The Winter Soldier is glaring at Zemo from his self-designated post against the wall.
Zemo had become accustomed to being glared at over the years, even from the limited view of a jail cell. Fanatics for self-appointed heroes were everywhere, some amongst the guard ranks in his highly secure prison. Such people didn’t take their beloved Avengers splitting up very well, thanks to his carefully orchestrated part in their downfall.
When half the world turned to dust there was plenty of blame and anger to go around. The hatred in peoples eyes had become unremarkable, almost tedious in its certainty soon enough.
The glower of a highly skilled ex-assassin was another thing entirely, however, flaring up Zemo’s self-preservation instincts even as he glided around the kitchen in his Riga apartment with an indifferent air.
While their partnership was mutually beneficial, Barnes would stay in control, Zemo knew, yet the constant shadow of a predator descending over him was still hair-raising.
Since leaving his imprisonment, Bucky hadn’t taken his eyes off him, except perhaps to blink.
The Winter Soldier’s records had documented his high success mission rate, the soldiers unwavering determination even in the dire, chaotic nature of battle, his impressive tenacity to stay on mission. That particular stubborn trait also (or perhaps had always) belonged to Barnes himself.
Which was unfortunate for Zemo and his plans to do what Sam and Bucky would—could—not.
A future problem. For now he rummages through the cupboards, intent to to find a sweetish substance that captivity did not provide, as he waits out the scrutiny. Barnes may have the superior strength and experience, but he held the superior patience.
And, sure enough:
“You’re different,” Barnes abruptly declares, apropos of nothing.
“So are you,” Zemo smoothly replies. “I think I do not need to explain how.”
The glare amps up tenfold. “I was brainwashed. After nearly a century of mental and physical torture I broke free and you pulled me back under to use in your scheme.”
“I do not think you need to explain how either. We were both present, if you recall. Also, I did apologise.”
Barnes points an accusing finger at him. “That. I don’t remember you being so..”
"Sassy,” he corrects, then frowns. “Annoying,” he amends.
“Yes, well,” Zemo begins, nonchalance coating his words, “after I acquired revenge for the destruction of my country and family I suppose I….lightened up.”
Bucky crosses his arms, looking uncomfortable but his eyes are sharp, resolute. “We’ve all lost something. Someone. If you think that will sympathise your cause--”
“I’m under no delusion to what kind of man I am. I was a killer long before that. All in the name of higher purposes but always, at it’s core, selfish. Human nature’s most fatal flaw, among the dozen.” Zemo waves a hand, pushing the heavy subject away. “Better to save that conversation for a trained psychologist,” he admits, then slyly looks over at Barnes. “Do you think yours would be available?”
Bucky’s entire body stiffens, resembling a marble statue. Not even the strongest tide would be able to sway those tightly locked joints.
“What makes you think I have a therapist?”
“Please,” Zemo scoffs. “As if the Americans would let you run loose after your colourful history without feeling...assured of your mental state. Paranoid sort.”
“For good reason,” Bucky grits out.
“There is no shame in it, James.” Zemo pauses, a smirk forming. “After all, you spent longer living as the Winter Soldier than you ever did as James Buchanan Barnes. What man could adjust to a different time—quite literally—without a little help?”
Bucky leans forward, as if to stride toward him, before aborting the movement and resuming his slouch. “Don’t patronise me. You don’t know anything about me.”
“Know you? Perhaps not,” he concedes with a tilt of his head. “Know everything about you? I read your file excessively before finding you, James, and I have an excellent memory.”
"Did this file mention my low tolerance for creeps invading my privacy by any chance?"
Zemo represses a smile. Barnes was barking back with surprising wit. A shame that Zemo was usually a few steps ahead, aware of what button to push at all times, what vulnerability to strike to keep the upper-hand.
"No, but there was a fascinating excerpt on cryogenic stasis and the lasting repercussions it could have on the psyche." Giving up his search momentarily, he gives Bucky his full attention, enacting sincerity. "As it would be beneficial to your recovery to know, I would be happy to reiterate."
The mood, which was already tense, plummets.
Bucky's metal fingers clench together into a fist. “You talk an awful lot for a guy whose head I could crush like a grape.”
Zemo’s eyes snap to the metallic prosthetic. He knows fully well what strength those ligaments were capable of; had commanded such a power once upon a time, a fabricated control more recently back in Madripoor’s Lowtown.
Barnes head is also tilted down, likely contemplating his capabilities and inhibitions. The angle would have drawn his hair over his eyes had it still been long; a curtain to shield the turmoil swirling within that grey tinted sky. Hydra had made the correct decision to try to hide such revealing orbs.
Eyes were said to be the gateway to a persons soul, after all, and for what use would a Soviet assassin ever need for such a thing?
“You should grow your hair out again,” Zemo suggests absent-mindedly. “It made you look feral. Like a wolf.”
Bucky reacts at the final word for a reason he is not privy to. His jaw clenches as he looks away, gaze staying fixated away from Zemo. Silence descends and he figures Barnes is choosing to ignore his nonsensical subject change and venture back into his brooding. Just as he reaches the final unsearched drawer, Barnes speaks up.
“The point of cutting it was to look normal. To feel normal again.”
And how is that going for you, soldat?
Zemo keeps the question to himself, lest Barnes make good on his earlier threat. He knew the answer already, anyway, could practically see it in the barely restrained energy humming through Bucky’s form, the urge to attack but feeling lost without direction. A wound up toy with no concrete path. At constant war within himself.
"Mundane,” Zemo declares instead. “But understandable. Turkish delight?”
He holds the discovered sweet out like a peace offering, dangling precariously from its plastic wrapping in his loose hold, inviting and harmless.
Bucky doesn’t take it.
It’s when they are venturing through one of the shadier parts of Latvia that they get ambushed. The yell of an order and bright flash of a stun grenade lights up the otherwise dark alleyway. Before Helmut can curse his lack of gun a hand is tugging the neck of his collar and lifting him backwards.
Running through several possible combat responses, he settles for trying to sweep the attackers legs out from under him. It feels like kicking steel bars.
“Relax,” a familiar voice breathes in his ear, tickling the skin there.
In hindsight, the way Bucky had lifted him with ease should have been a giveaway to the assailants identity, but innate reflexes could not be suppressed in the heat of battle.
“Is it the Dora Milaje?” Zemo questions, turning to face him.
“Do you have a spear through your chest?” Barnes growls out.
Helmut pats his chest to confirm, adrenaline and shock can dull the pain of even a gunshot—really, any military veteran should know this—but Bucky watches the movement with exasperation, even going to the extent of rolling his eyes at the end of Zemo’s inspection.
The sounds of battle echoed around them. The Falcon would need help, caught without his gear. Barnes comes to the same conclusion, appearing torn, gaze flickering from him and to the nearby scuffle.
Bucky’s hand still gripping his collar loosens as he pushes Zemo away, only to stop and tighten again before he releases him completely. Lingering. “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”
Helmut tilts his head to look up at him, their diminutive height difference was apparent this close, wearing his best innocent visage. “I never do anything stupid, James.”
Bucky snorts. “Right. Let me rephrase: don’t do anything stupid.”
Any clever reply Zemo has gets turned into an undignified yelp as Barnes finally lets go and abruptly shoves him onto the unforgiving concrete.
He knew Bucky was fully capable of pulling his punches, of managing his enhanced strength, so that stunt was most definitely personal. He gets himself up with a huff. The Winter Soldier had been more effective as a bodyguard than James had ever been; all this rough handling was irksome.
Wasting precious time away from his constant spectators to contemplate the duality of man (one man in particular) was foolish. Now standing, he begins to survey the scene.
The alleyway they had came from stretched for a long while both ways. Running or trying to climb onto a near balcony was an available option but these were all feats Barnes would be able to accomplish faster than him. Another tactic, then.
He brushes the debris clinging to his coat casually as one of the attackers goes flying into the nearby wall, Barnes already moving onto the next target before the hit connects, the body sliding down into a feeble heap.
Watching the former Hydra assassin in action was admittedly a marvel. It wasn’t just the speed or strength, but the precision of where and how to strike. There was something almost beautiful in the brutality.
In the chaos one of the enemies guns slides towards Helmut. A pistol; easy to conceal. Slowly, as to not draw attention, he pockets the weapon.
Zemo spectates the rest of the fight with interest. It’s entirely one-sided until a stand off occurs. The last straggler, on the floor, glances to the side. Both he and Barnes follow the movement.
A nearby radio. Possible back-up and their location revealed, a mere sentence away.
Bucky was inhumanely fast: the stranger had the advantage of distance: the odds were even.
Zemo had always preferred certainty’s than relying on chance.
He reaches for the pistols grip to take the shot before another idea occurs to him.
“James,” he yells and throws the weapon.
If Bucky is shocked by his newly acquired arsenal he covers it well, easily catching the pistol and aiming, all in quick concession and perfect form.
Barnes’s finger was constantly on the trigger—he just needed someone to push it for him.
“You know what you have to do,” Zemo coaxes, taking a step closer, placing his hands together in front of him, inviting and transparent.
Barnes doesn’t look away from the target. “Oh yeah? What’s that?”
His tone is even, controlled, but Zemo can see the conflict waging within, the slight shake of his arm.
“To tie up loose ends. Just like I did with the scientist creating super-serum in Madripoor. There can be no margin for error—not for this. Our mission is too important.”
Hard eyes flicker to him, a raging inferno even among the stone. Anticipation quickens Zemo’s pulse.
“You’re right,” Bucky says.
The quiet click of a magazine released—not the deafening sound of a gunshot—shatters the tense interlude.
Before the lone squadron can make use of the opportunity, Barnes throws the firearms magazine at them, bashing it against their head with precision that the strength of the blow is enough to render them unconscious.
There’s a waltz of contradicting reactions swirling within Zemo: surprise, disappointment, and most overwhelming and perplexing of them all; respect.
Zemo claps, slow and wide, mocking. “Bravo, James. Unorthodox but creative.”
“Shut up,” Barnes hisses, throwing the rest of the weapon away carelessly. “Stop trying to mess with my head, Zemo. You could have shot that guy yourself.”
“Are you saying you wanted me to shoot him?” Zemo tuts in mock disapproval, smirking. “That’s not very Steve Rogers of you.”
Bucky’s jaw clenching is the only warning he gets before the gap between them is non-existent, Bucky bodily pushing him up against wall, his vibranium fist smashing through the brick behind Zemo, just shy of his right ear.
It seemed Zemo had inadvertently found Bucky’s trigger.
His heart pounds quickly, threatening to burst out of his chest. He wonders if Barnes can feel it through his leather jacket, with their chests locked together.
“Don’t talk about him,” Bucky snarls. “You have no right. Last warning.”
Zemo tries to raise his arms but finds them encased up against unrelenting muscle, so he settles for a nod. “Fair.”
“You gave up your weapon,” Bucky continues. “Instead of taking the shot. You wanted me to be the one to do it. Why?”
“Not exactly,” he says, surprising even himself with the honest revelation. “I was curious to see what you would do. When faced with a choice—one that falls under your seasoned skill-set—what part of you would be in the drivers seat...so to speak.”
“I told you those days are over.” Bucky’s calming down, evident in the way his embedded fist uncurls from the rubble, dropping down to his side. “The Winter Soldier programming was removed from me.”
“Oh, James,” Zemo practically purrs with sympathy, a soft murmur given their close distance. “That’s not what I meant.”
Bucky’s mouth begins to open when the sound of jogging reaches them. He steps back leaving Zemo to fall forward and intake a heavy breath; he hadn’t realised how crushed he had been between one immovable wall to another.
Bucky sends him a glance full of promise: this isn’t finished.
Zemo smirks back serenely, his composure sure to anger Barnes more effectively than any words.
“Good, you got the last of them,” Sam gets out between pants as he reaches them. “Now who in the hell are they? I clearly heard them yell ‘get the Baron’ before we got ambushed.”
Bucky and Sam turn to him, expectant and accusing.
“Ah,” Zemo says. “There is a pretty price on my head. Even before the incident with the Power Broker. Did I not say?”
“No!” Sam shouts. “No you definitely did not say. There was no saying of any kind.” He turns to Bucky. “Did he say?”
Bucky’s eyes are heavenward and stay there. “No.”
Sam turns back to him. “Who are they?”
“Mercenaries. Bounty hunters. General rabble looking for a quick fix. As royalty I acquired many enemies, and now as a wanted fugitive, countless more.” Zemo shrugs, sliding his hands into his pockets, carefree. “Relax, Samuel. It’s just another adversary in our path; nothing our renowned Winter Soldier cannot handle with ease.”
Bucky’s gaze connects with his. He says nothing, but his eyes are dark and brimmed with heat, irises still blown wide from adrenaline.
Zemo recognises the emotion: pride.
Reluctant yet persevering.
Locating and hunting down the Flag Smashers leader is a necessary goal. One he and his ragtag team agreed upon.
Her eradication is not.
When he takes matters into his own hands, shooting the girl—a child, Sam had called her, but all he sees is a weapon, corpses, a city falling—the vials that fall into his path block out the rest of the world.
Funny, what destruction such a tiny thing was capable of.
Smashing the vials feels cathartic, seeing that corrupted serum flow uselessly on the ground, it’s blue hue deceivingly tantalizing, the machinations of scientists playing God now void.
It is no wonder someone gets the jump on him, lost in the rapture as he was.
Coming back to consciousness feels like trudging through sand, the particles clinging to his skin and threatening to sink him back into a black, bottomless pit.
“Mornin’, sunshine,” a distinctly amused voice greets him.
Blinking the splotches in his vision away he sees he is back in the apartment, laying on the couch, with an unusually chipper Barnes watching him.
“Verdammt,” Zemo exclaims, fatigue causing him to slip into his native tongue. “Was ist passiert?”
“I’d call it belated justice. Or Walker.” Barnes nose crinkles in disgust as he realises his accidental comparison of the new Captain America to any quality considered noble.
“Intriguing I’m awake at all then. Quite the angry man,” Zemo says, not bothering to hide his distaste; their mutual dislike of John Walker may be the only thing they agreed upon. “And not even thrown back into a jail cell. How fortunate for me…”
He trails off as Barnes quickly looks away, the man’s amusement sliding into caginess, the rare carefree body language that had been on display moulding into a familiar tense posture.
Zemo raises an eyebrow at the interesting reaction. Perhaps his prolonged life and freedom had not been down to fortune.
He’s beginning to piece the puzzle together, if Bucky’s embarrassed countenance is anything to go by. Though, if his theory is correct, it should be him who is abashed; being found vulnerable and carried back by a super soldier, the type of being he had sworn to rid the world of, was a pitiable outcome.
“What happened?” he asks again, closing his eyes in an attempt to dull the pain.
“Karli got away.” Unfortunate. “Walker went after her.” Predictable. “You got your ass kicked.” Arguable.
Not liking the direction the conversation was headed, Zemo schemes to tip the scales back in his favour.
“It was nice of you to rescue me, James,” Zemo praises sweetly, a slight upwards slant to his mouth, eyes twinkling. “I’m grateful.”
He expected Barnes to bark back at his teasing, to stomp away, a variation of aggression that he wore like a second skin. Not the blush that blooms across his neck and cheeks.
“Don’t be,” Bucky grumbles, finding the far away wallpaper of apparent interest. “I was going to leave you or drop a table on you for fun. It was Sam that convinced me we still needed you.”
The harsh, gruff words are muted by Bucky still being unable to make eye contact, red still painted across his skin.
Barnes was a handsome man without the permanent scowl, Zemo noted, and he allowed himself to indulge in the scarce sight for a while. Eventually his eyes slip back closed.
“You didn’t take the serum,” Bucky states, but there’s a hint of a question lingering in his tone, of approval.
“That serum represents everything wrong with humans immeasurable ambitions and the lengths they’ll go to achieve it.” Helmut opens his eyes briefly to stare at the remnants of such ambition. “You of all people should know that.”
“Maybe,” Bucky allows. “But I also know that havin’ power at your fingertips tends to change a man’s perspective real fast on what they will and won’t do.”
Irritation washes over him in one unrelenting wave. After everything he’s done—stands for—to have Barnes doubt him is...vexing. The need to prove himself even more so, to defend himself against a being who has been an instrument of war longer than a man.
He goes to lift himself into a sitting position but the sharp, warning pain in his head halts his movements. Laying down it was, then. Not his most dignified appearance but the steel weight of his words would deliver his sincerity.
“Doubt my trustworthiness all you wish, James, but never doubt my principles.”
Barnes stares him down. The moment levitates between them. It feels distinct; important. Unintentionally he holds his breath waiting for something. For what, he doesn’t know, the ex-assassin was as likely to hold out a hand for aid or throw a punch.
Eventually Barnes sighs, breaking their intense connection.
“Never have,” Bucky says, resigned. “Would have been a hell of a lot easier for me if you’d taken the damn serum, Zemo.”
Easier for you to do what, soldat? Hate me?
A damp, soft material hits his chest. He looks down. Bucky had tossed him a cloth.
“Clean yourself up, princess,” Bucky orders. “We move out soon.”
Helmut represses a groan, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Whisky?”
“I’ll consider it if you get shot,” Bucky shouts back during his retreat, sounding far too loud, content and obnoxious for Zemo’s liking.
Later, Sam will ask him if that's how you feel, what about Bucky? and Zemo will have no answer at all.
None that make sense.
“Your coat is ridiculous,” Bucky tells him as they wait for Sam to come back from intel gathering.
Zemo had wanted to go sight-seeing and Bucky had indulged him, likely because he would have throttled him had they stayed in the same enclosed space any longer rather than a sign of growing camaraderie.
Apparently, offering the man cherry-blossom tea was a criminal offence.
They had found a small, humble market nearby. Bucky had stayed back, observing and tracking him as he floated to one stall to the next, admiring the local delicacies (the rye bread looked particularly delicious). The locals smartly kept a wide berth from the tall, intimidating man that radiated irritation, which made it difficult for Zemo to barter even with his charm.
In their short time together, Zemo had already calculated that Bucky was the type to harbour his thoughts until they combusted. Try to lure them out any faster and Barnes would clam up like a shell.
Zemo could tell there was something weighing on the former Hydra’s mind, so he waits for Barnes to reach his breaking point.
The insult to his attire was not what he was expecting.
It leaves him utterly perplexed, all his careful and prepared wording useless.
When he does recover, Zemo doesn’t have to fake his affronted expression, raising his hands to the clothing's lapels as if to protect it from the harsh words.
“This coat is from a costly designer situated in France. Custom made and fitted. One of a kind. To call it ridiculous only shows your narrow, outdated and misguided view on fashion. It’s inner stitched viscose lining and fur collar alone is worth more than a small fortune--”
His justified rant breaks off when the sound of laughter rings out. The sound and sight of Barnes so carefree shocks Zemo into silence, and he blinks in bewilderment.
Zemo had not even seen James smile (a genuine smile, one not full of self-deprecation and dishonesty, a shield to hide the scars beneath) let alone a laugh.
“This is what ruffles your feathers?” Barnes asks between intakes of breath. “Not when I openly threaten you with injuries, shove you up against a wall, but insulting your stupid coat?”
The laughter dies down as Bucky rubs a hand over his face, peeking at him in-between flesh fingers. The blue in his eyes more vibrant than usual. Helmut might even dare to call it fondness in the right light.
“As I said, this coat—”
“The coat is fine,” Barnes interrupts. “It’s you that is ridiculous.”
Bewildered, Zemo remains speechless when Barnes walks off, muttering what sounds like an exasperated rich people.
The joy is at his expense but it’s…
“What did you mean—before?” Bucky asks him that night as they nurse their respective alcoholic beverages.
It’s a stall for time. Zemo knows exactly what time he’s referring to: the alleyway.
Bucky gives him a flat look.
Zemo sighs, tapping the rim of his glass as he pieces his thoughts together. Damage control or honesty? A tactful retreat or throwing himself directly into the line of fire?
The choice makes itself. James was bringing the worst, more reckless parts out of him, the very thing Zemo had tried to do to him—the irony was not lost on him.
“Are you really that different, free from Hydra’s control, as you think you are?” Zemo dives right in, not bothering to slither around the issue. “You were given the serum at the start of your programming. Perhaps the serum affected you just as much as Hydra’s...experiments. One is gone, the other remains. Ergo: does the...problem remain?”
Barnes lets out a harsh breath. “You know that’s fucking bullshit, right? You may be an egotistical, crazed enigmatic asshole but you’re still smart.”
Zemo smirks at his crass language and the inadvertent compliment.
“I do. But you can’t blame me for being curious, given the serum’s track record, and given the opportunity to test my hypothesis—”
“The opportunity to fuck with me, you mean.”
“Touché. In my defence, you make is so easy, and to see all those contrasting emotions dance so vividly across your face is exquisite.”
The glass creaks within Barnes’s tight grasp. “Is that your idea of a compliment? No amount of poetry is going to make that a compliment.”
“Forgive me. My years of solitary must have made my social niceties rusty.”
“Sure, let’s use that excuse,” Bucky quips.
Zemo tilts his glass around. It’s an expensive wine, for his expensive tastes, but he finds it’s flavour dull in comparison to the company and puts the glass down. There’s a desire building in him that can’t be scratched or sedated by it’s contents. He catches Barnes in the glasses reflection.
Watching him. Always watching.
"What do you really think then? Of me? No hypotheticals or hypothesis.”
Zemo foregoes the reflection to stare at the real, tangible shape instead. Even with the alcohol loosening his tongue, Bucky’s body was rigid, as if bracing himself for an attack.
His answer means something to James. To send him to salvation or damnation. It’s quite the power to have.
“You are the exception.”
Bucky frowns. He can tell Bucky wants to end the conversation—to stop asking, stop prodding—but the urge to dig in his claws and find out what’s ticking underneath compels him to keep going.
Helmut knows because he feels it too.
Barnes gives in. “To what?”
“My rules. My principles. Perhaps you were right to doubt them after all.”
“The vagueness got old three drinks ago, Zemo,” Bucky deadpans.
Collecting his thoughts, Zemo leans forward, resting his chin in his joint hands. “I maintain my belief that super soldiers should not be allowed to exist. Given the choice, mankind usually picks wrong. The outlier here is you were never given that choice to take the serum—or any choice after that.”
Barnes says nothing, but he’s listening, hanging on every word. Not even the Russian code words had captivated him this fully; that was a mind washed of all substance, of character, merely a machine following orders.
“The things you’ve gone through, the atrocities you’ve been forced to commit and the inhumane power you wield to carry it out. You regard yourself as a monster but you may just be the most human of us all for it. Your little book with the list of names proves that. Monsters destroy. They do not rebuild.”
Zemo pretends not to see the wet, shiny sheen to Barnes’s eyes. He may be—as Bucky had indelicately referred to him as—an asshole, but he had class. He had standards. None of which included getting up and reaching a hand to Bucky’s face, feeling the rough stubble, but it had been a taxing day. Unlike the performance for Selby, his hands are bare, fine leather gloves discarded on the table, skin free to feel every sensation, every bump on their way down.
“If you want me to stop, then stop me,” Zemo says, knowing the verbal assurance would be appreciated. “We both know you’re fully capable of doing so.”
“I could break you,” Bucky cautions, grabbing his hand and stopping his ministrations, squeezing in warning. “Sometimes I still want to.”
“I know,” Zemo soothes, switching to his free hand, running his fingers down his strong jaw trying to ease the decades of tension locked there.
“I don’t forgive you, for using me—framing me—constantly trying to manipulate me—”
“You shouldn’t,” Zemo agrees, moving his petting to the short tufts of hair, feeling like he’s taming a wolf, even when he’s unable to resist raising it’s hackles: “After all, what would your therapist think?”
Bucky tenses, metal fingers jolting precariously against his own fragile boned ones. “Are you trying to piss me off after I just said—”
He moves a single finger to Bucky’s lips, silencing him. Barnes scowls, but allows it.
“Lucky for us, forgiveness is not what I seek.”
Bucky eases his grip that was becoming a tad to tight clutching his hand and moves it to rest on Zemo’s hip. He wonders what the vibranium what feel like against his torched unclothed skin; cooling or electrifying?
“What do you want, then?”
“A dangerous question,” Zemo says.
“Zemo,” Bucky warns.
Zemo acquiesces, shrugging lightly, a barely comprehensible movement. “Peace. Pleasure. If only for a moment. The real question is, given your procured freedom, what will you do with it?”
The darkening of Bucky’s gaze is the only answer—the only warning—he gets before the hands on his hips travel lower and it’s only his reflexes grabbing onto Bucky’s shoulders, wrapping his legs around his waist, that keep him upright and steady when Bucky stands and takes him along.
Whoever leans in first is unclear. For all of James’s rough exterior, his lips are soft, amendable to his movements. James kisses like it’s a battle, and Helmut allows the domination, melting to give way, placating him.
They make it to Zemo’s bedroom, barely feeling the door move at his back, only coming out of his trance when he is lowered onto the mattress. James pauses to look down at him, taking in his rumpled appearance. He can effortlessly imagine the picture he must paint because James mirrors it perfectly: reddened, bruised lips, disorderly hair.
Done with his scrutiny, he pulls on the belt loop of Bucky’s trousers to draw him in. His touch spurs Bucky back into action, leaning down to grab a fistful of Zemo’s shirt in his hand and tearing it as easy as paper.
Zemo watches the tattered remains fall to the floor in mourning.
“I was rather fond of that shirt,” he informs James.
“So buy another, your highness,” Bucky retorts unforgivably. “Rich enough.”
“Really, that’s not my correct title—”
His retort escapes him in a gasp of air, a sharp yet not an entirely unpleasant stab of pain beginning to bloom.
Bucky had bitten him just above his hip bone, a wicked grin present, smirking down at him.
“Talk too much,” he explains, voice rough. “Always lookin’ so smug. You’re infuriating.”
“Then,” Zemo begins, tapping Barnes’s chest to signal the shirt off. Barnes takes the hint, dragging the black material off in one smooth motion. “You’d best find a way to keep me quiet.”
A challenge lights up in James’s eyes, his warm, inviting mouth returning to Zemo’s sensitive flesh. The skin pricks in anticipation, goosebumps left in James’s trail as he heads lower, already a conditioned response to those teeth in him.
“Actually, doll,” Barnes grins up at him, flirtatious and playful, and Zemo wonders if this is what the James before the wars was like, before the tragedies. “I have a better idea.”
Helmut was an early riser. It had once been a necessity, being part of the Sokovian Armed forces, to rise with the sun, and the trained habit had not left him in his captivity, even where the sun did not reach him.
This morning is no different. What’s different is the company; James, wearing nothing but his dog tags that glint in the sunlight peeking through closed curtains, sleeping peacefully beside him. Sometime during the night, James had encircled an arm around him, metal palm placed against his heart. Carefully, he began to extract himself from the grip, thankfully loose enough to slide out of.
It’s surprising Bucky does not wake during the manoeuvre. He was a light sleeper—Zemo had noticed on his private jet that even the slightest bit of turbulence would jolt Bucky back into awareness, wide eyes jumping to each corner, scouting for danger—yet here he remained undisturbed.
Plagued with nightmares that were once reality would take it’s toll on anyone, enhanced or not.
To truly see what James was like when his guard was dropped was a welcome sight. Tearing himself away to get dressed takes all of his self-control and he spends an indistinguishable amount of time watching the gentle rise and fall of James’s chest before leaving, closing the door with a quiet click.
He had let himself get distracted. Immensely so.
The vials destroyed, their maker dead, there was just one last thing he wished to do before fate’s shackles caught up to him once again.
It was lucky Sam and Bucky had not gone to the effort of combing the place. The stash of drugs hidden away remains untouched. Rohypnol would do the trick; a powerful sedative but harmless in the right prescribed quantities.
He doesn’t bother to measure the amount for James’s cup, letting the pills fall like confetti into the liquid. The super-serum would counteract the effects, perhaps before they even begun if he was unlucky. It was a calculated risk.
Since waking, Bucky had kept a respective distance from him, and Zemo in turn did the same, both lost in their own thoughts.
The opportune time reveals itself later, when Sam and Bucky are both in the lounge, conversing quietly.
“Gentleman,” Zemo greets, holding the tray out, the golden-coloured herbal tea sloshing gently in it’s crockery. “May I offer chamomile tea? Its chemicals is said to have a soothing effect on the body. Perfect for the stressful day ahead.”
A play on words. Not entirely a lie nor the truth.
“Sure,” Bucky agrees amicably, taking the cup he passes.
Zemo raises an eyebrow. That was…surprisingly easy. Bucky doesn’t usually accept his offerings, be it food or drink. It had taken the allure of alcohol and even then, Bucky would go pour it himself, never accepting a hand out.
Bucky finishes the cupful in one go, maintaining eye-contact the entire time. Challenging. Defiant. Knowing.
“Delicious,” Bucky comments blandly.
“Oh,” Zemo hears himself say faintly, distracted by Bucky languidly licking his lips, a contrast to the accusing gaze he pins on him. “Good to hear.”
Sam eyes them carefully. “Ok, this is weird. Weirder than usual for you two. Which makes it really weird.”
“Nothing weird here, Sam.” Bucky looks at him as he draws out his next words longer, stretching out his name, provoking. “Right, Zemo?”
Did Bucky know he had drugged the tea, or was this a separate problem? Was he furious about waking to an empty bed? Perhaps it was a mixture of both, Zemo thinks with rising dread, forcing his expression to remain even and unsuspicious.
“Right,” Zemo repeats, inwardly cursing his parroted responses. The dynamic change of Bucky being the composed one was unsettling him. “Excuse me, I believe a shower is in order.”
He waits the required time before exiting the bathroom. A quick check of the living room reveals Sam knocked out on the couch; he hadn’t made it far before feeling the full effects.
Bucky is no-where to be seen.
Perhaps he made it to a bed before collapsing, given his enhanced tolerance? Treading lightly, he wastes no time heading for the entrance. It’s only when the shadow against the near pillar moves that Zemo realises Bucky was present all along. Biding his time. Waiting.
“Was hoping you’d tried to kill me in my sleep,” Bucky offers lightly. “Would certainly make more sense.”
“To think so little of me, after everything.” He raises a hand to his heart. “I’m wounded.”
“No, you’re running,” Bucky accuses.
Zemo observes him with interest. Aside from slightly diluted pupils, he seems normal. “It is fascinating that you consumed so much and barely feel the effects—”
“Stop it,” Bucky snaps. “Stop treating me like a science experiment in order to detach yourself from this.”
“And what is this?” Zemo tilts his head, aware of how it irks Bucky, a condescending trait he uses to extort. Now it feels like a defence mechanism.
It’s cruel to ask James, to lay such weighted expectation at his feet, when even he doesn’t know himself.
Bucky deflates. Fight giving way to weariness. “I don’t know.”
Taking pity on him, Zemo changes the subject.
“I have something more personal to attend to than tracking down the remaining Flag Smashers; that mission I’ll leave in your capable hands.”
“Awfully confident, aren’t you?” Barnes narrows his eyes. “What makes you think I’ll let you go?”
“Trust,” he proposes.
Bucky huffs, looking away in disbelief. “Unbelievable.”
“I wont ask for you to trust me—we are beyond such comforts—but to trust where to find me.”
Bucky says nothing, jaw clenched, fingers flexing as if to grab. Zemo starts to leave. If Bucky were to stop him there was little he could do, they both knew, so he may as well take the first step.
It’s only when he reaches the door that Bucky blocks his exit with an arm stretched out, hand resting on the door frame. “A day. I can give you a day.”
Zemo smiles gratefully at him. “A day is more than enough, liébling.”
The softness in his voice is unintentional, the term of endearment plucked from him as easy as lifting a feather. Not wanting to part ways just yet, Zemo raises a gloved hand to the side of Bucky’s face. This particular indulgence of his was already feeling familiar, his thumb stroking back-and-forth.
Bucky leans into the touch unconsciously, stubbornness washing away, as Zemo lets go. Noticing the way James wilts in his touches wake, resembling a starved flower, he abandons reason for a while longer and lets their lips connect once more.
Zemo will have the taste of James, a drop of honey and apple, on his tongue in his absence.
The Sokovian memorial does not bring him the peace he expected.
Not to say the landscape was not peaceful, it’s beauty was stunning, even on the dreariest of days, but it does not bring him absolution to be among his people again. Only a reminder of the emptiness carved out in his heart.
It takes James longer than a day to find him. With the unsurprising news of John Walker’s dishonourable discharge bombarding every news channel it is easy to figure out why. Another failed attempt of a hero, another idol fallen from its revered pedestal.
When Bucky comes to a stop behind him, he spares them both from pointless greetings or inquiries.
“Wakana’s forces will be here soon,” Barnes informs him. To his credit he does not apologise or grovel, even if the regret in his tone suggests he wants to.
“Hmm,” Zemo hums in acknowledgment.
His lack of response aggravates Bucky to take a few steps forward. He can feel the man wants to grab his shoulders and turn him around, shake him until his bones rattled, draw from him a gasp of pain, not so different from the noises they shared under soft sheets not so long ago.
“Did you expect me to do any differently?” Bucky pushes, desperate now.
“No. You are a good man, James. Noble. Your sense of justice will always steer you in the right direction. I do not blame you,” he assures. “A Wakandan execution is at least an intriguing way to go.”
“You’re not doing to die,” Bucky says—demands. “I’m not allowing you to die.”
“Even if it’s what I want? That’s unexpectedly cruel of you, James, and here I was just complimenting you.”
The familiar banter is easy to slot back into, but it comes out flat, monotone, a sham.
“Is it what you want?” Bucky challenges, tired frustration bleeding through. “Do you even know?”
He didn’t. Not any-more.
James had made him question his ideology, his convictions, and along with it something else entirely.
“You would have done it already. Right here,” Bucky correctly summarises. “You waited for me where you knew I’d find you when you could have gone anywhere in the world.”
“I suppose you are correct. Strange, isn’t it? I didn’t hesitate to end my life before.”
The resounding silence that follows after is telling. The wind picks up, tousling his hair, the fur of his coat. Zemo barely feels it, numbness clouding his sensations.
Realising Zemo isn’t going to face him anytime soon, Bucky walks up to the statue next to him, entering his peripheral vision. He tries to catch Zemo’s gaze and, failing, follows it to the sculpture’s marble features.
Hands in pockets to fight off the Sokovian icy chill, Bucky prompts: “Before?”
“After the Avengers fought and tore themselves apart, Wakanda’s King found me. When it became apparent he would not take vengeance for his father death, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Although,” Zemo gestures to himself, a bitter smirk besmirching his otherwise apathetic exterior. “You can see how that turned out.”
Zemo had accepted his fate the second he had made a move against the Avengers; death or imprisonment. There was no reason to try and fight it, his reason for living dead and buried in this very memorial.
“I never knew,” Bucky says.
I never told anyone, until now, until you, Zemo thinks but does not say. Some wounds never recovered, stayed raw, easy pickings for the vultures.
“It was a brief encounter, but I got the impression the King was a wise man. He told me ‘the living are not done with you yet’.” Zemo finally tears his gaze away from the marble, its inanimate, hollow beauty lackluster compared to the living, breathing fire that burned within James. “It seems he was correct, in a way neither of us expected.”
The ring of steel pounding on gravel disrupts the tranquillity. The clang of armoured steps nearing.
Their time was up.
“Ladies,” Zemo greets. “Always a pleasure.”
The Dora Milaje’s expressions scream holy retribution but they keep their hands to themselves. They knew they were in control and with the outcome set in stone there was no need for violent outbursts or posturing. It was an admirable trait, one Zemo wished governments across the world would exercise, so tied up in their fragile egos and bluster.
“I took the liberty of crossing my name in your book,” he tells James. “Given our recent...history I figured the debt was clear. For both of us.”
He is being obscure for the sake of their audience. All for naught as the way James is looking at him is a sure give away, like he cant decide if he wants to hold him, cry, or break apart. James’s adam apple wavers, as if swallowing down a thousand words. Gratitude, sorrow, desire all take a turn appearing before settling on acceptance and resolution all combined in a shaky nod.
Helmut returns the gesture with more grace, though he fears his own expression is similarly too open, revealing vulnerabilities he thought he had closed off.
“If you are finished,” one of the Wakanda women steps forward, tone as sharp as their spears tip. “I am beginning to wonder if we accidentally melted part of your brain during your deprogramming, White Wolf.”
Zemo’s brow rises at the moniker, amusement playing across his lips. Oh, the teasing he could have done with that.
Bucky’s head snaps down, flinching like a scolded dog, but there’s a stubborn edge to his gaze. “Afraid not, Ayo. I’ve always been one to make terrible mistakes, but at least now their mine.”
They share a prolonged look—unspoken communication that Zemo is not able to pick up on, without knowing their exact history—before Ayo gives a command in Xhosa.
It was time to leave.
Allowing one last look at James, he keeps his farewell brief.
He wants to say see you soon but such a taunt in-front of the Dora Milaje may be a bit too on the nose. They had remarkable restraint but he wasn’t willing to test their limits—not until he had made his dramatic curtain fall.
Confidently striding forward, he allows the Wakanda forces to set up a perimeter around him, escorting him to the jet.
Warmth trickles up his neck. A stare piercing through him. James; watching him until the end.
Mission complete, soldat. At ease.
The thought of James’s provoked reaction to that has him chuckling to himself, uncaring of the attention he draws to himself.
James may now have one more name crossed out on his list, but Zemo’s work was just beginning. It was incredibly sweet (naive) of James to think Helmut had been doing nothing but waiting for his arrival like a lovesick, yearning fool, but it was not the truth.
The Raft had such an interesting cast of characters to play with, all the way from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy.
Risky for the unprepared.
Fruitful for the capable.