The ballroom was gorgeous, a vast echoing space glittering with gold leaf, statuary, and flowers. But the entire building was just that opulent. Pure Old World grandeur—or decadence, depending on how you looked at it.
Sam would have figured Zemo would be entirely in his element here. It must be the company they were keeping that produced the occasional flickers of something sharper and edgier underlying his genially smug little smiles.
The affair was theoretically an exclusive party for a handful of high-level GRC executives and donors, along with lobbyists and politicians.
What it actually was, according to their sources, was a Hydra recruiting event and meet-and-greet.
It was Zemo, of course, who had wrangled them an invitation, and now he was parading around like he owned the place, like he wasn't just in the Raft three days ago. Sam found himself watching Zemo more closely than he meant to. It had been six months since they'd last seen him, six months of solitary confinement in the highest-security prison in the world, and that was bound to fuck with anyone's head. So far, Zemo had shown no sign of any particular weirdness associated with it, but then again, the guy was already so weird that how were you gonna tell? He had been a little scruffy when they got him out, legally this time—there was a tracking device underneath that ridiculous fur-collared coat this time, of Wakandan manufacture—but he'd gotten a haircut and a shave, and was back to being inscrutable and annoying and making veiled references that might or might not refer to possibly having Bucky taken out one of these days, so ... typical Zemo, in other words.
The one thing Sam was confident about was that Zemo hated Hydra enough that he was unlikely to betray them to Hydra. At least, that had to be why he was this confident going into a party full of people who would kill them if they were unmasked as spies with Zemo holding both of them on a fake leash.
Well, what were they gonna do? They could go undercover with assumed identities in Madripoor, but not here, with a bunch of politically well-connected people who would definitely recognize Captain America and who knew that the Winter Soldier was on parole himself these days.
Sam had refused to let Zemo go in by himself, pointing out that Zemo could head for the hills anytime he wanted without the two of them to keep an eye on him, not to mention giving him free rein to say fuck-all-whatever he wanted to everyone at the party. Zemo had merely smiled serenely and said that he was happy to comply with the terms of his release, as long as someone would tell him what those were, unless of course Bucky—'James'—wanted to take the frontal approach and simply murder everyone at the party in classic Winter Soldier fashion ...
At that point Sam had found himself having to intervene between Bucky and Zemo, and he'd come up with the current dumbass plan.
It was a plan in which Sam played the role that half the rest of the world outside the US already thought he was—a patriotic, slightly stupid dupe of the establishment—and Bucky played the role that at least two-thirds of the world inside and outside the US thought he was, a killer for hire. And Zemo played the brains of the outfit, Sokovian royalty and longtime Hydra sleeper agent.
Zemo was damn good at it. He knew all their codewords, even the recent ones; Sam was reminded again that it would probably be a good idea to check on Zemo's prison information sources. And Zemo played the role of the calm, urbane, morally bankrupt aristocrat perfectly—because that was what he was, more or less, though Sam at this point knew him well enough to know that at the very least Zemo wasn't for sale to the highest bidder, as he was currently portraying.
So they wandered through the party, and Sam made note of the worryingly large number of musclebound types lurking around the edges of things, clad in suits that were not quite tailored well enough to hide the suspicious bulges under their jackets. This place had a lot of security. They weren't going to welcome party crashers, especially the ones gathering dirt on them, making note of who was here and who wasn't. Causing trouble, Sam thought, would be highly ill-advised.
A number of the partygoers also had their own private security, which meant that Bucky raised no eyebrows at all. He had settled seamlessly into the same role he'd played in Madripoor, except perhaps with more animation in the face, since he wasn't trying to play an automaton this time. But he was a silent shadow at Sam's shoulder, gliding along behind both of them, unobtrusive yet threatening at the same time.
Sam, on the other had, drew eyes wherever he went, and not merely because the room was largely white. They recognized him.
And a lot of them hated him.
For whatever reason he hadn't really anticipated this issue, and he could tell Bucky and Zemo hadn't either. They were playing Captain America as a potential turncoat, but there were a lot of people in here who were far from ready to turn around and embrace him, mentally challenged dupe or not.
Zemo was making small talk with a lady draped in diamonds, and Sam hung around trying to look ornamental and vaguely stupid, when a waiter glided up to them and handed a champagne flute to Sam. "For you, sir," he murmured. "Compliments of the gentleman in the corner."
As he took the flute, Sam glanced over in the direction of the waiter's gaze. The indicated patron was a tall, silver-haired man who gave Sam an immediate Thaddeus Ross vibe, and not in a good way. He and his entourage, consisting of several fit young people, male and female, with the same competent-bodyguard sort of look as the household security, were all looking this way.
Well ... hell. Maybe this was some game where accepting a drink meant accepting a lot more than that, but Sam had spent the whole evening playing Dumb American and he may as well keep playing it; let them fight over him, if they were going to. He raised the glass in a slight salute and brought it to his lips.
And had no chance at all to drink it, because Zemo deftly swept the flute out of his hands and took a sip.
"What was that all about?" Sam whispered fiercely. He hated the awareness that there were undercurrents whirling around him that he couldn't understand, an entire world of genteel social conventions that these people—Zemo included—navigated as easily as breathing.
"That," Zemo said calmly, "was a sortie, Captain America. A warning shot across the bow." He raised the glass to the group in the corner, who looked disgruntled, and took another drink. "And this is our return sally."
"And all of this means what?" Sam asked impatiently. "Drinking his champagne means I'm beholden to him somehow, or what?"
"In a sense." Zemo placed the half-empty flute delicately on a passing waiter's tray, and nodded to the angry-looking white-haired aristocrat in the corner. "That is Kobuzev, by the way. A descendant of deposed Russian nobility, lifelong Hydra, a notorious poisoner. Please come this way."
They walked swiftly around the edges of the dance floor—Zemo nodding politely to the people they passed, with his lips drawn into a tight line, Bucky ghosting along behind them. Sam glanced back at Bucky, who was frowning, and said, "Did he poison you? Was there poison in that glass, Zemo?"
"I'm not sure," Zemo said quietly. "It seems prudent to assume so."
He stopped at the buffet table.
"If so, you need medical attention," Sam said under his breath.
"I think showing weakness would be unwise, don't you think? I need to dilute it, whatever it was." Zemo poured a glass of water. "James, please let me know what he's doing."
"Nothing right now," Bucky said, low. He moved up, covering their backs with quiet efficiency. "Still sitting there. Looks pissed."
"This is not how we treat poison," Sam said between his teeth, as Zemo drank half the glass and refilled it, then reached for a wine decanter. "This is not even slightly how we treat poison. Let's try activated charcoal and getting it out of your system before—whatever it is you're doing. Do you have any idea what he gave ... me. I was going to say you, but it was meant for me. Was he trying to kill me?"
"Probably not," Zemo said. He was drifting down the buffet, and he had taken the decanter of wine with him. "That would likely cause an international incident that would raise eyebrows and draw unwanted attention to this event."
"If it's not fatal, what's it do? This is really not how poison treatment works, Zemo." Sam caught the wrist of the hand holding the wine decanter and lowered it to the white tablecloth. "How do you feel?"
"Dizzy," Zemo said. He sounded thoughtful, as if he was reporting someone else's symptoms. "I would expect he would want to make an example of you. Make you look foolish in the eyes of the world. James, what are they doing now?"
"Getting up," Bucky said softly. Sam felt Bucky's elbow bump him lightly. Bucky was carrying, and for all Sam knew, Zemo was too; no one had tried to confiscate guns at this affair. "Looks like they're headed this way."
"Hmm. Perhaps they are trying to make a different kind of example." Zemo looked up, across the buffet table. There was nothing there except a flower arrangement, but his eyes flew wide.
"What?" Sam asked quietly.
"Nothing." Zemo wrenched his gaze away. "It wasn't real." He gripped the edge of the table. He was starting to look bad. Pale, sweating, slightly wild-eyed.
"Right, we're getting out of here," Sam said. He reached for Zemo's shoulder. It was a light touch, a brush of his hand, but Zemo flinched violently, and Sam realized as he pulled his hand back that it might not just be the drugs. Zemo had been in solitary. Being around people had to be throwing him for a loop right now.
And whatever they'd just given him had ripped away every sarcastic coping mechanism he had to deal with it.
"Zemo," Sam said quietly, leaning in close. Zemo still looked utterly freaked out. "What are you seeing? Something that isn't here?"
"Sokovia," Zemo said, his voice barely a breath. "It's ash. All ashes and rubble."
"Yeah? I'm gonna touch you now." Sam took his arm carefully, slowly, telegraphing his movements. "You know me, right? Can you see what's real, or just the—other thing?"
"We really need to start getting out of here," Bucky said quietly from behind him.
"I know what's real." Zemo's voice had a snap of impatience, but it was threaded through with pain in a way that Sam thought he would never normally have let slip. "It's just ... intrusive."
"Right. Let's start walking toward the door."
"Not the exit," Zemo said quietly as Sam steered him away from the buffet. His forehead was beaded with sweat, hair starting to come out of its neat gelled waves. "He'll see that and try to stop us."
"Okay, where, then?"
"Upstairs," Zemo said, on a breath.
By the time they hit the wide marble staircase, he was leaning on Sam and shivering violently. And Sam couldn't stop thinking that this would have been him—actually even worse than this, if he'd downed the whole glass, and as far as he could tell it had no smell or taste. The glass might have contained a fatal dose of whatever this was.
"Why did you do it?" Sam asked quietly. They went up the stairs as fast as they could manage, with Bucky covering their backs.
"Do what?" Zemo asked after a pause. He didn't seem to be tracking well.
"Never mind." Sam wasn't even sure it was something with more meaning that just a sort of Zemo-esque noblesse oblige—Sam and Bucky were under his protection at the party, and he took that seriously. They hit the top of the stairs. "Buck, you see a bathroom or anything?"
''Down here." Bucky guided them to a wide gold door. "Even the bathrooms are stupidly fancy. I hate this place."
"Run interference," Sam told him, and steered Zemo into the bathroom. He closed the door firmly and kicked a chair in front of it. Then he started hunting under the sink and in the closet for a first-aid kit.
Zemo leaned against the wall and slid slowly down it to sit with his hands across his knees.
"You still hallucinating?" Sam asked over his shoulder.
"Yes," Zemo said, head tilted back, looking at the ceiling.
"What do you see?"
"It was the worst day of my life, Sam," Zemo said with carefully punctuated sobriety on each word. "What do you want me to say?"
Sam didn't answer. He could only imagine himself going through the party downstairs, reliving Riley's death, or a lot of shit that'd gone down with Steve, or worse. Finally he found the first-aid kit he was looking for, and sorted out a small glass bottle.
Out in the hallway, there were low voices and then a series of thumps. Sam did his best to tune it out. He trusted Bucky to keep the thugs off their backs for however long they needed.
"Okay, you're not gonna like this and it won't be fun, but before you absorb more of whatever that is, we gotta get it out."
Zemo simply nodded. He watched as Sam mixed a few drops from the bottle with water in a glass he found behind the sink and handed it to him. Zemo swallowed it in a couple of quick gulps and leaned his head back against the wall.
"Come on," Sam said, getting him up. At least it was a huge, clean, and completely unoccupied bathroom. "You'll be sick as hell for a little while here. Sorry about that."
"It's all right," Zemo said. When Sam helped him back to the floor, the coat spilling around him, he was almost smiling, and no longer pulling away from Sam's touch. "It's a distraction."
"From what you're seeing?"
Zemo nodded without speaking.
"Want to tell me about it?"
"It's gray," Zemo said. His eyes opened, pupils dilated wide, staring at the wall. "Gray with ash, with dust. It covers everything. It was like the end of the world. The dust cloud covered the sun, and the ash covered the land. It was gray for weeks."
"Where were you, during the fight?"
"I was fighting for Sokovia, of course. I was on the front lines. I ..."
He turned his face away and pressed his fist to his mouth.
"For God's sake, man, I'm a paramedic, I've seen worse than this." Sam pressed an open palm to his back and helped him lean forward. "Think about how annoyed Bucky is going to be about having to deal with, what's his name, Kobuzev and all his besties out there."
A few rounds of convulsive spasms later, Zemo was actually laughing softly.
"What?" Sam asked, bringing him a glass of water and a washcloth.
"I think it is safe to say that this evening hasn't ended up as planned." Zemo rinsed his mouth dutifully and then leaned back against the wall. He was a mess; his hair was a tousled, sweat-damp mop, and he was roughly the oatmeal color of the tiles.
"I think that sounds about right for anything we have planned."
Zemo narrowed his eyes, and then laughed again. Sam did too, and what the hell, what was his life, even; he was sitting here on a bathroom floor in a baroque Hydra castle with a mass-murdering terrorist, and he was laughing.
"How 'bout we get out of here," Sam said. He gave Zemo's shoulder a quick hand-squeeze and got up.
There were only so many options. Sam pushed open the window and looked thoughtfully down into what had probably once been stableyards and was now a sort of garage and parking area with a garden wrapping around it.
"Hang on," he said. "I'm getting Bucky."
When he leaned out into the hall, there were a couple of goons out cold on the floor and Bucky had another in an armlock and a knee in his back. "Are you done in there?" Bucky demanded—not a sign of Winter Soldier at the moment, just pure annoyed-out-of-his-skin Bucky Barnes. "Because our luck is going to stop holding any minute now, as soon as someone has a chance to raise the alarm."
"Yeah, sort of. What I have is an exit strategy. Come on in."
Bucky rolled his eyes, slammed his prisoner's head into the floor, and followed Sam into the bathroom.
"Pretty sure your Russian friend is getting reinforcements. Zemo, you look like crap."
But Bucky scooped him up as they headed for the window, swiping him off the floor, following Sam without a single question.
"Can you get him down there?" Sam asked, pointing below their window.
"What?" Zemo said weakly, rallying. "What—wait—"
"Sure," Bucky said, and rolled over the windowsill, taking Zemo with him.
Sam waited long enough to make sure they'd made it down, then followed, sliding over the windowsill and then dropping from his hands. It was still a hell of a way down.
"Plan?" Bucky asked. He had Zemo's arm over his shoulder and a very limp and pale Zemo draped on him.
"My plan is basically stealing a car, so let's do that."
He let Bucky pick the car, and it came down to what Bucky knew how to hotwire, so they ended up peeling out of Hydra's driveway in a 1960s Lamborghini Espada.
"This is really inconspicuous," Sam said. Bucky was driving; Sam was in the back with a semiconscious Zemo spilled across his lap. He rested his fingertips against Zemo's clammy neck and felt a rapid but reassuringly steady pulse fluttering in Zemo's throat.
"They want to come and get us, they're welcome to," Bucky said over his shoulder.
They got a hotel, an hour or so away, once they were reasonably confident they weren't being followed. By this point Zemo had fallen asleep, and seemed to be sleeping peacefully, dreamlessly. Sam felt like a heel nudging him awake.
"I'll go ditch our little friend," Bucky told him with a gesture at the stolen Lamborghini, so Sam took Zemo upstairs. Zemo was still out of it, so Sam helped him peel off the outer layers of his sweat-soaked party clothes and dumped him on one of the hotel room's two beds. Then Sam went to shower, because after spending the evening in a room full of Hydra, he felt like he needed one.
He came out of the shower to find Bucky stretched out on the other bed, propped on his elbow.
"I can take the couch," Sam said.
"For fuck sake, we're adults; we can share. Unless you kick in your sleep." Bucky swung his legs off the bed and nodded across the room at Zemo. "He okay?"
"I think so."
"Good," Bucky said, with a quick, quiet smile, and went into the bathroom.
It took Sam a moment to really catch on to how much of a difference it had made, Zemo downing that poison for Sam. Bucky was quiet even in fake Winter Soldier mode, he was the absolute definition of still waters running deep, but it would be a mistake to think he wasn't paying attention to everything going on around him.
And he was loyal as hell. And Sam had the feeling that this loyalty encompassed Zemo now.
He was tired enough that he was about to drop where he stood, but he went over to pull up a blanket over Zemo and check his pulse again. He was startled all out of proportion when Zemo came abruptly awake and seized Sam's wrist with Sokovian paramilitary reflexes.
"Ah," Zemo whispered, letting him go. His accent was stronger than usual. "Dreams are vivid."
"You doing all right?"
"Headache. Tired." Zemo rolled onto his back. "Where are we?"
"Hotel. I don't think we were followed. And there's Bucky to deal with whatever might have followed us."
"I heard that," Bucky called from the bathroom.
"It's a sign of faith in your abilities, James," Zemo returned in a slightly raised voice.
"I see he still doesn't know how to shut up," Bucky returned from the bathroom, and then the shower turned on.
Sam started to get up. Zemo's hand on his wrist stopped him. "I appreciate your discretion," Zemo whispered.
"Next time one of us takes the poison, all right?" Sam returned quietly, and he could see that Zemo was still mulling that over as he loosed his grip on Sam and his hand dropped back to his side. "Because that's how teamwork goes," Sam clarified, and he saw Zemo's gaze sharpen. "Taking turns. You're not always the one who takes the bullet. You've had teammates before; you know how that works."
"Yes," Zemo said, and his sleepy and puzzled gaze followed Sam across the room. "I know."
"Good," Sam said, retreating under the blanket and duvet. He rolled over and propped himself up on his elbow. "Think you can sleep?"
"I think so," Zemo said, rolling onto his side. His surprised and slightly baffled gaze on Sam grew hazy, sleepy, and then floated into true sleep.