He gathers the following intelligence: Hydra has fractured. It's a splinter group that has him. They don't have resources. They don't know how to make the cryogenic chamber or the chair work.
They are afraid of him.
They should be.
He let his guard down. A year and a half on the run wore him down. He thinks maybe part of him wanted to get caught, just to put an end to the running, but not by them. He'd played his capture through a hundred times in his mind, each time playing out differently: but it was always someone else.
They got him in the abandoned building he had slept in the night before. Sleeping the same place twice was the mistake, but it was one he had gotten away with before - even up to three times, but not this time. This time, he reached for the blanket he used for a bed and felt only a Taser against the back of his neck until he passed out.
Since then, there's only been this cell.
They want to break him again. He's figured that much out too. They think he's the key to restoring Hydra to its former glory, to reshaping history in their favor.
He knows this because the cell they're keeping him in isn't soundproofed, is barely secured at all. It looks a hell of a lot like a jail cell. It might even be a jail cell. He thinks he's been held in jail cells before, based on the fragmentary impressions of missions that remain to him.
But he can hear them talking in not-hushed-enough tones, echoed and amplified by whatever vaster space is outside his cell door.
"Look, we need drugs. Have you seen his file? We're going to need lots and lots of drugs if we even want to survive this - "
"No, we need a chair! If we get a chair, we won't have to worry about drugs, we can just make him do whatever we - "
"And what if we do get that, huh? Who are we supposed to send him after? He's a known quantity to the Avengers - "
"He's our ticket to rebuilding Hydra!"
"He's a goddamn hot potato, a liability - "
He has heard six different voices, four male and two female. One of the men, the one who wears shoes that click against the floor, has a habit of walking past the cell to check on him.
With the cell kept in darkness, he can't see out, but he can hear well enough past the fog of hunger and the ache in his wrists from the ties keeping his arms together. It's been three days. After the first day they gave him water, but he thinks they're trying to starve the fight out of him. As far as he can tell, none of them have previous experience with the asset.
Two days later, they still haven't fed him. The hunger bites like bile at the back of his throat. They've given him broth. It's enough to keep him alive, but not by much. This can't last. He won't be of any use to them muscle-wasted and staggered with hunger.
Their ineptitude is obvious. The only reason they would keep him constantly in darkness would be sensory deprivation. Solitary confinement of a kind. But the cell has no soundproofing and the door is unsealed, a strip of light slanting across the floor of his cell. If they think that this, to him, is deprivation, they know nothing about him.
He tries not to think. He tries not to think in general these days.
He's tried not to think for a year and a half.
They feed him a protein bar. They wear ski masks whenever he can see them (as if that will protect them from recognition), and two of them have Tasers aimed at him as another reaches out the protein bar for him to eat out of his hand.
He is hungrier than he is proud. He eats it. It does not nourish him.
The relief evident in the lines of his captors' shoulders as they leave, their mission accomplished, does. They aren't even aware of what's obvious to him: they've let their guard down, just a little bit, after their success.
The drugs, he realizes later, were in the protein bar.
Dizziness. Disorientation. Nausea. A sedative, he thinks. They don't know his resistances. It isn't difficult to keep himself awake, lying on his side on his cot with his arms confined behind him.
He hears thunder. Curtains rustling in a breeze. Halfway-distant child-shouts and the bustle of a city dead and reborn a hundred times over since what he remembers.
He doesn't speak. Anything he says will be heard. He is reasonably certain the voice that he hears is not an actual voice.
"I'm here, Buck. I told you. I'm with you 'til the end of the line."
There is not a cot across from him. Captain America is not sitting on the cot across from him. There are no bruises on his face, no open cuts, no blood seeping into the white of his uniform and dyeing the red a more honest shade. Captain America is not speaking. He knows this.
"But if you don't do something, that's going to be sooner rather than later."
He closes his eyes. It doesn't help. He can feel the steady gaze on him, knows how every cut on that face must tug open a little further as he talks, how the heaving lungs must pull on the bullet wound in his stomach.
"Don't let them do this to you again," Captain America says. "Don't let them break you."
That's why he keeps silent. If he talks, they'll get something from him. If he talks, he might give something away. If he talks, they'll win.
"We should just kill him," one of them says outside his door.
They should. They think they found a weapon and just need to figure out how it works. But he's not just a gun, to be aimed and fired, not anymore. Not since he let go of the steel beam of the wounded Helicarrier and pulled Captain America to the surface of the Potomac. He's unpredictable now. Even he doesn't know what he's going to do next. He didn't know his fingers would uncurl from the beam until he was plunging towards the water; didn't know his legs would pull not only him but his target from the water; didn't know he would walk away until his back was already turned.
They can't control him, no matter what they think. Not without a chair. Their inability to find one has been an ongoing topic of conversation.
And if they do find one, he has no intention of being put back in it. If he knows anything, he knows this: he would rather take a bullet to the head.
Maybe he'd rather take a bullet to the head anyway. It would only be fitting.
He remembers the kills but not the victims. The thudding recoil of a rifle against his shoulder and the blossoming spray of red from his target's neck. The screeching crash of glass on metal and the resistance of pulling a man out a car window. The give of a skull under repeated blows.
But he can't remember any faces. After his visit to the Smithsonian, he went to a public library and found an obituary for Howard Stark and stared at the face on his screen until the image unraveled into pixels, broken down into meaningless dots no matter how much he blinked at it. The name had been so familiar when he had seen it at the exhibit, but a new, empty kind of familiar, the purposeful and passionless echo of memory that came with his time as an asset and not a living person.
He doesn't remember a car. He doesn't remember a road. He doesn't remember Howard Stark, but a sensation of heaviness in his chest lingers at the edges of his memory, distant as a dream. He thinks a part of him may have regretted it, even as he did it, and that's what he remembers.
He doesn't remember regretting anything else, but he remembers a lot of other deaths. He tries not to remember anything at all.
A bullet to the head. It would be fitting. It would be less than he deserves.
They give him more broth.
They should just kill him already.
Another sedative. This time Captain America prowls the confines of the cell, the blue of his costume peeking through the tears in his brown leather jacket. The blue is bright, like the Hudson River in come-to-New-York! propaganda paintings; the brown like the actual Hudson River. Dirt suffocates the paint on the helmet.
"They know how much they've weakened you," Captain America says, contemplating the door. "They must be drugging you for a reason. Sooner or later, one of these times, they're going to come in here unprepared, and when they do, that's your opening."
When Captain America turns, his eyes search every inch of wall, trace the cracks in the doorframe, linger on every item of potential interest, taking stock. Cataloguing. Paying attention.
He remembers when Captain America didn't have to pay attention, could just glance at something for a moment and reproduce it with instant accuracy later on; this must be early days of Captain America.
The leather sticking against his skin through the tears in his sweater, at the armpit; the solidity of the muscle hauling him up; the unfamiliar crane in his neck to look at his best friend. These must be what memories feel like: the memories of early days, before Captain America became the icon.
Captain America looks at him, lips parted in thought and brow tugged into a worried frown. Ruefully: "I can't carry you out of this one, Buck."
"Don't call me that," he says, or rather mumbles. His lips are sandbags, shifting only with the greatest effort.
A flurry of noise from outside. Shifting clothes and the click-click-click of obnoxious shoes.
The whisper echoes through the crack under the door: "Did he just say something?"
"I thought I heard - "
"Was he talking to us?"
"Don't," Captain America says, crouching in front of him. "Don't tell them anything."
He has nothing to tell. He has no intel. His memories are useless even to him. He is not even really a person. People have lives, they have days unfolding one after the other and fade from memory because they are normal memories, everyday memories, ones that can safely be released back into the wild. He has half-remembered murders and a sense that there is no part of himself that is not hated by every other part of himself. He has the lives he has ended, including his own twice over.
The door opens. The light is too bright; he can't see, but he hears the clicking of shoes. Tears drip across his face as he blinks, and slowly a figure resolves before him in silhouette, and Captain America stands to the side.
"Did you say something?" asks the man with clicking shoes.
He doesn't answer.
"I said, did you say something?" The man with clicking shoes sounds either panicked or angry, some ambiguous force behind his voice.
Something about that makes him savagely happy. The man with the clicking shoes deserves both panic and anger.
A voice from the hallway says, "Jerry, don't - "
The man with the clicking shoes turns towards the door. The light is too strong around him for a clear view of his face, but he moves with urgency.
"Don't say my name in front of the asset!"
Name. He smiles, just the slightest curve. He has a name for the man with clicking shoes now.
The shadow of the man with clicking shoes turns back to him. He lets the smile fade off his face. The man with clicking shoes shuts the door behind him hard.
The outside voice again. "With how much we gave him, there's no way he caught that - he's too out of it - "
Then Jerry. "I don't care, okay? You don't see me saying your name where he can hear it."
"We can't keep doing this. This isn't sustainable."
The voices fade away, as does the sound of Jerry's shoes.
Captain America blows out a breath. "Jerry," he says, as though weighing the name. He looks at the closed door. "Well, it's not nothing."
They come in again. They feed him again. They don't drug him or try to talk to him again.
Jerry wears a permanent frown, supervising from just inside the doorway. This means that Jerry has little to no interrogation experience, because although he stands far enough away that he won't be harmed, it's also far enough away for the light to catch on his features as he anxiously watches the hallway beyond. He no longer wears a ski mask.
They are going to kill him, he realizes. He knows one of their names. He's seen one of their faces. If they can't find a chair - if they can't wipe him - they have no other choice. They already know they can't control him.
He can't muster up a reaction to the knowledge.
The hunger is a physical presence, wedged beneath his diaphragm and cleaving him in half.
He hears the wet crunch of lettuce and the sharp, clipped noise of Jerry's shoes. Unmistakable closed-mouth chewing. Jerry has a sandwich.
They haven't drugged him, but they haven't fed him for long enough that it doesn't make a difference.
Steve sits across from him, but small, floppy-haired, in clothes too big for a needle-boned frame. "Bucky," he repeats, and his tone is knowing, cajoling. "You want that sandwich? Then you're gonna have to go get it."
They aren't trying to starve him to death. This feels more like the result of ambivalence or, increasingly, apathy rather than intent. From the snatches of conversations he's heard, there is not yet a consensus about his death. At least two people think he can still be salvaged as an asset. They are a minority, and the majority has made up its mind and is not inclined to waste time, effort, and supplies feeding him or giving him water.
His death is a matter of time.
Maybe this is appropriate. He ended so many lives so fast that this inversion, this slow and lingering maybe-death, is justice.
"You're not done yet," Steve tells him, a knowing set to his eyes. "You don't give up like this. So you need to get the hell up, get out of those handcuffs, and get that sandwich."
Hunger has claws, he knows now. It rakes his insides.
Steve is gone, but in his wake he leaves a voice: not Steve's, but another, a mumbled drawl.
"Yeah, life ain't fair. Get up anyway."
His mouth remembers that mumble, the calculation of how much to let the words out to seem aloof and unperturbed.
"Oh, c'mon. I didn't survive the depression, the front, all that shit just to die on some slab in the middle of nowhere, and sure as hell not at the hands of HYDRA, so you didn't either."
He tests his bonds reflexively. The rope is already fraying. His captors are so inept it would be laughable if he could muster the energy.
"You've been hungry. This ain't hungry. This is lazy."
He remembers that, too, the way his empty stomach would stretch when he lifted boxes after no breakfast and no dinner the night before. The lightheadedness of exertion and the first bite of food once he got it, knowing he had earned it, that he had worked damn hard for it.
Now he has been force-fed broth and protein bars, life forced into him despite his apathy and regardless of whether he deserved it. Once, he would have hoped for this.
He sees - he doesn't see it, but can almost see the shape of the glint of light off metal. He knows he is alone in the room, with only his lack of food to accompany him, but he hears the voices anyway.
And he remembers when he had a very different kind of hunger. The kind that waited, that took stock and remembered, that was suppressed and beaten down and wiped clean, always to come back. The kind that would have also hoped for this, for different reasons.
"Get up," the other voice says.
It wouldn't take much to snap the ropes, and once his hands are free, his feet would be next. And after that -
But what after that? Escape? To what? Back to running, to breath after breath and heartbeat after heartbeat that he paid for by taking from others?
"Get up," the other voice says, flat and unrelenting. "Your work isn't done."
It occurs to him for the first time that maybe the people he killed aren't the only ones who deserve revenge. That maybe the people he was before HYDRA murdered them to make him deserve to be avenged, too.
That maybe HYDRA should be running from him.
He can't snap the ropes after all, but a little fraying stretches them enough to slip one hand out, and then the other. Then his feet. He is alone in the room except for the echoes of Jerry's shoes and the crunch of Jerry's sandwich.
He opens the door slowly, so it makes no noise. Jerry faces away from the door, sandwich raised to his mouth. The reflection of the halogen light above them reflects off Jerry's scalp through thinning hair.
He has his arm around Jerry's neck in an instant, pulling Jerry back against him and taking the sandwich with his free hand. He applies pressure carefully. He knows exactly how much it takes and for how long to cut off the flow of blood to the brain, to bring on unconsciousness, and how much longer after that it takes for death. Killing Jerry has its advantages. Jerry has done nothing to earn his life or his freedom. It would be no less than Jerry tried to do to him.
He lets the pressure off a little.
"It would be easiest to kill you," he tells Jerry instead, ignoring Jerry's useless flailing. Even panicking, Jerry is no match for him, not even when he's weak with starvation and isolation. "It would solve more problems than it caused. I wouldn't have to worry about you stopping me. I wouldn't have to worry about you coming after me. It's what the asset you wanted for HYDRA would do. And honestly, it would make me pretty happy, and I haven't been happy in a while."
He squeezes Jerry's neck, just slightly, for emphasis. Jerry whimpers.
"But I'm done with that. You're not worth the effort. And if you try to come find me, you should remember that neither am I."
He puts the sandwich between his teeth to hold it and uses his now-free hand to rifle through Jerry's pockets until he finds Jerry's wallet. He flips it open, and there behind the clear plastic pocket is Jerry's driver's license. He tucks the wallet into his jeans and removes the sandwich again.
"And now, if you decide trying to find me is worth the effort, just remember: I can find you first. Don't do anything stupid."
"Please," Jerry says, "please, I'll - "
He squeezes again and waits until Jerry goes limp against him, and drops him onto the floor. He begins to eat the sandwich, a lackluster BLT that nevertheless tastes amazing after however long of broth and drugged protein bars, and surveys the hallway. Concrete floor, industrial lighting, doors laid out evenly on the walls, some with reinforced windows or bars. A few old blood stains on the floor and smeared against the gray walls. This may actually be a prison; HYDRA occupied a few abandoned ones. They were useful.
He is glad, suddenly, that he didn't die here. He isn't certain of much, and he isn't certain of where he would prefer to die, but he's certain that he doesn't want to die here.
The alternative, he supposes, is living.
He steps over Jerry's unconscious body, brushes the sandwich crumbs from his fingers, and makes his way to whatever will come next.