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colors of the heart

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1

Prospect Park was Bucky's favorite place to jog, and although there was usually high attendance on sunny days, the park was big enough that he never felt crowded. He could crank up the volume on his headphones, block out his thoughts with hammering guitars, and follow the winding pathway that was more shade than sunshine. He loved the wide open space and the paved trails that felt as though they could take him to the ends of the earth. He loved the occasional spots of sunlight that beamed on him before he ducked underneath the long shadows of trees that lined the path. The park was his own personal oasis.

Running had become somewhat of a compulsion for Bucky, and, if you asked Steve, an obsession. Within the first two months of returning from Moscow, Bucky had already shed fifteen pounds. Steve had casually commented on these changes, as if dropping some kind of hint, but Bucky had chosen to take them as compliments. It wasn't as if he was going to stop; he'd gotten addicted to the blast of endorphins he felt while running, to the satisfaction of coming home with his sleeveless t-shirt dark with sweat and the stump of his left arm itching under his prosthetic.

He was jogging along the lake when a text message came in. He slowed to a stop and checked his phone: Will you come over for dinner tonight? We have a surprise. :)

The text was from Peggy, Steve's wife. Bucky was a regular guest of Steve and Peggy Rogers, dining at their home at least once a week.

Bucky wrote back that he'd be happy to come, and that he was curious what the surprise might be. He checked the time; he ought to cut his run short today.

#

Six o'clock found Bucky arriving at the Rogers' home. The house was nestled amongst quiet neighborhood streets, had rustic white-washed interiors, earth-toned furniture, along with wood and stone motifs to round out the modern farmhouse theme. Peggy greeted him at the front door after he knocked. Her hair hung in loose waves on either side of her face, and she wore a loose white blouse with a high-waisted skirt. "Bucky, I'm so glad you could come," she said, giving him a brief hug before ushering him inside. "Steve and I both."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Bucky told her.

"You only came for Peggy's macaroni salad," Steve joked, drawing him into a one-armed hug and giving Bucky a friendly slap on the back.

Bucky helped Peggy bring the food platters to the table. Tonight's dinner consisted of macaroni salad, green beans, and cheese-stuffed meatloaves. Once the dishes were spread across the table, everyone sat and served themselves with oversized spoons. Peggy and Bucky sat across from each other, and Steve sat at the head of the table, as though unwilling to choose between the two of them.

The dining room had floral wallpaper reminiscent of Grandma's house, cream wainscoting, and an Antoinette crystal chandelier. Bucky knew the decor was a marriage of both Peggy and Steve's tastes; Steve leaned toward retro, vintage styles, while Peggy preferred things a bit more modern.

"So what's this big surprise you two've been hyping up?" Bucky asked, chewing a forkful of green beans. They were long and thin and snapped between his teeth like wafers.

Steve and Peggy shared a mischievous look; Bucky wondered if they'd rehearsed this. "Well, why don't I just come out and tell you," Peggy said. A bright smile crossed her face. "I'm having a baby!"

This hit Bucky like a jolt, though it probably shouldn't have. Steve and Peggy had been wanting to have children for years, but they were never in a place where it was feasible; Steve's job as a police officer put him in too much danger, and the pay wouldn't have covered a child's expenses in addition to the mortgage Bucky assumed was through the roof, considering their neighborhood. Six months ago, Steve had been promoted to police lieutenant, and this position gave him a considerable amount of on-the-job safety. He spent most of his time as a law enforcement middle-manager and serving as an ambassador for the department at civic meetings, school functions, and various community efforts. The extra cushioning on his paycheck was definitely a plus.

"Oh, wow! Did you just find out today?" Bucky asked.

Peggy shook her head. "Wednesday evening. It took all I had to keep it a secret this long."

Steve chuckled. "If I had a nickel for every time I wanted to tell you," he said to Bucky.

Bucky said he was happy for them both. After a round of congratulations, Steve said, "Buck, there's something else."

"Don't keep me in suspense."

"We wanted to ask if you'd be the godfather."

"You gonna make me an offer I can't refuse?" Bucky said in his best Marlon Brando impersonation. Deflecting with humor: a Bucky Barnes specialty. "You guys really want me to do that? Me?" It struck him as an absurd notion; in the event something awful happened to Steve and Peggy, they wanted him to raise their child? Though he supposed it made sense, considering the couple's lack of better options; Steve's father ran off shortly after he was born, Steve's mother died of cancer, and Peggy's parents were getting too old to take care of a young child.

"You'd be a great parent," Steve said. "But no hard feelings if you don't want to."

Would Steve still believe that if he knew Bucky was a murderer? Shit, what would the kid think when they saw Bucky's metal left arm?

Bucky smiled and said, "I'd be honored."

He stayed for dessert (a scrumptious bowl of banana pudding), helped clear the table and clean up the kitchen, and chatted with the two of them until ten. Peggy thanked Bucky and gave him a kiss on the cheek as she led him to the door. Steve walked him out, slinging an arm around Bucky's shoulders. "About the godfather thing, you can always change your mind," Steve explained. "Being a single parent isn't easy. My mom showed me that."

"What makes you think I'll still be single when you and Peggy have your unfortunate accident?" Bucky asked with good humor.

Steve shrugged in aquiesce. "It could shake out that way, is all."

"Say that it does. Your bundle of joy will score me some points with the dating crowd. Single dads are hot right now."

Steve laughed, and they both paused upon reaching Bucky's Jeep parallel-parked at the curb. "I know we talked a lot about the baby tonight, but what about you? Are you good?"

"I'm awesome."

"Are you? Because we've never talked about Brock since you got back from—"

Bucky cut him off, shaking his head. "Whatever, man. Water under the bridge."

Steve gave Bucky a familiar scolding look. "Alright. Come talk to me when you decide not to be an idiot." He offered up a wry smile, and Bucky returned it. Their decades-long friendship had been made of moments like this, teasing that nudged but never pushed. It was one of the things Bucky loved most about Steve.

"You're the first on my list," Bucky said, but even then he wasn't sure.

They said their goodbyes, and Bucky made the drive home. His apartment building had that classic New York look, with a brick exterior and blocks of windows. Fire escapes hung like red licorice vines from the building's face. In his bedroom, he changed into a sleeveless t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed, waiting for sleep.

Sleep did not come. What came instead were replays of his own personal horrors, roused from their mental graves by Steve's offhand comment about Brock. Bucky's obsession with running stemmed from this intense repression, and, in some ways, Bucky felt as though he might be able to outrun Brock entirely, to shed those experiences and past life like a snakeskin.

Bucky had met Brock Rumlow six years ago at the Knotfest music festival in San Bernadino, California. A fan of rock and metal since his teenage years, Bucky had made a point of attending as many shows as his budget permitted; a three-day festival with over twenty bands was a must-see, even if it was on the other side of the country. "A nu-metal Woodstock," was how he'd explained it to Steve. Bucky and Brock had crossed paths in the mosh pit on Saturday during Anthrax's set. Conversation had been easy enough between songs, and when the night came to a close they'd headed to a nearby bar to keep the chemistry going, then back to Bucky's hotel room where Brock had fucked him into a delirious orgasm.

Looking back, his biggest mistake had been giving Brock his number after the festival. If Bucky had written off Brock as a one-weekend fling, he might have spared himself a great deal of misery. But the desperate part of Bucky latched on to the interest and attention Brock showed him, and this vulnerability served as a kind of radio signal detectable only by men like Brock Rumlow. The thing was, Brock had been okay at the start. He might have had a tendency to say shitty things he didn't mean (according to him, at least), but sometimes, for no reason at all, he would send Bucky little gifts "just because." Most of those trinkets were accessories relating to his favorite bands, movies, or video games. Granted, Brock only mailed these gifts after performing some kind of cruelty, but Bucky assumed that was his way of apologizing without going through the awkward business of saying the words.

Over the course of five years, their relationship had evolved steadily through phone conversations, Skype chats, and occasional weekend stays at Brock's apartment in Los Angeles. During one of these stays, they had left a trendy sushi restaurant, and after both of them had climbed into Brock's Hummer, Brock said, "Barnes?" (He was always 'James' or 'Barnes' with Brock, never 'Bucky.')

Bucky had been staring out the window, gazing at the neon signs that lit up the night. When he turned toward Brock, his head had suddenly slammed against the headrest of the passenger seat. The sound Brock's hand had made against Bucky's flesh was a sickening wet smack. Bucky's cheek and jaw throbbed, due in part to the class ring Brock wore on his right hand. "What the fuck?" He tasted thin drops of blood on his tongue.

"I saw the way you were flirting with that fucking bitch," Brock snarled. If pointing out the Game of Thrones button on their waitress's lanyard and chatting her up about the show constituted flirting, then Bucky supposed he was guilty as charged, at least where Brock was concerned.

"I was just being friendly," Bucky had said, his face still stinging from the blow.

"A little too friendly. Let's get one thing straight: a pretty girl like that would take one look at your arm and run the other way. Not me. You remember that, Barnes."

Bucky swallowed thickly. Speaking with enormous effort, he said, "I—I never asked to be like this."

"Yeah, well, we all play the hand we're dealt," Brock had said and started the car.

The turning point had come a year later. "Move in with me, Barnes," Brock had demanded over the phone. "I'm going to Moscow next month." Brock worked as an English teacher overseas; he'd been on summer break when he and Bucky met.

"As in Russia?"

"No, the local one."

Bucky ignored the jab; he was used to those by now. "That's—that's a long way from home on such short notice. Can I have some time to think about it?"

"What's to think about? You're not screwing around on me, are you?" Brock said in that high-tension charge of a growl. Bucky had denied the accusation, and Brock uttered a nasty laugh. "I'm just yanking you. Of course you're not. No one's lining up to date amputees, especially not your boy Steve." It had been a mistake to tell Brock about his silly crush on Steve, Bucky knew that much already. "So what's keeping you here?"

"My job?" Bucky said, his voice lilting up at the end and turning his answer into a question. But Brock knew Bucky's cybersecurity background would travel quite well.

"If that's how you want to play it, fine. Take a walk. I won't stop you. But if you do, I'm gone. I won't waste my time with somebody who's too stupid to know a good thing when he sees it."

The anger Bucky felt at being berated did not preclude the love he felt for Brock—or at least what he believed to be love. Because Brock had chosen him, for reasons unknown to Bucky. Brock shared his tastes in music (Steve would never understand the appeal of shredding guitars and screaming vocals), and above all Brock did not pity Bucky for his physical disability. On the contrary, Brock occasionally took verbal jabs at Bucky's amputee status, as though it was a comfortable topic between them. It hadn't been, but Brock's remarks only solidified what Bucky, in his weakest moments, feared to be true: that he was a freak, and he was lucky to have someone like Brock who looked past his flaws.

Bucky turned onto his side, listening to the mattress creak and shift as he did. His brain couldn't let go of the nasty spiral his thoughts had become, and his heart raced just thinking about the way Brock's class ring glinted in the light just before making contact with Bucky's face. But he knew he couldn't spend the rest of his life running through Prospect Park when his mental dam sprung a leak and intrusive thoughts came pouring through. And (tonight, at least) he couldn't guzzle the bottle of whiskey that sat on top of the fridge; he hated waking up with hangovers, and the older he got the less he could tolerate them.

He needed to not think about Brock or his arm or the baby or his potential fatherhood. He needed to not think about anything.

Bucky slid out of bed and pulled on a pair of jeans, threw on a hoodie over his t-shirt. He stepped into a pair of sneakers and drove to the nearest multiplex. The Nitehawk was closest, a place Bucky had visited hundreds of times since returning to Brooklyn, and it was small enough that he wouldn't feel overwhelmed by a huge crowd. He bought a ticket for a shitty sci-fi flick that had been showing for almost a month. It was, as he hoped, a sparse house; there was one other person inside the small theater room, though he was sitting in Bucky's favorite spot: the middle seat in the back row. Bucky took the same seat in the row below and toyed with the vape pen in his hoodie pocket.

The lights dimmed, and the movie began. The film struck the perfect balance between awful and watchable, veering into "so bad it's good" territory. There were awful CGI aliens, laughable performances from the actors, and glaringly green-screened backgrounds. But it amused Bucky enough to distract him, and that was all right. About halfway through the movie, during the part where the main character's pet robot falls in love with one of the aliens, Bucky took a quick hit from his vape pen. Sweet strawberry vapor billowed from between his lips.

"We get it, you vape," said a voice from behind him.

Bucky had forgotten the guy was even there. "Sorry," he murmured. It was something he said without really thinking about it, a verbal tic acquired from his years with Brock, the way a species of lizard might develop camouflage to survive its predators.

"I'm just messing with you. Smoke 'em if you got 'em."

Bucky looked over his shoulder at the man. He had a kind smile, the type that reached his eyes. It reminded Bucky of Steve. "You know this movie sucks, right?"

The guy laughed a warm, sweet sound. "That's half the fun." He kicked up his feet on the back of the seat beside Bucky. "What brings you to a late-night bad movie?"

This sort of rumination was just what Bucky had come to the cinema to avoid. He tried to dodge the question by saying, "You're gonna miss the best part," and turning toward the screen.

"According to who? Spoiler: the robot and alien have weird, psychedelic sex."

Bucky made a face and turned back to the man. "How do you know that?"

"I may have seen this movie a couple times."

"People like you are the reason they keep making these things."

"Alright, Roger Ebert, what kind of movies do you like?"

"Any answer I give would probably make you think I'm a serial killer." Bucky chuckled, as to not actually seem like a serial killer, though that's probably what a killer would do in this situation.

"You mean horror movies? Nothin' wrong with that. People like you are the reason they keep making 'em. I'm not up to date on most of the newer ones, but I can kick back and watch Candyman when the mood strikes."

Bucky preferred this guy's company to the piss-poor movie. He vaulted over his seat and took the empty one beside the stranger. "I like the Hellraiser movies—even the bad sequels can be entertaining—anything Cronenberg has a hand in, Jacob's Ladder, Event Horizon… I want something that will stick in my head and unsettle me for a long time." There might be another common thread regarding the body as a locus of fear, but that was a subject better suited to a therapist. "I also really like the stuff Rob Zombie's directed," Bucky continued. "I know most of them aren't objectively good movies, but they have a feel, y'know? I want a film to suck me in and make me feel like I've lived it right alongside the characters."

"Let me guess: you're a film student?"

"Believe it or not, no. I got my degree in computer network security and forensics. I did take a film appreciation class for one of my electives, but that's as far as it goes."

"You had me fooled." The stranger extended his hand and introduced himself as Sam Wilson, then they weren't strangers anymore.

"James Barnes. But my friends call me Bucky." Flirt alert, Bucky thought, and if Steve were here he certainly would have said it. In the dark, lit only by the flicker of the movie screen, Sam's face had attractive curves and angles. It was a face Bucky knew would be dazzling when they stepped into the light.

"Nice to meet you, Bucky."

"Likewise. So why are you here at a late-night bad movie?"

Sam's smile was melancholic, as though he was looking at something only he could see. "Keeping a tradition, I guess you'd say."

They sat together in the dark. Occasionally Sam would comment on the film, and Bucky would laugh, then Sam would start laughing too. Bucky took a few hits off his vape pen, and Sam sipped at his soda. It felt, Bucky realized, like a date—a proper date—the kind that didn't end with the imprint of a class ring stamped onto his skin like a hellish tattoo.

Bucky stretched his legs and yawned as the credits rolled. "Double feature?" he asked, looking over at Sam.

"Can I take a rain-check? I'm beat."

"Yeah, me too." It seemed as though Bucky had just asked for and earned a date with Sam through no direct intentions of his own. If he had thought about it, he probably would have fucked it up.

They exited the theater, and Sam dumped his empty cup into the nearby trash bin. It took Bucky's eyes a moment to adjust to the bright lights of the cinema, but his intuition about Sam was right on the money: Sam was handsome in a casual, easy-going way, the kind of guy you could easily imagine throwing back a few beers with during a football game. The small gap between his two front teeth served as an anchor point for the rest of his good looks; it grounded him somehow, made him seem more real.

Sam dug into the back pocket of his dark jeans. He took out his wallet and removed a business card. "If you ever wanna cash in that rain-check, give me a call."

Bucky took the card and saw Sam's name, cell phone number, and the address of a nearby church printed across the front.

"I offer counseling services at St. Joseph's," Sam said by way of explanation. "Art therapy for veterans with PTSD."

"Good deal. I could've used some of that after I got home from Iraq."

"Door's always open. Or we can just catch a movie instead. Your call." Sam said his goodbyes and headed through the exit. Bucky stood there for a moment and wondered if this was the beginning of some small, sweet dream.