Mercury Saga, Part I: Distorted
The patrons of the Smithsonian wandered in and out of the seemingly endless exhibits, exploring the grand displays of science and history with great interest. In the wake of the near-decimation of SHIELD headquarters, many flocked towards one exhibit in particular: the life and times of Captain America. Hero of World War II; member of the Avengers team; the ultimate underdog who fought to change the world for the greater good. Some came because they were driven by fear. SHIELD, which sought to protect Earth from a myriad of global and other-worldly threats, had been brutally compromised. Captain Rogers had been a part of the organization. Since the destruction of the Helicarriers, the general public had been made aware of his survival, but his current whereabouts were very much unknown. He was gone. And for all the previously undisclosed information on SHIELD and HYDRA now available online to anyone eager enough to pursue it, there was no updated information on him.
What was going to happen without either of them?
But there were also those who came for different reasons—brighter reasons. They came to take solace in the life the man had led. To walk his timeline as Rogers went from sickly youth to super-soldier extraordinaire, to understand the person he was and what drove him to continue the work he'd started so many years ago. Most of all, they came to renew a sense of hope within their hearts. Hope that the man they'd come to admire and respect would return to them, and once again give them a reason to believe in heroes.
The great Captain was not alone in being honored within this hall. The exhibit also recognized members of his former squad, the Howling Commandos: Jim Morita. Dum Dum Dugan. Jacques Dernier, to name a few. Others who fought valiantly beside him as they took on the Nazi party, as well as the poisonous factions of HYDRA seeking world domination. These images were countered by digital footage of the present-day Chitauri invasion of New York, showing Rogers once again in his element in modern times: protecting those threatened by a destructive force hell-bent on world annihilation. With all that was presented, it was clear that this was not only about one man, but the accomplishments made by teams working towards a common cause. It was how Captain America operated.
With all there was to see and learn about the Captain's life, little heed was paid to one individual who stood alone, appearing as nothing more than another tourist in his jacket and baseball cap. One who did not hurry around to read all the histories, or hustle into the viewing room to watch short film clips, or discuss interesting facts with others. No; he simply stood as all kinds of activity went on around him, staring intently at the display that had become his focal point during his past two visits to the museum. The memorial to the only fallen member of Rogers' team during World War II.
Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.
He released a slow, quiet breath. The Winter Soldier had been standing there for the better part of an hour in complete silence. He'd memorized the paragraph summarizing Barnes' life and accomplishments verbatim. There were descriptors such as war hero. Decorated fighter. Best friend of Captain Rogers himself. A life that sounded nothing like the one he now led…whatever that life really was.
A short metal barrier surrounded the memorial as protection from the public, which also enclosed a table containing some of Barnes' personal effects—a uniform, helmet, boots, books, even a leather journal—anything that had been salvaged from the Army following his death. It was the biography, however, that he continued to concentrate on. Beside the summary, his eyes bore once again into the image of Bucky Barnes. The clean-shaven, handsome young man gazing out at the world with a sense of pride radiating from his eyes. Nothing like the dark man staring at it, denying that what he was possibly seeing was a portrait of himself.
And yet it was him. It was him…
You're my friend!
He was my mission…
Then finish it.
'Cause I'm with you 'till the end of the line.
But I know him…
He gave a slight jerk of the head, eyes snapping shut. Fragments of memory continued to surface now and then, memories that now remained in his conscious mind instead of vanishing. His breaths quickened as he tried to cope with what emerged.
The memories that did come…they weren't full-fledged flashbacks, but vivid glimpses that were enough to send his heart and mind reeling in confusion. When he'd calmed, he opened his eyes and met Barnes' picture again. It was true. Everything his mission had said to him—that Steve had said to him—was true. The fact that they'd been friends, had fought through many a battle side-by-side, had promised to be there for one another no matter what.
'Till the end of the line…
All of it was true. He was looking directly at the proof supporting those claims.
Bucky, he thought. I am Bucky Barnes. Part of him knew how right that sounded, but at the same time, he couldn't accept it.
No, that can't be right. You're not that man.
But I am. I am Bucky Barnes. I am a man who fought for good. I am…
His jaw clenched. Strange. He assumed seeing a picture of himself would bring a degree of clarity to his broken mind. Unfortunately, he felt more conflicted than ever. Why? Why was it happening this way? If he'd been back with the scientists of HYDRA, they would have taken care of the problem by simply…
His head jerked again. By simply erasing his memory. HYDRA, he thought darkly. Barnes' summary said he'd fought against the organization during the war, but the Winter Soldier was working for them. And by working for HYDRA, that made SHIELD and any of its associates his enemy.
But Steve was part of SHIELD, and Steve was a friend. What did that mean?
Slowly, a few pieces seemed to come together. HYDRA had taken his mind from him, and left him as nothing more than an empty shell, one they could easily program to carry out their missions. Identify target; terminate. The mantra repeated itself whenever he was out for blood. No questions, no hesitation. His objective was to follow orders; nothing more. Faces he didn't recognize—young, old, men, women, terrified faces—broke through the confusion clouding his senses. Faces he'd killed, but he couldn't remember why they deserved to die. How many were there?
Identify target. Terminate.
Assassin, his mind hissed. It made sense. If he had no recollection of who he was, then the missions would succeed. Anger, which had started as a flame in his chest, was growing into a full-blown inferno of rage, his insides burning from its intensity. I should have died that day, he realized. I shouldn't even be here to see any of this! They'd brought him back, but were the actions he committed since then his own? Had he done them for the right reason? Or had he been working for his enemy this entire time?
Once again, his head jerked, this time hard enough to make him turn away. Bringing his right hand to his forehead, he tried to ease the pounding in his mind. He stepped away, trying to make it appear as though he was doing nothing more than dealing with a headache. HYDRA. HYDRA, the thought continuously echoed. He needed answers, and as far as he could determine, HYDRA had them. If it meant hunting them down one-by-one until he got them, so be it.
When he looked up again, he realized he'd walked over to a display in the adjacent corner. Greeting him was a life-size picture of Steve prior undergoing Erskine's serum and becoming the man he was today. He was so small. Something struck him deeply as he looked at that scrawny, pale young man, and for a moment, he wished a memory would arise. Damn it! Why couldn't he remember? He didn't care how much pain it would caused, so long as he understood why this meant something to him. It didn't help when he glanced at the monitor on the wall, which featured black-and-white footage of him and Steve laughing together during one of their mission briefings.
You're a punk.
His upper lip quivered, almost forming a sneer. If he came to learn that HYDRA had used him for malicious gain, then they would pay for what they'd done. To him and to the countless innocents he no doubt had assisted in slaughtering. One way or another, he'd make—
"Hey, Miss Proctor! Come here! I found it!" A child called clearly through the quiet of the hall, jarring him momentarily from thought.
"Shh, Sammy!" An older girl responded. "Inside voice, remember?"
"Oh yeah, sorry," his volume dropped, though he still was not exactly quiet. "But look: I found his name!"
It was not unusual for parents to bring their children to museums, and this was certainly a popular destination for many families. Of course, most children were eager to explore the Captain America exhibit, but for the most part, he chose to ignore them. Still, he became aware of the new group entering the hall: various children and their chaperones, all wearing matching t-shirts. Most likely a field trip of some sort.
"See? It's right here," that same child announced.
He gave a sideways glance and saw a young African American boy—Sammy—pointing to Barnes' memorial.
Soon after, the tall girl he'd summoned came over to him. "You did find him. Good eyes."
Their matching shirts identified them as part of the group of new arrivals. The conversations of others were of little concern to him, and so he turned his back on the pair, wanting nothing more than to be left alone to his thoughts.
But it was what Sammy said next that recaptured his attention. "You said you're related to him, right?"
He froze. Absolutely froze. What did he say?
"That I am," she asserted.
"What did you say he was? Your uncle?"
"Close; my great-uncle."
His eyes widened, stomach plummeting at her verification. Great-uncle? He thought wildly. She's related…to Barnes? Was this real, or was it a cruel hoax to further torment his troubled mind? Discreetly, he glanced over at them again.
"So, someone in your family fought with Captain America for real. Cool! That makes him, like, part of the original Avengers, or something."
She gave a laugh at his adolescent analysis. "I think he'd like that."
He looked up at her. "Sucks that you never got to meet him. That would've been really cool. I wish you could have." For being a child, he sounded very sincere.
She didn't answer right away, but her shoulders fell visibly as she sighed. "Yeah," she agreed quietly. "So do I."
Nostrils flared from the heavy breath he released, his mind recalling the last detail he'd read at the end of Barnes' memorial: At the time of his death, Sergeant Barnes was survived by Rebecca P. Proctor (sister), John L. Proctor (brother-in-law), and John L. Proctor, Jr (nephew).
Proctor. Sammy had clearly called her Miss Proctor. If Rebecca Proctor had had children of her own, then it was highly possible she had other descendents.
And that meant Barnes himself had other descendents. It was the absolute last thing he could have anticipated encountering.
He turned his head further to get a better view of Miss Proctor, who had a hand on Sammy's shoulder. Barnes'…niece. She appeared to be in her late teens, and her profile revealed a sweet face framed by blond hair. At first glance, she didn't seem to resemble Barnes very much. Then again, what did he know about his family? The backs of both their shirts read Iron Wings: A Division of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America. Underneath, the web link www. starkindustries-ironwings was advertised.
Stark. Why did that name ring a bell?
He continued his silent observation from a distance. While he did, there was something about her that caused him to take pause, his keen eyes narrowing. Beneath the cuffs of her capris, he realized her right leg was different from her left, and then it struck him. It was not made of flesh, but of titanium. He blinked, brow furrowing. A prosthetic leg. Beside her, Sammy's cargo shorts revealed that he, too, stood on titanium appendages. They were both amputees.
In fact, when he looked around at those wearing Iron Wings t-shirts, he saw other children with prosthetic legs, or artificial arms and hands, one child in a wheelchair, a few even navigating the exhibit on crutches. Some of the chaperones were in the similar conditions. This was an organization devoted to amputees and individuals with physical ailments. Hands tightened into fists in his pockets—one flesh, one metallic—as he caught himself wondering what circumstances had led this girl to requiring an artificial leg.
"Can we go see the uniforms now?" Sammy asked. "I want to see the Captain's old shield."
She glanced in that direction. "Blake and Mrs. Carson are over there. You go on ahead with them; I'll be there in a few minutes."
"'Kay," he hobbled off.
"Inside voice," she reminded him.
He waved in reply, unaware that he passed by the man from the memorial. The Winter Soldier watched him go. There was a definite stiffness in Sammy's steps as he walked away, but for one so young, he quite moved deftly on those titanium limbs.
When he returned his attention to the girl, his brows knit at what he saw. Clearly ignoring the PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH sign, she reached over the metal barrier, placed something inside the journal, then carefully closed it, fingers lingering on the leather binding a moment longer. She didn't even bother to glance around to see if she'd been caught in the act. Instead, she clasped her hands before her, standing before the memorial in an almost reverent manner.
Curiosity prickled in his mind. It wasn't just because of what she'd left there, but also her body language as she completed the task. Everything she did was done with great care. Almost affectionately. Respect for her roots, perhaps? Nevertheless, he found himself intrigued by her mannerisms.
Barnes' niece. Great-niece, to be exact. Barnes'—my great-niece, the thought forced its way through. I have…family.
No, part of him countered severely. Nyet! You don't have family! You're not supposed to have anyone! You are the Winter Soldier. You have no one. You do not feel; you do not think; you follow orders. You are your duty and nothing more. Concern for others will only serve to jeopardize the mission, and failure is not an option. You don't deserve anyone! You don't deserve her…!
His body began to tremble uncontrollably, and he fought to get a hold of his emotions before himself mad. Clenching and unclenching his fists, he let the thoughts run their course, taking careful, controlled breaths as he attempted to calm the storm churning in his consciousness.
What lasted mere seconds felt like it had aged him years. He released a shuddering breath as an argument arose to challenge his doubts. Everything Steve said was true, he repeated his earlier thought. The reason I came here was to confirm that, and I have. I may have to accept this as truth as well, that this relative of Barnes'…is my relative. I have family out there, he conceded, and she's standing twenty feet away. The quaking of his body ceased, his breathing returning to normal as he let his mind settle.
But another worry plagued him, and that was the notion of how she would perceive Barnes in present time. Could she accept the news that he'd never physically died back in 1944? What if she learned truths about him that she couldn't accept? What if she learned things about him that he couldn't accept? Despite his stoic demeanor, he became ill at the thought. Really ill. Not a good sign. That's when he decided it was time to leave this place and leave his questions about her behind. He had a new mission to begin. His own mission. There was too much he didn't know about himself and so much he needed to find out. As such, he wasn't comfortable disclosing his existence to others, let alone the long-lost niece Barnes had never met. For his own sake, he had to become invisible once again. Not like this, he thought, I can't be seen like this—
She turned from the memorial and bumped into his shoulder with a sound of surprise. He was equally startled; in his contemplative state, he didn't even realize he'd been walking in her direction. Thankfully, she'd collided with him on his right side, saving her the shock of detecting the harsh bionic appendage under his sleeve.
"Excuse me," she gave an embarrassed smile, briefly setting an apologetic hand on his arm.
On instinct, he would have grabbed the offender's arm and broken it instantly, but that's not what happened. Instead, he completely stiffened at her touch, and all thoughts in his head came to an abrupt halt. Bowing his head to conceal his features, he willed her not to see.
And yet, as she did pass, a deep-rooted despair seized him when he realized this might be the last time he ever saw Barnes' niece. He had his own agenda to fulfill, but…
Logic played no part in it when he suddenly blurted out over his shoulder, "Sergeant Barnes." He hated the way his voice shook.
Somehow, she realized he was speaking to her, and it was enough to make her pause and turn back to him.
He kept in her in his peripheral vision, never fully disclosing his face to her. "He was a relative of yours?" He hesitated a moment, then covered the purpose of his inquiry with, "I happened to overhear your conversation."
She gave a slight tilt of her head. "Yes," she replied with a questioning inflection.
He swallowed hard. "He sounds like he was a good man." I'm just not sure what I am, he thought. "You must be proud of him."
She was quiet for a moment, remaining guarded. Then, "I am."
He blinked. Her answers were succinct, but what struck him was the absolute certainty behind the words. He wasn't sure what possessed him, and in spite of the screams of protest in his head, he found himself turning to her and, beneath the shadow of the baseball cap, looked her directly in the eyes. Out of habit, his sharp eyes instantly memorized her features, securing her appearance in his mind. It was the first time he'd gotten a full-on view of her face, which turned out to be just as sweet as her profile. He also realized she had green eyes.
He held his breath, waiting for his head to jerk at the memory, but to his immense relief, it didn't. There was calm as he looked at her. He didn't understand why, but his breathing relaxed, his body stopped trembling. Don't question it, he commanded himself, clinging desperately to the temporary reprieve from chaotic thoughts.
A combination of curiosity and caution were mixed in her eyes as she regarded him, the stranger he was to her. She was right to be cautious, which he immediately deemed as intelligent. With his disheveled long hair and unshaven face, he knew his visage was a stark contrast to the image of Barnes behind him.
He finally gathered the strength to say, "I agree with the boy; I wish he'd had a chance to meet you."
She seemed momentarily taken aback, but the uncertainty in her face was soon replaced with a profound sense of what he could only describe as gratitude. "Thank you."
What possessed him, he had no idea, but the next words out of his mouth just happened. "Just one question: if you could have met him and had the chance to tell him one thing, what would you say?"
Her eyebrows rose slightly, and he squeezed his jaws together. Perhaps it was too personal a query, and he half-expected her to walk away, insulted. That didn't happen. Though her face remained neutral, her eyes shimmered with a deeply buried sadness as she considered his question. It almost looked as though she might shed a tear. Then she turned back to the memorial, and it was as though she was speaking directly to Barnes' image when she said, "That he's my hero."
Without fail, it struck him again. The conviction in her voice…the Winter Soldier could not begin to describe what it evoked. Sorrow? Heartache? More confusion? This girl had never known Barnes, but her unwavering remembrance of the man he'd been evidently gave her strength. He was truly astounded by it.
She honored Barnes for being her hero.
She honors me.
He sucked in a quick breath, horrified by the thought. If her great-uncle is alive, what if he is no longer the good man she honors in this building? What if he'd become the living embodiment of her worst nightmares? What if…I really am that man? She could not know; he could not ever let her know.
"Hey, Miss Proctor, come over here! You've got to see this!"
She gave a start at Sammy's yell. "Inside voice," she called over to him.
Patiently, she shook her head with a smile, looking at the Winter Soldier one more time. "I'm sorry; I have to go."
And with that, she turned and headed for the uniform display, never looking back in his direction. As she walked away, her gait was smooth with her prosthesis, save for the barest trace of a limp favoring her left leg. He remained there, watching her as she reunited with the boy, and until they disappeared into the viewing room with other members of their troupe. He'd never gotten the chance to find out her first name.
Come back, his mind whispered. Come back.
Though he maintained a firm grasp on his stony expression, heavy breaths passed in and out of his nose, growing heavier as he desperately sought to survive the swell of emotions hitting him like a tidal wave. Emotions akin to dealing with loss. Again. And that feeling of illness was returning, his hands clenching hard into fists again as he turned back to the long-ago image of Barnes. Of himself. Heat slowly crept up from his chest and into his face, and he knew there was no stopping it. His vision shaking, he glanced down at the table of effects, eyeing the leather-bound journal with JBB etched into the upper-right hand corner.
Ten minutes later, the Winter Soldier had vanished from the Smithsonian without incident. Some of the more-observant patrons passed by Barnes' memorial afterwards, looking questioningly at the journal and seeing that the cover had been left open.
How did he even get here? He didn't care. He was still shaking, but tried to force himself to calm down as he breathed in, breathed out. Breathed in. Breathed out. Over and over again. Delicate pink petals of cherry blossom trees lined the winding sidewalk, but he hardly noticed them or the fragrant air they created. His eyes were hard as he stared out at the Potomac River, lost once again to his thoughts. This was a stupid idea. He should have exited the girl's life and never looked inside that journal. Disappeared forever. Remained the ghost he'd always been to her.
He looked at the item squeezed in his bionic hand: an envelope addressed to Sgt. James Barnes. Though his face showed nothing, guilt gnawed at his heart. In snatching this from the memorial—which the girl no doubt believed would go unseen by others—he'd interrupted a very private moment between this girl and her uncle. So then why had he done it?
Because I need to know her, part of him insisted.
He wasn't sure if he agreed with that, but hardly stopped himself from tearing open the wrinkled envelope, removing the multi-page letter contained inside. Taking a slow breath, he proceeded to read her message to Barnes.
Dear Uncle Bucky,
I'm not sure what's compelling me to write to you, but I feel it's something I need to do. Grandma used to tell me so many stories about you when I was a kid, and in a way, it's as though you've always been watching over me. That being said, the very least I can do is tell you this directly.
I know you must be horribly disappointed with some of the things I've done, and I would hardly blame you if you never forgive me for them. You know exactly what I'm referring to: the fact that I tried to kill myself when I was fourteen. Looking back, I realize how insanely stupid that was, but so many things were haunting me back then that I didn't know how to handle it all. Scotty died when I was twelve; Mom always told me he looked up to me, and as annoying as it was having him follow me around, I loved him so much. There's something tremendously unfair about out-living my baby brother. Fast-forward two years later to the car crash that killed my parents and caused me to lose my leg. My entire family gone in the span of three years. My life forever changed, both emotionally and physically. All of this hitting me at once was unbearable, and I don't have the proper words to describe how grief-stricken I was. To this day, the pain is not entirely gone.
Being sent to live with Aunt Laura didn't make things any easier, since reconstructive surgeries kept me confined to a wheelchair when I wasn't doing long bouts of physical therapy. I probably didn't understand at the time, but I know now that I was suffering from a broken heart. I wasn't just sad over Mom and Dad dying. I was also angry. Angry that that drunk driver lived while my parents had to die. Angry that I couldn't even walk to the kitchen to get myself a glass of water. But there was even more that I was feeling: I was frustrated. And afraid. And utterly hopeless. Everything was just piling up inside my heart, and I one night I decided to end the pain by slitting my wrists. Aunt Laura managed to rush me to the hospital, and it was after that that Grandma Proctor decided I was coming to live with her. It turned out to be the decision that saved my life.
You know what she said after we got home? She told me how disappointed my great-uncle would be with me. I felt awful enough when she said that, but it was what she did next that really hit home. She made an arrangement with my history teacher to have me do a biography report on a past relative, and she insisted that I was going to do my report on you. At first, I was reluctant, but then she gave me the letters you wrote to her during your military service, and that's when I started to pay closer attention. It was as though I could hear your voice through your written words, like you were speaking them to me, and my focus was on you for the next two months. The life you'd led, the kind of brother you were to Grandma, the dedicated soldier you became, all that you'd done for our country during World War II. You even fought alongside Captain America and helped him take down your enemies! The more I learned about you, the more I grew to respect the man you were. You were a hero, Uncle Bucky. A genuine hero in our family.
Then I got to the point in my research where I had to write about your death. This was hard for me because the information I read was so brief on the subject; it didn't seem like the descriptions did you any justice. Fate must have intervened: that very day, believe it or not, Steve Rogers—Captain America himself—paid a visit to our house. He'd been doing his own research on any living descendents of Bucky Barnes (he remembered that Grandma was your little sister). He stumbled across news articles regarding the crash that killed Mom and Dad, and realized I was still alive. He managed to track us down. Grandma was so touched by his visit, as Steve was your closest friend for many years. She always said you looked out for her, even when you were far apart. Steve said very much the same thing: that you were always there for him, no matter what. It was Steve who was with you the day you died, and he was able to give me a first-hand account of the events leading up to your death. As I listened, that's when I realized my heart was starting to break all over again. Not out of sadness, but out of utter shame. I was listening to this story about a man who'd died not only serving his country, but who'd had also sacrificed so much in order to make the world a safer place. You, Uncle Bucky. You may have died too young, but your death was not in vain. It was the noblest thing I'd ever heard.
Needless to say, I broke down and cried. Steve and I ended up having a long conversation about my attempted suicide. Not surprisingly, he was disappointed to hear it, and he told me something he'd learned throughout his life: there is no dignity in dying a meaningless death, but there is great honor in those who strive to live a meaningful life. He said for as long as he'd known you, that's the way you lived. When I thought about that, I was horrified with myself: what I had done was completely and utterly selfish. If I succeeded, I would have left Grandma and my aunt behind. Plus, I wasn't the only one who'd lost someone over the years. Grandma lost a son, a daughter-in-law, a grandson; Aunt Laura lost a brother. I would have added granddaughter and niece to their lists. I was so wrapped up in my own pain that I even didn't think about anyone else around me, or how my actions would affect them. I was the complete opposite of you, the selfless soldier who fought and died for the well-being of others. I was only thinking about the easy way out. What a poor excuse for a niece I turned out to be. It's no way to honor you, or Mom, or Dad, or Scotty. I realized I didn't want to be remembered that way. I don't want to die a pointless death; I want to live a meaningful life and make the world a better place. In order to do that, I must put the needs of others before my own, just like you did back in the 1940s.
In case you're wondering, I received an A+ on my project.
After that day, I made a promise to Steve to make my life one worth living. Not just for you or my family, but for me. And I have done just that: I devoted my time to physical therapy, and eventually began walking again; the prosthetic has given me a second chance that I hadn't anticipated. I regularly attend counseling sessions to keep my inner demons at bay. I took it upon myself to start volunteering my time to children who are amputees like me, and their stories continue to inspire me and touch my heart. I'm also completing my education through virtual classrooms, with aspirations to go college to become a pediatric physical therapist. I know it sounds like I'm taking on a lot, but as crazy as it sounds, I can do it; I swear to you I will.
Next spring, I turn nineteen. My life could have ended at fourteen, but didn't. As cliché as it sounds, it really is amazing how much you grow up in a short amount of time. I'm still here for a reason; I have accepted this as fact. For all the heartache and disappointment I've caused you, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for what I've done and can't apologize enough. I may never fully redeem myself in your eyes, but I know you're watching over me. I feel like you know my heart and trust that I'm on a good path. I have you to thank for that; I mean it. I'll still have times when I dwell on my past, know there will be moments when I wish you could be here to tell me something like, "At ease, soldier!" just to calm me down. No matter what, though, you will be in my heart, and that's where I'll keep you alive.
Thank you, Uncle Bucky. Thank you for being my role model, my strength when I had none, my inspiration to do something better with my life. Without your spirit to guide me, I wouldn't be the person I've become.
Love you forever,
Kim, his mind whispered. Her first name is Kim.
He read the letter a second time. A third time. Fourth. Shuddering breaths passed through his lips as tears blurred his vision.
Kim Proctor. My great-niece is Kim Proctor. She said I was her hero, credited me with being her reason for living.
Me. Such designations didn't seem right.
The Winter Soldier shook his head in slight disbelief. This encounter almost hadn't happened. If she'd succeeded in taking her own life, then he never would have overheard the conversation between her and the boy in the museum. Never would have seen this girl gaze longingly at the image of Bucky Barnes, reflecting on the shame she'd caused him. Never would have learned that Kim was his great-niece; not someone from Barnes' past, but one who represented his future.
He never would have known she existed.
…he's my hero.
A dark voice entered his mind, wondering if perhaps it would have been better if she had succeeded. Not just for all the suffering she'd endured following the deaths of her immediate family members, and the loss of a major appendage that transformed her entire life. It was clear from her heartfelt message that she idolized the man she'd never met. But he was not that man anymore. Would it have been better if she hadn't lived to write that letter?
NO! He almost screamed out loud, but managed to contain the shout in his mind, eyes squeezing shut. No! The sensation of tears running down his cheeks went unnoticed. No…His thoughts returned to his fleeting glimpses of her, recalling her sweet face, her caring demeanor with the boy she supervised, her wary body language as she regarded the outsider who asked personal questions about her family, the love in her voice as she spoke of Bucky Barnes.
No, he opened his eyes. I wouldn't have wanted that to be her fate.
His thoughts settled as his breathing became less erratic. The grip he had on the now crumpled pages relaxed, and he let his hands fall to his sides, still clutching the letter in his right. Looking out to the river with his tear-streaked face, he hoped the stillness of the water would have a furthering influence of calm on his mind. Just like the memory of Kim's eyes.
She has Rebecca's eyes.
He sighed slowly. No matter how much the Winter Soldier tried to deny it, Bucky Barnes knew this girl was now and forever a part of him.
Yet one thought inevitably invaded his mind: HYDRA. The fact that HYDRA was still an immense threat to the world caused concern to rise in his chest again. A threat to the world was a threat to his family. A threat to Kim. The fingers of the bionic hand tightened into a fist. HYDRA might have turned him into something completely unrecognizable, forced him to commit horrendous acts against others, used him as a destructive tool for their gain—but he was preoccupied with something on a much more personal level: his return to the world of the living might inevitably be uncovered by Kim, and if it was, HYDRA might use this to their advantage. Kim's life could very well be in danger because of him.
Smoothing the crumpled pages of the letter, he folded it back up and carefully slipped it into his jacket pocket.
A glance was thrown in the general direction of the Smithsonian. There, he'd discovered a girl named Kim, and she was Sergeant James Barnes' great-niece. His great-niece. He may never see her again, but at least he could take comfort in knowing that she was alive and well, and doing her part to improve the world around her. Finding HYDRA remained his primary objective, but no longer was this simply a quest to rediscover his past and understand what HYDRA had done to him. This was also about protecting his niece, at any and all costs.
She was his purpose; she was his mission.
Subtly raising his chin in a manner reminiscent of Barnes image in the exhibit, he silently made a vow deep in his heart. I know you're in the world, Kim Proctor. I may never fully remember who I once was, but as long as you are out there, I will know that there is a purpose to why I live. I'm watching over you, and I will find a way to protect you. Always.
After a moment, he added one last thought. At ease, soldier.
Pulling the hat lower over his eyes, he walked along the sidewalk flanking the Potomac River, secretly pleased that the memories of Kim remained in his mind.