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Mercury Saga, Part IV: A Soldier's Hope

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~March 9, 2015~

The tinkering of the overhead bell announced his arrival, a sound that had become as familiar as it was soothing in its crystal-like melodies. Stepping inside the diner, Bucky stamped the last traces of slush from his boots, his eyes automatically scanning his surroundings in the main dining area. As usual, his presence seemed to go largely unnoticed by the patrons seated within, and he quickly determined them to be no threat. Though his senses remained on alert, he felt the tension ease from his shoulders when he detected the enticing aroma of fresh baked pies in the air. He inhaled deeply, practically tasting their sweet flavors on his tongue, and felt his stomach rumble in response.

As if on cue, the door to the kitchen swung open, and he smiled to himself when Emma emerged with two plates of food in her hands. As she turned and lifted her eyes to his, a smile of recognition instantly brightened her features.

"Alright there, James?" She greeted, a subtle pink tinge rising to her cheeks.

That voice. And the way those blue eyes shone at him not only caused his heart to skip a beat, but also filled him with a peace that had his smile widening. She truly was lovely, a thought that lingered on his mind as he removed his baseball cap. Although he and Kim would frequent the diner together at least once a week, there were days when Bucky would opt to come here alone…especially if he knew that Emma was going to be on duty. Ever since Christmas, he'd been finding more and more excuses to be in her presence, and not just because of how calm he felt whenever she was near.

"Go on ahead," she gestured with a jut of her chin, "I'll be over in just a few."

Giving an acknowledging nod, he watched a moment longer as she served her customers at the counter, smirking gently when a tress of blond hair came loose from her messy bun. Running a gloved hand through his dark hair, he shifted his backpack further onto his shoulder, throwing one last glance around the dining area as he made his way back towards the servers' booths.

Once seated, Bucky set his cap aside and removed his gloves before unzipping his backpack. He rummaged through it only briefly before pulling out the leather-bound journal Kim had given him, subconsciously running his thumb over the textured initials yet again.

JBB, his mind whispered. A visual reminder of who he really was, and one that had become an unexpected source of comfort whenever he laid eyes upon it. Me, he thought with great certainty.

Releasing a sigh through his nose, he retrieved a pen from the front pocket of his bag, uncapping it as he laid the journal upon the table. Flipping open to the next clean page, he put the tip to paper, needing no time to think as he began writing his next entry:

9 March 2015

I had the dream again last night. The same dream I've had so many times over the past few months, but I know it's not a dream at all: it's a memory. A memory of the day I fell from that train in the Bernina Mountains; the day that I should have died...but didn't. I still remember everything so vividly in my mind: the frigid cold air; the heavy scent of diesel from the engine; the adrenaline in my veins as I faced off with those agents alone in the freight-car; the fear I felt as that bar gave way under my weight; hearing Steve's cry as I fell into that deep ravine…

It's hard to say why this particular memory keeps recurring, but I do have one theory: it might be a personal defense mechanism. HYDRA was able to repress that memory for years, forcing me to forget where I came from, even if only temporarily. But my mind doesn't want to forget; ever. Not my life, not the friends who were always there for me, not even the murders that HYDRA forced me to carry out. That's why the memories never went away completely, and why they continue to haunt me to this day.

This dream, though…each time I relive it, one detail comes into sharper focus each time: Steve's hand reaching for me, desperate to save me from that fall. He was hell-bent on protecting me—saving me—regardless of the risk to his own life. This is still characteristic of him, as he demonstrated on the Helicarrier last year. Still reaching out to me, still trying to get through to me, even though he knew how far-gone my mind was. He refused to give up on me, despite how much he was suffering from the injuries I'd inflicted upon him. Refused to turn his back on a friend; refused to believe there was nothing left in me worth saving.

He paused, pulled in a breath. Sighing quietly, he continued.

I think about all the pain that came to be as a result of that fall. Over seventy years worth of pain and regret…but I also think about what I unexpectedly gained as a result of a strange twist of fate. I'm still not entirely sure what I did to deserve Kim, but she became a part of my life when I needed her most. I don't question that now. It's funny: having that dream makes me realize that there are a lot of qualities in her that remind me of Steve. Most prominent among them is her refusal to give up on me, no matter what doubts or dark thoughts are plaguing my mind. It's hard to say if that's ultimately due to her exposure to Steve, or because she's inherited some of Rebecca's stubbornness—

He gave a faint smile.

but it's something I've come to truly love about her. It's incredible that a heart that's been broken so many times still has such a capacity to love and care for me…and wants nothing more than to protect me at all costs. Like I'm worthy of simply existing; that I'm worth fighting for. As hard as it is for me to agree with that sometimes, it's something I want to believe in. Something I hope for. And that hope gives me strength to think that I might—

A mug of coffee suddenly appeared in front of him, and Bucky looked up just as Emma set a plate of peach pie beside it. "Thank you," he said.

She met his eyes, a small smile marking her lips, and Bucky couldn't help but smile in return. Her quiet mannerisms were her way of offering him some semblance of privacy whenever he wrote in his journal, a gesture that he found so considerate on her part.

And in the back of his mind, he proceeded to finish the last sentence he'd been writing to himself: —that I might someday be worthy of you.

As she turned to walk away, he piped up and said, "Emma, wait." Pausing mid-step, she looked back at him, her eyebrows raised questioningly, and Bucky discreetly clenched his teeth. Nervousness. It was not a sensation the Winter Soldier was accustomed to feeling, and certainly not one that HYDRA ever permitted him to feel…but it was what Bucky Barnes felt stirring within the depths of his stomach as he looked at her now. "Do you have a moment? I was hoping I could talk to you."

Tilting her head slightly, she asked, "Everything alright, love?"

Hearing the underlying concern in her voice caused his heart to swell. No doubt her mind had automatically gone to Kim, but… "Everything's fine," he assured, bookmarking his journal with his pen before closing it, "there's just something I wanted to ask you."

She regarded him a moment longer, but then a warm smile spread across her features as she threw a glance towards the front of the restaurant. "S'pose I can spare a few minutes." One corner of Bucky's mouth ticked upward as she slid into the booth across from him, and she tucked back that stray tress that came loose from her bun again. "So then, James, what's on your mind?"

It was amazing how soothing that British lilt was to his ears, and he found himself sighing gently in response. "The Smithsonian is hosting that temporary exhibit on World War Two: "Destiny of the Greatest Generation." I take it you've heard of it?"

"Are you kidding? Professor Matheson practically e-mailed the entire history department when they made the announcement. They're really capitalizing on the success of the Cap exhibit over there."

"Yeah," he agreed. The exhibit devoted to Steve and the Commandos had been a museum staple for well over a year, and as a result had generated a great deal of interest in other facets of WWII history. "Have you gotten a chance to see it yet?"

"Unfortunately, no, but it's on my to-do list, especially now that uni's on spring break."

"Are you working here every day this week, then?"

She shook her head. "Only today and Friday. Even I needed a few days off this week."

He gave a faint, fleeting smile. Then, licking his lips, he drew in a slow breath before asking, "If you're not busy tomorrow…would you like to go see it?"

"You mean with you and Kim? 'Cause you know you don't even have to—"

He lifted a hand, interrupting her gently. "No, with me. Just with me."

The way those blue eyes subtlety widened, and the way those rosy lips parted as a slight flush reached her cheeks…Bucky felt himself half-smile as he memorized every detail of her reaction, his heartbeat accelerating the longer their gazes remained locked.

"Just us?" She said softly.

"Just us," he verified, "if you would do me the honor."

"I…" Lowering her eyes from his, Emma smiled shyly, and it was incredible how that mere act could cause such a great warmth to spread from his chest. "James Owens, are you asking me out on a date?"

"It's something I've wanted to ask you for a while," he admitted, a slight blush of his own rising to his cheeks, "and not just because of everything you do for Kim and me. I like spending time with you, Emma, and I would just…really like to spend more time alone with you."

He could see her bite down gently on her lip, and as she lifted her eyes at last, something about that coy little smile of hers had his stomach stirring pleasantly. "'Bout damn time, soldier."

Lifting his brows, he chuckled softly. Leave it to her to further alleviate the worries of his mind. "Is that a yes, then?"

"Of course it's a yes!" She beamed. "Was there ever a doubt in your mind?"

He gave the barest of smirks. "Consider me old-fashioned, but I wanted to ask you properly. I've been…a little out of practice."

"Well, you did perfectly, love," she countered sweetly, "and I would love nothing more than to accompany you there."

Hearing this filled his heart with peace. "I'm glad to hear that," he hesitated, but only briefly, "because that means you've made my birthday wish come true."

Ever-so-slowly, her smile faded, a silence ensuing between them as her eyes searched his. The fact that her expression became so unreadable had Bucky swallowing nervously, and for a moment, he wondered if he'd been better off not saying anything at all.

But then she quietly asked, "And when exactly is your birthday, James?"

"Tomorrow," he exhaled, never looking away from her. He opened his mouth to say something more, but decided against it, preferring instead to hear whatever response she might give.

The silence lingered between them for what felt like an eternity, but then the calmest of smiles slowly curved her lips. "Is that so?" She almost whispered, letting her gaze drift down to the table again as she appeared to contemplate something. Part of him wished he knew what that something was, but… "Seems only fitting that you and Kim should also share the same birthday month," she said, and Bucky felt himself relax as she lifted her eyes once more. "I just wish I'd known sooner, is all."

"Wasn't sure it was worth celebrating," he confessed quietly. And deep down, he meant it.

The subtle nod she gave was not patronizing, but a gesture of true understanding. It made him think of Danny, and the fact that she had no doubt heard similar proclamations from her grandfather over the years. "It is," she said softly. Simply. And then she was reaching over to place a hand atop his bionic one. "It absolutely is."

He stared at her hand in slight wonder—her delicate skin such a warm contrast to the cold metal of his own—but then he felt himself smiling as he looked up at her.

Thank you, his mind whispered, and somehow, he knew he didn't have to voice it aloud.

He saw her shoulders rise on an intake of breath, and then she was pulling her hand back. "I best be off," she said, sliding out of the booth, "need to check on my other tables."

"Of course," he said, reaching for his mug. "What time does your shift end?"

"In about an hour," she replied as she stood.

Perfect, he thought, swallowing the sip of coffee he'd just taken. "Would you mind joining me for a bit afterwards?"

Her smile alone told him her answer. "Firm up our plans for tomorrow?" She inquired.

"Well, that, and—" he took a breath, released it "—there's something else I want to discuss with you. Something I could really use your help with…"

The trek back home was one of the most peaceful Bucky could remember in quite some time, thoughts of Emma still lingering on his mind as he inserted his key into the front door lock. Once inside, he immediately saw Kim's purple coat hanging from the coat-rack, and the noticeable light shining from the dining room.

Back from your excursion to the museum, he thought, a familiar sense of relief descending upon him as he hung his own jacket on one of the opposite hooks. Placing his wet boots next to hers on the boot tray, he set his backpack on the buffet and exhaled quietly. Such simple tasks; the normality of it all…To this day, he marveled at how much peace it truly brought his heart.

As he made his way to the dining room, he paused in the doorway, hardly surprised to find his niece fast asleep at the dining room table, her face practically buried in her research journal. He smiled to himself. Kim's laptop was up and running, but the screensaver was dancing intricate patterns across the black background, suggesting that she'd dozed off in the middle of her research some time ago. It wasn't the first time it had happened, and he knew that it wouldn't be the last.

Coming closer, he was careful not to make a sound as he noted the museum pamphlet lying nearby, and Bucky reached out to angle it toward him. "Children Behind Glass," it read, "Survivor Accounts of Nazi Medical Experimentation." Another new exhibit being featured at the Smithsonian, and one that had immediately peaked Kim's interests, regardless of the gruesome content she'd undoubtedly encounter.

Adding to her never-ending cache of research, he mused, grazing the knuckles of his metal hand across her cheek.

Stirring, she drew in an audible breath as she opened her eyes, those green orbs shining warmly as she looked up at him.

"Hey," he said, smiling softly.

She gave a smile of her own, sitting up further. "I've got ink on my face again, don't I?"

"Just a smudge," he indicated toward her cheek.

"Figures," she muttered, rubbing at her skin, but not quite ridding herself of the mark.

Bucky chuckled to himself, then inclined his head toward her journal. "What have you got there?" He asked, taking a seat next to her.

"Not as much as I'd hoped for," she admitted, running her finger over the mousepad on her keyboard.

As soon as the screensaver disappeared, Bucky's eyes narrowed in recognition at the white pages suddenly on display: Zola's notes. "What are you looking for?"

"Was trying to see if his notes matched up with any of these accounts," she placed a hand on the pamphlet. "Was hoping to give some of his subjects a name instead of a number, but so far, no luck."

Any tension he'd been holding onto in his chest was replaced by the gentle warmth filling his heart. The selflessness his niece continued to display in her actions—as insignificant as they might have seemed to her—had him silently brimming with pride. His sister had raised her well, and he was grateful for the chance to be a witness to the legacy she'd left behind. "Keep looking," he encouraged. "Zola may not have kept digital copies of these records, but I wouldn't put it past him to have utilized some sort of coding system in his writings."

Her brows lifted. "Yeah?"

"It was pretty standard practice for anyone involved with the war, and you know as well as I do that HYDRA perfected the art of hiding in plain sight. So even if the smallest detail seems somehow suspect, I advise you to follow your gut instinct on that."

She smiled, absently tapping her pen on her journal a few times. Then she furrowed her brow. "I had that same dream again."

At that, he paused, arching a brow. "That voice?"


Again, he thought, leaning forward slightly. "Could you understand it this time?"

She shook her head. "Seems like some kind of foreign language, but I can tell it's not Russian." She frowned. "I don't know; it's weird."

Despite the lack of details, he listened intently. Like him, she'd had been having recurring dreams, and this was the fourth time she'd described these strange whispers from the dark recesses of her mind. While he knew his own dreams were rooted in memories, it was hard to say what the cause behind hers was. "Does it frighten you?"

Again, she shook her head, her gaze fixed on the table in front of her. "Mmm-mm, no. There doesn't seem to be anything malicious about what I'm hearing. It's just…talking to me."

That slight furrow was still evident in her brow, and Bucky slowly ran his metal thumb over his fingers. "Can I ask you something?"

Kim looked over at him. "Shoot."

"Do you think there's any connection between these dreams and Rebecca's passing?"

At the mention of her grandmother, she blinked. "How do you figure?"

He lifted a hand. "I could be wrong, but I just wonder if this is somehow tied in with your grief process. You didn't start having these dreams until sometime after she passed away, right?"

She thought about that a moment, then answered, "Yeah. But…I don't know if that's really the cause behind it."

"I don't know how much merit there is to dream analysis," he reached for the fruit bowl in the middle of the table, "but I do know what I've seen with you since last summer, and I can't help but wonder about it from time to time." Then he was offering her the apple he'd picked. "I just want to make sure you're okay."

Smiling faintly, she accepted it with silent appreciation. "I hear what you're saying," she said, twisting at the stem, "and most days, I am okay." She looked at him deliberately. "I have you to thank for that."

The warmth in his heart intensified.

But then her eyes flicked downward. "But there're still days when all I do is think about her," she pulled the stem off with a snap, "and it hurts so damn much."

"I know. And I know that it drags up the grief you're still carrying over your family." He could detect faint clench of her jaw beneath her cheeks. "I know you do. I can hear it in your voice every time you talk to me about your parents; about Scotty," he reached for the fruit bowl again. "I know how much you wish things had turned out differently," Bucky said, sighing as he turned the plum he'd selected over in his hands. "You're not the only one who wishes you could go back, Kim."

For a while, she said nothing, and Bucky was content to give her all the time she needed. Yes, he still worried, and somehow he knew that a part of him always would worry. The heartbreak over Rebecca's death was something they'd been able to endure together, but he wouldn't pretend to understand the magnitude of Kim's pain. Not after everyone else she'd lost in her young life. Jim and Scotty, the nephews he never knew, and never would know; Grace, the mother who Kim bore such a striking resemblance to…

Enough people have already left me behind…I didn't want you to leave me, too.

He released a slow breath through his nose. You're my mission now, Kim, he thought, echoing the promise he'd made to her last year. Leaving you is not an option…

It was her hand on his metal wrist that drew him out of thought. That familiar, gentle touch that was characteristic of her. "Sometimes I do," Kim admitted quietly, "but then I don't." Hearing this prompted him to look at her, seeing not only the sadness set deep within her eyes, but also the sincerity with which they shone. "I don't. Not if it means never having the chance to know you."

It didn't matter how many times he heard it, or how many different ways she found to say it: the reassurance in her words filled him with a happiness he hadn't dared to feel worthy of in so long. The barest of smiles tugged at his lips, and Bucky brought his metal hand to cup her cheek, drawing her close to rest his forehead against hers. He heard her sigh softly, her hand still maintaining a gentle hold on his metallic wrist.

"You still haven't told me what kind of cake you want tomorrow, you know."

Chuckling softly, Bucky pulled back slightly. "I know, but whatever we pick—"

"You pick," she cut in with a pointed look. "It's your birthday, Buck-o; we're having whatever you want."

He laughed again, knowing he wasn't going to win this one. "Okay, okay. But you'll just have to make sure it's big enough to feed three people."

A smile slowly spread across her features. "Emma?"

Feeling a slight flush hit his face, he briefly ducked his eyes, but did nothing to hide his own smile. "We have a date tomorrow afternoon," he affirmed. "She said she'd love to stop by afterwards to do cake with us."

Kim practically beamed, and Bucky felt his heart expand. Though they'd never outright discussed his developing feelings for Emma, the warmth conveyed through his niece's silent gestures made it clear that she approved of the potential between them. Someone they could both trust; someone they'd both grown to care for. The notion that she wanted him to be happy making him love her even more.

With a nod, she said, "I can do that. So what'll you have?"

He didn't need long to think it over. "My mom used to have this recipe for hot milk cake. I think Rebecca would have had it."

"She did; I've got it somewhere in my recipe box."

It was his turn to beam. "With whipped cream frosting?"

She giggled as she took a bite of her apple. "Sure thing," she managed to get through.

He shook his head in amusement, then cleared his throat. "Speaking of birthdays, Emma and I were talking about yours earlier."

She swallowed her mouthful. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," he gently pressed his thumb against the plum, "and this may work out better than I originally thought."

~March 24, 2015~

Flipping through Rebecca's vinyl record collection, Bucky paused, smiling as he came across the last album he'd been looking for. Found you, he thought, pulling it from the shelf. Standing, he crossed the living room over to the record player, adding the album to the other three he'd selected for the evening. He was glad when Kim decided to move the device downstairs, and every so often, he went through his sister's old collection, intrigued by the way her taste in music had evolved over time.

Mostly, though, he was pleased to find the albums that connected him to his past. Sliding his first selection out of its cover, he placed it on the turntable and switched it on, the vinyl disk rotating at a set speed. Lifting the needle, he carefully set it on the proper groove, and soon enough, the smooth sounds of piano, brass and guitar drifted into his ears. He sighed, slipping his hands into his pockets. The rhythm and style was reminiscent of an era he remembered so fondly, and hearing Billie Holliday's sultry voice as she sang "Yesterdays" had goose bumps rising on his skin in wonderfully a familiar way.

Thanks for this, Rebecca, his mind whispered.

From his back pocket, he pulled out his iPhone—a gift Kim had graciously given him for his birthday—and double-checked his last text from her. It wouldn't be long before she returned home, and he had everything ready for her. Nineteen. Today was Kim's birthday, and she was nineteen years old. No matter how many times he repeated it to himself, that number was always going to hold a particular significance for him.

Next spring, I turn nineteen. I could have died four years ago…

He closed his eyes against the burning pang in his chest. Nearly a year ago, he'd discovered the existence of a great-niece named Kim Proctor, had read those very words in her letter to the uncle she'd once believed to be long-dead…and in his heart, all he could think about was how grateful he'd always be for the chance to be part of her life; the chance to see his beloved sister one last time; the chance to fulfill the promise he made to her shortly before her death.

A chance to simply be part of a family again.

The burning pain gradually morphed into something sweeter—something pleasant—and he sighed appreciatively. You make me proud, Kim, he thought, opening his eyes. So damn proud. He continued listening to the soothing melodies in silence, hardly noticing when he began to subtlety sway along with the beat.

It wasn't long before Bucky angled his head towards the front door, smiling to himself as he heard the key turning in the lock. From the entryway, he not only heard the rummaging of shoes being removed, but also two distinct voices playfully bickering with one another.

"For crap's sake, it's not bad. I've got it—" Kim insisted.

"Shut it and let me help you, you tit. I just don't want your jacket rubbing against your arm…"

There was no way he could suppress his sudden snort of laughter. 'Atta girl, Emma, he thought.


Unable to help himself, he grinned and replied, "In here, you tit."

Kim's answering groan had him laughing out loud this time, and Emma's own peal of laughter made his heart sing. And then Kim was marching into the living room, and he caught a glimpse of the white bandage covering her left shoulder as she came up to him and—

"Hey!" He cried out as she punched him in the pec.

"Call me a tit, and I punch you in yours." She turned to Emma. "See what you started?"

By this point, none of them could keep a straight face, and in the back of his mind, Bucky couldn't help but be impressed by the strength behind her attack. "So long as you don't forget who paid for your birthday present," he commented to Kim.

At that, she smiled, reaching for the bandage. "You ready to see?"

Giving a quiet nod, Bucky waited while she carefully peeled back the strips of tape holding the gauze down. It was suffice to say that he'd been surprised when Kim first hinted at wanting a tattoo for her birthday, but the more she mentioned it, the more he realized how serious she was. As such, he decided he wanted to be the one to make that a possibility for her, especially since Kim had already arranged for him to have access to funds from his own pension. He'd also enlisted Emma's help in making the necessary arrangements with the tattoo parlor, as he preferred to limit the number of public appearances he had to make as a precaution…and if he was honest with himself, he also wasn't sure he could handle seeing Kim in any kind of pain, regardless of how minimal it might have been. Thankfully, Emma had graciously accepted his request to accompany her during the ordeal.

He flicked his eyes up to Emma, who gave him a knowing smile, and he felt himself responding in kind.

As Kim peeled away the last of the gauze, Bucky drew in a breath, a sense of pride flaring warmly in his chest: on her left shoulder was a variation of a red star, this one resembling a compass rose, and its highlighting hues of crimson and black made it stand out starkly against the fairness of her skin. A unique design that suited her perfectly, and one she'd wanted to honor her great-uncle. How could he not be touched?

"They did a beautiful job," he brought a hand to her shoulder, being careful not to touch his fingertips to the mark. "It's just as you said it would be."

"So you approve?"

He chuckled, moving his hand to cup her cheek. "You don't need my approval, Kim, but I do love it."

Never would he tire of seeing those eyes shine at him with such happiness, and he readily accepted her as she wrapped her arms around him in a warm hug. "Spasibo, serzhant," she whispered in his ear.

"Ya lyublyu tebya, soldat." he pulled back just enough to press a kiss to her forehead, then turned to nod towards the middle of the room. "Happy birthday."

The instant Kim's eyes settled upon the coffee table, her entire face lit up. "You made me a cake, too?"

"A Nutella cake," he specified.

Her jaw dropped slightly. "You found a recipe for Nutella cake?"

"While I was on your laptop the other day," he confirmed. "Rebecca was always adamant that everyone at least deserves to have a cake on their birthday, and with everything you did for me on mine…I just wanted to do something more for you. Especially today."

A smile split across her face. "You realize I'm going to hug you again, right?"

He laughed gently. "Better make good on that promise."

Which she did, and Bucky sighed as peace filled his heart.

"Not sure how this day could possibly get any better," she started to pull back, and based on the way she reached into her pocket, her iPhone must have been vibrating. Glancing at the screen, he saw her smile faded slightly. "I stand corrected," she looked up at him. "Steve."

He hardly missed the brief flutter of his heart, but he pushed the sensation aside as he gave her an acknowledging nod. "Go."

Stepping back, Kim looked over at Emma, who was already telling her, "Take your time, dearie."

Giving them both a smile of gratitude, Kim was already heading out of the living room as she accepted his call. "Hey, Steve," she said, her voice gradually fading from earshot as she made her way upstairs. She always sounded so happy to hear from Steve. So relieved…and while he still felt a familiar pang of guilt whenever he thought about his best friend, he was silently grateful for the relationship those two had been able to develop over the years.

And then Emma was turning back to him with a smile on her face. "Congratulations, soldier," she said, clasping her hands in front of her as she rested against the back of Kim's green chair, "you've certainly made this a day she won't soon forget."

He appreciated her words, but couldn't help but focus on the way her hair was being held back by that simple barrette on one side, showing off the elegant curve of her neck… He discreetly cleared his throat. "So how was she? Really?"

He heard her giggle softly. "Such a trooper. I mean, if she was really in any kind of pain, you could hardly tell. I think she only squeezed my hand twice the entire time, and it wasn't even that hard."

The exhale that left him was one of relief, and he found himself smiling as he subtly shook his head. He should have known better than to worry about Kim's pain tolerance, but hearing Emma confirm that she'd been alright put him so much more at ease. He looked directly in her eyes as he told her, "Thank you."

There was so much understanding in her gaze. "Of course, James. It was my pleasure. Really."

The notes from the last song faded into silence, and after a few moments, the instrumental intro to the next song began playing. Bucky smiled to himself; it was a song he knew very well, and one that had him feeling a small stroke of inspiration. Pulling a deep breath into his lungs, he held out his right hand to Emma, lifting his brows inquiringly as he waited for her response.

He didn't have to wait long. Emma was biting her lower lip, that sweet blush returning to her cheeks as she placed her hand in his, and he felt his heart soar as he led her to the middle of the room. Soon enough, his metal hand was at her waist while, and hers rested upon his shoulder as they settled smoothly into a foxtrot.

Bucky sighed, his cheek hovering next to Emma's. Ever since taking over Rebecca's dancing duties with Kim, he'd found his confidence growing little by little, those simple steps further proof of what he'd been able to retain despite HYDRA's brainwashing efforts. And as Emma continued to spend more and more time with them, it was something he found himself wanting to share with her as well. Her closeness in his arms, the faint scent of her vanilla perfume…and feeling the warmth of her left palm against his right had his thoughts drifting back to his own birthday. To their first date.

He recalled the details of the time they'd spent at the Smithsonian: the genuine interest in her eyes as she took in the elements of the WWII exhibit; her quiet appreciation as she came across the mural devoted to the British army…how touched she'd been when she recognized a young photograph of her grandfather on display. Seeing her fingertips graze over the black-and-white image was truly a magical moment, and as his hand brushed up against hers, he didn't miss her hint of a smile as she entwined her fingers with his. Even now, he felt his heart skip a beat. And then later that night, as they shared their very first dance together in this house…

He drew in a discreet breath as Emma rested her cheek against his shoulder, and then he was smiling as he shifted his arm a bit more securely around her waist. Nothing could take those memories away from him now…and that meant he could relive the moment Emma had kissed him goodnight on the cheek over and over again.

My memories to keep, he reminded himself, closing his eyes as Billie's voice drifted into his ears once more.

"I'll never be the same,
There is such an ache in my heart,
I'll never be the same since we're apart,
Though there's a lot that a smile may hide,
I know down deep inside,
I'll never be the same, never be the same again…"

No; he never would be the same. Not since he'd opened himself to the possibility of what this could become, and while there was so much he wanted to tell her—needed to tell her…

He sighed quietly, letting his chin rest against her silky hair. The man he'd been back in 1944 was vastly different from who he was now, but through Kim's love—and through Emma's patience and unwavering acceptance—he knew what kind of man he had the potential to be. Who he wanted to be. It wouldn't come without risks, but he knew without hesitation that no matter what, he would do everything he could to protect those who were dearest in his life. Those who'd instilled so much hope in his heart.

That I may be worthy of you, he silently vowed to Emma.

In the back of his mind, Bucky became aware of Kim's presence, but she seemed perfectly content to give them more time as she watched from the doorway. Opening his eyes, he caught her gaze from across the room, and he had no doubt that the smile he gave was identical to hers.