It goes like this: Steve Rogers is the new hire at the Stan Lee Marvel University’s History department.
When he was a boy, growing up in Brooklyn, too scrawny by half and too stubborn for his own good, Steve used to come home and curl up with his books of American History and PBS documentaries, waiting for his mother to get home from the hospital after another long day. She used to say things like, “Your daddy would have been so proud of you, Steve,” as she swept his hair off his face, and “He was a hero and he loved you, baby,” as she tucked him in a night.
Steve liked the idea of heroes, hated the idea of bullies, and believed in the power of the human spirit. His mom worked too hard to make ends meet and his daddy died in war and Mrs. Barnes was more like a second mother than anything else and Steve never felt unloved. Always felt fortunate for what he had.
Growing up he had always been small—he spent more time inside getting over a cold more than anything else, but he always had his books. So Steve grows up and gets one degree and then another. He thinks about all the men and women who have shaped the world he lives in today. All the people whose names have been forgotten or whose names were never written down in the first place, and all Steve can do is feel grateful. Feel like he needs to make sure they’re remembered, because Lincoln and Churchill and Mandela helped to shape the world, give it its big ideas, but it’s the Grave of the Unknown Soldier that’s always brought Steve to tears.
By the time Steve turned twenty-one he had filled out. Steady diet and steady exercise and a late growth spurt, and suddenly Steve is tall and broad and girls look at him differently, not that it stops Steve’s tongue from tripping when he tries to talk to them. When he was younger he had wanted to join the army, but by college he had fallen in love with the smell of libraries and the weight of a good book in his hands. He gets a PhD in American history because he has always loved his country, and he decides to teach because what else are you supposed to do with a PhD?
Bucky joins the army instead and gets shipped off to war. Then, when he gets back, he signs up to go again, and Steve thinks the least he can do is make sure people know, that these kids understand what is happening and what this sacrifice means.
The job at Marvel is pure dumb luck, but Steve’s never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Steve meets Natasha when he comes to interview. He looks her in the eye and doesn’t ask for her phone number and when he asks where a good place to get lunch is it’s because he is genuinely curious.
They hire him in April, cherry blossoms and students scattered across the green in the afternoon sunlight. Natasha lets him sit in on her classes to get a feel for the school. She is ruthless in her intelligence, never accepting anything less than the best from her students, but understanding that everyone has a different strength.
Steve thinks she’s beautiful in the same way a fire is—dangerous and bright and crackling at the edges. He thinks that Peggy would like her, and that night, over the crackling connection of too slow internet and too much distance, he tells her about the feisty Russian he met. Talks about cherry blossoms and dumb luck and soaks up the sound of Peggy’s laugh.
When Natasha was a little girl, she wanted to be a ballerina.
That never really goes away, even as she graduates from the Conservatory and goes on to get a BA and MA and PhD in Russian History. Dance is simple and elegant and strong, and Natasha has always had an appreciation for the subtleties of life.
But life in Russian is hard, and her Papa moves to America, so Natasha follows. There are no jobs for a woman like her at home, and she has always been restless.
The men here still look at her like she’s an object. Like she is her breasts and her thighs and the red curls that spill down her back, but Natasha has never really been bothered by that. She likes her body, knows what it can do for her, and she knows that she is strong. She does not mind the men and the looks and the catcalls because at least in this country they will not touch her.
Natasha has never really minded being underestimated because the people who count have always understood that if Natasha is anything at all, she is her mind: sharp and driven and entirely unstoppable.
She accepts the position at Marvel because they have the best Russian department in the country, and Natasha does not settle for anything less than the best.
Steve spends the summer in London with Peggy and when he comes back, Natasha is waiting for him, bottle of vodka in hand.
“Long distance sucks,” she shrugs, although Steve never explained it to her, “But freshman seminar sucks more.”
Steve laughs and lets Natasha into his apartment, boxes still tucked into corners from a summer of neglect. They don’t talk about Peggy, but they talk about everything else, and Steve can feel that creeping loneliness, that space where Peggy should be, held back.
Natasha stays until midnight, and then Steve is left alone in his apartment, in his bed, but he is not lonely.
Steve first met Peggy when he was nineteen, still a scrawny kid who wanted too much. They were both studying abroad in Berlin, two kids who would visit all the sights or horror from wars past just to try to understand.
He was still small then, Steve. He was scraggly and tall, having had one last growth spurt, but not yet able to fill out his new frame. Peggy wore red lipstick and pencil skirts and was beautiful in a way Steve didn’t think people were outside of novels.
When they were nineteen they were friends, and Steve felt honored just being that.
Steve meets Clint Barton when he shows up late to the department meeting and sits on the other side of Natasha like that is the one place he is meant to be.
“My back is fucking killing me,” he grouses, ignoring Steve and the looks of the other professors in the room, exasperated but resigned.
“He make you sleep on the couch again?” Natasha asks.
“He was none too pleased with the trebuchet,” Clint agrees, and Natasha laughs, something uncomplicated and happy.
Steve recognizes friendship, recognizes love and hope and trust when he sees it. It always makes him think of Bucky, oceans away. It makes him think that if he can spend a night drinking vodka with Natasha and not once see her smile like that, then Clint must be good people.
Clint did not have a conventional upbringing, and no one ever thought that he was going to make a living from academia. For a while there, they weren’t even sure that he’d get his GED. But Clint has always been stubborn, always liked defying expectations.
He goes to a good school on an archery scholarship and tells everyone that he studies Medieval History because it makes him feel like Robin Hood when, really, Clint just likes knowing that people have never really changed. That things have always been sort of shitty and people have always been cruel and kind and eternally ingenious.
Clint works hard for his degree and then he works hard for another one, bussing tables and teaching archery to bored rich kids to make ends meet. And after he graduates he works hard for his job, fights for it with tooth and nail. Clint has given everything he’s ever had for everything he has now.
When Clint first meets Phil Coulson, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Stan Lee Marvel University, with his suits and his receding hairline and his paper bag lunches, he is terrified that it is all too easy. That Phil and his dry wit and never ending patience, is just a mirage. Just another person who is going to let Clint down in the end.
But Phil has the patience of a saint and likes a challenge. And Phil has never been anything but achingly honest with Clint. He understands, in a way no one else Clint has ever met has, what it means to work for what you have and then work even harder just to keep it.
They get an apartment together and then a dog and then a house and Clint is happy in a way that he hasn’t been in years. And when those senators pull their heads far enough out of their asses long enough to pass a law for equal rights, it doesn’t really change anything, because Phil has never been anything but steadfast in his devotion and Clint has always been too bullheaded to let go when he wants something.
Now Clint has a job he loves and a husband he loves even more, and he thinks that that means the world to him. That all of his hard work has finally paid off. That, this time, it might just stick.
Natasha and Clint do not adopt Steve, not like Mabel the History Department Secretary tries to. Three months later and Steve still can’t tell if she’s trying to set him up with herself or her niece. Natasha and Clint are almost infuriatingly insular in their jokes and gossip and lunchtime outings to every fast food joint in the area, but somehow Steve falls in with them anyways.
Natasha lives in the same apartment complex as him, and comes over with a bottle of vodka and a Molly Ringwald movie on days when President Fury announces budget cuts and the Provost, a woman named Maria Hill, talks about downsizing. Between Steve spending most of his life with his head in a book or watching ESPN and Natasha growing up in the former USSR, the eighties were something that happened to other people. Together, they figure out John Hughes.
Natasha’s not forthcoming with personal details, and that’s okay with Steve, because that means he doesn’t have to talk about how his mother died or how he spent his childhood in hospital beds or how he’s terrified, every day, that Bucky really is going to do something stupid this time and wind up in a body bag trying to do the right thing.
Natasha talks about the KGB and Mikhail Baryshnikov. About Clint’s wedding and Back to the Future. Steve can’t figure out if she’s desperately lonely or frighteningly secure. He’s glad for the company, in any case.
Steve sees Clint on campus, department meetings, heating up lunch in the kitchenette and that one time he runs into him in the quad, saying to some co-ed, “My husband wanted to name him Hildebrand because he thinks he’s funny, but we named him Loki instead,” gesturing to the corgi sitting patiently at his heels.
Clint’s just as private as Natasha, but he covers it in layers of exhibitionism and the sort of intellect that sneaks up on you. He asks Steve who would win in a fight, Andrew Jackson or FDR, and argues the opposite just because he can.
One day before winter break Natasha says, “Clint and I going to do our annual finals drinking game, you in?”
And Steve has nothing at home but TiVo’d baseball while he waits for Peggy to get back from that conference in Berlin, so he says yes.
The second time Steve met Peggy, they were both in Baltimore for a conference. He was twenty-six and his mother had just died and Peggy had taken one look at him, and said, “Oh, Steve, what happened?” seeing his sleepless nights where everyone else saw a tan and muscles and neatly parted hair.
Peggy was still beautiful, though she had softened in the years since he’d last seen her. She’d stopped having to fight for every opportunity, but always ready if she had to. Her hair was still curled and her lips were still red and she had miles of creamy skin that Steve loved to run his hands over, feeling her pulse quicken as he stroked his hands down her ribs, across her thighs.
But she was only in the States for a year on a teaching fellowship. It’s not that Steve worried about them falling out of touch or out of love, because Steve thinks that he has loved Peggy from the moment he met her, but he worries about distance and about time nonetheless. They live in a world of Skype and cell phones and airplanes, but Steve has spent too many nights curled up with Peggy to ever really be happy again sleeping alone.
They stay together because breaking up isn’t really an option. Things will work out because they have to, because Steve does not believe in backing down from what he believes in, and he believes in Peggy and her strength of will and her dark brown eyes.
Natasha and Clint explain the Final Exams Drinking Game rules are as follows:
- Grade all papers and exams and keep tally of your score.
- Drink once for every time you question why you went into academia.
- Everyone else drinks when you find something brilliant.
Steve is teaching the Freshman History Seminar as penance for being the new guy. He’s never really been a lightweight, even when he was still small, but he doesn’t really remember the rest of the night after they tally their scores. After playing with Clint and Natasha, Steve worries that he might need a new liver. Natasha just giggles into Clint's shoulder when Steve says this, and Clint slurs, "If you survive this you can survive anything," which exactly what Bucky had said before forcing Steve onto the The Cyclone when they were kids.
At least tomorrow’s Sunday.
Clint loves spending time with his students. Loves the one-on-one interaction and arguing about William the Conqueror and seeing their eyes light up when they finally get it. What he likes even more, though, is the sick delight he gets when they realize that that partner-now-husband of his—the one he goes to blues festivals and slasher movies with, the one he tells embarrassing stories about in class because Clint will never get sick of talking about Phil and the time his niece painted his nails fuchsia—is stuffy, old, Dean Coulson. The very same dean who implemented that new alcohol policy that has saved the school thousands of dollars and decreased the number of alcohol incidents and has caused wide ranging resentment across the student population.
“They would probably be less horrified,” Phil tells him, tie loosened, chopsticks halfway to his mouth, “if you stopped telling that story about that time at King Biscuit.”
Clint will never stop telling that story, because it is his favorite, and Phil knows this, “I’m just trying to get them to loosen up,” he says, “to stop worrying and learn to love their dean.”
“I think they could live their whole lives quite happily without ever thinking of me naked,” Phil tells him seriously.
Clint thinks that’s bullshit, because he has seen Phil naked, and it is by far one of the greatest things in this world. In any case, Clint’s 1:30 appointment has the unfortunate luck of walking in to their professor saying, “Whatever, the analogy still stands. Sexual napalm, and all that,” as he playfully tugs at Phil’s tie.
Phil’s long over being embarrassed about this sort of shit, so he just smiles that bland, polite smile of his and excuses himself and Clint is left with a totally embarrassed Natalie Schumacher, who is, surprisingly, a slightly more receptive Natalie Schumacher.
Clint tucks that away for later, when Phil wants to have another talk about propriety and boundaries in the workplace. Phil’s never been one to argue with results.
Steve meets Bruce on a Sunday and another piece of the puzzle of Clint and Natasha clicks into place.
Clint and Natasha sometimes invite Steve out to lunch with them, more so now that they’ve all irreparably damaged their livers together, and sometimes they let down their walls and Clint says something like, “How’s the Hulk doing?” and Natasha inevitably responds with something like, “Fuck you,” or “He was just awarded the President’s Medal for his study of gamma radiation,” or “He still thinks you’re an asshole,” while Clint laughs like it’s some kind of joke.
Steve had figured with a name like The Hulk that the guy would be big, but instead Steve is in the laundry room of his apartment complex faced with some guy wearing a pink button down who’s going a bit grey at the temples.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the guy says, and even pissed that he’s apparently out of quarters he sounds mellow, unaffected.
Steve spots him the fifty cents, because, really, it’s fifty cents, and the guy says, “Thanks. I’m Bruce Banner.”
And Steve says, “No problem,” because it really isn’t one, and then as he shakes his hand, “Steve Rogers.”
Bruce laughs, “So you’re the guy that Natasha’s been talking about.”
Steve still doesn’t really know who this guy is, outside of being named Bruce, so Steve just says, “Only good things I hope.”
“Oh you know Natasha,” says Bruce, and Steve thinks that, no, he really doesn’t, not if Natasha doesn’t really talk to him about people, just abstract things like ballet and dissident media in Russia instead.
But Bruce doesn’t really clarify things. Just tells Steve that he’s a Physics professor, that he specializes in quantum mechanics and that his own research is about gamma radiation. It’s the last bit that does it. That puts Bruce squarely in Natasha’s life, and Steve thinks oh, the Hulk, but he doesn’t really know what to do with that information, so he just asks about the President’s Medal and leaves as soon as his whites are finished in the dryer.
Bruce Banner is many things. President’s Medal winning physicist. Casual bocce ball enthusiast. Fond of bright colors and subdued prints and jackets with elbow patches.
He’s also divorced and angry. Angry in a way most people aren’t. Angry in a way most people don’t expect. It’s there, simmering under the surface. Bruce is angry about his parents being too distant, and his alma mater for not being there for him when he had that breakdown junior year, and for poverty in the third world.
Bruce has always thought in big ideas, always tried to connect the dots, always been frustrated that sometimes there is nothing you can do. People look at Bruce and they see the floppy hair and the season tickets to the ballet and everyone thinks he’s so mild, too passive.
But Bruce has been in anger management for twelve years, and he’s been angry longer than that. For a while he had Betty, and that was good. But Bruce has always known that you can’t define yourself based off of one person, that if you want to be happy then you need to get your own self in line. And, anyways, there had been Betty’s family and their conflicting schedules and sometimes, Bruce knows with calm certainty, sometimes love is not enough. And so Bruce is angry.
He goes to school and gets a PhD and tries to understand radiation because he thinks that maybe he can help unravel one mystery of the world. He thinks that maybe he can help solve one problem and help make someone else’s life better, because Bruce believes that to be happy you need to take care of yourself, but he also believes that the best way to help yourself is to help others first.
Besides, what kid doesn’t want to grow up to be a mad scientist?
Around Spring break Steve learns that Natasha and Clint go bowling once a month with Bruce and some of the other people from the science department.
“We used to go play mini golf, but there was an incident with Bruce,” Clint explains with unholy glee.
Natasha punches Clint on the arm and clarifies, “We get together and talk about something that isn’t work. Well, talk with people from different departments, at least.”
Everyone around Steve talks about it all the time—the burn out from living and working with the same people, from talking about one thing, in and out, every day. But Steve doesn’t really have that, no yet. Natasha and Clint are his only friends, and he only has lunch with them once a week. He sees Bruce now, more and more, but it’s usually around the building or in passing on campus.
Mostly, Steve talks to his students. Mostly, Steve spends his free time calculating time differences and writing long emails to the people he loves and waiting for too short replies.
Steve thinks it might be nice to spend some time with people that aren’t his computer.
Everyone thinks that Natasha and Clint dated once, briefly, before Phil. They didn't. There is no before Phil for Clint, just before Marvel, and Natasha is fine with that. Natasha has never been interested in romance, never believed in true love, not when her mother died when she was young. Not when her parents slept in separate bedrooms and divided all the finances evenly and conducted holidays like business meetings before that.
Besides, Natasha is busy and Clint has never been anything more than a friend.
(They don’t remember meeting, but they think it was at that airport bar, Natasha headed back to the states after a visit home, Clint heading out to a conference to hear someone present a paper on Catherine the Great, the only woman Clint says he would leave Phil for. They both wake up one day on separate continents with each other’s business cards in their wallets and they both think that they should spend less time drinking in airports. They meet again when Natasha moves in down the hall from Clint, and sometime between then and Clint and Phil moving in together, they spend a regretful evening reliving their twenties and drinking every time the History Channel embarrasses itself, friendship blossoming in shared silences and an understanding of what it means to fight for everything you have.)
People think that Natasha and Clint used to date, that Natasha eats up and spits out men for breakfast, but they don’t know about the physicist who lives the floor below her. Who watches the cooking channel and brings over snickerdoodles when he makes too many and who had screaming matches with his wife—who now screams down the phone to his ex wife and her lawyer—and who knows who Polina Semionova is.
Natasha doesn’t believe in true love, doesn’t have patience for romance, but she likes Bruce's soft words, and the way he talks about his students and his research. She likes the way he says, "I’m not really in a place to promise you anything," and, "You could do better than a middle aged guy with anger issues," and, "You got a monkey wrench? I can show you how to fix that sink, if you want." Natasha likes the way the anger simmers under his surface but she’s never seen a man with more gentle hands before.
Natasha doesn’t believe in love. What she believes in is trust and honesty and she’s never wanted anyone to promise her anything anyway.
Steve asks Clint, "What’s up with Natasha and Bruce?"
And Clint just laughs, just says, "It's complicated." Steve doesn’t know if that’s deflection or the truth, so instead he watches as Bruce talks shop with some engineering professor named Tony. As Natasha buys Phil a drink. Watches how Bruce seems to hold his breath around Natasha, but he leans into her nonetheless. Steve watches how Natasha rubs her hand through Bruce's hair as she passes by, casual, unthinking, when she doesn't really touch anyone else all night.
Complicated, thinks Steve, but definite.
Clint and Natasha started mini golfing because it was more constructive and less detrimental to their health and reputation than their continual invention of History Channel drinking games. They invite other people because Natasha and Phil are friends, much to Clint’s chagrin, and because Bruce was going through a rough patch with Betty at the time. And since Phil and Bruce are there, they might as well invite Tony, since he and Bruce are friends and he, for a reason no one can quite understand, has a soft spot for Phil.
They start going bowling because Betty serves Bruce with divorce papers and Bruce’s therapist is out of town and the course manager had said he’d call the cops if they ever came back, something they hope their students never discover.
They invite Steve because he’s a good guy and Natasha thinks that he’d be good friends with Tony, and Clint thinks they’ll kill each other, and if Phil asks they don’t have money on it because they are professors, thank you very much.
(They both lose, in the end, mistaking Steve’s khakis and button downs for simplicity. Not knowing that Steve grew up scrappy, exploring the streets of Brooklyn with Bucky during too hot summers, never backing down even when the asthma made his chest burn and Bucky had to drag his sad ass away.)
Sometime during the second game, when Bruce and Tony tire of science and Phil has managed to take the basket of cheese fries away from Clint long enough to have an actual conversation, they ask Steve about Peggy. He doesn’t tell them about how Homeward Bound makes her cry and how she was the one who taught him, finally, how to dance. Instead, Steve tells them about meeting in Berlin, about meeting again in Baltimore. He talks about how she proofread his dissertation and wrote in the margins, in angry red pen, what about the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, Steve?
He doesn’t say that he wants to marry her. That the world without Peggy Carter isn’t really a place he wants to live. That living here when she’s all the way over there is perhaps one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, because Steve has always loved with the whole of his being. But they understand. You take the job where you can, in academia.
They’ve all seen couples with children split across states. Husbands and wives who fly home every weekend because where they live and where they work are hundreds of miles apart.
Bruce talks about his ex wife in stilted sentences, glimpses of his past hidden in generalizations. "You know how it is,” he sighs, sounding exhausted more than sad, “she has a job at Columbia but you're halfway to tenure at Marvel," but he doesn’t say anything more. Steve figures that that’s not the whole story—he’s heard from Mabel that Phil had President Fury change some of the fraternization policies when he and Clint were first dating so no one was at risk of losing their job. It speaks to both Phil’s quiet efficiency and how, when something's worth it, you fight for it.
Steve doesn’t know a lot about Bruce, but he knows that he’s not as placid as he seems. Steve doesn’t really know a lot about love, but he knows that Peggy’s worth the wait.
Sometimes, late at night when Steve still has a mountain of papers to grade and there’s nothing but repeats on TV; when Natasha is MIA and so is Bruce; when Clint and Phil are busy being married and Tony is lost in his lab; when all he has is a dog eared copy of The Journal of American History and a too short email from Bucky, Steve wonders if it’s worth it, the distance from Peggy.
He wonders if it wouldn’t be better if he just moved to England and hoped for the best, even though no one wants to hire a WWII history professor specializing in America during the war. He knows. He’s checked. And no one gets into academia for anything but love, so Steve can’t really imagine doing anything else. Can’t imagine studying some other time when there are so many questions to be answered about the war, about the draft, about the American psyche, about a country that redefines itself, resurrects itself by giving itself entirely over to the war machine.
Steve never once thinks about ending things with Peggy because he doesn’t really think of failure as an option and doesn’t really think that distance is anything but an obstacle, not a roadblock, just like when Steve was only accepted into his safety school way back when he was applying for his undergraduate degree.
(Steve spent his life with his head in a book, but he was also best friends with James “Bucky” Buchanan, and the latter tended to disrupt the former. And Steve never really tested well, not until Dr. Erskine took him under his wing during freshman year and Steve has never looked back. He’s always been too stubborn to give up on what he wanted, always plowed ahead without really giving thought to personal consequence.)
And on those days, when Steve misses Peggy like a stitch in his side, all he has to do is call her, and she always says, without fail, “How are your classes going?” Thirty minutes into his answer Steve remembers why he does what he does. Why he’s here. Why Peggy is worth the hardship—because she knows Steve, knows he’d give himself, body and soul, to anything he believed in, and knows that he should give himself to scholarship, even on the days when he wants to give up and give everything to her.
It’s a truth that Bruce knows—that you can’t live for other people. It’s something that Clint knows by heart—that you have to get all your ducks in a line before you can asks anything from someone else. So when Peggy calls, says, "They’ve passed me over for the tenure track position because I have breasts and women’s history is something for feminists in the states," Steve says, “I don’t want you sacrificing your career for me.”
Peggy just laughs, “I think it’s about time someone sacrificed themselves for you, Steve. But even still, I want to come.” Her voice is soft and honest and sure, everything that Steve loves about her.
And if Steve makes the upcoming test in his freshman seminar open book for the first time in his life, then that’s his business and no one else’s.
It goes like this: Steve is the new hire at Stan Lee Marvel University and he’s friends with a Russian History professor with more secrets than Fort Knox and a laugh that sounds like wind chimes, and a Medieval History professor who acts like he’s a student more than faculty and who’s married to a damn dean and who has more honors and awards than anyone Steve knows.
He goes bowling once a month with Clint and Natasha and Bruce and Phil and Tony and it’s an odd group of people, disciplines and histories intersecting at strange angles, but they let Steve slip right in. They tell them their stories and their jokes and they cajole him into buying them all nachos and chili fries. Steve talks baseball with Phil and TV with Bruce and New York with Tony.
At night he sleeps alone in his apartment that’s at once too small and too big, with its boxes still unpacked in the corner. But he has a ring in his sock drawer, something simple and classic and not too big, and promises from Peggy, who has never let him down and, when he wakes up in the morning, an email from Bucky saying that he’s coming home.
And Steve knows, like he knows the causes of World War I and all of the amendments to the constitution and how many men died on that day in Normandy, that his time is now. That he has the chance to do something great and help guide the next generation of America. That he has the chance to marry the girl he loves. That Steve has the whole world before him and the best friends he could have asked for and that when he wakes up in the morning, it’s going to be another beautiful day.