Bucky opens his eyes.
The last time he wakes up, he’s in Afghanistan. Arabic drips from his tongue (like poetry (like music (like honey))) like a tool, and blood drips off his fingers. He washes them, later, in a sink with rust-red water sliding from the faucet; the color of it makes him pause, like a dream half-forgotten.
When he’s done, he flexes his hand, hears the squeak of metal. He raps on his arm with the other hand, and a clang, clang echoes back, something else he’s forgotten.
For the first time in decades, he frowns. For the first time in decades, he racks his silver-and-red-threaded brain, tries to remember, can’t find (if (I) only had (a heart)) anything.
Can’t find anything (everything) at all.
The next time he wakes up, there’s something missing.
They give him his mission, and he completes it with the smooth efficiency of the machine he is. (Half.)
He wakes up again and begins to thrash, punching with a gleaming silver hand again and again the glass surface of his cryogenic tank. It shatters above him, the ice and the glass, and he crawls out and onto a polished metal floor glittering with shards.
One slices his naked arm. He stares at the blood sliding down his arm, wet and warm, red, impossibly red, brilliantly red.
That’s how they find him.
There’s a sharp pain in the crook of his elbow, and the world is suddenly too bright to see.
He smells metal, and the sharp tang of blood. His arms and neck are one great mass of pain, and he can’t move his left arm, doesn’t have a left—
He blinks, and knows it’s a mistake, when there’s a hiss of breath and a (another) sharp prick in his neck. Then he’s never known (doesn’t know) anything.
Somewhere in the distance, deep within his brain, he thinks he can hear singing, can taste honey.
He wakes up, later.
He sits up on the bed, looks around him, taking it all in: bare stone walls, gleaming metal floor, a door in one corner. The bed was not made to sleep in, only to wake in. He bounces, once, twice, hears the squeegee of bedsprings.
It didn’t work.
He tries to find some elation at that, but all he can dig up is a grim satisfaction.
It’s good enough. He stands and crosses to the door, opening it with a creak of hinges into a long metal hallway. The silver orders in his brain tell him to go left; he goes right, opens the first door he sees, demands of the startled nurse, “Where is she?”
The nurse gabbles something; he says, “You know who. Where is she? What did you do to her?”
The nurse raises a calming hand, starts to rise, and then his hand is around her throat. He says, “Tell me where she is or I will break your neck.”
She doesn’t tell him where, so he breaks her neck. The next nurse comes in and sees the body, looks like she’s going to scream, so he knocks her out and leaves the room, soundless as a shadow. (He’s good at shadows.)
He runs down the hallway and doesn’t realize he’s running until he hears footsteps behind him, slow, methodical, like a hunter trying not to startle a deer. He whirls and ducks as a doctor goes at him with a needle, breaks the next one’s jaw with his hand, says, “Where is she?”
“These are not your orders, comrade,” says the officer behind the doctors, his trigger finger twitching on his gun.
“Where is she?” he repeats.
“Who?” says the officer.
He says a name, says it again, louder. The officer looks at him with metal-dead eyes and says, “There is no record of anyone with that name.”
He is frozen, until he thinks of sparrows, and poems. But by then the doctors are on him.
The next time he sees her, it’s in Leningrad.
She must be in her thirties by now, though he’d never know it. Her hair is longer, and pearls glimmer in her ears. Her eyes are the same, though. (Her eyes are (always) the same.)
He sees her at first from a distance as she glides across the ballroom floor, all charming smiles and scarlet lips. Then, beside him, with fingers dyed crimson and the fear of the ambassador behind them rolling off him in waves. When the assassin is dead they disappear into the shadows.
A nearby alley serves; he sucks at her collarbone, and she throws her head back, exposing her long white neck. Her fingers leave red trails on his silver arm.
Afterward, they clean themselves in a sink with rust-red water sliding from the faucet. She lets him play with a strand of her hair, lets him watch it ripple through metal fingers and fly up and away in an unruly breeze. Later, in the dead crawl space between one house and another, she sings to him without words: a ballet, she says.
He wonders if she ever danced it, and knows better than to ask.
They stay in Leningrad until the sun hints around the edges of the city’s gleaming horizon, the tallest (not the tallest (not by a long shot (, pal))) horizon he has ever seen. They know they have stayed too late. They know it was already too late.
He knows it is the last time he will see her. He does not think it the last time she will ever see him.
The officers catch them at dawn. He raises his chin, spreads his arms against the rising sun, and waits for the end.
But it’s not him they take.
She’s gone in a moment, wide eyes and flying red hair, too fast for him to see her go or even touch her hand. “Where did you take her?” he demands of the officer.
“The Red Room,” says the officer, calm.
That’s when he begins to struggle in earnest, but by then there’s steel handcuffs on his wrists, and they’re dragging him towards a door, and he shouts and shouts: “Natalia Romanov! Natalia Romanov! Natalia Romanov!” and knows, bone-deep knows, that it isn’t any use.
In between missions, they train. Sparring in the view of the cameras, and stolen kisses in their blind spots; Natasha leaves, her boot heels clicking down the hallway, and he lifts weights on his own for five minutes, ten, fifteen, before following her.
The bathroom is small, of course, and cramped. They make do, slow kisses and shy smiles; he can’t remember the last time he smiled (at all) so often.
“I have something for you,” she says. He raises his eyebrows and she pulls out from inside her shirt, no false modesty, a jar of honey.
His eyes go wide. Natasha crooks a rust-red smile. “Stolen from the stores,” she says, and he thinks of reprimanding her, doesn’t, doesn’t. They share it like children, eating off their fingers; when he kisses her, she tastes sweet.
“Thank you, Natalia,” he says, and it is honest.
“Can you remember when you were born?” Natasha asks, and he shakes his head. She frowns. “Your mother?” Another shake. “Your family? Your hometown, your friends?” No, no, and again no.
Natasha leans forward, and her strawberry red hair brushes against his shoulders. “Here is how it will happen,” she says, serious, like a promise. “Slowly, at first. Like afterthoughts, or dreams you have forgotten. Then faster and faster, more and more, until one day you open your eyes with your own name on your lips.”
He closes his eyes. “It will never happen,” he says, and knows it to be true.
Natasha slaps his right arm. “Of course, if you never believe it will happen. In any case, what do you expect to do, if you never remember anything?”
He says, “Die.”
She kisses him until he opens his eyes, then puts an impossibly soft hand over his mouth. “I have seen too much to see you die of forgetting,” she says. “Remember me.”
“Natalia Romanov,” he says, and kisses her lips. “Natalia Romanov. Natalia Romanov,” her throat, her breasts.
It’s been months since he last woke up. His second mission with Natasha, and they fight as one, walk into a white-frozen village in Siberia and walk out red. She must be twenty-two. He sees her eyes on him, and afterwards slams her into a wall and says, “Do not admire me.”
She says, “Why not?”
Sometimes Natasha reads him poetry, her body pressed to his, almost warm. She says, “I heard the voice. It promised solace. ‘Come here,’ it seemed to softly call. ‘Leave Russia, sinning, lost and graceless. Leave your land, pray, for good and all.”
“Western propaganda,” he says.
She reads on: “I’ll cleanse your hands from blood that stains you, and from your heart draw back black shame; the hurts of failure, wrongs that pain you, I’ll veil with yet another name.”
He is silent.
Natasha says, “With even calm deliberation I raised my hands to stop my ears—” He says nothing, but she pauses anyway, reads the last line in a whisper: “Lest that ignoble invitation defile a spirit lost in tears.”
She leans her head against his chest, looks out the window. A sparrow takes off from the tree and becomes small against the endless expanse of the sky.
“Would you follow me?” she asks.
He pauses a long, long time before answering, says, “Not if I could remember you.”
“I would rather you forget me, then,” Natasha says, and he knows she says it because she must.
One day, her knee between his legs, her hand cupping his face almost tenderly, Natalia says, “Is this all?”
He pulls away from her, takes a step back. Says, warily, “What else should there be?”
Natalia tilts her head. Says, “I know you are more than flesh and blood.”
He says, “I am a machine.”
She says, “Half.”
They spar, and when they do not spar, his silver fingers are between her legs, her red hair in a waterfall down his back, just out of view of the cameras. Her uniform is smooth and her breasts are cool.
She walks into the training room, long red hair, gleaming eyes, almost innocent. Another Black Widow, he thinks, then knows: the only Black Widow, there has only ever been one Black Widow. She must be seventeen.
“My name is Natalia Romanov,” she says. “I am here so that you should help me in training.” He knows, then, why they did not send him back to sleep.
He thinks he has seen her before, from a distance, before she was the Black Widow. She has always been the Black Widow. They circle, circle, and she springs at him; it takes him ten long, brilliant minutes before she is pressed to the ground, his silver arm across her throat.
She considers him with dark eyes and runs a tongue over her red, red lips, and he remembers suddenly, though from where he knows not, what they say about black widows.
He has just realized that they are out of sight of the cameras when she goes for his throat.
He wakes up. His orders are for a village to burn, and it burns; a squad comes with him, blank-faced agents whose eyes never dart to his silver arm.
They are almost done when a hand waves, feebly. He crosses to see: it is a blond boy, of almost ten, burns covering his face, who says, “What is your name?”
For the first time, he realizes he does not know.
He says, “Zima,” though he could say nothing, though he should say nothing, though winter is the closest word he can find to the thing that he means.
In the corner of his eye, he sees a flash of red hair.