pale reflection in the mirror and noticing his sunken cheeks and dark circles under his eyes is also a failure. It isn’t until Bucky is weaving a protective charm around his wrist and picking passion flowers at the greenhouse that he starts to feel like himself again.

Natasha is waiting for him in the kitchen once he’s done, breakfast ready on top of a new table Bucky didn’t hear her bring into the house. There are no bruises showing on her neck. Bucky raises an eyebrow at her.

“Don’t ask,” Natasha says, so Bucky keeps his mouth shut. Natasha pours him a healthy cup of breakfast tea and gently pushes some bagels in his direction. “Thank you for being my brother,” she says quietly, but the words weigh between them.

Bucky reaches out and grabs her hand in his. “You never have to thank me for that.”

Natasha gives his hand a squeeze and flashes him a small smile. “Okay. Are you going to work today?”

“Yes. We need to keep our regular routi—” Bucky snaps his mouth shut when the broom by the side of the fridge falls to the floor with a loud snap.

There is no wind, no breeze, no reason for it to have fallen.

“Company is coming,” Natasha recites, just as Aunt Peggy taught them.

A sign, an omen, a warning.

“Maybe Dum Dum will decide to visit,” Bucky says weakly. They both know company isn’t Dugan stopping by to buy charms for his inn.

“We’ll be fine.” Natasha lets go of Bucky’s hand and grabs a knife. Bucky watches her spread strawberry jelly on her toast and tries not to be sick. “We’re Owenses. We can deal with anything.”

 

**

 

Bucky breathes a sigh of relief when he gets to Healthstone. The familiar scent of mint and incense fills his nose and does a little to get his muscles to relax. He is safe here, as much as he can be safe anywhere. It is certainly better than being at the house, seeing flashes of blood from the corner of his eye whenever he walks by the kitchen.

Relief comes not only from being in his own shop, though, but also from seeing some regular faces browsing the shelves and carrying little straw baskets filled with products. It seems like Rumlow’s act from yesterday hasn’t run through part of the town or, if it has, Healthstone regulars have not paid much attention to it. Bucky does wonder if things will change once they realize Rumlow’s missing. It won’t take long for them to put two and two together and make: the Owenses killed someone again.

“How are you doing, man?” Sam asks as he steps up to the counter, carrying his usual bottles of hand lotion. He’d been one of the first people in town to buy something at the shop when Bucky opened it eight years ago, and he’s been coming back ever since. “You look kinda rough.”

Bucky snorts. “We can’t all be as pretty as you, Wilson.”

“Damn right,” Sam says with a grin, and then leans in a little. “Are you sure you’re okay? I heard about Rumlow.”

There is a split second of sheer and blinding panic before Bucky forces himself to swallow and say, “I’m fine. I mean, I wish I didn’t have to deal with him, but…”

It’s not like I’ll have to, ever again, Bucky thinks.

“I get you.” Sam gives him a sympathetic smile and claps him on the shoulder. “You should talk to Chief Phillips about it. It’s not right for Rumlow to keep harassing you like that.”

“I’ll think about it,” Bucky says, although he sure as shit isn’t going to come near the police department, let alone bring their attention to him and Rumlow. “But tell me, is the lotion helping with your hands?”

Sam lets him change the subject, going as far as raising his hands in front of Bucky’s face and wiggling his fingers. “Smooth as a baby. No more dryness from writing with chalk every day.”

Bucky smiles back. “That’s good.”

“And don’t worry, I’ve been going on and on and on about your magical lotions in the teacher’s room. I’m sure you’ll get some new customers soon.”

“Thanks, Sam,” Bucky says, although he doubts they’ll be stopping by if they think the lotion really is magic. “This all you need for the day?”

Bucky rings Sam’s order, making sure to add a few free samples of their lavender shampoo to his bag. Sam sees it and raises an eyebrow at him, but Bucky just waves him away. “You’re a good friend. Let me give you free stuff if I want to.”

“Did I hear free stuff?” Shuri pops over to the counter, clutching about ten different bath oils to her chest.

“You could just grab a basket, you know,” Bucky sighs, doing so for her and helping her set down all the oils inside of it before she drops one.

“But then you wouldn’t do it for me.” Shuri bats her lashes at him.

“She’s right,” Sam says with a laugh, and then turns to Shuri. “I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

“Bye, Mr. Wilson.” Shuri waves at him. “My brother has a crush on him.”

Bucky gapes, but the expression quickly turns into a smirk. “Really?”

“Let's pretend neither of us have any idea about it.” Shuri gives him a pointed look. Bucky knows this just means she has plans for Sam and T’Challa. She might be only sixteen, but she’s as smart as all of them put together. “Do you think you could make one of those smell like popcorn?” Shuri points at the oils.

“I’m sure you could do if you really wanted to, kid,” Bucky answers dryly. “I can give you the recipe if you promise to keep me updated on Sam and T’Challa.”

Shuri blinks wide and innocent eyes at him. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Bucky sighs. “Guess I’ll keep the recipe, then.”

“Fine,” Shuri agrees with a roll of her eyes. “But I also want free samples whenever I come in.”

Bucky extends a hand. “Deal.”

Shuri shakes his hand with a broad grin and promises to come back when she has news.

The morning and part of the afternoon go on like that. It is a simple routine Bucky is glad he can keep. It helps settle his nerves, and for a few brief seconds throughout the day, he almost forgets about the blood, the body, the grave. Almost, but not quite.

It is near closing time when it happens. When Bucky’s thoughts come to a halt so complete that Rumlow’s entire existence flies right out of his mind. The setting sun shines its final rays through the front windows, making the shop look cozy and warm and inviting. There are only a couple of customers picking up their custom orders after their shifts, bidding Bucky a good afternoon with a smile before they go on their way.

Bucky doesn’t see him, momentarily distracted with organizing their change for the day, but he hears the bell ring.

“Hello?”

Bucky looks up, and his breath catches in his chest. The man is unlike anyone Bucky has ever seen around their little town before: tall and broad and with a body seemingly carved out of marble, with light blond hair that shines almost white through the glowing sun. His strong jaw is clean-shaven, curving into a strong chin and sharp cheekbones. His nose is a little crooked, like it’s been broken and badly set before, but it is his eyes that capture Bucky’s soul: blue and clear and so entirely focused on Bucky it is like they’re the only two people who exist in this world.

At least until Gabe pipes up and says, “Can I help you?”

The man startles almost as bad as Bucky, spinning on his heels and blinking twice as if coming out of a daze. “Uh, Mr. Dugan sent me over. From the inn? He said I’d be able to find a good healing salve here.”

“The best.” Gabe puffs out his chest. “You could even say it’s magical.”

“Gabe,” Bucky says, voice clipped with a warning. “Morita needs your help with inventory.”

“I do?” Morita asks, scratching at his head. When he sees the glare Bucky sends his way and Gabe wiggling his eyebrows at him and tilting his head at the newcomer, Morita smiles. “Sure I do. C’mon, Jones. Best leave the boss to handle it.”

Gabe bumps Bucky with his elbow before disappearing with Morita to the back of the shop. Bucky watches them go with a mixture of fondness and exasperation marking his face. Those precious seconds do give him time to collect himself, though. He is not yet ready to face this man alone.

Bucky takes a deep breath, thumbs the end of his braid that falls over his shoulder and to the middle of his chest, and then turns fully to face the familiar face of a stranger. Bucky ignores the way the man’s brown flannel shirt clings tightly to his shoulders. “Sorry about that. You said you’re looking for a healing salve. Mr…?”

“Steve,” the man answers, gaze once again focused on Bucky. His eyes dance around Bucky’s face, as if tracing the lines of his features and committing them all to memory. “Steve Rogers.”

Bucky tries not to squirm under so much scrutiny. It is as if this man is staring at him like a fascinating puzzle meant to be solved. Bucky can feel blood rushing to his cheeks and heating up his skin. “I’m Bucky Barnes. If Dugan sent you, I assume you’re staying at the Courtyard?”

“Yeah.” Steve nods, still looking a little stunned. “I’m here for work.”

“Work gave you those cuts?” Bucky asks, pointing at the bruises coloring Steve’s knuckles. They look fresh and angry and oh-so-red. Bucky has to fight with himself not to grab Steve’s hand and take care of it himself.

Steve smiles at him, a wonderful thing, and shrugs one shoulder. “Just my own stubbornness.”

Bucky lets out a small laugh. “I see. I have just the thing for you.”

The mugwort salves are all set in row on a shelf by the door, so Bucky has to leave the safety of the wooden counter and brave the distance to the shelf. Nothing separates himself from Steve now, whose eyes follow Bucky as he walks, as if drawn to his every movement. Bucky finds himself responding in kind. He has to fight the urge to bump into Steve, to brush their hands together, to breathe him in when they stand close.

The cold glass from the jar is a balm to Bucky’s heated skin. He holds it carefully in his hand, like a precious jewel to be gifted to a loved one, and extends it to Steve. “Here. It’ll help with the healing and take care of any infections.”

“Thank you,” Steve says softly. His fingers graze Bucky’s palm when he grabs the jar and they both shiver. “Uh, have we met before?”

Bucky glances up at him, lips parting in shock. Steve stares right back, his astonished gaze catching Bucky’s as they stand so close to each other. This close, Bucky can smell the faint scent of oak and leather coming from Steve, and it takes all of his strength not to breathe him in.

“I’d definitely remember,” Bucky answers, a little more honestly than he means to.

Steve’s brows twitch minutely in surprise, but it is the way his lips curl up in a small smile that makes Bucky’s heart skip a beat. “Yeah,” is all he says, eyes never leaving Bucky’s.

They stand there, underneath the sunshine, eyes locked and wearing equally dazed expressions on their faces. It is as if they could stay like this forever, staring at each other, without a care to the world as it passes them by. The only reason they don’t comes from the shrill beeping of Steve’s phone, startling them both as the sound breaks the comfortable silence from the shop.

Steve fishes his phone out of his pocket and glances at the screen. “I have to go.”

“Okay,” Bucky says, sounding as disappointed as he must look. “The salve; put it on before going to sleep and leave it overnight. Your hand should be good in a few days.”

“Thanks,” Steve says, but he makes no move to leave despite the continuous sound of incoming messages on his phone.

Bucky bites on his bottom lip. “I’ll see you again,” he says as a statement, as sure of this as he is of the earth beneath his feet.

That seems to satisfy Steve, who smiles once and waves goodbye twice and nods his head three times. “Yes, you will,” he says, and glances over his shoulder at Bucky no less than four times before he disappears out into the street.

 

**

 

Bucky floats home. His steps are light as air through the walk that takes him back to the old house and his thoughts are filled with Steve’s smile and his kind blue eyes. The fallen autumn leaves are swept into the circle of Bucky’s own happiness, twirling around him and trailing behind while he walks up the pebbled path to the front of the house.

In his mind, no thoughts of Rumlow reign. But not for long.

When he reaches the house, the unassuming shape of Aunt Peggy’s spell knife glints brightly up at him from the porch.

Bucky’s grip goes slack around the strap of his bag, which falls to the wooden floor with a thud. There is no fighting the horror that crawls its way up Bucky’s throat and steals his breath as he stares at that knife, sharp and well-used and here instead of at the bottom of the sea.

Natasha!” Bucky shouts, rooted in place by the metal glint of the knife’s blade. It might as well have stabbed through him and pinned him to one of the porch columns, like a small butterfly struggling in a glass case.

Natasha runs around the side of the house and jumps over the porch railing, falling upright on her feet right next to Bucky. “What is—” she snaps her mouth shut when Bucky points to the knife resting peacefully on their welcome mat, like its presence is welcomed at all.

“Did you…” Bucky tries to ask, but the words die on his tongue as his voice cracks and disappears.

“We threw it over the cliff,” Natasha answers, staring at the knife like it might bite her. “We know it, we saw it, we did it.”

“But it’s here. Why is it here?”

“Is it really Aunt Peggy’s knife?” Natasha asks, crouching down so she can get a better look.

They both know it is. The carvings on the hilt and the curve of the blade are as known to them as every nook and cranny of the Owens house.

“Nat,” Bucky says faintly. His legs fold on him and he drops to the floor, back leaning against the porch railings and his head lowered between his knees.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Natasha says, trying to be reassuring. She even reaches out a hand and rests it on the top of Bucky’s head, just like Aunt Angie used to do when they were kids.

There is no comfort to be found in that gesture now. Not for Bucky.

“There are no coincidences,” Bucky rasps out in a tone that sounds empty to both of them. “We know better than that.”

Natasha presses her lips in a thin line. “Well, I don’t know what this means, then.”

Bucky snorts and presses the heel of his hands against his eyes. That is not entirely true. They both have an idea, but it is too despicable to say it aloud. When Bucky drops his hands, it is to see Natasha reaching for the knife. “Don’t touch it!” he hisses, stopping her right before her fingers brush against the hilt. He rummages through his bag for some tissues and then hands them to Natasha. “Wrap this around it.”

Natasha does, as careful as she always is when handling a blade. The knife looks like it always has. It gives no indication of the murder it helped commit, even as it stands proof of it.

“I’ll take care of it,” Natasha says when she stands up. “We should come inside now. There’s no use for us to stand here like we’re guilty.”

“We are guilty,” Bucky says past the lump in his throat. He stands anyway, bracing himself against the railing and getting up on unsteady feet. Half of his braid has come loose and a few strands of hair stick to his sweaty skin.

Natasha gives him a hard look. “Guiltier than usual, then. The neighbors already think we’re weird.”

“They think we’re murderers,” Bucky corrects her with a humorless laugh. “Guess we’ve proved them right.”

“Bucky,” Natasha sighs, opening the door and pushing him inside. “C’mon, I’ll make you some lemon balm and chamomile tea.”

Bucky lets himself be led, feeling empty and sick inside, until he burrows into his bed with a warm mug of tea in his hands. “Will you be back tonight?” he asks Nat.

“You know I’d never leave you alone,” Natasha replies, raising her palm up to Bucky. The scar she cut into her palm that night is nothing but a pink line now.

Bucky grabs her hand in his, aligning their scars. “Be careful.”

Natasha flashes him a small smile. “I’m always careful,” she says, kissing Bucky on the cheek before disappearing into the night.

With Natasha gone and Bucky in bed, no one notices that, outside, the freshly turned dirt that hides their crime rises up an inch.

 

**

 

The morning brings on a new day, but Bucky can’t banish the cold horror from last night. He tries to focus on practical things: toasting bread, brewing tea, throwing some salt over his shoulder and softly muttering a blessing. He can hear Natasha puttering around her room on the second floor, her thudding steps a sign something weighs on her mind. Natasha is usually as silent as a shadow. It is no surprise they’re both a little off their game this week.

Bucky sighs and starts humming a tune under his breath. Soon, his tea is ready and he is ready for tea, so without any effort on Bucky’s part, the warm mug slides over the counter right up to him. The first sip of the hot liquid soothes only a speckle of hurt on Bucky’s soul, but it still gives him strength to get through the day.

“Thank you,” Bucky says to no one in particular, although his tea mug lets out a curl of steam in acknowledgment. He turns around to pick up a few of their bottles of homemade jam, eye catching on the shadow of a man that stands out on their yard. It is just a glimpse, there and gone, through the corner of his eye, but it sets Bucky’s heart racing and his palms sweating. “Nat?” Bucky calls out, voice carrying the same tremor as it did last night when he found the knife.

Natasha runs down the stairs two steps at a time, then skids on socked feet through the kitchen floor and comes to a stop right next to Bucky’s shoulder. “Oh.”

There is no man there. No shadow. No intruder.

Right above the deep grave they dug last night, bright purple petunias cover the ground, looking as beautiful as they are threatening.

Bucky swallows past a heavy lump in his throat and sets down his mug. His hands have started to shake again, and he doesn’t want to spill his tea. “They weren’t there last night.”

“No, they weren’t,” Natasha agrees. She presses her shoulder against Bucky’s arm and takes a steadying breath. “We should call Aunt Peggy.”

“She won’t answer,” Bucky says with certainty. She warned him to be careful. She warned him that something was coming.

The blood. The body. The grave.

The knife. The flowers. The shadow of a man that resembles Rumlow.

You.

Bucky lets out a shuddering breath, trying to forget the sound of Rumlow’s voice.

“We’ll try anyway.” Natasha grabs her phone and dials, gaze on the petunias outside. A few seconds of silence pass between them before Natasha ends the call and briefly closes her eyes. “No answer.”

I won’t say I told you so, Bucky thinks. By the way Natasha opens her eyes to glare at her, he knows she hears it anyway.

“I’ll cut them down,” Bucky tells her, hands already itching to get to work. He won’t let himself be haunted.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll text Gabe and Morita they can have the day off.”

“I’ll go look through the grimoire,” Natasha says. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Bucky doubts it, but he appreciates it all the same.

 

**

 

The garden scissors are heavy in Bucky’s hands as he snaps the blades through the flowers, purple petals fluttering through the air and lying dead on the ground. Bucky’s hair is up in a messy bun at the top of his head and his gray henley sticks to his back and chest. The petunias seem to grow with each snip of the scissors, but damn it all if Bucky won’t rip their roots off the ground before the morning is over.

“Hello?”

Bucky turns his head to the side and for a moment thinks he’s back at Healthstone with Steve standing in front of him and asking for a healing salve, only this time wearing a blue jacket thrown over a white long-sleeved shirt. But then Bucky fumbles with the garden scissors and almost drops them point down on his thigh and the spell breaks.

“Shit,” Bucky curses as he catches them last minute and sets them on the ground.

“Sorry,” Steve says with a sheepish smile. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Bucky blinks at Steve and stays kneeling on the ground, trying desperately to ignore they’re both right above Rumlow’s grave. There’s a body under your feet, Bucky wants to say, but bites on the inside of his cheek to keep the words in.

Steve is not alone. A step behind him is a blonde woman in a sharply-cut navy blazer and slacks,  who stares at Bucky much the same way Steve did yesterday at the shop, but without any of the fascination that was present in Steve’s gaze. She just looks curious and, dare Bucky say, delighted.

“It’s okay,” Bucky answers a little breathlessly and stands up. “What are you doing here?”

Steve doesn’t answer. Instead he turns to the woman and says, “Sharon, this is Bucky Barnes.”

Sharon gives him a nod, but doesn’t offer Bucky her hand. “So you two have met before,” she says, tone tilting higher at the end. Like a question, but not.

Bucky looks from her to Steve. “Yes, yesterday. At my shop, Healthstone.

“Really?” Sharon arches an eyebrow and glances at Steve. “Just yesterday?”

Bucky presses his lips together and turns to Steve, noticing the faint blush that paints his cheeks and the awkward set of his shoulders. “What’s going on?” Bucky asks, hating the way his stomach churns.

Steve straightens his shoulders, as if bracing himself, and reaches for something in his pocket. “I’m from State Police,” he says, flashing Bucky his badge. It is shaped like a star and gold in color, and the sight of it makes Bucky’s heart stop in his chest. “This is my partner, Sharon Carter. We would like to talk to you about an ongoing case.”

“Is this why you came to the shop yesterday?” Bucky asks Steve, sharp tone making Steve’s eyes widen a little in surprise.

“No, it isn’t,” Steve replies with a slight shake of his head. “That was just a coincidence. I didn’t know we’d need to speak to you in an official capacity at the time.”

There are no coincidences, Bucky thinks. There never are, when one has Owens blood running through their veins. Steve is here for a reason, and Bucky is pretty sure they’re currently standing on top of its dead body.

That does little to calm Bucky down, so he focuses on Sharon instead. “Carter?” he asks. “Any relation to a Margaret Elizabeth Carter?”

“No that I know of,” Sharon says slowly, and then adds, “Is she your wife?”

Sharon,” Steve hisses, faint blush now turning as red as Natasha’s hair.

How interesting.

“I’m gay,” Bucky answers, and his bluntness seems to startle Steve a little. When one lives Bucky’s life, being queer isn’t a secret he wants to keep. Plus, it feels right to be this honest with Steve. “And Peggy is my Aunt. She took me in when I was eight.”

“Well,” Steve clears his throat, uncomfortable. Beside him, Sharon’s smile shows the same delight she sported when she first saw Bucky. “May we speak to you somewhere more private?”

Bucky narrows his eyes at Steve. “Does Chief Phillips know you’re in town?”

“We’ve gone through all the proper channels before contacting you,” Sharon assures him.

Bucky nods, and then glances down at the ruined flowers by his feet. He sighs. “Alright, why don’t we come inside?”

 

**

 

“Could you excuse me for a second?” Bucky asks once he leads Steve and Sharon to the living room, leaving them with glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice and sitting on the couch.

Bucky runs up the stairs and then climbs his way to the attic. Natasha is sitting by the only window, legs crossed under her, the grimoire heavy on her lap.

“What?” Natasha asks in alarm.

“The State Police are here,” Bucky hisses, sticking his fingers under his bun and gripping at his hair. “What are we going to do?”

Natasha slowly closes the grimoire and sets it by the windowsill before standing up. The loose black sweatpants she’s wearing pool a little at her feet. “Did they say why they’re here?”

“Only that they need to talk to me about an ongoing case.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s about what happened,” Natasha points out. “It could be about something that has nothing to do with it.”

Bucky levels her with a flat look. “Really,” he deadpans. “When has that ever happened.”

“Just stick to our story,” Natasha says.

“We don’t have a story!” Bucky whispers, and then raises a trembling hand to his chin. “Nat, you don’t understand. I don’t think I can lie to him.”

Natasha opens and closes her mouth a couple times before she squints at Bucky. “To the State Police Officer?”

Bucky nods. He can feel it right now, the urge to sit down beside Steve and spill all of his secrets. “It’s… I don’t think I can do it.”

“I’ll do it for us,” Natasha promises, grabbing Bucky’s hand and squeezing it. “Is he cute?”

“I— what?”

“Is the Officer cute?”

Bucky blinks, totally off guard. “Yes?”

Natasha nods like that tells her everything. “We’ll be fine. If they ask, we saw Rumlow at your shop yesterday. If they don’t, we’ll get drunk after they leave and count our blessings.”

Bucky laughs, a little hysterical. “I think I’ll need to get drunk anyway. Did you find anything useful?” he asks, pointing at the grimoire.

“Only a spell to bring him back.”

Bucky shudders at the thought. “So nothing, then.”

“No. I know where Aunt Angie keeps the good liquor, though.” Natasha says, and then tugs on Bucky’s hand. “You ready?”

Bucky isn’t, but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

Steve and Sharon look up at them when they see Bucky and Natasha coming down the stars. Despite his nerves, Bucky doesn’t miss the way Sharon’s gaze slowly takes in Natasha, from her loose hair down to the tips of her bare toes. There is also no mistaking the glint of interest in Natasha’s eyes when she sees Sharon in the living room.

Great. Just what Bucky needs.

“I’m Natasha Romanov, Bucky’s sister,” Natasha introduces herself, shaking Steve and Sharon’s hands.

“Sister?” Sharon asks with a tilt of her head.

“Cousins, really,” Natasha says. “But we were raised together since we were nine.”

Steve nods politely. “Well, we’re not gonna beat around the bush. We’re here looking for Brock Rumlow.”

Bucky can practically feel himself leaning forward, ready to open his mouth and confess to murder. The only thing that stops him is Natasha’s hand on his thigh and her sharp nails digging into his knee.

“We have nothing to do with that man,” Natasha’s answer is sharp and to the point, and there is no mistaking the disgust and anger in her expression.

Steve and Sharon exchange a glance.

“We know he moved to Solitude six months ago,” Steve continues carefully. “Word around town is that he’s taken a shine to your brother.”

“Harassed me, you mean,” Bucky corrects him, jaw hard. “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no’.”

Steve’s body stiffens and his own jaw clenches when he looks at Bucky. “Did he—”

“He asked me on a date and I said no,” Bucky explains, feeling anger bubbling inside of him. “And then he kept asking, over and over and over again. After a while, he got angry I wouldn’t… reconsider. It didn’t get physical,” he adds, because he can see that’s Steve’s next question, “but yesterday he stopped by the shop and made a bit of a scene in front of Gabe and Morita.”

“Gabe and Morita?” Sharon asks, flipping open a small notebook and clicking her pen.

“Gabe Jones and Jim Morita,” Bucky offers. “They work with me.”

“We’re sorry to hear you’ve been through that,” Steve says, and Bucky is not at all surprise to see that he means it. “Was that the last time you saw Rumlow?”

“I saw him leave Healthstone when I was coming in,” Natasha steps in. She doesn’t look at Bucky when she speaks, “I help Bucky around the shop sometimes. Rumlow was heading over to Zola’s when he left.”

“Zola’s? The drug store?”

Natasha nods, and Bucky lets himself breathe a little sigh of relief.

“Thank you for the information,” Steve says.

“Can we ask why you’re after him?” Natasha prompts. “Why you’re really here?”

Steve and Sharon glance at each other again, a silent conversation between partners. Whatever it is they decide makes Steve let out a breath and lean forward in his seat.

“We can’t discuss details of an ongoing investigation,” Steve tells them, “but considering your position, I think it would be negligent of us if we didn’t share some information.”

“At the moment, Rumlow is missing,” Sharon says.

Her words spike dread deep in Bucky’s soul, but the only reaction he lets himself have is to briefly shut his eyes before opening them again. Steve is staring at him, face carefully blank, and Bucky tries to offer him a small smile to hide his nerves.

“Were we the last people to see him?” Natasha asks, eyes flicking from Sharon to Steve and back again.

“No,” Sharon says with a considering glance. “He was reported to have been at Hydra, the local bar in the outskirts of town, last night. No one saw him leave.”

“It’s important we find him,” Steve says. He rests his elbows on his knees, putting himself closer to Bucky. “What we’re about to share can’t leave this room.”

“We’re good with secrets,” Bucky understates. Beside him, Natasha shifts.

“Two years ago, in Brookland, the body of a young woman was found by the side of the road. She was strangled and branded with a mark on her thigh.” Steve grabs his phone, finger scrolling through the screen until he finds that he’s looking for. “I think you might recognize the mark.”

Bucky makes a sick little sound in the back of his throat when his eyes catch on the burning scar shaped like an octopus. “Oh my god,” Bucky rocks forward and sticks his head between his knees, fingers gripping at his hair again until his bun comes loose and his hair falls around his shoulders, obscuring his face.

Steve is right. He knows that mark. It sat on a silver ring that always rested on the middle finger of Rumlow’s right hand.

“You could have warned us,” Natasha snaps, moving her hand from Bucky’s knee to run circles across his back.

“We apologize,” Sharon says in a cool tone that gives Natasha’s icy glare a run for its money. “But this is not all.”

“Because of the unique mark, we were able to connect this to another crime,” Steve continues, pocketing his phone. “This time, it was the body of a young man, found a county over. Same cause of death, same brand.”

“Oh god,” Bucky whispers, lifting a shaking hand to his mouth as he fights off the bile that rises up his throat.

“We’re sorry to do this to you, but we have to find him,” Steve says, and then, lowering his voice, he adds, “before he hurts someone else.”

It clicks. Bucky finally lifts his head and finds Steve’s gaze with his own. “You mean me. Before he hurts me.”

“With what you’ve told me about Rumlow’s behavior towards you, yes, that’s a possibility,” Steve says. His hands clutch into fists on top of his knees. “But I promise you I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe.”

Bucky swallows down the urge to laugh. Between them, Steve is not the one with blood on his hands.

 

**

 

Silence reigns in the house after Steve and Sharon leave. It follows Bucky and Natasha through the night and well into the next morning, weighing down on their shoulders and hearts.

They know now what Rumlow had planned for Bucky if Natasha hadn’t intervened. It would not have been a peaceful end. At least Bucky can live with the certainty that he has escaped that particular fate and saved other people from it. It untwists some of the knots in Bucky’s stomach about Rumlow’s death; it calms him some, to know he took the life of someone who used their time to harm others.

With those heavy thoughts, Bucky makes his way to Healthstone. He stops by Hallowed Grounds on the way for a triple order of tea and pumpkin scones, ignoring the way the barista behind the counter keeps staring at him in open curiosity. The novelty of being the town witch never wears off, it seems. Even more so when it’s so close to All Hallow’s Eve.

Bucky takes a sip of his green tea as he scans the street before crossing, but even so, he almost trips on the sidewalk when he catches sight of familiar broad shoulders and sunshine hair. Steve has his head bent as he talks to Wanda, owner of one of the two bookshops in town, and scribbles along in a small notebook.

“What are you doing?” Bucky mutters to himself as he itches to get closer. He hides behind the menu sign in front of Pepper’s and then slowly makes his way to the the bookstore, making sure to stay hidden behind street lamps and cars and the occasional brick column that adorns a few of the business in town. He clutches his tea and scones to his chest and holds his breath when he hears the sound of Steve’s voice.

“He’s a very nice man,” Wanda tells Steve as she arranges the used books bin in front of the store. Most of the novels are horror themed and the bin is decorated with little dancing skeletons all around it. “Sure, he might be a witch, but people used to call me that before I moved here.”

“And are you?” Steve asks with a raised eyebrow.

“That’s between me and myself,” Wanda answers. “Bucky helped my brother get a scholarship to one of the fancy universities upstate. He says he didn’t, but Pietro only got a letter after Bucky said he’d light a candle for us.”

Bucky worries at his bottom lip. It’s true that might have had something to do with it, but a little push only goes so far. Pietro did all the hard work himself while Bucky only wished him a little luck.

Steve nods at her. “Thank you for your time, ma’am.”

Bucky follows along as Steve walks through Main Street and asks his questions. The answers are varied in their kindness and detail, but all townsfolk agree on something: Bucky is a witch, and so are his sister and Aunt and everyone else who dares live in the Owens house.

“Why are you asking after Rumlow?” Tony, the town’s mechanic, narrows his eyes at Steve. “Did Bucky finally kill him?”

Bucky barely stops himself from face palming. As is, he watches Steve straighten up, eyes alert and completely focused.

“Do you think Mr. Barnes had something to do with his disappearance?” Steve asks.

Tony shrugs. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned Rumlow into a rock and threw him down a well. And then there’s the old Owens curse, but that wouldn’t have done it.”

Steve blinks. “Curse?”

“I don’t like to talk about it.” Tony shudders. “Bad omen, especially around this time. I just married Pepper and Rhodey. I don’t want one of us to end up dead.”

Steve opens his mouth as if to follow up, but someone honks and Tony bids him goodbye without so much as a second look. It isn’t until they’re by the little market on the corner of Main Street that Steve gets his answer. Thor waves Steve hello and then turns as if to do the same to Bucky, who is sneakily hiding behind a pumpkin. Bucky shakes his head and presses a finger to his lips as if shushing him, and Thor gives him a wink. Steve stares down at his notebook through it all.

“Ah, the curse.” Thor waggles his eyebrows once Steve’s gotten to the point. “It is said that every man who dares love an Owens will die a swift and terrible death. Women are fine, though. Peggy and Angie have a lovely marriage.”

“I… see,” Steve says slowly. “So Rumlow—”

Thor snorts. “No. He would never be hit by the curse. Or at least, not that curse. I’m sure Bucky knows all kinds of spells.”

“Right,” Steve says flatly. “Because he’s a witch.”

“Yes.” Thor nods. “My brother says he’s a very good one and Loki would know.”

Bucky wishes for a second he could find Loki and set his hair on fire, but he settles for taking a sip of his tea and wondering what Steve must think of all of this. As much as he appreciates the lack of suspicion and hate from some of the townsfolk, there is no denying this does not paint a very good picture of him and his family.

It gets worse when Steve speaks to Zola and Helmut Zemo. There are not shy when it comes to pointing fingers at him and Natasha.

“If Rumlow’s missing, Barnes did it,” Zemo says with confidence. He owns the other bookstore in town, snobbish in its exclusion of anything that isn’t nonfiction. “The Owenses have been killing men since they moved into this town.”

“They are interesting people,” Zola says with a glint in his eyes that makes Bucky sick to his stomach. “Capable of murder, of course, but I do question how far their powers can go.”

Steve’s jaw is clenched when he finishes his conversation with them, hard-set and showing his displeasure. Bucky watches him with a little spark of hope burning in his heart. He is guilty, yes, but maybe Steve won’t find out. Maybe this is a secret Bucky will take to his grave, lost behind his lips and uttered aloud.

There is only one place left for Steve to go, so Bucky is quick to rush to the store. His hair flows behind him as he runs through the path that cuts through Main Street and loops around back to Healthstone, spilling only a few drops of cold tea along the way.

“There you are!” Morita says when he sees Bucky, going straight for the scones. “I thought I was going to starve.”

“They’re cold,” Bucky says. “So’s the tea. I need to talk to you about something. Both of you.”

Gabe frowns and takes in Bucky’s flushed face and windblown hair. “Is everything okay?”

Bucky shakes his head. He quickly tells them about Rumlow’s disappearance and Steve and Sharon’s appearance, conveniently leaving out the fact that he knows exactly where Rumlow is because he murdered and buried him. Gabe and Morita’s expressions grown somber as they listen, the lines around their mouths and eyes deepening the longer Bucky speaks.

“They can’t think you did it,” Morita blurts out as soon as Bucky is done, brows furrowed down in a scowl.

“I don’t know what they think,” Bucky admits, because he truly hasn’t the faintest idea. “But I know they’ll want to speak to you about what happened.”

“We’ll tell them the truth,” Gabe says, clasping a hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “That we’re glad Rumlow’s gone.”

Bucky doesn’t miss the way Gabe carefully doesn’t say the truth is that Bucky could never have done something like that. It sends a stab of pain through his heart, to know his friends might think that, even though Bucky knows them to be right. His heart tugs in another painful way to know, too, that even though they might think him capable of murder, they are still willing to stand by his side.

What a mess.

The bell above the door jingles. Bucky shoots Gabe and Morita a small and reassuring smile, and then turns to face his fate. “Officer Rogers,” he says, nodding at Steve.

“Mr. Barnes,” Steve greets him back, just as formal. “May I speak to your employees for a second?”

“You should ask them,” Bucky answers, and then gathers the cold drinks and scones in his hands. “I’ll heat this up for us. Yell if you need me.”

There are no yells, and when Bucky comes back to the front of the shop with warm food and drinks, he finds Gabe and Morita with their arms crossed over their chests and Steve with a rather exasperated look on his face.

“I know about the curse,” Steve tells them, eyes flickering briefly to Bucky before he looks away again.

“Then you know Bucky had nothing to do with Rumlow taking a hike,” Morita says. “Bucky’s a good man.”

“The best,” Gabe adds. “The only magic he casts is for the good of other people.”

Bucky smiles a little at that, touched, and walks up to his friends to give them their tea and a scone. “That’s how it should always be,” he murmurs. He lives with a curse that runs its way down his bloodline and ruins lives. He would never wish that on someone else. Even if that someone is Rumlow.

“Right,” Steve sighs. “Magic.”

“Haven’t you heard?” Bucky wiggles his fingers at Steve. “I’m a witch.”

Steve’s lips twitch up despite himself, but he’s quick to school his expression again. “You’re something alright,” Steve replies, and then clears his throat as if realizing what he’s said. “Well, thank you for your time, gentlemen. Mr. Barnes, I’ll see you around.”

Bucky watches Steve leave with a tightness in his chest that grows and grows until he can’t take it anymore. “I’ll be right back,” he tells Morita and Gabe, and then rushes out of the shop. He catches Steve half a block away, walking fast with his hands buried in his pockets. “Steve, hey!”

Steve stops and twirls on his heels and his eyes narrow when they fall on Bucky. “Yes?”

Bucky stops short of colliding with Steve’s body. A little part of him wants to take that step forward and right into Steve’s arms, but now is not the time. “Why were you going around town asking about me?”

“Why were you going around town, hiding behind signs and listening to my conversations?” Steve throws back.

Bucky sputters a little and he can feel the blood rushing to his cheeks. “I guess we’ve both made mistakes,” Bucky concedes with as much dignity as he can muster.

Steve, of all things, rolls his eyes. “Sure, Buck, let’s call it that. Listen, I want to talk to you more about this, but I have to go meet Sharon right now. We have other leads we want to pursue first.”

“Before you formally accuse me of murder, you mean?” Bucky asks, ignoring the way his stomach flipped at hearing Steve call him Buck.

Steve grows serious, and then leans in close. “It’s interesting. We came here because he disappeared. Yet almost every person we’ve spoken to believes he’s dead instead of missing.”

Bucky stays silent. He can feel it again, the urge to open his mouth and confess, especially when Steve is staring at him like this, so somber and focused. Bucky fights against it with every fiber of his being. After a full thirty seconds tick by, he’s relieved when Steve leans back and gives him a nod, as if Bucky’s proved him right.

“How about I stop by your house tomorrow?” Steve suggests, although it feels more like an order than a request. “Around breakfast time.”

“Sure,” is all Bucky can say, sounding surprisingly breezy and light when he’s pretty sure Steve thinks he killed someone. “If you want.”

“It’s a date,” Steve says with an odd smile and then waves Bucky goodbye.

Bucky stands there, alone on the sidewalk, watching Steve’s retreating back as he goes and wondering what the fuck just happened.

 

**

 

“I’m staying here with you.” Natasha drops a bag on the floor and flops down next to Bucky on the couch, swiping at his mug of apple cider and taking a sip. “It’s better if we stick together while the cops are in town. Can you still not lie to Officer Rogers?”

Bucky hesitates. “About that…”

Natasha turns fully to face him. “What did you do?”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Bucky lies, because he’s never had trouble doing that with Natasha before.

Natasha merely raises an eyebrow at him. “Sure.”

Bucky sighs and scrubs a hand over his face before he grabs his mug from Natasha again and takes a gulp of the cider. It does nothing to calm him down, but it does buy him three seconds. “I might have agreed to have Steve over for breakfast tomorrow.”

Natasha slowly pinches the bridge of her nose and lets out a heavy exhale. “James, why would you ever agree to that?”

Bucky winces. Natasha only calls him James when she’s really upset with him. “There’s something about him, Nat,” he murmurs, mind flashing back to Steve’s blue eyes and bright smile. “I just… It didn’t occur to me to say no.”

“Can you?” Natasha asks. Her head is tilted to the side, like she’s trying to figure something out. “Say no to him? At all?”

“I… I think so.” Bucky frowns, searching inside himself. He’s only ever felt the willingness to tell Steve all his secrets, not to bend to his every whim. “Yes.”

“We should test that tomorrow,” Natasha suggests. She flicks her finger at their TV, turning it on without a need for the remote, and then starts tapping on her knee when Netflix opens and shows their recommended shows. “Since we’re hosting him. For breakfast.”

“I’m sorry.” Bucky scoots down on the couch until he can rest his head on Natasha’s shoulder. He places his hand over hers, stopping her finger from tapping. On the TV, The Haunting of Hill House is selected. Bucky glances up at Natasha, and then they both look back at the TV. “How about some comedy instead?” Bucky offers, tapping his finger until they get to The Good Place.

“We’ll be fine,” Natasha says like a promise, resting her cheek on top of Bucky’s head. “We will.”

Later that night, when they are both sound asleep, there is no one to hear one of the kitchen windows slide open and the ruffling sounds of the curtains fluttering. There is no one to see, no one to hear, no one to notice as someone steps into the house.

 

**

 

The next morning, Bucky opens and his eyes and he knows something is wrong.

A chill breeze runs its way to the house and its rooms, making Bucky shiver and his hair blow away from his face. All the windows in Bucky’s room are wide open, unlike he left them last night.

The floor is cold beneath Bucky’s bare feet as he climbs off the bed and looks down the hallway. As far as he can see, along the second floor and down into the first, windows: all open and letting the autumn breeze fly in.

Bucky takes a step back and stares at his own windows. There are three of them, two facing the side of the property while the window seat has a view of the cliff and the sea. Bucky keeps them closed at night to ward off any animals that might try to come in, drawn by Aunt Peggy’s craft. It is unusual for Bucky to wake up with them open. Outright eerie and wrong. They wouldn’t be like that if Bucky hadn’t touched them himself, and he knows for certain he never did.

Thumbing the protection charm still wrapped thrice around his wrist, Bucky pads over to the window seat. The curtains ruffle with the breeze and tickle his skin, the fabric soft and light and a little damp from the ocean air, and Bucky has to push them away so he can brace himself on the seat and peek his head out the window.

Bucky doesn’t need to look very far.

Sitting by the sill and untouched by the breeze is a purple petunia, as still as the breath that freezes in Bucky’s lungs. He reaches out a hand and touches the fine petals with shaking fingers, expecting the flower to bite him and swallow him whole. When nothing happens, Bucky picks it up in the palm of his hand, right before snapping the window shut.

The door to Natasha’s room is closed. Bucky only bothers knocking once before he opens it and walks in, flower in hand and fear in his heart.

“What is it?” Natasha asks from under a soft red quilt, sitting up in bed and then sliding over so Bucky can sit beside her.

Bucky shows her the petunia. “I found it.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be,” Bucky answers. “Did you open the windows last night?”

Natasha glances at her own closed window and shakes her head. “It wasn’t me.”

Bucky gulps, trying to ignore the icy twirls of fear that curl up his spine. “It was someone.”

“All windows?” Natasha whispers.

Bucky nods, closing his hand around the petunia and feeling it break in his hand. “What are we going to do?”

Natasha takes a deep breath and reaches for her phone on top of the nightstand. Bucky doesn’t try to stop her, even though it’s useless to try and call the Aunts right now. They won’t answer.

Natasha ends the call with a frustrated sigh. Her fingers find the charm around Bucky’s wrist, tugging it a little, and then she says, “We’ll continue protecting ourselves. That’s all we can do.”

“Protection charms only go so far,” Bucky says. Especially if we’re being haunted, his mind supplies.

“We can burn sage,” Natasha suggests. “I know there’s some in the greenhouse. But that’s going to have to wait.”

Bucky groans, closing his eyes and lowering his head. “Breakfast.”

“With Officer Rogers,” Natasha adds, tone lighter than it was a second ago. “I was thinking of making him my special cinnamon waffles.”

Bucky blinks, and then glares at her. “Why?”

“We have to make a good impression,” Natasha answers with a humorless smile that speaks of hidden intentions. “We did kill someone, after all.”

Bucky doesn’t like the tingle of suspicion that blooms in his stomach, but he’s learned to trust his instincts when it comes to Natasha. “Fine, but I’ll help you.”

“Don’t you trust me?” Natasha asks, mocking.

Bucky smiles at her, horrible and sad, and says, “Of course I do. But we did kill someone, after all.”

 

**

 

They both know what Natasha intends to do. It is crystal clear in the way she moves through the kitchen and dances around Bucky’s helpful hands after they’re both showered and dressed for the day. Determination goes into every swirl of the batter and sizzling of their waffle maker. Natasha is a master of secrets, but she is not hiding this one. And Bucky won’t let her go through with it.

“I’m not poisoning him, James,” Natasha huffs and slaps Bucky’s hand away from the toast.

“I know,” Bucky snaps back, because even Natasha wouldn’t risk murdering an Officer. “But you’re not banishing him either.”

“Just a little rosemary and he’ll go right back to where he came from.”

No,” Bucky says again, this time a little more forceful. He’s glad he’s already hidden and locked away all the rosemary they use in the kitchen, but he knows how resourceful Natasha can be. “We’re not doing this.”

You’re not doing this,” Natasha corrects him.

Before Bucky can threaten to curse her, someone knocks on the front door. Bucky jumps and then stays absolutely frozen in place as his heart races in his chest. There is only person who it could be.

Steve is here.

“I’ll get it,” Natasha says, and then dashes past Bucky before he can even reach out a hand and try to grab her. “Good morning, Officer Rogers.”

Bucky mentally slaps himself and then runs to the hallway, stopping in the middle of it to watch Natasha and Steve interact with each other. Natasha doesn’t try to tackle him or banish him on the spot. She just smiles up at Steve, the perfect picture of a good host, and leads him inside the house.

“Morning, ma’am,” Steve says, and the open expression on his face speaks wonders of his self-preservation instincts. By which Bucky means: it looks like Steve has none. “I hope I’m not a bother.”

“You invited yourself,” Bucky blurts out, fists clenched by his sides, and then flushes a little when Steve snaps his head to him. “What? You did.”

Steve presses his lips together like he’s trying not to laugh. “Morning, Bucky.”

Bucky glowers at him. And then at Natasha, when she hides a smirk behind her hand.

“We’re almost finished with breakfast,” Natasha tells Steve. “How about you let Bucky show you to the backyard? We’re eating outside today.”

Bucky narrows his eyes at Natasha and, without taking his eyes off of her, he points past the hallway and through the dining room. “Backyard is through there,” he tells Steve. “I’m sure you can use your investigative skills to find it. It’s big and green and it has furniture set up for breakfast.”

Steve grins at him, not at all bothered. “I’ll try not to get lost.”

Natasha and Steve move at the same time, as if to reach Bucky, and end up bumping into each other.

“Sorry,” Natasha says, sickeningly sweet, and then pats Steve on the arm. “Guests first.”

Steve tips his chin at her and goes, but he stops right in front of Bucky first. “Nice to see you again, Buck.”

“For you, maybe,” Bucky murmurs, even though he agrees. It is good to see Steve again, this close to him, wearing dark wash jeans and a comfy looking black sweater that accentuates just how broad his shoulders are. “We’ll be out in a bit. And don’t think that you can walk through the grounds and snoop around just because we’re leaving you alone for two minutes.”

“Noted,” Steve replies, and then leans in to say, “I’m looking forward to breakfast.”

Bucky keeps his eyes on Steve until he’s out of sight before taking Natasha by the arm and gently dragging her to the kitchen. “We’re not poisoning him or banishing him or feeding him expired milk so he can get sick and go away.”

“I’d never give anyone expired milk,” Natasha says, affronted.

Bucky sets his jaw and stares at the ceiling, wondering what he did to get a sister like Natasha. You were born an Owens, he thinks. Unlucky as they get.

Steve is waiting for them by the table, occupying one of the old white iron chairs that make part of their backyard furniture. His head is tipped back and his eyes are closed as he basks in the warmth sunshine of an early Autumn morning. The sun makes his hair glow, and Bucky has to take a moment to wonder at the beautiful image Steve makes. It is even worse when Steve turns his head to them and opens his eyes, a smile forming on his face when he catches sight of Bucky.

“How do you like waffles for breakfast?” Natasha asks as they set everything down.

“I eat all kinds of breakfast food, ma’am,” Steve answers, already eyeing the spread in front of him.

“Please, call me Natasha,” Natasha says, and then startles a little. “Oh! I forgot something. Be right back.”

Bucky’s stomach drops and he opens his mouth to call her back, but Natasha has already disappeared back inside the house.

“I have a feeling you don’t want me here,” Steve says conversationally, already grabbing a slice of toast and taking a bite.

“I don’t mind you being here,” Bucky says, throwing his hair over his shoulder and starting a braid. “I just don’t like the reason why.”

Steve nods slowly, eyes fixed on the way Bucky’s fingers move. “Then let's pretend there’s no reason. That I’m just a regular guy.”

Bucky snorts, tying up the end of the braid. “You’re not a regular anything.”

Steve’s face twists at that, expression settling into a soft smile. Natasha chooses that moment to come back, carrying a small syrup bottle filled to the brim.

“Here,” Natasha says, extending the bottle to Steve. “You should try some with your waffles.”

Nope!” Bucky says loudly, standing up so fast his chair tips backwards over the grass. He grabs the bottle from Natasha and runs, right up until he gets to the rocky edge of the cliff that surrounds the back of the property, and then unceremoniously throws the syrup and bottle down into the sea.

“James,” Natasha’s clipped voice addresses him when he comes back, her eyes slowly simmering with anger.

“There was a spider.” Bucky throws his arms up and absolutely does not stare Steve in the face. If he does, he won’t be able to utter a lie. “The whole thing had to go.”

“A spider,” Steve repeats in a flat tone. “Gee, thanks for the save.”

Bucky wants to throw himself off the cliff, but as it stands, he just sticks a waffle in his mouth instead. Natasha sits down on a chair across from them both, back and shoulders stiff, and starts eating like nothing has happened. Bucky follows her lead, mostly because he won’t be able to deal with answering any questions, and is grateful when Steve keeps his thoughts to himself and goes back to eating after carefully cataloging what kinds of food Bucky and Natasha take for themselves.

Great, Steve thinks they were trying to poison him. And considering the last four days of Bucky’s life, they can’t say that would be out of the question.

“How long have you been State Police?” Bucky asks Steve, hating the way the silence builds around them. It feels like a warning, as if one of them doesn’t say something soon, Steve will turn around to look at the petunias and see Rumlow’s body rising out of his grave.

“Going on seven years,” Steve answers as he serves himself a cup of coffee. Bucky made it specially for him, as he still prefers tea himself. “I applied right after getting my degree in Criminal Justice.”

“Late start to school?” Natasha pipes up, staring at Steve like he’s a particularly interesting bug she wants to squash.

“Yup. I was sick a lot as a kid. Only started college when I was twenty-two.”

“You were sick?” Bucky blurts out, gaze scanning Steve from head to toe and trying to remember if they have some ginger hiding somewhere in the kitchen.

“I’m fine now.” Steve smiles a little at him. “But yeah, I used to be. Skinny as a twig too.”

“You’re not skinny now,” Bucky points out the obvious, staring pointedly at the broad line of Steve’s shoulders and his chiseled chest.

Steve blushes a little on his cheeks and down the bridge of his nose. “No. Sharon likes to joke around that I’m as strong as an oak.”

“An oak?” Natasha’s head snaps up to him.

“Like the tree? We’re just glad I can run without passing out after three minutes.”

“You’ve been friends with Sharon for long?” Bucky asks, ignoring the twinge of jealousy he feels.

“Since we were kids. We ended up getting into the same college later, even if she’s a few years younger.”

“Why isn’t Sharon here?” Natasha wants to know. “I would have made her breakfast.”

“She’s working,” is all Steve says, and then turns to Bucky. “How about you?”

“Me?” Bucky wrinkles his nose. “I was a business major.”

“Really?” Steve leans back in surprise. His eyes catch on Bucky’s long braided hair, his maroon cardigan, his ripped black skinny jeans, all the way down to his Harry Potter flip flops.

Bucky wiggles his toes at Steve. “I’m going to try very hard not to be offended,” he says, breaking apart a corner of his waffle and popping it into his mouth. “But yes. I knew I wanted to have my own business, so I did everything I could to make that work.”

“That’s really cool,” Steve says softly. “Healthstone?”

“Yup. Took me a while, since I had some trouble buying a location on Main Street, but I did it.”

Some trouble doesn’t really cover it. No one wanted to sell or rent Bucky a space on Main Street due to his family line. Bucky will always thank his blessings for Gamora and Nebula and their wish to piss on their father’s memory by selling Bucky the shop and the two-story building attached to it.

“You must be proud,” Steve says, still soft.

“We are,” Natasha pipes up. She has a thoughtful look on her face again, brows furrowed a little like she’s trying to remember something. “Bucky is the best of us.”

“Nat,” Bucky sighs. He bumps his foot against hers under the table, his silent way of telling her they’re okay.

Natasha kicks him back. Lightly. “What are you really doing here?” she asks Steve like it’s nothing, like the question doesn’t make Steve’s posture tense and Bucky drop his half-eaten waffle back on his plate.

“You’ve asked me something like that before,” Steve points out. He sets down his mug and pushes his plate away from himself, but not before grabbing another waffle and sticking it into his mouth.

“I have a feeling you’ll give me a different answer this time,” Natasha says, lips twitching up in a smile.

“Bucky,” Steve gets up from his chair, “is there anywhere private we can talk?”

Bucky looks up at him with wide eyes. He glances from Steve to Natasha and back again, hating the panic that builds in his chest. Clutching his half empty tea mug, he nods and stands. “Sure. Follow me.”

 

**

 

The leaves crunch under Bucky’s feet as they make their way to the greenhouse. Bucky will have to take out the rake and clean the yard again, but for now he likes the colorful picture the fallen autumn leaves make as they surround the house. It’s fitting. The trees are not the only things that are dying near the old Owens house and the leaves are not the only things that are already dead.

Peace wraps itself around Bucky when he steps into the glass structure of the greenhouse, welcoming him in and filling his nose with the scent of growing things. It has remained his favorite spot on the grounds ever since Aunt Peggy took him in.

“Nice place,” Steve says as he looks around. Some of the tension has also bled from his shoulders, making him look more relaxed and at home. Here, in the middle of Bucky’s safe haven.

“Thank you. I’ve worked hard on it.”

Steve nods, absent-minded, taking in every pot of plant and bed of herbs and flowers that spurt and grow and curl against the glass that makes their home. He stops by the wooden table Bucky likes to use to cast spells and ground herbs and makes some of the products he sells at the shop. Bucky stares at Steve staring down at the contents of the table. Steve nudges a flask and the little berries that surround it.

“That’s belladonna,” Bucky says, and a second later he wishes he could grab those words and shove them back in his mouth as horror dawns on him.

It didn’t take much. Only a little poison. Natasha’s words echo in Bucky’s head and stab through his heart. That must have been what she used. The belladonna berries.

“A sedative,” Steve supplies, face carefully blank, showing he knows his deadly plants. “And a poison.”

Bucky digs his nails into his palm and forces himself to meet Steve’s eyes. He wants to tell him that yes, it is a poison, but he fights with himself until the words slide back down his throat. “We mostly use it for period cramps.”

Steve’s mouth tightens, but he doesn’t question Bucky. Not yet. “When you do your… witchy thing?”

Witchy?” Bucky turns his nose up in disgust.

“That’s what everyone in town calls you. The Owens witches.”

“I’m a Barnes,” Bucky tries to deflect.

Steve doesn’t let him. “By name, sure. But by everything else?”

“You’re right.” Bucky tilts his chin up in defiance. “I’m a witch. So is my sister and my aunt and all the other Owenses born before us. We cast true love spells and kill any man who dares love us and jump off the roof and fly on All Hallow’s Eve night. You should stick around for that. I’m told it’s always a real treat.”

“Bucky—” Steve tries to say.

“Or maybe it’s a trick,” Bucky spits out, eyes alight with anger. “I’m a witch and we all know witches can’t be trusted.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“You are not welcome here anymore,” Bucky says, surprising himself with the strength and finality of his voice. It shocks Steve too, who stares at Bucky with round eyes and a hand extended, as if trying to reach out to Bucky and calm him down. Well, Bucky isn’t calm. And it seems like Bucky can say no to Steve, after all. “I’d like you to leave.”

“Okay,” Steve says quietly, although there is nothing soothing about the fire that burns behind his eyes. “In the future, I’ll stop by Healthstone if I need to speak to you.”

“Send Sharon instead,” Bucky answers, and he hates how those words make his gut twist and his heart tug painfully in his chest.

“Alright.” Steve nods, taking a step towards the door. “I’ll see you—”

There’s a crack when Steve steps on something, and then a little clinking sound when he looks down at the floor and lifts his foot. Bucky takes one step forward and then stays rooted in place when he sees what’s lying on the floor, silver-colored and round-shaped with a little octopus that smiles mockingly up at them both.

Steve bends down, taking a tissue out of his pocket, before he picks up the ring and brings it up to his face. Steve’s expression changes: his eyes harden, the lines around his mouth deepen, and there’s no missing the way his jaw works as he grits his teeth. He stands up so fast Bucky rocks back on his feet, fear flooding his veins.

“I’d advise you to get a lawyer, Mr. Barnes,” Steve says. Whatever warmth he held towards Bucky is gone now, replaced by an icy mask of indifference. “You’re obviously hiding something and I intend to find out what it is. Don’t leave town.”

Without another word, Steve leaves.

And Bucky, once again, stares at Steve’s retreating back and wonders how can a heart hurt this much.

 

**

 

“Stop sulking,” Natasha says as she joins Bucky on the porch.

“It’s not sulking if we are going to be arrested for murder!” Bucky hisses, tightly gripping the carving knife he has in one hand and squishing the goop he’s scooping out of a pumpkin with the other.

What Bucky told Steve was true, once: they would go up on the roof on All Hallow’s Eve night and give the townsfolk a show, clutching their open umbrellas, ready to jump off the edge and fly safely to the ground. They don’t do that anymore, haven’t since a mother-daughter duo met them with rotten eggs when they got down, unhappy with one of the spells Aunt Peggy cast them.

They don’t get any trick or treaters either; parents are too scared people at the Owens house will curse their candy and kill their children. But they always have people walking by the house on All Hallow’s Eve day, curious eyes peeking past the fence and to the house, never daring coming near but unable to stop themselves from looking. And damn Bucky if he isn’t going to decorate the house and give this people something to truly gawk at. Plus, doing something with his hands helps him ground him, even if only for a little while.

“You could have let me banish him,” Natasha points out while she grabs a pumpkin for herself and flies a knife from the kitchen.

“Don’t try me, Natasha,” Bucky warns her with a raise of his sticky hand. “I will throw this on you.”

Natasha shrugs one shoulder and hugs her pumpkin, twirling her knife with two fingers and staring at Bucky carve. “I have something to show you.”

“Your superior knife skills? I’ve seen them already.”

Natasha sighs. There’s the crinkling sound of paper, and then she is tickling Bucky’s ear with something. “Here.”

Bucky bats at his ear and then turns around so he can see what Natasha wants to show him. “What the hell,” he murmurs, brows twitching in surprise and lips parting as he stares down at a drawing of his own face. He looks younger in it, clean-shaven and with his hair falling just past his ears, framing his smiling face. The drawing goes down to the middle of Bucky’s chest, and Bucky recognizes his old and well-loved Zeppelin shirt that met a terrible end at the hands of a barbed-wire fence. Bucky had a funeral for it five years ago. “Where did you get this?”

“From Officer Rogers,” Natasha answers, smiling a little when Bucky gasps and snaps his eyes back to her.

“What? When?”

“When I bumped into him this morning.”

 “You stole from an Officer?” Bucky groans.

“It’s fine.” Natasha waves a hand at him. “I’ll give it back when I bump into him again this evening.”

“I can’t believe you,” Bucky says, although he kind of can. This is what Natasha does, really. It’s a talent. “Did you really get this from him?” he gently touches the edge of the paper. It’s a little yellow and worn, like it’s been folded and handled several times throughout the years.

“Yes. Odd, isn’t it?” Natasha asks. “That he knew your face before he ever saw you.”

A warning siren goes off in Bucky’s head. Those words are as known to him as the old nursery rhymes his mother used to sing. “What are you trying to say?”

“Do you remember?”

“You know I do.”

Like Bucky would ever forget casting his love away so as not to die from a broken heart.

“You’ve never met him before, have you?” Natasha asks, pointedly staring down at the drawing.

Bucky shakes his head. His heart is a heavy drum inside his chest, beating so fast and so loud he can hear it in his ears. “Never.”

“But he knew you.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Bucky tries, argument as useless as the seeds in his hand.

“His badge is shaped like a star,” Natasha continues.

“No.” Bucky closes his eyes and shakes his head. He drops the carving knife, which makes a clunk when it hits the floor, and sits down on the porch steps instead of kneeling. There is a nice breeze sweeping through the air, but all Bucky can feel is the burning heat of denial and the sharp sting of pain deep in his stomach.

“He used to be sick a lot,” Natasha adds. “Not weak, but he knew what it felt like. But now he’s…”

“As strong as an oak,” Bucky lets himself whispers, tasting the truth on his tongue.

“He does seem to always do what’s right.” Natasha’s lips turn down in disappointment. “Even at our inconvenience.”

“We don’t know if he’s kind,” Bucky wants to argue, but even he knows that’s a stretch. They’ve both seen the kindness in Steve’s heart the first day he came to the house and promised Bucky he wouldn’t let him come to harm.

“I think that’s why you can’t lie to him,” Natasha muses, a sad smile curling at her lips. “You can’t be dishonest with your true love.”

Bucky lets out a shaky breath and tries not to choke on a sob. “What are we going to do?” he whispers, and then leans into Natasha when he sits beside him and wraps her arms around him.

His one true love, who was not supposed to exist, is here. And he’s probably going to throw Bucky in jail.

“We’ll stick to our story,” Natasha replies, resting their temples together. “Everyone knows Rumlow was harassing you. Having his ring show up at the house isn’t as incriminating as it could be.”

“At least Rumlow hasn’t shown up,” Bucky sniffs, and then yelps when Natasha pokes him in the ribs.

“We shouldn’t speak of it,” Natasha warns him in a low voice. They both know words spoken are words caught by the wind, and they don’t want to call onto anything, or anyone, that might be lurking.

“The spell didn’t work,” Bucky whispers after a few seconds. “Amas Veritas.”

“How do you know?”

Bucky swallows past a lump in his throat and ignores the tears that gather in his eyes. “Because my heart wasn’t supposed to get broken.”

Natasha hugs him a little tighter before placing a kiss to the top of his head. “Finish your pumpkins,” she says, knowing better than to touch on Bucky’s broken heart at the moment. “Then we can purify the house. Burning sage could very well burn your sadness away.”

“Doubt it,” Bucky says, but picks up the carving knife anyway. “But thank you.”

Natasha helps with the carving, and as the sun slowly sets and casts a nice glow through the property, they have enough pumpkins to arrange on the porch, down by its steps, and by the sides of the little path that leads to the front gate. Bucky breathes light on the candles they place inside the pumpkins, while Natasha mutters a spell for them to stay lit. It is an eerie picture they make, with their crooked and smiling orange faces illuminated from the inside and staring at everyone who dares come near.

“Nice,” Natasha says and offers her hand up to Bucky for a high-five.

Bucky might be sad, but he still slaps their hands together. “Sage?”

Natasha nods. “After we clean up.”

They wash their hands and change into more comfortable clothes: black sweatpants and a long-sleeved red flannel for Natasha while Bucky goes for black leggings and a dark orange knit sweater. They tie their hairs up away from their faces in messy ponytails before slipping on their boots and going to the greenhouse. Natasha carries one of the candles left over from the pumpkins, the flame flickering bright in the growing darkness of the afternoon.

The greenhouse is warm when they step inside it, and Bucky mutters a quick hello to his plants before walking through the rows and rows of flowers and herbs that rise up to greet him. He plucks two white roses on the way, offering one to Natasha while putting the other one behind his ear.

Aunt Peggy keeps the sage on the far end of the greenhouse, where it catches more sun, so that’s where Bucky and Natasha walk to, silence building around them. There are shadows moving around that little corner as the sun disappears almost completely from the sky, so they don’t notice something is wrong until they’re merely a couple of steps away from the plants.

“What…” Bucky breathes out as he stares at the ruin in front of him.

Broken stalks, ripped leaves, the rotten scent of decaying flowers. The sage plants are strewn on the floor and torn apart, looking as dead as the autumn leaves outside, as if someone has attacked the plots with their grubby hands and destroyed it all.

“Who—”

“You know who,” Bucky cuts Natasha off. He kneels down in front of the plants, fingers brushing against the turned over soil and tracing over the stalks. “We know why.”

“I have some sage at my apartment,” Natasha tells him. “I can go grab it.”

“Is it enough for the entire house?”

Natasha shakes her head. “For our rooms, maybe.”

Bucky stands up and wipes his hands off on his leggings. “You can take the car.”

Bucky grabs the keys from their usual place hanging on a hook by the front door and throws them to Natasha. She catches them with one hand and they both go to the garage, urgency marking their steps.

When Natasha sits on the driver’s seat, sticks the key in the ignition and turns, nothing but a sputtering sound echoes through the room. Natasha tries again, once, twice, and three times, all to get the same result: the car won’t start.

“The gas tank is full,” Natasha says, staring up at Bucky with anger in her eyes.

“Someone doesn’t want us to leave,” Bucky whispers. His words carry between them and pour ice down their spines.

“Tomorrow,” Natasha promises and climbs out of the car. “I’ll walk if I have to.”

“You’ll have to,” Bucky says with absolute certainty.

Hand in hand, they walk back to the house together.

They have a plan, but they both know it is too late.

 

**

 

Through the cover of darkness, as Bucky and Natasha sleep, someone walks through the old Owens house.

They push the windows open, tip over flower vases, and send rot coursing through the pumpkins outside.

And when they are done, they slip inside Natasha’s room.

 

**

 

Bucky covers his nose with his hand and walks down the front yard. The scent of rotting pumpkins surrounds the land, making Bucky’s nose burn and his stomach churn. He has to breathe through his mouth as he picks up each pumpkin and throws them in the garbage. It sends a pang through his heart, to see this much waste, but that is quickly replaced by anger.

Even dead, Rumlow still manages to fuck up his life.

And alive, Bucky is not sure he can deal with it.

“We’ll have to stop by Thor to get more pumpkins,” Bucky tells Natasha when he meets her in the kitchen, drinking a fresh mug of steaming hot coffee. “After I go tell Steve I killed Rumlow.”

What?” Natasha barks, setting down her cup so hard on the counter that some coffee splashes out. “You’re not doing that.”

“I am.” Bucky gulps and then lets out a choked sob. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s… what’s happening to the house, the nightmares, Steve finding the ring. I have to tell him.”

“James—”

“I’ll keep you out of it,” Bucky rushes to add. “You’re not the one who… I did it. I admit it. And I’ll tell Steve it was only me.”

“You can’t—”

“I’m going to,” Bucky interrupts her again, jaw set in determination. “And you can’t stop me.”

With that, Bucky reels around and runs out of the house. So fast, he doesn’t see the way Natasha’s eyes flicker from their usual blue to brown. And so worried, that he doesn’t stop to wonder why she was drinking coffee instead of tea.

 

**

 

Healthstone doesn’t provide Bucky with its usual calmness when he pushes the door open and steps inside it. No place seems all that safe now that he’s decided to confess to murder, and he doubts they will ever again. It is something he has to do, though, for himself and for Natasha. And for Steve, his true love.

“What’s wrong?” Gabe asks as soon as he spots Bucky, coming down from the counter and placing a hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

There are no customers around, so Bucky doesn’t have to worry about looking composed. “I might have to go away for a while.”

“What?” Morita blurts out. “Why? Is that officer bothering you?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Steve is fine. It’s… It’s me. I might have to leave. I just wanted to let you two know that if that happens, I’d like for you to keep the shop open in my place. Natasha… she might be able to help with the products, but I’d like for you two to be in charge of everything else.”

“Bucky,” Gabe murmurs. “What’s going on?”

Bucky’s chin trembles a little as he stares at Gabe and Morita. They’ve been so good to him these past few years, with their unwavering support and friendship. Bucky hates doing this to them, but he doesn’t see how he has a choice. He murdered someone. He’s not sorry about what he did, but he is sorry about what it will do to the people he loves.

“Is it Rumlow?” Morita whispers.

Bucky lets out a wet laugh and scrubs a hand over his face, taking a second to wipe the tears from his eyes. “Sort of.”

Gabe and Morita exchange a glance, and then Gabe asks, voice so low Bucky almost doesn’t hear it, “Did you kill him?”

Bucky’s gaze lifts up to him. He knows he can lie, but in the end he doesn’t really have to.

“We don’t care if you did,” Morita answers, and at Bucky’s baffled expression, he adds, “honestly. Good riddance. We both figured you’d end up cursing him sooner rather than later, and I’m glad it was sooner.”

“I didn’t curse him,” Bucky argues, because that’s all he can think of saying. He can’t believe this.

“Sure you didn’t.” Gabe nods, squeezing Bucky’s shoulder. “But if you did, we’re okay with it.”

“You can’t be okay with murder!” Bucky hisses, poking Gabe and Morita in the chest with a finger. “It’s a crime.”

“So is spitting on a bus,” Morita says.

Bucky sputters. “Those are not the same thing!”

“Bucky.” Gabe moves his hand from Bucky’s shoulder so he can pull Bucky into a sideways hug. “It’s okay.”

Bucky presses his lips together, his eyes wet. “It’s not.”

Morita presses into Bucky’s other’s side. “He used to stop by when you weren’t here, you know?”

Bucky looks up at him in surprise. “What?”

“He’d say all kinds of things,” Gabe adds, face twitching in anger. “About you, your family.”

“About us.” Morita tilts his chin up at Gabe. “We tried to go to Chief Phillips about it, but Rumlow always made sure to stop by when no one else was here.”

“Oh my god,” Bucky whispers, stomach churning with guilt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You already had enough to worry about.” Gabe shrugs. “So we dealt with it.”

“That’s why we’re not sorry he’s dead,” Morita says. “And that’s why we’re okay if you did it.”

“No one’s death should be celebrated. People’s lives should be worth more than that,” Bucky tries to say, but his mind flashes back to the octopus brand Steve showed him. He finds himself blurting out, “Rumlow killed two people before he moved here.”

Gabe and Morita reel back, but they don’t look all that surprised.

“Did he try to…” Morita starts, face paling.

“He was going to,” Bucky admits and a shiver wracks his body. “He planned to.”

“Then we stand by what we said,” Gabe tells him. “We don’t care.”

Bucky takes in a shaky breath and nods. He pulls Gabe and Morita into a hug, squeezing them both as tight as he can. “Thank you for being my friends. Please take care of Healthstone while I’m away.”

Under Gabe and Morita’s protests, Bucky leaves the store and goes to follow his heart.

 

**

 

“Oh shit,” Bucky curses when he bumps into someone, taking two steps back before he balances himself.

“Are you okay?” Sharon asks him with a gentle hand on Bucky’s arm. She’s staring at him in open curiosity again, but this time Bucky can see the spark of suspicion that flickers in her gaze.

“Sharon, hi,” Bucky says, breathless, as his stomach ties itself into another knot. They’re too out in the open, right in front of Wanda’s, and there are already people glancing at them. “Do you know where Steve is?”

Sharon narrows her eyes at him, taking in Bucky’s red eyes and pale face. “You’re upset.”

“I need to find Steve,” Bucky tells her, hiding his shaking hands underneath the loose sleeves of his light gray sweater.

“If there’s something you need to say, you can tell me,” Sharon says softly. Her hand is still on Bucky’s harm, not holding him in place in any way, just a kind touch to make sure he’s okay.

Bucky finds it in himself to smile a little at her and says, “I can see why Natasha likes you.”

Sharon blinks in surprise, and then her face smooths out into a thoughtful expression. “There is more to the two of you than meets the eye, isn’t there? Especially with Natasha.”

Bucky snorts without any humor in it. “You have no idea, but I hope you figure it out.”

Sharon takes him at his word and then offers him a gift. “Steve is at the Courtyard. Number 13.”

“Lucky,” Bucky mutters to himself before telling Sharon thanks.

The Courtyard isn’t far from the bookstore. It takes Bucky about five minutes to get there on foot, his cheeks flushed with heat and forehead damp with sweat when finally reaches Steve’s room. He raises his hand to knock, but the door opens before he can make contact.

“Bucky.” Steve startles, caught off guard. He’s in a soft pine green hoodie and gray sweatpants, looking so cozy Bucky kind of wants to face plant on his chest and burst into tears.

“Hi,” Bucky squeaks out. “Can I come in?”

“Sure.” Steve takes a step back to let Bucky inside.

The squeeze is tight, so Bucky ends up brushing his arm against Steve’s chest, breath hitching a little. Steve doesn’t seem that affected, but Bucky notices the way Steve’s eyes follow him as he steps further into the room. There is nothing abnormal about the room; it looks exactly like every other in the Courtyard, yet Bucky feels a thrill at being in Steve’s pace. There are jackets thrown over the dresser chair, a pair of boots lying by the door, a stack of papers strewn over the bed.

“Nice digs,” Bucky says for a lack of a better conversation starter. He is here to confess, but it doesn’t feel right to just blurt out that he killed someone.

“What are you doing here?” Steve asks as he crosses his arms over his chest.

Bucky tries not to stare at the way Steve’s muscles flex. “I need to tell you something.”

Steve’s postures changes minutely, eyes going more intense. “You should get a lawyer before you say anything else.”

Bucky huffs out a frustrated breath. “I don’t need a lawyer. I just need you to listen to me.”

“Bucky,” Steve starts and takes a step closer, “you really need council before you end up doing something you’ll regret.”

“Too late for that now,” Bucky snarks, and then sighs at himself. “This isn’t easy for me.”

“How about I make it easier for you?” Steve takes yet another step closer, their chests so close together Bucky could tilt his head up and kiss him. He reaches for something in his pocket, coming out with an old-school tape recorder. He hits play. “This is the testimony of James Buchanan Barnes, nickname Bucky. October 28th, 2018. Sit down, please.”

There is a makeshift table set up near the window, with two plastic chairs placed around it, so Bucky gingerly picks the seat closer to the door and sits down.

“Uh, Bucky here,” he says awkwardly to the recorder now placed on the table while he curls his hands further into his sweater and then rests them on his lap.

“Do you know where Brock Rumlow is?” Steve asks as he takes the chair across from Bucky.

“I think he’s not of this world anymore,” Bucky says, finally giving in to the urge to be honest. It lifts a tiny weight off his soul, even as it steps on the shattered pieces of his heart.

“So you think he’s dead,” Steve supplies, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

Bucky shifts in his seat and speaks for the first time the thoughts that have been reeling around in his head. “I think he’s haunting us.”

Steve’s brows twitch just as his lips curl down in displeasure. He leans in closer, eyes glued to Bucky’s. “Did you or your sister kill Brock Rumlow?”

“Natasha didn’t do anything,” Bucky tells him.

“But you did?” Steve is quick to reply. “Is that it?”

Bucky stands up on weak legs and paces around the small room. The words bubble in his throat, begging to come out, yet Bucky still can’t let himself say them. “What if I did? What would you do?”

Steve gets up and walks over to where Bucky is standing by the bed. He looks serious, but there’s a lingering sadness in his tone when he says, “I’d have to bring you in.”

“Even if the world is a better place without him?”

“We don’t get to decide who lives and who dies, Bucky,” Steve says, unaware Bucky knows that with his every heart.

If they could decide, Bucky’s parents wouldn’t be dead.

“Rumlow did,” Bucky throws back, hating the way his voice cracks at the end. “Rumlow decided.”

“And he needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

“Well,” Bucky lets out a laugh that is a mixture of anger and regret, “he was.”

Steve flinches, and the movement is like a punch to Bucky’s gut. “Did he try to hurt you?” Steve asks in a murmur, one hand coming up to hover next to Bucky’s cheek.

“Not me,” Bucky says, wanting to close the distance between them and lean into Steve’s touch. “But it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“It does if it was self-defense.” Steve drops his hand before he reaches for the recorder and stops the tape. “You should really get a lawyer.”

“A lawyer won’t solve my kind of trouble.”

“I can help,” Steve offers in a soft voice. His head is tilted down so he can stare at Bucky in the eye, their foreheads almost touching.  “If you trust me. You can tell me what you know, and I’ll do everything I can to keep you from harm’s way.”

Bucky’s lips curl up in a sad smile just as his gaze flickers down to Steve’s lips. He brings a hand up, slowly and giving Steve time to pull away, and cups Steve’s jaw in his hand. “You have a kind soul, Officer Rogers,” he says, and then pulls Steve in for a kiss.

Steve lets out a little gasp of surprise when their lips touch, but there’s no hesitation when he responds. One of his arms wraps itself around Bucky’s waist and his free hand tangles through Bucky’s hair, angling Bucky’s face just right so they can deepen the kiss. Bucky lets out a low moan at the feeling of Steve’s fingers through his long hair, gripping it tight, and surrenders to Steve’s touches, his kisses, his passion.

Bucky lets himself be pushed down into bed, Steve’s strong body following a second later and pressing him down on the mattress. It’s a heady thing to be this close to Steve, even more so as Bucky licks his way into Steve’s mouth, tasting him, drinking him in, finally getting to touch and feel and kiss his one true love.

“Wait, stop,” Steve says and then pulls back, breathing harsh and cheeks flushed pink. He rests their foreheads together, fingers still tangled through Bucky’s hair, and thumb slowly caressing the side of Bucky’s neck. “Stop. We can’t do this. It wouldn’t be right.”

Bucky swallows past the bitterness and disappointment that threatens to choke him. His soul and heart long for Steve, but Bucky won’t pressure him into something Steve doesn’t want. “You always do the right thing, don’t you?”

Steve lifts his head up to stare at Bucky, face filled with unhappiness. “I try.”

Bucky closes his eyes and nuzzles their noses together. “Okay, I’ll go,” he says, even though it hurts him, and pushes Steve off of him. He sits up on the bed, but stops when he feels something poke at his thigh. He reaches under him and comes up with a small sketchpad, page opened on a drawing.

“Bucky, don’t—” Steve tries to stop him, but he only gets to wrap his hand around one of Bucky’s wrists.

“Oh,” Bucky whispers, staring down at his own face sketched through Steve’s eyes. It’s a recent drawing, Bucky can tell, by the way his hair is long and done up in a fishtail braid that is sloppy and coming loose. Steve drew him smiling again, eyes closed and crinkled at the corners, wearing only the flannel shirt Steve had on when they met.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” Steve blurts out, grip tightening on Bucky’s wrist.

Bucky can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. “Said every criminal ever.”

Steve makes a face at him and then turns serious again. “I’m not Rumlow,” he says in a rough voice twisted with shame.

“I know you’re not,” Bucky tells him, because the two of them couldn’t be more different.

“I’m not stalking you, I swear,” Steve continues. He lets go of Bucky’s wrist so he can sit up on the bed, although his eyes stay on Bucky as wonder crossed his features. “Your face is just someone I saw sometimes, in my dreams, even before I met you. I never thought you’d be real.”

Bucky’s heart grows with an indescribable feeling at that admission. His thirteen-year-old self can’t believe his ears, but he knows it in his soul that Steve is the one he never thought he’d find.

“It would have been better if I stayed only in your dreams,” Bucky says. He leans in to kiss Steve again, soft and sweet and goodbye.

When he stands up to leave, Steve doesn’t try to stop him from going.

 

**

 

Bucky walks home and leaves broken pieces of his heart as he goes. The crisp autumn air runs through the empty streets and ruffles his hair, sending strands falling over his face and tickling his jaw. On the ground, the fallen leaves lay unmoving and dead, a contrast to the burning pain deep inside Bucky’s chest.

The walk is interrupted by sharp and white-hot kind of pain that zings through Bucky’s palm and up his arm, making him trip on his feet and fall to his knees on the ground. He hisses through gritted teeth and raises a hand up to his face, watching in horror as the healed scar on his palm splits open and starts to bleed.

“Natasha,” Bucky curses as he scrambles to his feet, his heart in his throat and fear slithering up his spine.

It is not too late, Bucky prays while he runs as fast as his feet will take him. It cannot be too late.

 

**

 

“Natasha!” Bucky yells as soon as he bursts into the house, door opening by itself with the power of his panic. The lights flicker in response, shining a way through the living room and up the stairs.

Bucky pants as he runs to the second floor, hoping with every bit of strength he has that he won’t find Natasha hurt. He lets his magic guide him past his room and through the hallway, a warm spark of power wrapped around his heart, until he reaches the closed door to Natasha’s bedroom. Bucky’s magic rises up to meet it, slamming the door open with a bang and letting him inside a nightmare.

“Took you long enough,” Natasha gasps, face pale and slick with sweat, her lips so white she looks almost dead. She’s slumped on the floor next to her bed, holding onto a knife while cradling her injured hand against her chest.

In front of Natasha, right next to the window, is a perfect circle made of salt.

Inside it, Rumlow stands, proud and ghostly, staring at the both of them with a sick smile on his face. His throat is cut and open, flashing a glimpse of his insides whenever he moves, and there is a silvery glint of blood soaking his shirt. He looks just as he did when Bucky and Natasha buried him; his spirit is merely a terrible reflection of what was done to him before he died.

You,” Rumlow hisses, the broken sound of his haunted voice scratching at Bucky’s ears and making his stomach turn.

“Nat?” Bucky slowly makes his way to her until he can kneel by her side and wrap an arm around her shoulders.

“I’m fine,” Natasha grunts and lets herself lean heavily against Bucky’s side. “Feel like I got hit by a truck, but I’m fine.”

“What happened?” Bucky asks, eyes never leaving Rumlow’s ghost.

Rumlow waggles his brows at him and licks his lips. “Don’t be jealous. Natasha and I had fun together, but there’s still more left for you.”

Bucky tries really hard not to throw up.

“He tried to possess what didn’t belong to him,” Natasha says, top lip curling in disgust. “Good thing I had… precautions in place to make sure he wouldn’t be able to stay long.”

Bucky makes a little distressed sound in the back of his throat that is swallowed up by the loud thudding of steps as someone runs down the hallway and in the direction of the room.

No,” Rumlow snarls, punching the barrier that keeps in locked in place.

“I see blood,” Steve curses as he bursts into the room, gun drawn and Sharon right at his heels. “Bucky, are you—” he starts to ask, but the words die in his throat when he catches sight of Rumlow in all his ghostly glory.

“What the fuck,” Sharon whispers at Steve’s back, gun in hand and ready to take aim.

Bucky stares up at the two of them with sick fear burning in his eyes. “We’re okay,” he tells them in a broken whisper, clutching Natasha closer.

“Not for long,” Rumlow threatens with a sharp laugh that booms through the room and makes them all flinch. “Officer Rogers,” Rumlow says and gives Steve a mocking salute. “Long time no see. Still couldn’t catch me, could you?”

“You—” Steve blinks and shakes his head, as if clearing his thoughts will make Rumlow less of a ghost. He keeps his gun up and takes a step in Bucky’s direction.

“No, no, no,” Rumlow tsks. “He doesn’t belog to you. That one’s mine.”

Bucky screams when glass shatters and explodes through the room when all the windows burst open with a loud noise. He tries to shield Natasha behind him, just as Rumlow pushes against the barrier while wind runs through the house, disturbing the circle and forming a tiny break through the salt.

Two shots ring out when Rumlow gets himself free, but they run through his body and the bullets embed themselves in the wall behind him. Rumlow cackles, loud and evil, and the sound grows louder and louder until it echoes all throughout the house and makes all the light fixtures flicker once and then explode in another shower of sharp glass.

Bucky!” Steve yells in the confusion, gun in one hand still pointed at Rumlow’s immaterial body while he tries to reach out to Bucky with his free hand.

“I said he’s mine,” Rumlow snarls, face contorting in anger. He steps past the circle and rushes to Bucky, hands outstretched and curled like claws, ready to sink into Bucky and tear him apart.

Bucky screams again in pure terror and tries to scramble back, taking Natasha with him, but he his hand slips when he braces it on the floor, still covered in blood and bleeding. Natasha grips his shoulders and tries to drag him back, just as she spits a curse at Rumlow, but they’re too slow.

Rumlow’s fingers scratch at Bucky’s cheek, cold and as sharp as the glass that surrounds them, cutting once through the soft skin right under Bucky’s right eye. Bucky hisses at the stinging pain and the coldness that seeps into his soul. He can feel Rumlow’s breath on his face, his anger thick in the air, the rotten scent of decaying flesh right under his nose.

“Rumlow!” Steve shouts.

The split second it takes for Rumlow to move his gaze from Bucky to Steve is enough time for Sharon to grab Natasha by the hand and Bucky by the collar of his sweater and bodily drag them away from Rumlow’s deadly grasp. Bucky watches in blood curling horror when Steve then steps in between them and Rumlow, useless gun still in hand, feet braced and ready for a fight.

Rumlow gives him one.

There’s a sickening crack and squelching sound when Rumlow holds his hand into a fist and runs it through Steve’s body. Steve cries out and doubles over in pain, dropping his gun in the process, hands wrapping themselves around Rumlow’s wrist but not finding purchase. They go through him like he isn’t there at all.

Steve!” Bucky yells, trying to get up and go to him.

Sharon stops him with a hand on his arm and a snapped, “Stay here,” and then rushing to Steve’s side herself. “Steve’s not the only one who wants a piece of you, asshole,” she swears at Rumlow, taking a swing at him while slamming into Steve’s body from the side and getting him free of Rumlow’s grip.

Steve falls to the floor with a thud, coughing and rubbing at his chest, while Rumlow turns around to face Sharon.

“You couldn’t catch me before,” Rumlow tells her with a smirk, “and you won’t catch me again.”

Sharon reels back, trying to get away from Rumlow when he runs at her, but before he can make contact, Steve is up and by Sharon’s side. Instead of wrapping his hands around Sharon’s neck, Rumlow tries to get to Steve again, hand making contact with the left side of Steve’s chest.

Bucky feels his own heart stop when a blinding scream cuts through the room and the smell of singed flesh contaminates the air. There is nothing but pure horror flooding Bucky’s body, making him cold with sweat and sick with fear. Bucky’s breath hitches when Rumlow’s scream dies down to a small cry and he takes his hand off Steve’s chest, clutching at his burned palm.

There, a brand shaped in the form of a star.

Bucky’s eyes widen as understanding dawns through all of them. Not missing a bit, Steve reaches for his badge and presses it right against the side of Rumlow’s face.

Rumlow screams again and stumbles backwards, clawing at his own burnt skin. The left side of his face is branded deep and badly wounded, looking almost pinkish under the silvery and dead tinge of his body. He stumbles again, away from them, covering his face with his hands. With a final gurgled sound coming from deep within his throat, Rumlow vanishes, leaving only destruction behind.

“Are you okay?” Bucky immediately turns to Natasha. She’s still pale, and Bucky can feel her shaking a little beside him, but her eyes are alert and filled with determination.

Natasha nods. “You?”

Bucky gulps twice and shakes his head, but Sharon is there by their side before he can say anything else. She touches Natasha’s shoulder, fingers gently swiping Natasha’s hair away from her neck.

“Okay?” Sharon murmurs, and then her eyes catch on Natasha’s bleeding palm. She carefully takes Natasha’s hand in hers and inspects the cut. “We’re going to have to take care of that.”

“We?” Natasha asks with a tilt of her head.

They stare at each other, caught in each other’s eyes, so Bucky silently makes his way over to Steve.

Steve doesn’t lift his head up from between his knees when Bucky approaches. He takes in big and steadying breaths that make his shoulders rise and fall, and he’s still holding his badge in a white-knuckled grip.

“Steve?” Bucky whispers in a small voice. The horror from before is still with him and he doubts it will disappear any time soon. His uninjured hand trembles when he rests it on the middle of Steve’s back, feeling the muscles twitch under his palm.

Steve lifts his head up to Bucky, eyes red and filled with so many questions Bucky can practically hear them rattling around inside Steve’s head. Steve reaches out a hand to touch Bucky’s cheek, thumb tracing just under the scratch Rumlow gave him. Bucky lets out a little hurt sound and leans into Steve’s touch, body curling forward as the adrenaline from the night starts to wear off. Steve shushes him and gathers him close, his arms around around Bucky’s waist and shoulder, hugging him tight.

“We’re okay,” Steve promises, lips ghosting over the shell of Bucky’s ear. “We’re going to be okay.”

Bucky sniffs and buries his face against the side of Steve’s neck, breathing him in and letting Steve’s scent calm him. “Do you believe me now?” he asks, voice muffled by Steve’s skin.

Steve turns his head a little to the side so he can brush a light kiss to Bucky’s cheek and then pulls back. He stares around the room, taking in the broken windows and shattered glass and the trail of blood Bucky left behind when he made his way through the house. Sharon and Natasha are huddled much the same they are, attention focused on them both.

“I think we all have some things we need to talk about,” Steve finally says.

Across the room, Bucky and Natasha share a glance.

Yes, it is time.

 

**

 

As it starts to grow dark, they settle on the first floor.

Natasha arranges an array of candles around the kitchen, and Bucky slowly makes his way through them all, blowing flames into existence. Steve watches him with wide and inscrutable eyes, the deep lines around his mouth making him look older. There’s an added weight to him now, shown by the tightness of his shoulders and stance, and Bucky wishes with all his heart he could make it go away.

Bucky makes them all some tea, going for a soothing blend of herbs to help them all come down from the shock. Sharon made sure to patch him and Natasha up, so Bucky doesn’t have a lot of difficulty handing them all their mugs. Steve still stands up to help him, grabbing Natasha and Sharon’s drinks and handing it to them before he grabs his own and sits down by the table next to Bucky’s empty chair.

“How do you want to start this?” Steve asks Bucky.

Bucky breathes in deep and lets it out slowly. “From the beginning.”

With Natasha’s help, she and Bucky recount the harassment that began as soon as Rumlow moved into town. Natasha talks about the night at the bar, Rumlow’s threats, the poison in his drink, and how easy it was to take him to the Red Room. Bucky tells them about receiving Natasha’s call and coming to her aid, about their decision to bury the body and cover up the murder, up until the moment Rumlow woke up inside their house and Bucky stabbed him through the neck. Natasha holds his hand when he gets to that part, her eyes hard and daring Steve and Sharon to say something.

“He’s buried in the yard,” Bucky says, letting the truth pour out of him. “Under the petunias you saw me chopping when you first stopped by.”

They continue by explaining the signs they were being haunted. The petunias itself growing overnight, the windows opening by themselves during the night, the flower Bucky found on his window sill, the tipped over flower vases, the rotten sage and pumpkins. Natasha almost being possessed. Steve and Sharon can’t deny the truth of it, not after they’ve seen and felt and fought Rumlow’s own ghost.

“Can we sage the house now?” Steve asks. He still has his badge out, gold star shining on top of the table while the candles flicker around it.

Bucky shakes his head, tucking his hair behind his ear. “He’s already in. For a purification spell to work, it’d have to be three fold. We can’t do that with just the four of us, and Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie aren’t picking up their damn phones.”

“When are they due back?” Sharon asks.

“All Hallow’s Eve,” Natasha answers. “We don’t have that long.”

Sharon nods and then stares down at the table, brows twitching a little. “So we’re sitting on the spot Rumlow died.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow at her. “We can go stand over his grave, if you want to.”

Bucky chokes on what could be a desperate laugh or a desperate sob and covers his face with his hands. He can’t believe this is his life, but he dug Rumlow’s grave so he might as well have to deal with it. He can’t deny there is a deep feeling of rest in his soul now that he has finally told Steve the truth, but he wishes the price of it wasn’t so high.

Steve rests a hand on his shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “Do you need a minute?”

Bucky presses his fingers against his eyes before dropping his hands and nodding. “I’ll be outside,” he tells the table.

The fresh air feels cool against his heated cheeks so he doesn’t hesitate to gather his long hair into a messy bun. There’s a little relief as the breeze brushes against the skin of his neck, even more so when Steve joins him a second later, bringing both of their drinks.

“Thanks,” Bucky murmurs, letting his fingers brush over Steve’s palm when he grabs his mug. “I’m sorry about all of this.”

Steve shrugs one shoulder and gives him a crooked smile. “It’s kind of my job.”

Bucky snorts. “Murder, maybe. Not ghosts.”

Steve stares off at the yard, eyes catching on the petunias that still stand proudly over Rumlow’s grave. “You know, I’ve been after Rumlow for a long time. Maybe the reason I felt so drawn to this place was because he was here, because I was meant to stop the evil he brings everywhere he goes.”

Bucky’s heart tugs in his chest. “You weren’t drawn here because of Rumlow. You were drawn here because I asked for you.”

Steve’s head snaps to look at him, lips parted in surprise. “What?”

“When I was thirteen, I cast a spell,” Bucky finds himself speaking, the words spilling out of him like blood. “Amas Veritas. I wished for my true love.”

Steve’s throat works as he swallows, and his voice is low when he asks, “True love?”

“They will know my face before they ever see me,” Bucky recites, feeling a little spark of magic at the memory. “They will always do what is right. Their favorite shape will be a star. They will be kind. And they will be as strong as an oak, but know weakness like autumn leaves.”

“Bucky…” Steve whispers, eyes shining with so much understanding Bucky can feel rising tears in his eyes.

“Your drawings of me,” Bucky rasps out. “Your infuriating sense of always doing what’s right, even at the cost of yourself. Your kindness and need to protect others. Your badge in the shape of a star. Your sickness as a child but your strength of heart and the body you have now to match. You weren’t supposed to exist.”

“I’m here,” Steve says, placing their mugs on the kitchen window and then wrapping his arms around Bucky’s waist, holding him close. “I’m right here.”

“The spell must not have worked,” Bucky chokes, hand clutching at Steve’s hoodie. “I wished for someone who didn’t exist, so I wouldn’t die of a broken heart when you—”

“When I die from the curse?” Steve asks, and when Bucky nods, he nuzzles their noses together. “I’m not going to die. Curses are only as strong as your belief in them, and I don’t believe.”

“How do you explain being here?” Bucky rests their forehead together. “How do you explain us?”

“Bucky,” Steve says, eyes and smile soft, “I wished for you too.”

When Steve lean in for a kiss, lips brushing softly against Bucky’s, it is easy to forget the things that haunt them.

 

**

 

Bucky says goodbye to Steve with a kiss to his lips and a promise they’ll see each other again soon.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay here alone?” Steve glances up at the house and the shadows that gather around it, making it look bigger and more intimidating than it is in the daylight.

“He won’t come back tonight,” Bucky says with certainty he doesn’t feel. His arms are wrapped around Steve’s shoulders and he doesn’t fight the urge to lean in and kiss him again. “We’ll be fine.”

Steve doesn’t look all that convinced, but he doesn’t argue. Sharon is saying her goodbyes to Natasha in the kitchen, so Bucky takes those precious moments to kiss Steve some more. His heart feels light despite the horror from a few hours before. It is as if Bucky finds more courage inside himself when he has Steve by his side.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” Steve promises when Sharon shows up on the porch, her hand tightly grasped around Natasha’s.

“You will,” Bucky seals the vow, stealing another chaste kiss.

Bucky and Natasha stand by the front door and watch Steve and Sharon leave through the cover of darkness. It’s still the middle of the night and all of their lights are broken, so they grab a few candles and climb up to Bucky’s room.

They try calling the Aunts again but with no success.

Natasha’s door stays closed.

There’s a wrongness to the idea of anyone stepping foot inside that room while blood still paints the floor and the windows are barred with wooden plaques. So they hunker down on the floor by Bucky’s bed, curled together in separate sleeping bags with some rosemary under the pillows, hands clutching each other’s in sleep.

Bucky is right: Rumlow doesn’t come back that night. But the next morning, they find themselves trapped inside the house.

 

**

 

“Did you try the attic window?” Natasha asks as she braces one foot on the wall next to the front door and pulls at the doorknob with both hands. The door doesn’t budge an inch, as if glued together and melted shut, trapping them inside.

“Everything’s locked,” Bucky grunts, trying to pry the windows open with a crowbar. All he succeeds in doing is almost hitting himself in the face when his grip slips and the tool falls to the floor. “The windows, the doors, even the door to your room. We can’t climb out of the broken window. We can’t get out.”

Natasha lets go of the door with a huff, chest rising and falling in panting breaths. “What are we doing to do?”

Bucky doesn’t know, but as if answering Natasha’s question, the sound of laughter starts running through the house, faint and then so loud Bucky and Natasha have to cover their ears. Bucky grabs Natasha by the hand and they run to one of the corners of the room, hunkering down and trying to keep their line of sight clear across the space.

In the kitchen, the cuckoo clock chimes seven times. While the final beat lingers in the air, a loud splintering sound echoes through the room, followed by a sharp bang as their front door breaks and falls to the floor. Then all they can hear is blissful shocked silence.

“Well, children,” Aunt Peggy steps in, careful not to get her heels stuck in the ruin she made of their door. “I see we’ve arrived just in time.”

Bucky and Natasha are rooted in place for a second before they rush to her and Aunt Angie, who trails a step behind. Bucky has laughter bubbling in his throat and tears running down his cheeks; he’s never felt happier or more relieved in seeing Aunt Peggy’s face in his life.

“Do you know—” Bucky tries to ask between sniffles, but Aunt Peggy waves a manicured hand at him.

“We know everything,” Aunt Peggy says. She cups Bucky’s face between her hands, surveying the scratch on his skin.

“What do we do?” Bucky asks helplessly, hand finding Natasha’s and tangling their fingers together.

“We need to force his spirit back to where it came from,” Aunt Peggy answers as she lets go of him with a light tap to the tip of his nose.

“Hell?” Natasha pipes up.

“The spirit world, isn’t that right?” Aunt Angie answers, index fingers twirling patterns through the dirt thrown over their coffee table from a tipped over vase.

Aunt Peggy smiles at her. “Precisely.”

“How do we do that?” Bucky asks.

Aunt Angie comes to stand by him and Natasha and wraps her arms around their shoulders. “In the famous words of Lennon and McCartney: with a little help from our friends.”

 

**

 

“How many people do we need?” Bucky asks as he scrolls down his phone. He already has a few trusted friends in mind to help with this, but they might have to reach out to people who don’t know their true power aside from town gossip.

“Twelve,” Aunt Peggy says as she starts organizing the house. “The spell will have to be three-fold, with one person to represent each cardinal point.”

Bucky blinks. “I don’t think I know eight other people.”

“That’s sad.” Natasha pats him on the shoulder and then starts messing with her own phone. “I’m calling Sharon.”

And that’s how it starts.

Bucky worries at his bottom lip when he dials Steve, who picks up on the third ring.

“Is he back?” Steve is quick to ask, the ruffling sound of sheets and thudding feet letting Bucky know Steve is ready to run to his aid.

“Aunt Peggy is,” Bucky answers, stomach flipping. “Do you think you can come over at dusk? And bring a broom and a lighter?”

There is only half a second of silence from Steve before he says, “Of course. Does… Aunt Peggy know how to get rid of him?”

Bucky glances up at Aunt Peggy, who is currently picking up their broken door with her bare hands and trying to throw it outside. “Yeah, she knows.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Steve says and then hangs up.

Gabe is just as willing to help when Bucky calls him. “Are you kidding me?” he laughs. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me to do something witchy since we met.”

Bucky groans and hides his face under his hand, even though Gabe can’t see him. “I hate you.”

“I’m one of your best friends. You love me with all of your heart,” Gabe says. “And am I going to get an explanation on what this is about when I get there?”

Bucky swallows hard. “Yes. We’ll tell you everything.”

“I’ll be there as soon as the sun starts setting,” Gabe promises. “You’re calling Morita, right?”

“As soon as I’m done with you.”

“Hell yeah, I’ll be there,” Morita says right after Bucky finishes his question. “Want me to bring some cookies? I just baked them.”

Bucky grins and feels his heart grow three sizes. “We’d love cookies.”

“Cool. See you in a few.”

Bucky ends the call and wonders what he ever did to deserve friends like that. He’s still wondering when his phone starts vibrating in his hand, and startles when he sees Wanda’s name flash across the screen.

“Hello?”

“I’ll be there at dusk,” Wanda says without preamble. “How much sage do you need?”

Bucky gapes. “How do you know?”

Wanda huffs, but Bucky can hear a smile on her voice when she says, “You’re not the only witch in town, Bucky. Now, how much sage?”

Bucky answers her in a daze, and then turns to Aunt Peggy as soon as Wanda hangs up. “How come I never knew Wanda was a witch?”

“Different kinds.” Aunt Peggy clicks her tongue at him. “Her magic is nothing like ours, but she will be of tremendous help today.”

Bucky turns to Natasha. “Did you know?”

Natasha shrugs. “Well, yeah.”

Bucky whirls around to face Aunt Angie. “Did you?”

Aunt Angie grins at him and pats him on the cheek. “You can be kind of oblivious, sweetie.”

“I’m not oblivious,” Bucky mumbles, scowling.

Natasha, Aunt Peggy, and Aunt Angie all laugh, much to Bucky’s displeasure.

“Call Samuel,” Aunt Peggy orders, lips still twitching up in a smile. “And tell him to bring his boyfriend.”

Bucky gasps. “Sam has a boyfriend? And you know? Before me?”

“Peggy knows everything.” Aunt Angie wiggles her fingers at him. “It’s her gift.”

Bucky narrows his eyes at Aunt Peggy, who merely blows him a kiss. “I’ll call Sam,” he sighs.

“This is new,” Sam says as soon as he picks up the call. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Bucky clears his throat. “So, do you know how everyone in town thinks I’m a witch?”

“Yes.” Sam hesitates. “Why?”

“They’re right,” Bucky blurts out, and then winces at himself. “My entire family is. Are. Witches, I mean. The rumors are true. We don’t kill our husbands, though!” he adds in a panic. “But the curse is real.”

“Oooookaaaaay,” Sam says slowly. “You’re not going to tell me you’re in love with me and I’m going to die because of the curse, right?”

No,” Bucky snaps, and then rolls his eyes when he hears Sam laugh. “I know you have a boyfriend, anyway.”

That cuts Sam’s laughter right off. “Is this a witch thing? Can you read my mind?”

Bucky huffs. “No. Aunt Peggy told me. She knows everything and that is her witch thing.”

Aunt Peggy winks at him as she passes him by, carrying a vase in her arms. Bucky sticks his tongue out at her.

“I assume there’s a reason you’re telling me this?” Sam asks.

Bucky takes a deep breath. “Can you come by the house at dusk and bring a broom and a lighter and T’Challa?”

“Why would I bring T’Challa?” Sam asks in a high-voice, fooling no one.

“Don’t try me, Wilson,” Bucky warns him. “We all know you had a crush on him and we’re very happy you two are finally together.”

“Yes, we are!” Natasha, Aunt Angie, and Aunt Peggy all yell.

“See? Now stop pretending and tell me you two will be over in a few hours.”

“Fine,” Sam sighs. “We’re not doing any sacrifices, are we? I don’t do well with blood.”

“You’re safe,” Bucky promises. “We’re doing an exorcism instead.”

“You— What?” Sam sputters.

“See you in a few hours, bye!” Bucky hangs up.

“Well done, kid,” Aunt Angie praises him.

“How many does that make?” Bucky asks.

“Eleven,” Natasha says, pocketing her phone. “I got us our twelve. He’ll be here soon.”

“He?” Bucky arches an eyebrow.

“His name’s Clint,” Natasha says, and then raises her hand. “Don’t ask me how we met.”

Bucky high-fives Natasha and asks no questions. Now that they have their people, they all focus on cleaning the house. Natasha and Bucky tackle the first floor while Aunt Peggy and Angie deal with the mess upstairs. Sweeping the floor of shattered glass, wiping the tables of dirt, rearranging the vases again. The front door is no more, so a gentle breeze follows them along the house as they work, chilling the sweat that gathers on their temples.

“Hello?” comes Steve’s voice from the front porch, followed by a low, “What the fuck?”

Bucky drops a rag on top of the coffee table and runs up to meet him, oblivious to the sound of Natasha calling Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie down. “Hi!” Bucky smiles nervously up at Steve when he sees him. “Thank you for coming.”

“What happened to your door?” Steve asks, perplexed.

“Aunt Peggy kicked it open this morning,” Bucky tells him, vibrating with the urge to hug Steve and kiss him.

“Your Aunt did this?” Sharon asks from behind Steve, pointing a finger at the door. When Bucky nods, she grins. “Nice. I’d very much like to meet her.”

“If you come inside, I’d love to meet you too,” Aunt Peggy pipes up from the living room.

Sharon’s grin widens and she walks past them and into the house, as if that’s all the invite she needs. Bucky almost jumps in place at the sound of Aunt Peggy’s voice, settled only by Steve’s comforting hand on his arm.

“You okay?” Steve asks him, eyes soft with concern.

“I’m better now that you’re all here,” Bucky admits, and then stops fighting himself and pecks Steve right on the lips.

Steve huffs out a small laugh and drops a kiss to Bucky’s forehead. “C’mon, introduce me to your Aunts.”

Bucky leads Steve by the hand to the living room, stomach suddenly churning with nerves when he catches the glint in Aunt Peggy’s eyes when she stares at Steve.

“Aunt Peggy, Aunt Angie,” Bucky starts. “This is Officer Steve Rogers. Steve, these are my Aunts, Peggy Carter and Angie Martinelli.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” Steve says with a polite nod. “Ma’am.”

Aunt Angie leans in close to Peggy, a huge smile on her face. “He called us ma’am.”

Steve flushes a little in embarrassment, but stands his ground.

“It’s a delight to meet you, Steve,” Aunt Peggy holds out a hand for Steve, who shakes it. “Thank you for taking care of Bucky.”

Steve glances at Bucky with a small smile. “He can take care of himself.”

“Oh, I know.” Aunt Peggy grins and gives Bucky a wink. “But it’s always nice to have someone by your side through trying times.”

Aunt Angie touches her nose to Aunt Peggy’s cheek, who turns her head so they can share a chaste kiss.

“Now that we all know each other,” Natasha says, “how about we start getting ready?”

“You all have your brooms?” Aunt Peggy asks, and with a nod from all of them, she claps her hands and stands. “Then let's get to work.”

 

**

 

Rumlow makes his presence known by the rattle of their picture frames, by the turn the breeze takes from soft to stinging, by the petunias that start blooming in all of their flowers vases. Bucky straightens his shoulders and tries not to pay it any attention. He keeps his focus on the sweep of his broom over the floor, the tune Aunt Peggy hums under her breath as she starts getting ingredients ready, the strength of Steve’s muscles while he helps them move the furniture out of the kitchen.

It is a complicated spell they will cast tonight and everything needs to be ready.

Wanda is the first to arrive, bringing with her a sense of calm and so much sage the windows rattle when she steps inside the house. Bucky rushes up to greet her and pull her into a hug.

“A witch, huh?” Bucky asks with a crooked smile.

Wanda smiles right back. “I’ll tell you about it some other time. Is the kitchen through there?”

There’s a heavy iron cauldron on the lit stove, bubbling with promise and power, and Aunt Peggy stirs its contents with a wooden spoon. Whatever potion she’s concocting smells as rotten as Rumlow’s dead body, yet the scent of it washes over them without turning their stomachs.

“Is this for the grave?” Wanda asks in interest.

“Stay by me and I’ll tell you everything,” Aunt Peggy says, grabbing Wanda by the hand and pulling her to stand by the stove.

Bucky leaves them to their witchy delights when there’s a knock on the door frame, followed by Gabe and Morita’s curious voices as they call out to him.

“Hey,” Bucky hesitates, uncertainty suddenly building in his chest. “Thanks for being here.”

Gabe stares at him for a second and then rolls his eyes so hard Bucky thinks they might pop out. “You’re an idiot,” Gabe says, and then catches Bucky in a hug.

Bucky grunts but is eager to hug back, specially when Morita joins in and noisily kisses his cheek.

“A huge idiot,” Morita agrees. “And if there’s any doubt on your mind: we don’t care about the witch thing, or the curse thing, or the possible murder thing.”

Bucky’s chin trembles. “Okay. You can let me go now.”

“Have a cookie.” Morita opens the lid of the tupperware he’s holding and offers a chocolate chip cookie to Bucky.

Bucky gratefully accepts it and takes a bite, already feeling a little warmer inside as the sweet taste of chocolate bursts on his tongue.

“Wanna tell us what’s going on now?” Gabe pokes him in the arm.

Bucky chews on his cookie and nods, gesturing for them both to take a seat on the couch. Gabe and Morita listen with intense focus as Bucky tells his story, nodding along in a few parts and cursing angrily at others. It’s when Bucky admits to the murder that they grow quiet, and they maintain the silence until Bucky is done talking.

Morita is the one who breaks it by letting out a long and harsh sigh. “Well, I’m not really surprised.”

Bucky grimaces and stares down at his hands as shame makes the back of his neck prickle. “I’m sorry.”

“Rumlow was always a son of a bitch,” Morita says loudly, voice echoing through the room.

Bucky snaps his head up at him, mouth dropping open in surprise.

“Yup.” Gabe nods in agreement. “Of course he’s haunting you. That’s what he does. Alive or dead, he still keeps on being a piece of shit.”

Bucky’s eyes widen just as the coffee table between them jolts up and then falls back down with a bang, as if someone had kicked it.

“Fuck you too, Rumlow,” Morita salutes the empty air.

“Is everyone okay?” Steve comes rushing in from the kitchen, the sleeves of his dark blue sweater rolled up to his elbows.

“What are you doing here?” Gabe narrows his eyes at Steve, who looks taken aback by Gabe’s hostility.

Bucky rests a hand on his chest. He loves his friends. “Steve’s fine. He knows everything.”

Morita and Gabe tense at that instead of relax like Bucky intended. Steve cautiously takes a step closer, coming to stand behind Bucky’s back, and lays a hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

“Are you going to arrest him?” Morita asks bluntly. “Because we’ll fight you.”

Steve’s face twitches once before he says, “Noted,” not giving anything away.

“Guys,” Bucky sighs. “Steve is fine. He’s on our side. I promise.”

“He’s not getting any cookies,” Morita sniffs, clutching the tupperware to his chest. “None.”

“That’s okay,” Steve says softly, and then glances down at Bucky. “I heard a loud noise. You sure everything’s okay?”

Bucky takes Steve’s hand and places a kiss on his palm. “Positive.”

“Ah,” Gabe tsks. “I see.”

Bucky finds himself blushing a little, but he straightens his back and keeps hold of Steve’s hand. “Yes, you see.”

Gabe and Morita stare hard at her for a few second before exchanging a glance between themselves and nodding.

“If you’re sure,” Morita says.

“I am,” Bucky replies, smiling a little.

“Is anyone home?” Sam calls out, perking up when he sees the four of them in the living room. T’Challa stands behind him, staring around the house in open curiosity. “What happened to your front door?”

“Aunt Peggy kicked it,” Bucky answers, going over to Sam and ushering him and T’Challa inside. “You ready to do some magic?”

“Excuse you, I do magic everyday,” Sam teases. “But yes, I’m ready to kick ass.”

“T’Challa,” Bucky turns to him with a warm smile, “thanks for coming. I know we don’t really know each—”

“Shuri speaks very highly of you,” T’Challa interrupts him, eyes twinkling with amusement. “So does Sam. And I have to admit, I’ve always been curious about your kind of magic.”

Bucky blinks. “My kind…”

T’Challa smiles at him with a tiny twitch of his lips. “My family has its own traditions,” he says, and at Bucky’s shocked gaze, his small smile turns into a full blown toothy grin. “Surprise.”

Bucky lets out a drawn out groan and slaps a hand on his forehead when T’Challa bursts out laughing. Sam is trying, and failing, to hide his own snickers, and even Steve, Gabe, and Morita have to fight back smiles.

“Does anyone else want to tell me about their secret magic?” Bucky twirls around to ask. “This is your chance.”

“I think I can talk to dogs,” comes a voice from the door.

Bucky turns in surprise to face the man standing there. He’s blond, wearing a purple long sleeved-shirt and ripped jeans that match the bruises and light cuts around his face. He’s holding the leash of a mangy dog with only one eye, who stares up at him and barks once before letting his tongue dart out.

“See?” The man smiles down at the dog. “Lucky understands me.”

“I heard barking.” Natasha shows up, but stops in her tracks when she sees the dog. “I told you to leave him at home.”

“Kate was busy,” the man complains. “I wasn’t going to leave Lucky alone.”

“Clint,” Natasha sighs in a way that speaks of years of putting up with Clint’s shit. Bucky is instantly intrigued. “We’re going to do an exorcism, not take a walk around the park.”

Lucky barks again at the word park, tail wagging.

“He can help,” Clint insists. “He’s good at spotting danger.”

They all stare at Lucky, who sniffs once around Clint’s shoes and then flops down on the floor.

“Is everyone here?” Aunt Peggy, Aunt Angie, and Wanda filter into the room. Aunt Peggy is wearing one of her old casting robes, as red as her lipstick and sweeping over the floor. The fabric is light and makes it look like she’s floating, something she uses to her advantage to get everyone’s attention on her.

“We’re all here,” Bucky confirms, finding Steve’s hand and holding it tight.

Steve squeezes back.

“Perfect.” Aunt Peggy claps her hands together. “First, we need to purify the house as much as we can. Each of you must pick a room, your lighter, and some sage. Light up the sage and let it burn for a few seconds. When it’s smoking, start with the doors and windows, then move towards the center of each room. I don’t want any of you to get locked inside someplace none of us can reach. Understood?”

Everyone ascents with either words or nods of their heads.

“Good,” Aunt Peggy says, eyes going over each and every one of them. “Be careful, always. When you’re done, meet us back in the kitchen.”

With another clap of her hands, Aunt Peggy dismisses them.

Bucky takes a look around the determined faces standing in his living room and says, “Well, let’s do this.”

 

**

 

The house is alive with guests as each and everyone of them pick up their lighters and start burning sage. Bucky rolls the sleeves of his sparkly white sweater up, weaves his hair into one long braid that falls down his back, and gets to work. He starts with his room, running the sage up and down the frame of his door before daring to step inside it, muttering words of comfort as he goes. The room responds in kind as the burning smoke from the sage seeps into the walls and the floor, washing away the memory and touch of Rumlow’s spirit and breathing in relief.

Only Rumlow doesn’t want to go easily.

Small quakes and tremors run down the floors and up through the structure of the house, rattling windows and trying to shut down doors and throwing things off their shelves. It’s like a small earthquake that exists only within the confines of the Owens walls, sending them swinging while Rumlow’s laughter cuts through the air.

Bucky grits his teeth and braces his feet and refuses to fall. He walks on sure feet and finishes the run of his room, sage burning and smoking away every vestige of Rumlow’s presence. Rumlow’s taken enough of his time, enough of his peace, enough of his thoughts.

Today, Bucky will kill him for a second time.

 

**

 

“In case any of you are wondering,” Natasha says, “this is where he died.”

They are all standing in a circle in the kitchen, brooms in hand and somber expressions on their faces. The cauldron still sits atop the stove, bubbling a few times and letting out a few curls of steam. They all stare at the place the kitchen table used to be. The place where Rumlow took his final breaths and choked on his own blood.

Bucky can still see the picture of him face down on the table as a pool of blood gathered under him. He doesn’t feel terror over it anymore. Now he’s just angry.

“We need three circles,” Aunt Peggy directs them. “Inner, middle, outer, with four people each.”

Bucky and Natasha move to form the inner circle while the others arrange themselves around him. The two of them are the ones who started this, after all.

“No, darling,” Aunt Peggy gently touches Steve’s shoulder when he gestures for her to take a place in the inner circle. “Angie and I will stay on the outer edge. T’Challa and Wanda, with their own magic, can stay in the middle. You and Sharon stay by Bucky and Natasha’s sides.”

Bucky flashes Steve a quick smile when Steve comes to stand by him, tall and bright and with fire in his eyes. Together, they all hold their brooms in front of them, connecting them from top to bristled end, making their circles around the spot death rises up to greet them.

Natasha meets Bucky’s gaze as they stand across from each other, Steve and Sharon flaking them, and a small smile curls around her lips. Bucky smiles back. They’ve got this. They will send Rumlow right back to the grave with the power people fear them to have.

With a deep breath, Bucky summons the well of magic that lives deep inside his soul, and starts chanting a spell. Natasha and Aunt Peggy’s voices join him, sure and sharp and filled with power. Wanda follows with her own words, as does T’Challa, and soon enough all of them are chanting in unison as magic runs through the circles.

“You called?” Rumlow mocks, materializing inside the inner circle, his face burned with the shape of Steve’s star and twisted up in anger.

“Rumlow,” Bucky whispers, grip tightening around the handle of his broom. The others around him gasp, while Aunt Angie lets out a muttered curse and Lucky starts growling.

The circle shakes with power when Rumlow twirls around to scan the audience, his burning anger growing like a live thing and making everyone’s brooms vibrate.

“You want to get rid of me?” Rumlow asks with a tilts of his head, the cut on his throat opening up even more and spilling silvery blood down his already soaked shirt. “But I like it here,” he continues with a wicked grin, eyes finding Bucky. “I like watching you. All. The. Time. Looking like you’re better than us.”

Bucky shudders and tries not to be sick all over the floor, while Steve looks like he’s ready to drop his broom and try to shoot Rumlow again.

“We are better than you,” Natasha says without guilt right before she starts up the chanting again, first under her breath, and then as loud as she can to draw out Rumlow’s voice when he starts spitting curses at them.

Bucky joins in, channeling as much power as he can, feeling the magic crackle around his skin and send tingles down his spine. He can hear the others join in, their voices swirling with magic, while Lucky barks in support.

“You fucking bitch!” Rumlow charges Natasha, so fast and with so much pent up strength that his arms push against the barrier with a crack and his hands try to wrap themselves around Natasha’s throat.

It’s Bucky’s very own worst nightmare happening again.

No!” Bucky finds himself yelling, so filled with fear and rage he lets go of his broom and breaks the circle so he can get Natasha away from Rumlow’s searching hands.

Steve yells something after him as power escapes through the inner circle. Most of it stays contained in the other two, but that’s still enough time for Rumlow to take his gaze off Natasha and zero in on Bucky as a sly smile crosses over his features.

You,” Rumlow says in his horrible voice, like sharp claws scratching against glass. “You’re mine.”

Bucky screams in pain when Rumlow slams into him and tackles him to the floor, wrapping himself around Bucky’s body and holding on. He struggles as Rumlow tries to take control of him. “No,” Bucky gasps in pain, eyes screwed shut as he feels a thousand hot needles stab through his body. He can hear Rumlow’s laughter in his mind, through his thoughts, trying to grab at the very essence of what Bucky is and destroy him. “No.”

“I’ll hurt them,” Rumlow whispers through Bucky’s head. “I’ll hurt everyone you love and I’ll use you to do it.”

Bucky cries out through gritted teeth. He can feels his hands curling into fists and his nail digging into his palms, the sting of pain lost in the torture he’s feeling inside. Images of Natasha, Aunt Peggy and Angie, Gabe, Morita, they all flash through his mind. In the middle of if is Steve, with his soft smile and kind eyes and heart of gold.

“I won’t let you,” Bucky chokes out as his body convulses and his head splits with pain.

“You can’t resist me,” Rumlow coos. “I already own you.”

Something builds inside of Bucky, so strong and hot it steals the breath from Bucky’s lungs and consumes him. Rumlow doesn’t own him.

Bucky Barnes belongs to no one but himself.

Another scream tores itself out of Bucky’s throat as Rumlow is wrenched away from his mind. Magic courses through Bucky’s veins, from the tip of his lashes down the bottom of his feet, setting his soul alight.

Bucky gasps and opens his eyes, heart pounding so hard he can feel it all over his body, trying to understand what’s happening in front of him. He’s sprawled on the ground next to the circle, hair in disarray and with a few strands sticking to his face with sweat. Sharon and Steve are holding the inner circle with four brooms, trapping Rumlow once again inside of it. It is Natasha by his side, with a knife in hand, that makes Bucky’s heart skip a bit.

“My blood,” Natasha says as she cuts over the scabbed scar on her palm, and then Bucky’s, “your blood.”

Bucky pants, words spilling out of his mouth like a vow, “Our blood.”

Their palms slap together and their fingers entwine with each other’s, sealing over the promise they made a few days ago with a more important promise. Magic wraps around them and explodes in a white flash that takes up the entire room, momentarily blinding them all.

During the two seconds Bucky’s eyes are touched by light, his mind reels with images of himself and Natasha through all of their lives: them cutting their palms together, Bucky and Natasha hugging under the full Hunter’s Moon, Bucky helping Natasha move into her own place, the first road trip they ever took together, their high school graduation, All Hallow’s Eve when they first jumped off the roof and flew, eating cake by the window the first night Natasha arrived at the Owens house.

At the end of it, there is the flash of a woman Bucky doesn’t recognize but knows deep in his soul. Maria Owens tips her head up towards the sun and closes her eyes as a small and peaceful smile rests upon her face. The memory shatters, just as the curse that holds their family hostage breaks under the strength of the love the last Owens siblings feel for each other.

Bucky and Natasha are slammed back into reality with a gasp, hands still clutching one another. They turn to the circle just in time to see Rumlow let out a shrill scream and start turning into dust.

“Time to clean the house, everyone!” Aunt Peggy tells them, the first one to break the circle, grab her broom, and start sweeping.

Bucky and Natasha stand up and take their own brooms from Steve and Sharon. Bucky laughs when he takes a first swipe at the remains of Rumlow’s spirit, loving as the dust rises up and flows out of their house. Natasha is right behind him, smiling as wide as she ever has before, practically skipping through the living room as she moves her broom.

There are loud rings of laughter from Aunt Peggy, calls of good riddance from Aunt Angie and Sam. T’Challa hums a song under his breath and Wanda dances around her broom as they sweep Rumlow away. Gabe and Morita whistle and jostle each other and stomp their feet to disturb the dust, while Clint picks up a portable vacuum from somewhere and Lucky barks at it when Clint turns it on.

Steve and Sharon trail behind, holding up the cauldron until all of them find themselves standing by the side of Rumlow’s grave. The petunias are whittled and turning black, signifying that death has come again and left once and for all.

Bucky and Natasha take the cauldron, sure hands on either side of it, and step right over Rumlow’s grave.

“Ready?” Bucky asks with an elated grin.

Natasha grins back. “Always.”

Together, they tip the rotten smelling potion over the spot their nightmare is buried, cheering and laughing and bouncing their legs when they see the turned over dirt from the grave sinks down three inches. The dirt makes an ugly squelching sound as it settles again, just as it was before, dragging Rumlow back to where he’s supposed to be.

Away from this world. Away from Bucky.

Dead and gone.

 

**

 

The first rays of sunshine on a new day break over the cliff and find Steve and Bucky sitting on the edge of Bucky’s bed, leaning against each other, and finally able to breath easy for the first time in a week. The sweet scent of pumpkin seed and cinnamon makes its way through the air from downstairs and through the open door, which lets in not only this mouth-watering smell but also the sound of cheerful voices and laughter.

None of them have gone home. None of them have gone to bed. Adrenaline still makes them all giddy and magic makes them all drunk. After getting rid of Rumlow during the night, celebrating with autumn food and drinks in the wee hours of the morning seems about right.

Bucky drains his hot chocolate, made by Aunt Angie herself, and sighs at the soothing comfort it brings him. “I think I could sleep for a hundred years.”

“Please don’t,” Steve murmurs, and then makes a tiny sound of complaint when Bucky leans away from him to set his empty mug on his nightstand.

“C’mon.” Bucky tugs at Steve until they’re both lying down on the bed, right under his handmade dark blue quilt, feeling tired and worn but too awake to fall asleep. “You were brave today,” Bucky whispers, tracing a finger down the line of Steve’s jaw and under his bottom lip.

“You were braver,” Steve argues, tilting his head so he can drop a kiss on Bucky’s palm, right over his bandaged scar. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’m not really sure I do now.”

Bucky snorts and snuggles closer until their foreheads press together. “I’d be kind of suspicious if you ever did believe this stuff as easy as that.”

“Still, that sure was something,” Steve sighs.

“Understatement of the year,” Bucky replies. “Are you okay with everything?”

Steve nods, the tip of his nose brushing against Bucky’s. “Are you?”

Bucky swallows and takes stock of himself. His palm stings, the scratch on his face itches, and every muscle in his body aches. Yet there’s a lightness to him that wasn’t there before. There is no ghost haunting his dreams, no secrets to keep, no more curse that will leave him to die of a broken heart.

“I am,” Bucky admits, a little surprised at how truthful that statement feels. His lips curl up in a smile despite himself and a small giggle escapes. “I’m really okay.”

Steve smiles back at him, slow and then with full force, making his eyes crinkle at the corners. He doesn’t say anything, but when he leans in and captures Bucky’s lips in a kiss, neither of them need any words. Bucky flicks a finger in the air, and the bedroom door quietly snaps shut.

They trade slow and soft kisses, deep kisses, heady kisses. It is the most natural thing in the world for them to rid themselves of their clothes, for Bucky to press Steve back into the mattress and climb of top of him, for them to move together in a slow and languid pace as pleasure builds up between them.

Bucky gasps at the hot touch of Steve’s hand around him, Steve’s mouth on his neck, urging him on and bringing him closer and closer to the edge. Only Bucky won’t fall alone. He grasps Steve with a firm hand while he braces himself on the bed with his forearm, long hair coming loose from its ponytail and falling like a curtain around them. Steve grins at him, mouth red and swollen from kissing, and then tangles his free hand through Bucky’s hair and pulls him in for a scorching kiss that lasts until they both spill over each other’s hands.

After they’ve cleaned themselves up with Steve’s discarded undershirt, they lay side by side on the bed, curled up close and warm. Bucky has his head on Steve’s shoulder while his palm rests right over Steve’s heart, feeling the sure beat of it under his hand. Steve plays and twirls and tugs at strands of Bucky’s hair, sometimes tilting his head down to place a kiss to Bucky’s forehead, while his free hand wraps itself around Bucky’s wrist.

“What’s going to happen now?” Bucky asks, tucking his nose against Steve’s neck and breathing in the smell of him.

“I need to go back to Brookland,” Steve answers in a low and rumbling voice. “Close the case. But considering I helped you exorcise Rumlow’s spirit out of your house, I’m pretty confident when I say Rumlow’s cause of death is going to be ruled as accidental.”

Bucky’s breath catches at that. “You don’t have to lie for me,” he says, kissing Steve’s pulse point once before he lifts his head up so he can stare down at Steve. “I’m willing to face the consequences of my actions. I killed him. I did that. No one else.”

Steve smiles at him, a small little thing that makes Bucky’s stomach flip. “I think you’ve already been punished enough,” he murmurs, thumb moving down to trace the scratch on Bucky’s cheek. “This is the right thing to do.”

Bucky’s heart clenches, and his voice shakes slightly when he says, “I thought following the law was the right thing to do.”

Steve’s smile turns into a grin. “Not always.”

Bucky huffs out a laugh and kisses Steve’s grin right off his face. “When do you leave?” he whispers, already dreading having to say goodbye.

“I thought I’d hang around for Halloween,” Steve says like it’s nothing, and then leans up to smack a kiss to Bucky’s slack mouth. “I heard it’s a real treat.”

 

**

 

All Hallow’s Eve day starts bright and sweet.

Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie help Bucky and Natasha carve the new pumpkins they bought from Thor the day before, arranging them in perfect harmony around the house path and the porch. Fake spiderwebs find themselves wrapped around the railings, plastic bats are glued to their window sills, and a huge cauldron filled with candy rests right beside their new front door.

The winds of change blow through the small town of Solitude, sweeping away most bitter thoughts and replacing it with curious energy and excitement. People wave at Bucky and Natasha as they decorate the display at Healthstone, stopping by for bath oils and salve and promises they will be at the old Owens house to watch tonight’s show.

“If I knew exorcising the house was all we needed to do to get people to like us, I would’ve killed someone twenty years ago,” Natasha muses aloud, and then ducks right when Bucky throws a fake spider at her. “What? It’s true.”

“You’re impossible,” Bucky huffs, although he can’t deny how nice it feels not to have insults and rocks thrown at him today.

This excitement spreads through town and lasts throughout the day, bringing old and new and suspicious faces to the shop’s door. Gabe and Morita handle the people who are only there to take a glimpse at Bucky, while Natasha talks everyone else out of their money. Business has never been better and Bucky sure hopes this new change will stick.

“I’ll see you both tonight?” Bucky asks as he closes down the shop, glancing at Gabe and Morita over his shoulder.

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Gabe clasps him on the shoulder. “It’ll be fun to see you guys fly again.”

“I’m only going for the candy,” Morita jokes, and bumps Bucky with his elbow. “We already went through the bad stuff with you. Now it’s time for some fun.”

The house is lit up and cozy when Bucky arrives. He can hear the Aunts pattering around in the kitchen and laughing, along with the familiar sound of voices sharing a conversation which Bucky finds himself following with a smile on his face.

Natasha waves at him from her seat by the kitchen table, one glass of cider in hand and Sharon sitting on her lap. Sharon turns her head to see what Natasha is waving at, and flashes Bucky a welcoming smile when he comes to kiss both of their cheeks. Aunt Peggy and Angie both get hugs and forehead kisses before he leaves them alone with whatever it is they’re brewing on the stove.

“Don’t I get a kiss?” Steve asks from his place leaning against the counter, voice tentative in a way that hasn’t ever been. His cheeks are a little flushed, like he didn’t mean to say that in front of the Aunts and the others, but his dark eyes never leave Bucky’s face.

Bucky raises an eyebrow at him and crowds Steve against the counter, who flushes even deeper but stands his ground. With deliberate slowness, Bucky leans in, and then smacks a loud and wet kiss to the tip of Steve’s nose. Steve scrunches up his face and laughs, off guard and a little breathless, and pokes Bucky in the stomach.

Bucky yelps and bats his hand away. “I will fight you.”

“No foreplay in the kitchen,” Aunt Angie pipes up without even glancing at them.

Bucky sputters as blood rushes to his cheeks. Natasha and Sharon only snicker, like they aren’t the ones cozied up against each other and kissing whenever no one’s looking.

“Well,” Bucky blows a breath through his teeth, “bye then.”

Natasha laughs when Bucky grabs Steve’s hand and drags an embarrassed and flushed Steve out of the kitchen. The laughter follows them up the stairs until they reach Bucky’s room, and then quiet and comforting silence greets them after Bucky closes the door.

“That was…” Steve trails off, cheeks pink and so pretty Bucky kind of wants to bite him.

“Sorry,” Bucky grimaces instead. “That’s kind of how they are.”

“It’s okay.” Steve steps closer and wraps his arms around Bucky’s waist, pulling him close. “I might as well get used to it.”

Bucky stills in Steve’s arms just as his heart speeds up a notch. “Get used to it?”

Steve smiles, a little awkward and unsure, like he’s not certain his words will be welcomed. “I spoke to my boss.”

“Oh?”

“Fury said I have to go back and close the case, but he doesn’t see why I wouldn’t be able to stay in Solitude. Permanently.”

“Stay?” Bucky whispers, hope tugging inside his chest.

“Rumor has it Chief Phillips wants to retire,” Steve explains, pausing to worry once at his bottom lip. “So I was wondering… when I go back to Brookland, should I start packing my bags?”

Bucky blinks at him once and then says, in a very well-mannered tone, “That sounds like a wise career move.”

Bucky,” Steve groans, and then grunts when Bucky throws himself at him.

Yes,” Bucky says, voice muffled by the kisses he’s trying to press all over Steve’s face. “Yes, please. Stay. Stay here with me.”

Steve laughs, loud and bright and until his body shakes. “So you’ll have me?” he asks between kisses.

“I’m having you and I’m keeping you,” Bucky promises, sealing it with a kiss to Steve’s lips. “For as long as you want to stay.”

“That might be for a really long time,” Steve murmurs against Bucky’s mouth.

“The curse is broken,” Bucky says with a trembling voice so filled with happiness he thinks he might burst. “We have all the time in the world.”

 

**

 

Bucky wiggles his toes inside his shoes and adjusts his red and white striped tights around his ankles, tucking his long hair behind his hear when the loose strands fall forward. The tights peek out from under his black shorts, matching the ones Aunt Peggy and Natasha wear under their black dresses, pointing them out as the witches that run free this All Hallow’s Eve.

“Good luck,” Aunt Angie whispers to each and every one of them before joining Steve and Sharon outside of the house.

There is a crowd already forming, standing on the yard between the lit up pumpkins, a mixture of faces both known and unknown to them all. Expectations rise in the air as the promise of real magic lights up everyone’s hearts and spills over in giddy laughter and hushed whispers.

Bucky knows Steve is out there, along with Sharon, Gabe, and Morita. Sam and T’Challa promised to show up, and Bucky knows this means Shuri will be tagging along. Wanda has her own celebrations to attend to, but they start at midnight, so that leaves enough time for her to stop by. Even Clint has decided to stay on for All Hallow’s Eve, with Lucky by his side.

“Are you ready?” Aunt Peggy asks after they each grab an umbrella and adjust their long pointy hats.

“Are you?” Natasha throws back with a blinding smile.

It matches the ones of each and every person standing down on their yard, looking up at the house, when they clap and wave as Bucky, Natasha, and Aunt Peggy come to a stand on the edge of the roof. Bucky grins down at everyone until he finds Steve’s face in the crowd, and then laughs when he sees the matching hat Steve has on his head. Steve beams back and tips the brim of his very own witch’s hat.

Aunt Peggy, Natasha, and Bucky all exchange a glance, feeling the nervous energy and light magic that courses through their veins and sends sparks down their spines. They open their umbrellas and raise them above their heads.

“Last one to touch the ground gets the holiday dishes!” Aunt Peggy teases, and then jumps off the roof.

In between bursts of laughter, Bucky and Natasha take each other’s hands, and then jump right after her.

It is a free fall, but a peaceful one, with the breeze touching their cheeks and the moonlight kissing their skins. They float, with their open umbrellas above them and their magic around them, down until their feet touch the ground with a poof of white smoke and they meet the beaming faces and loud applause from the crowd.

Bucky laughs again, loud and as free as he’s ever been, and drops his umbrella to the ground. Steve is there to catch him when Bucky runs up to him, cheeks flushed with excitement and heart racing with joy, and they come together in a sweet and happy kiss. Around them, Natasha finds herself being spun around by Sharon, while Aunt Peggy and Aunt Angie give candy to the kids.

“That was amazing.” Steve laughs, kissing Bucky again. “You’re amazing.”

Bucky grins so wide his cheeks hurt. “Nice hat.”

Steve winks at him. “Thought I’d show my support for the family.”

“Fuck, but I love you,” Bucky finds himself blurting out, only for his eyes widen and his mouth drop open in surprise at himself.

Steve doesn’t seem bothered. In fact, his expression softens, eyes glinting with the spots of light from the pumpkins. “I love you too,” he murmurs, and the truth of it burns so bright between them that Bucky has to kiss him again and again and again.

 

**

 

Bucky is thirty-three years old when the Owens curse breaks and he finds the love of his life.

He doesn’t know why the curse wasn’t strong enough to handle him and Natasha, but every time he touches the scar on his palm and sees Natasha’s red hair flickering in the wind while she and Sharon walk ahead of him through town, he can’t help but be glad it wasn’t. He doesn’t have Maria Owens to thank for the death of his parents, but he does have her to thank for his power.

“That’s the last box,” Steve says as he drops it on the floor and then joins Bucky on their new couch.

Their new apartment covers the entire second floor of the building, with an open plane and big windows and a space for Bucky to do his witchy things, as Steve likes to say. The building is Bucky’s by right, attached to Healthstone, but he never wanted to make use of the apartment above the store until now. The Owens house will always have a place in Bucky’s heart, but this is his apartment with Steve. Their home.

“Guess we’re officially moved in together,” Bucky says, and then laughs when Steve tugs at his braid and pulls him in for a kiss.

Bucky doesn’t know what the future will bring, nor does he want to. He’s okay with only knowing that throwing salt over his left shoulder wards off bad spirits, that planting lavender on his garden brings him luck, and that loving with all of his heart is a kind of magic that should be felt by all.

Always.