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Insufficient Losing Chances

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The human mind is a complex machine; neurons firing off, directing bodily functions, movement, your senses. And all without any active participation of the user, a meticulous orchestra of chemicals and impulses. Of course, there’s room for error, as no mechanism is without its flaws. But it begs the question of what control someone truly has over their brain. 

When one “loses” their mind, they go insane. When there’s a chemical imbalance, or a lack of communication between parts of the brain and the body? Well, it could result in a number of things. But even in those instances, the brain still functions to its capacity, doing its best to preserve some sense of reality for the body. To protect the host. 

However, anything can be breached. And it doesn’t always have to do with illness, or force. Sometimes, the mind simply leaves the door, or even a window, open. 

 

Baron Helmut Zemo’s mind was a fortress, in its own right. The kind often depicted on the covers of books like Dracula . Labyrinthian, seemingly impenetrable, only fitting for a man such as himself. 

Yet as he rests, it’s no more than a castle with the gates wide open. Still wonderful with its fortitude, but the guardian himself is off duty, allowing anyone daring enough to pass its threshold.

 

 

Sleep is the only true respite that Zemo can find within the walls of his cell at the Berlin Correctional Facility. His days are primarily spent pacing, reading, listening, observing; sometimes all at once. He believed firmly in keeping his mind active, and sharp; despite his years as a commander in the Sokovian armed forces, his strongest weapon would always be his mind. 

But as he sleeps, he can depart from the walls of his cell, allowing his dreams to take him to a simpler time. Anywhere apart from his reality. 

 

His dreams rarely had much variance. Sometimes he’d dream of his time during his service, or of his departed family, on a particularly good night. 

Tonight, his dreams feel especially vivid, tangible. And yet, he is alone. The lone Baron wanders the halls of his manor idly, not searching for anything in particular, simply taking in the scenery that he didn’t have the liberty of indulging in during his waking hours. But upon reaching the sprawling, book-lined walls of his family’s study, he stumbles upon an anomaly. 

 

You had been diligently studying the spines of each book along a far shelf, occasionally pulling a book free to skim its contents, before placing it back in place. 

He watches you curiously, trying to distinguish where you might belong in the contents of his mind. Did he know you? He thinks he’d likely remember you, if he did. You didn’t have the kind of appearance that would melt into a crowd, you had your own, distinguishable air about you. And as he approaches the stranger in his midst, he finds himself longing for what answers you might give him. 

 

“You know, under normal circumstances, breaking and entering is a criminal offense.” Zemo addresses you, some humor in his tone. “However, I am not a man of the law myself. So I believe it may be a bit hypocritical to try and impose such malarkey within the confines of my dreams.” 

 

You seem shocked when you turn your attention to the man before you, shame seeping into your bones like a chill. “I-I’m sorry! I was just curious! You know, people are so dull, it’s so rare to find someone who dreams so loudly.” You ramble thoughtlessly, only adding to the shame you feel. “Shit.” You cuss to yourself, eyes darting about. 

 

While the Baron is puzzled by your admittance, it doesn’t meet his expression. “Apologies, I didn’t mean to alarm you.” He says softly, which does seem to ease the tension built in your frame. “Yet I find myself at a bit of a loss. I must truly be losing a grip on my mind if I’m conjuring up such a curious creature.” 

 

There was something truly soft about him, and it took you only a moment to place exactly what it was. Behind his diplomatic posture, there was a hint of loneliness lingering at his back. A feeling you knew all too well yourself. 

You find yourself at odds. You’ve never interacted with someone in their dreams like this, always more content to observe and disappear before discovery. But he caught you off guard. You suppose it’s only fair to be found as vulnerable as he was now.   

 

“I should be the one apologizing.” You sigh, averting your gaze. “I intruded on your dreams, and you apologize to me . That? Should be funny. But I… I’ve never really talked to someone in their dreams before.” 

 

You don’t offer an explanation, but Zemo doesn’t seem inclined to press you any further, simply offering a nod of understanding as his eyes wander from you, to the center of the room, where a table with an ornate chess board has materialized. With a curious hum, his gaze lingers on the board, before moving back to you. 

 

“Would you join me for a game of chess?” 

 

 

“Since when have you ever had an interest in playing chess, Hase ? Have you been holding out on me?” An older refugee named Heinrich asks as he ruffles your already unkempt hair. 

It pulls you from your concentration, making you jolt in your seat. 

“You know, usually chess is played with two players.” He teases, observing the board that you’ve set up, before taking the seat across from you. “What’s going on in that head of yours?” 

 

With a fond smile and a huff, you lean back in your seat. “Clearly I’m plotting to rob a bank, or perhaps overthrow the local government.” It’s said as a joke, but neither of you laugh, a pall settling over you both like a wet blanket. You and Heinrich were among the few refugees that weren’t so thrilled about the recent terrorist attacks that these so-called “Flag Smashers” had been undertaking. Neither of you were fond of the government as a whole, but these attacks led to more restrictions being placed on people like yourselves, and shelter. People who didn’t have a proper place to call home. You could only sympathize to a fault, the line in the sand being drawn when it came to the possible upheaval of your settlement. You were bitter.

 

“Bah, don’t talk like that.” Heinrich waves his hand in dismissal, before gesturing to the board. “How about a game, eh? Maybe me beating you in a couple rounds will lift your spirits a bit.”

 

“Alright, alright.” You concede, helping him arrange the board for a new game. “But I warn you, I have a pretty good tutor.” 



One of the only good things to come from The Blip, was that it had made it much easier for you to hide in plain sight. The world was more concerned with finding its balance again rather than tracking down a rogue mutant. With any luck, you were assumed to be dead. That didn’t keep the paranoia from rising in your chest whenever you felt eyes on you. 

The majority of your life before The Blip had been spent in containment in various government facilities all over Europe. Poked, prodded, studied, questioned, observed, tested on. You truly were an anomaly; a mutant born to two perfectly human parents. On your darker days, you cursed them for ever having conceived you. But mostly, you longed for a simpler life, one where you could have grown up like a normal child, with normal struggles, rather than a life where you were cursed to spend every moment looking over your shoulder. 

 

You could only assume that they wanted to isolate whatever it was that made you, you. As well as find a way that they could utilize you to their advantage. Not that you ever gave them too much leverage. As a child, you didn’t have the words to explain yourself to them. Even when crueler means were taken in an attempt to summon your powers, you had something within you that wanted to fight. 

And as you grew, you built a wall around yourself, one that almost felt tangible to you. You had unwittingly schooled yourself in mental espionage, learning how to keep everyone out, but always leaving yourself an open window. 

 

You try not to dwell on those days, not anymore. You were free now. Well, as free as one could be when they had no name, no home, and no money. When you had first stumbled into the general population, people just assumed you had been displaced as a result of The Blip, the same as everyone else. You had integrated yourself into a group of refugees rather easily. Everyone had their own burden to bear at the time, so no one really questioned what had led you there. 

Not that it made adjusting to life outside of containment any easier. You still felt the need to ask for permission to do anything, to hide food so you didn’t have to fear it being taken from you. But as days stretched into weeks, and then months, you found that the refugees probably understood you more than you realized. All of you were accustomed to being uprooted, and not having anything to call your own.

 

Even when the vanished had returned, and you made the confession that you had nowhere you could go, you had been embraced once again. And ever since, this shelter in the midst of Berlin has been your home. 

 

Heinrich had been with the group even before The Blip, and had been among the first to try and befriend you. He was what most would consider a bit grumpy, but you found that it was mostly on account of his dry humor. It started with him leaving random snacks and treats from the food bank in your cot; trying to help you find what you liked after noticing your tendency to stick to the bland foods that you knew. 

Gradually, he began joining you for meals. He never attempted to pry into your past, sometimes he wouldn’t even speak. He’d just settle in with his food, and the paper, occasionally commenting on current events. It led to an easy friendship, even if the two of you made a funny pair. He took to calling you “Hase”, rabbit, saying that it suited your skittish nature. You wanted to tell him more about you, but you knew that the general population feared mutants and anyone with abilities alike. You trusted him enough. But not enough to confidently say that he wouldn’t turn you in to someone in power. 



“What’s that thing you just did with your rook?” You point, gesturing to where the piece in question now sat in place of his king. 

 

“Oh, so you have such a good tutor that they didn’t show you one of the oldest moves in the book, huh?” Heinrich scoffs, shaking his head. “It’s called ‘castling’, when there are no longer any pieces between my rook and my king, I can move my king over two spaces with the rook by his side. See? I had to anticipate the check you were about to put me in with your queen, and move my king out of the center of the board. You can’t go doing that at just any time, though. If you’ve already moved either piece, or you’re in check, you can’t do it. That’s why you need to anticipate your opponent’s move before it happens. Just make sure you touch the king first, touch-move, got it?” 

 

Despite having your would-be check sabotaged, you smile, and nod, tucking away this new piece of knowledge for later use.
The hours go by as the two of you play and chat amicably, until the natural light of the shelter’s atrium begin to dim, and the cold of the evening slowly seeps into the building. You lose almost every round, but claim a single victory, one that Heinrich seems just as happy about as you are. 

 

“Alright, Hase, this old man has had about enough chess for today. Hell, I’m surprised you didn’t get tired of playing first!” He laughs, rubbing his knees as he leans over, readying himself to stand. “Can’t recall the last time I ever played with someone that wasn’t just as ancient as myself.”  

 

“I’m gonna pretend that that’s supposed to be a compliment.” You laugh, getting the pieces back to their home position. 

 

“You’re an odd bird. But I can’t say it’s not refreshing to meet someone so young that’s interested in playing the old fashioned way. Chess is about the chemistry between you and your opponent, you don’t get that with a computer screen between you.” Heinrich stands fully, and grabs his beat up cane, grunting with the effort. “Stay out of trouble, Hase.” 

 

As you finish setting up the board, you contemplate his goodbye, and the memory of dark brown eyes watching you like a hawk the night prior. 



When you fall asleep, it’s like waking in another world. It hadn’t always been this way. When you were younger, it felt more like turning on a TV and flipping through the channels. You could still see into other people’s dreams, but it felt more random. The option to warp the world around you in that space had always been the easy part, especially as a child. If you wanted to fly, you could. If you wanted to walk the ocean floor, you were there, strolling along schools of fish. The first time you had stumbled across someone else’s dreams, it had been completely by accident. 

But, the more it happened, the more you learned, and the more you wandered. 

 

This realm is something more familiar to you than the waking world, as you’d known it much longer. You couldn’t draw an exact equivalent for comparison, but it was akin to walking empty streets in the dead of night. Some dreams were like a lamp post, a small light on your path, something barely there at times, others were like windows. Brief glimpses of scenery that you could step into if you so desired. 

 

Finding the Baron again was easy, his dreams swirl like a miasma on the horizon, snippets of sound ringing over the chatter of this peculiar realm. All you have to do is blink, and you’re opening your eyes to bright skies, sprawling hills, and a beautiful home. It’s so bright that you have to blink a few times to adjust as you try to take in the countryside. It felt like such a stark difference to the opulent manor you had met him in prior. In a beat, you decide to start looking around in a search to find your new acquaintance. 



 

These dreams always felt the most unfair. Zemo watches a younger version of himself chasing his son around the backyard, with his wife not far behind. He’d long since mourned their loss, felt the pain left in their wake. But that felt distant, now. More of a bruise rather than a gaping hole in his chest. Still, he sighs from the kitchen of his old home, tilting his head as his younger self catches his son in his arms, the two of them falling into a fit of laughter. He misses them, but he knows that they don’t exist, and resigns himself to simply watch. 

Until the shuffling of feet comes from behind him. 

 

You’d seen plenty of people’s memories in their dreams before, felt the pain and the joy that they could bring. The sounds of laughter trickle in from outside, but the atmosphere of the kitchen is melancholic and heavy. You bite the inside of your cheek as you absorb the scene before you, and suddenly feel awkward. Dream walking always felt like an intrusion, but this… now that you know Zemo, feels like an invasion of privacy. 

 

He turns to look at you, but your eyes don’t reach him, stuck on the family playing outside. Zemo knew people well, and he can tell that you were shrinking into yourself, afraid of having overstepped a  boundary. He supposes that most people would find this upsetting. But he’d hardly consider either of you to be normal people. 

 

“I understand that this is probably awkward, but I promise that you being here hasn’t upset me.” He assures you, offering a small smile.

 

“There you go, apologizing when I’m the one that’s just. Walking into your head again.” You try to joke, but the unshakable feeling of an old pain still lingers, making your laugh sound hollow. 

 

For some reason, he feels the need to comfort you. And beckons you over to him. “Come here.” He’s surprised when you do so without hesitation, standing beside him at the window. Rather than comment on it, he draws your attention to the memory playing itself out outside. “That is my wife, Heike, and our son, Carl. They died, along with my father, during the Battle of Sokovia.” He says easily, observing you from the corner of his eye. “I’ve mourned their loss. And have taken some… unique approaches in processing it. However, it does not pain me to share this with you.” 

 

Your eyes remain locked on the family outside as you try to blink away the glassiness that threatens to blur your vision. You see a happy family, and can’t help but wish that you had memories similar to this. But your parents' faces were blurry, and their voices were more like echoes, any memories with them were foggy and uncertain. 

“I don’t remember my parents.” You admit quietly, unable to look at Zemo. “I don’t even know their names, or the name they gave me. I was… very young when I was taken away from them.”

 

He’s never been good at comforting people, but he can tell that listening is the best thing he can do for you. Despite the multiple questions that arise, he tamps them down, nodding in acknowledgment instead. “I suppose this is why you never gave me a name to call you by.”

 

The statement does seem to startle you enough for you to look away from the memory, and finally at Zemo, who offers you an amused smile. “Oh my god, I didn’t, did I?” You flush in embarrassment once more, flapping your hands in an attempt to ease the feeling. “I’m so sorry, that’s so rude, isn’t it?” 

 

A genuine chuckle leaves him, amusement lifting the heaviness in the room. “Yes, most people would find that rude.” He says, doing his best to mask just how amused he is, letting you flounder for a moment. “But I am not most people. Though I would not mind knowing what I may call you.” He offers, his tone gone soft. 

 

You don’t fully understand the warmth that spreads through your chest, and let out a little huff of laughter as you wring your hands to try and soothe the lingering nerves. 

“You can call me… Hase.” 

 

“A very peculiar name for a very peculiar person.” He nods, endearment squeezing in his chest at the accuracy of your chosen name. Again, he chooses not to pry, but mentally notes the information that you’d given him. “Come, I have some books here I want to show you.” He says, before heading towards his study, knowing that you’ll follow him.