The lights of the grocery store buzz, shading the aisles in a sick, sallow yellow, but there are no security cameras. This is preferable, really, to the alternative, and he goes without his baseball cap in public for the first time in almost a month. His hair is greasy, clumping together even as he pushes his fingers through it (the right hand, of course, never the gloved left, held to his chest awkwardly enough to suggest a prosthetic - technically true), but he no longer attracts unnecessary attention for his appearance.
Discovering the specificities of hygiene after vague memories of being handled and cleaned like a doll has been an interesting venture.
This late at night, there is only one register open, and this area of Baltimore has yet to upgrade to self-checkout, so he waits in the only available line. The man in front of him, whoever he is, has apparently decided that three o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday was the perfect time to do the shopping for the month, and the conveyor belt is loaded up with canned vegetables and boxes of rice and pasta.
Not that he's likely to judge. His cart has only four jugs of bleach and three microwavable meals of frozen spaghetti in meat sauce.
A lady, elderly and stooped, gets into line behind him and reaches past him for one of the undersized periodicals set up by the register.
"Sudoku," she says.
He looks at her, and says nothing.
"Sudoku," she repeats, and waves the periodical at him. Her voice sounds like each syllable has to open an ancient, rusted door on its way out of her throat, creaking and unsteady. "Do you do sudoku? You should. Good for the mind, you know. Keeps you sharp. Word puzzles too."
He makes a noncommittal noise. The cashier scans another can of tuna fish.
"My sister does the crosswords, you know, but you can't do your taxes by knowing which actor is which, so I do sudoku."
Beep. Another can of tuna fish. He mentally rechecks the amount of bleach he'll need, given the amount of blood currently congealing in his target's shower, but he should have enough with some to spare. It'll be the caulking and the corners that'll be difficult - his target had a shower stall instead of a tub. He hates shower stalls.
"Everybody needs a hobby," the old woman says knowingly, and throws the sudoku book into his cart.
He pays for it anyway, using his target's money, because it seems to shut the old woman up.
There's something surprisingly calming about sudoku, it turns out. Maybe it's getting the numbers in just the right order to serve their purpose, or just the repetitiveness of the action, but he finds himself actually enjoying it. It makes a particularly good cover on reconnaissance missions.
And sometimes interrogations take time to be done right, and it's nice to be able to break up the monotony a bit.
This particular target starts breathing more heavily when the asset gets out the sudoku book, and his terror turns to confusion turns almost immediately again into terror as the asset ignores him and works on a puzzle for about ten minutes.
"What - " the target begins, until his voice, scraped hoarse from screaming from the previous part of the interrogation, gives out.
"I'm taking a break," he says, letting his voice stay crisp. He flips his pencil around like a knife and carefully erases a two, putting it one cell over. "I've got nowhere to be." He looks up and meets the target's eyes levelly for a moment, then two, and then, abruptly, the target bursts into tears.
Half an hour later, when he has everything he needs from the target and is screwing the silencer into the muzzle of his gun, he reflects that this may be an interrogation technique worth using later.
It's hard not to pay attention after that, especially with the amount of recon he does on his targets. Stacks of books next to the bed with turned-down page corners or softened and ragged bookmarks sticking out the top; carefully-curated art collections framed and hung on the walls; one technician has an oversized desk, of which half of the real estate is covered with meticulously-built LEGO replicas of historical aircraft. He recognizes almost all of them, although he isn't sure how; he checks a few of the names with the tech before he kills her, and she gives a bemused (and pained) affirmative before he goes back to the subject of the interrogation.
It dawns on him one day, watching his target carefully weigh out flour onto a kitchen scale through his binoculars across the street, that every HYDRA agent he's killed has had a life outside of HYDRA. Every moment that's come back to him of his time at HYDRA has been, in some way or another, tied to HYDRA agents; he has no life outside of what they made him, when they pulled him out of death. But these agents came into work, did their part, and went on with their lives. They made friends, did things they enjoyed, took silly vacation pictures and tried to cook new foods just because they felt like it, all while they were torturing him and turning him into a killer so that they could keep their own hands clean.
For the first time, he sees them as truly human.
It's almost easier to kill them, after that, for all that they had that he didn't.
The next HYDRA agent he kills directed him on an op a few years ago. It had been an assassination intended for intimidation; the agent wanted something from a man and had the asset shoot out the tires in his fourteen-year-old daughter's car. The steering column had crushed her ribcage and he had watched blood bubble from her mouth as she tried to breathe until it stopped. Her father did what HYDRA wanted after that, because he had two more daughters and a son.
The asset strangles her, crushing his windpipe and letting her gurgle her last few breaths instead of snapping her neck. The newspaper is open to a crossword puzzle on the kitchen table, set down next to a glass vase of snowdrops and tulips. The asset looks at it for a long moment, then takes it.
Crossword puzzles, it turns out, rely on familiarity with popular culture. He goes back to sudoku.
This particular target is a knitter. The asset has watched her, sitting in front of the television with her blunt needles, twisting individual strands of yarn into larger wholes. He's seen her go into a yarn store with a rather straightforward "Stitch & Bitch Tonight!" sign set out in front, and watched her idly chat with other knitters, her fingers looping the yarn around needles.
When he finally breaks into her house one day while she's gone - the last step of recon before moving on to interrogation itself - he finds more or less what he expects. There are throw blankets covering almost every upholstered surface, and the decorative teapot on the dining room table is cradled in a knit cozy. There is also, he notices, a large cross-stitch hung on the wall with the unmistakable HYDRA insignia and, even less ambiguously, the text "HAIL HYDRA!" stitched neatly into it.
He can't help but bring it up during the interrogation.
"How long have you had that cross-stitch up there?" he asks, and she spits blood onto his shoes.
"Cut off one head and two more will rise in its place! You'll regret turning against us, Winter Soldier!"
He takes her by the jaw with his metal hand. "HYDRA cut off my head. Didn't you ever wonder what would grow back in its place? I'm nothing but what you wanted me to be. Now - " He turns her head towards the cross-stitch. "Seriously. Did nobody ever see it?"
The target looks away reluctantly. "I...told everyone I only had it ironically."
The asset sighs, and takes her knitting bag when he leaves her body in the house. The knitting needles come in handy later on when he needs a covert weapon, but he never quite gets the hang of knitting - his left hand keeps bending the needles whenever he tries to purl.
His next target goes to an open-mic at the same cafe every week, so the asset follows him. The target is a HYDRA technician, young, inclined towards Red Bulls and late nights. The target has been the programmer for the asset's wipes for the past three years.
The asset orders the first thing he sees on the menu that seems familiar - an Americano - so that nobody gets suspicious, and sits himself in a corner of the cafe while the target mingles with the crowd. The cafe is busy enough that loitering with a sudoku, unfortunately, would be odd. Then the music starts, pared down and bare: acoustic guitars, percussion provided only by fingers against the wood or the strings, echoing through the cafe's speakers. The musicians swap out between songs, but there's something about the atmosphere, the quietly appreciative patrons, the warm and gently bitter aftertaste of his coffee that sets him almost at ease.
The target plays. He's good, too, or at least sounds like it to the asset's untrained ear. It doesn't seem right to him, that his target should inscribe bloody emptiness into the asset's head for years and get this, too.
The audience claps when he's done, and he grins like a child.
The asset strangles him with a guitar string that night. It seems appropriate.
He keeps the guitar, though, and tries to sound out the notes. He stays in the city longer than he probably should, and the next week he approaches one of the performers, the one who had smiled the most and gotten flustered by the attention between songs.
"Can you teach me how to play?" he says.
"Um," says the guitar player. "I'm not really a teacher and I don't usually do lessons - holy shit, what's up with your arm?"
The asset looks down - while he joined the applause, the hem of his glove crept upwards without his notice, and metal glints out from the gap between his sleeve and glove.
"It's a prosthetic," the asset says, glancing at the player, whose brows are drawn down with curiosity. When combined with his wide, pitying eyes, the effect is interesting, but it does at least hint at the correct course of action. "Robotic prosthetic. I'm trying to practice my fine motor control with it," he says, "and I thought the guitar…" He adjusts his face in what he hopes is a suitably sad expression.
"Aw, jeeze," the player says. "I - yeah, sure, I can show you how to play. You got a guitar?"
"I do," the asset says as the player steals a pen from a merchandise table set up for the open mic and pulls out a business card.
"This is our practice space," the player says, scribbling on the back of the card. "How about tomorrow at seven?"
"In the morning or at night?" the asset asks.
The player's eyes widen in blindsided horror. "Night! Definitely at night! Seven in the morning, Jesus, no." He passes over the business card, and then holds out his right hand to shake. "I guess I'll see you then…?"
The asset realizes that the player is waiting for a name, and says the first that comes to mind. "James."
It fits wrong, it doesn't feel like him, but even though the news has been referring to him as the Winter Soldier he was never called that to his face, only the asset, and James is the only other name he can conceive of for himself that doesn't make him feel as though his insides are being crushed into pulp.
"Well, James, it was nice to meet you," the player says.
According to the card, the player's name is Charlie. The practice space is a garage detached from a very nice family home - at least four bedrooms, judging by the size. The asset, handle of the guitar case clenched in his metal hand, knocks on the garage door for lack of any other ideas.
The garage opens.
"James!" Charlie says, ducking under the door before it's fully opened. "James, yeah, come in, come on in! Uh, maybe fast, before Larry's parents see you."
"Why shouldn't they see me?" James says.
"Well, it's not that they shouldn't see you," says Charlie, "more that Larry technically agreed to pay them rent to use this place and he maybe kind of hasn't in a while, so it's for the best if they don't see anyone."
They can live, then.
James comes in, and the garage door lowers shut behind him. There's an old couch against one wall of the garage, amps, mic stands, and other equipment against the other, and soundproofing covering every inch of wallspace.
"This is Larry," Charlie says, pointing over to one of the couches.
"Hey man," says another man on the couch, a banjo sitting in his lap.
"Larry's convinced if we figure out how to put in a banjo and do some Mumford & Sons shit we'll make it big," Charlie says, as if that's an explanation. "I think we just have to do an ironic cover of Taylor Swift or something, you know?"
"...yeah," says the asset. "Sure."
"Anyway, let's get started with the basics," says Charlie. "Is that a glove?"
"Yes," says the asset. "I don't remove it."
"Well, you're gonna have to, if you want to make sure you've got the right frets." Charlie shrugs, and the asset, reluctantly, removes the glove.
"Holy shit," Larry says, tilting the banjo forward to sit up and closer to the asset and Charlie. "Is that metal?"
"It's the most metal thing I've ever seen," Charlie says reverently, staring at it.
"No, like, actually made of metal?"
"It's fucking hardcore is what it is! You weren't kidding about that robot stuff. I thought it'd be like one of those claws in one of those youtube videos where the robot hand keeps smacking the dummy in the face with a cookie - "
"I don't like to talk about it," the asset says through gritted teeth, and both boys stop talking instantly.
"Okay," Charlie says, cautiously. "Okay, that's totally cool, dude, we get it. Uh. Is that your guitar?"
The rest of the session is, surprisingly, not about the asset. Charlie and Larry assess the guitar with a critical eye, approving of some features that are meaningless to the asset and denouncing others. They show the asset how to hold the guitar, teach him the different strings and frets, and then promptly begin arguing over what song to teach him first.
"He's got a metal fucking arm, dude, we're not starting him off with some goddamned British invasion Oasis shit," Larry says. "We gotta go Seven Nation Army or go home."
They eventually compromise on Stairway to Heaven. He picks it up rather quickly, all things considered, and he practices the movements even while Larry and Charlie start their argument - again - over the right way to become, in their words, YouTube famous.
"Hey, man, this was actually kind of fun," Charlie says, when their designated hour is done. "Do you want to come back next week? Maybe I could, you know, use you as a test case. Thought I might start charging kids for lessons and stuff."
"Maybe then someone will make money off our music," Larry mutters behind him.
"...all right," says the asset.
"Cool! Same time next week." Charlie grins and claps a hand on the asset's metal shoulder. "We'll teach you some Tay-Tay. You look like you're feeling twenty-two."
The asset decides not to say that according to what a HYDRA agent told him after he removed three of her toes, he's actually been feeling twenty-eight for almost seventy years.
"All right," he repeats instead.
He doesn't make the next lesson, but not for lack of interest. Instead, he has to leave town in a rush when his target's body is found in the nearby river by a jogger in a freak coincidence. He takes the guitar with him when he leaves though. He can sound it out, matching notes to notes, well enough at this point that it doesn't matter that he won't have anymore lessons.
"Ooooh, it really makes me wonder," he sings under his breath, loading the guitar into the back of his stolen car, leaving it stacked among the sudoku books and several large skeins of yarn.
Maybe he'll take up yoga next. He's heard it's really relaxing.