Drop him, check vitals. The other soldier will live and it clicks that his mission is over, within these new parameters that he's been so quick to amend.
There's a thing that squirms inside his throat that hurts worse than his dislocated shoulder and he smacks himself viciously against a tree trunk to cover it up. Usually more pain means less... aching.
But it doesn't work.
He needs. Needs to be whole again, not a shattered thing with death clawing at his insides.
His purpose has shifted and realigned, disappearing into nothingness.
Sparing one last look at the trembling body behind him on the shore, he turns, walks away. But the image of water splashing onto boots he knows too well still haunts him, why would he know them, stop, stop scratching, it hurts.
The thing finally overflows from his chest, ugly and vile.
He almost killed Steve.
Who shoved himself in his head, scratching at his mind until it bled raw. Who wiped him worse than they did.
Yet the chair always bring peace, afterwards.
Maybe... maybe that's what he needs. A chance to think, and he can't right now, not under the suffocating tilt of his entire existence.
A plan forms, he executes. This is easy. Steal a quinjet, go to base, reassess, reevaluate.
Somewhere over the Atlantic he realizes he doesn't have the exact coordinates, but he knows just where the check-in outpost is, masked within a cabin right at the edge of a slow climbing mountain slope.
It captures his entire focus, but he oversteps all security measures, avoids all cameras as he approaches the cabin.
That's why he doesn't register it until he's outside the kitchen window.
This monstrous thing that laughs about his pain.
"And if you find him what, wanna be puppet master?"
It spits blood, tied to the chair, hands behind his back, face bruised on the right side, a cut on the upper lip.
"Gonna make him your nice obedient slave--"
"Hey, hey, I know you're scared, but there's no need to lash out. I'll get my answers either way, ok?"
The voice is soft, but it still travels outward through the glass panes. He takes a step closer, keeping outside the light spilling from the room. Dusk has settled fully around, the space silent safe for the clinks of metal against metal.
The thing in the chair grins, eyes terrified under the gesture.
The other one has his back turned, elbows moving slightly as he arranges something on the table.
"Fuck you," the thing grits.
A sensation flashes through the soldier's mind, then another, and again. The cabin keeper tied to the chair is not unknown to him. Something twists in his gut and he presses a hand over it before he realizes what he's doing. It doesn't stop the way the window swirls in front of him, doesn't stop the sudden spinning, that voice in his ear, detailing the horrors that they'll do in order to test his limits.
"And fuck that mindless animal, too."
But then... the other shifts on a heel, slowly, back straight, hands steady, steps sure, and grabs the jaw of the keeper, holds it open by digging his fingers into his cheeks.
"No need to be crude," the same raspy voice floats, like a blanket that steadies the world, giving it substance.
Oh, how it hurt. The rod they'd put inside to keep his mouth open, the first few times.
And how the keeper screams when the other does the same, right through that joint between the mandible and the maxillary.
"Shh," the torturer croons.
An involuntary swallow, to remind himself he's allowed to use his voice now, but his fingers still shoot up to make sure his face is not impaled anymore.
"It's ok," the man says, petting through the keeper's hair absently, gaze lost for a moment. "You didn't mean it. But don't worry, by tomorrow you'll know his name. James Barnes."
The keeper twitches sharply in the chair, trying to push away from that hand, jaw hanging open while red drool flows viscously onto his front.
Just like everything else threatening to choke him where he stands.
The only thing that's keeping him there is him.
The other one.
A soldier and yet... not like Steve. Not like the scientists. Not like the team following orders before they shackled him.
No. This one is something different.
This one is so solid.
Unlike himself, who's just carrying around a hollowness that's more and more pressing with each flash of stuttering images, who's again so lost this close to base.
Dawn breaks for the second time.
The man in the cabin wipes his hands on a rag before coming closer to cradle the face of the keeper between his palms.
"Now we know nobody is coming, yes," he whispers. "This would've been over much sooner, you know. I gave you time to reconsider. Well, anyway. Thank you. You can rest."
Rest. Rest is something that he wants, he realizes, and the soldier takes one step closer. The man might give it to him if he asks.
Man, yes. Not guard, nor doctor, nor master or general or colonel.
Inside the cabin there's a human and a thing.
One of them soothing, the other cruel.
The inside of his throat scratches one last time, in a downward spiral. It wraps around the muscles of his heart, and pumps blood once.
Once, as the last knife on the table is picked up. Only once, for the single thrust between the keeper's ribs.
It's clinical, and merciful, just like the preparations they did right before he went under, in blissful oblivion.
There's something shining in the man's eyes, something in the set of his shoulders, something in the tightness of his face.
The man moves, picks up a sheet of paper from a file open on the counter, safely away from the spatters of blood. He watches it silently for a while.
"Rest assured, James Barnes," he says. "Nobody's going to hunt you."
And for the first time, it makes sense, why he's been standing there for two days, watching the torture.
Because there's no more need for pain. He can have this other sort of oblivion, the one the man in the cabin dishes out.
The one that can erase his essence and let the James one out.
The man is protecting James Barnes, not him. And if he gives himself to this man, surely he'll stop drifting aimlessly, find a meaning to the new mission, or lack thereof, to Steve, to the broken bits of someone else taking claim over the gnawing numbness within.
He tethers himself to James.
And steps forward, to safety.