Actions

Work Header

The Old Words

Chapter Text

The Pashtuns have a story they tell, dating back to the nineteenth century, to the time of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A girl walks onto a battlefield: not just any battlefield, but a small pass in the mountains. It is distinguished by no notable history, this pass, and with no notable history yet to come. Amidst this breach in the wall of individually-named mountains— Tabal Koh, Torah Shah, and Shah Maksud— two armies meet. On one side: the turban-hatted tribesmen, barefoot perhaps in their shalwar kameez. On the other: the empire in their red coats and khaki. 

(Zemo has always enjoyed the way that the English say khaki, inventing an implicit r and in the process rendering it less a color than a state of being. In the Persian it was a color; to be khak-e was to be earth-genitive, dirt-affiliated. But the British: oh, they are so very much feeling khaki.)

The battle, as you might expect, is not exactly even-sided. The turban-wearers are being massacred. And yet onto the field this girl comes— this girl called Malala, this water-bearer, daughter of shepherds, and when she sees that the flag has fallen, she takes the scarf from about her head and waves it to her countrymen as a battle standard. In her own language, she sings a poem of war, a landay, saying: I will take the blood from my lover, who has died for our homeland, and I will wear it upon my forehead as a beauty-mark. 

And, as you might then expect, the Pashtuns won the battle.

Today the story is told with various morals, which we need not delve too deep into: the strength of women, the glory of Afghanistan. Ask a Pashtun, however, and he may tell you that you have misunderstood the story entirely. Only in Pashtu could Malala have made such a cry, and it was by the secret power of this language that she rallied the people of Maiwand. That power remains within the words now, though quiescent. You can feel it with each pronunciation, in the bones of your teeth. Try.


These days, Zemo speaks English, although he reads in French and German. Sometimes Russian, if he’s feeling particularly full of vim. When Barnes first visited him in the prison, it had been four hundred and eighty-five days since he last spoke the Sokovian language. Does it qualify as a language anymore, he wonders, now that Sokovia no longer exists? A dialect, perhaps. He isn’t informed on the topic of linguistics. He supposes that it will retain some usefulness for a generation, or maybe more than one, before it recedes and is no longer spoken. After all: look at how rapidly he himself defected to other tongues.

Though he is surprised, following his escape from the prison, by how naturally it comes to his lips— then disturbed to find it recurring without his permission. He will search for a Russian word, and find the Sokovian word demanding attention. Sokovian words intrude themselves into sentences in German and French. His phrases disarticulate themselves and reassemble in, how do you say, podge-hodge chunks of polyglottism. Dites à Selby, he says on the telephone, posyë— and then has to stop. Another time: U menya nevoyë diese stvari—

Once, aboard the jet, he is jolted from his sleep by Barnes saying, “Zgjohi!He thinks he has imagined it at first, or hallucinated the Sokovian word in place of whatever language Barnes was actually speaking. Reluctant to reveal his confusion to Barnes, he’s intensely relieved when Barnes forestalls him: “You were speaking Sokovian,” Barnes says. “In your sleep.”

Zemo runs a hand over his face quickly, not liking the implied loss of control. “I didn’t realize you spoke the language,” he says in English.

Barnes shrugs, the casualness of the gesture belied by his intense watchfulness. “You didn’t ask,” he says.


Reassuming the role of baron is, by comparison, unproblematic. When Zemo welcomes Wilson and Barnes into his automotive collection and his personal jet, Wilson looks at him with an intermingled disgust and envy that leaves Zemo quite frankly fascinated. He wonders what Wilson knows about growing up in a place synonymous with war zone— a place that can, with so little international outcry, be wiped from the map. Perhaps he knows a bit. Perhaps he knows the precarity of the rat that strains against the limits of its rat-world; the alacrity with which it will climb atop the backs of other rats. Perhaps he knows enough to have some measure of admiration for the nimble and swift acrobatics involved in becoming the king rat. 

What he doesn’t tell Barnes and Wilson is that his family’s title has been largely meaningless since before the Second World War. His grandparents and great-grandparents were shiftless, malcontent exiles even before that— drifting about the seaside resorts of Europe, racking up some truly aristocratic bills on credit and mysteriously vanishing as part of their exotic-Ottoman performance. Only after they’d been stripped of all formal status did they settle down to make some money. Black market antiques were their business; after all, who better to sell you some exceptionally dodgy artifacts than an exceptionally dodgy artifact? He wonders sometimes how many of Sokovia’s Thracian tombs and medieval churches were pillaged by his grandfather, and where the pieces of their painted murals and marble friezes are now.

Better, perhaps, that the art survived, he supposes. Given—

See, a man can justify anything. This is his great skill. Imagine the elaborate artifices, or perhaps edifices is the word he intended to have chosen, the high structures he constructs for himself to pretend that he has escaped the land of rats at last.


Zemo knows Barnes better, perhaps, than anyone has ever known him. Better than he perhaps knows himself. Every video, where video footage exists: Zemo has seen it. Every audio recording of a sound that the Winter Soldier made. 

(What Zemo would confess to an interviewer, if one asked: in all honesty, it becomes rather boring, consuming repeated acts of violence. One person dying looks like another, and any honest soldier will say as much. After a time, you find yourself skipping past the screams and gurgles. You are irritated with how long it takes a person to die. With torture, the same: how many times can Barnes’s face achieve the same contortions? Must they use the electricity over and over? Haven’t they a creative bone between the whole skeletal kit? Zemo knows, of course, that the monotony itself is a part of the torture. And, too, it’s useful for the torturers: past a certain point, not only habit but an exhaustion of the empathy sets in. Still, something in him rebels, perhaps his last moral instinct. Yes, it’s true, his boredom is moral! He would like to believe so. Do what you’re going to do, he thinks, but for fuck’s sake don’t make it boring.)

He’s even watched the tapes of Barnes’s earliest therapy sessions— not his deprogramming in Wakanda, but the psychotherapy that followed his return to the United States. The sessions made for quite compelling viewing. There had been a certain era of Zemo’s existence, before he was placed in isolation and thereafter assimilated more even-temperedly to prison life, when they had obsessed him. In the videos, Barnes was a ragged, still-feral creature. He was prone to prolonged and uncomfortable bouts of silence. It took him a long time to find words. When asked to reflect on this, he sat for a long time without speaking. Zemo can picture him now: oddly soft-edged where he hunched in the oversized armchair, pulling the sleeves of his jumper over his hands. He had lost a dramatic amount of weight, and his face looked haunted. He had not yet cut his hair.

“Maybe there are words for what I want to say,” Barnes said, “but I don’t know ’em. I don’t know how you would learn ’em. So everything has to be looked up in a dictionary. You know? Or— not even in a dictionary. It’s like I’m the first person who’s ever had to say it. I’ve got to find the right shape cookie cutter to show you. The right…sharpness.” His metal fingers twitched. Zemo liked to think that he was looking for a knife. 

A knife was a cookie cutter that was always the right shape cookie cutter.

In that moment, watching, Zemo had wished too for a knife. Not because he did not know the borders or form of his response, his reminiscence, but out of outrage at the very authenticity of Barnes’s speechlessness. How, Zemo thought, do you not know the words? 

He had thought that everyone possessed this secret language, though you did not reveal your fluency in it, at least not in polite company. No wonder Barnes is so unmade. He has passed the age when one acquires such skill through sudden immersion.


Zemo was nine, or possibly ten, when he left Sokovia for the first time. His grandparents had spent much of their time in Paris and Montecarlo and Hong Kong, but his parents were fucking patriots or had, perhaps, run into visa troubles. Zemo was sent away to school in Zurich only after a separatist attack on the gymnasium he attended in Novi Grad. He did not take well to Zurich. He refused to speak French or German. He spent his mornings crouched at the side of the lake. He did not like the flatness of the lake waters, his sense that he lacked the capacity to perturb them. The great serenity of their mirrored surface seemed vile. He took to pitching stones into the lake, or sometimes exceptionally large tree branches. At the moment of each impact, he felt a vicious emotional surge. The water splintered; the vast and abiding muteness that it imposed upon him shuddered. As he drew a violent breath, he pictured the red smear on the schoolroom wall: the same height as a nine-year-old child, its trajectory bending downwards. He smelled the blood and the hot brass of spent shell casings. Helli, Helli! someone was calling. But he really cannot think now who.


“Does it disturb you to play the role of the Soldier?” he asks Barnes that night in Madripoor. A rather belated investigation, as he’s just required Barnes to do so for the better part of the night— but, then again, if he were actually carrying out a sincere investigation, Barnes wouldn’t be attempting to eviscerate him with a look. 

“No,” Barnes says. He downs the glass of whiskey he’s drinking.

They’re high in the transparent spine of one of the city’s sleek dark skyscraper needles, in the American girl’s flat. The girl herself, depleted of half-hearted insults or any usefulness, has gone to bed, but the flat retains the stamp of her presence: anonymous, expensive, over-furnished. When Zemo had kept a flat in Madripoor, he’d had an indoor koi pond and an orchid greenhouse, though he’d also had no time for any act except the pursuit of vengeance. Money had not interested him. He’d slept on the bare floor of a spare bedroom that he’d kept undecorated: empty-walled. Now that seems to him like performative grief, an affectation. Prison has had a salutary effect on him. 

He considers the measure of whiskey in his own glass. The rich color of it reminds him of rakča, the pomace brandy that farmers in the east of Sokovia manufacture. “When you comply with my commands,” he says, “enact my orders without question, it doesn’t make you wonder—“

“I’m free of all that.”

“Of that particular programming. Which doesn’t necessarily equate to freedom.”

Barnes’s face contorts to express his world-weariness. “So, what, you think I’m a just a sitting duck for the next sicko who wants to stamp me with some code words?”

“No; this is not what I think. One does not have to lose one’s freedom to live without such a component.”

“I’m not in the mood for your pseudo-intellectual bullshit,” Barnes says. He sets his glass on a polished table and pads past Zemo, down the mahogany-colored hallway. 

Zemo trails him at a polite and reasonably prudent distance. “We’re none of us free, James.”

“What did I just say?”

Zemo, conciliatory, spreads his hands. “I’m merely observing that the chasm between you and your former self may not be so vast as it is comfortable to imagine.”

Barnes openly scoffs and retreats into the plush dark of a spare bedroom. 

Zemo pursues him again. “How many words did I employ to recruit you to cross the globe upon my say-so?” he asks. “How many words did you employ to recruit me to your cause?”

“That’s not even remotely the same thing.” 

Barnes hasn’t turned a lamp on. Zemo wonders, briefly, if Barnes can see in the dark. It’s an aspect of the super soldier serum that Zemo has never seen remarked on, either in the positive or the negative. Something about the idea is disturbing to him: the echo of the animalistic, the unambiguously not-so-human. Always, with the supersoldiers, they are human plus, the top-tier package— all the requisite features, plus some extra, but none that might cause alarm. He would like them more, he thinks, if they were hiding some biological animal feature: a tapetum lucidum, a second stomach, or a heat-sensing pit in the face. He would not forgive them, but perhaps he would view them as having moved into the category of creatures who were ineligible for either forgiveness or its refusal. One does not forgive a bird of prey or a shark.

Lacking any animal parts of his own to aid his nightblindness, Zemo stands gingerly so as not to walk into the furniture. He is aware of his comparative weakness beside Barnes. He is not above mobilizing such vulnerability for his own purpose. It’s hard for predators to keep their guard up around someone broadcasting that they are prey. To achieve this effectively, one must enter into the prey emotions. He allows himself to be frightened. He feels his heart rate lurch. 

“Isn’t it?” he says to his unseen interlocutor. “You don’t think it’s possible that I could disarm you merely by saying the name Steven Rogers? By invoking Hydra? Or perhaps simply by playing on your fear that you might once more become less than rational and independent?”

Barnes materializes suddenly from out of the dark. “Yeah? Like you’re doing right now?”

He reaches out and flicks an unseen lamp switch. Shadows recoil from the rush of light. Some of them settle into the hollows of Barnes’s face, where grief has made a new topography, not unlike a river.

“Yes. Precisely,” Zemo says. “So much easier to accept that we are all of us programmable, that we are— at the heart of ourselves— inconstant creatures. You have the advantage of being evidence that it’s true.”

“It’s not true,” Barnes says. 

“No?” Zemo pauses. “Of course, if it isn’t, then the only explanation is that there is something exceptionally wrong with you.”

He is interested, in a detached way, to see whether Barnes will hit him. But apparently they aren’t familiar enough yet for that stage. Barnes simply stands as though carved by some haunted sculptor from marble. It is astonishing how young he looks, Zemo thinks; but then, people say that about Zemo as well. On a definitional level he can understand it. Sometimes he inspects himself in the mirror: the unlined eyes, the plump sides of his face. At some point he stepped out of time, he thinks dreamily; that’s why he doesn’t age. He stopped being human. 

For Barnes, of course, this is literally true. Episodically, Zemo hates him for it. How dare you, he thinks, live your life this way, like a character from a story, like everything you touch has meaning, like you’re a metaphor in a man’s skin.


In truth, he suspects both he and Barnes were unsettled by the events at the Brass Monkey. It had not been what he imagined, commanding the Winter Soldier again. He had expected it to bring a satisfaction. He had been starved of power for so long in prison, and logic dictated that power ought to work like water: if you poured it into a glass, the glass would, at some point, no longer be empty. But in fact this was not the way that power worked, or it seemed not to. Loosing Barnes on a crowd of bystanders did not satisfy Zemo’s restless, crawling, vicious impulse; exhorting Barnes to stillness while offering his sexual services to Selby didn’t do it. An edge of panic gripped him, a wild urge. The more he subjugated Barnes, the more he felt himself slip beyond his own jurisdiction. The more he erased Barnes, the more he failed to recognize his own emotions, until he himself was the one who ceased to exist. How could this be? In what physical universe were they living, that maths could operate in such a peculiar fashion— that the visible exercise of power only removed it from your possession, that water deepened rather than filled a cup?

He does not like the realization that they are bound to each other, he and Barnes, in an infinite loop: a sort of Möbius strip of being-powerless. He does not know how to get off this neverending stair. He does not know that there is an exit. And, besides, at each new lap he sees his destination within reach, if only he could climb a little higher—  complete the final circuit— and the next—


He intends to kill Barnes, of course, at the close of this little adventure. It’s not clear to him whether Barnes is aware of this. 


In Riga, he brings Wilson and Barnes to a house that has belonged to his family for more than a hundred years. It dates from their first exile, just before the Great War. The interior, designed to evoke the aristocratic konak of Southern Sokovia, now comes across predominantly as Turkish— the walls of the front hall, the hayat, tiled in blue and turquoise Izmir colors, the windows geometric patterns of Albanian glass. It’s the reminder of an era when Ottoman influence spread its tendrils up along the Adriatic coastline. There are polished tea sets in the cupboards, and a jar filled with carefully wrapped rakht lokum. As he waits for Barnes to return from an errand that almost certainly revolves around manslaughter, he delicately unwraps a single sweet. It smells of rosewater. The cornflour clings to his fingertips like ashes. His stomach turns.

“I’m going to need you to stop fucking with him,” Wilson says abruptly. He isn’t looking at Zemo; he’s gazing out of the pale gold, patterned windows.

Zemo replaces the sweet in its wrapper. “I’m sure I don’t know to whom you’re referring.”

Wilson makes a half-amused, disgusted noise. “Yeah, right.”

“I’m merely a man executing the mission on which his expertise was requested.”

Executing the mission, that’s a little bit of a euphemism. You want to talk about executing, let’s talk about Madripoor. Let’s talk about you executing that man.”

Zemo hums thoughtfully. He inspects a blotch of tarnish on an otherwise excellent silver tepsi tray, the type that men still hang from their arms to carry small glasses of tea from one marketplace stall to another, or would if there were many Sokovian marketplaces left.  “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Right. I forgot that murder is so humdrum for you. Wilfred Nagel? That ringing any bells?” Wilson folds his long limbs onto the sofa with an easy grace that belies his tense, watchful expression.

Zemo smiles slightly at him. “It’s a funny thing about execution. It used to be a public entertainment. An enactment and celebration of state power— the king alone decides who lives. Of course, nowadays we are so enlightened: we don’t believe a king has such a power. Instead we prefer to defer to some higher good: for the higher good, this person must be removed, or that one. Women and children, even. There is a supreme and cosmic calculus, according to which our lives are allotted a relative value.”

Now the disgust on Wilson’s face is real. “I don’t believe that people’s lives have relative value. I believe they’re people’s lives, period, end of question.”

“And you don’t take people’s lives.” Carefully, Zemo places the lid back on the jar of lokum. Investigating the remaining shelves of the kitchenette casually, he finds an assortment of Danish biscuits in a metal tin.

Wilson watches him, flat-eyed. “Not without trying to save them first,” he says. “Trying my damnedest.”

There’s no determining how old the biscuits are, but they are the sort that might as well be indestructible. Zemo picks one from its paper setting and inspects it closely. “You served in Afghanistan, and not the Balkans, I’m assuming. Not Sokovia.”

“Like you don’t already know.”

Zemo’s mouth twists in a kind of amusement. “I do, in fact! Pararescue. Very noble of you; I’m sure that you hear it from everybody. You must have looked like an angel of mercy to anybody on earth.”

Wilson doesn’t say anything. His face is frozen, anticipating the turn.

Very neatly, Zemo bites the shortbread biscuit in two. “Or an alien, I suppose,” he says through a mouthful of crumbs. “To those farmers and their children. A cut-out figure from another world, pasted in, not subject to the laws of nature that governed their existence. At any moment, you would rise up again, like heat running in reverse, the energy of some smash recohering, and go back to a world with clean water, medicine, without bombings, with electricity. The great American escape.”

“Says the man with a literal family retainer.”

Zemo toasts him with the other half of the biscuit: touché. “I wonder if you could tell me the name of a single Afghan you met during your service.”

“I wonder if you could tell me the name of any of those Indonesian men,” Wilson returns. It’s an artful refusal of the question. “The ones you killed at that Hydra auction.”

Zemo smiles maliciously. “Mohammad Ilyas Pambudi,” he says. “Aji Edward Susanto. Irwan—“

“Fine,” Wilson says, cutting him off. For the first time, he seems nettled. 

“You think I didn’t bother to learn their names? I knew who I was killing.” Zemo points at him with a second, sugared biscuit. “If you didn’t know their names, you should have stayed at home in America. It wasn’t your business.”

“Then what the hell are we doing here?” Wilson stares at him: a challenge. “What the hell are any of us doing, if you think that’s true? I don’t just mean the Avengers, or you and me and Barnes, I mean— anyone. Any of us.”

Zemo sees his point: have they a responsibility to one another, as human beings or indeed as anything else? He places the lid back on the tin of biscuits. “The only thing we can do, I suppose,” he says. “Our best.”


He retreats to the house’s echoing bath chamber, which, with its church-like air, makes him think of Sokovian khamams: the domed buildings, centuries old, with clay brick rooms where one would sweat before being sluiced with fresh water; the murmur of voices as muted as the wings of doves that blurred slow panels of light in the ceilings. There, as he lay on the marble slab, some barrier dissolved between his skin and the hands that had cut the stone out of the mountains. He was steeped in molecules, physical and metaphysical, of the past. 

And what a past: to be a speck of dust under the heel of a janissary; to be a tribesman, a horseman, a shepherd, a fisherman, an illiterate farmer, or a half-soused monk; to be the strangling pet at the end of a Soviet leash; to be a sad face in a black-and-white Agence France-Presse photo.

But all the same it had been his, an unseverable chain that said, You are not alone. That said, There is an order.

He stares at his pale toes where they emerge from the heated water of the bath and feels like a nothing-creature, a dead shell spotted at a beach, sea-scrubbed until there is nothing alive left.

Across the right arch of his foot is a long scar where a piece of debris from a mosque caught him as he was exiting a Muslim town that his unit had destroyed in the second war. Ancestors, I have made you proud. If asked, he’d airily say that he hasn’t thought about it in years— his war, his war crimes— but in truth, he thinks about it each time he sees the mark. 

What is a war but a series of scenes that men’s bodies move through in various poses, now alive, now suffering, now dead? In that case, how can he live to see that or any war ended? And what about the molecules that he sheds? Do they go on to infect others?

His son, at least, was spared this.


He emerges, damp and louche and perilously chipper, from the bath to the news that the Wakandan security forces are after him. In some ways this comes as a mild surprise.

“I assumed you would have arranged things,” he complains to Barnes distractedly, later, as he swans about the room in his bathrobe, regarding an array of rather splendid jumpers that he’s spread across the chairs.

Barnes, sprawled across the sofa, is leafing through a magazine in Latvian. “Does it seriously take you more than an hour to pick out one outfit?”

“Well, not in prison.” Zemo runs a particularly fine maroon wool through one hand. “Did you neglect to leave a nice voicemail for King T’Challa?”

“The king and I don’t have that kind of relationship.”

“For one of his terrifying retainers, then.”

“I’m not Wakandan. You wouldn’t understand.” Barnes shakes his head as Zemo rejects the maroon in favor of something darker, more umber-colored. “Is there a point to this? You’re just going to wear that stupid coat; it covers everything.”

“Taste never has a point; that’s what makes it taste.” Zemo unbelts his bathrobe and is amused to see Barnes quickly avert his gaze. “So shy? I thought you were a soldier.”

Sokovian men bathe together, casual with their war wounds. In Scorpion, he’d have been strung up for this heavy-handed flirtation, though— aristocrat or not, there were some behaviors that wouldn’t be tolerated. With his educated accent and feminine looks, he had already walked the edge of tolerance at times. 

Barnes stays facing away from him. “You killed Wakanda’s king. I don’t think you knew what you were doing. It’s not like other countries.”

“I know.” He pulls the umber jumper over his head and studies himself in a mirror, tilting his head slightly. “To the best of my knowledge, no white man in history has ever lived there as long as you.”

“Yeah, well.” Barnes’s shoulders are tense. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to get you off the hook with them, or something.”

“No, certainly not. I’m surprised you stole me from under their noses.” 

He steals a glance at Barnes, who is frowning and absently flexing his metal fingers. 

“Wakanda’s…” Barnes’s voice trails off. “They have very high standards. Not for foreigners. But— it’s hard knowing that they’re not holding you to the same standards. Sneaking you out just seemed less, I don’t know, fraught all around.”

Zemo discards the umber jumper for another, just slightly darker. He says, “And now it has backfired.”

Barnes makes a noncommittal noise. He’s disappointingly under-attentive to the clothing drama; as an act of revenge, Zemo crosses his line of sight with his trousers undone, but doesn’t garner a very satisfying response. Nettled, he does up the zip and buttons; preens for a moment in front of the mirror.

“One way or another,” Barnes says, “I’m handing you over. I don’t give a fuck about you.”

“And you give a fuck about them. I understand.” 

Barnes nods jerkily. His face is so exposed all the time, so emotive. How he has survived this long is impossible to understand. “You killed their king, he says. “They cared about him. If it was just me— I mean, just between us, it’s not like I really give a fuck about myself either. But for what you did to them?”

Zemo’s mouth is unaccountably dry. He smooths his hands down the soft wool of his jumper. “It was nothing personal,” he says, not liking the note of apology in his voice. It hadn’t been there the last time he said those words. “It never was.”

“You’re not the one who gets to make that decision,” Barnes says.


Zemo wonders if Barnes has done the careful research that Zemo himself would have conducted— specifically, if Barnes has read his prison records. It would only be fair; after all, Zemo has seen videos of Barnes made by Hydra that not even the United States government  is aware of. He’s seen videos of Barnes that he destroyed after watching them. Barnes owes him for this, in a sense: Zemo made possible the bond that Barnes enjoys with Wilson, who hasn’t seen those videos, the last days he enjoyed with Rogers, who never saw them, the robust and masculine clap on the back that he received from America’s military establishment. Perhaps Zemo destroyed the videos as leverage. Perhaps he wished to stem the broader leak of poison. Perhaps he was, with wild and reckless abandon, indulging in any orgy of self-damage that he could inflict, and the experience of watching the videos was not one that he wished to share with others.

He would not fault Barnes for any choice that Barnes has made. But he would like to know. If Barnes read the records. 

The king of Wakanda had visited Zemo once in prison, back in the days before the Blip, when Zemo was still in his era of velcro restraints and sedation. T’Challa had looked like an ordinary man in a more-elegant-than-ordinary suit. He had been thinner than Zemo recalled, and with an abstracted, otherworldly air. He had sat in a plastic chair beside the white infirmary bedframe while Zemo stared at a water stain on the ceiling and did not acknowledge him.

“They say you killed a man,” T’Challa said. It was difficult to read his expression. It was not adjudicative, but it was not apologetic. He seemed simply tired.

Zemo was tired, too. He thought that it was probably the newest sedative they were trying. He experimented with flexing his fingers, then making a fist. He watched T’Challa watch him do so without any measurable affect. “You’ll have to be more specific,” he said.

“With a ballpoint pen. This week.”

“Ah.” Zemo’s eyes returned to the ceiling. The gradations of color within the water stain drew him in. He was reminded of being under the sea, drifting in the Adriatic near his family’s Grecian villa. The sedative seemed to slow his brain. “He had it coming.”

He did not offer further detail, and T’Challa did not ask. “They say you tried to kill yourself, as well,” T’Challa said instead.

“You knew that already.”

“Here, in this prison.”

Zemo sighed: a note of impatience. “You’ll have to be more specific,” he said again.

On this particular occasion, he had unraveled a book binding very meticulously over time and made a noose of it. There was still a faint bruise on his throat. He was only allowed paperback books now, in addition to all the other limitations. It often seemed to him that the only things worth his time were those that had some potential usefulness for self-murder. Or for other kinds of crime.

T’Challa closed his eyes. There was a furrow between them, like a mark of suffering inscribed on his brow. “This is not what I wanted,” he said.

“No?” Zemo grinned, quick and sharp and feral. “Undo it then. Did you bring your pretty cat suit? You won’t need it. I won’t put up a fight. Or I can, if you’d like, but, you see, they’ve put me on these damned sedatives. Very inconvenient.”

This did not seem to lessen T’Challa’s suffering. Quite the reverse. He lifted his head for a moment, gazing upwards as though through the grim prison ceiling, to some higher world that only he could see. “A great deal has happened since I saw you put to trial. I thought that I would have to learn to be a king, but I have had to learn other lessons.” 

Zemo rolled his eyes and jerked his hands viciously against the cloth cuffs. “Spare me the holier-than-thou moralizing.”

It was hard, though, to resist the gravitation pull of T’Challa’s solemnity— the slow core of holiness that seemed to color how he looked at the world. Zemo seethed under its cosmic force, but couldn’t kick his heels against it enough to get free before the man spoke again.

“There was a time when I thought,” T’Challa said, his gaze still abstracted towards the ceiling, “that if I discovered the source of an injury, then that injury could be corrected. This is how a doctor works. We have very good doctors in Wakanda. There are very few injuries that we find fatal. You see, it had never occurred to me that a man might be so broken—” He paused. “No. That is not what I mean to say. But there are times when a man’s hurt is like a tumor in the brain. Easy to say what the sickness is, but its tendrils are in all the parts of him already. If you cut it out, you would take the man with it. Or perhaps you would not, with enough skill, but to be able to say which parts are man and which are injury… in a hundred years, you could never do it. No matter how much you desired to.”

Zemo was attempting to tune him out. “They let me watch the news here,” he said, “but in German. It’s not my best language. Remind me: was it your cousin or your brother that you killed?”

T’Challa showed no reaction. Perhaps he couldn’t; perhaps this was one of the things that a king had to learn. But there was a long silence before he spoke. “My sister believes she can remove the sickness from the man you know as the Winter Soldier,” he said at last. “I hope for his sake that she is correct. If she succeeds, perhaps there may come a day when we can offer you a remedy for what hurts you, though in many ways it would be more than you deserve.”

“What I deserve?” Incredulous, Zemo yanked his hands once more against the restraints that held his wrists against the bed’s railings. “You think that because you’re a king, you can say what I deserve? You’re not my king.”

T’Challa eyed him steadily. “No. I am the son of the man you killed.”

“And I am the son of the man that Stark killed, Stark and Rogers. The father to the son that they killed. Husband to a wife whose bloated corpse lay waiting for me in the garden, rotting and gray with the dust from overhead.”

It was the reminder, more than the description, that seemed to pain T’Challa further. “Yes,” he said. “All of this I know.”

“And you come here and speak to me about what I deserve? I deserve nothing. You cannot save me or exorcize me, and nothing that is done to me in this place will shame me from existence. I exist to be what they deserve. I am nothing more now than their history of sins given flesh, crawling out of the pit they left me in.” Zemo was out of breath by the time that he had finished this declaration. Sweat itched at his brow like hallucinatory insects. He felt feverish and chilled. 

T’Challa had folded his hands very tightly in his lap, exposing an inch of careful, kingly shirt cuffs. With his wide-set eyes and his posture bowed by some grief he always seemed too slight to carry, he struck Zemo as a Renaissance saint at prayer. “I know that this is what you believe,” he said. His voice was unforgivably gentle. “But I have also learned to wish that you believed in a life beyond vengeance.”

Zemo drew a long breath. He said very clearly and very precisely. “I will find a way to fucking kill you if you come here again.”

Later he realized that he shouldn’t have said it, because of course he couldn’t effect the promise. Over the course of the next year, he would be hurt  in the same way again, and again he would enact his revenge— ending the cycle addled in some infirmary bed and stripped of the privilege of whatsoever item the prison authorities felt he could do damage with. The joke was on them, because there was no limit to his capacity for destruction. And the joke was on him, because T’Challa did come back.

He isn’t sure, from Barnes’s reaction to the arrival of the Dora Milaje, if Barnes ever knew about these encounters. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he has read the files. Perhaps there are videos. Perhaps Barnes would enjoy the videos. Perhaps he watched them with T’Challa while on holiday in Wakanda.

But, increasingly, Zemo doesn’t think he did.


The visit to the GRC camp doesn’t go as hoped-for, and Barnes is on edge by the time they return to the house. The fact that he snaps and shatters a teacup is hardly noteworthy, and Wilson, at least, is well-mannered enough to apologize for it.

“It’s nothing,” Zemo says, kneeling to collect the ceramic shards from the tiled floor. “Hardly a family heirloom.”

“Do not apologize to him,” Barnes spits from the far side of the hayat, where he’s pouring himself a glass of brandy. “He’s spent the whole day fucking with us.”

“Yeah, but it’s Zemo,” Wilson says. “I don’t know what else you expect.”

From the look on Barnes’s face, with its fierce, hawkish note of betrayal, this is indeed the crux of the matter. Zemo sits back on his heels and considers the scene as Barnes tosses back the brandy in a short motion and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Barnes is more agitated than he should be, and Zemo is eager to parse his fury into sources. How much belongs to his anger at being outwitted? How much to his anger at being outwitted by Zemo? How much to the guilt he feels over his debt to the Wakandans, and the glimpse he got in their country of a life that would never be his? How much to the same urgency that Zemo feels about the little bottles of super soldier serum, each one offering to upend the human hierarchy and tip most of its contents into the dirt? How much belongs to an urgency that Zemo can’t understand, one that sees those bottles as future kindred to whom Barnes will be beholden? Like family, like nation, like fis: a responsibility you didn’t choose, but had to bear. A chain you were born to. 

Barnes lets out a deep breath. “Right,” he says. “We just need to keep him on a fucking… leash or something.”

“It’s an intriguing idea, but better men than you have tried and failed,” Zemo says, unable to resist.

From the vaguely disgusted look on Wilson’s face, he at least hasn’t missed the implication. “Oh, I did not need that image in my head. In fact, you can just keep whatever freaky sexual shit you’re into far away from our conversations.”

“You disappoint me,” Zemo says, leering at him.

Wilson shakes his head. “I’m going to call Sharon back,” he says, standing. “When we stick him back in prison, let’s add on a couple of years just for, you know, generally being creepy.”

Zemo can’t quite hide his smirk of triumph as Wilson leaves. 

“Don’t get all excited,” Barnes says from the corner. “He was playing along with you. What the hell are you doing on the floor?”

“Cleaning up the mess you made,” Zemo says. “As usual.”

“Oh, fuck you.” It’s surprising that Barnes doesn’t break another glass. He looks like he’d like to. “I broke you out of prison. You owe me.”

“You’re going to send me back to prison,” Zemo points out. “Forgive me if I fail to feel in debt.”

“There are worse places than prison.”

“Yes.”

“We spared your life.”

Zemo thinks of that year of sedation, before they sent him to solitary, when he ate soup through straws. Eventually, the guards had learned that there was nothing he couldn’t make a weapon. The other prisoners feared him, for the most part. He paced his cell, reciting Federico Garcia Lorca, Czesław Miłosz, Sokovian epics that his father’s strict tuition had drilled like screw-holes into him. The saga of the hajduk so-and-so. The saga of the hajduk such-and-such. He loved his father, who had felt that a man ought to die for his country, preferably before he got too old (no doubt a belief that emerged from his own parents’ exile in Europe). For a while he had hallucinated his father’s voice: that old-style, back-of-the-throat singing. When the fever of the drugs broke, and it was gone, he wept— with his face to the wall, so that no one could see him. He couldn’t afford such vulnerability, even for an instant.

The silence drags on.

“You’re bleeding,” Barnes says.

Zemo looks down. He’s closed his hand around the ceramic shards, and one of them has cut him. “It’s nothing,” he says. 

Another silence.

“When I said I’d hand you over… I will kill you,” Barnes says, “if you try to run. You know that, right?”

Blood collects in the palm of Zemo’s hand. It makes him feel ill, and he can’t think why. He’s seen a lot of blood in his lifetime. “Yes,” he says, without looking up. “I know.”


That night, he dreams that he is back at his family’s country estate, just outside Novi Grad. He stands in the kitchen. Though he cannot see his wife, he is aware of her in the next room. She is laughing. She is telling their son the names of birds that they can see through the window. She had studied biology at university, and she had retained a perfect memory of such details; anywhere in Sokovia that you traveled, she could tell you the names of the birds. Žava. Žurabl. Yastrob. Oro. He cannot hear the songs of the birds that she is naming, nor clearly make out her words; he hears only the murmur of her voice, indistinct and ordinary to him. She is teaching their son, so that he too will know the names; the knowledge will be passed onwards. Zemo too could have learned this science, but it is too late now: the moment is past.

His palms are wet. 

What is the song she used to sing? Nećesh mi donesi uyë, kar vidish kam žedan… Will you not bring me water, when you see me thirsty? O, with what shall I bring it, my fragrant rose? With your hands, with your hands, because I am thirsty. But my hands are so busy, my fragrant rose. 

He had gone out to the well, the small well in the burgeoning garden, where upturned Byzantine stele serve as substrata for fig trees. The air was honeyed and studded with currant-like bees, smelling of mulberry and yarrow. 

He was trying to bring water to her by holding it cupped in the palms of his hands.

But his hands were too busy. 

You cannot hold two things in your hands at once, water and a weapon. 

And when he looks at his hands, they are covered in blood.


He wakes, which is to say that he lurches from sleep, clammy with sweat, to find Barnes watching him from a chair at the bedside. He feels waylaid, struck upside the head; ludicrously, with a pitch-perfect tragicomic instinct, his first act is to hurl a pillow at the man.

Barnes blinks. The pillow flops into his lap. “You were shouting in your sleep,” he says.

Zemo hunches forwards so that his damp hair covers his face for a moment. His chest is heaving and he does not want Barnes to see him catch his breath. Not even this much vulnerability, he thinks, can he afford. Not even this much.

A long moment passes.

When at last he looks up again, he has managed to engineer his gaze into something louche, provocative, inviting. “In my sleep. I see. And did that excite you?”

Barnes looks annoyed. He jerks back. “No. What the hell, man?”

“It’s not often I wake with a handsome man at my bedside.” Zemo touches his hand to the bedclothes. “You don’t want to join me?”

“I don’t fuck mass murderers,” Barnes says.

Zemo’s mouth crooks. “Well, we must hope someone does, for both our sakes.”

Barnes looks at him very levelly: penetrating, disconcerting. It’s the same skinned-clean look that he had worn in the prison, when the only thing between him and Zemo had been a sheet of artificial glass. “I don’t think you fuck at all,” he says.

Zemo hides a spike of some furious and hot emotion. “You say that like it’s some sort of barometer of being human,” he says.

“Isn’t it?”

Zemo shrugs. He is aware that his affect is far from careless; some element of violence is too near to his surface, nearer than he usually allows. “Some people would say: procreation. The desire for children.”

There’s a pause. A slight crease in Barnes’s brow indicates that he is conscious of the crux in the conversation. “But you don’t agree,” he says.

Zemo settles back against his bulwark of pillows, thrilling at the sense that he has the upper hand. “You think we’re talking about my son,” he says, “whom your friends dropped a city on. But, in fact, I’m far more curious about when you cultivated a taste for men. Was it before or after Hydra raped you?”

The texture of the air in the room alters in a way that can’t be measured. Or the temperature, maybe. Barnes doesn’t show it on his face; he wears a thin smile. “Really, all this because I caught you having a nightmare?”

“So you don’t deny that you have a taste for men.” This much was obvious to Zemo from the way that Barnes interacts with women. There’s a visible relief, a comfort absent from his other interactions. Zemo had thought: homosexual, perhaps. Later he considered the possibility that Barnes had moved beyond such categorizations, and all genders were simply the same to him. 

Disappointingly, Barnes regards him now with more weariness than outrage. “I’m a hundred and six years old,” he says. “This is the shit you’re going to come at me with?”

Zemo shrugs easily. “You’re the one who came into my bedroom.”

“It wasn’t some elaborately plotted Freudian maneuver.”

“Maybe it should have been.”

Barnes sighs and tips his head against the chair-back, stretching his legs out before him. His stubbled profile catches the light of a streetlamp through the window. He is wearing, incongruously, an Avengers t-shirt and a pair of track pants. “I’m not trying to punish you,” he says. “I just… wondered what you were dreaming about.”

Zemo supposes that the Avengers t-shirt is meant to antagonize him, but in fact it looks like nothing so much as a piece of merchandise advertising a rock band. He can’t take it seriously. They have a logo. His genealogy, his lineage, the stone khamams, the wobble of his infant son’s first steps, his war crimes— the sleeping bodies of kings in the tombs his grandfathers stole from, the smear of blood against the school wall, the stone in his hand— his child-body in the shot-up schoolroom, the little qelqet glasses that his grandmother drank tea from, the muazzan that he shot in the head— his wife’s body stirring in the bedclothes beside him, Nećesh mi donesi uyë, kar vidish kam žedan?— the bodies in the forest, the bodies with the flies on them, the bodies with their stomachs slit open, his son’s newborn body with its soft and heavy head— all, all of this was a one-dimensional set in front of which the Avengers could play their latest music. When the crowds had dispersed, they packed up their instruments and were on to the next town. The set was dismantled; the lights were dimmed.

He turns his head away; he doesn’t say anything. He hears but does not see Barnes shift again: a rasp of cotton pulling against the metal plates of the arm, an exhale of breath.

“Sometimes I shout in my sleep, too,” Barnes says.


In the morning, the room is empty, but when Zemo wanders out wrapped in a wine-colored bathrobe, he finds Barnes making coffee on the stove in an ibrik. Barnes’s movements are careless with the ease borne of long-ingrained habits. There is no reason that Hydra would have taught him to make a Turkish-style coffee, and no reason that they would not have done so. It seems a strangely epiphenomenal skill.

Dobar dan,” he says, without moving from his pose in the doorway. 

Mirëgun,” Barnes returns, without looking at him. 

“I didn’t know we had a fine enough grind of coffee.”

“I found a spice grinder.”

Zemo leans his shoulder against the frame of the door. “Is this a form of flirtation?”

Barnes spares him an unreadable glance. “Does it disturb you for me to play the role of the Soldier?”

Zemo, caught almost off guard in a way he appreciates, smiles very slowly. He raises his eyebrows. “I asked you first.”

“And I gave you my answer.” The coffee froths in the copper ibrik. Barnes spoons the foam into two small cups. The kitchen fills with a particular scent: dark, heavy, unsweet, a little metallic. 

“You gave me an answer,” Zemo says.

“Let me tell you what I think,” Barnes says, returning the ibrik to the stovetop. “I think it does disturb you. I think it reminds you that I didn’t ask for this. Hell, I barely asked to fight in the fucking army, and that was almost eighty years ago.”

“I don’t see,” Zemo says, “why this is relevant.”

Barnes lifts the coffee pot once more from the stovetop. He measures out the coffee. “I’m not super,” he says. “I’m not heroic. I’m not an Avenger, and before you get started, I’m never gonna be. I’m not even a gun, or whatever you think they made me.”

“I think you’re a split-open atom,” Zemo says.

“Seriously? A nuclear bomb?” Barnes passes one of the coffee cups over, complete with saucer and teaspoon. “I’m flattered.”

Zemo sips the coffee. It is good. He watches as Barnes drinks his own cup. Barnes might be standing outside any little streetside cafe in Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Split. Novi Grad, if its cafes were not a fine gray mist distributed in the topsoil. “Ko ti naučilsya kuhatye kafe?” he asks.

Barnes says, “Zasyë eta važno?”

“I was just wondering. I wanted you to settle a bet that I was making with myself about whether or not you’d tell me.” Zemo stirs the dregs of his coffee with the little silver spoon. Briefly, he contemplates and rejects a number of self-deprecating witticisms surrounding his aristocratic birth. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Barnes says. Now he looks guarded. He doesn’t like it when people play games with him. This is unfortunate, as Zemo doesn’t like it when his playmates forfeit. “It doesn’t have any bearing on anything.”

“No?” The little spoon leaves the coffee. Zemo holds it delicately between two fingers. For a moment he regards it, suspended: its twist of silver flattening into Sokovia’s eagle-headed crest. “You know, it sometimes seems to me that I am no more than a colorful detail in a book, perhaps a multi-volume series, that purports to tell the true and complete history of the world.”

“So you decided to blow people up,” Barnes says, raising an eyebrow. “To make sure you get a mention.”

Zemo is still looking at the spoon. “Every coffee cup,” he says, “that you drank from. Every time you watched a cat pick its way over the cobbles; every moment you were thirsty, and touched your lips to a water glass; the moments in which you suffered as no one has ever suffered, and the moments in which you began to understand that everything you’ve suffered has been suffered before, and it will all be repeated, and yet you knew at the very baseboards of your stomach, as though a voice from the incalculable pit of you called it upwards, that all the same some cellular signature to this suffering is yours—“

He has run on too long. He has to halt for breath. Barnes stands very still in the sweep of pale gold light that runs through the cold Albanian windows. He looks like a statue, Man With Sokovian Coffee Cup.

“All of it,” Zemo says a little tiredly. “Collapsed. Flattened. Like a flower pressed between books till it might as well be made of paper. Or a name written on a list in a little book.”

That reference spurs Barnes to turn on his heel. He sets his cup down, so hard that a chip flies out of the saucer. “A guy can’t even make you coffee without getting mindfucked, huh? Being you seems exhausting.”

“It’s a living,” Zemo says. He raises his own coffee cup to toast Barnes.

“Does that mean you’re glad that T’Challa stopped you from offing yourself?” 

A smile blooms on Zemo’s face like nightshade, dark and slow and dangerously toxic. “Congratulations, James,” he says. “I knew there was a conversationalist under all that bland American niceness.”

Barnes huffs out a breath. “You ever think maybe it’s fucked-up that you get off on people hurting you?”

“That’s called masochism,” Zemo says. “There are clubs for it. There aren’t clubs for what I get off on.”

“You might be surprised. The twenty-first century is pretty amazing.”

Zemo purses his lips, pretending to consider. “The sexually enlightened Sergeant Barnes? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you fuck at all.”

He senses, rather than sees or hears, Barnes’s creak of appreciative laughter. “You say that like it’s some sort of barometer of being human,” Barnes gives him back.

“On the contrary,” Zemo says. “I think you know that there are two sides to the act of fucking. There is the one who fucks, and the one who gets fucked. I think you know that in life, as in sex, a man will be fucked until he becomes the one who is doing the fucking. And that there is no other escape except to entirely abstain from the act.”

Barnes appears to contemplate this briefly before his head jerks at the sound of Wilson stirring in the far room. He says, “So what you’re telling me is that you had a tough time getting laid in prison.”

Zemo fixes him with an unusually long, serious look. “Špjegoyutë, posyë tas ubiću,” he says. “Ali to ktë taže znaesh.”

Barnes looks away. “Yeah,” he says. “Znam.”


Zemo had said that to T’Challa, too— that one was either fucked or fucking. T’Challa, fastidious in one of his expensive suits, had frowned. One might almost have thought that he was considering the proposition, but in fact a delicate sternness to his brow suggested that he was trying to comprehend how Zemo could be so stupid. 

“You disagree,” Zemo said. He was not cuffed to the gurney, on this occasion; the doctors had drugged him with something that made him agitated, and he was pacing the walls of the white room, trailing his fingertips against their paint. He assumed that T’Challa had signed some sort of waiver— “if I am killed by an unstable Sokov who isn’t allowed bootlaces, I forgo my right to legal restitution”— but it was just as likely that none of those involved could imagine him defeating T’Challa, which was reasonable enough.

T’Challa said, “I think it is a very strange use of the language of sexual congress.”

“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Zemo didn’t cease his restless movement. He could feel the weight of T’Challa’s eyes on him.

“You have had a hard life,” T’Challa said. “I understand. I have read your files. You come from a hard country.”

“I come from no country.” Zemo’s jaw was aching, which he thought was a side effect of the pharmaceuticals he had been given. “It doesn’t exist.”

T’Challa did not look away. He seemed to blink less frequently than other people, which was perhaps part of why he seemed so fucking cut-out-of-a-painting, and why his gaze always felt needle-sharp and unusually intense. “I knew another man who was raised in a hard country,” he said. “I saw how it shaped him. We were not so different. He might have been greater than I am. But he was broken.” He gestured almost convulsively, inwards. “Broken inside.”

“I understand,” Zemo said. “You killed your cousin, so now you want to save me. What a convenient toy doll I must make. No wonder they keep me alive.”

T’Challa shook his head slowly. “You cannot be saved.”

The words jarred Zemo. They were not what he had expected. He halted abruptly and then forced himself into motion again. He studied the floor, where his bare feet had traced faint marks over the hours. He was following his own trail in circles. With one hand, absently, he formed a fist. “Because I killed your father?” he said. “Because I tried to kill Stark and Rogers? And Barnes? Because I tortured? Because I ordered those villages burned in the war?” He did not know if T’Challa knew about the war. The wars. “You know how they funded that war? When they captured Sokovs, they sold our organs. Then they left the bodies to rot. I thought it was a story when I heard it, but it wasn’t a story. And they killed women, of course. They killed little children.”

You killed children.”

With a violence that surprised him, Zemo slammed the flat of his hand against the wall. “I killed men. Men. How old do you think I was? I could’ve done worse. The things I saw— You think a man doesn’t do those things, until someone tells you that this is what a man does, and when you don’t do it, they call you— But still I didn’t do those things.”

T’Challa’s face was expressionless. “No,” he said.

“And now you come here and you say I can’t be saved, because— what? Not because of any reason. I could give you reasons. I could tell you what’s not in the reports.” For some reason his accent has grown more pronounced. “Men in my unit took fingerbones, you know, and made them into jewelry. Is that better or worse than torture? I was sick the first time I had to dig a burial pit. The second time. But you do what you have to do, and you get used to it. Because this is life now. This is what it means to live in a hard country. You do what you have to do, and you do your best. 

By the time he was finished, he was sweating, wild-haired, moving back and forth in jerky movements.

“I did not come here to save you,” T’Challa said, after a long pause during which he seemed to be making some inscrutable measurement. “I came to understand. Because I am a king, and I wish to be a better king than my father.”

“You’re welcome for the abject lesson,” Zemo said. And then the instinct rose up in him uncontrollably for violence, and he swung at T’Challa— knowing as he did so that it was futile, yet unable to quell what felt like a physical scream inside him, one that could not be expressed in words. Neither Sokovian nor English seemed to fit it. He flailed soundlessly and pathetically at T’Challa, unarmed and discoordinated by the medication, his breath pushing out of him in grunts. 

T’Challa took him by the wrists and pushed him back against the wall, not particularly gently. His touch was warm and firm, but unforgiving, and when Zemo struggled against him, T’Challa dug his fingertips painfully in. 

“Listen to me,” T’Challa said. His voice was low. Somewhere an alarm was ringing. “Listen to me. You wish to know why you cannot be saved? It is because you cannot yet say what it is you must be saved from.”

The door to the room burst open, and time went very strange after that. He could hear his pulse in his ears. A guard bent him forwards over a table, forcing his wrists backwards, and at this sensation, Zemo became a bird made of nails and teeth. He could not think of the name of this bird, which came from Sokovian legend. He could not think of any Sokovian names for birds. This was important, but he could not think why it was important. Grief overwhelmed him. 

He bit down on his lip and tasted blood.