1964-03-31 - No Strings


So, it's a chilly day in early spring. And when you have neither a good kitchen to cook in nor a lot of cash to spare, you gotta eat cheap. Which is precisely what James is doing - he's found some place that sells noodles and dumplings, barely more than a stand, tucked in at the corner of an alley and one of the main thoroughfares. It's like someone taught a wolf how to use chopsticks - he's all but inhaling them, eating with quick, precise bits, shoulders hunched as if he were convinced someone was trying to creep up on him. The run-in with the Widow helped not all, it seems.

*

Kai comes here sometimes after work. It's on the way. He spends way too much time on the subway. Today, he's spending his tips on noodles. He too has nothing at home to eat and not a lot of cash to spare. He picks up his noodles at the stand, then passes by Bucky. There, he pauses. "We can't seem to stay way from each other, Jack." He's still in his work clothes, black trousers, a white button shirt (top button unbuttoned), a red waistcoat, a bow tie (untied). His hair is disheveled, and he's still got that air of low key resentment one has after a long shift.

*

Bucky pauses in mid-chew, giving Kai a sidelong look. One can almost see those two sides of his personality arguing, like the shoulder angel and devil pair you see in the old cartoons. Paranoid Winter Soldier declares that meetings as frequent as this are beyond coincidence and into the fraction called 'conspiracy', and his urgings are enough to have his body coiling into tension. The withered little ghost that's what remains of James Barnes's common sense is trying to clamp down, and only partially succeeding. The argument takes a little bit, in which he finishes chewing and swallowing, deliberately. "*Are* you following me?" he asks, but his tone is mild, and not edged with that icy crackle of insanity. Looks like Sergeant Jekyll's managed to shout down Comrade Hyde, for now.

*

Kai sits down across from Bucky. If the man can invade his flat, he can invade his table. "You got it," he says. "I can't get enough of having guns waved in my face and home invasions. No one does it better than you, little boy blue." He then favors Bucky with a flat look. But his smile emerges, in his eyes at the very least. Even when he's unamused, he's still in love with life, and it seeps through the cracks. "These just happen to be the best cheap noodles in town and we're both broke as an old lamp, daddio." He shovels a mouthful of noodles into his gob and makes 'mmm' noises as he chews.

*

Bucky looks down at the noodles, and there's that line of puzzlement again. Did he know that? He's from Brooklyn, after all. A Brooklyn he can't recall. "Huh," he says, eloquently, looking up again. And then adds, "I guess so." Clearly, they gave all the social skills training to Widow, back at the Red Room.

*

Kai swallows, then tilts his head and studies 'Jack' more intently. "You're a real boy now, aren't you, Pinocchio?" His tone is gentle. Kind, even. "It's New York, man. These things happen. If I was looking for you, it would be to see how you're doing." He frowns faintly, then sighs. "You're like a stray who bites, but once you take it in, it's kind of yours." He adds hastily, "Metaphorically. I got no claim on you, Be-nimble. Just saying I wonder how you're doing sometimes, dig?"

*

And at that, he smiles, slowly. It knocks years off his age. A reference or two he understood. Then, softly, unevenly, he sings, "Got no strings to hold me down…." The irony of it has him trailing off in a moment, the smile fading.

*

Kai smiles, sudden and broad. It's like the sun coming out from behind clouds. He shovels more noodles into his mouth, and he makes those 'mmm' noises again. They're good noodles! And he's nomming with pleasure. He slurps a lingering noodle, licks his lips, and sings, "To make me fret, to make me frown." He points at Jack with his chopsticks and says, "You've got the swingingest smile, cat. Far out. Good to see Squaresville hasn't crushed you yet." Then the smile fades, and he says, "No, no no, don't be like that, Be-quick. Turn up your audio: you're in the most far out city in the world, breathing, heart beating, and these are the Ginchiest noodles in town. You've got stuff to smile about."

*

"You know, I thought I spoke English, but I only understand about half of what you say," he says, mildly. The smile hasn't come back, that ghost of lady-killers past, but he seems faintly more at ease than he did.

*

"It's the King's jive, Jack," Kai reassures. "Updated for a new age." He grins, then eats more noodles. Mmm. He doesn't hunker over his food or take quick, efficient bites. He savors, enjoys. He tries to make them last. "You'll pick it up, Frosty. Let's take it from the top. If something's swinging, it's good. If it's far out, it's good and gorgeous. A hep cat is cool, a square isn't. If you turn up your audio, you're listening. What do you think Ginchiest means if I'm loving these noodles?"

*

Bucky considers, brows lifted. "Sounds like it's good," he allows. Then, a hint of amusement in the lines around his eyes, "You didn't call the cops on me. Any of those times. Did you?" It's not really a question.

*

Kai nods, curls bouncing. "There, you dig it, man. You're hip to the lingo." Then he shrugs and pokes at the noodles left in his bowl. "Nah, I don't deal with the pigs. Trying to keep us down, make us step rank and file. Not this cat. Not in this lifetime."

*

A nod from him, as he picks the last of his noodles from his bowl, and then drinks the remainder of the broth. "Good," he says, after a moment. Now he looks almost sleepy, the way you do after a good meal after a long night with little rest. In repose, his face settles into those grim, watchful lines again. The smile knocks him back to his middle twenties, but now it's more like mid-thirties.

*

"Time's playing havoc on you," Kai says with a shake of his head. "The Ruskies giving you headaches?" He chews his lip, then offers Bucky the rest of his noodles. A great sacrifice, but the other man's got more mass, more body to feed. Kai's a small and skinny thing, not used to eating much. "Look, I was just going back to my pad, light up a few kick sticks, knock back a couple thrill pills, and kick back. If you need a place to rest, I can hang out while you catch some Zs at my place. I won't let anyone get you."

*

Bucky does a little roll of his left shoulder, a stretch. Rather than the crack and pop of organic joints popping back into place, there's that knife-rasp of metal on metal. "No, thanks," he says, but there's that mildness in his voice again. "I can't take your food. Rent in New York is always murder. And….I don't wanna bring more trouble on you. I think I've been trouble enough. And trouble is what I bring." There's a kind of resignation there, pale eyes going a little distant. "I do owe you."

*

"I told you, Jack, trouble's what I do," Kai says. He takes the noodles back though, and he eats more. "I help people. Don't get it turned around, yeah? I get something out of it: gives my life purpose. I kick around this world year after year, watching time come and go, evolving, you know? The ways, the lingo. It's a long haul." He half-smiles as he pokes at his bowl again, swirling the broth with his chopsticks. "What am I going to do with my time, Jack? I already spend most of it high as a kite, chasing that next big revelation. I see you sitting here, alive, even acting like a real boy? I see you smile?" He grins, almost shyly. "There's no high like knowing I did that. Seeing you thrive is my buzz, hep cat."

*

Kai adds, "That's all you owe me."

*

"I hate to ask, but you can be killed, right?" They really did surgically remove his social skills in Novosibirsk, or where-ever it is they keep him in the freezer, looks like. He looks up again, and he's very serious indeed. "You may be long-lived, I know I've heard of the people of other worlds….." Buck toys idly with the noodles. "And I'm telling you right now, they'll kill you if they think what's left of you can be useful. IF they think they can use you to get to me. It would be better for you if you forgot you'd ever seen me…." His brow furrows, and there's that clouding of confusion again, that near-senility that looks so odd on a face that's not even to middle age.

*

There's something to be said about getting to the point. Besides, Kai doesn't seem to mind. He shrugs a shoulder and says, "Sure, I'm not immortal. It's hard to do, though. I'm closer to Asgardian than human." He picks up his bowl to finish off the broth, then licks his lips and sets it down again. "So, not quite a god, but we live in the same zip code, you dig?" He considers Bucky's words, though, mulling them over. He has no real allies to come to his aid. The fallen prince of Asgard finds him amusing. That's about as close as it gets.

After giving it some thought, he says, "Heroes help people, and they don't stop just because things get rough. Hell, you know better than anyone I don't do this because it's convenient. So…" He smiles faintly. "You need more than an apple on your chest, Snowman. Besides, we both know you'll be dropping in next time you get a scratch."

*

"There's being a hero, and there's dying for no reason," Buck says, bluntly. And then he's rising, leaving behind empty bowl and glass. No promises on not showing up, though. The instinct to survive is strong, or he'd've hung himslf long ago. With that, he's gone. They don't allow goodbyes in Russia, either, it seems.

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