“Steve? Are you here?” Phil entered his suite. When no one responded, he asked the AI, “JARVIS, where’s Steve?”
“They are in their suite.” JARVIS responded.
Phil didn’t miss the gender-inclusive pronouns. “Are they okay?”
“They are physically sound.”
Frowning at this technically true statement, Coulson read into the obfuscation, “Does Steve seem emotionally alright?”
“I am unable to make such assessments.” JARVIS said quietly.
Sounding like a very put-upon butler, the AI responded, “It is not my place to make a value judgement regarding Steve’s emotional state, regardless of whether they are currently demonstrating management techniques related to body dysphoria.”
“Damn it, JARVIS!” Coulson growled, dropping his bag on the floor.
“I’m sorry, sir. Steve has not asked for my help and is not in physical pain or danger. My understanding is that a culture cannot normalize differences if we assume negative connotations without justification.”
The Agent took several calming breaths and tried to appreciate JARVIS’s point.
“Furthermore, it is unclear what your relationship is to Steve and whether they would welcome an invasion into their privacy. Sex does not equate to trust.”
“Given the number of people who have had sex with Tony, I imagine that’s a lesson you learned early on.” Coulson grumbled.
“Indeed.” JARVIS said blandly. “You have discussed Steve’s dysphoria in the past which is the only reason I mentioned their current situation.”
“I have a key to Steve’s apartment. Surely that shows trust.”
JARVIS’s silence spoke volumes.
“I’m going to go check on them.” He said as he left his apartment.
On the floor with Steve’s suite, Coulson knocked on the door.
“Please go away.” Steve’s voice shouted. “I’m not interested in company at the moment.”
“Steve. It’s me.” Coulson knocked again.
There was a pause… “Come in.”
The Agent used his key to unlock the door. Steve was nowhere in sight. Coulson headed towards the back room that had been turned into an art studio. “Hi, Wonderful.” He said softly upon seeing the super-soldier wearing a blouse and skirt.
Some of the tenseness left Steve’s stance.
“Can I hug you?” Coulson asked.
“Yes.” Steve whispered after thinking about it. “I’d like that.”
Phil pulled Steve into a tight hug, he didn’t loosen until Steve did. Then, arms still around his tall lover, he began rubbing his hands over the soft fabric, up and down Steve’s back.
“I’m glad you’re back.” Steve said, eventually pulling away from the embrace.
“Me too.” Coulson admitted. “How have things been here?”
Steve couldn’t decide how to answer. Ultimately, open honesty won out. “Six, maybe seven out of 10. It’s been quiet on the Avengers front. I had a bit of a panic attack during a team dinner.”
Coulson continued caressing Steve’s back. He stayed silent, waiting.
“Tony and Clint were playing around and Tony quoted an old TV show but I thought he was making fun of men in women’s clothing and I kind of lost it.”
“Did you lose it? Or did you stand up for something important to you?” Phil asked.
Steve shrugged. “I shouted, ‘Stop that! Making fun of men in feminine clothing is not acceptable!’ and then I ran out of the room.”
“That sounds like you said something you needed to say - something the others needed to hear. You stood up for yourself. Microaggressions are still aggressions. You had every right to say that.”
A sigh escaped Steve’s lips. “You’re trying too hard.”
Coulson was a little taken aback. “Am I?” He paused, “I suppose I am. I just want you to speak up about your needs and not feel bad about it. And I want you to know that I support you completely.”
Steve kissed Coulson’s temple, “I know that you support me. You’ve been amazing. You’ll wear yourself out if you’re going to be constantly indignant on my behalf.”
“When I said that I could give you everything the Hector gives Bell, I meant it. And that includes fighting for genderqueer acceptance. I’m not going to wear myself out or stop caring for you just because it gets hard.”
“I didn’t mean to insult you or your stamina.” Steve teased gently while pulling Coulson closer. “I’m going to have to figure out how to communicate with the others, even when you’re not around. But you’re right, I should be able to speak up and I shouldn’t assume that you won’t want to support me.”
They were silent for a long moment.
“Bruce came to get me after my outburst and convinced me to come back to the kitchen. We watched Firefly.”
“Ah. I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.” Phil blushed at the implication that he enjoyed the sci-fi show enough to have a line memorized.
“That’s right. I liked Jaynestown.”
“We gotta go to the crappy town where I’m a hero.”
Steve laughed, just a little, but it eased something in Coulson’s chest to see that they still could.
“I think Bruce has figured me out.”
Coulson thought about this, “Does that bother you?”
Steve took a shaky breath. “I don’t think so? I’m not sure. I’ve been doing yoga with him the last few mornings. It’s been nice. Bruce and Betsy are going out on a date tomorrow to see an archeological exhibit and then dinner. I suggested we double-date.”
Coulson considered this information. He was out to the team but hadn’t thought that Steve would be. “That sounds wonderful. I haven’t seen Betsy in a while. It will be so nice to spend some time with both of them.” Anything to support Steve’s acceptance of… well.. of all of this.
Steve gave him a sad smile, “I think we might have to cancel.”
“Oh.” Phil frowned. “Why?”
“This.” Steve tugged at the blouse and skirt. “I don’t think I’m going to be okay by tomorrow morning.”
He was having none of this, regardless of what Steve had previously said, “I know it’s your body and your situation but can we agree to use the word ‘dysphoric’ instead of ‘okay’? I don’t like the implication that feeling dysphoric isn’t an acceptable or real part of your existence.”
“I don’t feel okay.” Steve argued. “I feel at odds with how I should feel.”
“There’s no law saying you should feel one way or the other. Look at Bell, he accepts however she feels when he wakes up and goes with it.”
“You’re not helping by comparing me to someone who has had years to figure out who they are.”
Coulson rubbed at his temples. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight with you. I’ve missed you and I don’t want to be a cause of stress.”
Steve nodded. “I missed you too. This is difficult for me. It’s only been a few weeks since I discovered that there’s a word for how I feel. And having words made it suddenly so much more present. Also, it’s strange for me to be with someone who already seems to have the language for all of this. I’m still trying to figure out how I can live my life while being Captain America and genderqueer. You have to give me time.”
He knew it was unfair but Coulson felt like he’d been punched. “Okay. I want to do that. I’m sorry to put more emotional work on you but you’re going to need to tell me how I can best support you right now.”
“I liked when you called me, ‘Wonderful’ instead of ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Gorgeous’ as a term of endearment. It made me feel like you care about me without caring about how I look.”
“You are wonderful.” Phil said earnestly. “And I might have been attracted to your body years ago when you first became Captain America but then I learned about how kind, and caring, and loyal, and clever you were and it made you absolutely perfect in my eyes. And then I met you and you became a real person to me - someone I could care about. You became someone I could actually be with, instead of a perfect idol I’d placed on a pedestal.”
Steve smiled, “That’s really nice. I can’t be perfect so it’s nice to know you don’t expect me to be.”
“I can’t be perfect either, Steve. I’m going to try my best, but I’m going to mess up too. I don’t want us to fight but we’re eventually going to. I’m going to try so hard not to assume the worst when things get bad between us. I need you to do the same. No running away.”
Coulson watched his lover flinch. “If you need space, say so. I will always give you space.”
“You’ll do the same?” Steve asked.
“Yes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with my team on the Bus it’s how to ask for space.”
“Then I can promise not to run away.”
“Thank you.” Phil smiled. “Me too.” He stood up. “I need to shower. I’m going to head back to my suite unless you’d like me to stay.”
“Can we have dinner together?” They paused, “And then, maybe, -uh, nevermind.” A deep blush covered Steve’s face.
Coulson decided not to push. “Dinner sounds great. And then, we can decide on our evening plans. I need to check that the team has submitted their reports and then I’m free.”
Phil nodded. “Sounds good.” He kissed Steve’s cheek. “I’ll see you later.”
Steve watched him go. Running away felt like the right answer. Coulson was too… mature and level-headed. Was it possible to hate someone because they were too kind? Steve was afraid to find out.
Coulson closed his eyes against the water's spray. Maybe Steve had been right - maybe he was going to burn himself out trying to be too supportive. Maybe he wanted this too much. Was he being honest with himself about his feelings? Was he projecting his buried desire for Bell onto Steve? Was he too excited to be with his childhood idol? He groaned and regretted that he'd said yes to dinner.