There’s an old joke about him, in the Motherland. It’s not the usual sort; not the kind you tell at all unless you’re in well-armed and fearless company (evoking a ghost might summon it, after all). You tell it clustered around a fire in the Crimea; drunk in a barroom in Volgograd and pretending cheerfully that the KGB hasn’t bugged the place and that the barkeep isn’t watching carefully for signs of insurrection.
You tell it in December: it isn’t a joke for June.
He had first heard it in 1967, at a military base at Chita. The soldiers, who feared him and dealt with their terror by mockery, told it when they thought he wasn’t listening. It had been about somebody else, once. It went like this:
A soldier is stationed in Siberia. It is winter, and the middle of the night, and the supplies are late. He is worried that he will freeze to death.
He spots a figure standing near the gate.
He hefts his gun; steps into the light. “Who goes there?” he calls, terrified.
“It is Death,” comes the solemn reply. “I have come for you, comrade.”
The man sighs in relief and lowers his weapon. “Thank God for that,” he says, waving a hand. “I thought you were the Winter Soldier.”
It wasn’t a very good joke.
They call him a Soldier (not a soldier but a Soldier, like the title is holy, and maybe it is). It is true enough: strip back the metal and meat and, tucked between his ribs, that is what he is.
Before he was a machine he was a man, but he's always been a killer, always had blood splashed on his knuckles. He is a savage. Something wild, his lip curled back over his teeth. His chest was cold long before they put him in the ice. Even Bucky Barnes had it in him to pull the trigger.
But soldiers: they follow orders. They are loyal. He is a liar and a killer and a survivor, before anything else, but he is loyal. He is brave, when he has to be. He is stubborn as an ox, and bright-eyed with a sharp tongue, but earn his affection and he'll follow you to the ends of the earth.
He'll follow you into death, if you asked. He's done that before.
But they call him the Soldier, and that's all he'll tell you. It suits him well enough.
He is the Soldier but he is a wolf also; teeth bared and tense with the promise of violence. He is a weapon. He is an army.
There are worse things than death, and he is one of them.
He eclipsed Simo Häyhä’s body count long years ago. Before he was the Winter Soldier, or the wolf, or even comrade or the asset, he had been called by Karpov’s men the success, and that is all you need to know.
He is relentless and powerful; strong enough to crush tanks and men’s throats like paper cranes and survive a dozen bullets. The arm alone is deadlier than any gun. It is part of him and has always been. Bits of him were hacked away like old meat to make room for it: they took out his collarbone, his scapula, knobs of spine and connecting tissue. They are cold and full of wires now, and they have always been this way.
(But no, they have not; he remembers the procedure; had been awake and conscious and screaming and pleading as the bone saw came down. The Soldier did not plead. Whatever man had been inside the wolf before then died in that moment; drugged and strapped down and crying and howling like a wild thing caught in a trap.
He is something new. He is not the Soldier, and he is not James Barnes. He might, he thinks, be nothing at all.)
He is the blank slate; the tabula rasa, and he has always been. He is a killer, with seventy years of blood on his harsh paws. He is deadly, and he always completes the mission. He will not miss, whether with rifle or blade or garrotte or slow poison or his fist.
You can run, if you’d like. Plenty have. You won’t run far enough.
It has been months, now, but the memories come and go. On a good day, he has sensory memories at best: the way the light had caught on a certain day, the sharp scent of blood and the crack of gunfire, the chill of winter. On a bad day he has more. That is worse.
Images flash inside his head like incendiary grenades, moving backwards though time like a picture reel: midwinter in Leningrad; a girl’s small hand gentle on his face and her red hair soft on his skin; the snap of bone and someone’s harsh cry in a place with red walls; freezing water and searing pain; vertigo, always vertigo, always falling; someone’s sharp grin over radio equipment; the harsh notes of an off-tune soldier’s song crowed drunkenly from a campfire shared with rebel FTP fighters; a man’s smile, soft and gentle and for his eyes only—as quick as they come they are gone. Nobody looks at him like that.
Above all he remembers the bit in his mouth, and the restraints, and the machines. He remembers the ice.
The only constant in his life was the mission, and he had always completed the mission, except when he did not. In 1973 he had been sent to New York: a routine kill; Baxton had to die and he would ensure it happened and that it was clean and quick and quiet. There was thoughtlessness to the ease with which he could play-act American—something in the slow drawl of his vowels that could not be programmed; in the way he moved and the words he used. It was a role he often played, but never on American soil before and never again. Baxton had died as ordered—but the Soldier failed to report to the extraction point.
Ско́лько во́лка ни корми́, он всё в лес смо́трит. Even the well-fed wolf still looks to the forest.
He had wandered lost in the city for two weeks before they found him.
They had started freezing him decades earlier; for another crime (it had been cold and she had been young and he had almost forgotten what it was to love—certainly he has forgotten now). After this, though, they started wiping him each time. He would not be the savage attack dog to be brought out at the slightest sniff of trouble, anymore: he would be the ghost; the last resort; the atomic bomb in a battle fought with spears and clubs.
Machines were faulty. They needed repair. The solution was simple:
Wipe. Freeze. Rinse and repeat.
A blank slate is not dangerous, goes the reasoning.
(A blank slate can have anything written upon it; a blank slate is the most dangerous thing of all. They did not know this.)
They took his name from him, with everything else, he knows that now. Blank slates, after all. Dogs got names; ceremonial swords got names. You did not name a gun; you could not name a knife or a lightning strike. Instead he had been many things: the asset, the operative, comrade, soldier, Петрушка. In Czechoslovakia, he had been a ghost, and shrouded by the crowds and the fire and the acrid smoke, that had been good enough. In Afghanistan, they had called him bear, but that war had been the Bear Trap, and no caged jaws would catch his leg.
Shelepin had delighted in calling him a dog, but secretly, he had never felt tame.
He felt more like a wolf.
Throughout it all he had that other name. It wasn’t his; didn’t feel like a name, but it was what he had been given. Soldiers had whispered it, frightened, first in Siberia and later, again, every time he rode a tank with them, silent and steel-eyed and breath misting in the cold.
Eventually it stuck. You didn't give wolves normal names.
So he was the Winter Soldier.
The years all blended together after that. They are not worth repeating. He tore flesh, savage that he was (is, maybe). Broke bone. Rigged explosives, cut throats, put bullets into the heads of politicians and soldiers and children.
He walked into the desert and into blizzards, rifle in hand. In Vietnam, they painted his face for war, and left him in the jungle, ambushing men and tanks in the night. In the Chechen War, they handed him a gun and told him to shoot men lined up against a wall. In the next Chechen War, he did it again, and this time they won. The battles blended into one another. He walked into villages in ruined corners of the world. Each time, he was the only one to walk back out again.
He was a bear. He was a wolf. He was an earthquake; unrelenting and unavoidable. He was a Soldier, and that was all.
But Time, she is a soldier also, marching steadily on.
Wars end; walls fall. In time the red on his shoulder became as obsolete as the rest of him. He was a wolf in a cage, starving and savage, and eventually someone unlocked the door and called him by a name he hadn't heard in seventy years.
He died. It was painful, but then again, it was always going to be. These things never come easy. The world splintered and shattered (like glass, like bone; the mirror cracked before him and showed him the truth of that ugly wolf grin) and reformed broken and awful all around him. He closed his eyes as the Soldier; as a machine, and opened them a man.
He ran, after that.
He is alone, for now. Things are better that way. If he tries, maybe he can scrub the stain from his hands. It is his choice, even if he can't remember what that means anymore.
So he is Sergeant James Barnes. He is the Soldier. He is both, and neither. He is a ghost. He is the blank slate, and he has always been. He is meat and sinew and bone and steel. He is not a man; not an I. He has no sense of self; he simply is.
He is the deep numb cold of winter, he is the slick of blood, he is the snarling crimson of a Red Army flag, he is the left arm of the Motherland and the fist of HYDRA. He is a wolf. He exists and kills and that is all.
He is nobody at all.