It should be strange – not just seeing Zemo again, but having him around. Sharing a car with him, sitting across from him in his private jet. It is, a little, of course. There’s a peculiar familiarity to it, churning with the feeling of something alien and unknown. Bucky feels off-kilter; he’s coming home, but it’s not his home. Sam knows him well, better than most (still-living) people; Zemo, technically, knows Bucky far less. Sam could probably, even if he loathes to, guess as to what Bucky’s favorite food is, could exchange ideas almost wordlessly with him when in the thick of brutal action, could understand how Bucky’s face clouds whenever Steve becomes the subject of conversation.
Zemo knows other things about Bucky. Some of those things, Bucky knows for certain, are things that Bucky himself doesn’t know – secret things, ideas, associations. Hidden parts of Bucky’s mind. It should be strange being around someone who used to be able to pull Bucky’s strings like he were a marionette being made to dance. But mostly, to his sickened surprise, it makes his body feel lighter than it has in years. Zemo knows these things about Bucky that no one else really does. They know approximations of it. Zemo understands.
And even when it is strange, it’s not uncomfortable. It’s not uncomfortable in the plane, not even when Sam falls asleep (finally betrayed by his exhausted body, or maybe not betrayed, but protected – he needs to sleep, and Bucky is glad he’s resting) but Bucky doesn’t. He asks for some more water crackers, which turned out to be one of few things that hadn’t gone bad during the plane’s then-indefinite shelving, and chews them in complete silence while Zemo just watches him, his expression impassive but focus tight, head tilted just ever so slightly.
Bucky tries not to psychoanalyze himself – generally, he leaves that up to Dr. Raynor, or doesn’t do it at all. But he suspects that he is uncomfortable with the fact that he’s not more uncomfortable. He does feel like he’s going to crawl out of his skin or perhaps that Zemo’s gaze will strip his skin from his bones but the feeling has a guilty twinge to it.
Bucky won’t be able to sleep here, but it’s the closest he’s come to sleeping anywhere but the cold, hard floor in a long time.
The tension is palpable between Sam and Zemo, almost in reaction to the unexpected lack of tension between Bucky and Zemo. Bucky gets it. He doesn’t think Sam’s wound-tightness has anything to do with Bucky himself per se, and he thinks it’s more about Sam’s general opposition to working alongside an international terrorist whose actions culminated in Sam’s temporary imprisonment on the Raft, but he does appreciate how Sam tries to wedge himself between the two of them whenever possible. Sam’s not his real friend, because Bucky’s not sure he has friends anymore, but he’s kind of his friend, and he’s enough of his friend to identify that something is just not quite right here.
When Zemo ducks into the tailor’s, Sam turns ever so slightly to Bucky and catches his gaze with an unspoken question. Are you ok?. It reminds Bucky that he shouldn’t be, even though he is – mostly, he thinks. He presses his lips together solemnly and nods, a sharp, firm movement that gives away nothing other than the intended message. Sam looks at him for a beat longer before clearing his throat and shifting back towards the window to keep his eyes on the shop where Zemo went.
Sam’s interactions with Zemo are made up almost entirely of barely-restrained hostility, held back only by Sam’s tenuous trust in Bucky, his admirably even temper, and their shared desperation at what could turn out to be a completely dead-end if it weren’t for Zemo. Zemo, for his part, doesn’t seem to mind. He’s almost jovial, completely unruffled by Sam’s bristling and barking, even though he’s well aware that Sam’s bark is no bluff to his bite. When he emerges from the tailor’s with three thick garment bags that he chucks unceremoniously into the trunk, there’s a looseness to his gait. He’s been jailed for some time now. Bucky knows what it’s like to regain control over one’s body after a long period of denial. Not total control, but some control.
Bucky’s not sure how Zemo’s pockets are so deep after all this time, but he’s not complaining when Zemo ushers them up to a small but well-appointed suite of rooms. It’s daytime upon their arrival, and they won’t be going to Low Town until well after dark. Sam is visibly uneasy with the prospect of just waiting around until dark but veers off into a private room anyway. Bucky won’t be able to sleep, but it doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate the supportive hug of the dark gray sectional. He lays with his eyes shut and his body completely still, a facsimile of resting that he’s become accustomed to these days.
He can hear the soft murmur of Sam’s voice through the closed door of the room he’s shut himself in. He’s talking on the phone to someone; maybe his sister or maybe a subordinate. Bucky doesn’t strain to eavesdrop, but he can’t shut out the sound entirely. He opens his eyes to roll over from his front onto his side, but when he does, he sees Zemo sitting motionlessly across the setting from him. The shock – how had he gotten there undetected? How long has he been there? – makes Bucky’s pulse pick up and a pang pierces him that is most closely associated with an adrenaline rush and blistering pain.
But Zemo does not provoke him. He barely reacts to Bucky at all, just flicks his gaze from the book he’s leafing through to Bucky’s face and the flexed strain of his body. Observational and cool. Goosebumps prickle Bucky’s skin and the phantom sensation even spreads down his arm.
When Bucky’s muscles finally unlock from startled rigidity, he sags against the couch. Zemo folds the corner of the page he’s on – surprising Bucky, who would have taken him more for a bookmark guy – and soundlessly sets it down, closed, on the side table, looking completely at home in these rented rooms, wearing a dark green crewneck and shorts identical to the ones that Bucky is wearing. Identical because they, too, belong to Bucky; Sam had understandably refused to share his limited supply of clothes from his duffel with Zemo, for whom they probably would have been too small anyway.
Zemo’s no slouch, but his body is softened from years of limited activity, whereas Sam hasn’t had that luxury. Bucky is in much of the same situation, but he routinely purchases clothes that are slightly too big for him, mostly out of habit. He’s wirier now than he’s been in some time, and the bulkiness of his body just isn’t there to fill out his clothes the same. Zemo looks better in his clothes than he himself does. Zemo looks –
Bucky wonders if Zemo could teach him how he does it – how to disentangle the knots of his nerves and relax, self-assured and not expending any more energy than strictly necessary. Bucky bets Zemo sleeps well, like the dead, when he wants to. Zemo regards him with haughty, stiff-lipped contemplation. For a long while, neither speaks. They haven’t spoken alone since the cell visit. It’s Bucky who breaks first.
“You’re staring at me. Are you trying to play some sort of game? I’m not interested.” It’s only obliquely brushing what he’s trying to say, but he can’t make the words come out correctly. Zemo nods.
“And yet you lay here, belly-up, like a contented housecat.” Zemo certainly implicitly understood Bucky’s meaning and carved right to the heart of it. “Your friend is smarter than you, I think.” Bucky can still hear the faint rumble of Sam’s voice.
“Nothing to worry about from you. I can tune out a fly,” Bucky crows in an impression of nonchalance when nothing could be further from the truth. More missing words, more missing expressions of the truth. Zemo smiles, unbothered, and Bucky’s heart hammers his ribcage. Bucky can’t stop: “You used me.”
“Yes, you’ve said this. And now you use me, mm?” Zemo replies without hesitation, eyebrow aloft. “I don’t relish what I did with you, James, but I am also not ashamed. The blacksmith, of course, only has one use for iron.” Bucky’s face is blank, processing and not processing. Zemo shrugs. “Sokovian saying. Doesn’t translate, I guess.”
Zemo picks his book up again, apparently satisfied with their conversation. He flips to the dogeared page and resumes reading. He looks completely relaxed, one leg crossed over the other. Bucky knows he knows he’s staring, knows that Zemo is politely ignoring him. Why – that Bucky’s not so sure of.
“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Bucky slowly enunciates, not knowing why he’s saying anything at all. Zemo glances up at him again, away from the page he was still poring over. There’s a moment’s hesitation. “I think that’s the saying in English. It could be.”
“Were you the hammer or the nail?”
Silence falls over them again. Bucky closes his eyes, but that only makes him more aware of Zemo in the room, in a different, psychic sort of way, like waves of Zemo’s essence are filling the room, washing over him. He’s felt that way before, with Zemo. Like his skin is no longer permeable to anything but that –
“You used to be a faster reader.”
“And you used to be less talkative if I recall.” But Zemo flings the book good-naturedly at Bucky, who catches it, turning over the blue leather to read the cover. «Ужас, любовь, и контроль сознания». “I am out of practice for reading Russian. Maybe you can help?” There is a tone in his voice that, in anyone else’s voice, Bucky would understand as teasing.
“Kind of on the nose. Did you need to brush up on the subject?” Bucky scoffs at the title. Terror, Love, and Brainwashing. “Doubtful that your Russian is that rusty. You used it plenty.” He tosses the book back across to Zemo. In a single motion, he catches it and puts it back on the table, his focus fully turned back on Bucky.
“Only what I could memorize. Thankfully, I have a good memory,” Zemo drawls. It’s a taunt. Bucky realizes this is the most conversation he’s spoken with someone in his life who’s not Sam, Yori, or Dr. Raynor in quite some time. They’re not saying much, but they are understanding a great deal.
Another lingering oddity is Bucky’s understanding of Russian. It feels innate and reflexive, something that he now knows is only a result of his conditioning. He couldn’t ever translate something reliably, but he knows what things mean. He knows what he’s meant to do when hearing certain things – or what he was meant to do.
“I don’t speak Russian anymore.”
“Well, I’m afraid to tell you that you’ll have to for at least one more night. Selby expects the Winter Soldier and the Winter Soldier, if you recall, speaks Russian.”
“The Winter Soldier doesn’t speak.” A lie, somewhat of a lie.
“You do sometimes,” Zemo replies, not unkindly. Just stating a fact. Bucky bristles.
“I’m not the Winter Soldier, so go ahead and give up whatever fantasy you’re living in.”
“No. You’re not. You were, once, but you’re something more now, I think. Something less, something more. Something different,” Zemo intones, soft and thoughtful, completely without malice. Bucky’s skin feels too tightly stretched over his bones and he closes his eyes again, turning away, feigning disinterest. He feels the weight of Zemo’s gaze linger for a handful of minutes and it takes all of Bucky’s willpower not to open his eyes again, to stare back at Zemo. He was starting to understand why Sam hated his staring.
And then Bucky wakes up, a gasp strangling his throat. His body aches from the unfamiliar comfort of the couch cushions and he’s disoriented. He has no memory of falling asleep, a process that he usually recalls in great detail as he walks himself through the exercises his therapist taught him to help relieve insomnia. But as sure as the constant pinch of metal against his skin, Bucky’s mouth is dry and there’s sand collected at the corner of his eyes. Blearily, he sits up, still sucking in air like he’s at a high altitude.
“Drink some water,” comes Zemo’s voice, cutting through the fog of confusion. Zemo is still seated across from Bucky, nearly identical to how he was before Bucky fell asleep, save for the steaming mug balanced by his hand on his knee. “On the, ah –” he snaps his fingers twice, “– the coffee table,” he says, finding the word.
Bucky gropes for the promised glass and takes unmeasured, incautious drinks of water. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he glances at the clock on the wall but realizes he wasn’t sure when the last time he looked at the time was, anyway. He’s forced to ask Zemo how long he’d been sleeping and is shocked to learn that, according to Zemo (who, Bucky concedes, has no reason to lie), Bucky’s been asleep for nearly four uninterrupted hours. He hasn’t willingly continuously slept for that long since – for a long time.
He says nothing to Zemo after that and Zemo says nothing to him.
When Sam emerges from the room he sequestered himself in, he first looks surprised to see them there – Zemo, sunken into the chair, head lolling with drowsiness, and Bucky, sprawled across the divan and halfway through Zemo’s book. His appearance breaks Bucky’s focus early enough for him to see Sam’s expression flip from surprised to annoyed. Or he might be pissed off. There’s such a thin line, and Bucky still can’t reliably tell the difference. He just knows that when Sam is pissed off, Bucky’s bound to get snark, and if Sam’s annoyed, well, he’ll just ignore Bucky entirely. He was good like that, rarely lashing out.
Looks like he’s pissed off, actually.
“So are we going, or what? Sorry to interrupt your book club.” No bites – Zemo, a picture of patient civility, and Bucky, embarrassed to have been caught in a weirdly relaxing moment and thrown and disoriented from reading so much Russian, which he wasn’t sure he had retained as well as his listening comprehension. It’s Zemo who stands and speaks first as he shakes the laxness of sleep off.
“We are going – as soon as we’re dressed. You’ve come to tell us it’s time to leave but you’re not wearing your suit yet, Smiling Tiger?” Zemo smirks his way through his quip and Bucky can practically see the vein pop out of Sam’s forehead, barely restrained, before he whirls back into the room and forcefully shuts the door. There’s a clattering sound like something’s been dropped. Zemo meets Bucky’s eyes and says, “You too. The Winter Soldier has a reputation to uphold.”
In the other private room, Bucky pulls the familiar-unfamiliar clothes from the garment bag. He slides his finger over the leather and the straps, the stitching where another sleeve should be but isn’t. His arm isn’t always an encumberment, but he uses it as little as possible for mundane tasks like these – zipping, buckling, buttoning. On more than one occasion he’s cracked a snap between his fingers, just by accident. And, for all the strength that his arm gives him, it doesn’t exactly match the dexterity of his flesh hand. Bucky won’t ever play piano, is what he means.
When he’s dressed, he examines his appearance in the mirror. He looks tired, more tired even than he did even when he was deprogrammed. Or maybe he looks old – in the years between deprogramming and now, was he aging faster to make up for the time he’d cheated, or been cheated of? Had Steve’s proximity in those years (terrible, long, bruised years) been keeping him young?
Bucky doesn’t want to think about Steve. It’s still too raw. It will probably always be too raw right until he dies. Sam – Bucky knows that Sam and Steve had a bond. Steve respected Sam completely and was to him a brother in arms; Sam, in turn, admired Steve deeply. This had, Bucky has come to decide, been a significant source of tension in those early days. And now they’re torturing each other, reminding one another of Steve and twisting the knife in a never-ending loop.
He’s glad he’s wearing strange clothes tonight. He can’t help but be somewhat relieved that he doesn’t have to be Bucky Barnes tonight, if only for a few hours. He’ll be someone else. Bucky Barnes has many responsibilities; the person that he’ll be tonight just has one.
(Listen. Obey. Go. Stop. Be still. Obey. Wait. Wait. Obey.)
He hates himself for thinking it.
Without knocking, Sam pokes his head in, already dressed. When Bucky turns to face him, Sam is already making a face about his own outfit (when Sam makes a face, it’s often him making no face at all; the attitude is just that apparent). He looks good, though – whoever this Smiling Tiger actually was, he dressed well, and Zemo had replicated the look perfectly.
Maybe Sam did look a little like a pimp. It’s not a bad thing – it’s imbuing Sam with preternatural edge and confidence, giving him a mean but alluring look. It’s also a good strategy in a place like this.
“Come on, man, patterned everything?” Sam grumbles, but Bucky can tell he’s not really mad about it.
“Looks good on you, the necklace is a nice touch. Maybe you should talk to Zemo about getting some new duds,” Bucky suggests somewhat earnestly with his approximation of a smile.
“Duds, really? We have got to work on your vocabulary,” Sam rumbles, returning the smile with something far more real than anything Bucky could attempt. Bucky shrugs and stalks towards the door. As he passes, Sam reaches out and touches his arm with his fingertips. “Oh, you’ve got – on your shoulders, two more buckles.”
Seeing Sam gesture in the general area of the back of his shoulders, Bucky attempts to catch a glance at the alleged missed buckles. He catches one in his hand and clips it to its end piece on his side, but when he reaches for the other with his prosthetic, he can’t maneuver well enough to fasten it. Sam lets him try admirably for a little longer than Bucky would have liked to have done in his presence before finally rescuing Bucky: “Here, let me.”
“I’m pretty sure some of these are decorative,” Bucky complains as Sam secures the buckle. Sam steps back to take in the getup and nods.
“Dickhead definitely had too much fun playing dress-up on us,” he asserts. “Looking like Edward Scissorhands.” He pauses. “You ever seen that?”
“No, and I won’t.” Sam slaps him on the back amiably.
In the main room, Zemo has his socked feet propped up on the coffee table, looking particularly foolish with his heavy coat and gloves on but no shoes. Disconcertingly human. His eyes flash delightedly as he takes in Sam and Bucky.
“You look perfect,” he compliments both of them and, indirectly, himself. Bucky’s not sure why it bothers him. “You’re ready?” he confirms, standing and straightening his clothes, adjusting his collar.
They’re ready, and Bucky’s as ready as he could ever be, in these foreign-familiar clothes, sitting with a foreign-familiar feeling.
“You good?” The look in Sam’s eyes is sincere and frightening in its sincerity. Bucky doesn’t know how to answer, so he just exhales sharply. Truthfully, it’s like his body is flooded with dopamine. He feels more than good, which makes him feel terrible.
He hates how easy it was to bend to Zemo’s will like that – if Bucky had had a real choice, if their lives hadn’t been dependent on it, he might still have done what he was asked to do. Told to do. He doesn’t fully understand the bonds he has with his – supervisors. Handlers. There were handlers like Steve, who he’s known for a long time and whose methods were unique; never had he used Bucky’s activation words, and even if he had the opportunity, he never would have taken it. Steve was one of Bucky’s handlers anyway.
There were handlers like Rumlow, or Pierce, or Karpov; he sometimes feels anger towards them, in a distant, detached sort of way.
And Zemo – just the one experience was enough for that seed to lay sturdy roots. These things felt physiological as if the Winter Soldier program had its claws so deep into him that, even with what felt like complete deprogramming, it could still impact his body. As Zemo said, there was a part of the program that could never be scrubbed from his mind, not completely. It’s true.
And it had not felt bad to be fighting as Zemo’s Winter Soldier again, even if it had only been pretend. Bucky had felt different and he’d fought differently. He didn’t realize until that moment how much he had learned to pull his punches in the years since his deprogramming. He felt powerful.
In the backroom, Zemo doesn’t look at him for a long time, but when he does, he looks proud, appraising, a little – well. The look is half performance, Bucky knows that – his body is what’s for sale here, a package deal with his total compliance. He knows it wouldn’t be the first time, either. Pierce, among others, had significantly enriched his own life with the power of the little red book.
But the other half of the look feels real.
And the touch – that feels real, too, a live current of electricity traveling through him. Zemo’s gloves are smooth, fine leather and his touch feels entitled and uncompromising. Desperately familiar. His blood prickles his skin as it rushes through his body. His heart thuds sickeningly. He doesn’t react outwardly.
Bucky is concerned by the lack of crisis this inspires in him. He simply holds his position, a fixture of the room. How many times has he performed this same routine? Waiting to be told to kill, to fuck. Patiently letting his body be traded, less than the sum of its parts. And yet – Zemo’s hands on his arms, on his face, his soft, curled words send aches coursing through his body. Phantom memories, false sensations, conditioned desires.
He does not look at Sam, looking at him with those eyes – kind, concerned, angered. He lets everything but Zemo drop away as he performs. He goes under. The people in the room are just bodies, just like he is. Bodies with arms and legs and beating hearts, just breathing shadows. Except for Zemo. Everything could fade into ambient noise because, Bucky thinks distantly and in a tone of rising internal distress, Zemo will tell Bucky what to do, when it needs doing, and until that time comes, Bucky can just cycle through his resting commands. Respond to a threat. Ignore everything else.
When the shooting starts, he’s still floating beneath the still surface of his consciousness.
Knowing Sam won’t question it, and not caring if Sharon does, Bucky ducks into a side room with his fresh clothes. It’s not a new thing that, when given the chance, Bucky will avoid showing skin. He wasn’t always self-conscious about that sort of thing; it came later.
Bucky is peeling his gear off like it’s searing his skin. The gloves, first, to give him more dexterity when stripping off his outer jacket and wrestling with the zipper. He’s sweating along his neck and the cool, stale air of the room feels refreshing. He can’t be in this uniform any longer. It feels like too much, too personal, too out-of-body. He knows he lost time while in Selby’s bar – he started coming back into full control of his body mid-sprint, and then the prior events of the night played through his brain like a record on double time.
Zemo speaking in a tranquilizing voice. The broken bones at the bar front. Zemo’s hands on him, the hint of leather against his lips. A void where the rest of the world should be and just the blinding, soothing pillar of fire that was Zemo’s presence.
Bucky aches, and a red-hot shudder, terrifying and powerful, scalds his guts.
He sheds the jacket and begins to remove the vest, unclipping the buckles on his right side – along his abdomen and over his shoulder. It’s easy enough using his right hand, but when he thrusts his hand to his left side, fearing that he’ll crush the plastic buckles with his prosthetic, he finds that he can’t reach. Just like he couldn’t reach before.
Bucky feels helpless. He feels panic rising up his throat and he fumbles with the buckles at his side, knowing that if he can undo those, he can slip out of the vest. The stifling, rigid vest. The panic rises more and he yields to it, grasping one of the buckles between his metal fingers and compressing it as gently as he can.
But it’s not gentle enough. The buckle snaps, crushed in such a way that it’s jammed itself. He could just rip all of the straps off entirely and be done with it – but he doesn’t want to give in to that. As much as Bucky is desperate to be free of the suddenly constrictive suit, it was still a gift, and he can’t owe Zemo anything. Anything.
Bucky is shocked at the alien sensation of hot tears rolling down his cheeks. He’s not sad, he’s not truly crying at all, it’s just like how he sometimes wakes up with salty tracks on his face, not knowing how they got there. His face feels hot. He tries to recall how his therapist would talk him through a panic attack.
Bucky’s breath comes out in a whoosh as his eyes snap open in response to the pressure in the room changing. Zemo has materialized somehow, slipped in with the door cracked just a few inches, exactly how he’d found it. Bucky’s not sure how long his eyes have been closed or, for that matter, how long Zemo’s been there. The humiliation of being caught freaking out is like a bucket of cold water being dumped over him. He feels his shields going up in response. But Zemo just looks evenly at Bucky, face placid even friendly. Consciously nonthreatening.
They’re silent for a long moment. Alone, again. Bucky doesn’t breathe, knowing that Zemo will hear the tremor in his exhale with the same acuteness that Bucky can hear the steadying drum of his heart.
Zemo crosses the room to Bucky, neither slowly nor quickly. Even around Sam sometimes, Bucky feels somewhat like a wild animal. Or maybe a tamed but undomesticated animal. He watched a program once on Seigfried and Roy. Even people who ostensibly trust him still have the smell of fear on them, like perhaps Bucky will snap without warning. But Zemo approaches him naturally and confidently like he’s just stepping up to adjust a tilted painting.
When Zemo gets within distance to touch him, Bucky jerks back. Zemo doesn’t react verbally; without hesitation, he grasps a left-side strap and firmly tugs to turn Bucky slightly so he can work. He moves Bucky to where he wants him, rather than moving around Bucky.
He starts with the buckle at his shoulder, then progresses to the buckles along the side and back. When he reaches the crushed one, he yanks the strap away from Bucky’s body slightly and says, “Rip this one off.”
Bucky does it immediately. He pulls the strap until it rips free on one side and then the other with the sound of fabric tearing. He holds the broken strap limply in his hand; he followed the order and now waited for something else, defaulting to no action at all. Zemo ignores this and continues with the other straps until they’re all unclasped. He wordlessly lifts the vest and gear over Bucky’s head and deposits it on a small table. Still, Bucky stands motionless.
Zemo returns to unsnap the thick shirt beneath, parting it with clinical hands. Bucky has to look down slightly at Zemo as he works. Zemo is still fully dressed in his furred overcoat, in his gloves and boots, even as he undresses Bucky since Bucky, apparently, can’t do it himself tonight. The shirt is tugged down his arms and folded neatly before Zemo lays it beside the gear. Bucky is halfway undressed and Zemo hasn’t even taken off his gloves.
“I take care of things that are mine,” he says simply, and it snaps Bucky out of whatever trance he had comfortably fallen into under Zemo’s hands. Bucky rips himself away, burned by the words. He’s suddenly overcome – riding the wake of a panic attack, crashing from adrenaline, dopamine clearing from his system, startled and fearful of the words he’s just heard.
“Fuck you,” he spits bitterly.
“I meant the harness, but it seems rather telling that you identified yourself in that,” Zemo says smoothly. Pompously, daring Bucky to call out his lie. Bucky sees red.
“What’s your fucking angle, huh? You – you owe me. I am the reason you’re even here,” he growls, taking Zemo by the lapel and shoving him bodily against the wall, pinning him there with the force of his grip. Zemo couldn’t fight back, not really – a former kill-squad trooper stood a better chance than some, but the outcome was already set.
Zemo’s face makes Bucky’s belly twist, his thin mouth twisted in a placating smile and patronizing look in his eyes. He wants to crush Zemo’s throat in his hand. They both knew he could do it. Zemo rests his hand on Bucky’s arm – not pushing him away, not clawing at him to get away, just resting, laying his hand on him gently like one would quiet a horse.
“And I’m helping you find your terrorist and the serums, so we’re even, it seems.”
Bucky grinds his teeth together. “Stop it. Whatever you’re doing, stop it. You don’t own me. The words don’t work anymore.” Zemo nods thoughtfully – as much as he can in Bucky’s rough hold. His grip tightens, crushing Zemo against the wall until he winces, but Zemo’s hand on Bucky’s arm is still gentle.
“You know,” Zemo says slowly, chewing on his words before he spits them out, “I am the last living person who knows all the contents of your red book by heart. You can feel it, can’t you, James?”
“ Fuck you.”
“You have the look of a man who does not sleep easily or much. But you slept so well on the divan. Why do you think that is?” Zemo’s eyes are calm and still as the surface of an icy lake. He doesn’t wait for Bucky to respond. “You don’t have to answer out loud. I know the answer – the question is not for me.”
Bucky’s fist tightens around the leather of the coat in his grip until he hears stitches popping. Zemo’s gloved hand curls around Bucky’s arm comfortingly. He speaks again:
“Finish getting ready for the party, James, I’m sure...” he pauses, searching for the name, “... Sharon will be looking for us soon.”
“I don’t follow commands,” he grinds out, shaking Zemo like a dog with a toy.
“Yes, everything you do now is your choice, James – the good and the bad. No one else. Just you.”
“Can you cut it out with the mind games already? It’s really starting to bore me.”
“I’m not playing any games. It’s my responsibility, and my right, to uphold my end of the agreement – I accepted it the moment I first spoke with you in Berlin,” he murmurs. Caliginous eyes, soft and wickedly sharp.
Bucky wants to shout at him. The words are in his throat. He wants to shout until he believes his own personhood as much as he wants Zemo to believe it, too. He doesn’t. He relaxes his hand.
“As soon as this is done, you’re going back. So yuck it up.”
Zemo slips to the door, not lingering in Bucky’s airspace any longer than necessary. Zemo’s a lot of things, but he’s not an idiot, for better or for worse.
In theory, Bucky likes parties. He hates the part where it’s very loud and someone might puke on his shoes, and normally he’s not too keen on crowds at all, but he can disappear at a party like this. The low lights, the pounding music, the freely flowing booze that keeps everyone distracted.
After making an initial pass around the space, more out of habit than anything else, Bucky wedges himself between the bar and the wall. He orders himself a full tumbler of whiskey, which takes some convincing of the bartender even though it’s an open bar. Bucky knows if he drinks quickly enough he’ll get buzzed for at least twenty minutes, up to forty if he’s lucky.
Through the flashing lights, Bucky watches Sam talking rather animatedly with Sharon and a friend of hers, and Bucky’s glad to see it. It won’t last, but he thinks that the scene at Selby’s bar was as challenging for Sam as it was for him, and so Sam deserves even a brief reprieve where he can feel normal, holding the complete attention of two attractive women.
Bucky drains the whiskey.
His gaze is drawn magnetically to Zemo, who is unabashedly enjoying the night and throwing himself on the dance floor. Maybe this is what the good baron was like before everything, going out with his wife. He should look awkward – he does look awkward, pumping his fist and clapping to the beat in a turtleneck – but it’s not just Bucky who’s watching him. Some even dare to do more than watch. The magnetism is originating from his earnest enjoyment, making him approachable and attractive in his still-boyish looks.
Zemo is dancing face-to-face with a short blonde, both bumping along to the beat and having a half-shouted conversation. His face is soft-drowsy except for the big, genuine-looking smile he busts out every few minutes. It makes him look younger, less world-weary; less like someone who’d lost so much and caused so much pain in return. The woman – girl, really – is gesturing to him and saying something, but he shakes his head, smiling, and points at his ear: Sorry, I can’t hear you. In a fluid motion, he steps forward, brushing his hand over her hip to rest it on the curve of her lower back and hold them flush together.
Sex isn’t really on Bucky’s radar these days as something achievable for him, but he knows game when he sees it. The girl’s acrylic-tipped hand flits up to curl over Zemo’s bicep, making more room for them to let their hips slot together.
It’s probably ten minutes before Bucky realizes he’s been virtually motionlessly watching Zemo. He’s watched the dance get slower and harder and he’s watched Zemo dip his head down to speak directly into her ear, his lips just barely brushing her skin. In his daze he watched them kissing, deep and suggestive, swaying to the hypnotic rhythm of the song. By the time Bucky comes back to full awareness, Zemo has his hand sliding down her ass and is saying something right against her neck. They both giggle and resume kissing, albeit with considerably more mutual groping – his hands roaming over her back and sides, her hands fluttering around his arms, their legs notched together.
There’s a weird feeling in Bucky’s belly, but he’s not sure what it is. He can see the wet-slick slide of Zemo’s tongue with his partner’s, the natural way he’s holding her hips against his. She’s going all loose in his arms, and Bucky looks away when she tosses her hair to one side, exposing the pale column of her throat for Zemo’s reddened mouth. The feeling is on the tip of his tongue.
Zemo cups her breast in his hand, gentle as anything. She pulls back, giggles into his mouth, pushes her chest out indulgently. Bucky finishes another drink. He’s well and truly buzzed now. They grind slower and filthier, matching the mood of the party that now throbs with a sticky beat. Her hair spills over her back, a cascade of gold, transforming them, transfiguring Zemo into a pillar of flames. The girl’s arm disappears between their bodies for a second, five, twenty, thirty, a minute and a half.
Then Zemo’s running his hands up her sides and holding her hands up near their shoulders as he speaks against her ear. He kisses her once, twice, a smile, thrice, then draws away. His shirt is rumpled and his pants look tight in the front as he heads towards the bar. Bucky looks away as Zemo gets closer, tries to blend in with the sea of black jackets, but it’s too late – Zemo has spotted him. Zemo shoulders his way through the crowd, to the bar, next to Bucky.
”Negroni for me and another of what he’s drinking for him. Yeah, thank you.” He turns, angling his body towards Bucky’s, hips easy and open like he’s not still sporting forty-to-fifty-five percent of an erection.
“Thought you were married.” Bucky hates himself for breaking first. Zemo smiles wryly, looking a bit mischievous, if he could look like that.
“I’m a widower, not a robot,” he retorts, and Bucky knows it’s intended to get to him. “You could go out there yourself. These women would just eat you alive if you let them.” Bucky says nothing, just accepts the third – fourth? – drink from the bartender with a nod. He thinks he’s been drinking more in the day or so since Zemo joined them than he has in the past year.
“Don’t talk to me anymore. I was having a nice night,” Bucky grouches. He’s annoyed to hear himself sound so petulant. He drinks faster now, ignoring Zemo’s raised brows.
“Can you get drunk?” Zemo asks, leaning further into Bucky’s space, sounding genuinely curious, eyes alight, like he’s huddling the information away. He smells like sweaty club bodies, musky and layered, fragrant liquor clinging to his breath.
“Drinking for the taste, then?”
Zemo is blessedly silent for a long while, nursing his drink. Bucky, for his part, keeps his vision firmly away from Zemo’s general area, even though they’re close enough for their arms to brush together whenever either of them takes a sip. Bucky’s completely on edge. He wants Sam to come over. Even better, Sharon should come so they can go find Nagel and be one step closer to Zemo ceasing to breathe down Bucky’s neck, or ceasing to breathe at all – Bucky wasn’t picky.
Zemo’s evenness is slightly unnerving to Bucky, who hasn’t been able to really get to him. The biggest negative reaction Bucky had gotten was a slight inhale and a pause. He’s being too – nice, if a man Zemo could be such a thing to a man like Bucky. Zemo is interested but subdued. Very clearly testing boundaries, methodically, testing for soft, vulnerable bruises and tender openings. Getting a foothold wherever he finds one, but not pressing too hard. Not to seem suspiciously interested and give Bucky enough reason to kill him, for real.
He’s agreeable and thoughtful. And very smart and observant, and good at reading people, working a room. Playing anyone, no stopping for breath, no hesitation. No hesitation – when presented with an opportunity, taking it. Seizing the opportunity, at the very first chance, to plunge Bucky beneath the surface, to make him obey by his own choice. The lowest form of humiliation – willing subjugation.
But Bucky had felt good. A solid, brick-heavy sense of satisfaction had settled in his gut and a pleasant, hazy distance from himself.
But, after – now, actually, right now, Bucky feels miserable. Worse than he did before. He knows sleep won’t find him for a long time. Who knows how long? His body has done a reliable job of punishing him in Hydra’s stead. Later, or soon, Bucky might even accidentally starve himself for a few days because the sight of food makes him nauseous. The point is, Bucky feels miserable.
And he hates to admit it, but he would like to feel less miserable. And Zemo is making Bucky feel bad, and strange, and angry, but he’s not making Bucky miserable. While Bucky does wish that whatever bubble they’ve put themselves in would be burst by Sam, or Sharon, or maybe the sprinkler system, he’s not moving away, either. Which he could. Bucky could.
But he doesn’t.
He has a choice but he feels as though he can’t choose anything but what he’s choosing. A pathetic, helpless feeling that he wants to squash like a pest. But still, he stays.
Zemo raises his hand as if he’s preparing to speak and Bucky reflexively angles his body slightly towards him. Zemo looks over at him, with a patronizingly faux-surprised expression. He pauses, lips parted, and then seems to change his mind and say something different than what he’d intended to.
“I like your haircut.”
“I don’t care.”
“When did you do it? ”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“They say that getting a new hairstyle is a way to reinvent oneself. That’s why I’ve kept mine much the same.”
“I didn’t ask, and I don’t care about your hair, and stop talking to me. Can you go and feel someone up or something, and buzz off?” Clever cockroach.
“You are far more interesting.”
Later, earlier in the morning rather than later at night, in Zemo’s supercharged car, Zemo drapes his arm over the seat. Not touching him, not quite, but Bucky can feel the heat of Zemo’s skin radiating through the heavy trench coat. Equally, he can feel the prickle of Sam’s stare boring into the back of his head.
The radio crackles. Zemo has it tuned into an oldies station (Bucky remembers learning that noun phrase) and Bucky’s grateful for something aside from the whipping wind to cover the silence. The station is playing songs in a mix of languages, seemingly more themed around a time than around any particular country. The signal isn’t very good, and static interrupts every song at least a couple of times.
It’s cold, but no one brings up putting the top back up. The top down probably feels too much like freedom for all of them. The contact point between metal and flesh on his shoulder feels especially raw and painful, freezing and hypersensitive. Bucky’s reminded that this is how it used to be, all the time, sometimes worse.
The tactile memories are the easiest to access but always the fuzziest. It had been painful for Bucky, but not for the Winter Soldier. He remembers things like that as if he were looking at them through murky water, or peering into the darkness and watching the shadows take form right before his eyes, a trick of the dark.
So he can remember being cold and can remember that it hurt, and he knows that there’s scarring there from wounds made raw and unable to heal from constant use. But he can’t recall the actual pain or a proxy for it. Tasting just a hint of what he knows the pain was is grounding somehow. A reminder that he was alive, is alive.
Sam’s face pops up between his and Zemo’s. Zemo’s arm slides away to make room for Sam to lean up against the front row.
“Ok, I know these are the tunes of your youth,” he says to Bucky, ignoring the fact that most of what the radio’s playing is from the 50s when he certainly had no access to this kind of music, “but I’d rather listen to nothing at all. I hate crooners.”
“You know,” Zemo says, shaking a gloved finger, “Sinatra did not call himself a crooner. Thought it was degrading.”
“How do you know the word ‘degrading’ but you don’t know ‘coffee table’?” Bucky interjects. Sam joins in, happy to have implicit permission to jump down Zemo’s throat.
“I didn’t mean it as a compliment. Ol’ blue eyes can stay mad in his grave,” Sam fires back. He leans forward further, nearly folding himself over the seat to reach the dial.
Over Sam’s back, Zemo casts a glance at Bucky, and Bucky is embarrassed to have been the one looking first. A smile plays over Zemo’s lips.
“‘Coffee table’ is a specialized word. We don’t call the table like that in Sokovian. ‘Degrading’… less specialized. I don’t have to say ‘coffee table’ very often.”
Bucky looks away to focus his attention on Sam, who’s scanning through the available radio stations. He hits a station playing orchestral music and looks like he’s considering it. It’s not crooning, after all.
“You should sit with your seatbelt,” Zemo admonishes Sam, his eyes fixed on the road. “James would have a decent chance to survive a car crash, but you and I… not so much.”
“Are you planning on crashing the car?” Sam snaps back. “That rusty from being in the clink?” Zemo doesn’t know this word – Bucky sees his brow momentarily furrow as he uses context clues to ascertain the meaning.
“No, but accidents happen.” Zemo hasn’t risen to the bait even once, although Bucky knows that Zemo was delighted when Sam had to drink the snake-guts shooter. He’s calm, collected, and calculated, and apparently, he’s calculated that allowing Sam to get his goat won’t equal a good outcome. Zemo’s eyes slide over to Bucky once again, only fleetingly but long enough that Bucky can taste what he’s not saying.
But he’s not saying it. Bucky’s not sure how much Sam knows, if Sam knows that this is something that plagues him still. Sam gives no indication he’s thinking about it at all, leaving Bucky and Zemo in this shared knowledge alone together.
It’s Sam’s turn to get some fresh air, and their unspoken agreement is that Zemo, under no circumstances, can be left to his own devices. Even so, Zemo’s still in his post-shower robe, lounging on the chaise, not particularly looking like he will try to flee or make a real problem of himself at the current moment.
Bucky and Zemo have been sitting alone in the lavish sitting room of Zemo’s Riga apartment for only a few minutes before Zemo begins talking. That fact in and of itself puts Bucky on edge: whatever Zemo wants to talk about can’t be said in mixed company and perhaps needs as much time as he can muster.
“During your deprogramming, did they use your book as a reference?” Zemo asks mildly, conversationally. He takes a sip of his newly-poured liquor. The shattered, wet remnants of his previous attempt lay unswept by the wall that Bucky shattered them on.
Zemo doesn’t even look up from his book – he’s now reading something in Sokovian, of which Bucky has little command. The thick fabric binding of the book is blood red. The very sight of it makes Bucky’s skin crawl. “James?” Zemo prompts patiently, still reading.
Bucky clears his throat. “Yeah.” At that, Zemo looks up at him with bright, calculating eyes.
“That’s very good – they deprogrammed all the correct words, correct sequences. Every trigger written in there, yes?” Zemo clips through his words in his lilting, condescending accent. Bucky might be imagining it, but he sees Zemo’s lip curling at the corner. A whisper of a smile.
“Tell me this: there was an appendix. « Эксплуатация», ты вспоминаешь?”
“You keep saying your Russian isn’t very good, but you can’t keep it out of your mouth.”
“We’ve reached the limits of my knowledge, but let’s please focus, солдат.” The hair on the back of Bucky’s neck stands up straight and goosebumps prick his arms. “The appendix. Do you remember it? At the end.”
Bucky hates to recall even the appearance of the book, but in his mind, he can clearly picture the hand-scrawled contents on the inner flap. At the end: Эксплуатация. ‘Maintenance.’ He nods.
He remembers sitting in a cold room with Wakandan intelligence officers and scientists as they pored over the pages, asking questions of him in soft, kind voices and speaking rapidly to each other in Xhosa when they sensed he was at his limit for questions. ‘Maintenance,’ the last section, had only contained two pages of instructions: preventing sleep, cryo waking protocols, key phrases to elicit a report of non-visible injuries to reduce examination time, and recreational guidelines. This last item was a terrible euphemism – recreational for whom?
“I am going to ask you a question. Understand that it is purely scientific in nature, James,” Zemo says evenly. Bucky snorts – as if something being ‘scientific’ is supposed to make him feel less apprehensive. If Zemo were really intelligent at all, he would have put two and two together. He continues: “Would you say these days that you’re sexually active?”
Bucky opens his mouth and snaps it closed just as quickly. The subject has come up exactly twice, not counting this incident: once, when he first started therapy. Dr. Raynor had a list of queries they needed to review, and near the middle of the list was ‘sexual dysfunction.’ Bucky had responded that to have dys function, one had to have had function to begin with.
Sexual performance – yes. He performed, or had performed. The Winter Soldier had performed those duties as well as his others. But those memories were, more often than not, foggy, hidden in a haze Bucky was, frankly, grateful for. After his deprogramming, it was worse – his libido had been restored but he couldn’t finish, whether by someone else’s hand or his own. As warmly as someone like Raynor could, she had assured Bucky that these things take time.
The second time was perhaps a year after that when Raynor circled back to the topic. The last time we spoke about this, you told me that your… Hold on, I have it written down… Ok, here it is: ‘Libido – low; anorgasmia.’ How are you feeling now? There’s no rush, no pressure – but I want to be sure that I can provide the support you need as you work through this. Bucky told her everything had been solved, it had taken care of itself; he lied, and she may have known it, but Raynor accepted his statement as fact, or fact enough to leave him alone.
He couldn’t bear talking about it, so much so that, in truth, he’d given up some time ago. On occasion, he would try to masturbate. Inevitably, no matter the tricks he tried, Bucky would end up running off the pent-up tension and disappointment instead, pounding pavement until he was far outside the city and too tired to run back.
Bucky’s not even sure he likes women anymore – or, rather, if he likes anyone at all anymore. In his fantasies, whenever he hates himself enough to entertain them, it’s not any person he can identify – just a familiar, frightening pressure in his skull. He gets closest when he thinks about nothing at all and lets the pressure fizzle over his body.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Zemo segues smoothly, quirking his brows.
“I’m busy,” Bucky sneers. “I’ve been a little fucking busy recently. Are you saying prison’s been good for your sex life?” He’s not sure what he’s alleging. He’s just mad, embarrassed, nervous, cornered. All of the above.
“If you will recall, James, my wife was killed by some of your friends and, during my period of mourning, I was planning an event you might remember quite clearly,” Zemo says matter-of-factly. Bucky barely restrains himself from striking Zemo, not for the first time that day. “Prison had no impact on my sex life, let’s say.”
“Your book had a detailed log of your conditioning, even for your secondary function – how was it called? Recreational,” he says matter-of-factly. “How much of it do you remember?”
Conditioning. Here, the word makes Bucky want to spit. Instead, he says: “I remember enough.” Every day he remembers more, and every day he feels those newly-discovered parts of himself rip into his current existence.
Zemo regards him with a penetrating expression, meeting Bucky’s fierce gaze unflinchingly. He comes to a decision. Bucky can see it click into place.
“Come up to the center room in two minutes. We’ll begin then.” Zemo delicately deposits his glass on the countertop, not pausing to hit Bucky with a signature smarmy look, just walking neither slowly nor quickly out of the room, passing through the corridor, climbing the stairs. No waiting, no rushing.
Bucky lets himself be deluded by his own power for a full 70 seconds. He turns over the conversation in his mind, tries to map out what would happen if he walks upstairs to the center room (what will happen when he does what he’s told). He really does let himself imagine not doing it; he would simply stay in the sitting room and drink some tea or do a sudoku puzzle. Sure.
After 71 seconds, his body is transporting itself across the narrow hall, up the stairs, and standing in front of the open door to the bedroom. He steps inside, and Zemo watches him with crossed arms.
“You need not do anything but listen. Do you understand?”
Bucky’s not sure this will work, whatever Zemo is about to do (a lie, he knows, just like he knew he would come here) . He’s afraid that it won’t work and he’ll be left humiliated, his shame laid bare before someone who will weaponize it. He’s afraid it will work – because, what then? What can his life be after?
“You’re out of practice: tell me you understand.” Zemo’s voice is cool and sharp and Bucky’s gaze snaps up involuntarily. His eyes are tenebrous pits that Bucky is sinking into, slipping under the surface. Inhale, hold your breath. Bucky nods.
His mouth is parched and his skin stings from the rebuke, however mild. But his response seems to satisfy. Good. Zemo approaches him, blooming with superiority and confidence. Bucky lets his gaze fall to Zemo’s chin and throat and doesn’t think about why he knows that he should look there rather than in Zemo’s eyes or at the floor. His blood stirs as Zemo studies his face, his body. Long moments of silence pass and Bucky takes deep, even breaths, letting himself settle into holding his position.
Finally, about to speak, Zemo inhales, sucking all of the air out of the room.
Bucky drops to the floor like he’s been shot, his breath whooshing out of him like he’s been punched. It occurs to him distantly, in some far-off part of whoever ‘Bucky’ is, that maybe he should have laid down on the bed instead of just laying down on the floor like a dog –
Zemo’s face is gentle. A mocking, fond smile. That far-off part of Bucky’s mind grows more distant. Zemo uses his foot to nudge Bucky’s legs open, creating a v-shaped space that he kneels in. He does not explain what he’ll be doing to the bod– to Bucky. Bucky, Bucky, Bucky, Buddy, buddy, body, body, body –
“Don’t go somewhere else in your mind. Stay here in this room.” Bucky feels his attention get vacuumed back into his body, not the body, an automatic response to the command. Looking somewhere around Zemo’s shoulders through slitted eyes, Bucky peripherally watches Zemo shuffle forward on his knees and lay his hands at the top of Bucky’s thighs where they meet his groin. He does not react; he remains perfectly still and keeps his breath deep and even.
“Good,” Zemo hums, a pleased, amused sound.
The word slithers down Bucky’s spine. He clenches his toes, out of Zemo’s line of sight. Resting at the apex of Bucky’s thighs, Zemo’s thumbs rub circles through the material of his jeans, bunching it in his hands and stretching it thin over Bucky’s pelvis. The tension from the denim suddenly makes Bucky aware that he’s getting hard. He’s not fully there yet, but this small indication of interest from his body is shocking to him.
He read online about this kind of thing, theorized that maybe he had been irreversibly programmed to need to be dominated sexually, and even booked a session with a professional dominatrix. She had been beautiful and patient and focused and ultimately unsuccessful. When she ran out of psychological tactics, Bucky knew the game was over – it wasn’t as if she could do anything to him physically to get a reaction from him. What could she possibly do to approach his limits?
But this – it’s something beyond that. It’s what he’s been feeling this entire time in Zemo’s presence: a pressure, a spider’s silk thread of connection making him attuned to Zemo’s microemotions, beyond language. The hands softly resting on him feel like they’re sinking through his flesh and smoothing out the muscle beneath. His cock jerks as sour anxiety bubbles in his chest.
He can’t place the look in Zemo’s eyes. It frightens him, like the many times he’s been frightened of hearing his sequence of trigger words. And yet he stays.
Zemo moves firmly but carefully, like he’s inspecting a handgun, turning it over in his hands to check for flaws and to admire its craftsmanship. He unbuttons the shiny gold button on Bucky’s jeans; Bucky’s gaze follows the gleam of the little metal disk as Zemo unhurriedly unzips him. The interested bulge of Bucky’s cock in his briefs is apparent now.
Zemo ignores it and instructs Bucky to take his jeans off completely. Or, rather, cooperate with Zemo taking them off for him. He folds them into a neat square that he hands to Bucky: “Put it under your head, since you wanted to lay on the floor.” Bucky complies wordlessly, so Zemo continues.
Bucky feels a warm hand move over his belly and peel down his briefs; without being prompted, Bucky obediently lifts his hips to facilitate this last scrap of clothing being shuffled down to his knees, peeled off one leg, then the other. Zemo takes Bucky gently in hand, still mostly soft, just plumped up enough to matter. Even against Bucky’s flushed skin, Zemo is warm, and his grip is steady and appraising. Zemo massages him, inspects his flesh. Bucky watches how his eyes dart about, pulling in as much information as he can about Bucky’s body and reactions.
And Bucky does react. Slowly, but the fact that he’s responding at all makes his heart hammer against his ribs. He’s laying down but his head spins as he watches his cock grow hard in Zemo’s grip. And it doesn’t feel reflexive, like however many handfuls of erections he’s achieved in the years since his deprogramming, not just an uncontrollable bodily reaction to a sensation. He feels that mysterious feeling again, sharp and concentrated: желан–
Zemo strokes slowly. Observationally, his hand glides up over the faint circumcision scar to enclose the tip. With his other hand, Zemo traces a finger along the pale ridge of a different scar that cuts jaggedly across Bucky’s thigh to his groin.
He doesn’t ask about it, but Bucky is prepared to answer anyway: he was loaned to one of the senior leaders for a weekend, and the result was a blood transfusion after he had been sliced too deeply and savagely through the tender skin encasing his femoral artery. They theorized that the skin had scarred since it was unable to begin the healing process immediately after the injury due to traumatic blood loss. After sufficient experimentation, he was sent back to the same senior leader with better guidelines as an apology from Pierce for the disruption.
Maybe Zemo already knows. He knows, probably, he’s seen whatever files there are to see. It’s embarrassing to imagine what Zemo knows about him, things that probably no one other person knows themselves – a flesh-and-blood talisman. Things like that are part of the reason Bucky’s in this position, Zemo kneeling over him and exploring the tender, thin skin where his thighs meet his body. He shivers as strong fingers cup his balls, and Zemo makes a thoughtful sound. Then he sits back again, taking his hands away from Bucky.
He moves before he’s registered that he wants to move – he sits half up, following Zemo, keeping the same distance to him. Zemo pins him with a stare – acknowledging the movement but betraying nothing of an associated emotion. Deep, deep wells. Bucky, frozen, watches Zemo untie the belt of his robe, letting it fall open to reveal a pale expanse of skin framed by the navy fabric of the robe and his soft, cream-colored lounge pants.
There are mottled bruises of various ages scattered across his arms, his chest, his soft abdomen. Tender, vulnerable speckled egg. Zemo can’t bounce back from things like Bucky can. A bruise that lasts a few hours of Bucky would likely last weeks for him. Bucky could kill him as easily as he could breathe.
And still – he lays back down easily, shamelessly, as Zemo bends over him again and with a rush, he realizes he’s fully, totally hard – willingly, for the first time he can remember since a night in –
A punched-out whimper escapes from Bucky’s throat as Zemo resumes his attentions, dragging his knuckles along the underside and rubbing his thumb over the frenulum, the throbbing head. And when he leans over more and lets his breath ghost hotly over Bucky’s cock as he strokes more actively, longer, firmer, twisting his wrist, the whimpers blossom into a moan, soft and exhaled.
“Good, just like that,” Zemo murmurs approvingly and lays his tongue on Bucky’s cock, slow and smooth. Bucky thinks he’s never received oral sex before. Why would he have? Any number of implements have been used on him, but never a mouth. Or maybe he just doesn’t remember and the sense memory will come screaming back into him now and he’ll –
Zemo pinches the tender skin of his inner thigh, hard, and Bucky’s eyes open wide. He hadn’t realized he’d closed them.
“Did that hurt?” Bucky shakes his head. “You seem to be having a hard time doing what I asked. What we’re doing is my responsibility, and it is my right, but it’s conditional. Do you understand?” Nodding. It’s easy to nod. He understands. He drinks up Zemo’s haughty smirk like a man in the desert. “Alright. Good.”
Zemo’s tongue is back, and his lips, and his hands. He’s not taking Bucky into his mouth very far, but it’s enough to make his toes curl. His legs twitch against the floor, straining to stay in place, and it’s only when Zemo skims a scorching hand on the soft inside of Bucky’s thigh does he allow himself to rearrange his legs and create more space where Zemo kneels.
Zemo takes more into his mouth, and his nose is pushing into wiry, dark hair, and Bucky gasps outright, upper back coming off the floor. Another hard pinch to his thigh, harder even, meant to hurt this time, and Bucky drops back to the floor as quickly as he can manage, breathing labored.
The hot suction around his cock moves slowly, steadily, pulling Bucky higher until he realizes he’s there already, he hadn’t fully realized how badly he was doing until now, when a touch of tongue is nearly enough on its own to make Bucky come.
“Ah, I –” he stammers, and Zemo withdraws immediately, drawing a wheezy whimper from Bucky’s mouth before he can stop it. He looks at Bucky expectantly, mouth wet and red and swollen.
“That’s fine. But I won’t stop if you come. Not yet,” Zemo informs him coolly, gripping his dick in a spit-slick slide, and after an agonizing five, six, seven, strokes, Bucky spills into his hand and splatters across his own taut belly. The force of his orgasm makes Bucky feel as if his chest is being crushed, held between two metal plates and compressed, like his guts are about to burst across the floor.
As promised, Zemo doesn’t let up, and Bucky fights to keep still as he crosses well over into oversensitivity. Zemo lowers his head again and licks around the head, eliciting a hitching sigh. He slides his hand through the cooling mess on Bucky’s skin, gathering some on his thumb. He elbows Bucky’s legs even further apart and slides that hand into the sweltering space between them.
Either as a distraction or not, Zemo envelopes the tip of Bucky’s cock in the molten suction of his mouth as he pushes his thumb against Bucky’s furled hole, which clenches in response. He smears Bucky’s own come against him, letting the tacky glide of it smooth the way as he presses his thumb there, not quite forcing it in, just a courteous indication that that’s where he’s headed.
Zemo takes his cock fully into his mouth again, breathing hotly through his nose as he reaches the base and lets the head tap the back of his throat tauntingly. Spit soaks Bucky’s skin and Zemo hooks his thumb just inside his ass and Bucky can’t help the pathetic warbling moan that crawls out of his throat. A contented hum vibrates up Bucky’s cock, still kept blazingly hard.
His thumb recedes and then those fingers are cupping Bucky’s balls, drawn up tight against his body, getting wetter with every bob of Zemo’s head. Zemo tugs gently, tantalizing and electric, dampening his hand with his own spit. He slides those fingers back to Bucky’s hole, circling it once, twice, before thrusting two paired fingers in.
Bucky makes a sound that is a cross between agony and relief. He flexes around the intrusion, panting and squirming, pinned through like a moth to a lepidopterist’s tableau.
There’s nothing gentle or slow in the way that Zemo pushes his fingers in and out, fucking into him in time with the movements of his mouth around Bucky’s cock until he feels the muscle begin to relax under his force. He reaches deep, angling his fingers, and pulling towards himself through Bucky’s body until he hits a treacherous, white-hot center of pleasure and prods relentlessly, too much too much too much-too-much-please-oh –
Bucky arches off of the floor with the sudden violence of his climax, this time coming onto the cradle of Zemo’s tongue, evidence disappearing down Zemo’s throat as soon as it appears. And again, Zemo doesn’t relent but continues to abuse that spot inside until Bucky’s voice cracks and he’s quaking, surrendering to the experience, coming again, sluggish and hazy as Zemo works him over completely.
Zemo’s mouth is bruised-crimson when he sits back, pulling his fingers out with more care than he put them in. Bucky can see the obscene line of Zemo’s cock in his pants, the urgent press of it. Still, Zemo makes no move to do anything about it, just sits back on his heels, watching Bucky heave and pant in the wake of his orgasm. He fixes Bucky with a prickly stare when he whines miserably, cock not yet flagging, still pulsing, twitching weakly (expectantly, obediently) against the curve of his hip.
“Tell me what it is you want, otherwise I can’t give it to you.”
Bucky is choking on his desire, understanding innately what it is that he wants before he knows the words to put to it:
“Fuck me.” No tremor in the words is a relief. A pause, shrinking beneath Zemo’s wicked gaze. “Please.” A pause, longer, long enough that Bucky begins to doubt if he spoke at all. Zemo’s mouth twists into a rueful smile.
“While I wouldn’t praise the methods with which you were conditioned, even I have to admit that Hydra did good work.” His voice is razor-sharp, biting into Bucky’s marrow. “If you were anyone but who you are, James, I might pity you.” Shame and anger fizzle in tandem in Bucky’s hollow chest. “But who am I to deny the one thing you’ve asked for this whole time?” Bucky remembers the feeling of cold so extreme that it burns.
Zemo shucks his pants but leaves his robe slung over his shoulders and elects to recline on the floor, laying on the midnight-blue robe like a fireplace fur. His cock curves up towards his belly, bobbing under its own blood-heavy weight and rosy, like hot silk. He beckons Bucky with one curt hand, and he crawls helplessly between Zemo’s legs, up over his body, chest-to-chest, hovering and sharing their breaths until Zemo touches his hip to prompt him. Bucky sits up a little taller, feeling a full-body tremble that has nothing to do with his physical state. He feels the satin-skinned brush of Zemo’s cock against his ass and instinctively settles back, letting Zemo hold himself steady.
He digs his fingers, metal and meat, into his thighs as Zemo’s cock catches on his rim and he angles his hips, anxious and needy at the same time.
“Do you want lube?” The question startles Bucky, the first direct question requiring more than a confirmation of understanding. Zemo’s wearing a curled-up, satisfied face. If Bucky’s face could get hotter, it would.
“Whatever,” he answers truthfully. He doesn’t want to decide. He can’t even catch any diseases, so he doesn’t care if Zemo wants to fuck him raw, either. If he could have caught something, he would be long dead by now or disfigured at least.
Zemo lifts his hand from between their bodies and pushes his middle and ring fingers against Bucky’s lips, which part easily for the intrusion. The fingers slide across Bucky’s tongue, pressing down until Bucky’s mouth drops open. This is the first time Zemo has touched his mouth, as if he was saving this place until he found the right moment.
Saliva spills down Bucky’s chin and slips down Zemo’s hand. His fingers tease at pushing deeper into Bucky’s mouth, but Zemo satisfies himself by tangling them with his tongue instead. When he withdraws his hand, Bucky’s vision is swimming.
Taking his spit-wet hand to his cock, Zemo slicks himself up and tips his hips up for Bucky to sink down on. And he does, centimeter by searing centimeter, banishing the uncomfortable stretch and burn to a place outside his body where he can’t feel it at all. And this practice is familiar, too. He watches Zemo’s face as he lowers himself, watches his breath come faster and his eyes grow heavy and dark. Feels the light scrape of his nails on his hips.
As his ass meets Zemo’s hips, Bucky sucks in a huge breath that leaves his body as a shuddering groan. Zemo bites his fingers into Bucky’s skin and he starts moving, slow as he can tolerate, suspended between twin urges – one to move his body as frantically as his heart is beating and the other to behave, to exercise a modicum of control.
A grunt from Zemo is all it takes for Bucky to lose pace and sink into a frenetic rhythm. It’s the first non-verbal confirmation of Zemo’s gratification and it hits Bucky like a back-handed slap.
Bucky is no longer in the stuffy bedroom. He’s in scattered memories. He hears the gut-twisting ambient hum of a darkened concrete chamber; a boiling kettle, cryo chambers, the wet sound of flesh and bone grinding together. He feels the sun on his face and warm, familiar arms encircling his shoulders. Memories and dreams. He feels flayed open. Each time he drops his hips he feels more of himself chip away, shards of ice that melt and disappear forever.
“ Stay here. This is what you wanted. I am giving you what you asked for.” Bucky wants to say no, no, he didn’t ask for this, he didn’t ask for any of this – he wants – he wants to be somewhere else, with someone else but – he’s gone somewhere Bucky can’t follow, he’s left Bucky, well and truly alone – except for –
Zemo’s making him shake apart. Zemo’s holding him together with the hands clutching his hips, reverently, like he’s touching something valuable that he mustn’t drop or it will shatter. Bucky might shatter into a billion pieces, he feels it now. He can feel all the cracks in his skin and in his bones; the dark blackness of his core is leaking through the cracks.
All he needs to do is be good. He can do that.
“ Солдат. Eyes.” And it hurts and it heals to look at Zemo’s eyes. Bucky is glad they’re not blue. He doesn’t think he could stand it. But he can look into these eyes, dark, deep, deep pools turned nearly black in the low light of the room.
Zemo has taken over: bracing his feet on the floor, he thrusts him into Bucky, who’s half-kneeling and failing to comply. He’s trying, but he’s overwhelmed, just keeping it together enough to stay upright; it’s been so long – not physically, but mentally, he’s exhausted. It’s no excuse, but he can’t force this feeble body to do as it’s told, and panic rises to meet pleasure.
“On your back for me.”
Bucky hears before he feels the thump of his own back on the wood floor, grunts with the force of it. For a split second, he watches the ceiling spinning above him and then he can only see Zemo, leaning over him, holding his thigh, pushing in again, deeper at this angle, robe billowing behind him; the soft brush of the sleeves on Bucky’s skin feels like sandpaper.
“Look at me when I’m fucking you,” Zemo demands, and Bucky does, panting openly and visibly staggered by the splintered edge in Zemo’s voice. Bracing for the strike. Instead:
“ Отлично,” he encourages warmly through a voice now strained-thin and raspy. Precum blurts from Bucky’s cock, sticking to his belly as the position pushes it against his skin, mixing with the flecks of seed from earlier. “Will you come again like this?”
Bucky nods wildly, choking on his words, losing his breath trying to find them. He will, if that’s what Zemo wants, he will. It’s all he can think – how sure he is that Zemo knows what to do right now, that he knows what should be done, and if Zemo is asking this of him, he can give it.
Bucky’s fingers are carving into the floor. The wood cracks and splinters as he grips like someone would twist bedsheets in their fingers. His head throbs in what he thinks might be pain, but it’s exquisite pain, so much pain that he’s beginning to float outside his own body.
Or perhaps it’s pleasure? It feels nothing like the aborted half-throbs he’s been able to achieve on his own. It’s so sharp it hurts but he keeps drinking it in like he’s dying, just responds to Zemo’s methodical touch, or lets himself respond. He sighs when Zemo slides his hand to hold Bucky’s waist, forcing him pleasantly wider with the spread of his arms.
The tight grind of Zemo inside him is what brings Bucky to the edge, and the steady, heavy gaze focused so devoutly on him is what sends him tumbling helplessly over. It’s sweet, Zemo’s face is sweet in its own way, a kind of fierce tenderness, a cruel possessiveness. A scant syllable passes Bucky’s lips, a half-formed plea or a warning or an apology, a sound.
“Yes, good, you’re perfect,” Zemo breathes, and even as Zemo’s saying it, Bucky is coming, spilling hot over his clenched abs and fluttering chest. A wild, brilliant agony that makes him blister inside. The look on Zemo’s face shatters him: flushed, haughty, focused, analytical. He’s crushed, he’s built up again, from the inside out.
He feels the heavy throb of Zemo’s cock deep inside as he comes, leaving his mark with his release. He falls forward, catching himself on his hands, and all at once he wraps a hand around the cool metal of Bucky’s shoulder and covers Bucky’s mouth with his own, just on the far side of gentle.
Bucky’s eyes slide shut and he lays there, pliant under Zemo’s mouth, heart fluttering and jumping despite the stillness of his body. A beat passes and then Zemo is pulling out, leaning back, smoothing his hands in a disorientingly businesslike way along Bucky’s sides and legs.
“Don’t move,” he orders briskly and disappears for a minute to the sound of running water. Bucky tracks his paces across the room into the ensuite, keeping his eyes closed, taking the order as literally as it was perhaps intended.
The darkness over his eyes feels like an undersea pressure, forceful, whole-body, and immobilizing. All at once, the pressure abates and Bucky is paralyzed weightless in the dark.
When Bucky dreams, he doesn’t really dream – his brain is cataloging memories, maybe mixing a foreign element in to fill in a gap here or there. It’s not creative and it is rarely enjoyable. It’s better when he doesn’t remember what memories replayed in his sleeping brain. This one is a memory his brain has been working on for some time, building it back in, pasting it together piece by fragmented piece:
Steve is smiling and there are bombs exploding overhead. No, it’s fireworks, huge bursts of red, red, red. Steve is smiling and his face, in profile, is illuminated all in reds. Steve’s mouth moves, forming sounds and letters and words, but Bucky can’t hear him over the fireworks, or maybe there are no sounds coming out of Steve’s mouth at all. His beautiful blond head turns to face Bucky, blue eyes cutting through the shadows, huge, reflective pupils like a cat’s.
Red fireworks, Steve’s cheeks are red, his lips are red, it’s all red. Steve is bending over him. Bucky’s chest is bursting, he’s afraid and he’s in love, he’s afraid of the fact that he’s in love, and he knows that soon he will fade from this place and everyone he once knew will be dead and he will be utterly forgotten but, for now, he’s afraid and he’s in love. A tattered valentine tacked up to a bunk, concealed in a breast pocket.
The tin roof they’re sitting on is cold – no, Bucky’s flat on his back, and the cold is radiating through him, ice-cold in the darkness. Subzero. The chill spreads up his body, freezing the air in his lungs, and a scream is frantically crawling up his throat –
Bucky wakes to the sound of the front door opening – opening from the outside, he knows, since he can hear the thunk of the lock as Sam twists the key. He wakes, and Zemo is gone.
“Buck?” comes Sam’s voice from the foyer, moving closer. “You here?”
A blind panic grips him. He’s laying on the bed – Zemo must be stronger than he looks, fucking Zemo, fuck him, fuck, I can’t believe – with the coverlet draped over him. He’s sweating behind his knees. His bare knees, his bare legs, he’s completely exposed from the waist down and his shirt is still rucked up under his arms from when –
“Up – up here Sam, just wait, I’m coming down.” He tells himself that Zemo is downstairs, making some smarmy face at Sam but he can’t hear Sam snapping back at him, which means –
“Where’s Zemo?” Fuck. Fuck! You fucked up, you had one thing to do, you had one task. Couldn’t even do that only needed to do one little fucking thing useless useless come here bring it over here god we’ll have to train it some more won’t do that again after we’re –
Bucky zips his jeans and hopes the hanging material of his shirt covers the button and hides his empty belt loops. He takes the stairs a flight at a time and he thinks his heart doesn’t beat the entire time.
The sitting room is empty. No Zemo. Just Sam, who’s staring at Bucky with this terrible look, something like disappointment and validation that he was right all along about Bucky, who knows he looks rumpled and well-fucked, who can feel the mouth-bruises still clinging to his skin.
“Hey! Where the fuck is Zemo?” Sam’s rage is rolling off him in waves. Patient, understanding, fundamentally kind Sam has been driven to outburst because Bucky had failed to uphold his end of the bargain.
“I don’t know,” he admits defenselessly. “I fell asleep –”
“You fell asleep? Are you fucking kidding me? You broke the dangerous maniac out of prison, let him tote you around like an accessory, and then fell asleep,” Sam shouts incredulously. “Since when do you even sleep, anyway? You picked a hell of a time to catch up on your beauty sleep, Buck.”
Bucky knows that his face is shuttering. He can feel the thick scales of his defenses slipping into place. “I’ll find him.”
“Yeah, you better, Jesus Christ.” Sam storms across the room to replace his sneakers with boots. Bucky lets the humiliation wash over him like he has so many times in the past, for worse things than this, but this is bad, it’s an utter failure, and it’s all because Bucky’s brain is a loose bag of change rattling around in his skull.
Sam continues, and Bucky doesn’t stop him: “You should have listened to me. I told you about this. Unbelievable, dude. Now we’ve lost our only lead and, oh yeah, that lead is hellbent on destroying using you to destroy society.” Bucky doesn’t argue the technicalities. He hears the unspoken words: You’re a fucking liability.
Sam opens his mouth again but is cut off by the front door swinging open, spilling bright afternoon light across the foyer.
“Oh, welcome back, Sam,” Zemo says cheerfully, voice betraying except perhaps mild surprise. He’s carrying an oil-stained brown paper bag. It crumples on the floor when Bucky slaps it out of his hand. His face feels freezing cold and the voice that comes out of his traitorous mouth will haunt him.
“Where the fuck were you?” Bucky grits out, resisting by pure force of will the urge to shout, because if he shouts he might burst into tears. He is a live wire. He watches in slow motion Zemo’s gaze travel over his body and catch in certain places: his waist, his swollen mouth, a flake of white on black vibranium.
Zemo begins to bend at the waist but Bucky grasps his fur lapel and hauls him up straight again. Zemo’s expression is supplicating.
“Let go of me,” he says in that sweet, clipping accent. It’s only a reflex when Bucky drops his hands to his sides and watches Zemo complete the movement he’d started before. He bends and picks the bag up, shaking it between Sam and Bucky, but his eyes are on Bucky. “I thought speķa pīrāgi might be nice. Cute little stand a few blocks over, a nice old lady.”
Bucky can’t say anything. He feels his heart start beating again.
“Don’t – don’t do that again,” Sam finally says, visibly walking himself down from 10. “You can’t go off wherever you want. I should not have to explain why.”
“What can I gain from leaving you? You are in my home. I am out of prison – thank you again, James,” he casts a ‘ you’re-in-on-the-joke’ look at the both of them, “and I get to continue my mission to terminate super soldiers. Not to mention your delightful company.”
Sam looks at Bucky, waiting for him to weigh in, but Zemo continues his thought instead as he crosses the room and tosses the paper bag on the countertop.
“I could have done anything. Whatever I wanted. But,” he’s saying as he pours amber liquor into a crystal tumbler, “I did not.” He takes a sip, eyebrows raised.
His meaning is not lost on Bucky. Sweltering shame hovers on his shoulders. Zemo swirls his drink and disappears into the hall, but Bucky takes fast, large steps to catch him just outside the little doorway, gripping his arm and rooting Zemo in his place. If he squeezes harder, he can snap Zemo’s arm in half.
“If you ever say anything, I will kill you,” Bucky spits, meaning every word. Zemo is a pillar of fire in his vision, a smirking, simpering gore. Bucky’s eyes bore into Zemo’s until it’s Zemo who breaks the stare, sliding away and out of Bucky’s slackening grasp, heading back to the sitting room as if he had magnanimously provided Bucky this opportunity to catch him alone.
“I’ll add it to the list,” he calls primly, once he’s safely through the doorway, loud enough for Sam to hear and holler:
Zemo’s voice grows more distant. Bucky can hear his footfalls, a steady beat away from Bucky, alone in the corridor, frozen in the same place Zemo had left him, standing ramrod straight in the middle of the hall.
“The list of things that I can’t say or do, or James will kill me,” he chuckles. “I must say that the list is getting quite long, so I am honestly expecting some of the killing soon. A lot of ‘list,’ not a lot of ‘kill,’ tough to enforce.” The sound of a candy wrapper.
“That does sound like him. What did you do or say this time?” Sam interrogates, sounding halfway between amused and annoyed. A long silence.
“I can’t tell you, or he’ll kill me, weren’t you listening?” Zemo teases through a mouthful of what can only be Turkish delight. “He’ll have to tell you himself.”
Zemo’s confidence, his calmness, the way that he sips at tea and booze, all of it – smug, self-satisfied, calculated, purposeful. Nothing mindless. Everything falling into place how he likes it. Bucky aches.
A ragged chasm opens inside of him, bloody and acute like an old wound torn open. Zemo, a tormentor and savior, the balm and the burn both.