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i fear for the calendar; its days are numbered

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At some point, Natasha swipes his phone and programs her number in his contact list. (He suspects it’s when he was asleep in the hospital, which is cheating and thus unworthy of awe.)

He doesn’t realize it until after yet another dead end looking for Bucky, this time in Boston. He and Sam have settled in a hotel, and after a shower, Sam takes off to pick up dinner. Steve pulls up his limited contact list and finds that he now has a Barb E. Dahl among the rest. He stares at it for a moment, frowning as he mouths the words, then groans.

“You are just the worst,” he says to the phone, then opens a text message. you are just the worst

me? :) lies

you should see what your name is in mine

what?

sorry, i have to go dark for a bit. oh, and don’t tell anyone else about my number. enjoy your pizza!

He has no idea how she knows their dinner, (and is even more surprised - but pleased - to learn that he’s apparently the only one to have her number) but he decides not to ask.

*

Too early the next morning, his phone beeps. Sam groans, pulling his pillow over his head, and Steve leans over and lights up the screen to see Natasha’s message.

what’s the difference between a piano, tuna, and a pot of glue?

He frowns. what?

you can tune a piano, but you can’t piano a tuna

...and the glue?

i knew you’d get stuck there.

Steve’s mouth drops open. What the hell? He blinks a little stupidly at the screen and hates that he lets a bubble of laughter slip out of his mouth.

*

Today, they’re driving to Texas on another possible lead. Sam had asked if Steve was sure that Bucky had stayed stateside, but Steve had adamantly insisted that yes, he would. All memories overseas weren’t ones that Bucky would want to revisit (and he wouldn’t either. He’s hoping Bucky remembers that, at least.)

So they’re driving to Texas, Sam loudly singing along with REO Speedwagon, when Steve’s phone buzzes on his lap.

i stayed up all night wondering where the sun went...

then it dawned on me

“Oh, hell,” Steve says, rolling his eyes.

The music is so loud that Sam doesn’t hear, but Steve doesn’t know what he would say, anyway. Natasha has been springing jokes on him daily now, and he grows to enjoy them, knowing it’s her way of reaching out without having to ask. Steve gleans information from her bit by bit, that she’s in Europe, enjoying pizza in Italy one day and pot-au-feu the next. He gives her food recommendations to the best of his ability - naturally, during the war they weren’t eating at five star restaurants, just devouring their rations, but he learned what was supposedly good and what wasn’t. Dernier constantly talked about cassoulet and claimed he missed that more than his own mother, so he tosses the idea her way. Natasha returns the message a few hours later with a very calm that was pretty decent so he figures she’s subtly begging for more recommendations. Steve then tells her about chrusciki, knowing that she has a hidden sweet tooth, and she simply responds with an :D.

If this helps her even a bit, he’ll do it.

*

have you ever heard of the movie constipation?

uh...no

that’s because it hasn’t come out yet

DAMN IT

He ends up saying that aloud, too, and Sam looks over at him as he settles on an episode of Seinfeld. They’re in Arizona this time, air conditioner turned all the way up, Chinese take out cartons scattered around them.

“What?”

“Just -” Steve says, gesturing at his phone. “Natasha. She tells the worst jokes; they hurt my soul.”

“Let me see,” Sam says, holding out his hand for the phone. He scans their conversations and laughs. “Dad jokes, man.”

Steve blinks. He’s proud of how well he’s been able to adjust now, so he hates when something he doesn’t understand gets dropped in his lap. “What?”

“Dad jokes,” Sam repeats. “They’re these horrible, corny jokes that make you groan when you hear them, they’re so terrible. You hate yourself when you laugh at them.”

“I’m not laughing,” Steve insists, trying his best to school down an innocent look.

“Right,” Sam says with a raised eyebrow. “My uncle tells these all the time. You should spend a Thanksgiving at his house. You might cry.”

“That’s a ringing endorsement.”

Sam grins. “You’re coming whether you want to or not. Natasha and Bucky, too, so let me know what your favorite foods are and my mama will love to make them. I already freaked her out when I told her my best friend was a senior citizen, and now she’s dying to meet you.”

That’s what Steve appreciates most. With Sam, it’s always Bucky, not Winter Soldier or assassin or anything else. And Sam’s confidence that not only will they find Bucky, but make him Bucky again. Steve had asked why Sam was so sure, but Sam had simply shrugged. Because not coming back would mean leaving you, he’d said.

It’s a relief to know that at least one of them believes it. Wait -

Best friend?

Oh.

He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t. His lips curling upward is not a smile.

His phone buzzes.

tried to catch some fog this morning.

i mist

...now he might be smiling.

*

It’s two in the morning, and Steve can’t sleep. He stares out the hotel window, watching the shadows dance under the parking lot lights, listening to people stumble down the hallway drunk, laughing as they can’t fit their key card in the lock. He sighs, then grabs his phone.

i’m bored

A few seconds, then: hello bored, i’m barb

i’m serious

i thought you were bored

you’re kidding right

no, i’m barb

YOU ARE THE WORST

He can imagine her laughing as she reads, and suddenly he misses her. He misses her steady presence, that tiny bit of vulnerability that she trusts him with, her soft smile.

how are you? really

Minutes go by, long enough that Steve figures she’s not going to answer, but she does: i’m keeping an eye and ear out from my end too

that’s not what i asked

i know.

Steve waits. Then: i’m doing my best. not terrible. i’ll get there.

let me know if i can do anything

something i have to do on my own, but thanks :)

A few seconds, then: miss you

He stares at the phone for so long he almost forgets to respond.

miss you too

The last thing Steve expected was that Natasha Romanoff would become one of his best friends, and if he grins and clutches the phone, well, no one is watching him to see. He ends up falling asleep to her texting that the advantages of living in Switzerland is that the flag is a big plus.

*

what did the late tomato say to the early tomato?

I'll ketch up

that’s stupid tomatoes can’t talk

you’re ruining the joke

IT WAS ALREADY RUINED

*

i slept like a log last night...ended up in the fireplace

Steve closes his eyes briefly, then tells her to go try eintopf. She gives him ljsldjflksjdf a few hours later and he grins so hard his face hurts.

so i watched pan’s labyrinth with sam the other day

aw, like a date?

maaaaybe.

you tease. did you like it?

i did. the animatronics were good. have you seen it?

can’t say that i have, and i also have no idea what animatronics is, but i’ll take your word for it

maybe we can see it when you get back. i think you’d like it

He doesn’t get her reply until they reach San Antonio:

maybe we can.

*

why do crabs never give to charity?

because they're shellfish.

*insert groan here*

Along the way, they learn that they’ve become experts at picking up past conversations like they never left them.

i watched winter sleep last night. it wasn’t terrible

Steve frowns a little, wondering if this is her way of telling him to go watch it, or she’s asking if they can watch it together. He chews on his bottom lip, then takes a stab in the dark.

maybe after pan’s labyrinth? and if you’re not one of those people who constantly ask questions throughout

nah, i just spoil endings

“Why are you grinning so much?” Sam says, slipping out of the bathroom and throwing himself on his bed.

“Just making future plans,” is all Steve says in response.

*

i went to the zoo the other day, there was only one dog in it. it was a shitzu

“Okay, see,” Steve says, shoving his phone across the table to Sam. They’re having brunch at a Denny’s in Wyoming, Sam ordering a Grand Slam while Steve eats mounds of pancakes.

“You have to fight fire with fire,” Sam tells him after reading, chewing on a piece of bacon. “Come on, I bet you have plenty of stupid jokes in that head of yours.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Sam gives him a wide-eyed, innocent look. “Nothing.”

“I was in the army, asshole. If you think I’m a cute little Puritan, you are sadly mistaken.”

“Trust me, you are not a Puritan, although so many people believe you are, which is adorable; if only they knew. You are cute, though. That’s about it.”

“Should I be offended?”

Sam flicks some egg at him. “Nope.”

“Fight fire with fire,” Steve says with a sigh. Fire, of course, brings artillery and grenades and GSR - but he swallows it down, smiles. “I think I can do that.”

Sam grins back at him. “Nothing you can’t do, man.”

Sam’s confidence in him baffles him, but everyone’s confidence always has.

*

They’re in Oregon today. Sam’s in the shower, after complaining that he will never eat another waffle in his life, thanks to their dinner at Waffle House. (Steve fails to see how that is his problem.) He settles in, wearing a worn t-shirt and pajama pants, piling up several pillows under his head because this hotel insists on giving sheets masquerading as pillows. He looks at his phone, seeing no messages, and frowns slightly. He can’t help but worry a little, every day without hearing from her is a worry, so he does his best -

did you know that milk is the fastest liquid on earth?

A minute goes by (he doesn’t count) then:

what?

yeah, it’s pasteurized before you can even see it

Steve almost drops the phone when it rings, Barb’s name on the caller ID. He answers slowly, cautiously.

“Okay,” Natasha says, “I deserved that. Oh, and your name is Don Key in my phone.”

Steve beams at the sound of her voice, settles in, and starts to tell her that without geometry, life is pointless. Maybe along the way, he can find out where she is to give her more recommendations.