The first thing he remembers is silence. For a very long time, he doesn’t think that matters. His life is characterised by bursts of silence and the trickles of white hot pain in his eardrums, ringing as his feet move in a path he’s already blocked, gun heavy and hot on his back. Silence is not the absence of noise; noise is the absence of silence. They plug him in and turn him off, and that silence runs through veins and arteries and an arm that can do naught but be silent, an arm through which his heart does not beat. His tongue is wrapped in harsh, musical vowels that he rarely speaks and does not quite recognise, because his stance, his arm, his gun is threat enough. He thinks it was a tongue that used to be sharp, when he thinks at all. He does not own the words he speaks, the arm he clenches, the gun he fires. He does not have a name. He does not have a single sentence left to lose. All of him is silence.
His first question is always the same.
“What year is it?”
Sometimes, they don’t tell him. Sometimes, he knows they lie.
The best liar by far is the first one. His mouth quirks, not enough to be a smile, and says, “1923.”
The man with the lying mouth has an accent he is trying to disguise, but not with any great amount of effort. His eyes are clever and narrowed, his hair is thick and black. There is a star on his chest.
“Yes, sir,” is the only answer he knows how to give, so he gives it. But it matters, somehow. It matters that he knows when he is told a lie. He knows it matters. He does not, as yet, know why.
“What year is it?” he asks, and is told, 1919, is told 1953, is told, that is not part of the mission.
That is another thing he knows without being told: the mission. He only ever asks about what he is not told, and he is never not told the mission. There are scars on his neck and his arms and on his temples; he knows why the mission is a thing he knows. He knows that the year matters. He does not know why no one will tell him. It is not a part of the mission. This is different, and the answer to a question he has not asked. He needs to know the year. He needs to know why he needs to know the year. There is the mission, and nothing else, but.
He does not always wake in the underground bunker. The mission is always different, but it is, in the end, always the same. The third time he wakes, there is snow in his hair. There is snow beneath him, and above him, and soaking into the laces of his boots. He does not know where he is, that, like the year, is a scrap of knowledge he is not deemed worthy of possessing. He is not to kill anyone. He is not to be seen. He is to watch, and to wait, and he is not to speak. He walks until he reaches a checkpoint, and pulls off his glove. He does not find enjoyment in the way the soldier’s face pales as he waves him through, but he feels the ghost of something that could have been amusement, once. This is a city of ghosts, he thinks, distantly, as he looks at eagles and domes and walls pocked with the scars from shells. The people about him speak a language he does not understand, with hard consonants and twisting vowels. These people have gloved hands that always seem to be about to close into fists. This is not home. This is not home, but words do not have meaning here, particularly that one.
He passes a newsstand, and sees a cover covered in familiar cyrillic script. It is 1954. The snow has melted, freezing, in his hair. The mission: Vyacheslav Molotov must live. He does not have a gun. He leans against a wall, and smokes a cigarette his lungs can never be burned by. The people of this city do not watch him. Theirs are eyes that have learnt to be blind. He holds a cigarette between leather-gloved fingers, and does not remember this city, although he tries. Although he knows he ought to try. Beneath his coat, his arm is cold. His hair, even many hours later, does not dry.
The next time he wakes up, he knows two things. Either it is 1954, or it is not. He does not know if they are capable of sending him through time, and knows better than to ask.
“Everything went wrong while you were sleeping,” says the scientist. The scientist stood behind the leader’s shoulder, his eyes starving. His hands never touched the arm that shone or the needles slipped beneath skin, but he’s always watched.
“Our leader is dead,” says the scientist, and flips a switch. If there was a mission, the scientist never tells him what it was.
This time, they tell him. It is 1959. A man is running. Continuous, because he will never reach his destination.
He is given a name to wear, (Yakov), and the name to find, (Nikolai Fedorovich Artamonov), and a path to follow, (next stop: everywhere). He is still not given a gun, the only thing he is capable of missing. The weight of it on his wrist is the closest thing he has ever felt to home. The pull of a trigger, its heat beneath his hands. (Hand.) He finds him in Vienna. He has a new name, and he does not beg.
“I was an officer, once,” he says, and is surprised to be met with silence. A needle full of chloroform means silence on all sides. Nicholas George Shadrin was not sorry.
It is snowing in Vienna. It always is, somewhere.
He comes back, although he is finding that most verbs, within his world, are problematic. He does not truly ‘come’, or ‘go’. He does not ‘arrive’, or ‘leave’, or ‘pause’. He stops, but that is not the same. Adverbs are not much better, ‘here’ is as mysterious as ‘there’, and nouns worst of all. ‘Home’ has no meaning, but ‘home’ has had no meaning since the first time silence slid over his skin like rain. He hears words spoken of the ‘Motherland’, and knows only vaguely of which land they speak, which city is the mother of them all. He can threaten in ten languages, now including the German they did not program him with before. (If he could only-- if he could concentrate on that, for a second, he’d know something that he doesn’t know now. But it blurs, and.) He can cajole and turn his vowels edged and vicious. He can say a dozen greetings, does not know a single word for ‘goodbye.’ He does not know how to persuade. Because, he knows, he will never need to.
There is a city, mother to them all. Next time, they tell him, he will go there. A noun, replaced by a noun, replaced by a noun. He still escapes the definition of verbs, twists out of the traps of adjectives. He has no noun to call his own.
He wakes up, and he does not know the mission.
“Where am I?” he says, for the first time, and the man beside him smiles.
“My name is Aleksandr Sakharovsky,” he says, uselessly, as if that will mean anything.
“What is the mission?”
Sakharovsky smiles again, says, “What is that it that they say in English? ‘Use fire to fight fire’, is that it? I’m told that you’re the best sniper in the world, boy.”
“What is the mission?”
“Focused,” says Sakharovsky, “I like that. Someone needs to die. You’ll get a gun this time. They also told me that you’d like that.”
Outside, there is snow on the ground. There is no snow in his hair. Something, although he does not know what, is changing.
This is New York City. It is 1961. There is no snow, although the air is crisp with its reminder. The trains do not run on time, but their newspapers are censored. Some things, it seems, are the same everywhere he goes. This is not home, but it has its echoes, sleek as the gun in his suitcase, burning hot as the fire clenched, hard as his iron fist, in his chest. They told him to smirk as an answer, and as a question, to wear a suit sharper than a papercut and darker than his smooth, slick hair. They gave him English, and an accent, something that snips at his consonants and lengthens his vowels. It is nothing like Russian. It is exactly like one of his knives.
“Brooklyn,” they said, and then gave him everything. It’s as if he’s lived there all his life. It’s as if it’s home.
“If they catch you, they will kill you,” they said, as if that meant something. As if that meant anything. He’s following his orders, and his orders are not to get caught. So he won’t. It’s as certain as gravity, as the dripping faucet in his motel room, as the cold hard fact that his arm can punch through steel. (The star, so patriotic, it turns out, was also not so clever.) They told him not to get caught, and he won’t. Parse that statement thoroughly, for spies speak in the language of spies: they can catch him. Mostly, they can try. But if they catch him, the only good spy is a dead spy.
Stop. Parse another sentence. The only good spy is a dead spy. Inevitable as gravity, and the subway being late, and that the gun in the bottom of his suitcase takes most soldiers twenty seconds to assemble, takes him under five. (Blindfolded. With one arm. No, not that one.) He doesn’t know where he was born, or why. But he knows this: he was born to die.
There are things slip-sliding through him, jagged little bits of programming he doesn’t quite understand, can’t help but follow.
A girl with lips redder than sunsets, and legs longer than any of his knives smiles at him in Central Park, and the smirk he gives her sparks, filthy, on his lips and elsewhere besides. A man bumps into him on the subway, and he pushes his good (bad) shoulder back, says, in a hoarse voice he does not recognise, “Watch where you’re fuckin’ goin’, pal.”
The fear is naked on the man’s face, but something else, too. Something that makes him use that smirk again, hot and crooked and demanding-- something that claims the centre, the beating heart of the room, the carriage, the attention of its focus. Something that is a different sort of war. Something that he, for once, does not know how to use.
He smirks, hot, on a street in Queens, and it feels like home. For the first time, silence is replaced by something else. He stands not still but shaking, and all of him, every single inch, burns. This is not home. It is not anything else, either.
All missions end. His ends in a brownstone in Queens, on the same street where he felt his feet and his mouth and his hand(s) and his heart. His name was Michael. He was many things-- a defector, a madman, firm in the belief that he was Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich. He had reached for a knife taped beneath his kitchen table, but he was not fast enough. There is no universe in which he would have been fast enough; this time, there was a gun. Michael was a double agent, and doubly ironic: the CIA called him SNIPER.
He does not have a sense of humour. Or, he didn’t. He lights a cigarette on the street outside, his hands entirely clean. He does not have a heart. Even if, earlier, he felt it. Even if, now, waiting for the snow to fall, he already feels cold.
Later, he does not remember New York. Much, much later, he remembers that he does not remember, and what is white turns red. Do not mistake, it is not that there is red in his ledger.
Every word in his ledger is red.
Leningrad is a reward. This is what they tell him. It is 1968. He is not a civilian. They give him the apartment for a month. This is a mission for the Second Chief Directorate. There is a double agent. There is a threat to the Motherland. He does not feel like a son, does not feel the duty of a child. He does not feel duty because he has never felt duty. He is almost sure that he does not feel anything at all. This time, it is his kitchen table a knife is taped beneath. There is, within a concrete block within a too-thin wall, a gun he has been ordered not to use. During this sort of mission, he does not have a gun, but, rather, is one.
He has never had a desk before. He has never, in fact, had a chair before, or clothes that were not uniform-tight and dark, or shoes that were not boots. (Remember, remember, he doesn’t.) He finds that vodka cannot make him drunk, and that although he never truly becomes hungry, he never really manages to make himself full. It’s as if all of him is starving, even though he is nothing but lean muscle over bone. He supposes that he doesn’t usually eat meals. He supposes that there isn’t a reason for him to, anyway. He spends his time starving, writing pages of notes, filling in forms that no one is ever going to use. Maybe he was always starving. Maybe this is what life is; never crushing those shards in your chest, always waking up in the middle of the night needing something you don’t know how to ask for, wouldn’t ask for if you could.
He learns something that would feel like a revelation, if revelations weren’t superstition, weren’t part and parcel of the opium of the masses: he runs faster than everyone else he meets. He remembers every number he sees, every page he reads, every sentence spoken to him in quiet confidence. He might wake up in the middle of the night, but he never feels tired, even if he’s always slowly, quietly starving. He can’t turn it off, always looking for sniper’s angles and the right way to slit that vein, cataloguing where he’d break that arm, snap that neck, always looking for another exit, another exit, another exit. He knows every street name within twenty miles, every car he’s ever walked past, every tram route, the flashes of red on their sides working through his mind like a pulmonary system. He knows where every star would be, in a night sky smothered by smoke. Tram lines become his constellations, street signs his stars. He does not belong to this city, but, somehow, it belongs to him.
All missions end. This time, it’s with his hands around somebody’s throat.
“The world is changing,” says Sakharovsky, and opens the door. Inside is a man, a table, and a garotte.
“Make him talk, and make him live,” says Sakharovsky, and shuts the door.
He knows three things, as Sakharovsky leaves: that the man is American, that the man is an agent of the CIA, and that it would be much easier to kill him than not kill him, in the state he has been left in.
“You ain’t gonna know what’s hit ya, pal,” he says, and hides his shock at a voice he didn’t know was there, lurking heavy and hidden in his chest like a stone. The American hides his shock far less well. It doesn’t matter. There’s a garotte winding around his fingers, and the American has a lot of surprises in store.
He does not find out about the Caribbean Crisis until 1972.
“The Americans call it the Cuban Missile Crisis,” says Fyodor Mortin, Sakharovsky’s replacement. “Typical arrogance.”
He nods, although he does not understand. They programmed him for missions, not belief. Here is what he knows about America: they do not speak Russian, but they expect you to speak English. Their cities are sprawling monsters, their peasantry are still peasants. They have mountains, and deserts, and churches by the hundred, hundred thousand. (Two out of three, then.) They are better than the Americans, and the Americans do not agree with that because they do not know that, but this is a waiting game. The revolution came to Russia, it will come everywhere else, in time.
“Of course, sir,” he says, and does not believe a word he says. This is a new development.
He wakes up with ice beneath his fingernails. There is nothing but snow, a blanket falling as far as the eye can see. (Even with his eyes: not far.) There is a building, maybe twenty to thirty feet in front of him. There is a flag, and when he spots it, he knows.
“This is an experiment,” says a voice in his ear, “kill the whole garrison.”
He slides the knife out of his boot and starts to walk. (It does not matter that he knows, now, that he is in Siberia. It does not matter that it is a Red Army garrison. It does not matter at all.)
There is a star pinned to his chest, a star that he will never wear, will probably never even see, ever again. He still does not have a name, and things are coming to him in flashes. He is lacing up his boots in a street he has never stood in, Hungarian on his tongue and marching into a city full of screaming, a gun on his back and a knife in his hand. He stands, again, in that street, alone, facing a battle line. They scream at him, a different sort of screaming. He does not feel pain from their insults, or their bullets. He does not feel the edges of their knives, or the bite of the snow, or anything but the steady blur of his limbs that is not-at-all steady, that is much too fast for the battle line to follow. Then, there is no battle line.
He does not speak Hungarian. He has never been to Budapest. There is no star on his chest.
The last time he woke, he did not speak Chinese. Now both Mandarin and Cantonese curl around his tongue, chiming slightly different, coming out much the same. He walks across landscapes where no people live, into villages where the children - and their parents, too - run when they see him, into cities that sprawl like dripping poison, flags of familiar red on every street, outside every apartment block, writ across the back of the people’s eyes. In Russia, he was always a soldier, and sometimes he was the mission, but in China he is a weapon and nothing else. They give him hundreds of bullets, guns that grow in size every time. They give him maps of places never mapped before, orders that are always the same.
Root them out, root them out.
He walks through fields that burn with screaming at his back, and he doesn’t know, yet. It’s three months until he hears the word Vietnam.
He is used to snow. This is not a land of snow, but of jungle and tigers and that same, same, same red flag. Perhaps the snow is not the constant, just the soldier, the weapon. They send him there with one order and one order only: chaos. He is a thing of orders, not order. He is not a thing of battles, but war. There is a difference. Oh, there is a difference. He paints his face and moves the way they teach him, the men of the Viet Cong. They will not speak to him, although their tongue is programmed in his brain like fingers stabbing over typewriter keys. He looks too much like the Americans they have been sent to kill. He does not blame them. They do not trust him. He’s stood before a jungle that burns, reached a flashing hand inside that fire and walked out clean. They do not trust him. He would not trust him either.
One day, he walks into the jungle and he doesn’t come back. They knew this day would come, and so did he. He needed to learn what they know, to move how they move. He is a thing of frost and knives and blood on cobbled pavements. He is a lone wolf, with teeth sharpened to points and a snarl worming down to his very core. He is not a thing of heat, or jungles, or warpaint. But his face is painted, and his skin is soaked with sweat. He moves through the jungle as more than a wolf but less than a man, and they do not see him again. Orders are orders, and they’d been told: do not follow him. Nobody questioned, because they knew crazy when they saw it. He walks into a jungle, and meets a tiger. Apparently, tigers know crazy when they see it, too.
Three months later, he walks back out. His chest is bare and the paint is crusted, redblack on his face. His gun has a bayonet that was not there before, and it is not quite true to say that his chest is bare-- knives are strapped across it, glinting in the low light. He cut his hair with a knife, that much is clear, and there’s a bandana wrapped around what remains. (He did not have that before, either.) Around his neck hangs a string of tiger’s teeth, and there swings there, too, twenty dogtags or more, none of them clean. His metal arm is filthy, mud up to his shoulder, the barest flash of red on the bicep. He gets into the helicopter without a word. No one speaks to him. No one even sits near him. He does not speak. He does not wipe off the paint, or the mud, or the blood.
Later, it is not quite true to say that he does not remember the jungle. There are things beyond even their ability to wipe, and it’s the heat, he thinks, that does it. The flashes of Hungary enslave him to snow, the way he is always enslaved, but the jungle is different. The jungle does not come back in flashes. Sometimes, the jungle does not come back at all. He’s trying, now, trying to drag the ragged fingernails of remembrance through his brain, trying to find things that chime right. He wakes up, and wakes up, and wakes up, and he is not a clean slate. He remembers fire, and the smell of napalm on an arm that can never burn. He remembers a tiger’s jaws, and what you can do with a pocket knife if you’re determined. He remembers hearing English, and blanking out, and waking up with new dogtags around his neck. The rest are in his pockets. He thinks it was an order. It may be more true to say that he hopes. In his dream, the jungle burns, and him with it. It does not matter that there is no fire.
He does not always remember the jungle. The helicopters, however, are another story. There is no promise of tabula rasa, no promise of closing his eyes and opening them another man, another soldier. He always remembers the helicopters. Well. He remembers fire in the night and gunfire in the morning, children charred and paint on his fingers, smeared across his eyelids, applied as if he was warding off a curse. It is not true to say he always remembers the helicopters. He remembers the music, and the flashes in the edges of his vision, and, above all, he remembers what came after. The choppers made their own melody, the heavy churn of the rotor louder than what carried from the below, what could never be called music, and the ground shone like the implosion of a star. Now, when he opens his eyes, he opens them in the jungle, shards of glass in his vision and the whisper of flames flickering at the edges. He was born in snow, words he cannot read written across his chest in the bluest frost, but now something burns in him once more, the stench of napalm forever on his hands. There is red in his ledger, and if it’s not written in his blood, there’s a hell of a lot of people waiting in line.
Wars are never over. Or, perhaps more accurately, war, and they need him for another one. He’s been out four years, this time, wakes up screaming, his mouth snarling and torn around words that, in the jungle, he could never say. They tie him down and dope him up, but it’s only on the outside that he’s silent. He bites his mouth bloody and, for a splitsecond, shining, terrifying moment, he thinks they’re going to detach his arm. (Take it away.) They don’t, but they force plastic between his lips and push needle after needle beneath his skin. They watch the cartography of his mind on screens, jab at buttons that should wipe whole years clean. He watches them with eyes that are no longer cold, and forgets nothing. They try to shove his mission in, and he bites down on the gag until he bleeds from his eyes and his ears and his nose. They drug him until the drugs do nothing, until his system, the system they built and implanted and maintained, rejects the drugs altogether, evolves until all the needles do is make him scream. They leave him on a table with his hair sweat-matted and his face sticky with his own blood, and what he’s feeling isn’t a memory-- but.
“I hear you rejected your mission, comrade,” says a man who won’t tell him his name.
“I am not your comrade,” he says, because these are the words he knows to say, (not the words he’s supposed to, and and and--), “I am your soldier.”
“All the men and women of Russia are my comrades,” says the man, as if it were the truth, as if a man strapped to a table, choking on his own blood and sobbing around vowels he can’t even make feels anybody’s equal.
“I am a soldier,” he repeats, and the man beside him frowns at the dropped your.
“I’ve heard that’s what they call you,” says the man, “do you want your mission, or not, soldier?”
Of course he says yes. How many tables have you been strapped to?
The point is not that he said yes. The point is not that they called him ‘comrade.’ The point is that they had to ask him. The point is that they had to ask him at all.
Afghanistan is a desert, except for when it is not. Later, they will call this war the Bear Trap, and it will wear it well. He will wear it well. There are few things more Russian than a bear. They drop him onto tanks, his arm smashing through the metal like the crumpling of paper. They leave him alone in the desert for days, his whole body crying out for water, still with that starvation in his bones that he can’t hope to eke out. He kills, at a conservative estimate, dozens with his rifle, hundreds, as it stands, more accurately and more horrible. He surpassed Simo Häyhä years ago. You will not find his name in any history books, but, then, it’s not as if there’s a name to be recorded. It’s not as if he’d want them to, if he had a name to wear. There’s something else that burns in his chest, from time to time, until he can push it down, until he can use the patterns in his brain that he’s already started rejecting to force it back. It burns, and it feels a lot like what he, as a best guess, thinks is shame.
They leave him in a desert, and they wait for him to walk back out, fires from Russian bombs, reaching up to a sky scorched by shells, incandescent in his wake. He’s beginning to discern a pattern, here. Send in the man who you’ve made to die clean, and it don’t matter much if he comes back out with blood spilled or his own on the floor. Don’t was a slip, a slip he’s been making lots of, lately. He doesn’t know what it means. He tries to force them out, too, entirely different to the other, entirely backward, slipping of using his programming to his dubious advantage. It makes his Russian oddly lyrical, and his Dair nigh-incomprehensible. This would matter, if he was allowed to speak. (The one thing they could force, silence unless it’s a code one danger. He’s never met a code one danger. He suspects there’s no such thing, or, more accurately, that he is a code one danger, perhaps the only one in the world.) The men play smuggled rock and roll tapes, and talk about him in front of him, this silent, pale stranger who they think believes in the cause so strongly it’s stripped him of his voice. They’d laugh at him, but his eyes can do enough talking for the lot of them. He does not want to talk to them. (Much.) He likes the rock and roll.
They get to a village abandoned, abandoned so quickly that even the weapons were left behind. The rocket launchers are glossy and matte black, the words Stark Industries lettered on the side in a script the like of which he’s never seen before.
He picks up the rocket launcher, points at the lettering on the side, and one of the men grins, a slightly shabby, lively corporal who keeps trying to teach him card tricks, and plays him The Doors, all with a cheeky, slightly calculating smile.
“Don’t you have a television, white boy?” says the corporal, “Even we’ve seen television, and we’ve been out here in the arse-end of nowhere for the past nine months.”
He shrugs. He’s never seen television. He’s never seen a television. Or, if he has, he doesn’t remember.
“That’s Howard Stark’s shit, white boy,” says the corporal, “and it’s better than anything we’ve got. Take everything you can carry, and then a bit more.”
He nods, and slings the rocket launcher on his back. Never let go of your weapon, a piece of programming older than his programming. A piece of his programming he is beginning to suspect isn’t programming at all.
After the Bear Trap, he gets his name. Although it might be more accurate to say that he gets a name, a name he’ll wear because any name is better than nothing, even if it’s not the name, even if it’s not really a name at all.
“So, you’re the Winter Soldier,” says Brezhnev, and he salutes, does not speak the name but allows it to echo in his mind, finds it slots into place but it’s not the name, does not even sound like the name, but a name is a name is a name, and if he’s learnt anything in the past however many years, (and how many has it been, how many how many how many--), it’s that something is better than nothing.
It’s 1981, and he’s seen television. Not much, that’s for sure, but enough. It was black and white, and a little fuzzy, but he saw New York on a television set that didn’t belong to him, and it didn’t even matter that it was a programme condemning Western imperialism. He saw it, and he remembered, and it was more than enough. He can feel the sidewalk underneath his feet, and the heat of the subway on his skin. He knows that to look up is to see a skyline that grazes the horizon, to stare up at glass and gleaming metal and streamlined towers that make you feel so, so small. It is nothing like Leningrad. It is a little like Berlin. It is exactly like something that echoes in his mind, something without bullets, and without the flash of silver at his elbow. It is not without pain, or fear, or hunger. It is not without longing. It is entirely without the clutch in his chest that beats as his heart beats, moves as his body moves, expands and constricts as he breathes. It is not the same. It is Russian, but then-- but then. Neither is he. Neither was he. Tell the truth, tell the truth. If everything in his ledger is red, it’s not just blood that made it so.
No more lies. That is all he wants. No more lies.
They wake him more and more. There is always someone new to kill. He is a soldier in a war that does not exist, moving through theatres where no battle lines are drawn. He is an actor in those theatres, bowing on stages with smoke at their skylines and bullet casings at his feet. They program him with new language after new language, flashing white behind his eyelids, sinking into his mind with a burn colder than any ice. There is always someone new to kill, but now the mission is not just about killing. Consolidation, come the whispers about him, from mouths that once were silent, how do you hold onto power once you have it? It’s been forty years, although he does not know it. He hasn’t aged a day, a life lived in spurts and starts, days stolen from the flow of time like trophies, like the dogtags that still hang about his neck. (At least, when silence is not the priority, but fear.) He rarely stands before mirrors, his only reflection is what he sees in other people’s eyes. In other people’s eyes, he is a monster; or something enough like one for such distinctions, such rationalities, to cease altogether. In mirrors, he is skinny and bruised and dirty, in a mirror in Paris he finds dotted circles in the crooks of his elbows, in a mirror in Hong Kong he notices, for the first time, that his smirk makes something spark, predatory, in his eyes. Mirrors tell him nothing, except for what he already knew: young, unconventionally handsome, but handsome enough for it to be something to use, starving starving starving, and his gaze is not one to meet across a crowded room. Mirrors tell him nothing, but he keeps looking. Mirrors tell him nothing, but he meets that gaze, and then drops it. His gaze is not the only thing which burns.
They send him to London, with papers that bear a different name to any one he’s worn before, but a Russian name nonetheless. He stands at a diplomat’s shoulder in an officer’s uniform not his own, and uses that smirk when the diplomat jokes that he prefers the strong and silent type.
“He doesn’t look particularly impressive to me,” says the woman whose eyes have narrowed at every refusal the diplomat’s made. (She wants everything, and for them to have nothing. He does not believe, he has never believed, for that is not why he was made-- but. But that does not mean he believes in her.)
The diplomat taps his finger on the desk, which means it’s time for the Winter Soldier’s party trick. He moves fluid and bold, the knife out of his boot before the woman’s had time to stand up. He holds the blade to her throat and pulls the glove off his right hand with his teeth, rotating his hand at the wrist before her face, the rest of his arm solid across her collarbone. She doesn’t know where to look, at the knife or the arm, so he makes it easy for her, clicks a button on his knife that makes the blade retract with a sharp, terrible sound.
“Когото́к увя́з - всей пти́чке пропа́сть,” he says, softly, in her ear, and, at a nod from the diplomat, steps back.
“If the claw is stuck, the whole bird is lost,” says the diplomat, and the woman straightens the front of her blouse, says, “We are quite sure that we do not know what you mean.”
He puts his leg up on a four hundred year old oak table, and slides the knife back into his boot. He does not slip his glove back on, and wears a smirk he’s learned from muscle memory when he says, his voice thick with the accent she expects him to have, “Trouble begins with small mistakes, Madam Thatcher.”
He still has a mission, but he is not a soldier. His mission is everyone and everywhere, rain-soaked streets in Paris and avoiding people’s eyes in Prague. He is more spy than soldier, but more soldier than he is anything else. In Warsaw, he is briefly a soldier once more, sitting on a tank that blocks a whole street, a loaded rifle on his back and a cigarette between his lips, between a hand that shines in the light from the red glow in the dark and nothing else. (Martial law has made assassination child’s play-- or it would have, if it wasn’t already.) He can jump off a tank and load his gun at the same time in one smooth, orchestrated slide, ride on a tank with his legs spread, standing, never falling, making shot after shot. He moves from city to city, until he reaches the city where his orders say stay. The call him the Dragon of Krakow. He is not a dragon, but he fires a rocket launcher with his eyes closed, punches through brick walls, pulls knives out of his stomach and spits bullets back in rebel faces. (Parts of him do not work, exactly, so much as don’t stop.) The call him the Dragon of Krakow, and smoke drifts from his nostrils, and his gun flashes red, and it is not his name but it is a name that is his, nonetheless.
In 1984, they lend him to the army. Armies are armies, and men are men, even though this army has women, women with eyes like tiger’s claws and knives as cruel as the mouths of bears in boots of fur and leather. They all try to tease him, ask him lewd questions and elbow him, warily, as though he’s a wolf about to pounce. (Which, of course, he is.)
“I think our comrade here isn’t much of a one for girls,” says one of a dozen dirty faces that move around him in careful rotation, and he doesn’t know what to say to that. He knows that they are trying to be his friends, that it is an unwritten law of warfare that you’d rather have a friend who laughs at your stupid jokes at your back than the most dangerous man in the world. (And make no mistake--) His body is not a temple but a tool, metal and flesh and schematics that blink, scarlet, behind his eyelids. He is not much of a one for girls. He is not much of a one for anything. He doesn’t even know how old he is, or how long he has not been old. He doesn’t even know if he’s ever had sex at all. He could have been programmed to, to-- and he wouldn’t even remember. It could have happened a thousand times, or never. Perhaps it’s best not to remember. Perhaps it’s best to pretend that he can’t see the chains around his wrists, the shackles around his ankles.
“Girls are not the mission,” he says, and smiles, his best, and solidly faked, attempt at shy, at their cat calls.
There is a joke. It goes like this: Every morning a man would come up to the newspaper stand, and buy a copy of Pravda, look at the front page and then toss it angrily into the near-by bin. The newspaper-seller was intrigued. "Excuse me," he said to the man, "Every morning you buy a copy of Pravda from me and chuck it in the bin without even opening it. What do you buy it for?"
"I'm only interested in the front page,' replied the man. 'I'm looking out for a death notice."
"But you don't get death notices on the front page," said the newspaper-seller, taken aback.
"I assure you, the death notice I'm looking for will be on the front page."
Do not ask him how many front pages he has made by not making them. No, do not. He could not tell you if you asked him, and he does not want to try.
He is called the Winter Soldier, but only to his face. Internal documents call him the operative, and the scientists call him the success. The army call him Deathless, echoes of a man-who-is-no-man, made of stolen breath and rage and the very spark of life, a tsar, but a tsar of a land in which no human walks. His is a crown of bones. His is a death that does not die. The Americans call him FIREBIRD, a legacy of fire and blood and terror that they cannot hope to understand. Once, in Poland, he was a dragon, and in Vietnam he was a tiger, in Afghanistan a bear. In Siberia, before all of that, he was a wolf. In Leningrad, he is winter, and, in Leningrad, he cannot imagine being anything else. In New York, he was not a wolf, or a soldier, or Tsar Koschei. He does not know what he was in New York. He does not know how to find out.
The call is inevitable. Perhaps winter and soldier and wolf have one name, are not a trinity, but one. Perhaps it is the name he does not yet have. But he must wait, and wait, and wait, and he is winter, but change is on the wind, and a thaw comes with it. He has been winter for forty years. Soon, it might not enough to be a soldier. It might not be enough to be a wolf.
“Someone needs to die.”
Someone always needs to die. This time, it’s a skinny American boy who’s just hit seventeen. He’s got eyes that betray every emotion running through him, and hands that move in time to thoughts that no one else can follow. They don’t want his father, even if Vanko had said he was the greater mind; they know better. (And traitor is as traitor does.) Antony Stark burns through weapons the way other men burn through paper, and the last war in the Gulf was bad enough without missiles signed in the younger Stark’s shaky hand. Someone needs to die, and, this time, it’s a boy with messy hair and a grin that sets the world alight. It does not matter that all the reports say he is not like his father. It does not matter that his father helped them fight the Nazis, once. Someone always needs to die, and now it’s the turn of Tony Stark.
He makes it as far as New York. No, not quite true. He makes it as far as the hallway of Stark Mansion, and is greeted by Tony Stark’s red-rimmed eyes. It does not matter that Tony has seen him. He will not have time to scream, except--
“He’s dead,” says Tony, “take the shot, see if I care.”
“I didn’t come here for him, pal,” he says, and watches Tony’s face twist, enter the numbers, try and compute why a Soviet assassin speaks English with the hammered-out vowels of the borough over from where he’s sitting, his face washed-out and harrowed, on stairs with thick carpets no one will ever have been allowed to stain.
“Yeah, I guessed,” says Tony, and shrugs, picks at the laces of his sneakers, “like I said, see if I care.”
“Course you care,” he says, and Tony laughs, a harsh and bitter sound.
“So what are you?” says Tony, “A defector? A double agent? Oh-- oh, man, even better, you’re a brainwashed super-assassin, right? They always have one of those in the movies, and it’d explain the fucking weird leather look you’re rocking, there.”
Tony’s eyes follow the slow motion of a glove being thrown into his lap, and then move back up. Silver flashes in the light, and Tony’s eyes are wide as saucers.
“Somethin’ like that,” he says, and then he walks away. This was not the mission. Tony Stark is not dead, but alive. This was not the mission, but he walks away, and he does not look back.
This time, they do not wipe him, but scrub him clean, shove down everything he is, he’s learned, he ever had the potential to be.
This is what they think. This is what they think they know. But when he wakes up, he hears choppers, and he knows how to pretend. No more lies. No more running. More red in his ledger, but only for a little while, and then there’ll be more red, but of a very different kind.
He is in Berlin, again. It is 1989. The wind that he could feel melting the ice of his bones has now festered and grown, ripping across Europe like a gale. The air smells the way it does just before a storm, and when he gets his orders the thunder rumbles across the sky like a battlecry, a battlecry he echoes, standing on the wall with his rifle in his hands, and these were not his orders, this was not even close. He shoots at the West German guards, misses (not so) miraculously every time. There are cameras, and then there is film, and then there is him, standing, howling at the sky, broadcast into nearly every home on earth. His arm flashes as lightning splits the the Berlin skyline, the star on his shoulder a beacon, a target, a rallying cry. Camera flashbubs glint, feral, off his bared teeth, and he stands steady as, beneath him, a sledgehammer is swung.
The Germans call him Tyr, the lord of war, the wolf, the god with one hand. The Westerners call him a contravention of the Geneva Convention. The Russians do not call him anything, anything at all.
They come to him, and they ask him questions that don’t mean a thing. His chains are no longer metaphorical, (if they ever were), and slide cold needles into his wrists, attach electrodes to his temples.
Eventually, they only ask him one question.
“What is the mission?”
He only gives them one answer.
“Волко́в боя́ться — в лес не ходи́ть.”
If you're afraid of wolves, don't go to the woods.
He does not see the Soviet Union fall. He told them to be afraid of him, told them what to do to shut him out, shut him down, shut him up. So they do, they did. He shuts his eyes in the USSR, and he opens them in the Russian Federation. He knows as soon as his eyes open, as soon as the sound of the choppers fades. The world is different. He also knows a second, deeper, much more terrible truth. The world has not changed. They knocked him out and tied him up and scarred his mouth with the wire between his teeth because they were afraid of him. If they have woken him up, they are still afraid of him. They are just more afraid of something else. They wake him up, and there is man beside him, with white hair and a liar’s smile.
“You are a wolf,” says the man, the man who reeks of power. He puts his hand on one of a dozen restraints, and says, “We need dogs of war in this new Russia. Can a wolf become tame for the Motherland? To do what is needed?”
A wolf cannot become a dog, but that does not matter. This is a truth Boris Yeltsin does not yet know.
Chechnya is cold because of course Chechnya is cold. He is a soldier of winter, and snow can do nothing to him but make his lips pull back from his teeth, a wolf’s imitation of tame. He rides on tanks, never in them, languishing with his feet crossed as the tanks roll, smoke pouring from his lips, his hair stiff with frost. He walks into villages with his AK-101 and he is the only one to walk back out. He does not want to fight this war, or at least, he thinks he doesn’t, but this time the sleep, longer than it has been in quite some time, left gaps in his memory. They are coming back, napalm and cathedral spires and shell-scarred walls, but it’s slow. For the first time in a long time, he is the mission. He is the weapon. He is not, however, a soldier. Soldiers do not walk into villages with the safety off. Soldiers do not recline on tanks and scratch meaningless nothings into the metal with the tip of a finger than can never break. Soldiers are not just made to kill. He is not a soldier. He is not his machine gun. He was always a wolf.
She’s perhaps thirteen at most, red hair shorn short and limbs as long and delicate as spider’s webs. She is not supposed to be good enough to kill him, just good enough to have a chance of making that elusive, lucky, one-in-a-lifetime shot. She breaks his collarbone and he lets her, gritting his teeth until his lip bleeds to ward off, useless, the sickening snap. The pain means nothing, and he’ll heal in days without intervention, in hours if they stick the hundred thousandth tube in his veins. He prefers the former. Some part of him is clawing its way back up, and that part wants to know it's still human. Craves the pain. Craves, even more, the punishment.
He does not know her name. She asks him his, in a place beyond impressed and pretending not to be, and he crooks a smile, says, “Leningrad.”
Her handler gasps, and he pushes that crooked smile wider. It was a word he was not supposed to speak, struck from the narrative of their collective histories like the carving of a curse. It was everything he is not supposed to be. It is all he will answer to, after that.
Wars blur into one another. The landscapes are much the same. His codename is no longer the operative, is now and forever the Winter Soldier. Leningrad is all he will answer to, the mark on him of things everybody else is trying their best to forget. He does not like forgetting. He has never had a choice, why should they? In Kosovo he is an agent of chaos, the knife in the night who is not on anybody’s side. He wears a bandanna above his eyes, holding back dark hair thick with dirt. He wears the bandanna into Algeria, an agent of chaos once more. He travels the length of Africa, destabilising and propping up regimes as his orders see fit. He flees on a boat full of what the press call pirates, and then it’s Chechnya, once more. He walks in snow and through deserts, he eats when he can and he hides his arm unless he’s the last thing you’re ever going to see. There’s a tracking device beneath his skin, wrapped around his carotid artery, and if he pulls it out, he’ll die in seconds. They’ve got a wolf on a leash and he’s never heard them so pleased with themselves, so sure that this is the only weapon they’re ever going to need. They did not win the first war in Chechnya, but a second time and the story is rewritten. (He knows that this is a thing they truly believe. He’s lived more history than they have. He knows better.) He rides on tanks, jumps from helicopters onto ground solid with snow. He stands, ringed by ruins, in a capital that burns. He lost his last war in Grozny. This time, he slings his rifle on his back, breathes smoke, knows what it is to watch history being made.
For a time, there is quiet. They put him back in his box, and they shut the lid. He opens his eyes and he’s in the desert, a gun at his feet and his bandanna in his pocket. They left the knowlege in his head, layered as a Fabergé egg. There was a war he missed, skipped over in more than fifty years of playing hopscotch with conflict. He’d heard of it, of course, but the people of Sierra Leone, of Zimbabwe, of Yugoslavia, they had better things to talk about. They called it Operation Desert Storm. He walks through the desert until it ceases to be desert, until he reaches an American military base and finds he knows all the exits. Inside, there’s a man he hasn’t seen in nearly twenty years.
“Oh, shit--” says Tony Stark, as a knife takes care of three guards in under five seconds.
“They’ll have already sounded the alarm, you know,” says Tony, and is met with a smile.
“You think they’re gonna be able to take care of me, pal?”
“No,” says Tony, swallowing thickly, “but I thought I’d give it a go. Jesus, so that thing does go all the way up, then?”
Tony Stark cares more about the arm than the gun. Typical.
“Inside my head, too.”
“Could you just get it over with?” says Tony, loosening his tie, “I don’t really like to be kept waiting.”
“I’m not here for you. This is a power play.”
He tucks the gun in the back of his pants, shoves the hair out of his eyes. He’s not here for Tony Stark. This is a show of power. This is a you-fuck-with-us, we’ll-fuck-with-you.
“Why’d they send you?” says Tony, as if this is not a question he knows the answer to already.
“I’m the weapon they’ve only gotta fire once.”
“Hmm,” says Tony, as the alarm begins to sound, “I think I’m gonna have to remember that.”
He walks out of Afghanistan with scars on his ribs and burns on his good arm. The language was much the same, and so was the war. He dodged Americans like water over glass, made headshot after headshot in the snow and the heat and the rain. He hid in the mountains, he rented tiny rooms in bustling cities devastated by death that fell, like irregular clockwork, from the sky. They made him wear a mask in Berlin, the one and only time. Nobody knows his face. Even his arm, in fifteen years, has been forgotten. The Afghans say he is a djinn. The Americans say he is a stone cold motherfucker. He used to be a bear, but bears are large and loud and they lack cunning. He is a wolf who must be a fox, a snake, a clever man and not a soldier. He walks out of Afghanistan with a hundred more dogtags, and he is the desert storm.
Here is a story about wolves.
Rabinovich is walking through the forest with a sheep, when both of them stumble into a pit. A few minutes later, a wolf also falls into the pit. The sheep gets nervous and starts bleating. "What's with all the baaahh, baaahh?" Rabinovich asks, "Comrade wolf knows whom to eat."
He kills a journalist in London. He kills a politician in Paris. He does not go to the States. He does not go to the States. He does not go to the States. Make no mistake: he is still a wolf. He knows exactly who he is going to eat.
It is 2013, and the girl with the red hair has to die. He tells them it won’t be easy, he tells them that they’d be better off just bombing and having done with it. She’s in New York City, they tell him, even we can’t bomb that.
He answers with a vicious grin, because he knows a lie when he hears one, but he knows freedom when he hears it, too. Some of his files were lost. They are sending him to New York, and they do not know what they have done. But he does. He knows, and his ledger’s pages are turning.
He dies in New York. He follows the girl who is no longer a girl, the woman with the red hair, follows her into an apartment block in Brooklyn. It is very hard not to get caught. She is better than she was at thirteen, and her thighs are sinew and muscle and the promise of a tantalising death. He follows her into the apartment, gun out before he’s even through the door, and a man he’s never seen before says, “Bucky--”
A hand smashes into his nose, and all the lights go out. He dies. He dies. He does not wake up.
He dies, and Russia melts away. Seventy years of blood on his hands, he’s washing them in the sink, wondering how many lives are making that water run pink. His optic nerve is shorting out, his fingers, all of them, are twitching with so much electricity it’s making his eyes bleed. He’s bitten down on his tongue, his fingers are scraping useless last words on a hardwood floor. His tongue would speak in Russian, his mind is splintering in French. Beneath them both works English, you knew this day would come, you knew this day would come. He is in pain. He is not sorry. Как ау́кнется — так и откли́кнется, clawing through his veins, that which echoes bounces back. This is what he deserves. This was always waiting. There is a star on his bicep, and scar-shot lips that are tired of begging for scraps. He does not want to win. He is tired of losing. He is tired. He wants this. He does not want to be a soldier. He’s rolling on his back, his legs in the air: this is how a wolf surrenders. We can’t always get what we want. He wants this. The star is gone. There is nothing left to fight for. He is just a man. They were all just men. He was never a wolf, and always. This is how history ends.
He dies, and he opens his eyes as Bucky Barnes.