…To change one glass cage to a thousand of others…
Blood is drunk with hands.
(с) H.L. Oldy
Give him his due, Helmut Zemo never screamed. Neither with pain, nor with rage. He was really quiet, actually. He didn’t get filled with triumph and didn’t gloat. He stared into space with that calm look of someone who’s burnt from the inside. Sometimes he answered questions, but more often he didn’t and was electrocuted for it, and after every shock, barely recovered, Zemo smiled with his calm bored smile that said literally, I don’t care about your pain. Ross was quietly mad about this guy. Ross was pushy with him. He might be too pushy and he took the liberty of doing things which he usually tried to avoid in such situations. He didn’t want to admit that guys like this one really frightened him. Guys who had nothing to lose. You couldn’t rattle them, you couldn’t put pressure on them, you wouldn’t get any remorse from them. They really didn’t care about pain. Ross’s seen guys like this before.
This one was already dead, though still alive.
There was an impression that you could release Zemo from the holding cell, then he’d smile – and with this happy smile he’d cut his own throat.
Everett Ross would let him do it, free and easy, suggesting it would be even better for the common good, but unfortunately, he needed the bastard. One of Ross’s beliefs was that terrorists didn’t work alone. His superiors – right to the very top – had the same opinion. This goon had accomplices. There couldn’t be any other way. Someone helped him get a bomb and move it to Berlin, to coordinate his actions. It was impossible to carry out such a complicated operation within such a short time limit alone. Except, maybe, the explosion in Vienna. Ross had no problem believing that: a man had problems, so he started shooting around. Then again, Breivik…
But the rest…
Zemo had been keeping his mouth shut for almost two months. At first Ross’s people worked with him, then he took it into his own hands, although his temples ached pretty much and his own powerlessness irritated him a lot. Zemo kept quiet. Even words about his wife and son didn’t bother him – it was a dirty trick, but they had used it in despair as they ran out of other instruments. It seemed even if Congress allowed them to use a rack and lashes, it wouldn’t help. Behind those empty, deadly calm eyes nothing was left except coal-black ashes and realization that everything which could quench his thirst for revenge was already done. Ross couldn’t help but shiver a bit. No, this guy positively creeped him out.
“I need names, Helmut. And numbers. Who, ah? Coworkers? We’ll check each of them if we have to.”
“You’ve already checked all of them, Agent Ross,” was the quiet answer.
Zemo stared in front of him and his lips curved in a weak smile, as if he saw something nice rather than an angry government agent through the bulletproof glass of the special cell.
“And you found nothing. That’s why you’re here.”
The worst thing was this bastard was right. They’d already gone through his inner circle, but it only resulted in a couple of summons to the International Court for interference in their private life.
“We can check again. And again. And then their families. And then their relatives and acquaintances. And then…”
“There’re enough people in Socovia who have reasons to take revenge against the Avengers themselves,” Zemo commented quietly.
“Very well,” Ross answered in a honey sweet voice. “I need their names. And numbers.”
Silence. A gentle smile making Ross feel in terror as if he were Agent Starling from The Silence Of The Lambs.
“I. Need. Names!” he exploded. “Stop being so obstinate! Everything’s already over!”
“Who told you that?” It was the first time during their conversation Zemo had looked up in surprise.
Ross felt something cold in the pit of his stomach.
“What are you talking about? Ah, I guess I got it. You what, have put your pals up to some diversion? Are you going to try and escape?”
“What date is it today?” Zemo asked suddenly.
It did mean something and for some reason Ross was sure this ‘something’ was definitely some kind of ‘nothing good’. They’d have to tighten security. To triple it.
“Why does it matter to you?”
He slowly crossed his arms on his chest. Zemo gave a wider smirk.
“It’s just if my calculations are right and today is really the third of July, then it’s not me you’d better think about.”
“What does it mean?!”
Silence. A smile. Ross pressed the button frenziedly. A shock. One more. Zemo twitched in the chair, head back, and closed his eyes for a moment while he waited for the pain to recede.
“Don’t you dare to mock me!” Ross barked. “Answer! What does it mean?!”
Laughter. Quiet hoarse gurgling. The words that followed were full of almost friendly sympathy.
“Hope Captain Rogers will enjoy my little gift. Give my best to him.”
Ross turned pale, and Zemo smiled to him. Gently and terrifyingly.
Somewhere in a totally different place the darkness in the depths of the armchair stirred. The light from the screen of an ancient TV set that was droning on about tomorrow’s weather illuminated a sturdy middle-aged man who was watching a wall clock. The man got up heavily and went to an empty adjoining room, limping a bit. There he kneeled and pried up the planks of the old white-worn hardwood floor with the blade of his knife. Finally, he managed to raise a square of connected planks and revealed a hiding place in the floor.
There was a box there.
This box was brought to him by a delivery guy about two months ago when shocking news about the Avengers, the Accords and the capture of Helmut Zemo was still fresh. There were two items in the box. One of them was an old red notebook with a darkened star on its cover, and the other – a letter with some instructions. Eight weeks had been left till the appointed time. Now it was one hour.
The man took the letter, went to the bathroom, read the instructions once more, chuckled sadly a couple of times and set a lighter to it.
A ghostly pale rectangle of a computer screen glowed from the far corner of the dark room. The man’s fingers, already twisted by arthritis, started chattering on the keyboard unexpectedly sprightly. That chatter continued for a long while – for the rest of the time.
Семнадцать… Печь… Возвращение на Родину…
The man tipped back heavily on the back of his chair and lit a cigarette with evident pleasure. Of course if someone could see it. The house was empty, though it seemed as if besides drafts, echoes of someones' voices were still wandering around it. The man was looking at the screen, taking one pull after another, rolling acrid smoke on his tongue and expelling it out of his nostrils. Then he crushed the stub out on the tabletop. His long look slid over the row of photos on the book shelf.
And then calmly, without hesitation he stuck his service gun into his mouth.
Steve woke up to a phone trill just after 5 a.m. and thought hazily that in New York it was only midnight or so. And only then he realized why he’d thought about it.
It was THAT ONE number.
“I’m listening, Tony.”
At first Steve had a glimpse of desperate hope that Stark was calling to congratulate him, although he quickly put this thought aside.
“Data on the Winter Soldier was leaked to WikiLeaks.” Tony’s voice sounded fast and brisk. “They’ve already spread around the net in five minutes. We’ll clean everything up, but for god’s sake, get him off the streets and check the damned code.”
Thank you said by a bewildered fully awake Steve was already met with silence.
How easy, it turned out, it was to break the life which had almost returned to normal with just one phrase. Data on the Soldier got on the net… He realized he was sitting motionless with his phone in his hand for several minutes staring into the darkness when he heard the sound of an incoming message.
A line of words. Cyrillic.
T’Challa watched them from the centre of the room. A little further doctors crowded with their clipboards clutched to their chests, and it wasn’t clear at all who they were more afraid of – their king or the man who was firmly fastened with belts to the inside of the cryochamber. The glass hood was lowered, cold was far gone and Bucky’s skin had got its natural healthy colour back long ago. Steve knew if he touched his friend’s right arm, it’d be warm. He tried not to look at the metal stub of the left one more often than was necessary.
Steve waited for the cardiograph to beep more rapidly. The rhythm of Bucky’s breathing changed. His eyelids flickered.
Bucky was waking up. Steve briskly touched his friend’s real shoulder and started reading from his phone screen.
Steve ordered himself not to be distracted by the accelerated rhythm of Bucky’s heart. He tried to rap out his words without stumbling over the Russian. Bucky started tossing and whispered something in protest. A groan fell from his lips, he started turning and pulling the straps, and then it occurred to Steve if Bucky still had his left arm he would get free without effort. When Steve said “Рассвет” Bucky started screaming and only through tremendous force of will did Steve keep talking. When the words dried up Bucky suddenly got quiet. Then he opened his eyes.
Steve carefully approached him and called:
His friend stared into the void with unseeing eyes like he'd once done on the table under Hydra’s straps, and this association came at such a wrong time that Steve tried to chase it away and called louder:
No answer. Steve closed his eyes and clenched his teeth tightly. He already knew exactly what he was going to hear when he asked:
He said this word in Russian, too. It was in the message. It was necessary.
“Я жду приказаний,” the hoarse reply followed.
Steve’s heart skipped a beat.
“Bucky.” He came close and looked into Bucky’s eyes. They were bleary, with pupils dilated, as if Bucky was under the influence of cocaine, but their expression wasn’t blank. Vice versa. There was cold and dangerous combat readiness there. Steve put his hand on Bucky’s neck and turned his head to himself a bit.
“Buck, come on! Look at me. Do you remember me? Bucky, hey. It’s me.”
Bucky didn’t manage to focus on him immediately, but when he did he stared at him hard and without blinking. Without recognition.
“Who’s Bucky?” he asked calmly. After a short pause he frowned a bit and added: “Is he a target?”
He took a chance and pulled the straps, checking the degree of freedom. The straps began to crack.
“Don’t.” Steve touched his shoulder keeping him in place. “Get back to sleep, Soldier.”
It wasn’t easy to say the last phrase, but Bucky stopped yanking the straps and just looked obediently and ghastly with those frozen eyes somewhere past Steve. The glass went up and Steve saw, just like two months ago, with hidden dull pain, freezing steam veiling his friend’s body and covering his face with a thin layer of ice.
He sent the message "The code's right" to Stark, but not immediately. Before, he sat in the hall for a long time with the mobile in his hand. Black people in white coats scurried past him, bringing to his mind silly pictures of coffee with cream. At first he needed to believe that it'd really happened. Stark sent him the code to the Winter Soldier, to the personal Bucky Barnes's madness, just via text. And he said it was already on the net. Already on the net...
Steve imagined boys shouting these words, mangling unfamiliar Russian, as a kind of a new jump-rope rhyme. How these words would gradually interweave into songs, sound in standuppers' jokes, in TV-shows... Even if Stark cleaned everything up, you still can't stop everyone's mouth. And even if people didn't believe in their authenticity... it still might be the code to the Winter Soldier. And this only "might be" will be enough to spare.
Such an appealing idea... Too appealing to pass by.
The words will sound. After scandals and fuss over the split in Avengers it'll be a sensation, and two months is too short a time for things to settle. For the all-seeing and omnipresent Internet not to respond, not to spread these words like disease, making them another meme, a new short-term fun.
What an appealing idea! Their own Winter Soldier!
An RC toy owned by crowd who would yank a remote control from one another's arms.
Steve felt the first wave of icy shivering, locked his arms and pressed them to his head throbbing with tension.
Stark and Vision's time would be better spent looking for the source of the leak than hunting the code about the net. Though... Steve already knew the source. Socovia. And it was Zemo who did a job... an avenger who was punishing Avengers. He deserved a standing ovation. He shot straight like only the last survivor could do. He was the very wicked who for the purpose of a single videotape had known no rest. Steve couldn't make himself hate the man, although he tried his best. Somewhere deep down he'd waited for something like this for a long time. Because those burnt inside are the most suitable to be executioners, increasing the number of their victims to hundreds and thousands.
But even that didn't matter anymore. Another thing mattered. There were so many white coats in sight... too many people. And each of them... each one could...
He sent the message to Stark and put his face in his hands.
Belatedly, he started shivering violently.
"It may be for the best," T'Challa remarked.
Steve seldom saw him in his traditional robes, and Panther made quite an impression in his long black tunic embroidered in three rows of cowrie shells along the neck line.
"Now we have something to work with. When he's the Winter Soldier..."
"No," Steve said bluntly.
He was looking out the window where ragged clouds were caressing the gigantic stone cat's belly, making it glisten and spark in the sunshine. There were only two of them in the hallway now, and like this, in private, T'Challa asked Steve to address him simply, without unnecessary titles . Panther waited for him to continue, and Steve struggled to arrange his floundering thoughts.
"I have a request," he said quietly.
"Get people out of this wing. Leave only those guards you personally know, no more than five people. All research work with Bucky should be stopped immediately. I'll be the only one to work with him."
T'Challa said nothing and definitely waited for explanations. Steve swallowed a bitter lump in his throat and took a deep breath.
"If I can't find the way to neutralize it, Bucky will never leave this place. I've already broken his programme twice. The Winter Solder reacts to me. It means there's a chance I'll manage to build on that success and learn to reach Bucky. And I'm the only one here who can stop him. Besides you, of course."
T'Challa stretched his thick lips in a mirthless smile.
"Do you want to get through to him? I'm afraid in his case it won't be easy."
"Yes, I remember it," Steve nodded. He'd personally checked all research reports for two months. "Meds wouldn't work. They're metabolized too fast, no lasting effect. Not hypnosis - the programme is wired deeper and more securely. It won't work. We'd have to wire a deactivation code into him in the same way they wired the programme. I've already said I won't and I won't let anyone fry his brain. Even if this is the only way to do the trick, no one will torture him anymore."
"We've got nothing else so far."
"Exactly," Steve agreed. "That's why it's me who'll work with him from now."
"Okay," T'Challa nodded. "You'll work. I'll meet your needs. But if it's not a secret... If everything we've tried didn't work, what are you going to do?"
Steve remained silent for a long time, feeling unpleasant thick anxiety in the pit of his stomach. It seemed to him if he gave voice to his idea, it would lose its power and sound completely ridiculous, destroying fragile hope. But he took a risk.
"I want to find a 'lullaby'," Steve said. "This is the key. The way we can reach Bucky through the Soldier and teach him to wake out of his trance. The key isn't universal. Sort of an algorithm of words and actions from a specific person. I've already seen such a thing. Both establishing contact and the result."
"Deactivation through the human factor?"
"I saw a fragile girl doing this with a huge green monster," Steve smiled sadly.
"I believe you. But in order to break through his code... it's wired deep. Into his subconscious. Anything can happen, though. Our people say, only 'I' is able to temperate itself. It's only Barnes himself who will be able to cope with the Winter Soldier inside."
"Your people are very wise."
"If you manage to neutralize him and follow up a success, you'll be tied to him. Do you understand that?"
Steve shook his head.
"It's a temporary measure. We'll have to rid him of the code anyway, but first, I need something capable of stopping him if we have to. I think Bucky also wishes something like that existed."
"You aren't going to tell him?"
This question was painful and Steve hung his head, trying to hide how hard T'Challa's words hit him.
"Not yet," Steve answered. "He's already had enough problems without us waking him for bad news."
"He won't be thrilled when he finds out about it," Panther observed with not-so-hidden irony.
"Yes. But I'll try to explain the necessity of it to him." He was quiet for a while. "How much time do I have?"
"'till you give up. I'll check the results personally. You'll get everything you need for your work. I'm not omnipotent, though, keep it in mind, please. And one more thing, you can't bring him out of cryosleep more than once a day. Bad for him."
"Check the results?"
"It's me who will read the code to him. If you're able to stop him when someone else gives orders, it'll be a victory."
He stepped into the room confidently and typed the turn-off code for freezing on the screen.
He needed no notes anymore, he remembered the code by heart.
Lullaby. For the first time, Natasha and Hulk succeeded unintentionally, but still she and Banner spent two long months of training to follow up an accidental success.
He succeeded, too. Twice. Steve still considered that case on the bridge a successful attempt, because that time the Soldier spoke to him for the first time. Spoke and hesitated, even if only for a second, but the programme has failed for that second. He had to try.
When living warmth started flowing through Bucky's body once again, Steve thought joylessly, Well, Buck... It's time to get to know your Hulk.