“What is your name?”
“Stepan Yakovlevich Medved.”
“What’s this picture? Did you paint it?”
The child, with his shock of brown hair and big brown eyes, beams, and it is an impossibly cheerful smile, given the grey decrepitude of their surroundings. He nods. “This is my house and this is my cat, Sasha, and this is Mama and this is Papa.”
The painting is a riot of colour and structurally unsound walls and smiling faces and black dots for eyes.
“And where are your parents now?”
The child’s expression changes in an instant. He looks around, eyes widening in panic.
“When did you last see your parents?”
“I - ” His bottom lip quivers but he does not cry. The child is shown back to his bedroom, which is scarcely more homely than the interrogation room and he is asking for his Mama and for his Papa.
Subject Medvezhonok, aged three years, is progressing satisfactorily. As expected, he remains above the ninety-fifth percentile for all critical values. Of note, memory manipulation appears to have been successful. Subject Medvezhonok is unaware of his true parentage.
It is my belief that we have avoided the errors associated with Subject L’venok when, as you will recall, a maternal bond was inadvertently created. While Subject L’venok subsequently became a proficient operative, that was indubitably a failure (refer to my letter dated January 2002, detailing his disappearance). Subject Medvezhonok has, at best, vague memories of a maternal figure, enough to comfort but not distract.
I further believe that use of Subject Alpha’s DNA has been a categorial success. He is, after all, our masterpiece. His progeny can be no less. We will succeed where the Red Room failed and - what are you? You can’t be in here -
Stefan knew that Papa would come for him. He knew he just had to be patient. That’s what he has learned, like his numbers and his letters. Papa will always come for him.
“Come on, medvezhonok,” Papa mutters, scooping Stefan up into his arms, scratchy bedclothes and all.
“Where is Mama?”
“I don’t know,” says Papa. “I don’t know where your parents are but we’ve got to get out of here, Stefan, you understand that?”
Stefan nods but he doesn’t understand. He buries his nose against Papa’s neck, right at the join of his Papa’s metal arm and shoulder and breathes in and everything smells like Papa so everything will be okay.
Papa’s strong enough to carry Stefan with one arm as he runs down all the stairs of the ugly building that is not home, that does not have Sasha the cat or Mama singing along to the kitchen radio in a low, husky voice. Papa tells Stefan to keep his eyes shut and not to open them, no matter what happens. Papa tells Stefan there’s going to be some shouting and loud noises and he puts his own hat on Stefan’s head, pulling it down over Stefan’s ears and then Papa is running and jostling Stefan but Stefan doesn’t mind because he’s holding on to Papa, his arms tight around Papa’s neck.
Stefan doesn’t remember much of what happens. Papa is shouting in a language that isn’t Russian and men are shouting back at him and they sound angry and Papa switches to Russian, his hand firm on Stefan’s back.
“I’ll blow the whole place, I promise you that.”
“Give us the child, Soldat. He’s not your concern-”
“He seems to think so.”
“He’s simple - he doesn’t know - he -”
Papa is walking forward and the voices get weaker and Stefan thinks maybe they’re frightened except that grown-ups don’t get frightened. Grown-ups are brave like Papa and they smile like Mama, who hardly ever cries, except when the men came to take Stefan away.
“You are worse than the Red Room ever was,” says Papa.
“Yasha, if you walk out that door - “
Papa is brave, like grown-ups are. He keeps walking and it is a warm night and Stefan doesn’t need the hat but he keeps it on his head because Papa put it there and then the night gets warmer and there’s a loud noise and a blast of hot air. Papa breaks into a run. Stefan clings tighter and maybe he falls asleep because the next thing he knows is that Papa is lying him down on the backseat of a car and murmuring in the language that’s not Russian, what the fuck am I doing?
When Stefan wakes up, it is daytime, and the sun is shining through thin red curtains and everything is pink. Papa is sitting on a chair in the corner of the room and he’s got something on the table.
“What’s that, Papa?”
Papa flinches and looks at Stefan. “It’s called a Kalashnikov,” he says, in a strange voice. “You’re not to touch it, okay?”
Stefan nods and he gets out of bed and it’s a grown-up bed and he feels suddenly very proud that he’s not sleeping in a baby bed anymore, with rails to keep him from falling out. He walks over to Papa and scrambles up onto Papa’s lap.
“Where’s Mama?” he asks in a small voice, after a moment of fiddling with the buttons on Papa’s shirt.
Papa takes a breath. Stefan can hear it because his ear is pressed against Papa’s chest and he can hear the lub-dub of Papa’s heart too. There is a moment when Papa doesn’t say anything but then he wraps his arms around Stefan and sighs against the top of Stefan’s head.
“I don’t know, Stepushka,” Papa whispers and Stefan understands a little more and starts to cry.
They stay in the room all day and all night. Papa goes out in the evening and tells Stefan not to open the door to anyone, even him, and he’s muttering to himself about leaving a three year-old on his own and Stefan wants to tell him that he’s nearly four.
Stefan’s birthday is December the twenty-seventh and that’s soon because it’s in winter which comes after autumn and he knows this, like he knows his numbers and his letters and like he knows he should always do what Papa tells him.
Papa comes home with blini wrapped up in brittle, shiny paper and it’s the best supper Stefan’s had for a long time.
After they’ve eaten, Stefan thinks it’s bath-time because it’s always bath-time after supper, but Papa doesn’t say anything about it. Stefan climbs onto his lap again and this time Papa’s arms wrap around him much quicker and Stefan holds Papa’s metal hand. When he was little, Mama told him that sometimes Papa was sad about his hand so Stefan was never to treat it any differently than Papa’s warm hand, with fingernails and a scar across the palm. Secretly, Stefan thinks he prefers Papa’s metal hand because it’s different and Stefan’s always been told that he is different and that he’s special.
“Stefan,” says Papa.
“Yes, Papa,” says Stefan.
“Why do you call me that?”
Stefan laughs because Papa is being silly. Papa isn’t often silly and Mama says that’s because he has so many serious things to think about. “Because you’re my Papa.”
“What’s your name?”
“And do you know what my name is, medvezhonok?” Papa squeezes him gently.
“You are Yakov Yurievich.”
“That’s right,” says Papa, after another sigh. “That’s right. And what’s Mama’s name?”
Stefan opens his mouth to answer but he does not know what to say. “I forget,” he whispers and he doesn’t mean to cry because he’s a grown-up like Papa, and he gets to eat blinis with his hands so that the hot cheese oozes over his fingers, and he gets to sleep in a grown-up bed.
Papa rubs his back and tells him that everything will be okay.
They are in a car. Stefan doesn’t think it’s their old car though this car is very old and makes strange wheezing noises that make Papa swear and Papa swearing makes Stefan giggle and Stefan giggling makes Papa smile, and it’s one of Papa’s proper smiles and the creases at the corners of his eyes grow more creases.
“Where are we going, Papa?”
“We’re going to Vladimir,” says Papa.
“Are we there yet?”
“Not even close, Stepushka.” Papa gives him a gentle smile and this is a new smile and Stefan thinks he likes it. “We’re taking the long way round.” The car wheezes again and Papa thumps the steering wheel. “Stupid heap-of-junk piece-of-”
Stefan creases up with laughter and then Papa is laughing too. Papa’s eyes are wide and a little wild.
They stay in a town called Suzdal that night. Papa says they’ll have to sleep in the car and Stefan thinks that’s the most exciting thing he’s ever heard. They go for a walk through a low-lying field and there’s a church with a pretty dome out in the middle of nowhere. They have to cross a little wooden bridge and there is a stream that passes sluggishly beneath their feet and the grass is almost taller than Stefan. Papa lifts him up and they go into the church and it’s cool and quiet.
When they leave, the sun has set and Stefan is scared that they might get lost and Papa puts a hand on his shoulder and says that as long as there are people looking for them, they’ll never really be lost.
Stefan is not reassured and he holds his Papa’s hand tight. They sleep in the backseat of the car and it’s a warm night and Stefan is tucked up safe against his Papa’s chest. They wake up early because the nights are short and they drive into town, with its white walls and blue roofs and they stop in a shop for bread and Stefan wants blinis again, and hot cheese that oozes over his fingers, but Papa is quiet today.
Vladimir is a big city. Stefan doesn’t think he’s ever been in a city this big. He’s heard of Moscow and St Petersburg but he’s never been to either. They park the car in an open-air car park, where the concrete is a little cracked and there are weeds growing around the edge. A bus pulls up while Papa’s hefting his bag onto his back and a group of girls tumble out .
“Oh, he’s so beautiful,” they say and Stefan hides behind Papa’s legs when he realises they’re talking about him.
Papa reaches his hand towards him and he’s wearing long sleeves and a glove on his left hand even though it’s summer. Stefan holds on tight.
“Say hello, Stefan,” says Papa. He laughs and it’s a warm sound and it doesn’t sound a thing like Papa when he is happy. The girls giggle some more so maybe they don’t know the difference. Papa is a good liar, Stefan thinks suddenly. Papa would never lie to him, though.
They walk for miles, Stefan thinks, and he doesn’t complain once even though his legs are tired. It is only when he stumbles that Papa swears and scoops him up into his arms.
“I’m sorry, Papa,” says Stefan. “Don’t be angry-”
“I’m not angry with you, Stepushka,” says Papa. “I’m angry with myself. You’ve got a useless Papa.”
“You’re my favourite Papa,” says Stefan, thoroughly scandalised at the thought there could be anyone better. It’s not Papa’s fault that he forgot that Stefan is only little, not when Stefan’s trying to be as grown-up as he can be.
“I’m glad to hear that,” says Papa and he sounds a little strangled like maybe he’s laughing which is strange because Stefan isn’t joking.
They arrive at a building that’s a little like the apartment building Stefan lives in with Mama and Papa and Sasha the cat. Papa presses some buttons.
“Yes?” says a harsh voice, warped by the little speaker by the door.
“Doctor, it’s Yasha,” says Papa. “I need your help.”
There is silence and then there is a shrill beep. Papa pushes the door open. The elevator is broken so Papa has to walk up all the steps. It’s a long way but Papa is barely breathing any heavier when they stop at a door with red paint that’s peeling and gold numbers.
“Nine-Three-Two,” says Stefan, proudly.
When they go inside, Stefan wrinkles his nose. The apartment smells funny, like hospitals.
“What have you done, Yasha?” A tall man comes out of another room, drying his hands on a grey towel. “Going off the reservation is one thing but stealing a child- Ah, it’s the little bear-cub himself.”
“Ask him his name,” says Papa. “Go on, Lyonya. Ask him.”
Stefan stays still as the man crouches down in front of him.
“What is your name?” the man asks, gruffly.
Stefan doesn’t like him but Papa is watching. “Stefan Yakovlevich Medved,” he says.
“Oho,” says the man. “I see what they did.”
“I’m glad one of us does,” says Papa. He holds his hand out to Stefan and he clings onto it. “Can we stay, Lyonya?”
The man looks at them both for a moment and he rubs his chin. “Yes, I think so.”
Later, Papa puts Stefan to bed. The sheets smell strange and nothing like the clean bedclothes Stefan has at home. Stefan falls asleep almost immediately, though.
When he wakes up, it’s dark, apart from a thin sliver of light shining under the door. Stefan can hear Papa talking to Lyonya and, quiet as a mouse, he slips out of bed and creeps over to the door. He looks through the crack between the door and the doorframe to see Papa sitting at the table with Lyonya. They have a glass bottle that’s half-full and a glass each. Papa swallows down his drink and Lyonya pours him another glass.
“You know what this means, Yakov.”
Papa looks tired. “It means we have to get out of Russia.”
“Don’t be too hasty,” says Lyonya. “Yes, you must go but they will be watching for you. You should wait here. Two weeks, maybe a month. They’ll think you’ve gone east. I can arrange for a sighting in Ekaterinburg, if you like.”
Papa drains the glass again, with a wince. “Why are you helping us?”
“Why did you come to me, Yasha? Not because you trust me, surely.”
Papa shrugs. He rolls his neck and his arm shines. Stefan likes to trace the star. “You are a dead man.”
Lyonya laughs. “It does not make me any more trustworthy, or any less.”
“You are L’venok,” says Papa. “If you know anything about what Stefan is-”
“Stefan is what he is,” says Lyonya. He looks towards the door and Stefan gasps and holds himself very still. There is a faint smile on Lyonya’s lips and it frightens Stefan. “He is the son of the Winter Soldier.”
“How can you tell?” asks Papa and now he is reaching for the bottle himself. He drinks straight from it, much to Stefan’s horror.
“Because he looks like you, genius,” says Lyonya. “He’s practically a clone.”
Papa slams down the bottle and somehow it doesn’t break, though the table creaks. “You don’t think they-”
Lyonya holds up his hand. “No, no. They don’t have that technology yet. My guess is that they milked you like a fucking cow while you were sleeping and some pretty girl offered to do her bit for comrade and country.”
Papa doesn’t look any happier. He closes his eyes. “What were they thinking?”
“Probably the same thing they were thinking with me. A child of the Red Room. How wonderful.” Lyonya claps his hands together once but Stefan doesn’t think he’s really applauding. “How can we mould him? How can we make him greater even than the Winter Soldier or the Black Widow? There’s another question, though, Yasha. A more important one.”
“And what’s that?”
“What were you thinking, dragging the boy out of the only home he’s known?”
“You think I should have left him? You, of all people?” Papa bows his head. “He calls me Papa. He remembers me.”
“And so you stole him away and lit up the whole goddamned factory while you were at it.” Lyonya suddenly chuckles. “Well, at least you destroyed the evidence and some of the most goddamned valuable material on the planet.”
Papa frowns. “What do you mean?”
Now Lyonya is wheezing with laughter and he sounds like the car that Papa and Stefan drove in to Vladimir. “The Winter Soldier’s spunk’s gone up in fl-flames,” he says, “and all that’s left is here-” He jabs at Papa between the legs, making Papa yelp, and then he points at Stefan’s door. “And in that little boy. Oh, they’ll be looking for you, Yasha.”
Papa growls at Lyonya and picks up the bottle again. Stefan creeps back into bed and he falls asleep until Papa comes in to lie down. Papa’s breath smells kind of funny, sour and sweet. Stefan tries to squirm away but then Papa’s arm wraps around him and it’s the first time in days that Papa has cuddled Stefan without Stefan crawling into his lap. Stefan settles down and whispers, “goodnight, Papa.”
He thinks Papa is already asleep until he hears a hoarse, “goodnight, medvezhonok,” and it is the first time Papa has sounded like Papa all evening.