For a long time, this is the last thing Bucky remembers:
A pulsing red light. Sam breathless beside him, his nose broken, his chin streaked with blood. Containment doors, milky and cloudy, made out of bulletproof glass. Zemo in that goddamn ridiculous mask that Bucky has tried to throw out at least three times by now. In this light, it’s black.
Bucky ducks around the corner to take a shot.
A wave, silvery and cold, drowns everything else. After that, there are just—flashes.
He wakes up in a safehouse. Not one of Zemo’s—he knows that much before he even opens his eyes, because Zemo’s way too much of a hedonist to buy sheets this scratchy. Let alone a twin bed. This has got to be one of the places they effectively inherited from SHIELD, which means it’s going to look like an office building and have way too many fake potted plants.
His head feels tender. It’s throbbing—as far as he can tell, he took one hell of a knock—but he’s had worse. What he doesn’t like is how it feels like some parts of him are wobbly and loose, like he put in a whole bunch of screws to hold who he is in place and now they’re almost out again, just one or two rusty threads between him and a whole lot of nothing.
He tightens them down again as best as he can, keeping his eyes closed until he feels like something more than just shrapnel rattling around a pipe bomb. He catalogs certainties—kicking off with the biggest one, which boils down to, This is a little dramatic.
He’s got cuts and bruises, but they don’t worry him like the head wound—or whatever it is—does. He is, physically, more or less fine.
He’s probably still in Tasmania. He came here with Sam and Zemo because there were reports of dangerous alien tech bobbing around.
Say, dangerous alien tech that could knock out a super-soldier, which explains what happened to him. He doesn’t know what happened to them, and that ends his little made-up therapeutic exercise. He’s out of certainties and out of fucks. He opens his eyes.
Sam, at least, is right there. All in one piece—just a band of white tape across the bridge of his nose—with his feet propped up on the bed right beside Bucky’s.
Bucky ignores his overwhelming gratitude at this and kicks Sam’s foot. “You’ve got the whole room, you can’t give me a little space?”
“Man, you wake up cranky. How are you feeling?” His smile is wrong: a couple degrees too tense.
“Sore. You? Zemo?”
“Nothing wrong with me but the making of a serious boxer’s nose. Zemo’s in the other bedroom.”
Which doesn’t answer his question. Not really. He looks at the tight corner of Sam’s mouth, rigid as a hook, and only sees it soften as Sam exhales.
“He took a pretty bad beating; I’m trying to let him sleep it off. I used up most of the painkillers on him, sorry. But you got me at your bedside because you’re so cute.” He hands Bucky a glass of tepid water, shakes three aspirins into his palm, and passes them over.
Bucky swallows them, but they leave a bitter trail down his throat.
Sam says, “You took a whole bunch of alien light straight to the face, you know. Don’t get me wrong, you’re still pretty, but … you noticing any after-effects?”
Alien light. Bucky thinks about that silver-white cascade slamming into him, like a thousand living, squirming needles. And then that disorientation. The taste of the aspirin is suddenly so strong that he feels like he’ll choke on it, so he gulps down some more water.
He doesn’t think he can get close to explaining how fragile he feels inside, not even to Sam. He sticks with the concrete: “I don’t think I remember anything between that and this. We’re still in Tasmania, right?”
“So what’d I miss?”
“Oh, just the rest of the firefight. You know, nothing you would have come in handy for anyway.”
He looks down at the knuckles on his right hand, where the skin is split. Someone—Sam—has wiped off the blood.
He doesn’t remember hitting anybody. There’s something in his head, like a memory so thin that, turned sideways, it almost disappears.
(Red light. Somebody pounding on glass.)
“Sam,” he says quietly.
Sam looks at him for too long. Bucky knows that expression: it’s like he’s doing some kind of triage.
“The device they used on you—the flash—it’s toast, for the record. And as far as we can tell, it was the only one that ever made its way here in the first place. So what happened to you—it’s not going to happen again. But I know you’ve heard that one before.” He takes the glass out of Bucky’s hand. “Mind control. Point-and-click brainwashing, basically. Mostly for simple commands.”
No wonder waking up felt like coming back home and finding all his furniture kicked over, the drawers open and everything strewn around. He gets why Sam took the glass from him. He would have broken it; his right hand is suddenly curled in a fist so tight it hurts.
“Whatever they made you do, Bucky, you weren’t the one who did it. Not in any way that matters.”
Yeah. He knows the whole rigamarole. Like the man said, he’s been through this before.
“What was it?” he says.
“Look, if you don’t remember, maybe that’s a good thing.”
“It’s not. I need to know what happened. Did I kill anybody?”
“No. You—they made you toss Zemo around a little. So I figured you wouldn’t mind if I gave him your share of the painkillers, all right?”
“I hit him.” He stares down at his bruised knuckles, trying to think about how much it takes to mess him up, these days—how hard he’d have to hit somebody for it to really show on him like this. “How bad?”
“He’s going to be okay.”
“Did I hit you?”
“No,” Sam says, and he seems inexplicably pissed about it. “Just Zemo.”
He guesses that’s better than the alternative, but it still makes him feel like shit. There was a time when he might’ve wanted Zemo dead, sure. Even now, there are times when he has no patience for his own fucked-up semi-liking of the guy, times when he’s still not sure he can put the past behind them like this and go on respecting himself. There are days where it feels like none of this is worth it. But none of that means much up against his raw knuckles. His mind keeps trying to fill in the blanks, and what it comes up with just leaves him coldly nauseated.
“Whoever was using the tech,” he says, his voice carefully level. “What happened to them?”
“Him. Just the one guy, once we fought our way to the center of it all.” Sam drinks some of Bucky’s water. “He’s dead.”
Bucky studies Sam’s hand on the water glass, Sam’s fingers so steady that Bucky knows, instinctively, that he’s doing everything he can to keep a sudden shudder from running through him. Sam doesn’t like killing people. Really doesn’t like it.
Bucky’s not the biggest fan either, but he’s still glad that was Sam’s answer. Sometimes the questions are just that bad.
“Can I see him? Zemo?”
Sam hesitates, but he nods. “We’ll just try not to wake him up.”
He gives Bucky a hand out of the bed, like he’s got no problem touching him. Like he hadn’t sponged Zemo’s blood off Bucky’s hands an hour ago.
The safehouse isn’t big, so Zemo’s right across the hall, which seems insane. Risky as hell. Doesn’t Sam know what Bucky could do to him?
You’re you, he tells himself. You’re safe. You’re free—thinking of Ayo telling him that, her face gilded by firelight. But Ayo and her faith in him are a million miles away from here.
She wasn’t wild about Zemo’s whole work-release program. That was strictly T’Challa’s thing. Right now her wariness feels prophetic—though Bucky’s willing to bet that this isn’t how she saw it going wrong. Their lives are an endless cascade of things going wrong in off-the-wall ways.
It’s never boring. But Bucky kind of likes boring. Or at least he thinks he would like it, if he ever got to try it out.
Sam opens the door.
For a second, Bucky can’t even make out Zemo on the bed, just a mess of colors. Tossed him around a little, Sam said, and Bucky knew it had to be an understatement, but this? This is even worse than he thought. Zemo’s almost shapeless from all the bruises; his eyes are swollen shut. He’s twitching in his sleep, trying to do his usual sprawling out but hitting the same pain wall whichever way he turns. If he weren’t doped to the gills, he would have woken himself up a long time ago.
He did this.
He knows Zemo now—he knows what kind of tea he drinks, what reminds him of his son, how he fucking sleeps. He knows him, and he did this to him.
He stands there, watching Zemo’s chest rise and fall in shallow breaths.
Bucky wants to kill somebody for this, but if Sam was telling him the truth, he’s the only person left with any responsibility. And he’s got all these therapeutic, half-believed lessons about how helpless and blameless he is, a non-entity in the big equation of history, so he’s not even supposed to think about it like that. Fuck it; he does anyway. The sour aspirin taste is back again, harsher and slicker and more metallic, and for a second, he really thinks he might throw up.
“Look,” Sam says softly. “What this place lacks in personality, it makes up for in a shit-ton of fancy diagnostic tools. I know what’s going on with him, all right? He doesn’t have any internal bleeding. A couple of broken ribs, so I taped him up. It looks bad, I know, but he’s going to come out of it okay and be walking around in a day or two.”
What he’s seeing is bad enough to have bruised his knuckles, sure, but … if he was really whaling on Zemo, he should have done a lot worse than some broken ribs. He says as much.
Sam shrugs. “Maybe the brainwashing guy told you to go easy. It could be he wanted Zemo alive.”
He doesn’t exactly sound like he’s lying. Sam’s not a good liar—it’s one of the things Bucky likes best about him—and if he were outright making this up, it would be a hell of a lot more obvious. But he’s not telling the truth either, and Bucky doesn’t know why.
“Why did he focus on Zemo? Why not both of you?”
Sam’s expression changes in an instant: hardens like cement. “Because there was one of those containment doors between us, and Zemo locked it and smashed the damn control panel.”
“It was a busy couple of minutes,” Sam says, and again, Bucky feels the shadow of whatever it is he’s not saying.
And apparently question and answer time is over. Sam hustles him back to bed and goes to sit with Zemo, which is where he should have been this whole time. Where he would have been, probably, if he hadn’t needed to make sure Bucky wasn’t going to wake up still in murder-robot mode.
Bucky lies on his back and stares up at the ceiling. Without meaning to be, he’s tensed for every sound coming from across the hall, like Sam’s going to suddenly start whispering all the things he wants to know.
In the morning, Zemo is awake. Sam’s propped him up in bed and given him a plate of scrambled eggs that he’s picking his way through very slowly, the waffled cotton sleeve of his bathrobe almost falling into the plate.
“Good morning, James.” Like anything about this is business as usual.
There are two chairs in the room, one right up by the bedside and one all the way against the far wall. Bucky takes the second one, in case Zemo doesn’t want him too close.
“This isn’t even one of your safehouses,” Bucky says. “Where do you keep getting these bathrobes?”
“Sam was kind enough to pick this one up this morning.” Zemo turns slightly to look at the nightstand, tilting his head so that he can see something through the thin slits of vision he’s stuck with at the moment. “Target,” he announces, and Bucky realizes he was reading whatever tag Sam must’ve clipped off the robe. Like he thinks Bucky might want to go get one for himself.
“I didn’t even know what happened,” Bucky says.
“Yes, Sam said you didn’t remember.” Is it his imagination, or is there a trace of relief in Zemo’s voice? It’s hard to tell.
What he keeps wanting to say is I’m sorry, which has the advantage of being true and the disadvantage of being way too small to hold what’s happened.
Zemo never apologized to him, either, for whatever that’s worth. Although in Zemo’s world, standing perfectly still for someone to put a bullet in your head probably counts.
Instead of sorry, he says, “Thanks for keeping me away from him. Sam.”
He half-expects Zemo to make some lofty, aggravatingly gracious gesture, some subtle inclination of his head that feels straight out of some Sokovian ballroom, but instead, Zemo meets his eyes and just stays quiet. He doesn’t look like the baron of anything right now: sleep-mussed, grotesquely bruised, his features almost lost in all the swelling. He’s spilled scrambled egg on the sheets and Bucky doesn’t even think he’s noticed. He looks like a soldier dragged back from torture, shaky in some hospital bed but—secure, somehow. He looks like a guy who knows he didn’t give up any troop movements. Who knows his unit’s okay, even if he’s not.
Zemo’s a murderer and a terrorist capable of waging a ruthless one-man war. And an asshole, on top of all of that. But a lack of loyalty? Not his problem. If anything, Zemo holds on by the teeth.
Until now, Bucky didn’t know he and Sam were included in Zemo’s fucked-up circle. It makes him uneasy, grateful. Vulnerable.
“You could have kept me away from you too, you know,” he says lightly. “You’re a good shot.”
“Thank you. It felt rude to kill you.”
“I’m just saying, if there’s a next time—”
“There won’t be. The device is destroyed, and so is the man who knew how to use it.”
“Yeah. But I’m the device too.”
Zemo shakes his head. “It had nothing to do with you.” Earlier, Bucky wasn’t sure if he was hearing relief, but there’s no missing this new undertone, this weird ferocity. “With the Winter Soldier programming. It worked independently; it could have been any one of us.”
But it wasn’t. And he could have killed both of them with his bare hands. Zemo, of all people, should be right at home with that argument, should be adding it to some internal manifesto about the dangers of super-soldiers. Instead, he’s gone back to his scrambled eggs.
(Bucky tears the mask off Zemo’s face, baring bloodied, shock-white features and a clenched jaw. Zemo’s hair is damp with sweat.)
“It’s over now, James,” Zemo says, without looking at him. “Best to just put it behind us.”
They’re stuck here until Zemo is back on his feet, so Bucky spends most of his time wandering around the anonymous safehouse, bouncing off the walls.
There’s a phantom smell, hot and metallic, like blood on an overworked radiator. If it weren’t just in his head, he’s sure one of the others would have mentioned it by now. It’s just a kind of—mental hangover.
(Zemo’s saying something, but his voice isn’t the one in Bucky’s head. Bucky hears, Gag him, so he pries Zemo’s mouth open and shoves his wadded-up mask inside, so deep that Zemo almost chokes on it.)
Sam goes for a lot of runs. Zemo convalesces in his Target bathrobe and reads the cheap paperbacks Sam snags from some little free library he passes on his route.
“More Harlequins would be acceptable,” he tells Sam. “Not Tom Clancy.”
“Duly noted. You might have to settle for cats solving mysteries.”
“I’ll take those if he doesn’t want them,” Bucky says. He almost means it, if those are the options. He likes cats, and it’d be nice to have a mystery that’s bloodless and puzzle-like and doesn’t mean shit to him.
The hell of it is, he trusts Sam. He doesn’t think Sam wouldn’t keep a secret that wasn’t worth keeping; if Sam’s just giving him half-truths, then it’s probably because the real deal would hurt like hell and not even do him any good. And he knows Sam wouldn’t lie to him, and by now, Bucky’s asked him all the hard questions he could think of. He asked the worst of them just that morning, while Zemo was sleeping the sleep of the heavily medicated.
“You’ve been helping him in and out of the bathtub.” Gently, too, Bucky’s betting, even though Sam is still almost transcendentally pissed about Zemo throwing himself on the mind-controlled super-soldier grenade.
“Yeah, he’s almost ready for the shower, though. As soon as we can be sure he’s not going to pass out halfway soaped-up and bust his head open on the floor.”
“I mean,” Bucky said, “you’ve been doing that every time. You never ask for my help.”
“You weren’t offering it.”
“Yeah, I know. But me not offering’s never stopped you before. Usually, you’d just tell me to lend a damn hand already.”
And now, he wanted to say, you’re not rolling your eyes and asking me if there’s a question in all this. You’re just waiting.
“You don’t want me to see him out of that robe,” Bucky said. “Or he doesn’t want me to, or both.”
Sam nodded, just a little. “You didn’t do what you’re thinking you did, though.”
“If you’re telling me I didn’t rape him because somebody was in my head, because I wasn’t responsible—”
“I’m telling you, period and point blank, that you didn’t, by any definition. I promise you, Buck. If it’d been like that, it would have been rape for you too, as far as I’m concerned, and I wouldn’t hide something like that from you.”
Sam exhaled. “That part I can’t help you with. Who Zemo wants to help him out is his business, not mine. Tell you what, if your feelings are hurt, I bet he’ll let you buy him some of that honeydew shampoo he likes.” But it was teasing with no real smile behind it. Sam was just making the conversation end.
(There’s a clash as bulletproof glass finally shatters around a vibranium shield—the quick chaser is a percussive gunshot, louder than ever in the closed little room. Sam doesn’t say, Let’s talk about this, or even, Stop. He takes a headshot, and hot blood spatters across Bucky’s face. The voice in his head goes away. And so does he.)
So: cats. Cats would be better.
He doesn’t sleep as much as he used to, but that doesn’t mean he has to wind up in Zemo’s room every goddamn three A.M., like clockwork. He sits in the faraway chair and leafs through Sam’s latest scrounge-up, a large-print copy of something called Chicken Soup for the Soul 2. Playing sentry, like he’s not the danger Zemo should’ve been protected from.
Zemo stirs at the rustling of pages. “James?” He sounds groggy, his voice sleep-thick.
Bucky doesn’t bother marking his place. “You want me to get out?”
Since he doesn’t say anything else, Bucky follows it up with, “You want me to read you some inspirational parables?”
“No,” Zemo says more adamantly, and Bucky sort of laughs. Zemo pushes himself up, wincing just a little as he braces himself against the headboard. In the moonlight, outside the little circle of Bucky’s lamp, he looks like a kind of living shadow, a bruised darkness on the white sheets. “Do you always watch people sleep?”
“No. You’re special.”
Unbelievably, Zemo looks almost pleased by this. It’s almost like that’s what makes him say, “Sam said that I should think about telling you everything. That not knowing is tearing you apart.”
Yeah, it is. “You don’t owe me anything,” Bucky says instead. The second it comes out of his mouth, he realizes that it’s stupid in about eighteen different ways: fuck it, Zemo owes him a lot, actually. Just—maybe not this, because some things, you didn’t get square on. He knows from experience.
Zemo head-tilts at him. He says, slowly, “You’re very sweet, James.”
“Shut up and go back to sleep.”
“Sam also said,” Zemo says, not shutting up because he never does, “that he didn’t know how you would react.”
“It’s fun to have you as a collection of Sam’s greatest hits.”
Zemo leans over and clicks on the bedside lamp. He’s awash in gold suddenly, and all of this is just a little more real. If it’s possible to look tense and calm at the same time, that’s the expression on his face.
“Come here, please,” Zemo says.
Bucky puts his book down and walks over. It should take longer—should be a concrete-floored corridor leading to the electric chair, since that’s what it feels like—but it’s just a couple feet of cream-colored carpeting. He’s there in no time at all.
Zemo pulls his robe down off his shoulders, letting the arms hang down even lower than usual. His bare chest is, of course, a mess of still-livid bruises. The darkest one is straight, cutting right across his stomach, but that’s not what Zemo focuses on. First, he touches his right shoulder.
“This was dislocated. Predictable enough—it happened very badly several years ago, and since then, it’s been easy to reinjure it. Here: broken ribs.” He moves his hand lower, to the straight line of a bruise. “This was the edge of a table.”
For absolutely no fucking reason at all, Bucky touches the back of Zemo’s hand. Just with his fingertips. Zemo nods at him, like any of this makes sense.
Then he slips the rest of the robe off, and Bucky sees what it’s really been covering all this time. There are dark, unmistakable handprint bruises on Zemo’s wrists.
“He wanted to fuck me, so he made you hold me down.”
And Bucky remembers.
(Stuffing the mask in Zemo’s mouth, yanking him down over the table. Pinning him there—holding his shoulders at first and then, when Zemo struggles, taking him by the wrists and wrenching his arms up instead, pulling them over his head. He hears the sick thock as he yanks Zemo’s shoulder out of joint. Zemo’s hands, starfishing against the metal lab table, look funnily, bloodlessly white.)
“That’s all,” Zemo says.
(He’s holding Zemo in place for the Man with the Voice, the wheeled lab table moving slightly with each thrust. Bucky braces it with his body. Everything will stay where it’s put.)
That’s all. Zemo’s sitting there in bed, bare from the waist up now, with a faint spread of gooseflesh across his bruised shoulders. That’s all, like it’s nothing.
He can’t think.
He touches Zemo again, lightly settling his fingers down on the marks they already left. Zemo exhales, long and soft, like he’s been holding his breath for days now.
Guess Steve didn’t take all the stupid with him after all. This is a bad idea, but it somehow falls in the sliver of overlap between what they need and what they can give. And it feels—honest, maybe. Nothing with the two of them is ever going to be straightforward enough for words to take care of it anyway.
He curls his hand loosely around Zemo’s left wrist. It’s voluntary this time—he wants this, he’s here. He can feel the warmth of Zemo’s skin. And Zemo matches him, stretching his arm out straight and laying the other one beside it.
Bucky traces his bruises, at least all of them that he can see. He moves up Zemo’s arms; ghosts his palm along the long black-and-blue seam the table edge left on Zemo’s stomach. He guesses he’s not erasing anything. Overwriting it, maybe. If they’re lucky.
He doesn’t know if he believes that any one of them could have gotten wiped out by the alien light. He thinks his mind might be like Zemo’s bad shoulder: push it too far once, and every time after, it’s easier and easier for it to … dislocate.
Then again, Sarah told him once about people who repair broken pottery, lacquering the shards back together and not even hiding it. She had a coin dish like that, all spiderwebbed with gold, like it was supposed to be better or stronger or prettier for having been broken.
Depends on where you’re standing.
Whatever’s between him and Zemo—anybody else would probably say it started off bad and is just going to get worse, each time breaking a little easier, a little more.
But for whatever reason, Zemo closed the containment doors and kept him from hurting Sam.
For whatever reason, they’re here.
Zemo turns his head into Bucky’s touch, letting Bucky skim lightly over the bruises around his eyes. He reaches up—slowly, because God knows by now they’re all used to each other’s batshit reactions to being startled—and brushes his hand over Bucky’s brow.
Longing, Bucky thinks. It might be what Zemo’s thinking, too. Rusted. Seventeen. Daybreak. That basement in Berlin.
He’s done all the touching he can do above where the blanket pools loosely around Zemo’s waist, and he doesn’t think either of them want to push it that far. Not right now, anyway.
So he just stands there. And after a while, when it seems like they’ve done whatever it is they were trying to do, he sits down with his book again. This time he takes the closer chair.