Right from the very beginning, Steve didn't shower with them. Neither did Natasha, as she preferred to shower in the privacy of the women's locker room, but she switched soon after realizing the guys were perfectly respectful when she was with them (even Tony). And honestly, she liked the camaraderie that came with relaxing and joking in the showers after a mission. The team washed away the stress of whatever they had been doing while debating what to eat for dinner, joking about the ridiculous name of the villain of the week, poking fun at Bruce's truly remarkable chest hair and proportional lather ("You're so fluffy!" "Don't diss the hair, Tony, I like the hair." "Fluffy!") - it was good bonding time and they all enjoyed it for what it was.
Steve, though? Never showered communally. Ever. In fact, none of the team had ever seen him naked, quite the feat considering their professional lives and the frequency with which they ended up only half-clothed in medical, not to mention the simple fact of how closely they lived in each others' pockets. They all had their pet theories about Steve, though. Tony thought it was 1940s modesty mixed with a hefty dose of prudishness. Bruce figured it was probably body anxiety left over from the pre-serum days. Natasha thought that her presence in the showers might be a deterring factor, even though Steve hadn't joined the team before she swapped locker rooms either. Clint found Steve's evasion personally familiar, but dismissed the idea that it could be for the same reason - surely he'd know about that if it were true, if only through his prolonged contact with Coulson's obsessive knowledge. Thor didn't understand the team's consternation; it was tradition on Asgard for a leader to bathe separately from their charges to allow for insolent behaviour without fear of reprimand, though he did seem unsettled after Clint explained how that wasn't expected on Earth.
Regardless of the actual reason, it always happened the same way: Steve would congratulate them on a job well done, bright smile in place, then leave them to go shower on his own floor (or, if they ended up on the Helicarrier, he'd head to the mess until the communal showers were empty). No amount of coaxing, both subtle and not-so, got them anything besides a small smile and a shrug.
Tony, being Tony, decided to directly approach him about it. And by "approach", he really meant "ambush in the kitchen".
"Heya Capsicle, how the new millennium treating you today?"
Steve paused in his egg scrambling to blink at Tony. “What?"
Tony leaned a hip against the counter. "Y'know, have you been offended by anything so far this morning? Anything particularly debaucherous? An exposed ankle, for example. The curve of a hip? Or, horror of horrors, a bra strap.” Tony wiggled his eyebrows. Steve stared. “The whole 'I'm a prude from the forties' thing, Cap, work with me here."
"I'm not a prude, Tony," Steve sighed, crushing some herbs into the bowl of eggs.
"Your showering habits claim otherwise."
Steve crinkled his brow as he turned on the hob. "Are you trying to tell me I smell?"
"Hah, no. Though that pomade stuff? Old man smell." Tony's eyes skimmed over the countertop. "I'm trying to ask why the hell you're so afraid to shower with us after fights." He picked up a pen from a cup and started clicking the tip in and out erratically, narrowing his eyes at Steve.
Steve froze. "I'm not." He removed a frying pan from the wall hooks by the stove, movements tight.
"I think you are." Click click clickclick click.
"Tony, I'm not afraid to shower with you guys." His fingers flexed on the handle of the frying pan.
"Uh huh." Clickclickclickclick.
"Leave it, Tony." He slammed the pan down on the stovetop, startling Tony into dropping his pen and raising his hands in a placating, almost sarcastic manner.
"Whoa, okay! Okay. Jesus, Steve. Take a fucking pill or something, why don't you. Fine, you're a big brave man who isn't afraid of a little nakedness. Whatever." He picked the pen up and tossed it back into the cup, giving Steve a wary look as he strolled out of the kitchen.
None of them ever brought it up again.
Thor's outraged cry rang through the communal floor.
"And this is considered normal? This is accepted, to mutilate infants in this manner? Pure barbarism!" He was perched on the wide armchair in the living room, hands in fists, his face the picture of horror. Clint was sitting on the back of the couch, cracking peanuts out of their shells with short movements and occasionally pinging bits at Tony, who was cross-legged on the ottoman with a tablet in his lap. Bruce was leaning against the arm of the couch, tugging awkwardly on one of his curls as he eyed Thor with some amount of shame. He cleared his throat.
"Uh, yeah Thor. I know. It's... becoming less acceptable, but it's still a relatively normal thing to do. Well, at least in the US. It's different in different places."
Tony shrugged, batting a bit of peanut away from his head and glaring at Clint's unrepentant grin. "It's dangerous and traumatizing and takes away bodily autonomy and consent and blah blah blah, but people do it because everyone else does it." His fingers flicked over the screen of his tablet, looking up statistics. "When I was born, it seems over 80% of boys were circumcised at birth." He twisted his lips. "Sounds about right," he added quietly.
Thor was slowly going red. "So... so many. How could this be so common? Why isn't it stopped?"
Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose, shifting his glasses up to press awkwardly into his brow. "It's complicated, Thor. It's originally based in religion, then expanded from there with pseudo-medicine and claims of health benefits. Plus fathers wanting sons to look like them."
"Which is just creepy," Clint chimed in. Tony nodded steadily in agreement.
"But it's declining over time," Bruce continued, looking at Thor with sad eyes. "It's falling out of favour, down to maybe 50% now? Numbers vary, depending on what study you're looking at, and that's just in the US. But..." He offered a weak little smile. "There's progress."
Thor just continued looking horrified despite Bruce's attempts at comfort. Clint gnawed at his thumbnail and added his two cents. “People don't really think about it because it's so normal, even preferred,” he said with a look of derision. “And 'circumcision' isn't nearly a scary enough name. Not like 'female genital mutilation'. People don't take it as seriously because it doesn't sound serious.”
Steve wandered in then, looking cautious and slightly worried. "Why is Thor screaming? I heard him all the way down in the gym."
Bruce turned to him, smiling apologetically. "We're explaining circumcision." Thor's hair was starting to crackle and stand on end. "It's not going well."
Steve's face shuttered, gaze dropping. "I imagine not, no.” He rubbed the back of his neck and took a step backwards. “That's, uh, yeah, I'll leave you to it, then. Try not to keep all of Manhattan awake, Thor."
Tony snapped his fingers and pointed at Steve suddenly. "Serum!"
Steve blinked. "Serum?"
Tony waved his hand distractedly. "Yeah, serum. Did it fix your circumcision?" He tilted his head curiously. "Were you even circumcised? Was that popular among the Irish population of New York in the 20s?" He turned back to his tablet, intent on answering his own question.
Steve went an odd shade of white, crossing his arms tightly over his chest and staring at the floor. "No, I wasn't." He paused, took a breath. "Too sickly, plus Mum was... they didn't do it in Ireland, not really, and Mum was stubborn enough to dissuade anyone who had an opinion." He pursed his lips.
Tony humphed, tapping at something on the screen with some force. "That would've been neat to know, though, y'know? Whether or not the serum restored an involuntary circumcision." Steve nodded stiffly, kept his eyes on the floor. Clint frowned at him and flicked a bit of peanut at his head.
Steve opened his mouth to say something else, but was cut off by Thor's loud "Female genital mutilation?!" as he suddenly parsed Clint's comment. Tony turned his attention back to his tablet, finding more statistics to contribute while Bruce attempted to explain another of humanity's shortcomings without angering Thor past the point of lightning.
The back of his neck a faint pink, Steve quietly stepped out of the room. Clint stared after him.
Now, no one liked dealing with AIM. They were frustratingly organized (and yet surprisingly incompetent), employed goons by the hundreds, and just kept popping up exactly where they weren't wanted. However, the upside of fighting AIM is that, generally, the organization understood things like infection spread-rate algorithms, public health, and cost-benefit ratios of poisoning the air while trying to gain public approval.
Simply put, individual villains hellbent on control were far more problematic on a case-by-case basis.
Which is how the Avengers ended up on the outskirts of a small town in upper New York state, staring at the collapsed form of their rival, surrounded by the mangled metallic corpses of what Tony had deemed "spray-bots", and feeling slightly sticky. SHIELD personnel in full hazmat suits swarmed in and started collecting the bits of robot into heavy plastic bags covered in biohazard symbols. Bruce, recently de-Hulked and peeling bits of debris off his stretchy shorts, exchanged a worried glance with Natasha, who looked to her slightly shiny hands and sighed.
The comms burbled. "Avengers, come in."
Steve put two fingers to his unit. "Sitwell. Rogers here." He took a spare comm from a pouch on his belt and handed it to Bruce, who thanked him quietly and tucked it into his ear.
"Captain, what's your status?"
"Uninjured, beyond a few scratches. We are... sticky, though."
Sitwell sighed. Clint stopped poking at Natasha's tacky arm, face going rigid as he turned his full attention to his comm unit.
"It's probably relatively harmless-" Sharp shared looks went around the semi-circle of heroes. "-but we don't have a clear idea of what this stuff is yet. So we're implementing standard decon procedures until we know more. We've got people heading to this guy's lab now, so it shouldn't be too long until we have something to work with." The resignation in Sitwell's voice was plain to hear. "We'll get this figured out, but until then, I'll need you all to head over to decontamination." The team turned to see a large yellow tent near the parked black vans, hazmat-suited agents zipping closed doors and hooking up water pipes.
Steve blanched. Natasha responded to Sitwell when it was clear Steve wasn't going to. "We'll head over now, sir."
"Thank you. Stark, are you clean?"
A sigh radiated from the suit. "No. Jarvis' detecting significant amounts of a foreign compound inside the suit." His faceplate snapped up and revealed Tony's sour expression. "Dammit."
"You'll have to join them in the tent then. It's just you guys, though. No one else came into contact with the spray." A pause. "So have fun with that."
Thor hefted Mjolnir over his shoulder with a chuckle and started walking to the tent, the rest of the team following him. Steve trailed behind.
The actual decontamination procedures weren't particularly difficult to follow. The tent was one long windowless room with a bar of shower heads at one end, drains situated in the floor to collect the water. There were large sealable plastic boxes near the entrance, open and waiting to be filled with the Avengers' clothing and kit. As the team stomped in, they each grabbed a box and started to strip.
Bruce was easily the first naked, just needing to tackle his spandex pants, and he padded over to the shower heads to turn them on. Clint joined him soon after, kicking his box closed with a sharp jerk and grabbing the bucket of individually sealed acrid yellow bars of decontamination soap. Thor's box was bulging at the top and bits of armour kept bursting out, so he placed Mjolnir on top to close it - a mischievous grin graced his face as he dusted his hands off and strode over to the water. Natasha soon followed, pausing to help Tony with a hip joint lock that refused to come undone. Once free, Tony tossed the leg armour into his box and quickly stripped off his undersuit, chucking it over his shoulder as he followed Natasha and babbled unhappy commentary about SHIELD procedures.
Steve, however, was taking his sweet time. By the time everyone else was in the under the showers, he only had his top half stripped. His back was to the team, shoulders hunched and tight as he bent to unlace his boots and pry them from his feet. His hands shook as he slid off his belt, face pinched as he worked his fly down. He moved agonizingly slowly, removing each piece of clothing as if it were fragile, easily destroyed. His fingernails raked over his thighs as he moved to his boxers, leaving stark white lines behind that quickly filled in red. Then, with sharp, angry motions, he jerked down his boxers and kicked them off his feet, hands fisting at his sides.
Tony whooped. "There we go! Cap ass!" He chuckled, shaking his wet hair out of his face like a dog. "C'mon Cap, get your possibly toxic bod over here and scrub some probably equally toxic soap onto it." He held out a bar of the yellow soap, grinning at Steve's back.
Steve's back, where the muscles were getting more and more tense, his shoulders rising higher and higher.
"Steve, you really do need to take a shower." Bruce was using his 'convincing Tony to sleep/eat' voice, head tilted to the side and brow furrowed. "I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but it's not safe to wait. Who knows what that stuff is and what it might do."
Thor had a bubbly beard when he spoke, fingers working a lather into his face. "Captain, surely you don't find our bare bodies so unpleasant as to make such a fuss about it." A slow smirk gathered on his lips. "Or is it the opposite? All together, we're too delightful to behold with any propriety." He chuckled to himself as he rinsed his beard.
Natasha paused in her bubble fight with Clint, who turned to frown at Thor, and put her hands on her hips in a slightly menacing manner. "You're going to have to deal with me being here, Steve. I'm not going to apologize for existing in the face of your upbringing."
Steve's fists flexed. Bruce frowned, eyeing the white knuckles with some trepidation. "Uh, guys..."
Tony sighed and did a little dance. "Come on, Steve. Just get over here. No one cares if you've got a hard on or something." He wiggled the bar of soap. "I'm sure it's very impress-"
"SHUT UP." Steve's hands came up to cover his face, his breaths coming hard and fast.
The team went abruptly silent. Tony's arm, still outstretched and offering the soap, slowly dropped.
Steve hung his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Shut up. You have no idea, no idea what you're talking about, so just shut up! I--I can't do this. I can't--" He was almost hyperventilating, his voice high and tight and cracking, oozing panic. "I can't -- you can't -- understand. I just -- please don't. Don't make me. Please." He slid his fingers into his hair and pulled, twisting his head to the side and against his grip. He was getting quieter, caving his shoulders and turning in on himself. "I can't..."
Bruce was the first to snap out of his stupor, taking a halting step forward with the vague idea of stopping Steve from pulling out his hair, but Clint was faster. He took the half dozen steps across the tent quickly, wet feet slapping the floor.
He stopped just short of Steve and glanced over his shoulder to where the rest of the team stood, stunned and still. He met and held Natasha's gaze, then turned back to Steve.
"Hey Cap." Steve tensed, slid his hands back to cover his face. Clint tried again. "Cap." He placed a gentle hand on Steve's elbow. Steve jerked, clearly not expecting the touch, but didn't pull away. His shoulders slumped further - Clint took careful note of the trembling he could now feel.
"Can you turn around?" Clint asked quietly. Steve whined in response, shaking his head sharply. "Okay. Can I come around you?" Steve didn't respond for a long moment, his breath still panting and sharp, but he eventually gave the smallest of nods, hands tight on his face.
Clint kept a gentle grip on Steve's elbow, his thumb rubbing small circles over his skin, as he slowly shifted around to his front. "You're okay, Cap," he murmured. "You're fine."
Steve seemed to be getting paler, shaking more. Clint shifted his grip to Steve's biceps and flicked his eyes down his body, checking for any signs of trauma or injury. Then he stilled, eyes briefly going wide. Ah. That explained a lot.
Steve didn't have a penis. He didn't have anything even resembling a penis. Instead, his crotch was flat, a continuous gentle curve down from his abdomen. Clint could just see the start of a slit from his position, tucked under Steve and partially hidden by his blond hair.
He looked back to Steve's face, face softening further as events and reactions started clicking into place. "Cap, look at me."
Steve recoiled and shook his head. His breathing picking up again.
"Cap, please." Clint slid his hands up Steve's arms, wrapping them around his wrists and tugging lightly. "Please? Look at me."
Slowly, reluctantly, Steve gave way, letting Clint pull his hands down from his face. His eyes were wet and rimmed in red as they looked at Clint, who gave him a gentle smile in return. "Hey."
Steve just stared at him with haunted eyes, looking so beyond panicked that Clint figured he probably wasn't processing information properly anymore. That was a little worrying. "Cap, look at me." Steve frowned, clearly confused. He was, wasn't he?
"No," Clint glanced down his body. "Look at me."
Steve followed his gaze and abruptly froze, eyes going wide and blinking rapidly before shooting back up to gape at Clint again. Clint, who was smiling. "Yeah, me too, man."
Steve furrowed his brow, glancing down Clint's front again as his mouth tries to form words. "I, uh, wha? Clint?"
Squeezing Steve's wrists gently, Clint chewed on his lower lip before answering. "I'm trans, Steve. I guess I figured you knew that, but it's only mentioned in my medical file, not my regular one, so..." Steve kept staring at him, eyes wide. "You know what trans means, right? Transgender?" A slow nod. "Okay, that's good. So, I don't have a penis. And that's fine." He emphasized that with a little shake of Steve's wrists.
“I don't know your story here, dude, but I know for a fact that this,” Clint gestured to their lower halves, “is completely not an issue with us. Any of us. I promise. I guess you don't do the team showers thing so you don't know but... well, I'm like this, Tony's pierced to all hell, and Thor's got alien junk.” He smiled, flexing his hands on Steve's biceps. “It's cool with us. It's all cool.”
Steve stood stock still except for his heaving chest and his trembling muscles, long seconds ticking by. Then slowly, carefully, he leaned in and pressed his forehead against Clint's, eyes tightly closed as he let out a low sob. Clint's hands went to the back of Steve's neck to gently hold him there, one thumb brushing against his short hair.
“It's okay, Steve. We've got you.”
It took a good ten minutes of murmured encouragement from Clint before Steve gathered the courage to turn and face the rest of the team – the team, who had been standing in complete silence the entire time. The conversation between Clint and Steve had been too quiet for even Thor to hear, so they had just watched in confused shock as their captain broke down and cried in front of them.
As Steve turned around, however, their expressions changed to pure confusion. Bruce's face held a glimmer of sad recognition, his brow pulled down low in a frown. Tony just gaped. Clint gave them all a sharp look as he guided Steve to the shower heads and thrust a bar of soap in his hand.
“Wash up, Cap. Let's get this shit off us.”
Steve didn't respond beyond a small huff of breath. Clint sent a significant look at the team and started scrubbing at his chest in an exaggerated way. Almost as one, his team members moved into action, continuing their washing in a carefully casual manner and taking far longer than necessary so Steve could catch up.
Steve began to unsteadily imitate them, running his bar of soap over his arms and chest with absent movements. He kept his eyes on the floor, watched the yellow foam disintegrate and swirl down the drains as Thor, eyeing Steve worriedly, started a conversation with Bruce about whether or not tuna was considered a pizza topping. Tony joined in, and it soon became a full blown debate on the definition of “pizza topping” and whether it could technically be applied to any food that was, in fact, topping a pizza.
Eventually, Natasha shut off the water valve and turned on the disinfecting spray from the same shower heads. The spray misted down onto them with a sickly-sweet lemon scent, contrasting sharply with the leftover smell of the soap. Bruce shook his hair out like a dog while Thor and Tony set up a circle of folding chairs.
Steve glanced longingly at the stack of shrink-wrapped towels and scrubs sets sitting on a table, but let himself be herded to the chairs by Clint.
“You know you can't let this stuff touch a towel, Cap. Gotta let it sink in.” He tugged on his elbow. “C'mon, let's sit.”
Once they're all perched on the fold-up chairs, Thor a little precariously, there was a slightly awkward silence during which Natasha and Clint held an extended eye-contact-only conversation. Natasha glanced at Steve's dejected form, slumped in his chair and head in his hands, and steadily let out a long breath. “Okay, discussion time.”
"Oh thank god," Tony gushed, followed by a pained grunt when Bruce prodded his ribs. "What? This is obviously an issue, Green Bean, so let's talk it out."
Bruce snorted. “That's pretty hypocritical coming from you.”
“Aw, stuff it, you're not much of a good example either, Mr. Kolkata,” Tony shot back. Natasha rolled her eyes.
Thor was busily working his damp hair into a braid. "I must admit I do not understand the problem at hand..." He trailed off and glanced at Steve, who was flushed red to his collarbones and staring at his knees with unfocused eyes.
Bruce pushed his hair out of his eyes, turning slightly to face Thor. "Steve has... unconventional genitals," he started, cautiously.
Thor, unabashed, looked to Steve, then to Clint and Natasha. "But he is built similarly to our Clint and Lady Natasha." Natasha sighed, ever frustrated with Thor's entirely amused refusal to drop the honorific. "How is this unconventional?"
Clint rubbed the bridge of his nose absently, shifting forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Most men have penises, Thor, like Tony and Bruce there." Thor furrowed his brow and looked to their respective laps. "Not all, obviously, but most. Same situation, most women have vaginas like Nat." Clint shifted on his chair, grimacing as his thighs stuck to the damp plastic. "There are people like me who have it all swapped around, and there are people who've got something somewhere in the middle. It's all way more complicated than people think, but it can be really fucking shitty if you don't fit the mould, yeah?"
Thor nodded his understanding. "From what I've experienced so far on Midgard, it does seem a complex matter. It is taking far longer than I expected it would to understand it as well as I wish to." He shook his head slightly, amused. “Though, I have always found it entertaining that my position as a Midgardian fertility god has inundated my legends in false tales about my genitals, when in reality they are not comparable to yours at all, regardless of my outward similarity to many Midgardian men.”
"So how do you work, blondie?" Tony asked, fingers absently tapping the arc reactor casing. "Explain to us the mysteries of alien dong."
Clint shook his head in amusement as Thor launched into an enthusiastic explanation of Asgardian genitalia and mating, standing to gesture to what looked very much like a double row of ball-bearings buried under his skin, starting about half a foot up his abdomen and continuing down his smooth skin to disappear between his legs. Discussion then easily turned to Tony's cock piercings ("Didn't those hurt?" "Like you wouldn't fucking believe." "I mean, it's right in your--" "Yup.") and Clint's transition ("Once SHIELD hired me and I had insurance, I got surgery as quickly as possible - fuck the risk of ovarian cysts when you're on T, man.") as the five of them opened up and shared information easily amongst themselves.
Steve sat there as the conversation flowed around him, half listening and half panicking. He wasn't stupid, he knew what they were doing. The overly comfortable chatting about somewhat taboo things, the open responses to awkward questions, the extensive exploration of their individual bodily histories – it was all designed to calmly bring him to the realization that he could talk to them about whatever he wanted to, that they wouldn't judge him. And he knew this, really, he did. But actually taking that leap of faith after so long, after so much silence, was... difficult, to say the least.
If nothing else, the team knew him well enough to know that he would eventually succumb to such open arms.
He tilted his head up slightly, propping his chin with both hands and keeping his mouth covered as he flitted his gaze to each of his teammates. He could see what they were talking about displayed (so casually!) in front of him, so he let himself look: Bruce's thick, dark hair that obscured most of his front, only easing up along his ribs and his hips; Thor's completely foreign equipment dotting down his skin with surprising complexity; the familiar matching scars on Clint's chest (which Steve had thought were from an 'interrogation session', so symmetrical and seemingly pointless) and the newly exposed one just above his pubic hair; the single white string protruding from between Natasha's legs, simple in appearance but heavy in unsaid implications; and Tony's heavily adorned penis, with at least three silver rings visible from Steve's viewpoint.
Steve took a deep breath, his mind racing, when he suddenly realised how quiet it had gotten. He blinked, clearing his vision, and saw the team (minus Natasha) determinedly not staring at him, but making him aware of their change in focus nonetheless. He allowed the tiniest of smiles to grace his lips – they certainly weren't all masters in the art of subtlety, that's for sure.
Steve cleared his throat. “Uh.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, resting it on the back of his neck. “Sorry about that.” He nodded to where the box containing his clothes sat, to where he'd broken down. “You shouldn't've had to see that.”
Tony snorted, crossing his legs. “Yes, we're mortally offended.”
Rolling his eyes, Clint added, “What he's trying to say is that you have nothing to apologize for.”
“Aye, it is obviously something that weighs on you greatly, Captain,” Thor commented quietly. “There is no shame in faltering under the burden, nor in sharing it.” Steve met his gaze, unsure how to take that.
Natasha just nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear with a smooth motion. “You can talk if you want, Steve, but you don't have to.”
"I... think I want to. But, uh, I don't know how to." He rubbed his eyes with a hand. "Yeah, I do want to but I don't know where to start. I've never had the opportunity to talk about th-this before." At Tony's incredulous look, he shrugged helplessly. "The doctors then all thought it was a--an unapproachable topic and sort of just... made sure I was physically healthy enough to keep going. I--" He paused. "I never really got to process it."
"So I'm assuming this is due to the serum?" Bruce asked gently. Steve nodded.
"Yeah. I used to have normal stuff." He flicked his eyes to Clint. "Uh, a penis and balls, I mean. Sorry." Clint smiled at him.
"Wait, the serum?" Tony squawked, head whipping around to stare at Bruce. "But you have a penis!" He gestured to Bruce's lap as though he needed to point this out.
Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm aware. The Other Guy, however, doesn't."
"Have you never seen him without pants on? He's built like Steve." Bruce waved vaguely at his lap.
"Actually, Hulk's surprisingly good at keeping his lower half clothed - even before I made those stretchy pants for you.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. “I've definitely seen a lot more naked Bruce than naked Hulk." The rest of the team nodded. Bruce looked bemused.
"Well, regardless, I always thought it was just another side effect of my, um, elaborations on the serum, not a base effect." He nodded at Steve. "Apparently I was wrong."
Steve cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. "They thought that it was a... fighting thing. The serum is supposed to make the perfect soldier, the perfect fighter, and -- " He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Well, the family jewels get in the way." Tony nodded sagely, knowingly, and Clint smirked at him. "I mean, getting hit in the crotch is seriously debilitating for a couple minutes, which is a problem in a fight. So -- so the serum put everything... inside." He swallowed. "If I catch a kick between the legs now, it hurts just about as much as if I were kicked anywhere else."
Natasha frowned. "It still hurts when I'm hit there --" Steve shook his head, cutting her off.
"No, I'm totally different. Not a norm -– typical set-up at all." He paused for a moment, then took on a surprisingly clinical tone. "Testes are internal and produce normal amounts of testosterone, though the sperm are probably infertile. No one's done tests, as far as I know. Prostate still exists and is in the same location; same with the urethra, roughly. The, um, channel?--" he winced and lost his professional edge "--is only a couple inches deep and, um, ends there, no womb or anything. Uh. All the, ah, sensitive bits are inside. On the walls. So yeah, completely internal.”
There was a still sort of silence as they absorbed that, the quiet dripping from the showers' leaky heads the only noise. Natasha looked poised to say something, but stayed quiet. Steve shifted in his chair, feeling a pressure in his chest give way.
“I've... gotten used to it, I guess,” he said quietly, almost to himself. “The new body, that is. I don't think I was really ready for how strange it was going to be, to have a totally different body than I had for the first twenty-two years of my life.” He swallowed. “Couldn't talk to anyone about it, either. They all just expected me to be happy, I wasn't going to be tiny and sick all the time, why wouldn't I be anything but overjoyed. But... it wasn't me, y'know?” His voice came more steadily now, if not louder. “I – I wasn't me anymore. And it took a long time before I saw me when I looked in a mirror. It was a really weird feeling, just totally dissociated from my body. I didn't feel connected to it at all. Sometimes still don't.
“But the whole... genitals thing?” He took a deep breath. “I mean, at least the body change was voluntary – I knew I was going to get bigger, be healthier, all that. But – that? That wasn't expected, no one knew it would happen, it took everyone by surprise. And no one talked about it afterwards. The docs looked at me and it's all in my medical file, but they just said 'shucks' and told me to get on with it.”
“SHIELD didn't say anything when they found you? Didn't do anything to help? They had to know.” Clint's knee was bouncing, the fingers on one hand tangled with Natasha's and gripping tight.
Steve chewed his lip for a moment before answering. “No. I think... I think they thought I was okay with everything. I get their point of view – they didn't know that I didn't have this all settled. They probably just assumed that SSR had helped me deal with the emotional part, and that I was just quiet about it now because it's private. Not because – because it's still so wrong.” Steve's voice cracked on the last word and he tilted his head up, eyes shiny with unspent tears. “So wrong.”
Clint let out a quiet whine of distress, startling everyone. Steve looked to him, blinking rapidly. “Clint?”
“Sorry, sorry, I just – can I hug you? Is that okay?”
Steve opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it and just nodded instead. Clint almost fell off his chair, lunging at Steve and wrapping his arms around him in a tight embrace. Steve's hands came up automatically to Clint's back and returned the hug, flexing his fingers when he realized how badly he was shaking.
They stayed like that for a long moment, Clint clinging and Steve shaking and the team watching with worried expressions. Eventually, Steve sighed deeply and pressed his nose to Clint's neck once before releasing him. “Thanks,” he murmured, tugging on his earlobe distractedly.
Clint quickly swiped the heel of his palm over his eyes and gave Steve a small smile. “No problem. I just, I'm sorry? I know that feeling and, well, hugs helped me.” Steve reached out and squeezed his wrist briefly in support. Clint glanced at the rest of the team, then flushed and sat back down on his chair, hugging one knee to his chest.
Silence reigned, but only momentarily before Thor interrupted it. “Is there anything we can do to ease your distress, Captain? It causes me great pain to see you so unhappy.” He sounded earnest, if a little lost, and his face was set with determination.
Steve smiled, glancing at Clint. “Well, hugs seem to help.” Clint grinned, resting his cheek on his upthrust knee. “But, uh, probably? I mean, sometimes – sometimes, when I'm having a bad day, a day where everything feels wrong, not just what's between my legs? I think that everyone knows and they're all... talking about it or something.” He scrunched up his nose and stared at his clasped hands, aware of how paranoid he sounded. “And I can't, can't face people on days like those, can't make myself go out. I just stay on my floor or go to the gym and beat the stuffing out of a few bags.” He looked up and met Thor's eyes again. “Maybe don't let me do that? Don't let me work myself into a state where I avoid everyone. Distract me or something?”
“You want us to come watch movies with you so you stop thinking we're obsessed with your junk?” Tony's words were coated in their usual sarcasm, but they were spoken softly and with teasing care. “You're not that hot, Cap.” He threw a wink on the end.
Steve huffed a laugh. “Thanks.” Tony smiled in return.
“We can do that, Steve,” said Bruce as he fiddled with his glasses, pressing them further up his nose. “Movies, video games, just hanging out... you could come down to my lab or something, too? If that would help. I'm not...” He coughed. “I'm not overly good at the chatty side of things, but I'm sure I could distract you somehow?”
This sparked a round of agreement from the rest of the team, each of them adding to the pile of ways to help and distract. Yoga, painting, reading, cooking - the list grew. Steve, unsurprised but overwhelmed with the support, dropped his head into his hands again and discreetly rubbed at his eyes. Looking up, he took in the circle of anxious faces and nodded. “Thanks, everyone. It's... it's appreciated. Thank you.”
The conversation lulled into silence again, heavy but comfortable, a warm blanket covering them as they considered each other. Steve wasn't quite smiling, but his face was more relaxed and the lines of his forehead were less pronounced. Clint had Natasha's hand enveloped in his own again but not so desperately as before. Bruce's head was tilted back against the back of his chair, eyes closed and hair gently dripping water down his neck. Thor was leaning forward on his elbows, hands pressed together and staring off into the middle distance with an odd look on his face. Tony had tucked his heels up onto the seat of the chair and started tapping his toes with his fingertips, playing a beat no one could hear.
The buzzer that went off to signal the end of the disinfectant period was remarkably loud, startling them all from their independent reveries. Natasha uncurled from her chair, pressing a gentle kiss to Clint's fingers and eliciting a small smile, and started tossing towels and sterile packages of scrubs to her teammates. She started with Steve, who nodded his thanks and yanked on the aqua green pants, heaving a sigh of relief.
Thor approached Steve cautiously as he tugged his shirt over his head. “Captain,” he began. “I know I am still learning the ways of this world, as am I still confused about this entire issue, but I apologise for any way I may have misspoken to exacerbate your pain.” Thor had a distressed look on his face. “I can only promise to be more precise in my language in the future.”
“Oh no, Thor, don't wor-” Steve started to wave him off, but Tony butted in.
“No, yeah, me too, Cap. I know I've made some shitty implications and I'm sorry about it.” He paused, fingers twitching at the hem of his shirt. “I shouldn't – I should know better. Especially considering how much of a hardass Clint is about dick jokes.”
Clint popped his head through the hole in his shirt at the sound of his name. “I don't need to sit back and bear casual cissexism from my friends, Tony. My therapist said so.”
“Good for your therapist. My body trauma therapist is the one that Steve's going to go to though, so don't start waving yours around like a flag.”
The conversation rapidly dissolved into a heated debate over who had the better dysmorphia counsellor. Bruce added his own two cents to the conversation, explaining that he actually had his own therapist who was very understanding of his big green problem and might be a good fit? Steve eventually had to stop them all by saying he'd look into it himself and make his own decision, thank you very much.
That's about when Sitwell stuck his head into the tent – his unprotected, un-hazmat-ed head. “Good news, guys...”
“I still can't believe that fucking spray was the biochemical equivalent of sugar water.” Tony shook his head despairingly, yanking a bottle of water from the fridge. “Goddamn kids and their goddamn sensationalist methods. There are easier ways to get our attention.”
They were sitting in the kitchen of the common floor, freshly re-showered (the stink of the decon soap really did cling, unfortunately) and digging into snacks while they waited for their pizza delivery. The appearance of Sitwell in the tent earlier had been paired with the news that the compound the team had been attacked with was completely harmless. Apparently the wannabe villain was simply looking for the media frenzy of being an antagonist to a superhero gang and had no real designs on taking over anything.
“Well, at least that explains why it was so sticky. And why I had ants crawling up my boots.” Steve sat on a stool by the counter, methodically peeling an orange and stacking the bits of rind in a neat pile.
Natasha nodded as she spread butter on her toast. “Stop complaining, Tony. At least the whole containment and decontamination was just a precaution – you'd be whining a lot more if it were something dangerous.”
“I wouldn't be too sure about that. This is Tony we're talking about. Inconvenience isn't really his thing, but throw in the chance to defy death?” Clint ducked to avoid the bottle cap Tony chucked at him. “What? You try to deny it, bud.”
“I will. I will die trying.”
Clint grinned. “Not helping your case.”
Thor had his bare feet up on the chair beside him, twirling a foot absently as he picked at the bowl of peanuts on the table. “The situation turned out far better than expected and there is no room to complain if nothing came of it.” He turned a stern eye to Tony and Clint, the latter of whom stuck out his tongue in response. “A null result is far better than a negative one, I should think.”
Bruce hummed quietly, not looking up from his crossword puzzle. “I don't think saying nothing came of it is quite true, Thor.” He cleared his throat and flicked his eyes to Steve.
Steve paused in his orange peeling, glancing at Bruce and blushing slightly. “Uh, yeah, thanks again guys. I obviously needed to talk about it, considering how much I blathered at you.” He winced.
Natasha snorted indelicately. “No need to thank us for that, Steve.” She cut her toast into precise quarters. “We're here to help. I'm pretty sure that's the point of a team, more or less.”
“Yeah, I'll keep that in mind. Thanks.”
Five months later, after rounding up another lot of AIM goons with overpowered guns, Steve congratulated the team on a job well done, bright smile in place, and followed them into the showers.